Thought-Pourri: Genius Edition

I’ve been very pleased over the last 24 hours to receive several comments from readers of my most recent piece for The Federalist, published yesterday, about the current Frick exhibition of Francisco de Zurbarán’s “Jacob and His Twelve Sons”, along the lines of, “I’ve never heard of Zurbarán before!” While he is one of the most famous old Masters in Spain and Latin America, and had a huge influence on a number of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, and Modern artists, he is unfortunately not as well-known in the States as he ought to be. So I’m glad to have had the chance, albeit in a very small way, to introduce this great genius to a new audience. If you are in New York at all between now and April 22nd, you really want to see this show.

And this being Holy Thursday, it’s perfect to lead off today’s art news roundup with an exciting new art history documentary about one of the most famous pieces of sacred art in the world, created by one of the greatest geniuses in human history.

A Second “Last Supper”?

“The Last Supper”, arguably the best-known religious work ever painted by Leonardo da Vinci – and certainly the most iconic image of this subject in all of art history – is, as you probably know, something of a wreck. It was painted in 1499 for the Dominicans on the refectory wall of their convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, and from the beginning the work has captured the imagination of all who have seen it. In fact, I suspect that when you read the words, “The Last Supper”, most likely Leonardo’s painting immediately popped into your head. Unfortunately, thanks to the highly experimental techniques used by Leonardo, as well as the ravages of time, today the fresco is only a shadow of its former self.

Now, as Art News reports at length, researchers have stumbled across a major discovery which allows us (as nearly as possible) to see “The Last Supper” as Leonardo originally intended.

It turns out that after Louis XII of France conquered the Duchy of Milan in 1507, at which time Leonardo came into his service, he ordered a full-scale copy of the fresco on canvas, which was made using the original cartoons (detailed transfer drawings) that the artist had used in outlining his design on the wall of the convent dining room. Miraculously, the experts working on this book and film project were eventually able to track down the king’s copy, which has been hanging unnoticed in an abbey in Belgium for the last 5 centuries. Not only does the copy match up perfectly with the original, showing us details which have now vanished due to the deterioration of the fresco, but experts believe that while most of the painting was executed by one of Leonardo’s chief assistants, the figures of Christ and St. John were probably painted by Leonardo himself.

“The Search for the Last Supper” will begin airing on local PBS stations this weekend; as the saying goes, check your local listings.


“Mona Lisa” Staying Put

Speaking of Leonardo, you may recall my telling you about a hare-brained scheme by France’s culture minister, Françoise Nyssen, to send the “Mona Lisa” out on tour to combat what she calls “cultural segregation” (whatever that means.) The Louvre has now politely responded and said, in so many words, “You can forget that idea.” During a recent meeting with Mme. Nyssen, Louvre Director Jean-Luc Martinez explained that the painting cannot be sent on tour, because “doing so could cause irreversible damage.” The painting is in extremely delicate condition, and in particular suffers from a crack which opens up every time it is removed from its current spot in the museum. Unfortunately, politicians have rarely batted an eyelid when it comes to destroying great masterpieces of painting, sculpture, or architecture for the sake of populist politics, whether of the left or the right. So perhaps the best bit in The Art Newspaper’s reporting on this story which certainly made *me* smile, is the following:

The culture ministry at first claimed that the Louvre “was not opposed to the idea”. It now says that the idea “is still under consideration” and that “a technical examination has started” (museum staff have no knowledge of this). Suggesting that other masterpieces could tour France, Nyssen is clearly looking for a way out of a publicity stunt gone wrong.


Celebrating the Genius of Tolkien

A major exhibition celebrating the life and work of “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” author JRR Tolkien will be opening on June 1st at Oxford; from its description, this will no doubt become one of the major UK museum shows taking place outside of London this summer. As the Bodelian explains:

Visitors will also be introduced to the vast spectrum of Tolkien’s creative and scholarly output ranging from his early abstract paintings in The Book of Ishness to the metrical brilliance of his poem Errantry and the touching tales he wrote for his children. The spectacular range of objects on display will include original manuscripts of his popular classics as well as lesser-known and posthumous works and materials, some of which will be on public display for the very first time.

This will all be in addition to his watercolors and annotated drawings for “The Hobbit” and other books, as well as personal objects, letters, photographs, and so on. I probably won’t be making it to England this summer, but I can tell you right now that I will absolutely be ordering a copy of the exhibition catalogue. “Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth” will be at the Weston Library of the University of Oxford until October 28th.




The Genius Who Got Butter On His Tie

In John Patrick Shanley’s brilliant screenplay for Norman Jewison’s equally brilliant film “Moonstruck” (1987), the first scene opens in a funeral parlor in New York’s Little Italy, where the character of Loretta Castorini is trying to figure out the bookkeeping problems of an Italian-American undertaker. As he prepares some toasted ciabatta with butter, he pooh-pooh’s her concerns over his accounting errors by proclaiming that he need not worry about such things, for he is an artistic genius.  To this Loretta responds, “If you’re an artistic genius, how come you got butter on your tie?”

In the history of Western art there are quite a few geniuses who, as Loretta might put it, got butter on their tie, over the course of their careers.  Leonardo Da Vinci, an undeniable polymath of a genius, was oftentimes an absolute disaster as an artist, abandoning projects half-finished or employing techniques that were so highly experimental as to leave some of the projects he actually did complete either ruined or irreparable.  Rembrandt von Rijn was a notorious spendthrift, who was forced into bankruptcy for living beyond his means, and in order to protect himself from his creditors had to become registered as an employee of his common-law wife, and his son from his first marriage.

And then there is the Dutch painter Hendrik Terbrugghen (1588-1629), who was a brilliant artist, but one prone to spend a great deal of time thinking about deep and serious matters, which often left him depressed and limited his ability to work. This, combined with an untimely death and his style of painting going out of fashion for many centuries, has led to his being ignored for far too long by the general public. I have been thinking of him today as the Church celebrates the Feast of St. Matthew, the Apostle and Evangelist, as Terbrugghen was often drawn to reflect upon St. Matthew in his work.

Terbrugghen must have been particularly fascinated with the life of St. Matthew, for he painted at least three completely different versions of Christ’s calling of St. Matthew of which I am aware. The story, as St. Matthew himself recounts it, is as follows:

As Jesus passed on from there, He saw a man named Matthew sitting at the customs post. He said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed Him.

While He was at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat with Jesus and His disciples. The Pharisees saw this and said to His disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

He heard this and said, “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. Go and learn the meaning of the words, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.”

St. Matthew 9: 9-13

In the Utrecht version of “The Calling of St. Matthew” reproduced below, painted when Terbrugghen was 33 years old, our eye is immediately drawn to the well-dressed young man at the right of the picture, who is wearing a rather luxurious hat. Yet if we take a look directly below him, in sharp contrast to the handsome dandy we see an unattractive figure, on whose right shoulder the young man is leaning. The egg-headed old man is wearing glasses, has lost much of his hair, and is probably suffering from horrible dental problems. He seemingly incongruously wears part of a suit of armor over his old, brown tunic, probably as a remembrance of when he was a brave young buck fighting for the Dutch in their wars of independence against Spain.

The juxtaposition of these two figures, one directly on top of the other, could not be more indicative of Terbrugghen’s attested melancholy. He himself, it is believed, had been a soldier in the early 17th century, before he turned seriously to his artistic career after a visit to Rome, but what his experiences were as a soldier in the myriad of battles that took place in Northern Europe during that time period we can only guess. Terbrugghen seems to be saying, by putting these two figures together, that no matter how healthy and positive your initial outlook on life may be, in the end there is nothing to look forward to but suffering, disappointment, and ultimately death.

If you are reasonably familiar with art history you will recognize from his work that Terbrugghen was clearly a disciple of Caravaggio – a man who had quite a bit of butter on his own tie, particularly after being accused of manslaughter. Yet unlike his artistic inspiration, who for good or for ill lived life to the fullest, Terbrugghen was a man who seems to have done and left little in the way of writing by or about him, and was described by a contemporary as a man afflicted throughout his life by “profound but melancholy thoughts.” It is believed by some scholars that Terbrugghen died of the plague when he was 42 years old – an end which, perhaps, was in keeping with his purportedly gloomy outlook on life.

Whether by plague or otherwise, art historians are agreed that Terbrugghen met an unpleasant end of some sort. It is also agreed that his output was not very high, in part due to the fact that he suffered from depression. While he was well-regarded by many of his fellow artists during his lifetime, and for a time his paintings commanded high prices, he was forgotten fairly quickly by most after his death, to the point that his son felt the need to write a pamphlet defending and promoting his father’s work. No doubt Terbrugghen would have found his slide into obscurity in keeping with his views on life.

That being said, even though Terbrugghen may not have been a happy-go-lucky sort of fellow, we can still marvel at and enjoy his work today. It is very often the case that the true genius really does find himself hamstringed when it comes to trying to living an orderly, positive life outside of his own thoughts. Terbrugghen may not be a household name to most of us, but his beautiful studies of light and the sometimes melancholic aspects of his work have managed to survive the centuries and give him a far more positive reputation today than perhaps he himself believed would be possible.

The Calling of St. Matthew by Hendrik Terbrugghen (1621)
Centraal Museum, Utrecht