One of the things that I follow, in my daily perusal of art news, is what is going on at the upper end of the art market – a habit that I picked up in graduate school which at the time was mandatory, but that now I use mainly for self-instructive purposes. I had been following the announced sale of an important 16th century Italian bronze statue of Mars that was scheduled to go on the block at Sotheby’s in London yesterday, but was surprised to learn on Monday that it had been withdrawn from sale. This is sometimes an indicator that the auction house is worried that their piece is a fake, but in this case the provenance or chain of ownership could not have been clearer: it was gifted by the artist to a Germanic ruler shortly after it was created, remained in the family of his descendants until the early 20th century, and has been in a German corporate collection for the past thirty-odd years.
Instead, it turns out that the German government managed to pull together an undisclosed sum and purchase the sculpture for the state art museums in Dresden. It was good to hear that the beautifully executed figure of Mars will stay in Germany, where it has been for nearly half a millennia, but this quote from the German quasi-Minister of Culture Monika Grütters attacking Bayer Corporation, which owned the piece and had consigned it to Sotheby’s, made me roll my eyes a bit:
“Bayer AG should be really ashamed of wanting to auction a work of such importance to the nation to the highest bidder, instead of donating it to the people of Dresden—especially considering the company itself got it as a gift,” Grütters told the German press agency DPA. “For such a successful and prosperous company, this would have been peanuts. It should be aware of its social responsibility in Germany.”
Grütters is normally someone whom I can sympathize with, as she is a devout Catholic in a very secular country. She was recently criticized for – correctly – pointing out that the “de-Christianization of society is not conducive to living together in a democratic society.” However when it comes to the ownership of private property, remarks such as those which she made subsequent to government intervention to stop the sale of the so-called “Dresden Mars” are juvenile and rather silly. Philosophically it leads down the same ignorant, dead-end road which says that the state can take your house if someone else plans to build an office park on it, even if the office park never gets built.
As to the work of art itself, Giambologna (1529-1608) was arguably the most important Mannerist sculptor working in Italy during the second half of the 16th century. A later bronze copy of his iconic statue of Mercury graces the rotunda fountain at the National Gallery of Art, while his marble depiction of a group later entitled as a scene from the “Rape of the Sabine Women” is a seminal sculpture in the history of art, bridging the period between the end of the Renaissance and the beginning of the Baroque. For much of his adult career he worked almost exclusively for the Medici, decorating many of their palaces and villas, as well as public buildings located throughout their duchy, but examples of his work also appear in Rome and Bologna, and were coveted by collectors in France, Spain, and elsewhere.
Because they are smaller than his monumental figures and thus easier to move about, Giambologna’s reduced bronzes are highly prized by collectors. In a process which is still practiced today, the artist would create an original work which, if it proved popular, could then be issued in multiple editions in different sizes by the artist himself or his workshop assistants. You can see a convenient example of this the next time you are in New York. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, this bronze figure by Giambologna of a triton blowing a horn stands about 3 feet tall, while a version a little more than half the size of the Met’s version stands just down the street at the Frick Collection.
It’s good to know that “Mars” will be staying in Dresden, but I don’t think the rather vice-principal finger-pointing by F. Grütters that accompanied it was either warranted or necessary.
And now on to a few other art stories of note, in brief.
Speaking of works saved for public collections, “A Game of Bowls” (1889) by John Singer Sargent has recently been purchased by the UK National Trust for Ightham Mote, a medieval manor house in Kent that Sargent painted when staying at the property. At the time of Sargent’s visit it was being rented by an American railroad baron, William Jackson Palmer, who was also a Civil War hero and the co-founder of Colorado Springs. His wife Elsie was a friend and patron of Sargent as well as writer Henry James, and during their tenancy at Ightham Mote many American and British artists, writers, and thinkers spent time visiting the Palmers and exchanging ideas. While not a great Sargent, it’s entirely fitting that “A Game of Bowls” should return to the house where it was painted.
I already follow quite a few art news sites, but a new one that I’ve recently added to my bookmarks and which the reader may also find of interest is ARCABlog, published by the Association for Research into Crimes against Art. I find the design a bit clunky, but the stories often offer more detail than is usually available in the regular art press, and thus are often highly compelling. Check out this piece, for example, which details how a Etruscan perfume jar in the form of a rabbit, dating to around the 6th century BC, was recently seized by authorities in New York.
To mark the 100th anniversary of his death, the Leopold Museum in Vienna has just opened an important exhibition on the work of everyone’s favorite Austrian Secessionist painter, Gustav Klimt (1862-1918). “Gutsav Klimt: Artist of the Century” covers the artist’s entire career via eight thematic presentations about his times, and while not a particularly large show in terms of numbers of works, explores all aspects of Klimt’s artistic development and ideas. This includes a look into the artist’s landscapes, such as the one shown below painted in the grounds of Schönbrunn Palace in the summer of 1916, at the height of World War I, which are less well-known than his figural painting and portraits, and yet make up one-quarter of his existing work. The exhibition runs until February 6th.