Thought-Pourri: Protesting Pygmalions Edition

An interesting piece in yesterday’s New York Times discusses an issue which many of us, myself included, probably did not know existed. Developers in a number of cities are required, as part of their development plans, to either include works of art in their public spaces or pay for the acquisition of publicly-accessible art. Increasingly, more of these builders are fighting against their obligation to do so, claiming that these ordinances amount to an “art tax”.

When we get down to brass tacks, the core of the argument that these developers are making is really an economic, rather than a philosophical one. They are in the business of building, not of being unwilling patrons of the arts, they claim. But there are also aesthetic issues to be raised here, and both the New York Times article and a similar article from today’s Washington Post are silent as to that larger, and to my mind more important area of inquiry.

At the end of the day, who gets to decide what goes where? What are the qualifications of those who mandate that something is worthy of public display, or of being placed where it ultimately goes? In a majority of cases, the art is created by Contemporary artists who demonstrate little actual talent, bear prosaic descriptions like “Untitled”, and are made of materials that decay rapidly in the elements, quickly becoming little more than an expensive eyesore that must be removed a decade or so later. These works are often selected by a committee of alleged experts with a particular socio-political agenda to push, and whose bad taste in art is patently obvious. Why should a property developer be forced to underwrite the acquisition or commission of these objects? Feel free to weigh in below, in the comments section.

And now, on to some art news of possible interest.

Good for Glasgow

After weeks of speculation following a devastating second fire at the Glasgow School of Art, one of the architectural masterpieces of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Director Tom Inns says that the School will be rebuilt. Because the structure was undergoing restoration at the time of the fire, many of the interior elements salvaged or recreated following the first fire were stored off-site at the time of the second blaze, and because of the rebuilding that was underway at the time of the latest disaster, accurate measurements and exact details were copiously documented using the latest available technology, making it comparatively easier to begin again. No word at this time regarding how long this rebuilding will take, what it will cost, or who is to blame for fire #2.

Glasgow

Dragons! Now In 3-D!

Kew Gardens, a favorite green space for Londoners for centuries, is one of the best botanical gardens in the world, recognized both for its beauty and for the scholarship of those who work there. One of the most striking architectural features of the park is the Great Pagoda, built in 1762 by Sir William Chambers, the architect of Somerset House in The Strand. Originally, the ten octagonal-shaped stories of the tower were studded with carved, Chinese-style dragons, but over the years the majority of these sculptures rotted away or were stolen. Now, following a major restoration effort, all 80 of the gilded beasties are back, with the ones on the first floor being made of cedar, while those on the upper floors are made of much lighter fiberglass, using a 3D printer.

Drac

Blotto for Lotto

Sadly, I am going to miss an exhibit at The Prado in Madrid which those of my readers who find themselves there over the next few months should make a point of seeing. “Lorenzo Lotto: Portraits” opened a couple of weeks ago, and is the first exhibition dedicated solely to the portraiture by this Italian Renaissance genius, whose work is perhaps not quite as well known as it ought to be; that should change after this show, which following its sojourn in Madrid will head to the National Gallery in London beginning November 5th. Lotto (c. 1480 – 1556/57) is a complex, occasionally inscrutable artist when it comes to his religious pictures and allegories, but he also drew beautifully, and his portraits are, at times, almost confrontational meetings between subject and viewer. One of my favorite paintings by Lotto, his magnificent portrait of the Venetian merchant and art collector Andrea Odoni (1527), which is owned by Queen Elizabeth II, is included in the show. For that reason alone, this exhibition would be worth your time, should you find yourself in Madrid or London in the coming months.

Lotto

Thought-Pourri: Sheepish Summer Edition

A very happy First Day of Summer to you, gentle reader. This is definitely not my favorite season, but fortunately even as those of us in the capital wilt under oppressive humidity, there’s still plenty of art news out there, since even as art auctions tend to tail off until the autumn, museum exhibition and announcement season tends to crank up during the summer holidays. So rest assured there will be plenty of stories for me to share with you, even as I remain wary of this time of year and try to stay in the air conditioning as long as possible.

An example is news surrounding the legendary Ghent Altarpiece, created in the 15th century by the brothers Hubert and Jan van Eyck. Regular readers will recall that I’ve written about it before, and it’s the subject of a fascinating 2012 book by Noah Charney. Unusually, two major stories about it have broken in the past week.

The first involves a possible location for the two missing panels of the altarpiece, a mystery which I mentioned in my earlier post and which Charney discusses at length in his book. The second involves the ongoing cleaning and restoration, which has resulted in a rather new, rather ugly appearance for the Agnus Dei which stands at the center of the lower panel. At some point in the past, someone decided that the Van Eyck version was rather unpleasant to look at, and painted a more docile, pleasant looking face over top of the original. While I’m all for authenticity in art, I’m not sure that the removal of this particular bit of overpaint has actually improved the picture.

Baa

Gutted in Glasgow

Just last week, I drew your attention to the work of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, the early 20th century Scottish artist, architect, and designer, as the world marks his 150th birthday. Three days later, one of his greatest masterpieces was, for all practical purposes, destroyed. As restoration was nearing completion following a devastating fire back in 2014, Mackintosh’s seminal Glasgow School of Art caught fire this past Friday, and this time it looks to be a total loss. Sorting out the blame and what to do next will take some time, but reports indicate that there may be little left to save. This is a tragic, highly significant loss for world architecture.

Glasgow

Worrying in Worcester

A piece I spotted in yesterday’s Art Net is worth reading and thinking about, as it stirs up some uncomfortable truths about art, with respect to those represented in it, the artists themselves, and those charged with displaying and interpreting it. The piece is largely focused on a new series of placards at the Worcester Art Museum in Massachussetts, identifying the ties of some of those depicted in the museum’s Early American portraits collection to the slave trade. By way of conclusion, the article also points out that some institutions are debating whether works by Picasso, Schiele, and others should bear labels detailing the moral culpability of the artists themselves. I leave it to the reader to determine whether the selective pinning of scarlet letters to works of art is ultimately an advisable course of action.

Orne

Outstanding in Oklahoma

I’ve never been to the great state of Oklahoma, but for those of you who find yourselves there between now and September 9th, the must-see at the Oklahmoa City Art Museum is what looks to be a terrific exhibition by Contemporary Artist Isabelle de Borchrave. “Fashioning Art from Paper” is a retrospective of the Belgian artist’s work, in which she creates intricate, life-sized paper costumes based on both works of art and fashion created over the past five centuries. Among the standouts in the section dedicated to the court of the Medici in Florence is this astonishing recreation of the costume worn by the young Lorenzo de Medici in Benozzo Gozzoli’s famous “The Journey of the Magi” (1459) from the Magi Chapel at the Palazzo Medici Riccardi in Florence.

Lore

Making The Most Of Mackintosh

The architect, designer, and artist Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928) is someone whose work may not be known to you. Perhaps his relative unknown on this side of the pond, as compared to, say, the earlier William Morris (1834-1896), comes from the fact that Mackintosh’s style evolved greatly over time, and bears the hallmarks of various styles from Historicism to Art Nouveau to Art Deco. His comparative obscurity in the U.S. may also be because the bulk of his output has remained in the UK, particularly in his native Scotland, making it somewhat physically inaccessible to the average museum-goer.

Mackintosh

Fortunately for us all, to mark the 150th anniversary of Mackintosh’s birth, a number of exhibitions, books, and articles are on tap for those who want to learn more about this highly inventive figure. For example, the Kelvingrove Art Gallery in Glasgow is hosting “Charles Rennie Mackintosh: Making the Glasgow Style” through August 14th of this year, while the Willow Tea Rooms in Glasgow, which were designed and decorated by Mackintosh himself, will be reopening to the public on July 2nd, following an extensive renovation. An accompanying visitor center which will be used for exhibitions and events related to Mackintosh and his work will be opening in September. A site listing these and many other events associated with the celebrations surrounding the designer is also worth a click through.

Willow

Mackintosh is really difficult to pin down, when it comes to his designs, since they are both historical and a-historical at the same time. As Douglas Murphy points out in this overview of Mackintosh’s career, when designing the Glasgow School of Art, “Mackintosh was somehow able to weave together a work of incredible richness and sophistication, partly through composition and decoration, partly through allusion and reference, and partly through groundbreaking spatial imagination.” The school evolved in form as Mackintosh continued to work on it for almost 30 years, mixing Scottish baronial with industrial elements, using the typical heavy stone of the area mixed with enormous, multi-paneled windows that were highly unusual in such a northern, cold, and damp climate.

Glasgow

Just this month the National Trust for Scotland, which preserves many of Scotland’s historic sites for future generations, began a major restoration program at Hill House, one of Mackintosh’s most important buildings. Located on the Firth of Clyde, an inlet of the Atlantic Ocean near Glasgow that has a relatively warm year-round climate thanks to the Gulf Stream, the house was built for a Scottish publishing magnate between 1902-1904. Like his American contemporary Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959), Mackintosh was somewhat obsessive-compulsive about the house, not only designing the building and everything inside it, but even specifying the color of flowers which Mrs. Blackie ought to place in the living room.

Hill House

Because of Mackintosh’s innovative building techniques and the residence’s location, Hill House has been falling into disrepair for some time now. Like Wright’s most famous house “Fallingwater”, built three decades later, the building is located in a beautiful spot, but the materials used for its construction were not ideal for such a damp environment. To stabilize the deterioration and reduce moisture penetration while preservation is underway, a temporary, giant glass box is currently being built around the structure, which will better protect it from the elements while still allowing workers and visitors access to the structure. It’s a terrific idea, and one that, while not inexpensive, allows for potential lighting effects at night through the clear covering, much as occurred in DC during the renovation of the Washington Monument.

In addition to buildings and furniture however, Mackintosh was also an artist, something that often gets lost in the shuffle when his work is reviewed and considered. Earlier in his career he produced images such as these, which were much appreciated internationally, particularly by the Vienna Seccessionists. Not quite Art Nouveau, not quite Art Deco, works such as “The Wassail” (1900) are more akin to the work of the Catalan Modernista movement than to what was going on in the fluffy, flowery drawing rooms of Paris and Prague at the same time.

Wassail

Later in life, as his interest in and commissions for architectural projects began to dry up, Mackintosh turned increasingly to landscape painting, particularly in watercolors. It is here that we can really see how his understanding of and appreciation for architectural massing was turned from the design of buildings to the painterly observation of them. He spent a good amount of time in French Catalonia, visiting small fishing towns and castellated villages of the interior, so much so that you can organize tours of the places he visited and painted.

Take this view of Collioure for example, painted in 1924; note how he stacks horizontal planes, one on top of each other, as he builds the strata that form the city, from the shoreline right up to the roof of the fortress.

Collioure

A similar horizontal theme predominates in his depiction of the town of Bouleternère, painted sometime between 1925-1927, but is radically altered by the vertical thrust of the church on the top of the hill:

Boule

And finally this piece, with its strikingly odd yet almost hyperreal representation of the buildings reflected in the water, depicting the Rue de Soleil (“Street of the Sun”) in the town of Port Vendres around 1926.

Rue

When you consider that, right around the same time, Joan Miró is showing the slightly younger Salvador Dalí around the concepts of Surrealism, it’s remarkable to consider that an artist-designer who began by building classical, Beaux Arts office buildings ended up his career by painting works which would have looked just as much at home in an exhibition of the early work of the two great Catalan Surrealists.

So if unknown to you prior to today, take some time to seek out information on this fascinating talent, who is lesser-known in this country than he really ought to be.