Art News Roundup: Recovered Gems Edition

Before getting to some art news of interest this week, I realize that over the weekend just past I forgot to link to my latest post in The Federalist, which you may have already seen, on pioneering World War I aviation artist Henri Farré (1871-1934). Due to the restrictions on space, it wasn’t possible to show more than a few of his paintings in the article, which I began researching on a recent trip down to the Tidewater Virginia area. More of his work can be seen on my Instagram feed, here and here, featuring some pics I shot at a current exhibition at the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia, which celebrates Farré’s art and marks the centenary of the end of World War I. It’s a small show, but definitely worth seeing if you find yourself in the area. If you can’t make it, pick up a copy of Farré’s superb first-hand recounting of his experiences as an aviator-artist, “Sky Fighters of France”, which you can find through online booksellers and auctioneers.

Pricey Pearl

Continuing this week’s market trend of low estimates and unexpected prices – I can possibly understand such a price for a Hopper, maybe, but who would pay over $90 million for a HOCKNEY? –  Sotheby’s Geneva just sold a diamond and natural pearl pendant once owned by Queen Marie Antoinette of France for $36 million; the pre-sale estimate on the piece, which has been owned by the royal house of Bourbon-Parma for centuries, was $2 million. The pendant was sold along with 99 other items of jewelry from the family collection, bringing a whopping $53.1 million in total. Rather bizarrely, this article in Art Daily states that the pendant was “owned by Marie Antoinette before she was beheaded…” I suspect it rather unlikely that it could have been owned by her *after* she was beheaded.


Wee Warriors

Speaking of royal caches, you’re probably familiar with the famous terracotta warriors buried with the first Emperor of China, as examples of these tomb sculptures always prove a popular tourist attraction when they visit this country. Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, Prince Liu Hong, son of the Emperor Wu, who reigned in the 1st century BC, commissioned his own terracotta army for his grave, but at a more modest scale than his imperial ancestor. The hundreds of figures in the Prince’s tomb, which have now been fully excavated and documented following their original discovery about a decade ago, average between 9-12 inches tall, rather than life-sized. They’re accompanied by chariots, watchtowers, and other elements, which can’t help but remind one of an action figure playset – albeit a far more breakable one – and are a rare treasure, indeed. Details on the discovery and excavation have been translated into English and are available in the journal Chinese Cultural Relics.


Revived Retablo

The Art Newspaper provides an overview of the history and conservation of the Battel Hall retablo, a rare, circa 1410 jewel of a painted English altarpiece that survived the Protestants – sort of – albeit with the faces of Christ, Mary, and the saints scratched out. It later suffered numerous other indignities, such as being used as a desktop in a school, where it was further scarred and dirtied over the centuries; someone, possibly the students, even carved “witch signs” into it, as protection against evil spirits. Fellow fans of the Dominican Order take note, this object was probably painted for a Dominican foundation, possibly a convent, since it features both St. Dominic and another Dominican (St. Albert the Great is my best guess, given the book and miter, but I may be wrong) as well as St. Mary Magdalen and St. Catherine of Siena. After two years of conservation and restoration work, the scarred Medieval altarpiece has now been hung in the chapel of Leeds Castle. For more information on the jewels of Catholic art and architecture lost thanks to King Henry VIII’s incontinence, get a copy of Eamon Duffy’s classic “The Stripping of the Altars” from Yale University Press: saddening, sobering, but fascinating reading.



Forgotten Painting, Forgotten Genre

Recently, news that a major work by a Spanish Baroque painter has been on display at Hearst Castle for almost a century without being identified caught my interest. The giant altarpiece by Bartolomé Pérez de la Dehesa (c. 1634-1698), depicting the Annunciation of the Angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary (Gospel of St. Luke 1:26-38), was painted in 1690, and has hung on the wall of the Assembly Room of Hearst’s atrocious country house in San Simeon, California since it was acquired from a Los Angeles art dealer back in 1927. As you probably know, the utterly repulsive William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951) was not only a publisher and a Congressman, but an art hoarder of the first order. From paintings and sculpture, to furniture, ceramics, and even entire cloisters, he bought anything and everything that wasn’t tied down. Nevertheless, it seems incredible that such a major work, particularly one which is so enormous and which, as it turns out, is both signed and dated, went unidentified for so long.


The work is particularly rare because compositions of this size are unusual for Pérez. He was one of the royal painters to Carlos II (1661-1700), the last Habsburg king of Spain, and a second-tier painter of the Spanish Golden Age. He isn’t a household name like El Greco (1541-1614) or Velázquez (1599-1660), which is partly to do with the fact that his compositions seem to be more highly decorative than they are particularly original. In fact, he is best known for creating highly decorative images in which religious figures are shown surrounded by lush garlands of flowers – as in this example depicting St. Teresa of Ávila – but there is more at work in such pictures than meets the eye.


This mixing of still life and religious painting was not new by the time Pérez began to produce these works, but it became his specialty even as it fell out of fashion. The genre, usually referred to as “garland paintings”, began when Jan Breughel the Elder (1568-1625) and Hendrick van Balen (1575-1632) created an image of the Madonna and Child surrounded by a garland of spring flowers for Federico Cardinal Borromeo of Milan in about 1608, shown below. It was a painted representation of the way in which the devout would traditionally decorate a religious image in their home or local parish during Eastertide or other Feasts of the Church, but had the benefit of the lush displays of flowers, fruit, and greenery not having to be thrown out.


Cardinal Borromeo saw this new type of image as a response to the iconoclasm of the Protestants, who by this point had been destroying works of art for decades, as well as banning pious practices such as processions, the decoration of churches with flowers, and so on. Because these types of pictures were both highly decorative as well as spiritually symbolic, they could fit into either an ecclesiastical or a household setting. In this example painted for a private home and dating from about 1621, Brueghel, working in collaboration with Sir Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), painted the still life elements, while the latter painted the figures. Interestingly, some experts believe that the model for the Virgin Mary is Rubens’ first wife Isabella Brant, which I can believe, and that the Christ Child is Breughel’s son, the future artist Jan Breughel the Younger, although in my opinion the latter suggestion seems a bit off for the timeline of that artist’s life.


By the second half of the 17th century, this “garland painting” style was no longer as fashionable elsewhere in Europe, but Pérez continued to receive commissions to paint them. The image of St. Teresa shown earlier was one of a series which he completed between about 1675-1680 for the Franciscan convent of San Diego in Alcalá de Henares, which is fairly late for this genre. All of the paintings depicted Spanish Counter Reformation saints who had recently been canonized, including St. Teresa of Ávila, her friend and fellow Descalced Carmelite St. John of the Cross, the Jesuits St. Ignatius of Loyola and St. Francis Borgia, and others, and in that sense their depiction inside of garlands, in a genre that had Counter Reformation origins decades earlier, is not surprising.

Since most of Pérez’ surviving work is in the form of garland paintings or still lifes, the rare canvas from Hearst Castle is all the more valuable for understanding his development as an artist. I confess that I don’t find it to be a particularly great image, since the artist’s skills clearly lay more in depicting the realm of the floral than in the human. Nevertheless, it is a major discovery and will provide art historians with a wealth of new material to investigate for years to come.



Going the Wrong Weiwei

Earlier this week, an artist upset at the fact that a museum in Miami was not, to his mind, showcasing enough local art decided to do something about it.  He marched into an exhibition of work by the well-known Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei, picked up one of the vases that formed part of an art installation, and smashed it to pieces.  This type of vandalism seems to be occurring with greater frequency of late, such as the incidents at the Menil Collection and at Westminster Abbey, which I have written about previously.  Paradoxically, one of the reasons for this uptick in criminal behavior, I believe, is the faulty philosophy being spouted by contemporary artists like Mr. Weiwei himself, among others, who have not thought through the implications of the path down which they are leading us.

Ai Weiwei seems strangely disturbed by what took place at the museum.  I say “strangely”, because this installation by Mr. Weiwei – whose appeal remains a mystery to me – consists in part of a group of antiquities which he himself vandalized.  As ArtNews Daily reported:

Ai had painted the urn, which dates from the Han dynasty of 206BC-220AD, in bright colours as part of his “Coloured Vases”, on show at the Pérez Art Museum Miami. Behind it stood a trio of large photographs depicting the artist dropping another Han dynasty pot to the floor, where it shatters into little pieces, “to express the notion that new ideas and values can be produced through iconoclasm”.

For someone who engages in vandalism as part of his “art”, it would seem to be just a teeny-weeny bit hypocritical for Mr. Weiwei to become angry at another artist for doing precisely the same sort of thing that he does.

More to the point, for Mr. Weiwei to suggest that “ideas and values” result through iconoclasm is, rather paradoxically, for him to mimic those who are oppressing him.  By uttering such poorly-considered statements, he seemingly approves of the very sort of repressive purging which, for example, his own country went through under Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution, where anything and everything that smacked of artistic innovation or freedom of expression was destroyed.  One would think that someone whom the art community fawns over as being a prisoner of conscience would demonstrate that he does, in fact have a conscience, at least when it comes to respecting the artistic creations of others, let alone the cultural heritage of his own civilization.

Iconoclasm tears down; it does not create.  Going into a museum and smashing a work of art to make a point, as occurred here, is reprehensible.  However it is precisely in the type of anarchy being celebrated by the contemporary art community that such practices become a self-fulfilling prophecy of what will happen to other museums and galleries in the future.  For in the end, if the artist himself does not respect the object, then why should the viewer? Promoting certain acts of artistic vandalism for the sake of creating art of questionable value, while at the same time decrying others, is not only an example of faulty reasoning, but evidence that things are headed in the wrong direction.

Still from video of artist smashing a vase from the Ai Weiwei installation

Still from video of artist smashing a vase from the Ai Weiwei installation