Art News Roundup: Invisible Hand Edition

Scottish Enlightenment economist and philosopher Adam Smith (1723-1790), who played a profound role in the development of free market economics, and indeed in the foundation of this country, is perhaps best known today for his seminal work, “An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations”, first published in 1776. On December 12th, Christie’s will be auctioning off Smith’s own, first edition copy of “The Wealth of Nations” in London, with an estimated sale price of between $650,000 to over $1 million. Given the provenance of the book, and the love of both conservatives and libertarians for Smith’s work, I predict that the final hammer price will be at the high end of this range, if not even a bit higher. All you really need for this to happen is for two modern capitalists with deep pockets to get into a bidding war with one another, and the sky’s the limit.

Granted, neither Smith himself nor the book in question have much of anything to do with art in a direct way. Yet Smith’s principle of the “Invisible Hand”, by which positive, public outcomes can result from the self-interested, private actions of individuals, are a major philosophical underpinning of museums as we know them in the Western world. A collector who accumulates great works of art, historic artifacts, or important specimens for his own private delectation, and whose collection subsequently becomes broadly available to others for enjoyment and education is, in a sense, an exemplar of that “invisible hand” creating a public good from what was originally a private motivation. Many paintings, sculptures, and drawings have been preserved for future generations because individuals in the past acquired them for themselves, and kept them safe from the ravages of time, war, natural disasters, the vicissitudes of fashion, and so on.

And now, on to some other news which you may find hand-y.

Michelangelo: The Hands of a Master

The so-called “Rothschild Bronzes”, once owned by the famous Rothschild banking dynasty, are a superb pair of early 16th century sculptures of warriors mounted on giant panther-like beasts, which of course anticipate “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe” by nearly 500 years. After considerable scholarly debate, as well as technical analysis using various methods of dating, measurement, and comparison to contemporary drawings, a group of art history experts at Cambridge recently announced their conclusion that the pair are by Michelangelo (1475-1564), making them the only known bronze figures of the Italian Renaissance genius to have survived to the present day. A book chronicling the 4-year research project involving these figures has just been published, and will be receiving a great deal of scrutiny from other art experts. Is this a rush to claim authorship? Or is there a legitimate body of evidence to err on the side of this attribution, which would fill a major hole in the record with respect to Michelangelo’s work in metal? Stay tuned.

Michaelangelo Bronzes

Rembrandt: The Fingers of a Master

A number of my readers – clever folk that you are – wrote to me over the past week regarding the interesting news that an oil study by Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) may bear the Dutch Old Master’s fingerprints. The work, which is roughly the size of an 8×10 photograph, depicts a model with his hands clasped in prayer, looking upwards. The young man in the picture, who was probably a Jewish neighbor of the artist, posed as Christ for Rembrandt on several other occasions that I’m aware of, such as in the Louvre’s “Supper at Emmaus” (1648); a number of other, related oil studies are known, including this slightly larger sketch in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. While at present there’s no way to know for certain whether the fingerprints are indeed those of Rembrandt, in time they may be able to establish a baseline for comparison to other works believed to be by the artist, should unexplained fingerprints be found on those paintings. This particular work is going up for sale at Sotheby’s in London next week, with a pre-sale estimate of about $7.6-$10.2 million.

Christ

Valadier: The Marketing of a Master

You’ve probably never heard of the Italian silversmith Luigi Valadier (1726-1785), a master of 18th century sculpture, decorative art, and jewelry, who was based in Rome but had an international clientele thanks to his excellent craftsmanship and the not-so-subtle marketing of his luxury goods by one potentate to the other: “If the King of Poland has one of Valadier’s goblets, I want one, too,” is how this sort of thing always works. Should you find yourself in New York over the holidays however, drop by The Frick Collection to see their current show on the work of this remarkable artist and artisan, who created jaw-dropping luxury goods for decades while managing to keep up with the changing tastes of the aristocracy, from Baroque to Rococo to Neoclassical. His opulent objects were so popular for palace decoration, diplomatic gifts, and tokens of friendship, that the studio couldn’t keep up with the orders pouring in from all over Europe. For example, shown below in an overhead shot is the 9-foot long plateau (base) of a massive 1778 dining table centerpiece by Valadier from a collection in Madrid, made out of precious stones, bronze, silver, and gold. If you want to see the whole thing, you’ll need to get to The Frick by January 20th.

overhead

 

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Art News Roundup: Alice Roosevelt Longworth’s Couch Edition

Perhaps the most famous quip – among many – made by President Theodore Roosevelt’s rather infamous eldest daughter, Alice Roosevelt Longworth (1884-1980), which she embroidered on a throw pillow displayed in her home, was “If you can’t say something good about someone, sit right here by me.” For the most part, I try to be positive about what I write here, pointing to items which I find interesting and which, I hope, my readers will find interesting as well. But sometimes, you have to sit right down next to Mrs. Longworth on her couch, and have a good chin wag over the nonsense which those of us who cover the art world are forced to put up with on a daily basis.

Take the current fawning of the art establishment over the Italian Baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1653) for example. I suppose that, on the whole, one should be grateful when the black turtleneck brigade occasionally deigns to recognize that Western art existed before the 20th century. In the last few years, Gentileschi has become the darling of those who generally eschew sacred art and Old Master painting, because she has been made to fit into the narrative of contemporary feminism. Art media types – many of whom couldn’t distinguish a Frans Hals from a Franz Winterhalter – have been going into raptures over her art of late, resulting in a sudden spike in the commercial value of her paintings.

Yet when you look at her work as a whole, Artemisia turns out to be a bit of an Artemisi-yawn. She mostly painted herself (with her crazy, rolling eyes) dressed up as someone else: Cleopatra, Lucretia, a saint, etc. When she wasn’t painting rather lifeless and unappealing nudes, her preferred party trick as an artist was typically something involving men abusing women, or women getting revenge on men, or Judith doing something with the head of Holofernes, or women injuring themselves. Her paintings are often cold, bitter, and derivative of the work of other artists such as Caravaggio (1571-1610), her own father Orazio Gentileschi (1563–1639), and others. No doubt she had talent, but there were plenty of other Italian Baroque painters whose abilities far exceeded hers, who remain largely unknown or unappreciated outside of specialist circles today.

Now, before everyone rushes to Gentileschi’s defense, I fully recognize that her tragic personal history no doubt influenced both her outlook on the world and the way she portrayed it on canvas. Nor should anyone assume that I am so stupid as to dismiss the work of a great artist because of her sex. As a matter of fact, I’m heading to Philadelphia this weekend to see a major retrospective on the work of Berthe Morisot (1841-1895), the greatest of all the women Impressionist painters, and in my opinion a far better artist than, say, her undeservedly more famous contemporary Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919).

But the truth of the matter is, while Gentileschi could certainly paint, she really wasn’t anything all that special. In this day and age of course, saying so goes against the popular grain. It’s like pointing out that Beyoncé could do with a vocal coach because she doesn’t actually sing very well: as an aside, it was beyond presumptuous of her to imagine that she could play the great Etta James on film, for example, when she clearly doesn’t have the pipes for it. By all means, go have a wander through the interwebz and check out Gentileschi’s work for yourself, but I suspect you’ll eventually come to the same conclusion that I have.

Assuming that Mrs. Longworth hasn’t asked us to leave at this point, let’s settle into our seats and have a few other strongly-worded things to say, as we look at some of the current news from the art world.

Burne-Jones Burn

In what must be one of the most scathing reviews of Pre-Raphaelite art written since the movement appeared in the 19th century, The Guardian’s Jonathan Jones himself goes against the popular grain to let us know exactly why he can’t stand the work of Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898), who is the subject of a major retrospective that just opened at Tate Britain in London. The review points out – quite rightly, I might add – that after Burne-Jones settled into his artistic style in his early 20’s, he basically stagnated for the next forty years. Looking across the breadth of the artist’s output over such a long career, one comes to realize fairly quickly that his maidens are interchangeable, his monsters aren’t in the least bit scary, and on the whole everyone in his pictures seems to be utterly bored to death. While I don’t completely agree with some of Mr. Jones’ comparators, I do whole-heartedly agree with his conclusions, even though I realize that this risks my alienating those of you who had posters of this sort of thing in your college dorm room. “Edward Burne-Jones” opened at Tate Britain yesterday, and runs through February 24th.

Perseus

The Beacon Gets Lit

A “painting” [shudder] by Contemporary artist Mary Corse (1945-) caught on fire yesterday at the Dia:Beacon museum in Beacon, New York, home of the Dia Art Foundation. Ms. Corse creates minimalist works that combine things like canvas, tile, plywood, and electrical elements, into objects that look like bus shelter advertising frames without adverts which, for reasons best explained by others, are considered to be terrific art by those with more money than sense. Fortunately, no one was injured in the conflagration, but the piece, valued by some fool at $1 million, was significantly damaged. No word from the museum on which of Ms. Corse’s works was the culprit.

Museu

Ludicrous in Liverpool

It seems a bit off to me, in an age of constant complaints about “cultural appropriation”, that the art establishment would pay tribute to Contemporary sculptor Ugo Rondinone (1964-), an Italian-Swiss artist who lives in New York, for creating a prominent work for the city of Liverpool in the form of a contemporary totem sculpture. [N.B. It’s really just a pile of rocks painted with what looks like poster paint, rather than a sculpture, but there you are.] If the Scouser alderfolk actually wanted such an object, and I’m not sure what one would be doing in Liverpool, there are plenty of indigenous sculptors in the Americas who possess actual artistic talent for such things. No doubt they would have loved the possibility of creating such a public piece, rather than seeing it entrusting it to someone who is ripping off their culture in the most childish-looking way possible. My recommendation would be to dump this awful thing into the River Mersey and start over.

Crap

 

Art News Roundup: Pompeiian Pooch Edition

Despite the fact that they were first excavated beginning way back in the 18th century, the Ancient Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum are continuing to yield fascinating finds for archaeologists, historians, and art lovers alike.

A find which could prove to be of enormous historic, if not artistic, significance has just been announced as part of the Great Pompeii Project, a major excavation, conservation, and restoration effort that began at the site in 2011. Archaeologists have found a wall with a bit of graffiti, written in charcoal, bearing the date October 17th. The writing is believed to be a note written by a workman who was in the middle of a home renovation project. If that’s correct, then the date of the destruction of Pompeii, which is traditionally placed on August 24, 79 AD, is wrong, and the history books will need to be rewritten.

Meanwhile, other excavators working at the site have uncovered an outdoor room which the press is now referring to as “The Enchanted Garden”, thanks to the magnificent frescoes contained within it. The room, or more properly the lararium, was where a wall shrine to the household spirits was kept. The family who lived in the house would make daily offerings here, in order to keep these bearers of good fortune about the place, and it was also a pleasant place to sit, protected from the elements but within reach of flowers and other plants.

While these spaces were common in Roman residential construction, this one is particularly interesting not only for its well-preserved beauty, but also for the presence of a dog-headed humanoid in one of the frescoes. It’s possible that he is the Egyptian god Anubis (or an individual wearing an Anubis mask). You may recall from your history books that Egypto-mania hit the Romans when Cleopatra came to live with Julius Caesar in 46 BC. No word yet on when this lararium will be open to visitors.

Dog

Watching the Watchmen

Regular readers will recall that last week I reported on how art conservation pron has become a thing in the museum world, attracting scores of visitors who want to see art experts at work on cleaning and restoring works of art. Well now, in what may be the most singular example of this trend, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has announced that Rembrandt’s greatest masterpiece, “The Night Watch” (1642), a detail of which appears below, will be undergoing a very public cleaning and conservation, beginning next summer. For those of you who won’t be in Holland at the time, not to worry: the museum intends to livestream the restoration on the interwebz.

Remb

Reunited Ruffs

Speaking of art conservation and the Dutch, should you find yourself in Ohio between now and early January, you’ll definitely want to check out “Frans Hals Portraits: A Family Reunion”, which just opened at the Toledo Museum of Art. The exhibition brings together three paintings (a pre-restoration detail of one of the canvases appears below) by the great Dutch portrait painter Frans Hals (1582-1666) of groups of figures which, subsequent to cleaning and restoration, art historians have only just realized were portions of a large-scale portrait painting of members of the Van Campen family. The original painting was likely chopped up at some point after Hals’ death as a result of damage, with the incongruous bits painted over by a later restorer to make the pieces more commercially marketable. After Toledo, the show will head to Brussels, and later to Paris.

Hals

Measuring De Morgan

If you love computer-generated geometric designs such as fractals, and happen to find yourself in the UK in the next couple of weeks, then you’ll be interested in catching an exhibition that will be closing soon at the Guildhall Art Gallery in London on the work of the great English decorative arts designer William De Morgan (1839-1917). De Morgan is one of the most important of all Arts and Crafts era artisans, thanks in part to his designs for the company founded by his friend and contemporary William Morris (1834-1896). While De Morgan is often thought of as being fascinated with the exotic in his chargers, vases, and tiles, such as the ones shown below, bringing in references to the Middle Ages, India, and Persia, this new exhibition takes a look at the mathematical studies which helped him to come up with and execute geometrically complex designs by hand, without the benefit of CAD. “Sublime Symmetry: The Mathematics Behind William De Morgan’s Ceramic Designs” closes on October 28th.

Morg