Art News Roundup: Can You Dig It Edition

Before getting to some news from around the art world, I wanted to share at a bit more length some news about a structure that has fascinated me for some time, but which most people have probably never heard of.

The massive Canfranc International Railway Station, located in the Spanish Pyrenees a few miles from the French border, was completed in 1928 and formally opened by King Alfonso XIII. At the time, it was the second-largest train station in Europe, its sheer size explained by the fact that the differing Spanish and French railway gauges forced both passenger and freight trains crossing the border to exit the train they were in and transfer to one suited to the gauge in the country they were entering. Massive tunnels were dug through the mountains, along with service roads and other infrastructure, in order to make the new undertaking possible. However, most of the station has been closed since a derailment on the French side of the border in 1970 destroyed a railway bridge, which the French never bothered to rebuild.

After many years of semi-abandonment and neglect however, the station will now be coming back to life. Plans were announced this week for the grand 1920’s station to be converted into a luxury hotel, while a new and modern station will be built alongside to handle both regional rail traffic as well as a re-opening and expansion of rail connections between Zaragoza and Bordeaux. In a sense, the hope is that this will prove to be for the Pyrenees what the revived and renovated St. Pancras has been for its part of London.

While one might reasonably wonder who would bother to go to a luxury hotel out in the middle of nowhere, Canfranc station is surrounded by spectacular mountain scenery:

Canfranc

With snow sports in winter and hiking in the summer, lush forests, streams and lakes, small villages with ancient churches and castles, it’s a location that, if it had been in the Alps, would have been developed as a tourist resort destination centuries ago. Even in its current state of semi-abandonment, for the past several years the Canfranc station itself has been attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors annually: train buffs, mountain hikers, nature enthusiasts, architecture aficionados, and so on, so giving these visitors a chance to stay at their destination seems to be a safe bet. It’s a real pleasure to see this fascinating building come back from the brink, and interesting to speculate on where these new tunnels for the expanded rail network will end up going.

Canfranc2

And now on to some other digging about…

Dead Lawns of Devonshire

A recent summer heat wave in Britain has been killing off the lawns of houses across the island, but perhaps nowhere as spectacularly as at Chatsworth House, the estate of the Dukes of Devonshire. Beginning in the 1750’s, the famous English landscape architect Lancelot “Capability” Brown (1716-1783) ripped out the formal, terraced gardens that had surrounded the house during the 17th century, replacing them with vast expanses of lawn. With the current heatwave however, the outlines of those long-gone parterres have suddenly been exposed. Frankly, I find them preferable to Brown’s obsession with perfectly maintained but ultimately rather boring turf, an obsession which continues to affect homeowners on both sides of the Atlantic down to the present day, but I suspect His Grace will not be digging up the back yard in response to this temporary reveal.

Chastworth

Sharing the Spoils

A German farmer is (potentially) a far wealthier man today, after his local government tried to swindle him out of his fair share in what at the time was described as one of the best-preserved Roman sculpture finds in Germany in many years. After archeologists dug up the head of a bronze horse in 2009, from what is believed to have been an equestrian statue of Caesar Augustus dating to about the year 9 A.D., the local government paid the farmer on whose land the piece was discovered roughly $56,000 for his share in the discovery. Later, it was revealed that the head was actually worth somewhere around $1.8 million, and he had been low-balled by the government. The man rightly chose to sue for his share, since under German law the owner of a land on which treasure is dug up is entitled to half the value of the recovery, and won a whopping $904,000 plus interest. No word yet on whether the government will appeal the decision.

Caball.jpg

Levon’s Labyrinth

In the world of “Honey-Do” lists, this example puts just about everyone else’s to shame. Back in 1995, in an Armenian village not far from the capital city of Yerevan, a wife asked her husband to dig her out a root cellar underneath their modest, one-story house. He obliged, but took things a step further. Over the next 23 years until his death in 2008, he tunneled out what is now known as “Master Levon’s Divine Underground“, a catacomb of chambers, tunnels, and stairs which he carved out in his spare time, guided by prayer, dreams, and meditation. “Once he started digging, it was impossible to stop him,” said his widow recently. “I wrangled with him a lot, but he became obsessed with his plan.” Today she leads tours into her late husband’s subterranean world of columns, mosaics, halls, and niches.

Armenia

Advertisements

Thought-Pourri: “Mars” Attacks Edition

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.

Martes

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.

Saving Sargent

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.

Sargent

Criminally Compelling

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.

Conill

Klimt’s Climate 

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.

Landscape

Writing On The Wall? Massachusetts Museum To Sell Off More Of Its Collection

After a highly acrimonious, drawn-out court battle over the sale of several works from its permanent collection, a Massachusetts museum is headed back to the salerooms to raise more funds.

As you may know from these pages or elsewhere, the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts is in the process of reinventing itself into some sort of touchy-feely, gee-whizz, Chuck E. Cheese location. Any time you read that a museum is developing “cutting-edge technology and new interpretive techniques”, you should question the long-term thinking behind such an effort. (I have two words for you: Epcot Center.)

In order to bring about its own destruction, the Berkshire needs more funds. Having already sold several works, including two Norman Rockwells donated to it by the artist, but having failed to reach its $55 million fundraising target, the Berkshire will now send an additional nine works to Sotheby’s. Seven of these will be sold privately, and two will be sold in an upcoming auction of Asian art.

The Berkshire faces more than just the uncertainty of the market when it comes to deaccessioning pieces from its permanent collection, although it has its defenders among local newspaper columnists who know nothing about the art world. It has become something of a pariah among other American cultural institutions as a result of its actions so far, regardless of the legality of its being able to sell the works in its collection. For example, the museum has already been sanctioned by the powerful Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) as a result of the first dispersal, and part of that sanction involves the AAMD warning its members not to loan anything to the Berkshire or collaborate with it on any exhibitions. No word yet on whether greater sanctions will be imposed by the AAMD as a result of this forthcoming sale.

It’s possible that some of the works will end up in public collections, but of course there’s really no way to guarantee that when you’re arranging a sale via a third party. Current figures suggest that, even without the Calder, which Sotheby’s has not put an estimate on, the sale of these pieces should put the museum over the top in terms of its goals. However, if numbers come in at the lower end of pre-sale estimates, the Berkshire is prepared to sell off a third group of objects from its collection to make up tany remaining shortfall.

 

Among the pieces slotted to go in this round are works by several major American artists of the 19th and 20th centuries. “Giant Redwood Trees of California’ (c. 1874) by Albert Bierstadt is a misty, enveloping painting, lacking the artist’s best element – i.e., his depiction of mountain peaks – but expertly drawing the eye through the landscape to the waterfall at the base of the giant trees. My prediction is that this will probably go to a California-based collector or institution.

Bierstadt

Thomas Wilmer Dewing’s “Two Ladies in a Drawing Room/The White Dress” (1921) is, from a certain standpoint, exactly the sort of thing that collectors want when they are out to acquire a work by this artist, who was always highly regarded by other artists and architects such as James Whistler and Stanford White, but is not quite the household name that he deserves to be. Dewing’s enigmatic, quiet pictures of ethereal ladies in Edwardian dresses, who almost seem to float through the spaces which he depicts, are highly distinctive. The estimate of $400-600k is probably right, since from the point of view of art history this is a bit late for Dewing, who was at the height of his powers in the decade or two before World War I, but stopped exhibiting not long after this work was completed.

Dewing

Finally, Benjamin West’s “Daniel Interpreting to Belshazzar the Handwriting on the Wall” (1775) carries an estimate of $200-300k, which I suspect is somewhat low as West’s religious pictures have been attracting a lot of attention in recent years on both sides of the Atlantic. The painting dramatically depicts the scene usually referred to as “The Feast of Belshazzar” from the Bible, in which the Prophet Daniel is called before Crown Prince Belshazzar of Babylon to interpret some mysterious writing that has appeared on the wall just as the prince and his courtiers are enjoying a feast using the sacred vessels stolen from the Temple in Jerusalem. Daniel prophesies that Belshazzar is doomed, which makes this a rather a fitting image, I suppose, for the Berkshire’s efforts when taken in their entirety.

West