Thought-Pourri: Garish Gods Edition

I received a very gracious email this week from Dr. Diana Kleiner at Yale University, thanking me for my positive review of her survey course on Roman Architecture. She wanted me to let my readers know that the course is also available at Coursera, and those who wish to do so can make it a more fully interactive experience there with class assignments, projects, and the like. Again, even if you have only a passing interest in architecture, I strongly recommend this course as both highly interesting and informative, whether you want to understand the types of concrete construction or dome engineering methods employed by the Ancient Romans, or you just want to know the best spots for gelato in the Eternal City (Dr. Kleiner’s got you covered, there.)

And now, on to the news.

Classical Colors

Speaking of classical architecture, San Francisco’s Legion of Honor has just opened a fascinating new exhibition titled “Gods in Color: Polychromy in the Ancient World”. Many ancient buildings and the sculptures that decorated them were decorated with vibrant, sometimes garish colors that have faded or disappeared over time, but today scientists can use advanced technology to present us with fairly accurate approximations of what these things originally looked like. For most people it’s rather startling to realize that the stark, white or gray public buildings which we commonly see around our cities and towns, though often based on classical originals, would be considered unfinished by someone from ancient Knossos, Athens, or Rome, thanks to their lack of color. The exhibition runs through January 7, 2018.

Exhibit

Mini Murillo

Meanwhile here on the East Coast, The Frick in New York has just opened a small show on portraiture by the great Old Master painter Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617-1682). One of the most popular and influential artists of his time, particularly in the area of religious painting, Murillo is among the most important painters of Spain’s artistic Golden Age of the late 16th to early 18th centuries. While he painted very few portraits, this compact exhibition at The Frick contains 5 of them, including three members of the upper classes in the Seville of Murillo’s day, as well as the only two self-portraits of the artist known to exist. They display a kind of restrained genius and lack of overt sentimentality which makes them particularly appealing to a present-day audience. Murillo: The Self Portraits at The Frick runs through February 4, 2018, and then will head to the National Gallery in London.

Murillo

Strasbourg Shuffle

Last week, the French city of Strasbourg symbolically returned two paintings to the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria. I write, “symbolically”, because thanks to existing cultural repatriation agreements between Austria and France, the pictures are going to stay where they are for now, at the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Strasbourg. The works in question are a “Landscape with Mercury and Argus” attributed to the Flemish Renaissance painter Lucas Gassel (1499-1570), and a fantastical landscape painting with animals (including an American Bison?) being rampant all over the place titled “The Earthly Paradise” by the Dutch Mannerist painter Roelandt Savery ( 1576-1639). Neither of these artists is particularly important, frankly, though perhaps Savery is comparatively better-known, thanks to his several rather extraordinarily luxurious depictions of the dodo bird. Curiously, these paintings were looted from the Vienna museum by the Nazis during the Anschluss, in order to decorate the Reichskanzler headquarters in Berlin, but no one quite seems to know how they ended up in Alsace-Lorraine after the war.

Gassel

Paradiso

Valuing Vigée Le Brun

Regular readers will recall my review in The Federalist of the major Elisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842) retrospective at The Met last year, which included most of the best royal and aristocratic portraits created by Queen Marie Antoinette’s favorite painter. Perhaps in the wake of heightened awareness of the artist generated by that show, Christie’s New York has just auctioned a (very beautiful) self-portrait of the (very beautiful) artist for over $1.5 million: more than three times its estimated sales price. The picture was painted in Vienna in 1794, one of several cities where Vigée Le Brun and her daughter lived after fleeing the French Revolution. While not a record sales price for the artist, the result at least suggests the possibility that greater awareness of the artist’s work among potential collectors, thanks in part to the 2016 exhibition, has correspondingly led to an increase in the perceived monetary value of her work: a well-documented phenomenon in the art trade.

LeBrun

 

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Visual Vertigo: New Art Installation To Explore Classic Hitchcock

Last evening I was supposed to join a group of friends in seeing Alfred Hitchcock’s “North By Northwest” (1959) on the big screen for the first time. I’ve seen the film many times on the small screen, most recently a few months ago, but any time you can see a classic movie the way it was meant to be seen, you should absolutely take advantage of the opportunity. It completely changes your perspective on the art and the acting involved in the creation of something that is of lasting value and cultural importance as many of the great movies created before everything in society went to pot – literally – in the ‘60’s.

Unfortunately, not anticipating that I would need to pre-book tickets, two of us were not able to get in to see the screening, which was sold out. That’s an encouraging bit of news, I suppose, especially on a Wednesday night. Hopefully it’s a sign to more theatres that people *want* to see films from the studio era on the big screen.

As it happens, the first “old” movie that I ever saw on the big screen was Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” (1958), following its restoration some years ago when it was redistributed to theatres. It was a mind-blowing experience since, although it’s not one of my favorites, the importance of the use of color in the film became far more apparent after seeing it as it was intended to be seen, where the poison apple greens and blood reds that mark certain scenes reflect off of and almost envelop the audience at different points during the screening. There are also elements to “Vertigo” which have become cultural touchstones: think of the “Simpsons” episode “Principal Charming”, for example, and the incongruous Spanish mission bell tower attached to Springfield Elementary School:

skinner1skinner2

If you know the film, you know that the Legion of Honor in San Francisco is a critical location, and a painting of a woman named Carlotta Valdes that Hitchcock had placed there, are important elements of the film. The portrait is something of a McGuffin, since once we uncover the mystery of what it is, it sort of falls out of the picture. But Hitchcock’s fetish-like attention to Kim Novak’s coiffure, suit, and a bouquet of flowers that she carries in imitation of that which appears in the painting, are things which come to have repercussions for both Leigh and Jimmy Stewart.

Vert

So it’s interesting to note that American Contemporary Artist Lynn Hershman Leeson will be exploring some aspects of the film in a mixed media installation including film, in her new multi-site installation “VertiGhost”, which opens in San Francisco on December 16th. Some of the works in this installation will be shown at the Legion of Honor itself, and I particularly like Ms. Hershman Leeson’s use of the Droste effect in this piece:

imag

As ArtNews reported yesterday, the installation will feature references to the aforementioned McGuffin painting in the movie, along with considerations of some of the themes in both the film and in art. What do we mean when we say someone is being “haunted”? Why do we consider one thing “authentic”, and another thing, “fake”? What can psychiatry tell us about Hitchcock and the characters in this film?

I don’t plan to be in San Francisco any time soon, but if any of my readers happen to see the installation, I’d be curious to know what you think of it.