Thought-Pourri: Happy Hippo Edition

It’s been a big week for art news since last week’s roundup, gentle reader.

The very, very big news is that Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi”, which I shared some thoughts about earlier this week, sold for a whopping $450 million last night at Christie’s in New York. This is by far the highest amount ever paid for a single work of art in any art auction, ever, far outstripping the previous auction record holder, Pablo Picasso’s “Les Femmes d’Alger (Version O)”, which sold for $179 million back in 2015. Despite the naysayers – and there are many – at the end of the day a Da Vinci is a Da Vinci, even if it’s a Da Vinci that’s not in especially good nick.

Meanwhile, the other big story is that rival auctioneer Sotheby’s is currently licking its chops, after the Massachusetts Appeals Court halted the sale of the Berkshire Museum’s auction of a series of paintings from its permanent collection, including two works by Norman Rockwell which had been donated to the museum by the artist himself. While the pictures in question are not of great importance in art history, the really interesting item here is how the courts will address the question of deaccession, which is always a thorny subject when it comes to art law. I’m not going to weigh in on the pro’s and con’s of the practice, but it will be interesting to see what the final result is, and whether it sets any precedents.

Anyway, on to some other, less portentous news items.

Happy, Happy Hippo

To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the arrival of William, the Ancient Egyptian hippopotamus that has long been a symbol of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Met has just opened a new exhibition featuring the beloved blue beastie. In addition, William will be feted with lectures, activities, and even cookies and cocktails named in his honor. William being, of course, the best of all possible boys’ names, and my childhood wish to become an Egyptologist notwithstanding, I’ve always had a soft spot for this little sculpture; perhaps I should look into obtaining a reproduction for myself. Check the Met’s website for a full of listing of exhibition and event details.

Hippo

The Queen’s Cranach

Technology once again comes to the rescue of the art world, in identifying a lost work by one of Germany’s most important Renaissance artists. Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553) is perhaps best known for his paintings of naked ladies, who are so physically unappealing that it’s hard to understand why his pictures were so widely collected. He also painted portraits however, and it turns out that one of these – long thought to be a copy – was purchased by England’s Queen Victoria as a Christmas present for her German husband, Prince Albert. Personally, I don’t much care for Cranach, whose work was commissioned mostly by Northern Europeans with bad taste (probably because they couldn’t produce anything to rival what was being painted in Italy at the same time.) Nevertheless, it’s an interesting story, down to the rather grisly preparation method – pigeon tendons! – which helped confirm the authenticity of the picture.

Cranach

Clearly Contemporary Claptrap

Speaking of unappealing works of art, I’ve been saying for years that most of the Contemporary Art world is rather boring, and highly derivative in nature, since it constantly has to try to shock the viewer due to an inability to demonstrate much of anything in the way of skill and creativity. Marcel Duchamp hung a urinal on a wall and titled it “Fountain” a century ago, after all; much of what is supposedly avant-garde these days has been said by others, elsewhere, in more interesting ways. So it was particularly refreshing, in this review of a show at Turin’s brand-new OGR complex juxtaposing Ancient, Classical, and Contemporary Art, to find a reviewer who apparently agrees.

Turin

Restoring Russian Ruins

A few years after The Wall came down, we were visiting some friends in Munich who hoped to finally get back their family estate near Potsdam, which had been taken by the Soviets when Germany was divided after World War II; they eventually managed to secure the property and restore it. White Russians, on the other hand, have been waiting to reclaim their ancestral homes for roughly a century now, thanks to the Russian Revolution which broke out in November 2017. Some of these palaces were preserved, but the majority have long been ruins. This interesting piece in Art Daily is just a sampling of some of the problems faced by those trying to reclaim their family’s homes – such as, how do you get people to willingly travel hundreds of miles out in the middle of nowhere to fix up falling down old houses?

Estate

Sorolla and Stock Sale

For many years now, New York art dealer Otto Naumann has been one of the most hallowed names in the world of Old Master painting – and is certainly the most important dealer in this genre in the United States. Now that he’s retiring from the trade, Naumann has decided to sell off his remaining stock through Sotheby’s. In addition to Renaissance and Baroque religious, mythological, and still life paintings, works that will be coming to the auction block include some of what Old Master collectors would consider “Modern” art, such as this beautiful work by Joaquín Sorolla (1863-1923) of a Castilian peasant pouring himself a glass of water. On their website, Sotheby’s has more on Naumann, his collection, and the upcoming multi-day sale of his stock, which will take place between January 26-31, 2018. If you happen to have a few million sitting around, or know someone who does, this is a sale not to be missed.

Sorolla

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Why Are You Here? Christie’s Auction And Da Vinci’s Christ

Pretty much everyone in the art world will be holding their breath tomorrow night, as Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi” hits the auction block in New York.

There’s been a great deal of debate about how a Catholic devotional painting by *THE* Old Master painter of all Old Master painters is going to do at an auction which is primarily focused on Modern and Contemporary Art. Instead of putting the picture in a sale with paintings by other, pre-Modern artists, as would normally be the case, Christie’s took the unusual step of including the painting in an evening event with works by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Mark Rothko, and Andy Warhol, among others. Putting a panel by the greatest painter of the Italian Renaissance alongside the other works in this sale is certainly risky from a business standpoint, which is one reason why Christie’s decided to take the painting on tour prior to tomorrow night’s sale.

Christies

As part of its marketing campaign, Christie’s created a video which is by turns both simple and complex, manipulative and disarming. If you’ve not seen it yet, go take a look at it before continuing with this post. It’s fairly short, and definitely worth your time.

There are different ways that we could look at this ad.

One take would be that this is both a highly staged and highly manipulative advert. Some of the reactions seem forced, and it’s particularly telling that we never see the viewers from the back, standing in front of the picture. Even more interestingly, even though the video is a bit over 4 minutes long, we’re never actually shown the painting – not even a tiny detail of it. The viewer keeps waiting for that payoff, but it never comes.

Cynically, we could dismiss this as being further proof that the art world isn’t really interested in the quality or the subject matter of the paintings it sells. Rather, Christie’s is simply adding to the feeding frenzy of society’s current obsession with self-reference, in order to increase the final sales price for this picture and thereby its own commission percentage. But as is often the case with work produced by those who have no great love for Christianity, people of faith can look at this ad in a different way.

We can’t know what all of the people that we see in this ad were thinking about at the time they were filmed. No doubt most of them were simply curious to see a Da Vinci which they had never seen before, in a kind of been-there/done-that fashion. Others in the film are artists, art collectors (Leonardo Di Caprio, for one), and historians, who can look at the picture in a somewhat different way, noticing elements of iconography or technique.

Yet beyond simply recording the reactions of curiosity seekers and the art aficionados, I wonder whether we don’t see something else here, as well. For my bet is, that at least a couple of these people are experiencing one of those moments which comes, not from mere temporal appreciation of others’ outstanding achievements, but in seeing something that transcends the material. Such moments in life, when we’re suspended outside of our linear path, are rare occurrences, and when they do occur they both enthrall and disturb us at a very deep level.

I make this observation because, putting aside the more obvious reaction of one elderly lady who weeps before it, at least a few of the people seem unable to look at the painting straight on. Instead, they turn themselves partly away from it, tilt their heads, and look at it almost out of the corners of their eyes. This seems a very curious reaction, because the picture itself is so stark and unavoidably face on: we see only a single, still figure gazing out at us from a dark background.

In fact, the image’s very stillness, and the reaction of at least some of those whom we see in this video to that stillness, puts me in mind of the Prophet Elijah in 1 Kings 19:11-13:

Then the Lord said: Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord; the Lord will pass by. There was a strong and violent wind rending the mountains and crushing rocks before the Lord – but the Lord was not in the wind; after the wind, an earthquake – but the Lord was not in the earthquake; after the earthquake, fire – but the Lord was not in the fire; after the fire, a light silent sound. When he heard this, Elijah hid his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. A voice said to him, Why are you here, Elijah?

On a more pop culture level, it’s also a bit like the scene in the film version of “The Lord of the Rings”, when the Fellowship of the Ring arrives at Lothlorien after the loss of Gandalf, and they meet with the Lady Galadriel. There’s a moment in which Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) gazes piercingly and unflinchingly into the eyes of Boromir (Sean Bean), to such an extent that he becomes deeply perturbed and cannot look her in the face. She sees what is going on in his heart, and he cannot escape from that exposure of his own selfishness.

Perhaps without intending to do so, Christie’s has created an ad that could be run as a better marketing campaign for the Church than most of those which we see today. Who or what are all of these very different people seeking? And how would each of us answer that same question? To quote Christ Himself, “And you, who do you say that I am?”

If Da Vinci’s painting, half a millennia after it was created, can still provoke such questions in people, even in its somewhat dilapidated state, then this is quite a powerful and invaluable work of art indeed, whatever the final hammer price tomorrow night.

“Savior” For Sale: Is This Da Vinci Painting Worth $100 Million?

Most of the time, art news doesn’t get front page treatment in general interest news outlets, but occasionally one comes across exceptions. Such an exception cropped up just yesterday afternoon, when both the art press and the mainstream media reacted to the announcement that the “Salvator Mundi” (“Savior of the World”), the only known painting by Leonardo Da Vinci remaining in private hands, will be auctioned next month at Christie’s in New York, with an estimated sale price of $100 million. Rediscovered and authenticated by experts only a few years ago, this extremely rare work is attracting the kind of public attention and curiosity that those of us who plod along following developments in the art world almost never get to see.

Salv

As Christie’s explains in a very thorough press release and accompanying video announcing the sale, the painting dates to around 1500, and represents Christ as the Savior of the world. The pose and imagery in this picture have a long history in Christian art, but Da Vinci’s particular take on this subject is somewhat startling; while Art Net called it “spooky”, I think the more appropriate word here would be, “intense”. (If you want genuinely creepy, Da Vinci’s “St. John the Baptist” takes the cake, as far as I’m concerned.)

Baptist

Now that the “Salvator Mundi” is on the public radar, there is going to be an enormous amount of interest in both the picture itself, and what it will ultimately sell for. As to the former, take for example the following excerpt, from an instant message that I received overnight:

“Is it my imagination, or is Christ’s face bisected vertically by shadow and emphasis for artistic effect? Indeed, the impression was so strong that I had to draw a line on my monitor to determine that his eyes were on the same level, so disconnected they seemed.

If my impression is accurate, I’d imagine this was an intentional reference to His divine and human natures. Thoughts?”

To be fair to my interlocutor, I’m not versed enough in Da Vinci’s methods or intentions to be able to state with any certainty that what he describes was the artist’s intent, particularly given the artist’s somewhat heterodox views on Christianity, but it’s certainly a plausible argument. We know that Da Vinci was one of the earliest Renaissance artists to remove any haloes or emblems of royalty from the portrayal of religious subjects, which would fit in with the notion of emphasizing Christ’s human nature. We also know from his many notebooks that Da Vinci studied areas of science which had a direct impact on the final appearance of his work, such as human anatomy and linear perspective. His “Vitruvian Man” drawing – another extremely well-known work of his that pops up all over the place – most clearly demonstrates this.

Vit

Part of the issue with the “Salvator Mundi” however, is that it’s not exactly in good nick. The face has clearly suffered from over-cleaning, so much so that the eyes are not nearly as intense today, in their faded state, as they would have been when they were new. That penetrating gaze which captures and holds our attention would be even more intense, if the painting was better-preserved.

As to the $100 million price tag, this seems to be a figure based more on rarity rather than overall quality. Despite being (arguably) the most famous of all Old Master painters, Da Vinci’s artistic legacy rests largely upon a handful of paintings, and of course his famous sketchbooks. He was never a prolific artist, too often experimented with technical methods that failed, and worse still he was easily distracted by other, non-artistic projects. He was also infamous for starting pictures that he never finished, as in his painting of “St. Jerome in the Wilderness”.

Jerome

Yet despite his relatively tiny output, many of Da Vinci’s surviving works have had and continue to have a profound influence not only on art, but also on theology, philosophy, psychology, fashion, literature, science, film, music, and so on. Just think of all the pop culture references you still come across on a regular basis recalling the most famous portrait in the world, his “Mona Lisa”, or the most well-known Christian painting in the world, his “Last Supper”, more than five centuries after they were painted. Da Vinci may not have created a lot of art, but of what he did create, he has no rival in terms of penetration and saturation of the popular imagination.

Mona

Last

Now truth be told, I’ve never liked Da Vinci’s work. I find his androgynous figures unappealing, his coloring murky, and his inability to see a project through to completion to be a character flaw, rather than a mark of great intelligence. There does come a point at which, whatever inherent genius someone may have, their inability to complete the task before them within the time allotted becomes a stumbling block, rather than a trifle to be overlooked. You’re of course welcome to disagree, but I’ve always been more impressed with the almost celestial combination of genius AND facility in the work of Raphael and Mozart than I am with the tortured writhing of Michelangelo and Beethoven.

At the same time, I don’t think that $100 million is too outlandish a sum to name for the sale of the only known Da Vinci painting that is, in fact, available for sale. While the “Salvador Mundi” is never going to become as famous as some of the other Da Vinci images that are part of our collective consciousness, it is nevertheless a hugely significant work from an art history perspective. As a rare object, even one that is something of a shadow of its former self, it will no doubt attract a and deserve a lot of attention from those who could afford the exceptionally high price of becoming its next owner.