Thought-Pourri: Artists In Action Edition

With apologies for no post on Mardi Gras – the day itself was rather fat with things that needed my attention – we return today with a curated selection of stories from the art world, since you don’t have to fast or abstain today.

Damien Hirst: Creating Canvases

While I derided him and his work for a long time, unlike a number of others who shall not be named from the Saatchi stable of regrettable British art, I find that Damien Hirst is becoming more interesting as he ages. Perhaps best known for putting dead animals in display cases filled with formaldehyde, in more recent years Hirst has been moving in interesting directions, even as the art press seems to like the results less and less. As famous these days for his bombastic personal statements as for his art, Hirst seems to be developing a new outlook on life, whether due to his becoming a father, or accepting middle age, or simply realizing that the legacy of his art matters; many observers have commented that even his Instagram account has become, dare one say it, more introspective.

I began rethinking my views on Hirst’s work back in 2013 with his monumental – and stunningly pro-life – sculpture installation “The Miraculous Journey”, a series of 14 monumental bronzes of a human baby at all stages of development in the womb, created for the grounds of a hospital in Doha. Then there was his fascinating but critically-panned “The Wreck of the Unbelievable” at last year’s Venice Biennale, centered around an entirely made-up story of finds from a shipwreck, which supposedly contained works of art from all over the ancient world. His latest exhibition, “The Veil Paintings”, which opens at the Gagosian Gallery in Los Angeles on March 1st, features large, beautifully colored canvases inspired in part by the Pointillist period of Post-Impressionism, and also by the later Abstract Expressionist movement, albeit in a more cheerful, sunny way than the latter. Hirst being Hirst, he still creates works in the kind of bad taste that made him infamous, but alongside these more pedestrian pieces there seems to be a new seriousness in his work which, quite frankly, would serve his legacy far better.

Hirst

Antonio Banderas: Playing Picasso

Being perhaps the second most famous person to hail from the Spanish city of Málaga, it was probably inevitable that, at some point in his life, actor Antonio Banderas would be asked to play that city’s most famous native son, artist Pablo Picasso. Now, Banderas will be portraying his fellow Andalusian in not one, but two upcoming productions. For American audiences, Banderas will be seen as the older Picasso in season 2 of Director Ron Howard’s “Genius” on the National Geographic Channel, which begins airing on April 24th; you can check out the trailer here. International audiences will be awaiting the long-delayed “Picasso y Guernica” by Spain’s greatest living film director, Carlos Saura, which focuses on the creation of the most famous painting of the 20th century, and the rocky relationship between the artist and his then-muse, Dora Maar, who photographed Picasso’s work on the monumental canvas as it developed. No confirmation yet on who will be playing Maar, or Marie-Thérèse Walter, who was Picasso’s mistress at the time he began work on Guernica (and whom he left for Maar), but current rumors are that Marion Cotillard will be playing the former and Gwyneth Paltrow will be playing the latter. (Readers may not be aware that Paltrow is not only fluent in proper Castilian Spanish, but owns a home there; in fact, a colleague of mine ran into her on a plane to Barcelona not too long ago.)

Banderas

Leonardo Da Vinci: Discovering Drawings

With the buildup to the 500th anniversary of Leonardo’s death next year, you’ll be seeing all kinds of exhibitions related to the Florentine artist opening around the globe; the latest to be announced is “Leonardo Da Vinci: A Life in Drawing”, featuring works from the British Royal Collection. What is particularly interesting, from a technology perspective, is that in preparation for the show, a number of these drawings have been examined using methods such as infared light and high-energy x-rays to reveal previously unseen sketches from the master. The studies of hands shown below, for example, were photographed under ultraviolet light, to reveal drawings that can no longer be seen with the naked eye, because of the fading of the materials with which they were created. Much as I don’t personally care for Leonardo’s work, his hands really are a thing of beauty, and perhaps no artist other than Raphael ever paid such close attention to the careful study of the possibilities afforded for gestures in the human hand.

Manos

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The Courtier In The Federalist: Is ‘The Last Da Vinci’ Really Worth $450 Million?

My latest piece for The Federalist lands today, in which I look at some of the factors surrounding the record-breaking sale of Leonardo’s “Salvator Mundi” at Christie’s back in November. I argue that the price is not as extraordinary as it appears, or at least as it was made out to be by the art media establishment, which tends to have – shocker – a rather bizarre attitude when it comes to valuing art. There were other factors at work in the bidding war for this painting, which everyone from The New York Times on down seems to have ignored in a rush to condemn its final sales price.

Special thanks not only to the always-patient Joy Pullmann, Executive Editor of The Federalist, whom I always confront with thousands upon thousands of words which she must judiciously trim down into something readable, but also to Dr. David Hebert of Aquinas College, for providing some helpful, explanatory context for the article on the economic aspects of this particular sale.

Thought-Pourri: Get Back Into It Edition

Although I’ve been back from Spain – and England, unintentionally (more on that in a minute) – for over a week now, I’ve been laid up with the worst flu I’ve ever experienced. Hence, it’s taken a bit longer than anticipated to start blogging again. So I hope, gentle reader, that you’ll forgive my silence up until now.

I had a wonderful time in Madrid and Barcelona, which has given me some fodder for some upcoming posts. All went very well until it was time to head back, and due to a combination of airlines and airport factors I missed my connecting flight in Heathrow. The Dante-like experience of getting rebooked for the following afternoon was something which I prefer not to recount. As a result, after a 15 year absence from England, I spent the night in a hotel near the airport, and although I could have gone into the city to see friends, I was so wiped out from the experience that I just vegetated in my room.

On the flight back to DC the following afternoon, I was treated to a plane full of people coughing their brains out and complaining of flu-like symptoms. Whether I picked it up from them, or from my similarly afflicted relatives in Spain – where the news was reporting nightly on a pandemic of “Australian flu” throughout the country – upon my return to the States I ended up trapped in bed for a week, apart from a couple of medical visits where I was warned to isolate myself due to my being “extremely contagious.” I’m still not completely okay, but at least am well enough to share some news with my readers. Don’t worry: this particular form of plague cannot be transmitted via reading a blog post, or so I am led to believe.

So let’s get to it, shall we?

Get A Head

Saint Aredius (or St. Yrieix, as he is more commonly known in France) lived in the 6th century A.D., and served as the first Abbot of the Benedictine Monastery which he founded in the town of Attanum, about 30 miles outside of Limoges. Attanum was subsequently renamed for St. Yrieix, and his tomb became a popular pilgrimage shrine thanks to his reputation for working miracles. During the 11th century a reliquary was created by local craftsmen to contain the skull of the saint and, through the vicissitudes of history, this object – minus the skull – ended up being purchased about 1,000 years later by American financier J.P. Morgan; it is currently in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In an extremely unusual but very interesting move, the town of St. Yrieix is now demanding that The Met return the reliquary of its patron saint. The essentials of the argument are that, first, all Church property was expropriated by the state during the French Revolution in 1789, and second, subsequent laws passed in 1891 and 1905 meant that cultural treasures such as these became protected state property, which could not be exported out of France without express government permission. In this case, it is alleged that the reliquary was privately sold to a French art dealer by the local parish priest in 1906, who replaced the original with a copy; the original was then subsequently re-sold to an English art dealer, who sold it to Morgan. All of this would, in theory, have been illegal at the time.

I won’t comment on the specific legal arguments here, although it certainly sounds like there are at least grounds for a hearing of some sort. From the standpoint of precedent, this could be the beginning of a major headache for a number of museums, particularly in the United States, where the robber barons and financiers of the Gilded Age stuffed their homes in Manhattan and Newport with religious objects from France, Italy, and Spain, many of which may have been exported under somewhat clouded circumstances. No word yet on how The Met intends to respond.

From a design standpoint what is particularly fascinating about this reliquary is the fact we can see the foundational wooded carving which the decorated surface metals are attached to, in this image from a catalogue of Medieval sculpture published by The Met.

Framework

Get A Clue

Just when you thought the furor over the auction of “The Last Da Vinci” was over, researchers may have just discovered another, very early work by the Master. Scholars have long known that Da Vinci completed his apprenticeship in the workshop of the Florentine artist Andrea del Verrocchio (1435-1488), who by his own admission was a better sculptor than a painter. A very famous example of this is in Verrocchio’s “The Baptism of Christ”, now in The Uffizi, where the twisting angel on the far left, painted by the young Da Vinci, is far more complex and accomplished than the other figures in the altarpiece. Now, The Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts is launching a new exhibition claiming that a work in its permanent collection is an early work by the young Leonardo.

“A Miracle of Saint Donatus of Arezzo” (c. 1479-1485) is a predella painting – a smaller panel attached underneath a larger panel – that was part of a larger commission that Verrocchio was contracted to complete for the Blessed Sacrament Chapel in the Cathedral of Pistoia, about 20 miles from Florence. Verrocchio’s patrons were the Medici family, who commissioned the altarpiece in honor of their late uncle, Donato de’ Medici , who had been Bishop of Pistoia. The main image, of the Madonna and Child flanked by St. John the Baptist, patron saint of Florence, and St. Donatus, patron saint of the late bishop, was begun by Verrocchio but completed by another of his assistants, Lorenzo di Credi (1459-1537).

Thanks to advances in technology and a growing knowledge base for close, analytical comparison of known works by Da Vinci to works believed to be by him, scholars involved in this exhibition seem fairly convinced that around 80% of this small painting was executed by Da Vinci, probably with the help of his fellow workshop apprentice Credi. To my mind what is a particularly persuasive clue here is the fact that the predella is executed in oil, rather than tempera paint. Few Italian artists were using oil paint at this point in art history, but Leonardo was definitely using it by the early 1470’s, well within the timeline for this picture. Those of you who find yourselves in the Worcester, Mass. Area this spring will have to toddle along and have a look, and let us know what you think.

Leo

Get On Board

Contemporary French artist and designer Mathieu Lehanneur works in many genres and materials, including architecture, lighting, and furniture. His most recent exhibition, “50 Seas”, which opens today at Christie’s in Paris, features fifty ceramic discs, each representing the sea in different geographic areas of the globe, a bit like taking a virtual cruise around the world’s oceans and peeping out of the porthole as you go. I particularly appreciate the painstaking, dare I say it, geeky-nerdy way that he went about finishing these works, as he explained to Christie’s:

I partnered with the French satellite photography company Planet Observateur. It provided me with high-resolution images of each of the 50 points, from which we colour-matched the enamel paint by eye. We probably made close to 2,000 paint samples before I was happy that each was accurate enough. It takes a lot of learning and mixing because the colours change enormously during the firing process, so they look wildly different between start and finish.’

At Christie’s in Paris, they will be mounted on the walls in one long row, at eye level. This is so that the audience can easily compare one to the next, and feel as if they’re in front of the water. Below each piece will be the GPS coordinates and name of each location. That way, you can know where you’re looking, whether it is the Yucatán Peninsula or the Caspian Sea. Each ceramic will operate like a window on to a world of water, allowing people to travel the planet.’

If you’ve ever worked in ceramics, you know that this is a serious pain in the behind to get right. Just because you put a glaze on something before you fire it in the kiln does not mean that it will turn out exactly the way that you want. Not only can the colors change, sometimes radically, from what you think they will be, but if the slightest thing goes wrong during the process you could end up with a ruined piece, and have to start all over again. So in this case the artist is not exaggerating when he says that they probably had to try nearly 2,000 times to get the 50 different final results which were kept.

This combination of technology, craftsmanship, and love of the complexities of the natural world is exactly the sort of thing which Catalan Modernista architects and artists such as Gaudí would have loved. Were he living in early 20th century Barcelona they would be clamoring for Lehanneur to collaborate with them on decorating a residence or a public building with these richly colored, undulating designs. “50 Seas” is on view at Christie’s Auction House in Paris until February 2nd.

Seas