Thought-Pourri: Gone Fishing Edition

Tomorrow I’m headed out on vacation, so chances are you won’t be seeing a new post for at least a couple of weeks. During my absence, you can follow my Instagram and Twitter postings, if you’re interested in seeing what I’m up to. Rest assured, I’m anticipating that there will be plenty of art and architecture posts, not just images of beaches and food (although there will be plenty of that as well, naturally enough.)

And now, on to some art news.

Fishers Of Compliments

One would think that, after the blasphemy and sacrilege on display at the Met Ball and the associated “Heavenly Bodies” exhibition – and do read this excellent editorial in The Art Newspaper condemning the show, which is a solid piece of writing and a rare instance of a secular art outlet getting it right when it comes to understanding Catholicism – the exhibition’s greenlighter, Cardinal Ravasi, would have done quite enough for one lifetime to bring scandal to the Church. Apparently, that is not to be the case. His Eminence likes being quoted in the art press saying thoughtless things, as well as having his picture taken with celebrities who despise Catholicism and the Faith, so his latest effort is really all of a piece.

For the first time, the Vatican will be participating in the Venice Architecture Biennale, sponsoring a group of ten chapels on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore in the Venetian lagoon. As reported in The Art Newspaper, the starchitects involved in the project aren’t exactly following the example of Bernini, Borromini, or Bramante when it comes to their ecclesiastical designs:

They need contain no reference to the Christian Church except for a pulpit and an altar, because, said Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, the president of the Pontifical Council for Culture. “These are the expression of the Holy Word that is proclaimed and the Eucharistic Supper that is celebrated by the assembly of believers.”

A bizarre enough statement, but then His Eminence goes on to further muddy the waters, as he is quoted here in Architecture Daily:

A visit to the ten Vatican Chapels is a sort of pilgrimage that is not only religious but also secular. It is a path for all who wish to rediscover beauty, silence, the interior and transcendent voice, the human fraternity of being together in the assembly of people, and the loneliness of the woodland where one can experience the rustle of nature which is like a cosmic temple.

To my mind, a “cosmic temple” sounds like a place where one undergoes the Klingon Rite of Succession, or where Yoda and Samuel L. Jackson have a confab, but be that as it may. Still, I suppose that there is at least one lasting element of intellectual value to this project. The fact that these structures are little more than flimsy, empty spaces means that they are an all the more appropriate metaphor for the mind of the man who commissioned them.

Venice

Salute Campari

It’s fairly well known in my social circles that Campari, the syrupy, extremely bitter Italian liqueur, is one of my favorite tipples, even though more often than not, when I get someone to try it for the first time they find it one of the most awful drinks they’ve ever tasted. For my part, I like it in warm weather with soda on the rocks and a slice of orange. I also like it in any weather as part of a cocktail that I accidentally invented, along with some help from a clueless French waiter on the Upper East Side, a Dominican priest, and my closest friend.

However, I must confess that I wasn’t quite so aware of the really interesting Italian art dedicated to this beverage over the years. This summer, the Estorick Collection in London is mounting a show to showcase these images, which ranges from the languid ladies of the Gilded Age to Italian Futurism to Mid-Century Minimalism. I likely won’t be able to get there myself, but am definitely going to keep an eye out for the exhibition catalogue. “The Art of Campari” opens on July 4th, and runs through September 16th.

Campari

Dreaming The Future

Speaking of 20th century Italian art, another show on that subject which I doubt that I’ll get to this summer – ah the woes of being an art writer who can’t go see all of the things one would like to see – has just opened at the Ateneum in Helsinki. “Fantastico! Italian Art from the 1920s and 1930s” looks at the concept of Magical Realism in Italian art during this period, as represented most famously by Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978), and some of the interesting, often strange works of art that came out of this exploration of things such as dreams with hidden meanings, and the relationship of the individual to the anonymous state of urban society. The figure in this 1931 painting of “Woman at the Café” by Antonio Donghi (1897-1963) looks quite modern, in a Greta Garbo or Myrna Loy sort of way. Yet at the same time, Donghi is undeniably looking back to those similarly flat portraits of Florentine matrons and maidens that characterized the earlier part of the Italian Renaissance. “Fantastico!” runs through August 19th.

Donghi

 

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Thought-Pourri: Location, Location Edition

A week from today I’ll be flying out to Chicago, ahead of speaking at the Catholic Art Guild on Saturday, May 5th. I’m currently culling through my research to try to make sure I keep this presentation both on point and under the 1-hour mark, so that I don’t overwhelm the audience with too much information (or too many images.) Details are available here, and hope to see many of my readers from the Chicagoland area, there!

Now, on to some art news.

New To The National Gallery (UK)

Two beautiful new works have now joined the permanent collection of the National Gallery in London. The older of the two is the over-titled “Still Life with Lemons, Lilies, Carnations, Roses and a Lemon Blossom in a Wicker Basket, together with a Goldfinch perched on a Porcelain Bowl of Water, on top of a Silver Tray, all arranged upon a Stone Ledge” (c. 1643-1649) by Juan de Zurbarán (1620-1649). This Zurbarán is the son of the more famous Francisco de Zurbarán, (1598-1664) whose “Jacob and His Twelve Sons” I recently reviewed for the Federalist, and his is a classic example of the “bodegón”, a type of stark but highly realistic still life painting that is typical of Spanish Baroque art. The second new acquisition is the more simply titled “Wineglasses” (c. 1875) by the great John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), which depicts a gazebo in a summery garden setting, probably in France, with dappled sunlight splashing over the surfaces. Makes you want to step right into the picture and have a drink, doesn’t it?

Sargent

Quite a Haul In Quincy

A different sort of acquisition scheme is described in this fascinating article from the Boston Globe about James Pantages, an employee and resident of the city of Quincy, Massachusetts, who spent the last 30 years buying art at modest prices, and then cramming his acquisitions into every possible space in his home. Among the paintings in his collection of over 1,200 works of art are pieces by George Inness (1825-1894), one of this country’s most important landscape painters; the polymath Rockwell Kent (1882-1971), whose murals decorate the U.S. Post Office Headquarters and the Longworth Building of the U.S. House of Representatives here in D.C.; and the great American Impressionist painter Colin Campbell Cooper (1856-1937). While not everything Mr. Pantages bought is significant, at this point the auctioneers who have been called in to assess and value the collection have only analyzed about 10% of the collection, so more treasures may await discovery. There is a touch of sadness to this article, I find, and I hope that Mr. Pantages will be able to find some comfort and peace in letting go of these items.

Fixed Up In Florence

Mannerism, the somewhat exaggerated art style that succeeded the High Renaissance in Italy, has been getting a lot more attention recently from academics and the art media, and two of the best representatives of it are Jacopo de Pontormo (1494-1557) and his pupil, Agnolo Bronzino (1503-1572). A showcase for significant work by the pair recently re-opened to the public after a lengthy preservation and restoration project founded by American philathropists. The Capponi Chapel in the church of Santa Felicita in Florence houses the newly-restored “The Deposition from the Cross” (1528), which is generally considered to be Pontormo’s masterpiece; it is a twisting, turning composition of elongated, ethereal figures dressed in bright colors that look like they came from a Pucci scarf. Accompanying it in the chapel are frescoes of the Four Evangelists by Pontormo and Bronzino, now returned to their former glory. This is all thanks to major support from the Friends of Florence, a U.S.-based philanthropic foundation that is “dedicated to preserving and enhancing the cultural and historical integrity of the arts in the city and surrounding area of Florence, Italy.” Well done, and thank you.

Pontormo

 

 

Freshening Frescoes: Restoring Two Of Britain’s Largest Paintings

Work has begun to restore two of the most prominent – and by far the largest – works in the British Houses of Parliament, and if all goes well, they may go some way to rehabilitating the reputation of the artist who painted them.

The frescoes, by Irish artist Daniel Maclise (1806-1870) depict the death of Admiral Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar, and the meeting of the Duke of Wellington and Prince Gebhard von Blücher on the field of Waterloo. Maclise won a national competition to execute the paintings in the Royal Gallery of the newly-constructed House of Lords, a large ceremonial space typically used for the grandest of official ceremonies or dinners. His work was particularly encouraged by Prince Albert, in his role as head of the Fine Arts Committee overseeing the decoration of the new Palace of Westminster.

RoyalGallery

Unfortunately, the paintings began to darken and fade soon after they were painted. At the time, blame was accorded to Maclise and his methodology, which involved what is known as the “water-glass technique”, which Prince Albert sent him to Germany to study. This painting technique starts out in the traditional fresco method, with pigment painted on patches of fresh, wet plaster applied to the wall surface. After this, a coating consisting of water mixed with a silica is applied on top of the pigment while the surface is still wet. The concept here is that, once the entire surface dries, the paint and plaster will be covered with a microscopically thin, protective layer of glassy film. It never really worked very well, which is probably why you’ve never heard of it.

It seems however that the fault lies not in Maclise’s stars, as it were, but in ourselves. As The Guardian reports:

The conservation work, which has involved research by academics in Germany on the fresco technique, has absolved both men of blame. Despite damage from leaking windows, settlement cracks probably dating from the 19th century, and the near destruction of the gallery in the second world war when masonry from a bombed tower crashed through the roof, the frescoed plaster is still sound.

“None of it was poor Maclise’s fault,” said Caroline Babington, collections care manager. “The place was still a building site and the whole city was burning coal. It wasn’t the paint turning black, it was just filthy London air.”

We forget now, when London is no longer plagued by dense clouds of fog and soot, how filthy the city became thanks to the Industrial Revolution and the widespread use of coal in homes, businesses, and transportion. I can recall living in London at the turn of the preceding century, and watching a Victorian grand hotel near my home slowly being cleaned of over a century of grime that had accumulated on its façade. In the space of a few months, it went from being a structure that appeared to have been painted entirely black, back to its original pale pink granite and gleaming white marble.

You can get a sense of how bright Maclise’s frescoes originally were by checking out his completed study for “The Death of Nelson”, which is now at The Walker in Liverpool. The contrast between the blues, reds, and whites should immediately remind you of the Union Jack, naturally enough. The composition appears to be linear, with all of the figures spread out from left to right, but notice how the artist has placed the dying Nelson and his surrounding companions at the top of a semi-circle on the deck of his ship, pushed back so that the action actually arches away from us toward the center.

Study

At closer range, the comparison between the finished study of the center of the painting in Liverpool, and that of the finished work in its current state of preservation in the House of Lords, is readily apparent:

NelsonWestminster

NelsonLiverpool

Similarly, in Maclise’s painting of Waterloo, which you can see below at full width, everything appears to be rather murky, faded, and dirty.

WaterlooWestminster

However in this study of the central portion of the composition, in which Maclise shows the Prussian and British leaders shaking hands, we get a sense of how vivid the colors of the completed work once were, in comparison of the current state of preservation of the fresco versus that of a far more vibrant study:

ParliamentWaterloo

DetailWaterlooClean

I can’t say that, for my part, I’m a big fan of this sort of historical painting, even though for much of the 18th through early 20th century, these sorts of works were considered the epitome art. Thanks to the rigors of the academic method of art instruction, history paintings were definitely considered to be at the top of the pecking order among the members of the art establishment during this time, and artists competed fiercely to gain these commissions. Today however, a painstakingly executed history painting, albeit not one quite so large as one of these, would fetch a fraction of what a hastily-executed sketch by an Impressionist would achieve in a gallery or auction.

Perhaps because these works of art are often so vast, and crowded with so much action, it’s difficult to see them as something more than giant comic books. Or perhaps because the celebrate the achievements of man, rather than the grace of God, they are often utterly banal. For every great history painting that we might name, there are 100 more which we don’t even know about or remember, languishing away in museum basements or down dark corridors of public buildings.

Yet in this case, I think that the effort to clean up these particular works, which will inevitably result in a wider reexamination of Maclise and his art as a whole, will prove to be a good thing. These frescoes were considered enormously significant at the time of their execution, and crowds of people flocked to see Maclise’s designs, sketches, and finished products. Gaining a better understanding of the man and his work would simultaneously help to raise interest in and knowledge of a genre of painting which, while now largely out of favor, still represents an important and influential chapter in the history of Western art.