Art News Roundup: Better Late Than Never Edition

Forgive my delay in posting this week’s art news roundup, gentle reader, I was unavoidably detained yesterday. To make up for this, instead of my usual three curated bits of news from the world of art, architecture, design, and so on, I shall give you FIVE.

New Clues in New Mexico

In this absolutely fascinating story in the Post, reporter Antonia Farzan does her homework and digs deeply into the mystery of a stolen masterwork by Willem de Kooning (1904-1997), and the quiet, reserved couple that may have had something to do with its disappearance over 30 years ago. The twists and turns of the investigation are fascinating, but the real punch at the end is when you learn just how much money the couple had in their bank accounts when they died, and how photographs revealed that they had traveled to about 140 countries and all seven continents during their marriage: an achievement that, on its surface, would seem to be beyond the means of an ordinary pair of public school employees. This is a story begging for a good screenplay.

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Coming Back to Canterbury

In one of the weird ironies of collecting history, an illuminated 13th century Bible which was once part of the library of Canterbury Cathedral has been purchased for roughly $128,000 by…Canterbury Cathedral. The “Lyghfield Bible” is a Medieval French volume which miraculously survived Henry VIII and the Reformation, when many Catholic books were simply burned or destroyed, and passed through the hands of a number of private owners before ending up on the auction block last month. It is the only Bible from the former library to have survived completely intact, and will be part of a new exhibition space at the cathedral detailing the history of the building (from a Protestant perspective, natch.)

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Lo Spagnoletto in London

The Baroque painter Josep de Ribera (1591-1652), often referred to as “Lo Spagnoletto” (“The Little Spaniard”) by other artists, was born and raised in Valencia, but made his career in Italy, particularly in the city of Naples, which was under Spanish rule during his lifetime. Ribera is one of the most important and influential painters of the first half of the 17th century, painting dark and brooding canvases that are often intense and stripped-down psychological studies, and so it surprises me to learn that an upcoming show titled “Ribera: Art of Violence” will be the first major exhibition of his work ever held in Britain. Ribera is not always easy to like, and his paintings of martyrdom, torture, drooling idiots and sideshow freaks are rather off-putting: you can certainly see why Goya, a century and a half later, was fascinated by his work. “Ribera” opens September 26th and runs through January 27th.

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Magnificence in Magnesia

The ancient Greek city of Magnesia, which today is part of modern Turkey, remained relatively unimportant in ancient history until it became a Roman colony around the 1st century BC. After it was virtually destroyed in an earthquake in the early 1st century AD, it was completely rebuilt on a luxurious scale by the Emperor Tiberius. Now an ongoing archaeological dig at the site of the Temple of Artemis in the city’s ruins has uncovered six magnificent, over-life-sized statues, bringing the total recovered thus far from the excavation to more than 50. Scientists believe there will still be many more to uncover, and as you can see here the works are very beautiful indeed.

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Mockery in Manhattan

Moving on from the sublime to the ridiculous, New York has decided to grant landmark status to 550 Madison, a ridiculous pink skyscraper topped with a broken pediment designed by starchitect Philip Johnson (1906-2005) back in the late 1970’s. One should normally not speak ill of the dead of course, but as Mr. Johnson quite literally lived in a glass house, was an anti-Semite, a Nazi enthusiast, and loved to go on Charlie Rose long after this career was over and say terrible things about subjects which he did not in any way understand, I feel reasonably comfortable in laughing at the fact that anyone thinks that this particular monstrosity of his was worth preserving for the ages. As Hitler’s favorite architect, Albert Speer, once told art historian Robert Hughes in an interview, Johnson would have made a perfect architect for a fascist leader, since “Johnson understands what the small man thinks of as grandeur.”

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Thought-Pourri: Much Ado About Mucha

If you’re at all familiar with the work of the Czech Art Nouveau artist Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939), it’s probably from his posters of languid maidens and nymphs with impossibly tangled tresses of hair, which were used to advertise everything from champagne to chocolate at the turn of the previous century. What is less known, at least to most American audiences, is the series of colossal paintings which he executed between 1910 and 1928 collectively known as “The Slav Epic”, illustrating the history of the Slavs from their origin stories through the end of the 19th century. The smallest of these truly epic canvases measures about 13 feet by 15 feet; the largest, about 26 feet by 20 feet. I’ve always been fascinated by them, as they are perhaps the most monumental Art Nouveau works of art ever created – certainly on canvas.

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The seed money for the project came from a Chicago philanthropist, Charles Crane (1858-1939), whose father become a millionaire following the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 as a result of manufacturing the thousands of feet of pipe needed to provide steam heat for the gigantic towers that began to sprout over the city. Because of its sheer size (there are twenty giant canvases in all) displaying Mucha’s masterpiece has always been a significant challenge. For many decades, “The Slav Epic” was housed in an old castle about 130 miles from Prague, making it difficult for all but the most dedicated devotees of the artist’s work to see the cycle, and its history has been as tangled as the hair of a Mucha beauty.

Mucha died shortly after being interrogated by the Gestapo, and his work was hidden from the Nazis, who wanted to stamp out Slavic culture in favor of a Teutonic narrative. With the arrival of Soviet domination, Mucha’s work was seen as too nationalistic, as the Russians wanted to stamp their brand of identity on the Czech people much as the Germans had attempted to do before them. After the fall of communism, legal disputes over ownership of “The Slav Epic” lasted for years, until the works were finally taken to Prague in a move which is still highly controversial within the Czech Republic.

Now, Prague is finally taking steps to do what both Mucha and Crane intended from the beginning, which is to create a permanent home for the paintings in the Czech capital. The Lapidarium, a rather grand museum of sculpture in need of significant restoration, will be modified to create a large gallery for “The Slav Epic”, with renovation work expected to cost over $27 million. While this amount may sound like a lot, I can practically guarantee that once the new gallery is opened, this will undoubtedly become one of the top tourist attractions in the Czech Republic, for art lovers, historians, and the curious alike, In the meantime, the paintings will go on display at Prague City Hall to mark the 100th anniversary of the founding of the former Czechoslovakia in October 1918.

And now, on to some other art news stories.

Nincompoops In Navarra

While it will probably not become the unintentional icon of contemporary society as the infamously botched “Ecce Homo” did in the town of Borja several years ago, another small church in Spain is now reeling from a terrible attempt at restoration. Rather than reach out to a professional conservator, the parish of San Miguel de Estella in the province of Navarra asked a local art teacher to tidy up a 500-year-old polychrome wooden statue of St. George that was looking its age. The end result, as you can see, is rather horrid; it reminds me a bit of Dirk the Daring from the classic early 80’s arcade video game “Dragon’s Lair”. The lesson here, kids, is that if you want to restore a work of art, you need to go to a professional restorer: don’t try this at home.

Jordi

Homecoming At The Huntington

A story from last month that I’ve been waiting to read more about, but haven’t seen much else about to date, involves the reunification of three parts of a 15th century Italian Renaissance altarpiece at The Huntington Library in California. The work was created in about 1470 by the Florentine artist Cosimo Rosselli (1439–1507), master of the more well-known Florentine painter Fra Bartolomeo, but at some point in the past it was chopped into several pieces by an unscrupulous art dealer, so that the components could be sold off individually. The central image of the Madonna and Child has been in the Huntington family collection since the beginning of the 20th century, when collectors such as Mrs. Huntington, Isabella Stewart Gardner, J.P. Morgan, and others were importing art from Europe on a vast scale in order to decorate their luxury apartments and massive vacation homes. Now, the paintings which feature the figures of St. Anthony Abbot and St. Athanasius will be reunited, or more correctly, placed alongside, the main portion of Rosselli’s dismembered masterpiece.

Huntington

Monsters At The Morgan

The Morgan Library in New York recently opened what looks to be an interesting exhibition, for those of you who, like me, find the world of fantastical beasts and dragons imagined by artists of the Middle Ages to be endlessly fascinating. “Medieval Monsters: Terrors, Aliens, Wonders” looks at how these creatures were used to illustrate stories or concepts, enhance or detract from individuals and groups, and share supposed knowledge of unknown lands as a kind of warning to those who were curious about the world around them. There is a fairly comprehensive overview of the exhibition here, although I can’t say that I agree with all of the reviewer’s conclusions, and as is de rigueur these days, the show has a SJW political element, but that doesn’t mean you have to pay attention to the opinions of the curators in order to admire the art. The exhibition runs through September 23rd.

Babylon

Cheers to You, Chicago

Good Morning, gentle reader. I’m still recovering from a slightly surprising bout of jetlag from my trip to Chicago this past weekend, and from last evening’s coverage of the Met Gala – told you so – but let’s stay on the positive this morning. I wanted to share with you just a few observations about the great time I had in the Windy City; the images illustrating today’s post are taken from my Instagram chronicle of my adventures there.

First and foremost, my sincere thanks to the Catholic Art Guild and its President Kathleen Carr, as well as to Father Joshua Caswell and everyone at St. John Cantius, both for the honor of inviting me to speak to them, as well as for welcoming me with such graciousness and warmth to their community. They do great work, and I’m deeply grateful to have contributed in a very small way to what they are trying to accomplish. The audience was clearly interested in and receptive to what I had to stay, and I ended up staying nearly an hour afterwards to chat with and answer questions from some of those who decided to stick around and wait to share some kind words with me, including some of my blog subscribers and social media friends whom I was pleasantly surprised to finally be able to meet in person. The event was recorded, and will be on YouTube at some point; I’ll share the link once it’s up.

St. John Cantius is a magnificent place, of such grandeur and historic importance to the people of Chicago that it really needs to be put on the short list to be named a Minor Basilica. It was built by poor Polish immigrants who had very little, but gave the best of what they had to glorify God, making the rest of us (or at least, me) feel humble and selfish by comparison. I had a private tour with Father Caswell the morning before my talk, and not only enjoyed hearing the stories behind the building’s construction and decoration, but during our tour we were fortunate enough to stumble upon a really spectacular practice session on the church’s magnificent pipe organ, which you can hear in this video I shot while we were looking about the place.

I had intended to make a return visit to the Art Institute while I was in town, to see a few of my old favorites in their collection, but due to time constraints as the result of a busier-than-expected social schedule, I wasn’t able to get there. What more than made up for that was the discovery of a new art museum which I had never heard of before. Loyola University of Chicago is one of the oldest and largest Catholic institutions of higher learning in the country, and much to my surprise they have a small but very interesting art museum. The Loyola University Museum of Art – or LUMA, as it is called – is just across from Chicago’s landmark Water Tower and, as one might expect from a university art space, has a main floor gallery dedicated to changing exhibitions.

However what makes LUMA truly special, in my eyes, is what the visitor finds upstairs. In a series of several rooms on the upper floor one finds dozens of beautiful paintings, sculptures, and pieces of furniture, as well as liturgical and decorative objects. Most of these objects are of the sacred art variety, and particularly focused on the Renaissance and Baroque periods in Europe and the Americas. As I observed to my host, when later recounting my visit, if this had been an art and antiques gallery, I would have wanted to purchase almost everything on display.

Perhaps the greatest surprise was to discover that a version of one of the most well-known paintings of Sassoferrato – aka, Giovanni Battista Salvi (1609-1685) – was one of the highlights of the LUMA collection. His “Madonna and Child With Cherubs” (c. 1650) is probably well known to you from Christmas cards, spiritual books, prayer cards, and the like. It’s a large, radiant work of great tenderness, that invites quiet contemplation.

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Another superb piece at LUMA is “The Rest on the Flight Into Egypt” (c. 1640), attributed to another great Italian Baroque painter, Giovanni Francesco Barbieri (1591-1666). “Guercino”, as he is more commonly known, was a contemporary of Poussin (1594-1655), and you can clearly see in his coloring that both he and the great French Baroque painter were on the same page. I love the intimacy in this detail of the Madonna and Child from the painting, with Jesus asleep from exhaustion, and the very motherly concern on the face of the Virgin Mary, as the Holy Family heads into exile and an uncertain future.

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In a completely different vein is this 15th century Netherlandish painting of “The Way to Calvary” by a follower of the great Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450-1516), whose retrospective at The Prado two summers ago was one of the best exhibitions I’ve ever seen. It’s not the weirdest Bosch (or in this case, pseudo-Bosch) painting out there, but as you can see in this detail it has both the insightful, cruel caricatures and a few of the creepy-crawlies that one expects to find in the master’s work. This is really terrific stuff.

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There are also many Iberian works in this collection, which is not surprising for a Jesuit school. I was surprised however, to come across a sculpture by Pere Oller (before 1394-1442), one of the most important Catalan medieval sculptors. It comes from the tomb of Ferdinand I, King of Aragon, which was commissioned by his son Alfonso V for the royal pantheon at the Monastery of Poblet, located in the mountains roughly midway between the cities of Barcelona and Tarragona. The tomb itself is no longer extant, having been destroyed by Napoleon’s troops along with many other religious buildings and works of art in Catalonia, but pieces of it are scattered here and there in public and private collections. LUMA’s is one of the surviving figures of mourners from that sculptural ensemble.

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Finally, there is this magnificent carved, painted, and gilded statue of the Immaculate Conception, and as I write this, I’m kicking myself for not writing down who it is by. (Unfortunately the LUMA website doesn’t list all of their holdings, either.) She is from Spain, about life-sized, and in a remarkably good state of preservation given her age. That face is really something.

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In addition to the many paintings and sculptures on display, there are practical-luxury items such as a charming German drinking vessel in the form of a golden owl, or heavily carved Italian furniture with all kinds of interesting animal paw feet. In the same display case one can see a wrought-iron door knocker from the Middle Ages in the form of a fearsome, spiked beastie – you had to be careful when grasping that handle – alongside colorfully glazed Renaissance ceramics. You could easily and happily spend a couple of hours here, admiring all of these beautiful things. And the best part is: no crowds, and admission is free.

To end with today, I wanted to suggest a bit of long-term planning for you. On November 4th, the Catholic Art Guild will be holding their annual conference, which features talks by a number of great speakers, including the Scottish artist Alexander Stoddart, currently the Queen’s Sculptor in Ordinary. The event will take place at the Drake Hotel, which has always been a required stop-in for me when I’m in town, as you can see in these two pictures taken several decades apart. God willing and the creek don’t rise, I’m planning to be there, and I hope you’ll consider joining me for a return visit to one of America’s – and the world’s – best cities.

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