Thought-Pourri: Genius Edition

I’ve been very pleased over the last 24 hours to receive several comments from readers of my most recent piece for The Federalist, published yesterday, about the current Frick exhibition of Francisco de Zurbarán’s “Jacob and His Twelve Sons”, along the lines of, “I’ve never heard of Zurbarán before!” While he is one of the most famous old Masters in Spain and Latin America, and had a huge influence on a number of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, and Modern artists, he is unfortunately not as well-known in the States as he ought to be. So I’m glad to have had the chance, albeit in a very small way, to introduce this great genius to a new audience. If you are in New York at all between now and April 22nd, you really want to see this show.

And this being Holy Thursday, it’s perfect to lead off today’s art news roundup with an exciting new art history documentary about one of the most famous pieces of sacred art in the world, created by one of the greatest geniuses in human history.

A Second “Last Supper”?

“The Last Supper”, arguably the best-known religious work ever painted by Leonardo da Vinci – and certainly the most iconic image of this subject in all of art history – is, as you probably know, something of a wreck. It was painted in 1499 for the Dominicans on the refectory wall of their convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, and from the beginning the work has captured the imagination of all who have seen it. In fact, I suspect that when you read the words, “The Last Supper”, most likely Leonardo’s painting immediately popped into your head. Unfortunately, thanks to the highly experimental techniques used by Leonardo, as well as the ravages of time, today the fresco is only a shadow of its former self.

Now, as Art News reports at length, researchers have stumbled across a major discovery which allows us (as nearly as possible) to see “The Last Supper” as Leonardo originally intended.

It turns out that after Louis XII of France conquered the Duchy of Milan in 1507, at which time Leonardo came into his service, he ordered a full-scale copy of the fresco on canvas, which was made using the original cartoons (detailed transfer drawings) that the artist had used in outlining his design on the wall of the convent dining room. Miraculously, the experts working on this book and film project were eventually able to track down the king’s copy, which has been hanging unnoticed in an abbey in Belgium for the last 5 centuries. Not only does the copy match up perfectly with the original, showing us details which have now vanished due to the deterioration of the fresco, but experts believe that while most of the painting was executed by one of Leonardo’s chief assistants, the figures of Christ and St. John were probably painted by Leonardo himself.

“The Search for the Last Supper” will begin airing on local PBS stations this weekend; as the saying goes, check your local listings.


“Mona Lisa” Staying Put

Speaking of Leonardo, you may recall my telling you about a hare-brained scheme by France’s culture minister, Françoise Nyssen, to send the “Mona Lisa” out on tour to combat what she calls “cultural segregation” (whatever that means.) The Louvre has now politely responded and said, in so many words, “You can forget that idea.” During a recent meeting with Mme. Nyssen, Louvre Director Jean-Luc Martinez explained that the painting cannot be sent on tour, because “doing so could cause irreversible damage.” The painting is in extremely delicate condition, and in particular suffers from a crack which opens up every time it is removed from its current spot in the museum. Unfortunately, politicians have rarely batted an eyelid when it comes to destroying great masterpieces of painting, sculpture, or architecture for the sake of populist politics, whether of the left or the right. So perhaps the best bit in The Art Newspaper’s reporting on this story which certainly made *me* smile, is the following:

The culture ministry at first claimed that the Louvre “was not opposed to the idea”. It now says that the idea “is still under consideration” and that “a technical examination has started” (museum staff have no knowledge of this). Suggesting that other masterpieces could tour France, Nyssen is clearly looking for a way out of a publicity stunt gone wrong.


Celebrating the Genius of Tolkien

A major exhibition celebrating the life and work of “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” author JRR Tolkien will be opening on June 1st at Oxford; from its description, this will no doubt become one of the major UK museum shows taking place outside of London this summer. As the Bodelian explains:

Visitors will also be introduced to the vast spectrum of Tolkien’s creative and scholarly output ranging from his early abstract paintings in The Book of Ishness to the metrical brilliance of his poem Errantry and the touching tales he wrote for his children. The spectacular range of objects on display will include original manuscripts of his popular classics as well as lesser-known and posthumous works and materials, some of which will be on public display for the very first time.

This will all be in addition to his watercolors and annotated drawings for “The Hobbit” and other books, as well as personal objects, letters, photographs, and so on. I probably won’t be making it to England this summer, but I can tell you right now that I will absolutely be ordering a copy of the exhibition catalogue. “Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth” will be at the Weston Library of the University of Oxford until October 28th.




Art Agonies: Politics Over Preservation

At present we live in a climate in which lovers of great art must put up with the strangely tortured and often ill-informed opinions of others. From nonsensical tweets about the nature of art by celebrity astrophysicists incapable of dressing themselves properly, to lowest common denominator garbage from princes of the Church who have been inexplicably tasked with matters of culture, it’s enough to make this writer want to throw up his hands and just walk away from all of it. I would probably have much more fun simply interviewing and highlighting the work of creative friends and acquaintances – painters, cosplayers, musicians, chefs, writers, etc. It tires me to read about risky decisions being made about art for the sake of political popularity.

A perfect example of this may be found in a recent interview with Françoise Nyssen, France’s Minister of Culture, given on Thursday to Europe 1 Radio. Mme. Nyssen floated the idea of sending the most famous painting in the world, Leonardo’s “Mona Lisa”, out on tour in order to combat what the Minister calls “cultural segregation”. If any of my readers can explain how a work of art is “culturally segregated”, when it is on display to everyone in a public museum, by all means do your best in the comments section. As an aside, I shudder to think what the insurance premiums would be on moving and displaying such an important object, which for decades The Louvre has not even dared to attempt cleaning.

This is not the only half-baked idea to come from the government of France’s greatest aficionado of sheer cover foundation, President Emmanuel Macron. Another ill-conceived project is to send the Bayeux Tapestry, which commemorates the Norman Invasion of Britain and the ensuing Battle of Hastings, across the English Channel to be displayed in a British museum. Like the “Mona Lisa”, the Bayeux Tapestry is an incredibly fragile object, arguably the most famous of its type in the world, and has not left its home in France for many years. Many French historians, preservation specialists, and locals are appalled at the notion of even attempting to move the Tapestry off-site, let alone send it out of the country, but for political reasons Monsieur Maquillage seems determined to proceed with this idea.

Exhibitions which allow works of art to travel from one institution to another are not bad things in and of themselves. When handled properly, they can bring to new audiences objects which they might never be able to visit otherwise. Consideration of the state of preservation of such objects, particularly when of significant age, fragility, or difficulty in transport, must be given absolute priority: Michelangelo’s “David” is never going to leave Florence to go on tour, for example.

However, placing irrational, politically-motivated thinking ahead of issues such as preservation and integrity (and yes, Your Holiness, appropriateness) is morally reprehensible. It plays Russian roulette with the ability of future generations to see, appreciate, and learn from these objects, all for the sake of temporary political popularity. Those who engage in such games by putting at risk the cultural patrimony under their temporary care should be publicly criticized and called to account.


Mona Lisa, Men Have Named You

In the famous Nat King Cole hit record, “Mona Lisa”, the great crooner sings of a beautiful woman, “You’re so like the lady with the mystic smile.”  As we all know THE Mona Lisa, the most famous portrait in the world, was painted by the great Italian Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci in the early 16th century, and presently resides in The Louvre in Paris.  A recent discovery in The Prado in Madrid, however, of another so like the lady with the mystic smile, is shedding new light on this seminal work of art.

For many years The Prado has owned a portrait of a woman resembling Lisa del Giocondo, the woman in the da Vinci painting, but which looked quite different from the masterpiece in The Louvre.  While the original da Vinci shows the woman with a dreamy landscape of mountains and rivers behind her, the background of the painting in The Prado was painted completely black.  Layers of over-painting, dirt, and varnish on the copy in Madrid meant that no one paid much attention to it, even though it was thought to be an early copy of the original.

So recently when restoration experts in Madrid began to clean their painting in preparation for lending it to an exhibition in Paris, they were astonished to find that their copy possessed a very similar landscape to that of the original, underneath all of the layers of black paint.  They also removed the centuries of varnish that had been put over the painting in order to preserve it, but which over time had turned yellow, making the colors flat, and dark.  Those who look at the da Vinci original today, and note how yellowed and dirty it is, will be surprised when they look at the copy from Madrid to realize that the Mona Lisa was once a bright and fresh painting of a young woman with a beautiful, pink complexion, not a shadowy middle-aged woman sitting in a murky background.

Scholars examining the Madrid painting believe that it was created by one of da Vinci’s apprentices in his studio, who set up his easel near that of the master and copied what da Vinci was doing.  It was very common for an artist’s pupils to make copies of works as part of their apprenticeship, both as a teaching tool so that a younger painter could improve his technique, but also so that these copies of the original could be sold to those who could afford to pay for one.  The hypothesis that the two paintings were done at the same time is further strengthened by evidence that changes which were made to the original painting as da Vinci went along, which can be discerned by analyzing layers of paint, are mimicked in the Madrid copy.

Of course, da Vinci never really finished the Mona Lisa, taking it with him to France to keep working on it, and never delivering it to the Giocondo family.  It was subsequently purchased by King Francis I, which is how it eventually passed into the collections of The Louvre.  As such, the Madrid copy only gives us some idea of da Vinci’s intent and methods in creating the picture.  Nevertheless, it does give us some interesting insight into how da Vinci worked.

Many art historians and aficionados – including yours truly – have for many years advocated that the original Mona Lisa needs to be cleaned.  It is absolutely filthy, and like the Sistine Chapel before it was cleaned, gives no real indication of the genius of the artist, buried under years and years of dirt, wax, bad restoration work, and grime.    Now that this cleaned, contemporary of the original will be traveling to The Louvre, perhaps those who see what might appear if da Vinci’s masterpiece would finally undergo the restoration it needs will begin to come around to this way of thinking.

Detail of the newly-restored “Mona Lisa” copy
Museo del Prado, Madrid