Art News Roundup: Quadruple Dutch Edition

Only someone with such extraordinarily bad taste as the Bonapartes would have approved of it, but news is that the French Imperial Canoe – yes, you read that correctly – created for the midget dictator and then pompously over-modified by Napoleon III is being restored. The barge was originally a (comparatively) more sober, Neoclassical affair, designed by a French shipbuilding engineer, but provided with decorative elements by a Dutch sculptor from Antwerp. Appropriately enough, it was built for Napoleon’s secret visit to the city of Antwerp in 1810, to inspect the French fleet and view the arsenal which the French were stockpiling in that Dutch port city. Later, it was given additional sculptural elements by Napoleon III, including the sculpture of Neptune on the prow and the imperial crown supported by angels over the cabin.

FRANCE-HERITAGE-NAVAL-NAPOLEON

That it has survived at all is rather remarkable, given that it was supposed to be only a temporary craft, and also given the political vicissitudes of the Bonapartes and the multiple wars which they and others brought upon France in the 200 years since the canoe was created. Bizarrely enough, it survived World War II due to the Nazis, of all people, who transferred it from the port city of Brest, where it had been held in dry dock, to the newly-established French Naval Museum in Paris. Had they not done so, the boat would likely have been destroyed during the Allied bombings of Brest in 1943. Following restoration, the rather cheesy canoe will go on display back in Brest next year, before eventually returning to Paris.

And speaking of cheese, let’s now move on to some more art news with a distinctively Dutch flavor, like a good chunk of smoked Gouda.

Rediscovered Rembrandt

Another week, another “missing” Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) has been identified, this time a scene of Jesus and the children as described in St. Matthew’s Gospel. While this is a major find from the point of view of art history, personally I’ve never cared for Rembrandt, and I find his religious pictures particularly bad, for reasons which this canvas makes patently clear, but there you are. What’s rather interesting in this case is that Dutch art expert Jan Six, who is in fact a descendant of a contemporary patron and collector of Rembrandt’s work (Rembrandt painted his ancestor’s portrait), had his eureka moment when he recognized that one of the figures in the painting was a self-portrait of Rembrandt himself, while another figure is likely Rembrandt’s mother. This is a very good example of why it’s important to look at and handle art objects as often as possible: the more you see, the better your eye gets.

Rembrandt

Dueling Van Dycks

Meantime, in a rather interesting auction house development, two very late portraits by Sir Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641) of the future King Charles II and his sister Princess Mary were announced for sale at Sotheby’s this coming December. The very next day Christie’s said, in effect, “Oh yeah? Well, our van Dyck is better.” And it certainly is: the Christie’s portrait of Princess Mary is of better quality than the Sotheby’s one. The conundrum for the collector is, do you want one really beautifully executed painting, or do you want a pair of decent but less exceptional ones?

Princesa

Vanishing Van Gogh

Perhaps the most significant remaining mystery of World War II, when each incident is combined to be considered as part of a collective question, is what happened to the art looted by the Soviets and hauled back to Russia at the end of the war. Moscow has never been completely forthcoming about all of the pieces taken by the Red Army, whether officially or unofficially, in an action which the Russians have always justified as being a kind of tit-for-tat compensation for their own losses at the hands of the Nazis. Yet occasionally, stories about what lies hidden in the vast storerooms of state-owned museums in Russia do emerge, such as the fact that the preparatory drawing for Vincent van Gogh’s (1853-1890) much-beloved masterpiece, “Starry Night” (1889), has been sitting somewhere in Moscow or St. Petersburg for decades.

Gogh

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Is This Goya Painting A Political Cartoon?

Hoo boy.

Recently Spanish lawyer and art researcher Antonio Muñoz-Casayús has come out with a rather interesting theory concerning “The Pilgrimage of San Isidro”, one of the so-called “Black Paintings” by Francisco de Goya (1746-1828). Up until now, most art historians have assumed that the figures in this painting are anonymous types, rather than representations of specific individuals. However according to Muñoz-Casayús, about two dozen of the figures in the painting are in fact caricatures of famous people from the Napoleonic period in Spain, including Napoleon Bonaparte himself.

Back in June, I revisited the “Black Paintings” at The Prado, along with a friend who was seeing these haunting works in person for the first time. They have always struck me as symbolic tableaux, demonstrating different aspects of the Spanish tendency toward embracing the darker side of life. Broadly speaking, art historians often look at them as commentaries on more universal themes, such as poverty and human suffering. Therefore the idea that Goya included caricatures of personalities of his day in the “San Isidro” is an extremely interesting one, because it would completely alter the way that most people, myself included, interpret this painting.

In favor of the argument that Goya was commemorating the disastrous politics of early 19th century Spain in this painting is the fact that Goya, like many radical republicans of his day, had a bizarrely fanatical attachment to Napoleon Bonaparte – or at least, to the Napoleon-shaped god whom he and many others had come to believe in. As often happens when one decides to lionize a dictator and overlook his evil tendencies, be he Adolf Hitler or Fidel Castro, Goya fell into the trap of believing that Bonaparte stood for something other than self-aggrandizement, even though his words never quite matched his deeds. If, as Muñoz-Casayús suggests, the little emperor is perhaps the only figure painted with some degree of sympathy in the “San Isidro”, this could be because Goya failed to reconcile the dichotomy between the real Bonaparte and Goya’s imaginary one.

Also in favor of the argument that the “San Isidro” is a political work is the fact that this painting was not created either for sale or for public exhibition. Rather it was a personal piece, like the rest of the works that collectively make up the “Black Paintings”. It was painted directly onto the wall of Goya’s own home in Madrid, where it remained until long after the painter’s death. The only people likely to have seen the “San Isidro” at the time of its creation would have been those invited to the artist’s home, and we can reasonably assume that Goya’s only invitees at this time would have been those whom he considered friends.

Yet significant arguments against the idea that the “San Isidro” is a giant political cartoon do exist. Perhaps foremost among them is the possibility that Muñoz-Casayús’ theory is an example of pareidolia, the human psychological tendency to perceive intentional images or hidden messages where none in fact exist. An example of this is the innocuous practice of looking up at the sky, and comparing the shape of a particular cloud formation to a human face, a running dog, or some other object. Another is the Rorschach or “ink blot” test, in which a person is asked to look at a series of ink blots on cards, and describe what, if anything, they see.

As stated above, Muñoz-Casayús claims that he can identify two dozen individuals in the “San Isidro”, including Bonaparte himself, his first wife Josephine, and his sister Pauline, among others. Certainly, the figure in the center of the main group, who is supposedly the Corsican, has the attributes we have come to expect in a representation of Napoleon: the short stature, the sunken eyes, the curl falling over the receding hairline of the round head. However, it is also entirely possible that this could be a case of seeing what one wants to see, and that the resemblance is merely coincidental.

The fundamental problem that arises in trying to prove or disprove Muñoz-Casayús’ theory is that we have no explanation from Goya or any of his contemporaries about the significance of any of the “Black Paintings”, including the “San Isidro”. In fact, some scholars believe the “Black Paintings” are not by Goya at all, or that some are by Goya and others are by his son Javier. We simply have no records indicating that Goya, or anyone else at the time, laid out what these paintings mean, let alone pointed out the presence of specific individuals in them. We don’t even know what Goya himself titled these paintings, if they are indeed his work, as I believe they are.

Goya is perhaps the first great “modern” artist, not because he was a technically accomplished painter, but because of his approach to his subject matter. There are no sacred cows in Goya’s art. His images of the court in Madrid are astonishing not because they are well-painted (which they aren’t), but rather because he often got away with painting powerful people as unattractive, parasitical creatures. His boldness in tackling unpleasant subjects, such as madhouses or witchcraft, as well as unpleasant people, like the Spanish royal family of his day, put him far ahead of his time.

It is this characteristic boldness that leaves me willing to remain open-minded about Muñoz-Casayús’ theory. Would the old, sick, and disillusioned Goya, his hearing gone, and his revolutionary ideals crushed into dust, have hesitated to paint a monumental political cartoon on the wall of his house, after a lifetime spent mocking power with paint? I can’t imagine that at this point in his long career that he would have restrained himself from doing so, if indeed the idea to create such a work had occurred to him. On the other hand, given the contemporary, gnostic tendency to declare the discovery of hidden meanings where there are none in works of art, architecture, literature, and so on, I’ll leave it to those better-informed than I to reach a consensus on this latest theory.

Goya and the Feet of Clay

We are often given the impression that artists of all sorts are operating at a level far above that of mere mortals, being so much more sophisticated than we are.  Certainly their creativity and way of putting things together to create a whole, which can communicate a universal truth or experience, is something marvelous to behold when the artist is actually talented, and not a purveyor of the Emperor’s New Clothes.  Yet paradoxically, we can go back through history and note that there are great numbers of writers, painters, entertainers, and so on who put more faith in human beings than experience and common sense would warrant.

For example, today happens to be the day when the great Spanish Romantic painter, Francisco de Goya (1746-1828), shuffled off this mortal coil.  During a convivial brunch yesterday after mass, my dining companion and I discussed his work, particularly the so-called “Black Paintings” in The Prado – which I love despite, or perhaps because of, their other-worldly creepiness.  However there is a different way to look at the art of Romantics of great intellectual capabilities and artistic output like Goya, Beethoven, and others who came to worship man as a substitute for God – if indeed, they worshiped God at all – and that is to think of them as children.

The mistake many artists make, whether Goya and Beethoven in their day, or Hollywood and the contemporary art establishment in ours, is believing that human beings can solve all of the world’s problems, if only they pick the correct leaders, and agree to work together in some sort of secular-humanist cooperative.  This idea is rubbish, as history has proven over and over again, from the Tower of Babel to the Kyoto Protocols. Among others things, the notion that human beings are going to act selflessly out of mutual interest and not out of religious conviction ignores man’s inherent tendencies toward selfishness, laziness, and ignorance, when the Eternal is pushed entirely out of the picture – and, let’s face it, sometimes even when people claim He is in the picture.

No matter how gifted, intelligent, or sophisticated they might have been, many of these people never actually became adults.  They believed whole-heartedly in the power of man, as an independent and ever-rational actor, and were disappointed to find man lacking.  The clay-footed Napoleon in particular disillusioned a great many creative types in this period, not least including Goya and Beethoven, who thought that a secular Jerusalem was about to descend from some Corsican hilltop.

In a way this type of blind faith in created things calls to mind, on a pop culture level, a scene in the popcorn film “Independence Day”.  Early on in the movie when the alien ships begin to arrive, a group of what we would recognize today as “truther” types gather on the rooftop of the U.S. Bank tower in downtown Los Angeles.  They ignore the very sound advice of authorities that they ought to stay away, and act with prudence, until the intentions of these visitors are known.  Instead, like the immature children they are, the members of the self-appointed alien welcoming committee indulge in a kind of Woodstock-like joy as the ships open, asking that they be taken up inside.  They discover, too late, that these supposedly enlightened beings are actually more than just a little bit hostile, and they want to wipe out the entire human race.

To be fair, what most of us would consider to be normal, those of an artistic bent often consider boring.  When things do not go as planned however, most of us tend to deal with these disasters as adults, picking up the pieces and moving on.  When the disasters are more epic in scope, we do our best to care for those whom we need to care for, and put aside philosophical concerns for practical ones.  Most of the time, our disasters do not involve wars, plagues, and so on, but the little things that can bring us low.

We send a payment in the mail, and it gets delayed or lost. We are just getting over the flu, when a family member gives us a sore throat.  We finally get around to mowing the lawn, and a host of weeds pop up in the garden seemingly from nowhere.   It may be conventional, and it may not be interesting, but without recognition that these things happen, and that we simply cannot fall apart every time we hit a roadblock or something goes pear-shaped, then we have no possibility of behaving with maturity.

In fact, one of the benefits of reaching maturity is the realization that nothing is ever going to work out perfectly for us in this life, for just when you have solved one problem, another has popped up somewhere else.  Most of us who are functioning adults understand that placing too much faith in the physical world, and what man can achieve by his own efforts, is inevitably going to lead to disappointments.  Those with a creative mindset on the other hand, are not always good at understanding this, and particularly when they put their faith in human beings, who have never shown themselves to be entirely trustworthy.

This is not to disparage the childlike curiosity and delight that one can find in a sprightly musical composition or an off-beat film, for we need these things if we are to build a culture.  However it bears keeping in mind that creativity alone, even when it is harsh and unflinching, is no guarantee of maturity of thought.  We are weak, feeble things; if we do not believe there is a higher authority than some sort of planned utopia coming from an executive committee of human brains, then we are probably not going to behave very well towards one another, at least not voluntarily, and the whole thing collapses.

Goya certainly came to understand this, as he saw his illusions crumble one by one, which is one reason why his art is so captivating, covering death and destruction, sickness, madness, and ultimately his OWN death.  However the best thing to take away from the work of Romantic artists like Goya, and indeed from any artistic production that seems rather bleak and hopeless, is that you are not doomed to the same fate. Putting your trust in things beyond yourself, rather than in your fellow, fallible, human beings, is a sounder way of dealing with all of the garbage, great or small, which life is going to throw at you.


“He Can Do No More at 98 Years” by Goya (c. 1801-1803)
J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles