Art News Roundup: Birthday Bonanza Edition

For those of you who didn’t read it earlier this week, my article on the latest art restoration disaster in Spain – and some questions about institutional oversight of cultural heritage within the Spanish Episcopate – has been republished on The Federalist this morning. As always, my grateful thanks to Joy Pullman and her team for wanting to share my scribblings with others. If you enjoy what you read, or want to take issue with what I’ve written, comments over on The Federalist site are as gratefully appreciated as they are over here.

On a happier note – that is, as far as the Spanish art world is concerned – next year marks the 200th birthday of the Prado Museum in Madrid, universally considered to be one of the greatest art collections in the world. Earlier this week, the museum announced a veritable bonanza of special exhibitions that will begin this fall and continue throughout next year, to mark the institution’s bicentennial. As expected, the major exhibitions – which include shows on Fra Angelico and the Florentine Renaissance, one hundred of Goya’s drawings, and a show comparing the works of Velázquez, Vermeer, and Rembrandt, among other exhibitions – will be taking place at the Prado itself. However, in a highly unusual move, the Prado has also organized two traveling exhibitions that will be sent out to other parts of Spain.

Of these, the largest single show is going to Barcelona later this year; I’m planning to see (and review) “Velázquez and the Golden Age” at the Caixa Forum in late December. Meanwhile, the “On Tour Through Spain” show will send at least one work (and in some cases more than that) from the Prado’s permanent collection to every autonomous community in Spain. Sites include, but are not limited to, the Dalí Museum in Figueres, the Museum of Fine Arts in Badajoz, the Museum of Spanish Abstract Art in Cuenca, and the Museum of La Rioja in Logroño. Even the Spanish overseas territories of Ceuta and Melilla in North Africa will get in on the occasion. If you love great art, and why would you be subscribing to this blog if you didn’t, make your forthcoming travel plans accordingly.

And now on to some other art news headlines for the week.

Renoir Restitution

A continuing problem in the art world, as well as for the international legal system, is the thorny issue of works of art which changed hands in the period before, during, and after World War II. Just this week, three major stories in this vein have made headlines. First, the grandchildren of a woman whose portrait was painted by Matisse lost their latest appeal to recover the painting from the National Gallery in London. The work had been entrusted by the woman who was the subject of the portrait to an individual who turned thief shortly after the end of the war, as Berlin was being occupied and divided. Second, it turns out that four French 18th century drawings in the collection of the sister of Nazi art-hoarder Cornelius Gurlitt, whom I have written about previously as you may recall, were stolen from a family in Paris, only one of whom survived the Holocaust. Those works have now been returned to the owners’ heirs. Finally, a Renoir which the Nazis stole from a bank vault in Paris in 1941, where the owner had stored his most valuable paintings during the German invasion, has been returned to the granddaughter of the original owner; four other Renoirs and a Delacroix from the same collection are still missing.

REnoir

Flipping Fantastic

The National Gallery of Denmark has just opened a rather interesting exhibition, “Flip Sides”, in which works of art in the museum have been turned around and hung so as to display their backs. We often don’t realize that there is a great deal of information to be learned from the back of a picture. Sometimes there is a second work of art on the back, such as in the case of Leonardo’s portrait of Ginerva de’ Benci here in the National Gallery in Washington. In other cases, the back of a picture tells us about a piece’s history and provenance, shows how the artist went about creating their work, or demonstrates that the artist was reusing their own or someone else’s materials.

In the example from the exhibition shown below, we’re actually being fooled by the artist, for Cornelius Norbertus Gijsbrechts (c.1630-1675) was a famous trompe-l’œil painter. In this case, the rather Surrealist “trick of the eye” that he painted is the very realistic-looking back of a painting, shown on the front of a painting. “Flip Sides” runs through March 10, 2019.

tromb

Discovering Dixon

Not being a specialist in decorative arts, I must confess that I’d never heard of American Arts and Crafts designer Eda Lord Dixon (1876-1926) until I read this very interesting and well-researched article about her life and work. It turns out I’m not alone in my ignorance because, as the article itself points out, when a magnificent silver and enamel hand mirror by Dixon was gifted to the Metropolitan Museum of Art back in 2014, she was “virtually unknown.” In her day, Dixon was primarily known for her enameled jewelry, but she also produced luxury household objects such as jeweled boxes (like the one below, also owned by The Met), finger bowls, cigarette holders, and even a solid silver enameled chalice engraved with a verse from the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. With more attention (quite rightly) beginning to be drawn to Dixon’s work, this is a good time for collectors to bone up on her biography, style, and materials, before heading to your local consignment shop or flea market in search of lost treasure.

L.2017.25.1a, b

Art News Roundup: Rich People Are Rich Edition

Contemporary Artist Andrea Fraser, who does not actually produce anything that a reasonable person would recognize as being art, has just published a new book (or is it art?) titled “2016 in Museums, Money, and Politics”. As ArtNews explains in this rather meandering review, the thesis of the book is that the United States used to be a democracy, but is now a plutocracy, and for some time now Ms. Fraser has had a bee in her bonnet about museums only showing what rich and powerful people want to be shown. Presumably, this includes herself, since she has had shows at most of the more famous Modern and Contemporary Art galleries around the world, when she is not literally prostituting herself on camera, as she did in one of her performance art pieces.

Here we arrive at the place which few in the Contemporary Art world want to visit: the land of grown-ups. It may come as a great shock to the reader to learn that, throughout human history, rich people have not only dominated politics and government – including from the beginning of the American Republic – but they have also used their wealth to do truly terrible things, such as pay for great works of art. Presumably, we would all have been better off if the Medici had not sponsored the young Michelangelo’s studies, or the Habsburgs had not patronized Mozart’s concerts.

And now, if you’ll indulge me, let’s move on to some art news that is actually interesting.

Frick Fumble?

This is going to prove quite an interesting legal tangle to sort out.

The Frick, which recently acquired a large, circa 1810 portrait of Prince Camillo Borghese by the French painter François Gérard (1770-1837), applied for and received an export license from the Italian government to take the painting out of Italy. Now it seems that Italy is crying foul, because on the paperwork the Frick did not mention that the subject of the painting was Prince Camillo. For its part, the Frick counters that the name of the sitter is written on the back of the picture, so why didn’t the Italian authorities actually examine it when they were considering whether to grant an export license? Borghese is not one of my favorite people, having decided to hop into bed with the Bonapartists – quite literally, by marrying Napoleon’s sister Pauline, the subject of one of Canova’s most famous sculptures – but it’s certainly a good portrait. We shall have to see where all of this leads.

Retrato

Ponti Panel

Staying in Italy, I have to say that on the whole, I don’t much care for the work of architect, artist, and designer Gio Ponti (1891-1979). His Denver Art Museum is an absolutely hideous building, and his Taranto Co-Cathedral looks like a stage set for a mod-minimalist Vincent Price horror film from the 1960’s. However, one aspect of his project to expand and redesign the University of Padua caught my eye in this New York Times piece announcing an upcoming retrospective on Ponti’s work this fall at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. This examination room, where a student would have to sit surrounded by professors critiquing and criticizing his dissertation, is an unusually cheerful space for such an event. When I had to give my viva voce, it was in a darkened room with lights glaring in my face, like at a police interrogation in a film noir. Had I this panel to look at, I probably would have been less nervous.

Pontimural

Tintoretto’s Turn

To celebrate the 500th birthday of one of the most important and influential figures in Italian Renaissance art, on September 6th the Palazzo Ducale in Venice will be opening a major retrospective on the life and work of Jacopo Comin (1518-1594), better known as “Tintoretto”. Fortunately, those of us on this side of the pond will not be left out of the picture, because the exhibition will travel to the National Gallery here in DC beginning March 10th of next year. This will be the first major retrospective of Tintoretto’s work ever held in the U.S., so it promises to be one of those “blockbuster” exhibitions that you may want to choose a Wednesday morning to go visit, rather than a Saturday afternoon. While I don’t believe that Tintoretto’s “Il Paradiso” from the Doge’s Palace, the largest painting in the world ever painted on canvas – 74 feet long and 30 feet tall – will be making the trip, I’m illustrating it here just so you can marvel at the sheer bravura of what the artist was able to accomplish. This will be one exhibition that you should not miss, if you find yourself in Venice this fall or in Washington in the spring.

Venecia

 

The Assumption: One Miraculous Event, Two Different Artistic Visions

Today as many Christians commemorate the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a hugely popular theme in art history, I wanted to share two interesting images of this subject with you. Even if you don’t believe in this dogma, or aren’t even a Christian, I think you’ll be able to appreciate both the beauty and the very different approaches that these artists take in looking at the same subject, albeit two centuries apart. The paintings not only demonstrate the development of Western art, but they also show how individual artists can take a common theme and re-interpret it in very different ways, and in so doing can speak to our own individual thoughts, preferences, and emotions.

The Assumption commemorates the belief, maintained in the Catholic, Orthodox, and certain Protestant churches, that at or shortly after her death, Mary the Mother of Jesus was received into Heaven, body and soul. It’s a belief of far older origin than most people realize, and commemorations of it are documented in 500 A.D. We’re going to focus on the art, not the theology, but you can do some more reading about the latter by following this link. [N.B. This is not the place for those of you who don’t believe in this dogma to get into it with those who do, so let’s just look at the art this morning, shall we?]

Beginning in the Middle Ages and up through the Renaissance, the most popular model followed by Western artists combined the death of the Virgin Mary and her Assumption into one scene, whose content was informed partially by pious legends and apocryphal stories which brought all of the Apostles back together in Jerusalem for her funeral. This was the model followed by many artists, including Raphael, El Greco, and perhaps most famously, Titian in his altarpiece for the Franciscans at the Basilica of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in Venice. Over time, and perhaps in part due to the influence of the Counter-Reformation, this artistic model gradually fell out of favor, and artists began to depict the Assumption as an event which was primarily witnessed by angels, or by those already in Heaven, rather than by people left on earth.

Among the most richly-decorated depictions of the earlier model is that painted by the Early Italian Renaissance artist Fra Angelico around 1430-1434 for the Dominicans at the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. It’s now in the Gardner in Boston, and if you get to visit you’ll want to take some time to soak in the magnificent colors of this Late Gothic/Early Renaissance painting:

Angelico

If you’ll remember my post from last week about the origin and value of pigments in art, you’ll realize that this smallish panel – which is only about a foot and a half wide and two feet tall – must have cost a fortune to produce. Just the upper triangle with the figure of Jesus reaching down to receive His Mother alone would have been incredibly expensive to paint, given all of the blue which Fra Angelico used in this section. Yet despite all of the bling in this picture, there’s something wonderfully touching about details such as this tender and eager reunion of a Son with His Mother.

Notice also the individualized angels in Heaven playing their instruments, and the Apostles getting ready to carry the body of Mary to her tomb. I love the detail of how white-haired St. Peter is rushing over to the head of the bier, so that he can grasp one of the poles for carrying the body. In doing so he is catching up to St. John who, as in the Gospel account of the Resurrection, got there first but is waiting in deference to the Prince of the Apostles. I also love the figure of the Apostle whom I assume to be St. Jude, who is shown dressed in red and black and carrying a club, the instrument of torture with which he was martyred. His crazy-curly, unruly hair is something I can greatly sympathize with.

A completely different interpretation of the Assumption, painted two centuries later by the great French Baroque artist Nicholas Poussin in about 1630-1632, exemplifies the later model adopted by artists in depicting this event. It’s currently in the collection of the National Gallery here in Washington, and although not prominently hung it is worth seeing out, for it’s a jewel of a picture. At first glance this is a deceptively simple image, since the only concrete elements of the composition are the Virgin Mary, the chubby little angels, and the classical architectural setting – no host of earthly witnesses here:

Poussin

For me what’s particularly engrossing about this painting, apart from its glorious state of preservation and fresh colors, despite being almost 400 years old, is how it draws us in and convinces us that what we’re seeing is taking place in a three-dimensional space. The clouds wrap around the figures and draw them and our eye upward toward Heaven, a place that Mary is seeing for the very first time, with an expression of awe and wonder on her face. I also love it because despite the sense of swirling, upward movement portrayed by Poussin, this is really a quiet picture. We are privileged to see Mary returning to Her Son, but we are merely bystanders, not participants: this is a reunion that does not require an audience.

These two examples of very different interpretations of the same event show us how creativity in Western art was encouraged, rather than stifled, by the imposition of conventions, rules, and ideas. Illustrating something which was believed, but undocumented, was something of a challenge for these artists, since they had no contemporary descriptions of what the Assumption was like. And yet here we have two excellent examples of how each managed to approach the same subject in their own unique, very personal ways, creating works of art that played within the rules and yet brought out different aspects of this miraculous event for us to ponder upon, these many centuries later.