Thought-Pourri: Possessive Edition

For those of you in the DC area, don’t forget that tonight from 6:00-8:00 pm the Catholic Information Center, located at 1501 K Street NW, will be hosting its annual Christmas Poetry Party, in conjunction with the Thomas More Society of America. I will be one of the presenters, and if that doesn’t entirely put you off, drop by and say hello! There will be refreshments and plenty of good cheer on offer, and the event is absolutely free.

Meanwhile, this morning I’m currently participating as an absentee bidder in a live auction taking place elsewhere, for a painting that I’m very interested in adding to my collection, so fingers x’ed…

And with that, it’s time for some headlines:

The King’s Pictures

After Charles I was overthrown and executed in 1649 during the English Civil War, much of the substantial art collection which he and his ancestors had accumulated was sold off and scattered to the winds. When his son Charles II ascended the throne at the Restoration in 1660, the Stuarts had a great deal of work to do to restore the prestige of the monarchy. Through a variety of means, the new king managed to start over, acquiring a number of works of art which are featured in an exhibition this month at the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace. Among the items featured in “Charles II: Art & Power” is one of Lorenzo Lotto’s (1480-1557) best paintings, his portrait of the Venetian art dealer Andrea Odoni sitting in his shop, surrounded by statues and casts of classical sculpture. I particularly like how the dramatically foreshortened right arm and hand are shown holding out a small classical sculpture, as if Odoni is offering it to us for sale, and the mixture of charcoal and dove grays, mossy green, and caramel browns create a surprisingly rich color palette.

Lotto

Vienna’s Virtu

The shortlived Wiener Werkstätte (“Vienna Workshop”), from the beginning of the previous century, had a major impact on Modern art, architecture, and design, thanks in part to its espousal of innovative design methods, which it disseminated globally through the creation of satellite workshops in Germany, Switzerland, and New York. Now a major new exhibition in the latter city, at the Neue Galerie for German and Austrian art, is bringing together a wide range of objects created by the Austrian artistic collective, from furniture and ceramics to jewels and decorative objects. Among the beautiful items displayed in the “Wiener Werkstätte 1903-1932: The Luxury of Beauty” show is this astonishing jewelry box, which in the art trade is known as an “objet de vertu” or “vertu” for short. These were items that often had no practical purpose, or were so luxurious as to be somewhat impractical, but which nevertheless featured an incredibly detailed and painstaking level of craftsmanship.

Wiener

Hoving’s Hordes

It’s hard to imagine now, but there was a time when art museums were fairly hushed, quiet spaces, where there were rarely large crowds of people. That all changed forever, at least at the world’s larger museums, with the blockbuster 1978 exhibition, “Treasures of Tutankhamun” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In a fascinating piece from this month’s Vulture/New York Magazine, Boris Kachka explains how one man, former Met director Thomas Hoving, took a gamble on making an art exhibition a must-see event for Americans – like the Super Bowl or the final episode of “Cheers” – and succeeded so far beyond expectations that eventually everyone else in the museum world followed suit. A healthy debate could be had over whether Hoving’s hordes of exhibition visitors have improved or ruined the experience of visiting an exhibition, or indeed a cultural institution focused primarily on visitor numbers.

Tut

Degas’ Development

Those of my readers who happen to be in the Denver area between February and May of next year will want to check out the newly-announced exhibition, “Degas: A Passion for Perfection”, which will be held at the Denver Art Museum. Covering over fifty years of the work of French Impressionist Edgar Degas (1834-1917), the show will feature over 100 examples of Degas’ varied output and artistic development, including paintings, pastels, drawings, and sculptures, alongside the work of some of his contemporaries and friends. Of particular interest is this rather early picture by Degas, painted in around 1865 and now in the collection of the Orsay in Paris, which shows a group of men on horseback shooting at and trampling over a group of nude women, while a city burns in the background. It’s such a strange picture, and so not what springs to mind when one things of the work of Degas, that I don’t quite know what to make of it – but it’s definitely piqued my interest.

Degas

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Thought-Pourri: Garish Gods Edition

I received a very gracious email this week from Dr. Diana Kleiner at Yale University, thanking me for my positive review of her survey course on Roman Architecture. She wanted me to let my readers know that the course is also available at Coursera, and those who wish to do so can make it a more fully interactive experience there with class assignments, projects, and the like. Again, even if you have only a passing interest in architecture, I strongly recommend this course as both highly interesting and informative, whether you want to understand the types of concrete construction or dome engineering methods employed by the Ancient Romans, or you just want to know the best spots for gelato in the Eternal City (Dr. Kleiner’s got you covered, there.)

And now, on to the news.

Classical Colors

Speaking of classical architecture, San Francisco’s Legion of Honor has just opened a fascinating new exhibition titled “Gods in Color: Polychromy in the Ancient World”. Many ancient buildings and the sculptures that decorated them were decorated with vibrant, sometimes garish colors that have faded or disappeared over time, but today scientists can use advanced technology to present us with fairly accurate approximations of what these things originally looked like. For most people it’s rather startling to realize that the stark, white or gray public buildings which we commonly see around our cities and towns, though often based on classical originals, would be considered unfinished by someone from ancient Knossos, Athens, or Rome, thanks to their lack of color. The exhibition runs through January 7, 2018.

Exhibit

Mini Murillo

Meanwhile here on the East Coast, The Frick in New York has just opened a small show on portraiture by the great Old Master painter Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617-1682). One of the most popular and influential artists of his time, particularly in the area of religious painting, Murillo is among the most important painters of Spain’s artistic Golden Age of the late 16th to early 18th centuries. While he painted very few portraits, this compact exhibition at The Frick contains 5 of them, including three members of the upper classes in the Seville of Murillo’s day, as well as the only two self-portraits of the artist known to exist. They display a kind of restrained genius and lack of overt sentimentality which makes them particularly appealing to a present-day audience. Murillo: The Self Portraits at The Frick runs through February 4, 2018, and then will head to the National Gallery in London.

Murillo

Strasbourg Shuffle

Last week, the French city of Strasbourg symbolically returned two paintings to the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria. I write, “symbolically”, because thanks to existing cultural repatriation agreements between Austria and France, the pictures are going to stay where they are for now, at the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Strasbourg. The works in question are a “Landscape with Mercury and Argus” attributed to the Flemish Renaissance painter Lucas Gassel (1499-1570), and a fantastical landscape painting with animals (including an American Bison?) being rampant all over the place titled “The Earthly Paradise” by the Dutch Mannerist painter Roelandt Savery ( 1576-1639). Neither of these artists is particularly important, frankly, though perhaps Savery is comparatively better-known, thanks to his several rather extraordinarily luxurious depictions of the dodo bird. Curiously, these paintings were looted from the Vienna museum by the Nazis during the Anschluss, in order to decorate the Reichskanzler headquarters in Berlin, but no one quite seems to know how they ended up in Alsace-Lorraine after the war.

Gassel

Paradiso

Valuing Vigée Le Brun

Regular readers will recall my review in The Federalist of the major Elisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842) retrospective at The Met last year, which included most of the best royal and aristocratic portraits created by Queen Marie Antoinette’s favorite painter. Perhaps in the wake of heightened awareness of the artist generated by that show, Christie’s New York has just auctioned a (very beautiful) self-portrait of the (very beautiful) artist for over $1.5 million: more than three times its estimated sales price. The picture was painted in Vienna in 1794, one of several cities where Vigée Le Brun and her daughter lived after fleeing the French Revolution. While not a record sales price for the artist, the result at least suggests the possibility that greater awareness of the artist’s work among potential collectors, thanks in part to the 2016 exhibition, has correspondingly led to an increase in the perceived monetary value of her work: a well-documented phenomenon in the art trade.

LeBrun

 

Coffee With Caligula: Ancient Roman Artifact Rediscovered In New York Apartment

An interesting story that has been making the rounds in the art and archaeology press of late has been the rediscovery, inside a Park Avenue apartment, of a mosaic from one of the ships built for the Roman Emperor Caligula in the 1st century AD. Caligula had luxurious pleasure craft for the use of himself and his entourage when he visited the imperial villa located on Lake Nemi a small resort town about 20 miles south of Rome, which were covered in statuary, mosaics, and other fine materials. It turns out that this particular floor section went missing sometime around World War II, and ended up in an apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where it had been converted into the top for a coffee table. The owner of the piece has – understandably reluctantly – returned it to Italian authorities, and you can read more about the unusual circumstances involved in this story here.

mosaic

Caligula was a bit of a nut, as you probably remember from your World History class, who succeeded his Great-Uncle Tiberius to the Imperial Roman throne. Among other bizarre acts best not shared here, he infamously made his horse a Inciatus a priest, and was considering making him a Roman Consul, as well. Following his assassination by the Praetorian Guard, he was succeeded by his uncle Claudius, whose fictionalized two-volume autobiography by Robert Graves – “I, Claudius” and “Claudius the God” – is not only an absolute page-turner, but also the basis for one of the most engrossing TV miniseries ever produced. If you’ve not seen it, you definitely need to make that a priority at some point.

At Lake Nemi, Caligula had more to do than simply float about all day, soaking up the sun. The imperial family owned at least one villa by the lake shore, and could take excursions to interesting sites around the perimeter. I’ve always been particularly fascinated by one of these locations, the Temple of Diana Nemorensis, which is located on the north end of the lake. Although it no longer exists, it was a very ancient site of pagan worship, dating back at least to at least the 4th century BC, and had a rather bizarre ritual associated with it, which will call to mind a scene from “Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade” involving Indy and the ancient crusader.

The presiding priest at the Temple of Diana Nemorensis was known as the Rex (“King”) Nemorensis, and held that position against all comers only for so long as he could best those who would seek to supplant him in physical combat. If a sitting occupant was killed, then the man who bested him would become the new Rex Nemorensis. By long-standing tradition, only runaway slaves were eligible to compete for the position.

Rex

Not only did Caligula allow this practice to continue during his reign, but there are stories that he enjoyed watching the ritual take place. In fact, so much did he enjoy this rather gruesome day trip whenever he was in town, that according to the Roman historian Suetonius the emperor once sent one of his own slaves to fight the sitting Rex Nemorensis, since Caligula felt that the current priest-king had held his position for too long. There’s no word on who won, but no doubt both men, in their way, were going to lose, whatever the outcome.

You can see some of the remains of Caligula’s ships at a museum located near Lake Nemi today. There are many interesting objects that were once part of these vessels, but my personal favorites are the bronze animal heads – including lions, wild boar, and panthers – with rings in their mouths, which were used to help tow the boats around the lake (they could float but were too heavy to properly row or sail.) Presumably, the coffee table fit for an emperor will soon be rejoining them.

lions