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.




College Is Not Paradise

“I have to go to school today.”

I caught myself saying this out loud this morning as I left the house, not because I’m actually back in classes, but because I have to go up to campus on my way home this afternoon to run an errand.  Even though I graduated from Georgetown University years ago, I still refer to it as “school”, even in casual conversation with friends and acquaintances who weren’t classmates of mine on the Hilltop.  As I’ve gotten older, however, I’ve come to appreciate the fact that as much as I enjoyed my time there, it was not an earthly paradise.

The fact that years later, I ended up living a few blocks away from the university I attended was not something I could have predicted, when I walked out of those front gates for what I thought would be the last time after graduation.  Like anyone else, I left with my head full of contradictory plans, some of which came to pass, and some of which did not.  Yet on the whole, I’m better for having left behind the fallacy of believing that my best years were my college years – a malady which, surprisingly, seems to affect a number of people I know.

I’ve been thinking about this albatross-like perception of one’s alma mater recently, in the context of a conversation I had with a friend about the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald.  Best known for his novel “The Great Gatsby”, Fitzgerald did not have a huge literary output, for among other reasons having died too young, and never quite getting a handle on his alcohol addiction.  While there are many great things about “Gatsby”, it’s definitely not my favorite work of his. A contender for that title is his first published novel, “This Side of Paradise”, which is loosely based on some of Fitzgerald’s experiences as an undergraduate at Princeton.

In some ways “Paradise” can be viewed as the American version of Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited”, albeit written a quarter of a century earlier. As in “Brideshead” there is the same sense of wasted, fast living by well-dressed young people at a prestigious university, the flickering presence of Catholic faith, and the desire to pursue and win a girl above the station of the narrator.  There is also in both works a similar glow about the towers of the collegiate buildings, seen through rose-colored lenses, which alumni of any old, beautiful school can relate to.

Those who find themselves, as I do, within a stroll of the campus where they spent the first, formative part of their adulthood, usually end up seeing things differently.  Dear alma mater, which was home for four years, now becomes just another venue for attending events, conducting business, or the like. Alumni who have moved on with their lives, even as they have moved away, can have the same perception.  To quote Addison DeWitt in “All About Eve” (as I often do), “I have not come to New Haven to see the play, discuss your dreams, or pull the ivy from the walls of Yale.”

Throughout “Paradise” Fitzgerald himself, although still a young man when he wrote the book, recognizes that his time at college was not something to cling to as the high point of his life, preventing him from doing anything else worthwhile again.  “Youth is like having a big plate of candy,” he writes. “Sentimentalists think they want to be in the pure, simple state they were in before they ate the candy. They don’t. They just want the fun of eating it all over again.”

At the conclusion of “Paradise”, the main character finds himself out in the world, unsure of exactly where he is to go or what he really believes in, despite all of the golden-rayed images of his time at college.  He returns to Princeton for a visit late at night, and reflects on the fact that now, other young people are living in those hallowed halls, learning about the same things he did, having their own experiences of socializing and becoming adults.  In doing so, he finds that he does not envy them; rather, he pities them, because he realizes that he is an adult, with adult things to do.

To me, that’s the real lesson of both “Paradise” and “Brideshead”, as well as my periodic visits to my own college campus.  One should never completely discard the good things of youth, such as curiosity, wonder, passion, occasional silliness, or a sense of adventure.  Yet the focus as we grow older needs to become more about what is to be done in the here and now, particularly in service to others, rather than being caught up in the past, ruminating on the dreams of yesterday and what might have been.

For Paradise, in the end, is not supposed to be a few years on college campus: it’s what our lives right now are supposed to be leading us to.

Healy Hall, Georgetown University (Photo by the Author)

Healy Hall, Georgetown University
(Photo by the Author)


When It’s Not Only A Game

The fact that it is now baseball season in the United States means little or nothing to me, however heretical that view is considered to be in this country.  To be fair, I do not worship at the altar of baseball any more than I do those of most other athletic endeavors. That being said, this is one of those rare occasions when you will be able to read a sports-related post from me, in response to a deplorable event which took place over the weekend.

I suspect most of my readers are unaware of the fact that the annual event known as “The Boat Race”, between students from Oxford and Cambridge Universities, took place this past Saturday.  Every year two teams of rowers set out to race each other along the Thames, in a competition that has been held in London since 1856.  It was an event I attended when I lived on the other side of the pond, since I had a number of friends who had rowed for Oxford, though truth be told I was not particularly interested in it apart from the social aspect.

On Saturday I happened to catch the race on television, which I watched more out of nostalgia than anything else.  It was a very close race indeed, for much of the course, when probably about 2/3 of the way through the race suddenly came to a halt.  Someone was swimming in The Thames, and came very close to one of the boats.  Had it not been for the swift action of the teams, he could have been injured, or killed.

It turns out that this individual was – not surprisingly – a leftist protester, who was decrying the elitism of the event by employing the sort of anti-social behavior which of late we have come to expect, and for some inexplicable reason to tolerate.  It is also not surprising that, like most of these sorts of protesters, it turns out this individual is something of a joke, having attended the prestigious and pricey London School of Economics, and is moreover an active member of the Royal Society of Arts.  My friend Tim Stanley, a Cambridge alumnus with whom I was furiously texting about the event as it unfolded, shared some of his thoughts about the matter on his blog post for The Telegraph.

As a Yankee rather than a Brit, and as a non-athlete, I cannot speak with authority as to what took place, even though it was pretty obvious that even when the race resumed, this disruption ruined the event and it ended terribly. However as a human being, I can certainly share a thought or two, and particularly as someone who in general has little or no interest in athletic competition whatsoever, yet recognizes its value.  No doubt some of my readers will find what follows to be judgemental, and if you are one of them then I welcome you to leave comments saying as much, so that we can discuss the matter further.

Putting aside for the moment the very serious, physical danger that this person put both himself and the crews on the river in as a result of his actions, in which he and others could have been killed or injured, his stated intent is irrelevant, and I will not consider it herein. If you wish to read why he claims he did what he did, you are welcome to read it elsewhere, and then dismiss it for the utter rubbish it is.

The real reason he did this, whatever protestations one might lodge to the contrary, was that this person wanted to engage in the very same selfishness which he paradoxically claims to be protesting against. If he found the event, its sponsors, and participants, to be elitist, what has he made himself by becoming a media personality and drawing attention to himself? For surely he is no longer a humble man of the people – or at least, the people who hold degrees from LSE and are members of exclusive clubs.

The ones I could not help feeling sorry in all of this were the athletes.  They had trained for this event for months leading up to the competition. They sacrificed sleep, rest, food that one would actually like to eat, and suffered all sorts of physical injuries and mental and emotional stress, in order to get ready for the race.  As someone who is decidedly not an athlete in any way, I cannot even begin to imagine the disappointment of how what had been a well-matched, exciting competition that had started out with a bang, ended in a whimper.

The point of participating in a team sport, of course, is that it is an exercise in not only trying to get your body as healthy as possible, but also to learn how to work with others – indeed, sometimes individuals very different from you – in order to achieve a common goal.  It is no accident that the lessons athletes have the opportunity to learn in being part of a team are helpful in all aspects of life. This includes venues such as one’s profession, representative government, community activities, and the like.

The idea of tempering individualism through teamwork, helping to work toward a collective goal, directly leads to the creation of civilization and culture. The individual and the team have to work in balance with one another, or everything falls apart. Too much individualism, and you get anarchy; too little, and you get communism. Roman aqueducts, Gothic cathedrals, or modern suspension bridges may have had a single designer behind them, but they were not built by that one man acting independently, any more than Mozart could have performed all of the instruments in one of his symphonies simultaneously, or Steinbeck could have written, printed, and distributed all of his novels by himself.

This is not to say that the lone protester cannot be a voice for change or a symbol of what is good, in the face of unrelenting evil. One need only look at people such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer or St. Maximilian Kolbe to see that this is the case. Yet here, all that the protester in question has done is to ruin something that was perfectly good: an athletic competition between two schools. No one was forcing him to watch it, or to purchase anything in order to be able to watch it. He could have peacefully sat and viewed the race on the river bank, on television, or ignored it altogether, as he wished. There was nothing compulsory about this event.

Instead, this person chose to act out of selfishness, to ruin a once-in-a-lifetime event for groups of young people who had no quarrel with him, and who were not doing anything evil. By acting as he did, this man proved himself to be, in truth, nothing more than a child; he is no different from one who kicks over another’s sand castle at the beach, just for the sake of drawing attention to himself, while simultaneously intentionally seeking to hurt the other. He is, unfortunately, all too representative of the society that produced him, and which continues to believe that behaving like an arse is somehow going to change the world, when in fact all it does is make those of us who do not behave in this way the more resolute not to follow his example, nor listen to his views.

So in the end, albeit paradoxically, one has to say it: good for you, Thames swimmer. You have no doubt helped the cause of law and order, conservatism, and disdain for so-called “progressive” causes more than any letter to the editor which you might have published in The Guardian, or some similar birdcage liner publication. For that, at least, we can be grateful to you, even if it is no comfort to the student athletes at Oxford and Cambridge who suffered as a result of your selfishness and immaturity.

Poster for the 1923 Boat Race by Charles Paine
London Transport Museum