Art News Roundup: Morisot and More Edition

My latest for The Federalist, a review of the major exhibition on French Impressionist Berthe Morisot (1841-1895) that just opened at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, is now available for your perusal. Sincere thanks to my very patient editor, Joy Pullmann, and everyone at The Federalist, for allowing me to share some of my thoughts on the show itself, and more importantly on Morisot’s woefully underrated art. I think you’ll find that it’s a fairly comprehensive exhibition and, even if you don’t particularly like Impressionist art, it’s worth visiting to see Morisot’s significant gifts for composition, and her very interesting development as an artist who, by the end of her career, was breaking away from the conventionally saccharine aspects of the Impressionist movement. In my view, she became a better and better painter the further away she got from the influence of contemporaries such as Manet, Pissarro, and Renoir.

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Unfortunately, the show’s organizers don’t seem to be willing to allow Morisot to be judged on her own merits, but rather insist from the get-go – the title of the show is “Berthe Morisot: Woman Impressionist” – that her work must be examined through the lens of feminist and gender theory. The exhibition catalogue even opens with reference to a work by the Guerrilla Girls, darlings of the Contemporary Art world who are truly horrible, untalented, and overrated charlatans. Mentioning them in the same breath as Morisot is like comparing Miley Cyrus to Maria Callas.

My best advice is that you go enjoy Morisot’s art on your own terms. It doesn’t need to be wrapped in someone else’s insecurity blanket in order to be appreciated. The show is at the Barnes until mid-January; after that it travels to the Dallas Museum of Art, and will have its last stop at the Orsay in Paris.

And since my Federalist piece is a bit of a lengthy one, just a couple of brief headlines from elsewhere in the art world this week.

A Prado in Barcelona?

Former French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, who is now running for Mayor of Barcelona – yes, you read that correctly – has issued a rather interesting proposal: Spain’s legendary Prado Museum in Madrid should open satellite Prados in other cities, as institutions such as the Louvre and Tate have done, beginning with Barcelona. While an intriguing idea, it must be said that this notion would seem to betray a critical lack of understanding on the part of M. Valls, with respect to both current and long-standing political and cultural tensions between the two cities. In any case, Madrid would be far more likely to authorize a first Prado satellite in Seville, rather than Barcelona, just as it authorized the first high-speed rail link between Madrid and Seville, making Barcelona wait. (Old hatreds never really die in Spain.)

As to this rather unusual political candidacy issue, M. Valls, shown below against a backdrop of Barcelona’s famous sidewalk tiles, was born in Barcelona to a Catalan father and a Swiss mother. However he was raised in Paris, and is a French citizen, so make of that what you will. He is currently running to replace the current Mayor of Barcelona, the dreadful Ada Colau, a failed actress who has proven to be an international embarrassment to the city since her election. Barcelonans will go to the polls iat the end of May, unfortunately right about the time when I’ll be arriving in town for my summer holidays. Perhaps I’ll head to the seaside for a couple of days, first.

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A Phoenix in Budapest

Speaking of restoration, after having been closed to the public since it was heavily damaged during World War II, the magnificent main hall of the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest has finally been restored. It reopened to the public at Noon yesterday, following several years of work. The Romanesque Revival interior is covered in scenes from Hungarian history, but suffered so badly during the war that it was turned into a storage room, since experts at the time believed that it would be impossible to bring it back to its former glory. Fortunately for us, that theory has now been disproved, as you can see in this 2-minute video of the restoration work. Magnificent job.

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Art News Roundup: Fixing Fixation Edition

Something that first-time visitors and old hands alike always enjoy, when they visit the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, is the ability to look into some of the workrooms located in the basement of the basilica. Thanks to a carefully planned layout, the underground space contains not only a multi-media museum chronicling the history of the building, but one can also take a peek through soundproof glass walls into spaces where architects, artists, and engineers are at work on the ongoing project, which just reached a whopping 328 feet tall a couple of weeks ago. (Only 232 more feet to go!)

Public interest in seeing art experts at work has led to a phenomenon referred to by some as “process porn”. It turns out that people love to watch other people as they design replacements for missing portions of decorative objects, clean sculptures blackened by time and candle soot, or repair holes and flaking on old paintings. Although this particular article focuses on such efforts at the Huntington in California, similar spaces exist in other museum conservation spaces as well. At the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston for example, visitors can check out “Conservation in Action”, where the MFA announces works that are coming up for treatment, and invites the public to come along and watch. And if you can’t make it to one of these institutions, not to worry: there are plenty of Instagram accounts where you can see these experts doing their thing.

As a bit of a teaser, in the weeks to come – God willing and the creek don’t rise – you’ll be seeing a lengthy Federalist article from me along these lines, detailing the cleaning, conservation, and restoration of a Baroque painting that I picked up at auction over the summer. No, I’m not doing the work myself, but I’ve asked the conservator to fully document and photograph her work, which I hope you’ll find as interesting as I do. Never let it be said that I’m off trend.

In the meantime, let’s take a look at some recent stories about works that need a bit of TLC.

Brand-New Blue

After more than a decade of restoration, including such things as microscopic analysis of original gilding and painstaking research into historic textiles, the famous Blue Room in the White House is finally getting its (rather grandiose) suite of French Empire furniture back. Originally created by Parisian cabinet maker Pierre-Antoine Bellangé (1757-1827) on order from President James Monroe, the set was sold off by President James Buchanan in the late 1850’s, when the Empire style went out of fashion; it was reacquired piecemeal a century later thanks to the efforts of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, who supplemented pieces that were missing or destroyed with exact copies from the originals. Visitors to this year’s White House Christmas Open House should take note.

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Titian Tumble

The bad news is that a painting of the Crucifixion by Titian (1488-1576), painted circa 1555, was damaged when it fell off the wall in the sacristy of El Escorial, the basilica-monastery-palace-necropolis of the kings and queens of Spain, just outside of Madrid. The good news, if you want to call it that, is that the damage was limited to a tear in the lower part of the canvas. The life-sized picture, acquired by Felipe II a year after Titian painted it, is roughly seven feet tall, and was immediately taken away to restorers. The culprit here appears to be a deterioration of the plaster wall into which the painting had been anchored.

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Bringing Back Bruegel

Staying in Spain, albeit just briefly, ahead of a major retrospective in Vienna on the life and work of Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525-1569) the Prado recently completed a two-year cleaning and restoration of Bruegel’s magnificent “The Triumph of Death” (c.1562), one of the artist’s largest (at more than 5 feet across) and most compelling paintings. Crammed with figures getting their individually-tailored comeuppances as a result of their mistreatment of others, this a gruesome but fascinating piece, clearly inspired by the work of Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450-1516) a generation or so earlier. It’s also a kind of last, highly anachronistic gasp of Northern Gothic, even as the Renaissance itself was already on the way out in Italy. During the Prado’s treatment of the painting, lost details were recovered, and missing portions were carefully replaced by studying copies of the painting executed by Bruegel’s sons and assistants. The Prado has indicated that this is the first and only time it will be lending “The Triumph of Death” to an exhibition, which makes me think they’re expecting a major loan from the Austrians in return. “Bruegel” is at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna now through January 13th.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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