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

 

Thought-Pourri: Cut The Crap Edition

You may recall the contretemps that took place back in 1999 when a work by overrated British Contemporary artist Chris Ofili entitled “Holy Virgin Mary” (1996) went on show at the Brooklyn Museum, as part of the “Sensation” exhibition organized by the loathsome advertising mogul Charles Saatchi. Saatchi is perhaps best known on this side of the pond for an incident in 2013 involving his now ex-wife, celebrity chef Nigella Lawson, while they were dining at Scott’s, my favorite London restaurant. The only reason you may have heard of Ofili, of course, is because of this particular piece, which “features a black Virgin Mary with exaggerated features, surrounded by butterfly-like images of women’s butts cut from porn magazines. Shimmering yellow, gold, and blue, the piece rests on two spheres of elephant dung; another adorns her breast.”

Unfortunately said work, which I will not illustrate here, is now coming back to New York – permanently. It was purchased by the (equally loathsome) hedge-fund billionaire Steven Cohen in 2015 for $4.6 million, and Cohen is now donating it to the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. As someone commented to me recently, when they visit MoMA they have to avoid certain sections of the museum, and I would imagine that this piece will presumably be located in one of *those* galleries. It is a pity that our cultural institutions continue to proudly display work that can at best be described as poorly-executed manifestations of the workings of diseased minds, as supported by people of horrifically bad taste.

On that note then, on to some more interesting stories.

Saving Salus Populi

Now here’s an image of Our Lady which I’ll happily share with you. After months of careful cleaning and restoration, the medieval Byzantine icon of the Madonna known as the Salus Populi Romani (“Salvation of the Roman People”) was recently put back on display at the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. Years of dirt, soot, and grime were removed, along with badly-executed previous overpainting, to reveal the original splendor of the image of Mary holding the Child Jesus. The painting is a particular favorite of the current Pontiff: he went to pray before it on the morning after his election, and comes to visit before and after every time he travels outside the country, leaving a bouquet of white roses when he does so. In a papacy filled with many regrettable moments to date, this is at least one thing for which I can roundly applaud this pope.

Clean

So Long, Chagall

In a bit of a Scylla and Charybdis situation, the National Gallery of Canada has decided to sell one of the paintings in its permanent collection in order to purchase another painting; what’s highly unusual about this story is that the Canadians are selling a Modern painting in order to purchase an Old Master. The painting that the museum wants is by the Neoclassical artist Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), the most important French painter of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. “Saint Jerome Hears the Trumpet of the Last Judgment” (1779) is an extremely rare religious work by David, who was an anti-Catholic freemason, and dates prior to the French Revolution. The work that the National Gallery intends to sell is “The Eiffel Tower” (1929) by Marc Chagall (1887-1985). Personally, I’d rather have the Chagall, but I can understand the reasoning here. As you would imagine, this is what is known in the trade as a “developing story”, so stay tuned.

Jerome

Seeing Delacroix

Speaking of French art, The Louvre has just opened a major exhibition on the life and work of Eugène Delacroix (1798-1862), whose work as head of the Romantic school of French painting is essentially the antithesis of David’s. Personally, I’ve always found him something of a mixed bag, as I find the majority of his most famous works rather muddy and melodramatic. His portraiture, however, is often very interesting, such as in the 1837 self-portrait of the artist shown below.

If you can’t get to Paris between now and July 23rd, not to worry. The show will travel to The Met in New York from September 17th through January 6th, albeit at the slightly reduced size of 145 paintings instead of the 180 on show at The Louvre, since a number of the pieces in France cannot travel. This will be the first major American exhibition ever held on the work of Delacroix, which may cause some of us, myself included, to reconsider our currently-held views on this enormously important and influential 19th century artist. We shall see.

Autoretrato

 

 

Hooray For Hermits: Art Celebrating The Eremitic Life

While many subjects depicted by the Old Masters portray events from long-ago days, or people engaged in activities which seem incredibly remote to contemporary eyes, there is one area of human endeavor as depicted in the arts which has changed very little over the last 2,000 years: eremitic life. In Christian practice an eremitic (or “hermit” as we usually call them) is someone who has chosen to remove themselves from the world, in order to deepen their spiritual life and their relationship with God. The solitary aspects of their lives have fascinated artists for centuries, but such lifestyles are not a thing of the past. In fact, many hermits still live among us today.

As regular readers know, for several years now I’ve served on the Board of the Friends of Little Portion Hermitage, which support the establishment of a permanent hermitage in the Diocese of Portland, Maine. At the moment we’re still raising funds for the actual hermitage, but we do have a hermit: our dear Franciscan friend, Brother Rex Anthony Norris, who is also the Chaplain of the Coming Home Network International. Brother Rex was recently interviewed by the Catholic News Agency, and I think you’ll enjoy the article – and not just for the great picture of him with a chicken.

Rex

People are often surprised to learn that, yes, there are still hermits among us in this day and age, including right here in the United States. As Brother Rex mentions in the article, he’s aware of a half-dozen or so just in Maine alone! The degree to which those called to this intense form of spiritual life interact with the world depends on various factors, such as the particular religious order which they join. There are, for example, men and women religious who live in solitude, like the wonderful Sister Veronica Paul – whom you should follow on Twitter along with Brother Rex, even if you don’t belong to any particular form of religion – who still manage to engage with the rest of us for periods of time before returning to their solitude.

In art history, there are many depictions of Christians who chose to follow the path to eremitic life. Sometimes these men and women lived in their form of isolation for their entire adult lives, while others did so only for a period of time. The degree to which they removed themselves from day-to-day concerns, and how they chose to live out their vocations, can vary greatly.

A typical example of what most of us think of, when we hear the word, “hermit”, is this work from 1670 by the Dutch Baroque artist, Gerrit Dou (1613-1675), now in the National Gallery here in Washington. In it, we see an anonymous Franciscan hermit on his knees at prayer, meditating on a crucifix amidst the ruins where he has chosen to live. Dou was one of the most successful Dutch painters of the second half of the 17th century, and toward the end of his career he seems to have become somewhat enthralled by the subject of the eremitic life, for there are several other works by him depicting hermits “in action” as it were, such as this example at the MIA in Minneapolis and another at the Wallace Collection in London.

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Among the more famous women in history who lived the eremitic life is St. Mary of Egypt. (c.344-421), who simultaneously felt drawn to changing her way of life and indulging her love of sex. In fact, she is said to have made her way on pilgrimage from the Egyptian city of Alexandria to Jerusalem by offering her services to others who were traveling to the Holy City as well. There, she underwent a conversion experience, and retired to the deserts in what is now modern Jordan, to spend her life in solitary fasting and prayer.

Although also revered in the West, she is particularly admired in the East. Icons such as this one, recounting the story of her life, have always been very popular in the Greek and Russian Orthodox Churches. She has also, albeit less frequently, been the subject of Western art, such as in this copy of a 15th century Gothic sculpture at Saint-Germain l’Auxerrois in Paris (the original is preserved inside the church), or in this c. 1660 painting by the Spanish Baroque artist José Claudio Antolinez (1635-1675), now in – ironically enough – the collection of The Hermitage in St. Petersburg.

Antolinez

To close however, I want to show an example of a scene that is touching but rare in Western art. It is said that Zosimus, a monk living near the Jordan River, used to take time to wander the Judean desert by himself for 40 days during Lent. One day he stumbled across St. Mary of Egypt, who was living in a cave, and she told him her life story. She asked him to return the following year on Holy Thursday, so that she might receive the Eucharist, and he promised to do so; the painting below, by a follower of the Flemish artist David Teniers the Younger (1610-1690) depicts that return visit the following year. When Zosimus returned to bring St. Mary communion the next year, he discovered that she had died in her cave, so he went about giving her a Christian burial.

Teniers

Perhaps the takeaway here is that, like all hermits who came before and after her, even though this woman gave up everything to follow her call to the eremitic life, at the end of her earthly life she lacked for nothing. We are lucky, gentle reader, that such individuals still live among us, to advocate on our behalf, and that of the whole world. Please support them, as you are able.