Thought-Pourri: Art News This Week

Before we take a look at some arts stories that caught my interest this week, I want to invite you to join me for a Baroque concert at my parish of St. Stephen Martyr in Foggy Bottom, tomorrow evening at 7:30 pm.

The program for “But They Are At Peace: Music For The Feast Of All Souls” contains pieces for choir, organ, and soloists by Johann Sebastian Bach and the early German Baroque composer Heinrich Schütz. Featuring the Musica Spira ensemble as well as musicians from the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception here in Washington and the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, the concert begins at 7:30 pm and admission is free; there will be a free-will offering for donations to support the excellent music at St. Stephen’s. Details and directions may be found by following this link. I hope to see many of you there, and if you spot me in the audience please do come up and say hello!

Concert

And now, on to the news roundup:

A Sedona Surrealist Surprise

Much to the surprise of everyone, Bonhams auction house has announced that the star of its upcoming Impressionist and Modern Art Sale in November will be “Ohne titel (Sedona Landschaft)” [“Unititled [Sedona Landscape”], a painting of Sedona, Arizona by the great German Surrealist painter, Max Ernst (1891-1976), which had nearly been forgotten. Ernst painted the intensely-colored work during a visit to Arizona in 1957, and gifted it to a local surgeon; it has remained with the doctor’s family since then, and was last exhibited in 1961. The estimate of $500-$700k is, to my mind, rather low, but then again the work is only about 2 feet long and 18 inches high – perfect for over the sideboard. As I will be traveling to Sedona myself for a few days later next month, I’ll have to do a side-by-side comparison of Ernst’s painting alongside a far less important snap from my phone over on my Instagram account.

Ernst

Caravaggio and the Code of Silence

The myth that art theft is usually carried out by a sort of gentleman cat burglar, like Thomas Crown, Danny Ocean, or John Robie, is blown out of the water in this very interesting piece over on Vice. Art theft detective extraordinaire Charley Hill, who has helped in the recovery of a number of major art heists over the years, recounts the twists and turns involved in seeking one of the items he is still searching for, nearly 50 years after it went missing. “The Adoration of the Shepherds” (1609) by Caravaggio was stolen on Mafia orders from the Oratorian Church of San Lorenzo in Palermo back in 1969; it’s a very unusual work, completely different from Caravaggio’s better-known (and more conventional) version of the same subject, also painted in 1609. To this day, no one knows whether the missing altarpiece still exists, or who has possession of it. Hill believes he has an idea of where it is, and he’s determined to get it back.

Cara

Rocky Road for Rockwells

Regular readers will recall my take last month on the upcoming sale of two paintings by popular 20th century American artist Normal Rockwell, alongside a number of other works of art, which the artist had donated to the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. The plot has thickened somewhat of late. The Rockwell family has now joined a group suing the Berkshire to halt the sale, and requested a temporary restraining order while that issue is being decided; the State AG’s office also seems to be investigating. Meanwhile, the museum’s director has temporarily stepped down for medical reasons, in an unusual bit of either chance or timing. Stay tuned, as this fight is getting more and more interesting.

Rockwell

The Banality of Basquiat and Brown

Two of the most famous American names in Modern Art and Popular Fiction are the late Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) and writer Dan Brown. Both created work that can be safely categorized as pseudo-intellectual garbage that commands utterly unreasonable prices, whether in terms of auction sales or box office receipts. For your pleasure and mine, then, I’d like you to enjoy a pair of absolutely scathing, wonderfully written take-downs. The first comes from the great British art critic Waldemar Januszczak who, in characterizing a major new exhibition of Basquiat’s work at The Barbican in London, is left shaking his head: “This really is what the art world has become: a shallow, uneducated, disingenuous, over-moneyed, rapacious chewer-up of proper artistic values.” Meanwhile over at The Week, Matthew Walther’s piece on Dan Brown’s latest novel, “Origin”, is an absolute howl, noting that no gifted writer of thrillers “would dare to begin with several chapters of a man taking a guided tour of a museum complete with unevocative descriptions of each work of art and follow it up with such varied set pieces as a conversation in a boat, a conversation on a plane, and a conversation in a driverless Tesla SUV before settling in to two more long conversations in an apartment and an office building.”

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Visual Vertigo: New Art Installation To Explore Classic Hitchcock

Last evening I was supposed to join a group of friends in seeing Alfred Hitchcock’s “North By Northwest” (1959) on the big screen for the first time. I’ve seen the film many times on the small screen, most recently a few months ago, but any time you can see a classic movie the way it was meant to be seen, you should absolutely take advantage of the opportunity. It completely changes your perspective on the art and the acting involved in the creation of something that is of lasting value and cultural importance as many of the great movies created before everything in society went to pot – literally – in the ‘60’s.

Unfortunately, not anticipating that I would need to pre-book tickets, two of us were not able to get in to see the screening, which was sold out. That’s an encouraging bit of news, I suppose, especially on a Wednesday night. Hopefully it’s a sign to more theatres that people *want* to see films from the studio era on the big screen.

As it happens, the first “old” movie that I ever saw on the big screen was Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” (1958), following its restoration some years ago when it was redistributed to theatres. It was a mind-blowing experience since, although it’s not one of my favorites, the importance of the use of color in the film became far more apparent after seeing it as it was intended to be seen, where the poison apple greens and blood reds that mark certain scenes reflect off of and almost envelop the audience at different points during the screening. There are also elements to “Vertigo” which have become cultural touchstones: think of the “Simpsons” episode “Principal Charming”, for example, and the incongruous Spanish mission bell tower attached to Springfield Elementary School:

skinner1skinner2

If you know the film, you know that the Legion of Honor in San Francisco is a critical location, and a painting of a woman named Carlotta Valdes that Hitchcock had placed there, are important elements of the film. The portrait is something of a McGuffin, since once we uncover the mystery of what it is, it sort of falls out of the picture. But Hitchcock’s fetish-like attention to Kim Novak’s coiffure, suit, and a bouquet of flowers that she carries in imitation of that which appears in the painting, are things which come to have repercussions for both Leigh and Jimmy Stewart.

Vert

So it’s interesting to note that American Contemporary Artist Lynn Hershman Leeson will be exploring some aspects of the film in a mixed media installation including film, in her new multi-site installation “VertiGhost”, which opens in San Francisco on December 16th. Some of the works in this installation will be shown at the Legion of Honor itself, and I particularly like Ms. Hershman Leeson’s use of the Droste effect in this piece:

imag

As ArtNews reported yesterday, the installation will feature references to the aforementioned McGuffin painting in the movie, along with considerations of some of the themes in both the film and in art. What do we mean when we say someone is being “haunted”? Why do we consider one thing “authentic”, and another thing, “fake”? What can psychiatry tell us about Hitchcock and the characters in this film?

I don’t plan to be in San Francisco any time soon, but if any of my readers happen to see the installation, I’d be curious to know what you think of it.

Batman and the Basilica

This week marks the 25th anniversary of the release of Tim Burton’s Batman, hard as it is to believe that so much time has passed.  At the time of its premiere, “Batman” was a revelation for many reasons, not least of which was the design of the film.  From lighting to sets to costumes, the movie continues to draw the eye even today, a combination of 1940’s film noir with the shocking colors of comic book exaggeration, reflecting the era in which Batman himself first appeared on newsstands.  Even the look of Vicki Vale, as played by Kim Basinger – full confession: I had a poster of her as Vale in my room as a teen – owed much to film noir actresses of the 1940’s, like Barbara Stanwyck and Veronica Lake.  Basinger of course, would later go on to win an Oscar for portraying a Veronica Lake call girl look-alike in the movie L.A. Confidential, itself an homage to the films of the 1940’s.

On a seemingly unrelated note, yesterday was the 162nd birthday of the great Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí (1852-1956), whose work the reader is already very familiar with if he is a regular visitor to these pages.  Combining a host of design influences from Gothic castles to Hindu temples, Japanese forts to Arabian palaces, his work is impossible to categorize, but never fails to make a profound impression.  Interestingly however, one of the centerpieces of Burton’s take on the story of the Dark Knight owes a great deal to the uniqueness of this architect.

British designer Anton Furst was charged with helping bring the Gotham City of Burton’s imagination to life on screen, and managed such a remarkable achievement that he won an Academy Award for his efforts.  Mixing various elements from the history of architectural design into a stunning, if oppressive whole, Furst’s greatest challenge would prove to be that of Gotham City Cathedral, where the climactic final conflict between Batman and The Joker takes place.  In trying to come up with a design for the building, Furst realized that the right reference for this singular element was the work of Antoni Gaudí.

In an interview he gave for a book accompanying the release of the Burton film, Furst explained how he tackled the problem of creating a structure which would fit into the world of the Caped Crusader, as envisioned by Burton:

The problem here was to create a cathedral which was taller than the tallest skyscraper and still make it credible. It had to be over 1,000 feet (330 metres) high. I then remembered that some of the 1930s skyscrapers in New York produced a cathedral effect at the top by means of interesting gothic detail. I began to solve the puzzle…I basically stretched Gaudi into a skyscraper and added a castle feel which was especially influenced by the look of a Japanese fortress.

Gaudí himself was strongly influenced by Japanese design in his own work, a fact which is not lost upon the Japanese themselves, who are among the most enthusiastic patrons of his work and legacy.  Japanese individuals and corporations have been particularly generous over the past several decades in their contributions toward the ongoing work of completing the architect’s magnum opus. the still-under-construction Basilica of the Sagrada Familia.  When completed, the Basilica will be the tallest church in the world at 560 feet (170 meters), although that is nowhere near the height of the fictional cathedral created by Furst for the film.  Fortunately, despite its massive size, the completed Basilica will be nowhere near as dark and frightening as Furst’s creation.

Interestingly enough, just a few years ago DC Comics came out with a special one-off Batman adventure, which was set in Barcelona and featured a climactic encounter between Batman and Killer Croc at the Basilica of the Sagrada Familia.  In doing so the comic’s writers and designers referenced the tale of St. George and the Dragon, one of the favorite legends for Catalans since St. George is the patron saint of both Barcelona and Catalonia.  However one wonders whether they were aware of the fact that they were not the first to see the potential connection between the Dark Knight and Catalonia’s most famous architect.

Cover art for "Batman in Barcelona" by Jim Lee (2009)

Cover art for “Batman in Barcelona” by Jim Lee (2009)