Thought-Pourri: Protesting Pygmalions Edition

An interesting piece in yesterday’s New York Times discusses an issue which many of us, myself included, probably did not know existed. Developers in a number of cities are required, as part of their development plans, to either include works of art in their public spaces or pay for the acquisition of publicly-accessible art. Increasingly, more of these builders are fighting against their obligation to do so, claiming that these ordinances amount to an “art tax”.

When we get down to brass tacks, the core of the argument that these developers are making is really an economic, rather than a philosophical one. They are in the business of building, not of being unwilling patrons of the arts, they claim. But there are also aesthetic issues to be raised here, and both the New York Times article and a similar article from today’s Washington Post are silent as to that larger, and to my mind more important area of inquiry.

At the end of the day, who gets to decide what goes where? What are the qualifications of those who mandate that something is worthy of public display, or of being placed where it ultimately goes? In a majority of cases, the art is created by Contemporary artists who demonstrate little actual talent, bear prosaic descriptions like “Untitled”, and are made of materials that decay rapidly in the elements, quickly becoming little more than an expensive eyesore that must be removed a decade or so later. These works are often selected by a committee of alleged experts with a particular socio-political agenda to push, and whose bad taste in art is patently obvious. Why should a property developer be forced to underwrite the acquisition or commission of these objects? Feel free to weigh in below, in the comments section.

And now, on to some art news of possible interest.

Good for Glasgow

After weeks of speculation following a devastating second fire at the Glasgow School of Art, one of the architectural masterpieces of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Director Tom Inns says that the School will be rebuilt. Because the structure was undergoing restoration at the time of the fire, many of the interior elements salvaged or recreated following the first fire were stored off-site at the time of the second blaze, and because of the rebuilding that was underway at the time of the latest disaster, accurate measurements and exact details were copiously documented using the latest available technology, making it comparatively easier to begin again. No word at this time regarding how long this rebuilding will take, what it will cost, or who is to blame for fire #2.

Glasgow

Dragons! Now In 3-D!

Kew Gardens, a favorite green space for Londoners for centuries, is one of the best botanical gardens in the world, recognized both for its beauty and for the scholarship of those who work there. One of the most striking architectural features of the park is the Great Pagoda, built in 1762 by Sir William Chambers, the architect of Somerset House in The Strand. Originally, the ten octagonal-shaped stories of the tower were studded with carved, Chinese-style dragons, but over the years the majority of these sculptures rotted away or were stolen. Now, following a major restoration effort, all 80 of the gilded beasties are back, with the ones on the first floor being made of cedar, while those on the upper floors are made of much lighter fiberglass, using a 3D printer.

Drac

Blotto for Lotto

Sadly, I am going to miss an exhibit at The Prado in Madrid which those of my readers who find themselves there over the next few months should make a point of seeing. “Lorenzo Lotto: Portraits” opened a couple of weeks ago, and is the first exhibition dedicated solely to the portraiture by this Italian Renaissance genius, whose work is perhaps not quite as well known as it ought to be; that should change after this show, which following its sojourn in Madrid will head to the National Gallery in London beginning November 5th. Lotto (c. 1480 – 1556/57) is a complex, occasionally inscrutable artist when it comes to his religious pictures and allegories, but he also drew beautifully, and his portraits are, at times, almost confrontational meetings between subject and viewer. One of my favorite paintings by Lotto, his magnificent portrait of the Venetian merchant and art collector Andrea Odoni (1527), which is owned by Queen Elizabeth II, is included in the show. For that reason alone, this exhibition would be worth your time, should you find yourself in Madrid or London in the coming months.

Lotto

Original Copycat: The Great Painter You’ve Never Heard Of

Even if you’re reasonably familiar with the history of art, the name Juan Bautista Martínez del Mazo probably doesn’t immediately spring to mind, when you think of Old Master painters from Spain: El Greco, sure, Velázquez, absolutely, and even Goya, if we consider him the end of the Old Master period and the beginning of the Modern Period in art. But the intriguing thing about del Mazo is, not only was he a brilliant artist, but there may be well-known paintings of his, hiding in plain sight, that have yet to be identified.

I’m fortunate enough to own a pen-and-ink drawing by British artist Rupert Alexander, specifically a study of a portrait of Spanish Admiral Don Adrián Pulido Pareja, which is now in the National Gallery in London. For much of the portrait’s known history, it was thought to be a work by Velázquez. However an increasing number of scholars now believe that it is by del Mazo, who was not only Velázquez’ primary studio assistant, but also the great painter’s son-in-law. In 1633 del Mazo married Velázquez’ youngest surviving daughter Francisca and, interestingly enough, through their daughter Teresa – who married into a German noble family – are descended most of Europe’s kings and queens, including Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom, King Felipe VI of Spain, and King Carl Gustaf XVI of Sweden.

(c) The National Gallery, London; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Because his father-in-law was extremely busy, as the principal court painter to King Felipe IV of Spain, much of del Mazo’s time was spent making copies of the original paintings executed by Velázquez. In a time before photography and commercial reproduction methods, copying served several important purposes for the Habsburgs, for whom maintaining close family ties was extremely important. One such purpose was to allow them to have more than one copy of their favorite pictures of family members on display for their multiple homes, without having to pack up their pictures and move them every time they went on a journey.

An example of this is the hunting portrait of Cardinal Don Fernando de Austria, showing the younger brother of King Felipe IV with his favorite dog. The original, by Velázquez, was part of a series of portraits of the family in hunting attire that decorated the Torre de la Parada, a now-demolished royal hunting lodge in the mountains outside of Madrid. The copy by del Mazo, as analyzed here by art expert Philip Mould, decorated a different royal residence in Spain, and differs only slightly from the original in the placement of the dog and the absence of the tree.

Cardinal

Another purpose for del Mazo’s copying was that it allowed the family to send these copies as gifts to geographically distant relatives, which they loved to do and in fact all of the Habsburgs did for centuries. Think of this in the way that you might send copies of your family Christmas photos to Aunt Gladys and Uncle Charlie out in California, whom you haven’t seen for many years, just so you can keep in touch and so they can see what you look like today. In addition to parents and children missing each other, or siblings wanting to keep in touch, the Habsburgs also tended to marry other Habsburgs, and so these pictures were sometimes used for negotiating marriages between different branches of the family.

Sometimes the original portrait was sent and the copy was retained, sometimes vice versa, and sometimes the original was so well-liked that the recipient requested multiple copies for, again, displaying in multiple homes. Velázquez’ portrait of the Infanta (Princess) Margarita wearing a blue velvet court dress ended up in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna after the fall of the Habsburg Empire; its rediscovery in the 1930’s is a remarkable story in and of itself. But even while it was lost, it was known to scholars because copies of it were executed by del Mazo for decorating the various Habsburg residences in Austria and Hungary, such as this one which ended up in Budapest (and is in desperate need of a good cleaning.)

Infanta

This skill in copying was something which del Mazo worked on throughout his life. He spent many years making copies of paintings in the Spanish royal collections, which included not only the portraits executed by his father-in-law, but also dozens of masterpieces by Titian, Rubens, and others, most of which later formed the nucleus of the collections at The Prado and at El Escorial. The end result was that he came to deeply understand and employ the techniques used by these artists in his own, original work, when he was able to paint it.

We can’t be certain of many one-off compositions by del Mazo himself, but one that most scholars are reasonably sure about is unquestionably his masterpiece, “A View of Zaragoza in 1647”, which is now in The Prado. This enormous painting, which is almost 11 feet long and nearly 6 feet tall, was long thought to be by Velázquez, but most scholars now agree that it is by del Mazo, possibly with some assistance from the painter’s more famous father-in-law. It’s a picture you’ve probably seen illustrating European history texts, but nothing you can see in print or in electrons prepares you for the sheer size and grandeur of this thing.

Zaragoza

This is a picture to get lost in, and you never tire of looking at it and taking in all of the details – not just all the interesting figures in the foreground, but also the wealth of architectural detail in del Mazo’s representation of the city itself. The towers, pinnacles, rooftops, and chimneys that define the skyline of the city are clearly delineated. If we look more closely, we can see even more minute observations by the artist, such as red tapestries flapping from balconies, tiny green treetops peeping above the walls of enclosed gardens, and even newly-washed white laundry drying out on the rocks of the opposite shore.

At present, only a handful of paintings are currently known or believed to be by del Mazo. He spent so much time making copies of other artists’ work, that he probably didn’t have a great deal of free time to come up with his own, original compositions. Yet with advances in technology that allow art historians to examine details of paintings which are invisible to the naked eye, I suspect that in the future we will come to identify more truly unique works by this supposed copycat artist, which will make him, while not the equal of his father-in-law, an important addition to the history of Western art.

Under Construction: Projects At Two Of The World’s Most Important Museums

There are some interesting construction projects ahead for the expansion of two already enormous, and enormously important, art institutions.

Following a recent renovation of part of its existing ground floor to expand its exhibition space, the National Gallery in London has set its sights on redeveloping St. Vincent House, located behind the museum’s Sainsbury Wing. The institution purchased the building almost 20 years ago, and it currently houses not only museum staff, but also paying tenants, including an hotel, a restaurant, a parking garage, and other offices. The leases of these tenants will be coming to an end within the next few years, allowing the museum to decide what to do next with the space.

St. Vincent House is one of those Brutalist architectual travesties that scar the downtowns of most of our cities. The only reason you’ve probably never seen it, if you’ve been to London, is that it’s mercifully well-hidden from Trafalgar Square. The stained, exposed aggregate concrete, rusting and peeling metal, crumbling brick, and utter lack of symmetry, grace, or proportion will be familiar to anyone who has ever visited, say, a college library built between about 1950 and 1980.

Since the building is tucked away, presumably there will be a reduced pressure upon the National Gallery to make it an architectural showstopper. Less visibility means less of a need to spend a fortune building something which most people will only experience from the inside, via a possible pedestrian bridge connecting the site to the Sainsbury Wing. This is the opposite of the problem faced by The Prado in Madrid during their recent expansion, which is not quite finished yet.

The buildings which The Prado has been expanding into were located not next door, but rather on a hillside directly behind the main bulk of the museum. Two of the them are the former throne room and ballroom of the Palacio del Buen Retiro, built in the 17th century. They were the only parts left standing after the rest of the palace was torn down, following destruction by Napoleon’s troops. The ballroom has already been integrated into the expanded Prado; the redevelopment of the former throne room was recentlly awarded to British starchitect Norman Foster.

As part of the The Prado’s expansion, a vast underground entrance, exhibition, and concessions area connecting these buildings by cutting into the hillside were designed by Spanish starchitect Rafael Moneo, connecting the buildings by cutting into the hillside. For reasons which I can’t fathom, Moneo was awarded the Pritzker Prize for archtiecture in 1996, and the Prince of Asturias prize for his contributions to Spanish architecture a few years later. If you are unfamiliar with his name, you are nevertheless familiar with his work, for Moneo is the designer of the monstruous Cathedral of Los Angeles, California, known among those who loathe both it and the now-disgraced Cardinal who built it as the “Taj Mahoney”.

Part of Moneo’s plan for The Prado expansion called for the disassembly of a former Baroque monastery in poor repair, which stood next to the Palace. The structure was reassembled inside a rather dull brick building whose interior otherwise reminds one of a small Marriott hotel circa 1994, which sits next to the former monastery chapel (now a parish church). While the chapel is not particularly remarkable, as far as the grandeur of Spanish ecclesiastical architecture goes, sitting next to this squat, red cube, it looks like an architectural masterpiece.

Being a Midcentury building, St. Vincent House has neither the historic pedigree nor the architectural grandeur of the spaces taken over by The Prado. Moreover, the construction timeframe is still some years away, until the leases run out, and so the museum can engage in the kind of discussion which involves long-term planning. Herein lies a real opportunity for the National Gallery to improve its offerings and focus on what its mission will be for the next few decades.

Of course, there is a hidden danger, as well. For sadly, as much as people of good will and common sense loathe the sort of Brutalism displayed by buildings like St. Vincent House, others actually love this stuff, and are becomnig increasingly vociferous about preserving it. The fact that more and more of these buildings are meeting their deserved end – and not before time, as they are falling to bits – spurs some among the (supposed) intellgentsia to argue that they should be preserved.

Back in 1984, Prince Charles almost singlehandedly stopped the proposed expansion of the National Gallery, by giving a totally unexpected speech in which he described the proposed extension of the Sainsbury Wing as “a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much loved and elegant friend.” The left and the art press – but I repeat myself – have never forgiven him for it. The Sainsbury Wing as built was a tamer, more modest structure than the monstrosity shown in the image accompanying this post, which is what had been selected. What a truly great thing for Western civilization that this strange, Martian mining colony headquarters never came to be, even if the building constructed in its place is more interesting on the inside than it is on the outside.

Last year Prince Charles became the first Royal Patron of the National Gallery, which in British philanthropic circles usually means that executives will tend to pay a bit more attention to his thoughts and opinions regarding their activities. In addition, with all due respect to Queen Elizabeth, one can only assume that sometime within the next few years the Prince will finally become King Charles III, perhaps around the same time that the museum will be taking on its next major expansion. Let us hope that such influence will not only result in the wiping of St. Vincent House from the face of the planet, but also the construction of something sensible, serviceable, and in keeping with the fabric of the rest of the National Gallery.

Original proposal for the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery