Art Agonies: Politics Over Preservation

At present we live in a climate in which lovers of great art must put up with the strangely tortured and often ill-informed opinions of others. From nonsensical tweets about the nature of art by celebrity astrophysicists incapable of dressing themselves properly, to lowest common denominator garbage from princes of the Church who have been inexplicably tasked with matters of culture, it’s enough to make this writer want to throw up his hands and just walk away from all of it. I would probably have much more fun simply interviewing and highlighting the work of creative friends and acquaintances – painters, cosplayers, musicians, chefs, writers, etc. It tires me to read about risky decisions being made about art for the sake of political popularity.

A perfect example of this may be found in a recent interview with Françoise Nyssen, France’s Minister of Culture, given on Thursday to Europe 1 Radio. Mme. Nyssen floated the idea of sending the most famous painting in the world, Leonardo’s “Mona Lisa”, out on tour in order to combat what the Minister calls “cultural segregation”. If any of my readers can explain how a work of art is “culturally segregated”, when it is on display to everyone in a public museum, by all means do your best in the comments section. As an aside, I shudder to think what the insurance premiums would be on moving and displaying such an important object, which for decades The Louvre has not even dared to attempt cleaning.

This is not the only half-baked idea to come from the government of France’s greatest aficionado of sheer cover foundation, President Emmanuel Macron. Another ill-conceived project is to send the Bayeux Tapestry, which commemorates the Norman Invasion of Britain and the ensuing Battle of Hastings, across the English Channel to be displayed in a British museum. Like the “Mona Lisa”, the Bayeux Tapestry is an incredibly fragile object, arguably the most famous of its type in the world, and has not left its home in France for many years. Many French historians, preservation specialists, and locals are appalled at the notion of even attempting to move the Tapestry off-site, let alone send it out of the country, but for political reasons Monsieur Maquillage seems determined to proceed with this idea.

Exhibitions which allow works of art to travel from one institution to another are not bad things in and of themselves. When handled properly, they can bring to new audiences objects which they might never be able to visit otherwise. Consideration of the state of preservation of such objects, particularly when of significant age, fragility, or difficulty in transport, must be given absolute priority: Michelangelo’s “David” is never going to leave Florence to go on tour, for example.

However, placing irrational, politically-motivated thinking ahead of issues such as preservation and integrity (and yes, Your Holiness, appropriateness) is morally reprehensible. It plays Russian roulette with the ability of future generations to see, appreciate, and learn from these objects, all for the sake of temporary political popularity. Those who engage in such games by putting at risk the cultural patrimony under their temporary care should be publicly criticized and called to account.

Harold

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“Wonderful” Honthorst: A Newly Restored Nativity With A Very Special Beastie

Just in time for Christmas, one of the most beautiful and charming paintings of the Nativity in the history of Western art has been conserved and restored for future generations.

“The Adoration of the Shepherds” (1622) by the Dutch artist Gerrit van Honthorst (1592-1656), now in the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum in Cologne, Germany, is probably well-known to you from Christmas cards, ornaments, and the like. The subject was one which the artist painted several times during his career, but this is certainly his finest composition. Thanks to a grant from the local government in North Rhine-Westphalia, the picture has been restored, and is now the centerpiece of an exhibition titled “Wonderful – Honthorst’s Adoration of the Shepherds”, detailing the history and extensive research that went into the preservation of this masterpiece, as well as comparing it to other depictions of this Biblical scene.

In its review, Art Daily duly notes the loving and joyful expressions of the Virgin Mary, St. Joseph, and the shepherds, the wonderful depiction of light radiating from the Infant Jesus amidst the nocturnal gloom, and the presence of a very faithful beastie. “The scene is also witnessed by an ox,” AD points out, “lovingly warming the child with his breath in the cold night air. It does not seem too far-fetched to suggest an allusion to St Luke’s Gospel, as well as to the emblem of the painter’s guild that Honthorst had recently entered. With this image Honthorst proudly demonstrates that his lively art has the capacity to enable the beholder to become a witness of the Holy scene.”

Two bits of explanation are needed here, for those unfamiliar with Christian iconography. The authors of the four canonical Gospels – Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – have long been associated with four different animals mentioned in visions experienced by both the Prophet Ezekiel and by St. John the Evangelist in the Bible. Think of them as heraldic symbols, much in the same way the bald eagle represents the United States, or the Lion and the Unicorn represent the British Crown. In St. Luke’s case, he is represented by the sacrificial ox, since his Gospel begins with the story of St. Zechariah, father of St. John the Baptist, offering sacrifice in the Temple in Jerusalem, and St. Luke emphasizes the sacrifical nature of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection in expiation for the sins of mankind.

In addition, St. Luke is also the patron saint of artists. This patronage stems from an ancient, pious belief that St. Luke was not only a physician – according to his friend St. Paul the Apostle – and writer of both his Gospel as well as the Acts of the Apostles in the Bible, but a painter as well. He was made the patron saint of artists’ guilds all over Medieval Europe, some of which still exist today, and in order to succeed and get the best commissions, artists needed to become members of these early forms of trade unions. Oftentimes an applicant to one of these guilds, such as Honthorst, had to create an original work for submission and evaluation by a guild committee, similar to the way in which today, an apprentice might demonstrate a particular skill set or final product in order to receive a certification or license.

The connection with St. Luke in this painting is most obvious in the fact that both the familiar story of the shepherds and the Nativity’s nocturnal setting both come from St. Luke’s Gospel. In St. Luke 2:8-14, the Evangelist describes how there were shepherds near Bethlehem “keeping the night watch over their flock,” who were startled by the sudden appearance of angels, announcing the birth of the Messiah. The shepherds then decided to go see for themselves, as St. Luke recounts:

When the angels went away from them to heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go, then, to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”

So they went in haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in the manger.

When they saw this, they made known the message that had been told them about this child.

All who heard it were amazed by what had been told them by the shepherds.

And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.

Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, just as it had been told to them.

St. Luke 2:15-20

There is no mention in the Bible of any animals being present at the Nativity, but because of St. Luke’s description of the Christ Child being laid in a manger, artists have traditionally included animals in pictorial representations of the scene. A donkey is the animal most commonly shown in these images, but an ox, sheep, and camels are often present as well. Some artists keep things simple, showing no animals at all. Others add all sorts of creatures to their depictions, whether for symbolic or picturesque purposes, and if you look closely enough, you’ll find Christmas images that contain depictions of birds, monkeys, rabbits, and all sorts of other beasties.

Interestingly, Honthorst has chosen to eschew not only the donkey but also the sheep in his painting, and in fact he makes the ox a key figure rather than just part of the background. What is particularly charming here, in addition to the fact that, as Art Daily pointed out in their review quoted above, the ox is warming the Christ Child with its breath, which is just visible curling out from around its nostrils against the rich ochre yellow of St. Joseph’s mantle, is that St. Joseph himself is resting his clasped hands on the animal’s head, as he leans smilingly over the manger. Note as well that the ox is the only one in this painting who looks out at the viewer. None of the humans even notice that we are present at the scene. The ox however, is inviting us in to the picture with a glance, and, in the manner of tame animals like cats and dogs, seems to be asking us, “Did I do good?”

“Wonderful – Honthorst’s Adoration of the Shepherds” is open now at the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum in Cologne, and runs through, appropriately enough, February 4, 2018, the weekend of Candlemas (the traditional end of the Christmas season.)

Nadal

Thought-Pourri: Happy Hippo Edition

It’s been a big week for art news since last week’s roundup, gentle reader.

The very, very big news is that Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi”, which I shared some thoughts about earlier this week, sold for a whopping $450 million last night at Christie’s in New York. This is by far the highest amount ever paid for a single work of art in any art auction, ever, far outstripping the previous auction record holder, Pablo Picasso’s “Les Femmes d’Alger (Version O)”, which sold for $179 million back in 2015. Despite the naysayers – and there are many – at the end of the day a Da Vinci is a Da Vinci, even if it’s a Da Vinci that’s not in especially good nick.

Meanwhile, the other big story is that rival auctioneer Sotheby’s is currently licking its chops, after the Massachusetts Appeals Court halted the sale of the Berkshire Museum’s auction of a series of paintings from its permanent collection, including two works by Norman Rockwell which had been donated to the museum by the artist himself. While the pictures in question are not of great importance in art history, the really interesting item here is how the courts will address the question of deaccession, which is always a thorny subject when it comes to art law. I’m not going to weigh in on the pro’s and con’s of the practice, but it will be interesting to see what the final result is, and whether it sets any precedents.

Anyway, on to some other, less portentous news items.

Happy, Happy Hippo

To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the arrival of William, the Ancient Egyptian hippopotamus that has long been a symbol of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Met has just opened a new exhibition featuring the beloved blue beastie. In addition, William will be feted with lectures, activities, and even cookies and cocktails named in his honor. William being, of course, the best of all possible boys’ names, and my childhood wish to become an Egyptologist notwithstanding, I’ve always had a soft spot for this little sculpture; perhaps I should look into obtaining a reproduction for myself. Check the Met’s website for a full of listing of exhibition and event details.

Hippo

The Queen’s Cranach

Technology once again comes to the rescue of the art world, in identifying a lost work by one of Germany’s most important Renaissance artists. Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553) is perhaps best known for his paintings of naked ladies, who are so physically unappealing that it’s hard to understand why his pictures were so widely collected. He also painted portraits however, and it turns out that one of these – long thought to be a copy – was purchased by England’s Queen Victoria as a Christmas present for her German husband, Prince Albert. Personally, I don’t much care for Cranach, whose work was commissioned mostly by Northern Europeans with bad taste (probably because they couldn’t produce anything to rival what was being painted in Italy at the same time.) Nevertheless, it’s an interesting story, down to the rather grisly preparation method – pigeon tendons! – which helped confirm the authenticity of the picture.

Cranach

Clearly Contemporary Claptrap

Speaking of unappealing works of art, I’ve been saying for years that most of the Contemporary Art world is rather boring, and highly derivative in nature, since it constantly has to try to shock the viewer due to an inability to demonstrate much of anything in the way of skill and creativity. Marcel Duchamp hung a urinal on a wall and titled it “Fountain” a century ago, after all; much of what is supposedly avant-garde these days has been said by others, elsewhere, in more interesting ways. So it was particularly refreshing, in this review of a show at Turin’s brand-new OGR complex juxtaposing Ancient, Classical, and Contemporary Art, to find a reviewer who apparently agrees.

Turin

Restoring Russian Ruins

A few years after The Wall came down, we were visiting some friends in Munich who hoped to finally get back their family estate near Potsdam, which had been taken by the Soviets when Germany was divided after World War II; they eventually managed to secure the property and restore it. White Russians, on the other hand, have been waiting to reclaim their ancestral homes for roughly a century now, thanks to the Russian Revolution which broke out in November 2017. Some of these palaces were preserved, but the majority have long been ruins. This interesting piece in Art Daily is just a sampling of some of the problems faced by those trying to reclaim their family’s homes – such as, how do you get people to willingly travel hundreds of miles out in the middle of nowhere to fix up falling down old houses?

Estate

Sorolla and Stock Sale

For many years now, New York art dealer Otto Naumann has been one of the most hallowed names in the world of Old Master painting – and is certainly the most important dealer in this genre in the United States. Now that he’s retiring from the trade, Naumann has decided to sell off his remaining stock through Sotheby’s. In addition to Renaissance and Baroque religious, mythological, and still life paintings, works that will be coming to the auction block include some of what Old Master collectors would consider “Modern” art, such as this beautiful work by Joaquín Sorolla (1863-1923) of a Castilian peasant pouring himself a glass of water. On their website, Sotheby’s has more on Naumann, his collection, and the upcoming multi-day sale of his stock, which will take place between January 26-31, 2018. If you happen to have a few million sitting around, or know someone who does, this is a sale not to be missed.

Sorolla