Art News Roundup: Recovered Gems Edition

Before getting to some art news of interest this week, I realize that over the weekend just past I forgot to link to my latest post in The Federalist, which you may have already seen, on pioneering World War I aviation artist Henri Farré (1871-1934). Due to the restrictions on space, it wasn’t possible to show more than a few of his paintings in the article, which I began researching on a recent trip down to the Tidewater Virginia area. More of his work can be seen on my Instagram feed, here and here, featuring some pics I shot at a current exhibition at the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia, which celebrates Farré’s art and marks the centenary of the end of World War I. It’s a small show, but definitely worth seeing if you find yourself in the area. If you can’t make it, pick up a copy of Farré’s superb first-hand recounting of his experiences as an aviator-artist, “Sky Fighters of France”, which you can find through online booksellers and auctioneers.

Pricey Pearl

Continuing this week’s market trend of low estimates and unexpected prices – I can possibly understand such a price for a Hopper, maybe, but who would pay over $90 million for a HOCKNEY? –  Sotheby’s Geneva just sold a diamond and natural pearl pendant once owned by Queen Marie Antoinette of France for $36 million; the pre-sale estimate on the piece, which has been owned by the royal house of Bourbon-Parma for centuries, was $2 million. The pendant was sold along with 99 other items of jewelry from the family collection, bringing a whopping $53.1 million in total. Rather bizarrely, this article in Art Daily states that the pendant was “owned by Marie Antoinette before she was beheaded…” I suspect it rather unlikely that it could have been owned by her *after* she was beheaded.

perla

Wee Warriors

Speaking of royal caches, you’re probably familiar with the famous terracotta warriors buried with the first Emperor of China, as examples of these tomb sculptures always prove a popular tourist attraction when they visit this country. Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, Prince Liu Hong, son of the Emperor Wu, who reigned in the 1st century BC, commissioned his own terracotta army for his grave, but at a more modest scale than his imperial ancestor. The hundreds of figures in the Prince’s tomb, which have now been fully excavated and documented following their original discovery about a decade ago, average between 9-12 inches tall, rather than life-sized. They’re accompanied by chariots, watchtowers, and other elements, which can’t help but remind one of an action figure playset – albeit a far more breakable one – and are a rare treasure, indeed. Details on the discovery and excavation have been translated into English and are available in the journal Chinese Cultural Relics.

guerrer

Revived Retablo

The Art Newspaper provides an overview of the history and conservation of the Battel Hall retablo, a rare, circa 1410 jewel of a painted English altarpiece that survived the Protestants – sort of – albeit with the faces of Christ, Mary, and the saints scratched out. It later suffered numerous other indignities, such as being used as a desktop in a school, where it was further scarred and dirtied over the centuries; someone, possibly the students, even carved “witch signs” into it, as protection against evil spirits. Fellow fans of the Dominican Order take note, this object was probably painted for a Dominican foundation, possibly a convent, since it features both St. Dominic and another Dominican (St. Albert the Great is my best guess, given the book and miter, but I may be wrong) as well as St. Mary Magdalen and St. Catherine of Siena. After two years of conservation and restoration work, the scarred Medieval altarpiece has now been hung in the chapel of Leeds Castle. For more information on the jewels of Catholic art and architecture lost thanks to King Henry VIII’s incontinence, get a copy of Eamon Duffy’s classic “The Stripping of the Altars” from Yale University Press: saddening, sobering, but fascinating reading.

reta

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Art News Roundup: Better Late Than Never Edition

Forgive my delay in posting this week’s art news roundup, gentle reader, I was unavoidably detained yesterday. To make up for this, instead of my usual three curated bits of news from the world of art, architecture, design, and so on, I shall give you FIVE.

New Clues in New Mexico

In this absolutely fascinating story in the Post, reporter Antonia Farzan does her homework and digs deeply into the mystery of a stolen masterwork by Willem de Kooning (1904-1997), and the quiet, reserved couple that may have had something to do with its disappearance over 30 years ago. The twists and turns of the investigation are fascinating, but the real punch at the end is when you learn just how much money the couple had in their bank accounts when they died, and how photographs revealed that they had traveled to about 140 countries and all seven continents during their marriage: an achievement that, on its surface, would seem to be beyond the means of an ordinary pair of public school employees. This is a story begging for a good screenplay.

DeKooning

Coming Back to Canterbury

In one of the weird ironies of collecting history, an illuminated 13th century Bible which was once part of the library of Canterbury Cathedral has been purchased for roughly $128,000 by…Canterbury Cathedral. The “Lyghfield Bible” is a Medieval French volume which miraculously survived Henry VIII and the Reformation, when many Catholic books were simply burned or destroyed, and passed through the hands of a number of private owners before ending up on the auction block last month. It is the only Bible from the former library to have survived completely intact, and will be part of a new exhibition space at the cathedral detailing the history of the building (from a Protestant perspective, natch.)

Biblia

Lo Spagnoletto in London

The Baroque painter Josep de Ribera (1591-1652), often referred to as “Lo Spagnoletto” (“The Little Spaniard”) by other artists, was born and raised in Valencia, but made his career in Italy, particularly in the city of Naples, which was under Spanish rule during his lifetime. Ribera is one of the most important and influential painters of the first half of the 17th century, painting dark and brooding canvases that are often intense and stripped-down psychological studies, and so it surprises me to learn that an upcoming show titled “Ribera: Art of Violence” will be the first major exhibition of his work ever held in Britain. Ribera is not always easy to like, and his paintings of martyrdom, torture, drooling idiots and sideshow freaks are rather off-putting: you can certainly see why Goya, a century and a half later, was fascinated by his work. “Ribera” opens September 26th and runs through January 27th.

Ribera

Magnificence in Magnesia

The ancient Greek city of Magnesia, which today is part of modern Turkey, remained relatively unimportant in ancient history until it became a Roman colony around the 1st century BC. After it was virtually destroyed in an earthquake in the early 1st century AD, it was completely rebuilt on a luxurious scale by the Emperor Tiberius. Now an ongoing archaeological dig at the site of the Temple of Artemis in the city’s ruins has uncovered six magnificent, over-life-sized statues, bringing the total recovered thus far from the excavation to more than 50. Scientists believe there will still be many more to uncover, and as you can see here the works are very beautiful indeed.

Statues

Mockery in Manhattan

Moving on from the sublime to the ridiculous, New York has decided to grant landmark status to 550 Madison, a ridiculous pink skyscraper topped with a broken pediment designed by starchitect Philip Johnson (1906-2005) back in the late 1970’s. One should normally not speak ill of the dead of course, but as Mr. Johnson quite literally lived in a glass house, was an anti-Semite, a Nazi enthusiast, and loved to go on Charlie Rose long after this career was over and say terrible things about subjects which he did not in any way understand, I feel reasonably comfortable in laughing at the fact that anyone thinks that this particular monstrosity of his was worth preserving for the ages. As Hitler’s favorite architect, Albert Speer, once told art historian Robert Hughes in an interview, Johnson would have made a perfect architect for a fascist leader, since “Johnson understands what the small man thinks of as grandeur.”

Johnson

Battered Beauty: A Strange Picture Goes Under The Hammer

Coming up at the end of this month, Christie’s in New York will be auctioning an unusual painting which has been put up for sale by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The piece began life as a late Medieval altarpiece, was defaced to become a work of propaganda, and in its present state is one of those pictures which probably only a real art nerd could love. Yet the story behind its creator, its alteration, and the way it looks today provide some interesting food for thought.

The work in question, “The Virgin and Child with Saints Thomas, John the Baptist, Jerome and Louis”, is attributed to the great Flemish painter Hugo van der Goes (c. 1430-1482), and was probably painted in 1472. It depicts the Madonna and Infant Jesus seated on a throne, surrounded by (L to R) Saints Thomas the Apostle, John the Baptist, Jerome, and Louis IX of France. The figures are placed inside an ornate Gothic gallery (look at that beautiful floor tile) which opens out onto a lush, inviting landscape. It is a large piece, roughly about four feet square, although not as gigantic as some other Flemish altarpieces of this period.

As you can see in the image accompanying this post, the picture was ruined at some point in the past. The result is that we can see some of the underdrawing for the figures that are now missing. When this piece was created, the artist or one of his assistants would have sketched out the design first, in order to have some precise visual guidelines to work by. This unusual detail, which normally is not visible to the naked eye, gives us some great insight into the methods of the man who created it.

Hugo van der Goes worked in what is today modern Belgium, and rarely left it, although his work was commissioned by and sent to collectors across Europe. Like his near contemporaries Jan van Eyck or Rogier van der Weyden, his paintings have a jewel-like quality to them, both in the richness of his colors, and in his attention to the tiniest details. Although little is known about his personal life, we do know that in his 40’s he closed up his shop to become a brother at the Augustinian Abbey of Rouge-Cloître, outside of Brussels.

While van der Goes continued to paint and accept commissions even after joining the Augustinians, he was apparently troubled both by how much he had taken on, and by his perception that he was never going to be able to complete his work – at least, not to the level of excellence which he felt called upon to achieve. It may have been van der Goes’ perfectionism and scrupulosity which precipitated his retreating to the world of religious life, but eventually his psychosis developed into full-blown depression. He became convinced that he was a failure and going to be damned, and tried to kill himself in 1482, about ten years after this picture was painted. Although he survived the attempt, he eventually succumbed to his injuries, and died shortly thereafter.

Later in its history, van der Goes’ altarpiece was vandalized by an unknown individual. Whoever he was, he scraped off the image of the Madonna and Child, as well as the continuation of the background landscape which appeared behind them, and painted an interior scene of a church. He also scraped away the image of St. John the Baptist, and repainted him with an image of Elizabeth of York, the wife of England’s Henry VII and mother of Henry VIII. St. Jerome lost his cardinal’s hat and his lion companion, and was turned into an Anglican bishop, while the figure of a king, originally intended to represent St. Louis IX of France, could now be interpreted as Henry VII.

In effect, the altarpiece became a marriage portrait, celebrating the union of Henry VIII’s parents. The defeat of Richard III, and the union of the Tudors and the Yorks through marriage, had provided Henry VII with the basis which he needed to claim the English throne for himself. Years later, despite the iconoclasm brought about by Henry VIII, when countless works of art were destroyed, someone managed to save this piece from the bonfire.

From a historical standpoint, it would have made contextual sense if this piece had been repurposed at some point during the Tudor period. However, Christie’s maintains that the scraping down and repainting took place much later, in the 18th century. To me this seems rather strange, given that the piece had survived intact through the Reformation; by the Georgian period, English collectors were eagerly snapping up art masterpieces such as this for their collections. Barring some subsequent discovery, we may never know why this painting has suffered as it has.

A few years ago, The Met had the changes removed, and the entire painting cleaned and restored. While van der Goes’ missing paint could not be put back, the picture did regain its compositional and architectural symmetry. Previously hidden details reemerged: St. Jerome’s lion friend returned to his side, for example, and in the foreground two beautiful little still lifes were uncovered. We see a glass vase with colombines on the left, and a silver censor (an incense burner used at Mass) on the right.

While no longer in a pristine state, this beautiful ruin is still expected to fetch a high price. Christie’s estimates that it will sell for between $3-5 million, though I do wonder whether that is a bit high for an individual collector of Old Masters to swallow, merely for the sake of specialized artistic interest. Perhaps when it leaves one institutional collection, i.e. The Met, it will be acquired by another. We shall see what happens.