Art News Roundup: Merry Valentine’s Day Edition

Today is the first day of Winter, and it doesn’t look as though we’re going to have a white Christmas here in the Nation’s Capital, given that it’s currently about 63 degrees. Yet be that as it may, as we approach the 4th Sunday of Advent, I was rather appalled to drop into my local CVS on Tuesday evening and find that Christmas-related items were already being removed. The emptied shelves were in the process of being filled with items for Valentine’s Day.

You can see the photographic evidence of this here, and quite frankly I find this utterly appalling, for many reasons. What message does this send to children, for example? That they cannot even be satisfied with the gifts they will receive on Christmas in a few days’ time, because they have to be salivating over chocolates that they will be eating two months from now?

A follower on Instagram commented that at her local Giant Supermarket, she could not find any peppermint candy canes, and asked the clerk if they would be getting any more before Christmas. “No,” he replied, “Christmas is over.” Well, Christmas is most emphatically NOT over, because it hasn’t even begun yet. So whatever it is that the powers that be at places like CVS, Giant, and the like are celebrating at the moment, it certainly isn’t Christmas.

I happen to be someone who *does* celebrate Christmas, as it happens, since I may be a great sinner, but I’m one who believes in the veracity of the Christian faith. I will definitely, therefore, be celebrating all twelve days of Christmas when they arrive. Therefore, I’m going to use my prerogative as the lord of this virtual manor to share some interesting art stories involving the restoration of works that represent three types of sacred art: sculpture, painting, and musical instruments.

Pisano’s Pistoia Pulpit
One of the most important sculptural works of art of the Early Renaissance is about to go under tarps and scaffolding for the next two years. Giovanni Pisano (lived about 1245-1315) was an architect and sculptor, son of the more famous Nicola Pisano (lived about 1210-1278), who executed major commissions for churches throughout Italy and possibly elsewhere [there is currently an art history theory that the magnificent alabaster tomb of St. Eulalia, in the Cathedral of Barcelona, is by a member of their studio.] Giovanni created the pulpit for the church of Sant’Andrea (St. Andrew) in Pistoia, a city about 20 miles from Florence; the piece is stylistically related to other pulpits by the Pisanos, including those in the Cathedrals of Pisa and Siena, but shows how the Gothic was coming to an end and what we would consider “Modern” sculpture was born. Thanks to a grant from the American charitable foundation Friends of Florence, and the cooperation of government officials along with expertise from the University of Florence, structural analysis of the entire sculpture is currently underway, and as cleaning begins visitors to the church will be able to see live camera images of the restorers at work on monitors.

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Bononi’s Beautiful Biohazard
Staying in Italy for the moment, Italian scientists have discovered that some works of art may be changing over time for the same reason why milk turns into cheese, or why your kid comes home from school with strep throat: microscopic organisms. The expert team analyzed a painting of the “Coronation of the Virgin” by Carlo Bononi (1569-1632) which hangs in a church in the Italian city of Ferrara, and found that the entire piece, front and back, was covered with microscopic colonies of fungi and other microbial organisms, including Staphylococcus(!), Penicillium, and others. Interestingly enough, different pigments and materials used in creating the painting attracted different populations, since one type of fungus might prefer to live in or snack on certain environments more than others. This research may well have long-term implications for how restorers go about treating and conserving works of art in the future.

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Bodet’s Blessed Bells
An interesting and heart-warming story from Art Daily, on the efforts of one company to restore the sounds that once marked the daily rhythm of life throughout France. Bodet is one of the only companies in Europe that specializes in the repair of church bells, and since 1991 has brought back well over one thousand church bells into working order. While it’s a pity that hardly anyone in France goes to church anymore, at least the call to Mass, the marking of the hours of the Angelus, and the commemoration of baptisms, weddings, and funerals will provide a regular opportunity for these revived bell towers to do their job and remind listeners that they are in a country shaped by two millennia of Christianity.

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Da Vinci Delayed: The Art Press Wants Scandal, And Wants It Now

After all the hullabaloo over the sale of Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi” for $450 million at Christie’s New York, as I commented on in The Federalist, speculation immediately turned to who bought it, and what they were going to do with it. In the end, it emerged that the picture had been purchased by the Saudi Minister of Culture, on behalf of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism of Abu Dhabi. The plan was to put the piece on display at the new Louvre Abu Dhabi, which had just opened shortly before the sale.

Originally slated to go on view September 18th, just two weeks prior the Ministry suddenly announced “the postponement of the unveiling,” and that “[m]ore details will be announced soon.” Initial speculation was that the museum wanted to hold off until the 1st anniversary of the opening of Louvre Abu Dhabi on November 11th. Creature of scandal that it (mostly) is however, the art press immediately went into scavenger mode, trying to find any scrap of information or rumor to explain the cause of the delay. It simultaneously began to cast aspersions on a picture which, only a year earlier, commentators had been fawning over, their reviews causing the public to flock to see the panel in droves.

The Art Newspaper, for example, invited “Salvator Mundi” skeptic Matthew Landrus, a Da Vinci expert at Oxford, to flesh out his argument that the painting was not an original piece exclusively from the hand of Leonardo, but rather was created by Leonardo with significant input from one of his best-known studio assistants, Bernardino Luini (c. 1480-1532). If you’ve ever seen his work, Luini gives you an idea, albeit a slightly second-rate idea, of what Leonardo could have done with his talent if he had ever managed to get his act together.

Of course, Landrus was not arguing that Leonardo never touched the painting. Rather, he made a reasoned argument that assistants in Leonardo’s studio played a significant part in the execution of the piece, and he thinks that Luini is one of the more likely candidates. That’s as may be, but this is something of an academic debate, rather than a cause célèbre for the art press to go into a tizzy over.

Then over the weekend, The Guardian published a piece by art critic Jonathan Jones arguing that the real problem with the “Salvator Mundi” was that it had been over-restored. Images of what the painting looked like before it was cleaned and the missing bits filled in are certainly quite shocking to the untrained eye. In its pre-conservation state, it looks as though you just got home from work to find the cat had got at one of your most prized possessions in your absence (and I know whereof I speak.)

Jones believes that the piece should have been left as it was, damage and all. He preferred the panel in its “raw yet beautiful state”, subsequent to the removal of all of the years of dirt and bad restoration work that sat atop the original surface. “Wasn’t that an incredible object in itself?” he asks. To me, this sounds rather like those who argued that the Sistine Chapel should never have been cleaned, because they maintained that Michelangelo’s frescoes looked better when they were covered in dust and soot.

In pursuing these narratives however – assistant work vs. over-restored – the art press needs to tread lightly: as usual, it doesn’t think about the consequences of these particular lines of reasoning.

If you study art history at all, you quickly learn that most highly successful Old Master painters, including not only Leonardo, but other art giants such as Raphael, Rubens, and Titian, had so many commissions to complete that they could not do all of it themselves. Oftentimes, these artists would come up with the design for a picture, and the bulk of it would be painted by their assistants. The boss would come in later to work on specific areas, such as the head, hands, or touch-ups. Moreover, many popular Modern and Contemporary artists, from Andy Warhol to Ai Weiwei, have employed assistants to help bring their works to fruition.

Is the art press really intending to argue that, because assistants participated in the creation of this particular Leonardo, that therefore it’s not really a Leonardo? What would that do to overall buyer and institutional confidence in the Modern and Contemporary Art market, where the use of assistants in generating works of art is heavily practiced? Why, for example, should the city of Paris be paying American Contemporary artist Jeff Koons millions of dollars for a sculpture which he himself only designed, rather than sculpted with his own hands?

As to whether the “Salvator Mundi” was over-restored, here too we find a bit of a slippery slope argument for the art press to ponder. I’m no art restorer, but looking at the piece as it was, and indeed as is pointed out in Jones’ article, there was more than enough left of the original surface for an art restorer to go in and fill in the missing bits. As it happens, in the weeks to come you’ll be seeing a piece from me in The Federalist about a Baroque painting which I’ve just had professionally cleaned and restored, instead of leaving in the grimy, dirty, flaking state in which I found it at auction.

Does the art press want to argue that any work of art which suffers damage should be left in its damaged state? Should we leave some works, such as Velázquez “Rokeby Venus” in the National Gallery in London, which was slashed by a suffragette in 1914, in a damaged state based on the nature of the attack made on them? What about rediscovered works that don’t look so great? Why is it acceptable to take 9 months to a year to clean and restore a painting by crazy-eyed one-trick pony Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1653)? Because that’s who The Guardian is pushing at the moment?

Interestingly, Jones’ pointing out that, prior to restoration, there appeared to be two right thumbs on the hand of Christ goes to my earlier statement regarding the work of the master on the painting. In art history, the term “pentimento” describes changes made by the artist as he is in the process of executing a picture. There are examples of pentimenti (plural) in many famous paintings, most of which are not visible to the naked eye because they get covered up by the artist when the painting is finished. Tthese changes can often be revealed through x-rays and other technology.

As a general rule, pentimenti tend to indicate that the work which one is looking at is the real thing. Copies by assistants don’t have these changes, because they are simply copies of something that already exists; no further changes are needed to the already-set composition. To Landrus’ argument then, the presence of this double thumb would at least tend to show that Leonardo did work on this painting, though how much of it is actually by his direct hand is open to debate.

At the same time, the double thumb pokes holes in Jones’ argument that the painting is over-restored. Leonardo would never have allowed a “raw” painting to leave the studio. Like any artist of his time, he would have intended for the painting to be corrected, and the pentimento covered over, whether by himself or by his assistants. A 15th century Italian or French Renaissance patron would never have accepted a weird, mutant double-thumbed Jesus in their art collection. Not only would such a thing be considered bizarre and unattractive to you as a collector, at a time when perfection and beauty were your life goals – how far we have fallen since – but it might have gotten you in trouble with the Inquisition if they called round.

We don’t know what the holdup is at this point, with respect to putting the “Salvator Mundi” on public display. We do know that, as usual, the art press loves a scandal, and is intent as a British tabloid publisher to create clickbait, even if it turns out that there’s no scandal at all, just an administrative or strategic delay. All we can do now is sit and wait.

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Art News Roundup: Fixing Fixation Edition

Something that first-time visitors and old hands alike always enjoy, when they visit the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, is the ability to look into some of the workrooms located in the basement of the basilica. Thanks to a carefully planned layout, the underground space contains not only a multi-media museum chronicling the history of the building, but one can also take a peek through soundproof glass walls into spaces where architects, artists, and engineers are at work on the ongoing project, which just reached a whopping 328 feet tall a couple of weeks ago. (Only 232 more feet to go!)

Public interest in seeing art experts at work has led to a phenomenon referred to by some as “process porn”. It turns out that people love to watch other people as they design replacements for missing portions of decorative objects, clean sculptures blackened by time and candle soot, or repair holes and flaking on old paintings. Although this particular article focuses on such efforts at the Huntington in California, similar spaces exist in other museum conservation spaces as well. At the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston for example, visitors can check out “Conservation in Action”, where the MFA announces works that are coming up for treatment, and invites the public to come along and watch. And if you can’t make it to one of these institutions, not to worry: there are plenty of Instagram accounts where you can see these experts doing their thing.

As a bit of a teaser, in the weeks to come – God willing and the creek don’t rise – you’ll be seeing a lengthy Federalist article from me along these lines, detailing the cleaning, conservation, and restoration of a Baroque painting that I picked up at auction over the summer. No, I’m not doing the work myself, but I’ve asked the conservator to fully document and photograph her work, which I hope you’ll find as interesting as I do. Never let it be said that I’m off trend.

In the meantime, let’s take a look at some recent stories about works that need a bit of TLC.

Brand-New Blue

After more than a decade of restoration, including such things as microscopic analysis of original gilding and painstaking research into historic textiles, the famous Blue Room in the White House is finally getting its (rather grandiose) suite of French Empire furniture back. Originally created by Parisian cabinet maker Pierre-Antoine Bellangé (1757-1827) on order from President James Monroe, the set was sold off by President James Buchanan in the late 1850’s, when the Empire style went out of fashion; it was reacquired piecemeal a century later thanks to the efforts of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, who supplemented pieces that were missing or destroyed with exact copies from the originals. Visitors to this year’s White House Christmas Open House should take note.

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Titian Tumble

The bad news is that a painting of the Crucifixion by Titian (1488-1576), painted circa 1555, was damaged when it fell off the wall in the sacristy of El Escorial, the basilica-monastery-palace-necropolis of the kings and queens of Spain, just outside of Madrid. The good news, if you want to call it that, is that the damage was limited to a tear in the lower part of the canvas. The life-sized picture, acquired by Felipe II a year after Titian painted it, is roughly seven feet tall, and was immediately taken away to restorers. The culprit here appears to be a deterioration of the plaster wall into which the painting had been anchored.

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Bringing Back Bruegel

Staying in Spain, albeit just briefly, ahead of a major retrospective in Vienna on the life and work of Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525-1569) the Prado recently completed a two-year cleaning and restoration of Bruegel’s magnificent “The Triumph of Death” (c.1562), one of the artist’s largest (at more than 5 feet across) and most compelling paintings. Crammed with figures getting their individually-tailored comeuppances as a result of their mistreatment of others, this a gruesome but fascinating piece, clearly inspired by the work of Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450-1516) a generation or so earlier. It’s also a kind of last, highly anachronistic gasp of Northern Gothic, even as the Renaissance itself was already on the way out in Italy. During the Prado’s treatment of the painting, lost details were recovered, and missing portions were carefully replaced by studying copies of the painting executed by Bruegel’s sons and assistants. The Prado has indicated that this is the first and only time it will be lending “The Triumph of Death” to an exhibition, which makes me think they’re expecting a major loan from the Austrians in return. “Bruegel” is at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna now through January 13th.

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