Thought-Pourri: Fickle Finger of Fate Edition

Fate has a way of making you realize that you might have stepped in something without realizing it.

I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit over the last several days when it comes to the upper end of the art market, which is in a bit of a tizzy just now about a situation that it created all by itself over the past few decades. If you follow the news at all, you’ll know that art prices have become increasingly insane in recent years, thanks to a concerted charm offensive on the part of dealers, auctioneers, banks, the press, and even museums to persuade the very wealthy to buy Modern and Contemporary art for investment purposes. After all, not only is it (well, in some cases) nicer to look at than a stock certificate, art is also easier to transport and turn into liquidity than many other convertible assets, particularly if you’re trying to keep ex-wife #4 from getting her manicured claws on your hedge fund winnings.

Now however, both the US and the EU are working on increased regulation of the art market from a financial services perspective, in order to address issues such as buying art as part of a money laundering scheme. The art world is up in arms over this, naturally enough, because the livelihood of many who work in that arena depend on the artificially inflated market bubble for atrociously awful art. If the super-rich no longer see art investment as a safe haven, they fear, that money will be shifted elsewhere, and prices for such commodities will collapse. Forgive me if I don’t feel particularly sorry for these people.

Disappearing Digit

First there was the “brah” incident at the Franklin Institute, in which an idiot broke off the thumb of one of China’s legendary Terracotta Warrior to keep as a souvenir. Now it appears that, during the reinstallation of Bernini’s “Saint Bibiana” (1626) above the high altar, following its return from an exhibition at the Borghese to its eponymous church in Rome, someone has broken off one of the statue’s fingers. Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) was the greatest of all Italian Baroque sculptors and architects, and either directly or through his influence had an enormous impact not just on the art and architecture of the city of Rome, but of the entire world. As noted in the Italian press, this was the first time the sculpture had ever been lent out in its 400-year history. I rather doubt that it will be lent out again.

Bernnin

Purging Poland

Ah, the vicissitudes of history. While American cities are dismantling, altering, or otherwise arguing over the issue of historical monuments which may or may not be controversial – personally I think that most monuments to Confederate leaders should be sealed in concrete and thrown into the sea – in Poland a similar cultural battle over art of a comparatively more recent vintage is being waged. Like many countries behind the Iron Curtain, Poland was filled with art depicting Communist propaganda, as part of an effort to erase both Catholicism and Polish historical memory: fortunately, neither effort succeeded. While to those of us who have never had to live under Communism, it might seem only logical to remove monuments dedicated to Marxist oppression once the country reverted to democracy, there are still those in Poland who want to keep such things, and are fighting the ongoing government effort to remove them. Should they be destroyed, or should they be placed in some kind of museum? And if the latter, who should be responsible for maintaining such things? It’s an interesting question, and one which I leave to the Poles.

Poland

Bologna Bonanza

Some good news from the world of art crime for a change: Italian police have recently recovered three Early Renaissance paintings stolen from museums in and around the city of Bologna, including a 14th century painting of St. Ambrose brazenly taken from the National Pinacoteca in the city during regular opening hours. It appears as though the alleged thief was spotted using digital analysis of surveillance camera footage, and caught when he was seen “acting suspiciously” around another art museum in the city. The Carabinieri tailed him and eventually were able to search his home, where they found the missing art. A happy ending to an all-too-common problem in Italian cities, where the theft of art and antiquities is a perpetual headache for police forces.

BolPol

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Cheers to You, Chicago

Good Morning, gentle reader. I’m still recovering from a slightly surprising bout of jetlag from my trip to Chicago this past weekend, and from last evening’s coverage of the Met Gala – told you so – but let’s stay on the positive this morning. I wanted to share with you just a few observations about the great time I had in the Windy City; the images illustrating today’s post are taken from my Instagram chronicle of my adventures there.

First and foremost, my sincere thanks to the Catholic Art Guild and its President Kathleen Carr, as well as to Father Joshua Caswell and everyone at St. John Cantius, both for the honor of inviting me to speak to them, as well as for welcoming me with such graciousness and warmth to their community. They do great work, and I’m deeply grateful to have contributed in a very small way to what they are trying to accomplish. The audience was clearly interested in and receptive to what I had to stay, and I ended up staying nearly an hour afterwards to chat with and answer questions from some of those who decided to stick around and wait to share some kind words with me, including some of my blog subscribers and social media friends whom I was pleasantly surprised to finally be able to meet in person. The event was recorded, and will be on YouTube at some point; I’ll share the link once it’s up.

St. John Cantius is a magnificent place, of such grandeur and historic importance to the people of Chicago that it really needs to be put on the short list to be named a Minor Basilica. It was built by poor Polish immigrants who had very little, but gave the best of what they had to glorify God, making the rest of us (or at least, me) feel humble and selfish by comparison. I had a private tour with Father Caswell the morning before my talk, and not only enjoyed hearing the stories behind the building’s construction and decoration, but during our tour we were fortunate enough to stumble upon a really spectacular practice session on the church’s magnificent pipe organ, which you can hear in this video I shot while we were looking about the place.

I had intended to make a return visit to the Art Institute while I was in town, to see a few of my old favorites in their collection, but due to time constraints as the result of a busier-than-expected social schedule, I wasn’t able to get there. What more than made up for that was the discovery of a new art museum which I had never heard of before. Loyola University of Chicago is one of the oldest and largest Catholic institutions of higher learning in the country, and much to my surprise they have a small but very interesting art museum. The Loyola University Museum of Art – or LUMA, as it is called – is just across from Chicago’s landmark Water Tower and, as one might expect from a university art space, has a main floor gallery dedicated to changing exhibitions.

However what makes LUMA truly special, in my eyes, is what the visitor finds upstairs. In a series of several rooms on the upper floor one finds dozens of beautiful paintings, sculptures, and pieces of furniture, as well as liturgical and decorative objects. Most of these objects are of the sacred art variety, and particularly focused on the Renaissance and Baroque periods in Europe and the Americas. As I observed to my host, when later recounting my visit, if this had been an art and antiques gallery, I would have wanted to purchase almost everything on display.

Perhaps the greatest surprise was to discover that a version of one of the most well-known paintings of Sassoferrato – aka, Giovanni Battista Salvi (1609-1685) – was one of the highlights of the LUMA collection. His “Madonna and Child With Cherubs” (c. 1650) is probably well known to you from Christmas cards, spiritual books, prayer cards, and the like. It’s a large, radiant work of great tenderness, that invites quiet contemplation.

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Another superb piece at LUMA is “The Rest on the Flight Into Egypt” (c. 1640), attributed to another great Italian Baroque painter, Giovanni Francesco Barbieri (1591-1666). “Guercino”, as he is more commonly known, was a contemporary of Poussin (1594-1655), and you can clearly see in his coloring that both he and the great French Baroque painter were on the same page. I love the intimacy in this detail of the Madonna and Child from the painting, with Jesus asleep from exhaustion, and the very motherly concern on the face of the Virgin Mary, as the Holy Family heads into exile and an uncertain future.

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In a completely different vein is this 15th century Netherlandish painting of “The Way to Calvary” by a follower of the great Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450-1516), whose retrospective at The Prado two summers ago was one of the best exhibitions I’ve ever seen. It’s not the weirdest Bosch (or in this case, pseudo-Bosch) painting out there, but as you can see in this detail it has both the insightful, cruel caricatures and a few of the creepy-crawlies that one expects to find in the master’s work. This is really terrific stuff.

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There are also many Iberian works in this collection, which is not surprising for a Jesuit school. I was surprised however, to come across a sculpture by Pere Oller (before 1394-1442), one of the most important Catalan medieval sculptors. It comes from the tomb of Ferdinand I, King of Aragon, which was commissioned by his son Alfonso V for the royal pantheon at the Monastery of Poblet, located in the mountains roughly midway between the cities of Barcelona and Tarragona. The tomb itself is no longer extant, having been destroyed by Napoleon’s troops along with many other religious buildings and works of art in Catalonia, but pieces of it are scattered here and there in public and private collections. LUMA’s is one of the surviving figures of mourners from that sculptural ensemble.

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Finally, there is this magnificent carved, painted, and gilded statue of the Immaculate Conception, and as I write this, I’m kicking myself for not writing down who it is by. (Unfortunately the LUMA website doesn’t list all of their holdings, either.) She is from Spain, about life-sized, and in a remarkably good state of preservation given her age. That face is really something.

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In addition to the many paintings and sculptures on display, there are practical-luxury items such as a charming German drinking vessel in the form of a golden owl, or heavily carved Italian furniture with all kinds of interesting animal paw feet. In the same display case one can see a wrought-iron door knocker from the Middle Ages in the form of a fearsome, spiked beastie – you had to be careful when grasping that handle – alongside colorfully glazed Renaissance ceramics. You could easily and happily spend a couple of hours here, admiring all of these beautiful things. And the best part is: no crowds, and admission is free.

To end with today, I wanted to suggest a bit of long-term planning for you. On November 4th, the Catholic Art Guild will be holding their annual conference, which features talks by a number of great speakers, including the Scottish artist Alexander Stoddart, currently the Queen’s Sculptor in Ordinary. The event will take place at the Drake Hotel, which has always been a required stop-in for me when I’m in town, as you can see in these two pictures taken several decades apart. God willing and the creek don’t rise, I’m planning to be there, and I hope you’ll consider joining me for a return visit to one of America’s – and the world’s – best cities.

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Thought-Pourri: Get Back Into It Edition

Although I’ve been back from Spain – and England, unintentionally (more on that in a minute) – for over a week now, I’ve been laid up with the worst flu I’ve ever experienced. Hence, it’s taken a bit longer than anticipated to start blogging again. So I hope, gentle reader, that you’ll forgive my silence up until now.

I had a wonderful time in Madrid and Barcelona, which has given me some fodder for some upcoming posts. All went very well until it was time to head back, and due to a combination of airlines and airport factors I missed my connecting flight in Heathrow. The Dante-like experience of getting rebooked for the following afternoon was something which I prefer not to recount. As a result, after a 15 year absence from England, I spent the night in a hotel near the airport, and although I could have gone into the city to see friends, I was so wiped out from the experience that I just vegetated in my room.

On the flight back to DC the following afternoon, I was treated to a plane full of people coughing their brains out and complaining of flu-like symptoms. Whether I picked it up from them, or from my similarly afflicted relatives in Spain – where the news was reporting nightly on a pandemic of “Australian flu” throughout the country – upon my return to the States I ended up trapped in bed for a week, apart from a couple of medical visits where I was warned to isolate myself due to my being “extremely contagious.” I’m still not completely okay, but at least am well enough to share some news with my readers. Don’t worry: this particular form of plague cannot be transmitted via reading a blog post, or so I am led to believe.

So let’s get to it, shall we?

Get A Head

Saint Aredius (or St. Yrieix, as he is more commonly known in France) lived in the 6th century A.D., and served as the first Abbot of the Benedictine Monastery which he founded in the town of Attanum, about 30 miles outside of Limoges. Attanum was subsequently renamed for St. Yrieix, and his tomb became a popular pilgrimage shrine thanks to his reputation for working miracles. During the 11th century a reliquary was created by local craftsmen to contain the skull of the saint and, through the vicissitudes of history, this object – minus the skull – ended up being purchased about 1,000 years later by American financier J.P. Morgan; it is currently in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In an extremely unusual but very interesting move, the town of St. Yrieix is now demanding that The Met return the reliquary of its patron saint. The essentials of the argument are that, first, all Church property was expropriated by the state during the French Revolution in 1789, and second, subsequent laws passed in 1891 and 1905 meant that cultural treasures such as these became protected state property, which could not be exported out of France without express government permission. In this case, it is alleged that the reliquary was privately sold to a French art dealer by the local parish priest in 1906, who replaced the original with a copy; the original was then subsequently re-sold to an English art dealer, who sold it to Morgan. All of this would, in theory, have been illegal at the time.

I won’t comment on the specific legal arguments here, although it certainly sounds like there are at least grounds for a hearing of some sort. From the standpoint of precedent, this could be the beginning of a major headache for a number of museums, particularly in the United States, where the robber barons and financiers of the Gilded Age stuffed their homes in Manhattan and Newport with religious objects from France, Italy, and Spain, many of which may have been exported under somewhat clouded circumstances. No word yet on how The Met intends to respond.

From a design standpoint what is particularly fascinating about this reliquary is the fact we can see the foundational wooded carving which the decorated surface metals are attached to, in this image from a catalogue of Medieval sculpture published by The Met.

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Get A Clue

Just when you thought the furor over the auction of “The Last Da Vinci” was over, researchers may have just discovered another, very early work by the Master. Scholars have long known that Da Vinci completed his apprenticeship in the workshop of the Florentine artist Andrea del Verrocchio (1435-1488), who by his own admission was a better sculptor than a painter. A very famous example of this is in Verrocchio’s “The Baptism of Christ”, now in The Uffizi, where the twisting angel on the far left, painted by the young Da Vinci, is far more complex and accomplished than the other figures in the altarpiece. Now, The Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts is launching a new exhibition claiming that a work in its permanent collection is an early work by the young Leonardo.

“A Miracle of Saint Donatus of Arezzo” (c. 1479-1485) is a predella painting – a smaller panel attached underneath a larger panel – that was part of a larger commission that Verrocchio was contracted to complete for the Blessed Sacrament Chapel in the Cathedral of Pistoia, about 20 miles from Florence. Verrocchio’s patrons were the Medici family, who commissioned the altarpiece in honor of their late uncle, Donato de’ Medici , who had been Bishop of Pistoia. The main image, of the Madonna and Child flanked by St. John the Baptist, patron saint of Florence, and St. Donatus, patron saint of the late bishop, was begun by Verrocchio but completed by another of his assistants, Lorenzo di Credi (1459-1537).

Thanks to advances in technology and a growing knowledge base for close, analytical comparison of known works by Da Vinci to works believed to be by him, scholars involved in this exhibition seem fairly convinced that around 80% of this small painting was executed by Da Vinci, probably with the help of his fellow workshop apprentice Credi. To my mind what is a particularly persuasive clue here is the fact that the predella is executed in oil, rather than tempera paint. Few Italian artists were using oil paint at this point in art history, but Leonardo was definitely using it by the early 1470’s, well within the timeline for this picture. Those of you who find yourselves in the Worcester, Mass. Area this spring will have to toddle along and have a look, and let us know what you think.

Leo

Get On Board

Contemporary French artist and designer Mathieu Lehanneur works in many genres and materials, including architecture, lighting, and furniture. His most recent exhibition, “50 Seas”, which opens today at Christie’s in Paris, features fifty ceramic discs, each representing the sea in different geographic areas of the globe, a bit like taking a virtual cruise around the world’s oceans and peeping out of the porthole as you go. I particularly appreciate the painstaking, dare I say it, geeky-nerdy way that he went about finishing these works, as he explained to Christie’s:

I partnered with the French satellite photography company Planet Observateur. It provided me with high-resolution images of each of the 50 points, from which we colour-matched the enamel paint by eye. We probably made close to 2,000 paint samples before I was happy that each was accurate enough. It takes a lot of learning and mixing because the colours change enormously during the firing process, so they look wildly different between start and finish.’

At Christie’s in Paris, they will be mounted on the walls in one long row, at eye level. This is so that the audience can easily compare one to the next, and feel as if they’re in front of the water. Below each piece will be the GPS coordinates and name of each location. That way, you can know where you’re looking, whether it is the Yucatán Peninsula or the Caspian Sea. Each ceramic will operate like a window on to a world of water, allowing people to travel the planet.’

If you’ve ever worked in ceramics, you know that this is a serious pain in the behind to get right. Just because you put a glaze on something before you fire it in the kiln does not mean that it will turn out exactly the way that you want. Not only can the colors change, sometimes radically, from what you think they will be, but if the slightest thing goes wrong during the process you could end up with a ruined piece, and have to start all over again. So in this case the artist is not exaggerating when he says that they probably had to try nearly 2,000 times to get the 50 different final results which were kept.

This combination of technology, craftsmanship, and love of the complexities of the natural world is exactly the sort of thing which Catalan Modernista architects and artists such as Gaudí would have loved. Were he living in early 20th century Barcelona they would be clamoring for Lehanneur to collaborate with them on decorating a residence or a public building with these richly colored, undulating designs. “50 Seas” is on view at Christie’s Auction House in Paris until February 2nd.

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