Thought-Pourri: More Art And Architecture Stories For Your Perusal

Since I had positive reaction to last week’s round-up of interesting stories from the art and design world, I thought I’d try it again and see what my readers think of making this a regular feature of the blog. So here goes:

Barely-Known Birley

If you’ve ever watched an episode of the original, UK version of “Antiques Roadshow”, you’re familiar with Philip Mould, an art dealer who has managed to turn his expert eye for rediscovering important or overlooked old pictures with a successful media career. Recently his London gallery finished a show on the work of society painter Sir Oswald Birley (1880-1952), who was immensely popular with the American and British well-to-do during his lifetime, but has fallen into semi-obscurity since his death. There’s certainly an argument to be made that Birley should be mentioned in the same breath as other important society painters from the first half of the 20th century. Many of his works are certainly interesting, however I’m not quite sure that I’d consider him in the same league as John Singer Sargent, Joaquín Sorolla, or Anders Zorn: you be the judge.

Birley

Light In Leeds

A bit further north, visitors to the Leeds Art Gallery, which is set to reopen today, will be able to visit a “lost” classical architectural space that had been forgotten about for decades. Workers doing demo work at the museum, which first opened in 1880 but has been closed for renovations since 2016, were surprised to find that when they took down a 1960’s drop ceiling, a glass-roofed, barrel-vaulted ceiling soared overhead. The end result belies the often-repeated canard that Victorian architects were only interested in dark, fussy interiors, since this space by Scottish architect George Corson (1829-1910) could not be more bright and classically inspired.

Leeds.jpg

Tanner’s Tones

The work of African-American artist Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937) is probably known to at least some of my readers, particularly his very popular “The Annunciation” (1898) now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Tanner, the son of a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and a runaway slave, painted many Biblical works infused with details from his travels in the Holy Land. He is known to have created about a dozen different depictions of “The Flight Into Egypt”, one of which was just sold at Swann’s in New York for $341,000. Tanner’s fixation on this theme stems in part from his own family’s experiences of flight and persecution, which were mirrored in the experiences of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph in St. Matthew’s Gospel account, but what really sets these nighttime scenes apart from a technical standpoint is his use of truly sumptuous blues and greens that dominate the paintings, which almost seem to dematerialize before our eyes.

M36028-15 002

More MFA

This week the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston announced the largest single bequest of European paintings to its permanent collection in the institution’s nearly 150 year-history. The van Otterloo and Weatherbie families, Boston-based art collectors, have promised a total of 113 Dutch and Flemish works to the museum, including works by Rembrandt, Rubens, Van Dyck, and many others. Along with this enormous gift, the collectors are establishing a Center for Netherlandish Art at the MFA, which will be the first of its kind in the US, and dedicated to fostering greater collaborative research and scholarship in this area. Among the numerous works now entering the MFA, Willem Kalf’s “Still Life with a Peeled Lemon” (1664) caught my eye, particularly the juxtapositions of blue and orange that one sees in the fruit, bowl, and carpet.

Untitled

Florentines In Bavaria

In conjunction with a new exhibition and accompanying catalogue, Munich’s Alte Pinakothek has just completed restoration of Botticelli’s enormous altarpiece, “The Lamentation of Christ” (c. 1492), as part of “Florence and Its Painters: From Giotto To Leonardo Da Vinci”, which opens at the venerable art museum on October 18th. The picture was originally created for the somewhat forgotten and forlorn 1,000 year-old Church of San Paolino in Florence, which at various times was used by the Dominicans, Franciscans, and Carmelites, before becoming State property. In addition to undergoing restoration, the Boticelli altarpiece, as well as dozens of other works by artists such as Da Vinci, Raphael, and others, has been newly photographed and studied for the exhibition, using the latest technological methods and research. If you happen to find yourself in Munich in the next couple of months, this is definitely a show to check out.

Boticelli

 

 

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“Savior” For Sale: Is This Da Vinci Painting Worth $100 Million?

Most of the time, art news doesn’t get front page treatment in general interest news outlets, but occasionally one comes across exceptions. Such an exception cropped up just yesterday afternoon, when both the art press and the mainstream media reacted to the announcement that the “Salvator Mundi” (“Savior of the World”), the only known painting by Leonardo Da Vinci remaining in private hands, will be auctioned next month at Christie’s in New York, with an estimated sale price of $100 million. Rediscovered and authenticated by experts only a few years ago, this extremely rare work is attracting the kind of public attention and curiosity that those of us who plod along following developments in the art world almost never get to see.

Salv

As Christie’s explains in a very thorough press release and accompanying video announcing the sale, the painting dates to around 1500, and represents Christ as the Savior of the world. The pose and imagery in this picture have a long history in Christian art, but Da Vinci’s particular take on this subject is somewhat startling; while Art Net called it “spooky”, I think the more appropriate word here would be, “intense”. (If you want genuinely creepy, Da Vinci’s “St. John the Baptist” takes the cake, as far as I’m concerned.)

Baptist

Now that the “Salvator Mundi” is on the public radar, there is going to be an enormous amount of interest in both the picture itself, and what it will ultimately sell for. As to the former, take for example the following excerpt, from an instant message that I received overnight:

“Is it my imagination, or is Christ’s face bisected vertically by shadow and emphasis for artistic effect? Indeed, the impression was so strong that I had to draw a line on my monitor to determine that his eyes were on the same level, so disconnected they seemed.

If my impression is accurate, I’d imagine this was an intentional reference to His divine and human natures. Thoughts?”

To be fair to my interlocutor, I’m not versed enough in Da Vinci’s methods or intentions to be able to state with any certainty that what he describes was the artist’s intent, particularly given the artist’s somewhat heterodox views on Christianity, but it’s certainly a plausible argument. We know that Da Vinci was one of the earliest Renaissance artists to remove any haloes or emblems of royalty from the portrayal of religious subjects, which would fit in with the notion of emphasizing Christ’s human nature. We also know from his many notebooks that Da Vinci studied areas of science which had a direct impact on the final appearance of his work, such as human anatomy and linear perspective. His “Vitruvian Man” drawing – another extremely well-known work of his that pops up all over the place – most clearly demonstrates this.

Vit

Part of the issue with the “Salvator Mundi” however, is that it’s not exactly in good nick. The face has clearly suffered from over-cleaning, so much so that the eyes are not nearly as intense today, in their faded state, as they would have been when they were new. That penetrating gaze which captures and holds our attention would be even more intense, if the painting was better-preserved.

As to the $100 million price tag, this seems to be a figure based more on rarity rather than overall quality. Despite being (arguably) the most famous of all Old Master painters, Da Vinci’s artistic legacy rests largely upon a handful of paintings, and of course his famous sketchbooks. He was never a prolific artist, too often experimented with technical methods that failed, and worse still he was easily distracted by other, non-artistic projects. He was also infamous for starting pictures that he never finished, as in his painting of “St. Jerome in the Wilderness”.

Jerome

Yet despite his relatively tiny output, many of Da Vinci’s surviving works have had and continue to have a profound influence not only on art, but also on theology, philosophy, psychology, fashion, literature, science, film, music, and so on. Just think of all the pop culture references you still come across on a regular basis recalling the most famous portrait in the world, his “Mona Lisa”, or the most well-known Christian painting in the world, his “Last Supper”, more than five centuries after they were painted. Da Vinci may not have created a lot of art, but of what he did create, he has no rival in terms of penetration and saturation of the popular imagination.

Mona

Last

Now truth be told, I’ve never liked Da Vinci’s work. I find his androgynous figures unappealing, his coloring murky, and his inability to see a project through to completion to be a character flaw, rather than a mark of great intelligence. There does come a point at which, whatever inherent genius someone may have, their inability to complete the task before them within the time allotted becomes a stumbling block, rather than a trifle to be overlooked. You’re of course welcome to disagree, but I’ve always been more impressed with the almost celestial combination of genius AND facility in the work of Raphael and Mozart than I am with the tortured writhing of Michelangelo and Beethoven.

At the same time, I don’t think that $100 million is too outlandish a sum to name for the sale of the only known Da Vinci painting that is, in fact, available for sale. While the “Salvador Mundi” is never going to become as famous as some of the other Da Vinci images that are part of our collective consciousness, it is nevertheless a hugely significant work from an art history perspective. As a rare object, even one that is something of a shadow of its former self, it will no doubt attract a and deserve a lot of attention from those who could afford the exceptionally high price of becoming its next owner.

The Assumption: One Miraculous Event, Two Different Artistic Visions

Today as many Christians commemorate the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a hugely popular theme in art history, I wanted to share two interesting images of this subject with you. Even if you don’t believe in this dogma, or aren’t even a Christian, I think you’ll be able to appreciate both the beauty and the very different approaches that these artists take in looking at the same subject, albeit two centuries apart. The paintings not only demonstrate the development of Western art, but they also show how individual artists can take a common theme and re-interpret it in very different ways, and in so doing can speak to our own individual thoughts, preferences, and emotions.

The Assumption commemorates the belief, maintained in the Catholic, Orthodox, and certain Protestant churches, that at or shortly after her death, Mary the Mother of Jesus was received into Heaven, body and soul. It’s a belief of far older origin than most people realize, and commemorations of it are documented in 500 A.D. We’re going to focus on the art, not the theology, but you can do some more reading about the latter by following this link. [N.B. This is not the place for those of you who don’t believe in this dogma to get into it with those who do, so let’s just look at the art this morning, shall we?]

Beginning in the Middle Ages and up through the Renaissance, the most popular model followed by Western artists combined the death of the Virgin Mary and her Assumption into one scene, whose content was informed partially by pious legends and apocryphal stories which brought all of the Apostles back together in Jerusalem for her funeral. This was the model followed by many artists, including Raphael, El Greco, and perhaps most famously, Titian in his altarpiece for the Franciscans at the Basilica of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in Venice. Over time, and perhaps in part due to the influence of the Counter-Reformation, this artistic model gradually fell out of favor, and artists began to depict the Assumption as an event which was primarily witnessed by angels, or by those already in Heaven, rather than by people left on earth.

Among the most richly-decorated depictions of the earlier model is that painted by the Early Italian Renaissance artist Fra Angelico around 1430-1434 for the Dominicans at the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. It’s now in the Gardner in Boston, and if you get to visit you’ll want to take some time to soak in the magnificent colors of this Late Gothic/Early Renaissance painting:

Angelico

If you’ll remember my post from last week about the origin and value of pigments in art, you’ll realize that this smallish panel – which is only about a foot and a half wide and two feet tall – must have cost a fortune to produce. Just the upper triangle with the figure of Jesus reaching down to receive His Mother alone would have been incredibly expensive to paint, given all of the blue which Fra Angelico used in this section. Yet despite all of the bling in this picture, there’s something wonderfully touching about details such as this tender and eager reunion of a Son with His Mother.

Notice also the individualized angels in Heaven playing their instruments, and the Apostles getting ready to carry the body of Mary to her tomb. I love the detail of how white-haired St. Peter is rushing over to the head of the bier, so that he can grasp one of the poles for carrying the body. In doing so he is catching up to St. John who, as in the Gospel account of the Resurrection, got there first but is waiting in deference to the Prince of the Apostles. I also love the figure of the Apostle whom I assume to be St. Jude, who is shown dressed in red and black and carrying a club, the instrument of torture with which he was martyred. His crazy-curly, unruly hair is something I can greatly sympathize with.

A completely different interpretation of the Assumption, painted two centuries later by the great French Baroque artist Nicholas Poussin in about 1630-1632, exemplifies the later model adopted by artists in depicting this event. It’s currently in the collection of the National Gallery here in Washington, and although not prominently hung it is worth seeing out, for it’s a jewel of a picture. At first glance this is a deceptively simple image, since the only concrete elements of the composition are the Virgin Mary, the chubby little angels, and the classical architectural setting – no host of earthly witnesses here:

Poussin

For me what’s particularly engrossing about this painting, apart from its glorious state of preservation and fresh colors, despite being almost 400 years old, is how it draws us in and convinces us that what we’re seeing is taking place in a three-dimensional space. The clouds wrap around the figures and draw them and our eye upward toward Heaven, a place that Mary is seeing for the very first time, with an expression of awe and wonder on her face. I also love it because despite the sense of swirling, upward movement portrayed by Poussin, this is really a quiet picture. We are privileged to see Mary returning to Her Son, but we are merely bystanders, not participants: this is a reunion that does not require an audience.

These two examples of very different interpretations of the same event show us how creativity in Western art was encouraged, rather than stifled, by the imposition of conventions, rules, and ideas. Illustrating something which was believed, but undocumented, was something of a challenge for these artists, since they had no contemporary descriptions of what the Assumption was like. And yet here we have two excellent examples of how each managed to approach the same subject in their own unique, very personal ways, creating works of art that played within the rules and yet brought out different aspects of this miraculous event for us to ponder upon, these many centuries later.