Thought-Pourri: Lost And Found Edition

Thanks to travel, Thanksgiving, and a trip to the dentist, I’ve not had the chance to post recently, so let’s get back into the swing of things with the weekly roundup of some news from the art and design world.

Lost: Marketing Michelangelo

In what seems something of an unusual decision, an Italian civil court has ruled that a tour guide operator must immediately cease and desist using images of Michelangelo’s “David” to advertise its tours of the Accademia in Florence, where the monumental statue is housed. While the motive for the lawsuit, which was brought by the museum, appears to have centered around the inflated pricing of the tour company (entrance to the museum normally costs around $9.50 while the company charges over $53), it has implications for other Italian cultural institutions as well. “The director of the Uffizi gallery,” The Guardian notes, “which brims with renaissance masterpieces, said it was preparing similar claims.” Will this mean a corresponding decline in the use of unlicensed images of the David and other works of Italian art for things such as fridge magnets?


Lost: Departing Dalí (?)

Catalan Surrealist Salvador Dalí (1904-1989) is primarily known for his bizarre paintings, but he made a number of bizarre objects, as well, including a telephone shaped like a lobster, and a sofa shaped like the lips of American actress and entertainer Mae West (1893-1980). The sofa was originally commissioned by British art collector Edward James (1907-1984) for his country house, which was filled with Surrealist art and furnishings. The first of the two owned by James went under the hammer at Christie’s London on December 15th, 2016; Christie’s sold the second in February of this year. The British government has just stepped in and placed a temporary export ban on the second couch, to allow time for funds to be raised in order for the piece to remain in the UK. As there are several of these by Dalí in existence, and this particular one was slightly altered by James to fit in his house, I’m not sure that it will attract a great deal of public support, but stay tuned.


Found: Missing Magritte

Speaking of Surrealism, regular readers will recall that, about a year ago, I reported that art restorers had discovered a missing piece of a painting called “The Enchanted Pose” (1927), by the Belgian Surrealist René Magritte (1898-1967). The large canvas had vanished in the early 1930’s, when the artist asked the gallery that had been displaying it to return the picture to him. Over the past decade or so, researchers were surprised to discover that at some point Magritte chopped up the painting, and used the resulting, smaller-sized canvases for subsequent works, all painted in about 1935-36: “The Portrait”, now in the MoMA collection, “The Red Model” in Stockholm’s Modern Art Museum, and “The Human Condition”, at the Norwich Castle Museum. Now, Art Daily reports that the final piece of the puzzle was just discovered in the Magritte Museum in Brussels, beneath a painting titled “God Is Not A Saint”.


Found: Murillo Masterpiece

A last-minute addition to The Frick exhibition on the portraiture of Spanish Old Master painter Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617-1682), which I mentioned a few weeks ago, is a rediscovered portrait by the great Spanish Baroque artist. Previously dismissed as a copy of a lost work, the portrait of writer and aristocrat Don Diego Ortiz de Zúñiga was examined up close by Spanish art expert Benito Navarrete Prieto, from Murillo’s hometown of Seville, and determined to be the real thing – and not before time, either. Navarrete Prieto made the discovery just three days before The Frick exhibition opened, and the museum was able to accommodate the loan from Penrhyn Castle in Wales, where the painting has been hanging for over a century. Previously for the show. I suspect the exhibition catalogue is going to have to be rewritten, as this is a major find when it comes to Murillo’s body of work, given the rarity of the artist’s portraits, and the exceptional quality of this piece.


Thought-Pourri: Art And Architecture Stories For Your Perusal

Event: The Future Of Architecture

The National Civic Art Society will be hosting a discussion at the ultra-posh Cosmos Club here in the Nation’s Capital on Tuesday, November 14th, titled “”Dramatic Cultural Change and the Future of Architecture.” The speakers, Duo Dickinson and Michael G. Imber, are not only both practicing architects, but journalists as well, each having substantial experience in writing and speaking about a variety of topics and trends in the field of architecture. They will be looking at the role which architecture ought to be playing in contemporary society, and the question of whether it should be embracing, rejecting, or otherwise adapting architecture of the past to the needs of the future. The event is free and open to the public, but you must register by following this link.

Dalí, Disappeared

Check out this absolutely fascinating story from Allison McNearny at The Daily Beast about the mystery surrounding a lost Salvador Dalí painting of Jesus. In February 1965, the great Catalan Surrealist was scheduled to visit prisoners on Rikers Island, the New York City incarceration facility well-known to viewers of the “Law & Order” television franchise. Too ill to attend, he instead sent a painting of the Crucified Christ, which he quickly executed that morning in his suite at the St. Regis Hotel. What happened next would be perfect fodder for an investigation by Jack McCoy, et al., including forgery, larceny, official corruption, and multiple trials. To this day, no one knows whether the painting still exists.

Magritte, Illuminated

Speaking of the Surrealists, an iconic work from that art movement is up for sale, if one of my readers wants to buy me an early Christmas present. “L’empire des Lumières” (1949) by René Magritte is one of a series of similar works which the Belgian painter created to tickle the mind’s fancy. The lower part of the picture depicts a street scene at night, illuminated only by street lights or unseen lamps burning within the buildings; completely incongruously, the sky depicted above is that of a bright, sunny day. Magritte painted several variations on this theme into the early ‘50s, and these are currently in display in various art museums around the world, including both the Guggenheim and MoMA.

This particular painting however, which is the very first in that series, was acquired by Vice President Nelson Rockefeller in 1950, and has never come under the hammer before. It’s being auctioned by Christie’s New York during its Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale on Monday, November 13th. The sales estimate is $14-18 million, but this is such a famous and important work of Modern art, and carries such an elite pedigree from a provenance point of view, that I would expect it to fetch a far higher price.

A Fool And His Money?

And in fact, a deep-dive into trying to understand the prices for Modern and Contemporary Art, versus those paid for Old Master and Romantic Art, are the thing in this interesting article over on Blouin ArtInfo. Michael Podger examines in detail a phenomenon which I’ve often written about in these pages: the comparatively paltry sums obtained at auction for Old Master paintings, as compared to works by Modern and Contemporary Artists. Podger takes the proverbial bull by the horns, digging deeply into the wealth of sales data on works by major artists such as Raphael and Titian.

He concludes that while many of the Old Masters are comparatively immune from the vicissitudes of trendiness, current monetary values may reflect not only a lack of appreciation for the skill employed in the creation of these older works, but also a lack of knowledge and sophistication on the part of current collectors when it comes to the subject matter of these pictures. “What this suggests is that the market sets no real store by the craft evident in Old Master paintings or by the care with which they were painted,” he notes, before comparing the work of Agnolo Bronzino and Peter Paul Rubens to that of the (grossly-overrated) Jean-Michel Basquiat. “Or perhaps many Old Master paintings are simply too subtle for contemporary tastes and require study and knowledge before they reveal themselves fully. Because of this they fail to offer the instant visual hit that many collectors crave.” It’s a long analysis, and as a blog post it can’t possibly touch on all of the causes for the present state of the art market, but it’s well-worth reading.



Puzzle Piece: A New Clue In The Hunt For A Missing Magritte

A major discovery in the art world has museums and collectors around the world on the hunt for the last remaining piece of a major art puzzle, which involves one of the 20th century’s most iconic and popular artists, and one of his lost masterpieces.

The work of Belgian Surrealist René Magritte (1898-1967) is probably well-known to you, even if you are unfamiliar with his name. For example, Magritte’s 1929 painting “The Treachery of Images”, which is now in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, has inspired many Pop Art and indeed pop culture imitations. The canvas features the image of a pipe, with the words “Ceci n’est pas un pipe.” (“This is not a pipe.”) in cursive underneath.

Even more famously, Magritte returned several times to the image of a man dressed in a raincoat, suit, and tie, sporting a bowler hat, with his face obscured by an object such as an apple, an umbrella, a bird, and so on. Among these his painting “The Son of Man” from 1964, currently in a private collection, is probably the best known. You may recall that in the 1999 remake of “The Thomas Crown Affair”, starring Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo, the painting inspired the final heist sequence in the film, where a group of conspirators dressed like Magritte’s man in the bowler hat all dashed about, confusing the police.

In 1927 Magritte painted and exhibited a large canvas titled “The Enchanted Pose”. It showed a room in which two identical nude women are shown leaning against two column bases. At first glance the picture owes a great deal to the artist’s contemporary, Pablo Picasso, but it also anticipates by almost a decade Picasso’s later, similar series of portraits and compositions featuring his mistress Dora Maar. 

While the painting was exhibited and well-received, it disappeared sometime after 1932 when Magritte asked that it be shipped back to him from the art gallery where it was being displayed. Magritte never told anyone what had happened to the picture, and for decades after his death, art historians assumed that the piece had been destroyed.Howver it turns out that the famously thrifty Magritte found another use – or rather, uses – for his painting.

In 2013, conservators at the Museum of Modern Art in New York were working on a Magritte in their collection ahead of a major exhibition on the artist, and had the painting x-rayed. They were shocked to discover that underneath Magritte’s 1935 painting “The Portrait” was another painting, which also appeared to be by Magritte. Further research led them to conclude that the canvas was ¼ of the original, large canvas on which “The Enchanted Pose” had been painted. Soon after this discovery, a second ¼ of the lost painting was discovered underneath another Magritte painting from 1935, “The Red Model”, which is now in the Moderna Museet in Stockholm.

Then last week, the Norwich Castle Museum in England announced the discovery of a third part of Magritte’s “The Enchanted Pose”, hidden beneath his painting “The Human Condition”, also from 1935. That means that there is just ¼ of the original painting left to be found, although we can’t know for certain whether the missing portion of the painting was kept at the same size, or whether Magritte divided it into even smaller pieces. Given both the last known mention of “The Enchanted Pose” and the dates of the works painted on the three sections of it which have been discovered so far, it seems probable and indeed likely that the remaining quarter – if it is a quarter – was probably painted over in 1935 as well.

While Magritte’s decision to destroy his original painting may seem strange, this is not at all unusual in art history. Sometimes artists will destroy or repurpose paintings which they have been unable to sell, for example, and speculation is that this is what occurred here. At other times, artists may decide to reuse old canvases because they cannot afford to buy new ones, or when they are not satisfied with the result of their work. A great number of paintings, when x-rayed, reveal other images or sections of images, painted beneath what we see on the surface.

Unfortunately, as is almost always the case with re-used canvases, Magritte’s “The Enchanted Pose” can never be reassembled outside of old photographs and virtual reality. To do so would involve destroying the later works of art which Magritte painted over the fragments of his original painting, and that could not be justified given the equal or at least comparable importance of the later works he painted. Nevertheless, the hunt for the missing piece or pieces of his lost painting will go on – providing exactly the sort of nerdy detective story which makes the study of art history so endlessly fascinating.

The Enchanted Pose by René Magritte (1927)