Thought-Pourri: Cut The Crap Edition

You may recall the contretemps that took place back in 1999 when a work by overrated British Contemporary artist Chris Ofili entitled “Holy Virgin Mary” (1996) went on show at the Brooklyn Museum, as part of the “Sensation” exhibition organized by the loathsome advertising mogul Charles Saatchi. Saatchi is perhaps best known on this side of the pond for an incident in 2013 involving his now ex-wife, celebrity chef Nigella Lawson, while they were dining at Scott’s, my favorite London restaurant. The only reason you may have heard of Ofili, of course, is because of this particular piece, which “features a black Virgin Mary with exaggerated features, surrounded by butterfly-like images of women’s butts cut from porn magazines. Shimmering yellow, gold, and blue, the piece rests on two spheres of elephant dung; another adorns her breast.”

Unfortunately said work, which I will not illustrate here, is now coming back to New York – permanently. It was purchased by the (equally loathsome) hedge-fund billionaire Steven Cohen in 2015 for $4.6 million, and Cohen is now donating it to the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. As someone commented to me recently, when they visit MoMA they have to avoid certain sections of the museum, and I would imagine that this piece will presumably be located in one of *those* galleries. It is a pity that our cultural institutions continue to proudly display work that can at best be described as poorly-executed manifestations of the workings of diseased minds, as supported by people of horrifically bad taste.

On that note then, on to some more interesting stories.

Saving Salus Populi

Now here’s an image of Our Lady which I’ll happily share with you. After months of careful cleaning and restoration, the medieval Byzantine icon of the Madonna known as the Salus Populi Romani (“Salvation of the Roman People”) was recently put back on display at the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. Years of dirt, soot, and grime were removed, along with badly-executed previous overpainting, to reveal the original splendor of the image of Mary holding the Child Jesus. The painting is a particular favorite of the current Pontiff: he went to pray before it on the morning after his election, and comes to visit before and after every time he travels outside the country, leaving a bouquet of white roses when he does so. In a papacy filled with many regrettable moments to date, this is at least one thing for which I can roundly applaud this pope.

Clean

So Long, Chagall

In a bit of a Scylla and Charybdis situation, the National Gallery of Canada has decided to sell one of the paintings in its permanent collection in order to purchase another painting; what’s highly unusual about this story is that the Canadians are selling a Modern painting in order to purchase an Old Master. The painting that the museum wants is by the Neoclassical artist Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), the most important French painter of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. “Saint Jerome Hears the Trumpet of the Last Judgment” (1779) is an extremely rare religious work by David, who was an anti-Catholic freemason, and dates prior to the French Revolution. The work that the National Gallery intends to sell is “The Eiffel Tower” (1929) by Marc Chagall (1887-1985). Personally, I’d rather have the Chagall, but I can understand the reasoning here. As you would imagine, this is what is known in the trade as a “developing story”, so stay tuned.

Jerome

Seeing Delacroix

Speaking of French art, The Louvre has just opened a major exhibition on the life and work of Eugène Delacroix (1798-1862), whose work as head of the Romantic school of French painting is essentially the antithesis of David’s. Personally, I’ve always found him something of a mixed bag, as I find the majority of his most famous works rather muddy and melodramatic. His portraiture, however, is often very interesting, such as in the 1837 self-portrait of the artist shown below.

If you can’t get to Paris between now and July 23rd, not to worry. The show will travel to The Met in New York from September 17th through January 6th, albeit at the slightly reduced size of 145 paintings instead of the 180 on show at The Louvre, since a number of the pieces in France cannot travel. This will be the first major American exhibition ever held on the work of Delacroix, which may cause some of us, myself included, to reconsider our currently-held views on this enormously important and influential 19th century artist. We shall see.

Autoretrato

 

 

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Goya and the Feet of Clay

We are often given the impression that artists of all sorts are operating at a level far above that of mere mortals, being so much more sophisticated than we are.  Certainly their creativity and way of putting things together to create a whole, which can communicate a universal truth or experience, is something marvelous to behold when the artist is actually talented, and not a purveyor of the Emperor’s New Clothes.  Yet paradoxically, we can go back through history and note that there are great numbers of writers, painters, entertainers, and so on who put more faith in human beings than experience and common sense would warrant.

For example, today happens to be the day when the great Spanish Romantic painter, Francisco de Goya (1746-1828), shuffled off this mortal coil.  During a convivial brunch yesterday after mass, my dining companion and I discussed his work, particularly the so-called “Black Paintings” in The Prado – which I love despite, or perhaps because of, their other-worldly creepiness.  However there is a different way to look at the art of Romantics of great intellectual capabilities and artistic output like Goya, Beethoven, and others who came to worship man as a substitute for God – if indeed, they worshiped God at all – and that is to think of them as children.

The mistake many artists make, whether Goya and Beethoven in their day, or Hollywood and the contemporary art establishment in ours, is believing that human beings can solve all of the world’s problems, if only they pick the correct leaders, and agree to work together in some sort of secular-humanist cooperative.  This idea is rubbish, as history has proven over and over again, from the Tower of Babel to the Kyoto Protocols. Among others things, the notion that human beings are going to act selflessly out of mutual interest and not out of religious conviction ignores man’s inherent tendencies toward selfishness, laziness, and ignorance, when the Eternal is pushed entirely out of the picture – and, let’s face it, sometimes even when people claim He is in the picture.

No matter how gifted, intelligent, or sophisticated they might have been, many of these people never actually became adults.  They believed whole-heartedly in the power of man, as an independent and ever-rational actor, and were disappointed to find man lacking.  The clay-footed Napoleon in particular disillusioned a great many creative types in this period, not least including Goya and Beethoven, who thought that a secular Jerusalem was about to descend from some Corsican hilltop.

In a way this type of blind faith in created things calls to mind, on a pop culture level, a scene in the popcorn film “Independence Day”.  Early on in the movie when the alien ships begin to arrive, a group of what we would recognize today as “truther” types gather on the rooftop of the U.S. Bank tower in downtown Los Angeles.  They ignore the very sound advice of authorities that they ought to stay away, and act with prudence, until the intentions of these visitors are known.  Instead, like the immature children they are, the members of the self-appointed alien welcoming committee indulge in a kind of Woodstock-like joy as the ships open, asking that they be taken up inside.  They discover, too late, that these supposedly enlightened beings are actually more than just a little bit hostile, and they want to wipe out the entire human race.

To be fair, what most of us would consider to be normal, those of an artistic bent often consider boring.  When things do not go as planned however, most of us tend to deal with these disasters as adults, picking up the pieces and moving on.  When the disasters are more epic in scope, we do our best to care for those whom we need to care for, and put aside philosophical concerns for practical ones.  Most of the time, our disasters do not involve wars, plagues, and so on, but the little things that can bring us low.

We send a payment in the mail, and it gets delayed or lost. We are just getting over the flu, when a family member gives us a sore throat.  We finally get around to mowing the lawn, and a host of weeds pop up in the garden seemingly from nowhere.   It may be conventional, and it may not be interesting, but without recognition that these things happen, and that we simply cannot fall apart every time we hit a roadblock or something goes pear-shaped, then we have no possibility of behaving with maturity.

In fact, one of the benefits of reaching maturity is the realization that nothing is ever going to work out perfectly for us in this life, for just when you have solved one problem, another has popped up somewhere else.  Most of us who are functioning adults understand that placing too much faith in the physical world, and what man can achieve by his own efforts, is inevitably going to lead to disappointments.  Those with a creative mindset on the other hand, are not always good at understanding this, and particularly when they put their faith in human beings, who have never shown themselves to be entirely trustworthy.

This is not to disparage the childlike curiosity and delight that one can find in a sprightly musical composition or an off-beat film, for we need these things if we are to build a culture.  However it bears keeping in mind that creativity alone, even when it is harsh and unflinching, is no guarantee of maturity of thought.  We are weak, feeble things; if we do not believe there is a higher authority than some sort of planned utopia coming from an executive committee of human brains, then we are probably not going to behave very well towards one another, at least not voluntarily, and the whole thing collapses.

Goya certainly came to understand this, as he saw his illusions crumble one by one, which is one reason why his art is so captivating, covering death and destruction, sickness, madness, and ultimately his OWN death.  However the best thing to take away from the work of Romantic artists like Goya, and indeed from any artistic production that seems rather bleak and hopeless, is that you are not doomed to the same fate. Putting your trust in things beyond yourself, rather than in your fellow, fallible, human beings, is a sounder way of dealing with all of the garbage, great or small, which life is going to throw at you.


“He Can Do No More at 98 Years” by Goya (c. 1801-1803)
J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles