Thought Pourri: What’s In Edition

Rather pressed for time today, so let’s just head to some of the headlines that I’ve picked out for your perusal:

Picasso in Provence

The really BIG news in the art world this week is that the south of France is about to score what will no doubt become a major destination for art aficionados and tourists alike. Catherine Hutin-Blay, the stepdaughter of Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) and his 2nd wife, Jacqueline Roque (1927-1986), has purchased a former Dominican convent in the town of Aix-en-Provence, which will become the home of a new museum dedicated to the artist and his muse, whom he painted over 400 times during their marriage. Mme. Hutin-Blay owns the largest number of Picassos still in private hands; the new museum will house well over 1,000 paintings, as well as sculptures, drawings, and ceramics by her famous stepfather, who is buried alongside her mother at the nearby Château of Vauvenargues. To give you some sense of the size of this institution, the new museum will have more Picasso paintings in its collection than the four extant Picasso Museums in Barcelona, Paris, Antibes, and Málaga.

As to the building itself, the Dominicans first arrived in Aix in 1272. The first convent was completed in the 14th century; this burned down and was rebuilt, but a century later it had to be demolished. The convent and the attached church of La Madeleine – dedicated to St. Mary Magdalene, patroness of the Dominican Order, were completed in the 17th century. The convent served the Order until the 18th century, when it was taken over by the provincial government. After that it became a courthouse, a barracks, a training college for teachers, a conservatory of music, and finally an all-girls high school, until it closed in June 2015.


Saint-Gaudens in New Hampshire

Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907) was one of the greatest sculptors in American art history; while his rather grand name may not be familiar to you, a number of his works probably are. Among his most famous sculptures are the “Standing Lincoln” located in Lincoln Park, Chicago, the “Shaw Memorial” on Boston Common, and possibly my favorite, the “Adams Memorial” in Rock Creek Park Cemetery here in DC (a copy of which, shown below, is located in the American Art Museum.) The Currier Museum of Art, in Manchester, New Hampshire, will be hosting a major exhibition of Saint-Gaudens’ work – not an easy task, given the size of much of it – including his iconic “Diana”, a gigantic gilded statue of the goddess of the hunt which once stood atop the 2nd (and far superior) version of Madison Square Garden in New York, designed by Saint-Gaudens’ frequent collaborator, architect Stanford White. “The Sculpture of Augustus Saint-Gaudens” opens at the Currier on Saturday, February 10th, and runs through May 20th.


Voynich in Hebrew (?)

One of the most enigmatic objects to survive from the Middle Ages is the “Voynich Manuscript”, an illuminated manuscript currently in the collection of Yale University, which has fascinated collectors, cryptologists, and scientists for centuries. So far, no one has been able to read it or make any sense of it, although theories (some of them rather crackpot) abound. It is first documented in the middle of the 16th century, even though the book itself has been carbon-dated to show that it was probably created sometime in the early 1400’s. Now, scientists at the University of Alberta in Canada, using analytic software tools, have announced that they may have cracked this seemingly indecipherable document at last, concluding that it is written in a somewhat badly spelled and slightly ungrammatical form of Hebrew. More work needs to be done, but perhaps this ancient book will finally be able to share its secrets.




Museums Get Trolled With Proposed Signs

Recently the grand, Second Empire-style Renwick Gallery here in Washington reopened its doors, following a lengthy renovation, with a rather hideous addition of signage to its stately façade.

In light of this development, Washington City Paper rather cleverly decided to photoshop some signs, symbols, and banners onto a number of museums and galleries around the Capital. (WARNING: Readers particularly sensitive to blue language may not wish to follow this link.) For those who do not live locally or who do not follow news from the art world, a bit of explanation on these submissions will be necessary:

National Museum of Women in the Arts – The addition to the façade of a pair of feminist symbols, originally the symbol for the goddess Venus, is somewhat obvious. There is certainly a particular philosophical slant to this institution. The historical irony lost on some visitors is that the building was originally a rather massive temple of Freemasonry. Make of that connection what you will.

Natural History Museum – With apologies for the language, the proposed signage pretty much sums up why a significant portion of its visitors walk through the doors of the museum. It also simultaneously reflects the current level of frustration that renovations to expand and re-display the rather significant collection of dinosaur and other fossils are taking so long. At least the mummies are still there.

Textile Museum – The banner may be somewhat tongue-in-cheek, since over the years I’ve heard people remark, “There’s a museum…of textiles?” However the collection is quite interesting, from an historical and a manufacturing perspective, even if you’re not particularly interested in cloth. The only anachronism here is that the building pictured is no longer the home of the museum, which moved to the campus of George Washington University earlier this year. 

Air and Space Museum – Chances are if you love this museum, you’re also a Star Wars fan. And if you’re a Star Wars fan, you’re probably on pins and needles waiting for the next installment of the franchise to premiere next month. The Smithsonian feels your pain.

Corcoran Gallery of Art – Once one of the grandest museums in the city, The Corcoran is no more, thanks to a number of factors, including having lost its focus as an art institution. Its collection is currently being chewed over by the leonine National Gallery, which gets first bite at the Corcoran’s massive holdings, before allowing regional museums to fight like vultures over what’s left on the bones. The building itself and the associated school of art are now part of George Washington University. 

Hirshhorn Museum – As much as I loathe the place, the banner hanging from the side of The Hirshhorn in this image is a masterwork of trolling, second perhaps only to that proposed by City Paper for the National Building Museum. The new director of The Hirshhorn has been the subject of controversy in the art press, preferring to spend more time in New York than in Washington, and – bizarrely – holding the 40thanniversary gala of the museum in Manhattan, rather than at the museum itself or in DC. As WaPo art critic Philip Kennicott put it, this was quite the “snub” to our fair city, making this proposed signage all the more perfect.

American Indian Museum – Apart from praising the building itself, the most common remark you hear visitors to this, one of the newest of the Smithsonian museums, say is that the collection is underwhelming – but the cafeteria is terrific. It has become an eating destination rather than an educational institution for many of the busloads of tourists being dropped off along the Mall. Truth be told, most of the museum cafeterias on The Mall are fairly bland and awful, so the innovative dishes on offer here offer something far better than frozen hamburger patties and microwaved pizzas.

National Building Museum – I love the National Building Museum space, and I love the concept of a museum dedicated to architecture. Unfortunately, this place tends to lose its focus a bit too often, which is why this outstanding example of trolling deserves a little explanation. This summer the NBA hosted an art installation in its grand, main hall, which was essentially a giant ball crawl for adults entitled “The Beach”. Although the balls were supposedly cleaned regularly, there was at least one reported case of pink eye, and claims of various respiratory illnesses, which visitors blamed on having plunged into the installation, described by some as smelling suspiciously like a dirty diaper. When the “art” was removed at the end of summer, large quantities of hair, skin, and other goodies were found at the bottom of the pit.    

National Gallery East Building – The National Gallery is my favorite museum in DC, and I have spent countless happy hours there looking at art, seeing films, hearing concerts, and dining with friends. It is a great treasure of which we all ought to be very proud. Sadly, the East Wing of it, by starchitect I.M. Pei, is one of my least favorite places in DC. Seemingly in a constant state of disrepair, despite having only been built in 1978, it is a shining example of why so much of Post-War architecture constitutes little more than a massive debt burden passed on to future generations.


New Signage on Renwick Gallery (via CityPaper)

Scientists Reveal A Major Art Fake…Or Copy?

We all know that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Someone who likes your mobile or your jacket, then goes out and gets the same one, is paying you a great compliment. In consumer culture, this is not difficult where many copies of the exact same thing are easily manufactured and purchased. In the collecting world however, when works of art are rare, things can prove a bit more tricky. Fortunately, scientists are stepping up to help historians sort out the flatterers and the fakers.                          
It is no exaggeration to state that the work of the Dutch painter Hieronymous Bosch (c. 1450-1516) is among the most recognizable in Western history. Love it or hate it, once you have seen one of his paintings, Bosch’s work is virtually impossible to forget. His visions of Heaven and Hell, and his pictorial commentaries on human foibles and failings, are often crammed with action, like a “Where’s Waldo?” for adults. They have even found their way into popular culture, being referenced by everyone from Metallica to Michael Jackson to “The Simpsons”.

Although Bosch’s work was prized during his own lifetime, it was not until the reign of Philip II of Spain (1527-1598) that owning a Bosch painting became a significant international status symbol. Spain ruled The Netherlands at this period – as well as about half the planet for that matter – and being very interested in the arts, Philip kept aware of what his wealthier subjects were collecting. He himself decided to collect several of what he was told were Bosch’s most seminal works, and eventually found himself in competition with other wealthy and powerful individuals who wanted to copy him and emulate his taste.

The problem with this, as you might perceive from the dates when these two men lived, is that by the time Philip came to the throne, Bosch was long dead. The king was obviously unable to meet or commission works from the artist directly, meaning he had to rely upon the representations of others that a particular work was by Bosch. And as we have just learned this week, on at least one significant purchase, His Most Catholic Majesty got duped.

The Bosch Research and Conservation Project (BRCP) is a group of international experts who have spent the past six years studying every available painting, drawing, and sketch known or suspected to be by Bosch. The researchers used not only their own experience and judgment as art experts, but also worked with closely with scientists to take advantage of technological advances available for the study of objects.  By using means such as infrared reflectography, high-resolution scanning and photography, and high-powered microscopic analysis, they were able to get as close a look as possible at these works of art.     

Although they will not formally publish their findings until January 2016, the BRCP has now determined that one of the major works purchased by Philip II for his collection is not actually by Bosch. Based on their analysis, the BRCP believes that the painting “The Seven Deadly Sins and The Four Last Things” (c. 1500), currently hanging in The Prado Museum in Madrid, was painted by one of Bosch’s pupils, rather than by the master himself.  The work of this student was so superficially similar to that of Bosch, that he often signed his pieces with his teacher’s name. Closer scientific examination enabled by the technology described above revealed that this work was not by Bosch himself. As of yet, The Prado has not commented on the BRCP’s announcement.

It could be that this unknown painter exercised that impulse which we considered above, i.e., that copying someone else is a way of flattering them. Yet here, one suspects that the artist was not so much interested in flattering his teacher, but rather in taking advantage of the desire of collectors to flatter each other. Because everyone wanted a Bosch painting, but Bosch himself only produced a limited number of paintings during his lifetime, this unknown artist was able to fill a commercial gap. True, it was not at all unusual at this time for popular artists to have studios filled with assistants, copying their works for sale to collectors, with the artist himself putting on the final touches. However in this case, it doesn’t seem as though Bosch himself had anything to do with this particular piece.

While for Bosch scholars and museums which own works purported to be by him the BRCP study will prove to be of major significance – no doubt The Prado, which has not yet commented, is hugely disappointed – discoveries like this are not really all that unusual anymore. For the past decade or so, it seems as though major findings in the art world are being announced practically every week, thanks to working collaborations between the art and science communities. Such research adds greatly to our knowledge about the works of art which we preserve in our museums and galleries.

Perhaps more importantly, these discoveries force us to reexamine what we think we know about the people who created, commissioned, and collected these pieces. We may never know for certain if this was intended as a copy or a fake. However from what we are able to piece together about the story of this particular work of art, we can see how human nature, particularly when it comes to flattery and acquisitiveness, does not change very much, no matter how many centuries go by. And that is something which Bosch himself, that master of portraying man’s weakness, would no doubt appreciate.