​Old-Fashioned Wonder: Damien Hirst And “The Wreck Of The Unbelievable”

If you’ve not yet seen images from British artist Damien Hirst’s colossal installation at the Palazzo Grassi, “The Wreck Of The Unbelievable”, timed to coincide with this year’s Venice Biennale, you may be surprised to see what he has been working on for the last several years. The show has divided the art press, with comparisons to the Titanic in size and luxury, as well as in the sense of a massive failure at sea. Yet the elements of storytelling, craftsmanship, and sheer spectacle in an historic and mythological vein which have gone into Hirst’s latest effort make it one of the few installations of contemporary art that I can recall which appears interesting enough to actually warrant seeing, should you happen to find yourself in Venice between now and the end of the year.

“The Wreck of the Unbelievable”, is a combination of sculpture, film, and other elements, which purports to tell the story of a shipwreck from long ago, in which the property of an art collector from the ancient world went down into the deep for centuries. The fact that some of these pieces represent elements from more recent popular culture, like Mickey Mouse, while others juxtapose figures from different mythologies, such as a Hindu deity fighting a monster from Ancient Greece, indicate otherwise. The combination of cultures, materials, and styles, all tied together by the fiction of their underwater discovery, allows the viewer to think about interesting combinations of times, periods, and myths from old and new civilizations.

The Art Newspaper, in giving an overview, characterized this installation fairly well in stating: “This is what art looks like when unbridled ambition meets apparently limitless financial resources.” The end result of this meeting is absolutely massive, and there is no more massive element than the 60-feet-tall headless “Demon With Bowl” statue that fills the atrium of the museum where the show is housed through December of this year. Reports are that a majority of the works have already been sold, meaning that Mr. Hirst, who invested a significant portion of his own money in the show, and his backers will have gambled and won.

One of those backers is François Pinault, who owns the palace where the show is currently installed. M. Pinault is a long-time collector and supporter of Hirst’s work; he also happens to be Salma Hayek’s father-in-law, for those of you who follow such things. As the owner of numerous high-profile companies, including Christie’s auction house and the Gucci fashion label, he has the wherewithal to help make this rather intimidating spectacle happen. At the same time, he has been able to draw in the support of his friends and peers at the real one percent end of the scale, many of whom are no doubt going to want some of these pieces for their own collections.

Perhaps it was not difficult to predict that Hirst, who has moved away from the dot paintings and dead animals in formaldehyde which originally made him (in)famous, had planning something big for the last few years – and I mean really, REALLY big. He has become increasingly interested in monumental sculpture, and regular readers will recall my surprise at his (perhaps unintentionally) pro-life installation in Doha, which consists of gigantic bronze sculptures of a child in the womb. I was struck at the time by his comments about the journey from conception to birth, something which he came to appreciate when he became a father.

While for logistical reasons I won’t be seeing this new show, the implications of both the Doha installation and this latest exhibition leave me a bit worried. This is now the second time in the last few years that I’ve found myself liking an artist who, when I was living in London back in the 1990’s, I could not stand. Now I find myself in the position of defending Hirst against the hypocrisy of the art press, who level the same sort of criticism at him that they refuse to level at twisted, untalented hacks such as Grayson Perry or Ai WeiWei.

I will never see the merit of putting a dead shark in a box, but I do see the merit in Hirst’s more recent work, because in its way it is surprisingly rather old-fashioned. My armchair take on this latest show is that Hirst is exploring mythology through spectacle, but in a way that a contemporary audience can understand and appreciate. In doing so, he is following a very traditional path, that was for many centuries a part of Western art history.

Whether you were a Medici throwing a banquet in 16th century Florence, or a Vanderbilt throwing a New Year’s Party in late 19th century Newport, when you wanted to put on a show, you wanted your guests to relish not only your wealth and taste, but also your appreciation of the past. Thus, artists and artisans working for tastemakers from the ancients up through comparatively recent times created images of gods and goddesses, heroes and monsters, from long-vanished civilizations to decorate palaces, entertain people on stage, and so forth. They imagined these figures in songs and in poetry, in cakes and desserts and in enthralling stories. Elaborate tableaux, with costumes, architecture, and so on, created by some of the most famous painters and sculptors in history, were put together for the entertainment and the education of the elite and their guests.

In a way, I see Hirst and Pinault doing something similar. In inviting guests into his palace, Pinault is providing the same opportunity for wonder that one of the Sforzas would have provided visitors in Milan wanting to see some new curiosity from the hand of Leonardo Da Vinci. By no means is Hirst, of course, a genius of the level of Leonardo. But given how interesting and engaging this show is, he has created something which, at least in some respects, an artist like Da Vinci would have recognized. And that’s good enough for me.

“Demon With Bowl” in the atrium of the Palazzo Grassi

A Michelangelo Returns Home For Holy Week

Just in time for Holy Week, which begins this Sunday, one of Michelangelo’s most beautiful religious sculptures has been put back on display in the Florence church for which he created it.

In 1492, following the death of his patron Lorenzo de Medici in whose palace he had been living, the 17-year-old Michelangelo went to stay with the Augustinians at the Basilica of Santo Spirito in Florence. He did so partly out of the need for new digs, but also in order to study the anatomy of the bodies of the recently dead, as the friars ran a hospital for the poor. In gratitude for his time there, the artist carved a large, wooden sculpture of the crucified Christ, which at one time was placed above the high altar in the main part of the church.

This Crucifix was known to later Renaissance writers such as the first great art historian, Giorgio Vasari, but its whereabouts had been lost over the centuries. It was only rediscovered in the 1960’s in a hallway of the friary, unrecognizable beneath layers of dirt and bad paint jobs. Now, after restoration and a lengthy tour, the sculpture has been placed back on display in Santo Spirito, although in the sacristy rather than in the main church. In the early 17th century, a large Baroque baldachin or canopy was erected over the high altar, which is probably why the Crucifix was moved in the first place.

At the time when the young Michelangelo created this piece, his figures were elegant and graceful, but nevertheless monumental. The Crucifix was carved almost life-size, in a realistic fashion, while his over-life-size Pietà and colossal David were still several years away. There is as yet no trace of the bulky, roided-out figures that came to characterize his later work.

Unusually in art history, Michelangelo’s figure of Christ was sculpted completely nude, rather than covered by a loincloth. We know that Michelangelo preferred to portray nude figures whenever possible, even in religious works. Famously, many of the figures in his later fresco of “The Last Judgment” in the Sistine Chapel are completely naked, including that of Christ Himself. Of course – and this is only my personal theory – the tradition in Italy, Spain, and elsewhere of dressing statues in actual articles of clothing so as to heighten their realism, as one sees in the annual Holy Week processions in Seville, might suggest that this Crucifix originally had a loincloth of actual fabric wrapped around it.

From an historical perspective, there is a strong argument to be made that Jesus was probably completely naked when He was crucified, even though we rarely see this portrayed in art. Nudity was commonly part of the Romans’ choreographed humiliation of this very public form of execution. However, Christian artists have tended to shy away from full nudity in their representations of the adult Jesus.

At the same time, an argument could be made that Jesus did have some sort of loincloth, for political reasons. Judea in the 1st Century was a hotbed of insurrection, often spearheaded by fundamentalist Jews violently opposed to Roman rule, and factions of religious leaders insistent upon strict public observance of the religious law. These individuals may have found the public nudity of a fellow Jew, even a convicted blasphemer and condemned criminal, to be a cause of scandal or of potential ritual uncleanliness to the population – particularly for an execution taking place outside the walls of Jerusalem during Passover, as pilgrims were heading in and out of the holy city.

In any case, I must confess that I do have a quibble with the reinstallation of this piece, much as I appreciate the fact that it is back in a church where it belongs, rather than hanging in a museum. The decision to suspend the Crucifix from the ceiling of the sacristy seems to me a poor one. Yes, I understand the idea that this method of display allows people to walk around the piece and admire it from all sides, without crowding in front of the altar. Yet to me, the net effect is to turn this devotional object into something with an unreasonable expectation of movement. While it will not turn and shift in the air currents of the building as, say, a mobile by Alexander Calder would do, it nevertheless does at least slightly lessen its spiritual impact by hanging in the middle of the room, and evoking the possibility that at it might start to spin or weave from side to side.

Still, hopefully this newly restored and reinstalled masterpiece by one of the world’s most important artists will once again become a focal point in the upcoming Holy Week observances for both the people of Florence and visitors to Santo Spirito.

Portraying Politicos: The Real Art Of The Possible

​This weekend The Federalist published my brief survey of some of the work created thus far by the Contemporary Art world both for and against Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump are just the latest public figures to come under artistic scrutiny. In art history, political personages have frequently served as sources for both artistic inspiration and artistic patronage. Sometimes the results can be magnificent works of art, but at other times, the attempt to glorify a political leader can turn out to be rather ridiculous.

Portraiture is an easy way for artists to highlight the power and influence of a political figure. For example, in Diego Velázquez’ magnificent “Portrait of Pope Innocent X” (1650) at the Galleria Doria Pamphilj in Rome, the painter portrayed the politically powerful pontiff in such an insightful way, that it is still recognized as one of the finest portraits ever created in the history of art. The challenge of painting such a physically unattractive figure was no small task; even the Pope himself was said to remark that the intense, sharp gaze and the blotchy skin was “all too true”. Nevertheless the artist managed to successfully straddle the delicate line between idealism and realism in capturing the intensity of his subject, and giving the impression that here was a very serious leader, whom you did not want to tangle with.

Sculptor Penelope Jencks’ pleasing “Eleanor Roosevelt” (1996), located on Riverside Drive in New York City, was, ironically enough, unveiled by Mrs. Clinton herself back when she was First Lady. Mrs. Roosevelt was a physically unattractive woman, and to many on the Right she remains a political anathema. However in this sculpture, Jencks managed to create an interesting, powerful portrait of an important political figure, without over-idealizing her subject. It is a thoughtful, reflective piece, with its “listening” pose and casual stance, as Mrs. Roosevelt is shown resting against a stone with her ankles crossed. It manages to flatter the memory and influence of Mrs. Roosevelt, without pretending that she was some sort of goddess.

On the other side of the coin, we find Agnolo Bronzino’s strange, Mannerist portrait of about 1537-39, “Grand Duke Cosimo de Medici As Orpheus”, now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The young Grand Duke of Tuscany is portrayed (rather surprisingly) in the nude, and given the attributes of Orpheus from Greek mythology. He is shown playing music intended to soothe the three-headed dog Cerberus, guardian of the gates of Hades, who is lurking in the background. One theory in trying to understand this image is that it was intended as a political allegory, symbolizing how the newly-restored Medici dynasty would bring back quiet and calm to Tuscany, with the abolition of the Florentine Republic. Yet if such was the intent behind this painting, by turning the scion of a political family into a god, one cannot help but chuckle at the result.

Similarly, if you have visited the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., you may have seen the monumental sculpture by Horatio Grennough titled “Enthroned Washington” (1840). To mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of 1st U.S. President, Congress commissioned a statue from Grennough designed to evoke the heroic, long-vanished seated statue of Zeus from Mount Olympus by the Ancient Greek sculptor Phidias. The completed statue of Washington was originally placed in the grandeur of the Capitol Rotunda, but it drew so much controversy and laughter as a result of its semi-nude appearance, that Congress moved it to the East Lawn of the Capitol. It was later given to the Smithsonian, and has resided in the more modest surroundings of the National Museum of American History since the 1960’s.

Art meant to praise a political figure is one thing; art meant to criticize one is another. If today’s political candidates see themselves as being unfairly and crudely skewered by the art world, they should realize that they are in fact in good historic company. The English Civil War, the Russian Revolution, and the Spanish Civil War, among others, all featured a wide distribution of popularly available prints and illustrations, which in many cases led to the general acceptance of politically-motivated lies as truth. Often these works were crude, pornographic, racist, or just plain trash.

Anyone with common sense can look at such pieces, and dismiss them as nothing more than poorly-executed works of art. However if you do not believe that art critical of the establishment can lead to real political consequences, search for some of the lascivious engravings of false allegations that were widely circulated regarding Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette before the fall of the French Monarchy. Many of the lies propagated by these works ended up being alleged as facts against the King and Queen at their respective trials, and subsequent executions.

During the Eighty Years’ War, art created with the intent of crudely insulting one’s political opponents was very popular on both sides of the conflict. This was the long slog between Catholic and Protestant powers for control over what is today Belgium and The Netherlands. Because of the length of the conflict, the wealth of the combatants, and the fact that this was all taking place against the backdrop of one of the greatest artistic flowerings in European history, many highly individual, and rather insulting, works of art were created during this battle of wills.

One interesting example of this is “Queen Elizabeth I Feeds the Dutch Cow”, a painting by an unknown 16th century Netherlandish artist which is currently in the Rijks Museum in Amsterdam. In it, we see King Philip II of Spain riding a cow, which is meant to symbolize his power over The Netherlands. Unfortunately for Philip, he cannot move his mount forward despite his spurring, because the Dutch Protestant leader William of Orange has the proverbial bull – er, cow – by the horns, and the cow herself is being fed by the equally Protestant Queen Elizabeth I of England.

At around the time this work was painted, Elizabeth had entered into trade agreements with the Dutch, which allowed the rebels greater means by which to hold out against the Spanish. Meanwhile Frederick, Duke of Anjou, to whom the rebellious Dutch had offered sovereignty when they rejected Philip, and who then proceeded to get himself thrown out of Holland after a disastrous uprising against him at Antwerp, is shown in the picture as well, being defecated on by the cow. A final individual in the painting is wearing Spanish court dress as he milks the cow from underneath, but the artist shows that this fellow is about to get kicked or trod upon by the cow.

While this painting was created to insult Spanish politics, another work of art dating from roughly the same time and place seeks to do the exact opposite. In about 1570, another unknown Netherlandish artist created a highly political sculpture titled “The Grand Duke of Alba Defeats The Enemies of Philip II”, which is still held in the Ducal collections of the House of Alba. It features the 3rd Grand Duke of Alba, Fernando Álvarez de Toledo, attacking a monstrous, three-headed hydra. What makes it particularly interesting and political however, is that the three heads of the hydra are caricatures of three of Philip’s greatest political enemies: Pope Paul IV, Queen Elizabeth I of England, and Augustus, Elector of Saxony.

All three of the leaders who make up the monster which the Duke of Alba is trying to slay caused significant political headaches for Philip, and all three had to tangle with the Duke of Alba on more than one occasion. Thus, while the sculpture certainly flatters the Grand Duke and, by extension, Philip himself, its more important, political purpose is to insult other European leaders who were opposed to Spanish political ambitions. In reality, only Pope Paul managed to find himself bested by Alba, but then even popes were rarely Catholic enough for Spanish standards. As a result, this piece of political propaganda is, to some extent, an example of wishful thinking.

Whether created to support, flatter, or disparage a particular figure, these portrayals of powerful politicians continue to fascinate, as well as to inform both our understanding of these individuals, and the times in which they held sway over government and society.