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.

Casting Light: Rediscovering The Value Of Copying In Art And Architecture

For centuries, artists and architects who wished to closely examine important sculptures or building elements had two choices. They could travel to see these works in person, which was often prohibitively expensive. Alternatively, they could study exact, three-dimensional copies of these works, known as “plaster casts”.

The most common way of creating these copies was to cover all or part of the original piece in plaster, and after the plaster had set, remove the plaster in one piece so as to leave a negative image. This would then serve as a  mould or “cast”, from which copies could be made, by pouring fresh plaster into the voids. In the case of large or complicated pieces, after all of the component pieces had been cast, the pieces could then be joined together, in order to create a complete, full-scale version of the original.

Beginning in the 16th century, artists and private collectors had plaster casts made of original works that they themselves could not possess, or that were located far away. They would display these pieces in their homes for themselves and their associates to study and discuss. This practice later became institutionalized, with art and architecture academies, as well as museums, obtaining plaster casts for their students and the public to see and learn from.

With the decline in classical education in the West, the idea of maintaining a gallery of such copies eventually fell by the wayside. The Cast Courts at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, one of the most popular sections of that institution, were once among the largest in Europe. Today, they do not display all of the casts in the museum’s possession, although they still give a good idea of the wide variety of what was considered worth copying. Visitors can see everything from small statues to entire walls, such as the copy of the famous Romanesque sculptural-architectural Portico de la Gloria, from the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain.

Here in the US, the Metropolitan had an enormous collection of such casts, numbering over 2600 works in all. They were removed from public view back in the 1950’s and placed in storage, but some have reemerged at the Institute of Classical Architecture and Art in New York. About 120 of the Met’s casts are at the Institute’s headquarters, where they can be studied by artists, architects, and the public, as originally intended by their donors. The Institute also offers drawing classes of these objects, for those interested in following this time-honored method of education.

Even if, as in my case, you appreciate aspects of both classical *and* modern art and architecture, the idea of “both and” is far more attractive than the choice of “either or”. Our major institutions have largely forgotten that to innovate for the future does not mean to abandon the study of the past. While studying a cast copy of a Baroque capital is never going to replace the impact of seeing the original, it is still an extremely valuable tool for promoting both education and connoisseurship for us today, as well as for future generations.

Gargoyles Over Manhattan: A Skyscraper Like You’ve Never Seen Before

Skyscrapers are pretty boring.

Once you get past the Art Deco period, urban towers tend to get rather ho-hum. Even though they cost a fortune to build, most skyscrapers always strike me as looking rather cheap, banal, and infinitely interchangeable. If you could build the same thing in Detroit as in Dubai, who really cares what starchitect’s name you attach to it?

It wasn’t always this way of course, nor does it have to continue to be so, as architect Mark Foster Gage recognizes in his proposed tower for 41 West 57th Street, just south of Central Park in Manhattan. In his plans Gage, who is an Assistant Dean at the Yale School of Architecture, presents what would become a major New York City architectural landmark, both referencing the past and looking to the future. Illustration and video renderings of the project, which some are calling the “Gargoyle Tower”, can be seen on his firm’s website.

It is exciting to look at a contemporary building design which has so much richness to it, particularly as compared to most of its surrounding neighbors. The incorporation of significant, numerous sculptural elements into the structure has not been seen on this scale in Manhattan since the 1930’s. The fact that there is so much differentiation between the floors of the building provides far greater interest externally; the individualized layouts of the apartments along more sculptural lines will provide both challenges and rewards for those living in them; the rather Balinese temple-like rooftop observation deck will no doubt have a stupendous view of the city.

Gage’s proposal immediately calls to mind the work of Antoni Gaudí, which of course is why I wanted to share this with my readers. Certain elements of the design and forms are reminiscent of those employed by Gaudí in the Sagrada Familia, La Pedrera, and elsewhere, although without directly copying them. As an aside, this brings to mind the sad story of the skyscraper hotel that Gaudí designed for what is now the site of Freedom Tower in lower Manhattan, but which (sadly) was never built. You can read more about that here.

One must acknowledge that there is a kitchy aspect to Gage’s assemblage of design elements, as admittedly one finds in Gaudí’s work as well. Giant angel wings and cruise ship propellers seem as bizarre on Gage’s design as giant snails and bowls of fruit do on Gaudí’s. Yet the difference between the two lies in the approach to the decoration itself.

Whereas in his work, Gaudí was generally making nationalistic or religious references, Gage admitted in an interview with architecture and design magazine Dezeen that there was no deeper meaning behind the design for this project. While deploring the ubiquitous “glass box” tower, Gage does not attach any significance to the exterior of this project, save for its aesthetics:

“Our primary interest wasn’t symbolism as might have been the case with such sculptural forms a century ago,” said the architect. “Instead we were interested in having high and low resolution areas on the facade, so the building revealed different qualities from different viewing distances – including from the interior,” he added.

Is it fair to compare these two architects? Gaudí was, of course, a deeply Catholic, proud Catalan patriot; his idiosyncratic designs, particularly as he grew older, came more and more to reflect his desire to honor God and his homeland. By contrast Gage is a fashionable, young, and innovative architect, who wants to explore interesting and beautiful designs by using the technology at our disposal.

Perhaps it would make more sense to take Gage as he is. His effort to do something different, yet still familiar, is a tonic to the samey-ness of most contemporary skyscrapers – which haven’t really changed that much since we started building plain, glass Kleenex boxes stood on end in this country over 80 years ago. A skyscraper is, in the end, something which functions independently of its decoration: even the beloved Chrysler Building, covered in sculptural decoration referencing the automobile which paid for its construction, does not depend on its decoration for its function.

Certainly this particular building, if it is ever built, would be a magnificent and unique addition to the Manhattan skyline, not only because it is so different, but precisely because its decoration serves part of its function. One need only consider the way it uses sculpture to provide elements such as outdoor space, for example. And it is, admittedly, very cool: one can imagine Batman and the Joker leaping about it on it, in a yet-to-be-made superhero movie. Yet therein lies the rub: without imbedding some deeper meaning into its programmatic decoration, one does wonder whether, over time, it will come to be viewed as little more than a very expensive bit of set design.

Whether this skyscraper is ever built, it certainly gives us a lot to think about. And like his work or not – I’m still making up my mind – Gage is certainly someone to watch. What do you think of this project? Feel free to leave comments and engage in some discussion below.

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