Thought-Pourri: Living Edition

It has been a very busy week at the Fortress of Solitude, even with the holiday thrown in on Monday that gave me a bit of time to get some much-needed matters squared away. Between work, research on upcoming travels, and keeping on top of art research and writing projects, among other things, it has not been a dull February. As the month of March nears, warmer temperatures return, and new life starts bursting forth here in the capital, there are always new things to see and think about, so here are a few for you to ponder from the world of art news.

 

Still Life

Should you happen to find yourself in Belgium or Italy in the coming months, you’ll want to check out “Spanish Still Life”, a simply-titled but object-rich exhibition of 80 works covering the development of still life painting in Spain between 1600 and the present. A joint effort by the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels (BOZAR), and the Musei Reali de Torino, the comprehensive show brings together paintings belonging to a number of private and public collections in Spain and around the world, and features works by big names such as Velázquez, Picasso, Goya, and Dalí, as well as masters of the genre who are lesser-known outside of specialist circles, but whose works have been prized by collectors for centuries, including Juan Sánchez Cotán (1560-1627) and my personal favorite, Luis Meléndez (1716-1780). Among the more unusual pieces in the show is this 1937 work by Catalan Surrealist Joan Miró (1893-1983): the artist gives these everyday objects an almost metallic quality, as if they were reflected in an oil slick. “Spanish Still Life” opens at BOZAR tomorrow, and runs through May 27th, before heading to Turin for the summer.

Miro

Low Life

While as a general rule, anything that makes the oppressive government of the People’s Republic of China unhappy makes me very happy, an exception to this rule may be found when it comes to the preservation of cultural artifacts. Some of the famous terracotta warriors from the tomb of the first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang (259 BC-210 BC) have been on loan since Christmas to the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, as part of an exhibition that runs through March 4th. It seems that a Millennial (natch) guest at a party held at the museum and some of his friends decided to sneak into the exhibition, which was closed during the festivities, and have a look at the objects on display. After his friends departed, this individual (allegedly) decided to throw his arm around one of the statues to take a selfie – WHICH I HAVE WARNED YOU ABOUT BEFORE – and then (allegedly) broke off the left thumb of one of the warriors, taking it home with him as a souvenir. As is to be expected, this imbecile apparently forgot that museums have security cameras. Good luck with your court case, brah.

Franklin

Lush Life

If you’ve ever dreamed of staying at the legendary Hôtel Ritz in Paris, now’s your chance to own a part of its history. From April 17-21, Artcurial in Paris will be auctioning off nearly 3,500 objects from the hotel, which recently underwent a major renovation and restoration. Items include everything from beds, bathtubs, and bar stools, to plush carpets and bronze lamps, as well as highly unusual objects such as a Louis XV style dog bed for a particularly pampered pooch. Some of the objects come from suites in the hotel that were habitually used by celebrities, including the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Marcel Proust and Coco Chanel. No word on whether they will playing “Fascination” – the recurring theme music in “Love In The Afternoon”, the classic 1957 Billy Wilder film starring Audrey Hepburn, Gary Cooper, and Maurice Chevalier which was shot at and centers around The Ritz – on an endless loop during the sale.

Audrey

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Thought-Pourri: Artists In Action Edition

With apologies for no post on Mardi Gras – the day itself was rather fat with things that needed my attention – we return today with a curated selection of stories from the art world, since you don’t have to fast or abstain today.

Damien Hirst: Creating Canvases

While I derided him and his work for a long time, unlike a number of others who shall not be named from the Saatchi stable of regrettable British art, I find that Damien Hirst is becoming more interesting as he ages. Perhaps best known for putting dead animals in display cases filled with formaldehyde, in more recent years Hirst has been moving in interesting directions, even as the art press seems to like the results less and less. As famous these days for his bombastic personal statements as for his art, Hirst seems to be developing a new outlook on life, whether due to his becoming a father, or accepting middle age, or simply realizing that the legacy of his art matters; many observers have commented that even his Instagram account has become, dare one say it, more introspective.

I began rethinking my views on Hirst’s work back in 2013 with his monumental – and stunningly pro-life – sculpture installation “The Miraculous Journey”, a series of 14 monumental bronzes of a human baby at all stages of development in the womb, created for the grounds of a hospital in Doha. Then there was his fascinating but critically-panned “The Wreck of the Unbelievable” at last year’s Venice Biennale, centered around an entirely made-up story of finds from a shipwreck, which supposedly contained works of art from all over the ancient world. His latest exhibition, “The Veil Paintings”, which opens at the Gagosian Gallery in Los Angeles on March 1st, features large, beautifully colored canvases inspired in part by the Pointillist period of Post-Impressionism, and also by the later Abstract Expressionist movement, albeit in a more cheerful, sunny way than the latter. Hirst being Hirst, he still creates works in the kind of bad taste that made him infamous, but alongside these more pedestrian pieces there seems to be a new seriousness in his work which, quite frankly, would serve his legacy far better.

Hirst

Antonio Banderas: Playing Picasso

Being perhaps the second most famous person to hail from the Spanish city of Málaga, it was probably inevitable that, at some point in his life, actor Antonio Banderas would be asked to play that city’s most famous native son, artist Pablo Picasso. Now, Banderas will be portraying his fellow Andalusian in not one, but two upcoming productions. For American audiences, Banderas will be seen as the older Picasso in season 2 of Director Ron Howard’s “Genius” on the National Geographic Channel, which begins airing on April 24th; you can check out the trailer here. International audiences will be awaiting the long-delayed “Picasso y Guernica” by Spain’s greatest living film director, Carlos Saura, which focuses on the creation of the most famous painting of the 20th century, and the rocky relationship between the artist and his then-muse, Dora Maar, who photographed Picasso’s work on the monumental canvas as it developed. No confirmation yet on who will be playing Maar, or Marie-Thérèse Walter, who was Picasso’s mistress at the time he began work on Guernica (and whom he left for Maar), but current rumors are that Marion Cotillard will be playing the former and Gwyneth Paltrow will be playing the latter. (Readers may not be aware that Paltrow is not only fluent in proper Castilian Spanish, but owns a home there; in fact, a colleague of mine ran into her on a plane to Barcelona not too long ago.)

Banderas

Leonardo Da Vinci: Discovering Drawings

With the buildup to the 500th anniversary of Leonardo’s death next year, you’ll be seeing all kinds of exhibitions related to the Florentine artist opening around the globe; the latest to be announced is “Leonardo Da Vinci: A Life in Drawing”, featuring works from the British Royal Collection. What is particularly interesting, from a technology perspective, is that in preparation for the show, a number of these drawings have been examined using methods such as infared light and high-energy x-rays to reveal previously unseen sketches from the master. The studies of hands shown below, for example, were photographed under ultraviolet light, to reveal drawings that can no longer be seen with the naked eye, because of the fading of the materials with which they were created. Much as I don’t personally care for Leonardo’s work, his hands really are a thing of beauty, and perhaps no artist other than Raphael ever paid such close attention to the careful study of the possibilities afforded for gestures in the human hand.

Manos

Restraint Over Glamour: A French Baroque Master Tones It Down

With yesterday’s readings at Mass continuing the story of the revolt of Absalom against his father, King David, I started wandering around the infinite rabbit hole of the interwebz, reading up on some Biblical scholarship concerning the dysfunctional Davidic dynasty, and researching some works of art depicting the tumultuous relationship between David, his wives, and his children. In the course of this, I came across a painting by Eustache Le Sueur (1617-1655) who, although he died young, was a figure of great importance in the history of French painting. Yet it was not his striking image of a scene from the calamities of King David’s family that really grabbed my attention, but rather a wonderfully quiet, introspective, and architectural painting of his which I had not seen before.

Le Sueur was one of the founders of the “Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture” (“Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture”) which, after its dissolution during the French Revolution and subsequent reestablishment under Napoleon, became one of the divisions of the “Académie des Beaux-Arts” (“Academy of Fine Arts”.) As was true of many French court artists of his period, Le Sueur’s focus was usually on rich colors, billowing draperies, beautiful bodies, and plenty of action. His “Rape of Tamar” (c. 1640), now at The Met, exemplifies this in spades. It’s interesting to note that, when taken in at a distance, the palette here is a combination of both neutrals and different shades of the primary colors (red, yellow, and blue.) As it is believed that the painting was part of a decorative cycle for a Paris mansion, it may have been that this was the color scheme for the room in which it was originally placed.

Eustache

We can contrast what was fashionable in French courtly art at this period with the height of courtly art in Spain at the exact same time. Diego Velázquez’ “The Rest of Mars” (1640), one of a series of classical/mythological subjects painted for King Felipe IV which are now in The Prado, seems as though it was painted on a different planet in a different century, not in the same year as Le Sueuer’s “Tamar”. Here, unlike the figure of Amnon in the French piece, Velázquez does not idealize his subject at all. We see an old, tired, warrior – sporting quite the handlebar mustache – who stares out at us with a look that is one of both exhaustion and suspicion. It is so unsentimental and realistic, so frank in its unglamorous portrayal of its subject, that it anticipates by several centuries the work of American artists such as Thomas Eakins and Winslow Homer.

A 4134

Yet for all of his flash, Le Sueur was not simply a decorator. Between 1645 and 1648 he painted a series of wall paintings depicting scenes from the life of St. Bruno, founder of the Carthusian Order of monks, for their monastery in Paris. These works were eventually purchased by Louis XVI, and are now part of the permanent collection at The Louvre. It is difficult to believe that the same artist who painted the rather plastic, artificial-looking “Tamar” in 1640 is the same artist who, only a few years later, painted this rather stark, realistic night scene of a group of monks gathered around the deathbed of St. Bruno. Interestingly however, note that Le Sueur is once again sticking to neutrals, something which, even with the use of primary colors in the “Tamar” picture, he knew well how to employ in his art.

Bruno

But of all the paintings in this series the one that really struck me, which I wanted to share with you today, is this one – “St. Bruno at Prayer”:

Prayer

Le Sueur has depicted St. Bruno in prayer at the most critical juncture in the saint’s life, when he has decided that the time has come for him to abandon the world and devote himself to a life of prayer and penitence. There is a pious story that the saint was persuaded to do so when, at the funeral of Raymond Diocres, a supposedly saintly and well-respected professor at the Sorbonne, the corpse briefly came back to life to exclaim that despite his good reputation, it was all false and he had been justly condemned after death as a sinner. Thus, we see two undertakers in the background, through the archway, preparing to bury the corpse of Diocres in the churchyard.

Despite the questionable veracity of this legend, St. Bruno did, around this time, begin to withdraw from the world, and did go on to found the Carthusian Order, a strict, contemplative branch of religious life which is familiar to any of my readers who have seen the superb documentary film, “Into Great Silence”. St. Bruno got his start as a religious founder rather late in life, particularly at a time when history when people did not live very long. After spending much of the first half of his life climbing the ecclesiastical ladder, he only made up his mind to abandon the world around the age of 47, and really only began that process in earnest at the age of 50.

What Le Sueur does beautifully here is create that sense of Carthusian stillness around St. Bruno, long before the Carthusians themselves came to be, where he has no distractions at all from what is going on inside his heart. Even though the picture is wonderfully simple, in keeping with the values of the Order, Le Sueur still manages to throw in some color, not only in the form of the misty landscape outside of the church, but particularly in the red curtain and altar cloth which provide the strongest tone in the entire picture. There is even a bit of red brick showing through the whitewash and plaster on one of the walls.

The figure of the saint himself, in this elegant architectural space, is beautifully observed. We only see part of his face, hidden under his floppy hair and full beard – both of which will eventually be completely shaved off – but we can tell from his pose that this is a highly emotional and deeply personal moment he is experiencing. St. Bruno is so overcome with emotion that he clasps his own arms, whether to steady himself from shaking, or whether he is symbolically embracing the new way life he has chosen to begin, as he kneels before the crucifix.

Note as well that, although this is a painting from the Baroque period, the most Baroque thing about this image are the complicated folds and falls in St. Bruno’s garment, and in the drapery above and behind him. The architecture of the church, and even the altar itself, are incredibly plain, simple, and serious. The only levity, if we are to call it that, comes from the dangling red tassel, suspended from a red cord.

Although Eustache Le Sueur died relatively young, and a number of his most important paintings (particularly those commissioned for the French Royal Palaces) have been lost, this series of images from the life of St. Bruno help to dispel the notion that he was simply another highly decorative, frivolous painter, more interested in nudes and action than in introspection and genuine emotion. Perhaps he was lucky in that, for once, those commissioning his work were interested in things that were not of this world, rather than in the glitter and flash of the visible world in which we find ourselves. And as someone who had not been familiar with his toned-down, more personal work for the Carthusians until now, I’m very glad to have become aware of them.