Thought-Pourri: Art News This Week

Before we take a look at some arts stories that caught my interest this week, I want to invite you to join me for a Baroque concert at my parish of St. Stephen Martyr in Foggy Bottom, tomorrow evening at 7:30 pm.

The program for “But They Are At Peace: Music For The Feast Of All Souls” contains pieces for choir, organ, and soloists by Johann Sebastian Bach and the early German Baroque composer Heinrich Schütz. Featuring the Musica Spira ensemble as well as musicians from the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception here in Washington and the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, the concert begins at 7:30 pm and admission is free; there will be a free-will offering for donations to support the excellent music at St. Stephen’s. Details and directions may be found by following this link. I hope to see many of you there, and if you spot me in the audience please do come up and say hello!

Concert

And now, on to the news roundup:

A Sedona Surrealist Surprise

Much to the surprise of everyone, Bonhams auction house has announced that the star of its upcoming Impressionist and Modern Art Sale in November will be “Ohne titel (Sedona Landschaft)” [“Unititled [Sedona Landscape”], a painting of Sedona, Arizona by the great German Surrealist painter, Max Ernst (1891-1976), which had nearly been forgotten. Ernst painted the intensely-colored work during a visit to Arizona in 1957, and gifted it to a local surgeon; it has remained with the doctor’s family since then, and was last exhibited in 1961. The estimate of $500-$700k is, to my mind, rather low, but then again the work is only about 2 feet long and 18 inches high – perfect for over the sideboard. As I will be traveling to Sedona myself for a few days later next month, I’ll have to do a side-by-side comparison of Ernst’s painting alongside a far less important snap from my phone over on my Instagram account.

Ernst

Caravaggio and the Code of Silence

The myth that art theft is usually carried out by a sort of gentleman cat burglar, like Thomas Crown, Danny Ocean, or John Robie, is blown out of the water in this very interesting piece over on Vice. Art theft detective extraordinaire Charley Hill, who has helped in the recovery of a number of major art heists over the years, recounts the twists and turns involved in seeking one of the items he is still searching for, nearly 50 years after it went missing. “The Adoration of the Shepherds” (1609) by Caravaggio was stolen on Mafia orders from the Oratorian Church of San Lorenzo in Palermo back in 1969; it’s a very unusual work, completely different from Caravaggio’s better-known (and more conventional) version of the same subject, also painted in 1609. To this day, no one knows whether the missing altarpiece still exists, or who has possession of it. Hill believes he has an idea of where it is, and he’s determined to get it back.

Cara

Rocky Road for Rockwells

Regular readers will recall my take last month on the upcoming sale of two paintings by popular 20th century American artist Normal Rockwell, alongside a number of other works of art, which the artist had donated to the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. The plot has thickened somewhat of late. The Rockwell family has now joined a group suing the Berkshire to halt the sale, and requested a temporary restraining order while that issue is being decided; the State AG’s office also seems to be investigating. Meanwhile, the museum’s director has temporarily stepped down for medical reasons, in an unusual bit of either chance or timing. Stay tuned, as this fight is getting more and more interesting.

Rockwell

The Banality of Basquiat and Brown

Two of the most famous American names in Modern Art and Popular Fiction are the late Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) and writer Dan Brown. Both created work that can be safely categorized as pseudo-intellectual garbage that commands utterly unreasonable prices, whether in terms of auction sales or box office receipts. For your pleasure and mine, then, I’d like you to enjoy a pair of absolutely scathing, wonderfully written take-downs. The first comes from the great British art critic Waldemar Januszczak who, in characterizing a major new exhibition of Basquiat’s work at The Barbican in London, is left shaking his head: “This really is what the art world has become: a shallow, uneducated, disingenuous, over-moneyed, rapacious chewer-up of proper artistic values.” Meanwhile over at The Week, Matthew Walther’s piece on Dan Brown’s latest novel, “Origin”, is an absolute howl, noting that no gifted writer of thrillers “would dare to begin with several chapters of a man taking a guided tour of a museum complete with unevocative descriptions of each work of art and follow it up with such varied set pieces as a conversation in a boat, a conversation on a plane, and a conversation in a driverless Tesla SUV before settling in to two more long conversations in an apartment and an office building.”

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Dalí’s “Daughter” Is A Dud

As I suspected, a court-ordered paternity test carried out on the remains of Salvador Dalí, at the behest of a woman who claimed to be his illegitimate daughter, has revealed that she is not, in fact, the offspring of the Catalan Surrealist.

Regular readers will recall that I reported on the bizarre claims of fortune teller Pilar Abel, who for decades has been trying to prove that she was the result of an alleged affair which took place between Dalí and a maid working near his summer house on the Costa Brava back in 1955. In July of this year, Ms. Abel successfully persuaded a Spanish court to order the exhumation of the late artist, who is buried in the crypt of the museum bearing his name in the city of Figueres. The exhumation took place on July 20th, and analysis of the DNA of both the artist and the palm reader was carried out by the National Institute of Toxicology and Forensic Sciences in Madrid. Formal notice that Ms. Abel is not the daughter of Dalí was issued by the Court of First Instance in Madrid yesterday.

A statement released by the Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, which administers the late artist’s estate, including the three museums in Catalonia dedicated to his life and work, reads in part:

This conclusion comes as no surprise to the Foundation, since at no time has there been any evidence of the veracity of an alleged paternity. The unusual and unjustified court decision to practice the exhumation is confirmed as totally inadequate and disproportionate, showing its utter inadmissibility and the uselessness of the costs and damages caused of all kind, in respect of which the Foundation reiterates its express right of actions.

The Foundation is pleased that this report puts an end to an absurd and artificial controversy, and that the figure of Salvador Dalí remains definitively excluded from totally groundless claims. The Dalí Foundation is also pleased to be able to focus again on the management of its extraordinary artistic legacy and in the promotion of the work and figure of Salvador Dalí.

In other words it appears that the Foundation intends to, if I may quote Professor Bauer’s advice from my first day of Civil Procedure back in law school, “sue all the bastards” – pun intended.

I’m certainly no expert on Spanish law, whether it be their rules of evidence or indeed the basis in law for claiming damages following an unsuccessful paternity suit. But what always struck me as being particularly odd about this exceedingly odd case – particularly after TWO previous genetic tests failed to establish the veracity of Ms. Abel’s claim – was the fact that, at least according to most of the press reports that I’ve seen, the judge in this case ordered the late artist’s exhumation predicated mainly upon the testimony of a single witness: to wit, a friend of Ms. Abel’s mother, who claimed that the former maid had always told her that Ms. Abel was the result of a summer (ahem) dalliance with Dalí. I don’t quite understand how, given the paucity of evidence in this case, that such testimony could prove persuasive enough for a reasonable finder of fact to order something as drastic as an exhumation.

As of this writing, Ms. Abel has not issued a statement regarding the outcome of the test, but in closing, I’ll just let Dalí speak for himself:

Quote

The World’s Greatest Swimming Pool (That Never Was)

We could probably nominate a number of structures as candidates for “World’s Greatest Swimming Pool”. For example, the “Neptune Pool”, a Greco-Roman fantasy by architect Julia Morgan at Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California comes to mind. It incorporates not only a wealth of decorative tile work, statuary, and other ornaments, but even the restored façade of an actual Roman temple which publisher William Randolph Hearst imported to the U.S. But for my money, the greatest of all swimming pools was one designed by the Catalan Surrealist Salvador Dalí – which was never built.

Back in the 1950’s, Dalí created a set of 6 tiles for a massive swimming pool, which was supposedly commissioned by a member of the regime of Spanish dictator General Francisco Franco. Called “The Catalan Suite”, the tiles bore images of different elements which the artist associated with the seaside in Catalonia, including the sun, starfish, compass roses, birds, and trencadís (the broken tiles often used by the Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí.) The bright colors would have sparkled beneath the surface of the water in the strong Mediterranean sunlight.

The most likely candidate for the commission, it seems to me, was Eugeni d’Ors, like the artist a fellow Catalan conservative and Franco supporter, who was often put in charge of overseeing artistic commissions by the Spanish government. Dalí and d’Ors had known each other for many years, since the older d’Ors was a friend of Dalí’s uncle and a fellow member of the Ateneu (“Athenaeum”), a private club for intellectuals and the well-to-do in Barcelona. They worked together on several projects, including publication of “The Cobbler of Ordis”, a collection of poems by Dalí’s lifelong friend Carles Fages de Climent, which contained a preface by d’Ors and illustrations by Dalí.

In 1954, a total of 100,000 of these Dalí-designed tiles were produced at a factory in Onda, a town in the Valencian province of Spain known for its high-quality industrial ceramic output. Yet although the materials were ready to go, the swimming pool itself, unfortunately, was never built. I suspect the reason is that d’Ors just so happened to have died in 1954, probably around the same time that the tiles were completed. As a result, Dalí was left with thousands and thousands of tiles, and nowhere to put them.

Enter German lawyer Peter Ackermann who, as this article explains, met Dalí twenty years later, when the artist was trying to get these unused tiles off his hands. About 60,000 of the tiles were left, and while it’s difficult to imagine a normal person losing 40,000 tiles, this is Salvador Dalí we’re talking about, after all. Presumably the rest disappeared as a result of breakage, theft, or the artist giving them away; they turn up at auction periodically.

Unlike his near-contemporaries Pablo Picasso and Joan Miró, Dalí did not seem particularly interested in clay as a medium, which is highly unusual for someone hailing from the Iberian Peninsula. While Picasso designed pots and vases produced by French ceramics factories which today are highly prized by collectors, and Miró created enormous ceramic tile designs for walls or floors that were installed in public spaces, Dalí did not do much exploration in this area. Yes, he designed telephones that looked like lobsters, and couches that looked like Mae West’s lips, but things made out of dirt were not something that seem to have attracted his attention all that often. That makes this particular foray into the world of ceramics all the more special.

The Artsy article tells us that Mr. Ackermann is now selling his 60,000 tiles to whoever wants to take them off his hands. Since I didn’t win the Powerball jackpot last week, I won’t be acquiring them for my make-believe villa on the Costa Brava. But if you have around $20 million on your hands, and are thinking about building yourself a nice place in which to take a dip, consider the possibilities of paving that backyard oasis with tiles by the greatest Surrealist artist of the 20th century. You’ll almost instantly have the greatest swimming pool in all the world.

Sun