Art News Roundup: Morisot and More Edition

My latest for The Federalist, a review of the major exhibition on French Impressionist Berthe Morisot (1841-1895) that just opened at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, is now available for your perusal. Sincere thanks to my very patient editor, Joy Pullmann, and everyone at The Federalist, for allowing me to share some of my thoughts on the show itself, and more importantly on Morisot’s woefully underrated art. I think you’ll find that it’s a fairly comprehensive exhibition and, even if you don’t particularly like Impressionist art, it’s worth visiting to see Morisot’s significant gifts for composition, and her very interesting development as an artist who, by the end of her career, was breaking away from the conventionally saccharine aspects of the Impressionist movement. In my view, she became a better and better painter the further away she got from the influence of contemporaries such as Manet, Pissarro, and Renoir.

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Unfortunately, the show’s organizers don’t seem to be willing to allow Morisot to be judged on her own merits, but rather insist from the get-go – the title of the show is “Berthe Morisot: Woman Impressionist” – that her work must be examined through the lens of feminist and gender theory. The exhibition catalogue even opens with reference to a work by the Guerrilla Girls, darlings of the Contemporary Art world who are truly horrible, untalented, and overrated charlatans. Mentioning them in the same breath as Morisot is like comparing Miley Cyrus to Maria Callas.

My best advice is that you go enjoy Morisot’s art on your own terms. It doesn’t need to be wrapped in someone else’s insecurity blanket in order to be appreciated. The show is at the Barnes until mid-January; after that it travels to the Dallas Museum of Art, and will have its last stop at the Orsay in Paris.

And since my Federalist piece is a bit of a lengthy one, just a couple of brief headlines from elsewhere in the art world this week.

A Prado in Barcelona?

Former French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, who is now running for Mayor of Barcelona – yes, you read that correctly – has issued a rather interesting proposal: Spain’s legendary Prado Museum in Madrid should open satellite Prados in other cities, as institutions such as the Louvre and Tate have done, beginning with Barcelona. While an intriguing idea, it must be said that this notion would seem to betray a critical lack of understanding on the part of M. Valls, with respect to both current and long-standing political and cultural tensions between the two cities. In any case, Madrid would be far more likely to authorize a first Prado satellite in Seville, rather than Barcelona, just as it authorized the first high-speed rail link between Madrid and Seville, making Barcelona wait. (Old hatreds never really die in Spain.)

As to this rather unusual political candidacy issue, M. Valls, shown below against a backdrop of Barcelona’s famous sidewalk tiles, was born in Barcelona to a Catalan father and a Swiss mother. However he was raised in Paris, and is a French citizen, so make of that what you will. He is currently running to replace the current Mayor of Barcelona, the dreadful Ada Colau, a failed actress who has proven to be an international embarrassment to the city since her election. Barcelonans will go to the polls iat the end of May, unfortunately right about the time when I’ll be arriving in town for my summer holidays. Perhaps I’ll head to the seaside for a couple of days, first.

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A Phoenix in Budapest

Speaking of restoration, after having been closed to the public since it was heavily damaged during World War II, the magnificent main hall of the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest has finally been restored. It reopened to the public at Noon yesterday, following several years of work. The Romanesque Revival interior is covered in scenes from Hungarian history, but suffered so badly during the war that it was turned into a storage room, since experts at the time believed that it would be impossible to bring it back to its former glory. Fortunately for us, that theory has now been disproved, as you can see in this 2-minute video of the restoration work. Magnificent job.

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Da Vinci Delayed: The Art Press Wants Scandal, And Wants It Now

After all the hullabaloo over the sale of Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi” for $450 million at Christie’s New York, as I commented on in The Federalist, speculation immediately turned to who bought it, and what they were going to do with it. In the end, it emerged that the picture had been purchased by the Saudi Minister of Culture, on behalf of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism of Abu Dhabi. The plan was to put the piece on display at the new Louvre Abu Dhabi, which had just opened shortly before the sale.

Originally slated to go on view September 18th, just two weeks prior the Ministry suddenly announced “the postponement of the unveiling,” and that “[m]ore details will be announced soon.” Initial speculation was that the museum wanted to hold off until the 1st anniversary of the opening of Louvre Abu Dhabi on November 11th. Creature of scandal that it (mostly) is however, the art press immediately went into scavenger mode, trying to find any scrap of information or rumor to explain the cause of the delay. It simultaneously began to cast aspersions on a picture which, only a year earlier, commentators had been fawning over, their reviews causing the public to flock to see the panel in droves.

The Art Newspaper, for example, invited “Salvator Mundi” skeptic Matthew Landrus, a Da Vinci expert at Oxford, to flesh out his argument that the painting was not an original piece exclusively from the hand of Leonardo, but rather was created by Leonardo with significant input from one of his best-known studio assistants, Bernardino Luini (c. 1480-1532). If you’ve ever seen his work, Luini gives you an idea, albeit a slightly second-rate idea, of what Leonardo could have done with his talent if he had ever managed to get his act together.

Of course, Landrus was not arguing that Leonardo never touched the painting. Rather, he made a reasoned argument that assistants in Leonardo’s studio played a significant part in the execution of the piece, and he thinks that Luini is one of the more likely candidates. That’s as may be, but this is something of an academic debate, rather than a cause célèbre for the art press to go into a tizzy over.

Then over the weekend, The Guardian published a piece by art critic Jonathan Jones arguing that the real problem with the “Salvator Mundi” was that it had been over-restored. Images of what the painting looked like before it was cleaned and the missing bits filled in are certainly quite shocking to the untrained eye. In its pre-conservation state, it looks as though you just got home from work to find the cat had got at one of your most prized possessions in your absence (and I know whereof I speak.)

Jones believes that the piece should have been left as it was, damage and all. He preferred the panel in its “raw yet beautiful state”, subsequent to the removal of all of the years of dirt and bad restoration work that sat atop the original surface. “Wasn’t that an incredible object in itself?” he asks. To me, this sounds rather like those who argued that the Sistine Chapel should never have been cleaned, because they maintained that Michelangelo’s frescoes looked better when they were covered in dust and soot.

In pursuing these narratives however – assistant work vs. over-restored – the art press needs to tread lightly: as usual, it doesn’t think about the consequences of these particular lines of reasoning.

If you study art history at all, you quickly learn that most highly successful Old Master painters, including not only Leonardo, but other art giants such as Raphael, Rubens, and Titian, had so many commissions to complete that they could not do all of it themselves. Oftentimes, these artists would come up with the design for a picture, and the bulk of it would be painted by their assistants. The boss would come in later to work on specific areas, such as the head, hands, or touch-ups. Moreover, many popular Modern and Contemporary artists, from Andy Warhol to Ai Weiwei, have employed assistants to help bring their works to fruition.

Is the art press really intending to argue that, because assistants participated in the creation of this particular Leonardo, that therefore it’s not really a Leonardo? What would that do to overall buyer and institutional confidence in the Modern and Contemporary Art market, where the use of assistants in generating works of art is heavily practiced? Why, for example, should the city of Paris be paying American Contemporary artist Jeff Koons millions of dollars for a sculpture which he himself only designed, rather than sculpted with his own hands?

As to whether the “Salvator Mundi” was over-restored, here too we find a bit of a slippery slope argument for the art press to ponder. I’m no art restorer, but looking at the piece as it was, and indeed as is pointed out in Jones’ article, there was more than enough left of the original surface for an art restorer to go in and fill in the missing bits. As it happens, in the weeks to come you’ll be seeing a piece from me in The Federalist about a Baroque painting which I’ve just had professionally cleaned and restored, instead of leaving in the grimy, dirty, flaking state in which I found it at auction.

Does the art press want to argue that any work of art which suffers damage should be left in its damaged state? Should we leave some works, such as Velázquez “Rokeby Venus” in the National Gallery in London, which was slashed by a suffragette in 1914, in a damaged state based on the nature of the attack made on them? What about rediscovered works that don’t look so great? Why is it acceptable to take 9 months to a year to clean and restore a painting by crazy-eyed one-trick pony Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1653)? Because that’s who The Guardian is pushing at the moment?

Interestingly, Jones’ pointing out that, prior to restoration, there appeared to be two right thumbs on the hand of Christ goes to my earlier statement regarding the work of the master on the painting. In art history, the term “pentimento” describes changes made by the artist as he is in the process of executing a picture. There are examples of pentimenti (plural) in many famous paintings, most of which are not visible to the naked eye because they get covered up by the artist when the painting is finished. Tthese changes can often be revealed through x-rays and other technology.

As a general rule, pentimenti tend to indicate that the work which one is looking at is the real thing. Copies by assistants don’t have these changes, because they are simply copies of something that already exists; no further changes are needed to the already-set composition. To Landrus’ argument then, the presence of this double thumb would at least tend to show that Leonardo did work on this painting, though how much of it is actually by his direct hand is open to debate.

At the same time, the double thumb pokes holes in Jones’ argument that the painting is over-restored. Leonardo would never have allowed a “raw” painting to leave the studio. Like any artist of his time, he would have intended for the painting to be corrected, and the pentimento covered over, whether by himself or by his assistants. A 15th century Italian or French Renaissance patron would never have accepted a weird, mutant double-thumbed Jesus in their art collection. Not only would such a thing be considered bizarre and unattractive to you as a collector, at a time when perfection and beauty were your life goals – how far we have fallen since – but it might have gotten you in trouble with the Inquisition if they called round.

We don’t know what the holdup is at this point, with respect to putting the “Salvator Mundi” on public display. We do know that, as usual, the art press loves a scandal, and is intent as a British tabloid publisher to create clickbait, even if it turns out that there’s no scandal at all, just an administrative or strategic delay. All we can do now is sit and wait.

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Art News Roundup: Birthday Bonanza Edition

For those of you who didn’t read it earlier this week, my article on the latest art restoration disaster in Spain – and some questions about institutional oversight of cultural heritage within the Spanish Episcopate – has been republished on The Federalist this morning. As always, my grateful thanks to Joy Pullman and her team for wanting to share my scribblings with others. If you enjoy what you read, or want to take issue with what I’ve written, comments over on The Federalist site are as gratefully appreciated as they are over here.

On a happier note – that is, as far as the Spanish art world is concerned – next year marks the 200th birthday of the Prado Museum in Madrid, universally considered to be one of the greatest art collections in the world. Earlier this week, the museum announced a veritable bonanza of special exhibitions that will begin this fall and continue throughout next year, to mark the institution’s bicentennial. As expected, the major exhibitions – which include shows on Fra Angelico and the Florentine Renaissance, one hundred of Goya’s drawings, and a show comparing the works of Velázquez, Vermeer, and Rembrandt, among other exhibitions – will be taking place at the Prado itself. However, in a highly unusual move, the Prado has also organized two traveling exhibitions that will be sent out to other parts of Spain.

Of these, the largest single show is going to Barcelona later this year; I’m planning to see (and review) “Velázquez and the Golden Age” at the Caixa Forum in late December. Meanwhile, the “On Tour Through Spain” show will send at least one work (and in some cases more than that) from the Prado’s permanent collection to every autonomous community in Spain. Sites include, but are not limited to, the Dalí Museum in Figueres, the Museum of Fine Arts in Badajoz, the Museum of Spanish Abstract Art in Cuenca, and the Museum of La Rioja in Logroño. Even the Spanish overseas territories of Ceuta and Melilla in North Africa will get in on the occasion. If you love great art, and why would you be subscribing to this blog if you didn’t, make your forthcoming travel plans accordingly.

And now on to some other art news headlines for the week.

Renoir Restitution

A continuing problem in the art world, as well as for the international legal system, is the thorny issue of works of art which changed hands in the period before, during, and after World War II. Just this week, three major stories in this vein have made headlines. First, the grandchildren of a woman whose portrait was painted by Matisse lost their latest appeal to recover the painting from the National Gallery in London. The work had been entrusted by the woman who was the subject of the portrait to an individual who turned thief shortly after the end of the war, as Berlin was being occupied and divided. Second, it turns out that four French 18th century drawings in the collection of the sister of Nazi art-hoarder Cornelius Gurlitt, whom I have written about previously as you may recall, were stolen from a family in Paris, only one of whom survived the Holocaust. Those works have now been returned to the owners’ heirs. Finally, a Renoir which the Nazis stole from a bank vault in Paris in 1941, where the owner had stored his most valuable paintings during the German invasion, has been returned to the granddaughter of the original owner; four other Renoirs and a Delacroix from the same collection are still missing.

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Flipping Fantastic

The National Gallery of Denmark has just opened a rather interesting exhibition, “Flip Sides”, in which works of art in the museum have been turned around and hung so as to display their backs. We often don’t realize that there is a great deal of information to be learned from the back of a picture. Sometimes there is a second work of art on the back, such as in the case of Leonardo’s portrait of Ginerva de’ Benci here in the National Gallery in Washington. In other cases, the back of a picture tells us about a piece’s history and provenance, shows how the artist went about creating their work, or demonstrates that the artist was reusing their own or someone else’s materials.

In the example from the exhibition shown below, we’re actually being fooled by the artist, for Cornelius Norbertus Gijsbrechts (c.1630-1675) was a famous trompe-l’œil painter. In this case, the rather Surrealist “trick of the eye” that he painted is the very realistic-looking back of a painting, shown on the front of a painting. “Flip Sides” runs through March 10, 2019.

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Discovering Dixon

Not being a specialist in decorative arts, I must confess that I’d never heard of American Arts and Crafts designer Eda Lord Dixon (1876-1926) until I read this very interesting and well-researched article about her life and work. It turns out I’m not alone in my ignorance because, as the article itself points out, when a magnificent silver and enamel hand mirror by Dixon was gifted to the Metropolitan Museum of Art back in 2014, she was “virtually unknown.” In her day, Dixon was primarily known for her enameled jewelry, but she also produced luxury household objects such as jeweled boxes (like the one below, also owned by The Met), finger bowls, cigarette holders, and even a solid silver enameled chalice engraved with a verse from the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. With more attention (quite rightly) beginning to be drawn to Dixon’s work, this is a good time for collectors to bone up on her biography, style, and materials, before heading to your local consignment shop or flea market in search of lost treasure.

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