Art News Roundup: Better Late Than Never Edition

Forgive my delay in posting this week’s art news roundup, gentle reader, I was unavoidably detained yesterday. To make up for this, instead of my usual three curated bits of news from the world of art, architecture, design, and so on, I shall give you FIVE.

New Clues in New Mexico

In this absolutely fascinating story in the Post, reporter Antonia Farzan does her homework and digs deeply into the mystery of a stolen masterwork by Willem de Kooning (1904-1997), and the quiet, reserved couple that may have had something to do with its disappearance over 30 years ago. The twists and turns of the investigation are fascinating, but the real punch at the end is when you learn just how much money the couple had in their bank accounts when they died, and how photographs revealed that they had traveled to about 140 countries and all seven continents during their marriage: an achievement that, on its surface, would seem to be beyond the means of an ordinary pair of public school employees. This is a story begging for a good screenplay.

DeKooning

Coming Back to Canterbury

In one of the weird ironies of collecting history, an illuminated 13th century Bible which was once part of the library of Canterbury Cathedral has been purchased for roughly $128,000 by…Canterbury Cathedral. The “Lyghfield Bible” is a Medieval French volume which miraculously survived Henry VIII and the Reformation, when many Catholic books were simply burned or destroyed, and passed through the hands of a number of private owners before ending up on the auction block last month. It is the only Bible from the former library to have survived completely intact, and will be part of a new exhibition space at the cathedral detailing the history of the building (from a Protestant perspective, natch.)

Biblia

Lo Spagnoletto in London

The Baroque painter Josep de Ribera (1591-1652), often referred to as “Lo Spagnoletto” (“The Little Spaniard”) by other artists, was born and raised in Valencia, but made his career in Italy, particularly in the city of Naples, which was under Spanish rule during his lifetime. Ribera is one of the most important and influential painters of the first half of the 17th century, painting dark and brooding canvases that are often intense and stripped-down psychological studies, and so it surprises me to learn that an upcoming show titled “Ribera: Art of Violence” will be the first major exhibition of his work ever held in Britain. Ribera is not always easy to like, and his paintings of martyrdom, torture, drooling idiots and sideshow freaks are rather off-putting: you can certainly see why Goya, a century and a half later, was fascinated by his work. “Ribera” opens September 26th and runs through January 27th.

Ribera

Magnificence in Magnesia

The ancient Greek city of Magnesia, which today is part of modern Turkey, remained relatively unimportant in ancient history until it became a Roman colony around the 1st century BC. After it was virtually destroyed in an earthquake in the early 1st century AD, it was completely rebuilt on a luxurious scale by the Emperor Tiberius. Now an ongoing archaeological dig at the site of the Temple of Artemis in the city’s ruins has uncovered six magnificent, over-life-sized statues, bringing the total recovered thus far from the excavation to more than 50. Scientists believe there will still be many more to uncover, and as you can see here the works are very beautiful indeed.

Statues

Mockery in Manhattan

Moving on from the sublime to the ridiculous, New York has decided to grant landmark status to 550 Madison, a ridiculous pink skyscraper topped with a broken pediment designed by starchitect Philip Johnson (1906-2005) back in the late 1970’s. One should normally not speak ill of the dead of course, but as Mr. Johnson quite literally lived in a glass house, was an anti-Semite, a Nazi enthusiast, and loved to go on Charlie Rose long after this career was over and say terrible things about subjects which he did not in any way understand, I feel reasonably comfortable in laughing at the fact that anyone thinks that this particular monstrosity of his was worth preserving for the ages. As Hitler’s favorite architect, Albert Speer, once told art historian Robert Hughes in an interview, Johnson would have made a perfect architect for a fascist leader, since “Johnson understands what the small man thinks of as grandeur.”

Johnson

Talking Turkey on Twitter’s Birthday

It’s Twitter’s 8th birthday, and for those among my readers who still don’t use it or see its relevance, today’s headlines may give you a taste of just what all the fuss is about.  Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is in the midst of fighting both a re-election battle and corruption allegations, announced yesterday that Twitter would be banned in his country.  In a move which has brought both domestic and international condemnation, Erdogan obtained judicial authority to block the millions of Twitter users in Turkey from the social media network, describing it as a “menace to society”.

In becoming one of only a handful of countries to attempt to, using Erdogan’s word, “eradicate” Twitter, Turkey has joined a rather unsavory club.  Both the People’s Republic of China and North Korea have been blocking the social media platform for years, and have used tweets by individuals as the basis for imprisonment of those criticizing their regimes.  While tech-savvy users in these countries have found ways to get around the blocks put in place by their respective governments, for the average account holder no doubt the prospect of being prosecuted (or worse) for speaking their mind online has had a chilling effect on their level of Twitter participation.

For those of us who live under less autocratic governments, as part of marking their birthday Twitter released an application which allows you to type in a Twitter user name and see what that account’s very first tweet was.  It’s been great fun sharing first tweets with my Tweeps, i.e. the Twitter users whom I follow and interact with regularly. Here’s my first tweet, showing what a snot I was – was? – at the time I signed up for an account:

Tweet

Although I love using Twitter, I’ll admit there are many things about it that are problematic.  There is a tendency to gang up on those whom one does not agree with, and repeatedly knock them down, rather than just delivering one solid blow to an ignorant tweet and then moving on.  There is smut/foul language galore, although one quickly learns whom not to follow if this becomes a problem.  And there are “troll” accounts, which seem to exist solely for the purpose of trying to attack others.

I expect that these negative aspects of the service are what keep some people from using it. Yet when used well, Twitter can be a tremendous resource for good, particularly because of the succinctness of tweets, at 140 characters or less.  I have seen, first-hand, what is possible via Twitter which no other social media application, including Facebook, is capable of, at least with anything near the same amount of speed, penetration, or effectiveness.

I’ve seen Twitter provide many people with both material and emotional support during those hard moments in life, such as losing a loved one or a job, suffering from an illness, or just plain loneliness.  I’ve also seen Twitter offer practical help on little issues, like trying to find a decent hotel in another city, or figuring out how to fix a software issue.  Twitter is always knitting human relationships more closely together, by bringing those with shared interests but little or no chance of physical proximity into contact, whether it is a group of Tweeps watching and commenting on a sporting event together from all over the country, or discovering you’re not the only survivor from the Planet Krypton.

Eventually, I expect that Turkish people will find a way to express themselves on Twitter again.  Human beings are far more interested in being able to freely communicate their thoughts to one another, than they are in upholding the ideology of a single person or political regime.  Whatever its faults, Twitter has done a great deal of good for a great many people, and so I raise a coffee cup to it this morning and say: Happy Birthday, Twitter.

Raising the Art Alarm in Turkey

Recent legal news from Turkey has provoked concern among a number of commentators in both the art world and the Christian world.  As reported in several news outlets, such as in this article which appeared in The Art Newspaper, Turkish courts have decided that a historic former church in the city of Trabzon can now be turned into a mosque.  It is part of a slowly increasing seepage of more strictly Islamic thought and practice into secular Turkish law and politics, which has been underway for some time now.

The beautifully decorated Byzantine building dates from the 12th century; it was turned into a mosque in the 15th century, subsequently abandoned and used for various secular purposes, then restored and turned into a museum in the early 20th century.  Many art historians and legal watchers believe that this is simply a legal test case, and a prelude to the great Hagia Sophia church in Istanbul, which itself is currently operated as a museum rather than a house of worship, being turned back into a mosque.  Yet we should keep in mind of course this sort of thing has happened throughout human history, as a result of some very basic human tendencies and motivations.

One of the key points to realize in the study of history is that the victors get to write the story in a very visible way, i.e. in the form of art and architecture.  They build monuments to themselves, naturally enough, since that is what men do, whether on a grand scale like a public memorial, or in a small way when the founder of a business has a portrait of himself commissioned for the board room.  Yet we should also remember that the victors try to remove those things which call to mind those whom they have replaced.

In Ancient Egypt for example, when a pharaoh died and was succeeded by another from a different family, the carved or painted name of the deceased monarch would often be eradicated from any structures built during his reign.  In Tudor England, Catholic churches such as Canterbury Cathedral were confiscated and made over to the use of the Anglican Church, as a result of which many works of art were destroyed in the frenzy of early Protestantism.  These sorts of things are done, as Yuri Zhivago observes in “Doctor Zhivago” when the family learns of the death of Tsar Nicholas II and his family, in order to show the populace that there is no going back.  Even if occasionally there are attempts to bring back what was lost, such as the Bourbon Restorations in France, they are usually short-lived.

What is particularly interesting about the article linked to above is that it brings together two very different groups of people.  This building has not been used as a church for a very long time, of course, so the question of whether it would return to its intended use is not even on the table.  On one hand we have art lovers, who do not want to see the beautiful and historic decoration of this building lost.  And on the other we have Christians, who do not want to see images of Christ, His Apostles, and Our Lady destroyed as a result of Islamic aniconism.

These two groups are so often completely at odds with one another at present, that their having a common interest will make it interesting to see whether they can act in concert on what will no doubt be a growing number of cases such as this, not just in Turkey but in Europe itself.  For of course with the demographic shift toward Islam taking place throughout much of Europe as a result of immigration, falling Christian birth rates, etc., more and more European churches with dwindling numbers of congregants will almost certainly be converted into mosques over time.  If indeed politics makes strange bedfellows, as Charles Dudley Warner once noted, we will see how the art world establishment and the various Christian churches concerned about what will happen in Trabzon and elsewhere, will do in trying to get along with one another.

Trabzon

Dome fresco in the  former Church of Hagia Sophia (12th-13th centuries)
Trabzon, Turkey