Art News Roundup: Generalissimo Franco Is Still Dead Edition

While it is always difficult to predict whether or how the Spanish government will do things, there’s a strong possibility that tomorrow, the country’s Council of Ministers will meet to begin the legal process for exhuming the remains of General Francisco Franco (1892-1975) from the Valle de los Caídos (“Valley of the Fallen”), the massive underground Basilica and Abbey outside of Madrid where he is buried. The complex contains the remains of roughly 40,000 people killed during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939, from both sides of the conflict. Even if and when Franco’s coffin is removed, however, there remains a longer-term question about the Basilica itself which, while architecturally quite impressive, has a rather controversial history to it.

I visited the Basilica for the first time a little over a year ago, and while it’s certainly quite an engineering achievement, I have to say that it left me somewhat cold. I have mixed feelings about Franco, which certainly contributed to this impression, but I’ll take the risk of offending both sides in this long-standing argument by saying that, perhaps if the Generalissimo had been buried in a side chapel, rather than inside the sanctuary, directly behind the high altar, the campaign to remove him might have been more muted. Franco himself never wanted to be buried there in the first place, but his family and successor government agreed to put him in the Valley of the Fallen despite the obvious anachronism that he (obviously) did not die during the Civil War.

Given that the Socialists are currently in power in Spain, it’s more likely than not as they seek to rewrite Spanish history in the way that they prefer, the exhumation will take place over the objections of the Franco family and the opposition or abstention of some conservative parties from the process – a process which, to be honest, I still don’t entirely understand, even having followed this story for quite some time now. The Archdiocese of Madrid is not opposed to the move, and since this church falls within its jurisdiction, it would seem that remaining legal arguments are few. Still, Spanish politics are highly unpredictable, and there doesn’t seem to be a long-term plan as of yet regarding what to do with this funeral complex, so keep your eyes on Chevy Chase.

And now, on to some less funereal art news.

Crafty China

A big hat tip to my friend M.P. for sending me this article, about a spate of art heists around the world targeting Chinese art and antiquities. To be honest, I have little or no interest in Chinese art, but the audacity of these thefts, which may have some relationship to the government of Red China itself, and the engrossing way in which this piece is written, kept me absolutely fascinated all the way to the end. Cheers to author Alex Palmer for doing a very thorough investigative job, and bringing together threads which, even for those of us who follow what is going on in the art and museum world, I suspect most of us would never have tied together. Palmer very effectively points out what may be the motivating philosophy here, which runs counter to how most Westerners think of concepts such as ownership. Whoever is ultimately responsible for these thefts, however, the article also addresses the phenomenon of the Chinese buying back their own works of art at unbelievable prices, which you may not have been aware of, like the cup pictured below which recently sold for $38 million.

china

Changing California

Truth be told, I’m not a fan of what we can loosely term “street art”, which encompasses things such as graffiti, of both the commissioned and vandalism varieties, conglomerations of junk which someone with an art degree and a subscription to Mother Jones deems to be “sculpture”, or exterior murals of at best uneven quality and execution. However, I was struck by this story touching on an aspect of street art involving the poorer segment of the Mexican population in Los Angeles which, like other communities around the country, is experiencing the effects both good and bad of gentrification. As artist Nico Avina explains, growing up in the barrio there were images of Our Lady of Guadalupe everywhere. “It’s talking about the community that believes so much in la Virgen de Guadalupe,” he observes, and how images of her were put up as signs of respect. Mr. Avina’s art, depicting Our Lady reading an eviction notice, strikes me as borderline blasphemy, albeit not in an ill-intended way, but I will leave it to my readers to share their opinions on it.

Avina

Picturing Philadelphia

Speaking of changing urban landscapes, an exhibition underway in Philadelphia showcases how one British artist played a major role in the way that his contemporaries on both sides of the Atlantic pictured what was once America’s most important city. William Birch (1755-1834), who had successfully exhibited at the Royal Academy in London and received prizes for his work, decided to emigrate to Philadelphia in 1794. Upon his arrival in the bustling city – Philadelphia’s population exploded from around 100,000 people in the early 1800’s to nearly 700,000 by 1876, as I learned just last evening – he began drawing and engraving the sights of his new home, a task which engaged him for the next several decades as the city grew and prospered. Collections of his engravings featuring both the urban fabric of Philadelphia and the country houses of the people of means were popular in both America and in Britain, and his work chronicles the development of changing American architectural styles, from British Colonial to American Federal. I suspect that the exhibition catalogue itself will be of interest even to those who are not particularly curious about architecture or urban planning, but who may want to seek it out purely as a visual chronicle of an important, formative period in American history. “William Birch, Ingenious Artist, His Life, His Philadelphia Views, And His Legacy” is at the Library Company of Philadelphia through October 19th.

Birch

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Making the Case for a New Georgetown Fountain

With news that EastBanc may be purchasing the site of the gas station across the street from the Four Seasons,  Georgetown developer Anthony Lanier finds himself in rather an important position, when it comes to the impression that both residents and visitors have of one of the Nation’s Capital.  For starters, EastBanc is already at work on plans to redevelop the site currently occupied by another gas station at the opposite end of M Street, the neighborhood’s main East-West thoroughfare, right across from the Key Bridge.  As travelers come into D.C. from the GW Parkway, it will be, along with the Car Barn and the spires of Georgetown University, one of the first impressions they get of the city.

This second project, at the other end of what Georgetown residents refer to as our “village”, is positioned on a parcel of land sandwiched between M Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, where they cross over Rock Creek Parkway into the city proper.  EastBanc will be building directly across from arguably the most prestigious hotel in town, at least if you are one of the foreign heads of state or movie stars who regularly stay or dine there.  It’s a given in the life of the village that at least several times a week, a motorcade or flock of black SUV’s will be tying up traffic around the entrance to the Four Seasons for several minutes.  Even yesterday, coming home from church, the blare of police sirens clearing a path for a visiting V.I.P. swept up behind me on their way to the hotel.  The gas station however, has long been a curious eyesore, a leftover of what Georgetown looked like decades ago, when its commercial district had become somewhat seedy and run-down.

Mr. Lanier, himself a Georgetown resident, has done a great deal to provide both new and renovated, updated, retail and residential space in a nearly 300-year-old neighborhood where completely new construction is very rare, thanks to the entire 1-square mile area being listed as a historic district.  Although a few pockets of seedy Georgetown remain, largely concentrated within a 2-3 block stretch of the area’s primary North-South axis, Wisconsin Avenue, on the whole the commercial district is much improved in appearance.  Blocks where once there was nothing apart from warehouses or industrial buildings have been converted to modern hotels, apartments, and condominiums.  Because of the possibility of Mr. Lanier now redeveloping this prominent “gateway” site in Georgetown,  now seems as good an opportunity as any to bring up a project which would not only make this development look better, but bring a much-needed public space back into use for the area.

Directly abutting the land which EastBanc is looking to acquire is a somewhat desolate, hemispherical public plaza, occupied by some benches, a lot of brick pavers, and weeds.  In the past however, this spot used to feature a fountain which was considered one of the best in Washington, and DC has a lot of fountains. The piece was originally installed in the 1880’s, but was replaced with a smaller fountain decades later.  Both of these fountains are now long-gone, but the former, larger one still exists, sort of.  After leaving Georgetown, it went on to grace the now-vanished Truxton Circle, in a different part of the city.  Sadly, the fountain is now in pieces, crumbling away in Fort Washington National Park in Maryland.

Although the original fountain is apparently irretrievably damaged, I for one would like to renew my call for making this, one of the most important entries to Georgetown and indeed the Capital City, a more inviting place.  Would it be possible for EastBanc to bring back the fountain which used to stand here – or rather, a reproduction of it?  Or perhaps a more modern fountain would be possible?

The impression that so many visitors, both drivers and walkers, form of Georgetown when they enter from either end of M Street is hugely important.  The soaring spires of the university at one end cannot, of course, be replicated at the other.  However, given the comparatively lower elevation of the Rock Creek end of the neighborhood, and the proximity of the parcel in question to that body of water, it would only seem appropriate to bring back a public space with the kind of splashing, elegant water feature which previous residents and visitors enjoyed.  On a hot summer day when everyone, tourists and townies alike, is desperate for a place to rest in the shade and cool off, the return of a fountain-park would be a welcome addition to a place which, because of its 18th century village layout, has so relatively few open areas for people to congregate.  And of course, for EastBanc’s new development, if it happens, having an attractive place for residents of your new building to look at would make sense, as well.

So just a thought for you there, Mr. Lanier; now, the ball’s in your court.

Remnants of the former M Street fountain in Fort Washington, Maryland

Fragments of the former M Street fountain in Fort Washington, Maryland

 

Looking at Audrey Hepburn and “The Devil”

Last night while making dinner I watched the musical “Funny Face” (1957), starring Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire.  Not being a fan of Astaire – which amounts to heresy in some quarters – I had always avoided it.  Being a fan of Hepburn’s however, I decided to at least give it a chance.

I was struck from the first by how much the recent film “The Devil Wears Prada” (2006) took many of its cues from this earlier film.  In a way it’s not surprising, since Hollywood has been pushing Anne Hathaway as the new Audrey Hepburn for some time now.  Admittedly, this is a comparison somewhat unfair to both actresses.

Yet notice how Maggie Prescott (Kay Thompson) in “Funny Face” comes charging into her domain as editor of a prestigious fashion magazine, past a pair of secretaries, to the terror of all around her.  Her sanctum sanctorum looks almost exactly like that of another “M.P”,” Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) in “Prada”, complete with almost the same view of Midtown Manhattan.  There’s a discussion in both films about how important the choice of a particular color can be for world commerce.  There’s even a scene where Jo Stockton (Hepburn) runs away to hide in the darkroom of Dick Avery (Astaire), not unlike a similar scene in “Prada” between Andy Sachs (Hathaway) and Nigel (Stanley Tucci).

Does this mean that “The Devil Wears Prada” is merely a rip-off? Well, no: and actually, I found “Funny Face” to be a pretty boring film.  “Prada” on the whole is a better-acted movie, and has a more compelling storyline.  There again however, the comparison is somewhat unfair, because there’s a big difference between a fluffy old Hollywood musical, and a contemporary dramedy.  Yet the fact that one can even make such a comparison, between the classic and the contemporary in cinema, is important.

If we are to understand where our culture comes from, we need to continually be educating ourselves on how to perceive the roots of the past in the fruits of the present.  Contemporary musicians like Chris Thile and Alison Krauss for example, look back to Bach or the Civil War era, even as they work with modern artists from different genres like Justin Timberlake or Robert Plant.   The modern-day city of Washington, D.C. features monumental buildings and urban planning elements that reference England, France, Ancient Greece, and Rome, four cultures which had a significant philosophical impact on the Founders.  Even the “Star Wars” saga would not have been possible without George Lucas being very much aware of the medieval legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.

Thus, even if “Funny Face” in the end isn’t a particularly good movie, the lesson here is a good one.  When we can perceive how one film references another, then we can begin to understand how not just movies, but all of Western culture – from art to music, literature to architecture – is often doing the same thing.  A vibrant culture is an inventive one, that doesn’t slavishly copy the past. At the same time, it should also acknowledge the contributions of the past, to maintain that sense of where we come from.  Training our eyes to look for these types of connections then, will make us better-appreciate the richness of the world around us.

Audrey Hepburn in a scene from "Funny Face" (1957)

Audrey Hepburn in a scene from “Funny Face” (1957)