Thought-Pourri: Possessive Edition

For those of you in the DC area, don’t forget that tonight from 6:00-8:00 pm the Catholic Information Center, located at 1501 K Street NW, will be hosting its annual Christmas Poetry Party, in conjunction with the Thomas More Society of America. I will be one of the presenters, and if that doesn’t entirely put you off, drop by and say hello! There will be refreshments and plenty of good cheer on offer, and the event is absolutely free.

Meanwhile, this morning I’m currently participating as an absentee bidder in a live auction taking place elsewhere, for a painting that I’m very interested in adding to my collection, so fingers x’ed…

And with that, it’s time for some headlines:

The King’s Pictures

After Charles I was overthrown and executed in 1649 during the English Civil War, much of the substantial art collection which he and his ancestors had accumulated was sold off and scattered to the winds. When his son Charles II ascended the throne at the Restoration in 1660, the Stuarts had a great deal of work to do to restore the prestige of the monarchy. Through a variety of means, the new king managed to start over, acquiring a number of works of art which are featured in an exhibition this month at the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace. Among the items featured in “Charles II: Art & Power” is one of Lorenzo Lotto’s (1480-1557) best paintings, his portrait of the Venetian art dealer Andrea Odoni sitting in his shop, surrounded by statues and casts of classical sculpture. I particularly like how the dramatically foreshortened right arm and hand are shown holding out a small classical sculpture, as if Odoni is offering it to us for sale, and the mixture of charcoal and dove grays, mossy green, and caramel browns create a surprisingly rich color palette.

Lotto

Vienna’s Virtu

The shortlived Wiener Werkstätte (“Vienna Workshop”), from the beginning of the previous century, had a major impact on Modern art, architecture, and design, thanks in part to its espousal of innovative design methods, which it disseminated globally through the creation of satellite workshops in Germany, Switzerland, and New York. Now a major new exhibition in the latter city, at the Neue Galerie for German and Austrian art, is bringing together a wide range of objects created by the Austrian artistic collective, from furniture and ceramics to jewels and decorative objects. Among the beautiful items displayed in the “Wiener Werkstätte 1903-1932: The Luxury of Beauty” show is this astonishing jewelry box, which in the art trade is known as an “objet de vertu” or “vertu” for short. These were items that often had no practical purpose, or were so luxurious as to be somewhat impractical, but which nevertheless featured an incredibly detailed and painstaking level of craftsmanship.

Wiener

Hoving’s Hordes

It’s hard to imagine now, but there was a time when art museums were fairly hushed, quiet spaces, where there were rarely large crowds of people. That all changed forever, at least at the world’s larger museums, with the blockbuster 1978 exhibition, “Treasures of Tutankhamun” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In a fascinating piece from this month’s Vulture/New York Magazine, Boris Kachka explains how one man, former Met director Thomas Hoving, took a gamble on making an art exhibition a must-see event for Americans – like the Super Bowl or the final episode of “Cheers” – and succeeded so far beyond expectations that eventually everyone else in the museum world followed suit. A healthy debate could be had over whether Hoving’s hordes of exhibition visitors have improved or ruined the experience of visiting an exhibition, or indeed a cultural institution focused primarily on visitor numbers.

Tut

Degas’ Development

Those of my readers who happen to be in the Denver area between February and May of next year will want to check out the newly-announced exhibition, “Degas: A Passion for Perfection”, which will be held at the Denver Art Museum. Covering over fifty years of the work of French Impressionist Edgar Degas (1834-1917), the show will feature over 100 examples of Degas’ varied output and artistic development, including paintings, pastels, drawings, and sculptures, alongside the work of some of his contemporaries and friends. Of particular interest is this rather early picture by Degas, painted in around 1865 and now in the collection of the Orsay in Paris, which shows a group of men on horseback shooting at and trampling over a group of nude women, while a city burns in the background. It’s such a strange picture, and so not what springs to mind when one things of the work of Degas, that I don’t quite know what to make of it – but it’s definitely piqued my interest.

Degas

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Thought-Pourri: Exclamations Edition

Among my fellow practitioners of popery there have been a great many dumbfounded exclamations on social media since yesterday, when The Met announced that the theme for the 2018 Met Gala will be – wait for it – “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination”. The idea appears to have been suggested by the upcoming loan of historic vestments and other liturgical garments from the Vatican, for an exhibition which will open at The Met on May 10th. I find it difficult to understand why Rome would allow itself to serve as the touchstone for a parade of tarts, gigolos, and social parasites who openly hate the Church, but then the inherent tackiness of the present occupant of the chair of St. Peter is something which has been more than apparent for years now. I hope Cardinal Dolan has better sense than to attend this event.

Now, on to some more interesting news.

Ah, Venice!

After many years of complaints from residents, art and architecture historians, and international cultural organizations like UNESCO, Italy is finally taking steps to ban jumbo cruise ships from the center of Venice. Over the next two years, the mega-liners will be diverted from the Giudecca Canal, which merges with the Grand Canal to lead into the Piazza San Marco. The behemoths will now dock at a newly-constructed facility on the North Canal at Marghera, on the Venetian mainland. While not a complete solution to the many problems faced by La Serenissima, from depopulation to pollution, hopefully scenes like that pictured below, of a tacky monstrosity looming over the historic core of the city, will soon be a thing of the past.

Venice

Bah, Berkshire!

Despite last-minute interventions by both the Rockwell family and the Massachusetts Attorney General, it looks as though the sale of the Berkshire Museum’s two Norman Rockwell paintings will be going ahead at Sotheby’s next week as planned. Readers will recall that the Berkshire decided to sell off a significant portion of its art holdings, including two paintings gifted to the museum by Rockwell himself (one of which served as the Saturday Evening Post cover pictured below), as well as a number of other significant works of art in the collection, to become some sort of experiential tourist destination. Barring some last-minute appeals, the museum is now free to reinvent itself as the nonsensical, irrelevant, lowest common denominator institution which its current leadership wants it to become. My prediction is that a decade from now, it will have ceased to exist entirely.

Rockwell

Bello, Bernini!

A major exhibition featuring almost 80 works by the greatest master of Italian Baroque architecture and sculpture, Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680), has just opened at the Borghese in Rome, should you happen to find yourself in the Eternal City in the coming months. What’s particularly interesting about “Bernini” (no other exhibition descriptors were thought necessary) is that, in addition to a number of the artist’s most famous sculptures, as well as a newly restored work, and drawings and models for buildings such as St. Peter’s, the show features several of his paintings – for yes, Bernini could paint, too. Note for example the wonderfully direct frankness and overall simplicity of this 1632 portrait of Pope Urban VIII (1568-1644), which is on loan to the Borghese show. I particularly like how Bernini handled the red of the garments in this picture, so as to give the viewer a real sense of it being the kind of dense, close-cropped velvet that has little or no sheen to it. “Bernini” runs through February 4, 2018.

Bernini

Golly, Guido!

Speaking of the Italian Baroque, Bendor Grosvenor – whom I read every day and you should, too – reports that the National Gallery in London has recently determined that a work presumed to be by assistants of the very influential painter Guido Reni (1575-1642) has now been determined to be, at least in part, from the hand of Reni himself. Though not quite a household name today, Reni was *the* most popular Italian Baroque artist of his day, and indeed for centuries afterwards; dozens of important artists came to study in his studio, and his pictures were widely sought after by collectors all over Europe. “The Toilet of Venus” was painted sometime between 1620 and 1625, but it has been a dark and dingy thing for many years. Thanks to a recent cleaning, it has regained the almost porcelain qualities of flesh and jewel-toned fabric for which Reni is justly famous. Intriguingly, as Grosvenor mentions in his piece, another painting that was gifted to the National Gallery as part of the same bequest was also believed to be a copy executed by Reni’s studio assistants. I suspect that the museum is now going to turn its attention to funding the cleaning and restoration of this one, since it would be just as major of a rediscovery. At this point, the painting is so grimy that you can only barely see the threatening Kraken swimming about at the lower left of the picture.

Perseus

Bowie’s Bargain: A Rock Star’s Venetian Masterpiece

The late David Bowie was not one of my favorite entertainers. I know, I know, many of you are now pointing at me on your side of the screen and shouting, “Blasphemy!” but there it is. Apart from one or two of his 80’s tunes, however, I just don’t care for his work.

It was nevertheless fascinating to learn, after his death, that the artist formerly known as Ziggy Stardust had accumulated a rather significant art collection during his lifetime. And as it happens, one of the first pieces that he acquired turns out to have been quite a find. For it appears that in purchasing the work pictured below, Bowie found a lost work by one of the most important artists of Renaissance Venice.

Jacobo Tintoretto (1518-1594) is one of the greatest names in Venetian art, representing the transition from the classical precision of the High Renaissance, to the more emotional and elongated style known as Mannerism. He was famous both for his portraiture and for painting enormous religious, mythological, and historically-themed compositions at breathtaking speed. His “Il Paradiso” in the Doge’s Palace in Venice for example, which depicts hundreds of saints and angels in Heaven is, at roughly 80 feet long and 30 feet high, one of the largest canvases ever painted.
Fast-forward to 1987, when the now well-established David Bowie pays a visit to Colnaghi’s in London, which for over two centuries has been one of the world’s premier dealers in Old Master paintings. He purchased a 16th century Venetian altarpiece, which depicts St. Catherine of Alexandria interrupted at her prayers by an angel, who gives the saint a premonition of her forthcoming martyrdom. At the time, the painting was believed to be a work from late in Tintoretto’s career, and mostly executed by assistants in the artist’s studio.

Following Bowie’s death, the altarpiece was sold for around $250k – a decent price for a studio piece, but nothing spectacular. After the sale however, experts examining the picture on behalf of the new owner concluded that the painting is, in fact, a much earlier work than originally thought. Moreover, given the details such as the underdrawing and pentimenti – changes of mind by the artist himself while painting the picture – the piece was clearly by Tintoretto himself.

Further research led experts to the preliminary conclusion that this was a piece created in a competition between Tintoretto and his rival Paolo Veronese (1528-1588), for the decoration of the Church of San Geminiano in Venice, which once stood on St. Mark’s Square, opposite the Basilica. The church was demolished by everyone’s favorite midget social-climbing bastard, Napoleon Bonaparte, so that he could build a larger palace for himself in the city. When the church was destroyed, the art within it was scattered, and so some of the pieces in the church’s collection – like Bowie’s Tintoretto – ended up in private hands.

I must confess that, on the whole, I usually prefer Veronese to Tintoretto. I find Tintoretto somewhat muddled and murky, whereas Veronese is often crisp and direct. Take these paintings, for example, which are two of the images that Veronese painted for that competition to decorate the now-gone San Geminiano. Sts. Geminiano and Severo, two 5th century Italian bishops, are shown in wonderfully detailed vestments, while St. Menas, a soldier martyred in the 3rd century during the Roman persecutions, is about to step out of his niche and do some damage with that halberd.

That being said, a personal favorite of mine is Tintoretto’s “Miracle Of The Slave” (1548) which is now in the collection of the Accademia in Venice. This picture dates from an earlier period in his career, when he used a lighter palette than we see in the “Paradiso”, and made full use of the famous Venetian embrace of bold color choices, such as in the aquatic blues and raspberry reds scattered throughout the painting. Here, Tintoretto depicts a pious legend in which St. Mark intervenes to stop a slave from being tortured to death for being a Christian.

Note how the only person who sees St. Mark appearing from Heaven is the little baby in the arms of the woman standing at the left of the picture. Everyone else in the painting is so intent on either the slave lying on the ground, or gazing in amazement at the broken torture implements, that they miss what’s going on right above their heads. Perhaps the artist intended this as a subtle reminder of Christ’s admonition that if we are to imitate Him, and see as He sees, we must become like little children. In its innocence, the baby in this picture “gets” it, in a way that the adults in the image do not.

Currently, Bowie’s former Tintoretto is on exhibition at the Rubenshuis in Antwerp, the former home of Holland’s most famous Old Master painter Peter Paul Rubens, who was a great lover of Venetian art. Further technical analysis is underway on the altarpiece, which I imagine will need to be cleaned and restored, as is usually the case with Old Master paintings. It’s a shame for Bowie’s estate that the entertainer never had the painting cleaned or re-examined during his lifetime, since the piece would have fetched a far, far greater price at auction as an autograph Tintoretto, than what it did as a studio piece.