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

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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.

Painting “The Walk Of Shame”: The Intimate Art Of An American Master

Today is the birthday of one of my favorite artists, the American painter John Singer Sargent (1856-1925). Regular readers will recall that my very first piece for The Federalist was a review of an exhibition at the MFA in Boston displaying a selection of works from the artist’s archive, which was recently donated to the museum by his family. This gave me the opportunity to reflect on his most famous output, the portraits he painted of family, friends, and the powerful people of his day.

However there is another side to Sargent, which is often overlooked in surveys of his art, and that is his more intimate, informal work, such as that which accompanies this post.

“A Street in Venice” (1882), now in the National Gallery here in Washington, is one of my favorite paintings; it is so different from the glitzy, glamorous portraits that we usually associate with Sargent, as to appear to be the work of another artist. It depicts a young woman wearing a black, fringed shawl over a long white skirt and a red blouse, walking down a side street in Venice. Two men in hats and overcoats standing in a doorway are having a smoke and watching her as she passes by. In the background, a man and woman are sitting in chairs and chatting outside of another doorway, and although most experts think they are at a cafe, I always think that they are peeling vegetables as they talk.

There is nothing about the picture which immediately tells us that this scene is taking place in Venice. There are no canals, no gondolas, no extravagant churches or palazzi. It could just as easily be somewhere in Spain or France. It is probably winter, given the gray, overcast skies and the men’s heavy coats, although the young woman certainly isn’t dressed for the weather. She is either avoiding the gaze of the two men, or so wrapped up in her own thoughts that she doesn’t even notice them.

Given her attire, her downcast eyes, and introspective expression, I like to think that what we are looking at is what we might call a “walk of shame” picture, when you’ve stayed out all night and finally make your way home at dawn. If you remember the scene in “Moonstruck” where Cher walks home in the early hours of the morning, still wearing her party dress and overcoat after a night at the opera, and leisurely kicking a can down the street with her extravagant, beaded red heels, you get the idea. I suspect that this painting is set in the morning, since there are not a lot of people about yet, and the shop on the left side of the picture is closed.

Among the many wonderful things about this picture is the fact that there is hardly any color in it, and yet it is still a lively composition. There are a few slashes of red, in the young woman’s blouse and the flowers or comb that she is wearing in her hair, and in the center of the picture there is the pink skirt of the woman sitting in the background, but there is very little else in the way of bright color. Here and there we see some ochre, teal, olive, and brown, but the majority of the picture is composed of shades of black, white, and gray.

Textures are also beautifully rendered in this painting. Notice also how Sargent is able to suggest the bouncing of the fringe on the shawl as the woman walks, and the swishing of the white skirt around her feet, with a bare minimum of brush strokes. The heavy wooden door on the left is wonderfully observed, with the lower portion already gray from being splashed with rainwater countless times, while the upper portion is still its original color, thanks to its being higher up and slightly protected from the overhang of the building.

John Singer Sargent’s portraits are, understandably, his most famous work. Yet much like Velázquez, whom he admired and emulated throughout his career, Sargent was much more than someone who painted simply to flatter those who could afford his paintings. In quieter, more loosely-painted works such as this, he showed that he was not all flash and glam. Rather, he was someone who could create grand works of art, but could just as easily create an engaging, more personal picture, with a real sense of immediacy about it.