Art News Roundup: Fixing Fixation Edition

Something that first-time visitors and old hands alike always enjoy, when they visit the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, is the ability to look into some of the workrooms located in the basement of the basilica. Thanks to a carefully planned layout, the underground space contains not only a multi-media museum chronicling the history of the building, but one can also take a peek through soundproof glass walls into spaces where architects, artists, and engineers are at work on the ongoing project, which just reached a whopping 328 feet tall a couple of weeks ago. (Only 232 more feet to go!)

Public interest in seeing art experts at work has led to a phenomenon referred to by some as “process porn”. It turns out that people love to watch other people as they design replacements for missing portions of decorative objects, clean sculptures blackened by time and candle soot, or repair holes and flaking on old paintings. Although this particular article focuses on such efforts at the Huntington in California, similar spaces exist in other museum conservation spaces as well. At the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston for example, visitors can check out “Conservation in Action”, where the MFA announces works that are coming up for treatment, and invites the public to come along and watch. And if you can’t make it to one of these institutions, not to worry: there are plenty of Instagram accounts where you can see these experts doing their thing.

As a bit of a teaser, in the weeks to come – God willing and the creek don’t rise – you’ll be seeing a lengthy Federalist article from me along these lines, detailing the cleaning, conservation, and restoration of a Baroque painting that I picked up at auction over the summer. No, I’m not doing the work myself, but I’ve asked the conservator to fully document and photograph her work, which I hope you’ll find as interesting as I do. Never let it be said that I’m off trend.

In the meantime, let’s take a look at some recent stories about works that need a bit of TLC.

Brand-New Blue

After more than a decade of restoration, including such things as microscopic analysis of original gilding and painstaking research into historic textiles, the famous Blue Room in the White House is finally getting its (rather grandiose) suite of French Empire furniture back. Originally created by Parisian cabinet maker Pierre-Antoine Bellangé (1757-1827) on order from President James Monroe, the set was sold off by President James Buchanan in the late 1850’s, when the Empire style went out of fashion; it was reacquired piecemeal a century later thanks to the efforts of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, who supplemented pieces that were missing or destroyed with exact copies from the originals. Visitors to this year’s White House Christmas Open House should take note.

sillas

Titian Tumble

The bad news is that a painting of the Crucifixion by Titian (1488-1576), painted circa 1555, was damaged when it fell off the wall in the sacristy of El Escorial, the basilica-monastery-palace-necropolis of the kings and queens of Spain, just outside of Madrid. The good news, if you want to call it that, is that the damage was limited to a tear in the lower part of the canvas. The life-sized picture, acquired by Felipe II a year after Titian painted it, is roughly seven feet tall, and was immediately taken away to restorers. The culprit here appears to be a deterioration of the plaster wall into which the painting had been anchored.

Tizano

Bringing Back Bruegel

Staying in Spain, albeit just briefly, ahead of a major retrospective in Vienna on the life and work of Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525-1569) the Prado recently completed a two-year cleaning and restoration of Bruegel’s magnificent “The Triumph of Death” (c.1562), one of the artist’s largest (at more than 5 feet across) and most compelling paintings. Crammed with figures getting their individually-tailored comeuppances as a result of their mistreatment of others, this a gruesome but fascinating piece, clearly inspired by the work of Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450-1516) a generation or so earlier. It’s also a kind of last, highly anachronistic gasp of Northern Gothic, even as the Renaissance itself was already on the way out in Italy. During the Prado’s treatment of the painting, lost details were recovered, and missing portions were carefully replaced by studying copies of the painting executed by Bruegel’s sons and assistants. The Prado has indicated that this is the first and only time it will be lending “The Triumph of Death” to an exhibition, which makes me think they’re expecting a major loan from the Austrians in return. “Bruegel” is at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna now through January 13th.

muerte

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Thought-Pourri: “Mars” Attacks Edition

One of the things that I follow, in my daily perusal of art news, is what is going on at the upper end of the art market – a habit that I picked up in graduate school which at the time was mandatory, but that now I use mainly for self-instructive purposes. I had been following the announced sale of an important 16th century Italian bronze statue of Mars that was scheduled to go on the block at Sotheby’s in London yesterday, but was surprised to learn on Monday that it had been withdrawn from sale. This is sometimes an indicator that the auction house is worried that their piece is a fake, but in this case the provenance or chain of ownership could not have been clearer: it was gifted by the artist to a Germanic ruler shortly after it was created, remained in the family of his descendants until the early 20th century, and has been in a German corporate collection for the past thirty-odd years.

Martes

Instead, it turns out that the German government managed to pull together an undisclosed sum and purchase the sculpture for the state art museums in Dresden. It was good to hear that the beautifully executed figure of Mars will stay in Germany, where it has been for nearly half a millennia, but this quote from the German quasi-Minister of Culture Monika Grütters attacking Bayer Corporation, which owned the piece and had consigned it to Sotheby’s, made me roll my eyes a bit:

“Bayer AG should be really ashamed of wanting to auction a work of such importance to the nation to the highest bidder, instead of donating it to the people of Dresden—especially considering the company itself got it as a gift,” Grütters told the German press agency DPA. “For such a successful and prosperous company, this would have been peanuts. It should be aware of its social responsibility in Germany.”

Grütters is normally someone whom I can sympathize with, as she is a devout Catholic in a very secular country. She was recently criticized for – correctly – pointing out that the “de-Christianization of society is not conducive to living together in a democratic society.” However when it comes to the ownership of private property, remarks such as those which she made subsequent to government intervention to stop the sale of the so-called “Dresden Mars” are juvenile and rather silly. Philosophically it leads down the same ignorant, dead-end road which says that the state can take your house if someone else plans to build an office park on it, even if the office park never gets built.

As to the work of art itself, Giambologna (1529-1608) was arguably the most important Mannerist sculptor working in Italy during the second half of the 16th century. A later bronze copy of his iconic statue of Mercury graces the rotunda fountain at the National Gallery of Art, while his marble depiction of a group later entitled as a scene from the “Rape of the Sabine Women” is a seminal sculpture in the history of art, bridging the period between the end of the Renaissance and the beginning of the Baroque. For much of his adult career he worked almost exclusively for the Medici, decorating many of their palaces and villas, as well as public buildings located throughout their duchy, but examples of his work also appear in Rome and Bologna, and were coveted by collectors in France, Spain, and elsewhere.

Because they are smaller than his monumental figures and thus easier to move about, Giambologna’s reduced bronzes are highly prized by collectors. In a process which is still practiced today, the artist would create an original work which, if it proved popular, could then be issued in multiple editions in different sizes by the artist himself or his workshop assistants. You can see a convenient example of this the next time you are in New York. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, this bronze figure by Giambologna of a triton blowing a horn stands about 3 feet tall, while a version a little more than half the size of the Met’s version stands just down the street at the Frick Collection.

It’s good to know that “Mars” will be staying in Dresden, but I don’t think the rather vice-principal finger-pointing by F. Grütters that accompanied it was either warranted or necessary.

And now on to a few other art stories of note, in brief.

Saving Sargent

Speaking of works saved for public collections, “A Game of Bowls” (1889) by John Singer Sargent has recently been purchased by the UK National Trust for Ightham Mote, a medieval manor house in Kent that Sargent painted when staying at the property. At the time of Sargent’s visit it was being rented by an American railroad baron, William Jackson Palmer, who was also a Civil War hero and the co-founder of Colorado Springs. His wife Elsie was a friend and patron of Sargent as well as writer Henry James, and during their tenancy at Ightham Mote many American and British artists, writers, and thinkers spent time visiting the Palmers and exchanging ideas. While not a great Sargent, it’s entirely fitting that “A Game of Bowls” should return to the house where it was painted.

Sargent

Criminally Compelling

I already follow quite a few art news sites, but a new one that I’ve recently added to my bookmarks and which the reader may also find of interest is ARCABlog, published by the Association for Research into Crimes against Art. I find the design a bit clunky, but the stories often offer more detail than is usually available in the regular art press, and thus are often highly compelling. Check out this piece, for example, which details how a Etruscan perfume jar in the form of a rabbit, dating to around the 6th century BC, was recently seized by authorities in New York.

Conill

Klimt’s Climate 

To mark the 100th anniversary of his death, the Leopold Museum in Vienna has just opened an important exhibition on the work of everyone’s favorite Austrian Secessionist painter, Gustav Klimt (1862-1918). “Gutsav Klimt: Artist of the Century” covers the artist’s entire career via eight thematic presentations about his times, and while not a particularly large show in terms of numbers of works, explores all aspects of Klimt’s artistic development and ideas. This includes a look into the artist’s landscapes, such as the one shown below painted in the grounds of Schönbrunn Palace in the summer of 1916, at the height of World War I, which are less well-known than his figural painting and portraits, and yet make up one-quarter of his existing work. The exhibition runs until February 6th.

Landscape

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