Art News Roundup: Christmas Carols Edition

For those of you in the DC area, this evening at 7:30 pm is the annual Christmas Concert at St. Stephen Martyr in Foggy Bottom, located on the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and 25th Street NW. Our musicians are quite exceptional, as anyone who has visited the parish inevitably comments, thanks both to great talent and the great acoustics of the building itself. The program will include seasonal sacred music composed across many centuries, and will conclude with an audience sing-a-long. A reception will follow in the parish rectory. For more details, please follow this link; hope to see many of you there!

In The Bleak Barcelona

I’ll be heading to Barcelona on vacation in two weeks, and I’m sad to say that the Twelve Days of Christmas there are going to be somewhat dim, thanks to the city’s very dim mayor, failed actress Ada Colau. Not only has Ms. Colau placed an ugly, disrespectful “Nativity” scene by a contemporary artist in front of city hall – which as it turns out cost twice as much as what citizens were originally told it would run – but she now has the unique distinction of having united most of the political parties in the highly fractious region, from left to right, in condemnation of the parsimonious lighting and decorations which the city has installed for the season. Christians are accusing Ms. Colau of deliberately downplaying Christmas, thanks to her hatred of Christianity; secularists are decrying the “gloomy” atmosphere of the city, which will have a chilling effect on the spending of holiday tourists, reduce wages for both union and non-union workers, and thereby cut into anticipated tax revenues. [Ben fet, idiota.]

santjaume

Jingle All The Way (To The Bank)

You’ll recall that over the summer, I reported on an art dealer who bought an abandoned storage locker in New Jersey full of what at first glance appeared to be minor works of art, but upon closer inspection contained half a dozen late works by Abstract Expressionist Willem de Kooning (1904-1997). Art Net is now reporting that his $15,000 investment has paid off rather handsomely, to the tune of $2.5 million. Meanwhile, an employee at a local auction house in Derby, England, realized that a ceramic pot he had purchased for around $5 several years ago, and was using as a toothbrush holder in his bathroom, was in fact a Bronze Age artifact dating back about 4,000 years; he recently sold it at auction for about $100. The moral of the story here, kids, is: learn your art history.

ceramic

Five Golden Rings < One Copper Ring

While we associate the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate (died circa 36-39 A.D.) with the events of Holy Week rather than Christmas, a remarkable find in Israel is nevertheless worth mentioning as we consider the age into which Jesus was born. Back in 1968, archaeologists excavating at the Herodium, a vast palace-tomb complex originally built by King Herod the Great just south of Bethlehem, recovered a number of items for analysis, including a copper ring whose inscription was too faded to be clearly read with the naked eye. Now however, thanks to modern imaging technology, the ring has revealed its original inscription bearing Pilate’s name. Scholars believe that it was probably a seal ring used by Pilate’s underlings to sign documents on his behalf, much as one might use a rubber stamp bearing a signature in a government office.

anillo

Art News Roundup: Rich People Are Rich Edition

Contemporary Artist Andrea Fraser, who does not actually produce anything that a reasonable person would recognize as being art, has just published a new book (or is it art?) titled “2016 in Museums, Money, and Politics”. As ArtNews explains in this rather meandering review, the thesis of the book is that the United States used to be a democracy, but is now a plutocracy, and for some time now Ms. Fraser has had a bee in her bonnet about museums only showing what rich and powerful people want to be shown. Presumably, this includes herself, since she has had shows at most of the more famous Modern and Contemporary Art galleries around the world, when she is not literally prostituting herself on camera, as she did in one of her performance art pieces.

Here we arrive at the place which few in the Contemporary Art world want to visit: the land of grown-ups. It may come as a great shock to the reader to learn that, throughout human history, rich people have not only dominated politics and government – including from the beginning of the American Republic – but they have also used their wealth to do truly terrible things, such as pay for great works of art. Presumably, we would all have been better off if the Medici had not sponsored the young Michelangelo’s studies, or the Habsburgs had not patronized Mozart’s concerts.

And now, if you’ll indulge me, let’s move on to some art news that is actually interesting.

Frick Fumble?

This is going to prove quite an interesting legal tangle to sort out.

The Frick, which recently acquired a large, circa 1810 portrait of Prince Camillo Borghese by the French painter François Gérard (1770-1837), applied for and received an export license from the Italian government to take the painting out of Italy. Now it seems that Italy is crying foul, because on the paperwork the Frick did not mention that the subject of the painting was Prince Camillo. For its part, the Frick counters that the name of the sitter is written on the back of the picture, so why didn’t the Italian authorities actually examine it when they were considering whether to grant an export license? Borghese is not one of my favorite people, having decided to hop into bed with the Bonapartists – quite literally, by marrying Napoleon’s sister Pauline, the subject of one of Canova’s most famous sculptures – but it’s certainly a good portrait. We shall have to see where all of this leads.

Retrato

Ponti Panel

Staying in Italy, I have to say that on the whole, I don’t much care for the work of architect, artist, and designer Gio Ponti (1891-1979). His Denver Art Museum is an absolutely hideous building, and his Taranto Co-Cathedral looks like a stage set for a mod-minimalist Vincent Price horror film from the 1960’s. However, one aspect of his project to expand and redesign the University of Padua caught my eye in this New York Times piece announcing an upcoming retrospective on Ponti’s work this fall at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. This examination room, where a student would have to sit surrounded by professors critiquing and criticizing his dissertation, is an unusually cheerful space for such an event. When I had to give my viva voce, it was in a darkened room with lights glaring in my face, like at a police interrogation in a film noir. Had I this panel to look at, I probably would have been less nervous.

Pontimural

Tintoretto’s Turn

To celebrate the 500th birthday of one of the most important and influential figures in Italian Renaissance art, on September 6th the Palazzo Ducale in Venice will be opening a major retrospective on the life and work of Jacopo Comin (1518-1594), better known as “Tintoretto”. Fortunately, those of us on this side of the pond will not be left out of the picture, because the exhibition will travel to the National Gallery here in DC beginning March 10th of next year. This will be the first major retrospective of Tintoretto’s work ever held in the U.S., so it promises to be one of those “blockbuster” exhibitions that you may want to choose a Wednesday morning to go visit, rather than a Saturday afternoon. While I don’t believe that Tintoretto’s “Il Paradiso” from the Doge’s Palace, the largest painting in the world ever painted on canvas – 74 feet long and 30 feet tall – will be making the trip, I’m illustrating it here just so you can marvel at the sheer bravura of what the artist was able to accomplish. This will be one exhibition that you should not miss, if you find yourself in Venice this fall or in Washington in the spring.

Venecia

 

Dominic and Clare: Two Great Saints, Two Great Activities

With the feast of St. Dominic tomorrow, and that of St. Clare of Assisi coming up this Saturday, I wanted to share two bits of news related to both, which hopefully the reader will find interesting.

The first involves a Solemn Mass which will be held at St. Dominic’s Church here in DC, at 7pm tomorrow evening. After Mass there will be the opportunity to venerate a relic of St. Dominic, followed by a reception which, I am assured by the parish, will be non-solemn. St. Dominic (1170-1221) was the founder of the Order of Preachers, more commonly known as the Dominicans, who, along with St. Francis of Assisi (1180-1226), helped to usher in a significant period of spiritual, intellectual, and artistic growth in the Church during the Middle Ages, and his spiritual descendants carry on that work today.

If you’ve never been to St. Dominic’s, you’ve probably seen its striking bell tower from the 395 expressway going to or from Capitol Hill. It points skyward amidst the bland, boxy, brutalist concrete structures that were built in the middle of the previous century, when demolition of historic structures in the name of “progress” was all the rage in urban centers. St. Dominic’s is one of the few architectural survivors from before that supposedly enlightened movement destroyed the neighborhood around it, which similarly ruined places like Penn Station in New York and Boston’s City Hall. And what a magnificent survival it is, as you can see here:

Esgles

SantDom

Although I’m unaware of any evidence that he ever met her, another contemporary of St. Dominic was St. Francis’ dear friend St. Clare of Assisi (1194-1253), whose life the church commemorates on Saturday, August 11th. St. Clare founded the Order of the Poor Ladies, more commonly known as the Poor Clares, a few years after the foundation of the Dominicans and Franciscans. Whereas the former concentrated largely on preaching and education, and the latter on caring for the poor and outcast, the Poor Clares are a contemplative order, living in monastic community and spending their days in lives of prayer and meditation.

In 1326, the first Poor Clares monastery was founded in Pedralbes, then a small village in the foothills of the mountains that surround Barcelona, by King Jaume II for his 4th and final wife, Queen Elisenda de Montcada. She retired there after his death, and over the years the Royal Monastery of Santa Maria de Pedralbes grew in size and beauty to eventually become designated as a National Monument of Spain. It’s a place that has been important in the life of my mother’s side of the family for many generations.

One of the great treasures of the monastery is the Chapel of St. Michael, a cell located in the beautiful, triple-story Gothic cloister (the only one in Europe, BTW.) It is completely covered with frescoes dating from 1346, executed by an artist named Ferrer Bassa (1285-1348). Little is known of his life or training, but the frescoes are highly significant to art history as evidence of early Italian Renaissance art making its way to the Iberian Peninsula. Bassa’s work shows that he was familiar with the work of contemporary Italian artists such as Giotto, Duccio, Simone Martini, and others, and may have studied in Siena. This art would have been seen as cutting-edge design at the time of its execution in Barcelona, since there was nothing else like it outside of Tuscany.

Now, after a multi-year, complex conservation and restoration effort, the chapel has been brought back to as near as possible what it looked like when it was first completed in the mid-14th century. The decorative program features a number of saints – including St. Francis and St. Clare, naturally – as well as scenes from the life of Christ and the Virgin Mary. Because the chapel was originally a nun’s cell, it’s not possible to get a good sweeping vista of the decoration, but this gives you some idea of the impression that you get when you step inside from the cloister:

Capella

The significance of the spread of this kind of art outside Tuscany cannot be overestimated. Whereas in earlier Catalan art, faces were often stoic and expressionless, Bassa introduced his Catalan viewers to a new and unprecedented kind of realism, drawn from the observation of nature and real life, in which we can more easily empathize with the figures depicted in the scenes. Here, for example, we see expressions of anxiety, sorrow, and suffering in the faces of the women who have been witnessing the torture and death of Jesus:

Mullers

Whether you find yourself in Barcelona this weekend for the feast of St. Clare, or indeed at any other time, if you are interested in art history, magnificent architecture, and/or Christian spirituality, make sure to make a pilgrimage to Pedralbes. There are still a few Poor Clare nuns left, although sadly like many religious orders in Spain, they have been dying off for quite awhile now, and personally I’m worried that the place, which is mostly run by the city as a museum at this point, is going to get turned into some god-awful hotel and conference center or something, so best to go see it now while you can. It’s a bit off the beaten path for most tourists, being in a mostly residential neighborhood, but I think you’ll find the beauty and indeed the peacefulness of the place well-worth the trip.