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.


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.


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.


Venice in America

Today is the Feast of St. Andrew the Apostle, brother of St. Peter and patron saint of many things, including fishermen, Scotland, and Russia.  However he is also the patron saint of one of the greatest and most significant architects of the modern age, Andrea Palladio, who was born on St. Andrew’s Day in 1508.  If you are not hugely interested in architecture, you may not be familiar with his name, but if you live in the Western world there is a reasonably good chance that the home you live in, or the civic buildings that make up the town where you live, were shaped and influenced by the ideas of this 16th century Venetian master.

Just as Jacobo Sansovino, whom I wrote about earlier this week, had a profound influence on the artists of his day, in convincing them that they were equaling or even surpassing the achievements of their ancient Greek and Roman forbearers, so too Palladio was a driving force in convincing architects that they could do the same.  Sansovino was himself a highly accomplished architect, of course, producing many beautiful and monumental structures in Venice between the 1530’s and 1560’s.  Palladio, who was a generation younger, had to bide his time while Sansovino held sway over the public taste of the capital, but eventually he became the head architect of the Venetian Republic after Sansovino’s death.

One of Palladio’s most influential contributions to the development of modern architecture and indeed modern living was in taking advantage of open spaces, rather than being afraid of them.  Keep in mind that in much of Europe from the fall of the Roman Empire in the West until the time of the Renaissance, most people lived together for protection, either in closely-packed walled towns, or in castles or other fortified structures in the countryside.  Foreign invaders or marauding neighbors bent on pillaging and destruction could sweep in at any moment, and there was safety in numbers.

What our eyes need to be trained to see is how different the world which Palladio created was from the times that had come immediately before it.  There is nothing of the fortress about a Palladian house.  There are no dark, thick walls designed for defensive purposes, with only interior courtyards to allow light and air.  Instead, his houses sit gracefully inside beautiful parks and gardens, surrounded by trees and flowers, green lawns and splashing fountains.

Nor were these houses gigantic, bloated structures, like the Baroque behemoths that were built to house the egos of absolute monarchs.  Rather, they were comfortable places to enjoy oneself with one’s family and friends by engaging in outdoor activities, reading, entertaining, or the like.  They are of course much larger than the average person’s home, but they are not overwhelmingly so.  The confidence with which these villas were built testifies to a similar spirit of self-confidence of the day that times were getting better, and that the darker ages of constant warfare between rivaling factions were becoming less frequent, at least in the Venetian Republic.

This in itself is a key component to the architecture which Palladio created.  His houses are built for aristocrats, but they are they are the aristocrats of a republic.  There was no hereditary king of Venice: the Republic was ruled by a Doge, an elected official whose powers were limited further and further as the centuries wore on.  While the Venetian Republic was not truly a representative democracy, in the sense that we would understand the term, it had a series of checks and balances in place to ensure that no one single individual or family could come to dominate the entire system.

Palladio’s ideas and methods were not just limited to a bunch of gondola-riding aristocrats half a millenia ago.  For in fact, many of the American Founding Fathers were hugely enamored of the Palladian way of living.  President Thomas Jefferson, for example, built his beloved estate Monticello, as well as the Virginia State Capitol building, and the main building of the University of Virginia, using principles derived from his own study of Palladio’s work.  James Hoban, the Irish-American architect of the White House, took his plans for the Executive Mansion directly from two Palladian-style country houses which had been built a few years earlier in Ireland.

Even today, Palladio’s legacy is all around us, not only as part of our visible history, but in continuing to influence architects who build homes and businesses, offices and churches by taking Palladio’s ideas and applying or re-interpreting them.  As is so often the case in these pages, we have here yet another example of why it is important to understand the cultural history of the West, something which the past forty-odd years of academically entrenched relativism has done such a bang-up job of trying to eradicate.  Over many centuries the ideas of this single Venetian architect have had a positive impact on both the look and livability of our homes, our public buildings, and indeed our cities.

Palladio understood that in order for contemporary society to succeed, it must be interconnected with the best aspects of the society which came before it.  He helped to radically change the way that his contemporaries lived by looking at how people had lived before, how they lived in his day, and figuring out he could bring together the best aspects of each.  In doing so, he succeeded in transforming not only a small Italian republic, but the lives of people in countless cities and towns large and small, all over the world.  His is but one example of why we should both study and try to understand our past, taking the lessons we learn there, and adapting them to the needs of the present.


“La Badoera” Villa by Andrea Palladio (built 1556-1563)
Fratta Polesine, Italy

Our House: In the Middle of Our Street

If you are lucky enough, gentle reader, not to have one of the “Occupy” or similar movements sullying your public places, consider yourself very fortunate, indeed.Having had the misfortune to pass by McPherson Square yesterday afternoon and see (and smell), for the first time in person, where America’s anarchist-movement-du-jour is camped out beneath the incredulous gaze of Civil War hero Maj. General James McPherson, I was struck by the awful condition of the public space.   If we do not permit public protests of course, we are not truly a democracy, even when we disagree with the points of view of the protesters.  However, if those same protesters do not respect public property, then one really does have to question the fundamental underpinnings of their protest.

We are fortunate that at some point, someone saw sense and put a wrought-iron fence around the White House about a block or two away, to keep this kind of nonsense off of America’s front lawn.  The White House has been the official residence of the American head of state for centuries, and the symbolism of having an official residence for the elected leader of a country is of great  importance to any democracy. Imagine if the next President of the United States – may he please be elected in 2012 – arrived in Washington and, instead of living at The White House, chose to rent an apartment on Connecticut Avenue. Would he be more or less likely to reflect on the great weight of history on his shoulders, if he was not surrounded by the walls, furniture, paintings, and so on that represent the life and work of the men who have held his office before him?

Whatever the identity of the individual head of state living in the White House at any given time, in a democracy such as ours he is but the sitting tenant of a property we all hold in common. Given the security concerns, no one was going to issue a permit for protesters to gather on the front lawn of the White House, and so their caravan has moved onto other public space nearby.  And here, we are all getting a sense of how these persons, who decry (in some cases with very good reason) selfishness in others, are now exhibiting an incredible amount of selfishness themselves.

Of course, McPherson Square is not The White House, but like the White House it is still a public place that the people of the United States own in common, and one which at the present time the people cannot safely use.  The encamped protesters do not understand that while public spaces and buildings belong to everyone, including them, they do not belong to them or to anyone exclusively.  Indeed, the present situation reminds me of something my faculty advisor in law school used to say: your right to shake your fist in my face stops at the tip of my nose.

Under long-held theories of property law, of course, such as in the classic common law situation of a tenancy in common, if you ruin a piece of land that we jointly own, I can in theory sue both for damages and to have your ownership of that property terminated.  Naturally we have no such recourse with respect to the public parks of our major cities, and the analogy does not directly apply to what is going on in our parks and squares.  Yet clearly the abuse of this country’s long acceptance of and tolerance for the public airing of differing points of view must be tempered by a realization that protest which destroys publicly-owned property with impunity is not really a free exercise in democracy or in joint-ownership of the public spaces of our country.

From time to time a promotional ad runs on PBS entitled “This Belongs to You”. The montage of images over solemn, but inspiring music, flashes beautifully photographed scenes of, among other things, various American monuments and memorials, our natural wonders such as the Grand Canyon, and so on. It has always annoyed me no end, for it overlooks one very important fact: it assumes that everyone will voluntarily try their best to take care of things that belong to them, when this is patently not the case.

There will always be people who take advantage of protests such as the present “Occupy” groups to wreck both public and private property.  The distinction between protester and vandal, however, needs to be made, and penalties enforced, by our elected and appointed authorities.  These protesters have the right to their opinion, and we must defend their right to express said opinion, even if we find it unsavory.  We must not and cannot defend, however, the notion that their right to protest supplants the general public’s right to enjoy, free of damage, danger, and destruction, the property which they must share with their fellow citizens.

“White House South Front Elevation” rendering by architect James Hoban (1793)
White House Historical Association