Art News Roundup: Merry Valentine’s Day Edition

Today is the first day of Winter, and it doesn’t look as though we’re going to have a white Christmas here in the Nation’s Capital, given that it’s currently about 63 degrees. Yet be that as it may, as we approach the 4th Sunday of Advent, I was rather appalled to drop into my local CVS on Tuesday evening and find that Christmas-related items were already being removed. The emptied shelves were in the process of being filled with items for Valentine’s Day.

You can see the photographic evidence of this here, and quite frankly I find this utterly appalling, for many reasons. What message does this send to children, for example? That they cannot even be satisfied with the gifts they will receive on Christmas in a few days’ time, because they have to be salivating over chocolates that they will be eating two months from now?

A follower on Instagram commented that at her local Giant Supermarket, she could not find any peppermint candy canes, and asked the clerk if they would be getting any more before Christmas. “No,” he replied, “Christmas is over.” Well, Christmas is most emphatically NOT over, because it hasn’t even begun yet. So whatever it is that the powers that be at places like CVS, Giant, and the like are celebrating at the moment, it certainly isn’t Christmas.

I happen to be someone who *does* celebrate Christmas, as it happens, since I may be a great sinner, but I’m one who believes in the veracity of the Christian faith. I will definitely, therefore, be celebrating all twelve days of Christmas when they arrive. Therefore, I’m going to use my prerogative as the lord of this virtual manor to share some interesting art stories involving the restoration of works that represent three types of sacred art: sculpture, painting, and musical instruments.

Pisano’s Pistoia Pulpit
One of the most important sculptural works of art of the Early Renaissance is about to go under tarps and scaffolding for the next two years. Giovanni Pisano (lived about 1245-1315) was an architect and sculptor, son of the more famous Nicola Pisano (lived about 1210-1278), who executed major commissions for churches throughout Italy and possibly elsewhere [there is currently an art history theory that the magnificent alabaster tomb of St. Eulalia, in the Cathedral of Barcelona, is by a member of their studio.] Giovanni created the pulpit for the church of Sant’Andrea (St. Andrew) in Pistoia, a city about 20 miles from Florence; the piece is stylistically related to other pulpits by the Pisanos, including those in the Cathedrals of Pisa and Siena, but shows how the Gothic was coming to an end and what we would consider “Modern” sculpture was born. Thanks to a grant from the American charitable foundation Friends of Florence, and the cooperation of government officials along with expertise from the University of Florence, structural analysis of the entire sculpture is currently underway, and as cleaning begins visitors to the church will be able to see live camera images of the restorers at work on monitors.

Pisano

Bononi’s Beautiful Biohazard
Staying in Italy for the moment, Italian scientists have discovered that some works of art may be changing over time for the same reason why milk turns into cheese, or why your kid comes home from school with strep throat: microscopic organisms. The expert team analyzed a painting of the “Coronation of the Virgin” by Carlo Bononi (1569-1632) which hangs in a church in the Italian city of Ferrara, and found that the entire piece, front and back, was covered with microscopic colonies of fungi and other microbial organisms, including Staphylococcus(!), Penicillium, and others. Interestingly enough, different pigments and materials used in creating the painting attracted different populations, since one type of fungus might prefer to live in or snack on certain environments more than others. This research may well have long-term implications for how restorers go about treating and conserving works of art in the future.

micro

Bodet’s Blessed Bells
An interesting and heart-warming story from Art Daily, on the efforts of one company to restore the sounds that once marked the daily rhythm of life throughout France. Bodet is one of the only companies in Europe that specializes in the repair of church bells, and since 1991 has brought back well over one thousand church bells into working order. While it’s a pity that hardly anyone in France goes to church anymore, at least the call to Mass, the marking of the hours of the Angelus, and the commemoration of baptisms, weddings, and funerals will provide a regular opportunity for these revived bell towers to do their job and remind listeners that they are in a country shaped by two millennia of Christianity.

Bodet

Advertisements

​Painting Snow: A Swiss Master In Russia

Next month Sotheby’s will be auctioning a particularly beautiful painting by a Swiss artist of the late 19th/early 20th century, whom you are probably unfamiliar with. Although not as famous or well-known in this country as some of his contemporaries and colleagues, like his friends Édouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard, who are well-represented in many American art museums, nevertheless his work is worth getting to know. It evokes that period from the end of the Victorian era up through World War I in a dreamy, introspective way, but with a modern point of view that should give us pause, when we assume that people of that time could not see the world in the same way that we do.

Félix Vallotton (1865-1925) worked in a variety of styles over his long career, and as a result the contrast between his earlier and later works can be quite astounding. It’s hard to believe that the artist who created this beautiful, highly realistic still life of fruit and flowers here in the National Gallery for example, is the same artist who created this Symbolist image of the Moon glowing through the clouds of a night sky, which is now in the Orsay. He was also quite prolific, so that you would probably never run out of works by him to look at and think about.

In 1913 Vallotton visited Moscow and St. Petersburg on a sketching holiday, looking for new artistic inspiration, and created a series of landscapes when he returned home. As you might imagine, a Swiss artist will generally have a pretty good idea of how best to go about painting snow, and Russia certainly offered Vallotton plenty of it. One of the paintings resulting from his trip, “La Néva, brume légère” (“The Neva, Light Mist”), is the highlight of Sotheby’s “Swiss Art/Swiss Made” sale in Zurich on June 27th. In this picture, Vallotton depicts a winter scene along the river Neva, which runs through the then-Russian capital of St. Petersburg.

While bleak and heavily atmospheric, there is nevertheless something hauntingly beautiful about this snow scene. There is a stillness to it, which will be familiar to anyone who has gone on a walk just after a snowfall, while the sky is still thick with clouds. What keeps it from being dull is the fact that Vallotton creates the monochrome image of a city in winter by, paradoxically, not using a monochrome palette. The foreground is all grays, blacks, and whites, but the background is a mixture of mauves, greens, and blues, which trick the eye into seeing them as a single color. In addition, as one’s eye makes its way down the picture, color gradually disappears entirely.

In this painting Vallotton also displays a masterful sense of how to compose a picture. Notice how there is a sharp division of the painting into three horizontal strips: sky, cityscape, and promenade. These strips are intersected by the bell tower of the Peter and Paul Cathedral, which juts up into the top 1/3 of the picture. This pulls the eye down toward the foreground figures of the lamp post and man in the hat, who stand parallel to each other and to the distant bell tower, while the buildings in the middle of the picture seem to almost skim across the top of the snow-covered wall, drawing the eye left-to-right and exiting the frame. The design is deceptively simple, made up of just a few basic forms and lines, but it is enormously effective.

When this picture was painted, World War I had not yet broken out, and Tsar Nicholas II was still on the throne. Within a few years, the elegance of St. Petersburg would be besmirched with the ugliness of leftism for decades to come. As a relic of a lost age then, Vallotton’s picture shows us Imperial Russia as it once was, which will no doubt draw the attention of private Russian buyers to this sale.

At the same time however, this picture is more than just a Swiss artist of the Gilded Age depicting a scene from old Mother Russia. In his representation of the sobriety of winter in a cityscape, Vallotton created a work of art that goes beyond specificity of time and place. Form and color are daringly but realistically simplified, almost to the point of abstraction, allowing the viewer’s eye to do all of the work, as would be true when out for a stroll on a snowy winter’s evening. It shows a modern understanding of light, landscape, and urbanism, and as a result, I think this piece has a broad, timeless, appeal. 

Hopefully, the end result will be that this painting becomes part of a permanent, public museum collection, for all to enjoy.

Bring Warmth to Someone

It is difficult to say exactly what it is about the autumn that makes many of us go into a kind of social hibernation.  It may be the angle of the sun as it skims lower along the horizon which reminds us of time flying past, or the curl of the leaves as they turn brown and rustle off the trees to the ground.  With less sunlight, shorter days, and colder temperatures, you would think that, logically, human beings would seek to come closer together to share warmth and solace.  Only nowadays we don’t tend to do this: we bundle up and go off to our respective hobbit holes, which may be nice and snug, but they are not very communal.

If you happen to have more than one pet, or have observed how animals on a farm behave, they tend to stick together, particularly when it is cold and dark, for warmth and companionship.  Yet for all the time we humans spend together outdoors in summer, as soon as the season turns we begin retreating indoors and into ourselves.  Were it not for holidays, many of us would have little in the way of non-work-related interaction at all: and some of us will not have any even then.

It has long been said that one reason the Scandinavians were such early pioneers in mobile phone technology was because they were so isolated from one another during the long winters that ravage their region.  We can all associate in our minds the concept of Scandinavian people wanting to be by themselves, even in harsh weather.  Yet as it turns out this is not really much good for the descendants of the vikings, or indeed for any of us.

The world of cinema is a good way to see this.  The legendary Swedish-American film star Greta Garbo did not actually want to be alone, as it turned out, she wanted to be left alone – but in her case, the reputation established about her ended up isolating her, making a Garbo sighting in New York something like seeing a fluke of nature rather than a human being.  In the wonderful Danish film “Babette’s Feast”, we see how the villagers’ cottages are all huddled together for practical protection, but they are generally such reserved and quiet people that they make no connection with one another outside of church, until the charity of a French cook brings them all, at least for an evening, together into warmth and love, despite the cold.  And in the Norwegian film “Kitchen Stories”, men in an isolated farming community in Norway are so desperate for basic human affection and companionship, that for much of the film they cannot even bring themselves to say so.

Autumn and winter holidays are all very well, but they are one day affairs, and the nights are now going to be long and cold for quite a few months up here in the Northern Hemisphere.  Perhaps as this season proceeds you will consider ways that you can reach out to others in unexpected ways, by offering to drop by or asking them to come over, or even just picking up that mobile device as intended, to make the darker hours pass more easily.  Those with families can bring those without into their circle, for example, or three or four individuals can make an effort of getting those individuals together to share some time in both talking and listening.

In serving others in this way, not only will you be doing good for someone else, in making the dark time of year seem a bit less dark, but you may also be doing yourself a very good service in turn.


Couple Having a Meal Before a Fireplace
by Quiringh van Brekelenkam (c. 1650)
Private Collection