Art News Roundup: To See, Or Not To See

Before diving in this morning, just a word on headings. As regular readers and subscribers know, I haven’t been happy with “Thought-Pourri” for some time, in titling this weekly roundup of interesting stories from the art world, even though I used to think it was clever. Puns do tend to wear on you after awhile, and that includes the pun which serves as the title of this blog. [Note to self: Must still get around to changing it.]

In any case, for now we’re going to stick with the more ho-hum “Art News Roundup” until I figure out something else since, while not exactly clever, it’s efficient and descriptive, particularly since on social media, oftentimes all you get to see is a post title and a link. This allows me to write something (hopefully) clever after the colon, while keeping the business end of things before the colon. And speaking of business, let’s get on to that.

There’s an interesting piece in ArtNet yesterday that I wanted to feature here before getting into some things that I recommend you go and see, since it discusses the sort of art which I do not recommend that you go and see, at least for the most part. In it, the author bemoans the decline of attendance at New York museum and gallery shows featuring Contemporary Art, a trend that has been accelerating in recent years, and describes what gallery owners are doing to try to reverse that trend. “If you read between the lines,” the writer notes, “it’s also a great example of how New York galleries are pushing vintage approaches to art viewership to fight plummeting foot traffic—a trend that’s threatening not only galleries’ commercial viability, but also their existential purpose as a free place to exhibit art.”

That’s all as may be, but of course, what one could also read between the lines, and which the article fails to explore or even mention, is the possibility that the numbers for these Contemporary Art shows are down because, on the whole, average people don’t actually like the art. After all, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art broke its all-time attendance record last year, and the single most popular show was “Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer”, which by itself brought in over 700,000 visitors. Just a thought.

Anyway, on to three spots where I highly recommend that you *do* go have a look-see.

New to the National Gallery (UK)

Juan de Zurbarán (1620-1649) is a Spanish Golden Age artist whose work is both rare and not very well-known. The son of the more famous painter Francisco de Zurbarán (1598 – 1664), Juan died relatively young during a plague epidemic in Seville, and it’s only within the last several decades that his own work has begun to emerge from the long shadow of his father. With the help of the American Friends of the National Gallery, London, that museum recently acquired a still life by Juan, “Still Life with Lemons in a Wicker Basket” (c.1643-1649), which had been in a private collection in Madrid for generations. I highly recommend watching this lecture from Letizia Treves, Curator of Later Italian, Spanish, and French 17th-century Paintings at the National Gallery, discussing the artist, his career, and this work, since not only is it obvious that Ms. Treves know her subject very well indeed, but her presentation is clear, full of interesting slides, and I for one learned a great deal from it, even with my having specialized in this period of art when I was in grad school. And of course, it goes without saying that the painting is worth seeing should you find yourself in London this summer.

Juan

Nip in to Newark

As your summer travel plans evolve, remember to keep the Newark Museum in mind, if you happen to find yourself in the New York/New Jersey/Philly area over the next month. Their excellent exhibition “The Rockies and the Alps”, which I reviewed for The Federalist back when it opened, runs through August 19th. Not only does it have plenty of beautiful paintings, alongside sculptures, drawings, and photographs showing what American and European artists were looking at and depicting in the mountain landscapes they visited with increasing frequency in the 19th century, but there are also interactive aspects of the show for the kiddos, and the Newark Museum itself is a revelation: you can easily spend an entire day there with the rugrats and find plenty of things to do. [N.B. I can also recommend the excellent Deluxe Diner, just around the corner, as a lunch spot.]

Newark

Young Leonardo at Yale

A bit further up the coast, Yale recently opened its latest exhibition “Leonardo: Discoveries from Verrocchio’s Studio”, which looks to be both extremely interesting and somewhat controversial. The interest comes from the fact that the world will be marking the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci next year, and there will be a slew of exhibitions around the world acknowledging his importance, of which this is the first. The controversy comes from a desire, at least on the part of some museums and experts, to attribute anything that has even a tangential connection to Leonardo as therefore being by him, particularly in the light of the media spectacle surrounding the sale of the “Salvator Mundi” (which I suppose I contributed to. in my small way.)

For example, Yale believes that the piece shown below, “The Triumph of Aemilius Paulus” (c.1472-1473) from the Musée Jacquemart-André in Paris, is mostly by Leonardo. Perhaps it is. I don’t see anything particularly remarkable about this piece, since to my eye the perspective is clumsy and the figures more Benozzo Gozzoli than Leonardo da Vinci, although the misty mountains in the background are certainly the sort that Leonardo liked to paint. On the other hand, I’m most emphatically not an expert, so you should just go along and see the works on show for yourself, and make up your own mind. “Leonardo” is at the Yale University Art Gallery through October 7th.

Triumph

Mystery Solved? Debating the Case of Yale’s Basement Masterpiece

Readers may recall a piece I wrote some time ago about an Old Master painting which may or may not be by the greatest of all Spanish painters, Diego Velázquez.  “The Education of the Virgin” was donated to Yale not quite a century ago, and lay forgotten in the basement storage area of the university art museum for many years, until an art historian there first attributed the piece to the painter.  Although more and more experts have come to accept it, the attribution has remained controversial ever since.

Now, as part of the picture’s international exhibition travels to Madrid, Seville, Paris, Minneapolis, and back to New Haven, following its cleaning and restoration, a symposium has been announced for October 15-17 in Seville.  Experts will gather in the Andalusian cultural capital to examine the piece, and debate whether the painting is indeed by Velázquez or not.  If you are an art history nerd, as I am, you would love to be a fly on the wall for this.  If you are not, then you might conclude that these sorts of arguments really don’t matter.  Yet in truth these issues really are important, for several reasons.

From a purely economic standpoint, there is a huge difference between owning an original work of art by a well-known artist, and owning one by an unknown or lesser-known artist.  We might like to think that a quality work of art can stand on its own, without attribution, and sometimes it does.  However more often than not, whether you are talking insurance values or auction prices or ways to draw in the public, art from the hand of someone prestigious is always going to command a higher value than if the same work of art was created by an unknown.

Think about how this works on a more pop culture level.  I can draw fairly well, as it happens, and I might be able to do a fairly accurate drawing of Snoopy or one of the other Peanuts characters. But would you really pay the same price for my work, whether to own it or go see it in an exhibition, as you would for one that came from the hand of Charles Schultz himself?  Part of the value in a work of art lies in the intangible connection to something larger than the work itself provides at first glance.

This brings us to the larger issue, which is the importance in Western culture of understanding artistic development.  Unlike in many other artistic traditions around the world, Western artists have spent centuries adapting and changing how they and we see things.  Many cultures value an exact or near-exact continuity with the past, so that the differences between works of art created in one century and another are so slight, that it would take a serious expert to be able to discern the differences between them.

In addition, many times artists in other cultures did not date or sign their works, thus leaving their identities unknown to history.  While not all Western art is signed, we do have a long history from the beginning of Western culture of artists proudly placing their names on their paintings and sculptures.  We actually know the names of some of the most famous painters and sculptors of Ancient Greece, for example, even if in many cases their works only survive in copies.  When an artist did not sign his work however, historians and experts can look at works that are known for certain to be by that artist, and compare styles, techniques, and methods with the piece that is being examined; such is the case with the attribution of “The Education of the Virgin”.

One way to go about doing this is by getting a good sense of how that artist and his world changed over time.  If you look at an image of The Education of the Virgin created 100 years before this purported Velázquez, say this French example [N.B. yes, I realize it’s not entirely fair to compare these, but bear with me], there is a movement in the later work away from the rigid formality of the earlier.  This was mirrored in Western society of the time, as everything from clothing to homes, government, technology, and business, became more recognizable to us living in today’s culture, even though we are still far removed from it.

What’s more, often an individual Western artist himself could and did change quite a bit during his career.  Look at how Raphael painted the Madonna and Child when he was a young artist of 20, versus how he painted them as a mature artist of 30, a mere decade later, and you can see the dramatic difference.  If you were unaware of all of the works of art that Raphael painted between these two pictures, growing and changing as he experimented and studied, chances are you would never have guessed that they were by the same person.  Thus, art history in the West is often a combination of detective story, painstaking research, and really knowing your subject inside and out.

Whatever the result of the conference in Seville, the prospect of determining that this is a very early work by Spain’s most important artist, a man who influenced everyone from Edouard Manet and John Singer Sargent to Pablo Picasso and Francis Bacon, is very exciting.  It shows us not only how accomplished he really was at a young age, but it helps us to understand why his career catapulted so quickly, leading him to become the official painter for the Spanish court.  I’m looking forward to learning of the outcome from the experts.

"The Education of the Virgin" Attr. to Diego Velázquez (c. 1617) Yale University Art Gallery

“The Education of the Virgin” Attr. to Diego Velázquez (c. 1617)
Yale University Art Gallery

 

 

 

College Is Not Paradise

“I have to go to school today.”

I caught myself saying this out loud this morning as I left the house, not because I’m actually back in classes, but because I have to go up to campus on my way home this afternoon to run an errand.  Even though I graduated from Georgetown University years ago, I still refer to it as “school”, even in casual conversation with friends and acquaintances who weren’t classmates of mine on the Hilltop.  As I’ve gotten older, however, I’ve come to appreciate the fact that as much as I enjoyed my time there, it was not an earthly paradise.

The fact that years later, I ended up living a few blocks away from the university I attended was not something I could have predicted, when I walked out of those front gates for what I thought would be the last time after graduation.  Like anyone else, I left with my head full of contradictory plans, some of which came to pass, and some of which did not.  Yet on the whole, I’m better for having left behind the fallacy of believing that my best years were my college years – a malady which, surprisingly, seems to affect a number of people I know.

I’ve been thinking about this albatross-like perception of one’s alma mater recently, in the context of a conversation I had with a friend about the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald.  Best known for his novel “The Great Gatsby”, Fitzgerald did not have a huge literary output, for among other reasons having died too young, and never quite getting a handle on his alcohol addiction.  While there are many great things about “Gatsby”, it’s definitely not my favorite work of his. A contender for that title is his first published novel, “This Side of Paradise”, which is loosely based on some of Fitzgerald’s experiences as an undergraduate at Princeton.

In some ways “Paradise” can be viewed as the American version of Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited”, albeit written a quarter of a century earlier. As in “Brideshead” there is the same sense of wasted, fast living by well-dressed young people at a prestigious university, the flickering presence of Catholic faith, and the desire to pursue and win a girl above the station of the narrator.  There is also in both works a similar glow about the towers of the collegiate buildings, seen through rose-colored lenses, which alumni of any old, beautiful school can relate to.

Those who find themselves, as I do, within a stroll of the campus where they spent the first, formative part of their adulthood, usually end up seeing things differently.  Dear alma mater, which was home for four years, now becomes just another venue for attending events, conducting business, or the like. Alumni who have moved on with their lives, even as they have moved away, can have the same perception.  To quote Addison DeWitt in “All About Eve” (as I often do), “I have not come to New Haven to see the play, discuss your dreams, or pull the ivy from the walls of Yale.”

Throughout “Paradise” Fitzgerald himself, although still a young man when he wrote the book, recognizes that his time at college was not something to cling to as the high point of his life, preventing him from doing anything else worthwhile again.  “Youth is like having a big plate of candy,” he writes. “Sentimentalists think they want to be in the pure, simple state they were in before they ate the candy. They don’t. They just want the fun of eating it all over again.”

At the conclusion of “Paradise”, the main character finds himself out in the world, unsure of exactly where he is to go or what he really believes in, despite all of the golden-rayed images of his time at college.  He returns to Princeton for a visit late at night, and reflects on the fact that now, other young people are living in those hallowed halls, learning about the same things he did, having their own experiences of socializing and becoming adults.  In doing so, he finds that he does not envy them; rather, he pities them, because he realizes that he is an adult, with adult things to do.

To me, that’s the real lesson of both “Paradise” and “Brideshead”, as well as my periodic visits to my own college campus.  One should never completely discard the good things of youth, such as curiosity, wonder, passion, occasional silliness, or a sense of adventure.  Yet the focus as we grow older needs to become more about what is to be done in the here and now, particularly in service to others, rather than being caught up in the past, ruminating on the dreams of yesterday and what might have been.

For Paradise, in the end, is not supposed to be a few years on college campus: it’s what our lives right now are supposed to be leading us to.

Healy Hall, Georgetown University (Photo by the Author)

Healy Hall, Georgetown University
(Photo by the Author)