Sunday, December 4, 2022

The Italian Cover-Up

As we have seen in this country censorship is rampant. Children should not learn about sex … history should only be about pleasant subjects and not upset the children. Sad to see it happening but it is nothing new. A recent piece of art news makes me want to revisit the subject from a different perspective.

A recent article was published by the Guardian gleaned from the Associated Press, November 13, 2022. “Art Restorers in Florence have begun a 6 month project to clean and virtually “unveil” a long-censored nude painting by Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1653). With the discovery that the original subject was nude the painting has taken on new significance as a symbol of allowing women artists free expression. Artemisia who was one of the first to dare to break into the man’s world of art.

The work was commissioned in 1616 for the home of the great-nephew of Michelangelo which eventually became the Casa Buonarroti museum where it has been displayed on the ceiling. Veils and drapery were commissioned to cover the offending parts of the “Allegory of Inclination” about 70 years after it was painted. The nude is thought to be a self-portrait. Obviously, she would have been the most readily available model.

Restorers won’t be able to remove the cover-up because it was painted over too soon after the painting was finished. They can, however, distinguish the brush strokes of the original artist from those of the cover-up artist. The restoration team lead by the lead conservator Elizabeth Wicks plan to create a digital image of the original version and will be shown in an exhibition of the project opening next September.

The nude figure has long been a subject of censorship… protecting the innocent! In a 2016 issue of the Guardian, Jonathan Jones wrote an article titled, “The Great Cover-up: Renaissance Nudity Still has the Power to Shock” It recounts how Renaissance artists rediscovered the beauty of the nude in the art of the ancient Greeks and Romans. But then it “crashed into religious revivals, iconoclasm and holy wars during the Reformation and counter Reformation, not to mentions the later hypocrisies of the Victorian Age”.

Probably the best-known case is that of Michelangelo’s (1475-1564) “Last Judgement” in the Sistine Chapel (1508-1512). The depiction of male genetalia caused a critic at the time to say the fresco was more fit for a gay bathhouse than the Pope’s church. When Michelangelo died, a painter was hired to cover the crotches of the airborne nudes with draperies. The controversy was renewed during the 1980’s restoration of the fresco. The draperies were finally left untouched.

That was not the only Michelangelo cover-up. After the artist’s death a bronze loincloth was added to his sculpture of the “Risen Christ” (1519-1521) in Santa Maria Sopra.

Massacio’s (1401-1428) Adam and Eve, “Expulsion from the Garden of Eden”, circa 1425, in the Brancacci Chapel received a decency cover-up in the 17th century. These additions. However, were removed by a restorer in the 1980’s. Here we have before and after.

There are so many other examples and the battle continues all over the world. A news channel from Paw Paw, Michigan announced in 2019 that the Van Buren County Commission decided to cover up two, century-old murals inside the courthouse that depict women's bare breasts. The paintings were done by a local artist, Frank Lewis Van Ness in 1908 of classical Greek characters. Judge Kathleen Brinkly wrote in her recommendation letter to the commission, "To have paintings of bare breasted women in a courthouse displays a lack of respect for women, and for men who respect women."

Sunday, November 27, 2022


The devastation in Ukraine caused by the Russian assault on civilian populations leaving cities without water or electricity, is hard to imagine from our comfortable lives. Looking to the future we all hope that Ukraine comes out of this not only victorious but also with their culture intact. If I repeat anything I wrote in the spring I will defend myself by stressing the increased cultural sins of the Russian forces and their leader.

It seems to be indiscriminate whether the Russians steal or destroy the art.

In the one case, however, the case of the Scythian Gold they clearly knew what they were doing. When I first read about this in the spring I was happy that the Ukrainians had hidden their most valuable, in every sense of the word, Scythian gold but obviously to no avail.

“When Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine began” according to The Guardian from last April, “the director of the Museum of Local History in Melitopol, in the south-east of the country, Leila Ibrahimova, arranged for a hoard of gold artefacts from ancient Scythia to be hidden. Just a few weeks later, she was kidnapped and interrogated by Russian troops. They demanded to know where the Scythian gold was; she refused to cooperate. Subsequently the museum’s curator Galina Andriivna Kucher was taken at gunpoint to the museum and asked to show a Russian “expert” and agents where the gold was. She also refused to locate the collection. Kucher was later abducted from her home on 30 April and her whereabouts remainsed unknown.”

In June, The Daily Beast wrote of the Russian plunder: “Since Russia began its invasion in February, 250 cultural institutions have been targeted by Russian munitions. Thousands of important museums pieces have been destroyed during the bombing of Mariupol and elsewhere. In Melitopol, Scythian gold artifacts worth millions that date back to the fourth century B.C. were stolen from crates the museum had hidden them in.”

According to a report on the theft in the New York Times, Russian troops eventually found the gold hoard boxed up in the museum’s basement. The items were taken to Donetsk, in the Russian-controlled Donbas region, for “safety”, with the museum’s newly installed puppet director, Evgeny Gorlachev, stating that the gold artefacts were not just for Ukrainians but “of great cultural value for the entire former Soviet Union”. His carefully chosen words were designed to erase the collection’s Ukrainian heritage and replace it with a Soviet one, suggesting Ukraine was back within Russia’s sphere of influence and control.

In July the American publication, Newsweek reported the following, “The accusation made by the Mariupol City Council on its Telegram account said that the alleged theft by Russians mimics actions of the Nazis during World War II, when Adolf Hitler's Third Reich ordered the seizure of cultural property that did not reflect Nazi ideals and could be sold for financial gain for the purpose of creating a new cultural museum in Austria.”

The Russian rape of art from Ukraine has intensified. Recently I saw an article in the German Art Magazine, Weltkunst, stating that 15,000 works were taken by the Russians as they were driven out of Kherson this month. The stolen art ranged from 17th century Icons to contemporary art. According to the article the Oleksiy Shovkunenko Museum was cleaned out!

The KYIV Independent newspaper reported that four trucks with stolen art arrived in Simferopol, a city in Russian-occupied Crimea and who knows where else they brought the purloined art. I am quite sure art experts were not there to vet what was taken so it was just to cause as much distress as possible. I know how upset I would be if objects that had sentimental value were suddenly taken from my home.

The Jerusalem Post expanded on the report that the Ministry of Defense in Ukraine wrote on its Twitter account: "The occupiers stole everything from Kherson: paintings from art galleries, antiquities from museums, historic manuscripts from libraries. But their most prized loot was a raccoon they stole from a zoo. Steal a raccoon and Die." They were even spotted stealing a Llama!

As I write this missive, what is of most immediate concern is the loss of human life and the suffering of those who survive, but in the long term the remains of the history and culture of a country are vital to its identity and the will of its people to carry on.

Sunday, November 20, 2022

The Paul Allen Collection

Paul Allen (1953-2018) was a businessman, computer programmer, researcher, investor, and philanthropist. He also owned a football team and a basketball team. He is best known, however, for having been a co-founder of Microsoft with his good friend Bill Gates. Now, I just read about the sale of his real-estate empire, but this missive is about his art collection which was recently sold at Christies.

I will give you the punch line up front. Part one of the auction brought in $1.5 billion dollars eclipsing the recent record of $992 million that the Macklowe sale brought at Sotheby’s.

A knee jerk reaction would be to dismiss this as an example of the ridiculous prices that modern art brings these days, but that would be totally wrong. When anyone asks me if art is a good investment, I say emphatically, NO! Sometimes, however, I amend that to say, unless you have the millions to buy the very best works by the leading artists and diversify into many fields. Until now I have never actually seen such collection.

Unfortunately, I have only seen the Paul Allen Collection in the Christie’s online catalog, but I could not believe my eyes. Here was a billionaire who obviously bought only what he liked. He did not try to fill in the blanks of a postage stamp album (which some art collectors try to do) or concentrate on one period of art, or one artist. Not that there is anything wrong with that. My wife and I, however, have had several collections of works that cost us from the hundreds to some thousands of dollars, but I cannot remember ever buying anything in the 5-digit range. We lost money on everything we sold except for our photography collection which we bought mostly in the late 70’s and 80’s.

Speaking of photography, Edward Steichen’s 1904 photograph of the Flatiron Building in New York City was offered to us back when we collected in the field. We didn’t buy it because I just didn’t love it. Christies estimated Allen’s 1905 print of that image at $2-3 million, which I would have been happy with, but it brought $11 million dollars, even better!

One of my favorite artists Lucien Freud (1922-2011) was represented in the Allen collection with a masterpiece, “Large interior, W11 (after Watteau)” (1981-83). It brought $86,265,000. Like most of the pictures in the sale it has an extensive list of publications and exhibitions and the known provenance. Clearly Allen did his homework with the advice of scholars as well as the top art dealers from whom he usually bought his works of art.

“Day Dream” by Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009) is a nude that might seem an unusual subject for the artist, but it is from a series of paintings he did of his muse, Helga. From Wikipedia I learned “Helga ‘Testy’ Testorf was a neighbor of Wyeth's in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania and over the course of fifteen years posed for Wyeth indoors and out of doors, nude and clothed, in attitudes that reminded writers of figures painted by Botticelli and Edouard Manet. To John Updike, her body ‘is what Winslow Homers maidens would have looked like beneath their Calico.’ " If someone had asked me if this painting was a good investment, I would have said, no. I would have advised acquiring a painting more typical of the artist’s work, certainly not a nude which are often more difficult to sell. Wrong again! The painting was estimated at 2-3 million and brought $23,290,000.

There are several paintings by David Hockney (1937- ) in the sale but I have chosen this masterpiece “The Conversation” (1980) because we were well acquainted with one of the sitters, Henry Geldzahler. My wife worked with Henry when he was the curator of 20thcentury art at the Metropolitan Museum and he was a personal friend of many of the contemporary artists of the time, including Hockney. The painting, by a living artist, brought almost 8 million dollars.

What I so admire in the Allen collection is its breadth with quality being the only constant. Most of the works in the auction are from the 20th century with a few from the 21st. But the biggest surprise, for me, was the roundel masterpiece by Sandro Botticell (1445-1510) “Madonna of the Magnificat”, circa 1480’s. The provenance includes Rosenberg & Stiebel and we sold it to Barbara Piaseca Johnson of the Johnson & Johnson fortune. While not exactly in fashion because you cannot find paintings as important as this on the market today, it still brought a respectable $40 million.

In the New York Times Blake Gopnik lamented the fact that the Allen collection did not go to The National Gallery or the Metropolitan Museum. I would ask why have those treasures go to a gargantuan museum with enough of their own masterpieces. If they were to go to a museum, why not a small institution which would put it on the map and the Allen collection masterpieces would attract visitors.

Through the sale, however, individual works of art will be spread far and wide and, in the scheme of things, many will end up in public collections. The proceeds are to go to charities that Allen chose helping those in need of assistance in many areas. Why does nobody ever see the positive sides of events. It is far too easy to criticize instead.

Sunday, November 13, 2022

The Art of Getting Attention

What do “The Extinction Rebellion”, “The Last Generation” and “New Seasons of Actions” have to do with each other? They are all part of an international movement to address climate change, and involve demonstrators going into museums and throwing food stuffs at famous paintings and gluing their hands or heads to pictures, frames or adjacent walls. Here two protestors glued a head and a hand to “The Girl with the Pearl Earring” by Vermeer at the Mauritshuis in the Hague, The Netherlands.

The first time I read about the climate activists was the report where they threw tomato soup at a van Gogh painting of Sunflowers in the National Gallery in London. I was upset. But then when I learned the picture was glazed (protective glass in front), I had another thought. What a wonderful way to bring attention to a worldwide problem. Later I found that this was not a singular action, but it has become a movement all over Europe, not just in the Hague and London but in France one smeared cake on the Mona Lisa; in Germany they threw mashed potatoes (instant or homemade is anybody’s guess!) at Claude Monet’s “Moules”; in Italy they chose pea soup to throw at van Gogh’s “The Sower”; in Spain, they glued their hands to Goya’s Majas, and in Italy to Botticelli’s “Pimavera”… and who knows where else, oh yes, in Melbourne Australia two members of the Extinction Rebellion glued their hands to Picasso’s “Massacre in Korea”.

They have not just chosen art museums for protests but also a Dinosaur Exhibition in Berlin and Madame Tussauds in London where they smeared chocolate cake on the face of King Charles III. Sorry but, I do not take Madame Tussauds too seriously, I find that one amusing. Shame on me!

I read various articles about the repercussions of these acts. In the case of Melbourne, the perpetrators were arrested and released when it was found the painting was undamaged. Barron’s reported that a Dutch court sentenced two climate activists to two months in jail, one of them suspended, for targeting Johannes Vermeer's "Girl with a Pearl Earring". But possibly in the best revenge of all, activists glued themselves to the floor of the Volkswagen Museum in Wolfsburg, Germany and rather than call the police, the staff closed-up the museum for the night and left them there, allegedly unable to use the bathroom. The protest lasted for two nights and then the authorities arrested them.

Here are a couple of the statements from these activists while they were in the museums. "We are in a climate catastrophe, and all you are afraid of is tomato soup or mashed potatoes on a painting," and "I'm afraid because the science tells us that we won't be able to feed our families in 2050 ... This painting is not going to be worth anything if we have to fight over food.” Here is a brief video from Twitter of the German protest at the Museum Barberini in Potsdam Germany regarding the mashed potatoes thrown at a Monet:

So far protesters have chosen works of art with protective glazing for their attacks and damage has been mainly to frames. Unfortunately, these sorts of actions can lead to extremes with people who just wish to get personal attention and then great paintings may get damaged. To invert what the climate activists have said, if this trend continues and we do survive past 2050, we may have lost some of our great treasures in the process.

Sunday, November 6, 2022

Old Songs with Lessons for Today

If you have been reading these Missives for a while you already know that I love what was known as folk music and today is often called Country Music and Musicals. Recently some songs have been coming to mind that were written 60 plus years ago but remain apt today.

I will name the song and the name of the lyricist, when the song was written and pick a pertinent stanza. Under the lyrics the singer and YouTube link to the entire song.

Border issues are nothing new. “Deportee”, aka.“Plane Wreck at Los Gatos” written by Woody Guthrie, 1948. It is about the migrants that were brought in from Mexico to work in the fields and deported from California on the plane that crashed in Los Gatos Canyon.

“You won’t have your names when you ride the big airplane
All they will call you is ”Deportees”
“Some of us are illegal, and some are not wanted
Our work contract’s up and we have to move on.
Six hundred miles to the Mexican border,
They chase us like outlaws, like rustlers, like thieves”

Sung by Woodie’s son Arlo:

Do you remember the John Birch Society, lyrics by Michael Brown, 1961.

It was the forerunner of many groups today such as the Oath Keepers. It was then in the middle of the Cold War between the United States and Russia.

“Be careful when you get there, we hate to be bereft
But we’re taking down the names of everybody turning left”
“Join the John Birch Society, help us fill the ranks
To get this movement started we need lots of tools and cranks”

Sung by the Chad Mitchel Trio:

What Did You Learn in School Today, written by Tom Paxton and first sung by Pete Seeger in 1963.

What did you learn in school today
Dear little boy of mine?
I learned that Washington never told a lie.
I learned that soldiers never die.
I learned that everybody’s free,
And that’s what the teacher said to me.
That’s what I learned in school.

Sung by Pete Seeger:

Tom Paxton also wrote “Buy a Gun for your Son” in 1965

“So buy a gun for your son right away, sir
Shake his hand like a man and let him play, sir
Let his little mind expand, place a weapon in his hand
For the skills he learns today will someday pay, Sir.”

Sung by Tom Paxton and a short interview by Pete Seeger:

This song written by Bob Dylan in 1964, “The Times they are a’changin’”

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don't stand in the doorway
Don't block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
The battle outside ragin'
Will soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin'

Sung by Bob Dylan:

This is from a musical written in 1949. The show was “South Pacific” and the song was “You’ve got to be carefully taught”.

You've got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You've got to be taught
From year to year,
It's got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You've got to be carefully taught.

Sung by Bill Lee (dubbing John Kerr) seen with Ezio Pinza from the 1958 movie version

“Where have all the Flowers Gone” was adapted from a traditional Cossack folk song "Koloda-Duda", Pete Seeger borrowed an Irish melody and adapted it for a an anti-war song in 1955. The last line of every verse is an appropriate ending.

“Oh, When will they ever learn
“Oh, When will they ever learn”

Sung by Peter, Paul and Mary at their 25th anniversary concert:

Sunday, October 30, 2022

Operation Paperclip

What a strange name, Operation Paperclip. I had heard the name but could not remember it until I listened to a book called, “The German Wife” by Kelly Rimmer. It is the story of a German family heading toward and through World War II Juxtaposed to an American family that lost so much in the Dust Bowl. This is one I suggest you listen to rather than read since the accent changes from German to the American South helps to distinguish where the reader is in the world.

Operation Paperclip was a secret United States intelligence program, given its name for the paperclips that U.S. officers attached to the folders of German experts they wished to employ. German scientists, engineers and technicians were spirited out of Germany as the war was ending, and for many years afterward, to be conscripted for a certain amount of time in the interest of the American Government.

The concept originated with the U.S. military effort to take the advanced weapons from the Germans, including biological and chemical agents. Soon government officials realized they should also bring the Nazi scientists, doctors, physicists, and chemists. The Germans were so far ahead of the Americans that it is believed that if they had had time to finish the programs, that were nearing completion, the war might not have ended for quite a while.

You can imagine that Nazi scientists were not going to be warmly received by the American public who became aware of the gas chambers found at the end of the war, so the American military did its best to wipe clean the records of these individuals.

The book is, of course, historic fiction but serendipitously I discovered that an old friend, a former curator and director at a university museum, was closely connected to a real-life story. Though I have known her for decades I only recently learned that she was born in Germany at the end of WWII and her father had been part of this program. He was an engineer and, in 1948, when he had the chance to come to the United States, he leaped at the opportunity. No, not because he had always hoped to come over, but it was known that the Russians, actually kidnapped scientists to bring them to work on their rocket programs and other scientific projects. The Americans, of course, wanted the scientists for the same reason. It was part of the Cold War arms race. Here is a photo of Werhner von Braun, who had a very dark past, but then was “heralded as the preeminent rocket engineer of the 20th century” with John F. Kennedy.

My friend told me that her father had joined the Nazi Party with the hopeful thought that if they heard some more reasonable voices, it could stop the extremists. [Sound familiar]? He wanted nothing to do with them after attending one party meeting. She also told me how close her parents came to being annihilated by an allied bomb and only survived because it turned out to be a dud and they could escape before the second one actually went off.

Her family came to the United States on a cargo ship and did not live in luxury. Building their own house they, “became the first doomsday preppers (food and shelter – basic security) was all that mattered”. Her father, by my interpretation, became an indentured servant to the U.S. military for a time. He worked at the predecessor to what is today the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton Ohio. As an engineer his specialty in simple terms was as a “plasma physicist” i.e. an expert in the ionosphere. If I repeated what I read in his obituary only another scientist would understand it. Half the words I had never seen before! His work became highly valued after Sputnik went up in 1957 and he won several civilian honors.



The book I referred to at the beginning recounted how the families of German scientists were shunned by the Americans and children would not play with the Germans. My friend did not refer to this specifically but said that for her family it had been a very lonely experience.

I often check first with Wikipedia before delving deeper. In this case, after a short article I found 158 footnotes, a whole bunch of references as well as further reading. If you are curious there is plenty more out there.

Sunday, October 23, 2022

The High Road to Taos

I have not written about Taos, New Mexico, for some time but this take is a little different from the others. A couple of days away from town was a birthday present from my wife, Penelope. The idea was not only to get away for a night but to do it in the fall which, like in many places, is so beautiful at this time of year. 

There are two ways to get to Taos from Santa Fe. One is relatively direct and takes roughly an hour and a half. The other, the high road, takes about an hour longer. Of course, it depends on your speed but with all the hills and switchbacks it also depends on your driving skills and, I’m afraid, your age! But boy is the high road worth it.

It is hard to take photos from a moving vehicle on a curving mountain road but there were a few, very few, places where a car could safely go off the road as photo opportunities. From this one view I took you can see why in 1975 the High Road was listed in the New Mexico Register of Cultural Properties.

In 2016 Mike Butler published a book called “The High Road to Taos” with about 200 black and white photos dating from the 1930’and 40’s from The Library of Congress. The High Road has always been a tourist and pioneer attraction.

Some guidebooks give you up to seven hours to take the High Road because there are so many historic villages and pueblos along the way. In 2012 I wrote about our tour of Taos Pueblo ...

Penelope had picked our luncheon spot called Sugar Nymphs Café in the village of Peñasco.

To give you an idea of the vintage of the place, these old fashioned washing machines stood outside.

The café shares the building with an old time theater which I could only peak into. In the “lobby” was a vintage movie projector.

It did not look like a great place to eat but i was in for a very pleasant surprise.

I ordered my favorite chili cheeseburger and Penelope a BLT, simple but delicious, mine was no patty but a thick burger cooked to rare perfection. It came with a large bowl of cauliflower soup. Did not sound that great to me but home made with lots of vegetables. If I return some day, I hope they have that soup again. We had to sample their signature drink made with syrups and berries like I have never tasted before. Adding to the atmosphere was a totally black cat with bright green eyes.

Coming into Taos we passed Saint Francis Church, Rancho de Taos, a famous subject for Ansel Adams and Georgia O’Keeffe. When we were there six years ago, we were pretty much alone but the church was closed. This time the parking lot was full and we did get into the church, as guests for a wedding were just dispersing, everyone decked out in their Sunday best. Here is Ansel Adams’ 1929 photo of the church.

We stayed at the Historic Taos Inn, which opened in 1936 and has retained its style. Its restaurant, Doc Martin’s, lived up to its reputation with a great chili relleno and margaritas. Our room was small but really cozy, with fireplace in a reading nook.

The next morning, we visited the Taos Art Museum at the Fechin house, home of Nicholai Fechin (1888-1955) a Russian painter who specialized in portraits. Here is a 1933 portrait of his daughter, Eya.

Born in Kazan, Russia he came to the United Sates with his wife and daughter in 1923. The family lived in Taos from 1927 until 1933. During that time, he transformed and added to an adobe house which is today listed on the National Register of Historic Places. He not only carved the furniture but incorporated architectural ornament recalling Russian folk art.

Returning home via the low road, the pouring rain made us very happy that we had come in on the high road on a beautiful sunny and warm day.