Sunday, April 30, 2023

What's In a Name?

If you are a liberal, as I am, you decry the banning of books, the mandates to not teach Critical Race Theory (CRT) and what has become to be known as “don’t say gay” laws re: sexual orientation.

Liberals are very overbearing on this subject, saying these ideas are reprehensible because how can we learn without knowing our history. There is a much-quoted saying, in one form or another originated by philosopher George Santayana “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

When you think about it there are those on the Left that are behaving in the exact same way, if not as broadly and as often. You probably have read how the Metropolitan Museum and other institutions have taken the name of any and all Sacklers off of their walls because their pharmaceutical company is held responsible for having contributed mightily to exacerbating the opioid crisis in this country. I was reminded of this when I noted a recent headline for an article in Hyperallergic by Hakim Bishara, “In Surprise ‘Die-In’” Protesters Demand Harvard Take Down the Sackler Name”.

If the Sackler name disappears there is just a void with no recognition that they were complicit in this social tragedy. Pursuing museums’ current penchant for politically correct labels, why not wall texts describing the Sackler family’s source of their wealth, owning the pharmaceutical company, Purdue Pharma, that produced Oxcontin. Wouldn’t that be a motive for their generosity? Soothing their consciences? Of course, that might extend to many other donors as well.

Robert E. Lee is a name I have brought up in the past. Why do the liberals wish to erase him from history and memory by taking down all monuments to him? How then can future generations learn or, more importantly, understand the Civil War and why it was worth the loss of over 600,000 lives. On the other side conservatives wish to eliminate Black history and CRT; Critical Race Theory from being taught in schools. No one quite knows what CRT is, but some fear it. If we eliminate the story of slavery, one of the reasons for the Civil War, will study of the War itself be banned from schools? If this is all taken to its logical conclusion future generations won’t know how or why this country struggled to get to where it is today.

The statue of President Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909) has been removed from the entrance to the Museum of Natural History in New York because it was objected to as racist. The statue was put there in the first place because the President’s father was a founder of the museum and his son, the President, was a pioneering conservationist. It is true that the Pesident believed the White race to be more advanced than others, but, if it is civil liberties we are concerned with, why not celebrate his achievements as President, including taking on the case for women’s suffrage. It is so much easier to be against than to be for something.

There are liberals “sanitizing” new editions of Dr. Seuss and and excising the “N” word from Huckelberry Finn. In fact the publishers of the Dr. Seuss books have decided to no longer publish 6 from the series, 4 of which are illustrated below. Times change and vocabulary changes and what is thought to be offensive today may not have been thought of in the same sense earlier. Those with dark skin were known, when I was growing up, as Negroes, literally translated as Black, the latter being considered a more polite designation than colored. In recent times we hear the term, African Americans. Needless to say, a color-blind society would be the ideal but we are not there yet.

The Bible appears on lists of books that have been banned over history. However, there is currently no such move on the Right even though the Bible contains plenty of sex, incest and polygamy.

Why do we wish to censor history?

Sunday, April 23, 2023

The Ugly Duchess and her Partner

I recently read that there is a special exhibition at the National Gallery in London. called, “The Ugly Duchess: Beauty and Satire in the Renaissance”. It is small, only 15 works, but it is a revelatory show on view until June 11.

The Old Woman circa 1513 is by Quinten Massys (1465/6-1530.) She is known as the Ugly Duchess because she inspired John Tenniel’s popular illustrations for Lewis Caroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” (1865). For a long time, the painting was thought to be by Leonardo da Vinci but scholars today agree that it is by Massys but modeled on one of the “grotesque” drawings by the Italian master.

Journalist Marianna Cerini titled her March 16, 2023 article for CNN, “The Ugly Duchess: how an unsettling Renaissance portrait challenges ideas of aging women and beauty.” She writes, “By focusing on the wrinkles, lines, and other physical features that come with age, these artists have highlighted the ways in which aging can shape and define a person, challenging the notion that youth is the only time worth celebrating, and old age something to be feared or avoided.”

As I have often said the interpretation of a painting is up to the viewer and there is a different interpretation of the painting by the curator of the show, Emma Capron, a Renaissance expert. She believes that she is a he, in her words, “a cross-dresser as a play on gender. We know that Massys was very interested in carnivals, where men would impersonate women”.

I would ask then why has Capron includes in the exhibition the painting that is believed to be the pendant and possibly the Ducchess’ husband. Their reunion was a nice surprise for me. In 1976 I sold the Massys Portrait of an Old Man to a private collector, saying we believed it was the pendant to the Ugly Duchess. This is only the second occasion they have come together in recent times. Their previous “marriage” happened 15 years ago at the National gallery in an exhibition called “Renaissance Faces”. If indeed it is a couple you can see who is in charge. She may be ugly but she is also formidable!

The exhibition includes other works in various media and from different countries mostly from the Museum’s collection, where the women depicted are anything but beautiful. There is one very important loan, a drawing borrowed from the Royal collection to illustrate the relationships of the Massys to its probable source, a drawing attributed to Francesco Meizi the leading assistant to Leonardo. It is believed that this drawing is a copy of Leonardo’s original concept.

Helpfully, the exhibition includes a facsimile sheet of of other Grotesques by Leonardo.

Is the Ugly Duchess a study of old age or an exercise in satire? A portrait of a marriage? A “he” or a “she”? I love the idea of a show that will force you to look, see and make up your own mind as to what to think.

Sunday, April 16, 2023

Vermeer Blockbuster

If you read a blog known as Missives from the art World I am going to assume that you are acquainted with the work of Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675). What might surprise you is that he was not a famous artist in his life time nor a celebrity afterwards. With so little remaining production an air of mystery enhances the artist’s mystique and contributes to the blockbuster character of the current exhibition at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

The term blockbuster exhibition came into common usage when the flamboyant Thomas P.F. Hoving was Director of the Metropolitan Museum (1967-1977) and oversaw exhibitions that attracted tens of thousands of visitors. It is most apt to use that rubric to describe this Vermeer exhibition. The day after the exhibition was announced 200,000 tickets were sold and the next day the website crashed. Soon, however, all 450,000 available tickets were sold and it was announced that no more were to be had.

A museum is lucky to have a single Vermeer but the Rijksmuseum boasts four in their permanent collection. For the show they were able to assemble 28 of the 35 paintings agreed to be by the artist’s own hand. This was a colossal feat considering how closely every owner guards such rare treasures. In 1996 the National Gallery in Washington D.C. did a similar exhibition, but they could only assemble 21 out of the 35 paintings.

I totally understand why people want to go to such a show but what usually happens in an exhibition of works of small scale there are 10 people waiting to see each one and you have to move on. I would rather see these paintings in situ.

Aside from hope for revenue after all the expenses that go into such an exhibition, as well as notoriety for the museum (as if the Rijksmuseum needed any more) the real reason is to give art historians or as they like to be known, scholars, a chance to compare these masterpieces next to each other. Also each work will probably go through intense analysis by conservators before it travels so more will be learned about the artist’s technique and methodology.

Sometimes these investigations can become exciting detective stories with interesting conclusions both positive and once in a while negative. Many of the revelations go beyond the individual work to deepen our understanding for the artist

New technological advances allow conservators to see below the surface of the paint. Regarding the “Milk Maid” belonging to the Rijksmuseum they learned that contrary to the previous belief that Vermeer painted very slowly with meticulous precision the artist did an initial sketch in thick black paint that he then developed for his finished work. Also, a jug holder and fire basket behind the sitter were painted over by the artist himself.

Inevitably, a major exhibition results in every participating institution re-examining works in their collection to see if they missed something. The following headline appeared in Artnet News, “An Art Expert Has Made a Startling Claim: the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Vermeer Copy May Actually Be the Real Thing” “Lady with Guitar” has been in the collection of the museum since 1933, but has never been on view. So, I wondered why it looked so familiar to me. The reason is that I have seen the painting that has been considered the “original” in Kenwood House in London. The only obvious difference, aside from the condition, between the two paintings is that the sitter has a different hairstyle. The scholar, Arie Wallert, former scientific specialist at the Rijksmuseum believes, on the basis of the pigments, that the Philadelphia picture is authentic. He does not dispute the legitimacy of the Kenwood House version but believes the extremely poor condition of the Philadelphia Museum’s is why it has not been previously accepted.

Kenwood House

Philadelphia Museum of Art

Benjamin Binstock who wrote a book in 2008 claiming Vermeer’s daughter Maria had painted seven of the works attributed to her father. The assertion was dismissed by most scholars but it fascinated Lawrence Wechsler, who at the time was director at the New York Institute for the Humanities at NYU. A few weeks ago Wechsler wrote a long article in the “Atlantic” discussing Binstock’s assertions including that. “The Girl in a Red Hat” (circa 1669) at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. may actually be a self-portrait by Maria. One of the reasons that Binstock’s theories had been dismissed is that all assistants to members of the painters’ guild at the time in Holland were required to be registered and there are no records of Vermeer ever having had an apprentice. However, an artist’s family members were exempt from registration, making the attribution to Vermeer’s daughter plausible. Then last year the National Gallery decided to reclassify “Girl with a Flute” as not by Vermeer but rather by a student which Binstock had already indicated.

Attributions are not easy and often change over time. A monographic exhibition may provide the inflection point. 

Sunday, April 9, 2023

The Art of Words

Words change their meaning over time. We were watching a TV show the other night and my wife asked me rhetorically, “why do they keep saying fuck and fucking all the time, it has lost all its impact.” I believe that is exactly why. If you look the word fuck up on Google there are serious and amusing articles on the subject but as the word is used in movies and books all the time it comes into common language. Only network news bleeps it even if it is something an interviewee or politician use it, i.e. censorship. But some are still seriously offended by the word even though as is pointed out on a website called Gymglish, that “In Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street alone, the expletive is dropped over 500 times over a 180-minute running time. In Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, the word is said around 400 times.”

I find etymology fascinating, how words come into being and how they change their meaning. A blog website called “Day Translation” gives examples of how expressions come into the vernacular, they are often coined from another source such as a book title. “Catch-22” by Joseph Heller became an often-used phrase to describe a circumstance … there is no escape in sight because the conditions are reciprocally conflicting” “Names of authors become descriptive words as well, such as “Kafkaesque” and “Orwellian” from Franz Kafka and George Orwell, respectively.”

Words change their meaning as well. You may not have thought about it lately but if somebody tweeted it meant they were making the sound of a bird and today it indicates how much money Elon Musk is losing every day! Obviously, words don’t change their meaning overnight, and we can still speak about a bird tweeting and then it is a question of context unless you teach your bird to peck on the keys of your keyboard! In the future one or the other meaning may fade away and another take its place!!

As early as the late 14th century, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary the word gay meant full of joy, merry, lighthearted and carefree. It came from the French gai and similar words in several other European languages and had similar joyous meanings and is still used in that way today. The surname Gay can be found in Scotland as early as the 16th century and in the 19th century the name appears often in a number of countries. By the end of the 19th century, it began to bear the concept of promiscuity, a brothel was known as a gay house. The use of the word describing homosexual first appears in psychological writings in the 1940’s. I could go on, but my point is obvious a single word can have different meanings both in the time and the way it was used.

To end on a familiar note, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the word Missive is simply defined as a letter, as in one to mail. As synonyms I even see in the dictionary a “billet-doux” (love note) as well as “junk mail” which we can all identify with. I decided to use the word Missive 14 years ago when I wanted to distinguish my weekly emails from the word blog.

The word is derived from the Latin word “missus”, meaning "to send." An example is the expression, “firing off a missive”. Simply put it is a written communication which is exactly what I do every week.

Sunday, April 2, 2023

Politics and Art

Art is often used to try and influence politics but how do politics affect art institutions?

In 2017, before the former President’s inauguration the New York Times published an article by Graham Bowley titled “Museums Chart a Response to Political Upheaval” reported that “artists, critics and others asked American Museums, galleries and other institutions to close their doors in protest”. The question presented was, “Should a museum change with the events around it or should it stand true, like an immovable rock, as political storms come and go?”

Each institution, of course, reacted differently. It seems that most did not close but many took a different tact using their collections to make a statement. A publication called “Museums + Heritage Advisor” reported that at the Museum of Modern Art hung works by artists from seven Arab countries labelled with the following statement: “This work is by an artist from a Nation whose citizens are being denied entrance to the United States, according to a presidential executive order issued on January 27, 2017. This is one of several such artworks from the Museum’s collection installed throughout the fifth-floor galleries to affirm the ideas of welcome and freedom as vital to this Museum as they are to the United States”.Here is a work by Parviz Tanavoli (1937-) an Iranian sculptor and painter, which was in that MoMA exhibition.

Photo by Angela Weiss

Is it necessary to remind you who was President at the time and that the paintings were by artists from majority-Muslim Nations?

I can understand that a museum should try to keep up with the times. For a while now museums have been reacting to the politics of the moment by acknowledging the fact that there are artists representing minorities in this country that should be shown on an equal footing as the white majority. Hence, we have the opportunity to evaluate work that is new to us. From September,2022 through December 2023 the National Gallery in Washington D.C. has an exhibition, “Called to Create: Black Artists from the American South” Here is a work by Lonnie Holley, “From the Beginning to the end of the Beginning” (1985). 

My attention was once again drawn to the impact of international politics on art with the invasion of the Ukraine. A March 19, 2023 article in “The Guardian” titled, “As the Met reclassifies Russian art as Ukrainian, not everyone is convinced”. For instance, The National Gallery, London changing the title of their pastel by Edgar Degas (1834-1917), as a part of a series known as “Russian Dancers”, to “Ukrainian Dancers”, and the Metropolitan Museum renamed their pastel “Dancer in Ukrainian Dress”. The Met went further reidentifying one of the few Russian artists, I am acquainted with, Ilya Repin (1844-1930). His nationality has been changed from Russian to Ukrainian as he was born in what became an independent country only in 1991. How will future generations cope with that? Will the artist’s identity depend on the outcome of the war? Here is a portrait by Illia Repin (1884) of the artist Vsevolod Mikhailovich Garshin in the Met.

We have also heard that some venues around the country have banned Russian artists from performing. Most prominent was the Metropolitan Opera who pulled Russian Anna Netrebko their reigning diva, and long a Putin supporter, from a scheduled Turandot and replaced her with a Ukrainian soprano. Netrebko’s Met contract was cancelled and other houses including La Scala dropped her.

We saw the lengths organizations are going to in order to avoid the issue of international politics recently played out here in Santa Fe, New Mexico. At our Lensic Performing Arts Center we saw a fabulous performance of Swan Lake. The only information that was given was that the company was called “The World Ballet”. My wife, a former, ballet dancer, said only the Russians dance the classic Petipa works to such perfection. From snippets of information gathered online she put together the fact that this was indeed a pick-up troupe from Russia, making one-night stands in smaller towns around the U.S. The troupe recently returned to Santa Fe to dance Cinderella. Again, there was no printed program, but one was available online that disclosed the dancers’ Russian training, while in a newspaper interview the organizers made the point that not all the performers were Russian born. Here is a sample of troupe’s performance in Swan Lake.

Allow me to ask you to think about whether an artistic institution should change its direction because the politics or the moment might dictate it? I believe we would all answer that question slightly differently.