Art Restitution and Historical Injustices

Elgin_Marbles_British_Museum Wikipedia

This week my students and I have been talking about whether the Parthenon Marbles (sculptures from the Parthenon which are currently in the British Museum, also called the Elgin Marbles) should be returned to Athens. The Greeks perceive the removal of these sculptures in the early 19th century as an ethical injustice to their people, partially since they were removed by the British ambassador Lord Elgin during a period of Ottoman occupation in Greece. The Greeks have already prepared a space to house these sculptures, in the relatively new National Archaeological Museum building in Athens. In fact, activists are noting that next month marks the “black anniversary” of when the Parthenon sculptures arrived in the British Museum 200 years ago (on June 7, 1816). A recent news article explained that the Greeks are noting this historical marker by putting extra pressure on the British to return the sculptures.

I personally can see validity in reasons for why the sculptures should remain in London, as well as reasons for why they should be returned to Athens. These sculptures are part of both British and Greek history, not to mention the constructed Western canon that still exists today.1 My goal in exploring this debate with students is to help them understand how this controversy about ancient art helps to reveal historical and current values regarding art and culture.

As my students and I have been talking about the mounting pressure to return these sculptures to Greece, I have been thinking about how the act of restitution and repatriation is becoming a common practice. In fact, there has been more discussion of restitution and repatriation in the past few decades, especially for the Parthenon Marbles, than there have been since the 19th or early 20th centuries.

I think that there are several reasons for why art restitution is so popular and upheld today, but I personally think that there is one historical reason which has served as an major impetus in the past several decades. I asked my students what they thought might be this impetus for restitution, and I also asked why they think that today we are culturally uncomfortable with the idea of imperialism or a country/group/individual asserting power over another. Our discussion went something like this:

Student 1: We care about restitution and righting wrongs today because of the feminist movement of the 1960s.

Me: I think that helped to open up the door for it, especially in recognizing minorities and women.  But I think we can go even further back in time. What else happened in the 20th century which contributed to our current interest about restitution?

Student 2: Well, as students, our generation cares about social justice today. We are trying to be sensitive to the needs of minorities and underrepresented groups of all kinds, including those of different sexual orientations and religious minorities.

Me: Social justice is valued today. But why is that the case? Why do we care about social justice now instead of a century ago?

Student 3: Maybe the Civil Rights Act led us to care about social justice?

Me: I think the Civil Rights Act is part of it. But what else happened in the 20th century to draw awareness to social injustice? What previous events were perceived as unjust?

Student 4: World War Two and the Holocaust! In another one of my classes we have been talking about the long-lasting and devastating effects of this war.

Me: Yes! This is what I think too! I think that today we are uncomfortable with imperialism and nationalistic conquest because of what Hitler and the Nazi party did, especially because the Nazis are responsible for the horrific mass killings of the Jewish people during the Holocaust. World War Two haunts the collective memory of our culture today, and for good reason. I think that World War Two will continue to shape and inform the way that we approach social justice, art and restitution for the rest of our lifetimes. All of these events that you have mentioned, like the Civil Rights Act and the feminist movement, have happened in the aftermath of World War II. And consider, for example, the stories that have appeared in the news of paintings and objects that have been returned to Jewish families after they initially were stolen by the Nazis during the World War Two era. Perhaps some of you have seen the Woman in Gold movie that was released last year, which followed the restitution of a Klimt painting to a Jewish family. This is just one example of restitution art; there are many more examples of restitution have occurred and many lost objects which still need to be found and returned.

Being influenced by such cultural memory of the Holocaust and Nazi party isn’t a bad thing at all – but it is good to realize that what we are experiencing is a cultural mindset (even a perhaps a trend, if you will). If the Parthenon Marbles do go back to Athens, we should realize that we will be making a statement about our own current values and cultural memory through the sheer act of restitution. And I hope, for that reason, that if the Parthenon Marbles ever do go back to Athens, that copies will be placed in the British Museum so that we can continue to have a dialog about changing cultural values and why these statues have traveled across Europe over the centuries.

1 For an excellent article on how the Parthenon marbles have influenced British culture and the Western canon, see Colin Cunningham, “The Parthenon Marbles,” in Academies, Museums and Canons of Art (Yale University Press, 1999, 43-83). Limited preview available online HERE.

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Abu Simbel, Dendur, and Jackie Kennedy

Temple of Rameses II, ca. 1290-1224 BCE. Abu Simbel, Egypt. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

Temple of Rameses II, ca. 1290-1224 BCE. Abu Simbel, Egypt. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

Earlier this month, I explored with my students how new meanings and associations with the Temple of Rameses II have been created in recent decades, largely due to the removal of this temple from its original site. In the 1960s, this ancient Egyptian temple fell under threat due to the creation of the Aswan High Dam. Engineers knew that the dam’s resulting reservoir (which is called Lake Nasser today) would submerge this temple under water.

Teams from across the world came together to help figure out a way to preserve the Temple of Rameses II and its neighboring site, the Temple of Hathor. The different proposals and projects are covered well in a “Monster Moves” documentary. Ultimately, the proposal made by Egyptian engineers was accepted, and it was decided that the temple would be cut down and transported on land to another site located 65 meters higher and 200 meters away from the water.

Transportation of the Temple of Rameses II colossal statues. Image from Forskning & Framsteg 1967, Issue 3, p. 16. Image courtesy Wikipedia

Transportation of the Temple of Rameses II colossal statues. Image from Forskning & Framsteg 1967, Issue 3, p. 16. Image courtesy Wikipedia

It was estimated that this project would cost $32 million, with the US, Egypt, and UNESCO splitting the bill evenly. In the end, the project ended up costing more than $40 million altogether. Preparations began to move the structure in 1963, and then the structure was moved between 1964-1968. My students and I discussed how this project ended up being one of international collaboration, which is significant during the 1960s since there were so many political conflicts that were dividing people from one another: the Vietnam War, the construction of the Berlin Wall, and the Civil Rights Movement in the United States.

One other political event in the United States that took place during this time was the assassination of President John F. Kennedy,  Jr. Interestingly, JFK lobbied to help preserve historic sites in Egypt due to the threat of the Aswan High Dam: on April 7, 1961, JFK sent a letter to Congress, recommending that the United States participate in this UNESCO-led campaign. Unfortunately, JFK did not see the completion of the relocation of the Abu Simbel temples. He was assassinated on November 22, 1963, just six days after the contract was signed between the Egyptian government and the firms that were selected to help with the move.

Although JFK didn’t live to see this project completed, his wife Jackie Kennedy did. In fact, it is probably more significant that Jackie lived through the completion of this project: she was a driving force to have American support for the relocation of the Abu Simbel temples, after she was alerted about this campaign by Luther Gulick. She personally wrote to JFK and appealed to him, saying, “It is the major temple of the Nile – 13th century B.C. It would be like letting the Parthenon be flooded. . . . Abu Simbel is the greatest. Nothing will ever be found to equal it.”It is Jackie Kennedy’s initial appeal to JFK which ultimately impacted Congress’s decision to support this relocation.

Jackie Kennedy Riding a Camel in Egypt, March 28, 1964

Jackie Kennedy Riding a Camel in Egypt, March 28, 1974

In gratitude for Jackie Kennedy’s role in helping to preserve the Abu Simbel site, the President of Egypt, Gamal Abdel-Nasser, presented Jackie Kennedy with an ivory sculpture of an ancient Egyptian barge. In addition, the President of Egypt wanted to give a gift to the people of the United States, in order to show appreciation for the help given at Abu Simbel. The Temple of Dendur was selected as a gift. Similar to the Abu Simbel sites, this monument also had to be deconstructed and relocated due to the Aswan High Dam. It was offered to the United States in 1965. Jacqueline Kennedy hoped that the Temple of Dendur would be housed in Washington, DC, in order “to remind people that feelings of the spirit are what prevent wars.”2 The Smithsonian in DC even proposed to house the temple on the Potomac River, but this proved problematic for preservation. In fact, many other museums vied for the opportunity to house this structure (which resulted in what journalists called the “Dendur Derby“), but ultimately the Metropolitan Museum of Art was chosen for the temple’s location in 1967.

Temple of Dendur, c. 15 BC. Dendur, Egypt. Located at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image courtesy Wikipedia via Jean-Christophe BENOIST

Temple of Dendur, c. 15 BC. Dendur, Egypt. Located at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image courtesy Wikipedia via Jean-Christophe BENOIST

So, now the next time I think of Abu Simbel or visit the Temple of Dendur at the Met, I’m going to think of Jackie Kennedy! The more I learn about Jackie Kennedy and her support of the arts, the more I am impressed with her. For example, she ensured that numerous artists were invited to her husband’s inaugural speech as president, as a way to showcase the Administration’s intentions to support the arts. I think that her involvement with Abu Simbel helps to fulfill this aim of the Administration too, through supporting global art and the preservation of historical art.

1 Caroline Kennedy, Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life with John F. Kennedy (Hachette Books, 2011). Available online HERE. 

2 Ibid.

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James Dean and Art

James Dean, "Road to Happiness," c. 1954. Oil on canvas

James Dean, “Road to Happiness,” c. 1954. Oil on canvas

Over the past few weeks I have been doing some research on James Dean’s interest in visual art. Although Dean is known as an actor and didn’t professionally dabble in the visual arts, he liked to sketch and occasionally paint. One site claims that there are only three James Dean paintings that are known to exist, including Road to Happiness (shown above). Other works of art are on display at the James Dean Gallery in Indiana. Some select sketches are also found online here. While I don’t think that any of these sketches are revealing of a great artistic talent, it is interesting to think about James Dean’s thought process and how his creative mind is manifest in other outlets beyond acting.

James Dean also had an appreciation for Western art. One of his favorite haunting places at this time was the Museum of Modern Art, and Dean continued to frequent the museum even after he rose to fame.1 A group of photographs from 1954 show Dean visiting with friends at the top of the museum. One of the friends in the group is Roy Schatt (see below); Schatt was a photographer who is famous for a series of portraits of James Dean.

James Dean and Roy Schlatt, roof of Museum of Modern Art, 1954

James Dean and Roy Schatt, roof of Museum of Modern Art, 1954

It is apparent that James liked to reference art and clown around when he was with Roy, and I have two examples to share. One such “artsy” moment was captured below on the set of The Thief.” Here, James Dean pushed his glasses over to the side of his face, so as to give the impression that he had more than two eyes. He turned to Roy and exclaimed, “Hey, I’m a Picasso!”

James Dean rehearsing "The Thief" with Diana Lynn, 1955

Roy Schatt, James Dean rehearsing “The Thief” with Diana Lynn, 1955

Another time, James Dean decided to reference Renaissance sculpture. During the so-called “Torn Sweater” photoshoot with Schatt, James Dean suddenly decided to try a new pose by turning his head slightly to the left and looking down. Schatt recalled, “I asked him what…he was doing, it was such a strange pose. He said, ‘Don’t you see it? I’m Michelangelo’s ‘David.'”3 I’m fairly certain that the photograph below is the one from the photoshoot which refers to this anecdote, especially since James Dean is holding his arm up toward his shoulder, similar to how Michelangelo’s “David” has a lifted arm in order to carry a sling.

Roy Schatt, James Dean from 'Torn Sweater" series, December 29, 1954

Roy Schatt, James Dean from “Torn Sweater” series, December 29, 1954

According to one biographer, Manet was James Dean’s favorite painter, and Manet’s Dead Toreador (1864) inspired the pose that Dean used during the opening of Rebel Without a Cause (shown below).2 Although Dean is turned onto his side in the film still below, There does seem to be some similarities with black clothing of the figures, as well as the ways that the heads are tilted at a slight angle.

James Dean, still shot from "Rebel Without a Cause," and Manet's "Dead Toreador," 1864.

James Dean, still shot from “Rebel Without a Cause,” and Manet’s “Dead Toreador,” 1864.

I imagine that James Dean may personally have seen Manet’s Dead Toreador on display in the National Gallery, if he ever traveled to Washington, DC. Dean was an avid fan of bullfighting; I also imagine that he would have been familiar with the other half of this same canvas, titled The Bullfight, which is part of the Frick Collection in New York.

I read another interesting anecdote which may also reveal Dean’s familiarity with and appreciation of Western art. Screenwriter Stewart Stern revealed that just before the shooting of Rebel Without a Cause, James Dean disappeared a few days. Then, Stern explained that about ten days later “he just showed up at my office and looked at this perfectly blank wall, [and] stood back pretending to admire an imaginary painting. I think he was looking at Picasso’s Guernica. he asked me if it was real or a reproduction, and I said, “Oh…it’s real of course!”‘Dean didn’t even mention his disappearance or why he had come back to work, but simply clowned around about a painting and eventually resumed work on Rebel.

James Dean found inspiration and humor through art, and after his death, James Dean’s image and persona served as a source of inspiration for subsequent artists. Probably the artist who has been most inspired by James Dean’s image and likeness is Kenneth Kendall. Kenneth Kendall actually met James Dean in January 1955, and Dean had asked if Kendall would be interested in sculpting him. This project never came to fruition at that moment; Kendall was focusing on other projects and then James Dean died in a car crash on September 30, 1955. However, Kendall was able to acquire a life mask from Dean’s apartment after his death to use as a model. Kendall has created many depictions of James Dean, including the a nude sculpture and a portrait bust that serves as a monument to James Dean (see below) at Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles (which is the location of a few iconic scenes in Rebel Without a Cause).

Kenneth Kendall, James Dean Portrait, Griffith Observatory, Los Angeles

Kenneth Kendall, “James Dean,” 1955-56. Griffith Observatory, Los Angeles

It’s neat to consider how James Dean was interested in different forms of creative expression, not only through acting but also visual artistic mediums. It isn’t surprising to me that his creative persona and talent served as further creative inspiration for visual artists like Kenneth Kendall. Do you particularly like any other works of art that James Dean either created or inspired? Please share!

1 David Dalton, James Dean: The Mutant King: A Biography (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2001, p. 125. Available online HERE.

2 Ibid., p. 236. Available online HERE

3 Ibid., p. 119.

4 Ibid., p. 235. Available online HERE.

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Bernini’s Elephant, Another Myth, and Dali

Bernini, elephant obelisk outside of Maria Sopra Minerva, 1667, Rome. Image via Wikipedia, courtesy of Petar Milošević

Bernini, elephant obelisk outside of Maria Sopra Minerva, 1667, Rome. Image via Wikipedia, courtesy of Petar Milošević

Of all of the sculptures created by Bernini, I think that the elephant carrying an obelisk is the most unexpected and bizarre. This monument has its own unusual history surrounding its creation and subsequent discussion in the 17th century, and then this monument ended up being incorporated into bizarre Surrealist imagery in the 20th century.

Originally, this monument was commissioned by Pope Alexander VII; its creation was really instigated by the 1665 discovery of the Egyptian obelisk within a garden of a Dominican monastery, and it was decided that the obelisk would be placed just outside the monastery itself. These facts are clearly documented. However, much of the following popular history surrounding the monument doesn’t have a historical foundation at all and seems more like another Bernini myth. According to this popular, although historically unsubstantiated, anecdote, the proposed designs for the monument allegedly included one by the monastery’s Dominican friars, Father Domenico Paglia; however, Alexander VII supposedly rejected this design and ultimately selected Bernini’s design of an elephant.1 According to the contemporary inscriptions written on the pedestal of the monument, the elephant was selected as a symbol of strength, and the obelisk was surmounted on top was to serve as a symbol of holy knowledge or divine wisdom.2 (The symbolism of the obelisk as Divine Wisdom is a little ironic, considering that this obelisk originally held a political – and non-Christian – context, since it was created by the Pharaoh Apries, who reigned 588-569 BCE).3

Bernini, elephant obelisk detail, 1667. Outside Maria Sopra Minerva, Rome.

Bernini, elephant obelisk detail, 1667. Outside Maria Sopra Minerva, Rome.

This anecdote continues by mentioning alleged controversy surrounding the construction of the monument. Father Paglia apparently didn’t like Bernini’s design, and thought that the obelisk would be unstable without more supporting weight underneath the elephant. Bernini refused to change his design (as seen in his bozzetto model), but later allegedly was forced to do so (although he tried to add a saddlecloth to hide the supporting weight placed underneath the elephant). According to this story, Bernini may have made a final retaliating remark to Paglia with the way that he positioned the elephant: the rear of the animal is pointed toward the direction of the Dominican father’s office. Furthermore, the tail of the animal is slightly raised, suggesting that Bernini’s elephant is defecating (since the muscles look more tense) and/or saluting Paglia in an obscene way.4 (Although this story is unsubstantiated, one can note that that Bernini’s design, especially with the raised tail, is a unique departure from Bernini’s visual inspiration for this project: an image from a fifteenth-century novel Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, which shows the elephant with a lowered, not raised, tail).

It is interesting to me that this anecdote has held such popularity over the years (with origins going back to the 17th century), even though there isn’t a historical document to support this story about Paglia and Bernini.5 (I really appreciate that someone on Wikipedia is trying to set the story straight through a lengthy footnote.) In some ways, the story reminds me a bit of the myth that I mentioned in a previous post, in which Bernini’s sculpted figure of Rio de la Plata is shielding its gaze from Borromini’s church Sant’Agnese.

Regardless of the historical circumstances surrounding the creation of the elephant, it has captured the attention and admiration of many people over time. (Today, the elephant is affectionately known by the nickname “Minerva’s Chick” (“Pulcino della Minerva”) which is due to a mispronunciation of an earlier nickname “Minerva’s Piggy” (“Porcino della Minerva”), that alluded to the stout body of the elephant.) The Surrealist Salvador Dali was apparently inspired by the imagery of an elephant carrying an obelisk on its back, and utilized that motif in Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate a Second Before Awakening (1944) and The Temptation of Saint Anthony (1946).

Salvador Dali, "Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate a Second Before Awakening," 1944.

Salvador Dali, “Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate a Second Before Awakening,” 1944.

Salvador Dali, "The Temptation of Saint Anthony," 1946.

Salvador Dali, “The Temptation of Saint Anthony,” 1946.

I haven’t found any written information about Dali mentioning his interest in Bernini’s monument or in Bernini in general (if you know of anything, please share). But, given the context of Dali’s interest in dream-like imagery and the might-as-well-be-a-dream anecdote surrounding Bernini’s own monument, I think the elephants in these paintings are pretty appropriate.

1 Guiseppe Paglia was the historically-documented director for this project outside Santa Maria Sopra Minerva. Pergola’s alleged designs for the monument are mentioned in great detail in this popular anecdote, explaining that his monument would have included the six Chigi mountains (part of Alexander VII’s family crest). However, no historical sources describe this design. It is important to note that Alexander VII makes no mention of Paglia’s design in his journal. See Katie Blake, p. 8.

2 On the side of the monument facing east includes an inscription (translated into English): “Let every beholder of the images, engraven by the wise Egyptian and carried by the elephant – the strongest of beasts – reflect this lesson: Be of strong mind, uphold solid Wisdom.” The side of the monument facing west includes this inscription (translated into English): “In the year of Salvation 1667, Alexander VII dedicated to Divine Wisdom this ancient Egyptian obelisk, a monument of Egyptian Pallas, torn from the earth and erected in what was formerly the forum of Minerva, and is now that of the Virgin who gave birth to God.” See Katie Blake, The Elephant and the Obelisk essay, p. 7.

3 For a detailed discussion of the obelisk as a symbol of Holy Wisdom, see Blake, p. 8-9.

4 For more information regarding this anecdote, see Blake, p. 8-9.

5 It seems this anecdote originated at the end of the 17th century, when Cardinal Lodovico Sergardi, a satirist, circulated a two-line epigram. Therein, he elephant tells the Dominicans that the position of his rear end conveys “where I hold you in my esteem.” See  Ingrid Rowland, ‘The Friendship of Alexander VII and Athanasius Kircher, 1637-1667′ in Early Modern Rome: Proceedings of a Conference Held on May 13–15, 2010 in Rome, ed. Portia Prebys [Ferrara: Edisai, 2011], pp. 669-78.

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Audrey Hepburn and Art

Promotional photograph for "How to Steal a Million" (1966)

Promotional photograph for “How to Steal a Million” (1966)

Over the past few weeks I have been involved in a research project involving the actress Audrey Hepburn. In the process, I have been able to catch a glimpse of her artistic preferences and artistic talent, which has been fun. Before this project, my only connection with Audrey Hepburn and art was her role as an art forger’s daughter in How to Steal a Million. Audrey Hepburn was quite private about her personal life, but I have been able to extrapolate a few things that suggest her own preference for art.

Audrey surrounded herself with art and beautiful things like flower gardens, but she also created art. As a child, she also would sketch and draw. These works of art, which were created in the 1940s, seem to serve as a type of escape from the horrors that she experienced while living in Holland during WWII. Some of my favorite scenes include one with a Dutchman and Dutchwoman in clogs who are walking toward the sun, while holding hand with a lion who is wearing a crown (see here) or a compilation of drawings that are inspired by fantasy scenes or nurse rhymes.

Picasso, "Self-Portrait with Palette," 1906

Picasso, “Self-Portrait with Palette,” 1906

As an adult, it seems apparent that Audrey Hepburn and/or her husband Mel Ferrer (married 1954-1968) liked the art of Picasso. (Others have also noted that Audrey Hepburn and Picasso had a similar sense of fashion, since they both wore sailor stripes.) Hepburn attended Picasso: 75th Anniversary Exhibition in 1957, which includes a lovely photograph of her standing next to Picasso’s Self-Portrait with Palette (1906). In addition, the news reported that a drawing by Picasso was stolen from her home in 1962. I couldn’t find any reports as to whether this drawing was ever returned – where did it end up, I wonder? Do any readers know what this drawing looks like?

Audrey also created her own art, too, and I think that some of her personal artistic style might have been indebted to a little to Picasso, but especially Van Gogh. At present, I am only aware of one work of art which has been shown to the public, which is Flower Basket at La Paisible (scroll through images on linked site to see painting).1 This painting was created at her home in Tolochenaz, Switzerland in 1969, when Hepburn was pregnant with her son Luca. The style reminds me a little bit of that of Van Gogh, particularly in the outlines and strokes that are used to create the texture of the wicker basket handle (for comparison, see Van Gogh’s Still Life with Basket and Six Oranges). Hepburn’s buildup of impasto, particularly within the petals of the flowers, also reminds me of Van Gogh. And the green and yellow strokes in the upper corners of Hepburn’s painting remind me of Van Gogh’s paintings of fields, such as Wheat Field at Auvers with White House (1890).

I think it’s likely that she also created the painting behind her in this photograph of Hepburn in her home (although the reduction of the vases and flowers to shapes and colors, as well as the gradients in color saturation actually remind me a little more of Matisse than Van Gogh – see Matisse’s Anemones and Chinese Vase).

I also think that Audrey may have preferred some older art as well, based on where she lived. When she was married to Andrea Dotti, they lived in the center of Rome in a penthouse that used to be a cardinal’s palace. The space was decorated with soaring ceilings and painted frescoes.I haven’t been able to find more specific information on this penthouse (or the frescoes depicted therein), but if anyone knows information on this topic, please share!

Audrey especially loved gardens and the “living art” provided by flowers. Her personal interest in gardens even helped influence her decision to host a documentary series, Gardens of the World (see trailer above). PBS didn’t have the money to pay for Hepburn to have a stylist, but Hepburn insisted that she could do her own wardrobe, hair and makeup for the project. Gardens of the World aired in 1993, shortly after Hepburn’s death.

Hopefully we will continue to learn more about Hepburn’s interest in art (either collecting, creating or viewing art) in the years to come. In 2014, Hepburn’s son, Sean Ferrer, mentioned that several works of art were left behind in Hepburn’s personal effects. It could be that, in the years to come, we will see these works of art put on auction to help raise money for the Audrey Hepburn’s Children Fund.

1 A good reproduction of this painting is available on p. 229 of Sean Ferrer’s book, Audrey Hepburn: An Elegant Spirit. I am hoping to secure permission to post an reproduction of the painting on this site.

2 Donald Spoto, Enchantment: The Life of Audrey Hepburn (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2006), p. 271.

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.