Category

books

Book Review: “The Museum of Lost Art”

I recently finished reading Noah Charney’s new book The Museum of Lost Art. I have an academic crush on Charney’s work – he always manages to write about fascinating topics that I wish I had thought to write about myself. I’m glad that he is one step ahead of me, though, because he writes in a very engaging and approachable way. I wish that more art history texts were written like his.

The book is divided into sections, and within each section Charney considers different ways for how a work of art can be “lost.” For example, some works of art are destroyed intentionally or destroyed accidentally, while others are altered from their original conception. Each section is tied unified by beginning and ending with an anecdote that relates to the topic. I found this to be a bit confusing when I read the first section, but then I perceived what Charney was doing and the remaining sections made more sense.

Masaccio, "Holy Trinity," 1425-28. Santa Maria Novella

Masaccio, “Holy Trinity,” c. 1425-28. Santa Maria Novella, Florence

The thing that I liked most about The Museum of Lost Art was that I learned new things about famous works of art that I thought I already knew well. For example, I didn’t know that Masaccio’s Holy Trinity painting was covered up with a false wall in the latter part of the 16th century when Vasari was hired to alter the space.1 This canonical painting, which appears in most introductory art history textbooks as an example of mathematical (linear) perspective, was only rediscovered in 1860 when the church was remodeled.2

Hans Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors, 1533. Oil on panel, 207 x 209.5 cm (81.5 x 82.5 in), National Gallery, London

Hans Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors, 1533. Oil on panel, 207 x 209.5 cm (81.5 x 82.5 in), National Gallery, London

I also was also intrigued to learn that part of Holbein’s painting The Ambassadors was “lost” at some point after it first was painted in 1533. The crucifix in the upper left corner originally was created to be partially obscured by the green curtain (which has been connected to the political tension of the day), but at one point the crucifix was completely painted out. Only in recent times, when conservators at the National Gallery cleaned this painting in 1891, was the crucifix discovered.This clear alteration before 1891 suggests that this political message (which references Henry VIII’s break with the Catholic Church through the formation of the Church of England) was offensive or problematic.

Holbein, "The Ambassadors," detail of crucifix

Holbein, “The Ambassadors,” detail of crucifix

The only section that I wish had a little more attention in this book is that of the “Looting in the Ancient World.” I think that the ancient Near East could have gotten more coverage here in the book, since many works of art were altered or lost due to the different warring groups who lived in this area. Probably my favorite article which discusses this topic is Marian Feldman’s “Knowledge as Cultural Biography: Lives of the Mesopotamian Monuments,” which includes a discussion of the Akkadian King portrait head. I realize that Charney was giving a brief overview of this topic in his book, but I do wish that the ancient Near East could have received a bit more discussion.

Otherwise, I really did enjoy this book and I heartily recommend it to anyone who is interested in the biographies of works of art, art crime, looting, conservation, and restoration.

1 Noah Charney, The Museum of Lost Art (Phaidon: New York, 2018), 215.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid., 235.

— 3 Comments

Some Bernini Myths

Photograph of the Pantheon in the 19th century, with two towers created by Maderno and Borromini in the 17th century.

Photograph of the Pantheon in the 19th century, with two towers created by Maderno and Borromini in the 17th century.

I have been thinking about a few myths surrounding the Baroque artist Bernini this evening. One prevalent myth is that Bernini created the two towers (nicknamed “ass’s ears”) that once decorated the top of the Pantheon. The towers were created in the seventeenth-century and were removed in 1892. Contrary to popular myth, a new publication on the Pantheon points out that Bernini wasn’t involved in the creation of these towers. Instead, the papal architect Maderno and his assistant Borromini were responsible for the towers. In some ways, it is ironic that these “ass’s ears” towers are attributed to Bernini instead of his rival Borromini! My guess is that Bernini may have been incorrectly identified with these Pantheon towers because of the two towers that he attempted to build at St. Peter’s Basilica, although that project was soon abandoned: not long after the first tower was built, it was demolished because it was unstable.

Bernini, Baldacchino, Saint Peter's Basilica, Vatican City, 1624-33.

Bernini, Baldacchino, Saint Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City, 1624-33.

Another myth associated with Bernini and also the Pantheon has to do with the bronze that Bernini used for his Baldacchino at Saint Peter’s Basilica. We know that Urban VIII (a member of the Barberini family) removed bronze trusses from underneath the portico of the Pantheon in 1625. It has often been said that the bronze went to help create the Bernini’s baldacchino, which was created from 1624-1633. I remember learning about this in school, particularly in tandem with the saying, “quod non fecerunt Barbari fecerunt Barberini” (What the barbarians did not do, the Barberini did”). However, recent studies argue that the bronze from the Pantheon either did not go to St. Peter’s at all or was an extremely minuscule amount.1 Instead, the bronze from the Pantheon was used to create some of the cannons at Castel Sant’Angelo.

Bernini, detail of personification of Rio de la Plata from "Four Rivers Fountain," 1651, Piazza Navona, Rome. Image courtesy Wikipedia

Bernini, detail of personification of Rio de la Plata from “Four Rivers Fountain,” 1651, Piazza Navona, Rome. Image courtesy Wikipedia

Another popular myth surrounding Bernini revolves around his Four Rivers Fountain (Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi) and Bernini’s rivalry with the architect Borromini. It has often been reported and joked that the figure of Rio de la Plata in the fountain has its arm raised, as if snubbing or shielding its gaze from Borromini’s church of Sant’Agnese, which is stands opposite the fountain. However, the building of this church was not until 1652, the year after this fountain was completed, so such a statement was not intended (but perhaps such meaning could have been perceived by either artist after-the-fact!).

Bernini's "Four Rivers Fountain" and Borromini's Sant'Agnese, Piazza Navona, Rome

Bernini’s “Four Rivers Fountain” and Borromini’s Sant’Agnese, Piazza Navona, Rome

Just this afternoon I came across information about the book Bernini and the Bell Towers: Architecture and Politics at the Vatican. The premise for this book is that Bernini’s failed attempt to build the towers at Saint Peters was not merely his own failure. I look forward to reading this book and deciding whether or not Bernini’s infamous failure with these towers has been misrepresented over the centuries.

Do you know of any other myths surrounding Bernini?

1 A few sources report that the bronze for the baldacchino came from Venice. For one citation, see here: https://books.google.com/books?id=CScdAQAAIAAJ&dq=bernini%20baldacchino%20venice%20bronze&pg=PA156#v=onepage&q&f=false

— 2 Comments

Book Review and Giveaway: “Hitler’s Art Thief”

Hitler's Art Thief

I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to read an advance proof copy of Susan Ronald’s forthcoming book, Hitler’s Art Thief: Hildebrand Gurlitt, the Nazis and the Looting of Europe’s Treasures. This book is slated to be published next month, on September 22, 2015. Ronald recounts and pieces together the story of Cornelius Gurlitt, a recluse who received a lot of media attention when over a thousand works of art were discovered in his Munich apartment in November 2013.1 Much of Cornelius’ collection was inherited from his father Hildebrand; the latter was an art dealer during the Nazi era who built his personal collection from the spoliation of museums and Jewish family estates. Susan Ronald’s book primarily is dedicated to telling the biography of Hildebrand, while simultaneously building up a broader context to explain the political and socio-cultural situation in Germany during WWI and WWII.

As an art historian, I felt like the latter third of the book (about the last one hundred pages or so) was especially interesting to me. This part of the book discusses underhanded ways in which Hildebrand Gurlitt amassed his collection, which included one twisted state of events that enabled Gurlitt to not even pay for any of the paintings he claimed at an auction of the Georges Viau collection in 1942!More than anything, though, I wanted to learn more about the stories behind some of the paintings which were stolen. Although Ronald focuses mostly on historical events regarding Hildebrand Gurlitt and his son Cornelius, there were snippets of information on paintings that I particularly enjoyed in this book.

Max Liebermann, "Two Riders on a Beach," 1901.

Max Liebermann, “Two Riders on a Beach,” 1901.

Ronald mentions Max Liebermann’s Two Riders on a Beach a few times in her book. This painting had been taken from the David Friedmann collection by Hildebrand Gurlitt. When authorities stormed Cornelius Gurlitt’s flat in 2013, they took this painting off of the wall, where it had hung for over four decades!3 Clearly, the Gurlitt family was proud of this purloined piece. Before that point, Cornelius’ father Hildebrand had hung this painting on his living-room wall in Dresden.4 The painting was returned to David Friedmann’s family. Two Riders on a Beach, was the first of the Gurlitt hoard to go to auction, was sold by Sotheby’s earlier this year in June.

Max Beckmann, "The Lion Tamer." Gouache and pastel on paper.

Max Beckmann, “The Lion Tamer.” Gouache and pastel on paper. Image courtesy Wikiart.

Beckmann’s The Lion Tamer is actually the piece which helped lead authorities closer to Cornelius and his collection. Cornelius put this piece up for auction at the Lempertz auction house in 2011. Ronald speculates that Cornelius may have opted to use this major auction house in order to get money quickly, perhaps to help pay his sister’s medical bills for her cancer treatments.4 When this painting went on the market, this major German auction house was contacted by layers who represented the family of Alfred Flechtheim, who had originally owned the painting during the Nazi era. Under pressure from these lawyers, Cornelius (who was the unnamed client selling the painting) agreed to split the proceeds with the heirs of the Flechtheim family. The Fletchtheim heirs felt that this action helped to at least acknowledge the wrongdoing which took place during the Nazi era, although I wish that they could have received all of the proceeds!

Matisse, "Seated Woman" or "Woman Sitting in Armchair."

Matisse, “Seated Woman,” “Woman Sitting in Armchair,” or The Seated Woman by an Open Window.

Susan Ronald also writes a few times about Matisse’s Seated Woman. I liked learning about this painting, which originally belonged to the Jewish art dealer David Rosenberg, since I recently wrote about another Matisse painting that was once owned by David Rosenberg. Unforunately, Seated Woman is still under controversy: despite the apparent fact that Hildebrand Gurlitt took this painting, there isn’t a concrete trail of evidence to pinpoint how Gurlitt came into possession of the painting. However, luckily, it is agreed that the painting did belong to the Rosenbergs. Although it has been announced that the Matisse painting will be returned, it is uncertain when the transfer will actually take place, due to this legal limbo.6

I think that Hitler’s Art Thief is a good book for history buffs and also for those who want a basic introduction to the art looting which took place during the Nazi era. Even as a seasoned art historian (who has read dozens of books and articles on Nazi looting), I learned new things too! And I’m pleased to announce that, through the generosity of St. Martin’s Press, one lucky winner will be able to receive a free copy of this book!

Be among the first to read this new publication by entering this giveaway! I will be randomly selecting one winner (using this site) on September 21, 2015. You can enter your name up to three times. Here are the ways you can enter:

1) Leave a comment on this post!

2) Tweet about the giveaway (be sure to include my Twitter name: @albertis_window in your tweet, so I can find it).

3) Write about this giveaway on your own blog or website, and then include the URL in a comment on this post.

Thanks to St. Martin’s Press for generously providing an advance review copy and giveaway copy of Hitler’s Art Thief.

1 Cornelius Gurlitt, who died in May 2014, bequeathed his collection to the Bern Art Museum in Switzerland. This action prompted outcry from Jewish groups, and the Bern museum is working to ensure that no looted art appears on Swiss soil. 

2 Susan Ronald, Hitler’s Art Thief: Hildebrand Gurlitt, the Nazis and the Looting of Europe’s Treasures (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2015), 226-229.

3 Ibid., 315.

4 Ibid., 313.

5 Ibid., 312.

6 Ibid., 319.

 

— 7 Comments

Book Review and Giveaway: “The Art of the Con” by Anthony M. Amore

This is certainly the summer for new publications on art crime – and the summer isn’t even over yet! When I learned that Anthony M. Amore wrote a new book called The Art of the Con, I was in the middle of reading another recently-published book on art forgery by Noah Charney. I was curious to see if Amore’s book would be similar in content to Charney’s fantastic book.

For the most part, there wasn’t too much overlap between the content of Charney and Amore’s books. Both authors do discuss the forger Wolfgang Beltracci, but Amore goes into more detail in his book. (Amore dedicates essentially a whole chapter to Beltracci, whereas Charney dedicates a few pages to Beltracci within his broader discussion how forgery relates to different types of crime schemes.) Amore also elaborated on a lot of art cons and schemes that were unfamiliar to me, so I found a lot of the subject matter to be new and riveting.

Before reading this book, I was already familiar with Amore’s previous publication, Stealing Rembrandts (see my review HERE). Like Stealing Rembrandts, this new book The Art of the Con is an engaging read. I quickly read this book within a matter of days, not only because the subject matter was interesting to me, but because Amore’s writing style is accessible and entertaining. My critiques of this book are very minor: there were a handful of sentences in which pronouns were used in a confusing way, and I also disagreed with Amore mentioning that Cezanne was a Cubist (although the artist influenced Cubism, I would say that most art historians typically refer to Cezanne as a Post-Impressionist).1

All in all, I recommend this book to anyone who is interested in art crime, particularly in connection with scams relating to the buying and selling of art. I want to highlight a few things from this book which were of interest to me:

Caravaggio (?) or Circle of Caravaggio, "Apollo the Lute Player," c. 1597. Private Collection, USA (Ex-Badminton copy)

Caravaggio (?) or Circle of Caravaggio, “Apollo the Lute Player,” c. 1597. Private Collection, USA (Ex-Badminton copy). Image courtesy Wikipedia

Since I own a copy of Clovis Whitfield’s book Caravaggio’s Eye, I was interested to learn in Amore’s book about how Whitfield worked to curate a show, Caravaggio, with another art dealer named Larry Salander. The centerpiece of the show was a painting called Apollo the Lute Player (shown above), which Whitfield and Salander believed to be an autograph version by Caravaggio.2 In fact, Salander appraised the painting at $100 million, which was about one thousand times its previous sale price of $110,000!3 However, due to Salander’s unethical and criminal behavior in the art market scene, which Amore explores in detail, Whitfield ended up pulling this star component of the exhibition on the afternoon of the show’s opening! Despite Whitfield’s apparent lack of involvement in Salander’s misdoings, the show never mounted as originally planned (although some pictures were shown elsewhere), which led the Telegraph to call the exhibition, “The Star Show that Never Was.”

Matisse, Oriental Woman Seated on Floor (Odalisque), 1928. Private Collection

Matisse, Oriental Woman Seated on Floor (Odalisque), 1928. Private Collection

Amore mentions in his book about how the Seattle Art Museum was involved in a law suit in 1998, in which the museum which sued the Knoedler Gallery in New York. The museum, in turn, was being sued by the heirs of the Jewish art dealer Paul Rosenberg. The Seattle Art Museum had received Matisse’s Oriental Woman Seated on Floor (Odalisque) (shown above) as a gift from Prentice and Virginia Bloedel. The Bloedels had bought the painting from the Knoedler Gallery about forty years before donating the painting to the SAM. However, the Knoedler gallery gave false information to the Bloedels about the provenance of the painting, failing to admit that the painting had been looted from Paul Rosenberg during the Nazi era.After returning the painting to the Rosenberg family, I know that the SAM and Knoedler Gallery settled out of court: I’m inclined to think that the gallery gave cash to the museum, since the other option from the agreement was to give the SAM one or more works from the Knoedler inventory, and I currently can’t find any mention of the Knoedler Gallery in the online collection.5

Glass art falsely purported to be by Dale Chihuly, as sold by Michael Little

Glass art falsely purported to be by Dale Chihuly, as sold by Michael Little. Image via U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement.

Amore dedicates a chapter of his book to dealing with the art con and fraud which takes place online. I was intrigued by the story of Michael Little, a man from Renton, Washington, who purported to sell works by Dale Chihuly on eBay (one example of such fraudulent glassware is shown above). Even after eBay pulled Little’s listings after being alerted to the fraud, Little continued to sell the fraudulent glassware online, in person, and through a Renton auction house! One collector was swindled out of thousands of dollars, after he bought pieces that he intended to donate to Gonzaga University’s Jundt Art Museum.6 Little was sentenced to only five months in prison. I later found out, after finishing Amore’s book, that the judge sentencing Little commented that he wished he could also order Little to attend basic training in the Army!

I’ve learned a lot from reading The Art of the Con. I’m very glad that I read this book, and I’ll be sure to continue to use it as a resource in the future. I’m happy to announce that I can share this book with someone else, too! One lucky reader can win a free copy of this book! Local and international readers are equally encouraged to enter. I will be randomly selecting one winner (using this site) on August 17, 2015. So you have seven days to enter this giveaway! You can enter your name up to three times. Here are the ways you can enter:

1) Leave a comment on this post!

2) Tweet about the giveaway (be sure to include my Twitter name: @albertis_window in your tweet, so I can find it).

3) Write about this giveaway on your own blog or website, and then include the URL in a comment on this post.

Thanks to St. Martin’s Press for generously providing a review copy and giveaway copy of The Art of the Con.

1 For Cezanne reference, see Anthony M. Amore, The Art of the Con (New York: Palgrave MacMillan Trade, 2015), 114.

2 Ibid., 64-65. Other scholars contest Whitfield’s findings that the painting is autograph. For one example,  see footnote 3 in Florian Thalmann, Irony, Ambiguity, and Musical Experience in Caravaggio’s Musical Paintings (University of Minnesota, 2013), p. 4.

3 Ibid., 64, 66.

4 Ibid., 54.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid., 214.

— 9 Comments

Frank Capra, Gauguin, and Diagonal Lines

Lately, in coordination with my volunteer responsibilities at a local art museum, I have been reading What Are You Looking At? The Surprising, Shocking, and Sometimes Strange Story of 150 Years of Modern Art by Will Gompertz. Although a good portion of the things in this book are a review for me, I still am learning several new things, which is fun. I also appreciate Gompertz’s humorous and approachable writing style.

This book isn’t without a few minor flaws, however. I am only about a third of the way into the book, but so far I have noticed a few assertions which seem historically unfounded, as well as a quote about Cézanne which was interpreted slightly out of context. But even these slight errors are providing a diversion for me, since they are making me curious in wanting to know more.

One such diversion for me revolved around Gompertz’s assertion that a scene from Frank Capra’s movie It’s a Wonderful Life was influenced by Gauguin’s painting Vision After the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling the Angel). Gompertz points out that the tree in Gauguin’s painting is used to as a compositional device: the tree is set at a diagonal to divide the earthly realm in the lower left portion of the canvas from the heavenly vision in the upper right (shown below).

Gauguin, "The Vision After the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling the Angel)," 1888. Image courtesy WikiArt

Paul Gauguin, “The Vision After the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling the Angel),” 1888. Image courtesy WikiArt

Gompertz then explains that there is a similarity with this composition and a scene from It’s a Wonderful Life in which George Bailey, who has just attempted suicide by jumping off a bridge into a river, is resting and drying off in a wooden shack with his rescuer, the angel Clarence. Due to the perspective of the camera, some shots of this scene are divided by the diagonal of a clothesline; this line separates the heavenly angel Clarence from the burdened, careworn mortal George Bailey (see below).

Film still from Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946)

I agree with Gompertz that there are compositional and symbolic parallels between Capra’s film and the Gauguin painting. And I appreciate that Gompertz brought this to my attention, especially since It’s a Wonderful Life is one of my favorite movies. My issue, however, is that Gompertz asserts a direct, one-to-one historical relationship between the painting and film. He explicitly states that Capra “referenced this painting” by Gauguin.1 I cannot find any source by Frank Capra or anyone else associated with It’s a Wonderful Life to verify that Capra had Gauguin’s painting in mind when he created his classic film.

Interestingly, though, my research did lead me to find that Capra was interested in Gauguin and his art. Capra’s autobiography, The Name Above the Title (1972), discusses Gauguin at one point. In this section, Capra addresses what some critics could perceive as the “gee whiz!” factor in his films – that is, characters in the films walk around wide eyed, perceiving things as larger than life. Capra defends this “gee whiz” factor by explaining that to some people, “all that meets the eye is larger than life, including life itself.”2 Capra then explains, “Gauguin was a gee whizzer. He painted the South Seas not as he found them, but as he wanted to find them. He created his own South Seas.”3

There is no doubt, then, that Capra thought highly of Gauguin, and it seems like he also liked Gauguin’s paintings, by extension. However, I’m still waiting to find a direct historical connection between It’s a Wonderful Life and Vision After the Sermon, even if a visual connection can be made. If I was writing Gompertz’s book, I would have wanted to point out this visual similarity, but also mention that Capra may have been influenced – either directly or indirectly – by other artistic factors when he considered the set up for this scene with George Bailey and Clarence. I’m particularly reminded of Japanese paintings which use diagonal lines to divide different spaces, such as the division between private and public spheres in a scene from the Tale of Genji (see below).

Kano Ryusetsu Hidenobu, scene from "Tale of Genji," late 17th century - early 18th century

Kano Ryusetsu Hidenobu, scene from “Tale of Genji,” late 17th century – early 18th century

Gauguin’s Vision After the Sermon was definitely influenced by the Japanese aesthetic, but Gauguin wasn’t the only 19th century artist who was interested in diagonal lines (or even trees-as-diagonal-lines, for that matter – see Van Gogh’s Flowering Plum Tree, which is a copy of a Hiroshige print). So, my guess is that several factors are contributing to Frank Capra’s scene. Does anyone have other thoughts or know more about Capra’s artistic influences as a director?

Also, do you know of other places in which diagonal lines are used to create a strong symbolic distinction between two types of spaces (such as earthly and unearthly, or public and private)? This compositional device is intriguing to me.

1 Will Gompertz, What Are You Looking At? The Surprising, Shocking, and Sometimes Strange Story of 150 Years of Modern Art (New York: Plume, 2012), 66. Source available online as a Google Book: http://books.google.com/books?id=gBXxKol-XVYC&lpg=PT56&ots=fD3Hou_k0j&dq=frank%20capra%20george%20bailey%20gauguin&pg=PT56#v=onepage&q&f=false

2 Frank Capra, The Name Above the Title: An Autobiography (London: W. H. Allen, 1972), 138. Source available online as a Google Book: http://books.google.com/books?id=x_E09IWRomMC&lpg=PA138&ots=31sjkINX8o&dq=%22the%20name%20above%20the%20title%22%20gauguin&pg=PA138#v=onepage&q&f=false

3 Ibid.

— 2 Comments

Email Subscription

An email notification will be sent whenever a new post appears on this site.
Name
Email *

Archives

About

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.