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Valentine’s Day Kisses

With Valentine’s Day around the corner, I thought people would like to look at Flavorwire’s article, “The 10 Best Art Kisses of All Time.” My two favorite pieces that are highlighted in the article are Rodin’s The Kiss (1889) and Brancusi’s The Kiss (1908 version found through link).

I would have also included Canova’s Cupid and Psyche (c. 1787-1793, see detail here) on the list. Even though technically the figures have just kissed or are about to kiss (depending on who you ask), it’s a much more beautiful sculpture than that horrid drawing by Picasso (listed as #9 in the article). Ugh.

Do you know of any other works of art which are appropriate for Valentine’s Day?

Happy Valentine’s Day!

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Guernica as Nativity

This past weekend, I engaged in a mini-research project to help a friend. This friend is putting together a slideshow of Nativity images for a Christmas party; he is specifically interested in showing images which depict the biblical scene with clothing/architecture/instruments that are contemporary to the time of the artist. This project wasn’t too hard to complete, especially since Northern Renaissance artists loved to depict Nativity scenes in Northern interiors with Northern clothing. Perhaps I’ll post some of my Nativity findings in the next few weeks – it was a very fun project.

Anyhow, while compiling images I became curious to see if Picasso had ever created a Nativity scene. Since Picasso was such a prolific artist (with 271 new works recently added to his oeuvre), I thought he would have depicted a Nativity scene at least once. Surprisingly, I didn’t find any works titled “Nativity” in my limited research time, but I did come across an interesting argument that was recently published in Nómadas: Revista Crítica de Cincias Socialies y Jurídicas. Pablo Huergo Macón argues that Picasso’s iconic painting Guernica (1937, shown above) is a modern representation of the Nativity. Basically, Macón finds that Guernica “is a manger blown up by bombs.”1 Here are some of the traditional images which Macón points out:

  • Virgin Mary cradling a (Christ) child (far left)
  • Joseph (shown as a warrior brandishing a sword)
  • Angel who appears to shepherds (holding a candle in Picasso’s scene)
  • Shepherds (represented by the women on the right side, one in a shawl and one with raised arms)
  • Stable animals (Macón argues that the bull represents the ox and horse represents the mule)
  • Star of Bethlehem (light bulb in center, illuminating the scene)

I think the inclusion of the llight bulb puts an interesting contemporary twist on the whole Nativity scene (but I decided that my friend probably wouldn’t want to use this image for his Christmas party slideshow! It doesn’t exactly scream “Christmas cheer,” does it?).

Anyhow, I think Macón’s theory is interesting and deserves some attention. Even if this theory isn’t perfect, I think it could explain at least one reason why Guernica is so jarring to us: Western viewers can recognize distorted, perverse, and extremely unsettling elements of a traditional Christian theme.

1 Pablo Huergo Macón, “The Other Side of Guernica,” Nómadas: Revista Crítica de Cincias Socialies y Jurídicas 23 (2009:3): 1. Found online here.

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The Capitoline Wolf is Medieval?!?

I don’t know how I missed this news (it’s over two years old), but I thought that I would post it for others who may not have heard. In recent years scholars have questioned whether the “Capitoline Wolf” (an iconic statue of a she-wolf that is related to the mythological founding of Rome, see left) is Etruscan. Winckelmann first attributed this statue to the Etruscan period; he based his reasoning on the way that the wolf’s fur is depicted. In turn, it generally became accepted that the statue was created in the 5th century BC.

However, a couple of scholars have questioned this attribution since the 19th century. The most recent critique was published by art historian Anna Maria Carruba in 2006. Carruba noted that in the 1997 restoration of the statue, it was observed that the she-wolf was cast as a single unit – a technique that was common during the medieval period.

Carruba’s work eventually led to radio-carbon dating tests on the sculpture. About twenty dating tests were conducted at the University of Salermo, which resulted in the announcement that the she-wolf was created in the 13th century AD! In other words, she was created up to 1,700 years later than we originally thought. Wow. Sorry Winckelmann: it looks like you’ve struck out again. Ouch.

This is a crazy paradigm shift for me. I’ve always connected the Capitoline Wolf with the Etruscans (and the Romans by extension, since she is connected with the story of how Rome was founded). I’ve always known that the Romulus and Remus figures underneath were made during the Renaissance (they were fashioned in the late 15th century AD, probably by Antonio Pollaiolo), but it’s crazy to think that the Capitoline Wolf is medieval.

I should note, though, that the attribution of this statue is still far from resolved. Not only can one get a sense of the ongoing debate here and here, but right now the Capitoline Museum still has the Etruscan date on their official website. As for me, though, I’m currently inclined to go with the radio-carbon tests and the several scholars which have questioned the attribution. (And maybe I feel this way because I often question Winckelmann’s judgment, even outside of this Etruscan attribution.)

Is this news for anyone else? Maybe I’m just behind the times. What do other people think about this new date?

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Why Don’t I Like New "Masterpiece" Discoveries?

My friend heidenkind recently brought my attention to this article, which asserts that The Education of the Virgin (17th century, shown right), a painting discovered in the basement of Yale Art Gallery, is not by Velasquez (as was thought earlier this year). I have to admit, I was pretty pleased that the painting was unattributed to Velasquez. Is that strange? I would assume that most people are thrilled when they learn that a possible new work by Velasquez, da Vinci, Michelangelo, etc., has been discovered. And I rarely (if ever) feel thrilled about such news – particularly if the work has immediately been attributed to a great master. Instead, I get pleased when the painting is demoted from any “great master” status.

Lately I’ve been trying to figure out why I feel this way. Some of you may remember me earlier post along these lines, in which I discussed my skepticism on the plethora of new discoveries. I haven’t quite pinpointed all of the reasons for my skepticism/hesitation regarding new discoveries, but I thought that writing this post might help me to organize my thoughts. I think that I mostly resist hasty attributions to great masters because I know a little bit about the politics behind art attribution – it’s tempting for a connoisseur to attribute a painting to a great master, since such an attribution would help further the publicity and career of that connoisseur. I’m particularly reminded of Abraham Bredius, the connoisseur who “discovered” the “Vermeer” paintings by the forger Han Van Meegeren. Bredius is lucky that he passed away soon after Van Meegeren’s confession in 1945.

Anyhow, there are lots of other motivations for a work of art to be attributed to a great master, and most of them are financial. The owning museum, institution, or gallery will push for such an attribution, since it will be monetarily beneficial. And hey, the connoisseur could also get a nice fat check for such an attribution.

But is this political/financial reason why I don’t get excited about discoveries? I also wonder if my might have something to do with the historian side of me. If there are unknown works by great masters, then this forces me (as a historian) to reshape the artist in my mind as a historical figure. And I think I resist such reshaping a little bit. Does that make sense? In some ways, I feel like I know great artists quite well, and having a new work of art means that there is some aspect to their lives and work that was hidden from me. (I guess it’s kind of like the artist was doing something “behind my back.”) I know, it’s a little silly. Yet, at the same time, I love learning new things about artists. So maybe I experience some kind of inward struggle (i.e. the desire to learn vs. feeling deceived) when a new work of art is discovered, and that’s why I shy away from such discoveries. I don’t know.

Ironically, though, I rarely feel skeptical when archaeologists announce that a new work of prehistoric/ancient art was discovered or excavated. I always think, “Hey, awesome!” and move on with my life. So my skepticism (and emotional attachment?) must be somehow related to the idea that these works of art are attached to early modern “masters” (i.e. individuals). There isn’t enough information about specific prehistoric/ancient artists (or even some cultures!) for me to get as defensive and protective as a historian. Instead, I almost always get excited about ancient discoveries.

So, that’s what I came up with this evening: political/financial reasons and my silly protectiveness as a historian prevent me from embracing new “masterpieces.” What about you? Am I the only person who is continuously skeptical? Do most people get excited about attributions and “masterpiece” discoveries? Do any other historians get protective about an artist’s biography/oeuvre?

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"La Bella Principessa" by Von Carolsfeld?

My longstanding readers may remember a short post that I did last year, expressing reservations that the painting nicknamed “La Bella Principessa” (shown left) was a work by Leonardo da Vinci. (You may recall that a fingerprinting method was used to attribute this painting to Leonardo.)  I question this attribution for a couple of reasons, including the fact that this painting was done on vellum, a medium which Leonardo never used. I’m not the only art historian or curator with reservations about this attribution, and now people are coming forward to suggest who the actual artist might be.

I just read this news release about a new attribution: Fred R. Kline (an independent scholar) has come forward to suggest that the actual artist is Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, a lesser-known 19th century artist who belonged to the Nazarene Brotherhood in Germany. Kline’s argument is supported by a sketch called “Half-Nude Female” (shown below) which Klein discovered in the State Art Museum in Mannheim, Germany. Not only was this sketch created on vellum (just like “La Bella Principessa”), the model and braided hair are quite similar. Kline thinks that “La Bella Principessa” could have been a gift from Von Carolsfeld to this model.

This is a really interesting idea, and I congratulate Klein on his sleuthing. If this painting is by Von Carolsfeld, “La Bella Principessa” would be one of the best paintings that he ever created. I’m not familiar with all of Von Carolsfeld’s work, but I haven’t been terribly impressed with the paintings that I have seen.1 I do really like Von Carolsfeld’s sketches, though (for example, his sketches Seated Boy Playing a Pipe (1818) and Portrait of Victor Emil Jansen (n.d.) are very good). In my opinion, Von Carolsfeld was a much better draftsman than a painter, and I kind-of doubt he could create as fine of a painting as “La Bella Principessa.”  Even though Von Carolsfeld’s Klara Bianka von Quandt (1820) is an alright painting (despite the fact that the lute looks like it’s been cut-and-pasted into the model’s hands – sorry, I couldn’t help myself), it lacks the sfumato and modeling that gives the Principessa’s image a sense of depth and richness.

So, there you have it. We may have found a possible artist for “La Bella Principessa,” but (yet again!) I’m still not quite sure. I wonder, though, if “La Bella Principessa” might have been painted by another person associated with Nazarene Brotherhood. Perhaps someone who used the same model as Von Carolsfeld’s “Half-Nude Female” sketch, but also had more talent as a painter?  Does anyone know any information about Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld (Julius’ older brother)? I know that he was a painter too, but so far I can only find information about Julius’ son, who was given the same name.

1 Let me explain some of my reasoning. I think a lot of Von Carolsfeld’s painted figures seem a little too static. Consider The Family of John the Baptist Visiting Christ (1817), where the Christ child is awkwardly spread out like a lifeless doll. Or look at The Annunciation (1818): it seems strange that the Gabriel’s drapery is flowing behind him (suggesting movement), when the angel appears absolutely frozen in its stance. I realize that “La Bella Principessa” doesn’t allow for much comparative analysis in terms pose (since it is a bust portrait), but I still think that the face and upper figure of the “Principessa” seem much more relaxed and natural than any of the Von Carolsfeld paintings which I have seen.

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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.