Classical Antiquities – Art & Antiques Magazine For Collectors of the Fine and Decorative Arts Tue, 05 Feb 2019 18:04:04 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Classical Antiquities – Art & Antiques Magazine 32 32 Where the Gods Were Born Thu, 26 Apr 2018 01:06:03 +0000 Continue reading ]]> An exhibition at LACMA reveals the art and history of the ancient Mexican city of Teotihuacan.

View of Teotihuacan

View of Teotihuacan;

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) View of Teotihuacan Tripod Vessel with Goggle-Eyed Figure, 450–550 Mask, 300–600, Listwanite Standing Figure, Tlalocan [tunnel under Feathered Serpent Pyramid], Teotihuacan, Mexico, 200–250 Incensario (incense burner), La Ventilla neighborhood, Teotihuacan, Mexico, 350–450 Feathered Serpent Eccentric

About 25 miles northeast of Mexico City lies the site of Teotihuacan, an ancient city that flourished from around 100 B.C. to 550 A.D. and was once the largest in the Americas and the sixth-largest in the entire world, with a population as high as 250,000. Dominated by two massive, stepped pyramids, the Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Moon, the nine-square-mile city was laid out on a grid structure and boasted the world’s first apartment-housing complexes. Later Mesoamerican cultures were fascinated by Teotihuacan; the Aztecs looked to it for inspiration, considering it to be the locale of their creation myths, “the birthplace of the gods”—which may be the meaning of the word “Teotihuacan” in Nahuatl, the Aztec language.

In any case, Teotihuacan cast a very long shadow throughout the region, influencing cultures as far away as Guatemala, the ancient Maya in particular. Its origins have long been mysterious, but recent research indicates that Teotihuacan was multi-ethnic, with various populations inhabiting distinct sections of the city. The art of Teotihuacan, on the other hand, was remarkably uniform in style, the most immediately recognizable works being a characteristic type of obsidian mask.

The art, history, and urbanism of Teotihuacan are being presented to the American public in a massive exhibition, “City and Cosmos: The Arts of Teotihuacan,” which runs at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art through July 15. It was previously on view at the de Young Museum of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, which co-organized it with LACMA and Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH). The last major exhibition devoted to Teotihuacan in the U.S. took place in 1993; the current one not only showcases the high spots of the city’s art but reveals what has been discovered in the excavations that have been going on there in the past quarter-century.

“‘City and Cosmos’ presents objects found over the last few decades—including some even in the last few years—by archaeologists from Mexico, the U.S., and Japan,” says Megan E. O’Neil, LACMA’s associate curator of art of the ancient Americas and curator of the museum’s installation of the exhibition. “These archaeological projects have uncovered remarkable objects in contexts that help us understand the city’s chronology as well as more complex societal questions such as religion, civic identity, and relations with other areas of Mesoamerica.”

For example, in 2003 a Mexican team led by archaeologist Sergio Gómez Chávez found a tunnel running under Teotihuacan’s Feathered Serpent Pyramid, its ceiling covered with the mineral magnetite, which conveys the impression of glittering stars in a night sky when light shines on it. This subterranean sector, which is believed to symbolize the sacred underworld, was filled by the people of Teotihuacan with ritual objects, such as rubber balls, pyrite disks, seeds, and feline skulls. In a chamber at the end of the tunnel were placed four sculptures of precious greenstone that Chávez’s team believe represent the legendary founders of the city and may have been used in divination ceremonies. Two of these hieratic, proudly erect figures are on view at LACMA.

The feathered serpent to whom the pyramidal temple was dedicated was a universal figure in Mesoamerican mythologies. The god’s symbolism indicated its dual nature—with its feathers it could fly in the heavens while its serpentine body enabled it to traverse the earth. Various kinds of feathered-serpent sculptures have been found at Teotihuacan; for example, a three-inch-long undulating snake carved so that its exterior bristles with feathers, is one of 18 small obsidian objects that were placed together in the Moon Pyramid (18 being a significant number in Mesoamerican calendrical schemes).

Most of the objects on view in the LACMA show—including mural fragments with a characteristic rich, pinkish red, as well as the carved-stone works—are amazingly well-preserved. However, a large standing marble figure, found in Teotihuacan’s Xalla Compound, which may have been the site of elite artists’ studios, was deliberately smashed. One of the largest precious-stone pieces from Teotihuacan, the sculpture may represent a deity. While archaeologists are not certain, it is considered likely that the destruction of artworks in Teotihuacan took place around the time the city was abandoned following some cataclysmic event or sequence of events. We know that around 550 A.D., the ceremonial center of the city was burned; the fire was probably set by the inhabitants. What else occurred to bring about the sudden collapse of a seven-century-old civilization is not known, but the most likely candidates are soil exhaustion and climate change rather than invasion from the outside. The gods may have been born in Teotihuacan, but they did not die there. They migrated and settled elsewhere in Mexico and beyond, bringing culture and art with them.

By John Dorfman

Empire Style Tue, 27 Feb 2018 19:03:28 +0000 Continue reading ]]> In Napoleon’s palaces and beyond, aesthetics served politics but also achieved greatness.

Andrea Appiani, Portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte

Andrea Appiani, Portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte, First Consul, in the Uniform of a General in the Army of Italy, 1801, oil on canvas.

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Sèvres Imperial Manufactory, Tea service called “green ground, groups of flowers,” Pierre-Antoine Bellangé, Presentation armchair for the Grand Salon of the King of Rome’s apartment at the Tuileries Sèvres Imperial Manufactory, decoration painted by Joseph Deutsch Joseph Franque, The Empress Marie-Louise Watching Over the Sleeping King of Rome Andrea Appiani, Portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte Bust-length Portrait of Napoleon in Ceremonial Robes

The French Revolution, Alexis de Tocqueville observed, was “so inevitable yet completely unforeseen.” The crisis of 1789 was inevitable because the social and intellectual life of 18th-century France had fallen “out of kilter” with its oligarchic political system and its indebted economy.

The development of the Revolution from reform to regicide and democracy to tyranny might have been foreseeable in theory. Plato had warned in the Republic that oligarchic government decayed into democracy and tyranny. In 1790, when the Revolution was still in its first phase of constitutional reform, Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France had predicted that France would become a modern tyranny.

Still, the Revolution, Tocqueville wrote in 1856, represented the birth of a “new and unknown kind” of politics. There had been revolutions before, but never of such “immoderate, violent, radical, desperate, audacious, almost mad, and nonetheless powerful character.” Perhaps the two decades of war that followed could have been foreseen. The other European oligarchies feared democracy, and the revolutionaries dreamt of exporting their experiment. The European wars that followed fulfilled the fears and dreams of both sides and produced the modern spectacle of “the nation at arms.”

No one, though, could have foreseen the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte from provincial artillery officer to emperor. Bonaparte embodied the attributes that Tocqueville detected in the Revolution, but in fulfilling its aspirations for a new society Napoleon destroyed its ideal of liberty. The Revolution that began with liberté, égalité, fraternité led to mass executions, civil war, and secret police, and then, in 1804, to the rise of a modern Caesar.

“Napoleon: Art and Court Life in the Imperial Palace,” on view at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts through May 6, reconstructs the iconography of Napoleon’s brief but transformative residence at the Château de Fontainebleau, near Paris, through more than 250 objects. Curated by Sylvain Cordier of the Montreal MFA, with the participation of the Musée Château de Fontainebleau, the exhibition is a lavish visual demonstration of the historical paradox that Tocqueville saw at the heart of the Revolution.

Before 1789, France had been a centralizing autocracy, fostering an uneasy mixture of Enlightenment ideals and a cult of hereditary leadership. After 1804, it became one again. The distribution of land and authority had changed, and so had the legal code and the ruling dynasty, but the state remained paramount and the centralization of power had intensified. The velocity of change after 1789, Tocqueville believed, had derived from the accumulated momentum of reform before 1789.

Before the Revolution, Fontainebleau served as a stage for the Bourbon monarchy’s more relaxed performances. Etiquette was less strict than at the Palace of Versailles. Each autumn, the estate offered ideal country for hunting and riding. The château’s attractions included a theater and a Classically-themed silver Boudoir de la Reine, a private space between the king and queen’s bedchambers in which Marie Antoinette could receive her friends. After 1789, the royal furniture was sold off and Fontainebleau converted into a military academy.

In November 1803, Napoleon visited to inspect the academy and its cadets. Napoleon was then the first among equals of the three Consuls who ruled France. Pursuing his Classical theme, he was preparing to declare himself emperor and the Bonaparte family the fount of a new dynasty. In June 1804, he gave orders for the restoration of Fontainebleau as an autumnal hunting lodge, just as it had been under the Bourbon kings. He returned in November 1804, when he was en route for Paris and the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, where he expected Pope Pius VII to crown him Emperor of the French.

When the pope wavered, Napoleon crowned himself. Fontainebleau bore the fingerprints of France’s kings: Francis I’s long gallery, with its frescoes by Rosso Fiorentino; Henri II’s ballroom, with the arms of his wife, Catherine de’ Medici, on the walls and ceiling, along with the discreet monogram of his mistress, Diane de Poitiers; Henri IV’s wing and his Jeu de Paume indoor tennis court; and Louis XIV’s Grand Parterre, said to be the largest planned garden in Europe. Napoleon, the legislator who remade France and Europe, now remade Fontainebleau in his image as a key institution of his empire.

The imperial initial “N,” surrounded by a laurel wreath, was welded onto the front gates. Egyptian motifs recalled the loot and ambitions of Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1795, though not its ignominious end in 1798, when the hero sailed for France, leaving his plague-sick army behind. A wing was pulled down to make the entrance more stately. A new empress, Josephine, installed new furniture in the silver boudoir.

The Empire Style predated Napoleon in inspiration, and postdated him in terminology. The formal roots of French Neoclassicism lie in the glorification of Louis XIV (1643–1715), who centralized his power at the Palace of Versailles and glamorized his Bourbon family by association with the arts of ancient Rome. French Neoclassicism was named “Empire Style” during the Second Empire, the reign of Napoleon’s nephew Louis Napoleon (1851–71), a triumph of style over content whose rule ended, like that of his uncle, in defeat at the hands of the Prussians and exile in a location chosen by the British. The stage for Napoleon’s empire was that of Louis XIV, explicitly in the Tuileries Palace in central Paris and with greater subtlety at Fontainebleau.

Long before 1789, the French refurbishment of Classical motifs had spread across the courts of Europe. Through Napoleon’s conquests, the aesthetic handbook had taken political form. By writing a new European corpus of law, the Napoleonic Code, and dispatching his brothers and sisters to fill the thrones of his subject kingdoms, Napoleon recast Europe in the legal and dynastic image of France. The French Classical style now embodied Europe’s new order. The combination of imperial imagery and a dynamic emperor was capable of shaping political reality. In 1806, when Napoleon retaliated against Britain’s blockade of France’s ports by declaring the Continental System, he created the first unitary European economy since the Roman Empire.

Napoleon’s official architects, Charles Percier and Pierre-Léonard Fontaine, had already updated the austere lines and lavish gilding of Bourbon Classicism for the Empress Josephine’s chateau at Malmaison, near Paris. They intended Fontainebleau to become the quintessential expression of the French style. The emperor’s relatives arrived to flesh out the dynasty, and an army of servants established the Imperial Household, a new court which both revived and reinvented the royal household.

The Imperial Household consisted of six departments, each headed by a grand marshal. The grand chaplain negotiated matters spiritual, the grand master of the hunt organized matters equestrian, and the grand marshal of the palace, the grand master of ceremonies, the grand chamberlain, and the grand equerry choreographed the orbit of pageantry around the emperor’s body.

Napoleon was not an absolute monarch like Louis XIV. “L’état, c’est moi,” the Sun King had said: “I am the state.” The Revolution had replaced custom and divine right with a constitution. Though Napoleon frequently displayed authoritarian contempt for procedure, he was technically a constitutional monarch. If Pius VII wavered in the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, it was because Napoleon had gained authority by might, not right. He had not been sanctified by royal birth or sacred inheritance, like the kings of the Ancien Régime.

The display of Napoleon’s legitimacy changed to reflect his inheritance of the Revolution. Historically, sacred inheritance had been staged in the site of its reproduction in the private royal apartments: the royal bedchamber. In the Grand Appartement du Roi at Versailles, Louis XIV had Classicized this medieval model, with a sequence of increasingly impressive chambers leading to the center of the mis-en-scène, the royal bedchamber, with the bed as its altar of consecration.

In Napoleon’s Fontainebleau, however, the throne room became the central stage. Authority, instead of being constituted in the body of the king, was legally conferred upon the sovereign by the constitution and by enthronement. Before the Revolution, the royal bedchamber was attended by the aristocracy; now, the throne room is the apex of the institutions of government. The emperor in his throne room is a spectacle of modern power.

In 1701, Hyacinthe Rigaud’s Portrait de Louis XIV en costume de sacre had represented the Sun King in his “sacral robes” of coronation. The throne before which Louis XIV stood was merely a chair, and the Classical setting was as grand and unreal as the mythological activities on the foreshore of a Claude sunset. Monarchic power was wherever the monarch happened to be, and the throne was wherever he sat.

In 1806, it was not sufficient that Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres depicted Napoleon enthroned in his sacral costume. The frontal presentation and scepter in Ingres’ portrait echoed the Olympian Zeus of Phidias, the pantocrator (“world-ruler”) of Byzantine iconography, God the Father from Hubert and Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece, and Charlemagne, the medieval Holy Roman Emperor.

This modern spectacle resurrected the trappings of sacred legitimacy from the costume trunk of the older orders. The tasks of the Imperial Household included the commission and funding of a new iconography. The opening sequence of “Art and Court Life in the Imperial Palace” describes the mutation of Napoleon’s image. The First Consul is the general who has become the head of state in order to save the republic and finish the Revolution. One portrait, reflecting the search for a new imagery of republican power, echoes Gilbert Stuart’s full-length 1796 portrait of George Washington. After 1804, the republican image dissolves rapidly, and the figure of the imperial monarch emerges. An explicit historical precedent is a bust of the Augustus, the emperor who became a god, loaned to the exhibition from the Louvre.

Napoleon disapproved of the Ingres portrait. Ingres erred by an excess of Classicism. In flattering earthly power, he had revealed the heavenly sources of political legitimacy. The Revolution had annulled the Church’s sanction when it had nationalized the Church’s lands and sacked the altars. Did Napoleon dismiss Ingres’ image for its clerical nostalgia, or because it revealed his usurpation?

In 1846, the art critic for the Corsaire Satan, Charles Baudelaire, reviewed an exhibition of Neoclassical paintings from the years of the Revolution and the First Empire. The art seemed as “harsh and despotic as the revolution from which it was born.” Baudelaire particularly enjoyed Jacques-Louis David’s Napoleon Crossing the Alps (1801–05), and his Assassination of Marat (1793). “Cruel like Nature, this scene has all the perfume of the ideal.”

Napoleon preferred the contemporaneous portrait by François Gerard. As the pupil of David, the official artist of the Revolution, Gerard had the right aesthetic pedigree and the right iconographic impulse. Gerard’s Napoléon I en costume de sacre is staged in the throne room at Fontainebleau, in front of the real throne. The emperor’s head may have been painted after the Louvre’s bust of Augustus.

“It is legal because I wish it,” Louis XIV had explained. But Napoleon’s imperial wish was not fulfilled in law. His empire lasted little more than 10 years before he met his Waterloo. Many of Percier and Fontaine’s designs for Fontainebleau remained paper dreams. Fontainebleau, Napoleon said, was “a house for the ages,” but he was not able to remake it for his age and image. The Napoleonic additions to Fontainebleau exist in the ambience of Louis XIV. As “Art and Court Life in the Imperial Palace” illustrates with loans from McGill University, a counter-flow of images cartooned Napoleon as a tyrant.

In 1814, his enemies having taken Paris, Napoleon fled to Fontainebleau. Deposed by the Senate, he attempted suicide and made a farewell speech to the officers of the Old Guard from the palace’s central staircase. In 1815, during the Hundred Days that revived and then dashed his hopes of restoration, he returned to Fontainebleau for two hours on the road to Waterloo. In his final exile at St. Helena, Napoleon pined for Fontainebleau, “the true abode of kings.”

By Dominic Green

Inside the Ancient World Mon, 29 Jan 2018 21:16:16 +0000 Continue reading ]]> A new gallery space gives a historic collection a fresh look.

Ennion Cup, Sidon, Lebanon, Roman Empire

Ennion Cup, Sidon, Lebanon, Roman Empire, circa 40-50 C.E., Roman mold-blown glass.

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Votive head, Cyprus Coffin lid of Henet-Mer, Thebes, Egypt, 21st Dynasty Foundation Brick, Qantir, Egypt, reign of Ramesses II Mirror, Egypt, Middle Kingdom Bastet, Egypt , bronze and gold; Ennion Cup, Sidon, Lebanon, Roman Empire

On December 8, The Newark Museum in Newark, N.J., opened “Art of The Ancient Mediterranean: Egypt, Greece and Rome,” its relocated and reinstalled ancient-art gallery. The move was prompted by the renovation of the museum’s front entrance, which had been closed to the public for 20 years before reopening last month. A portion of the viewing space that housed the Ancient Mediterranean collection for 28 years is now allocated for the new ADA-accessible entrance lobby, and the ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman works have found a home in the museum’s South Gallery.

The collection’s new real estate is about as prime as it gets, positioning the works as the starting point of the museum’s permanent galleries and a springboard for the understand of Western art history. What’s more, the Ancient Mediterranean collection is now parallel to the Arts of Global Africa Permanent Collection, which has relocated to the museum’s first floor. The proximity of the two collections helps acknowledge a point that is often disregarded by museums and the art-historical canon: that the art of ancient Egypt is just as important to the history of African Art as it is to that of the ancient Mediterranean.

Ulysses Grant Dietz, Interim Co-Director, Chief Curator and Curator of Decorative Arts at the museum, points out that the new Mediterranean gallery opens with a passage from Plato’s Phaedo, reading: “I believe that the earth is very large and that we who dwell between the Pillars of Hercules and the river Phasis live in a small part of it about the sea, like ants or frogs about a pond, and that many other people live in many other such regions.” The geographical area Socrates mentions (the Pillars of Hercules are the promontories marking the entrance to the straight of Gibraltar and the River Phasis is the modern day Rioni River in Western Georgia), though he notes it was just a slice of the ancient world, was immensely fertile ground for trade, thought, war, architecture, art and craft, with the waters of the Mediterranean and Northern Africa feeding the rise of civilization and culture. Says Dietz, “This period, and what the gallery showcases, is really an early version of globalization, an iteration with all of these cultures—Egypt, the Etruscans, the Cypriots, the Greeks, and then finally Rome.”

Though the museum’s classical collection comprises over 4,500 objects dating from 3000 BCE to 600 CE, the new gallery’s focus is on the pieces that factored into daily routines. “The gallery isn’t just full of sculptures and tomb objects, though there are some there,” says Dietz. “Objects from everyday life—ceramics, glass, silver, jewelry, and metalwork—are what we’re highlighting.” The curator is quick to point out that a piece that is featured prominently in the gallery, a 6th century BCE Attic red-figure amphora depicting one of the labors of Hercules, was conceived as an object of practical use. “We don’t have painting from the Greek world, and very little sculpture survives, so the pottery is seen as art,” says Dietz. “But even though this pot represents mythology, heroism, and the warrior, its function was to serve wine to the men at a symposium as they reclined on their couches, got increasingly hammered, and discussed philosophy.”

The museum’s classical collection is an integral part of its early history. Mrs. Samuel Clark gave the institution a large group of objects representing everyday life in the ancient world in 1924. Shortly thereafter, Louis Bamberger, the Newark department store magnate and the benefactor of the museum’s Jarvis Hunt-designed building (the newly refurbished front entrance will be renamed “the Bamberger Entrance” in his honor) began buying Cypriot pieces that were being de-accessioned from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Cesnola Collection. In fact, his first purchase, a votive head from Cyrpus, circa 700–680 BCE, which he gifted to the museum in 1928, is a highlight of the new gallery.

In 1950, the Newark Museum received a colossal gift from Eugene Schaefer, a chemist and collector from Bergen County, N.J., of some 2,000 objects, two-thirds of which are glass. As a result, Newark has one of the most important ancient glass collections in the country; it showcases the history of glass and glassmaking technology from Egypt, Greece, Rome and the Islamic world from 1500 BCE through 1400 CE.

One standout of the Schaefer glass collection is the mold-blown glass Ennion Cup (circa 40–50 CE), from Sidon, Lebanon, under the Roman Empire. It represents a major achievement in glass-making, when artisans working within the area of Jerusalem at the end of the 1st century BCE realized that glass could be inflated at the end of a tube—thus discovering glass blowing. Ennion, perhaps the most proficient of all glassmakers in the art of self-branding, incorporated his name into the designs of his cups and vessels, making him one of the few Roman glassmakers we know by name. The Schaefer gift catalyzed many additions to the museum’s glass collection over the course of decades. One fine example in the gallery, a Roman glass skyphos (circa 0–50 CE), was purchased in 1975. Here in deep blue glass, the skyphos shape was developed by the Greeks in the Geometric Period as a two-handled wine cup, often, as with this example, on a low flanged base. A related shape, the kylix—a shallower two-handled cup with a longer stem (like a champagne coupe with training wheels)—can be seen in the gallery in the Greek black-figure pottery style. The Kylix Drinking Cup with Horseman, made in Athens circa 525 BCE, features a rider on horseback on its exterior, with Greek lettering.

Speaking of lettering, the hieroglyphic detail on another standout, the Coffin Lid of Henet-Mer, is astoundingly bold and detailed. Made in Thebes, Egypt during the 21st Dynasty (1075–945 BCE) of sycamore fig wood, gesso, and paint, the lid reveals that Henet-Mer (“Mistress of Love”) was married, a singer, and a priestess of Amon-Ra, the Egyptian sun god.

An item more suited for the lives of the living, an Egyptian mirror, can also be found in the gallery. From the Middle Kingdom, 13th Dynasty (1783–1715 BCE), the piece is wrought of bronze and gracefully carved wood. A pair of ivory clappers from the 12th Dynasty (1981–1802 BCE) are also on view. This curious set of objects, carved in the shape of human hands and arms up to the elbows, at first resembles an elegant alternative to the inflatable, percussive sticks we often use at sports games. Instead, the clappers were proper percussion instruments beaten to keep time during dances or musical performances.

By Sarah E. Fensom

City on a Hill Tue, 07 Jun 2016 17:38:04 +0000 Continue reading ]]> Thanks to a historic collaboration between the Met and the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, an almost unbelievably rich trove of Hellenistic antiquities has come to New York.

Small Statue of Alexander the Great astride Bucephalos, Roman

Small Statue of Alexander the Great astride Bucephalos, Roman, Late Republican or Early Imperial period, second half of the 1st century B.C.; copy of a Greek original of circa 320–300 B.C., bronze, 48.6 x 47 cm. Opposite

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Triton Acroterion from the Great Altar, Greek Stater of Mithridates VI Eupator Dionysos, Greek Rhyton in the form of a Centaur, Greek Fragmentary Colossal Head of a Youth, Greek, Hellenistic period Small Statue of Alexander the Great astride Bucephalos, Roman Friedrich (von) Thiersch, The Akropolis of Pergamon, 1882

The death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C. marks the moment when Greek culture jumped the borders of Greece and became a world culture. Alexander’s rapid conquests had pushed the borders of the Macedonian Empire as far east as what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan, and when he died without naming a successor, his generals fought each other for control. After several civil wars, the empire broke up into political units known as the Hellenistic kingdoms, which for the next three centuries ruled most of Greece, parts of Southern Italy, Asia Minor, Egypt, and the Near East. During that time, they made Greek an international language, and with the language went Greek art. The art of the so-called Hellenistic period (a modern coinage; it was never called that at the time) broke new ground in terms of realism, eroticism, and the development of new media.

One of those Hellenistic dynasties was the Attalid Kingdom, which ruled from the city of Pergamon near the west coast of what is now Turkey. Under Attalid and then (starting in 133 B.C.) Roman rule, Pergamon grew into a wealthy and cultured city, distinguished by its massive acropolis (hill city) bearing a monumental altar—the famous Great Altar—with elaborate friezes. In the mid-1860s, a German engineer and amateur archeologist, Carl Humann, stumbled on the site of ancient Pergamon while excavating for an Ottoman Turkish road construction project. Noticing that exposed portions of marble from the partially buried city were being cut into fragments to be burned in a lime kiln, Humann used his influence with the Ottoman authorities to stop the destruction and get a permit to excavate the site.

Actual digging, though, needed to wait until 1879, when Humann was able to get financial support from the Berlin Museums, a branch of the German royal state. Thus began the historic connection between the Hellenistic city and the German city, which eventually constructed an entire structure, the Pergamon Museum, to house its negotiated portion of artifacts from the site (the balance was claimed by the Ottoman government). To Berlin went the friezes from the Great Altar, which were touted as worthy rivals to the British Museum’s “Elgin Marbles” (sculptures from the frieze of the Parthenon in Athens) in the geopolitical game of archeological one-upmanship. Today, under the auspices of the Pergamon Museum, excavation of the site continues.

In 2013, the Pergamon Museum closed for major renovations, providing the occasion for pieces from the collection to travel to New York, where they are now on view at the Metropolitan Museum in “Pergamon and the Hellenistic Kingdoms of the Ancient World,” an exhibition on view through July 17. About a third of the 265 objects in the Met show are from the Pergamon Museum; the show also features loans from some 50 public and private collections from around the world. Together, the astonishing assemblage of objects showcases not only the achievement of Pergamon but of Hellenistic high culture in general, in many ancient states.

The Met’s chief curator of antiquities, Carlos Picón, describes the exhibition as “unabashedly an ‘objects show’” that “does not pretend to offer a straightforward art-historical survey.” In any case, he writes in the exhibition catalogue, “there is no single approach to the study of most branches of Hellenistic art. One can only examine the artistic trends and attempt to discover avenues that either lead to further study or, at the very least, allow us to look at this rich material with fresh eyes.”

For many visitors to the Met, “Pergamon and the Hellenistic Kingdoms of the Ancient World” will be their first look at the material, but even to those familiar with the period, the works on view are likely to be visually and even emotionally overwhelming. While the Great Altar itself cannot travel (since it is literally embedded in the walls of the Pergamon Museum itself), some elements from the friezes are in the New York show, along with a striking architectural model that conveys what the altar must have looked like when it was new. A huge 1882 pen-and-ink-and-watercolor rendering of the whole acropolis of Pergamon by Friedrich von Tiersch, situated near the entrance to the exhibition, also helps visualize the ancient site in its heyday. An assortment of documents and sketchbooks immerses the viewer in the thrill of the German discovery of Pergamon, when Humann was able to exult, “We have found an entire artistic epoch!”

From the north and east sides of the Sanctuary of Athena at Pergamon, a set of large marble balustrade reliefs, discovered in 1878–86, are in the exhibition. These very imposing and compositionally bold designs, made around 180 B.C., depict spoils of war—shields, a ship’s standard and rudder, a helmet with mask—that commemorate battles won by the kings of Pergamon against the Seleucids of Asia Minor. The haphazard, tumbled-looking arrangement of the trophies suggests a still life turned vertically, almost Cubistic in its overall effect. The dedication of such an important structure as this sanctuary to the goddess Athena reminds us that Pergamon, as a foreign city, had to a particular effort to tie itself to the sources of Greek religion and integrate itself into the mythology.

Actual arms and armor are on view right near the frieze fragments: A 32-inch-diameter bronze shield with relief decoration, discovered at Pontos in present-day Turkey, is one of the very few surviving Hellenistic pieces of its kind in the world. The Greek inscription running in a circle between two concentric decorative bands reads, “Of King Pharnakes,” referring to Pharnakes I, who ruled Pontos in the 2nd century B.C. The shield, which has a six-pointed star design in the middle, would originally have a wooden or leather support mounted behind the brass front.

Images of Alexander, the progenitor of the Hellenistic world, are appropriately displayed at the beginning of the Met’s installation. One particularly impressive piece—though small, about 20 inches high—is a bronze sculpture of the ruler mounted on his favorite horse, Bucephalos, who is rearing up as his rider, dressed in typical Macedonian style, prepares to strike a blow against an unseen enemy. The weapon he would have been using is also unseen, at least by us, because it has been lost to time. Alexander is shown with no helmet, an allusion to a famous incident in 334 B.C. when the king was attacked and nearly killed by the satrap (provincial governor) Spithridates during a battle. This sculpture, which was found at Herculaneum, is a late Republican or early Imperial Roman copy of a Greek original that is believed to have been created not very long after the event itself, circa 320–300 B.C.

Another object on view that is likely a portrait of Alexander, on a very different scale, is the fragmentary colossal marble head of a youth discovered at Pergamon. Probably carved in the 2nd century B.C., the head is twice life size (almost 23 inches high) and is believed to have been mounted on the wall in the Pergamon gymnasium. The expressive, slightly open mouth; the nose; and the curly locks of hair are all that remain to conjure the visage of the young king; the rest of the head has been dramatically sheared off, creating an unintentional but nonetheless beautiful and strange effect.

A Late Hellenistic bronze portrait of an unknown man, excavated on the Greek island of Delos in 1912, is vividly lifelike. Every feature seems like that of a real person, not an idealized archetype. The eyes, with the whites modeled in inlaid white stone and the irises in a dark gray stone, are particularly expressive, full of pathos or even anguish. The pupils, too, were once inlaid, and the eyelashes were rendered with fringed strips of copper, though those pieces, unfortunately, have been lost. This kind of intense dedication to naturalistic detail, coupled with a desire to convey the true personality and character of the sitter, is typical of Late Hellenistic portraiture. The man shown here may have been a public official, a man of letters, or some other prominent citizen, but what the artist gives us is not the public façade but the inner man.

Another trait of Hellenistic art is frank eroticism. A beautiful example in the Met show is Sleeping Hermaphrodite, a 2nd century A.D. Roman Imperial copy of a Greek original from 2nd century B.C. Asia Minor, found in Rome in the late 19th century during the construction of a theater. According to myth, Hermaphroditos, the son of Hermes and Aphrodite, rejected the advances of a nymph, who then appealed to the gods for assistance. They obliged by fusing her with her beloved forever, creating a bisexual being. In this marble depiction, the figure is sensuously abandoned to sleep, partially wrapped in a sheet, one leg crossed over the other, the face supported on the arms. Though still, it looks as if it might stir at any time. The body and face as we see them from the side to which the face is turned are more or less gender-neutral, though they skew feminine. But on the other side, the sculptor has depicted both a breast and a penis, graphic reminders of the androgynous nature of this hybrid entity.

Naturalistic painting was a signal achievement of Hellenistic art, though sadly, very few paintings have survived. Mosaic pictures, however, give some sense of what Hellenistic painting must have been like. A late Republican Roman emblema (inset illustration from a floor) from the 2nd–1st century B.C. and excavated at Pompeii, shows a group of busking musicians dedicated to the cult of the goddess Cybele. All three wear theatrical masks. One blows a double flute, one plays a large tambourine, and the third snaps a pair of small hand cymbals. Off to the side is a small figure that may be a child or a dwarf. The image, signed in Greek by the artist, Dioskourides of Samos, is most likely an illustration of a scene from Menander’s comedy The Possessed Girl, which is lost except for a few scattered verses. The composition is believed to be a copy of a painting from a century or two earlier. Even though it is mosaic, the colorful piece uses chiaroscuro and shows a command of three-dimensional space.

An especially impressive multi-figure composition can be seen carved in relief around the outside of a marble calyx krater, called the Borghese Krater. Even in a show consisting mainly of high spots, this one really stands out. Discovered in the Gardens of Sallust in Rome in 1569 and now in the Louvre, this gigantic, monumental vase was made in Greece around 40–30 B.C. Its frieze depicts a procession of Dionysos, god of wine and ecstasy—quite fitting, since the type of ceramic kraters on which this showpiece is modeled would have been used to dispense wine at a banquet. Running under the lip of the krater is a grape vine, also symbolizing Dionysos. The figures in the frieze are the god himself, depicted semi-nude, three maenads or female worshippers, and five fauns or satyrs, all dancing and playing musical instruments. One of the fauns seems to have had too much to drink and is being supported by another. Evidence from an ancient shipwreck discovered just before World War I indicates that this vase was made in Attica for export to a wealthy Roman client. Important contributions to the development of the so-called neo-Attic style of art were made in the city of Pergamon.

“Pergamon and the Hellenistic Kingdoms of the Ancient World” contains many examples of the decorative arts, including numismatics and jewelry. One of the most eye-catching pieces in that category is known as the Vienna Cameo. This large double portrait, made of 10-layered onyx, dates from the Early Hellenistic period in Ptolemaic Egypt, circa 278–270/269 B.C. It depicts the Pharaoh Ptolemy II Philadelphos and his sister-wife Arsinoe II (Philadelphos means “sibling-lover” in Greek), in profile. The white layers of the stone have been used for the faces—which, unsurprisingly, are exceptionally similar—while the brown layers have been used for the king’s helmet and crest and the surrounding negative space. The technique of cameo carving, shown here with such mastery, is an innovation of the Hellenistic period.

In Barry Unsworth’s 1988 novel Pascali’s Island, an English amateur archaeologist named Anthony Bowles makes a fantastic discovery on a Greek island, a Hellenistic bronze figure of a youth, possibly Dionysos, unseen for over 2,000 years. Like Carl Humann, Bowles has cultivated the local Ottoman authorities in order to get permission to dig—although things are about to get complicated for him. By way of explaining the sculpture’s particular beauty, Bowles says, “He is just at the point of decline. … At the brink. That is why he is so marvellous.” Immersion in “Pergamon and the Hellenistic Kingdoms of the Ancient World” will make it clear to anyone that there is nothing decadent about Hellenistic art, no need for invidious comparison with Classical art, and that its particular beauty is due both to advances in technique and to an increased desire to observe and depict the world as actually seen and lived.

By John Dorfman

Marie Spartali Stillman: Renaissance and Renascence Wed, 28 Oct 2015 20:56:26 +0000 Continue reading ]]> An exhibition at the Delaware Museum of Art rediscovers the art of Marie Spartali Stillman, a Pre-Raphaelite muse turned painter.

Marie Spartali Stillman, Kelmscott Manor: From the Field

Marie Spartali Stillman, Kelmscott Manor: From the Field, not dated, watercolor and gouache on paper laid on panel, 7 x 12 inches.

Featured Images: (Click to Enlarge) Marie Spartali Stillman, The Pilgrim Folk, 1914 Marie Spartali Stillman, Madonna Pietra degli Scrovigni, 1884, Marie Spartali Stillman, Kelmscott Manor: From the Field Marie Spartali Stillman, Beatrice, 1896

When Algernon Charles Swinburne met Marie Spartali, the decadent poet was uncharacteristically at a loss for words. “She is so beautiful I feel as if I could sit down and cry,” was all he could come out with. That sort of reaction was typical for Spartali, who was nearly six feet tall with Classical features and long, thick brown hair. She and her sister Christina, the daughters of Michael Spartali, a wealthy Greek-born businessman and Consul-General of Greece in London, cut a broad swath though the city’s artistic and literary salons of the 1860s. Thomas Armstrong, an artist, met the two young women at a Sunday get-together at their parents’ house in 1863 and recalled, “We were all à genoux before them, and of course every one of us burned with a desire to try to paint them.”

One of Armstrong’s companions that day, James A. McNeill Whistler, got his wish. On other occasions, Marie sat for the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron—exhausting, because Cameron required complex poses and absolute immobility for long stretches of time—and modeled for Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who recast her in a 14th-century Italianate mold in his Vision of Fiammetta and Dante’s Dream. However, not content to be the recipient of gazes, male or otherwise, Spartali began studying painting with Ford Madox Brown, the eldest member of the Pre-Raphaelite circle (he also painted her), and before long she was making significant contributions to the Pre-Raphaelite movement herself.

Marie Spartali Stillman, as she is known to art history (she married American journalist William Stillman in 1871, over the objections of her parents), is still less familiar to the public than many lesser artists of the era. That is in large part due to Spartali Stillman’s own choice not to pursue a professional career with maximum vigor, according to Margaretta Frederick, curator of a major monographic exhibition, “Poetry in Beauty: The Pre-Raphaelite Art of Marie Spartali Stillman,” which runs November 7–January 31 at the Delaware Museum of Art. “She abhorred publicity,” says Frederick. “She never wanted to put herself forward, because she was suspicious of critics and publicity.” She was also a victim of the Victorian mentality that dictated that a woman should not compete with men, or at least not appear to do so. Frederick explains that even Spartali Stillman’s choice of medium—watercolor—was guided by this code of conduct: “In a middle- to upper-middle-class family, women painted in watercolor. So she was fixated on this medium that allowed her to situate herself next to the men and compete on their level without transgressing too many social barriers.”

Not that Spartali Stillman labored in obscurity. She exhibited at the Royal Academy starting in 1870 and had dealers selling her work on both sides of the Atlantic. Her paintings, at first, tracked very closely with what the Pre-Raphaelites had been doing and with the neo-medievalism of William Morris and his circle, among whom she had many friends. Her Beatrice (1896) is typically Pre-Raphaelite, a red-haired beauty in rich fur-trimmed garments, surrounded by roses, her finger pointing to a line in a book that looks like it could have been printed by the Kelmscott Press (Spartali Stillman actually painted Morris’ Kelmscott Manor on several occasions). However, this Beatrice is not the otherworldly, unapproachable demi-goddess of Dante Alighieri and Dante Rossetti, existing only to be pined after; the tender expression in her eyes suggests that she has feelings of her own. In Madonna Pietra degli Scrovigni (1884), Spartali Stillman goes into a fantastical mode. With one hand holding a crystal ball and the other suspending a branch full of mysteriously glowing flowers above her head, this Madonna looks more like a woodland-dwelling sorceress than like the mother of God. After moving to Italy when her husband became the New York Times’ bureau chief in Rome, Spartali Stillman absorbed even more Italian influence into her work. She continued to be fascinated by the Early Renaissance and found rich material in Rome and Florence, but she was also drawn very strongly to the Tuscan landscape, which she painted often.

Putting together the current exhibition was not easy. According to Frederick, about half of Spartali Stillman’s body of work is missing or unaccounted for. And most of what is extant is in private collections. With nine works in its collection, the Delaware Museum actually has the largest public holding of Spartali Stillman in the world. Many of the works in the Delaware show are on loan from the artist’s relatives or those of her husband, most of whom live in the U.S.

Frederick hopes that the show will give Spartali Stillman the attention she deserves, not only as a figure from history, a member of a circle, but as an artist in her own right. “It’s amazing the way female artists get written out of things,” she says. Referring to Rossetti’s famous painting of Fiammetta, the beloved of the Florentine poet Boccaccio, Frederick points out, “Spartali Stillman is best known because she sat for Rossetti’s Fiammetta. But she did a version of Fiammetta first! Then she sat for Rossetti and he painted her in a red dress, and within a year or two she did another version, in a red dress. They wrote some letters to each other about working on Fiammetta. It’s just fascinating. There was a real mutual respect between these artists.”

Giovanni Battista Piranesi: Temple Guard Wed, 28 Oct 2015 19:29:35 +0000 Continue reading ]]> Piranesi’s drawings of the Temples of Paestum, rendered late in his career, are a revelation of draftsmanship, detail, and archeological discovery.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Temple of Neptune, View of the Interior from the West, 1777

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Temple of Neptune, View of the Interior from the West, 1777, black chalk, pencil, brown and grey washes, pen and ink.

Featured Images: (Click to Enlarge) Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Temple of Neptune, View of the Interior from the West, 1777 Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Paestum, Interior of the Temple of Neptune from the West, 1777 Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Paestum, Italy: Interior of the Basilica, from the West, 1777

Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s imagination was captivated by fantastic spaces. Born in 1720, the son of a stonemason and master builder, he spent 20 years training in architecture and stage design. After he moved to Rome in 1740, the dearth of practical architecture jobs led him to the tourism market, selling high-end souvenir etchings to the Grand Tour set. He would become an important figure to the Neoclassicists, known for his topographical engravings, of which he completed over 1,000 unique examples in his lifetime. The creation of “unreal cities” moved him, and as he studied ancient structures, he drew buildings and architectural features purely out of his own mind. The plates of his first publication, Prima Parte di Architettura e Prospettive, printed in 1743, were occupied with capricci, works of architectural fantasy and efforts to solve architectural problems. Complete with loggias and arches, the Ponte Magnifico, a plate in the volume, held the story that it was erected by some imagined Roman emperor of unknown lineage, bearing his equestrian statue. The vantage point from which Piranesi renders the bridge is complicated, with the viewer forced to look through an anchoring arch on the side of the bridge in order to see the main path of the structure. The design proves to be both highly technical and fanciful at the same time.

Piranesi’s Carceri d’Invenzione, or prison fantasies, were first published as a series of 14 etchings in 1750. The labyrinthine settings, replete with winding stairways and cruel contraptions, were reprinted in 1761 and numbered I–XVI, with an addition of two more. In Thomas De Quincey’s 1820 autobiographical work Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, the writer, who certainly had consciousness-altering experiences on the brain, describes the works as a record of Piranesi’s visions while hallucinating during a fever. De Quincey insists on the intensely personal nature of the plates, so much so that he writes, “Creeping along the side of the walls, you perceived a staircase; and upon it, groping his way upwards was Piranesi himself.”

Piranesi’s oeuvre also had a heavy dose of reality. Vedute di Roma, a series of 135 plates depicting notable Roman architectural sites such as the Arch of Constantine, the Arch of Septimius Severus, and the Pantheon, was an ongoing project Piranesi began in 1748. Le Antichità Romane, a four-volume, 250-plate series produced in 1756 highlighted the decorative and technical elements of ancient Roman architecture. Piranesi’s treatise, a veritable Vitruvian-level architectural manual, helped shed light on the era of Greek Revival among architects and designers. The 1760s saw folios commissioned by the Venetian pope, Clement XIII Rezzonico, as well the design for an unrealized tribune for San Giovanni in Laterano and the reconstruction of the Santa Maria del Priorato Church in Rome between 1764 and 1766. His designs for the latter, which are still viewable today, combined Roman and Etruscan influences, an example of Piranesi’s grab-bag style, which drew from the constructions of the ancient Romans, their Umbrian ancestors, the Greeks, and even the Egyptians. Towards the end of his career, he turned his focus toward restoring antiquities.

The exhibition “Piranesi’s Paestum: Master Drawings Uncovered” is currently at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University (through January 4), showcasing a set of 15 drawings completed by Piranesi in 1777, the year before his death. The drawings are in the collection of British Neoclassical architect and major Piranesi fan Sir John Soane, who acquired much of the Italian artist’s work during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The suite, which were purchased at auction in 1817, has never been seen outside of Soane’s museum in London until this exhibition, which will be making its sole stop on the West Coast at the Cantor.

Typically, after a basic sketch, Piranesi would draw the lion’s share of his compositions directly on the copper plates for engraving. These drawings, however, composed of rich layers of pencil, brown and gray washes, pen and ink, and occasional flourishes of white or red chalk, are highly detailed. It is thought that, perhaps knowing he did not have much longer to live, Piranesi flooded the sketches with every pertinent detail so that his son Francesco could finish and print them. Piranesi, using his stage design background, employed scena per angolo, a perspective technique of high baroque scenography. Coined by Ferdinando Galli Bibiena in L’Architettura Civile (1711), the drafting method furnished views through interiors and courtyards—and in Piranesi’s case colonnades—by the application of multiple vanishing points and complicated diagonals. Tricking the eye into thinking the space expands into infinity, Piranesi’s use of the technique makes the Paestum drawings seem boundless.

The set is Piranesi’s largest body of work devoted to one topographical site. During the artist’s lifetime, Paestum was an archeological revelation. The site of three abandoned Doric temples, it was rediscovered in 1746, during the building of a new road. According to Strabo it had been Poseidonia, a Greek colony of Magna Graecia founded by Achaeans from Sybaris around 600 B.C. When the Romans conquered it, they gave it the name Paestum. The temples there were originally thought to be a Roman Basilica, or civic building, a Temple of Poseidon and a Temple of Juno or Ceres. Inscriptions determined that two of the temples are dedicated to Hera—one circa 550 B.C. and the other 460–450 B.C.—and the third, dating to around 500 B.C., to Athena.

Piranesi, suffering from poor health, made the journey to Paestum, on the Bay of Salerno in Campania, in 1777 with his son, his assistant Benedetto Mori, and the architect Augusto Rosa (who took measurements for cork souvenir models). Back in Rome, Piranesi used extensive surveys and studies to create the Paestum drawings. He began—with difficulty—making a series of 20 vedute and frontispieces for what was designed to be his final publication. Less than two months after he received a papal imprimatur for the publication, he died. His son finished and issued the plates later that year.

While Piranesi lived his life around the vestiges of ancient Rome, surrounded by the buildings he was rendering, Paestum was far away and newly found. It was not unlike Piranesi’s capricci—structures only recently discovered and completely by chance, as if they had been dreamt into existence. And as the Greek Revival was gaining steam, the temples were schooling designers and architects in the minimal lines of Doric construction, helping to solve architectural problems as the capricci had attempted to. It’s as if the ruins of Paestum were rediscovered in the Italy of Piranesi’s imagination.

Ancient Dreams Wed, 12 Jun 2013 03:09:54 +0000 Continue reading ]]> Greek and Roman artworks, among the greatest expressions of the human imagination, are both available and affordable.


Featured Images: (Click to Enlarge)

While educated people no longer fill their leisure time by composing poetry in Greek, and only a small minority of high-school students opt for the rigors of Latin over French or Spanish, the culture of ancient Greece and Rome, and especially its art, still has power over our imaginations. And even for someone not deeply imbued with awe for Classics, there is magic in the experience of seeing and touching a work in marble, bronze or clay that was formed by a human being millennia ago. The muscular grace of line and storytelling prowess of an Attic vase, the intense realism of a Roman portrait bust, the mythical otherworldliness of a Greek bronze mask possess a power that can induce possessiveness—or perhaps, a state of being possessed. Fortunately for those who fall victim, many excellent examples of ancient Greek and Roman art are available, and at prices that are for the most part surprisingly low.

Of course, the splashy headlines made by auction sales of “best-of-the-best” rarities can give the opposite impression. A Roman Imperial marble group of Leda and the Swan went for $19.1 million at Sotheby’s New York in December 2011, and a Late Hellenistic bronze figure of Artemis and the Stag brought $28.6 million at the same house in June 2007, still a record for any Greek or Roman antiquity. Christie’s still holds the record for any classical marble sculpture, set in June 2002 when a prince of Qatar paid £7.9 million ($11.6 million) for the so-called Barberini Venus (after the Roman noble family that owned it in the 17th century).

Still though, that kind of money, if you have it, will buy you half a Rothko at best. In the words of Jerome Eisenberg, owner of Royal-Athena Galleries in New York and a 58-year veteran of the trade, antiquities are “ridiculously underpriced compared to contemporary art.” Randall Hixenbaugh, another dealer in New York, says, “Relative to the rest of the art and antiques market, all antiquities are undervalued. This is readily evident when a collector who is accustomed to collecting in other areas, like contemporary or modern art, begins collecting antiquities and easily buys up masterpieces for sums that antiquities dealers and collectors are not accustomed to spending. With proper guidance, one could put together a top-notch collection of say, Greek vases, Greek armor or Roman statuary for well under a million dollars. Excellent pieces are readily available for tens of thousands of dollars each, and sometimes much less.”

Many very worthwhile works, ranging from palm-of-the hand-sized on up, are affordable to the non-wealthy. “I’ve sold many pieces to teachers, professors, people who don’t have a lot of money,” says New York dealer Robert Haber. Dealers, as a rule, advise collectors to buy the best-quality examples in any given category, within their price range. In the realm of ancient art, quality and condition do not always go hand in hand, due to the ravages of very long periods of time. Many excellent pieces have damage, and a collector’s success at acquisition may depend on his or her willingness to overlook it. In particular, works of high artistic quality that have good overall finish but are missing parts can be an excellent buying opportunity. Haber points out that it requires a certain level of imagination to “complete” the piece, perceptually speaking, and an appreciation of this historical background helps, as well. The field of antiquities collecting, he says, “is as large as your imagination and as deep as your intellect.”

According to Eisenberg, Greek and Roman terra cottas and smaller bronzes are very good buys. Expect to pay between $5,000 and $15,000 for terra cottas and between $10,000 and $25,000 for bronzes. “Good vases are quite active on the market,” he adds. “Smaller Attic examples start at about $15,000.” Considering that vases from 4th and 5th-century B.C. Athens are among the greatest works of art in human history, that’s not bad at all. At a much lower price point, Royal-Athena has a Corinthian vase painted with dancing figures from circa 600 B.C. for only $1,650. Roman portraits, Eisenberg says, generally start around $75,000, although they can be found for as low as $50,000. Again, to put it in perspective, such pieces, many of which are highly individual, warts-and-all revelations of personality and physicality, are among the greatest examples of naturalistic portrait sculpture ever made, anywhere. Currently, Eisenberg is offering a marble head of the Roman comic playwright Menander, from the late 1st century A.D., almost 10 inches high, for $67,500. Hixenbaugh recommends Greek armor as an interesting sub-field. He has five ancient Greek bronze helmets, dating from the time of the battle of Marathon through the age of Alexander the Great, at prices from $15,000 to $65,000 each. “Medieval armor of the same rarity and quality costs much more,” he observes.

Haber recommends small ancient bronzes as an undervalued collecting opportunity. “They’re very underpriced,” he says. “Why? Fashion. It’s hard for people to appreciate small things. It takes focus, understanding, knowledge. Size can get in the way of connoisseurship.” Haber is offering a small bronze figure from Sardinia (before 500 B.C.) that resembles a Giacometti sculpture in its sticklike, erect form. Part of its beauty lies in its encrustation of green corrosion. Haber stresses that the antiquities field is one in which study is important, in that the more one knows about the history of objects, the more one appreciates them and understand their relative importance. “Certainly there are buying opportunities now, but the collector has to put in some time to learn about what they’re collecting,” he says. “There are great opportunities to buy small objects which have a lot of meaning, but you have to be assiduous in looking through auction catalogues. It’s also important to find good dealers and rely on their advice.” Needless to say, authenticity is an issue, and proper attribution as to time and place is not always in the offing.

Those who are willing to buy at auction instead of relying on dealer expertise may in be able to save a little bit of money—or pay more if “auction fever” takes hold. This month, Christie’s and Sotheby’s are holding antiquities sales in New York, at which some very impressive material will be on the block. One June 5, Sotheby’s will be offering a Roman Imperial marble figure of the Capitoline Aphrodite, from the 1st–2nd century A.D. (est. $180,000–220,000). Copied after a late Hellenistic work, it portrays the goddess standing on a support in the form of the god Eros riding a dolphin. A Hellenistic marble head of a Ptolemaic queen, circa 3rd–2nd century B.C., with provenance to the collection of the princes of Murat in 19th-century Naples, is estimated at $45,000–65,000. And in the highly collectible category of ancient jewelry, a cameo carved of sardonyx, with portraits of a man and a woman who are most likely the Roman emperor Caligula and his empress Antonia Minor, in a 19th-century gold mount, is estimated at $300,000–500,000. Sotheby’s experts consider it possible that the couple are actually Emperor Augustus and his wife Livia, but in any case they consider it Julio-Claudian and assign it to the period 37–41 A.D.

Across town at Christie’s, the offerings will be highlighted by a Roman marble group of Cupid and Psyche, circa 1st century A.D., almost 31 inches high (est. $100,000–150,000) and a very striking Roman gilt silver skyphos (or two-handled bowl) decorated in relief with a scene of a hunter struggling with a wild beast, also dated to the 1st century B.C., 6 5/8 inches wide (est. $500,000–700,000).

The antiquities auction market is doing quite well now, despite the economy. On May 1, Bonhams in London achieved some spectacular results for its antiquities sale, which featured artworks from the collections of classic-era Hollywood celebs Anthony Quinn and Vincent Korda. A Roman marble draped female figure from the 1st–2nd century A.D. sold for £111,650, and a Hellenistic-period Greek marble bust of a goddess (circa 3rd century B.C.) went for £109,250.

Some attribute the heat of this market to lack of supply of good salable material—by which they generally mean material with proper provenance. In today’s world, proper provenance means that the object was excavated before 1970, the year in which the UNESCO Convention to prevent the illicit trafficking in cultural property was signed. Anything after that date is considered a looted antiquity—readers will recall recent news headlines having to do with Metropolitan Museum’s repatriation (after much litigation) of the celebrated Euphronios krater, one of the finest Attic vases known to exist, which was looted in Italy in the early 1970s and bought by the Met soon thereafter. While no one in the trade wants to deal with looted material, dealers acknowledge that obtaining provable provenance can be difficult, and most all who will speak about the subject express resentment toward what they see as the archaeology profession’s total opposition to collecting antiquities. “Of course we do support appropriate provenance research,” says Haber. “But there’s a fervor on the part of archaeologists to enforce an unrealistic and unfounded ban. There’s a lot of intimidation built into the enforcement of 1970 as a cutoff date.” He points out that various countries signed the Convention at different dates after 1970, causing some works that came on the market in between 1970 and those dates to become “orphan” works—unsalable despite the fact that they are officially legal and were bought in good faith. Eisenberg cites the need for impeccable provenance—and the relative scarcity of the needed documentation—as a major reason for rising prices at the high end of the market. “Since these things not being excavated anymore, at least not legally, early provenance brings a big premium. There’s a lack of supply.” The holy grail is bona fide paperwork showing that an object was already on the market well before 1970, and old collections such as the aforementioned Barberini are best of all.

Hixenbaugh argues that this state of affairs has been going on for long enough now that it can’t be taken as a reason for recently rising prices. “I think it’s a myth that a sudden lack of material has driven up the market. The antiquities market is an entirely secondary market, in the sense that nothing recently excavated of any importance enters its upper echelons. Dealers and auction houses are focused on acquiring pieces from old collections with documented provenance. Collectors are looking for the same. To some degree, the supply of top-quality objects diminishes over time due to pieces being acquired by museums. But most American museums rely on donation rather than outright purchase when it comes to antiquities. All of that having been said, there is a certain frenzy when exquisite and important pieces emerge onto the market for the first time in decades from private collections.” For the average collector, however, and certainly for the new collector, such issues are highly unlikely to pose any kind of problem.

This article originally appeared in Art & Antiques Magazine as “Ancient Dreams”

Rembrandt in America: Understanding the Artist and His Followers Tue, 05 Jun 2012 05:19:28 +0000 Continue reading ]]> Rembrandt worked so closely with his fellow artists that scholars are still at odds over which paintings are the “real” ones. Your guess may be as good as theirs.

This article originally appeared in the June issue of Art & Antiques Magazine as “Master of Mystery”.

Featured Images: (Click to Enlarge)

“Rembrandt in America,” which opens at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts on June 24, is a fascinating but flawed exhibition that in many ways mirrors the confused state of Rembrandt scholarship today. The show is a hodgepodge—for one thing, due to the extreme difficulty of getting Rembrandt loans, it’s missing many of the most notable examples in American collections. However, a more fundamental reason why is that the organizers apparently never really decided what their exhibition is about. Is it a chronological presentation of Rembrandt’s work? Is it an attempt to distinguish between the work of Rembrandt and the works of his followers? Is it a statement about the history of collecting, and thus a sort of oblique portrait of the American robber barons of the turn of the century, told through the art they liked to acquire?

While these topics are very interesting, they’re also complex, and the catalogue never decides whether it’s a popular book or a scholarly one. It doesn’t quite work as a popular life of Rembrandt because it’s too encumbered by technical arguments and because of its haphazard rather than chronological arrangement of images. But it’s not exactly a scholarly book either. Most notably, the arguments about attribution are often difficult to follow because essential pieces of information are missing. The key comparative works generally aren’t in the show (and often aren’t illustrated in the catalogue) and there’s no systematic attempt to document the range of opinion about a painting’s authorship, as embodied in past publications and in the writings of living scholars.

For all these flaws, it’s an exhibition worth going out of one’s way to see, not only because Rembrandt’s autograph paintings are worth the trip but also because the chaotic way it presents its information gives a good picture of what life is generally like for a working art historian—whether a museum curator or an auction-house expert—struggling to figure out whether a painting is right without all the facts and on a tight schedule. The visitor has an opportunity to pretend that he or she is facing the choice of whether or not to buy a particular Rembrandt. Is it right or not? How do you decide? It’s the art-world equivalent of being placed in the cockpit of a jetliner and invited to fly.

The perennial problem of disentangling Rembrandt’s work from that of his contemporaries is intimately bound up with what made him so original—his intense, promiscuous engagement with the work of other artists. Like many another great master, Rembrandt was an imitator and copyist; in addition, he liked to surround himself with pupils and acolytes who imitated his work. At the center of the exhibition stands a paradox that probably no figure in the history of art has been so widely praised as Rembrandt for the uniquely personal qualities of his style, but distinguishing his work from that of his followers was often difficult even in his own lifetime and has become even more so over the three centuries since.

Today, the greatest Rembrandt experts on his work often disagree about which paintings he executed, not only with minor works but with some of the most famous ones, such as The Man with a Golden Helmet or The Polish Rider. For that matter, there’s The Return of the Prodigal Son in the Hermitage, which one of the authors of this catalogue, Tom Rassieur, singles out as one of the most masterful examples of Rembrandt’s work but which has always impressed me as clumsy and pedestrian, with the awkward bare feet of the prodigal son pushed into the viewers face and figures that don’t convincingly engage with each other. I’ve always been skeptical that Rembrandt made it, and some years ago Walter Liedtke, curator of European paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, suggested to me that it might well be by Samuel van Hoogstraten. I’ve always been skeptical that Rembrandt made it. As Walter Liedtke, curator of European paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, recently suggested to me, if it is by Rembrandt, it seems most likely that it’s an unfinished work that was later awkwardly touched up by one of his pupils.

This chameleon-like character of Rembrandt is evident in his career from the outset. As a precocious teenager in Leiden, he worked closely with a slightly older artist, Jan Lievens, and may even have shared a studio with him. They painted the same models and subjects in a very similar style, both emulating and competing with each other. Their work is so close that it seems to have gotten confused when they were both still in their twenties. Most scholars believe that a “Rembrandt” in the Queen of England’s collection, recorded in an inventory of 1639, is really by Lievens, though as is to be expected, some disagree. On the other hand, two paintings by Lievens recorded in a 1632 inventory of the Dutch royal collection are now generally believed to be by Rembrandt. What’s more, during this same period, Rembrandt took on his first pupil, Gerard Dou, who in some ways mastered Rembrandt’s early style, with its meticulous manner of rendering, even more fully than Rembrandt did. In the 17th and early 18th centuries, when technical skill was highly prized, prices for Dou’s paintings often surpassed those achieved by major paintings by Rembrandt. Dou may well have helped Rembrandt with some of the more dazzling passages of tightly executed still life in his early work, such as the gleaming silver vessel in the foreground of his marvelous Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem (1630), in the Rijksmuseum.

Notably, this same sort of confusion continued right up to the end of Rembrandt’s career, with the added twist that in his later years the names and styles of his close associates are not very well documented. In some cases we know the names of individuals who associated closely with Rembrandt, such as Constantijn van Renesse or Rembrandt’s son Titus, but don’t know what their paintings looked like. We can identify van Renesse’s drawings but not his paintings, and while a 17th-century inventory attributes some paintings to Titus, we can’t identify any of his work today and don’t even know for sure whether he ever achieved real proficiency as an artist. In other instances we have clusters of paintings that show close knowledge of Rembrandt’s work but don’t seem to be by him, and it isn’t currently possible to determine conclusively who made them.

What might loosely be termed “modern scholarship” on Rembrandt has gone through two phases, and we seem to stand on the threshold of a third. The first phase lasted from the later 19th century into the 1930s and was fueled by an insatiable market for Rembrandt’s work. His name was almost a synonym for the term “artistic genius,” and he was viewed as a figure with a miraculous ability to see beyond the surface of things into the depths of the human soul. During the age of the robber barons, some of the wealthiest men in America, such as Andrew Mellon, Jules Bache, Henry Clay Frick and Henry Havemeyer, competed fiercely for works by Rembrandt. Indeed, Havemeyer had a large room entirely devoted to paintings by Rembrandt—or at least paintings then attributed to him. And here we come to another paradox: Why do rich people like paintings of poor people, who in real life they wouldn’t allow into their homes?

During this period new Rembrandts were discovered at a rapid pace in castles and private collections from Stockholm to Budapest and were sold for ever-escalating prices that often made newspaper headlines. Facilitating this process was a group of experts and scholars in the discipline of art history, which was moving away from being an amateur’s domain toward being a subject taught in universities and was developing methods of analysis that had a quasi-scientific aspect. Figures such as Wilhelm von Bode, Abraham Bredius and Wilhelm Valentiner issued “certificates” declaring which works they judged authentic and assembled catalogues of Rembrandt’s work reproducing the paintings they judged to be autograph.

On the positive side, the beginnings of a sifting process were underway, in large part because these experts assembled large troves of photographs—not very good ones, to be sure—which made it possible to put works side by side and compare their artistic qualities. By modern standards the process was not very rigorous or critical, and since experts were generally paid well for discovering or authenticating paintings, the process was a bit corrupt. In addition, ideas of what constituted a “Rembrandt” were largely shaped by whether qualities of genius and spiritual insight were evident in a work, rather than by more pedestrian criteria such as materials, brushwork, and whether a painting matched up well with other works from the same time period. A sort of romantic aura enveloped Rembrandt scholarship, and in this hazy atmosphere his oeuvre expanded to somewhere between 600 and 800 works that most people believed were autograph.

Overindulgence is often followed by a hangover. In Rembrandt scholarship the headache set in around the time of the artist’s 300th birthday in 1966. At that time three huge exhibitions of Rembrandt’s work were mounted, and when the paintings were brought together it became evident that they were quite inconsistent in style, and that a great many of them must be by someone other than Rembrandt. A Dutch scholar who had worked with Bredius as a young man, Horst Gerson, was asked to issue commentaries for a revised edition of the older scholar’s catalogue and questioned about half the paintings it contained. Shortly afterwards, a team of five or six Dutch scholars banded together to create The Rembrandt Research Project and to issue a “definitive” catalogue of his oeuvre. For the first time, these scholars systematically obtained high-quality photographs and compiled accurate technical data on Rembrandt’s work, examining signatures, utilizing x-rays and radiographs, and even counting the threads on canvases. Museums and private collectors dreaded their visits, since they tended to demote works that had been accepted as authentic for decades.

The Rembrandt Research Project, which is still not quite complete, has now been going on for 40 years (most of its founding members are now dead) and has revolutionized our understanding of Rembrandt’s work. But large areas of disagreement still remain. When they started the project, the Rembrandt Research team clearly believe that close technical examination would resolve nearly all questions about what Rembrandt did and did not paint, but before long they began to disagree with each other, and consensus became impossible. Generally speaking, most scholars agree that Rembrandt’s oeuvre is at most half the size it was considered to be in the 1930s—somewhere between 200 and 300 paintings. But precisely which paintings belong to this canon and which do not remains a matter of dispute. And thus, at this point we seem to be entering a third phase of Rembrandt scholarship, when modern science and 19th-century romantic ideas can interact with each other in new ways.

The present exhibition picks up more or less where the Rembrandt team left off and contains a good many paintings that present questions of one sort of another. One of the major contributions of the show is to demonstrate that Rembrandt clearly interacted with other painters in his studio. He sometimes touched up their work so that he could sign and sell it as his own—a standard 17th-century practice—and they in turn sometimes revised paintings that he had executed and that for one reason or another didn’t sell. In one instance a “self-portrait,” executed either by Rembrandt or by one of his pupils, was revamped into a laughably absurd painting of a man with shaggy hair and a large hat. In another, a large Descent from the Cross (in the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.) was completely reworked and redesigned. X-rays reveal that it was originally painted around the mid 1630s, at which time it closely resembled a painting in the Hermitage. Around 1650, or shortly thereafter, it was severely cropped at the left and bottom, and virtually the entire composition was reconfigured. As has been nicely explained by Arthur Wheelock, curator of Northern Baroque paintings at the National Gallery, in a 1995 catalogue of the Dutch paintings in the National Gallery, close study of the brushwork suggests that these changes weren’t executed by Rembrandt but by a pupil, possibly van Renesse. It’s not clear what role, if any, Rembrandt had in this process, but the final result is far more memorable and poignant than the original design.

Scholars seem to be more in agreement when dealing with Rembrandt’s early paintings than with the later ones. Perhaps that is because at this stage Rembrandt’s work was still not fully “Rembrandtesque,” and as a result we can look at the paintings on their own terms, with fewer preconceptions about artistic genius and what it means to peer into the depths of the human soul. This is also the phase of Rembrandt’s work in which there have been some of the most dramatic new discoveries. One of the highlights of “Rembrandt in America” is a pair of newly discovered paintings, symbolically representing the sense of touch, that were made before Rembrandt had reached the age of 20, and are possibly the earliest works by him we know. Not exactly beautiful—one of them portrays a painful operation—they bring out the iconoclastic side of Rembrandt’s talent, the pleasure he took in shocking the viewer into paying attention. A beautiful painting that this show convincingly restores to Rembrandt’s oeuvre is the Portrait of an Old Man of 1632 in the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard, which has long been assigned to Jan Lievens or to an unknown follower of Rembrandt. To my eye it’s not only by Rembrandt but one of his finest works from this early period. On the other hand, the Bust of a Young Man with a Gold Chain, owned by the Cleveland Museum of Art, seems singularly dull and lackluster when placed beside autograph works by Rembrandt, and it’s hard to believe that it’s actually from his hand.

Once we get into the 1650s, there seems to be more confusion as to who did what. Curiously, one of the best paintings in the exhibition, Rembrandt’s portrait of Titus, The Artist’s Son, from the Baltimore Museum of Art, has sometimes been questioned. It epitomizes the quality that distinguishes Rembrandt’s work from that of his students—a greater willingness to take risks or to reach out to capture evanescent impressions. Here it is evident in the highly peculiar way that Titus grasps his chin with his hand, a gesture that feels almost as if it were captured in motion. On the other hand, I’m not at all convinced by the Portrait of a Man Reading, from the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass., which seems more solid and less mysterious than Rembrandt’s autograph works, in a fashion more reminiscent of a hard-nosed 19th-century realist such as Courbet (though it is undoubtedly a 17th-century painting). A wonderful painting—but to my eye not by Rembrandt. The painting has often been linked to Carel Fabritius, and while this attribution may or may not be right, it seems closer in spirit to his work than to that of Rembrandt.

With regard to the paintings not by Rembrandt, some of them have striking affinities with each other. For example, in the 1650s a close follower of Rembrandt made the very beautiful painting of a Portrait of an Old Man in a Cape in the Fogg, which has the solemnity of a Rembrandt but is just a bit more sentimental, with lighting just a bit less natural and less fluctuating. Could this be the same artist who created the Old Man Praying in the Cleveland Museum of Art, and perhaps even the so-called Portrait of Titus in the Wadsworth Atheneum? All three paintings are clearly modeled on Rembrandt’s style of the 1650s; all three have a similar slightly sentimental feeling, and all three handle form and light in a similar fashion, showing a single carefully posed figure, lit almost too artistically, as if by carefully directed theatre or photographer’s lights. Whether or not they are all by the same hand, they seem to exhibit stylistically similar features and to show close knowledge of Rembrandt’s work of the 1650s, and for this reason it seems useful to group them together.

Needless to say, the exceptional level of confusion about what Rembrandt painted—and about the degree to which he touched up the work of his pupils, and created “half-Rembrandts,” or to which they made paintings of their own in his manner that are “not-Rembrandts”—makes writing about this artist a risky affair. Some of the most famous writings about him from the past, whether by Jakob Rosenberg or Eugène Fromentin, analyze paintings that we no longer consider to be by Rembrandt himself. Can we value their insights nonetheless, or should we view these authors as misguided sentimentalists? Can we avoid the same trap, or is our vision still clouded by a false view of who Rembrandt was and what he painted?

In some ways this very state of ambiguity seems very well suited to the “virtual realities” of our postmodern age, in which we’ve become increasingly sensitive to the complexities and confusions of identity—and of assumed roles and identities. Indeed, it touches on some of the reasons why both Rembrandt’s art and persona seem alive to us today. Postmodern life and identity are multi-layered and complicated. Rembrandt’s art, and the shadow he cast on those around him, have a similarly confusing, hard-to-define aspect.

Surely Rembrandt’s art—and the current show itself—poses questions about the shadowy qualities of truth and identity at many levels. What was Rembrandt’s identity, and can we recognize it? What was it about Rembrandt’s approach—as expressed not only in his own creations but in those of the pupils who fell under his influence—that seems to cut through surface appearances and penetrate to something deeper, that seems to probe into the essence of human nature?

By Henry Adams

Czech List Mon, 03 Oct 2011 13:41:47 +0000 Continue reading ]]> By Jonathan Kandell

In Prague, city of churches, castles and Cubism, the search for antiques is hardly Kafkaesque.

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Nobody can deny the surpassing beauty of Prague. Even Parisians concede that the city has an architectural inventory and mesmerizing street ambience to rival their own. But Prague as an undiscovered Mecca for antiques collectors? Well, that I thought was a harder sell, having often visited the Czech capital and scoffed at the kitschy mementos on display in shops lining the tourist thoroughfares.

So it was with some skepticism that I agreed to a full-day tour of antiques dealers under the guidance of Karen Feldman, author of Prague: Artel Style, a paperback largely devoted to ferreting out the city’s best vintage clothing, jewelry, glassware and household furnishings. “In New York, London or Paris, you go to antique shops that specialize—you want a Bauhaus chair, you know exactly where to find it,” says Feldman. “In Prague, that is rarely the case. Most shops are generic, which means you have look around. But you will be rewarded.”

Feldman’s credentials are impressive. She moved from San Francisco to Prague in 1994 to oversee an American-owned shampoo factory. Instead, she fell in love with traditional Czech glass and crystal linked to Artel, an early 20th-century artisan workshop, and began to produce her own fine glassware under the same label—thus her guidebook’s title.

We begin in Malá Strana, the upscale district on the western side of the Vltava River where Prague Castle looms high above the Baroque churches and townhouses. On a curving medieval alley a short walk from the statue-studded Charles Bridge, I follow Feldman into Antiques Ahasver, best known for its vintage linens and clothes, including early 20th-century folk costumes. The owner speaks English and conveys what she knows—and readily admits what she doesn’t know—about the provenance of objects on sale in this appealingly cluttered two-room shop. She traces her interest in antique clothes to her father, a professional photographer who used them as props for his still lives and portraits. She apprenticed for years with an antiquarian who specialized in fabrics, and then opened her own shop a decade ago.

Among the highlights at Antiques Ahasver on this particular visit are the following: A circa 1880 lady’s morning coat, of white linen embroidered and hemmed by hand, and worn only at home before dressing up for the day; a white silk wedding gown for a 17-year-old bride in 1903; a wide selection of embroidered linen tablecloths and napkins from the 1920s and 1930s; and, most intriguing of all, a circa 1850 bonnet woven from metallic fibers, most prominently brass, and with a magenta ribbon bun in the back. It was from Turnov, a wealthy garnet mining center during the 19th century located some 55 miles northeast of Prague near the Polish border.

Two tram stops further west leaves us at the foot of grassy, wooded Petrin Hill, the location of Starožitnosti pod Kinskou, a sprawling retail space devoted mostly to early 20th-century Czech paintings and prints of landscapes and portraits. “I come here if I want to buy something significant, but not outrageously priced,” says Feldman. “I feel confident they are not going to rip me off.” This is where she purchased “a stately portrait of a cow” that hangs above the fireplace in her country home, an hour’s drive south of Prague. Besides the framed artworks, the store offers fine furniture, most notably on this visit a pair of late 19th-century brocaded chairs and an 18th-century wooden trousseau chest inlaid with mother-of-pearl.

A 10-minute tram ride east back across the Vltava River brings us to Staré Mesto, the Old Town. We stroll through the expansive Old Town Square, which is anchored on its east side by the twin-towered 14th-century Týn Church. Most tourists gather on the square’s south side in front of the Old Town Hall to view its early 15th-century astronomical clock, which on the hour sets into revolving motion the statues of the 12 Apostles. But instead of lingering, we visit a trio of antiques establishments within easy walking distance of the square.

Art Deco Galerie, as its name implies, focuses relentlessly on the 1920s and 1930s. “It’s great to see the Art Deco period done so well,” says Feldman. “The owner has a good eye, and while she may be more expensive than others selling similar objects, she saves me the time of having to look for Art Deco all over town.” At first the shop resembles a fashion parade, with vintage clothes hanging on mannequins. But there is an impressive collection of lamps and glass objects, as well as whimsical, windup kitchen clocks in brightly colored metal and porcelain. An elderly woman drops by to sell the shop owner a mint-condition 1930s Lent Carnival silk gown with a fluffy lamb’s-wool crown that she had worn as a teenager.

The nearby retail shop of the Dorotheum, Prague’s leading auction house, has an excellent assortment of jewelry, glass and porcelain. These are small enough to be hand-carried back to the United States, an important consideration because the house won’t ship overseas. Among the eye-catching jewelry on display is a profusion of deep-red garnet brooches and bracelets from the 1850s to 1920s. “Some of them are actually cheaper than new ones made with lesser-quality stones,” says Feldman. “It’s the same with the glassware.” She points to six mouth-blown Moser glasses (named after one of the most renowned Czech designers) from the 1930s that sell for the price of a single newly made glass of the same label. There are also several unique mouth-blown, hand-cut and hand-polished flower vases from the 1930s in a grayish hue that is no longer used. And even more arresting is a late 19th-century Biedermeier-style beer mug in blue and gold.

Our last stop in the Staré Mesto is the Museum of Czech Cubism at the House of the Black Madonna, originally a 1912 department store and café. No people embraced Cubism as thoroughly as the Czechs. The Czech Cubist Movement rose around 1910 in Prague, when a group of young expatriate artists who had been influenced by Picasso and Braque in Paris returned home. They applied Cubist principles to paintings, sculpture, architecture, interior design and everyday household objects from cups and saucers to desks and chairs. Cubist design elements, still popular nowadays, are even evident in the oddly recessed easy chairs and angled table legs at The Augustine, a newly opened hotel where I stayed. “Cubism became identified with the burst of nationalism that created a rich, independent Czechoslovakia when the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed after World War I,” explains Feldman.

The top floor of the four-story museum is devoted to drawings and the second floor to sculpture. In the third-floor furniture display, among the most memorable pieces are a zebra-striped chair whose seat flares out in front and narrows towards the back and a boudoir dressing table of pear wood with three angled mirrors that create the illusion of a Cubist sculpture. On the ground floor, the museum shop sells reproductions of a number of pieces from the collection, as well as a few originals such as a re-upholstered easy chair resembling the zebra-striped one on the third floor. Adjoining the shop, there is a café restored to its 1912 Cubist design, with metal-framed windows that jut out like cut crystal and huge bent-metal chandeliers.

We end the day on the eastern outskirts of Prague, far from the stately palaces, striking churches and labyrinthine streets that lent surreal mystery to the novels of Franz Kafka. In the Karlín neighborhood, guys fix motorbikes on the sidewalks and the faded pictures in a beauty-parlor window show twists and dips from forgotten styles. Our car service deposits us at Nový Antik Bazar, a mid-1800s warehouse the size of a football field with a vast inventory of 19th- and 20th-century furniture, chandeliers, lamps and other decorative objects. “If I wanted to start looking someplace for Czech antique furniture, it would be here,” says Feldman. “This is a treasure trove.”

Under the high wooden rafters and hanging antlers and boar heads, there are rows upon rows of sofas, easy chairs, rocking chairs, dining sets, lamps, radios and turntables. Feldman admires a dining room breakfront by the famous Czech Art Deco designer Jindrich Halabala (1903–78). I am riveted by a lacquered, curving desk from the 1920s that radiates authority. A person entering an office and facing somebody behind this desk would surely cower.

Further south, in the Žižkov neighborhood, our car service takes us to Galerie 22, another depot-sized outlet for household antiques—though with objects that are in better condition. “This looks like the place where Nový Antik Bazar’s furniture got restored and put up for sale,” jokes Feldman. And indeed, Galerie 22 is famous for its high-quality restoration work, done in a series of backrooms that are open to visitors. Among the rarer samples on display in the showrooms are a 1930s lacquered walnut two-level lamp stand with a curving tubular chrome lamp neck ending in a glass globe, and with side cabinets also of lacquered walnut; a 1920s card table with a lacquer finish and chairs with spindly, bent legs; and a 1930s plant stand, made of polished, painted and lacquered wood, holding up nine flower pots on its three columns.

Night has fallen, and a cold, wet mist blankets the city by the time I return to my hotel. In the basement bar, where in medieval times Augustinian monks brewed beer, I nurse a shot of the classic, herbal Czech digestif Becherovka and thumb through the introduction to Feldman’s guidebook. One of the reasons for writing the volume, she explains, was the heartbreak brought on by hearing foreign visitors lament, “There’s nothing to buy in Prague.” That’s one complaint this longtime visitor won’t be making anymore.

Holy Money Thu, 01 Sep 2011 04:02:27 +0000 Continue reading ]]> By John Dorfman

In early Renaissance Florence, art and finance fed off each other uncomfortably, much like today.

In northern Italy in the 14th century, bankers had a problem. With the increasing sophistication of currency systems and the growth of international trade, huge new opportunities were afoot to make money by manipulating money. However, there was a catch: Lending money at interest was against the Catholic religion, whose theologians labeled it “usury,” a sin deserving damnation. Canny financiers with one eye on their coffers and the other on what would happen after they were in their coffins came up with some interesting ways around this impasse.

One was to exploit slight differences in foreign countries’ exchange rates to generate returns on investment of up to 29 percent. With this practice—a version of what today would be called arbitrage—they could claim that technically no interest had been charged and thus be off the hook with the Church hierarchy. Another, very different strategy was to launder the lucre by converting it into art. That would have two outcomes. By commissioning altarpieces and other public religious art, bankers like Cosimo de’ Medici could assuage their guilt and at the same time impress their fellow citizens with their piety. Not only that, but by using financial clout to influence the iconography of these works, they could subtly send a message to the populace that maybe money wasn’t so bad after all, spiritually speaking. By making sure that the Virgin was portrayed in sumptuous garments even if she happened to be in a manger, by having themselves painted into holy scenes hobnobbing with saints and angels, and even by putting religious imagery on coins, the wealthy were engaging in highly effective propaganda for their profession.

The fruitful if often uncomfortable relationship between art and money in early Renaissance Florence is the subject of “Money and Beauty: Bankers, Botticelli and the Bonfire of the Vanities,” a fascinating exhibition opening this month in that city’s Palazzo Strozzi museum, co-curated by author Tim Parks and art historian Ludovica Sebregondi. Paintings by artists from Botticelli to Ghirlandaio to Fra Angelico (plus a sampling of pictures by non-Florentines such as Quentin Matsys and Hans Memling) are displayed alongside objects like coins, gold-weighing devices and a bale of raw wool, as well as contemporary financial documents, to tell a complex story from a little-read chapter of cultural history.

The idea for the show dates back to a book Parks published in 2005 called Medici Money. “Originally I was asked to write this book by W.W. Norton, who were doing a series on money issues,” recalls Parks, an English-born novelist, travel writer and translator (notably of the wonderful and uncategorizable books of Roberto Calasso) who has been living in Italy for the past 30 years. “‘No way,’ I said, ‘too complex.’” But Parks was persuaded, and the book did well. Several years later, the Palazzo Strozzi got in touch with him and asked if he would be interested in collaborating on an exhibition that would essentially illustrate and extend the points he made about money and art in his book. Since Parks is not an art historian, Sebregondi came on board to lend scholarly expertise and use her curatorial connections to negotiate the impressive roster of loans for the show. The exhibition is structured as a “duet,” and the two curators wrote double captions for all the works.

Parks is quick to draw attention to his lack of professional standing to curate such an exhibition, but notes that outsider status has its advantages. “My position seems to be more out on a limb,” he says. “There’s an art historian, and then this other person—me—coming at it from the point of view of the clash of ideas.” That clash, he explains, was bound to occur because of “the rubbing of shoulders between money and sanctity. Florentine art is creating a space of reconciliation or a space of denial in the relationship between money and art. If you read a lot of official art history, you wouldn’t get the impression that there was anything suspect about all this.” Likewise, as an outsider with respect to the financial world, Parks was able to take a fresh look at the 14th-century money system when writing his original book. He says, “I was noticing how badly explained it was in the conventional history books.”

Of course, part of the reason it was badly explained is that—then as now—high finance was so complex as to be opaque, at times, even to those who practiced it. And the theology of the thing was no easier. “There was a lot of perplexity on the part of guys in the business as to what was really wrong with money-lending,” says Parks, who observes that even Dante wasn’t entirely clear on the point. In the Inferno, when he sees the moneylenders burning in hell, “Dante asks Virgil what was the big deal with usury.” Parks diagnoses the problem in social terms. First off, by creating a means of storing wealth, the invention of currency also ensured that equivalencies would be established between very different goods and services. “A barrel of wine costs twenty soldi, a prayer for a deceased loved one ten, a prostitute fifteen,” Parks writes in a catalogue essay. “This creates uneasiness. Is a prayer worth less than a prostitute?” And then there was the issue of social mobility enabled by financial liquidity. “Money is just so mobile,” says Parks. “Cosimo de’ Medici had a way of bringing up his lackeys and making them more important socially.” To a world that believed that social position was divinely fixed, the power of money was very threatening. The Churchmen or the bankers—who were the real masters of the universe?

Out of this agitation and munificence, some amazing works of art emerged. This exhibition is huge, and some of the pieces, beautiful and impressive though they are, are connected to the theme somewhat tangentially, but nonetheless a clear narrative emerges. Early in the show, the great gold-encrusted Palla della Zeccha altarpiece is on view, with the Virgin depicted wearing a crown. Parks calls this “a common image that the bankers liked, because it was a fusion of righteousness and riches.” The Strozzi show is rich in portrayals of businessmen, such as Tommaso di Piero Trombetto’s 1490 Portrait of Francesco di Marco Datini, the famous “Merchant of Prato” immortalized in Iris Origo’s great book of that title published in 1957. Trombetto’s approach is sympathetic, but most images of business people and especially moneylenders were caricaturish at best until the late 15th century. Maninus van Reymerswaele’s The Money-Changer and His Wife, circa 1540, is “one of the first images where you feel the people aren’t being presented as grotesque,” says Parks.

The last section of the installation is concerned with the Savonarola incident, the great social revolution that swept Florence in the 1490s, a time of great political and financial crisis that included the collapse of the Medici bank. Girolamo Savonarola, a Dominican friar and fire-and-brimstone specialist, rallied the masses to purge Florence of sin by lighting a literal “bonfire of the vanities” on which luxury goods would be burned—very much including artworks. Many artists, including Botticelli, became followers of Savonarola, and some of them (not including Botticelli) cast their own works onto the flames. For Savonarola, the sensuous beauty of Florentine religious painting was no way out of the money problem. One of the most interesting parts of the Strozzi show is how it chronicles the stylistic changes Botticelli went through as he sought to make his art more austere and fit more closely into Savonarola’s anti-aesthetic.

While the terms of the debate have changed, art and money still dance together intimately and awkwardly. Viewers of this exhibition will be reminded that while religion has nothing to do with it anymore, we continue to be uncomfortable with what we now prefer to call “the commodification of art.” Instead of bonfires, we have art-market crashes and critical re-evaluations.