You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘Art History’ category.

The Ghent Altarpiece (Open) by Hubert van Eyck and Jan van Eyck
Ghent Altarpiece (Photo: © Archivo Iconografico, SA/Corbis)

Just about everything bad that could happen to a painting has happened to Hubert and Jan van Eyck’s Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (also known as the Ghent Altarpiece). It’s almost been destroyed in a fire, was nearly burned by rioting Calvinists, it’s been forged, pillaged, dismembered, censored, stolen by Napoleon, hunted in the first world war, sold by a renegade cleric, then stolen repeatedly during the second world war, before being rescued by The Monuments Men, miners and a team of commando double-agents. The fact that it was the artwork the Nazis were most desperate to steal – Göring wanted it for his private collection, Hitler as the centrepiece of his citywide super-museum – has only increased its renown.

It’s easy to argue that the artwork is the most influential painting ever made: it was the world’s first major oil painting, and is laced with Catholic mysticism. It’s almost an A to Z of Christianity – from the annunciation to the symbolic sacrifice of Christ, with the “mystic lamb” on an altar in a heavenly field, bleeding into the holy grail.


Noah Charney


The “Beethoven Frieze” (1902), by Gustav Klimt, on view in Venice last year while on loan for an exhibition devoted to the artist.

Over the last decade, Austria has made significant progress in restoring art and property looted by the Nazis during World War II. Now the government’s commitment to that goal is facing a new test, with the filing of a claim on Tuesday for the return of one of the nation’s most celebrated artworks: the “Beethoven Frieze,” by Gustav Klimt.

This monumental 1902 work, which stands seven feet high, spans more than 112 feet and weighs four tons, is so well known that an image from the frieze was selected as the motif for a commemorative Austrian 100-euro coin. The work, part of a homage to the composer’s Ninth Symphony, is housed in the gold-domed 1902 Secession building in Vienna, where a climate-controlled room has been specially constructed for it.

The current dispute over the “Beethoven Frieze” does not hinge on wartime plundering, but rather on how stolen art was handled after the war ended, a common theme of restitution cases arising from Nazi looting.

The gold-painted frieze was owned by the Lederer family, wealthy Austrian Jews who were important patrons of Klimt’s. When the Nazis invaded Austria in 1938, the family escaped to Switzerland, but its extensive art collection was seized and its once formidable industrial empire bankrupted. Many of the family’s valuable works, including 18 Klimts, were destroyed in the final days of the war.


Patricia Cohen
New YOrk Times

A detail from Saying Farewell at Xunyang, by Qiu Ying
A detail from Saying Farewell at Xunyang, by Qiu Ying, c1500-50 Photograph: John Lamberton/Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

On 5 August 1473, a young artist drew the first ever landscape. The date is known precisely because Leonardo da Vinci wrote it on the sheet of paper, as if aware of the revolutionary nature of what he was doing. To look at mountains and trees just for themselves was unprecedented.

Or was it? The invention of landscape painting is one of the great moments of European art. Painting nature is a way to get inside yourself. To this day, people enjoy doing watercolours in the outdoors as a form of meditation. Leonardo’s discovery of the mystery of nature – which you see in all his paintings, with their dreamy rocks and pools – is the invention of a new kind of inner life.


Jonathan Jones

Sunset at Montmajour
Van Gogh Museum director Axel Rüger with Sunset at Montmajour after unveiling the painting in Amsterdam. Photograph: Peter Dejong/AP

A stunning landscape that has spent much of its life unloved in a Norwegian attic has been revealed as a newly discovered masterpiece by Vincent Van Gogh.

Academics are nothing short of astonished, not least because it comes from the artist’s greatest period when he lived in Arles, southern France, and created works such as The Yellow House and The Sunflowers.

Writing in the Burlington Magazine, the three Dutch experts from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam responsible for the discovery call the work “absolutely sensational”.

Sunset at Montmajour was unveiled at a ceremony in the Dutch city. Axel Rüger, director of the museum, called it a “once in a lifetime experience”.

The picture was painted in 1888 and shows the wild and beautiful countryside near Arles with a ruined abbey on the hill of Montmajour.


Mark Brown
The Guardian

(Photo: Van Gogh Museum)

“The Bedroom,” Vincent van Gogh’s 1888 painting, with its honey-yellow bed pressed into the corner of a cozy sky-blue room, is instantly recognizable to art lovers, with his signature contrasting hues. But does our experience of this painting change upon learning that van Gogh had originally depicted those walls in violet, not blue, or that he was less a painter wrestling with his demons and more of a deliberate, goal-oriented artist?

These questions are raised by a new analysis, eight years in the making, of hundreds of van Gogh’s canvases as well as his palette, pigments, letters and notebooks by scientists at Shell, the oil company, in collaboration with the Dutch Cultural Heritage Agency and curators at the newly renovated Van Gogh Museum here, which owns the world’s largest collection of works by that Dutch Post Impressionist.

The research did not lead to “earth-shattering new insights” that rewrite van Gogh’s life story, said the director of the Van Gogh Museum, Axel Rüger, but it could shift the understanding of van Gogh’s temperament and personality. The results of that study will be revealed in an exhibition, “Van Gogh at Work,” which opens on Wednesday and features about 200 paintings and drawings, 150 of them by van Gogh and others by contemporaries, including Paul Gauguin and Émile Bernard.

“You discover more clearly that van Gogh was a very methodical artist, which runs counter to the general myth that he was a manic, possibly slightly deranged man who just spontaneously threw paint at the canvas,” Mr. Rüger said. “He was actually someone who knew very well about the properties of the materials he used, how to use them, and also he created very deliberate compositions. In that sense it’s a major insight in that it gives us a better notion of van Gogh the artist. He was very goal-oriented.”


NIna Siegal
New York Times

Fukuda Heihachiro’s “Ripples,” from 1932, is in the Rome exhibition (Photo: Osaka City Museum of Modern Art)

After more than 200 years of self-imposed isolation Japan re-established diplomatic and trading relations with the outside world in 1854, during the last years of the shoguns. With the restoration of the rule of the Meiji emperor in 1868, Japan was opened up to an unstoppable flood of influence from the West.

Even during the period of isolation some artists were exposed to Chinese and Western art through the privileged port of Nagasaki. Chinese artists visited the city, which also acted as a conduit for Western books and prints, introducing techniques such as scientific perspective and chiaroscuro shading.

But the vast scale of Western inroads and the collapse of traditional patronage that followed the Meiji restoration threw Japanese art into a state of crisis. In the face of this, artists found themselves dividing into two broad schools: nihonga, which continued to use time-honored Japanese materials and techniques, and yoga, which adopted Western-style oil painting.

Nihonga artists are among the least known outside their home country of all the principal historic schools of Japanese painting, and are little represented in international collections. Two important exhibitions of nihonga paintings were held in Rome, in 1911 and 1930. The second event, showing 177 pieces by 79 artists, attracted 166,500 visitors.

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of founding of the Japanese Cultural Institute in Rome and the 400th anniversary of the departure of the first official Japanese embassy for the Eternal City, the National Museum of Modern Art in Kyoto has organized a dazzling and revelatory exhibition of 170 nihonga paintings and decorative art pieces from their own and more than 50 other collections around Japan.


Roderick Conway Morris
New York Times

In Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne, marble becomes a medium for a metamorphosis. (Photo: Arnold de Luca/Corbis)

In the Borghese Gallery, in Rome, when you first see Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s Apollo catch up with Daphne, you would swear that her flesh is turning into a tree, although both she and the tree are made of marble. An interlocking mosaic of carbonate crystals has become the medium for a metamorphosis, a tour de force of drama, like almost everything Bernini did. As a sculptor and setter of scenes, he made Rome the pace-setting city of Europe in the 17th century, the age of the Baroque. Materializing out of the marble, his popes, kings, horses, and women set the style for an era.

Then neoclassicism took over, and his renown was eclipsed for more than 200 years. The Fountain of the Four Rivers, with the most marvelous of all his horses, was still there in the Piazza Navona to delight all foreign visitors, but somehow their delight did not build him a reputation for genius. While he was alive and working, even his enemies thought he was a great man. During the next two centuries, almost nobody did. His luster was still on its way back when I was young in the late 1950s and saw his statuary photographed in black-and-white for the Phaidon album that bore his name. Years before I got to Italy and saw the actual objects, the pictures of them bowled me over.

It was the effect he wanted. Bowling people over was his aim in life, along with making money with which to raise the status of his large family to a princely level. The two goals were closely connected. Almost to the end of his life, a string of popes wanted his theatrical best from him, to swell the crowds of marveling visitors to Rome. Bernini could turn churches into histrionic events. Most of the drama in Saint Peter’s comes from various achievements by Bernini, headed by the Baldacchino, the enormous gilt-bronze edifice—the tent for the throne of Saint Peter—at the center of the church. Outside, those are his colonnades framing the piazza where people gather 100,000 at a time to hear the pope speak. Bernini had an organization of assistants to handle all the work, and they had to be paid. But still, by today’s standards, millions of dollars were left over for Bernini to put under his mattress.

Bernini’s new biographer, Franco Mormando, is good on the scholarship and the account books but less so on the dramatic detail… In a standard scholarly way, Mormando blames the rise of neoclassicism. But the same thing didn’t do much to diminish Michelangelo, whose fame has never faltered. A better explanation might be that Bernini was simply too good. His chisel could make marble flow like water, and much as we love the results, we tend to think that the sculptor’s talent had no merit, because it was too facile. When Donatello and Michelangelo sculpted David, they transmuted his rock-throwing dynamism to monumental potential. Bernini’s David actually swings the sling, his face all screwed up in concentration like yours or mine would be, with every little muscle picked out and straining. One tends to think there is a dimension missing, when in fact there is an extra dimension present: natural humanity.


Clive James

Thomas Rowlandson
Out of step … The louche world of Thomas Rowlandson’s Exhibition Stare-Case gave way in short space to the strait-laced sensibilities of the Victorian age. Photograph: British Museum.

Everyone was enjoying sex all the time in the 18th century, to judge by its art. The century of the American and French revolutions was also a time of open-minded, unstuffy attitudes to love and desire. News that a 1766 edition of a popular sex manual called Aristotle’s Masterpiece is to be auctioned next week in Edinburgh is incitement enough for us to explore some Enlightenment erotica.

The most important thing about Aristotle’s Masterpiece, first published in the 1680s, was its advice that women needed to experience sexual pleasure as part of the reproductive process. This argument for equality in bed chimes with images of the boudoir as a female domain in Rococo art. William Hogarth’s satirical depiction of an aristocratic bedroom from his series of paintings Marriage à la Mode shows a countess at her toilette surrounded by flunkeys (including a eunuch singing opera) while her lover suggests they meet later at a masked ball. Her bed is a pink curtained place of pleasure.

What Hogarth laughs at, French Rococo artists indulge. Antoine Watteau’s intimate painting of a woman naked in her bedroom is based on a sketch of one of his friends. But the most daring nude in 18th-century art is surely François Boucher’s portrait of Marie-Louise O’Murphy lying on her stomach on a divan. Mademoiselle O’Murphy, daughter of an Irish emigre and mistress of Louis XV, shows the artist her buttocks in a self-consciously sexy pose.


Jonathan Jones
The Guardian

“Black Lava Bridge, Hana Coast No. 1,” 1939, by Georgia O’Keeffe (Photo: Honolulu Museum of Art)

Early in 1939, Georgia O’Keeffe, the artist most famous for depicting the arid Southwest, suddenly decided to paint America’s diametrically opposite landscape — the lush tropical valleys of Hawaii. In an era when advertisers often hired fine artists to add a touch of class to their campaigns, the “least commercial artist in the U.S.” (as Time Magazine described her) was persuaded by the Dole pineapple company to visit the remote Pacific archipelago and produce two canvases. The offer came at a critical time in O’Keeffe’s life. She was 51, her career seemed to be stalling (critics were calling her focus on New Mexico limited, and branding her desert images “a kind of mass production”), and her marriage to Alfred Stieglitz was under serious strain.

Despite initial reservations about the project, her many letters back home show that her experience of the then little-known Territory of Hawaii was a revelation. O’Keeffe ended up spending nine weeks on different islands, of which by far the most productive and vivid period was on Maui, where she was given complete freedom to explore and paint. Back on Oahu, where she had first arrived, she had been incensed that Dole officials refused to let her stay on a working pineapple plantation because it was unseemly for a woman. When they delivered to her hotel a pineapple already peeled and sliced, she tossed it out in disgust. But on Maui she was able to seek out an unfiltered view of nature, and went directly to the most remote, wild and verdant corner of the island: the port of Hana.

She reported back to Stieglitz about Hana’s dark rain forests, exuberant flora, black sand beaches and lava washed into “sharp and fantastic shapes.” Staying on the Kaeleku sugar plantation, the notoriously prickly artist was given Patricia Jennings, the 12-year-old daughter of the plantation manager, as her private guide, and the two became unlikely friends; for 10 days the pair visited sea caves, ruins and beaches, and later, with Patricia’s father, made excursions to the dramatic Iao Valley and Haleakala Crater.


Tony Perrottet
New York Times

The crowd during the Pacific Standard Time: Art in LA 1945-1980 opening. (Ryan Miller / WireImage / September 21, 2012)

This time last year, the Southern California art world was poised to open an unprecedented set of exhibitions: Pacific Standard Time, the $10-million Getty-funded initiative consisting of some 65 museum shows exploring the region’s art post-World War II.

The project’s organizers identified a handful of goals: encouraging scholarship about Southern California art history, preserving related archives, raising L.A’s profile as a cultural capital, stimulating cultural tourism and boosting museum attendance.

So what did it actually achieve?

On most counts, the project has been considered a fruitful and even enviable model for a regionwide arts collaboration. The exhibitions at museums from San Diego to Santa Barbara, each exploring a different facet of Southern California art history from 1945 to 1980, did draw international art-world attention and media coverage, from a special issue of Art in America magazine to reviews in German newspapers.

Several critics and curators have said that because of PST, textbook accounts of 20th century art history, which tend to be rich with innovations by New York artists but thin on their L.A. contemporaries, will need to be rewritten.

As Helen Molesworth, the chief curator of Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art, put it, “The shows made such a strong case for some [California] artists that you just can’t leave them out anymore.”


Jori Finkel
Los Angeles Times