Friday, December 23, 2011

Restitution Fears, or Lost Opportunity? "Transition to Christianity" at the Onassis Cultural Center and the Absent "David Plates"

Head of Aphrodite, with eyes gouged out and a cross carved into her forehead
Is it fear of a claim for restitution, or just a lost opportunity?

All nine parts of a seminal, 7th-century work -- a masterpiece of Byzantine art -- are now on view in New York, but for reasons unknown they are being displayed at two separate institutions.

The David Plates, a set of nine, various-sized silver plates – magisterially made with a sophisticated understanding of classical sculpture and an intricate attention to detail – cry out to be shown together, as they were some 1,400 years ago.

Detail, David and Goliath plate, at the Met
They depict scenes from the life of the biblical David, and were probably made for the Byzantine emperor Heraclius.  They are commonly included in surveys of what used to be called the “Dark Ages.”

Six of the plates, including the largest (19.5 inches across) and most magnificent, are displayed in a nondescript corridor of the Metropolitan Museum. The other three are now on temporary loan from the Cyprus Museum, and can be seen through May 14 at the Onassis Cultural Center, where they are the culmination of its “Transition to Christianity” exhibit.

Marriage of David, at the Onassis Center
Scholars think the plates were originally displayed in the shape of a symbol that refers to Christ, with the medium and small plates placed around the large one. But for some as-yet-undisclosed reason, this configuration will not be recreated here.

Goodness knows when, if ever, all nine plates be in the same city again.

The plates were discovered in 1902 by laborers looking for building stone in the ruins of the Byzantine town of Lambousa, Cyprus.  The Cypriot authorities confiscated three of them but, the story goes, the others were smuggled out of the country, sold to a Paris dealer, and bought by J.P. Morgan.  Morgan’s heirs donated them to the Met in 1917.

Why aren’t all the pieces of what the Met describes as “exceptionally important” and "a masterwork of Byzantine art" being shown together?  The Met loaned several other items to the Onassis Center show, but the plates didn’t make the 30-block trip south.  The Onassis exhibit’s curator did not respond to inquiries, and no one at the Met was available for comment.

Six David Plates on view in a corridor at the Met
The word from an art history veteran is that Cyprus would like the Met’s plates returned to Cyprus, and it even made some fuss about it in the 1970s.

Derek Fincham, an expert in cultural heritage law, said that Cyprus “probably would not have success on a legal claim” – it would fail on statute of limitations grounds alone, he said -- but it might have an ethical claim to the plates “as an important piece of Cypriot heritage” that it could pursue as a public relations matter.

The Met might not want to loan the plates to the Onassis Center, Fincham suggested, because “the Met wouldn’t want people to make the connection.”

(How and when the plates got to Cyprus is unknown -- because of their high quality, it is thought that they were made in Constantinople -- and if Cyprus were to claim that the Met plates are part of its heritage, further evidence might be needed.)

Personification of April
The David Plates, in any event, could well be Exhibit A in any argument that “dark ages” is a misnomer for describing the 3rd through 7th centuries, and this is one of the themes of “Transition to Christianity.”  It presents this period, under the rubic “late antiquity,” as a time of innovation and change from paganism to Christianity.  The process took centuries, during which the two both coexisted and were in tension, and were sometimes at war.

The crucial figure, of course, was Constantine -- in 313 he established tolerance for Christianity with the Edict of Milan, and in 324-330 he moved the capital from Rome to Constantinople.  Much activity in the visual arts followed the emperors to the East, and in this exhibition it is in the art from the East, mainly Greece, that we follow the cultural changes.

A direct effect of the emperors’ adoption of Christianity -- only one emperor after Constantine was not Christian – is shown in a display of gold coinage.  An image of the emperor consistently appears on the front, but the mythological or historical scenes on the back gradually give way to a cross or an angel.

Mummy portrait, 1st century
Conflict between ideologies is made vivid with the Christianizing of classical sculpture:  a first century head of Aphrodite has her eyes gouged out and a cross carved on her forehead, for example.  Still, the beauty of this sculpture (the photo at the top doesn't do it justice) and a defaced portrait of a Roman boy is breathtaking.

The exhibition is particularly effective in demonstrating that even after Christianity became dominant, its imagery was deeply rooted in Greek and Roman art.  Whether Christian or pagan, the motifs are often the same.  Philosophers of classical art are models for Christian apostles. A man carrying a lamb, a standard motif in pagan bucolic scenes, is the basis of the Good Shepherd trope of Christianity.  The forms of Egyptian mummy portraiture produced under Roman rule, facing front with overlarge eyes, reappear as an icon of Christ’s face.

Icon fragment
The three mummy portraits and the icon are highlights of the show – the former for their beauty and the latter for its rarity.  Most icons on panel, like this one, were destroyed in the 8th-century iconoclastic movement against visual art.

“Transition to Christianity” is an engaging exhibit.  It could have been historic had the David Plates been reunited.

“Transition to Christianity: Art of Late Antiquity, 3rd-7th Century A.D.,” Onassis Cultural Center, 645 Fifth Ave. at 51st St., through May 14.

Addendum:  Four days after my initial inquiry to the Met, asking why all nine David weren't being shown together, its vice president of communications, Elyse Topalian, chose to respond by email.

It stated:  "The six David Plates in the Met's collection have long been scheduled to be highlights of the upcoming exhibition 'Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition (7th-9th Century),' which will be on view at the Metropolitan Museum from March 14 through July 8, 2012.  Because the exhibitions will overlap for two months, the works of art can't be on view together in a single location.  But these exhibitions do provide a terrific opportunity to see the nine plates, all during one period of time, in New York City."  (Emphasis is mine.)

This seemed to beg the question:  Why couldn't there be a short-term loan between institutions during the two-and-a-half months before the Met show opens?  That's what happened recently at the Bode Museum, which showed Leonardo's "Lady with an Ermine" (as part of the Renaissance portrait show now at the Met) for some weeks before sending it to London to hang in the National Gallery's Leonardo exhibition.

After the holidays, I asked the Onassis Cultural Center's director, Amalia Cosmetatou, if it had asked the Met to lend the plates to its "Transition to Christianity" exhibition.  While not answering the question directly, she said the Met's David Plates were on permanent display there, and that "because of the two exhibits, perhaps it wouldn't have been possible anyway."

(They are on permanent display, except when the Met loans them out.)

But why not a short-term loan so we could see them as they were intended to be viewed?

Cosmetatou paused and then said, "That would have been a good idea."

Had the institutions tried to work something out so all the plates could be seen together?

"I don't know," she said, but promised to get back to me.

Perhaps there's no one to admonish here unless a request by one or the other institution was made and turned down.  Could neither one have thought of it?

Photo of six David Plates at the Met, © 2011 Laura Gilbert

Other Photos: Head of Aphrodite and Personification of April, © Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Tourism; Marriage of David, © Cyprus Museum; icon fragment, © Benaki Museum; detail of David and Goliath from Metropolitan Museum website; mummy portrait from Walters Art Museum website.

Text © 2011 Laura Gilbert.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

"The Renaissance Portrait from Donatello to Bellini" at the Metropolitan Museum

Desiderio da Settignano portrait bust
Described by the Met as “a landmark exhibition,” this comprehensive exploration of 15th-century Italian portraiture -- 160 artworks from some 60 institutions and private collections -- sounded like a sure winner.  And it is.  It's magnificent, often in unexpected ways.  It opens tomorrow.

Filippo Strozzi by Benedetto da Maiano
The Met and Berlin’s Bode Museum, the co-organizers, have used their combined heft to obtain substantial loans, from Donatello’s reliquary of St. Rossore, which, putting contemporary features on a long-dead saint, laid the groundwork for the Renaissance portrait bust, to one of the most famous 15th-century portraits, Domenico Ghirlandaio’s portrait of an old man and a boy.

Attr. to Uccello
A rarity for the museum-goer these days, there’s a lot to take in.  It’s hard to believe anything could be more splendid than the array in the first gallery of three paintings of men in profile -- one by the revolutionary Massaccio (the only portrait solidly attributed to him), one attributed to Paolo Uccello, and one attributed to Domenico Veneziano -- until you enter the second gallery, with its lively marble portrait of a young woman by Desiderio da Settignano, and then walk on to encounter Verrocchio’s terracotta of the haughty Florentine bigwig Giuliano de’ Medici, a fierce, screaming face on his armor.

The curators have organized the show by both geography and subject – Florentine women and men shown separately, the powerful Medici family, court portraits, Venice.

The organization is brilliant. For painting it reveals -- in the century when Italy was discovering the autonomous portrait and exploring what creates identity – how limited and persistent portrait types were, and how difficult it was for artist or patron to conceive a change, let alone a transformation.

Mantegna, Cardinal Ludovico Trevisan
We see idealized portraits commemorating marriage, where all women are young and beautiful, and others commemorating the dead; and aggrandizing portraits of the already powerful -- even a cardinal is depicted as a Roman emperor, in a great painting by Andrea Mantegna.  With few exceptions, it’s image projection at the expense of personality.

A new twist that worked might be seized upon. In mid-century, for example, Andrea Castagno hit upon what became a new formula – a man with a defiant expression who looks at the viewer, his face in three-quarters, dressed in red, and grasping his cloak. All around the Castagno are other paintings that in some way mimic it – the defiant expression, the three-quarter view, a red garment, a grasping hand.

Mino da Fiesole, bust of Niccolo di Strozzi, with Castagno painting
Sculpture, too, has its types and image projection – men with ennobled shoulders, for one – but displaying sculpture and painting together reveals the latter as almost invariably more animated (hard stone is no obstacle) and artistically leading the way. The contrast between the sculpture that seems to breathe and the paintings that seem stylized is vivid nearly everywhere you look.

Antonello da Messina
Judging from this show, it was mainly in Venice, which came to portraiture late, where personality was explored in painting.  A beautiful example is the portrait of a young man by Antonello da Messina, a tiny 8-by-6 inches that makes a huge impression.

Some other highpoints in this exhibition filled with them:  the jowly marble sculpture of  Niccolo di Strozzi by Mino da Fiesole; the excellent terracotta portrait of Filippo Strozzi, wonderfully introspective, placed next to the more formal marble bust of him, both by Benedetto da Maiano; and a cast of the death mask of Lorenzo de’ Medici.

And for those interested in portrait medals, there are a mess of them by court artist Pisanello, a famous artist in his time who should perhaps be on more people's lips today.

Donatello reliquary bust

Cast of death mask of Lorenzo de' Medici
Verrocchio, armor detail

"The Renaissance Portrait," Metropolitan Museum, 5th Ave. and 82nd St., through March 18, 2012

Benedetto da Maiano and Antonello photos from Bode Museum website.  Other photos and text Copyright 2011 Laura Gilbert.

Monday, December 19, 2011

In Case that Triggered Russia's Art Embargo, Chabad Tells Court It Is "In Direct Discussions" with Russia

In the closely watched case that triggered Russia's embargo on lending art to U.S. museums, Chabad v. Russian Federation, Chabad has informed the federal court in Washington, D.C. that it is "in direct discussions" with the Russian government about the archive and library of religious books and manuscripts that gave rise to their dispute. 

The disclosure was made late Friday in a request that the court temporarily stay until March 1, 2012 all proceedings and not rule on Chabad's pending motion for sanctions.  Chabad had moved for sanctions in April because Russia had not complied with the court's default judgment ordering Russia to turn over the archive and the library to Chabad.  (A discussion of the case and the embargo, which I reported and wrote and then sold to a New York publication, can be found here.)

Russia instituted its art embargo -- which has affected U.S. museums nationwide -- in August 2010, saying that it feared Chabad would seize its art to enforce the judgment.  In its Friday filing Chabad states that it "will not seek to enforce the judgment against Defendants by requesting attachment of any Russian property in the United States or otherwise on or before March 1, 2012."

Two months ago, Chabad had requested a 60-day stay from the court "to facilitate Chabad's attempts to commence negotiation with the Russian Government," so with direct talks underway there has apparently been some movement.

Chabad has aggressively litigated in the U.S. courts for seven years.  What precipitated its drastic change in strategy?  And Russia had walked away from the litigation, claiming no U.S. court has jurisdiction over it.  Why is it willing to talk with Chabad now?

Attempts to speak with Chabad's lawyers and the Russian Embassy have so far been unsuccessful.

Text Copyright 2011 Laura Gilbert

Friday, December 16, 2011

Unicorns and Winged Serpents in the Cervera Hebrew Bible: On View at the Met for Only Three More Days

Cervera Hebrew Bible, details

On view for one week only – that’s both the difficulty and the pleasure that comes from the Met’s turning the pages of the Cervera Hebrew Bible. Visitors can take in two new pages beginning each Tuesday until January 16, when this 800-year-old Bible will be whisked back to Lisbon’s Biblioteca Nacional de Portugal.  (Read more about the exhibition here.)

This week it’s opened to brightly colored pages whose corners are decorated with unicorns, serpent-like creatures with human faces, and animals on their hind legs playing musical instruments.

French medallion
They seem to reflect a mix a traditions.  The diamond and scalloped linear patterns seem almost Islamic, and the unicorn often symbolizes purity in Christian art.

The Met is showing these pages in the context of contemporaneous French medallions – the illuminator of the Cervera Bible was Joseph the Frenchman – that are made up of similar fanciful creatures.

This delight is on view only through Sunday.

 Text and photos Copyright 2011 Laura Gilbert

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Exclusive First Look at What the Met Museum Has Planned through June 2013

Matisse, "The Blue Nude," to be shown in "The Steins Collect"
The Metropolitan Museum hasn’t released information about its upcoming shows beyond June 2012, so what follows is an exclusive first look at the best shows it has planned through June 2013.

In this age of austerity at museums, the Met is still able to put on international loan exhibitions, ranging from the tightly focused “Rembrandt and Degas,” with about 20 works, to the sprawling “Byzantium and Islam” that will show some 300 items.

Rembrandt self-portrait from the Rijksmuseum, to be shown in "Rembrandt and Degas"
And a glance at the breadth of the offerings shows why the Met is the best encyclopedic museum on the continent.  On the way is its special exhibit of Egyptian work dating from as early as 6000 years ago in “The Dawn of Egyptian Art.”

It will also have an exhibit of art from the day before yesterday, with “Regarding Warhol:  Fifty Artists, Fifty Years.”

A word about the last show:  Except for its Art on the Roof series, the Met has been cautious when it comes to art of the last few decades, going mainly with solo shows of the tried-and-true who are octogenarian or nearly so -- think Jasper Johns or Richard Serra.

But with the Warhol group show, it looks like the Met will be anointing some contemporary artists – i.e., taking a risk – in addition to ensuring some good attendance figures and perhaps courting the moneyed financiers who go for Warhol big time.

The standouts:

Rembrandt and Degas, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, February 23 to May 20, 2012.  Highlights:  Two early Rembrandt self-portraits on loan from Europe.

The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde, February 28 to June 3, 2012.  About 100 works collected by expatriates Gertrude Stein and her brothers. 

Byzantium and Islam:  Age of Transition, March 14 to July 18, 2012.  From museums around the world, some 300 objects from the 7th century, showing the interactions among Christian, Islamic, and Jewish cultures, accompanied by a heavy-duty scholarly catalogue.

From Egypt, ca. 3450 B.C.
The Dawn of Egyptian Art, April 4 to August 5, 2012.  180 examples of very early Egyptian art, beginning in 4000 B.C.

Tomas Saraceno on the Roof: Cloud City, April 24 to November 4, 2012.  Interconnected room-sized modules by the young Argentine artist.

Regarding Warhol: Fifty Artists, Fifty Years, September 2012-January 2013.  Warhol and his influence, thematically arranged.  A Met rarity – a group show with contemporary art.

Bernini Models in Clay, October 2012 to January 2013.  50 models and several sculptures by the Roman Baroque master.

George Bellows (1882–1925), November 2012 to February 2013. A whopping 75 paintings, 30 drawings, and 25 lithographs by the American artist best known for his paintings of boxers.

Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity, February to May 2013.  The Met again joins the fashion-is-art crowd, with period costumes and 75 paintings from the era that saw the rise of ready-to-wear clothing, department stores, and fashion magazines.

The Civil War and American Art, May to September 2013. The 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, will include a related show of Civil War photography. 

Images: Matisse, Copyright  Succession H. Matisse/Artists Rights Society; Rembrandt pulled from the internet; Egyptian painted pottery from Metropolitan Museum website.

Text Copyright 2011 Laura Gilbert

Friday, December 2, 2011

Museum Blockbuster-Show Sponsorships Go Begging While Billionaires Throw Down Hundreds of Millions on Trendy Schlock

Painting by Antonella da Messina, to be shown in the Met's "Renaissance Portrait" exhibition
The Metropolitan Museum’s next sure thing is its “Renaissance Portrait” show, an international loan exhibition of about 160 works from some 50 institutions.  When it opened at Berlin’s Bode Museum this summer, it had enthusiastic reviews in Europe and lines around the block.

But when the show opens in New York on December 21, it won’t have a single sponsor from the private sector.  

No such support either for the famous trove of medieval ivory chessmen – seen by millions in a Harry Potter flick – that is currently on view at the Cloisters, the Met’s uptown jewel box.  The chessmen, loaned from the British Museum, were the subject of a feature article in the Wall Street Journal, and the exhibit, called “The Game of Kings,” was a lead review in the New York Times. 

Queen chess piece
The Met had sought a cool $1 million for exclusive name-brand sponsorship of “The Renaissance Portrait” and a bargain-basement $100,000 for “The Game of Kings,” amounts that are mere chump change for the kings of Wall Street who will giddily part with tens of millions for an inferior Warhol.

Support for both shows, though, is being provided entirely by foundations and philanthropies.

Sponsorships can be useful for buffing up a bad image.  The corrupt Bank of America, for example, started getting involved in cultural support big time in 2008, when it was taking the lead in driving the economy over the cliff.  “We get great public relations out of it,” Allen Blevins, director of the bank’s corporate art program, unabashedly told the Charlotte Observer in 2010.

Of course, some reputations are so noxious that even institutions hard-up for a handout will shun an affiliation.  There’s been noise recently in London about kicking polluter BP out of the sponsorship business at the Tate, and some might argue that the bailed-out banks should also be beyond the pale – for a host of reasons, not the least of which is that money from them would be the same as taxpayer support.

Portrait attributed to Andrea d'Assisi
But there are still plenty of acceptable dirty names in the financial industry – various hedge funds, investment partnerships, money management firms, among them some whose principals are notorious for spending big bucks at auction on the latest lollipop art, under the mistaken impression that they are also purchasing social cachet.

Maybe they should consider in addition getting some cash flowing to the Met and supporting an exhibition of timeless art.  That could be a friendship with benefits for art lovers outside the party circuit.

Images: Portraits from the Bode Museum website, chesspiece from the Metropolitan Museum website.

Text Copyright 2011 Laura Gilbert