Theft at the Museum

In less than two weeks, I’ll be heading to Boston, and once there, I’ll be sure to stop by the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, site of one of the world’s biggest art thefts.

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ABOVE: Johannes Vermeer, The Concert, circa 1664, oil on canvas, 28.5 x 25.5 inches

BELOW: Rembrandt van Rijn, The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, 1633, oil on canvas, 63 x 50.4 inces

Established in 1903, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is a must see for anyone visiting Boston. In addition to works by Michelangelo, Rembrandt and Titian, the museum is perhaps best known for a theft that occurred on March 18, 1990. On that day, thieves made off with an estimated $500 million worth of art.

In total, thirteen pieces were stolen, among them Vermeer’s The Concert, and Rembrandt’s The Storm on the Sea of Galilee (both can be seen in the photos above). It is believed that the stolen artworks were specifically targeted as some of the museums more expensive pieces were left untouched. Who stole the work, and their motive for doing so, remains unknown.

Despite a reward of $10 million, no one has been apprehended, nor any of the artwork returned. In place of the stolen masterpieces, hang thirteen empty frames. Hopefully, some day, they will be filled.

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Tahitian Dreams

Artists are often searching for something. Sometimes they find what they’re looking for; other times, not so much. Paul Gauguin was a searcher who fell into the later category.

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ABOVE: Paul Gauguin, When Will You Marry?, oil on canvas, 1892, 40 x 30 inches

Born and raised in Paris, Paul Gauguin longed to travel and escape the trappings of western life. Being poor often put a damper on travel plans, but after a successful auction of his paintings, he was able to leave Paris for Tahiti in 1891.

Unfortunately, his escape from Europe proved futile as Tahiti had previously been colonized by the British, and in the process, many of the islands indigenous people had been killed by the diseases they brought with them. Owing to this, French and European culture had taken over, and Gauguin’s expectations of Tahiti were at odds with his actual experiences there.

After struggling to make ends meet in the capitol (Papeete), he eventually settled in a bamboo hut just outside the city, and began work on what many consider to be his finest paintings. It was during this time that he painted “When Will You Marry?” which consists of one women wearing traditional garb, and another dressed like a missionary. This contrast serves to highlight the changes evident in Tahiti at the time, and Gauguin’s attempts to reconcile them.

Gauguin returned to France in 1893, but continued to paint Tahitian subjects with the belief they would appeal to a French audience – they did not.”When Will You Marry?” was placed on consignment in an exhibition, but after failing to sell, it remained with the artist until his death in 1903.

In 2015, “When Will You Marry?” sold to a member of the Qatari royal family for close to US $300 million (exact price unknown). To date, it, along with Willem de Kooning’s “Interchange”, is the most expensive painting ever sold. Its current whereabouts are unknown. I wonder what Gauguin would have thought.

A Political Art Primer – Part 2

Last week, I blogged about some common terms you may come across when viewing/discussing political art. There where too many to list in a single post.

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ABOVE: Sheppard Fairy, Barack Obama “Hope” poster

COMMON POLITICAL ART TERMS – PART 2

Misogyny – The hatred or mistrust of women, most often by men.

Narrative – A fictional or nonfictional account of connected events in a sequence of words or pictures.

Parody – An imitative work created for comic relief or ridicule.

Popular Culture – Cultural activities or commercial products that are geared to the tastes of the general population.

Race – A classification system which organizes people based upon their physical appearance or geographical lineages.

Satire – A genre that criticizes individuals, corporations, governments, or societies with humor, irony or ridicule.

Segregation – The enforced separation of people into racial groups in day to day life.

Social Construct – A social phenomenon or category that is created and developed by society, but does not exist in the world.

Socialism – A socio-economic system where the production and distribution of goods are controlled by the government instead of private enterprise.

Stereotype – An oversimplified assumption about specific types of individuals or certain ways of doing things.

Sustainable – A system or resource that maintains its own viability and allows for continual reuse, without depletion.

Symbol – A form, sign, or emblem that represents, stands for, or suggests an idea or emotion.

Utopian – An idea or system of political or social perfection.

A Political Art Primer – Part 1

I love art with a message. Here are some basic terms that you might come across when viewing political artworks. Part 2 to come.

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ABOVE: Ministry of the Interior building with an iron mural of Ernesto Che Guevara, Havana

COMMON POLITICAL ART TERMS

Bourgeois – A member of the middle class whose political, economic, and social values are thought to be determined by concern for personal wealth and perceived respectability.

Class – The grouping of people based upon economic, occupational, or social status.

Consumerism – An obsession with manufactured goods and their acquisition.

Cultural Icon – An easily recognizable symbol, object, or person with great cultural significance to a large group of people.

Culture – The customs, arts, and achievements of a nation, people or social group.

Ethnicity – A group of people with a shared culture, religion and/or language.

Feminism – A collection of movements and ideologies that advocate for equal rights between men and women.

Gender – A socially constructed identity that is assigned to a person based upon their sex.

Globalization – The shifting of views, products, and ideas from a local level to an international one.

Hegemony – The political, economical, or ideological influence of one dominant group over another.

Iconoclast – One who attacks, and seeks to overthrow settled beliefs or institutions.

Iconography – Common and/or traditional images with symbolic meanings.

Identity – The conditions and characteristics that determine one’s self.

Identity politics – The social organizing of people based upon the interests and perspectives with which they identify.

Idol – An object of worship.

Institutional critique – An inquiry into the practices of art institutions which often challenges the assumed norms of theory and practice.

A Few of my Favorite Isms

Art history is jam-packed with movements, schools, and isms. While the list continues to grow, here are some of my old faves. More to come.

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ABOVE: Giacomo Balla, Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash, 1912, oil on canvas, 35.8 x 43.3 inches, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo

Ism: Futurism

Country of Origin: Italy

Timeline: An early 20th century movement founded in 1909.

Key Artists: Giacomo Balla, Gino Severini, Joseph Stella, Umberto Boccioni

Philosophy: A celebration of technology and urban modernity, Futurism rejected the old for the new, and focused on movement, speed, and violence.

ABOVE: Charles Demuth, Buildings Abstraction, Lancaster, 1931, oil on board, 27.4 x 23.6 inches, Detroit Institute for the Arts, Detroit

Ism: Precisionism

Country of Origin: USA

Timeline: Emerged after WWI and rose to prominence in the 20’s and 30’s.

Key Artists: Charles Demuth, Charles Sheeler, Ralston Crawford, Stuart Davis

Philosophy: A wholly American movement with a focus on modernization and industrialization; precisionist works are often geometrical, and sharply defined.

ABOVE: George Bellows, Stag at Sharkey’s, 1909, oil on canvas, 36.2 x 48.3 inches, Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland

Ism: Social Realism

Country of Origin: International

Timeline: Influenced by European artists of the late 1800’s, it emerged in the early 1900’s, and continued through the first half of the 20th Century.

Key Artists: Diego Rivera, Edward Hopper, George Bellows, Otto Dix

Philosophy: Comprised of many different styles, Social Realism explored the living conditions of the working poor, while criticizing the social structures that maintained it.

Arts Unsolved Mysteries

Whether it be Edgar Allan Poe or Vincent van Gogh, an artists life is often full of mystery. In some cases, their deaths are too.

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ABOVE: Tom Thomson, The Jack Pine, 1916-17, oil on canvas, 50.4 x 54.7 inches, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa

Life is inherently mysterious. For the following artists, so too was death:

Edgar Allan Poe

In 1849, at the age of 40, a delirious Poe was found on the streets of Baltimore. Incoherent, and wearing someone else’s clothes, he was unable to tell anyone what happened, and he died 4 days after being found.

Vincent van Gogh

In 1890, at the age of 37, van Gogh stumbled into town with a gunshot wound to the chest. It is believed he shot himself, but no gun was ever found, and there were no witnesses. Despite being in good spirits, he died 29 hours after arriving home.

Tom Thomson

In 1917, at the age of 39, Thomson disappeared on a canoeing trip in Algonquin Park – his body was found 8 days later, floating alone in Canoe Lake. While some theories suggest murder, others suicide, the official cause of death was listed as accidental drowning. No one knows exactly when he died.

Caravaggio

In 1610, at the age of 38, Caravaggio died in Tuscany – his death has been shrouded in mystery ever since. While Syphilis or murder have long been suspected, another recent theory has been lead poisoning. Like Thomson, no one knows exactly how, or when he died.

Art and Politics: Part 2

According to Ai Weiwei, “Creativity is the power to reject the past, to change the status quo, and to seek new potential.” On that note, here is another edition of Art and Politics.

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ABOVE: Ai Weiwei by Duyanpili, Photo: © Gao Yuan 高远, 2009

No discussion on political art would be complete without mention of the following:

Pablo Picasso, Guernica

On April 26, 1937, German and Italian planes launched an aerial attack on the Spanish town of Guernica. The bombing – done at the request of Francisco Franco – shattered the city’s defenses, and allowed Franco’s Nationalists to overrun it.

While the number of deaths has been widely debated, the raids destroyed the majority of Guernica, and transformed the sleepy Spanish town into an everlasting symbol of civilian suffering.

Picasso – who was living in Paris at the time – was so affected by these raids, that he immediately began work on what would become his greatest political masterpiece, Guernica.

The mural sized painting was first displayed in the Spanish Pavilion at the 1937 World’s Fair, but was later sent to the United States to raise funds and support for Spanish refugees. Vowing that Guernica wouldn’t return to Spain so long as Franco was in power, Picasso requested that it be temporarily housed in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. In 1981 – six years after the death of Franco  – it returned to Spain.

In the years since its creation, Guernica has become a powerful cultural icon that speaks to humanity not only against war, but also of hope and peace.

The Guerrilla Girls, Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?

In 1985,  the Museum of Modern Art (in New York City) held an exhibition titled An International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture. Of the 169 artists on display, only 13 were female.

In response to the show, a group of anonymous female artists decided to speak out against the sexism of the art world. They called themselves the Guerrilla Girls, and owing to their new name, they wore gorilla masks to hide their identities.

Since its formation, the group has fought for female artists by making curators, dealers, and even critics accountable. They do this, in part, by producing posters that list the number of male and female artists on display in major museums. Ironically, many of these posters have entered the collections of the museums they renounce.

While the world, and by extension the art world, has changed a lot since 1985, inequality still exists, and because of it, the Guerrilla Girls have yet to hang up their masks.

Ai Weiwei, Remembering

On May 12, 2008, an earthquake measuring 8.0 on the richter scale, rocked the Chinese province of Sichuan. Known simply as The Great Sichuan Earthquake, it  killed 69,195 people, and left 18,392 missing.

Amidst the chaos, many schools collapsed, and thousands of children lost their lives. When he visited the area, Ai Weiwei noticed that it was littered with school supplies. Knowing that the buildings collapsed as a result of poor construction, and knowing that the Chinese authorities would attempt to cover it all up, Weiwei decided to create the installation Remembering.

Constructed from nine thousand children’s backpacks, Remembering was installed on the façade of the Haus der Kunst in Munich, Germany in 2009. Among the backpacks was the sentence “She lived happily for seven years in this world.” It was spelled out in Chinese characters, and was a direct quote from one of the children’s mothers.

For his outspoken efforts, Ai Weiwei has been beaten (see above photo) and detained. Throughout it all, he has remained defiant.

Art and Politics: Part 1

History clearly has a wrong side. While many would like to forget the past, the following artists have chosen to confront it – head on, and with a vengeance.

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ABOVE: J.M.W. Turner, The Slave Ship, 1840, oil on canvas, 35.7 x 48.3 inches, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Great art is often political in nature. These pieces certainly are:

Francisco Goya, The Third of May 1808

In 1807, Napoleon took over Spain and made his brother Joseph, the new King.

On May 2, 1808, hundreds of Spaniards rebelled.

In retaliation, the rebels were rounded up, and executed by the French on May 3, 1808.

Completed in 1814, The Third of May 1808 commemorates the Spanish resistance, and is a powerful depiction of man’s inhumanity to man.

Goya’s masterpiece has inspired many political artworks, among them, Picasso’s Guernica.

Eugène Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People

The July Revolution of 1830 took place in Paris and resulted in the toppling of  King Charles X.  In its wake, Louis Philippe took the throne and ruled under the July Monarchy until 1848.

In Liberty Leading the People, a woman (symbolizing Liberty) leads the people over the bodies of the fallen, while holding a musket and the French flag. Behind her, are fighters from a mix of social classes.

Quite controversial in its time, the work was seen as a staunch anti-monarchist symbol, and it enraged royalists and monarchists alike.

After the June Rebellion of 1832, the painting was returned to the artist where it was hidden in an attic for being too revolutionary. In 1874, it entered the collection of the Louvre.

In the years since, the female figure – commonly known as Marianne – has come to symbolize the French Republic and France itself. She was also the inspiration for the Statue of Liberty.

J.M.W. Turner, The Slave Ship

In 1781, the captain of the slave ship Zong ordered that 133 slaves be thrown overboard so that insurance payments could be collected. It is believed that this event was Turner’s inspiration.

Although the British Empire outlawed slavery in 1833, Turner and many other abolitionists wanted it outlawed around the world. As such, he choose to coincide its exhibition with a meeting of the British Anti-Slavery Society.

The famous art critic John Ruskin was the paintings first owner, but he grew to find the subject too painful, and decided to find the work a new home.

The Slave Ship changed hands a number of times before it was purchased by the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. It has been on display there since 1899.