1. Shaken, not stirred.
It is already half a year that the new director of the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Josep “Pepe” Serra, has been sitting in his new chair. Not exactly sitting, since the dynamic forty-something has been actively seeking public awareness and consent with his ideas and plans. If I grasped them during an open, candid speech last week, then his goal is to uncover the talent hiding in the Museum’s vaults, and open its doors to all kind of interesting proposals. It is difficult to say if he is following a very detailed plan for it. In his own words, he is still “shaking the house”, and identifying who among the personnel is open to embrace the challenge. His boost goes well beyond simple rehanging, but a fittingly sense of trial already pervades some of the new rooms – from the exquisite, yet diminutive Isidre Nonell (1872-1911) / Lluís Claramunt (1951 – 2000) drawings confrontation, to the exaggerated, stand-alone homage to Antoni Tàpies (1923-2012). Anyway, the time for inking the details in black and white is not that far off: Mr Serra announced that he will deliver an executive plan in October for 2013-2018.
2. A Phoenix on your wall.
Bought by the Museum in 1952 without a clear attribution, deposited in an office of Barcelona’s City Council, smoke-damaged there by a fire in April 1985, stored in the MNAC reserves, and finally rediscovered two years ago, The Conversion of Saint Paul (oil on canvas, 243 x 257 cm, c. 1614) by Juan Bautista Maíno (1581-1649) shines again with some of its past glory, after a thorough restoration. The man behind the move, conservator Francesc Quílez, suspected Maíno’s hand when he first spotted the work in 1996 – but he did not find the time to pursue his guesswork. It was only in 2009, when he chanced upon the 44.5 x 32.2 “modellino” for the work in Maino’s great retrospective catalogue in the Prado, that he had no doubt that a real masterpiece was hiding behind the darkened canvas. Now they are showing both the sketch and the final work, complete with some introductory texts, videos, and radiographies, in one of the MNAC’s upper rooms. Except for final ones, you can forget about the rest, and go directly to Mr Quilez’s essay on the website (only in Catalan, sorry), in which he convincingly argues this work confirms Maíno as something more than just the brilliant pioneer of “caravaggism” in Spain. He was in fact an inquisitive spirit, ready to absorb many contrasting influences, even if that could lead to mixed (but really interesting) results, as shown in this “new” work – the bulk of his output is held in the Prado.
3. The Italian holidays of two British Tizianos.
If your chosen destination for the summer hiatus is Veneto’s jewel called Padova, you could complete Giotto’s must-see Capella dei Scrovegni (on-line bookings here) with a visit to the Musei Civici agli Erimitani next door. There you will be among the first to enjoy two recently rediscovered works by Tiziano, confirmed by specialists Andrea Donati and Lionello Puppi, which travel from two different British collections for the current exhibition Tiziano e Paolo III. Il pittore e il suo modello (from 7 July to 30 September 2012, admissions €10.-, no sign of a catalogue, but at least a fine review in La Repubblica). The smallest of them is a fresh self-portrait painted during his advanced years (oil on cardboard, 40 x 27.7 cm), the other a portrait of Pope Paul III (oil on canvas, 128 x 98 cm) that, according to this press note by the Italian Culture Department, should show him humble enough to win Emperor’s Charles V support. In other words, both works bear out Tiziano’s powers in giving elegant, but subtly incisive renderings of powerful, yet human, beings – for more about this point, have a look at the three portraits of Paul III at Capodimonte Museum in Naples.
4. Lessons from the art market.
In my annual trip to the centre of the world (that is London, for us Old Master freaks), I attended the first hour of Sotheby’s Old Master Evening auction, devoted to Dutch and other Northern European artists. Oud Holland art is not really my field, but even for the newcomer it was clear that dealers and collectors were not taking Sotheby’s name-based catalogue very seriously. They were focused solely on the works, and the quality they showed. Therefore, some of the star lots sporting resounding names only just reached the low estimate or even failed to sell; while other low-key artists with attractive works had their day – my preferred one was Hendrik van Steenwijck the Younger (1580-1649) Saint Jerome in his study (lot 17, oil on oak panel, 40 x 56.2 cm, estimate GBP 100,000 – 150,000, final price without premium GBP 280,000), in which, if I am not too presumptive, the painter had revisited an old ecclesiastical subject and set it in the clean-cut, unpretentious atmosphere fostered by the Reformation. A final reconciliation, however, was reached with the last lot in the section, The surrender of the Royal Prince during The Four Day’s Battle, 1st-4th June 1666 (lot 24, oil on canvas, 75.5 x 106 cm), a true masterpiece by the renowned sea-battle painter Willem van de Velde the Younger (1633 – 1707). The GBP 1,500,000 – 2,500,000 estimate was dwarfed when a new bidder, attended to on the phone by a young dealer standing next to me, joined the fight at 2 million, duelled against a sole opponent for several electric minutes, and eventually won it for a nearly record-setting GBP 4,700,000 (GBP 5,305,250 with premium) – the ultimate record was achieved by rival house Christie’s last 6th December, when it sold Dutch men-o-war and other shipping in a calm, (oil on canvas, 86.3 cm x 119.3 cm, sold) for GBP 5,921,250 (including premium).
5. The Prussian teenager is growing up.
Berlin is growing up to become the next international hotspot for art from all ages. Already nurturing an extremely live contemporary scene (which you can follow at the excellent berlinartjournal blog and its spin-off sugarhigh), the city has seen very long queues in the final months of 2011 for the Renaissance Faces exhibition. True that since 1990 the city has lived under the never-ending resettling of its pre-1945 fabulous collections, but you can read the latest quarrel on the matter as a kind of adolescent turmoil. Following the very generous donation of some 150 important Surrealist and Expressionist works (Miró, Dalí, Pollock and all the rest involved) by Ulla and Heiner Pietzch (a czar of the plastic trade), the city planers have decided to clean out the Gemäldegalerie of its collection of Old Masters (including the famous 18 Rembrandts), and, while waiting for a new building, show them in a shorter version in the Bode Museum, already house of the Byzantine and Medieval collections – the world largest in sculpture from this period. The petition against the move (which I signed) cannot mask the fact that, as Isabelle Spicer writes in this report for the French Journal of Arts, with better planning, this could be the last step before the Museuminsel turns up as the new Louvre.
6. Setting the day.
Summertime is a hard time to fill the newspapers’ cultural pages with real news, and that is one reason why they are not ashamed to make good use of old stories. Irene Hernández Velasco writes in the Spanish El Mundo this interesting piece on paying a visit to the origins of the Gregorian calendar. If you ever wonder why the Russians, following the old and unstable Julian calendar, celebrate Christmas 15 days after you, here you will find the definitive proof that made Pope Gregory XIII (1502 – 1585) proclaim the bull “Inter Gravissimas”, by which 4th October 1582 became 15th October that year. It consisted of drawing a meridian on the floor of the “Torre dei Venti” (“Tower of Winds”, where the Vatican Archives are now kept), and opening a little hole in one of Il Pomarancio’s (Nicolò Circignani, c.1517 – after 1596) frescos on the wall – matching the open mouth of an angel blowing. On 21st March 1581 the Pope was shown how the sunbeam that, entering through the hole, should have touched the meridian at the point marked by springtime equinox, in fact deflected some 60 cm beyond – because the equinox had taken place ten days before. The changes introduced by the new calendar of counting leap years (once every fourth year, except in the years ending in 00) explain the additional days of discrepancy within Old Caesar’s calendar.
7. She keeps her smile…
… despinte huge cuts in public funding for culture.