“Gems of the Medici” at the Bowers Museum deserves more attention than it’s gotten in L.A. Great museums of Florence and Naples have lent textbook masterpieces of a recherche medium: antique and Renaissance carved gems. It brings up the rear of the “Italian Year of Culture in the United States” initiative that supported last year’s shows of Giotto, Caravaggio, and company in Los Angeles. (Above, an antique cameo fragment so prized that it was “restored” in Renaissance gold, probably by Benvenuto Cellini. At the time an antique carved gem could sell for as much as 20 paintings by Botticelli.)
What’s not to like? Well, most of the gems are installed at mid-thigh level. For the life of me I can’t figure out why. The height might be about right for any four-year-old who’s up for perusing a hundred tiny, tiny interpretations of ancient myth and egotism. I can’t verify that because there weren’t any four-year-olds there when I was. Regular-size adults should plan on a lot of stooping or kneeling. Remember, many of these things are smaller than a quarter.
Intaglio gems—those carved into the stone and used as seals, to produce impressions—are challenging for any museum to display. The image is in negative and may be illegible even under good lighting. Museums sometimes supply a modern paste impression for comparison. This isn’t ideal as it diverts attention from the original to the reproduction.
No ancient intaglio is more storied than the “Seal of Nero,” a carnelian representing Apollo and Marsyas (above). It was owned by the dissolute Roman emperor and used as his personal device. In the Renaissance it fell into the hands of Lorenzo Medici. He had it inscribed with his monogram (LAV.R.MED). By then the seal was displayed in an suitably precious setting designed by Lorenzo Ghiberti, of a dragon clutching the gem as tightly as the Medicis did. Later, when the Medici dynasty fell into financial embarrassment, they sold the Ghiberti setting. They kept the antique gem, and it’s now in the Naples National Archeological Museum.
The good news: Through September 15, this stupendous object is on view in Santa Ana.
The bad news: “On view” is relative. The picture above is an optimally lighted image by a museum photographer. At left is what you’ll see at the Bowers.
It’s sitting on a circular mirror. It would make sense to suspend a translucent intaglio a few inches above a mirror. The mirror image, in transmitted light, appears positive and may reveal the carving better than the object itself does. But there’s no conceivable reason to use the object to obscure its own reflection.
When you see a wad of peach chewing gum, and when a museum label identifies that wad as an apex of human civilization, the natural impulse is to stoop down to get a better look. Gotcha! The light fixtures are aimed at that mirror, blinding the viewer and making it impossible to see anything. It’s like putting the Mona Lisa in a trick frame that squirts you in the eye.
Another monument of gem carving, a portrait of Renaissance televangelist Girolamo Savonarolo, is displayed in a completely different way that also makes it impossible to see. It sits atop a lucite cube, like those used to display signed baseballs. This cube contains a diagonally angled mirror. Were the mirror angled from upper back to lower front, the visitor would be able to see the reflection underneath… by stooping very, very low.
No such luck. This mirror is angled from upper right to lower left. To see the reflection properly, you would have to insert your head to the left of the mirror. This is impossible because gem, mirror, and cube are behind glass in a display case.
Glitches aside, the objects in “Gems of the Medici” are fantastic. The Bowers wants to spin them into a populist blockbuster. It folds in sculpture and painting to break up the, uh, smallness. The first “sculpture” you see is a plaster cast of a Donatello youth. The others are a set of over-lifesize terracotta busts of the Medicis, circle of Foggini. They look like props from a Hollywood studio store room.
The best painting is the a headshot reduction of Bronzino’s side-eye Cosimo I de’ Medici—oil on tin, and said to be by Bronzino’s own hand.
The Bowers exhbition has a great deal of didactic material on the Medicis and gem carving. It touches on one of the most vexing questions: Did ancient gem carvers use magnifying lenses to achieve their incredible detail?
Seneca spoke of the magnifying effect of globes of water. Lenses, or maybe just crystal baubles, were found by Schliemann at Troy. There’s no smoking-gun palimpsest saying that Greco-Roman artists used lenses for fine work, nor even an antique David Hockney to supply a conspiracy theory. The first indisputable accounts of magnifying lenses date from the earliest Renaissance, just about the time the Medicis came on the scene.
“Ends and Exits: Contemporary Art From the Collections of LACMA and the Broad Art Foundation” includes this David Salle, Savagery and Misrepresentation. You might think that the dapper character at upper left is “Joe Camel,” erstwhile pitchman for a brand of cigarettes. In 1991 the Journal of the American Medical Association found that “Joe” was as recognizable to American children as Mickey Mouse.
The Salle painting is from 1981, however, and the Joe Camel ad campaign didn’t launch until 1987. In fact Salle based his tuxedoed personage on another source: a photograph by a well-known American painter of the early 20th century.
Give up? Salle is appropriating a work by Reginald Marsh, chronicler of New York low life. Marsh was so taken with the implausible signage of a Coney Island sideshow act, “Milo the Mule Face Boy,” that he documented it in a photo that appears in Marsh’s posthumously published portfolio “Photographs of New York.” The cropped text is worthy of Walker Evans. I half-wonder whether the Mad Men who dreamed up Joe Camel were aware of the Marsh photo.
Marsh also used Milo’s sign in a 1947 drawing, below. It was auctioned at Sotheby’s in May 2011 (and bought in). Marsh’s Coney Island paintings often feature signage, but as far as I can tell the Milo drawing was never executed as a painting.
Milo is “real” enough to have an Internet presence, via scanned paper. The August 25, 1951, issue of Billboard reported that Milo the Mule-Faced Boy was appearing at Dave Rosen’s Palace of Wonders, Coney Island, along with Carl the Alligator Boy, Alzoria the Turtle Girl, and Johanna the Bear Girl.
Peter Golenbock’s 2008 book In the Country of Brooklyn has this mini-bio, part of an oral history by Peter Ford:
“My father was born about 1916… He was friends with Milo the Mule-faced Boy, who had the ugliest face you’d ever want to see. After Milo quit and ran across the street to join the competition, he became Milo the Dog-faced Boy. Milo lived in my neighborhood. He even had a girlfriend.”
The Pictures Generation credo was that media picture-making was supplanting painting. Marsh’s photograph is a uniquely ambiguous object: a “high” artist’s mechanical image of a “low” artist’s commercial and exploitative painting. The figure in Savagery and Misrepresentation is a painting of a photograph of a painting of a real person. Meta-talk aside, Marsh’s Coney Island photographs still pack a punch to the gut. They are raw picture-poems of America, history’s grotesquerie of freedom—land of the ever-expanding soda container, with guns and cigarettes for all.
Several readers have pointed out this art-history flow chart, created by Daniel Feral after Alfred Barr’s 1936 diagram of modern “ism”s. The “Feral Diagram” was created in 2011 and updated the following year for the “Futurism 2.0″ exhibition in London. One catch: You won’t learn anything about L.A. artists.
Posters of the Feral Diagram are available from Feral at firstname.lastname@example.org.
When Rembrandt Laughing, the Getty’s impending purchase, was auctioned in 2007 it was given the unwieldy title, “The young Rembrandt as Democrates [sic] the laughing philosopher.” In fact Rembrandt shows himself in military costume and can’t possibly have intended that sage of ancient Greece. Yet the Democritus connection may help explain the most striking aspect of this self-portrait: Rembrandt, otherwise haughty or world-weary, loosens up for once. “I am completely captivated by it,” wrote Rembrandt scholar Gary Schwartz in 2007. “The painting is marked by an amiability that I am touched to find in Rembrandt.” (Above is a detail of the small, bust-length painting.)
Democritus is best-known today for inventing the concept of atoms. In Rembrandt’s time, atoms were a forgotten doctrine, swept aside by the science of Galileo. Democritus was instead known as “the laughing philosopher.” He laughed at human folly, it’s said.
Democritus became a popular subject for painters. He numbers among the philosophers of Velézquez and de Ribera. Rubens paired Democritus with Heraclitus—”the Crying Philosopher.”
Dutch examples are particularly boisterous. Above is Hendrick ter Brugghen’s Democritus at the Rijksmuseum, dated 1628 and just about contemporary with Rembrandt Laughing.
Johannes Moreelse’s Democritus, in the Utrecht Central Museum, could be called the Maniacally Laughing Philosopher.
As you can see the Dutch had a fairly consistent idea of what Democritus looked like, and Rembrandt Laughing isn’t it. Delightful as they are, the ter Brugghen and Moreelse are cartoons. Rembrandt Laughing exists on a whole different plane of visual reality.
It’s known that Jan Lievens, Rembrandt’s friend and rival, painted both a Democritus and a Heraclitus. Anything Lievens did, Rembrandt thought he could do better. So it wouldn’t be surprising that Rembrandt responded in some way. He was apparently more taken with the challenge of capturing facial expressions than with depicting philosophers. About 1630 he did a group of self-portrait etchings in which he mugged for the mirror.
Rembrandt Laughing is the only comparable self-portrait painting. Like the etchings it was created on a sheet of copper. At 8.75 by 6.62 inches Rembrandt Laughing is smaller than many of his drawings, but larger than the four other known paintings on copper. Below is Rembrandt Laughing and the Laughing Soldier in the Mauritshuis, also on copper and shown to scale. It has the same gorget (neck armor).
We think of Rembrandt as progressing from a meticulous, market-pleasing early style to a broader, more painterly late style that drove clients away. Rembrandt Laughing suggests it’s not that simple. It’s far freer than most early paintings, and not just because of its small size. Rembrandt Laughing was once engraved as a Frans Hals, and indeed it is more freely executed than Hals’ spirited 6-inch high copper of Samuel Ampzing. Evidently the 22-year-0ld Rembrandt was already testing the limits of brushy calligraphy in some of his smaller, more personal works.
There has been some hair-splitting over whether Rembrandt Laughing should be called a self-portrait. Scholar Ernst van de Wetering, the key figure in reattributing the painting, prefers not to use that term. Though he identifies the laughing figure as Rembrandt, he calls the painting a tronie (Dutch for “face”), a headshot study of expression or character. A 2008 Art Newspaper piece spun that into a headline: “It is a Rembrandt but not a self-portrait.” Martin Bailey predicted, “Inevitably, at some point the painting will come onto the market again, and no doubt the trade will then be tempted to sell it as a Rembrandt ’self-portrait’, to give it that extra cachet.”
Unquestionably the painting is more valuable to the market because of the self-portrait brand. But ”tronie” and “self-portrait” aren’t mutually exclusive concepts. Cindy Sherman creates tronies (you might say). They are also self-portraits (a term everyone uses).
How important is a very small, very early Rembrandt self-portrait? ”It is destined to become one of the Getty’s signature paintings,” Getty director Timothy Potts said. We read the self-portraits as a rake’s progress from cocky youth to old, broke, bereaved has-been. Mortality has the last laugh. Rembrandt Laughing is the perfect frontispiece to that narrative. It’s almost certain to become a widely reproduced star painting—and there aren’t many of those still out there to buy.
It’s not a slam-dunk that the Getty will get the painting, though. A British institution could preempt the deal by matching the so-far-unpublished Getty price. The process of securing an export license often drags on a year or so even when successful.
The big unknown for now is how much the Getty is paying. Obviously it’s a lot. “That picture’s clearly worth between 15 and 20 million pounds [$30 to $40 million],” said dealer William Noortman in 2008.
Britain has long had at least seven Rembrandt self-portraits. There are examples are in the museums of London, Liverpool, Edinburgh, and Glasgow, and the Self Portrait with Two Circles at Kenwood House is the very best of all the world-weary portraits, anywhere. The Queen has her own Rembrandt self-portrait.
One stroke of good timing: Just this March it was announced that a painting at Buckland Abbey, given to Britain’s National Trust in 2010, has been reattributed to Rembrandt—and it’s a self-portrait too (left). With that kind of crazy luck, Britain may feel less need to do a full-court press for yet another Rembrandt self-portrait.
The El Segundo Museum of Art has opened its second installation, or make that “art experience.” “TRUTH” is 37 nudes from five centuries—Dürer to Martin Kippenberger—installed in your basic white cube with bordello-red floors and lace room dividers. The art is a mash-up of big names, emerging artists, and counterintuitive oldies, with a teutonic slant. Above is Samuel Salcedo’s brand-new (2013) sculpture Wall Painter next to a c. 1800 academic drawing by Teodoro Mattenini.
Last year a Westphalian Expulsion from Paradise was auctioned in Vienna. ESMoA founders Brian and Eva Sweeney bought it, and it makes its public debut here. A half-legible monogram has been read as AG S. Some think that’s Heinrich Aldegrever of Soest, the prized “Little Master” of the generation after Dürer.
Or not. The auction catalog dated the painting as c. 1520. Aldegrever was born in 1502. ESMoA now puts it c. 1510, ruling out Aldegrever. Angelenos might fault the palm and dragon trees. The latter, at far left, was copied from a Schongauer print.
Among the more modern offerings are works by Eadweard Muybridge, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, George Grosz, Max Pechstein, Diego Rivera, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Ghada Amer. Three Franz von Stuck drawings reveal him as the precursor of LeRoy Neiman’s Playboy cartoons. There are two drawings by Gustave Klimt, and two prime paintings by Philipp Pearlstein (below).
Like Peggy Guggenheim’s The Art of This Century gallery, ESMoA is a utopian attempt to reinvent the experience of art. The free admission, tarted-up installations, and open to the street plan encourages Main Streeters to duck in to see what the hell is going on. Once inside the visitor finds a tasting menu of art and is almost sure to find something to like. There are no gallery labels in favor of iPads and a mobile-device-friendly website keyed to numbers stenciled on the floor. Instead of telling the visitor what to think, the website poses questions (“Have you ever danced naked?”)
Living up to its billing as an art laboratory, ESMoA inverts the rules to see what happens. In the El Segundo Art Club, there are no rules.
The Getty Museum has announced two painting acquisitions: Rembrandt Laughing, an early and unusual self-portrait, and Canaletto’s The Grand Canal in Venice from Palazzo Flangini to Campo San Marcuola.
The Rembrandt is a small work on copper, about the size of an iPad’s screen. Rediscovered in 2007, it was initially believed to be the work of a follower. Scientific analysis convinced the Rembrandt Research Project—and the Getty—that’s it’s by the master. The main catch at the moment is that it needs a British export license. It’s still possible that a British institution could raise the funds to buy it instead of the Getty.
If all works out, it will make five Rembrandt paintings in the Getty collection, and of course it’s their only self-portrait. It’s also the only known self-portrait in military costume. The gorget (neck armor) recalls that in the Getty’s Old Man in Military Costume, painted a couple of years later.
The Canaletto, which has been on view at the Getty as a loan, becomes the museum’s only signature Venice view by the artist. In 1991 the Getty bought a large Grand Canal, formerly in the Lehman collection, as a Canaletto. That painting is now understood to be by Bernardo Bellotto.
The new Canaletto makes a near-perfect match with the Getty’s Guardi Grand Canal. The two are virtually the same size and show nearly the same location, though the Canaletto is about thirty years earlier.
For comparison, here’s the Guardi.
“The very rich are different from you and me,” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote. “Very rich” describes the Huntington clan, subject of a new book by Shelley M. Bennett, The Art of Wealth: The Huntingtons in the Gilded Age. Arabella Huntington would have intrigued Fitzgerald above all. Born to humble circumstances in Virginia, she married into the Huntington railroad fortune (twice). Her riches bought her paintings by van der Weyden, Velázquez, Rembrandt, and Vermeer; they failed to buy her acceptance in the starchiest social circles of either coast.
Arabella’s saga also demonstrates just how much wealthier today’s one percenters are compared to their predecessors of the Gilded Age. In 1900 Collis Huntington died leaving Arabella a tax-free $15 million. That made her America’s wealthiest woman. Allow for a century-plus of inflation and it’s the equivalent of about half a billion now.
Today America’s wealthiest woman is Alice Walton. Forbes puts her net worth at $26.3 billion.
The Huntington Library’s Munger Research Center is named for a benefactor who’s richer than Arabella and Henry Huntington put together. But Charlie Munger is #1268 on Forbes‘ list of billionaires.
Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard (1950): “Shut up, I’m rich! I’m richer than all this new Hollywood trash! I’ve got a million dollars.”
Morgan Fisher’s Phi Phenomenon (1968) is an 11-minute film of a clock in real time, lacking even the high concept of a second hand. It’s more on the order of Warhol’s Empire than Christian Marclay’s crowd-pleasing Clock, yet it’s a rarely screened nexus connecting those two monuments of potential cinema. Very patient cinephiles will be pleased to know that MOCA is showing Phi Phenomenon this Thursday, May 9, as part of a Los Angeles Filmforum program, “Time as Material.”
The Huntington’s Virginia Steele Scott Galleries of American Art will have a lot of wall space to fill when it occupies additional space in summer 2014. This year’s Art Collectors Council has purchased two sizable paintings: George Luks’ The Breaker Boys (c. 1925) and Reginald Marsh’s The Locomotive (c. 1935). Each measures about five feet at largest dimension. Both paintings go on view tomorrow and will be on display through early August.
The Luks sold for $170,500 at Sotheby’s in December 2011. With its eerie light and faceless trio of child laborers, it’s an American take on Goya’s The Forge.
The Marsh is a quintessential machine-age subject in the old-fashioned medium of fresco. The artist made this and another portable fresco, Gathering the Mail, in connection with a mural commission for the Post Office Building in Washington, DC. Marsh’s Locomotive predates Charles Sheeler’s Rolling Power by four years.
P.S. Should you prefer four-legged horses to the iron kind, the Huntington has also added a unique Carleton Watkins album, reports Tyler Green. It’s 27 circular prints of the San Gabriel Valley estate of L.J. Rose, donated by the latter’s great grandson. Below is Watkins’ portrait of one of Rose’s prize horses, “Sir Guy.”