The Gardner Heist: Blame the Grateful Dead

The infamous empty frames at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

The infamous empty frames at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

On March 18, 1990, the greatest art heist in history occurred.

At 1:24 am, two men wearing police uniforms walked up to the entrance of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. One of the men pressed the buzzer near the door. “Police! Let us in,” he said. “We heard about a disturbance in the courtyard.” Inside, the guard buzzed them in.

“You look familiar,” one of the officers said to the guard. “I think we have a warrant for your arrest.”

The security guard, Rick Abath, a recent dropout out of the Berklee College of Music, was worried. He feared that if arrested, he would not be in court until the next day, and he had tickets to a Grateful Dead concert in Hartford for that night.

For a self-professed hippie and Deadhead, Abath was determined to not miss the concert. He stepped away from behind the desk, and away from the only alarm button in the museum that could alert the police.

“You’re not being arrested, this is a robbery,” one of the burglars said.

Abath was told to summon the other guard on duty. He did so, and after that, the two men were taken to the basement where their hands, feet, and heads were duct taped. Set forty feet away from each other, they were then handcuffed to the pipes.

In the span of thirty minutes, as Abath hummed the Bob Dylan song, “I Shall be Released,” the thieves made off with five hundred million dollars worth of art – the largest theft of private property in America’s history.

Although it would be naive to say that the Gardner had been ripped of the heart of its collection – their Italian Renaissance paintings are highly prized – it is still, no doubt, a travesty that two of their undisputed masterpieces were taken.

It would be further naive of me to operate on the basis that these two masterpieces – Rembrandt’s “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee” and Vermeer’s “The Concert” – are what constitutes the only works worth knowing or mentioning about from the hoard of stolen artworks. In fact, the thieves stole no less than a Vermeer, three Rembrandts, five Degas’, a Manet, an ancient Chinese bronze beaker, and a bronze Napoleonic finial.

It it is the last two, the “eccentric” works from the haul, that are so often derided by the press. Commonly, the thieves are lambasted as dull-wits for their – let’s face it – odd selection of artworks. Clearly, as some have said, this was not a well thought out robbery; the robbers were obviously not art connoisseurs. Instead of taking works by Degas which hardly would go for much on the art market, or the two curious objects already mentioned, the thieves could have stolen the Gardner’s crown jewel, “The Rape of Europa” by Titian. From a monetary perspective, “Europa” alone is likely worth more than Rembrandt’s “Galilee” or Vermeer’s “The Concert.” But that’s the enduring mystery of the Gardner heist: we may never know why the robbers chose to steal the artworks they did.

However, that’s not to say the ones they did steal are entirely insignificant. In fact, one of the two “eccentric” choices is hugely symbolic. In the case of the finial, it is a bronze eagle that would have sat atop one of Napoleon’s famous standards (in other words, a regimental flag), which would have been carried into battle by his powerful Grande Armee that subdued much of Europe during the early 1800’s. For opposing forces, to capture an “eagle” would have been a great and unusual accomplishment. It was a surefire way to gain notoriety and a promotion for a soldier. Despite this symbolic importance, I doubt the robbers knew much about it though. It’s more likely they mistook the bronze for gold.

Napoleonic flag finial.

The Napoleonic flag finial.

On the other hand, I can’t say what importance the bronze beaker could have possibly had to the thieves. The vessel dates back to the Shang dynasty, 1200-1100 B.C. Due to its age, it was the oldest artwork taken by the robbers. The function of the beaker was for drinking wine or as a means of making an offering to a god or spirit in memory of those who have perished. Quite why the looters wanted the object, given its somewhat feeble monetary value, is baffling.

The odd Chinese beaker.

The odd Chinese beaker.

But those are the two irregular objects, the other stolen works are more substantial in importance.

One of these works is a Dutch landscape painting once thought to be by Rembrandt. It is “Landscape with an Obelisk,” now attributed to Govaert Flinck, an artist who once studied under Rembrandt.

Flinck worked in Rembrandt’s studio, a place where numerous 17th century Dutch artists such as Samuel Van Hoogstraten, Carel Fabritius, and Nicolaes Maes studied. Flinck worked there during 1631-2, in step with Rembrandt’s most prosperous period in Amsterdam. Apparently, it would seem that Flinck is only noteworthy for imitating Rembrandt in his style so much so, that one of Flinck’s self-portraits was commonly thought to be by the master himself.

In 1900, at the time “Landscape with an Obelisk” was bought by Isabella Stewart Gardner (a female patron of the arts responsible for the collection at the Gardner), she said, “I really don’t adore Rembrandt. I only like him.” Of course, in 1980, the attribution to Rembrandt was refuted, and quite rightly so. To think that the painting was bought through Bernard Berenson, that “self-deluded” scholar who pioneered connoisseurship, and invented the market for Old Masters, is curious indeed, because the painting does not even depict Holland at all.

“Landscape with an Obelisk,” Govaert Flinck.

The landscape itself is strange. The distant mountains in the background and the enormous trees do not scream Holland. The painting does resemble Rembrandt’s own landscapes from the 1630’s, but it does not match in quality “The Mill,” once thought to be “the most famous landscape in the world” by one 19th century collector, and once sought after by Gardner.

No doubt, it is possible the thieves – in a hurry – may have stolen the Flinck under the suspicion that it was also by Rembrandt.

They also stole a self-portrait done as an etching by Rembrandt. Rembrandt is widely celebrated for his series of self-portraits he did throughout his life, and it is a shame that one so fine as the one stolen, will likely never be seen again. And as far as etching goes, Rembrandt was the master. Perhaps only Whistler could match him.

“A Lady and Gentleman in Black,” Rembrandt.

One of the towering Rembrandt paintings that was stolen from the Dutch Room was a double portrait, “A Lady and Gentleman in Black.” This was produced during Rembrandt’s commercial phase in Amsterdam, and it’s sitters are the aristocracy of that port city; the haven of trade during Holland’s Golden Age during the 17th century. The map on the wall in the background is a familiar motif in Dutch painting at this time, and it probably indicates that the “gentleman” was a merchant loaded with cash and vanity to boot; a man finally ready to show off his new-found wealth and respectable wife. But the painting possesses a masters touch: look at the faces. The woman seems pious, almost as if she can see a heavenly light radiate from the windows. The man in black seems more sensitive, less masculine. Through their faces, it’s as if Rembrandt foresees the tragic inevitability of tragedy. For a painter often compared to Shakespeare due to his humanity, you expect no less.

The other towering painting depicts a momentous subject: the biblical event of “Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee” (also the title of the painting). It’s a picture that shows the power of art. Rembrandt paints with skill in this one, but what is truly powerful is the weight of human drama – we can sense the huge crash of the waves, the tearing apart of the sail, and the disciple vomiting into the ocean. We can feel their fear – at that moment in time, almost everyone knows where the boat is going: the perilous rocks in the lower left foreground. Its human existence pitted against nature, but faith will win this time. Christ is the only one at ease during the storm, and he will soon rise to calm the sea of Galilee.

“Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee,” Rembrandt.

But if you look close enough, you might recognize one face. Yes, that’s Rembrandt clinging the rope and looking out at us. It is a masterful touch in a masterful painting. Rembrandt enables the sense of burgeoning drama: the fragility and the impending all at once. This is Rembrandt’s only seascape. Personally, it’s one of my favorite paintings; if only I could see it.

Some of the other works that were stolen are less fabulous.

As I already mentioned, five works by Degas were stolen. Practically speaking, they are relatively insignificant. All of them are afterthoughts in the world of Degas scholarship, if they are mentioned at all. Nevertheless, they were on public display. These sometimes unfinished works depict everyday scenes; subjects like horse racing and the ballet – two favorite muses for Degas. I will admit, one of them, a work produced with charcoal on white paper, does possess some playful draughtsmanship, which only the French can seem to do well (Matisse is an obvious example). Still, these five rudimentary works by Degas may be of value to only avid collectors or scholars, not the general public I would imagine.

“Program for an artistic soiree,” Degas.

“Chez Tortoni,” Manet.

And of course, there was also the Manet that was stolen. An oil painting, it depicts a French dandy drawing on a sketchpad at a Parisian cafe. Apparently, the cafe was one of Manet’s haunts. How interesting.

I wish I could say that was all. Unfortunately, the thieves still something more valuable, a work that really is priceless: a Vermeer.

All I have to do is mention the name. It almost doesn’t matter what the title of the painting is, the fact that it was painted by Vermeer warrants interest enough. Vermeer was not a prolific artist by any means; only 35 or 36 of his works exist.

What is so miraculous about “The Concert” (and all of Vermeer’s output really) is how still it is. Vermeer himself was the father of at least ten children, and his life was plagued by financial troubles, wars, floods, and a general rat race to the top. His life, in reality, was not as tranquil as his pictures. And this is what is so precious about “The Concert:” it’s a window into other people’s lives depicted with a surprising intensity. The musicians are minutely preoccupied with their music – they seem to have no idea that someone else is looking at them. Like the film director, Alfred Hitchcock, voyeurism is a theme of Vermeer’s work, and it’s an implied way of looking at his paintings that one gradually gathers after a while.

There’s also the painting-within-a-painting (another common usage of Vermeer’s). In the upper right hand corner, a scene suggests illicit sex. In fact, we now know that the painting is “The Procuress,” by the Dutch painter Dirck van Baburen. And fascinatingly enough, the painting once belonged to Vermeer’s mother-in-law.

The subtle lighting is also unforgettable. It sparkles off the women’s pearls, the gold threads of the man’s sash, the white silk skirt, and the Persian carpet heaped on the table.

It’s, in short, a magnificent painting. It may be my favorite Vermeer, but of course, I’ve never seen it. And I doubt I ever shall.

It would be unfair of me to be harsh on the security guard, Rick Abath, but it is still a fact that the paintings are missing. Still, he was, after all, “just this hippie guy who wasn’t hurting anything, wasn’t on anybody’s radar, and the next day I was on everybody’s radar for the largest art heist in history.”

If only it hadn’t been for the Grateful Dead, Rick.


Why the Elgin Marbles Should Stay in London

Last week, the Greek government declared that they will not be suing the British Museum over their prized collection of renowned sculptures, the Elgin Marbles, which once adorned the Parthenon; a Greek temple that stands as possibly ancient Greece’s greatest creation. The reasoning behind the decision, according to Greece’s culture minister, is simple: “You cannot go to court over every issue… Besides, in international courts, the outcome is uncertain.”

This does not mean though that Greece has admitted defeat – far from it. As he went on to say, “The road to reclaiming the return of the sculptures is diplomatic and political.” Greece is in it for the long haul, but at what costs? According to the British public, which generally favors a return of the sculptures, not much. But I believe there’s much to be lost, especially in this feud that tends to favor emotion over logic; nationalism over internationalism, and falsehoods over reality.

The sculptures themselves were crafted by the greatest sculptor of the time, Pheidias. They were meant to decorate the Parthenon’s exterior. Built through the spoils of war, the Parthenon is a symbol of past Athenian power and glory. It is a testament to the greatness of Athens in ancient times, with its invention of democracy and immortal historical figures such as philosophers like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle; playwrights like Sophocles, Aeschylus and Aristophanes; and historians like Herodotus and Thucydides. As one of the world’s most majestic and recognizable structures, it is the foremost example of the grandeur of Doric architecture. As a result of its iconic imagery, the Parthenon is even incorporated into the UNESCO logo.

Despite my protests, I do think those wishing a return of the sculptures do possess some sound arguments. I would like to outline a few crucial factors in their stance, along with the points of those who do not want to see the sculptures go back to Athens. These are the arguments commonly brought forth by each respective side:

THE ARGUMENTS FOR (The Restitutionists)

– Ethically, you cannot deny modern Greeks objects that are symbolic of their rich, ancient past. Ancient Greece invented democracy, the Olympics, and literary forms such as the comedy and tragedy. The ancient Greeks quite possibly perfected the depiction of the human form in sculpture. And as well, they have left the enduring legacy of architecture as an art form – the Parthenon being the prime icon of this achievement. Ultimately, to deprive a nation of its pride is tragic. Thus, the Elgin marbles should be returned to Greece; the genesis of their creation.

– Furthermore, Greece can house these sculptures in the Acropolis Museum. Therefore, the sculptures in London can be reunited with the remaining marbles in their original layout. Visitors could see the sculptures against the backdrop of the Parthenon.

– The sculptures have suffered damage while under the stewardship of the British Museum. Attempts by the BM to conserve them, using sandpaper, chisels and acid, caused damage beyond repair.

– It is questionable whether Lord Elgin was ever truly given permission to remove the sculptures in the first place. Many would say the taking of the marbles was an act of cultural vandalism. In fact, the taking of cultural treasures is so intertwined with Lord Elgin’s legacy, that the term “Elginism” is a part of the English vernacular.


– Returning the Elgin Marbles would set a legal precedent. The British Museum, under the authority granted to them by the British government, is in full possession of the sculptures. They cannot legally return items from their collection: “The Trustees of the British Museum holds it collections in perpetuity by virtue of the power vested in them by the British Museum Act (1963).” If the sculptures were to be returned, who’s to say that other museums might not have to give back their legally obtained artworks as well? This would make for a “slippery slope,” as the statute of limitation pertaining to the sculptures has long since ceased.

– Even if the sculptures were to be repatriated, many of the original sculptures have succumbed to the ravages of decay and loss. A layout of the sculptures in Athens would never be complete.

– In contrast, the British have protected their Parthenon sculptures from the air pollution of Athens and the hostility that occurred during the Greek War of Independence. It was in this conflict that the Parthenon was used as munitions store by the Ottomans, and subsequently attacked by opposing forces.

– Lord Elgin was able to secure a royal decree from the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire to take what sculptures he wanted to. Though the original document is lost, a version translated into Italian and then into English says: “when they wish to take away any pieces of stone with old inscriptions or figures thereon, that no opposition be made thereto.”

– Where else, in Athens, their set of Parthenon sculptures can be seen in their homeland, and against the backdrop of the Parthenon itself; in London, the Elgin Marbles can be seen in the wider context of world history, and how the sculptures influenced other civilizations, or how Ancient Greece differed from, say, Ancient Egypt. The marbles at the British Museum are a vital part in this story.

Those are the main arguments of the issue at hand. However, this is a saga that is shrouded in numerous misconceptions. The first of these is the would-be perpetrator of the crime, Lord Elgin.

Such is the fervor that surrounds the extraction of the sculptures from the Parthenon at the hands of an imperialistic Englishman, that many simply assume Elgin stole some of these mighty emblems of Athenian power.

Of course, A) Elgin was a Scotsman, not an Englishman, and, B) he was clearly not a thief.

Indeed, this is what is so frustrating about the debate. Elgin has been shafted in such a manner by the public and media, that too many disregard the good intentions he had and the positive results of his actions.

The level of hatred that has been directed at Elgin truly surprises me. Bizarrely, a classics scholar at Cambridge has said, “If Elgin today had went and dismantled a building immensely precious to another country’s identity, we would regard him in the same light as we regard Nazi’s stripping places that they occupied.” It’s as if Elgin were the Benedict Arnold of the art world; a historic figure who is not the byword of betraying one’s country necessarily, but the personification of malicious art thievery.

And therein lies the rub. Yes, Elgin is a continually lambasted figure in a decidedly hot-button issue, but like Arnold, his legacy is more complicated than most initially think.

In 1799, Lord Elgin took up his post as Ambassador to the Sublime Porte (Istanbul). At this point in time during the history of mainland Greece, it was then part of the Ottoman Empire and had been since the Ottomans invaded and captured Athens in 1456. So, by the time Elgin decided to have some of the sculptures removed from Athens, much of Greece had been under Ottoman rule for nearly 400 years. That’s far from an “occupation” as some would say of Turkey’s historic rule in Greece.

And another misconception: Elgin wanted these sculptures as decoration for his Scottish estate.

Actually, what Elgin wanted to do was to make casts and drawings of the Parthenon available to British artists. He wanted exposure of ancient Greek art in Britain. To this end, he assembled an array of artists who began work in Athens in 1800. Far from being uncultured, Elgin was a man of the Enlightenment.

And yes, the castings and drawings did serve a dual purpose. They were indeed used to help furnish examples for the decoration of his estate.

Yet, there’s another glaring misconception.

It is one which alleges that Lord Elgin obtained the sculptures through the use of bribery and corruption.

Again, that’s a myth. He did not purchase or steal the sculptures from the Parthenon, but was given them as a diplomatic gesture. He received a firman (license and letter of instruction) in gratitude for Britain’s defeat of French forces in Ottoman Egypt. Furthermore, its presentation to the local authorities in Athens was accompanied by a high-ranking official who participated in the application of the firman. No one challenged Elgin, because he was able to lawfully take the sculptures as granted by the Sultan.

Elgin did give gifts to the Sultan and his circle, along with the authorities in Athens. However, this was the custom at the time. Even Elgin received gifts from the Sultan in return. A more modern interpretation of these “bribes” is akin to that of giving a tip to a waiter: they helped speed work along, and Elgin didn’t want to be rude to the Ottomans.

Now, at this point, you’re probably wondering why Elgin removed the sculptures to begin with. The reason is that they weren’t being taken care of properly. Ottoman soldiers would regularly hack off arms or legs from the sculptures to sell to tourists interested in the mysterious Grecian wonders before them. Otherwise, the sculptures were being used as target practice, or being grounded down to sell for lime. In addition, a mosque could be found inside the pillars of the site.

After a powder magazine had exploded inside the Parthenon from being besieged by the Venetians in 1687, it was a ruin. Besides Western tourists, no one seemed to understand the importance of the Parthenon and its sculptures.

Clearly, though, Lord Elgin did understand their importance.

He went to great lengths to transport the marbles to Britain. The events that unfolded were tumultuous and led to him going bankrupt.

First, a shipment of the marbles was lost at sea, and had to be salvaged two years later (none of the sculptures were lost). Obviously, that was a costly undertaking.

But his most disastrous decision was to take a detour via Paris, while not knowing that war between Britain and France had broken out again. He was then under house arrest in France for three years. While being released by the French, he made a deal with them saying that, if summoned, he would return to France. In England, this made him unemployable in regards to getting another position as a diplomat.

To make matters worse, when he returned to Britain, he discovered that his wife was having an affair with a neighbor of his. The ensuing divorce caused considerable public scandal.

Furthermore, his health had been destroyed while serving as an ambassador in Constantinople. Plagues, fevers, melanoma, and syphilis afflicted him. In particular, his case of syphilis was most serious because it caused disfigurement in an unfortunate spot: his nose. Part of it had to be cut off.

Virtually penniless, Elgin was in dire straits. A series of bad decisions and extremely poor luck cost him financially. Despite this, he still wanted to have the sculptures housed in the British Museum in London. To cover his expenses, he had asked for a high offer, but the British government did not see fit to match it. He could have accepted other high offers, especially one from Napoleon, but he was adamant that the sculptures should benefit British culture specifically.

The matter of acquiring the sculptures was not at all straightforward. A debate in the House of Commons was held regarding the subject, and a special committee was formed to make sure that the objects were legally obtained. After rigorous examination, the committee was satisfied that they were. In 1816, the British Museum acquired the Parthenon sculptures.

Their effect on the general public, artists, and even European powers cannot be underestimated. The sculptures greatly contributed to a revival of interest in ancient Greek culture. Their weathered state set them a part from the more pristine Roman copies that academics and connoisseurs admired at the time.

The Romantic poet, John Keats, described his reaction to the marbles thus:

My spirit is too weak—mortality
   Weighs heavily on me like unwilling sleep,
   And each imagined pinnacle and steep
Of godlike hardship tells me I must die
Like a sick eagle looking at the sky.
   Yet ’tis a gentle luxury to weep
   That I have not the cloudy winds to keep
Fresh for the opening of the morning’s eye.
Such dim-conceived glories of the brain
   Bring round the heart an undescribable feud;
So do these wonders a most dizzy pain,
   That mingles Grecian grandeur with the rude
Wasting of old time—with a billowy main—
   A sun—a shadow of a magnitude.

However, his celebrity counterpart, Lord Byron, saw the taking of the sculptures in a much different light:

“Blind are the eyes that do not shed tears while seeing, O, Greece beloved, your sacred objects plundered by profane English hands that have again wounded your aching bosom and snatched your gods, gods that hate England’s abominable north climate.”

(If you must ask, I prefer Keats to Byron – Keats is more inspiring with his melancholy fantasies).

And this is where the debate gets messy. The Restitutionists love to quote that passage from Byron, but the notion that the sculptures would have been better off in Greece is definitely a romantic one. Byron, as a poet, would have preferred to have seen the marbles disintegrate than be preserved. Ruins were a muse for Romantic poets and artists in the early 1800’s, but most scholars today agree that if the sculptures had stayed in Athens, they would be in much worse condition than they are now.

“AHA! Not so fast,” the Restitutionist exclaims. If I was engaged in a debate with one right now, they would cite the British Museum’s “horrible” cleaning of the sculptures in 1938.

The truth is, they would be right in saying that the cleaning was “horrible” to a certain extent. However, in 1938, chisels, chemicals and brass wire brushes were – as abhorrent as it may sound now – standard practice. In point of fact, a conference involving both British and Greek scholars in 1999 came to the agreement that the practices used in 1938 (although unauthorized by the BM) were common at the time. It was also revealed in this same conference that the Greek Archaeological Service had employed the same methods for decades. For example, in 1953, the Greeks used steel chisels and brass wire brushes on a frieze of the Parthenon’s sister temple in Athens, the Hephaisteion.

Simply put, the problem with conservation sometimes is that conservators might have to revert the mistakes of previous hands – what practice which may seem fashionable and beneficial now, may in the future be deemed as harmful.

“BUT,” the Restitutionist loudly declares, “the Hephaeisteion is not the Parthenon; the Parthenon has been treated so well by the Greeks since their independence.”

That is a wrong assumption. If my dear Restitutionist wants more examples, I can gladly show how uncaring the Greeks – until fairly recently – have been to the Parthenon. In fact, in the immortal words of Lou Reed, let’s take a “walk on the wild side.”

In the 1920’s and 1930’s, Nikolaos Balanos endangered the Parthenon and its parts by his restoration work. His method of stapling fragments together using iron bars that eventually corroded and expanded, causing the marble to split and shatter, was terribly damaging. Indeed, his practices were not even conventional for that time, and certainly ran counter to the how the ancient Greeks handled their structures.

In addition, the marbles left by Elgin rapidly deteriorated over the years. Atmospheric pollution greatly added to this noticeable decrease in quality. After sculptures that had remained on the west pediment were lifted down in 1977, one Greek scholar noted how “the industrial pollution of modern Athens had wreaked havoc upon their delicate surface.”

If the sculptures were to be returned to Athens, and set side by side against each other, the inferior condition of the marbles not taken by Elgin would be readily apparent.

But the most messy business in this whole affair is the subject of modern Greeks and how they have some moral right to their sculptures. The problem is, this claim would never hold up in court. The world-leading cultural property expert, Professor John Henry Merryman of Stanford University, concluded that the “modern state of Greece has no legal, moral, or ethical case for the return of the marbles.”

Still, it’s odd that the Greeks would make this claim. Given how 2,500 years separate modern Greeks from those of Pericles, it’s really a trifle to suggest that they deserve their sculptures. I think the blood in the veins of contemporary Greeks is much different than it was in the 5th century B.C. Much migration and intermarriage has occurred during that long span of time.

To me, Greek nationalism is the root problem of this whole debate. It panders to the emotions, and not logic.

Tellingly, the official Greek position almost never makes no mention of the Parthenon sculptures that are housed in collections around Europe, besides the British Museum. The framework of the case for restitution is entirely focused on those that belong to the British. The truth is, many of the sculptures can be found in museums in Paris, Vienna, the Vatican, Munich, Wurzburg, and Copenhagen. The marbles at the British Museum might be especially important, yet to single the British out when numerous sculptures can be found in other museums is absurd. Call me a cynic, but it shows to me that Greek government is primarily interested in the positive publicity such a return of the sculptures would turn out to be in Greece.

Nevertheless, I must quit for the moment debunking myths and discrediting the Greek position, and instead advance why I think the marbles should stay in London. I believe my reasoning is quite simple.

The official position that the British Museum often takes is that the marbles play a vital function in their comprehensive and encyclopedic collection in London. It’s apparent to me that the sculptures can their own place in the context of world history at the British Museum, while the sculptures in Athens can be seen against the backdrop of the Parthenon itself. It’s important that the sculptures can be seen free of charge, in the second most visited art museum in the world (the Acropolis Museums is not even in the Top 50). I’m usually not a fan of utilitarian arguments, but for such iconic objects as the Parthenon sculptures, they must really be seen by the most people possible. Certainly, I personally would not have seen them twice if the Elgin Marbles were not in London.

Plus, the bogus argument that the sculptures would not cause the return of other works of art is quite reckless. Greece politicians have gone on record asking for the return of Bassai sculptures in the British Museum, the Nike of Samothrace and Venus de Milo, both in the Louvre, and the Aigina sculptures in Munich.

Combine this with the fact that the sculptures were legally acquired, and are free to see and are seen by many, then the decision to keep the Elgin Marbles in London is obvious to me.

But it would be so classy to return the sculptures!

I really hate to go against Stephen Fry on this one. I greatly respect the man, but he’s wrong. This tactic to appeal to the emotions is sometimes necessary, but it diverts attention away from the facts. His comments are primarily based on the self-deprecating feelings the British seem to have in regards to their imperial past. It’s important to remember that, while the British Museum is a witness of empire, it is not an instrument of empire. Again, this is another pitiful case of nationalism getting in the way.


Look, he said the “Pantheon,” not the Parthenon. They’re two different things.

The Red Shoes: Against Realism

“Why do you want to dance?”

“Why do you want to live?”

This exchange between an obsessive impresario and a strong-willed ballerina is the heart of The Red Shoes; the most beautiful film I have ever seen. I could begin to wax poetic about its painterly cinematography and all its other noteworthy elements – production design, acting, special effects, etc. – but I won’t; not yet at least. For the beauty of this film, to me, lies somewhere else. It is in that very exchange I mentioned earlier.

It’s a quote that may seem odd at first glance. Why should an art form, such as the ballet you may think, be elevated to life or death status? This is the main question I have pondered when I have watched this film; a Technicolor picture released in 1948, and written, produced and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.

Whenever the subject of filmmaking partnerships is seldom brought up, the Coen Brothers, usually and rightfully so, are the go-to example. More though should be familiar with the British-Hungarian filmmaking partnership, Powell and Pressburger. The most notable fruits of their collaboration were made during the 1940’s in Britain. During this time, they created a slew of masterpieces. Films such as The Life and Death of Colonel BlimpA Matter of Life or Death, and Black Narcissus were fascinatingly subversive – and sometimes controversial – films made during Britain’s film-making golden age. This period included Oliver Twist, The Third Man, Brief Encounter, Henry V, Kind Hearts and Coronets, and the Powell and Pressburger films – classics that go a long way in defining British cinema.

Out of all these justly famous films, The Red Shoes, in addition, is the most artful and subversive. It is possibly The Archers’ (the name of Powell and Pressburger’s production company) greatest accomplishment.

The premise of the story, at first glance, may seem common enough. It’s a film about the backstage life of a ballerina; a subject which, even if there are not too many films about the ballet, there are surely plenty of movies about the behind-the-scenes life of a movie production or play for instance. Nevertheless, the young ballerina, Vicky Page (Moira Shearer), is determined to become a star ballet dancer. In her search for stardom, she is noticed by an imposing, but elegant impresario named Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook). She wins a position, as does a young composer, Julian Craster (Marius Goring), who had only come to Lermontov’s attention by complaining that his composition had been stolen by the company’s conductor.

When the head ballerina announces her engagement, Lermontov, for fear of losing control – and worried that the dancer will not be devoted anymore to the “religion” that is the ballet –  fires her. Lermontov creates a new ballet, and Vicky is given the lead part and Craster the score. Opening night is in three weeks.

The ballet is based on a fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen. It’s called The Red Shoes. Boris Lermontov, marvelously played by Anton Walbrook, summarizes the story so:

It is the story of a girl who who’s devoured by an ambition to attend a dance in a pair of red shoes. She gets the shoes, goes to the dance. At first, all goes well and she’s very happy. At the end of the evening, she gets tired and wants to go home. But the red shoes are not tired. In fact, the red shoes are never tired. They dance her out into the streets. They dance her over the mountains and valleys, through fields and forests, through night and day. Time rushes by. Love rushes by. Life rushes by. But the red shoes dance on… In the end, she dies.

Of course, the script, primarily written by Emeric Pressburger, is also marvelous. The script works on multiple levels. But the one point I should mention for right now is the conflict of interests between the trio of Vicky, Lermontov and Craster. Craster loves Vicky, and Vicky loves Craster. He loves her as a person; he wants her soul. But Lermontov loves her as a perfect, physical embodiment of his sacred devotion to the ballet. Since Lermontov is a homosexual, he wants her body not out of sexual lust, but through the knowledge that he knows no one else can wear the red shoes in his greatest creation, led by his greatest discovery, Vicky. And this is the decision that Vicky must make: whether she wants to continue to wear the red shoes, or continue her romance with Craster. It literally becomes a life or death decision.

At the crux of this decision is the enigmatic Boris Lermontov. Played by the too under-appreciated Austrian actor, Anton Walbrook, his performance deserves to be highlighted. One of the great strengths of the Powell and Pressburger films is the talented array of actors that are often showcased. Walbrook was a great casting choice, and he near perfectly encapsulates the essence of the control freak, Boris Lermontov; an impresario with an almost religious devotion to the ballet, and a God-like sense of entitlement. When told he cannot change human nature, he retorts, “you can do better, you can ignore it completely.” Lermontov’s world, in which he glides through with perfect manners that mask his contempt, is all about his source of meaning in life: the ballet, and thus his pawn, Vicky.

Played by Moira Shearer, Michael Powell would later remark on her beauty by saying, “her cloud of red hair, as natural and beautiful as any animal’s, flamed and glittered like an autumn bonfire.” As far as his films go, Powell had a penchant for redheads, and Shearer was no less an exception. She was, in real life, an actual ballet dancer, and it shows in the film. A consummate actress and dancer with an air of naivete about her, who, despite The Red Shoes being her first film appearance, was so successful on screen partially because she was a natural.

But, beyond controlling impresarios and devoted ballerinas, there’s another reason why The Red Shoes is a film classic, and it has much to do with a 15 minute sequence in the film that tested and stretched the capability of film as an art form in 1948. It is the ballet sequence of The Red Shoes. Photographed by Jack Cardiff, a cinematographer whose credits include classics such as Black Narcissus and The African Queen, but also pectoral epics like Rambo: First Blood Part II and Conan the Destroyer; the sequence is, in short, astonishing. Here, the enchanting palette of Technicolor is rendered with the utmost care, imagination, and painterly sophistication. I would even dare to say its utilization in the hands of Cardiff is Technicolor at its apex. There are few films I can think of that could possibly better it. Possibly Jean Renoir’s The River is more artful in its handling of Technicolor. Of course, this all goes without mentioning Cardiff’s other two collaborations with Powell and Pressburger, A Matter of Life or Death and Black Narcissus – films which contain successive images that, due to their sheer pictorial quality, are more comparable to the color and style that only a top-notch painting could seemingly achieve.

The director, Michael Powell, told his crew that, since the war was over, to “shoot the works.” It was in this environment of liberation that The Red Shoes was made – and it shows. The surreal vistas conjured up by the art director, Hein Heckroth, served as the fantastical backdrops for the dreamlike ballet sequence. The doomed ballerina dances among the descending cellophane, intermingling with bohemian hordes, and swirling through the ecstatic, painterly light; all of which is underpinned by a pulsating musical score. But what makes this sequence so shocking in its audacity and virtuosity, is the way the viewer is left to see it.

Of course, one bathes in the splendor, but this sequence is seen from a particular point of view. It is primarily seen through the point of view of Vicky Page, the ballerina and protagonist. Think of it this way: Powell and Pressburger could have easily depicted the ballet through the eyes of the audience. Except, they didn’t do that. In fact, the only time the viewer is able to know that there is an audience is before the second act, when Vicky can hear the rapturous applause emanating from the seats. By representing the main sequence of the film in such a manner, the viewer is readily able to see the ballet through the eyes of the lead character. The action is not just an acknowledgement of a reality the viewer ought to know (i.e. shots of the audience), but visualization of the mind of the dancer (or artist) and the creative act. When Vicky sees the seats for an ocean, and hears the applause as waves crashing against the rocks, or takes a dancer for a spiraling newspaper; then it should hopefully become apparent how bold this film was in 1948. Not only that, in The Red Shoes, there is the world onstage and the world backstage. Two illusions are being dealt with at once; both with considerable artistry. I’m tempted to say this all makes many other current film classics look criminally unadventurous in comparison.

Even if most filmmakers have not ventured into such artistic territory, nevertheless, the film did have an effect on other filmmakers. Gene Kelly, the famed movie star dancer, and athletic counterpoint to Fred Astaire’s debonair ballroom tap dancing; had screened The Red Shoes several times for bigwigs at MGM. He wanted to include a lavish ballet sequence like in the film. The studio executives were right to be wary, for The American in Paris ballet sequence in Kelly’s beloved An American in Paris; became an expensive part of the film set to the music of George Gershwin. In contrast to The Red Shoes, Kelly’s lively copy of the ballet sequence is overtly elaborate in its efforts to bridge high art and popular music; perhaps the Impressionist decor is too obvious with the film’s connection to Paris. The nature of the ballet is just not nearly as expertly crafted as in The Red Shoes. Despite this, it’s still an enjoyable Hollywood musical. In fact, I do value its charming Gershwin numbers and adventurousness. Compared to its highly publicized counterpart, Singin’ in the Rain, I find it the more surprising picture.

Though, what is surprising about The Red Shoes is maybe too unnoticed, and too unheralded. In titling this essay, The Red Shoes: Against Realism, I hope it doesn’t seem too academic for the sake of just being esoteric. For, mainly, I should dislike to be seen as academic, but also because this film is definitely – I almost want to say, defiantly – anti-realist.

It’s peculiar, because The Red Shoes was released in 1948, not far after the war. Knowledge of this period in film history would show that, to not respond (indirectly or directly) to the effects of war, would have been quite drastic. I think of, say, Italian neorealism, with its bleak depiction of Italian life. Even Hollywood in all its pulp glow could not resist the saturation of the world weary, alienated anti-heroes of film noir. Arising from a Britain that was once engulfed in nocturnal aerial attacks and the ensuing rubble, The Red Shoes must have initially appeared like some wild dream to audiences.

But it’s partially why I love this film. From the shot of the waxy, flaming candle in the opening credits, to the crazed eyes of the ballet dancer at the end; The Red Shoes is a truly beautiful film. It tears apart conventional standards of film-making – new and old – and does not settle for anything less than capturing a sense of cinematic wonder, or, more simply put: magic. It’s a balancing act of well crafted, multi-layered illusions; the filmmakers as creators of the film itself, the plot that mirrors the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale; Lermontov’s creation of the ballet; and, of course, the actual ballet.

In admiring The Red Shoes, there’s also another poignant reason why this is such a great and unique film. I began this essay by calling attention to an exchange between Lermontov and Vicky. It is, I feel, maybe more so than the ballet sequence, the heart of the film. Lermontov asking, “why do you want to dance” could just as well be a producer asking Powell and Pressburger, “why do you want to make a film?” Why this film? Well, “why do you want to live?”

It’s that do-or-die attitude towards art that I greatly admire about The Red Shoes. For that reason, it’s why there’s no other film I would feel more confident in citing as an example of cinema’s capability as an art, pitted right up against other art forms. Indeed, it wonderfully intertwines with fine art. The Red Shoes is as emotional and necessary as a Van Gogh masterpiece.

What is Englishness?

Stourhead garden.

Stourhead garden.

I believe it’s fair to say that English artists, especially those predating modernism, are seldom thought of in the same breadth as their past French and Italian counterparts for example. We think of excellent artists such as Michaelangelo, Da Vinci and Raphael, and realize, there were no artists of that stature in England at that time; there was little display of that iconography that was so despised by Henry VIII, which was typified by his ordering the wreckage of Catholic monasteries in England during the English Reformation.

Yet, ever since that dissolution of the monasteries where much art was lost, the English have responded by producing many wondrous and haunting works of art. Indeed, they have cultivated such a fertile imagination, that several facets of it have become synonymous with how people view English culture. In point of fact, outside the realm of painting, it would be hard to separate the sporty and jovial prose of P.G. Wodehouse, the sweet Baroque fountains and greens of “Brideshead Revisited,” and England’s picturesque countryside from our perception of that umbrella term that is Englishness.

To think of Englishness though, we have to go back to one of the earliest images fermented by the English imagination, which is that of the courtly cavalier during the reign of King Charles I. This, however, was not an image conjured up by an English artist. The artist responsible for the creation of this high society image was the Belgian, Anthony Van Dyck. Born in Antwerp in 1599, he would become an assistant to Peter Paul Rubens, the archetypal Baroque painter. However, Antwerp became too small for those two well-reputed artists. Van Dyck left his native city and soon found himself in great demand. He was so successful abroad in Italy especially, that he was noticed by the sophisticated English king, Charles I. Charles, a patron of the arts, was so impressed by his elegant handling, that he contrived for Van Dyck to become the leading artist of his stylish court. Shortly after his appointment, Van Dyck received a knighthood.

Knighted and immersed in Charles’ sumptuous Stuart court, Sir Anthony Van Dyck set to work in a completely different manner than that of the stiff and ornamental nature of Elizabethan portraiture that pervaded before him. Indeed, his style must have been something of a shock to his aristocratic sitters. His supple hand and flamboyant rendering of charismatic gestures matched the opulence of his subjects; quite the contrast to the sober tastes of the Elizabethan era. Van Dyck, it would seem, was a match made in heaven for the English aristocracy at that time.

Anthony Van Dyck, "Charles I at the Hunt," 1635.

Anthony Van Dyck, “Charles I at the Hunt,” 1635.

This heavenly match is illustrated in one of his best known works, the haughty “Charles I at the Hunt.” The king seems to defiantly stare at the viewer in the exact knowledge that he wields the Divine Right of Kings; that he is God’s manifestation. In this picture, it does seem like, to steal a phrase from the art critic Robert Hughes, “even God is an Englishman.” Charles I is seemingly God-like in this work, and Van Dyck makes no attempt to downplay this perception. Despite this however, he depicts Charles in a way that almost supersedes his divinely status; it’s as if he were the 17th century “King of Cool” in a way. Still, looking at Charles’ conceited gaze, I see the typically evoked English gentleman: pompous and self-assured. Seeing him depicted in such a manner, it’s as if he’s no different from the dignified Duke of Wellington for instance. In this sense, Van Dyck set the standard for what people visualize when they think of the refined English gentleman.

While it can be entirely debated whether Van Dyck really qualifies as an “English gentleman” himself, there can be no doubt that many of those who he depicted were that to the utmost degree, even to practically mythological proportions. It’s hard not to be impressed by the depictions such as he did for Charles I, but what surely enthralled English artists at the time was his capacity to depict the Stuart court with such nobility and charisma, that his images eventually became apart of England’s collective memory.

Anthony Van Dyck, "Lord John Stuart and his Brother, Lord Bernard Stuart," 1638.

Anthony Van Dyck, “Lord John Stuart and his Brother, Lord Bernard Stuart,” 1638.

There’s maybe no better example of Van Dyck’s debonair cavaliers, than that of a painting he did of “Lord John Stuart and his Brother, Lord Bernard Stuart.” These two young, suave teenagers were posing for Van Dyck just before going off on the Grand Tour; a rite of passage which would have seen them traversing the European Continent in search of its wonders and pleasures, both intellectual and sexual. They died some years later during the English Civil War.

Nevertheless, in the painting, they are depicted so dashingly by Van Dyck. The younger brother, Lord Bernard, is not even attempting to hide his showiness, as can be seen with his dapper silk suit and the glove on his hip. Meanwhile, he is contrasted by his practically boorish brother, Lord John, who instead of expounding his haughtiness like his other brother, is more absent-minded and duller in comparison. Either way, combined, they are most harmonious and striking. Van Dyck painted them with great aplomb. Though, when looking at these so very cavalier subjects, it’s important to remember that they are represented as they would have wanted to be; that is, a portrayal that would preserve their likeness, but also hide any ugliness that would make them look less attractive and convincing. But after all, as a newspaper man once said in a John Ford western, “when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Even though Van Dyck most certainly needed to embellish a bit, he was an artist who greatly contributed to how people perceive England’s past.

Strawberry Hill House

Strawberry Hill House

And when perceiving that past, you cannot forget its country houses. There’s one so quirky it could only be devised by the mind of some eccentric, well-off Englishman. The country house I speak of is the 18th century Strawberry Hill House and its mastermind was Horace Walpole, an English art historian, man of letters, and novelist.

Right off the bat, the name “Strawberry Hill” hints of the whimsicality of the occupant. Despite how trivial the name may appear, Walpole was serious in his convictions about designing a house that would be different from the two prevailing architectural styles of his time: the Palladian and the Rococo.

Palladian architecture was based on the writings and work of the 16th century Italian architect, Andreas Palladio. His tastes adhered to the graceful classical orders of antiquity. Many English architects attempted to imitate his manner; to them, to imitate the Palladian look was the sought after ideal. Now, on the other hand, there was the Rococo style. This approach – and I’ll be going into it in more detail later – was abhorred by the English. Its flippancy and hyperbolic decadence was a response to the robust drama of the Baroque style.

Example of Palladian architecture.




Walpole though, did not intend his house to be along the lines of a Palladian villa or a Rococo palace. As a man of leisure, he wanted to erect a building that would seem romantic and lighthearted; a reflection of his personality. He decided to resurrect the Gothic style as his blueprint for Strawberry Hill.

It was while in this gloomy grandeur that Walpole wrote the first Gothic novel, “The Castle of Otranto,” who’s literary descendants include such volumes as “Dracula,” “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “Rebecca.” He led the rebirth of the Gothic, a style that he reconfigured in such a way as to include the macabre; a sense of a foreboding atmosphere and the ever lurking horror of death.

Interior of Strawberry Hill House.

Interior of Strawberry Hill House.

But Strawberry Hill does not totally follow that conception. Walpole, in his wildly original vision, included a smattering of history throughout his house: there is the “Tudor” chimneys, “medieval” battlements, a chamber with Holbein drawings and distinctly Gothic arched windows dispersed throughout the house. He also intertwined elements from other Gothic monuments and buildings for inspiration, which can be seen by modelling a rose window after one in St. Paul’s Cathedral and a fireplace after a tomb from Canterbury Cathedral. Above all, Walpole intended to create “a picturesque journey from dark to light,” from the murky entrance hall and stairway, to the luminous Gallery, with its ceiling of gold and white plaster and red walls. Combined with the effort to showcase his collection of antiquarian objects, you can get a sense of Walpole’s kaleidoscopic imagination and how truly impressive it was. Strawberry Hill went on to influence many connoisseurs and students of architecture, thus aligning the direction of architecture with a more Gothic sensibility.


Stourhead garden.

To accentuate the qualities of a villa, often times, the surrounding landscape was considered so as to create a sort of Eden for those that were well-off at the time. It is evident in another popular perception of Englishness: that of a stately villa tucked away among ancient oak trees, winding lakes and weathered hedgerows during the sting of summer. This is possibly the most quintessential view of what many think of whenever England’s landscape is mentioned. Over time, this classic notion of cricket games and fox hunting held during a typical English summer has resulted in both endearment and revulsion. For the latter, this depiction may seem only a short step away from saying one of the most dreaded of sentimentally cliche phrases: “as English as a cup of tea.”

But as with many cliche perceptions, there was a point when it wasn’t entirely unoriginal. The mellow and sacred imagery of country greens and mute swans in secluded private lakes does have a basis in reality. These vistas were made a reality by Englishmen like William Kent and Henry Hoare II.

Garden at Rousham House, designed by William Kent.

Garden at Rousham House, designed by William Kent.

It is not at all a coincidence that, in the 18th century, the English should have perfected their own idealized paradise: the landscape garden. Numbed by the miles long Versaille hedges and alleyways that extended far beyond the domains of the actual palace, many Englishmen were shocked by the extravagance that they would have criticized as emblematic of the absurdity of the Rococo movement. They simply could not understand why the rest of Europe was so infatuated with the Rococo. To the English at the time, that movement was in completely bad taste and England was thus largely devoid of any signs of its presence. In contrast to the French, the English were more intrigued by seeing a landscape through the eyes of a painter.


Rousham House statue.

This is where minds like Kent and Hoare come in. The more notable of them, William Kent, was primarily responsible for the Palladian architectural elements and the “painterly eye” that were pivotal in English landscape gardening. His vistas of bridges, temples, statues of ancient Roman and Greek gods, were meant to add to the impression that a visitor were taking tour of a picturesque landscape, descending to the next temple or arcade in the next glade; all elements meant to represent the Roman campagna.

The Roman campagna was the subject of paintings by brilliant artists like Claude Lorrain. It was this artist that Kent and his admirers sought to emulate. They wanted to devise landscapes that might charm a painter’s eye. Their idea of nature was based on the paintings of Lorrain and this can be especially seen in the Stourhead gardens.

Claude Lorrain, "Pastoral Landscape: The Roman Campagna," 1639.

Claude Lorrain, “Pastoral Landscape: The Roman Campagna,” 1639.

The rustic gardens were designed by Henry Hoare II. The temple in the background is Palladian. Hoare had even dammed a stream on his estate, thereby creating a large lake. He had even acquired a painting, “Aeneas at Delon,” by the Baroque landscape artist Nicolas Poussin. Excerpts telling of Aeneas’s odyssey are quoted in the temples surrounding the lake. The pastoral gardens are striking in their pictorial qualities. The pastoral gardens pictorial qualities, with its obelisk tower, ruins and foliage give the impression that one is seeing a Utopian-type view of an Italian landscape. Due to a design that favors nature more than rampant artificiality, it makes for a perfect “idyllic” setting.

When thinking of England’s villas and surrounding gardens, you might also think of its well-bred horses; particularly, a horse and rider on an effervescent English afternoon. You likely know the type: an upper class rider clad in their equestrian apparel, such as a top hat and red riding jacket; possibly against the backdrop of some woods or valley. This contribution to the English imagination reached its apex in the work of a curmudgeon, Colonel Blimp-like artist, Sir Alfred Munnings, former president of the Royal Academy of Art.

He was indeed quite conservative in his tastes, and in particular, he was a most outspoken opponent of modern art. In a scene always associated with the man, Munnings made some acerbic remarks on modern artists in his retirement speech in 1949 at the Royal Academy of Art. Not only did the audience contain the then Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lord Chief Justice and Winston Churchill, but also millions of people listening over the BBC Radio.

Munnings, after having a few stiff drinks, lambasted modern art for its unconventional tastes. “If you paint a tree,” Munnings resoundingly declared, “for God’s sake make it look like a tree! If you paint a sky, for God’s sake make it look like a sky!” To his right, he motioned to his ally and crony, Winston Churchill: “I know he is with me because he once said to me, ‘Alfred, if you met that Picasso coming down the street, would you join with me in kicking his something something something? I said, ‘Yes sir! Yes I would!'”

Munnings was less out spoken in his art. By the very nature of his paintings, there is a quaintness to his so very sacred imagery, as if it were not just his Arcadia, but an Arcadia for him and his cronies.   While a landscape architect like Kent or a portrait painter like Van Dyck may create their own idealized paradises or portrayals of a person, in Munnings’ works, however, there’s a clear sense of how fine that line is between thoughtful idealization and insufferable adoration. Munnings’ oeuvre comprises an idyllic Albion, which looks just too easy to believe – if he really wanted to “paint a sky” befitting reality, then maybe he should have looked more at the work of John Constable than George Stubbs, because, to me, looking at Munning’s equestrian paintings is like deja vu – Stubbs and his like did this before. Horseflesh is often depicted, but, unlike Stubbs’ “Whistlejacket” for instance, the horses are often secondary to the riders. Munnings was neither adept at rendering skies, trees or horses. It’s art that was easy to fathom to his aristocratic audience and devoid of any real style. Compared to Van Dyck, Munnings is too much a copier of Stubbs and not even good enough to boot.

Maybe if he had looked beyond his nation, like Kent or Walpole, or brought something new to the cultural scene like Van Dyck, might Munnings have created works that are more than just easy to look at. The greatness of Strawberry Hill, the Stourhead gardens and the portraits of Van Dyck did not just transpire solely through English genes. Maybe, the blimpish Alfred Munnings should have been more open to the man he hated: Picasso. “Englishness,” more than people might like to admit, does not just exist in its own sphere, devoid of foreign ideas.

The Art of Seeing: Monet and Cezanne


Claude Monet and Paul Cezanne. Two names that would be carved into a Mount Rushmore of artists if there was one.  However, there isn’t, and instead Monet and Cezanne have been left to the history books, or the paintings themselves that can be seen adorned on museum walls; possibly even side by side. Like Turner and Constable, Monet and Cezanne are two artists who possess a common thread, but are different in their execution and ideas. It is especially important to realize these distinctions. After all, who is an “Impressionist” or “Post-Impressionist?” Monet is always considered an Impressionist, Cezanne always a Post-Impressionist, and on both counts, rightfully so. Of course, these labels only exist in the imaginations of people, like me, who try to explain the landscape of art history without trying to baffle people. These labels provide a map in which to study periods throughout art history without feeling overwhelmed. Although I think it is good to have an outline in mind, Monet and Cezanne did not think of their ambitions in terms of labels or theories, for that was something they were trying to get away from. What mattered to them were the subjects, methods and even obsessions they had obtained while painting in the open air. It is with those intentions in mind that one is best able to understand their art that played such a vital role in the development of modern art. Before delving into the specifics of these two respective artists, I think it would be best to examine the origins that led to their particular styles.

Claude Monet, "Impression, Sunrise," 1872

Claude Monet, “Impression, Sunrise,” 1872.

The story of the Impressionists has, over the years, reached legendary heights. The name, like many other art movements, stems from derision. The term was coined by the French art critic, Louis Leroy, after viewing Claude Monet’s “Impression, Sunrise” (above):

Impression—I was certain of it. I was just telling myself that, since I was impressed, there had to be some impression in it … and what freedom, what ease of workmanship! Wallpaper in its embryonic state is more finished than that seascape. 

This excerpt reminds me of Moliere’s vicious attack on Gothic cathedrals. Like Moliere’s criticism, Leroy’s scathing indictment is hardly revealing. The vitriolic last sentence has been paraphrased in so many different ways when any new artist or movement comes along, that its usage has definitely become cliche and meaningless. Indeed, critics from the past do have the tendency to be remembered for their failed judgments. It’s easy to chastise them when they are wrong in hindsight, but that’s just the thing: posterity has the benefit of hindsight. During Impressionism’s early years, ridicule and rejection were the common reactions. Impressionism was basically art to be laughed at. Many people could not understand the lack of refinement. The basis for French academic art had been the exact opposite. No less could people understand why these young artists had decided to depict not conventional mythological scenes, with gods and goddesses, but instead contemporary France with its bourgeois dandies and absinthe drinking cafe goers.

Alexandre Cabanel, "The Birth of Venus," 1863.

Alexandre Cabanel, “The Birth of Venus,” 1863.

Academic painters at this time, through their own established and derivative means, were trying to recapture the grandeur of the Renaissance. By staying aligned with an accepted tradition, artists were attempting to make art that would inevitably display the cultural influence of Napoleon III’s French regime. It was art that would be respected by other nations and not mocked. Works such as Alexandre Cabanel’s “The Birth of Venus,” epitomize this throwback to the Renaissance. Well received in 1863 at the state run Salon exhibition, admirers of the painting were fascinated by the ambiguity of Venus’s eyes, which, at first glance, seem closed, but upon closer examination, reveal she is awake. Despite the work’s “lascivious” erotic nature, it proved to be such a success, that it was promptly purchased by Napoleon III. Although a fine painting in isolation, this artwork is not even remotely as significant or revelatory as one derided work that was in the “exhibition of rejects.”

Edouard Manet, "Luncheon on the Grass,"  1862-3.

Edouard Manet, “Luncheon on the Grass,” 1862-3.

There were so many artists that were denied admission to the Salon that Napoleon III intervened by ordering an exhibition of many of the 4,000 artworks that had been rejected. There was one painting that caught everyone’s eye. While many had been impressed by Cabanel’s “Venus” at the regular exhibition, those same people were perplexed and hostile towards a radically different painting done by Edouard Manet. Amidst a wooded area, a young woman is sitting down, devoid of any clothes, and stares out from within the frame, as if she were looking at the viewer. Two debonairly dressed men in frock coats recline beside her. Another young woman, in the background, is bathing in a pond in her chemise.

The work is “Luncheon on the Grass.” It caused quite a stir at the Salon of Rejected Painters. Few understood this painting by Manet. Many simply didn’t want to, because it was just too confrontational. Art goers at this time were used to a certain type of picture, and “Luncheon on the Grass” undoubtedly was not it. They had come to expect a painting that would provide an allegorical veil of sorts. A work of art that could be interpreted moralistically. But Manet didn’t care about morals. He must have been at lost to why those same viewers who lambasted his “dirty” picture could at the same time praise Cabanel’s “The Birth of Venus.” Bizarre indeed.

A satirical depiction of art critics at the Paris Salon by Honore Daumier.

A satirical depiction of art critics at the Paris Salon by Honore Daumier.

The reason why they singled out Manet and not Cabanel was due to technique. The more conservative critics were abhorred by the lack of polish that was applied to this proto-Impressionist work. With “Luncheon on the Grass,” the gauntlet had truly been thrown. Where else earlier academic artists had tried to render their handling invisible, Manet was making his brushstrokes clear to the viewer. And he had portrayed real subjects in a real world. Impressionism was born.

After Manet had lifted the veil that had stunted progress in French art, a group of young artists felt inspired by his direction. Stunned by the achievement of “Luncheon on the Grass,” artists Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Frederic Bazille and Alfred Sisley were left wondering how they themselves could achieve the immediacy that Manet had captured so well. Their solution: to paint outdoors. But to paint outdoors with a catch. To do so in the 1860’s was, despite the en-plein-air legacy of the Impressionists, not revolutionary for its time. Before the likes of Monet and Renoir, artists had been working directly from nature. The difference is, they would make sketches and then go back to their studios and work from memory. Those artists did not start and finish a work in one sitting. In contrast, the Impressionists would go out and produce a work in a single attempt. That was the key to success, or immortality, for Impressionism. They had toppled the barrier between the artist and his world.

Claude Monet, "Argenteuil, Flowers by the Riverbank," 1877.

Claude Monet, “Argenteuil, Flowers by the Riverbank,” 1877.

Claude Monet, the one who most deeply followed the en-plein-air approach is the purest Impressionist. He, more than any other Impressionist, personified the liberating effect of this movement. His canvases shrouded in mist, floating waterlilies and idyllic luncheons by Argenteuil riverbanks, are the heart and primary appeal of Impressionist works. His lithe brushstrokes suggest an eye that is powerfully at odds with making style rendered invisible. He set himself the Herculean task of seeing objects or subjects as they are, affected by how he sees them. When he depicts a haystack or a cathedral, he does not show them unaffected by his retina or the constantly changing atmosphere in which these objects lie. Beyond trying to depict what he truly sees, he is also – most importantly – aware of how the atmosphere is never static.

Claude Monet, "Grainstacks," 1890.

Claude Monet, “Grainstacks,” 1890.

Monet’s tenacious attention to detail did not escape his contemporaries. Cezanne once declared, “If Monet was only an eye, what an eye!” It may seem like a strange proclamation, but Monet was truly obsessive. I presume he was naturally inclined like most artists to an inherent way of looking at the world, however, this doesn’t change the fact that he was compulsive when it came to depicting light. Indeed, Monet professed that he wished he had been “born blind in order to gain his sight and be able to paint objects without knowing what they were.” In other words, he wanted a totally clear picture, and by that, he would have to disregard established ways of looking at an object. Almost any Monet painting would do as an example, and the one I have chosen is a work from his haystack series. In a wonderful interplay of light, the orange rim of the haystack in the foreground is contrasted with the azure shade on the top of it. The radiance of the subsiding sun is rendered with the ease that Impressionism is associated with. The obsessive desire for these kinds of details can hardly be seen in photographs, for this was based entirely on feeling and perception.

Claude Monet, "Camille Monet on Her Deathbed," 1879.

Claude Monet, “Camille Monet on Her Deathbed,” 1879.

And when I say “obsessive,” he truly was. When his wife Camille died, he had at that point become so obsessed by light that he painted her right after she died. His depiction is characteristic of his lack of regard for form. Her face seems to float above gray, blue and purple ripples of paint. The life has faded away; the throbbing glow of life replaced by the submissive melancholy of death. Here, the complicated matter of the transient takes a whole new meaning. Monet may not have expressed himself like the tumultuous, emotional Vincent Van Gogh, but here he showed he was more than capable of showing emotion.

It is clear Monet did not care about form. He cared, above all, about conveying color as light. Monet’s works, especially his later ones, can be seen as the harbinger of the works of such artists as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko for instance. In Monet’s oeuvre, visibility is not static, but rather, in a state of constant metamorphosis seen from different angles, in different times of the day, no matter the weather. He showed that tone and color can supersede composition and drawing. Overall, it is with these Herculean tasks he set himself to that history favorably remembers him for.

Though if Impressionism isn’t complex enough, Post-Impressionism is even more so. It is indeed much harder to pin down, because this movement involved conflicting personalities and ambitions. Generally though, Post-Impressionists recognized the necessity for immediacy in art as seen with the Impressionists, but, for all their various reasons, the Post-Impressionists wanted to go beyond the limitations of Impressionism.

Cezanne in his studio.

Cezanne in his studio.

Enter Paul Cezanne. More so than Monet, Cezanne dictated the direction of modern art. Artists such as Picasso and Braque were profoundly influenced by his explorative style. Matisse and Picasso were even said to have remarked that Cezanne “is the father of us all.” By “us,” both were referring to a new wave of modern masters that had emerged in the beginning of the 20th century, which they were the spearheads. Not long after Cezanne’s death in 1906, he had become popular with those artists. Soon, critical opinion that had once savagely taken him to task, had turned for the better. A half century after Cezanne died, the art critic John Canaday declared he was “the most revolutionary painter since the dawn of the Renaissance.” “Revolutionary” is a word that, by its very nature, can rarely be mentioned. In light of what I have written about Monet, even he might be considered utterly original. But before Monet had produced over thirty canvases of Rouen Cathedral in its varying conditions, so had the English landscape artist, John Constable, produced hundreds of transitory studies on cloud formations. Constable became just as concerned with atmospheric effects as Monet was going to become. He had even anticipated the method of applying thick paint to the canvas, which would become a trademark of Impressionism. With all this in mind, Monet’s works do suffer from some dimming of importance.

John Constable, "Cloudy Study," 1822.

John Constable, “Cloudy Study,” 1822.

While Monet was obsessed by painting color as light, Cezanne was concerned with making “Impressionism something solid and durable like the art of the museums.” This comment may sound strange at first. It can only be best understood in conjunction with his remark on one of his favorite artists, the French Baroque painter, Nicolas Poussin. Cezanne wanted “to do Poussin over again, after nature.” As John Canaday once wrote, Cezanne was putting “imposition of order onto nature, without any loss of nature’s vibrance, its quality of life and growth – in short, its naturalness, so dear to the Impressionists that they had once been willing to sacrifice everything else to it.” Thus, by making art “like the art of the museums,” he was searching for a way to combine Poussin’s “perfect interrelationship of forms in space,” with the realization of the “haphazard” in nature.

Nicolas Poussin, "A Dance to the Music of Time," 1634-5.

Nicolas Poussin, “A Dance to the Music of Time,” 1634-5.

This duality is likely the principal source of Cezanne’s greatness, but translating his ideas onto canvas was a careful process, for each brushstroke was deliberately weighed. For him, creating art became a strenuous struggle and as a result, it emerged as a source of frustration and self-doubt. He was though inspired by how Impressionists like Monet used short, broken strokes of color to convey light, which is particularly apparent in Cezanne’s landscapes. However, Cezanne did not care for the atmospheric effects of Impressionism. This was the limitation that he sought to go beyond, while utilizing their technique. In Cezanne’s work, “Pot of Primroses and Fruit,” he, characteristic of his output, displays his admiration for simple things, with the still life being the practically perfect vehicle for that love. As seen with the title, the subject of the painting is self-explanatory, but what’s not nearly as straightforward is how Cezanne chooses to depict the objects. In the painting, there is a sense of distortion. This can be particularly seen with the window shutter on the right. But in all, there’s this combination of closeness and abstract elements overriding realistic ones, light that is more lasting and static than would be seen in Impressionism that, overall, it creates an effect that is purely original.

Paul Cezanne, "Pot of Primroses and Fruit," 1888-1890.

Paul Cezanne, “Pot of Primroses and Fruit,” 1888-1890.

Indeed, Cezanne said he wanted to not “reproduce nature,” but “re-create it.” Even over a hundred years later, those words still sound stock raving mad and unintelligible. For what is truly radical about the art of Paul Cezanne is how decisively he had broken the ties with tradition. Sure, he wanted to emulate Poussin in his own way, but that method was so unique that it was a “recreation” of standard practices. Cezanne’s use of distortion, his favoring of abstract elements over more realistic ones, went against linear perspective. It was Cezanne who, in an almost God-like manner, proclaimed the artists’ right to subvert the laws of representation; to essentially do away with the literal mind in favor of the perceptive mind. More than Monet, Cezanne had widened his grasp of abstraction to such an extent that it ignited – more than Impressionism – a whole new form of art: modern art. Knowing this, it makes it all the more puzzling why he was so loathed to begin with.

Rather selfishly then, as a would-be critic, I realize how spurious these artists make my judgments seem. Monet and Cezanne make the critics from their era seem silly. For Monet and Cezanne, the disparaging reviews came with a great personal and professional disappointment for them, because who really likes to be criticized? Especially in the fashion they were criticized. Sadly, this has been the case for many great artists. They have been either doomed to obscurity or ridiculed into submission to the conventional. This does make me wonder about contemporary or past artists like Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst. Of course, they are not small targets, but maybe I am wrong in negating their worth. Nowadays, with the exception of Warhol who is dead, they are very well known artists. But there was a time when they had just begun to enter the fray. Their world then would have been much different, and more fraught with sensitivity, no matter how insensitive their work became.

The King of Kitsch, Jeff Koons.

The King of Kitsch, Jeff Koons.

The cynical part in me is reminded of the assembly line fashion of their production. From a traditional standpoint, they’re an exceptionally far cry from Monet and Cezanne. The likes of Koons are not nearly as invested physically and maybe even mentally in their work. Of course, even during Ruben’s time, to deal with commissions, many a popular artist had assistants to help in the completion of artworks. It’s an interesting thought, for maybe artists like Rubens and Koons have more in common than we think. If Rubens did not take part in every single one of his works at every single stage, then maybe the stamp of the artist, or his style, is the truly important part. However, even if that is true, artists like Warhol, Koons and Hirst lack cerebral intensity. And I don’t just say this due to the capitalist or minimalist message they are sending. If anything, that’s what I don’t want you to think. Monet and Cezanne’s art was very much about the means in which they made their works, and I believe that standard should still be upheld to artists like Koons. Monet and Cezanne had to personally invest themselves in their work to the point that they were most likely fraught with self-doubt. I’m not impressed by artists like Koons who detaches himself from his work by regurgitating Pop-isms and images that have been seen repeatedly. In the end, I still much more appreciate the sensitivity and perceptiveness of the work of Claude Monet and Paul Cezanne. But I guess that goes without saying.

Paul Cezanne, "The Montagne Sainte-Victoire,"1887.

Paul Cezanne, “The Montagne Sainte-Victoire,” 1887.

The Debasement of Art Museums

The Frick Collection

The Frick Collection

Unfortunately, there are some museums that are sell outs. When museums decide to become more interested in the revenue than the collection, it is to be expected that the harmony of viewing art is ruined by questionable motives. I have been conscious of crowds and photo takers in art museums, but recently, I have been dissatisfied by the tepid nature of the blockbuster and the wanton expansion that art museums seem to be going through now (more on that later in the essay). But anyway, as is my ritual when in Boston, I went to one of those dens of the commercialized art museum, the Museum of Fine Arts. Inevitably, I always find my goal to see certain artworks diverted by a show or two. This time, it was the blockbuster Goya exhibit and the first retrospective on the work of Jamie Wyeth. I am not going to go into too much detail about these exhibits because there were still some works that I hadn’t seen at the MFA and really wanted to see. I was only able to gather impressions like one does in a department store; fleeting and stunned. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but be amused by the exhibitions on hand.

It would be fair to say Jamie Wyeth has a problem. It’s not an insurmountable problem, but the odds are stacked against him nonetheless. It’s the problem of a family legacy. He is the grandson of artist and illustrator N.C. Wyeth of “Treasure Island” fame. His father, Andrew Wyeth, a divisive realist painter, produced paintings such as his best known work, “Christina’s World,” which were not entirely popular at a time when abstraction was gaining traction in the mainstream. This is the family legacy Jamie Wyeth is measured against. Most critics find it impossible to separate this connection and you can see why in the artworks. Jamie, a talented artist in his own right, still adheres to the principles long ago taught by N.C. Wyeth to his son Andrew: hard work that is applied not for the sake of “effect,” but remaining steadfast in the belief of the inseparable romantic and realist styles. Reading the letter makes it clear how unpopular the work of Andrew and Jamie Wyeth is with modern critics. N.C.’s artistic ideals were decidedly traditional, and so is the work of Andrew and Jamie Wyeth. Long after N.C. died, Jamie would go on to become an admirer and associate of Andy Warhol; an artist who personified everything modern about the artist and his means of expression.

In the retrospective on Wyeth, I was particularly struck by the two portraits of Warhol and Wyeth, both of which were done by each other. Set side by side, they’re quite telling in regards to not just their own styles, but the clash of aesthetics in a crazy Post-Modern art world. Wyeth’s portrait is microscopic in its observation, while Warhol’s is elegant Pop, or, you know, Warhol at his normally indifferent self.

Andy Warhol, "Jamie Wyeth," 1976.

Andy Warhol, “Jamie Wyeth,” 1976.

Jamie Wyeth, "Portrait of Andy Warhol," 1976.

Jamie Wyeth, “Portrait of Andy Warhol,” 1976.

Wyeth’s portrait is in keeping with the disciplined and self-conscious approach to painting traversed by his family (and essentially art before modernism). By examining Warhol in a turn more tenacious than one of Warhol’s own screen tests, Wyeth is able to competently convey the frailty of that commercial gadfly. His astute realism has even led him to believe that he sees the “portrait of Andy as a sort of portrait of New York” (and no, I don’t believe that for a second).

Warhol’s portrait though is typical of his listless output, where every work seems to be indistinguishable from the next. On the whole, he produced a body of work where the pop-isms are disgorged at the viewer at the speed of an unremarkable Hollywood script. Wyeth might as well be a face on a billboard. It’s a face that is madly rushed by, or processed in a matter of seconds like a photo on Instagram. The portrait is not even remotely suggestive. The contemplative pose is cliche. There’s nothing that distinguishes Wyeth from any other screen print by Warhol. It’s a very undiscriminating portrait.

Though, I quite liked Jamie Wyeth’s work at the exhibit. His works were not terribly good, but I did like his use of exaggerated scale in “Iris at Sea,” for instance. At one point I was baffled by an apparent self portrait of him with a pumpkin for a head. Quite what the purpose of the pumpkin is supposed to be, I don’t know. I should very much doubt I, or anyone, will ever know. Nevertheless, it’s one of the more wacky self-portraits you’ll see. But I do wonder, like so many other critics have, that his work is not very original, and hardly much different from his father’s in particular. For this reason, I find his art devoid of risk. This retrospective does make me wonder why the MFA decided to do a retrospective on Wyeth.

In contrast to the Wyeth retrospective, I was unsettled by the Goya exhibit also at the MFA. To begin with, it was almost too comprehensive. The focus should have been narrowed, possibly to one period of his work or a certain theme at least. Of course, that wouldn’t be much of a retrospective, I guess. However, Goya’s career was unusual to say the least. He first started out in the Rococo style early on in his career. Soon, he was a court painter to Charles IV of Spain. His early portraits were charming and did not seem to carry much hint of his later works, which turned out to be deeply disturbing.

Francisco Goya, "The Parasol," 1777.

Francisco Goya, “The Parasol,” 1777.

Francisco Goya, "A heroic feat! With dead men!"

Francisco Goya, “A heroic feat! With dead men!”

See what I mean? Yet, there’s a reason for this change. Sometime in 1792 or 1793, a serious illness left Goya deaf. A decade later, he would witness the horrors inflicted by the Peninsular War in Spain. The print above details one of the many horrors that would be later collected in a series of aquatint prints, called, “The Disasters of War.”

Believe me, I was keenly aware of Goya’s work beforehand, but experiencing his whole career in one go is the aesthetic equivalent of choking. He underwent a seriously jarring transformation. It’s too much to handle in one exhibit really. I don’t think the all-you-can-eat approach taken by the blockbuster is quite suited to Goya’s body of work. Though, maybe it’s more a testament of his genius than my own worldly concerns.

After the depictions of dismembered bodies and pumpkin head self portraits, there were, I’m glad to say, some real positives. I have visited the MFA several times before, but somehow, I had missed some first-rate paintings along the way. One of these was Turner’s portentous “Slave Ship.” Its foreboding crimson sunset, with shackled bodies encircled by sea creatures, stands as both a powerful and horrifying vision of the slave trade. The art critic John Ruskin, the first owner of the painting, declared, “If I were reduced to rest Turner’s immortality upon any single work, I should choose this.” Mark Twain, that always sarcastic devil, did not seem to understand the painting going by his response. Fortunately for Mr. Twain, I do not have any aesthetic offenses to chastise him with. That would be unkind, especially since he’s dead. Neither would I want “to dig (him) up and beat (him) over the skull with (his) own shin-bone.” I really wouldn’t want to knowing he disliked the Old Masters and found copies superior.  Nevertheless, his response was typical of a painting that did not seek clarity with its frenetic brush strokes. There are no clearly defined lines, or figures in this fierce portrayal of a shocking subject.

J.M.W. Turner, "Slave Ship," 1840

J.M.W. Turner, “Slave Ship,” 1840

After my visit to the MFA last year, I started to become fascinated by the Expressionist artist Oskar Kokoschka. In the European wing, there is a self-portrait of Kokoschka “as a Warrior.” At first glance, it’s rather ugly. But it’s supposed to be. His face can’t seem to detach from the horror of something. Today, it’s seems like a foreshadowing of World War I, a war in which he would be participating in within five years. Right nearby this self-portrait is another self-portrait of a kind, only this time he is shown alongside his lover. The work is “Two Nudes (Lovers).” The woman is Alma Mahler, then the widow of the composer Gustav Mahler. In this melancholy picture, the two lovers embrace in a transitory moment before departure, as suggested by the sorrowful faces. The positioning of Mahler’s left leg intensifies the inevitability of their fate. I have to say, seeing this painting, I can’t seem to quite express my reaction to it in words. But it touched me deeply. I could have stared at it for hours. Sadly, my time was limited.

Oskar Kokoschka, "Self-Portrait as a Warrior," 1909

Oskar Kokoschka, “Self-Portrait as a Warrior,” 1909

Oskar Kokoschka, "Two Nudes (Lovers)," 1913

Oskar Kokoschka, “Two Nudes (Lovers),” 1913

Regular readers may remember my review of the Frick’s exhibition of Dutch Golden Age paintings. Among them were Vermeer’s “The Girl with the Pearl Earring,” Fabritius’s “Goldfinch,” and several Rembrandt’s, all of which were on loan from the Mauritshuis in The Hague, Netherlands. In lieu of the smashing success of that exhibition, the Frick seems to want to jump on the blockbuster bandwagon. Instead of priding itself on being a place of serenity in which to view some truly great art, the Frick’s director and board of trustees would rather catapult that Gilded Age mansion into a stratosphere that is occupied by such heavy hitters like the neighboring Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art.  The administration is proposing nothing less than an expansion to their museum that would alter the tranquil experience and destroy a work of art in the process. I used to think that the Dutch Golden Age exhibition was a good thing. But now, it might be better seen as the turning point for when the Frick decided to betray its reputation and compromise its unique place in the art world.

For me, the Frick’s plan to expand is tantamount to The Courtauld or the Wallace Collection deciding to broaden as well. Just as we cannot imagine a downsized Louvre, I cannot imagine an enlarged Frick. It simply doesn’t have to happen. But of course, as a member of the public, all this is a moot point as the director of the collection, Ian Wardropper, said of the negative public reaction so far:

What I find frustrating sometimes, is people seem to brush right by the needs of the museum.

The proposed expansion would add a new wing and rework existing space. These new spaces would accommodate a 220 seat auditorium, an education center, additional space for their offices and conservation labs, and a gift shop and cafe, among others. I wouldn’t be surprised if they throw in a restaurant for good measure. In the end, there would be a total gain of 42,000 square feet. Only 3,600 square feet would be dedicated to art.

I seriously doubt the Frick needs a bigger gift shop, let alone a cafe. It’s not like there aren’t a plethora of options on or near Fifth Avenue. And as former Frick director, Everrett Fahy, has noted, there is no need for much more conservation lab space when paintings at the Frick would probably be sent to a specialist anyway. These conservation labs, as well as the office space, could even be located offsite. I don’t think the staff’s comfort should trump the collection. I also don’t understand how the proposed education center should be an absolute necessity. In the end, the Frick is deciding whether it wants to be a blockbuster museum that is continually vying for visitors or a house museum. Clearly, for the time being, the Frick has chosen the former.

The trouble is, in the process of this rampant expansion, the Frick would be leveling a garden devised by noted landscape architect, Russel Page. In the announcement by the Frick, it was shrugged off as “a small garden… which has never been accessible to the public.” For a garden that has been compared to “viewing a masterwork of landscape painting,” that is a shame. Page originally envisioned it as being a garden to be viewed “from the street or through the arched windows of the Reception Hall – like an Impressionist painting.” It was not meant to be moved about in, or for simply decoration. However, this hasn’t stopped the Frick from holding garden parties there in all its opulence.

To add further insult to injury, there is a rooftop garden being planned that would overlook Central Park. I find that idea quite intriguing. It would seem like a perfect spot for the restaurant or cafe…

Above all, the Page garden is basically being treated as an insignificant ornament. The idea that the garden is expendable, solely because Central Park is nearby and that the Frick has another garden (albeit inferior, in my view), completely ignores the intentions of the architect. It’s also insensitive of people to suggest that landscapes can be eradicated by any passing whim. Just because the garden is not a Vermeer or Rembrandt, does not mean it should be treated with indifference. And, the fact is, according to a 1977 press release from the Frick, the garden was meant to be permanent. Furthermore, Russel Page was hoping this garden would preserve his legacy for future generations. It would be an act of dignity and respect for the artist if the garden were to be preserved.

What greatly frustrates me with this whole fiasco is the idea that the more people that visit the Frick is essentially, a good thing that should not be criticized. This thinking, which is simultaneously utilitarian and elitist, is paradoxical. It implies that since museums have become a source of populism, major changes should be made for those that might only be visiting a museum once. Using crowds and attendance numbers as a barometer of success makes me think that, under current and even past administration, plans for expansion have always been in mind, and that the Dutch Golden Age exhibit was the foreshadowing of the announcement on expanding. It reminds me of when the Barnes Collection went on a worldwide tour before its collection was removed to Philadelphia (despite being clearly stated in a will that it should never be moved). By doing that tour, the $25 billion collection was more prominently put on the map, and thence supported the argument of removal to a more accessible venue at Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Again, the same rationale is essentially being repeated at not only the Frick, but with Maurice Sendak’s proposed house museum. This line of thinking also has little consideration for the surround. Earlier this year, I saw the newly renovated Clark. The renovation works because the expansion was tailored in such a way to fit the idyllic setting. For the Frick, the original intent of being a house museum was well held by previous, tasteful additions, but just because serious expansion is feasible now, does not mean its will should be exerted.

If expansion is going to happen, it should be much more refined than this current plan that is being presented. Maybe it’s the cynic in me, but is not Ian Wardropper just basically Malcolm Rodgers (the director of the MFA) and is not the board of trustees more concerned with having their obituaries sound swell? I’m probably jaded and skeptical about this whole issue, but when art becomes big business, I can’t help but think that serving the purpose of the collection is taking the backseat these days. This, to me, is the single most infuriating degradation of one too many art museums.

The Gothic Cathedral: Heaven on Earth?

Cologne Cathedral

Cologne Cathedral

There are too many superlatives that surround the art world. It has come to the point that when someone uses high flown language like, “amazing,” “mind-bending” and “epic,” in association with works of art, that these words commonly lose all meaning and impact. With Gothic cathedrals, however, those terms are entirely fitting. They actually are awe inspiring. They can be so awesome that we generally experience them quite intimately, as the past of another age is illuminated through the radiant azures and crimsons of the stained glass windows. But we tend to choke on that vitality that is too unorthodox. So it was with the detractors of this style known as the “Gothic,” a term originally fashioned out of disparagement, as is the case with several other art movements (Impressionism, Rococo, etc.). It transpired, with what now appears as queer disdain, that Vasari, the first art historian, wrote of the “Gothic” as “barbaric.” The truth is, Vasari had his chronology wrong. He was referring to the Goths who sacked Rome. When they delivered Rome such a fatal blow, they, quite naturally, wrecked the buildings and executed the classically trained architects. Even though the Goths were “barbaric,” they too had their own architectural leanings. They tended to like pointed arches – an element that Gothic architecture is known for too. It was with this spurious knowledge in mind, that Vasari labelled those structures that had materialized in the rest of Europe as “Gothic,” even if, at the time, the Goths had been eradicated for some six hundred years. And yet, the name stuck. Those that would later become intoxicated by the Renaissance mind, would deride the Gothic, as seen in this passage by the French playwright Moliere:

The besotted taste of Gothic monuments,
These odious monsters of ignorant centuries,
Which the torrents of barbary spewed forth.

When it comes down to it, artists render a moment in time and people – and societies – react. It’s inevitable. The trouble is, not all judge equally. Unfortunately, Vasari and Moliere were hopelessly wrong about the Gothic. Those “ignorant centuries” that “spewed forth” the Gothic, possessed a mind that is too much overshadowed by the Renaissance thinker. With this in mind, we must look to the origins of the Gothic in what has proved to be, throughout history, a furnace of artistic industry: France.

France, that harbinger of reexamination in the arts, the origin of Impressionism, the French New Wave, and obviously, among other movements, the Gothic. The latter first began in Paris and its general vicinity in 1150, and through ebb and flow across Europe, lasted roughly until 1550. Of course, chronology is a messy business, as Vasari’s blunder has proven. It is indeed unwise to take an exact approach to history and the Gothic is no less an exception. Yet there is a turning point in which to mark this transformation in architecture. This juncture was the renovation of the Basilica of St. Denis, the resting place of French monarchs, from 1137-1144. The man primarily responsible for the rebuilding was Abbot Suger. His influence on the designing of the church is debated. He was either the genius behind the nature of the Gothic, or the abbot of the church who just so happened to be a patron of the arts. Suger left behind a wealth of writings on the rebuilding of St Denis, but failed to mention the architect. It is likely he did not design, in total, the whole of St Denis. The work was probably done by an architect who, in his effort to appease the glory of God, remains anonymous. Nonetheless, what remains in that church is a formidable reminder of the power of the Medieval mind. Medieval man during the Gothic, as Kenneth Clark once proclaimed in his landmark BBC series, “could make stone seem weightless: the weightless expression of his spirit.” To put this in less poetic and more discernible language, Nikolaus Pevsner, an influential writer on architectural history, has said that at St Denis, “the effect inside the church is one of lightness, of air circulating freely, of supple curves and energetic concentration.”  Thus, there are spiritual and technical reasons for why the Gothic is so alluring. By examining the elements that comprise the Gothic, we can possibly begin to understand the fascination that this “weightless” spirit holds.

Interior of St Denis.

Interior of St Denis.

It would be confusing to spend more time than is necessary on the technicalities of the Gothic. At the same time, I do not wish to shroud the Gothic in flowery language. Romanticism is all well and good, but with art, it can leave a sour taste if such impulse is taken, and at worst, perplex. Erecting Gothic cathedrals was not solely an act of catharsis, nor is this style entirely original. It is grounded in previous architectural styles, for the three primary features of the Gothic: the pointed arch, the ribbed vault and the flying buttress, were not new. What was new was all three as a whole. Combined, the practical purposes of these components were quite revolutionary for their time. Firstly, the pointed arch was able to be stretched to reach any height regardless of the width of its base. The stress is being channeled more downwards than outwards. This feature thus allowed for engineers to build higher. In the case of the ribbed vault, it is the result of an intersection of two or three tunnel vaults, or, a continuous semicircular barrel. The ribs then provide additional support to a vault at critical points, for without the ribs shifting the weight of the ceiling downwards, there would be significant structural damage. Furthermore, the rib vault enables windows to be placed higher among a cathedral’s walls, thus making the stained glass windows in the Gothic style particularly impressive. A rib vault also has aesthetic appeal, for it quite simply allows for reassuring lightness. We then come to the spidery flying buttress. Like its other constituents, it was born out of necessity. It is made up of two parts: the buttress, a large stonework, and the “flyer,” an arch that bridges the buttress and the outside wall. By channeling the pressure across the flyer, and down the buttress and into the ground, force from vaulted ceilings and the wind that presses against the exterior are alleviated.

All three of these elements (the pointed arch, ribbed vault and flying buttress) create the stone skeleton of the Gothic cathedral. Without this skeleton, there would obviously be no cathedral. There would be no pulsating light so characteristic of these structures. Placing the windows as high as they did would have been impossible. Since these three elements are recognized as the most critical ones, I will not dare bore the reader with more technical jargon. However, there is one curious element that I think the reader may appreciate, and it would be that primeval source of beauty, the gargoyle. I inserted a photo above of a gargoyle overlooking Paris from Notre Dame Cathedral. As you can see, they are terribly strange. “Primeval” is certainly not a misnomer for these stone figures better known as “grotesques.” They terrify as if they were possessed by the devil. Unlike other architectural elements, their purpose is much simpler. They act as a spout to carry rainwater clear of the walls so that the mortar that bonds the stones does not decay. Decorative? Yes. But what frightening, or shall I say, “Gothic” decoration.

When entering any cathedral, it is always customary to look up. I remember going to that Gothic structure that is Westminster Abbey and, for lack of a better way to put it, was astonished. Imagining the perspective from far above made me realize how selfless the construction of this church must have been. Indeed, it made me feel selfless. I could clearly sense that what was at hand gave the illusion of the divine. Cliche ridden? Maybe. But consider this: most cathedrals are built in the shape of a cross. The Gothic though went a step beyond by using sacred numbers from the bible as a blueprint for their places of worship. The divine object of desire was 144 cubits, the height of “God’s house on earth,” the Temple of Solomon. The architects even adhered to measurements that can be found in 1 Kings 6-7 in the Old Testament:

It was thirty cubits high, up to the first floor, upon which a second dwelling was built up to the second floor, also of thirty cubits.

These exact same dimensions can be found in Notre Dame Cathedral. And these numbers are not just purely coincidental. Just southwest of Paris lies possibly the best example of the Gothic cathedral, Chartres. On the exterior there are sculptures of Aristotle, Euclid and Pythagoras. This may seem peculiar if you’re inclined to think of the Renaissance as the rebirth of classical thought. However, it just so happened that Chartres had some of the most preeminent scholars of their time. These priests were very knowledgeable about classical ideas. They were absorbed by the encompassing concept that beauty is based on perfect proportions and ideal numbers. This was not unique just to the Renaissance. The Medieval mind saw things very clearly. As evidenced by the ground plan for cathedrals, this mind was heavily attracted to symbols. It was inclined towards finding truth, but the truth it was largely interested in was that of what comprised God’s creation. The beauty of the world existed because of God and not in spite of him. It was the laws that exemplified that divine reason had constructed the universe, as seen with the stupefying light flooding through the windows that became, as H.W. Janson, author of a standard text on the history of art would write, “the Light Divine, a mystic revelation of the spirit of God.” Medieval man was searching for harmony; a harmony that predated the Renaissance. This is quite the achievement for people that had “no conception of time,” as William Manchester wrote in his pathetic axe grinding volume on the Medieval mind and the Renaissance.

Interior of Cologne Cathedral

Interior of Cologne Cathedral

It evidently does concern me that it is thought only the Renaissance could drag antiquity into the forefront. It’s as if, once the 14th century began, immediately the seeds of the rebirth for the classical were sowed in Florence. There is so much wrong with this misconception. What especially concerns me is that there is this idea that Medieval man was being led to the altar like cattle, thereby meaning, as we see it today, leading a non-progressive path. That, to the Renaissance mind, man should be at the center of perceiving beauty. That he should be, when it comes down to it, obedient and practical to his own vision. Unfortunately, such an egocentric perspective is what ails us today. From the imposing greatness of Da Vinci, we have fallen to the narcissistic hell-hole of Koons. The one factor that has stayed the same is the artist in control of his vision; the illusion that the individual can be greater than the sum of the collective.  It is this rationality that accounts for an essentially elitist attitude that disregards myth; the consensus born from emotion for faith, however incomprehensible it may seem . The Gothic showed that, above all, man does not have to be selfish. We don’t have to know who created what cathedral, all we have know is that they are testaments to a much greater being – possibly God, but maybe just as well the people and their undefinable, simply non-rational existence, whether influenced from God or not, for I’m idealistic enough to think that pursuing the transcendent is still possible. The legacy of the Gothic is about being immersed in making the myth fact, instead of solely striving for the facts. It is not so much criticizing for a result, but criticizing for a meaning. The nature of the Gothic is therefore transcendental. It accounts for the power of the collective. No, it does not account for the individual, for a vision becomes fragmented when there is no guiding beacon. The Gothic relates a world where rationality is not what will save us from wars, famine and further degradation. Quite simply, the Gothic does not condone arrogance.

Jambs at Amiens Cathedral

Jambs at Amiens Cathedral

It is disappointing to see the amount of hostility that the Gothic has received over the years. Although the Renaissance is largely credited with the rebirth of classicism, I rather wonder now if the Gothic did more to expand on those ideals. Any Renaissance architect would acknowledge the importance of proportion, the apparently exact science of creation. But so did Medieval builders. Like any art, there is of course something to be said for emotion. Although it might be right that emotion is subjective and thence secondary in a critical discussion (certainly it should not be the center of discourse), there is nothing else left after rationality. The Gothic is so less mannered, that it concentrates solely in the purpose of overwhelming the senses, thereby pervading a wonder that is unselfish. The theology that is illuminated through the stained glass windows, the intimate jambs that depict saints and philosophers; the spires that represent a heavenward urge, all contribute to a response that is visceral and even universal. With great clarity we are able to see the emotional side of an age quite unlike ancient civilizations, the Renaissance and contemporary times. For as long as man exists, there will always be monuments dedicated to that fleeting thing that is his spirit. Far from being barbaric, the Gothic cathedrals erected during Medieval times were sensitive to the needs of the consensus, thus creating, quite possibly, a stupendous representation of heaven on earth.


“An Outline of European Architecture,” Nikolaus Pevsner.

“Civilization,” Kenneth Clark.

“History of Art,” H.W. Janson.

Gothic Architecture,” the Victoria & Albert Museum.

Gothic buildings: pillars of faith,” The Guardian.

Building the Great Cathedrals,” NOVA – PBS.