365 Days of Art: March 15 – The Helga Pictures Are Revealed

March 15, 1986

Art collector Leonard E. B. Andrew drives to Andrew Wyeth’s studio in Chadd’s Ford, PA, at Wyeth’s request, and is the first outsider to see Wyeth’s many drawings and paintings of his neighbor and model, Helga. The body of work came to be known as the Helga Pictures.

Andrew had previously bought six works of Wyeth’s. Wyeth and his wife left Andrew alone to peruse in private. “I assumed THEY assumed I was a serious collector and that the invitation was strictly a collector’s opportunity to see something no one else had seen”.

He describes climbing the stairs to the studio that day, opening the door and seeing over 200 different drawings and paintings, of the same woman, stacked on tables, leaning against walls, and generally filling every available space.

I spent two hours looking at the collection and trying to absorb what I was seeing. Just the idea of having a private look at the unseen personal collection of a major international artist, 240 drawings and paintings of one subject, executed and stored over a fifteen-year period, was mighty heavy for this simple collector.

The revelation of this secret body of work made an international splash because the exact nature of Wyeth’s relationship with Helga was unknown, and still is. Some people caught a hint of scandal because Wyeth kept the paintings secret from his wife for many years. Anderson ended up buying the entire collection and unusually, the copyrights too.

365 Days of Art: March 14 – Velázquez is Licensed by the Guild as Master Painter

Las Meninas, by Diego Velazquez, 1656

March 14, 1617

Diego Velázquez is licensed by the guild as a master painter.

The guild was pretty much the only conduit for jobs and respect in the European art world at that time. In the guild system, there was a strict hierarchy of apprentice, then journeyman, then master (sometimes called “master craftsman”, “master tradesman”, “grandmaster” or “meister” in German). Only masters and journeymen could belong to the guild. Once an artist was decreed a master, he–and I mean “he” because women couldn’t join–would then have to produce a sum of money and a masterpiece before he actually belonging to the guild.

365 Days of Art: March 13 – Elgin Marbles and Their Poor Conservation Are Subject of Letter

The "Elgin Marbles", created in Greece c. 5th century BC but housed in British Museum

March 13, 1858

The Elgin Marbles, sculptures taken from the Acropolis in Athens, and their poor conservation were the subject of a letter, written by the superintendent of the “moving and cleaning the sculptures” at the British Museum:

I think it my duty to say that some of the works are much damaged by ignorant or careless moulding — with oil and lard — and by restorations in wax, and wax and resin. These mistakes have caused discolouration. I shall endeavour to remedy this without, however, having recourse to any composition that can injure the surface of the marble. – Richard Westmacott

Although they were created in Greece, they’re called the Elgin Marbles because Lord Elgin, serving as an ambassador to the Ottoman Empire around 1800, received a controversial permit to remove them from the Acropolis and bring them to England. The victors write art history, don’t they?

365 Days of Art: March 12 – Bequest of Art Collection Sets Foundation for MoMA

Starry Night, by Vincent van Gogh

March 12, 1931

Art collector Lillie Bliss dies and bequeaths her art collection to found the Museum of Modern Art, with one condition: that the fledgling museum is established financially by the end of three years, or it will forfeit the artworks. Exactly three years later, on March 12, 1934, after raising $600,000, MoMA proves to the Bliss estate’s satisfaction that it is established and financially secure.

To the surprise of her friends, Bliss donated most of her art collection, 150 works of art, to this idea. I say “idea” and not “institution” because until this point, the museum served as more of an art gallery, rather than a museum. It had no permanent collection until Bliss’ donation.

Among the most important works from the Bliss collection in the Museum of Modern Art today are several Cézannes, a Modigliani, a Picasso still life, a Gauguin, Seurat, Matisse and several Redons.

MoMA’s first director, Alfred H. Barr, characterized the importance of this collection saying:

With the Bliss Collection, New York can now look London, Paris, Berlin, Munich, Moscow and Chicago in the face so far as public collections of modern art are concerned. Without it we would still have had to hang our heads as a backward community.

Can you imagine a time when New York looked up to Chicago and Moscow?

One clause in her will provided flexibility for the museum by stipulating that the artworks, except for three, could be sold or exchanged for other works of art. (Other museums, like the Barnes Foundation, or the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum have been hampered by overly specific instructions from their founders). Accordingly, the museum was able to sell pieces to strengthen the collection overall. For example, Degas’ Jockeys on Horseback before Distant Hills was sold in the late 1930s for $18,000, in order to purchase Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (for an additional $10,000). Similarly, three other works from the Bliss collection were sold in 1941 in order to raise funds to acquire van Gogh’s Starry Night. These are two of MoMA’s absolute centerpieces by any standard.

Fun Fact: The three paintings which could never be sold are Still Life with Apples and Still Life with Ginger Container, Sugar and Oranges by Cézanne and The Laundress by Daumier. Bliss, or her lawyers, were very smart in saying that if these works no longer fulfilled the museum’s mission, they could be transferred to the Met. The Cézannes are still at MoMA, but the Daumier was eventually transferred.

365 Days of Art: March 11 – Carrington Commits Suicide

Portrait of Lytton Strachey, by Dora Carrington

March 11, 1932

Dora Carrington, known as Carrington, committed suicide. She was distraught over the death two months earlier of her close friend, Lytton Strachey.

“Close friend” is inadequate to describe their relationship. To say it was complicated would be an understatement too. They lived together for some years, but it seems to have been platonic. He was gay, while she was conflicted over her sexuality and had affairs with men and women. On the night she agreed to marry another man, Carrington wrote a love letter to Strachey while her fiance slept beside her. Wait, it gets better! Strachey paid for the wedding, and came on the honeymoon. Weird, huh? They seemed to believe they were soul mates even if they weren’t romantically involved in the conventional sense. Yes, it was complicated.

Carrington had always marched to her own drum–going by her last name only, cutting her hair in a pageboy cut when it wasn’t fashionable, dressing androgynously, painting on unconventional surfaces like signs and tiles, and leaving her work unsigned.

She was associated with the Bloomsbury Group due to her relationship with Strachey, but she wasn’t one of them. She was friends with Vanessa Bell and painted E. M. Forster’s portrait. She designed woodcuts for the Hogarth Press, Virginia Woolf’s husband’s business. Woolf wrote of her in her diary that Carrington was “odd” but that “one can’t help liking her.”

She didn’t make efforts to show her work during her lifetime and until the late 1970s was almost unknown, apart from her relationship with Strachey. The Director of the Tate Gallery London called Carrington “the most neglected serious painter of her time”, though two of her works are in the Tate Gallery London now. Emma Thompson portrayed Carrington in a not-bad little movie about her relationship with Strachey in 1995.

Two months after Strachey died of stomach cancer, Carrington committed suicide with a gun she borrowed from a friend.

365 Days of Art: March 10 – Suffragette Slashes Velázquez Painting as Political Statement

March 10, 1914

Suffragette Mary Richardson slashed a Velázquez painting at the National Gallery in London, in revenge for the arrest of a fellow suffragette the day before.

The painting was The Rokeby Venus (now titled Venus at the Toilet). Richardson grabbed what the newspaper called a “meat chopper” from under her cloak, smashed the glass within the frame of the picture, and, before anyone could stop her, cut the canvas seven times. She was arrested immediately, since a police officer was in the room at the time.

This was at least Richardson’s fifth arrest on behalf of the suffragette movement, but the Velázquez vandalism was the most publicized. In court, Richardson announced, “I think it a shame I had to consider it my duty to do it”.

It seems like most art vandalism is very individual: one person has their very particular reasons (as crazy as they might be) for harming the art (see: Little Mermaid, part 1 and part 2 and Connecticut art slasher). Or, if it’s part of a protest, it seems to be a one-time statement (see: Vietnam War protest, 9/11 conspiracy statement). However, Richardson’s vandalism was part of a carefully orchestrated plan to draw attention to the suffragette movement. Sylvia Pankhurst, the woman whose arrest the day before prompted Mary Richardson to act out in the National Gallery, described the fruits of the movement’s labors:

The destruction wrought in the seven months of 1914 before the [First World] War excelled that of the previous year. Three Scotch castles were destroyed by fire on a single night. The Carnegie Library in Birmingham was burnt. “The Rokeby Venus”…was mutilated by Mary Richardson. Romney’s “Master Thornhill”, in the Birmingham Art Gallery, was slashed by Bertha Ryland, daughter of an early Suffagist…numbers of other pictures were attacked, a Bartolozzi drawing in the Doré Gallery being completely ruined. Many large empty houses in all parts of the country were set on fire…Railway stations, piers, sports pavilions, haystacks were set on fire. Attempts were made to blow up reservoirs. A bomb exploded in Westminster Abbey, and in…St George’s [Church]…, where a famous stained-glass window from the Malines was damaged … One hundred and forty-one acts of destruction were chronicled in the Press during the first seven months of 1914.

It’s almost gleeful, which creeps me out. I like to create things, not destroy them. Even if it’s for a good cause.

The Rokeby Venus is the only surviving female nude by Velázquez (he was known to paint only three). Nudes were extremely rare in 17th century Spanish art, because the Spanish Inquisition actively monitored artists’ activities. However, nudes by foreign artists were more acceptable, and were avidly collected by members of the Spanish court and displayed in their homes.

Unlike some of the other art targeted by the suffragettes–like that poor, ruined Bartolozzi drawing–The Rokeby Venus was able to be fully restored and returned to display.

365 Days of Art: March 9 – David Smith Is Born

David Smith, Cubi VI

March 9, 1906

Sculptor David Smith is born. He often said, “I belong with the painters”. It’s true: he built his sculptures the way you’d make a painting, or a collage–welding pieces together on the floor, first one shape then the next–rather than more traditional sculpting techniques like casting or carving.

He changed what sculpture is capable of, for example, sculpting a page of writing (The Letter), landscapes (Hudson River Landscape) and still lives (Head as Still Life), proving his point that the sculptor’s “conception is as free as a that of the painter. His wealth of response is as great as his draftsmanship.”

Summer jobs at a car factory provided him with the industrial skills, like welding and burnishing, he’d later use in his sculptural collages. In fact, the factory environment also dictated his working technique, once he had the financial means to realize it: he stocked large quantities of materials, saying that it freed his creativity. His work also got accordingly bigger.

I found this really interesting: although many of his later works are numbered (Zig IV, Steel Circles I, II, and III), he didn’t actually work in series. He simultaneously worked on all sorts of projects and grouped and titled them afterwards. The impressive exception to this working method is the Voltri series, 26 sculptures made in 30 days (!) in Italy during June 1962, when Smith was invited to make work for a festival in Spoleto.

He made 300 – 400 drawings a year in addition to his 3D work. He was well-respected while he was alive, especially by other artists like the Abstract Expressionists and a younger generation of painters, like Robert Motherwell and Helen Frankenthaler, though he sold very few works during his lifetime.

365 Days of Art: March 8 – Little Mermaid Is Vandalized in Connection with International Women’s Day

March 8, 2006

The Little Mermaid statue in Copenhagen is vandalized (not for the first time): a dildo is attached to the statue’s hand, green paint is dumped over it, and the words March 8 are written on it.

It is suspected that this vandalism is connected with International Women’s Day, which is celebrated on March 8. This incident, the latest in a long string of attacks on the statue, lead government officials to announce that the statue may be moved farther out in the harbor, to avoid further vandalism.

365 Days of Art: March 7 – Arts Groups Meet to Strategize, Combat Censorship

March 7, 1992

With funding for the arts under direct attack by conservative politicians, a coalition of arts groups met to strategize on how to proceed.

Lest you think this is 2010 (Hide/Seek, anyone?) let’s put this in context.

Trouble had been brewing ever since an exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe photographs, called The Perfect Moment, debuted four years earlier. The exhibition was funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. Outrage over the homoerotic content (and, I think fear of AIDS and generalized homophobia) led to cancellation of some venues for the show, an obscenity lawsuit, and lots of hand-wringing on both sides of the issue. And lots of press. The controversy expanded to include other artists, and continued to grow as it was fed by rhetoric from presidential candidates in the election year coverage.

The month before this symposium, in February 1992, NEA chairman John E. Frohnmayer was forced to resign. The week before, presidential candidate Pat Buchanan announced that, if elected, “I’ll go down to the [NEA], shut it down, padlock it and fumigate it.”

These attacks on the arts in the mainstream, as well as pending legislation (in Massachusetts of all places!) forbidding the fictional representation of religious figures (this, just three years after the fatwa issued against author Salman Rushdie was widely criticized by Americans) struck fear into the hearts of artists. Especially since Buchanan had some traction in the primary elections, there was real concern that his extreme view might be adopted by other candidates.

I’m not sure the artists helped their cause by burning a cross in between conference sessions. But it’s an important discussion to have, and one we’re still having today.

365 Days of Art: March 6 – Gallery Forgets to Mail Invites So Almost No One Attends Gorky’s Opening

Arshile Gorky, How My Mother's Embroidered Apron Enfolds in My Life, 1944

March 6, 1945

The exhibition Arshile Gorky opens at the Julien Levy Gallery, featuring paintings created during the previous year, including How My Mother’s Embroidered Apron Unfolds in My Life. André Breton, who helped Gorky title the paintings, writes a glowing foreword for the catalogue.

Here’s the kicker: because Levy had forgotten to mail out the announcements on time, almost no one attends the opening! This kind of thing is every artist’s nightmare. And, trouble always finds Arshile Gorky: remember the flight from genocide in his home country, the studio fire, the colostomy, and the plane crash.

365 Days of Art: March 5 – Pissarro Complains to Manet, and Gorky Undergoes a Colostomy

Camille Pissarro, Entree du Village de Voisins, 1872

There are two events today worth writing about. The first gives an inside look at the Impressionists, who are often thought of as a unit, rather than individuals with competing agendas. The second…I just feel bad for Arshile Gorky. He had a hard time.

March 5, 1886

Camille Pissarro writes a passionate, desperate letter to Edouard Manet which reveals the underbelly of the Impressionists, especially their differing agendas and economic circumstances:

The exhibition [Eighth Impressionist] is completely blocked…We shall try to get Degas to agree to showing in April, if not we will show without him. If we do not settle the whole thing in the next four or five days, it will be dropped altogether. Degas doesn’t care, he doesn’t have to sell, he will always have Miss Cassatt and not a few exhibitors outside our group, artists like Lepic [a wealthy count]. If they have some success he will be satisfied. But what we [meaning himself and other impoverished, bohemian artists] need is money, otherwise we could organize an exhibition ourselves. I shall find out what Madame Manet [Berthe Morisot, Manet’s sister-in-law] thinks but I am afraid she will not want to appear with us if Degas does not. In that case the whole thing will be off–there won’t be any exhibition, for to spend money exhibiting at the same time as the official Salon is to run the risk of selling nothing. Miss Cassatt and Degas say this is no objection, but it’s easy to talk when you don’t have to wonder where your next meal will come from!

Arshile Gorky, The Liver is the Cock's Comb, 1944

March 5, 1946

Following a diagnosis of rectal cancer, Arshile Gorky undergoes a colostomy at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. It was a rough couple of months; six weeks earlier, on January 26, a fire in his Connecticut studio destroyed about 20 paintings.

365 Days of Art: March 4 – Halftone Engraving Used to Print Photographs in Newspaper

The first halftone image: a shantytown on Fifth Avenue in NYC, printed in the Daily Graphic.

March 4, 1880

Halftone engraving, used to print photographic images in shades of gray, was used for the first time when the Daily Graphic was published in New York City. An editorial ran at the same time, stating:

“This process has not yet been fully developed. We are still experimenting with it. We feel confident that our experiments will, in the long run, result in success and that pictures will eventually be regularly printed…”

Prior to this point, images were limited to black and white line drawings.

365 Days of Art: March 3 – Reconstruction of Dynamited Buddhas Is Discussed

March 3, 2011

Ten years and one day after the Taliban initiated their destruction, UNESCO convened a conference to discuss possible restoration of two 6th century Buddha statues.

One result of the conference was a list of 39 recommendations for the site in Bamiyan, Afghanistan where two large niches in the side of the cliff have stood empty since the artwork they housed was dynamited away. The recommendations included leaving the larger niche empty as a testament to the destruction of the Buddhas, a study into rebuilding the smaller Buddha, and the construction of one or more museums on or near the site.

Work has since begun on restoring the Buddhas using the process of anastylosis, where pieces from the original sculpture are combined with modern material. Bert Praxenthaler, a German art historian and sculptor involved in the restoration, has estimated that it’s possible to reconstruct about half of the Buddha from its rubble. This is no small project: the Buddhas were about 100 and 175 feet tall, respectively, and some rubble is the size of tennis balls.

The project, organized by UNESCO and the International Council on Monuments and Sites, seeks to train and employ local Afghans as stone carvers, and eventually in other capacities as tourism is drawn to the area. The project has been criticized for different reasons. There are some who believe that the empty niches are historic in their own right and should be left as examples of the destruction caused by the Taliban, while others believe that money should go to housing and electricity in the region instead.

365 Days of Art: March 2 – Taliban Dynamites Historic Buddha Statues

March 2, 2001

The Buddhas of Bamiyan, two 6th century statues of Buddha carved into a cliff in Afghanistan, were dynamited by the Taliban. The total demolition was effected in stages, and took several weeks to complete.

I remember the awful anticipation of the clock ticking down on this one. I, and all my friends in the art world, kept hoping that someone would step in, or that they would call it off at the last minute. I remember being at my desk at work and reading online that the demolition had begun; there was a sad little pit in my stomach.

I was at that same desk six months later when the Taliban brought down the World Trade Center.

The main bodies were cut directly from the sandstone cliffs, but sculptors constructed armatures from wood, and added details like the faces and robes were modeled in mud mixed with straw, coated with stucco and painted. It’s believed that the faces may have been masks. Unlike the stone, the more fragile materials couldn’t stand up to the elements and have been lost to time.

Bamiyan lies on the Silk Road, a caravan route linking the markets of China with those of the Western world. It was the site of several Buddhist monasteries, and a thriving center for religion, philosophy, and art. Monks at the monasteries lived as hermits in small caves carved into the side of the Bamiyan cliffs. Most of these monks embellished their caves with religious statuary and elaborate, brightly colored frescoes. Until it was completely conquered by the Muslim Saffarids in the 9th century, Bamiyan shared the culture of Gandhara.

Before being blown up, they were the largest examples of standing Buddha carvings in the world. They are believed to have been built by the Kushans, with the guidance of local Buddhist monks, at the heyday of their empire. They were perhaps the most famous cultural landmarks of the region, and the site was listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site along with the surrounding cultural landscape and archaeological remains of the Bamiyan Valley.

Some interesting history: In 1996, a Taliban commander operating in the area announced his plans to blow up the Buddhas and went so far as to drill holes in the Buddhas’ heads in order to plant explosives. Mullah Omar specifically ordered him to stop and in 1999, Mullah Mohammed Omar publicly came out in favor of preserving the Buddhas. He stated: “The government considers the Bamiyan statues as an example of a potential major source of income for Afghanistan from international visitors. The Taliban states that Bamiyan shall not be destroyed but protected.” In early 2000, local Taliban authorities asked for UN assistance to rebuild drainage ditches around tops of the alcoves where the Buddhas were set.

Concurrently, radical clerics began a campaign against “un-Islamic” segments of Afghan society. The Taliban soon banned all forms of imagery, music and sports, and television, in accordance with their strict interpretation of Sharia law. 400 religious clerics from across Afghanistan then declared the Buddhist statues against the tenets of Islam. Mullah Omar changed course and ordered their destruction, supposedly on direct orders from Osama bin Laden.

Initially, the statues were fired at for several days using anti-aircraft guns and artillery. This caused severe damage, but did not obliterate them. During the destruction, Taliban Information Minister Qudratullah Jamal lamented that, “this work of destruction is not as simple as people might think. You can’t knock down the statues by shelling as both are carved into a cliff; they are firmly attached to the mountain.” Later, the Taliban placed anti-tank mines at the bottom of the niches, so that when fragments of rock broke off from artillery fire, the statues would receive additional destruction from particles that set off the mines. The Taliban also lowered men down the cliff face and placed explosives into holes in the Buddhas. After one of the explosions failed to completely obliterate the face of one of the Buddhas, a rocket was launched at the head.

A Taliban ambassador has said that the destruction of the statues was carried out in response to an offer from Sweden to restore the statues’ heads. The ambassador reportedly said: “When the Afghan head council asked them to provide the money to feed the children instead of fixing the statues, they refused and said, ‘No, the money is just for the statues, not for the children’. He did not comment on the claim that a foreign museum offered to buy the Buddhist statues, the money from which could have been used to feed children.

Despite the fact that most Afghans are now Muslim, they too had embraced their past and many were appalled by the destruction. Saudi Arabia and the UAE, both of whom recognized the Taliban government, condemned the destruction as “savage”. Japan and Switzerland, among others, have pledged support for the rebuilding of the statues.

Swiss filmmaker Christian Frei made a 95-minute documentary titled The Giant Buddhas on the statues and reactions to their destruction.