365 Days of Art: March 25 – Brunelleschi’s Duomo is Consecrated by Pope

March 25, 1436

The finished Duomo (dome), designed by Filippo Brunelleschi, of the Basilica of Santa Maria del Fiore (St. Mary of the Flowers) is consecrated. Pope Eugenius, along with seven cardinals, 37 bishops, art patron Cosimo d’Medici, and nine members of the Florentine government, dedicated the Cathedral and its dome to Mary.

In Catholicism, the Feast of the Annunciation–March 25th on the calendar–celebrates the moment that the angel Gabriel revealed to Mary that she would conceive and give birth to Jesus Christ. As such, the date has traditionally been an important deadline for the completion of Church-commissioned artwork, so that the work could be ceremonially dedicated to Mary on this meaningful day.

The Papal choir performed a motet by Guillaume Dufay that was written specifically for the consecration. In the world of music, this artwork is as momentous as the completion of the Duomo; it is considered to this day to be one of the most important pieces of music ever written in honor of a specific occasion.

365 Days of Art: March 23 – Undercover Sting Locates Stolen Art

Senigallia Madonna, by Piero della Francesca, c. 1474

March 23, 1976

Italy’s Art Squad runs an undercover sting and recovers three Renaissance masterpieces stolen the year before from the Galleria Nazionale delle Marche in the Ducal Palace in Urbino.

The theft, of Piero della Francesca’s Senigallia Madonna, another Piero called The Flagellation of Christ, and Raphael’s The Mute Woman occurred on February 5, 1975. Thieves used scaffolding on the outside of the building to assist in scaling 12- to 15-foot walls, then broke windows and used false keys to get inside what was then considered a well-secured museum. However, at that time, like most museums, the Palace didn’t have an electronic alarm system, or sophisticated security patrols. Guards made rounds only every two hours, giving the thieves plenty of time to do their work, removing the paintings from their frames and leaving those behind, before the thefts were discovered.

Fast-forward a year, and the Art Squad receives information from a Roman antiques dealer that leads them to Switzerland. Posing as wealthy buyers, they set up a meeting with the suspects which never takes place, but putting the information together, they discover the paintings in a hotel room in Locarno. Four people are arrested in Italy, Germany and Switzerland and the paintings are returned to Urbino within the week.

Italy’s Art Squad was formed in 1969 to protect Italy’s artistic heritage. The squad fights art theft and forgery, as well as illegal archaeological excavation. It was the first in the world dedicated exclusively to art crimes. It now has over 280 officers and works internationally with INTERPOL and UNESCO to protect, document, and find stolen works. Since its inception, the Squad has rescued approximately one million archaeological objects from the black market, recovered more than 500,000 stolen works of art and seized close to 300,000 forgeries.

If you know anything about Italian police, you know that they have their own special well-designed uniforms, so they’re certainly entitled to be called the crime-fighting superheroes of the art world.

365 Days of Art: March 22 – René Magritte Explains It All

Magritte, Hegel's Holiday, 1958, 18" x 15"

March 22, 1958

Magritte writes a letter to his friend Maurice Rapin, explaining the inspiration for Hegel’s Holiday:

My latest painting began with the question, How do you paint a picture whose theme is a glass of water? I drew numerous glasses of water etc. There was always a line in these drawings. Then, the line flattened itself and took the form of an umbrella. Then, this umbrella became contained in the glass and then opened and hung itself under the glass of water. This seemed to me to answer the initial question. The picture is called “Hegel’s Holiday”. I think that Hegel would be pleased with this object that performs two opposing functions: both repelling and containing the water. Maybe this would have entertained him, as so often happens on holiday?

[I translated this from a Spanish book I got at a Magritte exhibition in Madrid; the letter itself is almost certainly translated from the Belgian Magritte’s native French, so I hope it’s OK!]

365 Days of Art: March 21 – Vandalism of Newman Painting Leads to Botched Conservation and Lawsuits

Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue III? by Barnett Newman, 8' x 18'

March 21, 1986

Barnett Newman’s Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue III was slashed open with a boxcutter, by an unbalanced painter who did it in the name of art. Sort of.

Here’s the story.

By purchasing the painting, the Amsterdam Museum of Modern Art (Stedelijk Museum) opened itself up to controversy. To put it bluntly, the public hated it. They felt that this painting, and perhaps Abstract Expressionism in general, wasn’t up to par, and they hated that their tax money had been used to purchase it.

Wound up by this critique, Gerard Jan van Bladeren, a frustrated, unknown Dutch painter, slashed the huge canvas wide open with a Stanley knife. He said later, in court, that attacking it was an “ode to Carel Willink”, the Dutch Magical Realism painter, who presumably was a better painter in his eyes.

Now this is where things get really interesting.

Bizarrely, the museum kept the work on display as-is, with the giant rip in it. The Dutch public actually said that they preferred it that way. Eventually, with the encouragement of Newman’s widow, the museum hired a New York conservator named Daniel Goldreyer and agreed to pay him $800,000 to repair Newman’s painting.

The painting was returned to the museum in 1991 and all hell broke loose. Goldreyer had repaired the gash in the canvas, but botched the paint job. He apparently didn’t observe some of the cardinal rules of conservation, mainly that he didn’t try to replicate the original materials and methods, in order to make the conservation respectful of the original artwork, and perhaps as seamless as possible. For example, where Barnett Newman used a brush to apply the paint, Goldreyer used a roller. Newman painted the painting in oil, while Goldreyer conserved it in acrylic. Critics alleged that due to Goldreyer’s conservation, the painting lost much of the subtle variations in color that are a hallmark of Newman’s work. They said that the painting had been attacked all over again during the conservation process.

Consequently, the museum refused to pay the balance of Goldreyer’s invoice and prepared to file legal action against him. Goldreyer filed first though, a $125 million suit against the City of Amsterdam, the Stedelijk Museum, two art publications and several art critics individually, claiming that his reputation was damaged. The Stedelijk Museum in turn filed a countersuit for $7 million in damages.

Because of differences between the American and Dutch legal systems, the lawsuits were slow to proceed. Finally, in 1997, both suits were settled through the payment of $100,000 by the City of Amsterdam to Goldreyer (and an agreement not to further discuss the conservation or the legal case).

This won’t be the only time we see a vandalized Barnett Newman painting this year. Stay tuned.

365 Days of Art: March 20 – Nazis Destroy Approximately 5,000 Artworks in Bonfire

A Nazi storage room, holding confiscated "degenerate" works of art. Works by Van Gogh, Picasso, and Cezanne face us.

March 20, 1939

Under orders from Hitler, the Berlin Fire Department burned 1,004 paintings and sculptures and 3,825 watercolors, drawings and prints in a massive bonfire in its courtyard.

These 5,000 artworks had been seized from galleries and museums across Germany over the previous several years, in a purge of anything that wasn’t deemed to display classic German ideals, values, and craftsmanship. Dada, Expressionist, and Cubist works featured prominently in the round-up.

Seven hundred of these artworks had been displayed at the “Degenerate Art Exhibit” in Munich in 1937, which will be covered later this year.

This leaves a pit in my stomach.

365 Days of Art: March 18 – Thieves Steal 13 Works in Biggest Art Theft EVER

The Concert, by Johannes Vermeer

March 18, 1990
The largest art robbery in history occurs at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, where 13 paintings valued at $100 million are stolen.

Disguised as Boston police officers, the two thieves claimed to be responding to a call. In Boston, in the early morning hours of St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, this sounded pretty damn plausible. The guard on duty allowed them entry through the Museum’s security door, though this was contrary to museum practices. Once inside, the “officers” claimed that they recognized the guard from an outstanding warrant, and asked him to step out from behind his desk. Sincerely trying to correct what he thought was a misunderstanding, the guard walked away from the desk–and the only alarm button in the museum.

The poor guy was told to summon the other guard on duty, which he did. They were both taken to the basement, where the thieves separated them from each other, handcuffed them to pipes, and then duct taped their hands, feet, and heads.

They were discovered the next morning by a third guard who was arriving for his regular shift.

The stolen works include: Rembrandt’s Storm on the Sea of Galilee (1633), A Lady and Gentleman in Black (1633) and an etching entitled Self Portrait (1634); Vermeer’s The Concert (1658–1660), (one of only 34 known works by Vermeer in the world); Govaert Flinck’s Landscape with an Obelisk (1638); and a Chinese vase or Ku, all taken from the Dutch Room on the second floor. Also stolen from the second floor were five works on paper by the Impressionist artist Edgar Degas and a finial from the top of a pole support for a Napoleonic silk flag, both from the Short Gallery. Edouard Manet’s Chez Tortoni (1878–1880) was taken from the Blue Room on the first floor.

To this day, several empty frames hang in the Dutch Room gallery, both in homage to the missing works and as placeholders for when they are returned. Experts are a bit puzzled by the selection of works, since the thieves had to pass by a far more valuable Botticelli, for example, to approach a flagpole finial.

The Museum continues to actively investigate any and all leads related to the theft. This ongoing investigation is in cooperation with the FBI and the US Attorney’s Office. The focus of the investigation today is on the return of the artworks, to the extent that the Museum publicly requests the thieves or accomplices to conserve them at proper temperatures and humidity levels. The Gardner Museum offers a reward of $5 million for information leading to the recovery of these works in good condition and ensures complete confidentiality.

March 18, 2013

The Gardner Museum issues a press release saying, “It’s time for these paintings to come home”. This is part of a larger campaign to advertise the reward and confidentiality policy. They state that they believe they know the identity of the thieves and just want to make the museum whole again, with the safe return of the artworks. The FBI says that a criminal organization running through Connecticut (?) and Philadelphia is implicated.

Fun Fact: The theft is the subject of several novels and TV plots, including Irreplaceable (2009) by Charles Pinning, The Art Forger by Barbara A. Shapiro, and a recent episode of Blacklist. In The Art of the Heist: Confessions of a Master Thief, convicted thief and professional ne’er-do-well Myles Connor kinda-sorta confesses to the crime.

365 Days of Art: March 17 – Hide/Seek Opens at Tacoma Art Museum

David Wojnarowicz, Fire in My Belly, Film Still 1987

March 17, 2012

Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture opens at the Tacoma Art Museum in Tacoma, Washington. This show, which originated at the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, is the first major museum exhibition to focus on gender and sexuality. It drew international attention not only for this reason, but also because of the uproar caused by the removal of one of the works in the exhibition.

Due to four complaints–from the President of The Catholic League, two Republican congressmen, and one visitor who had actually seen the exhibition–the director of the National Portrait Gallery removed one of the works in the exhibition, a video by David Wojnarowicz, which dealt with the death of his lover from AIDS. A few seconds of the video showed ants crawling on a crucifix, which was the stated reason for its removal. The funding of the National Gallery was called into question (this will be a recurring theme this year; stay tuned).

In a show of support, the Brooklyn Museum and the Tacoma Art Museum stepped up to host the exhibition in its entirety.

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.