May 10, 2012
It’s not every day that a work by Praxiteles, one of the most famous sculptors of ancient Greece, shows up out of nowhere. But that’s happened at the Cleveland Museum of Art, where a bronze sculpture of Apollo attributed to Praxiteles is prominently displayed at the entrance of its newly renovated Classical galleries.
Indeed, it was news when the museum acquired it several years ago. The New York Times reported that, if authentic, the statue would be “one of the most important ancient bronzes in an American museum.” It has become one of the most widely reproduced images of the Cleveland Museum since its major overhaul and expansion.
Meanwhile, the museum, along with numerous other institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Getty, has been asked by the government of Turkey to return allegedly looted artifacts, according to the Los Angeles Times. ”Twenty-one objects are being sought from the Cleveland Museum, which Turkish officials say has not responded to their inquiries. A museum spokeswoman declined to comment or release a list of contested objects,” the L.A. Times reported in March.
Apollo Sauroktonos (Apollo the Lizard-Slayer) is not among the items reportedly being requested by the Turkish government, but the controversy is likely to increase scrutiny of the museum’s acquisition practices.
The display of the Apollo raises a lot of questions, some of them troubling ones. In particular, is the statue really by Praxiteles, and just where did it come from?
To my mind, the statue is very likely by him, although the phrase “by Praxiteles” needs clarification and qualification. The bronze portrays the god Apollo as a dragon slayer, although for some reason—the intent may have been humorous—the “dragon” is portrayed as a tiny lizard on a tree trunk. Pliny the Elder mentions that Praxiteles as a young man made a statue of this unusual subject, and the composition has long been identified through Roman copies, including marble versions in the Louvre and the Vatican, which were linked to Praxiteles by Adolf Furtwangler, the famous German archaeologist.
What’s extraordinary about the Cleveland statue is that it doesn’t seem to be a Roman copy. While more research needs to be done, experts seem to agree that this statue looks like an original Greek cast from about the fourth century B.C.
Pliny doesn’t tell us who the statue by Praxiteles was made for, so we don’t know where it was located. It’s possible that the piece Cleveland acquired is the original statue mentioned by Pliny. I believe, however, it’s more likely a copy made just a little later, although still in the Classical, or Hellenistic, period, not under Roman rule. Greek bronzes are extremely rare, since they were generally melted down, and we don’t know much about when or how the Greeks made bronze replicas. In the normal “lost-wax” process used by the Greeks, you get only a single cast, because the clay mold is destroyed after the bronze is poured. But it’s believed that the studio of Praxiteles lasted for three generations—that it was continued by his son and grandson. Surely Praxiteles’s heirs had some way of producing replicas of works by their famous forebear, whether made from clay or wax models by his hand or from earlier bronze castings.
When we ask where the statue came from, we enter a strange shadow land of mysterious statements and dealings. The museum purchased the piece from the Geneva branch of Phoenix Ancient Art, a gallery owned by brothers Ali and Hicham Aboutaam, who also maintain a showroom in New York. The Aboutaams will not reveal the person or persons from whom they bought it. This should have set off warning bells, since Switzerland is a hub for the buying, selling and transport of stolen antiquities.
The gallery did provide the name of a retired East German lawyer, Ernst-Ulrich Walter, who says he discovered the statue on his family’s ancestral estate in Lausitz, east of Dresden. This estate had been confiscated from the family after World War II. After Germany reunified in 1990, Walter filed suit and was successful in recovering the property. According to Walter’s account, as relayed by Michael Bennett, the Cleveland’s curator of Greek and Roman art, Walters found the statue around 1993 or 1994, lying broken on the floor of a building on this property.
Shortly after its alleged discovery, the statue was viewed by Lucia Marinescu, former director of the National History Museum of Romania. Marinescu concluded the statue was of Roman origin and she later published an essay making this proposal.
Nonetheless, Walter allegedly sold the statue as a 19th-century garden ornament for a mere 1600 deutsche marks (about $1,250). Remarkably, Walter says he does not recall the buyer’s name and has no receipt from the transaction. Not until ten years later did the five-foot-tall Apollo reappear, in Switzerland, with no record of where it had been in the intervening years. Reportedly, the Cleveland museum received signed papers from Walter and Marinescu, but the museum has refused to make these papers public and neither individual responded to requests for interviews.
(Much of the information in this blog post comes from “Risky Business: Playing Fast and Loose With Suspicious Antiquity, the Ethics of Collecting and Public Trust at the Cleveland Museum of Art,” by Katie Steiner, Discussions, vol. 1, 2006. Among Steiner’s sources was an article by Steven Litt published September 12, 2004, in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.)
Why would Walter sell the statue as a garden ornament if it had the appearance of a broken archaeological fragment? In particular, why did he do so if Marinescu thought it was Roman, which would make it worth 50 or 100 times the price he said he sold it for? Is it really credible that Walter does not remember anything about the person to whom he sold it, other than that he was Dutch?
To my way of thinking, the statue came from somewhere else. Why supposedly East Germany? Because when the Communist government collapsed, it placed much of what happened before that date into a sort of legal limbo.
On several occasions the Aboutaams have had their professional behavior questioned or had run-ins with the law. In 2003 the gallery agreed to return two ancient stelae that had been smuggled out of Egypt. Also in 2003, Ali Aboutaam was prosecuted in Cairo for alleged involvement in a smuggling ring for Egyptian antiquities and was sentenced in absentia to 15 years in prison. On June 23, 2004, a day after the Cleveland Museum announced its purchase of the Apollo, Hicham Aboutaam pleaded guilty in a Manhattan court to a federal misdemeanor charge that he falsified customs documents associated with a silver rhyton (drinking cup) that originated in Iran. He was ordered to pay a $5,000 fine.
One can twist and turn the facts in various ways, but I think that by any reasonable construction of the evidence, the Cleveland Museum has chosen to operate in an arena of ethically controversial activities.
The Greek government believes the Apollo came from somewhere in Greece. When the Louvre held an exhibition of the work of Praxiteles, the Greeks declared that they would withdraw their loans if the bronze from Cleveland was included. Consequently, the Louvre’s loan request to the Cleveland Museum was withdrawn.
But the statue could have come from somewhere else, since in the third century B.C. the Greeks had colonies in Italy, Spain, Africa and on the coast of the Black Sea in Turkey and the Crimea.
It will probably be a long time before we know—if we ever know—where the statue is originally from. While the purchase goes against the guidelines of the American Association of Museums, these guidelines are toothless—mere recommendations that carry no sanctions or punishment. To be fair, even if the museum did have reason to believe that the statue was stolen or smuggled, it’s not clear who it should give it back to.
Forward movement with cases of questionable provenance is generally very slow. In the case of the notorious Euphronios vase, for example, rumors were circulating within weeks of its purchase in 1972 by the Metropolitan Museum about precisely where it had been discovered in Italy—rumors that turned out to be correct. Nonetheless, it took nearly 40 years before the piece was returned to Italy, and no one has ever been prosecuted for the incident.
These cases have a way of making institutions more secretive. Recently, a faculty member in art history at Case Western Reserve (not me) asked to see the curatorial file on the Apollo statue but was refused. While this is well within the museum’s legal rights, it was the first time in his 40 years of teaching that such a request had been declined.
(The L.A. Times’s Ralph Frammolino wrote this piece for Smithsonian about the return to Italy from the Getty of an celebrated statue believed to be Aphrodite. His investigative reporting with Jason Felch on provenance controversies resulted in their book Chasing Aphrodite about the hunt for looted antiquities.)
March 6, 2012
Keichel Fine Art in Lincoln, Nebraska is currently exhibiting a fascinating mystery picture, Landscape with a River and Hills, popularly known as The Bigfoot Landscape. While it has some awkward features and is not included in any of the existing publications about Grant Wood, a number of scholars believe that it is indeed by Wood. But two of Wood’s biographers, James Denis and Wanda Corn, have rejected the piece, though in a recent letter Corn has softened her stance to what I take as a “maybe.” Which way is the truth?
If it is by Grant Wood it’s an important discovery, since paintings in Wood’s mature style are as rare as Vermeers: after Wood developed this style in American Gothic, he produced only a little over 30 paintings.
Decisions like this are resolved through a sort of scholarly consensus. And while we like to pretend that our decisions are based on solid evidence, often our evidence is much less than complete. What’s interesting in this case is that while the attribution depends partly on technical considerations—the materials and techniques employed in the painting—ultimately the decision rests on something more complex and in some ways subjective. Does the picture reflect the mind of Grant Wood? Does it seem to be the product of his imagination?
Let me briefly present the case that it does: I’m one of the scholars who believes that Wood produced the painting. In fact, I wrote about the work in the 2011 Vivian Kiechel Fine Arts catalogue.
I first saw the painting during a research trip to Iowa City, for a book I’m hoping to write about Grant Wood. At that point the painting was in a private collection, and I expressed my opinion that Wood had done it. Doubtless for that reason the gallery asked me to write about the painting when it was put up for sale. I then ran through all the arguments even more carefully than before, and I became more convinced that my feeling about the painting is right.
Let me warn you, I think the artwork is unique: a painting that Wood abandoned halfway through. That would at least partly explain why it looks so odd. (Of course, the final answer to the question of the painting’s authenticity will have an enormous effect on the work’s value.)
What do we see in the work? Like several paintings by Grant Wood, Landscape portrays the sort of gently rolling terrain characteristic of eastern Iowa. There’s a river with a bridge and a road leading into the distance; sprinkled over the landscape are corn fields, corn shocks and a red silo. In the left foreground is a “dancing tree.” The oddest feature of the painting is a hill just across the river on the left, which has a shape that resembles a human foot, with eight green shrubs that seem to form “toes.” It’s precisely this bizarre feature that makes me think the painting is by Grant Wood.
The painting originally hung in Wood’s studio, according to two credible witnesses: Park Rinard, who became Wood’s publicity manager and secretary, and Dr. Titus Evans, a radiologist of international repute, who was Wood’s physician and also an amateur painter. It’s not clear when Wood first hung this painting in his studio. Rinard, who connected with Wood around 1934-35 when Wood moved to Iowa City, once commented “that painting was always around.” According to Dr. Evans’ widow, on several occasions her husband attempted to purchase the painting, but Wood refused, perhaps because he considered it incomplete. In December of 1941, shortly after a cancer operation, Wood gave the painting to Dr. Evans, and he passed away shortly afterwards, on February 12, 1942.
James S. Horns of Minneapolis, who has conserved many of Grant Wood’s paintings, reports in a letter of October 1, 2008 that the materials in the painting are consistent with other paintings by Wood. Specifically: it is executed on a rather heavy cotton canvas similar to some used by him; the canvas was covered with a white ground heavily applied with broad brushstrokes, similar to that found in many of his paintings; and the picture surface contains an uneven coating of pigment that has been partially rubbed off to leave a glaze or scumble, as is often found in paintings by Wood. While Horn notes that analysis of technical issues by itself is not sufficient to provide “absolute confirmation” of the attribution to Wood, he concludes that “the materials and technique would support an attribution to Wood and no features were seen that are inconsistent with his work.”
The general repertory of elements is one that appears frequently in Wood’s oeuvre. The slowly moving river, the gentle hills, the cornfields and corn shocks, the silo, the trees (some with autumnal foliage), the road running at a diagonal and then turning at a right angle—all form part of Wood’s fundamental grammar of expression, which he constantly rearranged, like a writer rearranging words in a sentence. The elements in the foreground are particularly close to Wood’s painting The Birthplace of Herbert Hoover, executed in 1931. Interestingly, the composition of the painting seems to follow a design method that Wood employed on other occasions. It is roughly divided into three equal horizontal bands and is crisscrossed by diagonals that point to the corners or to other key points on this geometric grid. Wood taught this method of design to his students at the University of Iowa, and it can often be found in his landscapes, notably his lithograph March, of 1941, where this method is clearly demonstrated.
But Landscape completely lacks the fine detail that we generally find in Wood’s paintings after 1930: if it is a work by Grant Wood, it must be one that he left unfinished.
To me, the most compelling reason for the attribution is the curious sense of humor in the work—a sense of humor that is rather childlike. Wood’s paintings are filled with pun-like elements, which are sometimes downright naughty, as in his Daughters of Revolution, in which the three elderly women resemble Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington in drag. In Landscape, the most peculiar and remarkable element in the painting is the hill in the shape of a human foot, with shrubs for toes. In some fashion I believe this is a reference to a silly hoax Wood once carried out, a prank that was significant to him and formed part of his personal mythology.
In 1916, while in his mid-20s, Wood and his friend Paul Hanson constructed two small homes in Kenwood Park, Cedar Rapids, one for the Hansons and one for himself, his mother and his sister. Around this time, after reading about the alleged discovery of human bones and a kitchen in Horsethief’s Cave, northeast of Kenwood, a hoax which brought crowds of spectators to view the cave, Wood decided to create a “Superhoax” of his own. As his first biographer Darrell Garwood reported:
He carved a foot eighteen inches long out of wood and made footprints in the ravine leading from Cook’s Pond. With his monster picture and the footprints as proof, he tried to convince the newspapers that a giant had risen up from the pond and then clumped off down the ravine. As it turned out, he didn’t succeed in luring the newspapers. But he did use the footprints: he cast them in concrete and laid them as a sidewalk from front to back of the house he was to occupy; the concrete footprints were spaced so that it looks as though a giant had just knocked at the front door and then hurried around the corner of the house.” (Darrell Garwood, Artist in Iowa, A Life of Grant Wood, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York, 1944, page 53.)
The same story is told with slight variations by Wood’s sister Nan:
About two miles away was Cook’s pond, which Grant called “Corot’s pond.” On hot summer evenings, he and Paul Hanson would swim there. As a hoax, Grant made molds and cast some giant footprints, pressing them into the sand to make tracks leading to the pond. Then he dove in and came up with his head covered with decaying leaves and dripping mud. Paul took a picture of this horrible creature. Grant made more of the giant footprints in concrete and used them a stepping stones from our house to a rustic bridge he built over a tiny stream in our back yard. (Nan Wood Graham (with John Zug and Julie Jensen McDonald, My Brother Grant Wood, State Historical Society of Iowa, 1993, pages 25-26.)
My belief is that the hillside shaped like a foot in Landscape is an allusion to this hoax—or, if you wish, an extension of it into a new and somewhat different artistic statement. In other words, the huge foot visible in the hillside conjures up the fantasy that “Bigfoot” is at loose. In my opinion he was sufficiently taken with this theme to execute the work at least to the stage of under-painting the canvas; but then he ran out of energy or enthusiasm when faced with the task of perfecting the finish of his creation—perhaps because the conceit was too slight and too whimsical to justify a fully polished painting. Instead, he hung the incomplete painting in his studio, waiting for some further bit of inspiration to complete the painting—a moment that never came.
So I believe the mystery painting is by Grant Wood in part because of its provenance, in part because its materials are consistent with Grant Wood and in part because its composition ties in with known works by him. But the most compelling factor is that the piece’s strange humor fits with what we know about Grant Wood’s personality—and not with that of any other artist.
Someday, perhaps there will be a scholarly consensus. But as of today, the jury is out. Am I correct that Grant Wood made this picture? Have you been persuaded?
October 14, 2011
The robber barons loved the portraits of the 17th century Dutch painter Frans Hals, and nowhere did these barons congregate so thickly as in New York. Not surprisingly, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has this country’s largest collection of paintings by Hals, donated by rapacious financiers who made rivals quake during the early industrial age, such as Collis P. Huntington, Henry Marquand, Benjamin Altman, H. O. Havemeyer and Jules Bache. Stroll across 5th Avenue and you can see more Frans Hals paintings in the Frick collection, amassed by the ruthless Pittsburgh steel magnate Henry Clay Frick.
The Metropolitan recently gathered its impressive holdings of Hals paintings into a sort of mini-blockbuster exhibition. Organized by Walter Liedtke, the museum’s curator of Dutch art, the show contained 13 portraits, two from private collections. There are also a few works formerly attributed to Hals, and by his contemporaries, that set his achievement in context. The show is loosely divided between early exuberant works by Hals, such as the Merrymakers at Shrovetide (circa 1616) and Yonker Ramp and His Sweetheart (1623), and the later, more sober portraits, which sometimes have an introspective, even brooding quality reminiscent of Rembrandt.
What’s So Great About Frans Hals?
As a painter, Hals made two great contributions. One was to combine an intense sense of realism with flamboyant brushwork—which gives his work a highly personal quality. When we stand at a distance the image seems “real”: but when we’re close all we see is gestural marks, made by the human hand. At a sort of middle distance there’s a moment when the two modes of seeing precariously coexist, or at which one mode of seeing shifts into the other. The “real” and the “abstract,” the “objective” and the “subjective,” interact with each other in endlessly fascinating ways.
Hal’s other contribution is to fill his paintings with evident psychological intensity, the quality known as “psychological insight.” His figures feel as if we could speak to them.
There are many tricks that Hals used to create this effect, including his dashing brushwork, which gives mobility to the muscles of the face, as if the figures were alive. Another fascinating trick was also used by Rembrandt. Hals recognized that the human face has two halves and the expression on one side differs subtly from the expression on the other. Particularly in his late work, Hals exploited this effect in a dramatic way: the two sides of the face are two slightly different people. The lighted side portrays the sitter’s “public self,” and the shadowed side the “private self”—generally somewhat sadder and more thoughtful, perhaps with an eye that wanders a bit and looks out of focus. Without even being conscious of this difference, we respond to it. Because a portrait by Hals reveals not a single but a divided self, the act of looking at a Hals painting is one of penetrating through the surface presentation of the figure to the inner person.
It’s surely no accident that Hals’s life (1580-1666) overlapped with that of Shakespeare (1564-1616), and the way he evoked a sense of character provides interesting parallels to the characters in Shakespeare’s plays who are generally two or more people in one body, engaged in internal dialogue. In that sense, Hals’s portraits document the emergence of the modern self: they display a new awareness that the “self” is not a single, uniform thing, but the product of conflicting forces and disparate impulses, ruled by a consciousness filled with self-doubt.
I suspect that the robber barons’ fondness for Hals has something to do with this psychological penetration. Success in business depends on an accurate assessment of the person across the bargaining table, and this assessment often depends not only on what is presented on the surface but on facial expressions and gestures that reveal deeper, hidden motives. Is this person telling the truth? Will he double-cross me? Can I trust him? One might add that the rich brown palette of a Hals’ portraits fits nicely in the dark cave-like interiors of the gilded age.
Where to See Frans Hals
After the Metropolitan Museum, the largest collection of Hals in this country is that of the National Gallery in Washington, with an impressive cluster of portraits, most of them assembled by the industrialist Andrew Mellon. But perhaps the best way to get into the Hals spirit is to see his work in the actual home of a robber baron.
Two of these settings come to mind. One is the Frick collection in New York, already mentioned, in a mansion designed by Carriere and Hastings for Henry Clay Frick. The other is at the Taft Museum in Cincinnati, the home of Charles P. Taft, the brother of Supreme Court Chief Justice and U. S. President William Henry Taft. (It has a remarkable group of works not only by Hals but by two other top figures in the art of portraiture, Rembrandt and John Singer Sargent, including the latter’s wonderfully nervous Portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson, showing the author in a wicker chair, nursing a cigarette.) Of the Taft Museum’s portraits by Hals, surely the most remarkable are those of a married couple: A Seated Man Holding a Hat and A Seated Woman Holding a Fan. Each is a masterwork, and there’s a delightful interaction between the two.
There are other Frans Hals experiences worth seeking out in the United States.
I always feel a bit wistful when I look at Hal’s Portrait of a Woman at the St. Louis Art Museum, or the Portrait of a Man in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City. They’re a couple, but somehow got divorced, and ended up at opposite ends of the state.
Finally, it’s well worth studying the two examples of Hals’s work at the Cleveland Museum of Art. The larger of the two, Tielman Roosterman (1634), is not only one of the artist’s best large-scale portraits but one of the very best preserved. Its condition is near perfect. The other, portraying an unknown woman, has a surface that’s been abraded and rubbed, like a garment that’s gone too many times to the drycleaners. If you study these two paintings you’ll see the distinction between a painting in good condition and one in poor condition, and you can apply this knowledge to every old master painting you encounter.