Tuesday, April 2, 2013

From Duccio to Ai Weiwei: The Multiple Lives of the Work of Art

Antonio, Allegri da Correggio, Leda and the Swan, around 1532
(Gemaldegalerie, Berlin) 
At a time when the sculptures and artifacts which have made their way to some of the finest institutions in the West are crying to be reunited with their country of origins, and the dealings behind these acquisitions are coming into daylight, I had the privilege of attending a lecture which presented the other side of the proverbial coin.  Philippe de Montebello, a legend in his own right, with numerous awards and honors including two Presidential medals and a Legion d'Honor, gave a riveting lecture, "The Multiple Lives of the Work of Art" at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles two weeks ago. His prose was captivating with interesting details and most surprising of all, a sense of humor. Although this should not come as a surprise, when Philippe de Montebello speaks, people stop and listen. Since this post concerns the lecture and not my personal views, I will try not to offer my own perspective, for now.

Duccio di Buoninsegna, Madonna and Child, c. 1300
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Mr. de Montebello started his lecture regaling the audience with his predatory instincts that surfaced as soon as the Madonna and Child, one of the few surviving paintings by the Sienese artist,  Duccio  came into the market. He revealed he had intimated to the board of trustees at the Met that the Louvre was after it and they (the Met) had to have it!  Today the Duccio is in it's home at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, surprising visitors with its small size and the rumors of it's exorbitant price. The photograph of the back of the painting was just as interesting as the front with the burn marks from the votive candles that would have been lighted underneath this devotional piece marking the physicality of a work of art. "A picture is an object that can be held in the hand with a front, back and a history long after leaving the artist's studio" were the words, that led the way to a talk on the afterlife of objects.

Domenikos Theotokopoulos (El Greco), The Assumption of the Virgin, 1577-79
(The Art Institute of Chicago)
After seeing the photograph of the gallery* at the Art Institute of Chicago where El Greco's The Assumption of the Virgin, painted originally as the center of the lower story of a huge retable that would have filled the end of a sanctuary hanging on a plain museum wall next to other Spanish Golden Age painters, Zurbaran and Murillo's  paintings I remembered that it wasn't just the artifacts from antiquity which were crying to go home. Although I should have remembered since The Crucifixion by Zurbaran I had previously written about (link) is also in the same gallery. These giant paintings which were meant to be observed high up on the  altar, part of a spiritual, architectural space were standing side by side on display at eye level for the scrutiny of visitors passing by. A copy had taken the place of the original El Greco in the Santo Domingo de Silos retable. One can't help but ponder how/if the faithful/visitor's experience is altered due to experiencing a copy instead of the original in this specific space? One of the points that came across repeatedly in the Historians of Islamic Art Association Panel at the CAA annual conference last month (see link) was about the reticence museums show when displaying copies, to an admission- fee paying public, even if they are 19th century copies as in the case of the copies Murdoch Smith had made for the V & A of the 17th century Safavid monuments. But this isn't a museum, it is a church and the situation is not unusual at all, most paintings by famous artists executed for such spaces have been replaced by copies while the originals grace the walls of museums all over the world.

Monastery of Santo Domingo de Silos Retable, (with a copy of the El Greco)Toledo
Had these manifestations of Spanish Mysticism lost their significance in the sterile environments of museums or had they become something else all together different.  Mr De Montebello, added that reading the information included on the gallery label about the artist Mary Cassatt recommending  the purchase of this painting added another aspect to the perception of the painting in its current setting.

Place de la Concorde with the Obelisk from the Temple of Luxor
The displaced obelisk that stands in the middle of the Place de la Concorde in Paris today which once stood at the entrance to the Temple of Luxor in Egypt was another good example of the multiple lives of the work of art. Although the hieroglyphs exalting the reign of Ramses II decorating the obelisk have lost their significance and the obelisk has become what de Montebello refered to as "a grand civic punctuation without even a political context."  While on the subject of obelisks the one in the center of Saint Peter's square was also mentioned as one that had an association with its past since the bronze statue of Emperor Caligula was replaced by a cross at the top, signifying what used to be pagan is now part of Christianity.

Victory Stele of Naram-Sin,
c. 2250BC, Mesopotamia
(The Louvre)
Law Code of Hammurabi,
c.1792-1750 BC, Mesopotamia
(The Louvre)

It seems to be problematic when museums actually do want to return certain artifacts to their country of origins; which country should they be returned to - where they were made or where they were found?  The Louvre faced a very interesting conundrum according to de Montebello when they considered returning two of the greatest works made in Babylon to their homeland only to realize they were discovered by French archaeologists in Iran where they had been taken after the victory of the Persians over Mesopotamians in 12th century.

Cimabue's Crucifix after the flood of 1966
Cimabue, Crucifix, 1287-1288

When listing trauma, natural disasters as well as iconoclasm as some of the reasons for the changing context of works of art, Phillipe de Montebello showed the devastating photographs of the aftermath of the flood of 1966 in Florence. It was estimated that the flood which had reached a height of seventeen feet had ruined around 1,500 works of art, the most valuable being the Crucifix by Cimabue. De Montebello explained that after the flood works of art had changed their context altogether, ruined frescoes were taken apart, the signs of the destruction, the holes as can be seen in the Cimabue were left as a memorial to the floods and the works were moved to the museum behind the Duomo.

From Florence we moved onto Berlin, where the photograph of the 19th century church of Kaiser Wilhelm with its damaged spire, a telling monument to the horrors of World War II was followed by two pictures of Byzantine ivories taken at the museum - one pristine white, the other charred black. The white one was the product of zealos conservation which Philippe de Montebello classified as another form of iconoclasm.

Livia, Ephesus Museum 
Emperor Augustus, Ephesus Museum

Statues from antiquity were defaced, Christianized or reworked to represent saints during the Christianization of the Roman empire. Although Mr. De Montebello showed a picture of an antique female head that had been reworked to wear a veil and became an acceptable Christian statue, the heads of Emperor Augustus and his wife Livia from the Ephesus museum can also help us to visualize the concept.

These three heads, all from Osiride Statues of Hatshepsut, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Collection demonstrate the different characteristics a statue can take during the conservation process depending on the conservators.

The Loggia, Palazzo Rucellai, Alberti, 1460's

The Loggia originally built by Alberti being converted into a high-end retail store is another example of the reuse overtime changing certain monuments into another entity.

Notre Dame de Paris

Original heads of the biblical kings, Musee de Cluny

Nortre dame de Paris was probably one of the most interesting monuments mentioned by Philippe de Montebello. He apologetically announced to anyone in attendance who had taken photographs of the gargoyles and the ornaments on the facade that these were actually the 19th century interpretations of the architect Viollet-le-Duc. The statues of the biblical kings on the facade were mistaken as the Kings of France and destroyed (beheaded) during the French Revolution only to be rediscovered in 1977 during road construction. They had been bought and then buried, lined up, facing the Notre Dame by a fervent royalist according to De Montebello. Today these heads have a further museum life where they are displayed at the Musee de Cluny in Paris.

Les Halles, Paris

The Crystal Palace burning in 1936 as well as the dismantling of Les Halles in Paris as a byproduct of which "the flavor, the life, the gastronomy of the city were lost" are prime examples of city planning iconoclasm.

Of the multiple life of paintings that had survived artistic iconoclasm Antonio Allegria da Correggio's, Leda and the Swan (top of the page)from Gemaldegalerie in Berlin is one with a riveting tale. This painting originally in the collection of Duc d'Orleans, upon his death, was found too licentious and ordered to be slashed by his religious son Louis d'Orleans, luckily it was reconstructed and sent to Frederick the Great of Prussia. When the painting ended up in the hands of Napoleon the lost head was restored in accordance with the taste of the day.  Finally,the painting entered the collection in Berlin, and the head was found to be too French and restored for a fourth time to its present condition.

The Agony in the Garden, 1408, French
(Before Restoration)

The Agony in the Garden, 1408, French
(After Restoration)
This exquisite 15th century French painting, The Agony in the Garden, acquired by the Prado Museum with the instigation of Mr. De Montebello, regained a new identity when two figures were discovered on the left bottom corner of the painting during restoration.* As a matter of fact the donor was even identified as Louis d'Orleans. Mr De Montebello also pointed out these two figures were probably best preserved figures from 14th century since no one had touched them since they had been over-painted.

Reclining Hermaphrodite, 1st century BC,
(Museo Nazionale de Roma's Palazzo Massimo Alle Terme)

Borghese Hermaphroditus, 2nd c. Roman copy of 2nd c. BC. Greek original, mattress by Gianlorenzo Bernini (1619)
When discussing additions or subtractions during the lifetime of works of art as in the figures found in The Agony in the Garden, above, and whether they add or detract from the appeal of the object, one other comparison came out. While the Reclining Hermaphrodite from the National Museum of Rome lies on a slab of museum marble, the Borghese Hermaphroditus lounges on a mattress added later by Bernini. In cases such as these when the restorer making additions is Bernini, Philippe de Montebello proclaimed, "you don't touch it!"

Ai Weiwei, Coca-Cola Vase, 1997
(Neolithic Vase 5000-3000BC)

Mr Philippe de Montebello ended his lecture with the image of a Neolithic Vase which was transformed by contemporary artist Ai Weiwei into a found object and painted with the Coca-Cola logo as the culminating stage of the fascinating transformations that take place when works of art go onto the transformation of history.

This lecture touched upon a collection of works of art as they made their way through history, in a constant state of motion, in some cases, a receptacle of knowledge and in others a metamorphosis into something delightfully different. It is an undeniable fact that museums are a fundamental part of our learning process and they need to be have access to important works of art in order for research and development in preservation techniques to continue. But, even if they take on a major significance in their new state, new homes, how will they continue to tell us the stories of their own time, their people and what those people saw and felt when they experienced these works of art.

There is a beautiful 6th century sculpture relief, Nike Bearing a Date Branch on the second floor of the Istanbul Archaeology museum. It is clearly  labeled with a description stating where it came from, the Balat gate of the Walls of Constantinople. It is a captivating object to behold with its low relief carving, the fluttering drapery, the sense of motion but as it stands there against the wall, it begs so many questions... what did it look like to the visitor passing through those gates, what was her significance within the urban landscape, what was it welcoming, confronting or saying to the passerby. As long as she stands inside a museum, even within her own city, we will never know her secrets, what she was whispering as people came and left the great city of Constantinople. So where do we stand in regards to the multiple life of this work of art?

Relief of Nike Bearing Date Branch, 6th c.
(Istanbul Archaeology Museum)

Visual Sources

Antonio Allegria da Correggio, Leda and the Swan, 1532, Wikipaintings - (link)
Duccio di Buoninsegna, Madonna and Child, c. 1300, Metropolitan Museum of Art - (link)
Domenikos Theotokopoulos (El Greco), The Assumption of the Virgin, 1577-79, The Art Institute of Chicago (link)
 * This gallery can be visited virtually in the Google Art Project (link)
The Santa Domingo el Antiguo retable  (link)
Place de la Concorde with the Obelisk from the Temple of Luxor (link)
Victory Stele of Naram-Sin, c. 2250BC, Mesopotamia, (link) more information on Louvre website (link)
Law Code of Hamurrabi, c.1792-1750 BC, Mesopotamia, (link) more information on Louvre website (link)
Photograph of the ruined Cimabue (link) Cimabue, Crucifix, 1287-88, (link
Newpaper article 1982 (link)
Christianized Statue of Livia (link)
Christianized Statue of Augustus (link)
Head of an Osiride Statue of Hatshepsut, ca. 1473-1458 B.C, Metropolitan Museum of Art (link) - (Left)
Head of an Osiride Statue of Hatshepsut, ca. 1473-1458 B.C, Metropolitan Museum of Art (link) -(Middle)
Head of an Osiride Statue of Hatshepsut, ca. 1473-1458B.C., Metropolitan Museum of Art (link) - (Right)
The Loggia, Palazzo Rucellai, Alberti, 1460's (link)
Notre Dame de Paris (link)
Heads of Biblical Kings (link)
Les Halles, Paris (link)
The Agony in the Garden, 1408, French (link)
The Agony in the Garden, 1408, French (link) and
*it's fascinating story (link)
Reclining Hermaphrodite, 1st century BC, Rome (link)
Borghese Hermaphroditus, 2nd century ADLouvre (link)
Ai Weiwei, Coca-Cola Vase, 1997 (link)


  1. This is fascinating, Sedef - thank you for capturing so much of Mr. de Montebello's talk for us! I wish that it were possible for labels in museums to include this kind of information - makes the experience so much richer and alive. How do we find this kind of information if we can't attend lectures like this (and/or don't have expert reporters like you)? I guess we store it away when we can get it. I'll look for your Nike next summer! (Do we know the significance of the date branch?)
    I'll be thinking about this post all day - thanks again!

  2. Karen,

    You know the 'date branch' from the museum label probably means 'date palm branch' which is one of the attributes of Nike a symbol of victory, triumph, peace and eternal life. Thanks for stopping by!

  3. Oh, right - make sense! I love that they're distinguishing between date palms and other kinds of palms!


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