Friday, April 22, 2011


The traditional recipe for a mural requires:
  • One (1) person wealthy enough to own a big wall; and
  • one (1) person talented enough to paint on it.
Unfortunately, these two ingredients don't always mix well. 

The reason for this probably dates back to ancient Babylonia.  The cruel and powerful King Belshazzar, worshipper of gold and merchandiser of the souls of men, had conquered all his neighbors.  He had nothing left to fear from anyone.  Yet, when he held a victory feast for a thousand of his princes and warlords, Belshazzar became rattled by markings he discovered on his palace wall:

Poet Sir Osbert Sitwell beautifully described this biblical story, and what happened when the great king saw the famous writing on the wall:
And this was the writing that was written:
In that night was Belshazzar the King slain
And his kingdom divided.
Whatever the origins of the bad blood,  trouble seems to flare up regularly when artists write on the walls of the rich and powerful.  One side or the other seems to get weighed in the balance and found wanting.

British shipping magnate Frederick Leyland commissioned James Whistler to paint a mural on Leyland's wall but then refused to pay Whistler's price.  Whistler returned to Leyland's house and changed the mural to portray Leyland as a vain peacock squabbling over a bag of gold.

Whistler proudly proclaimed that he had immortalized Leyland as a peacock (and in fact most people today probably remember Leyland this way).

In 1925 the great Frank Brangwyn was commissioned to paint a mural of "the British Empire" for the House of Lords.

Brangwyn put his heart and soul into what he hoped would be a great masterpiece, but after only five of the eighteen panels were completed, Brangwyn too was weighed in the balance and found wanting. the Royal Fine Art Commission, in a stunning display of bad judgment, rejected the mural.  Among the excuses later offered was the fact that the panels, designed as “a profusion of motifs drawn from all over the world, a rich brightly-hued tapestry of allusions to Africa, India, Burma and Canada, teeming with humanity and exotic birds and beasts,” were not appropriate for the traditional staid English decor. 

Five years later, Brangwyn became enmeshed in another controversy over his murals for Rockefeller Centre in New York.  In 1934 he was selected by the fabulously wealthy Nelson Rockefeller to paint a mural  on the theme “Man at the Crossroads.” Brangwyn's mural included a picture of Jesus but the Rockefellers ordered it removed, so Brangwyn ended up repainting Jesus with his back to the viewer.  In the words of Bertram Wolfe, Brangwyn made Jesus turn his back “upon the Temple of the Money Changers.” 

But Brangwyn had it easy compared to another muralist for Rockefeller Center.  Diego Rivera's entire mural was famously destroyed by the Rockefellers because Rivera refused to paint out an image of Lenin.   

Which brings us to Paul Le Page, the buffoon currently serving as Governor of the State of Maine. LePage removed a mural from the state's Department of Labor because the mural offended his "pro-business philosophy."   In what must be a new low in the history of human reaction to art, Le Page cited an anonymous fax complaining that in “communist North Korea... they use these murals to brainwash the masses.”

The artist, Judy Taylor, claimed that the mural was intended to depict milestones from the state's labor history, including Rosie the Riveter at Bath Iron Works and a famous 1937 shoe worker’s strike.  “There was never any intention to be pro-labor or anti-labor, it was a pure depiction of the facts.”

 At the time of Diego Rivera's battle with the Rockefellers, E.B. White wrote the following poem, which appeared in the New Yorker:
Said John D's grandson, Nelson.
[T]ho your art I dislike to hamper,
I owe a little to God and Gramper,

And after all,
It's my wall.....
We'll see if it is, said Rivera.
I think that White put his finger on the heart of many of these disputes.  Wall owners and muralists sometimes have different notions about who owns the wall in the more meaningful sense.  There is more than one kind of property.


Li-An said...

A proof that business is not natural but the result of thinkings and sometimes very bad thinkings.

maharelillo said...

Fascinating, thank you for sharing. Also I just discovered the works of Brangwyn. It reminds me of the Slave Epic by Mucha, my top of the list artist. Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

That's the nature of illustration huh, you get to work at the pleasure of the costumer. I think the Maine gov had plenty good reason to remove the mural, (its not that good in my opinion) and I understand its not being destroyed just moved. There were some pretty cool Stalin and Lenin artwork and murals that got taken down in Russia for good reason unaffiliated with the quality of the artwork.

Stephen Worth said...

The mural in Maine is pretty much of a dog, regardless of what it depicts. It's stiff, flat, generic, and if you see the room it was painted in, totally out of scale with its surroundings. I would have probably painted it over too, but not for political reasons.

Sean McMurchy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
StimmeDesHerzens said...

RE: I get a kick out of that.

Well I never tire of finding those wunderschoen connections in your posts, as well as the usual fare of fabulous, fascinating erudite choice of words & expression...
Re: Brangwyn's 5 panels. super!
Re: Paul Le Page's buffoonery. At least he 'removed' it which is different than 'destroy' which is surely what would have been done in a communist society if a mural had too capitalist a flair. The mural did have a somewhat communist look to it (lots of grey--one wonders why pretty colors were always shunned)... The question is what replaced the mural? If a blank wall then the dude is definitly a moron. Art often falls victim to politics; looks like it happened in Maine.
have a happy pink&yellow Easter!

Kevin Mizner said...

No, the mural was not a great work of art. However, it was chosen by a committee and removed without any public say, merely at the whim of the incumbent. What remains is a bare yellow wall. The nation-wide negative press and litigation costs far outweigh keeping an otherwise unknown painting. But interestingly, that's what ties it in to this blog: the murals shown would be forgotten if they had been allowed to hang.

Jesse Hamm said...

Among illustration assignments, I think murals suffer the most from the "too many chefs in the kitchen" problem. Someone commissions a respected artist to paint a mural; later, it is inevitably seen by some other bigwig who doesn't like it, and down it comes -- after months of work.

Reminds me of an assignment I had to design a superhero mascot. After the design process was over and we settled on the proper cape, mask, and tights, my clients showed the new mascot to their boss, who then announced that he liked the Matrix, and could we dress the character like Neo instead? I'm just glad I hadn't painted the first character nine yards wide on a wall before the boss saw it.

kev ferrara said...

These are just about the only Brangwyn works that I simply can't enjoy. I find them garish, and they always symbolize to me his decline from his peak era. (And I am a committed Brangwyn fanatic.) Given what Brangwyn's work looked like up until these panels, in a sense he was not delivering his end of things.

If you decorate a temple, it should be obvious that the god of that temple is your subject. Otherwise, don't take the assignment. When you put something on somebody's wall against their will its called vandalism. If your wife calls in a decorator to do a job, and he puts some politician's face on the wall as a decoration, some politician you detest, I suppose that would be just alright?

I think Diego Rivera had a great design sense. But everyone should have the courage of their convictions, particularly if they propagandize for them. And in his case, he should have been sent to a gulag for a few years of forced hard labor. Maybe instead of Lenin idolatry we'd get something a bit more Close to the bone.”

Meanwhile, that damn John D. Rockerfeller provided and provided and provided, oil to heat houses, run cars, money for schools (University of Chicago anybody?), scientific research, medicines (eradication of hook worm and yellow fever anyone?)...

That Rivera is still considered an art hero for being a dupe of dysfunctional totalitarians has undermined the moral credibility of the arts and letters community for a half a century. Enough with this fantasy already!

Sean McMurchy said...

Another interesting post. But here is the question, how do artists with something to say to there community show there work so that it is seen publicly? As you post points out its not likely they will get help from those that own the walls. If the artist and the wall owner are idiotically the same then we will be left with paintings of walls and the portraits of wall owners.

Mellie said...

Rivera committed himself to the left cause because he believed in a better, fairer society.

The early Soviet Union had a rich cultural life with artistic movements like Futurism and Constructivism and was an exciting, liberating time for artists.

It went nastily wrong under Stalin but that's not Rivera's fault.

Anonymous said...

It's simply not true that it was only when Stalin grabbed the power in Soviet Union that things 'went nastily wrong' - in fact, if you put against each other the respective tenures of Lenin and Stalin, the ratio of people murdered per year were greater under Lenin. Stalin had more time to decimate whole populations, that's all.
This is widely known but the proponents of Communism always use Stalin as an alibi, as if he were just an aberration in a line of otherwise wonderfully benign heads of State.
I never looked more than perfunctorily at works and life of Rivera (Brazilian painter Candido Portinari, also a Communist, always seemed to me way superior to him), but, in browsing Frida Kahlo's journals, I found an entry in the date of Stalin's death in which she wrote how the world had lost on that day the greatest man of all time, how now the stars would fall and so on. I believe Rivera hold the same views.
Kev couldn't be more right. It's high time mediocre artists like Rivera and Kahlo got instead of praise the contempt they deserve.

kev ferrara said...

The early Soviet Union had a rich cultural life with artistic movements like Futurism and Constructivism and was an exciting, liberating time for artists.

Mellie, it's time to re-educate yourself.

Pushkin, Tolstoy, Vrubel, Stanislavsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Fechin, Repin, Nijinsky, Gogol, Levitan, Dostoyevsky... etc. etc. etc. All pre-revolution. The October Revolution led to a giant step DOWN in artistic freedom (because the thugocracy demanded propaganda from their artists, not individual expression). Even guys like Chekov and Gorky were educated in the arts pre-revolution.

History lesson on artistic freedom: Kandinsky had to leave because the Constructivists were radical thugs who demanded their way, ousted him because of his individuality. And the constructivists themselves were cast out by the Thugocracy as quickly as they were sanctioned. Which is what happens when you rely on some thug for your freedom, rather than demand it on its own terms as a human right.

Futurism was mostly an Italian movement. But, again, it was "in" one day in Russia, and soon after it was officially out. That's not artistic freedom. Maoism destroys the souls of artists, it liberates only the raging monomaniacal ego of the head maoist who becomes a god to his enslaved people.

David Apatoff said...

Marie Alice and Kev Ferrara-- Marie, I'm glad you have discovered Brangwyn. Like Kev, I am a committed Brangwyn fanatic. Kev, I have been looking for someone to discuss the colors in this period of Brangwyn so your objection that the colors are "garish" is well timed, and I would welcome more from you and others who care to weigh in.

Let me start by agreeing with you that "If you decorate a temple, it should be obvious that the god of that temple is your subject." I assume that Brangwyn was not trying to disrespect the aesthetic of the House of Lords, but rather to offset the dark stained wood and gloomy interior with something deliberately bright and pointed and scintillating. To me, the floral patterns on the mural look similar to a Liberty fabric of the day, and many of the defenders of mural made just this point-- that they were an excellent and artful "contrast" (there's that word again) to the rest of the interior of the room. Were they too much of a contrast? I think we'd have to see them in situ to pass an informed judgment.

But the more interesting question for me is, "why did Brangwyn, after a long career demonstrating great subtlety with color, turn to colors that seem so bright and artificial?" We might ask the same question about Cornwell, who did beautiful, subtle, naturalistic work for decades but then turned to bright hues and almost plastic, artificial looking forms. They may take a little getting used to, but I refuse to believe the artists suddenly lost their taste.

I think it is relevant that Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel, when cleaned of that patina of age, turned out to have shockingly "garish" colors, or that the those beautiful classical Greek statues on the acropolis, which look so subtle and muted, were once painted all kinds of wild colors. It is only the passage of time that bleached them white. In other words, a lot of excellent artists seem to have turned to what we might consider an over-heated color scheme. They seem to have been the Bob Peaks of their day. And I wonder if they don't seem jarring to us now because of our historical expectations, more than because of their innate qualities.

kev ferrara said...


It might just be possible that Brangwyn deliberately painted in a garish way because he knew the murals were destined for a dull space where brown is the ambient color bouncing around. Thus the feeling of tonal unity (tone) that a painting would normally require to be tolerable would be provided by the room.

Brangwyn and Cornwell also may have become interested in a kind of Gauguin-like color symbolism. I know Gauguin was well respected in parts of the illustration community during the Golden Age.

Even if both guesses are true, I still don't like the gumminess of the drawing, the lack of verve in the painting, nor the value arrangement, color patterns, etc. The whole thing makes my teeth grind.

Don't get me started on the restorations of the Sistine Chapel! Or The Last Supper for that matter. Nobody near academia should be allowed to touch a great work of art ever. Restorations should only be guided by the top artists of the day, guys like Richard Schmid or Jeremy Lipking or David Leffel. Those guys I would trust. Not some academic fan boy who's never thought deeply about composition or aesthetics in his life. At least if a Guy like Schmid is wrong, the work will still look beautiful and inspiring. When some robot who colors in the lines is in charge, even if they're right, the result looks like the work of a robot. What a cultural disaster...

Jesse Hamm said...

"why did Brangwyn, after a long career demonstrating great subtlety with color, turn to colors that seem so bright and artificial?"

Well, this bio says Brangwyn's affinity for bright color emerged in his mid-twenties, after travels to exotic countries,
a claim the provided samples seem to confirm:

Cornwell's work seems to me to have alternated between bright and subdued throughout his career. Possibly the shifts were due to his clients' preferences? I can see a library preferring something brightly au courant for their murals (librarians usually side with the new -- ironically), while insurance outfits prefer a more traditional look in their magazine ads. (BTW, here's a pretty batch of Cornwell that I just stumbled on.)

Michelangelo and the Greeks worked before much was known about color theory, and devoted most of their attention to sculpture, so it's natural that their color sense would tend toward the garrish hues we expect from children or amateurs. Michelangelo was a genius, but wondering why he didn't use subtle hues might be like be like wondering why Newton didn't travel by car.

kev ferrara said...

I remember reading that BPIB bio of Brangwyn and thinking how little brilliancy of color was actually captured in that Mural. Brangwyn well knew the technical difference between achieving brilliant, luminous color and creating garish color. If he wanted to evoke exotic color schemes that still had luminous tonal relations, it wouldn't have been a problem for him.

Therefore, it looks to me like some theoretical consideration mitigated against beautifully luminous color in the Empire panels.

I don't agree that Rennaissance artists didn't know the difference between garish color and subtle color because they lacked a coherent color theory. Just look at Verrocchio to start. Taste requires no theory. And for all we know they did have a viable theory for scheming color in pictures.

David Apatoff said...

Anonymous, Stephen Worth and Kevin Mizner-- I agree that the Maine mural is not a breathtaking work of art, but it was certainly not removed for that reason. The oafish Governor LePage wisely did not hold himself out as having any artistic taste. As far as I know, he never offered an opinion on the quality of the art.

Besides, it is in the nature of such murals that artistic talent is only one of the relevant considerations. I have seen government murals by local school children or disabled communities or seniors; I saw one such mural painted by a consortium of local community artists. They aren't the kind of art that would cause a connoisseur to swoon, but they are very effective and just fine for their purposes. And then there's the cost consideration; the Maine government did not want to pay to bring in a nationally prominent muralist. They got what they paid for.

So while I agree that it is theoretically possible to replace the current mural with a higher quality painting, that doesn't seem to have been a relevant consideration here.

I have to agree with Kevin. If LePage wanted to remove the mural for legitimate reasons, there was a legitimate process for doing so.

David Apatoff said...

StimmeDesHerzens-- I agree that the muralist made out better under Le Page than she would have under Stalin. Stalin was a serious monster, while LePage is, as you say, a moron. Hopefully those are not our only two choices.

Jesse Hamm-- I agree that murals suffer the most from "oversight." I think their in-your-face size, combined the fact that you can't move them to an inconspicuous location when they are likely to offend a visitor, guarantees that they will get people more upset than portable paintings. But I also think the fact that the people who control those walls tend to be either government despots like LePage or wealthy patrons like Rockefeller (both of which have their problems as artistic partners) doesn't help.

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara-- I don't know if you have seen the preliminary drawings for the Empire panels (I included one here) but they are in my opinion some of Brangwyn's very best drawings. They are not the work of someone who is "not delivering his end of things." They are serious, observant studies. And I also don't know if you've seen Brangwyn's original version of the House of Lords murals but he originally planned to make the murals about war, and as far as I can tell the pallet is much closer to his earlier, Skinners colors. He consciously chose to switch, and his friend Frank Rutter quoted Brangwyn as believing the final empire panels to be "the best he has ever painted." We may disagree with him, but he was clearly not phoning it in by this stage. His surrounding, contemporaneous work was clearly an artist at the height of his powers.

David Apatoff said...

Sean McMurchy wrote, "how do artists with something to say to there community show there work so that it is seen publicly?"

Sean, that may be the one bright spot in this sorry tale. It has never been easier to reach an audience. The internet has given each of us a digital wall for finding an audience.

Mellie wrote, "Rivera committed himself to the left cause because he believed in a better, fairer society." I agree, although that belief turned out to be misplaced. A lot of smart people believed in "the god that failed," and a lot of people remained in denial about the dark side of communism because of the offsetting abuses of fascism and capitalism which were then on the rise. But some of the most stubborn true believers who held on long after they should have known better were artists-- big hearted, fuzzy headed artists who believed in a utopian future. By the time of the Rivera mural, Stalin's collectivization and genocide of the kulaks was well under way.

Jesse Hamm said...


"Taste requires no theory."

We might as well say science requires no theory. Taste is a category of human knowledge and must be cultivated. Otherwise, the study of aesthetics would be fruitless.

I'm not sure why you cite Verrocchio as evidence that Renaissance artists knew color. His colors look comic-booky: he picks a pure local color for each object, and shades it with a darker version of the same color: red & darker red, blue & darker blue, yellow & tan for the skin, etc. This is the same approach taken by any young student before learning color theory. As an admirer of Leffel, surely you agree that we've come a long way since then?

kev ferrara said...

Taste is a category of human knowledge and must be cultivated. Otherwise, the study of aesthetics would be fruitless.

Cultivation of taste requires exposure to sensitivity, beauty, and subtlety, not necessarily theory. Not all knowledge can be or need be verbalized/codified as text for it to be knowledge. Some knowledge is simply sensuous understanding (one of the pillars of aesthetics.)

Even though you don't like Verrocchio, you can't really say his work is garish. Nor can it be determined that he had no color theory to hand. Nor does the color theory of that era need to be all that good to be comparable to modern theories of color which still don't necessarily guarantee a fine color scheme, despite all the advances.


I didn't mean to imply that Brangwyn was phoning it in at all. My opinion is that he was experimenting using some theory about color and form and value patterns that resulted in inferior work. In the drawing you posted I enjoy isolated bits of the drawing (the monkey is my favorite bit) but the whole thing is crowded to a discomfiting degree (horror vacui?), and there's so much gumminess of form and outline that, in my opinion, the weakness offsets the strengths.

Having said that, I hold out the possibility that seeing the Empire panels IRL might completely change my opinion of them. Brangwyn, after all, was still Brangwyn.

Joyce said...

Thanks David, interesting post. This is just a reminder that in the grab for control of the mural image Diego Rivera got the last word with regard to Rockefeller's demand. Rivera repainted the destroyed mural in Mexico, Lenin and all. As for the Leyland vs. Whistler battle for control, ultimately Whistler won when Charles Lang Freer bought the whole interior and brought it to American where it has become one of the painter's more famous works. Brangwyn's 1925 murals may have seemed garish in comparison to his earlier work, but they do echo the shift in taste and form to the deco decorative style of the period.

raphael said...

jesse: "Taste requires no theory." - We might as well say science requires no theory.

i think, the analogy is somewhat flawed, to be honest.
more fitting would be "knowledge requires no theory" - which indeed it doesnt. science is a method of acquiring a certain kind of knowledge. the kind of knowledge is determined by the workings of the method (f.e. scientific knowledge is never about real objects but always about abstractions of objects; or how scientific knowledge is never definitive but always open to 'updating' [you can easily falsify, but never verify]). and the method is characterized by making use of theories.

not all knowledge is science, though, and there is nothing that elevates scientific knowledge to a special level of "absolute" or "objective" knowledge, unless science as a method is severely misunderstood.

stimmedesherzens: re drab colours - maybe its that with a form of materialism as underlying ideology, its hard to see a merit in making aesthetic modifications, or idealization in general. from their point of view, i guess its much more apparent to see the worth of a picture in whether it shows something of import, i.e. distribution of means of production, key moments in the predicted development of society towards communism, or whether it is instrumentalized for this process, like an educational picture book.

the value of pretty is hard to get by under a materialist doctrine.

David Apatoff said...

Anonymous wrote, "if you put against each other the respective tenures of Lenin and Stalin, the ratio of people murdered per year were greater under Lenin."

Anonymous, I find that very hard to understand, even if you blame Lenin for every death in the Russian Civil War. Lenin lacked Stalin's muscle to commit wholesale genocide during his brief reign, as he was struggling for power in the first half and struggling with health in the second half. He also never had Stalin's cult of personality which generated the unquestioned obedience essential for such atrocities. I'd be interested in seeing where those numbers come from.

Kev Ferrara, I am no expert on Russian history but the standard version we get in school is that there was in fact a creative period following the October revolution, a flowering of the avant garde in art, music and film after the repression of the Tsars was lifted but before the repression of the communists successfully clamped down. (Am I correct in recalling that you wrote long ago that you do not like Malevich, or was that some other commenter?) Regardless of your view of the experimental painters who came out of the woodwork during that interregnum, I think we'd all agree that some great Russian composers survived for for some time even under Stalin, before he finally extinguished them too.

David Apatoff said...

Jesse Hamm wrote, "Well, this bio says Brangwyn's affinity for bright color emerged in his mid-twenties, after travels to exotic countries,"

Thanks, Jesse, I always learn from Jim Vadeboncoeur, Jr.'s excellent bios. I am not sure that Brangwyn's trip "to the Near East of Istanbul and the Black Sea" would account for those bright tropical colors that seem to repulse Kev so much. The lush reds and blues of Orientalism seem very different from the sun drenched colors of ripe bananas and mangoes, the bright plumage of jungle birds, the shapes and patterns of huge vegetation growing our of control. I don't see how ol' Brangwyn could have picked those up in the near east or the Mediterranean, but he clearly imported them from somewhere.

I am reminded of the excellent documentary recently released about the sketching trip that Disney's artists took to South America in the 1940s to prepare for the film, Saludos Amigos. The impact of the local colors on their pallet was was quite extraordinary (particularly Mary Blair's work; her style was permanently changed by the experience). It brings home the way that light and altitude in different parts of the world affect an artist's taste.

As a footnote, I would also recommend the new 3D computer animated film, "Rio" which is a valentine to the colors, sounds and designs of the director's homeland. It has probably the best rendered animated villain I have ever seen-- an incredible cockatoo. Fabulous work.

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara wrote: "Don't get me started on the restorations of the Sistine Chapel! Or The Last Supper for that matter. Nobody near academia should be allowed to touch a great work of art ever. Restorations should only be guided by the top artists of the day, guys like Richard Schmid or Jeremy Lipking or David Leffel."

Kev, your position surprises me. I have talked with conservators who assure me there is no doubt that the Sistine Chapel is now much closer to Michelangelo's original intention. They assure me that this is a scientific fact, that the gook they cleaned off of the fresco clearly accreted after Michelangelo's death, from candle soot and dirt and misguided conservators. If you want to dispute the accuracy of this claim, fine.

However, if you accept it and just don't care for Michelangelo's original garish colors, well... all I can say is that you are a brave man to claim his colors should be altered because the alterations look better than the original. And I cannot believe that Richard Schmid or Jeremy Lipking or David Leffel would ever consent to participate in their alteration.

You certainly have a fine way with words, and phrases such as "robots who colors in the lines" take you about as far as a rhetorical flourish can take you. But sometimes rhetoric bumps into hard facts and can't get past them, even in art. Our generation may think less of Michelangelo and more of Richard Schmid as a result, but as they say in the law, "truth is the ultimate defense."

Lipov said...

Yes. I see no reason to trust them with restorations just because they learned what it takes to paint what they're painting. I'd take a professional restorer from, I dont know, Istituto superiore per la conservazione ed il restauro over Schmid any day to fix my Michelangelo. Also, while Richard Schmid, Jeremy Lipking or David Leffel are good at what they want to do, they are not "top artists of the day".

Anonymous said...

Lipov - if Richard Schmid is not a top artist of our day , who would you consider to be some ?

kev ferrara said...

David, the one fact that every fan of illustration must know in their heart of hearts is that everything we know about art history in the 20th century has been subject to tampering.

Simple example: Aristarkh Lentulov, major avante garde exhibit in 1913 in Moscow, major influence on Malevich, who was already well under way in his avante garde work (his manifesto was in 1915) by the time of the oct rev. In fact, the avante garde was well under way all over the west, including Russia, from pre 1900, all of which was coming out of Symbolist aesthetics, which was really just another phase of Romanticism.

To credit the Oct. Revolution for an artistic flowering is ahistorical, given the trend.

Even the Stenbergs, who I adore, were already coming out of art school by 1917. Yes, they were given state sponsored studio space… but who says they wouldn’t have done great work of exactly similar type without the revolution?

The czars may have been bastards, but Russia was a cultural powerhouse under their reign. And, it seems to me, it is the echoes of that well-trained talent pool that sustained art in the USSR until the late 30s.

kev ferrara said...

Regarding restoration… I don’t trust academics about art at all. Period. I’ve simply read too much garbage by famous tenured men in the top school and Ivy League to put any stock in what they write or think.

If an academic assures you of something, so what? How many "scientist learn secrets of Mona Lisa through microscope" articles do we have to read?

My ongoing assumption is that academics don’t understand the complexity of the process of art unless they have personally demonstrated they can make good art. It is the talent for the supersensible that makes a great artist great. This sensitivity is rare where it is not a daily necessity. One simply can not get in the head of an artist unless one is an artist.

(I recall a story about Roy Krenkel, some years ago immediately pointing out that a recently acquired Tiepolo at the Met was a bad fake simply because he recognized that the composition was bad. It took years for the academics to come to the same conclusions, to much public embarrassment.)

Anyhow, I never said that Schmid should do the restoration, but that he, or someone like him, should guide it. Because Schmid is a great artist who can think like another great artist if need be. An academic does not have that ability. Aesthetic insight can't be had through the lens of microscope or by researching artistic materials.

We simply don't know what we don't know about a work done 500 years ago.

Lipov said...

Anonymous, this is an unpleasant question, because we all know what it will generate. 200 replys. Kev said "who think deeply about composition or aesthetics in their life". Would you say that, for example, Lucian Freud doesnt do that? Or some other artists that perform great in fields of abstract art for example? Since that Danto's end of art theory we maybe cannot point out a top artist of our time anymore (we could do it back than when aesthetic canons defined art), but... I'd say that while Lucian Freud might not be the top artist, he is more important that Schmid and he also "thinks deeply about composition or aesthetics in their life". Therefore he would be one among the artists that Id pick over Schmid to lead a group of restorers.

Lipov said...

Kev, is a bad composition on Tiepolo painting enough to call it a fake? There is probably much much more to prove that a painting is fake. It takes costly scientific researches to prove that something is fake, especially if the forger was aware of those scientific techniqies. That might be the reason why all that time went by, otherwise we could just employ Krenkels to determine fake history art by looking at them :D

kev ferrara said...

I love Lucian Freud's work and I do think that he is one of the top artists of our time. I would gladly allow him and many other current artists to supervise a restoration of an old master classic, provided the artist can do realistic work that demonstrates a sense of energy, beauty and emotional profundity at once.

I don't see why anyone would want to consult an abstract artist regarding a Michaelangelo painting restoration. That's pretty silly.

Lipov, composition is like handwriting. If you know an artist's handwriting through and through, you can tell a fake. Just like you can look at a hundred Frazetta imitations (pen, brush and ink, let's say) amid one single Frazetta, and be able to identify the Frazetta instantly. Would you need to see Frazetta's fingerprint on the picture through a microscope to make that judgement? If you do, you don't know Frazetta's art.

The problem is certainly more difficult with Tiepolo, but not different in essence. The fact is that academics don't have real compositional knowledge because they aren't visual thinkers, nor artists, they are literary thinkers, generally, and taxonomers. In order to promote their expertise in the field of art forensics, they must insist on science. The science indemnifies (it can't prevent) them from making poor judgments based on their limited aesthetic understanding. Because science provides clear evidence to show to worried museum bureaucrats and patrons. I understand why this is done.

Btw, Arthur Danto's transfiguration of the commonplace is another book I keep on the floor of my studio so I can step on it all the time. :) (This is not rhetoric.)

David Apatoff said...

Joyce-- thanks for writing. Yes, it certainly seems that economic ownership of the wall is only one limited form of property, and sometimes not the most important form. In the case of Leyland vs. Whistler, I think that Whistler won even before Charles Lang Freer bought the whole interior; I suspect both men would agree that Whistler won when he seduced Leyland's wife.

raphael wrote, "the value of pretty is hard to get by under a materialist doctrine."

I agree, but that just means that for many a materialist doctrine will always remain inadequate. "Pretty" will always trump the materialist answer.

As for your point that "the kind of knowledge is determined by the workings of the method," it looks like that idea is going to be tested in the ongoing discussion about whether scientists or artists have the superior form of knowledge to conserve the Sistine Chapel.

Tom said...

Meanwhile, that damn John D. Rockerfeller provided and provided and provided, oil to heat houses, run cars, money for schools (University of Chicago anybody?), scientific research, medicines (eradication of hook worm and yellow fever anyone?)... "

And don't forget the Federal Reserve Bank, Kev. Slowly but surely destroying the middle class.

‘Because Schmid is a great artist who can think like another great artist if need be. ‘ Different artist think differently and different cultures value different aspects of reality. I don't think Schmid would comprehend Michelangelo ‘s sense of solidity as Michelangelo would probably make little sense of Schmid’s impressionism. It is interesting that artists or cultures that have a strong tactical and planer sense( a love of form) seem to prefer bright colors like the Greeks. Brangwyn and Cronwell seem closer to Michelangelo in regards to there drawing. and the understanding of form. I think the paintings of the Sistine chapel look better now.

MORAN said...

If we forced the world to see Michelangelo through the eyes of Richard Schmid, Jeremy Lipking or David Leffel it would no longer be Michelangelo. Jack Kirby inked by Vince Colletta is not the same as Jack Kirby inked by Mike Royer.

raphael said...

i absolutely agree that prettiness will trump materialism every time. i tried thinking up a possible point of why art thats ok-ed under a (pseudo-)socialist regime usually has little going in the department of pretty.

the big, insurmountable problem of all communist endeavours is their base in historical materialism. both parts of it, the "historical" part as well as the "materialism" part have problems enough on their own to make them unfit for serious consideration.

re the testing of the method idea:
i dont know enough about the actual problem the fresco faced - but what i know for sure is that who is suited best for a job can not be determined from the point of view from within one of the camps.

what they (bookwormish art historians, microscope-toting chemists and paint-smeared artmakers) say about paintings is so categorically incompatible that each can point fingers and say that the respective other parties dont know jack about paintings because "they are talking about different stuff than we do".

my personal guess is that the more actual re-applying of paint is needed, the more someone with sensibilities for compositional arrangement subtleties and solid brush handling skills should be involved. (with assistance from other people with info on the materials involved, etcetera)
if the problem is more about discerning how many layers of what age and what material are piled up on this canvas, and how to remove a certain portion of them as non-invasively as possible, id place more money on the chemist bunch. (maybe backed up by some data a historian can pull out of his hat, as to when exactly the painting was considered "finished")

also sure is that havoc ensures when anyone tries to make statements about any of the other camps' matter.
neither an imagined pure chemist nor a pure bookworm do have the hands-on (literally!) insight in how ones handwriting goes into a picture. i imagine this difference to be similar to how a boxing commentator can know a truckload about boxing, but still lack the knowledge of what the actual doing of certain punches feels like.
similar "intrusions" are at the base of philosophers vs. neuroscientists or physics-believers vs. creationists.

Demo said...

If I were to pick a side:

I would say the artist gains ownership the wall the mural is painted on, or rather, the image on the wal. While I am biased (illustration major), the owner comes to the artist because they (presumably) don't have the ability to complete a mural themselves, or at least at a level of proficiency.

And so, they've delegated that responsibility away to someone more capable. In my opinion, at that point you lose some ownership of that wall. Mind you they have the right to terminate the contract, not use the mural, or even destroy the wall itself if they don't like it.

However, you lose some of the right to editorialize when you let an artist handle it. Though money is the ultimate equalizer in this equation...

A side note: I recently read through your back logs, definitely some gems which I most likely be reading again.

Thanks, Dave, for all the hard work!

-Matt Brown

David Apatoff said...

Lipov wrote, "I see no reason to trust them with restorations just because they learned what it takes to paint what they're painting."

I agree with you, and it seems that to some extent Kev does too-- that is, he would agree that it is not adequate to assume a good artist will understand the secret code that Michelangelo and all other artists speak; if we are to gain any reliable insight from another artist's opinion on restoration choices, it must be an artist whose work and vision are somehow sympatico with Michelangelo's (in other words, not an abstract artist, in Kev's view).

I am troubled by the level of subjectivity in such choices, and I think you raise an excellent question: if Tiepolo has a bad day, would the scientist or the artist be more likely to label it a forgery? Would a scientist or an artist take more liberties "correcting" Tiepolo's bad judgment? Is the goal to preserve Tiepolo's mistakes and warts, or to maximize the quality of the art in the world, by making adjustments to bad compositions?

I think you can tell where I lean from the way I've framed the question. But this group has certainly raised an interesting question: which contemporary artists would you trust to serve as your navigator to the great historical artists? Who would you pair with Michelangelo, or Rembrandt or Turner or Goya or Lautrec? I would think you'd want a combination of great talent and great humility-- which is probably a more rare combination than a wealthy wall owner agreeing with a talented wall painter.

Anonymous said...

I feel that Boris Vallejo should have been consulted for the Sistine restoration - and if he were not available , Mike Hoffman teamed with Tom Kinkaid .

Kenney Mencher said...

One of my art history teachers said that Whistler was sleeping with his wife and that's why he wasn't paid. Is this true?

Anonymous said...

Boris? You must be joking. Only Jeff Koons could do justice to Michelangelo.


kev ferrara said...

Personally, I would trust Leffel with Rembrandt. I would trust lots of different painters, landscape, portraitists, etc. to restore the other names.

To re-restore the current version of the Sistine Chapel to a less garish, more tasteful state I might choose someone like Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.

Anonymous said...

And R.Schmid for Sargent and J.Jones for Thomas Dewing .

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara wrote: "Regarding restoration… I don’t trust academics about art at all. Period."

Kev, I think you are overreacting to some of the annoying attributes of academic art experts. I agree that, at the margins, there is an art to science and a science to art, and it is extremely irksome when pseudo experts pontificate with scientific certainty in areas where subjectivity, judgment and humility are warranted.

However, there is also an objective core to science that, I think, is not susceptible to your critique of "robots" and "famous tenured men." I think the vast majority of the Sistine Chapel restoration probably falls into that category.

I should disclose that when I'm not doing this-- when I slip into that phone booth and change back into my Clark Kent costume-- I spend a fair amount of time working with science and technology, and in that capacity I spend more time than I would like dealing with stubborn factions that simply choose not to believe science because they don't like the results.

It is 100% fine with me if people have an objective, empirical basis for challenging scientific conclusions; that is the heart of what science is all about. But my radar goes off when people start explaining that we should avert our eyes from the path of science and instead be guided by "the force."

The antirationalist rejection of science, at least in the United States, has been depressing to watch over the past decade. In the same way that you write that an artist's sensibilities should trump objective test results, there are factions in the US who claim that divine inspiration trumps evolution, that the Bible trumps modern medicine (as with Terri Schiavo, AIDS, family planning, etc.), that people with the right kind of morals trump science on homosexuality or stem cell research... the list goes on and on. People disregard 90% of the science of climate change because they "feel it in their bones" that the minority science must be correct. Lately such people have been giving me the creeps even more than the "academics" you describe.

I think that modern science, with its sophisticated imaging tools and its highly sensitive chemical analyses, can add value by telling us with great certainty whether layers of tallow and smoke and grime settled on the Sistine Chapel ceiling before or after Michelangelo's death. I think it can also tell us with great certainty when the restorers are down to the master's original paint level. If that is true, then I am content to restore the master's original intent and let the chips fall where they may (even if I think less of Michelangelo as a result.)

If the science is not correct,I think it should be proven false on its own terms, not by unreliable intuition.

kev ferrara said...


Alright, if you want to get serious, I'll drop the high hat rhetoric (all in fun it was) and speak straight.

I am a pro-science guy all the way. I love science, have profound respect for good science and I am utterly fascinated with biotech and theoretical physics, to the point of paying for the published articles of certain important papers and reading online journals like Cell Stem Cell when something hot comes up, etc. I was an AP student with Physics, Calculus, and Chemistry and I have plugged numbers into Navier Stokes in the original (inside baseball). I have quite a few friends in the biotech industry and, because of them, I know more about the problems of developmental biology and AIDS research than your average bear. And, obviously I have a profound interest in the science of perception and the nature of symbolic/conceptual thought.

I believe the foundation of science is epistemology. I believe academicism is by its nature distant from the basic principles of epistemology, and therefore I have become wary of it.

I am a steadfast evolutionist and find Intelligent Design to be garbage and nothing disgusts me more than people who demand equal time for it in the science classroom.

Climate Science, in my opinion, is much more problematic, and should not be constantly grouped in with Evolution in my opinion, as some kind of theoretical fait accompli. And nothing PO's me more than people who, tended by the media thought herders, tell me I'm not allowed to think such a thought. As if I'm suddenly a racist, bible-thumping hillbilly for questioning whether dendrochronological estimates can even have a calculable margin of error, or whether ancient ice core samples can provide anything resembling a scientific estimate of the upper troposphere temperature in, say. August of 1420, or whether statistical smoothing is valid way of dispensing with such problematic particulars. Even the way the climate models use navier stokes and monte carlo similuation is dubious science to me. Anybody who thinks I'm anti-rationalist for thinking this doesn't understand epistemology.

The forensic research into 500 year old paint layers encounters similar problems. Just as one quick thought: How do we know that one of the layers of grime wasn't a glaze of some sort that completely oxidized to the point that it seems like mere grime? How do we know that a glaze that was originally on there in 1541 wasn't utterly wiped away by a cleaning in 1650? Maybe a poorly done glaze simply dried, cracked and fell to the floor one bit at a time from 1600 to 1723. I can proliferate these surety-fogging kinds of questions endlessly.

Now, I have no doubt the people involved in the Sistine chapel gave 100 percent of their effort to make that restoration happen. Maybe they have it right. I don't know. But I find the result unpleasant. (Yet I find Michaelangelo's sculptures to be the height of refined taste and harmonious beauty. I see a disconnect there.)

Calling all those conservators who worked on the restoration "robots" was indeed just rhetoric for the sake of being provocative and getting a conversation going. If that offended anybody, I apologize. However, it is not rhetoric to say the conservators were not artists of the first rank and that more consideration was paid to science, and maybe commerce, in the process than art.

As it happens, I am much more sure that the restoration of the Last Supper has been a travesty because I have studied the earliest photos of it rather intently and made the one to one comparisons of each bit for my own interests. I don't have the same interest in the Chapel so I can't crit its restoration point by point. The chapel, in my opinion, does look much better as a restoration than the last supper and no doubt it is better to have a loud chapel than no chapel at all, so bully for world culture!

For what its worth, that's my true opinion the matter,


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kev ferrara said...

dendrochronological = dendrothermometrical (writing too fast, too late.)

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David Apatoff said...

Kev, I did not think for one minute that you were one of the flat earthers. For one thing, you have demonstrated a poly-syllabic vocabulary on more than one occasion.

In addition, I am hardly in a position to begrudge another man's rhetorical flourish from time to time.

I think the questions you raise in your last comment are exactly the right ones to ask about the work done on the Sistine Chapel-- empirical questions that can be answered by chemists and physicists (not by Richard Schmid). I don't know the answers to those questions myself, although as I indicated earlier, my contacts in the conservation / restoration business tell me that the relevant questions were vetted thoroughly and there was little or no ambiguity in the answers. (If there is anyone out there who follows this science, please jump on in).

If there was a missing patch of plaster where there were absolutely no clues left for science to work with, then I might turn, under careful, publicly promulgated constraints, to another artist whose taste and judgment were compatible with Michelangelo's, to fill in the gap. But other than that, I think protecting a work of art from the ravages of time and maintaining it in the condition closest to the artist's original intent is first and foremost a job for (good) scientists.

David Apatoff said...

Demo-- thanks very much for the comments. I agree that the artist and the patron both have some kind of proprietary interest in that wall. The problems seem to arise when their notions of their property rights overlap.

Kenney Mencher-- as far as we can tell, your art history teacher was correct. It does appear that Whistler had an affair with Leyland's wife, which certainly complicates the lesson we learn from that event. She may even be the person who let Whistler back into the house to modify his mural when Leyland was away. Certainly she set tongues to wagging by leaving her husband shortly after the controversy over the mural.

That's the problem with the more discreet era before sexting and People Magazine. Unlike Tiger Woods, Whistler never gifted us with explicit descriptions of his favorite positions for sex so we are forced to live with uncertainty.

Suara said...

I usually like Brangwyn's work but these panels look like overgrown kitschy confections.

kev ferrara said...

Unknown unknowns are what I am talking about, David. Can't be reduced to analysis.

Lipov said...

Kev, you have studied the earliest photos of the Last Supper. Which ones do you have in mind, the ones from 1726 right before the restoration, or the ones from 1770, right before another restoration? Or maybe those photos from 1901 right before another restoration? Apparently the painting was largely repainted at certain points in the history, so how exactly do you know what it looked like before the first restoration? I know, you are familiar with daVinci's other works and you think deeply about aesthetics, therefore you know which qualities the Last Supper should possess. But, isnt it possible that just like Brangwyn, he was not delivering his end of things? Isnt it possible, that what you liked about the painting was a layer of a second or third restoration on top of painting's original form?

kev ferrara said...

That is a shot from the hip, Lipov. The earliest photos of Last Supper are very much like the photos taken in the 1960s. And these images share an important commonality: They show that the mural exhibits the artistic handwriting of Leonardo, which is now all but gone... another instance where the lack of sensitivity (a.k.a. Talent, a.k.a. Insight and Intuition) of restorers means they don't know what they don't know. A non-gardener inspecting an unkempt garden squashes underfoot more beautiful botanical life than he notices.

Lipov said...

Can you tell me what was left of the painting after 1700, when "Bellotti filled in missing sections with oil paint then varnished the whole mural" and after "Mazza stripped off Bellotti's work then largely repainted the painting; he had redone all but three faces when he was halted due to public outrage". And after French troops threw stones at the painting and climbed ladders to scratch out the Apostles' eyes and after Barezzi badly damaged the center section before realizing that Leonardo's work was not a fresco.

Did all these "restorations" manage to preserve the artistic handwriting of Leonardo, while the last restoration didnt?

kev ferrara said...

Lipov, I agree that these are fair questions to ask.

Leaving aside the accuracy of the pre-photographic historical restorations (the stories of which we cannot really verify and could very well be exaggerated) those early artists who "restored" the supper still left us with a work that looks like Leonardo's work done in his classical manner.

This is no longer the case.

Which serves my point... that talented artists who have an appreciation of the artist can keep the art looking like art and keep the artist looking like the artist. With science alone at the helm, the mural is now a mere artifact. It is no longer an artwork.

kev ferrara said...

I should point out that the handwriting I was talking about was not Leonardo's brushwork, (his use of "sfumato" fairly well eliminates it anyhow.) But his composition, form, and drawing.

Tom said...

Maybe artworks have a life of their own. Everything grows old and changes. Like Lipov suggests when is the artwork the most like what it is suppose to be. At what point in my life am I most truly representive of me?
Everything changes and everything disappears in the end. Like the beautiful sand paintings the Tiebitian monks make. Weeks of effort destroyed with one brush of the hand.

I think Manet made a similar comment about his own work, something to the effect, that it needed to age before the tones and colors would truly harmonize.

Graphic Design said...

It's difficult to believe that all are illustrations!!!!!

kev ferrara said...

A teaser for a Frank Brangwyn DVD is here… Contains some more stuff about the Empire panels of interest.


David Apatoff said...

Kev, what a terrific find! I assumed Brangwyn would be gruff and stentorian at that stage of life, and instead he was an impish, animated delight! ("Saucy girls, wot?") And I've gotta say, those Empire panels continue to impress me.

kev ferrara said...


I am 99% sure that the “archival footage” you are seeing of Brangwyn is of a sweet tempered actor at somebody’s cottage reading the lines from an old interview with Brangwyn. Google a bit and you will find real photos and you will see the real deal.

The film scratches are tell tale signs of an after-effects type program and the clarity of the image negates the reality of the scratches. I recall in the text of The Decorative Art of Frank Bragwyn, it is mentioned in passing that Brangwyn could be profane at times and ill mannered by the standards of the time.

The 57 minute dvd is available (linking suddenly not working) at the website indicated on the you tube teaser.

I am warming to the Empire Panels as decorations, especially after seeing them in context in the teaser. But I only appreciate them intellectually, for their craft. When I see the Skinner’s Hall Panels, my heart sings and soars. A wholly different sort of experience. Do you happen to know if the Skinner’s Hall Panels have been printed in a nice way recently and all together? The only reproductions I have are from the 1920s and from the looks of the film, they are still in tip top shape.


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lotusgreen said...

Beautifully done. Thank you. Glad to find you again.

David Apatoff said...

lotusgreen-- Thank you, glad to be found again by you. I thought you'd tired of me long ago.

lotusgreen said...

David! -- Tired of *you*? Don't be silly!

Should they not have been mentioned above, I would like to include as rejected, Duncan Grant's wondrous designs for the Queen Elizabeth shipping line, later to be (thank god) revived for popular slip covers by Laura Ashley. And the stained glass artist (whose name I frustratingly can't pull up from my brain or the internet) who, as I recall, was hired to design a huge and extraordinarily elaborate windows only to have those be rejected as well.

lotusgreen said...

Harry Clarke, of course. I was even picturing them in my mind's eye and couldn't call the name.