Tag Archives: Art history

Madonnas and memory

April 8, 2015


Raphael's The Conestabile Madonna

Raphael’s The Conestabile Madonna

Lessons in history and humanity plus drama, unconditional love and insight into one of the most difficult to understand of all diseases — Alzheimer’s — make Debra Dean’s “The Madonnas of Leningrad” a superb, satisfying read.

There’s a sampling of an art appreciation class, too, and brief, maybe too brief snatches of modern family dynamics. But those glimpses into contemporary life form the perfect background to better contrast with the values of the Russians who survived — and even those who didn’t survive — the Nazi siege of Leningrad during World War II.

Da Vinci’s The Litta Madonna

With the war there is starvation and death and ruin, to be sure, but tremendous self sacrifice, too, and life, life so valued, life so amazing, captured so well in one scene, where women who have survived the siege learn that the story’s protagonist, Marina, is expecting and, after a winter of death, line up to touch her stomach and to feel the baby kick in her womb.

A tremendous sense of irony pours from the pages. In the godless Soviet Union the invaluable art collection of the Hermitage Museum, including precious images of the Blessed Virgin and the Christ Child, is crated and trucked away to be saved from ruin or confiscation by the approaching German army.

At the suggestion of another Hermitage tour guide, young Marina, who later in life cannot remember the names of her own family members, commits to memory of all these wonderful madonnas — the Rubens, the da Vinci, the van Dyck, the Rembrandt and more — storing in her “memory palace” not only the details of the works and the stories they tell but even where they hung on the walls of the czar’s former Winter Palace.

It’s an act of mutual benefit. Not only does Marina save the memory of the art to share with those who may never have the chance to see them, but doing so gives her a reason to live, to survive at a time when bombs, cold, starvation and illness take the lives of thousands during the siege.

van Dyck

van Dyck’s The Rest on the Flight into Egypt

And, while this isn’t an outwardly religious novel, as the situation worsens for those freezing, starving, cowering from the bombs and removing the corpses of those who die each day, even a strict non-believer decides a little prayer couldn’t hurt.

“The Madonnas of Leningrad” is not a new book. Published in 2006, it garnered a number of honors. But as timely as the topic of Alzheimer’s is, you would think someone would make a movie of this terrific story.

If you choose to read the book — and even if you don’t — you’ll find images of some of the famous works of art named within at this website, along with excerpts of how they were described in the book. Start googling the paintings and you could lose several hours of your day!

Dean also mentions the Jordan Staircase in her novel. Here’s why:

The Jordan Staircase in the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad.

The Jordan Staircase in the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad.

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A (Rightful) Call for ‘Old-Fashioned’ Connoisseurship

August 6, 2010

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Tuesday’s New York Times ran a piece on two art historians’ quest to restore “old-fashioned connoisseurship” among art historians. As a graduate student of art history myself, I give a hearty “hear hear” to their cry.

From the story:

“Art history has been hijacked by other disciplines,” said Mr. Kanter, who teaches a connoisseurship seminar to Yale graduate students. “Original works of art have been forgotten. They’re being used as data, without any sense of whether they’re good, bad or indifferent.”

He added: “No one wants to turn art history back 150 years. But we’re lacking an important tool that we threw out the window 70 years ago.”

The outspoken Mr. Feigen, who graduated from Yale in 1952, went further. “There isn’t a single art history department in the world that I consider first-class,” he said, as he toured the exhibition earlier this year. “I’m hoping Yale will develop a focus on objects instead of theories.”

The idea is a simple one: If Mr. Feigen can spot Fra Angelico-level quality by closely looking at art with his well-trained eye, perhaps students too one day can learn to tell gold from dross.

Mr. Kanter and Mr. Feigen do have allies in their cause, though it is a small club, many of whose members are white, male and over 40.

“It’s not uncommon to encounter bright students who are able to express the most abstract ideas with ease and who, when faced with actual works of art, are tongue-tied,” said Keith Christiansen, a curator of European paintings at the Met and Mr. Kanter’s former colleague there. “Connoisseurship needs to form an alliance with the very academic approach. They inform each other.”

Like most (all?) graduate art history students, I took a required theory class my first semester, and now I regularly apply some aspect of some theoretician’s thought to my own research. However, I totally agree that this doesn’t promote an intimacy with art itself — in fact, theories can exhaust the art, boiling it down to semiotic mush. Recently, I wrote on frescoes in San Clemente in Rome depicting St. Catherine of Alexandria attributed to Renaissance painter Masolino da Panicale. It was clear from my research that the verdict is still out whether or not these were Masolino’s works for certain, or whether they could be attributed to his teacher Masaccio. Frankly, as a graduate student focusing on architecture, and not Renaissance frescoes, I don’t feel qualified to make my own judgement,  but it illustrates the need for connoisseurship — someone has to have the skills to decipher the difference between a master and his student, and if it’s not the historian, who will it be? Students of art history need to get out of the classroom and into the museums, churches and private collection to see the art itself, and spend time in studios of artists who have mastered the craft.

Mastering feminist theory, hermeneutics or iconographic analysis is not knowing art. To put our focus there, as we have for decades now, means we risk missing both the trees and the forest.

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Saving Europe’s art during World War II re-opens a part of history that should never be forgotten

February 10, 2010


Monuments Men cover

“The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History'”

by Robert M. Edsel, with Bret Witter

In the middle of World War II, precious works of art — many of them objects of religious relevance — were saved by the efforts of a handful of soldiers. This is their story, one that really hasn’t been told before, and it’s a great read.

Many of the rescued art pieces were priceless and well-known in art circles. Others held value only to the townspeople who revered them. In some cases historic churches were saved; in other cases they were not, like the Benedictine monastery at Monte Cassino. Some of the pieces were rescued from the hands of Nazi Germany’s thieving leaders; others were rescued from the bombs and shells of war.

Men from 13 nations, many of them volunteers, formed the new Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section of the Allied force. They hunted for, found, and preserved for posterity pieces like Michelangelo’s statue, the Bruges Madonna, Vermeer’s The Astronomer and a Rembrandt or two or three.

One-time museum directors, curators, artists, art scholars and archivists became The Monuments Men, as they came to be called. Author Robert Edsel explained that their job was simple: “to save as much of the culture of Europe as they could during combat.” It was the first time in history that an army fought a war while simultaneously attempting to mitigate cultural damage.

From the first efforts to protect a remarkable 16th-century Renaissance church in Normandy, to finding boxcars loaded with paintings the Nazis stole from the French, to sleuthing out where Hitler had hidden an enormous cache of art work in an ancient salt mine in Austria, the Monuments Men did an invaluable service to not just the cultural heritage of Europe but all of human civilization.

Incredible amount stolen

The Nazis had gone so far as to take the stained glass windows out of the cathedral in Strasbourg, France. They had transferred so many art pieces to the famous fairy-like castle at Neuschwanstein, Germany, that it took six weeks to remove them all.

In the salt mine at Altaussee the Monuments Men made an amazing discovery. Deep inside that Austrian mountain the Nazis had hidden, well, here’s the list:

  • 6,577 paintings;
  • 230 drawings or watercolors;
  • 954 prints;
  • 137 pieces of sculpture;
  • 129 pieces of arms and armor;
  • 79 boxes of objects;
  • 484 cases of what was thought to be archives;
  • 78 pieces of furniture;
  • 122 tapestries;
  • 181 cases of books;
  • 1,200-to-1,700 cases apparently of books or similar items.

Edsel has done remarkable work here, piecing together interviews and documents to tell this story, one he calls “a footnote” in the larger story of the war. He allows us into the humanity of the Monuments Men as they discover that the Nazis are not only brutal warriors, amoral killers, but, at the highest levels, simply thieves.

Yet, despite his obvious passion for the arts and culture that were saved and make this story, what I admired most in reading this work was a few lines where he put the horror of Hitler’s Nazi regime into perfect perspective:

“More than sixty years after the death of Adolf Hitler, we still live in a world altered by his legacy…the lasting impact of his bitter reign is best measure in more ephemeral ways: fifty million loved ones who never returned home from the war to rejoin their families or start one of their own; brilliant, creative contributions never made to our world because scientists, artists, and inventors lost their lives too early or were never born; cultures built over generations reduced to ashes and rubble because one human being judged groups of other human beings less worthy than his own.”— bz

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