Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Of Croatian Beasts and London Artistic Feasts

'suspended'
It has been an orgy of art since I arrived back in London just over a week ago. Russian/Communism inspired exhibitions kicked off my visit as I enjoyed Red Star over RussiaCentre for Russian Music: Inside the Collections at the Barbican, and The Currency of Communism. There was no planning, just a desire to reacquaint myself with my favourite artistic haunts and, inevitably, connections started forming. Obviously I am catching the tail-end of exhibitions put on to commemorate the 1917 Russian Revolution, but it's always possible to see beyond the obvious.

Three of the most memorable and seemingly unconnected events were suspendedLake Keitel and The Enchanted Room: Modern Works from the Pinacoteca di Brera. The second was an oasis of moody calm of pinks and blues, reminiscent of an Adriatic sunset. The latter is a collection of modern Italian art from Milan’s Pinacoteca di Brera. Mirroring the personal nature of the permanent Estorick collection, it includes paintings and sculptures donated to the museum by Emilio and Maria Jesi. Umberto Boccioni, the Metaphysical paintings by Carlo Carrà, and Giorgio de Chirico were my highlights. The first simply is about human loss and displacement.

However my life abroad is never far away; I saw echos of Balkan socialist realism,  Yugoslavian currency, migratory European tensions, Carrà's uncanny and unexpected map of the Istrian Peninsula, my friends' Eastern European obsessions, and finally an art lecture at the Croatian Embassy. This has been a wonderful opportunity to bring the art of the past few days together, as well as highlight some exceptional reconstruction and restoration work which is taking place in Split.

Dr Sandra Šustić who is the most recent recipient of assistance from AMAC-UK presented two case studies on the theme of 'Beauty and the Beast: two important elements in the Croatian Cultural heritage'. Her doctoral thesis concentrated on the efforts of a Croatian art historian, Cvito Fisković. He was born in 1908 in Orebić, and in my view, deserves wider international acknowledgement just for his determination to evacuate works of art during the Second World War. In light of the second case study she outlined, someone should have taken care of the art in the 1990s too. Her work has for the most part continued his own, regarding the scientific and technical issues around retouching, reconstruction and restoration.  

The first case study was the Zvir of Hvar. This 'beast' or dragon has an ancient provenance, and in this context served as ship figure head, or polena. Given my love of the sea, it seems natural to be looking at some thing nautical! As the National Maritime Museum says, 'the origins of the figurehead and other forms of ship decoration goes back thousands of years. The decoration and carving of vessels was common among seafaring civilisations of the ancient world, with evidence of Egyptian figureheads dating back to around 3000 BC. The precise motive behind mounting a carved figurehead at the bow of a ship or boat is uncertain. It is believed these iconic objects held a strong apotropaic magic or religious significance relating to a ship 'seeing' its way safely through the sea.'  

This zvir has been dated to 1566. During this period Europe was in the constant throes of battle with the Ottoman Turks, and avid listeners of Radio 4 may have caught relevant programmes such as the The Siege of Malta and the Battle of Lepanto. As the blurb says, 'the Battle of Lepanto, 1571, was the last great sea battle between galleys, in which the Catholic fleet of the Holy League of principally Venice, Spain, the Papal States, Malta, Genoa, and Savoy defeated the Ottoman forces of Selim II...Pope Pius V established a feast day of Our Lady of Victory.' 

So was this zvir on a Venetian / Christian or Ottoman ship? She contacted naval experts and confirmed that it was mostly likely European. The Istanbul naval museum confirmed that dragons could be found on galleons but there are none in their collections. The Greenwich experts suggested it was European rather than Turkish, but that it was extraordinarily heavy for galley usage. The Spanish agreed that it was a polena despite its weight and size. They cited the reconstruction of the replica galley 'galera real' of Don Juan of Austria which was ornate and heavy. Discussions revealed that figure heads could be left on land if necessary, and archive material from 1924 and 1977 demonstrated that it had removable legs and wings, but could be firmly fixed to a surface, regardless of the motion of the sea. 

She also investigated heraldic references and religious significance of the dragon in Venetian lands, for instance St Theodore of Amasea. Finally she carried out all the tech images, with the original nails and wood. Under the paint layer, there are traces of gold leaf and zinc which may be c19th additions. The pine is another link with Venice, whilst the minium offered the wood strong protection from the sea. 

The 'Beauty' case study also had a Battle of Lepanto connection. The Croatian town of Vrlika had commissioned a painting of the Our lady of the Rosary to celebrate the victory and the new feast day. It had played a large emotional part in the history of the town, however it came to tragic end in 1992 where it suffered almost complete destruction. Only a single black and white archive image existed so a large amount of creativity was required to resurrect this painting. 

In my view this was not a restoration or retouching but a total recreation. This raises questions about artistic intent and emotional responses. How authentic is this work of art? Look at the case of the heavily restored Savior of the World which made a fortune at auction despite there being little of Leonardo's hand left in it.  She concluded with the philosophical notion that even when art work is destroyed or reduced to fragments, there is a totality remaining. This is a conceptual idea which sits uneasily with me. In the end it is the social importance of the artwork, authorship is irrelevant. Which is a blogpost in itself!

And if there was any doubt that art is designed to make us think and bring us together, the famous poem alongside the stunning installation in St James, said,

No man is an island
entire of itself
Every man is piece of the continent,
A part of the main...

This is what happens when I don't blog often enough; a post with too many threads to count. From here in London I can go to Russia, Eastern Europe, even to my city of Split through art and imagination. Let's keep making the journey of thought and discovery, we need to be forging more connections than ever.  

  

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