Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Don't DOA the DIA

It's upside-down flag time at one of America's greatest art museums. The Detroit Institute of Arts is facing an existential crisis. The soi-disant Emergency Manager (i.e. Dictator of Detroit) appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder (i.e. Koch Drone) has spent the last few months floating trial balloons about the possibility of selling the museum's collection to pay off some of the city's debt. Now Christie's auction house has confirmed that they have been commissioned to assess the DIA collection for probable sale. Christie's official statement is carefully vague about details, but the DIA's response sends up the Batsignal:

The Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) has learned that Christie’s, at the request of the Emergency Manager, plans to proceed with a valuation of the DIA collection, and we will be cooperating completely in that process. However, we continue to believe there is no reason to value the collection as the Attorney General has made clear that the art is held in charitable trust and cannot be sold as part of a bankruptcy proceeding. We applaud the EM’s focus on rebuilding the City, but would point out that he undercuts that core goal by jeopardizing Detroit’s most important cultural institution.

In addition, recent moves in Oakland and Macomb counties to invalidate the tri-county millage if art is sold virtually ensure that any forced sale of art would precipitate the rapid demise of the DIA. Removing $23 million in annual operating funds – nearly 75% of the museum’s operating budget – and violating the trust of donors and supporters would cripple the museum, putting an additional financial burden on our already struggling city. The DIA has long been doing business without City of Detroit operating support; any move that compromises its financial stability will endanger the museum and further challenge the City’s future.

To read an art museum's prediction of its own imminent "demise" is a uniquely chilling experience. There's certainly nothing new or unusual about the traditional American philistinism that looks at one of the world's great aesthetic treasure houses and sees little more than an overflowing chest of pirate's gold, but the Detroit Dictator's actions are evidence of a truly astounding stupidity. A fire sale (and that is the only thing it could possibly be) of the DIA collection would give the city a one-time infusion of cash comparable to a crackhead's head-cracking rush; and after the hit wears off, the city will be left with one more big empty building with some awesome Diego Rivera frescoes on the walls. (Unless, of course, they intend to improve upon Nelson Rockefeller's legendary act of vandalism and monetize the Rivera Court also.) Instead of selling or leasing or loaning or whatever else the vague auctioneers and official authoritarians have in mind, Detroit should be using the stellar DIA collection as a crystal around which the depressed and depressing downtown can be reinvented. Instead of an auction, the city needs an ad campaign to generate international tourist revenue by informing the world of all the masterpieces hidden behind the DIA's imposing fa├žade. Here, off the top of my head, are a few taglines for such a campaign:
  • "You don't have to go to Paris to see Van Gogh."
  • "You don't have to go to Rome to see Michelangelo."
  • "You don't have to go to France to see Cezanne."
  • "You don't have to go to Mexico to see Diego Rivera."
  • "Come to Detroit and see the world."
Most Americans, even most citizens of Michigan, have no idea of the excellence of Detroit's collection, so I will take this opportunity to shine a little light on a few of the gems in the DIA's dazzling crown. If the DIA goes DOA, and the artworks are lost (and make no mistake, they will be lost if auctioned; they will be snatched by oilygarchs and secreted away in those high-security warehouses where the superrich store their artistic investments), here are a few examples of what Detroit, Michigan, America and the world are going to lose (click on the titles for illustrations from the DIA website) :

Titian, Judith with the Head of Holofernes, ca.1570. Titian was one of the four most important painters of the Italian Renaissance, a transcendent master on the level of Michelangelo (who admired his work), Leonardo and Raphael. Detroit's Judith may be the best late Titian in any American collection. It's a fascinating, gruesome work that foreshadows in both style and subject the great Black Paintings of Goya. Stand in front of this painting for a while, look at the magisterially loose brushwork, and you will understand why critics have called Titian 'the first modern painter.' Study that amazing head and understand that blood dries black.

Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith and Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes, ca.1624. One of the principle pleasures afforded by any great art museum is the opportunity to compare different artists' and eras' conceptions of the same subject. Detroit's two incomparable and priceless Judiths offer a rare opportunity to experience the difference between Renaissance and Baroque painting. Titian's heroine is an icon of impenetrable individual resolve; her gaze is inscrutable, with a chilly vapidity that seems almost unaware of the gory trophy in her hands. Gentileschi's Judith, on the other hand, is an outward-turned masterpiece of theatricality. Its stagy curtain, lighting and poses, its operatic gestures that lean toward melodrama--all this distracts us until we realize that Judith is trapped in baroque shadows and holding out her hand (can't you just feel that candle's heat against your palm?) in an attempt to block its light and see into the darkness beyond, to look past the painting into a something as yet unseen. The painting is, among much else, an allegory of viewing the Caravaggist Baroque.

Michelangelo, Scheme for the Decoration of the Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, ca. 1508. Anything by Michelangelo is extremely rare outside of Italy (and inside it, for that matter), so the DIA's two preparatory sketches for the Sistine Chapel ceiling are among the museum's most prized possessions. About ten years ago, the DIA hosted an amazing exhibition, The Medici, Michelangelo, and the Art of Late Renaissance Florence, that featured an entire gallery of loaned drawings centered around the late Apollo/David sculpture from the Bargello in Florence--and that was only the beginning of one of this generation's landmark exhibitions of Mannerist art. This was the kind of exhibition that would normally appear only at the Met or the Louvre; Detroit's collection was impressive enough to attract it to town.

Caravaggio, Martha and Mary Magdalene, ca.1598. A great Caravaggio at a regional museum is another almost unheard-of thing, and this is an especially gorgeous and uncharacteristically understated example of his work. Look closely at that hand over the mirror at right and you might hear the pulse of the blood in its veins.

Pieter Breughel the Elder, The Wedding Dance, ca.1566. Here's a painting that probably provokes the envy of every museum curator in the country. Works by other members of the Brueghel family are fairly common, but a major work by the great patriarch, the one known to museum-goers as "Brueghel Breughel" to differentiate him from all those other Breughels, is as rare in America as a sketch by Michelangelo.

Jacob Van Ruisdael, The Jewish Cemetery, ca. 1654. A great, beautiful work of proto-Romantic melancholy, this is the sort of Dutch landscape that can psychologically envelop an attentive viewer. Watch it for a while, and it will enfold you into its world. You will think in its colors; you will see stormy skies through its prism.

Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare, 1781. An iconic work and the most famous thing Fuseli ever painted. This is one of those paintings that you look at and wonder, "Why is this in America? Why isn't it in the London National Gallery?" The NGL would love to have it, I'm sure. I've written at length about this painting in Beauty and Terror, so here I'll just remark that when the DIA closed many of its galleries for an extensive renovation over the last decade and this painting went into storage for several years, I felt the loss like the absence of a friend.

Whistler, Nocturne in Black and Gold (The Falling Rocket) , 1875. This is the painting at the center of one of art history's greatest knock-down-drag-out artist vs. critic brawls. When critic John Ruskin wrote that in this painting Whistler was "flinging a pot of paint in the public's face," Whistler sued him for libel--and won. (The victory was seriously pyrrhic, but still...)

Van Gogh, Self Portrait, 1887. One of the Dutch melancholic's least haunted self-portraits, this one at first seems almost sunny: the straw hat sits like a jaunty halo on his whore-loving head and casts a yellow light across his red beard. Only after a few minutes do we appreciate the lines carved into his chin by the perpetually downturned mouth; only later do we acknowledge (without presuming to understand) the wavering uncertainty in the misaligned eyes. It's a great Van Gogh.

Van Gogh, The Diggers, 1889. And this is a very good one. Those trees are so gnarly you could get a splinter just by looking at them. I like the way the trees' unmovable verticality humbles the Millet-like workers and even overpowers the extensive landscape, pulling it cubistically toward the picture plain.

Van Gogh, Portrait of Postman Roulin, 1888. The postman seems to have been Van Gogh's only real friend at Arles, and the Dutchman painted him several times. Here he aesthetically elevates the humble provincial civil servant, granting him a literally iconic frontal pose and painting him in a flattened style that recalls Manet's portrait of that echt-bourgeois Parisian, Antonin Proust, a painting that hangs due south of Detroit in the less overwhelming, but still exquisite, permanent collection of the Toledo Museum of Art.

Van Gogh, Bank of the Oise at Auvers, 1890. Time may have faded the colors in this painting that looks back at Monet and Renoir and forward to the Fauves (for Vincent is the hinge upon which Impressionism turns toward Expressionism), but there's still something magical in that illusion of glassy water Van Gogh has coerced from short, Cezanne-ish strokes of paint.

Cezanne, The Three Skulls, ca.1900. Did someone say 'Cezanne'? He's here, too, of course. This is one of the last great memento mori still lifes in the western tradition. Every writer on the genre mentions that in French it's called nature morte, literally 'dead nature,' a pun Cezanne literalizes on this canvas in a delicately painted meditation on the decay that is the end of all our going.

Picasso, Portrait of Manuel Pallares, 1909. More than one critic has compared Pallares's mustache to an airplane propeller; the simile could not be more appropriate. The dark brown right half of the mustache might also be a fat Cuban cigar rolled by Wallace Stevens's "muscular one." Stylistically, this is another Detroit canvas that connects to a painting hanging just down Interstate 75 in the Toledo Museum, their cubist portrait of Fernande Olivier.

Diego Rivera, Detroit Industry, 1932-33. In the depths of the Great Depression and before the Rockefeller Center fiasco, Diego Rivera came to Detroit and frescoed the four walls of a large interior courtyard with his most important work north of the Rio Grande. To stand in the middle of the DIA's Rivera Court and be surrounded by these enormous paintings--to stand within them, not before them--is one of the greatest aesthetic experiences the American Midwest has to offer.

Go to Detroit and see this collection while you can. You may not get another chance.

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