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Modernism meets sacred geometry in Robert Houle retrospective at the Art Gallery of Ontario – The Globe and Mail

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Red is Beautiful was the first work Houle ever sold to a museum – what is now the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Que.Robert Houle/Canadian Museum of History

At the end of a large retrospective devoted to the Saulteaux artist Robert Houle at the Art Gallery of Ontario, there hangs a small but seminal painting. Red is Beautiful was the first work Houle ever sold to a museum – what is now the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Que. The AGO has borrowed the piece itself for display and taken its title as the name of this exhibition.

Showing a series of concentric, flat-topped pyramid shapes in different shades of red and pink, the 1970 painting could be read as a small example of the colour-field or geometric abstraction of the day. During travels to Europe, Houle had been inspired by the grids of the Dutch abstractionist Piet Mondrian. He had also discovered the American colour-field painter Barnett Newman and must surely have seen Jack Bush’s work in Canada.

And yet, already in Houle’s art, there was a sense that his point was different – that there was an element of symbolism to his abstraction, and that it sought something more direct than Newman’s spiritualism and more spiritual than Bush’s formalism. Sure enough, there is another early work nearby that makes Houle’s interests explicit: Ojibway Motif, #2, Purple Leaves Series, of 1972, features a column created by alternating chevrons, or arrowheads, in different shades of lilac. The artist was looking for a vocabulary that would somehow unite modernist abstraction with a sacred geometry inspired by his own culture.

Standing near these paintings at a recent media event, Houle described himself as committed to biculturalism (he grew up on the Sandy Lake First Nation in Manitoba, where he was educated in Catholic residential schools, and both his parents’ ancestry is Saulteaux and French). The retrospective is a large testament to that. His has been a long career spent incorporating and critiquing Western art in a practice devoted to Indigenous themes. Through the 1980s and 1990s, he added photography, text and figurative elements to make his points, but never lost a colourist’s love of pure paint.

In 1992, in Kanata, Houle revisits Benjamin West’s The Death of General Wolfe.National Gallery of Canada

In 1992, in Kanata, perhaps his best-known painting, on loan here from the National Gallery of Canada, he revisits Benjamin West’s The Death of General Wolfe. Houle makes all the Europeans in the famous history painting fade away in a monotone beige grisaille, while a pensive brave with his red feather and blue loincloth indicates Indigenous centrality in Canadian history. The image is flanked, like the Canadian flag, by bands of colour: A rich saturated blue for the French, and a strong, bright red for the British. Beyond the political symbolism, there is also much power in that paint.

In a more personal mix of the abstract and the figurative in Sandy Bay, of 1998-99, Houle confronted the residential school where he spent every weekday of his elementary years, able to see his home from its windows yet forbidden from speaking his language with his peers or his own sister. (Weekend visits and a strong family kept his connection to his culture alive.) The work includes a ghostly photo-based painting of the school and two actual photographs of the local priest and children, alongside two coloured panels that counter the realism of the school panel with an evocative Indigenous abstraction. In the larger of the panels, Houle repeats the motif of the parfleche – a rawhide bag, often decorated with quills – that occurs again and again in his work.

In 1983, in Parfleches for the Last Supper, he executed 13 small paintings, one for Jesus and each of the disciples, in which he inserted quills directly into the paper. The parfleche is a fascinating motif because it plays so effectively off the tension between the flat, abstract paintings Houle echoes and the traditional container, which would hold three-dimensional content.

In a more personal mix of the abstract and the figurative in Sandy Bay, of 1998-99, Houle confronted the residential school where he spent every weekday of his elementary years,Ernest Mayer/courtesy of Ernest Mayer/ Winnipeg Art Gallery

Houle emerges in this exhibition, organized by the AGO’s curator of Indigenous art, Wanda Nanibush, as a central figure both in advancing Canadian abstraction and in pioneering a new Indigenous contemporary art. In the show’s catalogue, there is a photograph of Houle in 1978 meeting Norval Morrisseau, whose invention of a distinct Indigenous iconography inspired the younger man. Houle’s own work would then move Indigenous art forward a generation by effectively incorporating contemporary styles and approaches. Today, the careers of Kent Monkman or Brian Jungen, both artists of mixed Indigenous and settler heritage, would be unthinkable without Houle’s precedent-setting work.

In crying out for land rights or denouncing historic betrayals, the work often becomes didactic. For example, collages using Maclean’s magazine covers from the Oka crisis feel too literal to make much impact. In 2007′s multimedia piece Do Not Open Until You Get Home, Houle uses a newspaper clipping and video to compare the introduction of smallpox to North America by Europeans in the 18th century with the U.S. decision in 1999 to keep small samples of the deadly virus. Here, he literally highlights the words in a historical letter from a British officer, who suggests that First Nations resisters led by Pontiac be given poisoned blankets.

And yet this kind of overt and informational approach is often rescued by Houle’s formalism. Do Not Open … is displayed alongside Palisade, a subtler reference to the eight British forts that Pontiac successfully attacked in 1763 – a move that forced the British to acknowledge Indigenous rights. Eight large, vertical wooden panels are painted in different shades of green. It was said that Pontiac gave the signal to attack by flipping over the wampum belt to show its green underside.

That tension between symbolism and formalism runs powerfully through Houle’s work, and sometimes he just has to laugh at it himself. A series of works intended to reclaim Pontiac’s name from the General Motors car brand includes a real 1947 Pontiac convertible in daffodil yellow (leant by Winnipeg collector Norm Dumontier). It’s a gorgeous piece of industrial design, offset by a strong red wall inscribed with Pontiac’s promise: I will stand in your path till dawn.

Are we to read Pontiac’s words as a threat to enemies, or as a simple statement of endurance? Houle speaks for past and present, for Turtle Island and North America, for Indigenous and settler cultures as they stand today: Imperfectly reconciled but actively bicultural.

He’s 74 and, like Pontiac, his art is not going away. The most recent work in this exhibition dates to 2021.

The tension between symbolism and formalism runs powerfully through Houle’s workChristopher Dew/Art Gallery of Ontario

Red is Beautiful continues to April 17 at the Art Gallery of Ontario. It will tour to the Winnipeg Art Gallery and Contemporary Calgary in 2022, and spend 2023 at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

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A Tricky First Case for the Man Who Wrote the Rules on Nazi Looted Art – The New York Times

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The diplomat and lawyer who helped write the treaty used around the world to guide restitution claims is representing the family of a childhood friend, which has been sued to surrender a painting.

Few people have done more to advance the cause of people seeking to recover property lost to the Nazis in World War II than Stuart E. Eizenstat.

As a diplomat and lawyer, Mr. Eizenstat, 79, has advised five U.S. administrations, including that of President Biden, on Holocaust issues. He has negotiated with European governments and companies, recovering more than $8 billion for Holocaust survivors and families, and helped write the landmark Washington Principles on returning looted art, a treaty now used around the world to “expeditiously” promote “just and fair solutions” to restitution claims.

“No self-respecting government, art dealer, private collector, museum or auction house should trade in or possess art stolen by the Nazis,” Mr. Eizenstat said in an essay in 2019.

But, as a lawyer, Mr. Eizenstat had never gotten involved in an individual restitution case. That changed a few months ago when he agreed to help a childhood friend whose family is being sued by the heirs of a Jewish couple whose art collection was seized by the Nazis.

Since 2015, relatives of Ludwig and Margret Kainer have pursued a claim for a painting by Pissarro, the Impressionist master, that was once a part of the Kainers’ collection. Last May, the heirs sued the family of Gerald D. Horowitz, and in the ensuing weeks Mr. Eizenstat, a childhood friend of Mr. Horowitz’s wife, Pearlann Horowitz, agreed to work on the family’s behalf.

“Different claims to artworks that changed hands during World War II have different merits; some are clear cut and some are not,” Mr. Eizenstat said in a statement to The New York Times last week. “Our investigation of the historical facts concerning this painting has convinced us that this is less than a clear cut claim that raises complex historical questions and includes contradictory information.”

Mr. Eizenstat said Mr. Horowitz, who bought the painting from a New York dealer in 1995, had acted in good faith, without any sense there was a cloud on its title. He said his efforts to reach an amicable settlement were in keeping with his life’s work and that both sides had reached an agreement in principle.

“I believed,” he said in his statement, “I was particularly qualified to undertake the task of finding a ‘just and fair solution’ to both sides, as contemplated by the Washington Principles of which I was a principal negotiator.”

Though Mr. Eizenstat’s clients are themselves Jewish, the optics of his surfacing for the first time in a restitution case, not on the side of claimants, but of defendants, have surprised some experts in the field.

“I think it’s unusual that he is showing such limited support for the claimants,” said Lynn H. Nicholas, a historian and expert on Nazi looting whose 1994 book, “The Rape of Europa,” is credited with drawing attention to the scope of the issue. “But I don’t know all the details and he may have good reason.”

Lefevre Fine Art Ltd./Bridgeman Images

The painting, “The Anse des Pilotes, Le Havre,” an oil on canvas work from 1903, depicts a harbor scene and was part of the Kainers’ collection when the couple left Germany in 1932, eventually settling in France, according to court papers. Unable as Jews to safely return after the Nazis grabbed power, the Kainers stayed away, and in their absence, their world-class art collection and other furnishings were seized by the Berlin tax office, according to the suit filed in federal court in Georgia by 15 Kainer heirs.

In 1935, more than 400 Kainer possessions, including the Pissarro and 31 other paintings, were sold at auction in Berlin, the suit says, to pay a Reich flight tax, a financial instrument that was often used to punish Jews who fled the country. In 1963, a German appeals court ruled that the tax levied on the Kainers had been discriminatory, according to James Palmer, founder of Mondex Corporation, a company that pursues restitution claims and is representing the Kainer heirs. In addition, the Kainer heirs have a page from the 1935 auction catalog that references the painting.

The painting’s path for the next 60 years is not completely clear, though it was owned for some time, Mr. Palmer says, by a German industrialist who had bought it at the auction.

In 1995, Mr. Horowitz purchased it from Achim Moeller Fine Art in New York, but only after checking with a respected database that tracks looted art. The painting was not listed.

In 2014, the Horowitz family lent the work for display at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, around which time it was identified by Mondex, which was already working with the Kainer heirs. The Kainers had died in the 1960s without children, and their current heirs claiming the painting are the children and grandchildren of cousins.

The heirs sought restitution of the painting in 2015, and presented the Horowitz family with evidence that, by 2005, the painting had been listed in the Pissarro catalog raisonné as plundered “from L. Kainer,” according to the court papers.

But Mr. Palmer said the Horowitzes did not want to move forward with discussions because they were uncertain about who were the rightful heirs. (At the time, a foundation created by Swiss bank officials had been established to serve as the heirs to the Kainers and Margret’s father. But in 2015, a German court found that the Kainer relatives, not the foundation, were the couple’s true heirs.)

More recently, the Kainer relatives have presented additional evidence to support their claim, according to their court papers, including documents showing the Kainer couple had registered the work as looted with the French Department of Reparations and Restitutions, which published a record of the work, along with a photograph, in 1949.

And auction houses have treated several other paintings from the Kainers’ collection that had been sold alongside the Pissarro in 1935 as looted property. In 2009, for example, Christie’s sold Edgar Degas’s “Danseuses,” once owned by the Kainers, for nearly $11 million under the terms of a restitution agreement. (At the time, the agreement recognized the Swiss foundation, not the relatives, as the heirs.)

Atelier Binder/Ullstein Bild, via Getty Images
Atelier Binder/Ullstein Bild, via Getty Images

Mr. Eizenstat began advising the Horowitzes sometime after the Kainer heirs took their claim to court last spring, according to Mr. Palmer, and is helping out the lawyer on the case, Joseph A. Patella.

Mr. Palmer said he was a little intimidated when Mr. Eizenstat joined the negotiations, which are being led by the Kainer heirs’ lawyer, Jason Carter, grandson of former President Jimmy Carter.

Mr. Eizenstat worked in the Carter administration as chief domestic policy adviser and served as deputy secretary of the Treasury in the Clinton administration. His numerous awards include France’s Legion of Honor. Last year, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum awarded him its highest honor for working “tirelessly to secure a measure of justice for Holocaust survivors.”

“He is dealing with governments and policy and dealing on a much wider macro level,” Mr. Palmer said, “so for him to be involved in a very personal level, it was a surprise.”

Mr. Eizenstat said in his statement that he joined the effort in part because Mr. Horowitz is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and unable to defend himself.

“The Horowitz family are pillars of the Atlanta Jewish and secular community, with a sterling record of philanthropic support for a wide variety of charitable organizations, including the Atlanta Holocaust Survivor Support Fund,” Mr. Eizenstat said in the statement.

One sticking point in the negotiations, Mr. Eizenstat said, had been that Ludwig Kainer “appears to have made knowingly false claims about the circumstances of the alleged confiscation of the Pissarro, and had full knowledge of who possessed it after the war.”

He did not say what those false claims were. However, Mr. Palmer acknowledged that Mr. Kainer had misled French authorities around the time he first filed his claim by reporting that the painting had been lost in France. Mr. Palmer defended Mr. Kainer’s decision, saying that at the time Mr. Kainer couldn’t afford a lawyer to file a claim in Germany, and didn’t believe he would receive justice there. He also didn’t know the painting’s location, which Mr. Palmer said was required to file a claim with German authorities.

Though the negotiations appear to have been successful, there were some bumps in the road. Last week, before an agreement was reached, Mr. Eizenstat had said the settlement talks with Mr. Carter had been “advancing in a productive manner until this shocking breach of trust and improper conduct by Mondex, making sensational allegations to the press about confidential settlement negotiations.”

Mr. Eizenstat also took note in his statement that Mondex is a for-profit company, saying, “It is well known that Mondex acts and receives compensation from the Holocaust claims of others.”

Mr. Palmer said that some portion of the fees the company collects must go toward covering costs it incurs in pursuing restitution claims, “which we do with passion and pride.”

He said that there had been no agreement to maintain any confidentiality about the talks. “Certainly a ‘just and fair’ solution requires candor and transparency,” Mr. Palmer said. But, he said, more important is that the agreement in principle “is a very productive result for all of the parties involved.”

Mr. Palmer added that during the negotiations he had told Mr. Eizenstat it was an honor to work with him. “I told him that we would not have been in existence if not for him, so I thanked him,” he said. “I am very cognizant of the contribution he has made to the rest of the world.”

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Art with heart: B.C. artists are saying thanks to frontline staff by offering them their works – CBC.ca

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B.C. artists are using their skill and creativity to thank frontline workers by offering them original works through an online platform. 

Artists can donate their work by making a submission on the Arthanks website, where each available piece is displayed in a photo. Frontline workers can then browse through the options and request a piece of art. 

“We connect the two. We just say here’s the art, here’s the recipient, please get together socially distanced and hand it off,” said David MacLean, a North Vancouver-based artist who came up with the idea.

“When you give a piece of art it’s kind of original, it’s a little bit different, it’s a little more than just a one-off thank you,” he added. 

MacLean says the concept of Arthanks was formed as he found himself painting more during the pandemic.

“I was getting madder and madder about the grief that frontline workers are taking … and thinking, ‘what have I done?’ Well, nothing. I’ve done little or nothing to help,” he told CBC’s The Early Edition on Thursday.

MacLean began giving his art to friends and family who were frontline workers — including nurse Robyn Whyte, who he met at a Deep Cove cafe.

Whyte said the two had chatted about their professions and MacLean offered her one of his works after noticing a wolf design on her sweater. 

“It just happened … he was donating a piece of art that was related to wolves and I couldn’t say no, it’s a beautiful piece of art,” said Whyte. 

MacLean had informally donated about 20 pieces of art when he reached out to Ginger Sedlarova, a friend in the local art scene, to help recruit volunteers and expand the initiative. 

He said they have given away about 40 pieces of art since the initiative started last summer, and they are now looking for more artists to donate. 

The works on display currently include paintings, vases and miscellaneous pottery.

He said all frontline workers are welcome to request a piece of art, including health-care workers, education workers and those in customer service-facing jobs such as grocery store clerks — “anyone who put themselves at risk to help us in this time of COVID,” according to the Arthanks website.

In receiving her gift, Whyte said she was reminded that people are thankful for the contributions of frontline workers. 

“It’s great to be acknowledged. We’ve all been working very hard and it’s just going on so long…” she said. “I know that there’s people out there who are thankful and I really appreciate it.”

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Restoration of Michelangelo’s Pieta statue in Florence reveals flaws in marble

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The restoration of Michelangelo’s famed Pieta dell’Opera del Duomo in Florence has revealed that the single block of marble from which the masterpiece was sculpted was flawed, offering a likely reason for why it was abandoned before it was completed.

The statue, better known as the Bandini Pieta, represents the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene holding the body of Christ as he is taken down from the cross by a man, Nicodemus, whose face is the self-portrait of the Italian Renaissance artist.

“It’s a Pieta that has suffered and is very intimate… it is a really personal statue,” Beatrice Agostini, director of the restoration project, told Reuters.

The works of restoration confirmed that the 2,700 kg piece of marble had veins and numerous minute cracks, particularly on the base, which may have been the reason for Michelangelo’s decision to stop working on the sculpture before finishing it, a statement said.

The artist had initially planned to place the sculpture next to his tomb but only years after beginning to sculpt it, in the mid 1500s, a then 75-year old Michelangelo decided to abandon the masterpiece, giving it as a gift to a servant, who then sold it to a banker, Francesco Bandini.

Restorers did not find any sign of hammer blows, making it unlikely the widespread hypothesis that an unhappy Michelangelo tried to destroy the sculpture in a moment of frustration, the statement added.

The non-invasive restoration started in 2019 but was interrupted several times due to the COVID-19 epidemic. Deposits were removed from the sculpture’s surface, which was then cleaned, bringing it back to its original hue.

The project was commissioned and directed by the Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore and was financed by U.S. non-profit organization Friends of Florence.

“The operation has restored to the world the beauty of one of Michelangelo’s most intense and troubled masterpieces,” a joint statement said.

Visitors have been able to witness all stages of the process as the statue was always on display, in an open laboratory, on a platform, behind a glass screen.

 

(Reporting by Matteo Berlenga in Florence, writing by Giulia Segreti in Rome, editing by Angus MacSwan)

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