Archive for the ‘Modern(ish)’ Category

Munch wrote The Scream was “painted by a madman” on The Scream

Monday, February 22nd, 2021

A graffito in the orange sky of Edvard Munch’s first version of The Scream declaring it “Can only have been painted by a madman” has been identified as an addition by the artist himself. Painted in 1893, The Scream was on display in Copenhagen in 1904 when the handwritten line was first noticed by a Danish art critic. He assumed one of the visitors to the exhibition had written his disapproval of the maker on the work. Later art historians posited that Munch was the author, but scholars as recently as 2008 have disputed that he was the writer of the inscription.

Experts at the National Museum of Norway have taken advantage of the closure of the museum during renovations to conserve and study The Scream. Examination under a microscope confirmed that the pencil lines were written on top of the dried paint after the painting was finished, but the inscription is faint and hard to read. Photographed in infrared, however, the carbon from the pencil graphite stands out from the brightly painted background making detailed handwriting analysis possible. The analysis left no doubt that Munch authored the inscription.

It was likely written around two years after he made the painting. Munch exhibited The Scream in Norway in October 1895. By then it had already been seen in several other countries, but this was the first exhibition of the work for the Norwegian public. It did not go well. One art critic wrote that The Scream showed that Munch was not “a serious man with a normal brain.”

There was much buzz about the subject of the painting being Munch himself screaming in his madness. Speculation on his mental state was rife a discussion of the exhibition at the Students Association in Kristiania. One medical student, Johan Scharffenberg, armchair diagnosed Munch as insane based on his work. Munch followed all this chatter and it troubled him deeply.

“We know that he we was very upset when critics of his work questioned his sanity and called his paintings a disgrace,” National Museum curator Mai Britt Guleng told ARTnews. “Mental illness was a sore point for Munch because there was a history of mental illness in his close family.”

Both Munch’s father and sister suffered bouts of depression, and the latter was also diagnosed with schizophrenia. By his own admission, Munch had neither a happy childhood nor a smooth adult life. “Disease, insanity, and death were the angels that attended my cradle, and since then have followed me throughout my life,” he once wrote. Exacerbated by his alcoholism, Munch was finally hospitalized after a nervous breakdown in 1908.

He explicitly wrestled with depression, loss, and anxiety in his paintings, which often featured phantoms of lost love and family. According to a diary entry, Munch conceived of The Scream while walking out at sunset in Kristiania where, upon viewing the blood red clouds, he sensed an “infinite scream passing through nature.”

Guleng believes the inscription was added after the Kristiania discussion, so late 1895 or early 1896. His intent in writing it can’t be scried with infrared. It could have been an ironic statement spurred by all the critics calling him crazy, or an impulsive reaction to his own concerns that they might be right.

The Scream will be back on public display when the new National Museum opens in 2022, alongside Self-Portrait with Cigarette, the painting that Scharffenberg presented as proof that Munch was not of sound mind.

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ID tags of Jewish children found at Sobibor

Monday, February 15th, 2021

Excavations of the extermination camp of Sobibor in Poland have uncovered four id tags of Jewish children slaughtered there. All four of them were from Amsterdam, part of the targeted extermination of Dutch Jews in spring and summer of 1943. They were:

  • Annie Kapper, born January 9, 1931, murdered April 2, 1943,
  • David Juda Van der Velde, born November 21, 1932, murdered April 2, 1943,
  • David “Deddie” Jacob Zak born February 23, 1935, murdered June 1943,
  • Lea Judith de la Penha, born May 11, 1937, murdered July 1943.

Annie Kapper was the oldest of the four. Born in January 1931, she was all of 12 years old when she was sent to Sobibor with her family on March 30, 1943. The trains arrived on April 2nd and all 1255 Jews on board were sent to the gas chambers. Her aluminum tag was discovered near one of the camp’s mass graves.

David Yehuda Van der Velde was part of the same transport as Annie Kapper. He was 11 years old when he and his family were deported from Camp Westerbork to Sobibor on March 30th and gassed to death on April 2nd. His aluminum tag, the right side broken off, was discovered just west of the gas chambers.

Deddie Zak’s tag was found at the site of one of Sobibor’s crematoria. Heartbreakingly, the tag had been burned. Deddie had been imprisoned at Camp Vught, a concentration camp in the southern Netherlands, and was part of the mass deportation of Jewish children from Camp Vught to the transit camp at Westerbork on June 6th and 7th, 1943. More than 1,000 children from age 0 to 16 were transported to their deaths, including 119 small infants, 55 babies and 123 toddlers. On June 8th, they were loaded onto freight trains and sent to Sobibor. They were gassed to death immediately upon arrival on June 11th.

Lea Judith de la Penha, her mother Judith and father David were arrested and held in Westerbork in July 1943. On July 6th, they were deported to Sobibor in a transport of 2,417 Jews. They arrived on July 9th. Mother, father and little girl were murdered that day. She was six years old. Her tag was found near the camp’s railway platform.

Yoram Haimi [of the Israeli Antiquities Authority[said: “As far as we know, identity tags with children’s names have only been found at Sobibor, and nowhere else. Since the tags are very different from each other, it is evident that this was probably not some organised effort. The children’s identity tags were prepared by their parents, who were probably desperate to ensure that the children’s relatives could be located in the chaos of the Second World War. Lea, Annie and Deddie’s tags have enabled us to link faces and stories to the names, which until now had only been anonymous entries in Nazi lists. Archaeological excavation provides us with an opportunity to tell the victims’ stories and to honour their memory.”

Researchers were able to trace the childrens’ final movements because they were all sent to Camp Westerbork before their final deportation to Sobibor. Today the Herinneringscentrum Kamp Westerbork is a memorial center dedicated to the 102,000 people who were imprisoned there. Records of the four children, their happy pasts, their tragic ends, were found in the center’s archives.

Mr Haimi recalled: “I have been excavating at Sobibor for ten years, but this is the hardest day I have ever had. As we stood holding the tags in the field, beside the crematoria, we contacted the centre and we gave them the names. They responded immediately. By phone, we received photos of smiling young children. The hardest thing was to learn that some of the children whose tags we held in our hands reached Sobibor on a children’s transport– 1,300 little children, aged four to eight, who were sent here to die alone, without their parents. I looked at the photos and asked myself, how could anyone have been so cruel?”

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Tour Keats-Shelley House with Bob Geldof

Saturday, February 6th, 2021

The Keats-Shelley House in Rome is a small but mighty jewelry box of a museum in a city that boasts some of the greatest museums in the world. The apartment at 26 Piazza di Spagna overlooking the Spanish Steps is where John Keats died of tuberculosis at the age of 25, his best friend, portrait artist Joseph Severn, by his side. Poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and his wife Mary Shelley stayed nearby in 1819 and their three-year-old son William died there. George Gordon, Lord Byron lived in the palazzo opposite the Keats-Shelley House when he was in Rome in 1817.

Today the apartment is a museum dedicated to the lives and works of the Romantic poets who were so inspired by Italy, lived there and in the cases of Keats and Shelley, who died there 18 months apart. It is curated by the Keats-Shelley Memorial Association, a UK charity, which has been tending to the house and its exceptional collection of manuscripts, art, letters and memorabilia since it first opened as a museum in 1909.

This month marks the 200th anniversary of Keats’ death. Next year is the 200th anniversary of Shelley’s death. To honor these icons of Romantic English literature, the museum launched the Keats-Shelley200 project, a two-year program of events to include exhibitions, academic scholarships, performances, concerts, poetry festivals, educational activities and much more held in Rome and in the UK.

Much like the museum exhibitions in honor of the 500th anniversary of Raphael’s death last year, these efforts have been cut off at the knees by a certain pandemic. The Keats-Shelley House has ramped up its YouTube presence to compensate, posting videos of events like the concert held late last year to mark the 200th anniversary of Keats’ arrival in Rome and a wonderful reading of the essential poems of Keats, Shelley and Byron by actor Julian Sands.

On Monday, a new immersive video tour of the Keats-Shelley House narrated by Bob Geldof premieres. It is filmed in Ultra HD and can be viewed on a screen or with a VR headset for a fully realized virtual experience that puts you in the apartment where Keats lived for the last 14 weeks of his all-too-brief life. Even if you’re watching on screen, you can still control the experience, navigating to different rooms and browsing the collection.

Geldof will return to the Keats-Shelley House’s YouTube channel on February 23rd, 200 years to the day after Keats died there, to narrate The Death of Keats, a video story of Keats’ arduous journey to Italy, his life in Rome, his final illness and death in the apartment.

On the same day, the Keats-Shelley House is launching a new panoramic virtual tour. This is a novel approach to museum-going and the possibilities are intriguing. It’s a virtual tour led by a live guide. Tours are available in English, Italian and Russian and you book your spot in advance. It is completely interactive. You can ask questions of the guide just as if you were there in person. The cost is €6 a ticket for adults, €5 for school groups and senior citizens, and there’s a maximum of 30 people allowed per tour. Advanced bookings can be made here

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Alhambra frieze returned by looter’s family 187 years later

Thursday, February 4th, 2021

Detail of intricate carving on section of Alhambra frieze. Photo courtesy the Council of the Monumental Complex of the Alhambra and Generalife.A long section of an intricately carved wooden frieze looted from the Alhambra Palace in Granada has been returned by the descendants of the man who looted it 187 years ago. The panel is 7’5″ long and was part of the ornamental ceiling frieze in the main room of the Partal Palace. It was taken by Richard Ford, a travel writer and art collector who stayed in the Partal Palace for two summers during his sojourn in Spain between 1830 and 1833. His descendants, brothers Francis V. and Richard A. Ford, contacted the Council of the Monumental Complex of the Alhambra and Generalife in September and arranged for the repatriation of the long-lost piece.

Built by the Nasrid Sultan Muhammad III of Granada (r. 1302-1309), the Partal oldest remaining structure in the Alhambra complex. The Alhambra suffered for centuries after the fall of Granada to their Most Catholic Majesties in 1492. It was pillaged, neglected, subject to destructive renovations, damaged in wars and used as impromptu housing for invading armies, brigands and squatters. The openwork carving and stylized calligraphy on the frieze is characteristic of Nasrid Dynasty art in the time of Muhammad III.

After years of decline and abuse, the Alhambra’s return to glory began in the Napoleonic Wars. It was used as a barracks by French troops under the command of Count Horace Sébastiani during the Peninsular War. Sébastiani ordered repairs be done to the roofs, walls and gardens. The only problem was he also ordered several of its towers blown up on their way out the door in 1812. Still, the Duke of Wellington was captivated by the palace, even in its derelict condition, and his stamp of approval sparked renewed attention among Grand Tourists.

Washington Irving lived in the palace for a few months in 1829 and he wrote about it in his collection of stories, Tales of the Alhambra, published in 1832. Irving, who a decade later would go on to serve as US ambassador to Spain under President John Tyler, had already achieved internationally renown as an author thanks to the success of his short stories and romantic histories. Tales of the Alhambra was another bestseller and his high praise for its beauty vaulted the palace into refreshed prominence.

Richard Ford’s highly influential travelogue, A Handbook for Travellers in Spain (1845), cemented the revival of interest in the Alhambra. He somehow failed to mention the bit about helping himself to eight feet of it by way of souvenir, however, and nobody had any idea where the missing section was or even if it still existed. The only documentation of the loss was recorded during a 1923 restoration when the presence of a plain, uncarved panel in place of the original frieze section was recorded.

The prodigal frieze was radiocarbon dated and the results confirm it was made in the early 14th century. Conservators in the palace’s restoration workshop with clean, analyze and stabilize it. The conserved panel will then be reintegrated with its brethren on the ceiling of the Partal Palace.

The return of the looted section of freeze to the Alhambra Palace
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Antiquarium of Pompeii reopens

Monday, January 25th, 2021

The Antiquarium of Pompeii reopened today after an extensive refurbishment and decades of closure. You’d think a site like Pompeii which under normal global circumstances draws millions of visitors would have a permanent museum to house the thousands of artifacts unearthed there and the fragile plaster casts of Vesuvius’ victims, but   it hasn’t since the Antiquarium closed after the earthquake that devastated Naples in 1980, and even that iteration of it was hobbled because Allied bombing destroyed a whole gallery in 1943. After 36 years, the Antiquarium opened again in 2016 but only for a few temporary exhibitions.

The museum was launched in 1873 by Giuseppe Fiorelli, Pompeii’s pioneering director of works who was the first to cast the cavities in the ash left behind after the victims’ bodies decomposed. Amedeo Maiuri, director of works for almost four decades (1924-1961), expanded the Antiquarium early in his tenure.

The renovated museum harkens back to Maiuri’s concept for it. He was the first to dig below the Vesuvian layer to explore Pompeii’s pre-79 A.D. history, and the new exhibitions are arranged sequentially to tell the full story of the city, from its earliest antecedents during the archaic period (7th-6th century B.C.) to its tragic demise. The 11 galleries are divided into six sections — Before Rome, Rome vs. Pompeii, Pompeii is Problematic, All Italy, Starting from Scratch and the Last Day.

Artifacts on display include little-known objects dating to the Samnite era (4th century B.C.) and iconic discoveries like the frescoes from the House of the Golden Bracelet, the treasure of silverware discovered in the country villa in Moregine a third of a mile south of Pompeii and the triclinium from the House of Menander. Some of the newest finds are also exhibited, like the collection of amulets from the House with a Garden and the most recent plaster casts of victims, two human and one equine found in the villa of Civita Giuliana.

The re-opening of the museum after so many decades of travail is “a sign of great hope during a very difficult moment,” Pompeii’s long time director, Massimo Osanna, said. He was referring to the harsh blow that the pandemic’s travel restrictions have dealt to tourism, one of Italy’s biggest revenue sources.

On display in the last room of the museum are poignant casts made from the remains of some of Pompeii’s residents who tried to flee but were overcome by blasts of volcanic gases or battered by a rain of lava stones ejected by Vesuvius.

“I find particularly touching the last room, the one dedicated to the eruption, and where on display are the objects deformed by the heat of the eruption, the casts of the victims, the casts of the animals,” Osanna said. “Really, one touches with one’s hand the incredible drama that the 79 A.D. eruption was.”

The redesigned museum will now be the first stop for visitors to the Archaeological Park of Pompeii.

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Shipwreck neckerchief covered in Masonic symbols

Saturday, January 23rd, 2021

A neckerchief found inside a 19th century shipwreck at Muriwai Beach, West Auckland, New Zealand, has been restored and found to be replete with Masonic symbols. The neckerchief was discovered in the bilges of the wreck of the Daring, a New Zealand-built two-masted schooner that was dashed on the shore in an 1865 storm.

Built in 1863 in Mangawhai, the Daring is New Zealand’s oldest ship (six years older than the Cutty Sark) and is almost completely intact. It was made of local native woods using techniques not used anywhere else and is of invaluable significance as a unique survival of 19th century New Zealand shipbuilding.

The remains of the 55-foot schooner was exposed by shifting sands on May 27, 2018, and souvenir hunters had had their way with it even though public access to the beach is prohibited because it is part of military air weapons range. Within two days of its discovery, the ship was cordoned off for its protection and archaeologists surveyed it. Seven months, reams of paperwork, 24/7 security, several heavy trucks and one million dollars later, the wreck was raised and moved to a more secure location for stabilization.

Artifacts recovered from the wreck include a pair of pristine leather shoe, coins, clay pipes, a cup, wine bottle caps, a partial leather belt with buckle, parts of a straw hat, comb and one wadded up grey ball that turned out to be the neckerchief. Cleaned of the muck and dried out, the textile revealed itself to be made of pure silk and festooned with Masonic symbolism in cloud-like medallions against a crimson background.

Masonic symbolism overlaps significantly with religious — Jewish and Christian — iconography as its rituals and imagery were heavily influenced by Kabbalistic mysticism as well as the Hermetic Christian tradition. Those types of images are rife on the neckerchief.

There’s a seven-branched candlestick, each candle alight. In Freemasonry, the menorah represents the mysticism of the number seven, the spiritual energy that radiates from the center of the world east to west, north to south, zenith to nadir. At ceremonies it is lit in a spiral clockwise from the outside in (1-7-2-6-3-5-center candle) or the reverse (counterclockwise from the center candle out) to charge the energies of the lodge brothers.

Another Jewish symbol, the hexagram aka Star of David, formed from two superimposed triangles, is intertwined with a third triangle to create a nine-pointed star, a symbol of 4th Degree Scottish Rite. And while it looks like a Greek temple, Solomon’s Temple makes an appearance too, identifiable from its checkerboard floor and the initials J and B, for Jachin and Boaz, the name of two pillars at the Temple’s entrance, flanking it. Above it is the Blazing Masonic Star, symbolizing the zenith of the Mason’s journey. Underneath it is a laurel branch, symbol of peace.

The most well-known symbol of Freemasonry, the Square and Compasses. The G at the center, a reference to the unpronounceable name of God, is in this example encased in a six-pointed star. It invoked the protection of the Almighty against all evil spirits.

On the Christian side of things is a rose and cross, reference to Rose Croix, a nickname for Scottish Rite Freemasony in England and Wales. The pelican in its piety, a popular medieval motif symbolizing Christ’s sacrifice, is faded but clearly identifiable from the long curved neck of the bird as it pierces its own breast to feed its young in the nest. A lamb lying on a book with seven seals dangling off its top cover. This is the Agnus Dei, the Lamb of Christ, sits atop the Book of Revelation which is adorned with the Seven Seals that only Christ can break at the end of the world.

Other assorted symbols include crossed Masonic gavels, emblematic of the authority of the Master in every Lodge, a Masonic handshake, a cockerel, symbol of Mercury, the key transformational catalyst in alchemical reactions and a Masonic metaphor for the initiate’s transformation from base human to enlightened Mason, and a shield with the initials A.L.G.D.G.A.D.L., which stands for À la Gloire du Grand Architecte de L’Univers (to the Glory of the Grand Architect of the Universe).

The ship will become the centerpiece of a new building at the Mangawhai Museum, close to where the Daring was built in 1863. The artifacts found inside it will also be part of the exhibition.

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A final denoument for Mucha’s Slav Epic?

Friday, January 22nd, 2021

Alphonse Mucha’s Slav Epic, a series of 20 monumental paintings depicting important events in Slavic history, may finally get the dedicated permanent exhibition space the artist wanted almost a century after the works were completed. When we last we saw our Slavic heroes in 2012, the series has just been put on display at the Veletrzni Palace in Prague over the protests of art lovers and the Mucha family.

Mucha gave the series to the city of Prague on condition that it build a pavilion for their display. This was no small matter as canvases are enormous — 26 feet wide by 20 feet high — and World War II, Communist disapproval, chronic lack of funds and chronic legal wrangling with the Mucha family, the permanent Slav Epic gallery never materialized.

After being rolled up in storage for decades, the paintings went back on public display for the first time since Mucha’s 1939 death at the castle of Moravský Krumlov in southern Moravia in 1963. They remained there until 2012 when Prague flexed its muscles. The Veletrzni Palace was the only place with enough wall space to accommodate the monumental works, but the poorly controlled fluctuations of temperature and humidity made it a dangerously inadequate space for canvases that had suffered so much already. The fact that the palace had also been used during the war to hold Jews before they were deported to concentration camps was no deterrent to Prague officials, but it sure pissed off the Muchas, especially as several family members had been among those imprisoned in Veletrzni Palace.

As far as Alphonse’s grandson John was concerned, Prague would not own the Slav Epic until they built the pavilion as per Mucha’s condition. Until then, the series was better off at Moravský Krumlov. Prague’s argument was that they owned the works free and clear because the legal donor was not the artist, but rather the sponsor who paid for them, American plumbing supplies magnate Charles Crane, and Crane had made no requirement as to the display space.

The Mucha family and the foundation they founded took the dispute to the law. Possession being nine tenths of it, nothing changed on the ground until it got worse. In 2016, Prague announced that all 20 canvases would go a two-year tour of Asia. This would have been the first time they left what is now the Czech Republic. That meant more rolling of the massive paintings, more transportation in precarious conditions of fluctuating temperature, moisture and pressure.

John Mucha filed suit yet again to keep the fragile egg tempera-on-canvas works in the Czech Republic, but the courts failed to stop the tour. It went on as planned. When the Slav Epic finally returned home in 2019, Prague announced that the paintings would return to Moravský Krumlov until the city had an appropriate facility for the series.

Now the epic saga about an epic saga may finally come to a conclusion: an innovative multi-use development in Wenceslas Square in the heart of historic Prague has offered the city a custom-designed gallery to be the new home of the Slav Epic. The developer will pay all expenses for construction of the exhibition space in its Savarin project which would be complete within five years.

“Over the years, we have heard many ideas about where to install the Slav Epic. Prague has been looking for its home for almost 100 years now and we are convinced that the Savarin Palace fulfils my grandfather’s wish, on which he conditioned his gift to Prague. Thomas Heatherwick presented to us and also consulted the vision of exhibiting the twenty canvases of the Slav Epic, and I am convinced that my grandfather would be proud of such a presentation of his masterpiece. As I have already said several times, the moment the issue of the Slav Epic’s home in Prague is clarified, I will withdraw the lawsuit with the city, because the will of my grandfather will be fulfilled,” says John Mucha, grandson of painter Alfons Mucha.

The new exhibit tailored to the Slav Epic in the Savarin project would offer an exceptional and globally unique exhibition space in the city centre. At the same time, it will not burden its surroundings with a greater movement of people, as the exhibit would be entered from the inner courtyard and accessibility for visitors will be also made easier by the newly created interconnection to the underground station with a direct entry into the spaces of the Savarin project. The exhibit over an area of 3,500 m2 would be entered through the newly created gardens and the listed building of the historical riding school, which will be the centrepiece of the whole Savarin project.

The exhibition space of the epic and of the life’s work of Alfons Mucha will be 10 metres high, which will enable the presentation of the Slav Epic in a uniform visual view according to the original intention of Alfons Mucha. Then it will all be enhanced by the entry hall into the gallery, technical facilities, a shop with souvenirs related to Alfons Mucha and a space for the gathering of groups for guided tours. The whole area of the exhibit shall be conceived as the life path of Alfons Mucha and how this path led to the creation of the Slav Epic.

Here’s a cool thing. The Mucha Foundation commissioned a virtual reality version of the Slav Epic. Digital artists at Nexus Studios create a virtual experience in which the viewers see the monumental works in an ideal gallery and to step inside the first painting in the cycle, The Slavs In Their Original Homeland, and explore its environment. It is compatible with VIVE Pro headsets and is free for download here.

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Endangered Diego Rivera mural to get landmark status

Thursday, January 14th, 2021

One of Diego Rivera’s greatest masterpieces, a mural at the San Francisco Art Institute, is no longer at risk of being removed and sold to pay off the institute’s $20 million debt. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors have voted to designated the mural a city landmark which means it’s staying put no matter what.

The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City by Diego Rivera, 1931. Photo courtesy the San Francisco Art Institute.The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City is boldly self-referential. As the title suggests, it is a fresco about making a fresco depicting the construction of an Art Deco cityscape. Painted on the wall of an art school It seamlessly ties together Rivera’s favorite subjects — industrial workers — with his own profession, showing his work, as it were, and illustrating the labour and mechanics undergirding his depictions of labourers.

The central figure is a giant hard-hatted worker stretching from the peak of the roof to the bottom of the mural. He operates a gear shaft and a valve, representing the coordinated labour on a massive scale required to build a city. On each side of him the cityscape rises, skyscrapers in the background, steel workers on the right join steel beams, creating the skeletal structure of a new skyscraper. To their right in the midground workers heat rivets and rivet the steel girders.

In a meta masterstroke, Diego Rivera painted himself painting the fresco. He’s seen front and center sitting on a scaffolding plank in grey pants and a yellow shirt holding a palette in his left hand and a paintbrush in his right. To his right applying wet plaster is his assistant Matthew Barnes, to his left assistant John Hastings. On the plank above him are more assistants, English sculptor Clifford Wright and English painter Viscount Jack Hastings, son of the Earl of Huntingdon.

On the top left carving stone is sculptor Ralph Stackpole, host to Rivera and Frieda Kahlo when they were in San Francisco for Rivera’s commissions. The sculptor’s assistant sharpen tools. In the panel beneath them, another sculptor chisels the stone with a forge bellows operator on his left and a belt machine operator on the right.

The machine extends into the center bottom panel where three men examine a paper. These are Rivera’s patrons: architect Timothy Pflueger who commissioned Rivera to paint a mural in the San Francisco Stock Exchange, banker and SFAI president William Gerstle and architect of the SFAI building Arthur Brown, Jr.

In the bottom right square are the architects, with the only woman in the fresco, Art Institute lecturer Geraldine Colby Fricke, standing at the drafting table, flanked by engineer Alfred Barrows and architect Michael Baltekal-Goodman. Rivera’s signature is on the underside of the drafting table.

This visionary mural was commissioned by Gerstle in 1930, then president of the SFAI. Anti-communism made it difficult for the artist to get a work visa, so a lot of strings had to be pulled before Rivera was able to get the commission. Commission secured, Rivera wasted no time. He completed the mural in less than one month, beginning it on May 1st (appropriate for art depicting labourers engaged in all kinds of work) and finishing it on May 31st.

It has been the pride and joy of the SFAI and is a required stop for all scholars and fans of Diego Rivera’s work. Unfortunately, expansion costs and a very inconveniently timed pandemic have increased the museum’s debts while kneecapping its income. SFAI defaulted on a private bank loan and the bank announced it would strip and sell the institute’s collateral, mural included. The University of California Board of Regents swooped in in October to buy the debt and gave SFAI six year to repay it or the University of California would foreclose.

All kinds of solutions have been explored — mergers, fundraising, partnering — but none of them have worked out. Last month, SFAI’s board floated the idea of selling the mural, appraised at $50 million, which would solve its money problems in one fell swoop. George Lucas was said to be interested in purchasing the mural for the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in Los Angeles. The idea was not received well, to put it mildly.

After an outcry from artists, preservations and the press, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday 11-0 to initiate the process of designating the mural as a landmark. Once granted landmark status, any changes to the fresco could only be done with the approval of San Francisco’s Historic Preservation Commission, and they are obviously never going to approve dismantling it and selling it to the highest bidder.

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Victorian bathhouse found under car park

Sunday, January 10th, 2021

Tiled pools from a Victorian-era bathhouse have been discovered under a parking lot in downtown Manchester, northern England. The excavation has revealed the first and second class bathing pools with their handsome white and blue tiles.

The site adjacent to Picadilly Railway Station, Manchester’s main railway station originally constructed in 1842, was home to the Mayfield Public Baths built in 1857 by the Manchester & Salford Baths & Wash-Houses Company. The Mayfield neighborhood was known as Cottonopolis for its central role in Manchester’s textile industry. The baths provided entertainment, exercise and invaluable public hygiene facilities to employees of the print and dye factories, their families and neighbors, many of whom lived in grimy, overcrowded dwellings lacking in amenities.

They flocked to the grand Italianate building to swim and play in its large pools — the first class men’s pool was 62 feet long — and to clean both themselves and their laundry. The wash house, just as an aside, looked like the engine room of an ocean liner or something. Victorian laundromats were not here to play. In 1878, the city of Manchester acquired the Mayfield Baths and they remained integral to the live of Mancunian workers until they building was flattened in a bombing during the Blitz in 1940.

After the war, a parking lot was built on top of the bombed out baths. Nobody thought there was much of anything left under the rubble, so archaeologists excavating the site for the Mayfield Regeneration Project, the conversion of the area behind Piccadilly Station into Manchester’s first new urban park in a hundred years, were surprised when they found the bathing facilities in such good condition.

Through machine excavation and meticulous hand digging, the team has uncovered the remains of two large tiled pools as well as parts of boilers, flues and pumps which were used to heat and circulate water around the pools and laundry rooms.

The archaeologists are using 3D laser scanning and low level drone photography to produce an  accurate, detailed record of the findings which will later be combined with historical documents and CAD software to produce digital drawings, in a process known as ‘preservation by record’.

“The Mayfield bathhouse is a fascinating example of the social and public health advancements that came about during the industrial revolution,” said Graham Mottershead, project manager at Salford Archaeology.

“As the city’s population boomed with factory workers, crowded and substandard living conditions gave rise to the spread of cholera and typhoid. For those living and working around Mayfield the Mayfield Baths would have been a vital source of cleanliness and hygiene.

“The sheer pace of change and innovation during the industrial revolution means many advancements were not recorded. Excavations like this help us to learn a great deal about what is arguably the most important period of human history and, in the case of Mayfield, a location that is so very relevant to the heritage of the people of Manchester”.

The new Mayfield Park project will revitalize 6.5 acres of industrial blight into a sustainable mix-used green space with homes, retail, leisure facilities, renovated historical structures and even a reborn river, the River Medlock, which was buried by development in the 19th century and has been hidden underground ever since. Artifacts recovered during excavations will go on display in the new park.

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Pre-Hispanic statue of elite woman found in citrus grove

Saturday, January 9th, 2021

On New Year’s Day, 2021, a farmer in the village of Hidalgo Amajac, in southeastern Mexico’s Veracruz region, unearthed a six-foot statue of a female figure in a citrus grove. On Monday, January 4th, archaeologists from the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) identified it as a pre-Hispanic statue of an elite woman, the first of its kind ever discovered in the area.

The limestone statue depicts young woman, elegantly garbed in a long-sleeved shirt and ankle-length skirt and adorned with an elaborate headdress rising high on both sides of her head. Her small face has hollow eyes that would originally have contained stone inlays. She wears a wide necklace with an engraved donut-shaped pendant known as an oyohualli, a fertility symbol.

It is two feet wide at its widest point and about 10 inches thick. It has survived the centuries in good condition, its features still sharp and complete with its spike, a long tapered structural element extending out from under the feet of the figure that was used to keep the statue upright. Most of the female Huastec sculptures have been interpreted representations of the earth and fertility goddess Tlazoltéotl, but INAH archaeologist María Eugenia Maldonado Vite this figure’s posture and attire suggests that she may have been a ruler rather than a deity.

The location of the statue in the Tuxpan River valley and its general stylistic features indicate it was made by the Huasteca culture, indigenous to the Veracruz region, but there are some elements typical of Central Mexican Nahua sculptural tradition, namely the inlaid eye sockets and the knots and ribbons in the woman’s gown. Huasteca sculptures of female deities have smooth gowns. Given this combination of elements, INAH archaeologists’ date the statue to the Late Postclassic period (1450-1521 A.D.) when the Mexica Triple Alliance (aka the Aztec Empire) governed the Valley of Mexico and had cultural and commercial exchanges with the Huasteca peoples to the southeast.

The sculpture’s find site has not been excavated yet, but inspection revealed that it was inside an extensive archaeological site. There do not appear to be any monumental structures. The buildings are low and were probably residential in nature. The statue was found upside down, so archaeologists believed it was quarried from its original site in pre-Hispanic times and recycled as construction material.

The discovery sheds new light on the sculptural traditions of the region, how they were influenced by the Mexica and representations of women in Late Postclassic Huasteca art. The statue has some attributes seen in the Huasteca goddess figures — the headdress, the meeting hands, the oyohualli — but is missing other important ones — nose rings, spindles with cotton tassels, the chewing of chapopote (bitumen). In the wake of this find, reexamination of other Huasteca female figures assumed to be deities may be reinterpreted as women of status in the community’s political structure.

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