Art News Headlines: February 5, 2011

Shakespeare portrait comparisons

In 2009, when the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon unveiled a previously unknown portrait with strong claims to be the only surviving contemporary likeness of William Shakespeare, it created an international stir. The Jacobean-era painting had hung unrecognized for centuries in an Irish country house belonging to the Cobbe family, and bore significant resemblance to the famous engraving of Shakespeare in the First Folio of his plays. In a new exhibition at The Morgan Library & Museum entitled “The Changing Face of William Shakespeare” the Cobbe portrait is being presented to the U.S. for the first time. Also on display will be three additional portraits of the playwright. The exhibition calls into question the authenticity of all portraits on view, an issue of significant scholarly interest and debate.

Who was the inspiration for the mysterious smile behind the Mona Lisa? The debate rages on. Recent researchers, Silvno Vincenti of the National Committee for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage among them, have come to the conclusion that the most iconic portrait in the world may not be of a woman’s face after all. Scholars have long agreed that Da Vinci’s master work was an image of Lisa Gherardini, wife of a wealthy Florentine silk merchant. But new evidence suggests that it was actually inspired by Gian Giacomo Caprotti, Da Vinci’s supposed longtime male lover and muse. Several lesser-known paintings by the artist depict a slim youth with curly hair and remarkably similar facial features to the Mona Lisa, leading Vincenti and others to conclude that Caprotti may be the underlying muse behind all of them. Caprotti’s nickname was Salai, and microscopic analysis recently uncovered a miniscule S and L in Mona Lisa’s eyes—perhaps for Salai and Leonardo?

Achieving a genre that is both easily recognizable yet hard to categorize, the work of Isabelle de Borchgrave mimics textile crumplings and patterns, inspired from the rich imagery of early European painting. The artist opens an exhibition at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco entitled “Pulp Fashion: The Art of Isabelle de Borchgrave”, on view from today through June 5, 2011. The Belgian artist skillfully works rag paper and other fibers to create the look of clothing, sometimes braiding, weaving, and painting the surface. Though de Borchgrave’s understanding of textile traditions is encyclopedic, she does not duplicate patterns exactly, choosing instead to take flight from her inspirations and invite the viewer into an imaginary world. The result is, in a word, gorgeous. The artist reflects, “Although my inspiration springs from the period dresses in the great museum collections, this is just a wink at history. My work is a confluence of influences—paper, painting, sculpture, textiles, costume, illusion and trompe l’oeil.”

Directors of leading American galleries are bemoaning a “political” decision by the Russian government, which will strip several upcoming exhibitions of paintings by masters such as Paul Cezanne. This dispute, originally over Orthodox Jewish religious documents, has evolved into a diplomatic battle between Russia and the U.S. that is set to prevent art masterpieces held by Russian museums being loaned to institutions across the Atlantic. Works due to be loaned to a number of leading American galleries will stay put unless the United States is able to give the Russian museums cast-iron guarantees that they will be immune from seizure. Their wariness is understandable. In 2005, 54 artworks—including works by the likes of Monet and Picasso—were briefly impounded after an exhibition in Switzerland at the request of a Swiss logistics firm, which claimed that the Russian government owed it hundreds of millions of pounds in unpaid debt. The works were soon after released due to government order, but the incident has not left the memories of the Russian government.

The launch of the Google Art Project puts art one step closer to being a virtual reality. Developed in collaboration with 17 museums around the globe, including London’s Tate, New York’s MoMA, and Madrid’s Museo Reina Sofia, Google has brought its Street View technology inside for the first time, enabling Internet users to navigate galleries as well as view individual works in minute detail. While viewers can take tours of displays, each museum also has one selected work from their collections that has been photographed using gigapixel technology—at a resolution of up to 14 billion pixels—allowing all us couch potatoes back home a chance to view details that would be invisible to the naked eye. One painting enjoying this special gigapixel treatment is Van Gogh’s The Starry Night, where the viewer can even examine tiny cracks in the canvas. Nelson Mattos, the vice president of product management and engineering at Google, remarked, “Art has been hidden from the eyes of many for many years. This project represents a new way; a new step forward.”

Laura Lawson paints when writer’s block strikes and writes when painter’s block strikes. She has studied fine art at LCAD and is pursuing a degree in journalism. Recently diagnosed with the degenerative eye disease retinitis pigmentosa, she strives to bring hope to those without vision through her blog. She is currently working on her first book about coping with vision loss.

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