June 2, 2021

The Palette is available to all interested with an e-Subscription

In this issue:

Irises: anniversary of Van Gogh’s finest garden picture, painted on his first morning in the asylum
Off with her head! Infrared technology shows how a 15th-century French king used a paintbrush to replace one wife with another
How Plywood From Last Year’s Protests Became Art
Frescoes Stolen from Ancient Roman Villas Returned to Pompeii
Vatican issues a street art stamp, ends up getting sued
It’s all about the hair in the murals on a West Town salon building




Irises: anniversary of Van Gogh’s finest garden picture, painted on his first morning in the asylum
Monet asked how the artist who made this exuberant masterpiece could possibly be unhappy—and a century later it became the most expensive work at auction

In May 1889 Van Gogh painted Irises, a close-up view of flowers in the garden of an asylum. He had come to this retreat on the outskirts of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence after mutilating his ear, following a row with Gauguin in the Yellow House in Arles.

On the day after his arrival, Vincent wrote to his brother Theo, saying that he already had two paintings “on the go”: one of a lilac bush and the other of “violet irises”. Irises is now among the greatest pictures in the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

Life at the asylum was very tedious for the inmates, with little to break the monotony. The appearance of an artist—especially one who was a foreigner—must have caused great excitement. “They all come to see when I’m working in the garden”, Vincent added in his letter.

After breakfast Van Gogh had immediately spotted some irises which had come into flower. Taking his easel, canvas and paints into the garden for the patients, he captured the transient beauty of their dramatic petals. One prominent white bloom is set among what originally was a sea of deep violet hues. Beneath the luscious flowers, the turquoise leaves form a marvellous swirling band.

Van Gogh’s Irises were indeed once violet, a colour he got by mixing blue and red pigments. But the red has has gradually faded, turning the flowers blue. So although the effect is still highly dramatic, it is not quite what the artist intended.

Irises were a favourite subject among Japanese artists, whose work Van Gogh greatly admired, and this almost certainly influenced his choice of subject. He owned prints by Utagawa Hiroshige, and may well have known his Horikiri Iris Garden (1850s). It is also possible that he knew Hokusai’s striking Irises and Grasshopper (late 1820s).

Working in the walled garden was Vincent’s one source of comfort and pleasure. Two weeks after his arrival he wrote to Theo, saying that “considering that life happens above all in the garden, it isn’t so sad”.

Exactly a year later Van Gogh again painted irises when they were at their best. This time he depicted them as cut flowers in a vase, echoing his Sunflower composition and setting them against a yellow background. One stem has just snapped and fallen, breaking the symmetry of the composition and serving as a reminder of life's transience.

Irises, the original painting done just after his arrival, was one of two pictures that Vincent offered for his first public exhibition—the annual show of hundreds of works organised by the Société des Artistes Indépendants in Paris in September 1889. His other loan was Starry Night over the Rhône (October 1888), which is now at the Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

After Vincent’s death Irises and a version of Sunflowers (one with three blooms, now in a private collection) were probably his first paintings to be sold. In 1892, the pair was bought by the avant-garde critic Octave Mirbeau, who paid 600 francs (then £24). Fearing his wife would be furious with the expenditure, he told her they were a gift. An 1897 photograph shows the two paintings hanging in their dining room.

In 1925 Irises was bought by the Parisian couturier Jacques Doucet, a connoisseur of modern art and design. The next owner was the New York heiress Joan Payson, who paid $80,000 in 1947. Her heirs offered the painting at Sotheby’s in 1987, when it went for $54m, then a record price for an artwork at auction.

The successful bidder was the controversial Australian businessman Alan Bond, who a decade later would be imprisoned for fraud. After the 1987 auction it turned out that he did not have the money for Irises, so ownership of the Van Gogh was shared with Sotheby’s, which offered him a substantial loan. Bond failed to repay the loan and in 1990 the painting was sold privately to the J. Paul Getty Museum. Although the price remains confidential, it was probably close to the auction sum.

While Mirbeau had owned Irises and Sunflowers he had shown them to his friend Monet, who was on a visit from Giverny. Monet then responded: “How could a man who has loved flowers and light so much and has rendered them so well, how could he have managed to be so unhappy?” The Art Newspaper


Off with her head! Infrared technology shows how a 15th-century French king used a paintbrush to replace one wife with another
Francis I of Brittany had his first wife painted over in a medieval prayer book before giving it to his new spouse, research at Cambridge's Fitzwilliam Museum shows

It was a tragedy for Francis I of Brittany when his wife Yolande of Anjou died in 1440, soon after their young son. But she was soon replaced—both as his wife and in her own prayer book, where her image and coat of arms were painted over and replaced with those of her successor.

Yolande had appeared as a tiny figure kneeling before the Virgin Mary on one of the most glorious pages of her magnificent Book of Hours, now one of the treasures of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. Within two years of her death, Francis had married Isabella Stuart, the daughter of James I of Scotland, and—as new research by the museum proves—even before the marriage craftsmen were obliterating Yolande’s image.

The spectacularly illuminated book, with more than 500 jewel-like miniatures, was originally commissioned by Yolande’s mother, a patron of the arts who also owned another famous Book of Hours: the Belle Heures of the Duc de Berry, now in the Cloisters of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

The book was probably given to her daughter upon her marriage to Francis in 1431. Analysis of the original pigments through use of infrared photography, by scientists at the Fitzwilliam, has revealed the under drawings and different pigments used to prepare the book for the new bride soon after Yolande’s death.

Isabella’s face and ermine trimmed heraldic robes were painted over Yolande, and the figure of St Catherine added behind her. Isabella’s coat of arms was added to the floral borders, using the same vermilion red as her gown, which the analysis distinguished from the red lead paint of the original. Isabella originally wore Yolande’s elaborate headdress, but around the time of her marriage this was altered again, overpainted with azurite to give her a golden jewelled coronet, marking Francis succeeding to the title of Duke of Brittany.

Francis and Isabella had two daughters before his death in 1450, and she outlived him by almost half a century. The manuscript was altered yet again for Isabella’s daughter Margaret, who added an extra page with an image of herself kneeling in prayer before the Virgin.

The last private owner was Richard Fitzwilliam, an Anglo-Irish nobleman who never married but had three acknowledged children by a Parisian ballet dancer, and left his astonishing library of paintings and manuscripts as the museum’s founding collection on his death in 1816.

The manuscript is included in the new exhibition The Human Touch: Making Art, Leaving Traces on display when the Fitzwilliam Museum reopens this week, on 18 May (until 1 August). The Art Newspaper


How Plywood From Last Year’s Protests Became Art
During the George Floyd marches last year, businesses boarded up. This year, hundreds of those boards will be displayed in exhibitions in Minneapolis, New York and Chicago.

The morning in April before a Minneapolis jury found the former police officer Derek Chauvin guilty of murdering George Floyd, Leesa Kelly woke up from a nightmare. As she had done many times over the past year, she cried out feelings of anger and hopelessness.

Kelly, who runs a self-help blog for women of color, had marched and helped fund-raise in the city since last May, when demonstrations erupted after Chauvin was captured on film pressing his knee into Floyd’s neck, a deadly act that moved millions of people to march in what would be the biggest racial justice protests in decades.

But “nothing seemed to quell this feeling inside me: just deep despair and anger,” she said. From that unsettled place emerged an idea that would become Memorialize the Movement, a project to preserve and exhibit the plywood sheets that business owners had affixed to their storefronts out of concern about vandalism by marchers, many of whom instead transformed the sheets into art: murals and other works inspired by the moment, applied in paint, spray paint, pen, pencil, marker and chalk. From May 21 to 23, many will be on view in a large-scale exhibition called “Justice for George: Messages From the People” in Phelps Field Park, steps from where George Floyd was killed.

Kelly recognized that the boards told a story — of George Floyd’s life and death, and how they reverberated across her community and the country.

“That’s why it’s so important that they be preserved,” said Kelly, who had little connection with the arts world before this project. “Because this is Black history, and not just Black history, it’s American history.”

Motivated by a similar impulse, other groups in New York and Chicago are also gathering and transforming these symbols of unrest into objects that bear witness to a staggering year — hoping to answer the question, in their own ways, of how to memorialize what their cities endured while stitching together a national portrait.

Kelly, the group Save the Boards Minneapolis and volunteers have been collecting the pieces for nearly a year. Locating them and identifying their creators has been a scattershot undertaking. Some of the artists signed their often elaborate murals, adding their websites or Instagram handles, but others didn’t know to sign their names or wanted to remain anonymous. Also, early on, Kelly didn’t know what store owners had planned for their boards, or how receptive they’d be to having them collected.

Kelly passed around some quickly made fliers in mid-June and knocked door to door on major streets. “Most of these people had never had to board up their businesses, and they didn’t know what to do with the murals,” she said.

At first, it was just Kelly and her boyfriend, armed with a drill, gloves and a Jeep, hauling the boards, which are often eight feet tall and can weigh 60 pounds each. After recruiting volunteers mostly though social media, they have been able to gather more than 800 boards so far.

The collected plywood sheets have been stored in a climate-controlled space, and volunteers from the Midwest Art Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization for the preservation of art and artifacts in the Twin Cities, have since joined to help maintain their condition, including mitigating issues of moisture and mold that affected the flaky, brittle material. “We’re just kind of going to let them live out their natural lives,” Kelly said.

All the boards are also being digitally archived, with help from the urban art mapping team at the University of St. Thomas in the Twin Cities. The collection is expected to be accessible online by the end of the year.

Memorialize the Movement has longer-term plans after the show this month: to become a nonprofit, to establish a public memorial and to help the community learn about museum work and art handling. But those plans have been delayed by the death of Daunte Wright, a Black man who was fatally shot by a police officer in April in Brooklyn Center, Minn., about 10 miles from where Chauvin was on trial.

“Now, as we look toward this exhibit that we’re putting on to commemorate the life and death of one Black man who was killed, we have to think about how we incorporate this other Black man who was killed. And we have to think about what we’re going to do for his anniversary next year,” Kelly said. “It’s just so much.”

New York
Last June, the dual crisis of police brutality and the pandemic were in stark relief to Neil Hamamoto, the founder of Worthless Studios, a nonprofit that supports the creation of public art, while he was driving around Manhattan, which he does often to clear his head.

“The city was very quiet, most of SoHo was completely boarded up,” said Hamamoto, who uses plywood material in his own art. “It just sort of clicked that all of these businesses were paying so much money to protect their windows, to protect the property inside, but what was going to happen to this material when they reopened? Where does this material go?” (During the peak protest months, a single board of plywood in New York cost more than $90, up from about $25 a board.) Hamamoto saw some wood on the street ready for disposal and decided to grab it, out of which grew the Plywood Protection Project.

Its aim, Hamamoto said, is to create safe, outdoor destinations for New Yorkers during the pandemic while prompting “emotionally and politically complex questions” around pain, anger, protest, property and memory. The place of national monuments in American history was top of mind, too, he said.

Worthless Studios collected more than 200 boards and initiated an open call for artists with the intention of selecting five. More than 150 applied. Those selected received studio space, tools, fabrication and installation assistance, along with a $2,000 stipend and a $500 material budget; the smallest installation required about 25 boards, while one of the larger works used closer to 60. This month, one sculpture was installed in each of New York’s five boroughs.

In Manhattan, “Be Heard,” by Behin Ha Design Studio, will be placed in Thomas Paine Park; “In honor of Black Lives Matter” by KaN Landscape Design and Caroline Mardok, will go up in Poe Park in the Bronx; “Migeulito,” by Michael Zelehoski, in McCarren Park in Brooklyn; “Open Stage,” by Tony DiBernardo, at the Alice Austen House in Staten Island; and “RockIt Black,” by Tanda Francis, in Queensbridge Park in Queens. Most will be on view through Nov. 1.

Behrang Behin and Ann Ha, the founders of the architectural design practice Behin Ha Design Studio, whose contribution is a large-scale plywood megaphone, were drawn to the idea of working with materials that had played a role in socially and politically significant events. “As architects, we are accustomed to thinking of materials not just as physical matter used for construction, but also as existing in the cultural and social realms,” the duo said over email. In that sense, they thought of the plywood boards as “cultural artifacts rather than interchangeable materials.”

Francis has created several site-specific monumental public art pieces in New York, including “BIGGIE” (2014) and “Everyone Breaks” (2015-2016). Her work often addresses diasporic African people through large-scale masks and faces. She was home with her infant son when the events unfolded last spring and felt helpless that she couldn’t participate. It was very stressful, she said, “to understand where the country was in their mind.” And then this project came along. “OK, I have a direction, and I can use the actual material that was out of the streets and all that energy,” she remembered thinking.

Her sculpture is in the form of a column and includes polished concrete and aluminum mirror — “a stark black figure,” she said, that will be topped with a shining beacon that will point east, toward the expansive Queensbridge housing projects.

“RockItBlack” will soon contain a digital component that Francis plans to add to over time. At first, it will likely be a QR code that will lead to a curated musical experience. Later, she hopes to include, among other things, a list of Black-owned businesses or projects, connecting visitors to “people who are advancing Blackness.”

In Chicago, efforts to transform these plywood boards have also been underway since last year, when, ahead of the election, a dozen voting registration booths were made from about 150 graffitied boards collected from storefronts around the city. The booths, collectively called “Boards of Change,” were a partnership between local artists, the City of Chicago and When We All Vote, a nonprofit voting initiative chaired by Michelle Obama, Tom Hanks and Lin-Manuel Miranda, among others.

In the weeks leading up to the election, the booths were moved to different locations around Chicago and displayed in community meeting places like public libraries and galleries in neighborhoods with historically lower voter turnouts, mainly areas with a majority of Black or brown residents. Area leaders and artists spread the word.

The booths were designed by FCB Chicago, an advertising agency that partnered with Bobby Hughes, a Chicago-based craftsman, who helped construct them.

“Boards of Change” aimed “to bring the voices we heard during the George Floyd protests from the streets to the polls,” said Perri Irmer, the C.E.O. of the DuSable Museum for African American History, where the booths are being stored. There are plans to exhibit the booths after the museum reopens, where they will serve as a reminder of the 2020 protests and as a tool for future elections; QR codes stamped on the booths will remain active, allowing visitors to register for midterm and presidential elections to come.

Many of the boards used to construct the booths came from the Paint the City project, founded by the curator Missy Perkins and the artist Barrett Keithley. Paint the City, which came together in June, rallied more than 60 artists to apply art to boarded-up storefronts in over a dozen neighborhoods, paying the artists and providing them materials. An exhibition of the more than 100 of these boards is planned for this summer at the DuSable Museum.

Perkins and Keithley, who have known each other for nearly a decade, had already been painting alleys in the city to provide safer thoroughfares. When Covid-19 hit along with the George Floyd protests, they quickly pivoted to focus on the boards.

“We were out there when things were going down,” Keithley said, recalling a few moments when clashes escalated around him while he was painting. But the demonstrators and police officers let him work. “I got a pass because I was putting up positive works of art,” he said. “That came kind of like a stamp of approval.”

“It was important because the time was important, plain and simple. They say artists speak to their time, and that’s what we did,” Keithley went on. “This is the medium that we chose to speak, and we were loud about it.” The New York Times


Frescoes Stolen from Ancient Roman Villas Returned to Pompeii

The archaeological park at Pompeii is celebrating the return of six Roman frescoes that have been recovered following an investigation by Italy’s cultural heritage protection unit, the Guardian reports.

Three of the frescoes were removed in the 1970s from the walls of Villa Arianna and Villa San Marco in the ancient city of Stabiae. After being smuggled out of the country, they were bought in the 1990s by antique dealers in Britain, Switzerland, and the United States.

The frescoes date to the first century C.E. and feature a variety of motifs. One panel from Villa Arianna depicts a dancing woman holding a tray. A second from the same location shows a flute-playing cherub under a pavilion decorated with plants and two griffin statues. A piece from Villa San Marco features a woman’s face on a dark background with a wreath of laurel leaves

Three other fragments come from Civita Giuliana, a rural villa north of Pompeii. Before archaeological work there began in 2017, the site was the target of clandestine excavations. Investigations by the Italian police revealed that thieves had tunneled into the Roman villa through a covered hole in the ground.

In 2020, archaeologists at Civita Giuliana uncovered a stable with the remains of three horses and a four-wheeled ceremonial chariot, as well as two intact victims of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius.

The ancient Roman city of Pompeii was almost perfectly preserved when the nearby volcano erupted in 79 C.E. Twenty feet of ash and volcanic debris quickly descended, and the ruins lay undisturbed for almost 2,000 years, providing invaluable insights into the life and times of its residents. Gabriel Zuchtriegel, director of the Archaeological Park of Pompeii, said “the city of Pompeii was part of an ancient landscape made up of communication routes, villas, farms, necropoli, and rural settlements,” noting its “immense value of the archaeological heritage” in the region. ARTnews


Vatican issues a street art stamp, ends up getting sued

A Rome street artist has sued the Vatican in a Rome court for having used her poster art image of Christ for its Easter 2020 postage stamp without her knowledge or approval.

Alessia Babrow's lawsuit accuses the Vatican City State's telecommunications office of wrongfully profiting off her creativity and violating the original intent of her artwork.

The Vatican used her image, featuring her hallmark heart emblazoned across Christ’s chest, as its 2020 Easter postage stamp.

Copyright lawyers familiar with the case say it is an important benchmark for Italy.

They said it is evidence of the increasing appreciation for Banksy-style street art and the belief that even anonymous “guerrilla art” deserves protection against unauthorized corporate merchandising. Associated Press


It’s all about the hair in the murals on a West Town salon building
Magen Sabo wanted something attention-grabbing for her new business. Her artist friend Won Kim provided it, collaborating with rawooh, another Chicago artist.

Won Kim hasn’t always paid for his haircuts at Klicked Salon the normal way. He’s gotten some in exchange for painting murals at the hair salon at 470 N. Ogden Ave. in West Town.

Kim, who uses the name revise for his art, collaborated with his fellow artist and friend rawooh on a mural in March 2020.

Salon owner Magen Sabo had complained to Kim, a friend, that she didn’t like the signs at her then-new business. So they made a deal: Kim would redesign the signs in exchange for some haircuts and hair products.

It wasn’t the first time Kim has done something like that. He also has bartered his talents in exchange for drinks, meals, clothing.

Kim and Sabo say they’d been friends for years before Klicked Salon’s opening, but their friendship grew thanks to their deal. Kim, who is Korean American, says he appreciates how Sabo avoids giving him a “stereotypical” Asian male haircut. Helping each other out made their friendship grow “exponentially,” Kim says.

The faces gracing the walls of the salon aren’t based on any particular person, according to rawooh, who says his style developed from reading anatomy books and comic books. He says he wanted to make the faces seem more realistic to contrast with the fluid and flat-colored hair that Kim painted.

Kim started by doing a black-and-white mural at the salon, about 19 feet by 11.5 feet. He says Sabo wanted something attention-grabbing. So he decided to do a piece inspired by an X-ray image of hair follicles, incorporating the salon’s logo. It took him about three hours to do.

His second mural — the collaboration with rawooh, which took a few days to paint — was done a couple of months after that when Sabo had an outside wall she wanted to fill with art.

Rawooh, 33, has been collaborating on art with Kim since high school. Kim says he used to sneak him into events he organized at bars in the early 2000s, when rawooh was too young to get into bars, bringing together artists to sketch together.

“He came around, and his artwork was, like, super different and striking immediately,” Kim says. “We became friends, and I would offer wall space, and we would collab a lot more.”

Sabo says that, for her salon, she thought initially that whatever the pair came up with shouldn’t be too hair-related — but she ended up very happy with the result.

The mural they partnered on for her is more than 29 feet by seven feet. It continues the black-and-white theme of the X-ray mural, with pops of reds and pinks and grays in the faces, rawooh says, to give a more realistic look to the faces.

Kim says he thought rawooh’s style of painting matched Sabo’s aesthetic when cutting hair or styling models. Rawooh says he employs “controlled chaos” in his portraits with the movement of his brush strokes.

Kim also painted the inside of the business with similar themes.

The salon also features a bathroom mural by two 19-year-old artists from Ukrainian Village who go by the names face and sechor.

Kim and Rawooh say they don’t plan much before a project.

“We just show up, and he does his thing, and I do my thing,” rawooh says. “And we kind of layer our work on top of each other until it looks decent.

“It’s come to a point where we could pretty much not say a word, and we’d just paint, and we’d know what our vision was for each other’s work.” Chicago Sun-Times


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