“Such works [of abandoned art] … will enter into a strange netherworld. Removed from the marketplace, these objects will live on in warehouses, unseen and unappreciated, becoming what has been called ‘dead art’ or ‘zombie art.'”
— “Zombie Art,” The New Yorker
Item #34: Mona Leo. This long hidden work of Leonardo da Vinci, also composed in oil on poplar (which was a poplar technique at the time[i]), depicts Lisa’s younger brother, Leo Gheradini. Leonardo used a similar frontal half-portrait, but instead of Lisa’s close-mouthed smile one sees a pained grimace (orthodontia among the Gherardinis?), and in lieu of Lisa’s enigmatic eyes and invisible eyebrows, Leo’s thick unibrow seems to follow one around the room. Still, most critics believe the main reason this portrait was warehoused for centuries was that, rather than the simple pyramidal design of the original, da Vinci used a dodecahedral design, which gave Leo a fractured appearance and viewers a headache.
Item #51: After Birth of Venus. Botticelli’s classic “The Birth of Venus” depicts the Roman goddess of love, fertility, teen sex and STDs (though technically, Hermes had Herpes[ii]), nude on a half shell. This suppressed sequel shows what followed her full-bodied emergence from the sea, as a variegated mass appears on a similar shell with the same gods – Zephyrus, Aura and the Horae – in the background. Did Botticelli truly intend to depict the birthing process? Or, as some critics argue, was he speculating that the Olympians immediately minced her with breadcrumbs, bacon and Parmesan? So afterbirth … or Clams Casino? (Some critics insist that Zephyrus is holding Ritz crackers.) This is the kind of uncertainty that makes art criticism so beloved by the general populace.
Item #62: Saturday Evening, Post-Thanksgiving Dinner. Most Americans are familiar with Norman Rockwell’s “Freedom from Want” (a.k.a. “Thanksgiving Dinner”). Actually, because that painting, part of his Four Freedoms series, achieved immediate popularity, Rockwell decided not to exhibit this follow-up, which shows the previously contented grandmother angrily stacking dirty dishes while glaring at stains on her fine linen tablecloth. Rockwell, obviously playing off his beloved Saturday Evening Post cover, “Gramps at the Plate,” originally titled this sequel “Gram at the Plates While Gramps Watches Football.” Critics dubbed it “No Freedom from Aggravation.”
Item #257: The Sistine Floorboard. Almost ruined by the tread of millions of tourists (and their two millions of feet), this recently restored work of the great Michelangelo matches the iconic Sistine Chapel ceiling image, which shows the “Hand of God” giving life to Adam, with the less iconic image of the “Foot of God” booting Adam and Eve out of Eden. (T-Shirts featuring this image are available in the Gift Shop.) Further, rather than historical figures in lunettes and spandrels, we see twelve prophets in espadrilles. Still one asks: why was this mural kept from public view for centuries? Was it because Vatican visitors kept stumbling over cracked fresco? Or was it because Michelangelo, digging deeper into Genesis, used Onan’s story as a central motif?[iii]
Item #87: American Gothic Revisited. When Grant Wood first displayed his classic painting of a couple standing in front of the Dibble House in Eldon, Iowa, Iowans objected to their portrayal as “pinched, grim-faced, puritanical Bible-thumpers.” (Wood supposedly retorted: “I never said they thumped Bibles.”) Even more upset were the models, Grant’s sister Nan, who hated posing with shaven head while standing on a milk crate, and their dentist, Byron McKeeby, who believed the calico dress made him look fat. Wood attempted to appease his critics with a new version, in which both figures smile and his dentist wears a gingham chemise while holding a parasol (which neatly counterbalances Nan’s pitchfork). McKeeby was so pleased with the remake that he used this smiley version to advertise his dental practice; but after he died his unhappy heirs sued to keep it from public view until a 2011 settlement.
Item #39. The Last Brunch. Few people realize that da Vinci’s famous mural, “The Last Supper,” which shows Jesus dining with his Twelve Apostles, had a companion piece depicting the next morning’s meal. Leonardo began work on “The Last Supper” in 1495 and completed it in 1498; he began “The Last Brunch” (sometimes called “The Bagel Breakfast” because of the whitefish on a pumpernickel day-old that Jesus allegedly ordered) in 1498 and finished it in 1496 (they were still awkward with the calendar in the early Renaissance). The first work shows Jesus announcing that one of them would betray him; the later work shows Jesus telling his distraught Apostles that one of them would order a side of bacon, prohibited by Jewish dietary laws and high in saturated fat. On the right side of the painting one sees a visibly shaken Peter ordering Eggs Benedict (the first Benedictine order in Church history).
[i] This pun caused gales of laughter (or, as one might say, it “brought down the Bauhaus”) when I spoke at the 36th Congress of the Comité International d’Histoire de l’Art.
[ii] This witticism had them in stitches when I delivered it at the 5th Annual Bulfinch Society Open Mic Night.
[iii] This probably accounts for the bawdy nickname critics gave this painting, “The Hand Job of God,” which is not a reference to the Old Testament’s Job.