August 10 2017

...sorry for the lack of news lately. We're on holiday in Cambridge. And today we are going to fly a Spitfire! The main art history news of the moment seems to be a new book on Vermeer, and the old question of whether he used lenses. More on that soon.


$50m US deaccession

August 7 2017

Image of $50m US deaccession

Picture: Sotheby's

There's a hoo-ha in the USA over the deaccessioning of $50m worth of paintings, from Old Master to contemporary art (including the above Frederic Edwin Church), by the Berkshire Museum. The sales are needed, says the museum, to complete a $20m renovation programme and to increase its endowment. US museum bodies have sanctioned the museum, and said that deacessions must only take place in order to raise money to buy more art. But as long as the money is put to good use for the long-term future of the museum, and not just to keep the wolf from the door, is there much difference? 

The sale will be handled by Sotheby's in New York.

Richard Waitt exhibition

August 7 2017

Image of Richard Waitt exhibition

Picture: Grantown Museum

Bravo to Bonhams, who are sponsoring an exhibition of the Scottish portrait artist Richard Waitt. The Grantown museum in Scotland has assembled Waitt's portraits of Grant clan. More here

Fakes, fakes everywhere? (ctd.)

August 7 2017

Image of Fakes, fakes everywhere? (ctd.)

Picture: ArtNet News

There's a growing phenomena of 'authenticating' fakes by having them seized by police. Regular readers may remember the story of the '£90m Leonardo' seized by Italian police. The picture was neither a Leonardo, nor worth £90m. But combining an apparent art 'discovery' story with a criminal sub-plot more or less guarantees column inches (or rather, these days, clicks).

The latest in this genre* is the story of a previously unknown Basquiat seized by Spanish police. The news story of its recovery is replete with intriguing details, such as the fact that it was painted in 1982, 'the most coveted year for work by the artist', and was bought 'directly from the artist's father'. Hmm. This Basquiat looks more than usually rubbish. 

* (it appears)

Joseph Highmore exhibition

August 7 2017

Image of Joseph Highmore exhibition

Picture: Foundling Museum

I'm glad to read of a new exhibition on the British 18thC painter Joseph Highmore. It will be at the Foundling Museum, and opens on 29th September. More here

Martin Roth (1955-2017)

August 7 2017

Image of Martin Roth (1955-2017)

Picture: Guardian

Sad news that the former V&A director Martin Roth has died. More here, and an obituary in The Art Newspaper here.

Giacometti - the Movie

July 31 2017

Video: Transmission Films

There's a new film, Final Portrait, about Giacometti. The artist is played by the great Geoffrey Rush. Here's the blurb:

In 1964, while on a short trip to Paris, the American writer and art-lover James Lord is asked by his friend, the world-renowned artist Alberto Giacometti, to sit for a portrait. The process, Giacometti assures Lord, will take only a few days. Flattered and intrigued, Lord agrees.

So begins not only the story of a touching and offbeat friendship, but, seen through the eyes of Lord, a uniquely revealing insight into the beauty, frustration, profundity and, at times, downright chaos of the artistic process. FINAL PORTRAIT is a bewitching portrait of a genius, and of a friendship between two men who are utterly different, yet increasingly bonded through a single, ever-evolving act of creativity. It is a film which shines a light on the artistic process itself, by turns exhilarating, exasperating and bewildering, questioning whether the gift of a great artist is a blessing or a curse.

Job Opportunity!

July 31 2017

Image of Job Opportunity!

Picture: TAN

Sad news indeed that Javier Pes is to leave The Art Newspaper. He has been there for almost a decade, as Deputy Editor since 2009 and Editor since last year. Javier has kindly commissioned many an article from yours truly! TAN, says chairman Anna Somers Cocks, will now be hiring a 'senior editorial leader'. More here

Art history photoshops (ctd.)

July 31 2017

Image of Art history photoshops (ctd.)

Picture: Severe Delays

Some clever person has dropped Munch's 'Scream' into a photo of the Brexit-plotting, internecine-feuding, cluelelessly-led cabinet UK government. Judging by the reactions on Twitter, many people think the setting is genuine.


July 30 2017

Image of Perspectives

Pictures: BG

[Warning; this post has nothing to do with art history!]

My family and I were in America recently, on a meandering road trip from New York to Kentucky. History buffs that we are, we visited whatever ‘historic’ sites that we could, and a highlight was Thomas Jefferson’s house in Virginia, Monticello. Jefferson was, amongst all his other achievements, an amateur architect, and he designed Monticello himself. It’s small but pleasingly inventive to look at, and sits in a beautiful location on a spur looking east towards the coast, and west towards the Blue Ridge mountains. Like Mount Vernon (George Washington’s house) Monticello has become a Holy of Holies for Americans, and it was busy with visitors paying homage to Jefferson’s memory and achievements. Such is Monticello’s status as an American national symbol that it features on one side of the nickel. Jefferson himself appears on the other side, beneath the word ‘Liberty’.

Monticello was built by slaves. Jefferson owned well over 150 slaves. Some he inherited from his father, and 135 came with his marriage. The original slave dwellings at Monticello (one could barely call them houses) crumbled away long ago, and have sunk, like their inhabitants, unremembered into the soil. But two have recently been recreated. They had one room, were built of wood, with tiny windows, and situated only yards from Monticello on the edge of the garden. Jefferson would have seen them every time he admired the beautiful view.

Jefferson treated his slaves just like other slave owners of the time. That is, harshly. He employed overseers known for their cruelty and keenness to whip. One was called Gabriel Lilly, an illiterate white man in charge of Jefferson’s nail-making business. Many slaves attempted to escape. In 1811, James Hubbard, a nail maker, ran away. He was 27 and would have been making nails since the age of about 10. Jefferson rated him as one of his more productive slaves, and once noted that he made seven pounds of nails in a single day, meaning he raised a hammer about 20,000 times between dawn and dusk. Adverts were placed to track down Hubbard, a ‘negro man… strong made, of daring demeanor’, and he was caught. Jefferson brought him back to Monticello, and had him "severely flogged in the presence of his old companions”. He was then sold and separated from his family (he had been born in Jefferson’s ownership). Nothing more is known of James Hubbard.

Jefferson was especially keen on breeding slaves. It was cheaper than buying them. ‘I consider a woman [slave] who brings a child every two years’, he wrote, ‘more profitable than the best man of the farm. What she produces is an addition to the capital, while his labors disappear in mere consumption’. Account books from Monticello show how much interest Jefferson took in his slave’s offspring, and although ‘family’ was not a concept he sought to protect amongst his slaves, the names of each slave’s mother and father were diligently recorded.

Except in one case. The ‘father’ column beside that of ‘mother’ Sally Hemmings in Jefferson’s account books is blank. Hemmings was the half-sister of Jefferson’s wife, Martha, having been fathered by Jefferson’s father-in-law, John Wayles. She was also Jefferson’s slave, and was no older than sixteen when she gave birth to the first of his six children (he was 44). Four survivied, and in turn became Jefferson’s own slaves. He freed them when they were much older, but he never freed Hemmings, not even in his will. 130 slaves were sold by auction after Jefferson’s death, with families split up and children as young as nine separated from their parents.

For more than two centuries, Sally Hemmings and the remainder of Jefferson’s slaves were forgotten about. Actually, forgotten is too forgiving a word; they were ignored. There have long been suggestions that Jefferson fathered some slave children. But most Jefferson scholars said the story was a myth put about by Jefferson’s political opponents. It took a series of DNA tests in 1998 to prove that Jefferson was the progenitor of Sally Hemming’s descendants. 

Now, I’m not in the business of judging Jefferson. As a historian, it’s not my role to judge the morals of people acting in a different moral age. A historian deals in facts, motives, reasons. What interests me about all this is how we instinctively create our own perspectives on history to suit our own values, beliefs and judgements. In America, I believe, the limits of those perspectives are more acute than many realise.

Throughout history, and just as much today as ever, Jefferson is lauded as the man who wrote those famous words; “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” His memorial in Washington D.C. is second only to Lincoln’s in terms of prominence and recognition. But its design pays homage to Monticello, the house built by slaves, serviced by slaves, and financed by the unrewarded labour of slaves. It is a monument to a ‘liberty’ born out of hypocrisy.

And yet, the actions of every generation, when judged by succeeding ones, are always open to charges of hypocrisy. Never will mankind reach a state where no person, no being, and no place is not somehow exploited or persecuted. We cannot know now why future generations will look at us, and ask, ‘how could they have done that?’, but they will. And if we should resist judging Jefferson’s actions in the 18th Century by the values we hold in the 21st Century, then at least we must be more honest in how we remember the 18th Century. Because we abhor slavery today, as well as forced marriage and rape - all of which Jefferson indulged in - we cannot pretend that our heroes did none of these things. 

I should make it clear that at Monticello they are making renewed efforts to deal with this less attractive side of Jefferson’s life. One can go on ‘slavery tours’, and, as I mentioned, see recreations of how the slaves lived. The Monticello website has detailed research of slave life during Jefferson’s time there. But there is nothing too revealing; no chains, no whips, no jails. It’s like watching a PG-rated version of an 18 film. In most American historical sites one gets the impression that slavery was something abstract, a concept to be sympathised with, rather than individual stories of pain and torment.

Another site of Jerffersonian homage in the USA is Colonial Williamsburg, an immaculately preserved and recreated set of buildings from Virginia’s colonial capital. We always enjoy visiting - it really is like stepping back in time - and went again this year. The scene is set in the 1770s, at the moment when the American colonies transform themselves into states. The flag hung on every building is not the stars and stripes, but the Union quartered flag of the 13 colonies. Re-enactors give speeches about British oppression, and their desire for liberty and freedom. Some of these speeches come of course from someone playing Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was twice Governor of Virginia, and lived in the Governor’s mansion at Williamsburg. He called the city "the finest school of manners and morals that ever existed in America."

In the 1770s, the majority of people living in Williamsburg were slaves. But slavery is largely non-existent at Williamsburg today. We stopped by a re-created tobacco garden to hear all about how tobacco was grown, and how the crop underpinned America’s early economy. We learnt everything from the guides except the fact that tobacco farming, a very labour intensive process, was entirely dependent on slave labour. However - and this is the crucial point - such historical amnesia is not necessarily by design of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation (who own and manage the city) but by the desire of the people who visit. The Foundation tried, some years ago, to show visitors more of the reality of slave life in the 1770s, and even held recreations of slave auctions. But these proved too upsetting for audiences to bear, and were discontinued after distressed families made their feelings known. 

Shying away from history is of course not a uniquely American trait. As a Briton I must face the uncomfortable fact that, as a recent poll revealed, 65% of us are ‘proud’ of the British Empire. That is, we take pride in the colonisation and conquest of places like the Indian Subcontinent, as well as much of Africa, to say nothing of specific moments like the Amritsar Massacre and the botched partition of India and Bangladesh. When it comes to Empire, we Brits tend only to remember things like ‘the railways’, and those nice Lutyens buildings in New Delhi. 

Is British imperial pride, like America’s, built on ignorance? Or is it our selective memories? And how do we chose those memories? Indeed, do we choose them, or are we simply relying on what historians tell us? Do we feel embarrassed into sugar-coating those memories by a sense of inherited complicity? Certainly, there’s a debate to be had on the relative ‘badness’ of Britain’s Empire. But Britain’s pride in Empire still reflects the fact that everyone, whether it’s a matter of race, religion or nationality, choses a view of history which suits our own perspectives. 

And the point of this long-winded post (forgive me) is that I couldn’t help noticing the uniformity of one particular historical perspective in America today. Whether we like it or not, the story of revolutionary America told habitually in museums, books and films is from the perspective of only one group of people; white people. If you’re the descendant of a black slave you might have a very different perspective of the selective liberty ushered in by the American Revolution. If you’re a native American you might have a more radically different perspective, with little interest in celebrating the ethnic cleansing and conquest - there are no other words for it - of Native American lands. 

For all of the people affected by the American story, life today can still resonate with the legacies of actions taken centuries ago. Acknowledging that is not about assessing the ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness’ of our predecessors, but about viewing their stories and legacies with candour and humility. We must learn to face our historical demons. Can we ever honestly address the injustices of our own era unless we do?

How many people does it take to hang a painting?

July 28 2017

Video: Met

Here's a great time-lapse video from the Metropolitan Museum, of their installation of a giant 1683 painting, "Moses and the Brazen Serpent and the Transfiguration of Jesus", by the Mexican artist Cristóbal de Villalpando It is on loan from Puebla Cathedral in Mexico City. Says the Met:

The installation of Villalpando's 28-foot-tall masterpiece took five days and involved the combined expertise of more than a dozen riggers, machinists, carpenters, and art technicians in addition to the exhibition curator and four conservators.

Videos like this show why the Met is streets ahead of other museums when it comes to online presence. Filming the installation and making a time-lapse video of it is such cheap and simple marketing (you can do it on an iPhone) but it's amazing how few museums do it.

The exhibition runs until October 25th; more here.

Update - there's a video of them taking the picture down in the Cathedral, and preparing it for travel, here

A new Ofili tapestry at the National Gallery

July 28 2017

Video: National Gallery

A new tapestry commissioned from Turner prize winner Chris Ofili has gone on display at the National Gallery in London. It took three years to make! I love tapestries, and am glad to see new works like this being commissioned.

In fact, the tapestry went on display in April, but I missed the story. Here's Will Gompertz of the BBC on the finished piece, which looks great. The BBC photo is complete with ubiquitous girl-walking-in-front-of-artwork effect. Curiously enough, the National Gallery has only this week put up a video promoting the exhibition, which shows how the tapestry was made. The exhibition ends 28th August.

[Museums of the world; please make it easier for people like to spread the word about your exhibitions by making sure videos, images and press releases are put up in good time, and easily accessible.]

Charging for history

July 28 2017

Image of Charging for history

Picture: Northamptonshire Record Office

Grim news for historians and art historians in the UK; Northamptonshire record office is becoming the first to charge for regular access to its reading rooms. If you want to visit outside a very limited free period, which is just Tuesday-Thursday from 9am-1pm, then you'll have to pay £31.50 per hour.

£31.50 per hour! That is an absurd and insulting fee. Those who have spent time researching in local record offices, which house come of the UK's most important private and public archives, will know that it is practically impossible do all you need to do in a morning. Ordering and reading through documents just takes too much time. For Northamptonshire record office to limit free access to just a few mornings a week in effect means that serious researchers will not able to access their documents at all; the cost for most of staying in the area to wait till the next free morning would make it impossible. Perhaps the new charging structure is a cynical and deliberate ploy to force people to keep away, thus allowing the council to cut staff and hours even more in future.

Northamptonshire record office has made a statement on their Facebook page, blaming government cuts, though it's a Northamptonshire council decision. Of course, the main concern is that this will be the thin end of the wedge, with other record offices soon following suit.

Is there much anyone can do about it? Probably not; the National Archives in Kew doesn't show enough strong leadership on issues like this, and if it does ever act, it takes an age to do so. Nor can we expect anything from government ministers. All we can hope is that by making a fuss we'll discourage other record offices from following Northamptonshire's shoddy example.

Update - there's a petition against the charges here.

The 'whiteness' of ancient sculpture

July 28 2017

Video: Vice News

The Art Newspaper alers me to this video from Vice News about the 'whiteness' of classical sculpture. Apparently, last year a US classicist, Sarah Bond, created a stir when:

[...] she published an article on the “whitewashing” of ancient Greek and Roman art. White marble statues have been naturally stripped of their polychromy over time—or were purposefully discoloured in the 18th and 19th centuries due to a romanticised notion of the “purity of white”, she says, which suggests that the ancient Greeks and Romans were a homogenous white people. [...]

In this video, the Vice News Tonight correspondent Jay Caspian Kang heads to the Art Institute of Chicago to unpack this thesis with Bond and other scholars, looking at new technologies to uncover the lost polychromy of ancient sculptures that reveals a racially diverse ancient world. 

I don't think I've ever met anyone who thought the ancient Greeks and Romans were exclusively white because that's how they look in marble sculptures. Have you? Hollywood movies, cited in the video above, may indeed portray Romans as entirely white, but that has to do with many other factors. Still, it's always fascinating to see recreations of how these painted, or poy-chromed, marbles originally appeared.

'Britain's favourite work of art!'

July 26 2017

Image of 'Britain's favourite work of art!'

Picture: via Guardian

A story doing the rounds in the UK media today (e.g. here in The Guardian, and here in The Mirror) has declared that Banksy's 'Girl With a Balloon' (above) is 'Britain's favourite work of art'. The news has been widely covered because having a Banksy at number one has been judged a great surprise, not least because it has, as The Guardian's headline states, 'soared past' other more established works like Constable's Haywain, which came in second place, and Turner's Fighting Temeraire, which was fourth. In third was Jack Vettrian's 'Singing Butler'. Antony Gormley's 'Angel of the North' was the highest placed sculpture in fifth place.

But - not so fast AHNers, for this 'news' is in fact a well-crafted PR story by Samsung, and doesn't really tell us what Britain's favourite painting is. The 'survey' was compiled by Samsung to promote the launch of a new television called 'The Frame', which, the Mirror says:

[...] becomes a piece of art when not in use.

Well, if you say so.

The survey was not an open vote, but put to two thousand people (we are not told how they were selected) from a shortlist 'drawn up by 'arts writers'. The two thousand respondents were only allowed to select their top five from this shortlist, which included things like album covers too. In other words, the survey was crafted to engineer as 'surprising' (and thus newsworthy) result as possible. 

For a more representative idea of what Britain's 'favourite painting' is, see a survery carried out by the BBC, which had votes from over one hundred thousand people. That poll (which did not include sculptures) was topped by Turner's 'Fighting Temeraire'.

Restitution news (ctd.)

July 26 2017

Image of Restitution news (ctd.)

Picture: New York Times

Catherine Hickley in the New York Times reports on a 'Raising of Lazarus' by an unknown 16th Century artist has been returned to the heirs of James von Bleichröder, a German Jew, eighty years after it was forcibly acquired by Herman Goering. More here.  

That 'Bronte discovery' (ctd.)

July 25 2017

Image of That 'Bronte discovery' (ctd.)

Picture: JP Humbert Auctioneers

Back in 2012 AHN reported on a claimed portrait drawing of the Bronte sisters, which was said to be by Landseer. It was being offered for sale in a regional English auction house, but was then withdrawn, and no more was heard of it. Now it has been offered again at auction, and sold for £50,000. You can see for yourself the evidence that the three sitters are the Bronte sisters here. I can't say I find it immediately convincing. And I think it's tellint that neither 'Landseer' nor 'Bronte' appeared in the artist and title description. It was sold just as a;

Feminist Masterpiece - A delightful and charming watercolour portrait study on 'rag' paper of three young ladies C1838 with superlative facial detail.

Update - a reader writes:

I agree that  the evidence for the picture being by Landseer or of the Bronte sisters is not perhaps  conclusive.

However, it is an example of exemplary marketing by Humberts which other auctioneers might learn from. Auctioneers are the agents of the vendor. It is their duty to do their best by their principal. Auctioneers are not museums (tho viewings are more interesting than some museum visits), nor are they art historians publishing academic works on the lots they try to sell (tho some catalogues are just that).

One can be amused by an estate agent’s description of an average Victorian box as ‘historic’  and by some catalogue descriptions, whist in awe at the effectiveness of the professional service provided.

Job Opportunity!

July 25 2017

Image of Job Opportunity!

Picture: Burlington Magazine

The Burlington Magazine is looking for a new reviews editor. This is a key position at the magazine, organising reviews of all books and exhibitions, and comes with a salary of up to £40,000. Here's what you need to be good at:

The successful applicant will have a higher degree in art history with academic expertise in some aspect of European fine or decorative art before 1800, and will be competent in one or more European languages. You should be highly organised with a proven ability to manage multiple tasks to strict deadlines.

Good written, interpersonal and team-working skills are a must, and experience of working in a magazine, book or digital publishing environment, while not essential, is also desirable.

More details here

'Picturing the Tudor Monarchy'

July 25 2017

Image of 'Picturing the Tudor Monarchy'

Picture: SoA

There's a new exhibition of Tudor portraiture at the Society of Antiquaries in London, which is free and open till 25th August. Here's the blurb:

Explore our free summer exhibition, showcasing one of the most important collections of Tudor portraiture in the UK alongside materials from the Library and Accredited Museum collections. The exhibition has been supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF).

Inspiration for the exhibition was drawn from our collection of paintings, which includes the largest collection of English medieval and Tudor royal portraiture outside of the National Portrait Gallery and Royal Collection. Exploring the struggle for legitimacy and power during the Wars of the Roses, the advent of the Tudor dynasty, and ways in which each of the Tudor monarchs strove to demonstrate their authority and ability to rule the kingdom. Visitors will have a unique opportunity to see rarely displayed objects from our collections, including official royal documents from the reigns of Henry VIII, Mary I and Elizabeth I as well as archaeological finds relating to battles of the Wars of the Roses.

Antoon in Scotland!

July 25 2017

Video: AHN

The National Portrait Gallery's Van Dyck self-portrait has finally made it up here to Scotland, on the last leg of its three year UK-wide tour. And poor Antoon, for he has been slotted into a very curious little show at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, called 'Looking Good - the Male Gaze from Van Dyck to Lucian Freud'. The blurb tells us that the exhibition:

[...] considers the theme of male image, identity and appearance from the 16th century to the present day. The selection of portraits, from the National Galleries of Scotland and National Portrait Gallery, London collections will explore the elaborate hairstyles and fashions of the courtiers and cavaliers of the 16th and 17th centuries; the emergence of the dandy in the early 18th century; the rise of celebrity and the interest in male beauty and personal grooming; and representations of gender and sexuality.

But alas it doesn't really work. The aim, and the wordy exhibition texts,  try to tick every right-on box under the sun, but the finished result doesn't deliver. For a start the exhibition is too small, with only 28 objects of multiple media spread over five centuries, and cannot begin to 'explore' all the themes that have been wedged into its remit. It's hung in one of the SNPG's smaller rooms, used for minor displays, and everything feels too scattergun; Grayson Perry is predictably wheeled out as a transvestite, and there's David Beckham with great hair. Worst of all, there's an oppressively terrible 'soundscape' blaring out, whether you want to hear it or not. In the video above you can hear the blessed moment of silence when the room warden came to switch the music off (we visited just before closing time).

This exhibition feels like the result of museum group-think - but nobody has thought of the poor visitor. If you're in Scotland, and wanted to come and see the Van Dyck self-portrait, learn more about the artist, the time in which he lived and worked, and how he painted and why, then you would leave this show none the wiser. Finally, the lighting is dreadful, as you can see with the darkened full-length Mytens in the above video. The National Portrait Gallery's £10m Van Dyck deserves better. 

The show is open till 1st October. More here.

Update - there's a more enthusiastic review of the show in Apollo, here

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