Sewell on the NPG's new 'War Portraits' show
March 10 2014
The Great Brian is on excellent form in his review of the National Portrait Gallery's new exhibition of Great War portraits. The whole piece is exhibition reviewing at its best. Here are the strangely moving final paragraphs:
Though it is far too cramped and small, playing second fiddle to a once fashionable photographer — David Bailey in this case, but my objection applies to every other who might have been so honoured, so foolish is this misjudgment of priority. I am grateful to the NPG for this exhibition. It falls between too many stools and concentrates on only one campaign, the long-drawn Western Front, but it is to some degree a reminder of the horrors inflicted by war. My diminishing generation needs no such reminder; in my childhood before the Second World War, on every street in London I could see the living wreckage of the Great War, men limbless, eyeless, dreadfully damaged, selling matches and bootlaces for a penny, or, in hope of a penny, singing (often rather well), playing the accordion, the saw (outside St Mary Abbots, Kensington) — yes, the saw — and a harp outside Tattersalls in Knightsbridge. The fortunate legless might have a wicker chair on wheels, the unfortunate a simple wooden chassis paddled along with the hands. A curious child, I wonder how such damaged beings emptied their bowels and bladders, where they slept, how they could eat. Now I see them only in my memory and in the dreary northern paintings of Laurence Lowry. The Great War did not create a world fit for heroes — it threw them on to the street.
It did, however, establish lasting loyalties and affections. Only once did my stepfather speak of that war, though he fought throughout it — in France, the Balkans, Gallipoli, Mesopotamia and the Holy Land — and that was when I unwisely developed an interest in Lawrence of Arabia (who is among the many not included in this exhibition) whom, I learned, my father had good reason to think “a boastful little shit”. But his loyalty to those with whom he fought was quite extraordinary and to be found in no other of his interests; he joined his soldier peers once a month for dinner, even in the blackouts, the Blitzes and the Buzzbomb Summer of the Second World War, until his death in 1962. I experienced something of that loyalty as a National Serviceman with not an enemy in sight — but had there been an enemy, that loyalty would have been much more intense and lasted longer.
But these are the maunderings of an old man in melancholy mood inspired by the pathos of the young so early dead. As the experience of war in any form, in the armed forces or as a civilian, is now the privilege of very few in Britain, I doubt if many will share my powerfully empathic response to this exhibition but I beg them to try. Having done so, having watched the film clips (cramped and uncomfortable) and perhaps having gleaned something of the inglorious sufferings of the soldier, cross the road towards Pret A Manger and, glancing to the left, spare a moment for Edith Cavell, nurse, executed by the Germans in October 1915, for there is her monument, “Patriotism is not enough”, the inscription — her last words, we are told. And it is not, but how now are we to interpret this Delphic utterance when young Gavrilo Princip’s patriotism proved to be so much too much?
The exhibition is on until 15th June.
Update - the Grumpy Art Historian didn't like some of the labels:
The weakness is a jarring curatorial voice that makes bombastic claims that are quite unnecessary; the pictures tell their own story. But the wall text offers questionable generalities like this: "The appalling consequences of [new] weapons suggested that human nature itself had changed, compassion snuffed out by unbridled cruelty and hatred. Such altered perceptions raised profound questions for artists". Was it really new weapons? Was it really worse than, say, the thirty years' war? And even if it was, why should other horrific conflicts not have caused such questioning? Were changed perceptions really caused by war? Virginia Woolf thought human nature changed in December 1910; why do the curators think it was later? These questions are better left for visitors to ponder. Less would have been more in this otherwise fine show.
Update II - I went to see the exhibition, and agree with Brian. It's fascinating, but way too small. What a shame. The show is cramped into two semi-rooms, one of which is part of a room reduced to make way for the tiresome and too, too large exhibition (it takes up almost the entire ground floor) of photographs by David Bailey. I went to see the Bailey show to contrast the offer with the WW1 exhibition. In the former, people drifted swiftly from room to endless room, each more boringly and densely hung than the last. In the latter, they dwelt for far longer on both image and wall text, evidently learning and thinking about a subject currently high up in our national consciousness.
Presumably, the disparity in space is a reflection of the NPG's enforced priorities, for shows like the Bailey bring in the cash. Let's hope that somewhere like the Imperial War Museum (from where many of the NPG exhibits come) can soon mount a larger and more penetrating exhibition of this fascinating artistic aspect of the Great War.
February 18 2014
Just when you thought the art market couldn't get any crazier... Colin Gleadell reports in the Telegraph:
It’s official! The art market has reached a new peak, and it’s good, old-fashioned painting, figurative and abstract, that’s driving it.
London’s auctions of Impressionist, Modern and Contemporary art sales over the past two weeks have amassed a record £709.5 million, a 39 per cent increase on last February and a 29 per cent increase over the last highest combined totals for these sales in London, achieved in June 2008. In dollar terms, they breached the $1 billion mark for the first time, reaching $1.2 billion.
Jeff Koons' Cracked Egg (above, and the subject of an earlier Guffwatch) made £14.1m, against an estimate of £10m-£15m.
Nuclear testing for fakes
February 11 2014
Picture: Guggenheim Collection
Here's an interesting story; a questionable painting in the Guggenheim collection by Fernand Leger has been proved to be a fake by testing for faint signs of cold-war era nuclear bombs. These apparently proved that the painting must have been made after Leger's death. More here.
How did they do that?
February 11 2014
Picture: National Gallery
The National Gallery has found £15.6m to buy its 'first US artwork', a painting by George Bellows. The picture also becomes the first Bellows to enter a UK public collection. The money came principally from the acquisition fund established by the late Sir Paul Getty, and other anonymous donors. In other words, no public funding body, such as the HLF, was involved. That's testament to the National Gallery's impressive fundraising operation. More details on the purchase in the NG's press release here.
Given that the picture was painted in 1912, and so lies outside the 1900 cut off date that has traditionally been followed by the National Gallery, some have wondered how this affects both the National's and Tate's future acquisition policy. The BBC's arts editor, Will Gompertz, writes, on the BBC website:
Tate and the National Gallery have an agreement that is renewed every decade that sets the parameters of each institution's collection strategy to avoid overlap and competition. The line has hitherto been drawn around 1900, the point at which the National Gallery hands the story of Western art over to Tate Modern.
The acquisition of the Bellows blurs that line as it was produced in the second decade of the 20th Century, which has always been very much Tate territory. It raises the prospect of the two national galleries competing for certain paintings in the future, which either could argue fits within their historical art narrative.
The picture was de-accessioned by the Maier Museum, part of Randolph College in Virginia, in the US. This has created a bit of to-do, because the institution in question, Randolph College, is using the money to fund general operating costs, not for its art collection. The CAA has its say here.
The acquisition is a rare, and pleasingly welcome, case of a UK institution buying a US de-accession. The boot is usually on the other foot...
Update - a reader points out that there are of course many other 'American' paintings in the NG:
A couple of things about the reporting on this: much has been made that this is only the second American work in the NG’s collection, after the Inness landscape. Which, by the way was cleaned recently and has been displayed on the main floor of the Gallery. More important, and somewhat overlooked, is the fact that while the Bellows is the second work by an American artist in the collection OF an American subject, there have been, and are, other works BY American artists in the collection. The Sargent of Lord Ribblesdale still forms part of the collection and Whistlers like this one have also been displayed there relatively recently. The press releases for the acquisition of the Bellows make something of its relationship to artists like Manet but, of course, both the Whistler and the Sargent are more closely connected so are they now going to form part of the main display?
One further thing: the division of the spoils date-wise between the NG and Tate has never been absolute or logical. Tate has hung on to one of the loveliest of Degas pastels - the drawings and sculptures by Degas can’t be transferred – and Tate clearly wasn’t interested in taking the Nationals latest complete work.
Another reader wonders where all these new pictures will go:
The Bellows is a wonderful addition to the National Galleries collection, but makes the pressure on wall space, if the break off period is now 1910, for the NG/Tate divide, critical. I wonder when the National Gallery will bite the bullet, and start to built a brand new extension on the Radisson Blu Hotel it owns to the east in Whitcomb St.
Another reader asks, why did they do that?
Congratulations to the National Gallery for acquiring its first significant American painting. However, one is left to wonder about the true cost of the £15.6m George Bellows canvas, 'Men of the Docks.'
Last year an important painting ('Richmond Hill') by renowned American artist, Jasper Cropsey, was subject to a temporary export ban by Ed Vaizey to provide a last chance for a British museum or gallery to save it for the nation. The National Gallery declined to step in to meet the £5m asking price and the painting, in the UK since it was originally painted 150 years ago, was lost overseas.
The importance of the Cropsey painting (an artist not represented anywhere in the national collection) was recognised by the National Gallery itself in 2000 when it was also at risk of going abroad and the then Director, Neil MacGregor, campaigned for it to be saved. So why the change of mind?
In the past twelve months, export stopped paintings by Domenico Puligo and Niccolo Gerini have also been lost despite their importance and exceptional works by Benjamin West (born in America) and Alonso Coello are currently at risk. None of these artists are represented in the permanent collection of the National Gallery and all four would cost less than two thirds of the price of the Bellows painting.
Bold acquisitions from overseas are to be encouraged but is it right that this should be at the expense of equally as important works more closely associated with this island's history which continue to leave these shores with depressing regularity?
Gwen John's grave found
February 4 2014
In Dieppe, apparently. More here.
February 4 2014
If you thought authenticating Chagalls was frought with difficulty, spare a thought for Modigliani - as Patricia Cohen in the New York Times reports, the artist's ouevre is now beset by fakes and controversy:
Three daunting facts confront anyone interested in buying one of Amedeo Modigliani’s distinctive elongated portraits. They tend to have multimillion price tags; they are a favorite of forgers; and despite an abundance of experts, no inventory of his works is considered both trustworthy and complete.
Christian Parisot, for instance, the author of one catalog and the president of the Modigliani Institute in Rome, is due in court this week in Rome on charges that he knowingly authenticated fake works.
Marc Restellini, a French scholar compiling another survey of Modigliani’s work, jettisoned part of his project years ago after receiving death threats.
And even those who swear by a listing of 337 works created by the appraiser and critic Ambrogio Ceroni acknowledge it has significant gaps. The effort to establish an authoritative record of Modigliani’s work “resembles nothing so much as a soap opera,” Peter Kraus, an antiquarian book dealer, wrote in an essay published a decade ago.
Test Your Connoisseurship
January 17 2014
Is this by the post-Impressionist painter Edouard Vuillard? Watch 'Fake or Fortune?' on Sunday, BBC1 at 6pm to find out! (If, like me, you'll be in Scotland, then it's on at 4.30pm, to make way for a programme about a BBC Radio Scotland presenter).
Update - yes, the picture is indeed 'right', as we like to say in the art world. Thanks for your kind comments on the programme. It seemed to go down well, with an audience of 4.8m, and a share of 21.8%.
My favourite comment on Twitter came from someone called 'Chimpman':
i bet these poshos are straight on Google once the cameras turn off #fakeorfortune
If you are the lucky owner of the other missing Vuillard (below), or know where it is, then please get in touch!
'Britain's Sistine Chapel'
October 21 2013
Picture: National Trust
Regular readers will know of my anorak-like fascination with war art, so it's exciting to read that Stanley Spencer's WW1 murals, normally housed in Sandham Memorial Chapel in Berkshire, are coming to London. They will be on display from November 7th till January 26th at Somerset House. Needless to say, the PR hype that these murals are somehow 'Britain's Sistine Chapel' is a bit de trop.
Henry Moore stolen in Scotland
October 13 2013
The Guardian reports:
A valuable Henry Moore bronze has been stolen from an open-air sculpture park in the latest high-profile theft of the British artist's work.
Standing Figure (1950) was one of four Moore pieces in Glenkiln Sculpture Park, Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland.
The park in moorland on the Lincluden Estate also includes his world-renowned King and Queen (1952-53), Upright Motive No.1: Glenkiln Cross (1955-56) and Two Piece Reclining Figure No.1 (1959). They sit among work by other artists including Auguste Rodin and Jacob Epstein.
Police said Standing Figure was a high-value sculpture and are appealing for anyone who saw any suspicious people or vehicles in the Glenkiln reservoir area last Thursday or Friday.
Re my posts below, it wasn't me.
Painting the boss
July 30 2013
Picture: Katy Homan
Here's my boss, Philip Mould, being painted by Jonathan Yeo, who will soon be having his own exhibition at none other than the National Portrait Gallery (11th September-5th January). One of the sittings was being filmed today by BBC 2's Culture Show, directed by Katy Homan, who took this photo. The programme goes out in early September.
I'm looking forward to seeing the NPG show. Many years ago, long before I worked for him, I bought from Philip a painting by Jonathan, a portrait of Tony Blair. It was a study for Jonathan's 2001 portrait of Blair, which now hangs in the House of Commons. At the time, I always assumed the picture's value would be dominated by the fact that it was of Blair, done from life while he was Prime Minister. But given Jonathan's rising status, I think the fact that it's 'a Yeo' will probably be more important.
She did burn them
July 23 2013
Or at least, three of them. Yesterday, the mother of one of the thiefs accused of stealing seven works of art from the Kunsthal in Rotterdam, who had told police she burned the paintings, retracted her claim. This may, as the New York Times reports, have something to do with the fact that:
Under Romanian law, the crime of “destruction with very serious consequences,” one of three charges against Mrs. Dogaru, carries a sentence of 3 to 10 years — far longer than the punishment for her two other alleged crimes, “supporting a criminal group” and “assisting criminals.”
Oops. Undermining her new found innocence, however, is a report from Reuters that the charred remains of three paintings have been found in her stove:
"We gathered overwhelming evidence that three paintings were destroyed by fire," said Gheorghe Niculescu, head of the team examining ashes that police found in a stove at her house in Carcaliu, a village in southeastern Romania.
Crucial pieces of evidence examined with high-tech equipment were the nails used to fasten the canvases to their wooden frames, and a particular blue paint, Niculescu, of the National Research Investigation Center in Physics and Chemistry, told Reuters.
But he could not say which paintings were destroyed, nor say whether the burned remains could have come from other paintings.
Really keen AHNers can hear me discuss the theft on the BBC World Service, here at 48:20 in.
'Orff with their frames'
April 23 2013
The Grumpy Art Historian reviews a new book on the history of London's main galleries in the early 20th Century, 'Stewards of the Nation's Art' by Andrea Geddes Poole, and relates this interesting tale:
The future King Edward VIII was briefly a trustee of the National Gallery, and I'd heard that he was somewhat disengaged. But I had no idea that the NG acceded to his request to borrow a few pictures for his own house - which he proceeded to re-frame! It seems only by good fortune that the original frames were found in a bedroom. It's a great story that she tells well, highlighting the dereliction of duty by the board.
Picasso's Child with a Dove goes to Qatar
April 15 2013
The sale of Picasso's Child with a Dove, which I first revealed here on AHN, seems to have been completed. After no UK museums stepped forward to try and buy the painting, it will be heading, so The Art Newspaper reports, to Qatar.
A reader writes:
I find this extraordinary. Yes, dismissed by many as 'cute kitch', it is, in fact, one of P's most iconic paintings. Having just seen it in the (brilliant!) early Picasso show at the Courtauld, it simply is a phantastic image and the paint is beautiful. I suppose the response was negative due to over-exposure? A bit like Ravel's 'Bolero' we are all so sick and tired of?
April 15 2013
Picture: Der Spiegel
Interesting article in Der Spiegel about Robert Driessen, a Dutch forger who made millions out of fake Giacometti sculptures:
"Long, thin figures, and an amorphous, crumbly surface," says Driessen. "It isn't difficult to make Giacomettis." After a while, he says, he "literally had Giacometti in my fingers." According to Driessen, it took him 30 to 40 minutes for the small figures. But they weren't simply recast versions of the originals. Instead, Driessen just added to Giacometti's body of work. He made his own models, had them cast and stamped them with the stamps of the foundries Giacometti had used.
New acquisition at the Met (ctd.)
April 10 2013
Picture: Metropolitan Museum/New York Times
For more than 40 years Leonard A. Lauder, the philanthropist and cosmetics tycoon, has been diligently and deliberately putting together a world-class collection of Cubist art that rivals those of such institutions as the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg and the Pompidou Center in Paris. Consisting of 33 Picassos, 17 Braques, 14 Légers and 14 works by Gris, it has been promised to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Update - apparently the total value of the gift tops $1 billion.
Update II - Blake Gopnik in The Daily Beast says Lauder deserves not a jot of gratitude for the gift:
I don’t understand why collectors get the kind of praise and attention they do, unless it’s because of universal sycophantism. Collecting is just shopping, and when you have close to infinite wealth, and the money to pay for the best advice, nothing could be easier. Any decent curator with a few billion dollars in her pocket could build a collection like this with her eyes closed. (Or maybe I should say without breaking a sweat.) And of course it’s worth remembering that Lauder only has his pockets so full because the thousands of people who work for him don’t; give those workers a bigger slice of the American dream, such as they used to have, and Lauder starts hogging less of it – to spend on things like fabulous Cubist art.
The true heroes of yesterday’s announcement are the Met’s curators and their new-ish leader, Thomas Campbell. While managing the tricky courtier’s task of coddling a billionaire donor, they’ve also managed to play aesthetic Robin Hood, getting art from the rich and giving it to the rest of us poor slobs. They redistribute artistic wealth, and the wealthy don’t seem to mind.
This is what you call a well-balanced article - written with a chip on both shoulders.
Do you own this picture?
April 5 2013
Here at 'Fake or Fortune?' HQ we're looking for the above picture. There's a small chance it might be by Edouard Vuillard, but it was sold on Ebay some years ago for just £3000. If you know where it is, please get in touch. More details here.
Update - a reader writes:
Bendor, your supposed' Vuillard' looks like a meeting between the young David Hockey and Barbara Cartland in the Dorchester. I known his standards dropped as he aged & gained popularity, but surely not to that extent.
Not Your Paintings
March 25 2013
Picture: Bournemouth and Poole College/Your Paintings
An ungrateful higher education college is to sell off an important collection of modern British art bequeathed to it by a former principal, the artist Arthur Andrews. The Bournemouth and Poole College collection includes works by Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, and Ivon Hitchens (above). The oil paintings in the collection feature on the BBC Your Paintings website, and include a work by the donor himself. They are being sold to raise £4m for a new building project. More details here.
I hope Poole College (which, incidentally, offers a number of art courses) will reimburse the Public Catalogue Foundation for the cost of photographing and uploading the collection onto Your Paintings.
Update - a reader writes:
Pretty sure some of those acquisitions were funded by the Gulbenkian Foundation. The Sven Berlin paintings were donated by his widow.
Art pun of the year
March 14 2013
Spotted this great headline in the Evening Standard the other day. The exhibition is on at the Museum of London till 14th July. Definitely going to go - Caine's a legend.
Achtung! East German art online
February 21 2013
I've always been strangely interested in the (oxymoronically titled) genre of socialist realism. If you are too, then a new online database of East German art is worth a browse. The above picture is called 'Thalmann speaks to the People', and was painted in 1951 by Hans Juscher. Thalmann was the head of the German communist party, and was shot in Buchenwald in 1944, probably on Hitler's orders. Much was made of him in East Germany after the war.
A search in the database for 'mauer' (wall) doesn't bring up much, curiously...