Antoon arrives in Birmingham
May 19 2016
Picture: Birmingham Museums
The National Portrait Gallery's Van Dyck self-portrait has arrived in Birmingham for the latest leg of its national tour. It's been good to see Birmingham Museums make such a big deal of the arrival on social media, with pictures like the above. I think people really like this sort of behind-the-scenes information. It might even help make museums seem less formal and intimidating to those who find them so.
Some years ago I had the privilege of opening a crate similar to the above when the self-portrait was delivered from Sotheby's to the Philip Mould gallery in London, where I used to work.
The exhibition around the Van Dyck loan is called 'Turning to see', and is curated by the artist John Stezaker. It runs until 4th September, when, according to my Van Dyck tour t-shirt, the picture heads back to London.
Gang jailed for disrupting art exhibitions
May 19 2016
Video: You Tube / Trollstation
Four Youtubers from South London have been jailed for between 16 and 20 weeks for taking part in a 'hoax' raid at Tate Britain and the National Portrait Gallery. The 'internet pranksters' as the Evening Standard described them, walked into two exhibitions at the galleries holding fake paintings and wearing tights over their heads. They then set off a portable alarm and rushed around shouting 'I've got the painting'. Visitors in the galleries can be seen in the video leaving in a sudden rush, or as the Standard says 'running away in panic'. Arrests were made shortly afterwards.
The four men pleaded guilty to causing 'fear and provocation of violence'. Commenting on the case, Detective Constable Anthony Parker, from the Met's Public Order Crime Team, said:
The actions of these five men was outrageous.
To go into busy public places wearing masks shouting and screaming at a time of heightened awareness of the terrorism threat facing the UK is deplorable.
The group terrified those visiting the galleries. It is only by pure chance that no one was injured or suffered serious health issues as they fled in what the judge described as a "stampede".
All five men now have a number of weeks in jail to consider just how unfunny their stunts actually were.
Is that why these men are now in jail, because their stunt wasn't funny enough? I'm no fan of the sort of silliness seen in the film above, but I'm also instinctively uneasy about both the jail sentence and the criminal conviction here. It's pretty obvious from the footage that it wasn't a real art theft. You can see one of the stunts from another angle here.
If these men had been environmentalists protesting against BP's sponsorship of the arts, or well-spoken art students from Central St Martin's making, say, a piece of live art 'exploring the divergent atmospheres of safety and insecurity in a gallery setting', I suspect they'd have been treated very differently.
What do you think?
Update - a reader writes:
It’s over the top to give them a custodial sentence…this is why fines and community service exist. However they should have not set off the alarm, that was irresponsible. Even in times of heightened terrorism people still have a sense of humour and as you correctly pointed out if it was students performing a bit of this or that the outcome would have been different I suspect. They should have claimed they were making a point about the EU Remain/Leave referendum and they would have got away with it!
Guffwatch - Turner prize edition.
May 13 2016
The Turner Prize shortlist has been unveiled. It's the usual yawn inducing stuff, the most notable of which is a sculpture of a man pulling his bottom apart (above).
But hurrah for Will Gompertz, the BBC's arts editor, for taking aim at the curatorial artspeak that accompanies the Turner Prize announcement:
Where do they go to learn to produce these texts laden with pseudo-academic speak? Does their dense, mangled prose reflect a lack of confidence in the artists whose status and work - the curators' might think - needs to be elevated by arcane, pompous language?
Or, perhaps, it is insecurity about their own place in the "snobby" artworld (as Laurie Anderson described it to me) that leads them to write such nonsense?
To be clear: The purpose of the Turner Prize is to provoke a conversation about contemporary art among the public. The stated role of the Tate is to "increase knowledge, understanding and appreciation of art".
Both objectives are undermined and poorly served by the incomprehensible "artspeak" used by the institution's curators. It is not clever and it is very off-putting.
Here, by way of example, is an explanation of Helen Marten's work: "Whilst their complex references might not be made immediately explicit to the viewer there is something alchemic in the way the materials collide, and ideas are often communicated through the obstinate wilfulness of the finished form.
"Marten's objects read almost as hieroglyphics, a visual system of communication that is expressive yet rooted in logic, which makes rational the combination of a pickle with an electrical circuit, or a pillar drill alongside a bowl of fish skins."
You get the point, I won't go on - and nor should the curators who wrote the texts, until they've been on a plain-speaking course or locked in a room with a collection of books by masters of writing about art such as Ruskin, Gombrich, Hughes and - for good measure - Bridget Riley.
AHN is not alone!
Dutch and Flemish drawings at the V&A
May 11 2016
Picture: V&A, Sir Anthony Van Dyck, 'Christ Crowned with Thorns'
Here's a good exhibition coming soon at the V&A: 'Master Strokes: Dutch and Flemish Drawings from the Golden Age'. The show opens on 14th May and runs till 13th November. Says the V&A press release:
This summer the V&A will for the first time display some of the most important works from the Museum’s outstanding collection of Dutch and Flemish drawings: one of the principle holdings in Britain. Master Strokes: Dutch and Flemish Drawings from the Golden Age will present over 70 works from the 16th to the 19th century, including masterpieces by Peter Paul Rubens, Sir Anthony van Dyck and Rembrandt van Rijn, and a recently re-attributed drawing by Carel Fabritius. These will be supported by rich collections of works from many lesser-known Golden Age artists who were hugely relevant in their day yet are no longer considered household names, such as Hans Bol and Jacob Jordaens. Designs for architecture and the applied arts will also be on display, demonstrating the diversity and enduring artistic and technical excellence of Netherlandish artists of the 17th century – a period of extraordinary prosperity and artistic output.
But what's this 'Jordaens no longer considered a household name'? We'll have to see what we can do about that...
The 'Isleworth Mona Lisa' (ctd.)
May 11 2016
In the Financial Times, Georgina Adam probes further into the mysterious world of those non-Leonardo exhibitions that keep popping up in places like China. The latest is the outing for the 'Isleworthless Mona Lisa' in a shopping complex in Shanghai:
This is the unlikely venue for the second outing for Leonardo da Vinci’s “Earlier Mona Lisa”, an exhibition showcasing a portrait also called the “Isleworth Mona Lisa” and designed to “prove” that Leonardo really painted it. It was first shown in Singapore last year.
The multimedia presentation, held in a low-ceilinged former hotel, features just one painting — the “Mona Lisa” — which its owners maintain was painted by Leonardo 10 years before the Louvre version. Leading up to it are interactive computer displays and posters all designed to hammer home its authenticity, including the statement: “Twenty-eight out of 29 experts believe this is either possibly or certainly a painting created by da Vinci.”
Others beg to differ, among them the renowned Leonardo scholar Martin Kemp. “Everything points to the Isleworth painting being a copy,” he has written. “There are families of copies of the Mona Lisa. This family … is not the best.”
The inauguration of the Shanghai exhibition was accompanied by a great deal of hoop-la. The portrait arrived last month “under maximum security protection” in a 500kg, bulletproof case, say the promoters. A Chinese TV star and former Miss Asia, Kristy Yang, was shipped in to say how much she liked the work, which was presented to the media at a “select invitation-only ‘Box Opening Ceremony’”.
New evidence, say the organisers, confirmed that the work is “without a shadow of doubt” by Leonardo himself and so makes a “groundbreaking change to global Art History”.
So what is it doing in a shopping district in Shanghai?
And this last question tells you all you need to know about the merits of this painting.
Bosch at the Prado
May 3 2016
The Bosch exhibition at the Nord Brabaants Museum runs till 8th May, and has been an extraordinary success. The show (mostly) then moves to the Prado, where it opens on 31st May. That's an impressive turnaround. The video above looks forward to the Prado's opening.
'Giorgione' at the RA (ctd.)
April 26 2016
Picture: San Diego Museum of Art
I greatly enjoyed the Royal Academy's new exhibition, 'In the Age of Giorgione'. The catalogue is excellent, and is largely free from modern art history speak. Instead, we get for each picture an overview of what evidence there is for an attribution, and how opinions have changed over the centuries. All of which is useful for an exhibition centred around Giorgione, for whom we have only a handful of securely attributed pictures. (One of these is an exquisite portrait of a man from San Diego Museum of Art, above). It's a shame that in the exhibition itself, the thorny question of who painted what is almost completely unaddressed in the wall text and labels, so that the casual visitor comes away thinking pictures are far more certainly attributed than is really the case. In many cases, wall labels simply state artist and title.
There's a fascinating review of the exhibition in the London Review of Books by the art historian Charles Hope, which is well worth reading. Hope (and I hope he doesn't mind me saying this) is known amongst some parts of the art trade as 'Charles Nope', such is his (alleged) tendency to doubt attributions. I think it's fair to say that in general he prefers to look for certainty of attribution in documentary sources, and in the uncertain world of Giorgione attributions this approach is essential. I think also that in the Giorgione exhibition his scepticism over many of the attributions is well founded. He writes:
Although the term connoisseurship normally carries associations with discernment and a certain rigour in aesthetic judgment, when applied to the study of Giorgione these qualities have been and remain conspicuously lacking. Optimistic guesswork would better describe the process.
Hope's central charge against the world of Giorgione scholarship - that many Giorgione attributions are only arrived at because we can't think of an alternative name:
None of the other six pictures in the exhibition accepted as by Giorgione looks like his secure works, and the only significant reason for attributing them to him is that no one can agree on an alternative candidate. As almost all the experts are convinced, on the basis of no evidence at all, that, apart from Titian and Sebastiano (who soon left for Rome), there were no other painters of real talent working in this general idiom in North Italy in the years around 1510, it is not surprising that Giorgione and the young Titian are now each commonly credited with unrealistically vast numbers of paintings in a remarkable variety of styles.
I am far from an expert in early Italian Renaissance art, but I do agree with Hope about the wide variety of works we now call early Titian. Although we are told in the literature that Titian, when young, was a talented mimic of other artistic styles, I still found it hard to entirely believe everything presented to us in the RA show as early Titian. And I agree particularly with this point of Hope's:
In the case of Titian this is well illustrated by a couple of large pictures on the two end walls of the third room. One, Jacopo Presented to St Peter, is said to be c.1508-11, the other, Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery [below], c.1511, yet in style and technique they look utterly different. The attribution of the second of them is justified by a comparison with some frescoes in Padua that Titian painted in 1511, with which it does have something in common – but many artists could have seen those frescoes. In the previous room there is a painting from the Uffizi said to be by Giorgione, The Trial of Moses, which was first attributed to him in 1795, when nothing was known of his style, and which resembles none of his secure pictures. However, the figures are very similar, and in one case virtually identical, to those in another set of frescoes in Padua dating from after Giorgione’s death. One would have thought that, by the logic used for the Titian attribution, the Uffizi picture ought to be by the painter of the frescoes it resembles. But this possibility is seldom even discussed.
As I've remarked before on AHN, there has been an art historical tendency over the last century or so to take pictures away from Giorgione's oeuvre and give them to early Titian. For what it's worth, the Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery was the one picture not attributed to Giorgione in the exhibition that I came away wondering if it might indeed be by him. It is, as another art historian said to me, too poetic and lyrically drawn to be early Titian, and sculptural enough to be by Giorgione. These are subjective notions I know, but I also thought the handling was different from early Titian, and close to those few examples of Giorgione that we can confident of. (Another consideration in all these questions, of course, is that of condition, and it's clear from the literature that not enough consideration has been given to condition issues when assessing attributions - often, a 'badly drawn hand' can just be a knackered one).
And just to confuse matters even further, I thought that the 'Giustiniani Portrait' of a young man (above), which (regular readers will remember) was to be made the subject of a debate as whether it was by Titian or Giorgione, was more likely to be by Titian, even though it is labelled in the exhibition without caveat as being by Giorgione (and despite one of the show's curators, Per Rumberg, also believing it to be by Titian).
Anyway, it's all good attributional fun, and the RA is to be applauded, in these connoisseurship-phobic days, in putting the exhibition on.
Update - a reader writes:
[...] you gave a very judicious response to Charles Hope's LRB piece on the RA's Giorgione show. Charles [...] is a formidable archival and analytical art historian. There is no one who knows more about the documents relating to Titian. And he deserves to be one of your heroes of art history, for saving the Warburg Institute and Library from the misguided machinations of the University of London a few years ago. He wrote a brilliant account of that whole sorry saga, in the LRB about two years ago.
This is quite true - saving the Warburg was a heroic act, and so Charles Hope is formally declared an art history hero.
"Van Dyck" at the Frick (ctd.)
March 12 2016
The curators of the Frick's wondrous new Van Dyck exhibition, Adam Eaker (above left) and Stijn Alsteens (right, who here looks as if he could well be in a Van Dyck) can be heard discussing their new show in some depth in this interview on New York's WNYC radion station.
"Georges de La Tour" at the Prado
March 12 2016
There's a new exhibition on at the Prado on the French 17th Century artist Georges de La Tour, of whom I've always been a fan. The show is on until 12th June this year. More here.
Test your connoisseurship
March 6 2016
Poor old Giorgione, his oeuvre steadily whittled away by art historians as they decide much of it is early Titian, to the extent that his agreed output is now so limited we must wonder how he was ever so famous in his day. Now, in the Royal Academy's news exhibition on Giorgione, visitors will be asked to decide who painted the above picture, Portrait of a Young Man; Titian or Giorgione?
This story in The Guardian covers the contrasting views between Prof. Peter Humfrey, who argues for Giorgione, and Prof. Paul Joannides, who plumps for Titian.
Update - here is Alistair Sooke's review in The Telegraph.
Paxman on Delacroix
March 6 2016
Video: Art Fund UK
Here's Jeremy Paxman's take on the National Gallery's new Delacroix show.
"Van Dyck" at the Frick
March 6 2016
Video: The Frick Collection
I greatly enjoyed the new Van Dyck exhibition athe Frick Collection in New York, 'Van Dyck, the Anatomy of Portraiture'. I will write in more depth about the show and the exhibits, but in the meantime, here is my review in The Financial Times.
The show is open now, till 5th June. There is a superb catalogue available here.
Met Breuer opens
March 2 2016
Video: The Met
The Met's new Breuer building has been opened, with an exhibition of unfinished paintings. It looks fascinating, but then I've always loved unfinished pictures. They let us feel as if we're at the moment of artistic creation.
The Met has leased the Breuer building from the Whitney museum for eight years. More here.
Francis Towne at the British Museum
January 21 2016
Picture: British Museum
A new exhibition opens today at the British Museum on the work of watercolourist Francis Towne. Says the BM website:
Come and experience 18th-century Rome through an astonishing series of watercolours not displayed together since 1805.
British artist Francis Towne (1739–1816) made a remarkable group of watercolours during a visit to Rome in 1780–1781. They include famous monuments such as the Colosseum, the Palatine Hill, ancient baths and temples, and the Forum. These watercolours were Towne’s way of delivering a moral warning to 18th-century Britain not to make the same mistakes – and suffer the same fate – as ancient Rome. 2016 marks the 200th anniversary of their bequest to the British Museum.
Towne’s 52 views of Rome are among the great creative landmarks in the use of watercolour within British art. They played a central role both in Towne’s career, and in the revival of his reputation in the 20th century. They were his main claim for recognition in the London art world and he continued to revise and work on them throughout his life. The views of Rome were the centrepiece of Towne’s one-man retrospective exhibition in London in 1805, and have not been displayed together since. When Towne bequeathed them to the Museum in 1816, they became his permanent public legacy. In addition to the views of Rome, the exhibition will feature further views of Italy by Towne and other works on paper by his contemporaries in Rome, including the important recent acquisition A Panoramic view of Rome by Giovanni Battista Lusieri (1755–1821).
As a landscape painter based in Exeter, Towne’s work was not well known in London during his lifetime, and he failed to be elected to the Royal Academy on several occasions. The Victorians had written off 18th-century watercolours as unambitious and limited, but in the early 20th century, the flat planes and spare, angular designs of Towne’s long-ignored drawings seemed unexpectedly fresh and elegant to modern eyes.
The exhibition has been organised by Richard Stephens, who is writing a catalogue raisonné of Towne's work, to be published online by the Paul Mellon Centre in London. Richard will also be giving a talk on Towne at the BM on Tuesday 26th January at 1.15pm.
Regular readers will know Richard for his invaluable online resource, The Art World in Britain 1660-1735. I think it's high time AHN designated him a Hero of Art History.
Update - the show gets five stars from today's Guardian.
New identity for Raphael's 'Lady with a Unicorn'?
January 12 2016
Picture: Galleria Borghese
Raphael's Portrait of a Lady with a Unicorn has travelled from the Galleria Borghese in Rome to a new exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Art. There, a new identity for the sitter has been proposed, as reported in The Huffington Post:
Writing in the exhibition catalogue, Galleria Borghese director Anna Coliva sticks to the long-standing view that the fair-haired sitter is Maddalena Strozzi -- based on similarity in pose and composition to a Raphael portrait from Florence's Pitti Palace. Through a detailed exploration of the sitter, unicorn, and setting, Dr. Linda Wolk-Simon, Raphael specialist and director and chief curator of the Bellarmine Museum of Art at Fairfield University, suggests a new identity for the young woman.
In a catalogue essay that reads like a detective story, Wolk-Simon makes a persuasive case that the sitter is Laura Orsini, daughter of acclaimed beauty Guilia Farnese, mistress of Rodrigo Borgia, Pope Alexander VI (the rumor at the time was that Laura's father was Alexander, not Farnese's husband). In late 1505, right around the time Raphael painted the portrait, 13-year-old Laura Orsini wed Niccolo Franciotti della Rovere, nephew of Alexander's successor, Julius II.
"I started looking at every detail in the picture for clues and certain things started jumping out," says Wolk-Simon. To start, the sitter is blonde -- like Lucrezia Borgia, Alexander VI's illegitimate daughter and Laura Orsini's probable half-sister. A tower in the portrait's background is from a landmark in Urbino, the duchy ruled by the della Rovere family. Wolk-Simon also discovered that the sitter's stunning ruby and pearl pendant necklace closely resembles a description of Guilia Farnese's jewels from court documents; the mythical unicorn cradled in the young woman's right hand turns out to be part of the Farnese coat of arms.
White glove shot (ctd.)
November 16 2015
Here's a rare thing - actual art handlers actually hanging a painting. Not a press officer or intern in sight.
The picture is John Michael Wright's portrait of Charles II, and it's being installed for a new exhibition at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich on Samuel Pepys (20th Nov 2015 - 28th March 2016). More here.
"He's, er, relieving himself Ma'am".
November 4 2015
Picture: Royal Collection Trust
Conservators at the Royal Collection have uncovered a man doing a 'number 2' as we say here, up against a wall in a painting by Isaack van Ostade. The detail had been painted out by a restorer in 1903 when the work was put on display at Buckingham Palace. Below is the offending detail (to be found lower right in the painting) and below that the picture before cleaning.
Here's the Royal Collection press release:
From street vendors peddling food to singers performing to a crowd, a 17th-century Dutch painting in the Royal Collection captures all the rustic charm of a village fair. But work undertaken by Royal Collection Trust conservators ahead of a new exhibition opening at The Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace next month has revealed that all was not quite as it seemed. Painstaking cleaning of the painting has uncovered a squatting figure relieving himself in the foreground, hidden for more than 100 years under overpainted shrubbery.
Painted in 1643, A Village Fair with a Church Behind by Isack van Ostade is one of 27 works going on display in the exhibition Masters of the Everyday: Dutch Artists in the Age of Vermeer. It was acquired in 1810 by George IV, when Prince of Wales, and hung in the Middle Room at Carlton House, the Prince's London residence on Pall Mall. Inventories of Carlton House in the Royal Archives show that the coarse, comic depictions of peasant life in A Village Fair with a Church Behind would have been entirely to the future king's taste.
It is believed that the offending figure was painted over in 1903, when the work, which by then hung in the Picture Gallery at Buckingham Palace, was sent for treatment by an art restorer. The modified painting, perhaps now more in tune with Edwardian sensibilities, was returned to the Picture Gallery, where it hung for several more years. A similar alteration had been made to A Village Revel by Jan Steen, 1673, also acquired by George IV and in the Royal Collection. The painting shows a group of country people drinking and brawling outside an inn, symbolising human folly. Conservation revealed that the tavern sign was originally painted with an image of a man with his buttocks exposed, which at some point had been overpainted with a bull's head.
Desmond Shawe-Taylor, Surveyor of The Queen's Pictures and curator of the exhibition said:
'Dutch artists often include people or animals answering the call of nature partly as a joke and partly to remind viewers of that crucial word 'nature', the inspiration for their art. Queen Victoria thought the Dutch pictures in her collection were painted in a 'low style'; two years after her death perhaps a royal advisor felt similarly'.
The new exhibition opens in London at the Queen's Gallery on 13th November.
Goya at the National Gallery
October 9 2015
Rave reviews flood in for the new Goya show at the National Gallery. Five stars in The Guardian, the Evening Standard, and The Telegraph. I have yet to see it. Here's a good piece by the show's curator Xavier Bray in Apollo on how he managed to secure some of the more difficult loans. He even learnt to shoot, to better mingle with Goya-owning Spanish aristocrats. The Art Newspaper reports that some loans were only confirmed with a month to go.
'God hates Renoir'
October 6 2015
Picture: Boston Globe
Here's a great story from The Boston Globe:
It’s nothing personal, says Ben Ewen-Campen, he just doesn’t think French impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir is much of a painter. Monday, the Harvard postdoc joined some like-minded aesthetes for a playful protest outside the Museum of Fine Arts. The rally, which mostly bewildered passersby, was organized by Max Geller, creator of the Instagram account Renoir Sucks at Painting, who wants the MFA to take its Renoirs off the walls and replace them with something better. Holding homemade signs reading “God Hates Renoir” and “Treacle Harms Society,” the protesters ate cheese pizza purchased by Geller, and chanted: “Put some fingers on those hands! Give us work by Paul Gauguin !” and “Other art is worth your while! Renoir paints a steaming pile!” Craig Ronan, an artist from Somerville, learned about the protest on Instagram and decided to join. “I don’t have any relationship with these people aside from wanting artistic justice,” he said. The museum hasn’t commented on the fledgling movement, but a few folks walking by Monday seemed amused. “I love their sense of irony,” said Liz Byrd, a grandmother from Phoenix who spent the morning in the museum with her daughter and grandchild. “I love Renoir, but I think this is great.”
I think I'd definitely have joined the protest. I had to spend way too much time in the (un-indexed) Renoir catalogue raisonné for the latest series of 'Fake or Fortune?'.
Update - the protest was *not a serious protest*. Ok? That said, I remember discussing Renoir's occasional badness with the late Prof. John House, of the Courtauld, and he said straight out: 'Renoir could be a truly awful painter. But every now and then he had moments of sublime genius'.
Update II - here's Jonathan Jones in The Guardian sticking up for Renoir. And also having a minor sense of humour failure.
Is this by Goya?
September 8 2015
Picture: National Gallery
I'm looking forward to the National Gallery's forthcoming Goya exhibition, which opens on 7th October. I must confess to never being that impressed by Goya's portraits - awkwardly painted things - so hopefully I'll learn something, and be proved wrong.
Anyway, as a taster to what we can expect, the National Gallery has new small display looking at the above portrait of Dona Isabel de Porcel, and more specifically its attribution. Apparently, when the picture was;
[...] purchased by the National Gallery in 1896, [it] was among the first paintings by the Spanish artist to enter the collection and has long been heralded as one of his most dazzling portraits. And yet it is precisely this flamboyance that has led scholars more recently to cast doubts over its attribution to Goya.
Although painted with tremendous flair, the picture’s brushwork – when compared with his other portraits – lacks Goya’s customary subtlety in describing transparencies and textures. The sitter, Isabel de Porcel, is extremely charismatic but we struggle to grasp her psychological state; something in which Goya’s portraits invariably excelled.
Technical examination of ‘Portrait of Doña Isabel de Porcel’, including X-rays and paint cross-sections, has revealed that Isabel de Porcel was painted directly on top of another portrait. Although perhaps surprising, this is not unique in Goya’s work – nor was it a practice adopted exclusively by him.
This thought-provoking display brings together the historical and technical evidence surrounding ‘Portrait of Doña Isabel de Porcel’, and looks again at the attribution question of one of the most striking and recognisable paintings in the National Gallery.
I'm no Goya scholar, and it has been a while since I've looked at this picture, so I won't dare proffer an opinion. Except to say that Goya connoisseurship has gone through a bit of a muddle of late. Rather like Rembrandt in the early days of the Rembrandt Research Project, a number of long accepted pictures have been doubted.