September 23 2016
Radio programmes about art, as paradoxical as it sounds, can often be really stimulating. Of course, nowadays digital media means radio programmes have evolved somewhat. 'Moving Pictures' is a fantastic new series on BBC Radio 4, which looks at one painting in detail, and combines the commentary with high-resolution digital photographs. In the clip above, Cathy Fitzgerald looks at Breughel the Elder's 'The Harvesters'. More here.
I hope programmes like this can encourage more close-looking in arts programmes. Too often, we're only allowed to see art on the telly through wide shots, with someone waving their arms in front of a painting. We've tried to avoid this, of course, in Britain's Lost Masterpieces.
September 23 2016
Picture: Jeff Koons
Artists are lending their support to Hillary Clinton by selling works under the hashtag #ArtforHillary. Marvellous. But probably Jeff Koons' effort, Gazing Ball (da Vinci Mona Lisa), above, is the sort of thing Donald Trump would have on his wall.
More on Koons' Gazing Ball series in this guffy video here.
Update - perhaps I'm being too harsh. It seems Trump doesn't like any art at all, according to this piece in ArtNews by M. H. Miller. The article is well worth a click, but here are a few gems:
Commenting on a work by Chris Ofili, he said:
“It’s not art. It’s absolutely gross, degenerate stuff.” Note the word “degenerate.” There was, of course, another politician who used that adjective to describe works of art that offended him.
Not surprising from the man who allegedly kept a book of Hitler's speeches by his bed.
And Trump was once taken to Moma to look at a Warhol:
Trump arrives in a foul mood, and tosses his overcoat and some binders onto a Donald Judd floor piece, apparently mistaking it for a conference table.
Update II - by the way, AHN predicts a Trump victory in November.
An audience with Henry Wyndham
September 22 2016
Picture: China Exchange
This looks like fun - an interview with Henry Wyndham, the great auctioneer much admired (as regular readers will know) by AHN. It's on Monday 3rd October, Gerrard St, London, 6.30pm. Tickets here.
'How the Mona Lisa became so overrated'
September 22 2016
Video: Vox Almanac
A video by Phil Edwards from Vox says the Mona Lisa only became a masterpiece in the late 19th Century. Well, it's a view.
Wildenstein trial begins
September 22 2016
Picture: CTV news
The art dealer Guy Wildenstein is being tried for over the non-payment of death duties relating to the estate of his late father, Daniel. The trial is expected to last a month. More here.
UK blocks export of £4.4m Titian drawing
September 22 2016
A rare drawing by Titian has had a temporary export bar placed on it by the UK government, in the hope that a museum can raise £4.4m to acquire it. More here.
Naughtiness at the V&A
September 22 2016
In The Spectator, Laura Freeman discovers the best places in the V&A for an illicit rendezvous. The trick is to go for somewhere subtle:
Thomas Hardy, while still married to his first wife Emma, but arranging assignations in London with Florence, his second-wife-to-be, used to ask her to meet him at the Victoria and Albert Museum by the great, towering plaster cast of Trajan’s column. Really, Thomas? Trajan’s column? How obvious can a man be?
Serota - a Medici or a Disney?
September 22 2016
The post-match analysis of Sir Nicholas Serota's 30 year tenure at Tate has begun, and here's Stephen Bayley's verdict in The Spectator. He says Serota will be remembered as more of a Disney figure than a Medici:
And now he leaves for the Arts Council. Experts in large-scale pattern-recognition will detect something here. Namely, the delusion that art flourishes in bureaucracies and can be systematically administered by committees. Of course, historic exhibitions of Picasso, Matisse and Hopper were rightly huge successes for Tate, but they would have happened without Nick Serota. His shoes will be difficult to fill, the huge spaces he leaves behind more difficult still. His legacy? A set of visitor targets to drive his successor to a delirium of anxious frustration. Nick will never be described as a new Medici, but he might be remembered as a new Disney.
All of which is perhaps a little harsh. Ultimately, if museum directors are judged (and invariably they are, for better or worse) on how they transform and expand their museums, then Serota must be viewed as one of the greats. Tate today means something very different from Tate 30 years ago. In a rapidly changing world which, for now at least, loves to celebrate the new, it's likely that had Serota not dragged Tate into the shiny, brash world of contemporary art, the institution and its historic Millbank home might have gently faded from public consciousness, and with it too the perception that our greatest museums deserve more public support, not less. Just look at the Wallace Collection for a contrast.
That said, it's possible to admire Serota for this achievement, and at the same time think that he stretched the elastic too far - that Tate Britain and it's historic collections have been too eclipsed by the brightness of Tate Modern, indeed almost to a scandalous degree. But perhaps the pendulum will soon swing back, and the bedrock of Tate's collections can be 'rediscovered' by a new generation of directors and curators. Ok, that might be an optimistic view - but here's hoping.
Incidentally, I don't much like the sound of being Stephen Bayley's mistress:
Indeed, in nearly 30 years at Tate, he [Serota] has grown a pleasant Millbank backwater gallery with a nice collection of English art admixed with a polite smattering of international modernismo, the sort of place you would take your mistress on a wet afternoon in Pimlico after a kebab and before some hanky-panky, into a roaring, multi-site, premium-branded visitor experience.
Update - here's Waldemar on the awkwardness of Tate Modern's hang, one of the legacies of Serota's approach to museum management:
One of the most noticeable features of the new £260m Tate Modern is the instinctive trust placed by the building and its hang in what we might call the “deconstructivist” approach to art. It’s the approach where you lay down the pieces and the visitor is tasked with the effort of putting them together.
The building encourages this approach by consisting so prominently of foyers and staircases — a giant 3D board game across which the public can merrily scamper in a building-wide game of snakes and ladders. The hang encourages it by saying nothing specific about anything. Split into thematic groupings of exemplary vagueness — Artist and Society; Materials and Objects; In the Studio; Media Networks — the Tate’s collection of modern art has dispensed with isms and national schools, with intentional contexts and the aims of the artist, with notions of quality and a meaningful chronology, and replaced them all with a game of cultural snap that involves noticing how one thing looks next to another.
The artworks themselves are remarkably consistent in adopting the same approach. Whether it be Marina Abramovic’s laying out of “72 objects of pain or pleasure” on a trestle table or Rebecca Horn exhibiting the props she used in her 1970s performances or Meschac Gaba displaying scores of pretend exhibits for his “Museum of Contemporary African Art”, what all this art has in common is long-windedness. These are narratives without conclusions: beginnings without ends. Given the task of making sense of them, the viewer is forced to join up dots that have no connection.
The Tate calls this “interaction”. What it really is is “distraction” — keeping visitors busy by giving them claw cranes to play with. It’s a process so hit and miss that the misses are no longer relevant. If you never encapsulate, you can never be wrong.
Update II - here's an episode of BBC Radio 4's 'The Reunion', about the building and opening of Tate Modern. Serota is joined by others involved at the time.
Update III - a reader writes:
Serota saw the future and grabbed it for The Tate. That's worth a lot. The next Tate director must have a plan for the Milbank galleries.
In most enterprises one tries to launch the new product, The Tate Modern in Serota’s case, while updating the old product with its narrow focus on which the reputation was built. Otherwise you have M&S where I still buy my socks but little else except in their mini groceries.
The quality at the Tate Britain is quite high and the restaurant often more full than the permanent collection galleries. Its location however is less than convenient with few other attractions nearby while the Tate Modern thrives in the midst of a newly fashionable Southwark which it helped to revive jammed with trendy restaurants and near The Globe. The area’s Dickensian smoke scarred buildings having given way to vast new if undistinguished apartment blocks and offices and people like going there. The art is an attraction with contemporary works drawing large crowds of visitors who want to see the art and visit the area.
So Serota did well latching on to the emerging trend and putting the Tate brand on a sweet new contemporary art center that wins in the public taste test. And he got the project funded with the help of some City folk, and then building on its strength added an exciting new wing. These are major accomplishment worthy of praise and a handsome bonus. Yes, more might be done with old product but that is difficult to design and even more difficult to fund the type of needed renovation and reworking of the building. The V&A has done that splendidly but with a better location and a broad product range. The National Gallery by contrast to Tate Britain has an iconic location on its side and benefits from a well developed online presence, a more extensive range, and a series of major international exhibitions.
September 22 2016
If, like me, you are fan of a) art b) war films and c) steam trains - and I know that must be a fairly small demographic - then allow me to recommend the 1964 film, 'The Train'. I saw it for the first time last night, and it's great. Paul Scofield plays a Nazi officer trying to transfer hundreds of French masterpieces to Berlin from Paris, by train. Burt Lancaster is a French railwayman and resistance fighter trying to stop him (albeit with a fine American accent). And the whole film is peppered with steam trains that get blown up and crash into each other (real ones too, not models).
Britain's Lost Masterpieces - trailer
September 21 2016
Starts Wednesday September 28th, 9pm, BBC4. Pray spread the word...
Update - thanks for spreading the word, well over two thousand views on the link above so far. Can't all have been my mum.
'Exhibition on Screen'
September 21 2016
Video: Exhibition on Screen
These 'Exhibition on Screen' shows look quite good. From the end of this year we can expect films on Bosch, Monet and Michelangelo. More details here.
New UK ban on antique ivory
September 21 2016
Picture: V&A, John Smart, Portrait of Edward Raphael
The UK government is set to announce a new crackdown on the trade in antique ivory. The fear is that much new ivory is being sold around the world masquerading as 'antique' ivory, with obvious ramifications for dwindling African elephant numbers.
But it seems the new measures, as set out in The Times this morning, are akin to a sledgehammer to crack a nut. I'm no fan of carved ivory tusks, antique or not, but something that always gets unfairly caught up in ivory bans are portrait miniatures, which from the late 17th Century onwards are invariably painted on wafer thin pieces of ivory. Previously, dealing in and transporting portrait miniatures for exhibition was made possible under CITES rules, which dealt with the ages of the ivory in question. But now these rules are being dramatically tightened. According to The Times;
'Under the rules to be announced by ministers, dealers will be told to prove the age of items or face having them confiscated or destroyed. Without documentary proof, they may be forced to use costly radiocarbon dating'.
Items must be more than 70 years old. The net effect of this will be to more or less kill the market in portrait miniatures. The market was already suffering from new US rules, which affected the transit of miniatures between Europe and the US. But now the market within Europe and the UK will be affected too, because in practice it is very difficult to 'prove' the age of a portrait miniature in a cost-effective and non-interventionist way. The nature of such small, portable things is that they rarely come with reams of paperwork attached to them, so there won't be 'documentary proof' of age. And in terms of value they're generally traded, even the good ones, for above the low thousands of pounds, so it's impractical to go around regularly commissioning carbon dating. It so happens that portrait miniatures are painted on Indian ivory, but 'proving' that to the benefit of a customs officer is impossible without destroying the object in the first place.
So while I'm all in favour of doing everything we can to protect elephants, it seems to me that a lack of imagination risks damaging the trade in, interest in, and exhibition of, British portrait miniatures. These were, as it happens, one of the few genuine areas of artistic development in which Britain led the world. British portrait miniaturists, from Samuel Cooper through to John Smart (above) were the best the world has ever seen. The reasons for this were many, but one was the dispersion of families across the globe during the days of the British Empire, when it became a tradition to send small images overseas.
Update - it looks like a certain amount of spinning has been going on by the government here. If you read the official announcement on the Defra website, there is no mention of seizure or destruction if the age of objects cannot be proved, as suggested by The Times. Instead, the government will begin a consultation with those involved as to how the age of items can indeed be proved. So it's far from certain that radio-carbon dating, also suggested in The Times, will be the only means of testing for age. The Antiques Trade Gazette has been told by a government source that;
the government is “supportive of the trade in historical objects” and that it will be made clear the target is modern poaching of endangered species.
Tate acquires rare Joan Carlile portrait
September 21 2016
Joan Carlile was the first British professional female painter. She was active in London in the mid 17th Century, though only a handful of works are recognised today. Perhaps the best known is a group portrait of The Carlile Family with Sir Justinian Isham at Lamport Hall in Northamptonshire.
The Tate has today announced the acquisition of a whol-length portrait by Carlile, above. The picture, I'm rather proud to say, was discovered by me, and was my first museum sale as an independent dealer. Although her oeuvre is small, her style is quite distinctive, so when the picture came up at a regional auction described as 'English School' the old connoisseurial connections whirred away and I was confident enough to place a bid. You can compare the Tate's new picture to other examples here and here.
The sitter alas is unknown; I was able to discern no meaningful provenance, and the only tantalising contemporary reference I could find was in Carlile's will, which mentioned a portrait of a 'princess in white satin'. Who this was and whether it related to the Tate's picture I don't know, so for now she is just a 'Lady in a White Dress'. Maybe we'll get there one day. 'Princess' could have been one of Charles I's daughters or perhaps even one of Cromwell's daughters during the Protectorate.
Update - more here in The Art Newspaper. Martin Bailey has cunningly found out what I paid for it, £4,500 hammer, or £5,300 with premium. The Tate bought it for £35,000. Subtract from that all manner of taxes, and a bill for conservation and framing, and your left with... well, not a great deal it turns out. But enough to keep going!
Update II - delighted to see that in Tate's press photocall there was no sight of the 'leggy girl walks past a painting seductively' shot. Instead, we have (says the Rex Features site) "Stella Cartwright (aged 8) sketches the painting - Portrait of an Unknown Lady 1650-5 by Joan Carlile (1606-1679)". Bravo all round.
Update III - thanks for all your kind emails!
Update IV - the consensus amongst my dealing colleagues is that the Tate got a bargain. Which I think is probably true, but it was the best possible home for the picture.
Update V - well this is a surprise; the New York Times has covered the story.
September 20 2016
Sorry for the lack of action today - I've been in Glasgow for a final voiceover session for Britain's Lost Masterpieces. I also looked in on 'the grade', which is the magical process whereby each shot is tweaked for colour and loveliness. Above is director and producer Spike Geilinger (left) and the colourist Ian Ballantyne. You spend most of the day in darkness...
Don't forget now, episode 1 begins Wednesday 28th September, 9pm, on BBC4.
Martin Roth on Brexit
September 19 2016
When Martin Roth resigned as director of the V&A earlier this month there was much speculation as to whether he had or had not left in response to the UK's Brexit vote. News reports said he had, but the chairman of the V&A said he hadn't.
In an interview with BBC Radio 4's 'Front Row', however, Roth makes it fairly clear that he was leaving because of Brexit. He specifically cites the rise of various forms of nationalism across Europe, and notes that the growth of English nationalism makes it harder to be in charge of a museum like the V&A, which is all about seeing culture in its global, interconnected context.
You may or may not agree with Roth. But what I find puzzling about the story is the sense that Roth had to resign before he could say any of these things. As he says in the interview, it would not be possible to speak out as director of a UK museum.
But why not? Surely these days the role of museum director is in part that of an impresario, someone colourful who can inspire and intrigue, who can attract and handle the limelight, someone who has strong and passionate views. So why do we compel museum directors to take a vow of silence on anything vaguely interesting? Would Brexit voting visitors really boycott the V&A if Roth had said what he believes, and stayed in post? Or would government ministers be wary of feeling embarrassed if they were critcised by a director? The danger of having silent directors is that we end up with museums run by grey, charisma-free administrators. We've enough of those already.
Update - a reader writes:
You know quite well that the reason why Roth couldn't speak his mind is because he is a recently arrived German citizen and a criticism of UK nationalism by a recent arrival would be viewed very negatively by the British press especially given the growing nationalism in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. He won't find his ancestral land more accommodating of multiculturalism in museums or elsewhere. Immigrants are more integrated in British society than in Europe.
Raphael goes to Moscow
September 19 2016
Eight paintings by Raphael from Italian museums, including the artist's self-portrait, have gone on display in Moscow's Pushkin museum. “Raphael. Image Poetry: Works from the Uffizi and Other Italian Museums” runs until December 11th. More here on Artinfo, and here (in Russian) on the Pushkin site. Quite a coup for the Pushkin museum.
September 19 2016
Caution - the value of your speculative contemporary art purchase can go down as well as up. Bloomberg has a cautionary tale:
Art dealer and collector Niels Kantor paid $100,000 two years ago for an abstract canvas by Hugh Scott-Douglas [above] with the idea of quickly reselling it for a tidy profit. Instead, he is returning the 28-year-old artist’s work to the market this week at an 80 percent discount.
Such is the new art season. At auction houses in London and New York, sellers are preparing to bail on their investments after the emerging-art bubble burst and the resale market for once sought-after artists dried up.
“I’d rather take a loss,” said Kantor, who is offering the Scott-Douglas work at the Phillips auction in New York on Sept. 20. “I feel like it can go to zero. It’s like a stock that crashed.” [...]
Kantor acquired the work privately in July 2014. Four months later, a similar piece from the series went for $100,000 at Christie’s. Kantor expected the prices to keep surging, but in February 2015 another canvas from the same series failed to sell at auction.
“I feel like we were a little bit drunk and didn’t think of the consequences,” he said. “Then the bottom fell out. Everyone got stuck with their pants down.”
Before consigning his piece to Phillips, Kantor tried selling it privately for a year -- through Blum & Poe, the work’s former owner, even on EBay. At one point he was asking $50,000 but couldn’t get an offer.
Here's the auction catalogue. Let's keep an eye on that one.
Update - it made $30,000. After comissions I guess that quates to about a 75% loss. And, perhaps, after the publicity a further downward pressure on Scott-Douglas' works. Of course, one always feels sorry for the artist in these situations. But maybe they'll have the last laugh yet...
'The mysterious landscapes of Hercules Segers'
September 19 2016
Picture: Rijksmuseum/New York Times
The Rijksmuseum has spent two years re-examining the oeuvre of the 17th Century Dutch landscape artist Hercules Segers, and has added a number of newly attributed works, reports the New York Times. The research has been done ahead of a new exhibition on Segers' life, which opens at the Rijksmuseum on October 7th till January 8th, when it will then travel to the Met in New York, where it opens on February 13th.
More on the Rijksmuseum's research and exhibition here.
New Kenneth Clark biography
September 19 2016
Picture: Harper Collins
The new biography of Kenneth Clark by James Stourton, eagerly awaited by AHN for some time, is out. You can buy it here. The reviews I've seen so far say that the book is good - so congratulations to the author.
I'm looking forward to reading more about how Clark managed to do more than anyone else to bring the arts to wider audiences for so many decades. Some of the reviews, however, seem more pre-occupied with his social background and love life. (I suppose it was ever thus with biography.) As an individual, Clark seems to have struck many as somewhat enigmatic. Was he a snooty aristocrat, or a socialist deftly climbing the social ladder? The Guardian's review, summarises Stourton's view of his subject:
In Stourton’s view he was shy not smug, a populist not a snob, and his abiding sense of being an outsider made him prefer the homespun company of artists to that of the air-headed socialites and Tory nitwits who courted him.
All of which I find reassuring. That said, I've always been surprised by the disdain with which many academics view Clark. Here, for example, is the beginning of John Carey's review in The Sunday Times:
Kenneth Clark’s reputation has not lasted well. He is remembered, if at all, for his 1969 television series, Civilisation, which, as James Stourton concedes, looks nowadays like a period piece, its assumptions as outdated as Clark’s patrician manner, tweed suits and poor dentistry.
'Outdated'. 'Patrician'. 'Tweed suits'. I think it says something about the fraught enmities of academia that someone who was so manifestly successful - Director of the National Gallery, Surveyor of the King's Pictures, presenter of Civilisation, Chairman of the Arts Council, Chairman of ITV - should become a figure of derision just because of who he was. If Clark had invented, say, the jet engine, nobody would have cared much about his background, his accent, or his suits. But sometimes in art history it is believed that to whom you were born and what you wear must somehow pollute of your views on, say, Giotto. I've always found this baffling.
Update - there's an audio clip here on the Harper Collins website describing the moment George V visited the National Gallery to demand that the 30 year old Clark also take up the post of Surveyor of the King's Pictures. Clark had initially turned down the job. The conversation apparently went something like this:
George V: Why won't you come and work for me?
Clark: Because I wouldn't have time to do the job properly.
Georg V: What is there to do?
Clark: Well, sir, the pictures need looking after.
George V: There's nothing wrong with them.
Clark: People write letters asking for information about them.
George V: Don't answer them. I want you to take the job.
And so Clark did.