Anti-guffwatch: 'What is critical discourse?'

August 27 2014

Image of Anti-guffwatch: 'What is critical discourse?'

Picture: via artjewelryforum.org

Normally, if an article contains the words 'discourse' and 'criticality' I brace myself for impenetrable guff. But, guffhunters, marvel at this article by Damian Skinner (a curator at Auckland Museum), which discusses 'critical discourse' in a clear, easy-to-read and concise manner. Here's the intro:

Criticism is a kind of art history done about new or recent objects. It involves judgment, but without the benefit of hindsight. Criticism is different to art history, which isn’t so concerned with judgment. Instead, art history explores the relationship of objects with each other, with history and with various aspects of society. Art history doesn’t have to make the same judgments as criticism – you can do great art history about really terrible objects and never have to say if you think they are good or successful or important.

I don’t necessarily think that the critic should have to state their criteria, but the reasons for their judgments should be made clear in the review. This is so the reader can understand why the critic has come to certain conclusions – and therefore determine whether these judgments and conclusions hold true for them.

Critical discourse is a kind of approach, which can be found in criticism and art history. It is a decision to actively engage with the tools you are using, the discussions you are part of. It is a willingness to ask questions and not assume anything. Discourse is the flow of ideas, conversations, practices and objects that make contemporary jewelry possible.. Critical discourse is an attitude to the different aspects that make up the contemporary jewelry eco-system: making, writing, exhibiting, selling, wearing, and so on.

See, it can be done!

Freud's Auerbachs go on display

August 27 2014

Image of Freud's Auerbachs go on display

Picture: Arts Council

I mentioned earlier in May that the UK's national collection had acquired (through the Arts Council's Acceptance in Lieu scheme) Lucian Freud's collection of paintings by his friend, Frank Auerbach. Now, they've gone on display at Tate Britain where, says Jonathan Jones in The Guardian, they should remain:

It should all go to Tate Britain, permanently. There's no point in scattering the Freud collection of Auerbach's art around museums in Manchester and Southampton and so forth. For one thing, Auerbach is an outstanding British artist whose reputation really needs securing for the ages – and only the Tate has the global power to do that. Its retrospective of his work next year ought to be a real event.

To be blunt, all too many paintings by the best British artists hang outside London where they don't get the publicity they deserve. The best place in the world to see Auerbach's paintings is in the city where he lives and works. No wonder that in the 1980s Auerbach was often spoken of, along with such artists as Freud, Leon Kossoff and RB Kitaj as belonging to a "School of London". He has literally dug himself into the city and its landscapes. London skies and London spaces energise his mighty, roiling expressionist art.

London is truly a very different kind of art city from Paris or New York. It is – in paintings – tougher and darker. Modern London's art history starts with William Hogarth, who in the Georgian age dwelt on mad houses and gambling dens, brothels and workhouses. Hogarth's London is a practically subterranean place, a cavern peopled by no-hopers. He is an artist who paints the dangers and the victims of city life. Auerbach is one of his true heirs.

I can see the case for keeping the collection together. But if the pictures (there are 15 oils and 29 works on paper) did all go to Tate Britain, I think pressures of space mean we can be sure they wouldn't all remain on display together at all times, or even some of the time. In which case, the point of keeping the collection intact loses much of its argument. I'd rather see the collection dispersed across the UK, if it meant keeping more of the pictures on permanent display.

Update - a reader writes:

For what it's worth I agree with you about the Auerbachs. The Tate already has 77 works by him (roughly 17 major oils, the remainder being works on paper or smaller oil sketches) so that is pretty good representation. The works in the Freud colllection include 15 oils, the rest being works on paper, sketches etc. It therefore makes sense for the Tate to get at most a couple of major oils that fill any gaps in its collection with the rest being spread around the country to regional museums that could never afford to purchase such works.

Update II - another reader adds:

all I can say is that it amazes me that newspaper critics in London still do not appreciate that many of us who live elsewhere do actually like and appreciate art. Art is not a sole activity for Londoners and those who visit that city and travel around the UK is really not that difficult. Is it they would rather the works be locked away in Tate storage than allow them to be seen by the ignorant peasants living outside the capital?  

Also one major advantage of placing art in galleries outside London is that you do not have to fight through a major scrum every time to get anywhere near them as you always have to in London.

Update III - but another reader points out that Tate might well lend them to other galleries:

It's worth remembering that Tate is very keen on loaning it's works to other galleries. It is the custodian, with the National Gallery of Scotland, of Anthony D'Offay's 'Artist Rooms' which are on show throughout the UK. So if it doesn't have space to show all the Auerbachs they will be available for loan.

Another reader wonders about the display element of any Tate arrangement:

[...] keeping the Auerbachs together implies that the Tate will display them all which is unlikely.
{/box}

Building on the Frick's garden

August 27 2014

Image of Building on the Frick's garden

Picture: Huffington Post

I mentioned recently (and approvingly) the Frick Collection's plans to build a new extension. In The Huffington Post, Charles A. Birnbaum says that the garden the Frick plans to build over is a gem intended to remain forever, and should be left untouched:

In a bit of revisionist history, the garden at the Frick Collection designed by the world-famous British landscape architect Russell Page (1906-1985) and once hailed by the New York Times as one of his "most important works," has been downgraded by museum officials to nothing more than an interim land use. The garden occupies space the museum wants for a proposed addition. Consequently, in order to demolish it, Frick officials seek to diminish it saying the garden "has always been inaccessible to the public" (despite photos of parties held there and the fact that it was purpose built as a viewing garden) and was "temporary." This "temporary" idea is an important talking point in the Frick's justification; the garden's supposed planned obsolescence is foundational to their argument. There's only one problem -- the Frick created this verdant oasis as "a permanent garden" -- at least that's what the museum's own February 4, 1977 press release about it states. An anonymous source recently sent me the seven page release (with a note saying "This document is on file at the Frick Art Reference Library") and directed me to the fourth paragraph on page six -- there it is, plain as day: "a permanent garden."

Doing 'justice to Rembrandt'

August 27 2014

Video: National Trust

I reported earlier this summer the National Trust's recent re-discovery of a Rembrandt self-portrait at Buckland Abbey; but I've only just seen the above video, where they show some of the x-rays of the picture, and its conservation. Most interesting, perhaps, are the (all too brief) comments from the pre-eminent Rembrandt scholar Ernst van der Wetering, who speaks of his desire to 'do justice to Rembrandt' when uncovering his lost works. This might sound a bit daft, but it's a motivation I recognise; when I see a good painting that's been unjustly downgraded, I often feel the need to act as the artist's posthumous champion. Of course, the same goes for bad pictures that have been wrongly upgraded.

Mike Leigh on 'Mr Turner'

August 27 2014

Video: National Trust

The National Trust has a short video of Mike Leigh discussing his new film on Turner, starring Timothy Spall, and why he chose to do much of the filming at Petworth House, where Turner frequently stayed. 

Note to the NT - the Turner National Trust link at the end of the film doesn't work.

Rubens self-portrait to be restored in London

August 26 2014

Image of Rubens self-portrait to be restored in London

Picture: Rubenshuis

The Rubenshuis' very fine c.1630 Rubens self-portrait is to be sent to the National Gallery in London in September for conservation. More here. You can zoom in on the portrait here.

Update - a reader writes:

Good of the National Gallery to help out, as they did with van Eyck, and I assume they are charging for it or at least getting something substanantial in return.  Otherwise, I ams sure there are any number of regional collections in this country which would be only too delighted to have the Gallery's conservation studio's apply their expertise on works they hold.

Constable vs. Turner

August 26 2014

Image of Constable vs. Turner

Picture: Tate

Two of the greats of English landscape art, Turner and Constable, go head to head in exhibitions in London this September; Tate will look at 'Late Turner' (10th Sept till 25th Jan), while the V&A's 'Constable: the Making of a Master' will examine the artist's techniques (20th Sept-11th Jan). Jonathan Jones in The Guardian asks which was best, but concludes that:

Choosing between them is like choosing between two visions of art: the realist versus the abstract.

Martin Gayford also looked at the Constable/Turner rivalry in The Sunday Times (£), and came down on Constable's side. The V&A has a blog on how they've put the exhbition together. 

PS - It's looking like an autumn and winter of great shows in London: Rubens at the RA, late Rembrandt at the National, and now these two. Well done to all involved!

Update - a reader writes:

"Choosing between them is like choosing between two visions of art: the realist versus the abstract."

Thankfully we don't have to choose, for we can have both. And in any event 'the realist versus the abstract' where these two artists are concerned is nonsense. They are both very much types of realist, Turner especially (don't take my word for it; try reading Ruskin on the subject).

Update II - James Fox in The Times (£) says Turner is the clear winner in any contest between the two. I agree. 

Cleaning Edward VI

August 25 2014

Video: NPG

Nicole Ryder of the National Portrait Gallery explains how she's going to clean the museum's c.1542 Portrait of Edward VI.

Mixing commercial and public art

August 25 2014

Image of Mixing commercial and public art

Picture: TAN

The Art Newspaper reports that the Gallery of Modern Art in Rome is building a wing which will house works on loan from the Gagosian Gallery next door:

Rome’s modern art museum, the Galleria d’Arte Moderna di Roma Capitale, is planning an extension that will display contemporary works on loan from its commercial neighbour Gagosian, La Repubblica reports.

Rome’s urban planning commissioner Giovanni Caudo is working on the development of a new wing in an area that lies between the two buildings on Via Francesco Crispi and was formerly used by AMA, the capital’s waste collection agency. The projected 2265 sq. m expansion will allow the museum to exhibit more of its collection. 

To supplement the permanent holdings of late 19th-century and early 20th-century works, a courtyard space will also host temporary displays of sculptures by Gagosian artists such as Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst or Franz West. The commercial gallery is “ready to collaborate with the public institution”, Caudo says.

Often, the ethical dangers of a relationship between a commercial gallery and a public one are overstated. But in this case it looks rather strange. In the contemporary world, museum endorsement is key to establishing the status and value of an artist. A rotating display between dealership and museum benefits Gagosian hugely, and one has to ask what the museum gets in return, save the chance to display yet another Koons toy.

'Rubens and his Legacy'

August 25 2014

Image of 'Rubens and his Legacy'

Picture: National Gallery of Australia

I see that the Royal Academy will have an exhibition early next year called 'Rubens and his Legacy'. No further details are given by the RA yet, save the dates on the friends' page; 24th January-10th April. 

Before that, the show will be in Brussels at the Bozar Centre for Fine Arts, opening on 25th September. But the Bozar website for the exhibition begins unpromisingly, with this curious comparison:

Rubens was the Quentin Tarantino of his day, making Flanders one of the world’s foremost regions for painting. The Flemish master-painter developed his own personal style, crafting scenes that exuded lust and were marked by violence, as well as compassion and elegance. These themes inspired artists all over the world for many centuries to come. In this unique exhibition by BOZAR, in collaboration with the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp and the Royal Academy of Arts in London you can rediscover the work of this indomitable genius that has withstood the test of time as well as that of his heirs. You can also see canvases by Van Dyck, Watteau, Delacroix, Manet and Kokoschka as well as engravings by Rembrandt and Picasso.

The show is curated by Nico Van Hout, who, amongst other things, is currently writing a volume of the Corpus Rubenianum on Rubens' head studies.

Me in the FT

August 22 2014

Image of Me in the FT

Picture: BG

I've written a piece for the Financial Times on the National Gallery in London allowing photography. The piece will appear in tomorrow's paper, which you are all warmly encouraged to buy. They also asked me to make a short podcast, which you can hear here. Hope you like it! 

Update - here's a link to the article.

Update II - a distinguished Emeritus Professor writes:

The National in allowing photography is a great step forward. I,for one, think anything that can be done to bring more people into galleries to look at paintings and enjoy them is a good thing. Also for the more committed taking photographs to view later to uncover even more of a painting, its composition, technique and colours is a welcome addition to the material usually available.

The availability of wi-fi allows us to access immediately material on the painting being viewed. This enhances our appreciation of the painting. To some this may appear to be a poor substitute for years of education but it makes more accessible, in a small way, the painting to those of us who have not had the benefit of such an education.

Another reader writes:

I liked the snarky comment about The Guardian and appreciated the FT for discovering your site.

A US art history student, Christopher Moore, thinks photography should be banned, however, and explains why on his blog. He's right though that the main problem is over-crowding.

 

Art History Comedy

August 22 2014

Image of Art History Comedy

Picture: Hannah Gadsby

I've always kept an eye for art history jokes. There's the old Tommy Cooper one about him finding a Stradivarius and a Rembrandt in his loft, and then confessing that that sadly Rembrandt made rubbish violins, and Stradivarius was no painter. But to be honest, that was about it.

Or so I thought, until last night I went to see the Australian comedian and trained art historian Hannah Gadsby at the Edinburgh Fringe. Her show, The Exhibitionist, is about portraiture, and in particular how sitters, including artists, represented themselves in art in the past in relation to how we do so today, when photographs and the 'selfie' are ubiquitous. Her show is both completely hilarious, and thought provoking. I would urge you all to see her if you get the chance. There are two more days to go for the Edinburgh show, which you can book here. You can follow Hannah on Twitter here

We also went to see Phill Jupitus talking about art, and specifically his attempts to make copies of various pictures in the National Gallery of Scotland. He was excellent too, and loves paintings. He's slightly obsessed, but in a rather touching way, about John Singer Sargent's Lady Agnew. He did a number of shows for the National Gallery of Scotland for free, so good for him.

Update - a reader sends in another old favourite:

Years ago a clever thief devised and executed a brilliant theft at the Louvre and made off with numerous impressionist and post-impressionist paintings. Tragically for him his van, loaded with the paintings, ran out of fuel a mere few blocks from the Louvre and he was apprehended by the Gendarmes. Later under questioning the incredulous Gendarmes asked him how it was possible that in the execution of such a daring crime could fail on such a small point as fuel.

With a typical Gaelic shrug he said “I did not have enough Monet to make my Van Gogh”…

Boom, boom.

Here's a genuine art history joke though; when Van Dyck was asked why he took such care with his sitters' hands, he replied, 'Because the hands pay the bill'.

Emails... (ctd.)

August 22 2014

Still having some issues, and many from the last week have only just come through. So sorry if you've sent comments and they haven't been posted. Should all be up now.

The world's greatest forger?

August 22 2014

Video: Oscilloscope Laboratories

A new film has been made about an elderly American called Mark Landis, who for my money is one of the most ingenious forgers of all time. Landis' trick is to fake a work of art, by artist's as diverse as Picasso and Watteau, and then pose as a benefactor to a museum, duping them to accept the work as a gift. Sometimes he dresses up as a vicar, to persuade unwary curators and registrars of his good intentions. Despite being unmasked in 2008, he has never been, and cannot be, prosecuted in the US because he never took any money for his 'donations'. He merely exposed, with what are really very simple and occasionally crude forgeries, a worrying lack of connoisseurship in some institutions. Sometimes he just painted over a photocopy.

More on him here, and here. The film, Art and Craft, opens in the US in late September.

Update - a reader sends this link a good piece on Landis in the New Yorker. 

A stolen Van Dyck recovered?

August 21 2014

Image of A stolen Van Dyck recovered?

Picture: Telegraph

The Telegraph has a report of a nasty robbery in a castle in Staffordshire, which describes the above 'portrait of Oliver Cromwell' as having been stolen, but fortunately later recovered. The sitter is in fact Charles Louis, Elector Palatine, and the image is this portrait of him by Van Dyck, which sold at Sotheby's in 2005 for £456k. Is it the same painting, or perhaps just a photographic reproduction? A nice recovery if the former.

A fox in the National Portrait Gallery

August 21 2014

Image of A fox in the National Portrait Gallery

Video still: Francis Alys

The National Portrait Gallery has just tweeted this video, which was an 'installation' (I think that's what contemporarists would call it) by Francis Alys in 2004, where: 

On the night of 7 April 2004, a fox was freed in the National Portrait Gallery. Its wanderings through the galleries were recorded by the institution's CCTV system.

Most curious.

Update - a reader writes:

The should have freed a lama, to see what painting it would spit on

Guffwatch - academic edition

August 20 2014

Image of Guffwatch - academic edition

Picture: Routledge

A reader alerts me to some classic academic Guff, which deserves to ranked as one of the most impenetrable art history paragraphs of all time:

Call for Papers: Special Issue of Culture, Theory and Critique

ART MATTERS: Philosophy, Art History and Art’s Material Presence

The aim of this special issue of Culture, Theory and Critique scheduled for April 2016 publication is to rethink the relationship between art history, on the one hand, and the development of a materialist philosophy of art on the other. There are three points that will provide the issue with its points of orientation. 

[...]

3. This idea of the specificity of the work of art plays out not only in time but also within the work of art itself. Indeed, the third point that we wish to address concerns the particular ways that works stage themselves as art, the ways in which the work of art is always a stage on which art’s works is played out. Art rarely, if ever, evinces the caricature of realism in which the work is taken to be no more than the immediate presence internally of that which is present externally, a position that can be defined as the Parrhasius myth. If this mythic structure were followed – and it is a structure that continues to haunt accounts of presentation – it would be as though internality were externality’s immediate presence. To the extent that this structure is not applicable – and its non-applicability can be taken as axiomatic – what works of art inscribe within themselves as part of their being as art is the way their presence is originally mediated. This is to say, then, that the process of mediation is part of the way the work stages itself as art. This process – art’s self-staging – is an important trope in the development of any philosophical encounter with the work of art. What is more, the latter, which is to say the presence of the work as originally mediated, means that any account of art’s work will demand recourse to art’s material presence. Or to put this another way, the impossibility of immediacy necessarily provides an opening towards a materialist philosophy of art.

All attempts at translation welcome. Maybe Google has a programme for it. But I doubt it'll be easy. Does "the particular ways that works stage themselves as art, the ways in which the work of art is always a stage on which art’s works is played out" even constitute anything vaguely like a sentence?

More details of the call to papers here

Update - Dr Matt Loder of the University of Essex tweets this response:

Your latest "guff" is certainly a little dense & jargon heavy, but it's perfectly grammatical and certainly understandable. It's essentially a critique of philosophers writing about art without talking about art objects or art history.

Ah.

Update II - Michael Savage, aka, the Grumpy Art Historian, has kindly had a go, and isn't as sure as Dr. Loder:

That's the first Guffwatch that I've really struggled to understand. They've all been preposterous and dreadfully written, but I've usually been able to understand what they're getting at fairly readily. I don't see Matt's point from Twitter at all; it seems to presuppose a critique rather than offer one, and it seems to be about philosophy and art history coming together rather than philosophy learning one-sidedly from art history. Anyway, I've had a go at translating, as best I can. I've had to translate rather freely, because I can't re-arrange the individual sentences to make sense:

"What makes something a work of art? Art doesn't just try to imitate reality perfectly. You don't judge a picture of grapes by its ability to trick a bird into thinking they're real. So let's assume that's not the case. Works of art present themselves not as representations of something external (or at least not only as that); they present themselves as works of art. A painted portrait doesn't just claim to represent an individual; it also draws attention to itself as a work of art, a skilful re-creation of a likeness within an artistic tradition. This question of how a work of art establishes itself as art is important for any philosophy of art. Because a work of art is never a direct copy of reality, we have to consider how it establishes itself as art, assessing it within an artistic context rather than judging it against the external reality it's trying to represent. That question can't be answered abstractly, as a purely philsophical problem. That opens the door to a materialist philosophy of art that engages with actual works of art rather than just using art to illustrate more abstract thinking." 

Or it might mean something else entirely. Perhaps we could ask the authors when you've had a few more contributions?

Update III - a reader asks:

Could you induce your native guide (excellent, I must say) to clarify the following for me and/or your readership (?). The original states;

"Because a work of art is never a direct copy of reality, we have to consider how it establishes itself as art, assessing it within an artistic context rather than judging it against the external reality it's trying to represent."

But why can't a work of art just remain an indirect copy of reality without 'establishing itself as art' when it already self-evidently is - a work of art, that is, otherwise it wouldn't be self-evidently obvious that is was an indirect copy of reality.

I'm still impenetrably lost, so can't answer that alas.

Update IV: another reader writes:

In the guff, perhaps the work of art means work of creating art Versus a work of art which is a sculpture. Still unintelligible.

Van Dyck or Rubens? (ctd.)

August 19 2014

Image of Van Dyck or Rubens? (ctd.)

Picture: Courtauld Collection

Or neither? The above picture has recently gone on display at the Courtauld Gallery in London. It's currently catalogued as 'Van Dyck'. I think was last published by the late Erik Larsen (whose Van Dyck catalogue raisonne is, alas, probably the worst single demonstration of connoisseurship ever published). 

The picture was not included in the 2004 Van Dyck catalogue raisonne published by Yale. And I think rightly, for my instincts keep leading me towards Rubens. But I wouldn't want to go to the stake on it. While it's almost certainly good enough to be by one or the other, it dates to that fiendishly difficult period of about 1615-18, when Van Dyck was able to paint almost entirely in Rubens' style.

Unfortunately, this area of scholarship has become very muddled of late, with there seeming to be something of a fashion amongst some Rubens scholars to say things are 'early Van Dyck', despite the outright rejection of such attributions by Van Dyck scholars. The continuing (but entirely unnecessary) uncertainty over Rubens portrait of a young Van Dyck [Rubenshuis] is illustrative of this (incidentally, Larsen thought that picture was by a Scottish artist called Jamesone, of an unknown sitter!) I showed some good photos of the Courtauld picture to a leading and highly respected Van Dyck authority, who also thought it more like Rubens. The characterisation reminds me of an exquisite portrait of a Carmelite Monk sold by Sotheby's in 2011 as Van Dyck, but which had always been known as a work by Rubens, and even descended from that artist. Again, the attribution to Van Dyck of that picture was rejected by Van Dyck scholars. 

The Courtauld very kindly allowed me to see the picture in their stores a couple of months ago. If you happen to see it, I'd be interested to know what you think about the attribution.

Update - a reader writes:

Was never wholly convinced by the van Dyck attribution but wouldn’t want to bet on it either.

The thing that intrigues me is that such a fine painting is in store.  Seems to be just one more example of a significant work in the Courtauld’s collection not on display and proving yet again what unsuitable premises the Somerset House Fine Rooms are: not enough space to cater for the collection, rooms not being conducive to exhibition (poor side-lighting from windows and works over fireplaces), etc.

It was a disastrous decision to move out of their galleries in Woburn Square – generally reckoned to be the finest small spaces in London being both intimate and light-filled, I wonder what’s happened to them.

And having moved, what do they do? Parcel up the famous Great Room and block out the light.  What’s worse, they’ve had at least two goes – and two lots of funding – at improving the public spaces.

Fine paintings in store is nothing knew alas. At any time, 80% of the national collection is in store. I never knew the Woburn Square galleries. I'm a fan of Somerset House, I must say.

Update II - a reader tells us what happened to the Woburn Square galleries, as highlighted in this 2004 University of London report (p.24):

In February 1991 the University granted a 21 year lease of the former Courtauld Gallery in Woburn Square to University College, London for a payment of £900,000.

Bargain. One might say that it's a shame the University isn't as generous when it comes to the Warburg Institute. But we should note that the introduction of the report states that the UL wrote off £7.5m when assigning the lease of Somerset House to the Courtauld Institute.

Update III - a reader wonders:

In response to the van Dyck or Rubens attribution. Instead of neither, could it be by both? A collaboration of sorts? I’m certainly not well versed enough in the career of either artist to offer an erudite opinion, but as they were in the same studio at the same time could the master have completed a section and then his student (van Dyck) have painted another? 

Quite possibly!

Update IV - a reader from the Courtauld writes:

The move to Somerset House was meant to reunite the Institute with its collection (which was not the case before, when the collection was in Woburn Square and the Institute in Portman Square). We are actively working on plans to restore the Great Room to its former glory.

Splendid.

Update V - a reader adds:

When the Van Dyck 'portrait of a man in an armchair' was sold from The Lord Penrhyn collection by Sotheby's in 1924 it was sold as Rubens, so the pendulum seems to be swinging back...

Update VI - a Facebooking reader writes:

I have Le Connoisseur (Facebook) on the case and members of the Rubenianum are helping as well with your query regarding the Courtauldʼs Rubens or Van Dyck painting ! Will get back to you if anything is forthcoming. [...] "fat files" in Antwerp sound promising.

Here's a link to the Facebook group, but you need to be a Facebooker to get into it. Which I'm not. 

'Could computers put art historians out of a job?'

August 19 2014

Image of 'Could computers put art historians out of a job?'

Picture: University of New Jersey

So asked yesterday's Daily Telegraph, which reported that:

Computer scientists have used the latest image processing techniques to analyse hundreds of works of art and unearth previously unconsidered sources of inspiration between artists.

Art can be analysed by looking at space, texture, form, shape, colour and tone, but also more mechanical aspects such as brushstrokes and even historical context. Traditionally this has been the role of art historians, but computers could soon be sufficiently advanced as to be able to take over, claim researchers at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey.

The story boils down to the fact that computers can recognise things in paintings. Researchers concluded that the above pictures by Van Gogh and Joan Miro had 'similar objects and scenery but different moods and style'. They soon realised that 'determining influence is always a subjective decision. We will not know if an artist was ever truly inspired by a work unless he or she has said so.’

So I think art historians are safe. This is the sort of story which reminds me of an episode from the old TV series The Prisoner, in which Patrick McGoohan is confronted with a new 'wonder machine' which knows the answer to every question in the world, and which will render man redundant. But when McGoohan simply asks it 'why?', it explodes.

That said, I've always thought that computers should be able to practise some form of connoisseurship. It's probably just a question of loading enough high-res images.

You can read the original research paper here. Jamie Edwards at the University of Birmingham's art hitory blog Golovine has further thoughts here

Update - a reader writes:

The whole thing reminds me of what one of my professors said to me in undergrad "just because they look alike doesn't mean they're the same". And isn't that just where computers fail - in distinguishing between similar 'objects' and the numerous ways those combinations of objects are used to create meaning.

Regardless, computers can only truly generate data, so we still need historians to research, analyse, and interpret that data. Let alone disseminate it. If x-rays can't replace connoisseurship, then I hardly think algorithms can replace art historians. 

Although, if they were to be used as a means to supplement connoisseurship as you suggest, then I think they would be more successful if the focus was limited by a particular artist, historical era, or artistic genre in some way  so that they're not analyzing such wide stylistic swatches. I imagine that could get interesting, especially for your work looking for 'sleepers'.

Museum swapshop in Washington (ctd.)

August 19 2014

Image of Museum swapshop in Washington (ctd.)

Picture: Wikipedia

The sad closure of the Corcoran museum in Washington DC (which I reported in February) is now official. Yesterday, a court ruled that it could go ahead with its plans to merge with the National Gallery of Art. There had been a last minute attempt to prevent the new arrangement.

Now, the building (above) will be closed on 1st October for renovation, and a redution in the amount of gallery space. The National Gallery will get first pick of the art collection (which you can peruse here), with other museums in the US getting what's left. I expect the National curators will enjoy their shopping spree. More details in the Washington Post.  

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