Why you should stare at a painting for 3 hours

May 28 2013

Image of Why you should stare at a painting for 3 hours

Picture: National Gallery, London

Here's an interesting article in the Boston Globe:

Are distracting smartphones making us more stupid? New research suggests that could be the case: When Carnegie Mellon researchers interrupted college students with text messages while they were taking a test, the students had average test scores that were 20 percent lower than the scores of those who took the exam with their phones turned off.

Another study found that students, when left to their own devices, are unable to focus on homework for more than two minutes without turning to Web surfing or e-mail. Adults in the workforce can make it to about 11 minutes.

Jennifer Roberts, a professor of the history of art and architecture at Harvard, thinks she has a fairly simple solution to help her American art history students appreciate the act of focusing: They must pick any painting, sculpture, or object made by an American artist and stare at it — for three hours.

“They’re usually skeptical at first,” she told me, “but afterward, they tell me the process was really astonishing, enabling them to see things, make observations, and develop original ideas about the work that never would have occurred otherwise.”

Have any readers stared at a painting for this long? Can't say I have. If you were going to, which picture would you choose? I think for me it would be one of Rubens' epic landscapes, like the above View of Het Steen - so much for the eye to feast on.

By the way, checking AHN regularly, even every 11 minutes, doesn't count as distraction, but education.

Update - a reader writes:

What a wonderful idea!

I'd probably only manage two and a half hours of Bosch's Last Judgement…before being classified as insane….maybe a wee bit longer on a Rothko! 

I suppose it changes with my mood, but right now I'd love to be spending three hours looking at Turner's Norham Castle with Sunrise. Just calm.

Paintings can also be responsible for changing your mood, after looking at them you can feel better or sometimes worse.

Update II - a reader adds;

Indeed yes, a great idea!   Can't say I have done that, either -- unless staring at a fresco cycle in one chapel counts!!??  If so, surely I am not the only one: Pieros' frescoes in the chapel in San Francesco, Arezzo, the Masaccio and Masolino frescoes in the Carmine in Florence, or of course Giotto's Scrovegni chapel in Padua, for instance  (when they had no restrictions on time spent, which tells you this was a long time ago!!).  Or the Sistine chapel, but that really must count as a cheat!   However, does sculpture count for lists of the artworks to spend three hours staring at?  If so, I vote for Donatello's 'cantoria' from the cathedral, in the Museo di Santa maria del Fiore in Florence, and the same museum's Maria Magdalena also by Donatello.  Or if tapestry counts, would it be cheating to cite the huge "Maximilian" tapestry series in the Louvre and the even huger "Apocalypse" cycle in Angers?   Probably so, alas...

Update III - another reader sends this gem:

Just about your post on looking at a painting for three hours.  You might recall that in one of his books ('Looking at pictures' I think), Kenneth Clark says that the optimum period of time you can look at a picture is the time it would take you to peel and eat an orange.  I tend to agree.

Update IV - this reader aims for somewhere between an orange and the full 3 hours:

I like the orange quotation - that's generally my view.  I've never spent three hours looking at a painting, but I've sometimes spent much longer than orange-time.  I think it takes the combination of a great picture and good viewing conditions.  I don't think your Rubens would work - that corridor in the NG is just not conducive to long looking.  Its pendant in the Wallace might be better.  I've spent a long time with some of the Poussins in the aptly named Orange Wing, and the great Rembrandt portraits of Jacob Trip and Margarethe de Geer.  And Piero della Francesca's Baptism.  Others that have engaged me for a long time are the awesome Velazquez Pope Innocent X in the Doria Pamphilj, the late Cezannes in Washington, Weyden's Deposition in the Prado, Bruegel's Hunters in the Snow.  Oddly some of my very favourite artists, like Raphael and Rubens, haven't inspired me to look for a very long time in a single sitting.

City in debt? Flog the museum!

May 24 2013

Image of City in debt? Flog the museum!

Picture: DIA/BG

Alarming news from Detroit, where the city's $15 billion debt has led to the entire contents of the Detroit Institute of Arts being seen as a disposable asset. Choose which picture you would buy in the Search the Collection page here. More details in the Detroit Free Press

'...all my pictures'

May 24 2013

Image of '...all my pictures'

Picture: The National Archives

It's always tempting to check wills when doing provenance research, but I'd say that almost all of the time I come across the above short, dispiriting phrase. It's interesting to note the extent to which land was described in wills, often over countless pages, whereas even great art collections were invariably just described as 'all my pictures', along with the linen and cutlery. Have any readers had lucky hits with pictures in wills?

Update - the king of all things pastel, Neil Jeffares, writes:

Indeed: how many £3.36s [the price for downloading a will here in the UK] have we all thrown away! But yes one does occasionally find gold, as in my long piece on La Tour’s Mlle Ferrand.  

But the main value in wills (and in law cases which are often even more fruitful, and show a less public side to the people we encounter) is the biographical information they give on artists and sitters.

 I started to draw up a list of more minor discoveries: instant examples included Katherine Thornhill identified from Sarah Clayton’s will (copied from a pastel which I tentatively attribute to Cotes), whle the pastellist/opera singer Mrs Du Parc was properly identified through her will (and that of Goupy), as was Mrs Gibbons but it instantly became obvious that this would take far too long…

 I’m not sure that I would call these “lucky” hits as they involve quite a lot of work!

Update II - Dr. Richard Stephens, editor of the University of York's online project The Art World in Britain 1660 to 1735, writes:

Quite a nice example is the will of painter Edmond Lilly, 1715, in which he gives "to my said nephew Edward Lilly the originall Picture of the blessed Virgin and the Angell commonly called the Salutation about 5 foot in breadth and 7 and half in height, one Picture of the Goddess Minerva about 5 foot in breadth and above 8 foot in height, one whole length picture of Queen Ann of or near the size of the said picture of Minerva. Also a picture of a devout Virgin 3 foot 4 Inches by 4 foot 2 Inches or thereabout" A year later he added a codicil, in which he mentions: "one whole length Picture of the Dutchess of Richmond copyed after Vandike 5 foot and half in height and above 4 foot in broeadth marked on the back with Letter (L) and likewise the Picture of Grapes soe much esteemed by his Papa 30 Inches by twenty five."

In 1708 Simon Dubois bequeathed to Lord Somers "my father and mothers Pictures drawn by Van Dyke" and to his wife "my Pictures of the Tower of Bable and of a Woman playing upon the Lute a little fruit piece that my Wife's Sister Coppied and the Battle of my own painting which hangs in the inward[?] Room"

Update III - another reader has news of of the Dobson family:

...it seems William Dobson's grandmother was a bit of a collector, leaving ‘a great picture of Judyth cutting of Hollofernes head',  ‘six small pictures of allabastor’, ‘twelve round pictures of the twelve monthes of the yeare’, and a picture each of King James and the King of Denmark. 

Interestingly for the grandma of a Royalist, she left the Judyth picture to another grandchild's husband, the regicide Sir James Harington...


Clooney's 'Monuments Men'

May 24 2013

Image of Clooney's 'Monuments Men'

Picture: Bloomberg

Catherine Hickley in Bloomberg has the story of George Clooney's new film, The Monuments Men, which tells the story of the hunt for Nazi looted art in World War Two. Scheduled for release in December.

Update - read more on the Monuments Men here.

Brian Sewell on the state or art history education

May 23 2013

Writing in Times Higher Education, the Great Brian weeps at the state of students' art historical knowledge today:

The bare bones of art history are linear studies of painting, sculpture and architecture, the simple first-this-then-that sequence that connects the painted image on the flat gold ground to the bucket-and-slosh business of the contemporary abstract painter, the iconography of Christ crucified painted for the devout veneration of the peasantry, to the Mapplethorpe photograph of a naked male with another man’s fist thrust into his anus. With experience, the student will recognise that the history of art is far from linear, that its threads are looped and tangled in cat’s cradles that may never be undone, and that it has always been affected by the external forces of political and social history. Art and its history are inseparable from the patronage of monarchs, popes and despots, from the propaganda of church and state, from the effects of famine, plague and war. They are inseparable from historic theological and philosophical debate, even from Marxism, capitalism, feminism, race and other modern orthodoxies. They are inseparable from music, literature and science - even from maths (in terms of perspective and proportion) - and from the wider cultural background of their day, and of all these the student must know almost as much as of his core subject. Thus to understand the history of art we must understand history itself, the history of political ambitions and the conflicts of religion, the history of nations, dynasties, the rich and powerful, the middle classes and the poor. The most inclusive and wide-ranging of academic disciplines, it opens many doors.

Students in my day had the necessary background for it. Now they do not. The history of art is now taught in all sorts of universities; and in an attempt to compare the requirements of a student at the Courtauld in Blunt’s day with those of a student at a provincial university now, I probed a professor at a far more ancient seat of learning. Asked about their knowledge of the Bible, his response was “The Bible is a worrying problem - knowledge of it is not to be taken for granted” - yet without that knowledge and the theological distinction between the Old and the New Testaments, without the Apocrypha and the Golden Legends of the saints, how can students recognise the subject and the iconography? To my enquiry about classical mythology, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Roman history and other sources of the painter’s imagery with primary and secondary meanings, the glum response was: “They may be utterly ignorant. We cope with the school- leavers we get.”

Update - Dr Ben Thomas from the University of Kent writes:

While I read Brian Sewell’s description of art history as the ‘most inclusive and wide-ranging of academic disciplines’ with cheerful agreement, I could not help sighing in weary exasperation at his characterization of today’s art history students, and also at the notion that they should be as well-read as Dr Johnson before looking at a picture. 

Today, my students – a mixture of second and third-year undergraduates - have opened Two-Faced Fame: Celebrity in Print 1962-2013 in the University of Kent’s Studio 3 Gallery. This exhibition, which they developed and curated themselves, manages to be professional, scholarly and fun. The catalogue can be found online here

In my opinion art history students have never been more creative and ambitious, nor more curious and passionate about art. That opinion is not just based on the experience of teaching at Kent, but also of acting as external examiner at ‘all sorts of universities’ including the Courtauld.

I fear the Great Brian would be shocked at my lack of the general art historical knowledge he describes above. I know very little of the classical world, for example. While it doesn't stop me knowing a thing or two about, say, British portraiture from 1500-1830, I wish that I had been taught everything Sewell suggests. More fun than triple maths.

Update II - another reader writes:

Surely it is an overtly “Panofskian” and old fashioned art historical way of thinking to suggest that unless you read the bible inside out you are not going to understand/appreciate a single art work? I agree with Sewell’s concern that art history students of today are not well enough informed in other spheres such as politics, literature, history and classics and I couldn’t be more worried about this aspect. However I fail to see that you need to know the entire bible or all of Ovid.

In fact, the emphasis he puts on the bible in his final paragraph is worrying… It seems to imply that Western Culture and Christianity is the sole contributor to art and culture and just goes to show how flawed Sewell’s own art history teaching was…

'A Walk Through... Salisbury Meadow'?

May 22 2013

Image of 'A Walk Through... Salisbury Meadow'?

Picture: National Gallery

I hear an announcement will be made tomorrow. And at a time when we need some good news here in the UK.

Can you guess where it's going?

Update: most of you got it from the headline above, which was meant to lead you to Tate's new 'Walk through British Art' - yes, it's Tate Britain! More here at BBC News. The published price tag was £23.1m, though I assume with tax liabilities that the picture was valued for much more.

A reader writes:

I guess from your heading that the Constable is destined for Tate Britain??! 

I won’t be happy if that is correct! At the National Gallery “Salisbury Cathedral from the Water Meadows” was always on display as part of a logical exhibition of British painting.  It will be a great pity if it is now to be subject to the Tate’s odd display policies.

Leave it where it was on display for years I say!

One reader made the link to Tate because, when he was there yesterday, the Constable room was closed.

Anyway, well done to Tate Britain for pulling this one off. What a coup, not least in wresting the picture away from the National Gallery. The picture is an illustration in how, when Tate was founded, the split between the National Gallery's British collection was never satisfactorily resolved.

Great thanks are also due to the Heritage Lottery Fund, who came up with £15m. What a relief it is to know that the icons of our artistic heritage are more likely to remain in the UK, now that the HLF is at last pulling its weight on acquisitions. 

Finally, a small plug that at every stage in the story, AHN had the news first!

Update II - a reader writes:

Wow!  Well done them.  Bet half of them are thinking they could have got a Basquiat for that kind of money...

Update III - a reader adds:

It seems the Manton Foundation chipped in with a whopping $10M donation.

Bravo them. The Manton Foundation was formed by the late Edwin Manton, a longstanding Tate benefactor.

Update IV - another reader writes:

So the news is out and it is Tate Britain as owner plus four other galleries across the width and breadth of the ( still, just ) United Kingdom. It looks like a dog’s dinner of an arrangement and one where you will need to have access to a fortune teller to find out where this pushed, pulled and shoved masterpiece will be on display. Of course, great for PC Access but not for actually getting to see the painting…

For better or worse, these group purchases are a thing of the future. I think I can see it working out, though it'll largely come down to how long a painting stays at each location - too long, and people will wonder where it's disappeared to, too short, and it'll turn into a gimmick.

Another reader isn't bothered about the shared purchase, and points out that it was probably a good way to secure the HLF's £15m:

As well as being a long time Tate supporter Sir Edwin Manton was a great collector / enthusiast for Constable, hence the big donation from the Manton foundation.

It should also be noted that the work is in fact to be shared (at least in terms of display) by several other galleries (National Museum of Wales, Scottish National galleries, Colchester, and Salisbury). The idea is, as far as I understand things, that the work will be more or less permanently on display at one of these galleries on a rotating basis. I don't yet know the exact details of this arrangement but it is likely to mean that the painting will be absent from London for extended periods. 

Obviously when this happens it will be missed, but given the very large number of Constable's that can always be seen in London it is arguably no bad thing. A work of this quality will give a huge boost to small gallereis like Colchester and Salisbury and there are very few Constables on public display in either Wales or Scotland.

I suspect that the sharing of the work around the UK was key to securing such a large contribution from the HLF. Great that funding ccan still be found (sometimes)  to keep expensive masterpieces in the UK. I gather that the work had a market value of about £40 million.

The same reader kindly sends us details of where the picture's going:

The work is to be on display at TB until the end of this year, then it goes off on a five year tour of the partner venues;

  • Cardiff 2014
  • Ipswich 2015
  • Salisbury 2016
  • NGS 2017
  • Back on display at TB 2018

After this initial 5 year period the parnter galleries will continue to have "special access" to the work for their future displays and exhibitions and the work will also be made available for loan to other galleries in the UK and abroad.

I guess what this means in practice is that most of the time it will be on display at TB from 2018, except when it is on loan to either the partner institutions for a specific exhibion, or to other gallery, perhaps as part of a touring exhibition.

Let's end this photography ban

May 22 2013

Image of Let's end this photography ban

Picture: BG

There's an excellent article by Caroline Miranda in ARTnews on why many museums are lifting their photography bans:

No-photo policies can be difficult to enforce. “Guards are spending so much time focusing on someone holding a device that they might not see the person next to them touching the art,” says Alisa Martin, senior manager of brand management and visitor services at the Brooklyn Museum, an institution that has allowed photography in the majority of its galleries for roughly half a dozen years. “As the devices get smaller, it gets harder to manage. We have to ask ourselves, are we using our guards appropriately?”

Social media also complicates the issue. This past January, the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project reported that 97 percent of the more than 1,200 arts organizations it polled had a presence on platforms like Twitter, YouTube, and Flickr. [...]

With museums sharing so much imagery themselves, it can be difficult for visitors to understand that they can’t necessarily do the same. “If a museum is really active on social media, they’re putting forward the idea that they represent a venue that is all about being conversational,” says Simon. “For the visitor, it can be disturbing to then go to the physical space and be confronted with a policy that isn’t.” 

This reminds me that, about a year ago, I sent the above email to a grand fromage at the National Gallery, London, which is one of the few places left that prohibits photography. At the time, I had just seen a room guard shout (a little too aggressively) at a hapless tourist who had dared to get out their phone for a quick snap. I felt action was required. But reader, answer came there none...

Update - a reader writes, after just returning from Tate Britain:

On my last recent visit I spent time at the Courtauld Institute galleries: of course, no photography in the Picasso exhibition, but in the main galleries no prohibition; then off to the National for the wonderful Frederic Church sketches, where, the moment I entered the hallowed halls, I heard a guard shout threateningly at some hapless tourist who had dared to lift a camera phone. [...] In galleries there has to be an acceptance of photography - it's a losing battle, bad for business and for tourism - if in one gallery, why not in another? Commercial use of images is another matter altogether of course, and flash photography should not be allowed - it's just too distracting.

Update II - a reader in Australia writes:

I headed off to the National Gallery in Melbourne yesterday to discover if photography is allowed. The answer is yes - but no flash. Here is a lovely van Dyck for you, including label, since labels have been a bit topical on your blog recently. (Not super quality, just used my phone).

That's a fine and informative label. I've often noticed that in overseas museums, labels about British art are more detailed than those you'd find in Britain. Other countries don't seem to share our obsession with dumbing down.

Update III - the Grumpy Art Historian is very much against allowing photography. 

Update IV - 22.01.14 - still no response from the NG...

Fakes, fakes everywhere? (ctd.)

May 22 2013

Image of Fakes, fakes everywhere? (ctd.)

Picture: New York Times

The alleged Knoedler Gallery fake scandal gets murkier and murkier. Now, art dealer Glafira Rosales (above) has been arrested and charged with tax fraud. To recap, Rosales was the agent through whom a mystery collector was selling to Knoedler previously unknown works by Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Now, prosecutors say that this collector never existed, and that the monies paid to Rosales to be paid to him never was, hence the tax charges. More here in the New York Times

The Venice Biennale

May 22 2013

Image of The Venice Biennale

Picture: labiennale.org

I'm soon going to be covering the Venice Biennale, with Alastair Sooke, for BBC2's The Culture Show, so am trying to mug up on what there is to see. Already, however, my brain is aching. Does anyone know what this last sentence means?

“Over the years – the President [of the Biennale] Paolo Baratta explains– in representing the contemporary, our curators have developed an insight of how important it is to place artists in a historical perspective or in a context of mutual affinities, by highlighting ties and relations both with the past and with other artists of the present. At the same time, in contrast with the avant-garde period, attention has increasingly focused on the intensity of the relationship between the work of art and the viewer who, though shaken by artistic gestures and provocations, ultimately seeks in art the emotion of dialoguing with the work, which should cause that hermeneutical tension, that desire to go beyond what is expected from art.”

More here

Update - a reader writes:

Roughly translated, the final sentence reads: "It's not a load of rubbish, you just don't 'get' it."

Another reader seems to be able to make sense of it all:

"Though shaken by artistic gestures and provocations" That is to say - Even though the incomprehensible attitudes of the artist made an impact on the viewer (perhaps of fear, or puzzlement) he did not understand the artist's intent (and probably neither did we). To overcome this problem we will argue that to "understand" does not really matter - What matters is the "intensity of the relationship between the work of art and the viewer" and that the viewer should seek "in art the emotion of dialoguing with the work". In other words - Forget all the complex literature and focus on what you really think about the object in itself. 

See, it is possible to use plain English when talking in artspeak. People in the contemporary world should try it some time.

Finally, a reader adds:

Remember the mantra from Brideshead: 'Charles,' said Cordelia, 'Modern Art is all bosh, isn't it?'

Houghton Revisited (ctd.)

May 22 2013

Image of Houghton Revisited (ctd.)

Pictures: BG

If you're in the UK this summer, you must visit the new exhibition at Houghton Hall in Norfolk. To recap, Houghton Revisited sees a large number of the Old Masters amassed by Britain's first Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole, return to the house from the Hermitage in St Petersburg, where they have been, more or less, since 1779, when the whole collection was sold to Catherine the Great. On display are works by Rubens, Rembrandt, Bordone, Jordaens, Murillo, and, best of all from my point of view, four exquisite English-period Van Dycks.

I went to Houghton last week, and there aren't superlatives enough to describe my admiration for those behind the exhibition. What an ambitious thing to do. A hefty AHN pat on the back to all involved. 

What struck me most about the Hermitage pictures was their extraordinary condition. I don't think I have never seen a Van Dyck in as good a condition as his Portrait of Henry Danvers, Earl of Danby (below, which must be one of the best British portraits ever painted). It seemed that every stroke, detail, and glaze was exactly as the artist left it. The picture's untouched state means there is a great deal to be said for perennially cash-strapped museums - that is, ones which could not, in the old days of scrubbing, afford to constantly clean their paintings.

My tip for visitors to Houghton Revisited is to take a pair of binoculars. There's a lot of roping off, and it's hard to get close to the paintings. Many are hung high, in the places they used to be. It's also quite dark in there.

Update - Brian Sewell also, though more lucidly, says that you must go and see this excellent show.

Cleaning Sir Joshua

May 21 2013

Image of Cleaning Sir Joshua

Picture: Kathleen Soriano

Kathleen Soriano, Director of Exhibitions at the Royal Academy, has tweeted this picture of Sir Joshua Reynolds' statue getting a spring clean.

Update: Dr Ben Thomas alerts me to his excellent blog entry on the statue, which is by Alfred Drury.

'Very Choice'

May 21 2013

Image of 'Very Choice'

Pictures: Anon

The best thing about running this blog is the wonderful feedback and correspondence I get from readers. Last night a reader in Portugal who shares my interest in Van Dyck sent me these very cool photos. I love a good cigar, so what a shame Van Dyck cigars are no longer made. And as this old advert for Van Dyck cigars makes clear, they were only smoked by 'the Distinguished Set'.

'Manner of Romney'

May 20 2013

Image of 'Manner of Romney'

Picture: Tate

Whilst looking into Tate's collection of Romneys yesterday, I came across this portrait of Richard Cumberland, the dramatist, described as 'Manner of George Romney', and 'date not known'. I presume this is a database error or something, as it's certainly by Romney, an early work, perhaps from the 1760s.

Ashmolean acquires Millais' portrait of Ruskin

May 20 2013

Image of Ashmolean acquires Millais' portrait of Ruskin

Picture: BBC News/Ashmolean

Congratulations to the Ashmolean museum, who have secured through the Acceptance-in-lieu scheme John Everett Millais' portrait of John Ruskin. From the Ashmolean website:

The picture, which was recently exhibited in Tate’s major exhibition, Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde, has been on loan to the Ashmolean since January 2012. It has been allocated to the Ashmolean by the Arts Council England under the Acceptance in Lieu of Inheritance (AIL) scheme. The portrait was started in the summer of 1853 while the artist, sitter, and Ruskin’s wife were staying in Glen Finglas, a remote area of the Trossachs north of Glasgow. It was during this holiday that Millais fell in love with Effie Ruskin, setting in motion the events which would break the Ruskins’ marriage, Millais’s friendship with Ruskin, and the artist’s engagement with the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Finishing the picture was to become, for Millais, “the most hateful task I have ever had to perform.”

On the Tate re-hang

May 19 2013

Image of On the Tate re-hang

Pictures: BG

I finally made it to Tate Britain this weekend to see the much-heralded ‘re-hang’. I’m still puzzled about the concept of ‘re-hanging’ the whole gallery, as if our national collection of British art can be shoehorned into some sort of fixed, giant exhibition. But re-hung it is, and very pleasant it looks too. As a building, Tate Britain has at last been fixed. Great credit is due to all those involved.

First, the renovated galleries are a wonderfully comfortable place to view art. The décor is welcoming but not distracting, the lighting is superb, and, best of all perhaps, the pictures are hung gratifyingly low. One can fully engage with every part of a painting, rather than (as is often the case in major galleries), just the bottom edge of a frame. Better yet, there are no ogrous guards waiting to shout at you if you peer in too closely. They even let you take photos. It’s picture viewing heaven.*

Alas, the time spent in this nirvana must be brief, at least for those interested in many of the great names of British art. Of 20 galleries in the BP Walk Through British Art, just five cover the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. More of a trot, then. The 20th Century, by contrast, is given 11 galleries. 2013 gets a whole room to itself. The imbalance leaves you wondering what Tate Modern is for. Must Tate Britain be Tate Modern-Lite?

Don’t, therefore, go to Tate expecting to see anything other than the briefest highlights of British art from before the 19th Century. You will, for example, find only one portrait by Lawrence (of thirteen in Tate’s collection), one Raeburn (of nine), and two works by Romney (of twenty). Fans of Paul Nash, on the other hand, can enjoy no less than five of his works, and after eight Barbara Hepworths, I stopped counting.

The chronological hang was not, for me, quite the triumph that the critics promised. I can see why, for most visitors so far, it has proved a great success. The layout is easy to follow, and the pictures on display are almost all excellent. But for art history anoraks the hang will be a little under-whelming. It’s nice to see all the old favourites, but there’s precious little that isn’t already familiar from books, posters and websites. It’s a blockbuster display, and, like any display of blockbusters, it leaves you with an overly simplified view of British art. From this chronology, for example, you would never know that pastel was once a popular medium in Britain.

There are further problems with a strict adherence to the rigid timeline, or chronology for chronology's sake. Regular readers won’t be surprised to find that here I shall introduce Van Dyck to illustrate the point. First, it doesn’t help that in the very first room of the re-hang Dobson’s Portrait of Endymion Porter (painted c.1642-5) comes before Van Dyck’s pair of portraits of Sir William and Mary Killigrew (painted in 1638). You would also not know how dramatic an effect Van Dyck had on British art, for in the new hang he is tacked onto the end of the first room and appears almost as an after-thought.

A curator not bound by a strict timeline would be able to demonstrate Van Dyck’s transformative effect on portraiture in Britain (for better or worse, our staple artistic diet until the mid-18th Century) by better using the hang to contrast Van Dyck’s work with the stiff, often characterless and two-dimensional portraiture that existed in Britain before his arrival here in 1632. In other words, most of the art on display in room 1. The pair of Van Dycks on display should really (alongside Van Dyck’s full-length Lady of the Spencer Family, which remains in the basement) be hung at the beginning of the second room, alongside works by artists who are obviously indebted to him, like Sir Peter Lely.

While I can see why the chronological approach is appealing to many (not least to those who find the ‘-isms’ of art history hard to grasp, or even intimidating) it does prohibit making anything but the most basic art historical arguments. Arts institutions used to relish the idea of ‘challenging’ their audience, but in the new label-free, chronological Tate every judgement and response is left up to the visitor. Little attempt is made to question, convince or guide you, for Tate cannot show, by simple grouping of similar works, changes in taste or technique. The new ethos is heralded by Chris Stephens, Tate’s Head of Display, who said ‘Your response is as valid as our knowledge'. As I said in an earlier post, that’s a worrying philosophy for what should be an educational institution. It’s very right-on, but you might as well give up on scholarship entirely. In some cases the lack of a descriptive label can lead to a wholly misleading impression. I suspect most visitors would be interested to know (or at least would like to have the opportunity to know) that the German-born Godfrey Kneller’s Elijah and the Angel [below] was painted before he came to England, and so isn’t British at all. The presence of this woeful picture suggests there was a demand for large-scale religious painting in England in the late 17th Century, when there wasn't.

A final and slightly dispiriting aspect of the new chronological emphasis is that it suggests a permanence of display. I doubt a curator will be minded to change a picture or two if it means rehanging a whole room, just to maintain the strict timeline. In contrast, one of the joys of visiting the National Gallery these days is that the regularly changing hang means you’ll invariably find something new to see. If Tate’s new hang does signal a permanent exile of the great majority of pre-19th Century art to into storage, then I hope that the new director will follow the National Portrait Gallery’s policy of liberally lending those works it does not display to regional museums across the country. For now, however, Tate’s storage facility must be the greatest museum that never was. In that sense, Tate’s re-hang is for me more about what hasn’t been hung. Isn't it sad that so much great art has to be hidden away?

*National Gallery security department, please note.

Update - The Grumpy Art Historian also went round at the weekend.

Update II - a reader writes:

Thoroughly enjoyed reading your thoughtful price on the TB rehang. I've still not had a chance to see the rehang for myself.

You make several good points in your well balanced piece and I am sure that almost nobody that visits the gallery is going to be happy with everything that they see. Quite apart from any issues about decor, labelling, lighting etc. nearly everyone that visits will, for example, tend to favour "historic" over "modern", prefer the eighteenth century to the twentieth, dislike contemporary art, find portraits dull, and so on and so on. This makes objective comment extremely difficult as there is an inevitable tendency to be more likely to like the rooms which contain works of art you prefer and criticise the rooms which contain works of art you don't like at all. This factor has coloured many of the reviews of the new hang.

[BG butts in - the problem being, in the present case though, that it's hardly a level playing field]

There are a few general points that at least merit some thought;

1. Many reviewers have commented on the balance of rooms between older art and modern art whilst seemingly forgetting the Clore galleries which remain mostly dedicated to Turner but now also contain rooms dedicated to Constable and Blake.

2. One factor in what is displayed must surely be what the Tate actually owns - you menion Paul Nash and Hepworth. The Tate has 30 works by Nash and over a hundred by Hepworth whereas for many well known seventeenth and eighteenth century artists the number of works in the Tate collection is significantly lower.

3. I know your piece was about the "Walk through British art" display but there are also the so called Spotlight displays. I don't know if you had time to look at any of these displays but they include rooms dedicated to Constables "The Cornfield", eighteenth century portraits of artists, and two rooms dedicated to works on paper (which is I think a first for Tate Britain). There is also the "Looking at the view display" for anyone pining for a thematic hang.

4. Whilst the layout of rooms in the "Walk through British art" seems to be more or less now as a fixture, I cannot imagine that the works on display in each room will forever remain the same. What is displayed is sure to change over time, whether it be the insertion of the odd new work or the complete rehang of a room. This is especially the case as this display is both new and very large so the curators will inevitably feel in time that not everything "works" as well as it should. I have no doubt that there will be changes in due course and that this will involve works currently in storage finding their way out on to the Tate's walls.

[BG again - here's hoping...]

5. Like it or not modern artworks are more often than not considerably larger than most pre-twentieth century artworks. Quite simpy this means that a room of art from say the 1970's will have significantly fewer art works in it than say one from the 1770's. It isn't therefore arguably "fair" to simply count the number of rooms dedicated to modern versus historical art works.

6. Time marches on - can 1900 continue to be the dividing line between modern and historical works forever? If 1900 was a "sensible" divide 50 years ago should it now be 1930 or 1910? An interesting question, especially given the rate at which contemporary art is churned out these days. There is of course no right answer.

7. However much pre 19th Century art the Tate has in storage there is far more art in storage from later eras.

Update III - another reader writes:

On the labels controversy: many museums used to have plasticized information sheets, sometimes held in practical hand-held frames, which interested visitors could pick up and put down as they moved from room to room; some museums still do; why not more of that? Or do they think this competes with sales of museum guides, including audio guides? My own view is that this information is more likely to tantalize and incite to further purchases, or to serve a somewhat different audience than audio guides...

Update IV - Waldemar likes it very much.

Update V - another reader writes:

First of all, must say I agree with all the aspects mentioned in AHN on the new display of the Tate Gallery. Particularly regarding the chronological arrangement of the gallery - It is always a safe choice and also a useful one when the museum in question has no funds to renovate the rooms often. However when museums have big "gaps" in their collections this sort of approach makes those gaps even more noticeable. Moreover this option might be a bit "dull" or little challenging for some visitors, but sometimes curators do get a bit carried away and make (in my opinion) way too creative associations of ideas.

Update VI - on Twitter, art historian Ben Street nails it in less than 140 characters:

NPG tells the story of Britain much more effectively. But there are joys in new Tate Brit hang, almost all of which are in the early rooms.

Update VII - a reader points out that Tate Modern's remit is very different:

Tate Modern has a different remit which is to show international modern and contemporary art. British artists get included normally only in an international context so the percentage of works on display at TM by British artists is actually quite low [...] just over 11% of the works in the four suites of collection displays at TM (39 works out of 350).

There are also 3 major exhibitions currently at TM but these are all by foreign artists.

Update VIII - a reader makes a valid point about Tate Modern's new expansion:

I have just returned from London where I spent the morning in the Tate Britain - unlike many I found the new hang somewhat dispiriting, especially with the intrusive noises off from the Duveen video installation. Like you I thought the historic / modern quota unbalanced. Why not shunt the 'recent modern' material upriver to TM when their new multi-million extension is built?

Church of England to sell important Benjamin West?

May 16 2013

Image of Church of England to sell important Benjamin West?

Picture: British Museum

Here's a story you're likely to hear more of in the coming weeks... A well-informed reader writes:

The Church of St Stephen, Walbrook, in the City of London owns an impressive 5.6m x 3.2m Benjamin West altarpiece depicting "Devout men removing the body of St Stephen" [shown above in print form]. Commissioned for the church by a rector committed to promoting English art through church patronage, and unusual both for its scale and choice of subject, the painting is of international significance.

The painting was illegally removed by St Stephens in the 1980s when the building was (controversially) reordered [a new altar was installed], it has been in storage ever since. The PCC [Parochial Church Council] are now in consistory court hoping to obtain permission to sell the painting abroad for a seven figure sum. The case in favour of removing the picture is that it apparently doesn't suit the building, and that the massive price tag will pay for necessary repairs. The sale has been opposed by the London Diocesan Advisory Committee for the Care of Churches, and by the CofE's Church Buildings Council. The outcome of the hearing is not yet certain.

The attempted disposal of this picture seems to be wrong on a number of levels, but then readers who remember the Bishop Auckland/Zurburan debacle will know that the Church of England is skilled at handling such cases ineptly. The potential buyer is one of America's leading institutions. I'm not aware of any attempt by the Church of England to find an English home for the painting. I'm told that the consistory court has recently finished its hearings, and the decision will be announced soon. If a sale is agreed, then the picture will, of course, have to go through the usual export procedures. 

Update - a reader writes:

I don't have anything in particular to add to this story but I am glad that you are covering it. I remember the painting hanging on the north wall as a child in 1970s. At the time of the restoration I was hopeful that it would return to it's former position over the altar. After it disappeared I periodically visited the church and asked about it, to the obvious irritation of the former rector,  Chad Varah (who apparently hated the painting) and gave me various evasive answers: 'It's being restored', 'The church is selling it'.. I was reassured that this could not happen without permission by the Friends of the City Churches. I have never understood why the church has not used it as a way of attracting visitors, particularly Americans, who might sponsor its restoration; the City of London is in any case awash with money. It should remain in the church but it also occurs to me that there could be an arrangement with the Guildhall Art Gallery nearby, which owns Copley's vast painting of the Siege of Gibraltar, with regard to the American connection. 

New website for US National Gallery

May 16 2013

Image of New website for US National Gallery

Picture: National Gallery of Art, Washington

The National Gallery of Art in Washington has a new website, with an excellent zoom feature for their online collection. The above detail comes from Holbein's Portrait of Edward VI

Mary Beale discoveries at Tate Britain

May 16 2013

Image of Mary Beale discoveries at Tate Britain

Picture: Tate

I was pleased to see in The Independent that Tate Britain is emphasising the work of women artists in the new Walk Through British Art. As Chris Stephens, Tate's head of displays, says, 'it's an area where we have underachieved in recent years'. One could say the same of most UK museums, alas. 

Two newly discovered works by Mary Beale (one shown above) have now gone on show at Tate. They were bought in 2010, having been found in a Paris antiques shop. Tate Curator Tabitha Barber says of Beale:

“I think she’s remarkably important and very underrated. People don’t tend to know her now. She was commercially very popular at the time.”

Anne Killigrew is another female artist of the period who has recently come back into the public arena. You can see her striking classical scene Venus Attired by the Graces by Anne Killigrew (discovered, ahem, by Philip Mould & Co.), at Falmouth Art Gallery, while another fine work by her can now be seen at the Queen's Gallery, where her Portrait of James II is part of the In Fine Style exhibition. 

Update - apparently the frames are modern, but reconstruct the type described by Mary's husband, Charles, in his diary.

Update II - a reader writes:

We might talk of Kneller or Lely being "commercially very popular", but the Beales? They were constantly in debt, relying on handouts from well-wishers and that was even after Charles Beale's income from colourmaking was added to Mary's from portrait painting. They were economically vulnerable their whole lives, that was simply the reality of painters' lives back then. In 1671 Mary Beale's rate for a half length portrait was £10, whereas in the same year, Lely's was £20 for a head. In 1674 she painted fewer than 30 portraits: that is not the record of someone who was "very popular", commercially or otherwise.

Secondly, what does it say about our museums and art world now, that in order to "celebrate" a 17th century painter we must highlight their (spurious) commercial popularity?  The truth - that she struggled to make ends meet her entire life but, even so, persevered as a painter in a society that little understood women artists - is surely more interesting?

Constable's 'Salisbury Cathedral' still for sale?

May 16 2013

Image of Constable's 'Salisbury Cathedral' still for sale?

Picture: National Gallery

As I exclusively revealed here in February, a consortium of UK galleries had got together to buy Constable's Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows, currently in a private collection and on loan to the National Gallery. Two readers have now alerted me to the fact that the picture is now no longer on display. Is a deal imminent?

Critics on the Tate re-hang

May 16 2013

Image of Critics on the Tate re-hang

Picture: Evening Standard

It's interesting to see how the press has run with Tate's PR line about their 'rehang', as if displaying the very pictures it was always intended to display was somehow something unusual, and special. One never hears of such a thing at the National Gallery. But anyway, it seems to have gone down well. Richard Dorment gives it five stars in the Telegraph:

So the first thing to say about Curtis’s rehang is that it is gloriously, satisfyingly, reactionary. In 20 galleries that are intended as an introduction to British art for the general public, about 500 works of art including paintings, sculpture and drawings are hung chronologically from the 16th to the 21st centuries. This is art history as it used to be taught before it was hijacked by academic theorists. Every gallery is labelled by the date of the art shown in it, and just in case anyone might think the redisplay is temporary, those dates are set into the floor in large gold letters at the entrance.

In The Times, Rachel Campbell-Johnston, notes the lack of descriptive labels:

The loser looks set to be the student armed with his or her art history book. The labelling is minimal. There is nothing to guide you through major art movements. And so what, to the expert, might seem delightfully risque, may feel confusing to the novice.

The curators' answer is simple - use your eyes.

Ah, the great label debate. I've never understood why people get so worked up over a long and helpfully descriptive label. Nobody has to read them - they're just there for those that want to. Isn't taking away all background information a rather punitive thing to do?

Even Brian Sewell is relieved to see Tate's 'historic collection' back on the walls after so long hidden away. It's undeniably the case though that there is now less space for 'old' art than there was before. As Sewell concludes, when finding whole galleries at Tate Britain devoted to individual 20th Century artists:

With this intrusive silliness, Tate Britain is divided into one third for its historic possessions, and two-thirds for its infinitely weaker holding of recent-modern and contemporary art.

Such a division is extraordinarily and inexcusably unbalanced.

Notice to "Internet Explorer" Users

You are seeing this notice because you are using Internet Explorer 6.0 (or older version). IE6 is now a deprecated browser which this website no longer supports. To view the Art History News website, you can easily do so by downloading one of the following, freely available browsers:

Once you have upgraded your browser, you can return to this page using the new application, whereupon this notice will have been replaced by the full website and its content.