Guffwatch - junior edition
March 6 2014
I don't know who came up with this series, but it's great.
Update - two readers kindly tell me it is by Miriam Elia - see more excellent examples here.
Update II - Miriam has annoyed Ladybird books, who have demanded that she pulp them. More here.
Connoisseurship strikes back (ctd.)
March 6 2014
Early last year I mentioned here the forthcoming Authentication in Art conference to held this May in The Hague. I noted then the apparent lack of any mention of the 'C-word' in the programme, but I'm pleased to see now that it features a great deal. The conference will be held over three days, and speakers include Prof. Martin Kemp. They kindly asked me to speak, but I decided against in the end. I see, by the way, that the fee for the conference is 700 Euros! Ooph.
Much cheaper, and more convenient for those in Blighty, will be a forthcoming one day conference on connoisseurship organised by the Paul Mellon Centre in London. 'Connoisseurship Now' takes place on Friday 2nd May. I will be giving a paper headed 'Why Connoisseurship Matters', and other speakers will include Dr Stephan Deuchar (director of the Art Fund and former director of Tate Britain), Hugo Chapman of the British Museum, and Dr Martin Myrone of Tate Britain. Should be fun. Book now!
PS - do you think connoisseurship matters? If so, do help me write my paper by telling me why... Equally, I'd like to hear from you if you don't think it matters.
Update - a reader writes:
The Mellon Centre event looks interesting... but it's nowhere to be seen on their website (even though they have stuff on events happening much later, in July). Do you think it's because they are themselves deeply ambivalent about connoisseurship?
Don't think so! I'll ask the PMC to put the details up soon.
The Grumpy Art Historian sends a link to some heartening E H Gombrich quotes he found recently in a short pamphlet called Art History and the Social Sciences. Among them this:
"[the basic skill of art history is] the ability to assign a date, place, and, if possible, a name on the evidence of style. I know no art historian who is not aware of the fact that this skill could not be practised in splendid isolation. The historian of art must be a historian, for without the ability to assess the historical evidence, inscriptions, documents, chronicles, and other primary sources the geographical and chronological distribution of styles could never have been mapped out in the first place."
A reader wonders if the word 'connoisseurship' itself is the problem:
I think there is a struggle to hand as the general run of art and art-history theorists believe that connoisseurship needs to be locked away in a cupboard (probably dark brown 18th century gothic revival) and not mentioned.
It’s an enormously important area and I wonder about finding another name for it so that ordinary folk don’t get frightened off... ?
I like the word myself personally. But I agree that in other senses the word 'connoisseur' has very snobbish connotations, especially when it comes to defining 'taste'. But this is in fact a corrupt use of the word, for when applied to the skill of working out an attribution it makes perfect sense, deriving as it does from the latin 'cognoscere', which means 'to get to know'. Connoisseurship, therefore, is simply 'getting to know' (say) the style of Van Dyck.
Another reader addresses the 'science' issue:
In your recent blog you asked for views on connoisseurship. Perhaps an obvious point but one which does not seem to be stressed much is that science i.e. proof of facts such as pigment identification, dendrology etc. can only really be used to prove unequivocally that a painting is not by a given artist. (I do not include fingerprints or handwriting in this which are subjective fields and, speaking as a lawyer,I know how woeful the track record for these is. ). Whilst science may contribute towards a positive identification it is hard to see how it could ever do so unequivocally on its own. So long as positive identification is desired therefore connoisseurship will be essential. Or am I being simple minded?!
Another reader sends this further analysis:
Their isn't any certain recipe for attributing a work of art about which a doubt exists or should exist. Connoisseurship is a tool in authentication and attribution. It isn't the only tool, but it is an essential one.
If one thinks of a hierarchy of authentication: first is a signed work with documents that show that it was by a particular artist, science that validates the materials, and a provenance that can trace this particular piece to the artist, which only leaves the possibility of intentional fraud by the owner who could have substituted a copy with the right materials for the original.
After that all of the tools of authentication must be applied to the work.
Provenance - documentation and historical support.
Scientific examination - of the pigments, canvas, wood, and other materials.
And then Connoisseurship.
In general, scientific data can only disprove an attribution. It can only show that a work could not have been created by a particular artist or in an positive sense, that it might have been created by a particular artist. Even a work on a piece of canvas cut from the same larger piece of canvas as a work by Vermeer could be (admittedly unlikely but still possible) by a contemporary, but for an artistic examination of the work itself.
If documentation is lacking and the work passes the other tests, and probably some which I have overlooked, connoisseurship is still necessary.
Two identical or similar works of the same vintage are often by two different artists and could pass other tests including provenance, both possibly having had the same original owner who wanted a copy, and ultimately it is style, brushwork, peculiarities of signature or other indicia (Strong noted how dates were indicated), and the other elements of connoisseurship that can attribute (provide an informed opinion regarding) the authorship.
Like science, connoisseruship isn't a proof of anything only a statement that a particular artist could have created, might have created, or is very likely to have created a work. It can also suggest that there is evidence to disprove an attribution.
Then, when there is a individual work, aside from deliberate fraud which is a separate topic, there is the question of whose hand created it or which parts of it which, in the absence of other proof, requires connoisseurship.
But this still only an informed opinion. A great difficulty with connoisseurship is assessing the agenda and qualifications of the expert. There are both professional and financial pressures at work here. And the expert is only a human.
Why consider connoisseurship, because the scientific tools are also inconclusive, and C adds evidence to build an opinion. The work, in general, must speak for itself. Res ipsa loquitor.
Update II - an artist writes:
As a painter the bit I'm always troubled by is something that is rarely spoken about in the art world - some experts are colour blind and some others have no spacial awareness and that's why for many it's easier to talk about scientific analysis and provenance, without looking at the picture concerned and asking basic questions about why, what's achieved and how.
Sometimes with a collector one can tell what their strengths and weaknesses are from the art they collect and that's true also with gallery owners who choose and put on exhibitions - I can think of several who I think might be colour blind! (I won't name anyone) But 'experts' are opaque about their abilities / prejudices and preferences. And frequently they are unable to either explain decisions or engage in debate about these decisions. I can understand why they back off - especially if the other party has a financial incentive to prove a picture.
I'd happily try to devise an exam in practical skills in which experts could demonstrate their understanding and sensitivity to line, colour, texture, composition, sculptural qualities and pattern. Maybe a if an expert could analysis - for example which colours he/she can see in a shade of grey or do a quick sketch to demonstrate their understanding of the work they are looking at, this would inspire greater confidence in them.
Who gets what if the Scots leave? (ctd.)
March 6 2014
Picture: Daily Record
A few months ago, I wondered how an independent Scotland would approach the question of its, and the rest of the UK's, art collections. I also raised the issue of what happens with the current UK-wide export controls. Now, in The Art Newspaper, David Black also asks 'will the Scots sack the British Museum?'
If we really are talking about a national divorce in this case—and let’s not forget the polls tell us it is highly unlikely—it would be difficult to see how the thorny issue of a division of spoils could be avoided. The pain could, however, be mitigated if the institutions themselves, unlike our politicians, could begin to consider one or two preliminary ideas, at least in abstracto.
The outstanding collection of around 1,400 Old Master drawings and prints that the British Museum acquired from the estate of the Scottish clan chief John Malcolm of Poltalloch in 1895 could certainly be the subject of a cross-border concordat. This single acquisition, which includes important works by Michelangelo, Leonardo and Verrocchio, among others, raised the museum to the same level as the Louvre overnight. There is no reason why these could not, from time to time, be shared with Scotland on an agreed loan basis.
Similarly, the Tate could release a number of drawings by William Blake that have a Scottish provenance. Even the British Library could help out. It is something of an anomaly that it holds the country’s most significant collections of Pictish and Celtic survey drawings, most of them Scottish. It would hardly be much of an intellectual sacrifice to send them north.
On the other hand, even if Scotland does opt for independence, the subject may never come up. I contacted the office of the Scottish government’s culture minister, the SNP’s culture spokesman in Westminster and the Scottish National Party press office in Edinburgh to ascertain their views on the matter. I have yet to hear from any of them. Perhaps they don’t much care—in which case the curators of Millbank and Great Russell Street can probably rest easy in their beds.
I wish I could be as relaxed about the possible outcome, but I have to say I'm not so sure. I've recently moved to Edinburgh, and my feeling is that there may well be a 'Yes' vote in September. Of course, art will come way down the list of priorities in any subsequent negotiation, so there's a risk things will be rushed through. I have no idea what they'll want to do with the Royal Collection, for example. Incidentally, I see on their website that the Royal Collection Trust is a 'company limited by guarantee registered in England and Wales'.
Beltracchi - the Movie
March 6 2014
Here's a new film about Wolfgang Beltracchi, the German forger whose works ended up in Sotheby's and Christie's, selling for mega money (more here, here and here). It's in German, and at the beginning we hear Beltracchi boasting that Leonardo 'isn't difficult'. Given that Beltracchi's fakes of second rank modern German artists were in fact pretty rubbish, I don't believe for one second that he could fool anyone with a 'Leonardo'. At the end of the film he claims to have made over two thousand fakes.
Getty book collection online - for free!
March 6 2014
Very cool. Says the Getty:
The books in the Virtual Library come from three of the Getty’s programs: the Getty Conservation Institute, the Getty Research Institute, and the J. Paul Getty Museum. The over 250 offered here today—and the many more we will continue to add into the future—represent a significant portion of our publishing list. Still, they are just a modest part of what is becoming an important, informally networked library, spread across multiple institutions and spanning thousands of years of art historical knowledge. Our virtual library proudly joins those already created by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim, LACMA, and others. We hope you will explore and use them all. The books they hold are treasures meant for all, and now easier than ever for all to access and enjoy.
Search the virtual library here.
For overseas readers...
March 5 2014
Some cunning fellow has just uploaded my recent Culture Show Special, The Lost Portrait of Bonnie Prince Charlie, onto You Tube. Catch it quickly before it gets deleted!
What have the Hanoverians ever done for us?
March 4 2014
I was slightly surprised, after all my recent Jacobite and Stuart hurrah-ing, to get an invitation from the German embassy to 'celebrate' the 300th anniversary of the Hanoverian succession. There seems to be a concerted effort to remind us what a Good Thing the Hanoverians were, with the Georges branded 'Glorious', and a whole new exhibition soon (11 April) at the Queen's Gallery on 'The First Georgians'. Says the Royal Collection:
In 1714 George I ascended the throne as the first British monarch of the German House of Hanover. With the dawn of a new dynastic age came a silent revolution – one of the most dramatic periods of change across all aspects of British political, intellectual and cultural life.
To mark the 300th anniversary of the beginning of the Georgian era, The First Georgians: Art and Monarchy 1714-1760 explores royal patronage and taste in the reigns of George I and George II as a product of a time when Britain was the world’s most liberal, commercial and modern society. It brings together over 300 works in the Royal Collection from royal residences across the UK.
Should be a fine show. More here.
Clooney speaks (again)
March 4 2014
The Guardian reports that George Clooney, not content with urging the return of the Elgin Marbles to Greece, now wants the Mona Lisa to go 'back' to Italy (tho' it has been in France since 1518).
I'm a big Clooney fan, but sadly I have to report that Monuments Men, which I was so looking forward to, is a bit of a turkey.
Update - a reader writes:
If George Clooney feels so strongly that works of art should be returned to their place of manufacture, perhaps he could take this work back home with him...
March 4 2014
Malcolm Rogers is to retire in two years as director of the MFA Boston. Rogers, a Brit, has worked miracles at the MFA, and will be a hard act to follow. More here in Apollo.
Agnews to re-open
March 4 2014
Picture: Look and Learn
Great news that Agnews, one of the most venerable Old Master dealers in the world, is to re-open. The company has been bought by a new owner, reports the Telegraph:
Barely a year after the 195-year-old London gallery Agnew’s closed down, it is to reopen under new ownership. Backed by Boston Old Master collector and investor Cliff Schorer, Agnew’s is to be revived, with Old Master dealer Anthony Crichton-Stuart at the helm.
Crichton-Stuart was previously head of Old Master paintings at Christie’s in New York, and subsequently a director of Noortman Master Paintings, an art dealing subsidiary of Sotheby’s that also closed down last year. When Agnew’s closed, outgoing chairman Julian Agnew kept the company’s name, some remaining stock, and a valuable library and archive, all of which has now been sold to the new owners. “Agnew’s is more than a name,” said Crichton-Stuart, alluding to the value of prestige, without revealing its price. “It represents one of the most successful art dealing businesses in history.”
Update - a reader writes with news of the archive:
Very interesting news about the sale and revival of Agnew's, but the wonderful Agnew's archive is not part of the transaction. It has actually been (or is in the process of being) acquired by the National Gallery. The University of Manchester and the National Gallery will shortly announce a new PhD studentship to work on the archive. Even better news for students of the history of the market and collecting.
Update II - it's official, the NG just announced the acquisition of the archive for £240,000:
The National Gallery has acquired the archive of art dealers Thomas Agnew & Sons Ltd following the firm’s decision to close its Albemarle Street gallery in 2013. The archive, which dates back to the 1850s, consists of detailed stockbooks, daybooks, diaries and huge leather-bound account ledgers that give unprecedented insight into the activity of one of the world’s most important international art dealers. It complements the National Gallery’s own rich archive and establishes the Gallery as a centre of research for the study of collecting, the art market, taste and provenance. Researchers will benefit from improved access to an outstanding and little-studied collection spanning more than 150 years of history.
Agnew’s archive provides a remarkably detailed record of the activities of the firm, which during its history has had branches in London, Manchester, Liverpool, Paris, New York and Berlin. It includes the records of famous paintings that have passed through Agnew’s, including Velázquez’s ‘Rokeby Venus’ and Bellini’s Feast of the Gods. It also holds information about the company’s involvement with major collectors from around the world. Exceptionally, Agnew’s has remained a family firm from its inception and the archive includes items of a more personal or immediate nature, such as Victorian diaries of overseas trips. Letters and digital information will complete the record through the 20th century up to the end of 2013, the later material being transferred to the National Gallery in stages over the next three decades.
The archive was offered at a discounted price of £240,000, for which sum it was generously purchased and donated to the Gallery by the National Gallery Trust.
Julian Agnew said on behalf of Agnew’s, “I am delighted that our fascinating archive has found such a prestigious permanent home, where the records of the firm and of its influence on the history of taste and collecting will be available to both scholars and the general public.”
Nicholas Penny, Director of the National Gallery, said, “Agnew’s has been at the centre of the art trade for almost 200 years and importantly during the late 19th century and early 20th century when major shifts in collections between the UK and USA were taking place. As the largest and most influential dealer of its age, the information held within the archive is of international significance and has outstanding research value.”
The addition of Agnew’s archive to the National Gallery Research Centre is significant in that it is the first time the Gallery has collected an archive that is not closely bound to its own history. The Gallery will catalogue the archive, and this is expected to be completed within two years. However, the Gallery aims to make the archive as accessible as possible during that time.
Update III - the National Gallery have released the below photo. White gloves! These are the worst things you can use to handle archives. It makes it more likely to rip the paper, as you become clumsy. Clean hands please NG!
Salvator Mundi 'sold' - official
March 4 2014
Picture: Robert Simon Fine Art/Tim Nighswander
The New York Times reveals that the newly discovered Salvator Mundi by Leonard has been sold for in excess of $75m:
A Leonardo da Vinci painting discovered by a dealer at an American estate sale was sold last year in a private transaction for more than $75 million.
The painting, Leonardo’s oil-on-panel “Salvator Mundi,” showing Christ half-length with a crystal orb in his left hand, had been owned by a consortium that included the New York art traders Alexander Parish and Robert Simon.
The heavily restored painting, dating from about 1500, was bought by an unidentified collector for between $75 million and $80 million in May 2013, in a private sale brokered by Sotheby’s. The details of the purchase have remained locked in confidentiality clauses until they were revealed this week by trade insiders, such as the London dealer Anthony Crichton-Stuart.
Regular AHN readers will of course have known this news since I revealed it exclusively in May last year.
Update - more reflection on the sale, and also that of the Van Dyck self-portrait, in the New York Times here.
Is art history just for poshos?
March 4 2014
Update - in his Guardian blog on the subject of poshness and art appreciation, Jonathan Jones writes that:
[...] these days you just aren't posh if you can't talk the talk about contemporary art.
As regular readers will know, contemporary artspeak makes my brain hurt. Ergo, The Guardian, of all places, has confirmed that I am not posh. Hurrah.
Pictures re-united at Osterley Park
March 4 2014
Video: National Trust
I'm looking forward to this greatly - a Osterley Park the National Trust have re-united the house with some of the great pictures in the Jersey Collection (kindly lent by the Earl of Jersey). In the above video, the NT's new curator of pictures, David Taylor, has an amusing take on the difference between Van Dyck and Dobson. The former artist, alas, is not returning to Osterley - at least not yet. The Van Dyck self-portrait which the NPG is trying to buy at the moment was sold by the Earl of Jersey in 2009.
More here in the Guardian.
March 3 2014
I'm at home today, and manfully trying to update the blog. But BT Broadband has other ideas...
March 2 2014
Picture: The Florentine
Good news - another gallery is giving up the fight to ban photography. From The Florentine:
Attempts to discreetly snap photos of Michelangelo’s David may no longer have to stay hidden. The Accademia Gallery is taking concrete steps toward relaxing its rules regarding photos inside the museum.
At the beginning of 2014, the Accademia conducted a two-week experiment, allowing visitors to use their cameras, smartphones and tablets as they pleased. Flash photography was still forbidden and visitors were reminded that their images were restricted to personal use.
Museum director Angelo Tartuferi explained, ‘Over the course of this experiment, we noticed many significant, positive consequences from this relaxation of the rules; museum visitors, tour guides, and, most importantly, our security staff took note of these as well.’
In the past, members of security staff have fought a losing battle trying to prevent visitors from taking pictures. There have even been public clashes between security officials and visitors who continue to photograph David after being instructed to stop.
According to the museum officials, the logic behind this initiative is that there is little harm in allowing tourists to take home a memento of their museum visit, or share artistic treasures with friends on social media. The pending change will still require visitors to be respectful and cautious in their approach to the artworks. Accademia officials have sent a letter to the Department of Cultural Heritage outlining the idea, but are currently awaiting approval.
Update - the Grumpy Art Historian doesn't like it.
Update II - Aaron Flack at Getty Iris says that 'Instagram is keeping art alive':
In fact, according to a recent Pew Institute survey, 81% of museums and galleries believe the internet and social media play a crucial role in supporting the arts. After decades of scaring potential supporters away (and missing out on the youngest generation completely) with endless snail mail and telephone marketing, smartphones and social media are providing museums like New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and Los Angeles' Getty Museum — each of which boast millions of Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram followers — a second chance at community-building.
Science and attributions - caution urged
March 2 2014
Good interview here in the Guardian with Prof. Martin Kemp (a world authority on Leonardo) about how dodgy science is sometimes used to support even dodgier attributions.
Update - a reader writes:
[...] the text makes no mention of La Bella Principessa or the wonderfully precise science (of spectral, spatial, spiritual and other type of analysis of fingerprints found in obscure places on 'old' paintings) championed by Peter Biro [who found 'Leonardo's fingerprint' on La Bella Principessa.
After all that...
March 2 2014
Picture: New Statesman
The latest New Statesman has got the wrong Bonnie Prince...
February 24 2014
...for all your kind emails and Tweets following my BBC Culture Show programme on the weekend. It seems to have gone down quite well. In Scotland at least.
I will soon post a much more detailed note on the picture, as there was lots of information we sadly had to leave out of the film.
There may not be much more from me here today though, as I've got quite a lot to catch up on.
Update - still catching up on things today, Tuesday, apologies...
Update II - I give up. Have had so much to do, and so much kind feedback, that the blog will now have to wait till tomorrow I fear. Sorry!
Update III - a reader Tweets:
please upload a new blog post, I'm getting withdrawal symptoms, thanks
It seems to have become a week off. Oops...
Update IV - nice review of the programme in The Spectator here.
Newly discovered portrait of Bonnie Prince Charlie
February 21 2014
Here's the picture I've been dying to tell you about for months, and the subject of my Culture Show programme tomorrow; the only portrait of Bonnie Prince Charlie to have been painted from life in Britain, by the great Allan Ramsay. More from me later, but in the meantime here's a nice piece in The Guardian about it.