Selfie sticks banned
March 13 2015
Picture: Brooklyn Museum
There's been a lot of hoo ha in the press about museums 'banning' selfie sticks. The National Gallery in London was the latest to impose a ban. A broadcaster asked me, as an advocate of allowing photography in museums, to go on the news saying selfie-sticks should be permitted. But obviously they should not be allowed at all, just as you're not allowed to wander around museums waving an umbrella in the air. This story is about plain old common sense, nothing else.
€100k Michelangelo ransom
March 13 2015
Picture: arttattler.com (this is not the stolen letter)
Two letters by Michelangelo which were stolen from the Vatican archive in 1997 have re-surfaced, with the Vatican receiving a €100k ransom demand. More here.
Brian: The Return
March 12 2015
Good news - the Great Brian is back writing once more. Here he is on fine form on the British Museum's latest exhibition on the ancient greeks.
March 12 2015
Video: NBC San Diego
In San Diego, a fellow claiming to have a 'newly discovered' Jackson Pollock for sale at $160m invited the local news affiliate to his hotel room for a bit of publicity (above). The picture was apparently donated to a thrift store by the artist many years ago (sounds similar to the plot of that play, Bakersfield Mist). The mystery owners have had the picture 'authenticated' by... a computer programme, which said that there was a '93% chance' it was by Pollock.
Update - here's the sales brochure. The picture is described as 'Pollock.. .style'
'Salvator Mundi' at heart of art fraud case?
March 11 2015
Picture: Robert Simon Fine Art/Tim Nighswander
I learn via Marion Maneker's Art Market Monitor that the newly discovered Leonardo 'Salvator Mundi' (above) is at the centre of an art fraud case that is causing consternation among the contemporary set.
Pepper everything you read here with the word 'allegedly', but the story is this: Yves Bouvier (who runs and owns a series of 'freeports' around the world where art can be stored without incurring various taxes) has been accussed of fraud by the Russian collector Dmitri Rybolovlev; M. Bouvier was apparently meant to be buying works for Mr. Rybolovlev for a fixed 2% commission; but Mr Rybolovlev was none too pleased to discover that he had apparently been paying far more for some pictures than he had been led to believe was necessary.
One of the pictures in question is the Salvator Mundi. Le Temps in Switzerland reports that Mr Rybolovlev paid $127.5m, but read elsewhere that the painting had been sold through Sotheby's private treaty department in New York for '$75m-$80m'.
Until now, there has been no confirmation about Salvator Mundi buyer's identity.* It's great to know, amidst all the hand-wringing about the dying Old Master market (as most recently discussed here in The Art Newspaper), that Russian oligarchs are buying Leonardos...
* boast: AHN was the first to report that the painting had been sold.
Van Gogh paintings: 'turning white'
March 11 2015
Public Radio International reports that Van Goghs paintings are slowly becoming whiter. The reason why, scientists in Belgium have deduced, is the 'red lead' he used, also called plumbonacrite:
plumbonacrite is suspected to be one of the first synthetically-made paints known to man, and van Gogh was a particular fan of the stuff. In many of his paintings he used bold colors — including the red hue — which apparently degrades like a Gobstopper candy when exposed to light.
Test your Connoisseurship
March 11 2015
This one is classed as 'Fiendish'. Good luck!
Update - the answer is Goya, El Medico, in the Scottish National Gallery.
Well done to those of you who got it. But! Some of you confessed to cheating, by uploading the image to Google image search. I thought I would handily get around this problem by taking a photo of the painting myself. But those fellows at Google are so dashedly clever, that their image search still works anyway.
Trouble at Tate Britain (ctd.)
March 10 2015
In The Spectator, Jack Wakefield echoes Waldemar Januszczak's call last year for Penelope Curtis, the director of Tate Britain, to resign. Wakefield's demand follows what he says are a series of particularly poor reviews for Tate Britain's latest exhibition, Sculpture Victorious [about British sculpture in the Victorian age]:
[...] she has presided over a stinker of a blockbuster. Sculpture Victorious has been panned across the board. The Guardian’s good art critic, Adrian Searle, labelled it ‘an epic fail’ and Richard Dorment, who is not only the Telegraph’s chief art critic but also an eminent scholar of Victorian sculpture, wrote the worst review I have ever read. He takes issue with the conception — ‘an extended academic lecture …deadly dull from start to finish’; the curation — ‘these dolts don’t realise …that exhibitions … are above all visual experiences’; and the scholarship — ‘hot-air generalisations that veer between the banal …and the meaningless’.
Dorment's review is indeed a stinker, and he was particularly narked by an error in the catalogue:
To give one example: twice it is stated that Alfred Gilbert’s failure to finish a royal commission (the Tomb of the Duke of Clarence at Windsor) led to his resignation from the Royal Academy. In fact, he was asked to resign several years after that incident, when a client complained to the President of the RA that Gilbert would or could not produce a commission for which she had already paid a large advance.
The reason I know this is that I’ve written both a life of Alfred Gilbert and the catalogue of an exhibition about him at the Royal Academy. Both are readily available – but in libraries, not Wikipedia .
This is junk scholarship. The people who write this stuff have plenty of theories about art but, in my view, not the kind of knowledge that qualifies them to work in a museum or gallery.
I couldn’t care less when they to publish their low-grade, pseudo-historical twaddle in periodicals no one reads. But to see it in a catalogue published by a respected institution like Tate is depressing, because it will now be repeated over and over until it becomes the accepted view of Victorian sculpture.
I haven't seen the show, but the first review I saw, Laura Cumming's in The Observer, makes the point that alas Victorian sculpture itself can be very variable. So perhaps those who didn't like the exhibition should blame the art on show instead. And then here's Martin Gayford in The Spectator (natch) calling the show 'entertainingly barmy'.
Anyway, one eccentric exhibition is no reason to sack a director. Personally I find there's something grating about rounding on Curtis like this. It is true that exhibitions at Tate Britain have taken a new direction, and there have some been some notable casualties of the more 'thematic' approach, such as the show on iconoclasm, which was always going to be impossible to pull off (though personally I liked it). I thought an early show of the Curtis reign, Migrations, was weak. But more recently the folk art exhibition was considered a success, and must be viewed as evidence of what can be achieved when exhibitions are approached from a novel angle. Is it perhaps the case that some art critics are a little behind the times? And the latest Turner exhibition ticked all the boxes you'd expect from a Tate show.
On top of all this, we have to accept that Tate Britain itself - that is, the building - is today in better shape than it has ever been. Overseeing the comprehensive restoration of the galleries, new basement areas, and a new entrance, was a great achievement.
This isn't to say that there aren't many things old stick-in-the-muds like me (and The Burlington Magazine) consider to be wrong at Tate Britain. The much vaunted 're-hang' looks nice, but doesn't show nearly enough pre- 20th Century art; having labels with no explanatory information on them is just silly; too much art is kept in storage; the shamefully unnecessary departures of a score of talented and scholarly curators, and the consequent loss of expertise; the refusal to engage with wider debates on attribution; the insular institutional responses to perfectly legitimate requests for information (such as the latest hoo-ha over BP's sponsorship), and so on. But many of these are part of a wider institutional problem, and it's still not too late to fix some of them. We must live in hope...
Who should write catalogues raisonnés (ctd.)?
March 10 2015
Picture: Freren/Metropolitian Museum
The photo above left is the front cover of the late Prof. Erik Larsen's 1988 catalogue raisonné of Van Dyck's paintings. As you can see, it is a rubbish copy of the genuine Van Dyck self-portrait in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. In other words, the front cover alone tells you all you need to know about the quality of Prof. Larsen's catalogue.
But still that book held sway over the Van Dyck market for many years, until it was superseded by the infinitely superior 2004 Yale catalogue.
Why? Why was someone who patently had no idea what a genuine Van Dyck looked like able to pronounce on what was and what was not a Van Dyck? I look into these questions in my latest article for The Art Newspaper, which you can read online (free) here.
'A really crass, inept painting'
March 9 2015
Remember the case of the newly discovered Constable sketch (above), which made $5m at Sotheby's New York after being sold as a copy by Christie's in London for £3,500?
Well the Christie's fightback has begun. At the time of the Sotheby's sale, Christie's put out a statement casting doubt on the attribution, saying:
“We understand that there is no clear consensus of expertise on the new attribution.”
And now they have provided, to the New York Times, the name of a Constable scholar who doubts the attribution. And he doesn't just doubt it, he says the picture is not even close.
The scholar is called Conal Shields, and his Constable resumé is impressive enough - in a letter published online (in relation to another matter) he says:
I was formerly Head of Art History and Conservation at the London Institute and am now co-curator of the Thomson Collection and the Thomson Archive of Art, and fine art advisor to Lord Thomson of Fleet, whose collection of paintings, drawings and prints by John Constable is the largest in private hands.
I have been co-organiser of two Tate Britain exhibitions devoted to John Constable, one of these the official bicentennial celebration, and am presently preparing a Constable exhibition for the Royal Academy, London, the National Gallery of Canada, and the Clark Institute in the U.S.A. I am co-editor of the final volume in the Suffolk Record Society's series of Constable documents and was keynote speaker at the National Gallery of Australia's Constable Symposium. I act as a consultant to both Christies and Sothebys.
But does he have a good Constable 'eye'? I don't know, as I've never met him, and have no means to immediately judge his track record. What is curious, though, is that his reaction to the picture is so viscerally different to that of say, Anne Lyles, the former Tate curator who is recognised as the current pre-eminent Constable scholar. Where Lyles saw a fine sketch by Constable, Shields:
“could see no sign of Constable’s hand in the work [...] It’s a really crass, inept painting.”
So this is not a case of Shields saying 'I'm not sure'. He's saying that Lyles, Sotheby's, and the market in general (I heard of not a single dissenting voice when the picture came up for sale as 'Constable' at Sotheby's) is wrong, massively wrong. For what it's worth (though I claim no Constable expertise at all) I saw the picture twice before it was sold in New York, and I had no doubt it was indeed by Constable.
All this, it would seem, comes in the context of whether Christie's are in danger of being sued by the consignors of the picture when it was sold for £3,500 in London. In the New York Times piece, Lady Hambleden, the named vendor in the Christie's catalogue, says that:
[...] when she first learned the painting was by Constable, “I felt like a fool! I know it’s not my fault, but that was my first feeling.”
But she said she has no intention of suing over a work for which she had little affection and that her mother-in-law had stuffed in a cupboard for 60 years.
“It was sold under my name,” she said, “but on behalf of my children. So it would be their decision whether or not to bring legal action.”
Her sons did not respond to a number of messages seeking comment.
I don't know, but I suspect they're looking into it quite carefully. Remember, the key thing here is negligence, not whether Christie's made a simple mistake; did Christie's make all reasonable efforts to ensure that they looked into the possible Constable attribution? If they showed it to Conal Shields before the sale, and he said 'nah', then they might be in the clear, even if Shields turns out to be wrong. The recent Sotheby's 'Caravaggio' case gives us a good template of how such cases will work, and how hard it is to prove negligence against a major auction house. But it still seems to me that the special weakness in Christie's case is the presence of the £5m Claude in the same minor sale as the Constable, which was only withdrawn at the very last minute.
Incidentally, a reader kindly sent me an interesting quote from an earlier case on attribution heard in a British court, over a putative Van Dyck in 2002. Then, Mr Justice Buckley, in relation to who was qualified to make an attribution, said:
From listening to them both I understood that [the expert ‘eye’] to mean rather more than just observation. Whilst it is vital to have keen observation it is also necessary to have knowledge of an artist’s methods and style and to be sufficiently familiar with his work to be able to recognise his artistic ‘handwriting’. Even that is not all. It involves also a sensitivity to such concepts as quality, emotion, mood and atmosphere. To an extent ‘eye’ can be developed but, like many other human attributes it is partly born in a man or a woman. Were it otherwise there would be many more true experts.
Very true, m'lud.
Update - a reader writes:
It may be the inherent nature of the blog that it is quickly written but assuming that you want your opinion to be taken seriously I would query your claim of 'no Constable expertise at all' and yet have 'no doubt that it is by Constable', whatever Shields says!
Nobody should take me seriously.
Ed Miliband - 'release the paintings!'
March 9 2015
Picture: Guardian - storage area at Tate.
Well, I don't often say this, but hurrah for Ed Miliband. The Labour Party leader gave a speech on arts policy last week, and said that if he wins the election he will get more art out of storage and put on display. While he didn't promise any more money for the arts (no surprise there) he did say that he wants to:
[...] better use the resources we have in London.
Including do more to ensure that the works in the national collection currently in storage are able to travel to regional museums and galleries around the country.
Just as the Lewis Chessmen have inspired thousands of people around the country, we should open up objects currently in storage.
Splendid! You read the full speech here.
Sir Joshua Reynolds, art vandal?
March 9 2015
Picture: Berlin Gemäldegalerie
The Berliner Morgenpost reports that conservators at Berlin's Gemäldegalerie have found evidence - in X-rays - of substantial over-painting on Rembrandt's Susanna and the Elders (above). The lead culprit is Sir Joshua Reynolds, who owned the work in the 18th Century.
Van Dyck's c.1628 self-portrait re-discovered
March 5 2015
The Art Newspaper seems to have scooped a story I've been dying to tell you about for some time; the re-discovery of an important self-portrait by Van Dyck. The picture was one of the last important portraits I worked on with Philip Mould in London. Martin Bailey writes:
A self-portrait by Van Dyck that was dismissed a decade ago as a copy is now hanging in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minnesota, as an original work. The painting, which has been authenticated by experts, was quietly put on display in February, having been lent by a US collector based on the West Coast.
An unpublished paper on the self-portrait, prepared for the owner, dates the work to around 1629 and states that the attribution is accepted by four key experts: Susan Barnes, a co-author of the 2004 Van Dyck catalogue raisonné, Christopher Brown, the former director of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, David Jaffé, a former senior curator at the National Gallery in London, and Malcolm Rogers, the outgoing director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The attribution is also accepted by Patrick Noon, the head of paintings at the Minneapolis museum.
The work is particularly important because it is the self-portrait by which Van Dyck wanted to be remembered. The artist produced an etching of the image in 1630 for the frontispiece of his book Iconography.
The late Oliver Millar, another co-author of the 2004 catalogue raisonné, dismissed the work as “possibly a very early copy”. He assumed that the original painting was missing.
When the self-portrait was put up for sale at Lempertz in Cologne on 12 May 2012, it was described as a “copy after Van Dyck”. The auction house estimated its value at €30,000 to €40,000. The painting fetched €512,000, showing that at least two bidders were reasonably confident that it was by Van Dyck.
For a Van Dyck anorak like me, finding this picture was as good as it gets. Working on it was like being in art historical heaven.
The unpublished paper referred to above was written by me, and I'll share further details with you soon. There's a great deal to discuss. I think the picture was probably painted in late 1628. A few quick additional points:
The Art Newspaper mentions that the late Sir Oliver Millar 'dismissed the work' - but in fact when he saw it at an Agnews exhibition in 1968 he pretty much accepted it. Indeed, although the picture was little known and only exhibited once, it was continously published as 'a Van Dyck' right up until 1999, and it was only in the 2004 Catalogue Raisonné co-written by Sir Oliver Millar that the picture was first doubted.
I'm not sure why Sir Oliver changed his mind, but it was probaby due its pre-conservation condition; it had been substantially over-painted, and was also really quite dirty under old varnish. I believe Sir Oliver was perhaps also misled by the gold chain, thinking that chain was that given to Van Dyck by King Charles I, and that the portrait must therefore be an English-period work (that is, in the section of the catalogue that he was responsible for), dating to after 1632 - when Van Dyck's technique was rather different. In fact, I linked hte portrait to a a gold chain Van Dyck was given earlier, in 1628 by the Archduchess Isabella in Brussels, when she appointed him her court painter. This was Van Dyck's first such official position, and in the picture he is proudly removing his cloak to show off the gold chain. Before the picture was cleaned, it was hard to discern the implicit downward movement in the hand and the drapery.
Other interesting things to note include a prominent pentiment around the hand, which showed that Van Dyck had originally gripped the cloak in a very different manner, and a distinctive application of two layers of ground for the head, which helps give the picture part of its force. It's an incredible portrait to look at in the flesh, and has great presence. What a pleasure it was to work with Philip Mould in his gallery with it - sometimes we would treat ourselves and hang it next to the later Van Dyck self-portrait we also had in the gallery (the one which was bought by the National Portrait Gallery last year).
In fact, although the NPG's picture has now become rather famous, it was this earlier self-portrait that was until relatively recently perhaps the defining image of Van Dyck. It was the portrait he chose to be printed for his series of engraved portraits, which he called the Iconografie. It is best known in the famous unfinished etching below.
The painting was also engraved by Paulus Pontius in a double portrait with Rubens. You can see an image of that engraving here.
The photo below shows me with the painting and the Rev. Dr Susan Barnes, who co-wrote the Van Dyck catalogue raisonneé in 2004. I went to show her the painting in New York a couple of years ago - for me, that was a very special moment.
Finally, the provenance is fascinating; I was able to establish that the picture was almost certainly in the collection of a prominent Flemish collector, Jan-Baptiste Anthoine (d.1691) - it is listed in his 1691 inventory; 'Een contrefeijtsel van Van Dijck met eenen mantel in de handt' ['a portrait of Van Dyck with a cloak in his hand']. We know Anthoine marked his pictures with a wax seal - and although the picture has long since been re-lined, we did find the remains of a red wax seal on the back of the original canvas.
During the research into the provenance, I found that the above painting in the Royal Collection by Jacob Formentrou (fl.1640-59) called simply 'A Cabinet of Pictures', which was thought to be a random assortment of paintings, in fact shows a large number of works from Anthoine's collection. (All of this requires much more time to set out, so I'll have to revisit it for you. I'm afraid this is a rather rushed post.) And if you look closely at the little portrait under the Crucifixion by the doorway, you'll see the Van Dyck self-portrait. You can zoom into the painting on the Royal Collection website here. Anthoine was very interested in Van Dyck it seems, and owned a number of works by him. He also had his family portrait (below) painted by the 'little Van Dyck', Gonzales Coques, [which portrait is also in the Royal Collection] in which he and his family are seen recreating various Van Dyck-ian poses.
The really odd thing is that the Formentrou cabinet painting hangs at Hampton Court Palace, where I used to live (well, I lived in the park at Hampton Court, not the palace itself). And whenever I went round Hampton Court, which was often, I would look at the tiny depiction of the 'missing' Van Dyck self-portrait, and say to myself, 'one day, I'd like to find that picture'. And then one day I saw it in an online auction catalogue, described as 'after Van Dyck'. The chase was afoot. The gods of art history move in mysterious ways...
Update - a reader alerts me to the blog of Darren R. Rousar, a sharp-eyed visitor to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts who wrote about seeing the picture back on 10th February. He took some good-ish snaps of the painting if you want to see some details. I'm afraid I don't have a good photo that I can publish.
Update II - Iconografie, by the way, is the name of my new company. I'll tell you more about it soon.
Detroit de-accessioning after all
March 5 2015
After all that... The Detroit Institute of Arts will sell this still life by Van Gogh. The sale is not, says director Graham Beal in The Art Newspaper, related to the recent bankruptcy case, but part of the normal de-accessioning process to help buy better art. That said, they might have waited a year or two...
Update - the Association of Art Historians tweets in response:
Don't brew tempest over minor work. You seem to suggest DIA can't develop its collection responsibly.
Which is, erm, slightly over-reacting a little. Is there such a thing, in the public's eyes, as 'a minor' Van Gogh painting? In other words, might some people be a little confused that, after a fighting a highly public battle about not selling paintings, the DIA then announces that it's selling a painting by one of the most famous painters on the planet? Such questions are very far from suggesting the DIA 'can't develop its collection responsibly'.
Rembrandt and the Royals
March 5 2015
Flicking through my new online subscription to the Art Newspaper, I saw the above photo of the Dutch king Willem (left) opening the Rijksmuseum's leg of 'Late Rembrandt'. And it made me wonder when the last time the Queen opened an exhibition in the UK. It's been a while, hasn't it?
When I'm king, it won't be possible to open any exhibition without first inviting me.
Update - a reader writes:
Quite: when did any of our Royals last patronise ANYTHING cultural?? - honourable exception being the Duchess of Cambridge and the NPG - with many congratulations to Sandy N. But honestly - only horses, elephants, Olympics (quite right) but never a concert, exhibition, play anything of what most would call "culture" - alas. Although I do like the Freud portrait!
Update II - another reader writes:
I’m not sure that the Queen ever “opens” exhibitions; rather she “views ”them either officially or unofficially.
I did see the Duke of Edinburgh at an early morning “view” of the Leonardo ex in the N.G .He’s rather shorter than one would imagine.
Anyhow the King of Holland can easily park his bike outside the Rijksmuseum. Try doing that in Trafalgar Sq.
By the way; just where are you in the line of succession?
Rembrandt and the meaning of life
March 5 2015
Here's a lovely tale in the Mirror: a dying woman was able to gaze at her favourite painting, Rembrandt's self-portrait (above) after the Dutch charity Ambulance Wish Foundation made the necessary arrangements. The Kenwood House picture is currently in Amsterdam at the Rijksmuseum for the second leg of 'Late Rembrandt'.
'Rubens and his Legacy' at the Royal Academy (ctd.)
March 5 2015
Picture: National Gallery
The reviews of this show have tended to be a little underwhelming, but I must say I thought it was really rather good. You should certainly go if you can. Yes, there may be a relative dearth of 'great' Rubens paintings, but the show is packed with lesser known gems by Rubens, with many oil studies - which for me is where we often see Rubens at his virtuoso best. It was more interesting, I thought, to see works one isn't familiar with. And I greatly enjoyed seeing the very plausible links made between Rubens' work and those of other artists, from his contemporaries to much more recent artists.
On his blog, Neil Jeffares took issue with the thematic element of the show, which it is true is perhaps a little too contrived. It certainly doesn't do the catalogue any favours here. I think Neil's wider points about what can go wrong with exhibitions are spot on.
There was one curious aspect to the exhibition - many times, reference was made to Rubens' celebrated portrait 'Le Chapeau de Paille' (above), and that work's omission from the exhibition was a notable absence. The labels explained that the portrait 'is not able to travel'. But it lives just down the road at the National Gallery! I can't easily understand why such a painting can't be very carefully taken less than a mile across London, from one climate controlled place to another. It's always struck me as a picture in quite good condition. Personally, I'd take it in a cab...
Update - also in the RA show is a small Rubens panel discovered in Oslo by the curator of the exhibition, Nico van Hout, back in 2012. For earlier AHN on that story see here. Having seen the picture, I think there can now be little doubt that it is indeed by Rubens. So well done him.
Cleaning the 'Battle of the Boyne'
March 5 2015
Video: Irish Independent
The National Gallery of Ireland is cleaning Jan Wyck's enormous painting 'The Battle of the Boyne'. The work is being done in the Great Hall at Malahide Castle, from where fourteen members of the Talbot family sat down to breakfast before taking part in the battle. None returned. More here.
Women in picture framing
March 4 2015
Picture: Musée des Beaux-Arts d’Angers
There's a fascinating entry on the Frame Blog by Jacob Simon, king of all things frame-related, on the role of women frame makers. Goes right back to the 17th Century.
The above picture was unknown to me; it's by Louis Adam, called Emile.
March 4 2015
The latest issue of The Art Newspaper is out, and it has two articles by me on the great defining issues of our age: who should write catalogues raisonnés; and, why taking Sotheby's to court over that putative Caravaggio was a bad idea.
Neither article is yet online, so you'll have to buy the paper!
PS - if anyone knows where I can buy a copy in Edinburgh, please let me know...
Update - I just took out a subscription to The Art Newspaper - it's just £85 a year for both print and full digital access, a great bargain for what you get. For some reason I thought it was more - I must have got it muddled with something like The Burlington. AHN'ers, sign up here!