New proposal questions Detroit rescue plan

August 28 2014

Image of New proposal questions Detroit rescue plan

Picture: BG

The attempts to save the Detroit Institute of Arts from the bankrupt city's creditors have so far been impressive: a rescue plan has seen the DIA pledge to raise $100m from donors, including the likes of Toyota, as part of an $810m 'grand bargain' that would see the art placed in a bullet proof trust. 

But with just a few days to go before the 'grand bargain' was to be put before a court to determine its legality, those opposed to the deal (reports Mary Williams Walsh in the New York Times) have put forward a rival plan which they say would raise far more money; some $4 billion. Critics of the $810m plan say the DIA's collection (some of which belongs to the city, so is fair game for debtors) has been significantly undervalued, and reckon Art Capital's $8 billion valuation is far closer to the mark. Art Capital will lend the city the $4 billion in return for taking the whole of the DIA's collections as collateral. 

The original plan saw the DIA's collection valued by ArtVest partners (on behalf of the city) at between $2.8 billion - $4.6 billion. I presume Christie's were involved (see here and here) in this, as they had been allowed access to the museum. The two figures show how difficult it is to value art. However, ArtVest says that in reality the collections would not actually realise that much, because (according to the NYT):

Such a huge sale would flood the market, driving down prices, and Detroit’s bankruptcy might turn off serious investors, Artvest said.

This is clearly phooey, and the sheer quality of much of the art on offer would guarantee stellar prices. And how many times are we told that the one thing holding the Old Master market back is the 'lack of supply'?

Obviously, the 'grand bargain' presents a much safer future to the DIA than Art Capital's somewhat risky and open ended plan. So we must hope that Plan A succeeds yet. 

Doing 'justice to Rembrandt' (ctd.)

August 28 2014

Image of Doing 'justice to Rembrandt' (ctd.)

Picture: Liberation

I said yesterday that for some art historians, such as the Rembrandt expert Ernst van de Wetering, making sure an attribution is right makes you feel as if (as Ernst said) you're seeking 'justice' for an artist. I also said it was the case when an optimistic attribution was manifestly not right, and on cue comes this report from Le Figaro in France, where a museum in Draguignan is persisting in calling the above picture 'a Rembrandt'. The painting was recovered recently amid a blaze of publicity, having been stolen in 1999, and now, says the museum's director, the crowds are flocking to see the newly returned masterpiece (which alas is merely an 18th Century pastiche).

See the Met's miniatures

August 27 2014

Image of See the Met's miniatures

Picture: Metropolitan Museum

The Metropolitan Museum in New York is puting its best portrait miniatures on display from 29th August to 31st December, including the above Holbein of Margaret More, daughter of Sir Thomas. Due to their fragile state, such things are not often shown:

This exhibition will comprise two groups of portrait miniatures: British, from the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, and French, from the revolutionary period to the Empire. Also included are several eighteenth-century French gold boxes decorated with narratives or scenes in grisaille. All are from the Museum's permanent collection and, because of their sensitivity to light, are infrequently exhibited. Six larger paintings will be exhibited in order to consider what they may share with the miniatures and to show how they differ.

You can zoom in on Holbein's portrait of Margaret More's husband, William Roper, here.

The UK's own Sistine Chapel

August 27 2014

Image of The UK's own Sistine Chapel

Picture: Express

Did you know that a church in Worthing, Sussex, has a complete replica of the Sistine Chapel ceiling? I didn't, but it's been there for over 20 years, and now, The Express reports, it has been given a certificate by TripAdvisor, such is its popularity amongst tourists:

The masterpiece has been created by Gary Bevans, who is Deacon at the church. [...] Mr Bevans began the project in 1987 and despite never having had an art lesson in his life, he was given the go-ahead from former parish priest Father Enda Naughton and Bishop Corman Murphy O'Connor.

It was scheduled to take two years to complete but, combined with a full-time job which forced Mr Bevans to paint at night, it took much longer.

He screwed blank plywood panels to the ceiling and spent the next 66 months painting through the night with a single light on his scaffold boards to create the 500 figures.

Once the plywood had been undercoated and primed, the figures were sketched out and then carefully painted in detail using acrylic. 

I must say it looks terrific. The recreation, says the Church's website:

[...] was started by Gary Bevans, a signwriter parishioner [...] after a parish pilgrimage trip to Rome to attend the Beatification of 85 English Martyrs. Following a discussion with Bishop Cormac, Gary's request to bring 'the Sistine ceiling' here was accepted.

It is now completed at 2/3 scale of the original. The colours match the newly cleaned ceiling in Rome.

At the Mass of Thanksgiving, attended by many local dignitaries including the Duke of Norfolk and Countess of Arundel, Gary was presented by the Bishop with the papal cross 'Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice'.

Thirteen national and international TV companies have filmed the work, including CBS, ABC, BBC, ITV, Australian, New Zealand broadcasters, and recently Nippon Television International. Magazines, including 'Time' have covered it.

The Express reports that:

The end product [...] remains the only copy of the Sistine Chapel's ceiling in the world.

But this is not so, according to Peter Bellan, who wrote to The Times this morning to say:

[...] if you cast your mind back to the film The Agony and The Ecstasy, starring Charlton Heston as Michelangelo, you will see the ceiling being painted by my father, Ferdinand Bellan, one of the greatest film scenic artists. I think that reproduction was sold to a private buyer as a complete work of art, to be re-assembled elsewhere.

More pictures of the ceiling here, and on Tripadvisor here. There's a 45 minute video of the process narrated by the artist here

Update - a reader sends me the image below, and writes:

There are some rather fun re-imaginings of some of the Sistine figures at Exeter St Davids Station, executed by Bridget Green who was a student at Dartington College.

Strikes at the National Gallery (ctd.)

August 27 2014

Image of Strikes at the National Gallery (ctd.)

Picture: Guardian

In the London Review of Books, Conrad Landin reveals plans by the Gallery's room wardens to go on strike during the forthcoming Rembrandt exhibition. A new ballot on strike action has been called, and although the Gallery has taken steps to outsource security for the Rembrandt show to a non-unionised grouping, the remainging PCS staff are determined to cause disruption:

'It’s clear they’ll [the National Gallery] do anything to make sure the Rembrandt exhibition opens every day as normal, and they know we’re holding an indicative ballot for strike action,’ another worker told me. ‘They’re launching a new membership scheme at the same time, and so they’re evidently willing to go to great expense to make sure everything goes smoothly. Of course, it will still be embarrassing for them if the exhibition is open but the rest of the gallery is closed, and we’re picketing outside.’

While I recognise that uncertainty over the incoming private security contractor must be unnerving for the current room wardens, I am still suprised by their union's zeal for strike action, which surely, in the long run, has been self-defeating. It's perfectly understandable that the National should want to protect its blockbuster exhibitions from strike action (as happened during Leonardo in 2012). And now that a private security firm has its foot in the door, it won't be surprising (assuming it performs well) if it gradually takes on more responsibility over the rest of the gallery.

The recent decision by the National Gallery to allow photography saw a chorus of well-briefed disapproval from some room wardens (or their union representatives), who seem happy to act almost as a fifth column at the National. No other department at the Gallery (indeed, any UK public gallery I can think of) walks out on strike or publicly criticises the executive with such regularity. Further grievances, we learn in the LRB, include whether room wardens should be allowed to sit down (I used to think yes, until I saw a warden playing Sudoku once), and astonishingly (as The Times reported recently) the fact that the Director, Nick Penny, didn't use headed notepaper when he wrote to thank a warden for helping to prevent damage to a picture (he used a postcard instead).

'Richard Wilson' in Cardiff

August 27 2014

Image of 'Richard Wilson' in Cardiff

Picture: National Museum of Wales, via Spectator

Roderick Conway Morris, in The Spectator, has a good review of the National Museum of Wales' current exhibition on Richard Wilson, and includes this nice line by Constable:

‘I recollect nothing so much as a solemn — bright — warm — fresh landscape by Wilson, which swims in my brain like a delicious dream,’ wrote Constable of his encounter with the Welsh artist’s ‘Tabley House, Cheshire’ after he visited the gallery of that house owned by Sir John Leicester. Recalling this epiphany, Constable went on to say of Richard Wilson: ‘He was one of the great appointments to shew to the world what exists in nature but which was not known till his time.’

'Swims in my brain like a delicious dream'... I can think of few better ways to describe the mental impact of a good painting. 

The exhibition is on until 26th October. Other Wilson goodies at the moment: there's a handy interactive map (by Yale) of Wilson's travels in Italy here; of his travels in Wales here; and a catalogue of the exhibition edited by Martin Postle and Robin Simon can be ordered here. And to look forward to we have Paul Spencer-Longhurst's catalogue raisonne of Wilson's paintings and drawings (again, a Yale production).

'Another art theft in Italy'

August 27 2014

Image of 'Another art theft in Italy'

Picture: TAN

Hannah McGivern of The Art Newspaper reports another theft of pictures, this time from the Castello Sforzesco in Milan.

Update - for more on the alarming state of Italian museums, see Apollo editor Thomas Marks' account of his visit to museums in Naples recently. 

Anti-guffwatch: 'What is critical discourse?'

August 27 2014

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

Picture: via

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

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

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

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

See, it can be done!

Freud's Auerbachs go on display

August 27 2014

Image of Freud's Auerbachs go on display

Picture: Arts Council

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

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

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

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

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

Update - a reader writes:

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

Update II - another reader adds:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Building on the Frick's garden

August 27 2014

Image of Building on the Frick's garden

Picture: Huffington Post

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

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

Doing 'justice to Rembrandt'

August 27 2014

Video: National Trust

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

Mike Leigh on 'Mr Turner'

August 27 2014

Video: National Trust

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

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

Rubens self-portrait to be restored in London

August 26 2014

Image of Rubens self-portrait to be restored in London

Picture: Rubenshuis

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

Update - a reader writes:

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

Constable vs. Turner

August 26 2014

Image of Constable vs. Turner

Picture: Tate

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

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

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

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

Update - a reader writes:

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

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

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

Cleaning Edward VI

August 25 2014

Video: NPG

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

Mixing commercial and public art

August 25 2014

Image of Mixing commercial and public art

Picture: TAN

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

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

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

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

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

'Rubens and his Legacy'

August 25 2014

Image of 'Rubens and his Legacy'

Picture: National Gallery of Australia

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

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

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

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

Me in the FT

August 22 2014

Image of Me in the FT

Picture: BG

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

Update - here's a link to the article.

Update II - a distinguished Emeritus Professor writes:

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

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

Another reader writes:

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

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


Art History Comedy

August 22 2014

Image of Art History Comedy

Picture: Hannah Gadsby

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

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

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

Update - a reader sends in another old favourite:

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

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

Boom, boom.

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

Emails... (ctd.)

August 22 2014

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

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