Achtung! East German art online
February 21 2013
I've always been strangely interested in the (oxymoronically titled) genre of socialist realism. If you are too, then a new online database of East German art is worth a browse. The above picture is called 'Thalmann speaks to the People', and was painted in 1951 by Hans Juscher. Thalmann was the head of the German communist party, and was shot in Buchenwald in 1944, probably on Hitler's orders. Much was made of him in East Germany after the war.
A search in the database for 'mauer' (wall) doesn't bring up much, curiously...
What are the arts worf?
February 21 2013
Well, in the US (according to Americans for the Arts), $135 billion a year, and 4.1m jobs. More details here.
Richard Green stands up for the art trade
February 21 2013
One of London's leading art dealers, Richard Green, has issued a bullish statement on the health of not only the art trade but also of London's commercial art galleries, following the closure of Agnews, the 195 year-old art business. When announcing the closure, Julian Agnew said:
"Changes in the market and technology make a gallery no longer necessary unless perhaps you are a big Contemporary art business."
Richard Green (seen above, at the opening of his newly refurbished premises in Bond Street) has responded with a letter in this week's Antiques Trade Gazette:
[...] I believe that the Antiques Trade Gazette should make it clear that he was speaking for himself, and not for the entire art trade. [...]
Julian says that a gallery is no longer necessary because of new technology. But if you want to question whether a gallery is necessary or not, why did thousands of people come and view our recent exhibitions of Sir Alfred Munnings and Ken Howard, instead of simply viewing these exhibitions online. Why have visitor numbers to The Tate and other museums helped to make London such an important tourist destination? Many of these people are not buyers, but some are, and they all want to experience art first-hand. Technology is surely a tool which can widen our audience and possibilitites, but it does not replace the first-hand viewing experience. [...]
I believe that there is plenty of life in the art market and I note that Julian will continue to deal privately after the gallery has closed. You only have to look at the number of dealers involved in Master Paintings Week in London (June 28-July 5) to see how active dealers are in this country. Or, go to TEFAF Maastricht (March 15-24) and see how many British dealers over there are handling Old Master paintings, unviling new discoveries and giving new attributions.
'Looking at the View' (ctd.)
February 20 2013
The new Tate Britain landscape show I mentioned below is well worth a visit. I enjoyed it, especially the juxtaposition of older and newer works. The business of having 'no long descriptive labels' is still daft though, as it was precisely because I was looking at modern works (outside my usual comfort zone) that I wanted to know more information about them. I wasn't the only visitor to be found looking up details on their mobile...
One contemporary picture I greatly liked was the above Black Square 2008 by Gillian Carnegie. It's a brilliant bit of painting. Indeed, I liked it so much that I idly enquired how much such a thing might cost. The answer is... too much.
Thanks - but shame about the strings
February 20 2013
Picture: Guardian/Martin Godwin
The late Sir Denis Mahon's bequest of some 57 mainly Italian 17th Century pictures, the details of which were finalised yesterday, was an extraordinarily generous act. They have been given to six major UK galleries. You can see a slideshow of all the pictures, and where they've gone to, on the ArtFund's website.
However, the gift has come with strings attached. From The Guardian:
If any attempt is made by the host museum to charge for admission; or any item from their collection is put up for sale, the Art Fund, the charity that is donating them, can take them back.
Now, maintaining free admission and preventing deaccessioning are two laudable aims. But it seems to me that Sir Denis's conditions place unusually punitive restraints on a museum's freedom to act. Whatever one thinks of free entry or deaccessioning, it is surely in the best interests of a museum for it and it alone to decide how it wants to govern itself. If we want, as a society, to guarantee free entry and ban deaccessioning, then we should do it through legislation, not the wishes of one donor in return for some mostly interesting pictures. The fact that we have not is indicative of the long accepted principle that these decisions are best left to individual boards of trustees. I would understand if Sir Denis had said that paintings in his bequest must never be sold. But to extend that to a museum's entire collection, even manifestly rubbish copies, is surely curious.
I see that one of the recipients is the Fitzwilliam museum in Cambridge. It's interesting to note that not so long ago the Fitzwilliam was so mindful of its independence to act that it refused an £80,000 gift from the Artfund, because it would have meant displaying a a small pink logo on one of its labels.
Update - Michael Savage wonders if the terms have been broken already.
Update II - the putative 'Caravaggio', which is the subject of a lawsuit against Sotheby's, was not included in the bequest. As I said earlier, I am reliably informed that it is certainly not by Caravaggio.
Update III - a reader writes:
With regard to the “strings attached” to Sir Denis Mahon's bequest, it seems to me that he is perfectly entitled to attach whatever conditions he likes. As you point out yourself, if any museum or gallery finds the conditions too onerous, they can decline the gift. In general, if someone wants works of art to be available to everyone they can reasonably require that no fee is charged to view them. In addition if they are bequeathed to the nation, selling them sometime later frustrates the donor’s intention, so this condition seems reasonable to me. Whilst it is unlikely that major institutions would come under control of an unscrupulous asset stripper, there is no harm in putting in some defence.
February 20 2013
Picture: Philip Mould & Company
It's dream job time, everyone... Here at Philip Mould & Company, we're looking for an experienced and highly talented gallery manager. Our ideal candidate is someone who has run a busy commercial art gallery, is familiar with all aspects of shipping pictures (including import and export procedures), is an efficient administrator with a sharp eye for detail, and has an ability to multi-task effortlessly. It's a very demanding, but rewarding job. Get in touch with a CV if you think you have what it takes.
February 19 2013
Apologies for the lack of service today. I've been filming for BBC2's Culture Show. We're making a one-hour programme on the Your Paintings website, and all the good work that has come out of the Public Catalogue Foundation. The programme will be broadcast on Saturday March 9th, at 6pm, and though I can't tell you much about it now, I think you'll find it interesting. It involves paintings by Van Dyck, and me talking about Van Dyck - what more could readers of AHN want...? Happily, the main presenter is the infinitely more watchable Alistair Sooke.
Last week's episode of The Culture Show had a short piece on the history of the PCF and its origins, which is worth watching (at about 20 minutes in).
Dictionary of Art Historians
February 18 2013
A reader alerts me to the online Dictionary of Art Historians. It must be a Good Thing, as it has a photo of my art historical hero, Kenneth Clark, on the home page. The entry on Clark concludes thus:
The popularity of his television [series] and book, Civilization, made him a target for much of the New Art History historians who saw his work as traditionalist and ignoring social factors of art production.
Yet another reason to be a fan, then.
Update - a reader writes, obligingly:
On a personal note, I think anyone whose heroes include John Maynard Keynes and Kenneth Clark must be a good art historian and connoisseur -- o.k., that is probably a non sequitur, but as I gather the twitterati say WTH !
And from a UK Tweeter:
Shame the DAH misspelt "Civilisation".
Update II - I've just ordered Civilisation on blu ray. Bargain at £19.99.
Update III - I thought I was doing the Right Thing by ordering Civilisation directly from the BBC, not Amazon, where it was £2 cheaper. But now I hear it'll take seven working days to deliver, I'm not so sure. Oh for the old days, when you could actually go into a shop and buy something...
How to be an art critic
February 18 2013
In his latest review, of the British Museum's Ice Age show, the great Brian Sewell slips in a few insights in to how it should be done. Or, rather, not done:
I am compelled by the British Museum’s latest exhibition to confess that I have no business to review it. It is common for the jobbing art critic to criticise artists and exhibitions of whom and which he knows nothing, to précis and paraphrase the catalogues and press releases, and to enthusiastically adopt established aesthetic positions because he thinks them safe (many reviews of the current Manet exhibition at the Royal Academy demonstrate the point).
Others, more arrogant — Roger Fry an outstanding historical example — have only to see a work of art or craft for the first time, be it from Polynesia or the pueblos of central America, to become an instant expert in the field; even worse, writing on art, we have hosts of blethering philosophers who believe philosophy to be the key to understanding everything, and plagues of novelists and creative writers confident of their ability to interpret and judge the visual arts — the day is upon us when Martina Cole appears on BBC2’s Friday night Review Show “…talking of Michelangelo”.
Update - a reader asks:
I thought I'd ask you about what you think art criticism is good for, and what makes it well done.
I'm hardly qualified to answer. But my advice would be; read lots of Brian Sewell, and avoid Guff at all costs.
Philip Mould on British portraiture
February 18 2013
Picture: Your Paintings/Hunterian Art Gallery, Glasgow
Philip Mould is this week's guest editor of Your Paintings, and in this slideshow has selected works which help plot the history of British portraiture. Well worth a listen (and not just because Philip's my boss).
UK museums act on thefts and vandalism
February 18 2013
Interesting story in The Independent about a new network established to tackle museum thefts:
A new national organisation has been set up to allow museums and galleries to share their experiences of criminal behaviour with the police and each other, as they look to beef up security in the wake of ongoing threats to their collections.
A spate of high-profile thefts and vandalised work has left cultural institutions across the UK “on edge”, according to Vernon Rapley, the driving force behind the National Museum Security Group (NMSG), which has a reach of 800 institutions.
The group met for the first time on Tuesday in London. Representatives from about 70 institutions based around the country discussed threats facing galleries, museums, libraries and archaeological sites – and what they could do to protect themselves.
Mr Rapley, the head of security and services at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, described the group as a “self-circulating co-operative”, adding: “If the police authorities wanted to contact everyone in the museum security business in the UK they could do it at the touch of a button.”
Congratulations to the V&A, who are the main backers of the Group.
'Sacred Geometry' in action
February 18 2013
Picture: Alfonso Rubino/MLF
The 'Iselworth Mona Lisa' proponents have published a photo of their 'sacred geometry' proof that their painting is by Mona Lisa. All it prooves, alas, is that copies tend to follow originals quite closely. Probably we knew that already...
They've also apparently developed a fool-proof way to attributing paintings:
Previously, four tests undertaken by Prof. John Asmus, nuclear physicist, who digitised the brushtrokes of both paintings, established scientifically that both the 'Earlier Version' [ie, the Isleworth picture] and the 'Mona Lisa' in the Louvre would have been executed by the same artist. This brushstroke analysis identifies conclusively an artist in the same way that DNA or fingerprints identify criminals'.
More details at the Mona Lisa Foundation here.
RA Winter exhibition catalogues online
February 18 2013
The Royal Academy has published online its Winter Exhibition catalogues from 1870-1939. Well done them. More details here.
Agnews to close (ctd.)
February 15 2013
Picture: Look and Learn
When I reported that Agnews was to close after 195 years, readers asked what would happen to their invaluable archive. A reader informs me that it will definitely be sold, and that it is already boxed up, ready to go. The question is, of course, where will it go? Two centuries' worth of dealing in everything from Rembrandt to Bacon has left Agnews with what must be one of the most important - and valuable - art historical archives in the country. A likely bidder, however, is the Getty Institute in California, which has a fine provenance research centre. Of course, one would prefer the archive to remain in the UK, and it seems unlikely that it will easily get an export licence if sold abroad. But it would not be too much of a loss if it did go to the Getty - as they would soon have everything online, and open to all.
Update - on Twitter, Neil Jeffares makes this important point:
Let's update the Waverley criteria, distinguishing information from objects, [and] making online publication a condition.
The UK export controls currently only allow for a binary decision - it either stays in the country or it doesn't. Probably, in this digital world, the exporting committee should be able to allow for a foreign buyer like the Getty to give an undertaking to provide universal access, and factor that into an application.
One reader, however, would rather the archive remained in the UK:
You may know that the Getty already has microfilm copies of part of Agnew's archive, comprising stock books for the years 1852-1938.
Personally I think it would be a pity if the Getty got it - after all, how many people are going to traipse all the way over there to consult them? The Agnew's archive is the kind of essential reference resource you will want to dip into repeatedly, but briefly, year in year out. Who did they get that picture from? They exhibited such and such a drawing in 1932, but did they sell others from the same source at the same time? That kind of thing.
But you make an excellent point: nowadays if you want to acquire an important art historical archive, it really isn't good enough to expect people to plod along to your premises to examine it between the hours of 10 and 5 with an hour for lunch, under arcane study room conditions. What if you are based in Canada, and the archive is in London? At least the Getty understands that if it wants to be a leader of its kind, it has to address an audience well beyond those that can visit its reading rooms.
February 15 2013
Video: via Art Daily
The Uffizi Gallery has refurbished its Michelangelo room. Here's a video showing them moving and re-hanging Michelangelo's Holy Family (or Tondo Doni).
Doesn't look quite straight to me.
Sotheby's sued over Caravaggio attribution
February 15 2013
The Art Newspaper reports that Sotheby's is being sued over a work it sold as a copy of a Caravaggio in 2006, but which might in fact be the real thing. The vendor is apparently claiming up to £10m. The word 'might', of course, is the crucial bit here, for although the late Sir Denis Mahon said the picture was by Caravaggio, other Caravaggio scholars have said it isn't. And Sir Denis might have had a conflict of interest - he bought the picture at Sotheby's, for £50,400.
The claimant is Lancelot William Thwaytes, who consigned the work to auction in 2006; it was catalogued as The Cardsharps, “a 17th-century copy after Caravaggio’s original now in the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth”. The painting had been in the Thwaytes family since 1962. According to the claim that was filed at the end of January, Thwaytes seeks unspecified damages, interest and costs relating to the price difference between the £42,000 the painting sold for in 2006 and “what its true open market value was in 2006”, had it been attributed to Caravaggio and to be determined by expert evidence. The filing includes the claim that Sotheby’s did not undertake the necessary research and analysis prior to the work’s sale.
In a statement, Sotheby’s says that its “view that the painting is a copy and not an autograph work by Caravaggio is supported by the eminent Caravaggio scholar Professor Richard Spear, as well as by several other leading experts in the field”. Other experts who have gone on the record in support of Sotheby’s view include Helen Langdon, the Italian Baroque scholar and the writer of Caravaggio’s 1998 biography, and Sebastian Schütze, a professor of art history at the University of Vienna. In reference to Mahon’s The Cardsharps, Schütze writes in his 2009 catalogue of Caravaggio’s paintings that “the quality of the execution… rather suggests the painting to be a copy”.
So far, Sotheby's case would seem pretty strong, not least because it's very hard to sue an auction house if they make a mistake over attributions. The Terms and Conditions you sign when consigning a painting for sale effectively give them carte blanche to call a picture what they like. The only thing you can sue auction houses for is negligence - that is, say they didn't bother to do even the most basic research on a painting - and that is very hard to proove. In my experience, at least, the major auction houses usually are professional and diligent in how they catalogue pictures.
However, then Sotheby's go and spoil their case by saying:
Sotheby’s adds: “Our view is also supported by the market, which gave its verdict on this painting when it set the price at £50,400 [the hammer price plus the buyer’s premium] at Sotheby’s sale in December of 2006. The catalogue in which the painting was included was distributed among the world’s leading curators, art historians, collectors and dealers—had they deemed the attribution different to that given in the catalogue, the price realised would doubtless have reflected that.”
This is a spurious argument, and I can't believe that anybody senior at Sotheby's has signed off on it. Such logic would rule out any cheaply bought 'sleeper' ever being right. And, if the inverse is true, it must mean that when 'the market' bids way over estimate for a picture called, say, 'follower of Rubens', then not only is the market right that it is by Rubens, but the auction house must wrong in stating that it is by a follower.
The 'Caravaggio' in question here was offered at Sotheby's minor saleroom in Olympia, which is now closed. It was a pain in the bum to get to, and only the hardy and determined tended to go and view paintings there. So it would have been quite easy for the 'the world's leading curators, art historians, collectors and dealers' to miss the painting. It used to happen a lot, but sadly, for bottom-feeding dealers like me, doesn't so much these days; high-resolution online images mean most people can inspect pretty much everything on offer at auction, no matter where it is. But in the distant days of 2006 online images weren't as good as they are now, and the Sotheby's Olympia catalogues generally only had very small printed images. You can see the original catalogue entry here. So it's just not possible to use an auction sale price as proof of a painting's attribution. For what it's worth, I remember looking at the picture - and not having a clue that it might be by Caravaggio. The attribution is now also supported by, according to TAN:
[...] Caravaggio scholars Mina Gregori and Maurizio Marini; Antonio Paolucci, the director of the Vatican Museums; the curator and Bolognese art expert Daniele Benati; Thomas Scheider, a writer and restorer; and Ulrich Birkmaier, the chief conservator of the Wadsworth Atheneum.
Update - a reader asks:
A very interesting article on the Mahon 'Caravaggio' - do we know where it currently is, does it form part of the Mahon estate, which I understood was willed to the Art Fund, and on a slightly different matter, what is the news on Mahon's will, which I believe still hasn't been published?
Another reader also wonders:
Interestingly the article actually says Mahon “obtained an export licence for it that gave an estimated selling price of £10m”.
I assume this was a temporary one for the exhibition in Trapani as I don’t recollect any case before the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art. Unless of course there was no objection to a permanent export licence by the Committee’s expert adviser, the National Gallery, which, given the rarity of authentic Caravaggios in the UK, one would expect there to be.
And what has happened to it since? I notice that the Mahon pictures in the National Gallery have not yet been accessioned, they remain “On loan from the Personal Representatives of Sir Denis Mahon”.
Update II - I am reliably informed by someone whose opinion on attributions I trust entirely, that the picture is certainly not by Caravaggio.
The wrinkly Elizabeth I
February 14 2013
I feel I ought to point out a few things about the 'newly discovered' portrait of Elizabeth I doing the rounds, which has gone on display at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington. The fact that it shows Elizabeth with wrinkles has been cited as evidence of its extreme rarity. From The Telegraph:
[...] Thomas Herron, an author and English professor at East Carolina University, noted that the reason for the portrait’s obscurity may lie in Elizabeth’s efforts to control her image.
And according to Anna Riehl, author of The Face of Queenship: Early Modern Representations of Queen Elizabeth I the [...] portrait is a "rare exception in not covering up the queen's flaws”.
A 1563 draft of Royal Proclamation attempted to regulate the production and circulation of the Queen's portraits, and a 1596 order to the Privy Council commanded public officers "to aid the Queen's Sergeant Painter in seeking out unseemly portraits which were to her 'great offence' and therefore to be defaced and no more portraits to be produced except as approved by [the] Sergeant Painter."
While Herron points out that “the decrees don't specify ‘ageing’ portraits or even comment on the queen's own looks in any way”, many paintings of the time presented an eternally youthful Elizabeth. Herron also notes that visitors at her court commented upon the queen’s advanced age by the 1580s and 90s - as well as her dignified and benevolent disposition. He further observed that visitors offered less flattering descriptions.
In The Guardian, Jonathan Jones makes this conclusion about the painting:
In the new, unvarnished portrait of Elizabeth I, wrinkles-and-all, the artist has stepped over a fine line. All the accoutrements of her glamour are there, but the painter has gone just that bit nearer to the reality behind the myth than was required to give a portrait plausibility. The result is a cruel unmasking of power. Could this have been a deliberately subversive image, hidden away in the house of some rebellious lord? Here is the fairy queen, her spell broken.
Sadly, there is little we can deduce from this picture, and certainly not enough to make speculative claims of artistic subversion. First, contemporary portraits of Elizabeth I with wrinkles are not unknown. The famous Ditchley portrait in the National Portrait Gallery shows her looking quite aged, for example, though you can't get a full sense of it from the photos. Secondly, the picture above is a not particularly good workshop painting based on a 'mask' that would have been re-used many times. The features and lines, in the process of copying, have become exaggerated. Finally, the effect of the wrinkles is exaggerated by the condition of the picture, in which a greyer ground layer is coming through pink flesh tones which have both faded and been somewhat abraded.
The 1563 proclamation referred to in The Telegraph almost certainly relates to the earliest portrait type of Elizabeth as Queen, an example of which we currently have here in the gallery. The Queen evidently didn't like these portraits, which the proclamation said 'did nothinge resemble' her. They were swiflty superseded in 1563 by the Hampden portrait (which we also once had here at Philip Mould) which was much copied, and set the pattern for the remainder of her reign.
Update - a reader writes:
Yes I thought that too about the Wrinkly Elizabeth. The 'rebellious Lord' bit was like something you'd hear from a well-meaning country house guide.
That type is curious - a highly individual Ditchley variant. I've seen a few examples - probably more than any other late type, but still fewer than you ever see of Henry VIII. Strange how rare relatively Queen Elizabeth's portrait is. Where did all these corridor pictures go?
Update II - another reader writes:
Too bad you pooh-pooh this wrinkly Elizabeth as a "not particularly good workshop painting" -- I confess with head lowered that I find it deeply poignant and oddly impressive. Ah well, that is the advantage of not having any connoisseurship expertise, perhaps!