'Bronze' at the RA
September 10 2012
Officially Leonardo never finished his only attempt at bronze sculpture, a colossal horse he tried to cast in Milan. Officially the work here, a group of three towering figures that usually stands high on the baptistery in Florence, Italy, is by his friend Giovan Francesco Rustici. But the 16th century art writer Giorgio Vasari claimed Leonardo collaborated with Rustici on this masterpiece and here, up close, you can see that he did. One of the awe-inspiring figures has the bald head and "nutcracker" profile of a Leonardo da Vinci caricature. The whole group is like one of his sketches cast in metal. He surely shaped this eerie work of genius, with Rustici modestly acting as technician.
If the label says 'Renoir'...
September 10 2012
...then it must be by Renoir, right? You can buy it here on 29th September.
'Fake or Fortune?' preview - is this by Degas?
September 7 2012
Here is a little clip about the first programme of the new series of 'Fake or Fortune?'. The programme is all about a painting which may, or may not, be by Edgar Degas. The programme will be broadcast next Sunday, 16th September, at 6.30pm on BBC1. Viewing is of course compulsory for all AHN readers.
The two subsequent episodes, on paintings which may or may not be by Turner and Van Dyck, will be shown at 7pm. Apparently there's some drama on the 16th which is taking priority. Clearly, BBC schedulers don't recognise TV gold when they see it.
Ps, the picture we are standing in front of is by Titian. So we could be in a Degas and Titian sandwich.
Van Dyck and Tapestry
September 7 2012
Picture: Tate/Lord Sackville/National Trust
Regular readers will know that I'm slightly obsessed with Van Dyck. So allow me to recommend a fascinating article online at Tate by Simon Turner which looks at Van Dyck's relationship with the Mortlake tapestry workshop. Turner builds on the theory that Van Dyck may have first been invited to England, in 1620, specifically to design tapestries, an intriguing idea which has some merit, especially when one sees the fluidity of handling and composition of The Continence of Scipio [Christ Church Picture Gallery, Oxford], one of few pictures we now were painted during Van Dyck's first brief stay in England. The article also reproduces a tapestry [above] featuring Van Dyck's Self-Portrait with Endymion Porter [Prado] in what was most likely its original frame (the one around it now is later, and entirely lacking in oomph). A similar frame is still to be found around Van Dyck's last Self-Portrait.
Jeremy Hunt's legacy
September 6 2012
Picture: Geoff Pugh/Telegraph
Two contrasting views of the former Culture Secretary's legacy, first from The Guardian's arts correspondent Charlotte Higgins, who asks:
Why has Hunt been so loathed? [...]
But when it came to the crunch, there seemed to be very little nurture in the air: quite the opposite. While few in the arts would have argued that the culture budget should have been immune from necessary public spending cuts, there was a particular unpleasantness in the manner in which the 30% cuts to the arts were handed down in 2010: presented as a 15% cut to "front line" services – a false division (front line/back office) if ever there was one. Then there was the sudden, immediate, brutal culling of the UK Film Council and Museums, Libraries, Archives Council: while few would have argued that either were model organisations, the ruthlessness with which they were despatched reeked of ideological fervour rather than considered action. In short, people began to suspect that Hunt's priority had been to wield the axe with an efficiency that would endear him to his superiors rather than to "support, nurture and encourage the arts". The early rhetoric looked, in retrospect, like a conscious decision to attempt to "decontaminate" brand Tory, rather than borne of any real conviction. The sense of betrayal – the rhetoric set next to the reality – has been enormous.
Phooey. I've not picked up much sense of betrayal, beyond the usual perennial whingers in the arts world. Major museum directors, for example, were pretty happy with the damage limitation fight undertaken by Hunt, and Ed Vaizey (who deserves most of the praise), with the Treasury. Nobody liked the MLA, and the Film Council's merger with the British Film Institute makes sense. In terms of total funding available to the arts, the overall budget cut was just 11% - that's less than the police. I realise that in the regions the cuts are much more painful, but that has largely to do with the sclerotic funding arrangements between regional museums and local government.
Here's a more balanced view from the Museum's Association's Maurice Davies:
In retrospect, we may come to see former culture secretary Jeremy Hunt as a friend to culture. With the help of arts minister Ed Vaizey, he largely managed to restrict cuts in the spending under his control to 15%.
He also protected free admission to national museums, retained Renaissance funding for regional museums and increased the share of lottery money going to the arts and heritage. (He began to try to strengthen philanthropy, but was badly undermined by idiotic Treasury views that donating to charity is a form of tax-dodging.)
Higgins of course did not mention the biggest culture success of the government to date - the enormous increase in Lottery good cause funding to the arts and heritage. We have already seen the benefits of this with mega grants for paintings like the Manet at the Ashmolean. (Forgive me if I mention, again, my small part in formulating this policy, I'm rather proud of it!).
Selling contemporary art, New York style
September 6 2012
Giant Warhol sale - everything must go!
September 6 2012
Picture: Sally Holland/CNN
Only, not all at once. The Andy Warhol Foundation has announced that it will sell its entire Warhol collection through Christie's. It has, however, wisely decided not to flood the market, and the sales will be eked out. From AFP:
The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts announced Wednesday it will disperse its entire collection of works from the ground-breaking pop artist through sales and donations.
The profits will be used to bolster the foundation's grant-making activities, with Christie's entering a long-term deal to market the works.
"Christie's will conduct phased sales over a period of years using multiple platforms, including single artist live auctions, private sales and continuing online auctions, bringing a wide range of Warhol's art -- much of which has never before been seen by the public at large -- to existing as well as new collectors worldwide," a statement from the two partners said.
Great coup for Christie's. Whoever sealed that deal needs a big bonus.
The un-pretending Pretender
September 5 2012
Picture: National Portrait Gallery
I recently noted a spurious portrait of Cardinal York, borther of Bonnie Prince Charlie, in Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh, an erroneous identification which, to Jacobites, is sad enough. But sadder still is the National Portrait Gallery's curious reluctance to re-identify their own portrait of Cardinal York as him. They call it 'Portrait of a Cardinal formerly known as Cardinal York'. The sitter was long known, correctly, as Cardinal York, but for some strange reason was downgraded amid general confusion over the identity of Jacobite sitters. I sought to untangle this confusion in a British Art Journal article some four years ago, and showed that the NPG picture clearly was York. The noted Jacobite scholar Professor Edward Corp agrees with me - but still the identity remains incorrect on the NPG website. How much longer must it remain wrongly listed?
You can read my BAJ article by downloading a PDF here.
The Olympic Effect
September 5 2012
The Museums Journal has some interesting statistics on London museum visits during the Olympics:
Museums in London suffered dramatic falls in visitor numbers in the run-up to the Olympics, with some as much as 40% down on last year.
Central London was the worst hit: the British Museum lost 169,970 visitors in July, while the number of visitors to paid-for exhibitions at Tate Modern and Tate Britain fell in the first week of August.
The number of visitors to the National Portrait Gallery fell by 58,461 in July compared with 2011, while the National Gallery had 40% fewer visitors in the first week of August.
In west London, the Natural History Museum reported about 8,000 fewer visitors during June and July.
In south-east London, the National Maritime Museum, part of the Olympic equestrian arena, changed its opening hours to encourage spectators to visit the museum but still lost 11,167 visitors in July. It did, however, welcome an extra 63,356 visitors in June.
We'll get the full picture when figures for August are available. But these numbers certainly tie in with my experience of museums during the Games.
New Culture Secretary appointed
September 4 2012
We're having a government 're-shuffle' here in the UK. Jeremy Hunt has taken over from Andrew Lansley at the Department of Health, which means that Maria Miller has been promoted to Secretary of State for Culture. Maria used to be the Minister for Disabled People, and before that was Shadow Family Minister and a shadow education minister. She has also served on the Trade and Industry Select Committees, and on her website describes her political interests as 'Housing / Education / Media'.
Perhaps the first thing to note here is that at least the Culture department remains - there were rumours of it being axed. We do not yet know if any of the current DCMS team will remain, such as Arts minister Ed Vaizey.
Curious fact - it's the first time I haven't been on first name terms with the Culture Secretary or Shadow Culture Secretary since 2005.
Chatsworth to sell Raphael drawing
September 4 2012
Bloomberg reports that the Duke of Devonshire is to sell a Raphael drawing and two illuminated manuscripts this December. The sales will take place at Sotheby's in London, where the Duke is also Deputy Chairman. The drawing is a study for an Apostle in Raphael's Transfiguration [Vatican]. The estimate will be £10-15m.
In Russia, a giant Durer jigsaw puzzle
September 4 2012
Apparently it's part of an effort to strengthen in Russo-German relations. Which picture would you send to a country to enhance diplomatic relations?
Into the lion's den?
September 3 2012
Picture: Wallace Collection
Association of Art Historians chief executive Pontus Rosen has kindly asked if I might submit a paper on connoisseurship at the AAH 2013 conference. Here's the blurb for the session:
Although increasingly viewed as a retrograde and deeply conservative art historical methodology, notable by its absence from many recent art historical ‘readers’ and ‘critical terms’ texts, connoisseurship has indisputably played a formative role in the development of the discipline. While connoisseurship defines itself as the rigorous formal and visual analysis of art works, since the 1970s the ‘new art histories’ have levelled accusations of myopia, the employment of loaded value judgments and the creation of an impermeable canon thus casting the practice as an anachronism. The figure of the connoisseur has long been a trope visualised in ‘high art’ and satirical renderings, which often point to the slippage between the connoisseurial gaze and scopophilia, suggesting the exercise of an aestheticising gaze over both art and femininity, a concern central to feminist critiques of traditional connoisseurship.
The increasing material focus in art historical writing, influenced by the ascendancy of material culture studies, however, engenders the need to reassess the role of connoisseurship and its relevance and potential function in progressive scholarship.
This panel invites papers that examine:
- key figures in connoisseurship
- the historiography of connoisseurship
- the visualization and hagiography of the connoisseur
- its strengths and weaknesses as a methodology
- its function in academic discourse; its relationship to the art market and the museum
- and its role, if any, in future scholarship.
We invite papers considering the connoisseur and the practice of connoisseurship from all periods and locations and encompassing a broad range of critical perspectives.
Sounds a bit scary. Should I go into battle on behalf of retrograde conservatives everywhere? Or save myself the armour-hiring fee? Anyone prepared to come along as my Sancho Panza?
Update - a reader writes:
Sounds great! I love the way they take 'conservative' as automatically bad ... in fact it's not just conservative, it's 'deeply conservative' (all the way to to the bottom?). But wait, now 'material cultural studies' - a safely new sub-discipline - means that we might be able to re-assess. I think comparing, say, Berenson's writing with that of someone like Griselda Pollock might give a different view of which 'canon' is impermeable!
Another reader writes:
On connoisseurship, I am pleased to leave study of feminist critique, and the purchase or Mr Hirst's pictures, to others, on the basis that it reduces competition in the more fulfilling pursuits of looking at, studying, and buying, pleasing, if conservative, pictures. A similar approach can be applied to football, politics and the culture of celebrity.
And another reader says:
A bit of a worrying delight in polarisation for its own sake.
I thought all that divisive aggression had to be put to one side once Art History degrees became the preserve of the likes of Prince William and his wife.
Are we not able to have a ‘broad church’ whereby a putative connoisseur is also prepared to do a bit of the old marxist sociology / anthropology / economic theory too?
Prince William did Geography in the end. Another reader writes, splendidly:
Your correspondents make some interesting points, but they risk being put on the back foot by the question.
The important question isn't conservative vs unconservative art, or 'right' v 'wrong' connoisseurs exactly, but art history as a human science, whether it's Rembrandt or Jeff Koons.
Every painting was painted at some point in time by somebody. In the whole scheme of human understanding it is more useful to know the answers to these questions than not, not least for the knock-on effect on our understanding of so much else.
Is it better to know that The Execution of Maximilian is as a record of a shocking recent event, craftily rejigged to make a personally risky attack on Napoleon III his own Head of State, by an artist who had witnessed firing squads in the streets of his own city? or is it enough to call it 'Nineteenth Century School 'Shot at Dawn' and spawn a lot of freewheeling studies that tell you more about their writer than what they're writing about?
Even the most rabid something-ist would agree we need to know a few basic details about The Execution of Maximilian. Where would they draw the line? All works of art sit in the middle of a similar web of people, philosophy and events. Who says, stop looking now, that's enough? It's interesting they drag in scopophilia, as 'voyeurism' - conjuring an image of some pervy print-collector in a Daumier. Skopeo, 'I look' in Greek, is a respectable word in science, and this anti-connoisseurial movement reminds me of the Inquisition ganging up on Galileo's telescope.
The backbone of every science, natural and human, is the what/when/how. No intelligent person in any other empirical discipline would believe that speculation was more valuable than pursuit of the truth. And no intelligent person should see art history as other than an empirical discipline.
Clearly, this reader should have his own blog.
Wrong on so many levels
September 3 2012
Video: Leonardo da Vinci Equestrian LLC
A US company is offering 'original' casts of a sculpture they say is by Leonardo. The casts derive from what the company calls a 'rapidly detoriorating' beeswax sculpture which was attributed to Leonardo some years ago by Professor Carlo Pedretti. Despite the apparently fragile condition of the beeswax sculpture, which remains in a mysterious private collection in Switzerland, a mould was (recklessly?) taken by a business consortium with the intention of selling reproductions. This mould, which is now being hailed as 'the original mold' of Leonardo's sculpture, now belongs to a Mr. Richard A. Lewis of Indianopolis who, through a Las Vegas company called Art Encounter, is offering 'original' casts in bronze for between $25,000 and $35,000. The whole operation has been blessed by Leonardo scholar Professor Carlo Pedretti, who has declared the casts to be 'perfect, perfect, perfect!'. However, he evidently has not told them what the word 'original' really means.
The revered 'original mold' and casts will soon be embarking on a 'world tour' (er, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, New York and London) this autumn. The casts are available in four limited editions of 996. Sign up to buy yours here! More news reports here and here.
Update - a reader sends me this note from the College Art Association (CAA) on the ethics of making such casts. It concludes:
Posthumous castings from finished bronzes, unauthorized casts such as those made as a result of work being in the public domain, enlargements unsupported by verifiable instructions from the artist, posthumous translating of a carving into bronze, or work in any material other than wax, terra cotta, and plaster that is bronze cast for the first time, are undesirable.
The CAA is always keen to present itself as the mother of all art historical bodies, and even calls for legislation to protect the principles in its casting guidelines. Should the CAA have a word with the makers of these casts, or even Professor Pedretti about his involvement?
Update II - an interesting response from a sculptor here.
Why connoisseurship matters, ctd.
September 3 2012
Picture: National Gallery
Curious story in The Sunday Times yesterday about the National Gallery's St Jerome (c.1496) by Albrecht Durer. Apparently, the organisers of the Early Durer exhibition in Nuremberg think it isn't by Durer. The National Gallery paid £9.4m for the picture in 1996. More details when I get them.
#Eastwooding in Art History
August 31 2012
Picture: National Gallery
The Cecilia Prize
August 30 2012
This is fantastic - you too can have a go at restoring the famous Ecce Homo. Can you do a better job than Cecilia Gimenez?
Why connoisseurship matters, ctd
August 30 2012
Before I write a more considered defence of why connoisseurship matters, let me see if I can get away with this reductio ad absurdum - how would art history work if we didn't know who painted anything?
Update - some interesting reaction to this. Art historian Dr Matt Loder tweets:
Isn't there a marked difference between "knowing who painted something" & "connoisseurship"?
I don't want to read too much into Matt's tweet - but perhaps here we see the extent to which connoisseurship has acquired its extensive baggage - be it to do with taste or whatever - which in turn has helped make the word controversial. I define, or perhaps should say, want to re-define, connoisseurship at its most basic level, that is a close examination of the object. From this can come the skill of getting to know the work of artist well enough to be able to tell, with the aid of science and documentary evidence where relevant, whether or not they made the work in question. Therefore, in order to certainly know who painted something, we must exercise a degree of connoisseurship. Or, we may have to rely on the connisseurship of someone else before us. Art historians may all now know that Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window is by Vermeer, and one of his most famous works. But once it was thought to be by Rembrandt - and that is why connoisseurship is a vital and basic skill in art history. I make no greater claims for it than that.
However, another reader writes:
As a medievalist I'm frequently confronted by works which have no clearly attributed artist. Some artists are distinctive by particular stylistic traits and can be termed "the master of such and such", but many remain anonymous. Although this restricts our knowledge of artistic development, it does not diminish our appreciation of the works that have been produced.
If anything, might it liberate our perception of each work in its own right, rather than as part of an overall body of work related so significantly to personality? Surely the world would breathe a sigh of relief if we could remove the attribution from Damien Hirst's dot paintings?
Just a passing thought!
Now that's an interesting thought on our friend Damien, but alas even for him I would always be interested to know who painted the spot pictures (ie, not Damien!). The fact that Hirst did not paint them, but merely came up with the concept, tells us a great deal about him, his art and the society that buys it, exhibits it and appreciates it. It is, if you like, a form of inverse connoisseurship - but still the key question is - who created the work and how did they do it?
Turning to the medieval point, although I certainly agree with the 'we can still appreciate them' line of argument for anonymous works of art, I don't think that should stop us trying to find out more about the artist. The desire to move away from 'personality' is where modern art history has taken its cue from much of modern history. Here, if I may, I'd like to repeat an argument I made in our recent 'Finding Van Dyck' exhibition catalogue at Philip Mould & Company:
From about the late 1970s onwards, art history as a discipline saw a considerable reaction against connoisseurship, and by extension the whole question of making attributions based on visual evidence. In essence, the study of the object, be it a painting or a sculpture, became less important than the study of its context. Some art historians went so far as to declare the very notion of authorship irrelevant, their thesis chiming with the growing trend amongst historians to turn away from the study of the individual (not to mention the rise of literary criticism). As a result, both art history and history as disciplines increasingly focused on identifying other elements that determined historical and art historical ‘outcomes’, be they economic, social, or gender based, in a headlong quest for generalisation. And since connoisseurship inevitably involves a detailed biographical study of an individual artist, connoisseurship as a skill became less valued. The shift of emphasis in both history and art history is best reflected in their respective historiographies – modern historians wrote fewer biographies, and art historians wrote fewer catalogue raisonnés.
Some art historians may not like a personality-led approach, and some may. I fall unashamedly into the latter group, just as in my work as a historian I am happier focusing first on the actions of individuals. To explain why, I can do no better than to quote one of my heroes, Kenneth Clark, who said when revealing himself to be a 'stick-in-the-mud'; 'Above all, I believe in the God-given genius of certain individuals, and I value a society that makes their existence possible.' If that's what a stick-in-the-mud is, then count me in.
On this point, a reader writes:
As a lifelong art “appreciator” but no connoisseur, my favourite game is to go into a gallery and see what I can recognise – and then of course read up on the info to learn from my mistakes: I have to know who created everything. And yes Gombrich has helped to educate me.
Also having fun with a book I ordered accidentally on Amazon (trying to find another by same author) “Masterpiece” by Thomas Hoving where the curators of the Met. have shared their game of bringing along a small detail of a painting and making others in the team work out where it is from (and improve their connoisseurship). Beautifully printed too with nice scholarly essays at the end of the book, on each of the paintings from which the details are derived.
Yes please go into lit. crit. and history teaching – I was so badly taught that it has taken me until (almost) retirement to start reading it for pleasure – shocking really.
Another reader writes:
Interesting debate and I have a partial answer to your question. As an artist I'm a big fan of Constable's sketches and the insight they give into his approach to the more 'finished' studio work. If no one knew who painted either then I for one would be the poorer for it, so in that sense I appreciate the connoisseurship behind the attributions...
Finally, art historian Edward Goldberg gives this invaluable view of the whole debate (which is really worth reading):
There has been a recent flurry of posts on various websites focusing on the state of “connoisseurship” today. I have been reading them with a mixture of frustration and nostalgia: Frustration at the generally overwrought tone of the discourse; Nostalgia because “connoisseurship vs. the new art history” brings back so many memories.
When I returned to the States in 1980, after finishing a D.Phil. at Oxford with Francis Haskell on Medici art patronage and collecting, I took up my first (and presumably last) university post—in the Fine Arts Department (as it was then known) at Harvard University. And I tumbled head over heels into a raging controversy—one that I never even knew existed.
There was a fight to the death between the old-line “object-oriented” art historians (a.k.a. “connoisseurs”) and the younger “contextual” art historians (like myself). It was one of the most poisonous academic environments that I have ever seen outside of Italy and there were many external agitators stirring up trouble. (I even received an “anonymous” threatening phone call at two in the morning from a distinguished member of the Departmental Visiting Committee!)
By the time I left Harvard in 1987, however, the “discourse” had shifted and I was dodging the political correctness commissars, not the connoisseurs, in American academe. “History of patronage and collecting” had been reclassified as elitist and insufficently theoretical. The defining moment came when The Art Bulletin sent back a proposed article accompanied by a bizarre ideological diatribe. What gave me the right to discern “quality” in art, thereby implying that some objects—and by implication, some people—were “better” than others? Etc. Etc. Etc. (I published the article elsewhere, by the way.) It seemed a good time for me to go back to Florence and back to the archives—where I have been ever since.
I have always been committed to the essential role of “connoisseurship” in art history, but without silliness and mystification, of which there is far too much. (For the record, I prefer “visual analysis”, but the “c-word” doesn’t drive me crazy.) For those of us who wish to rehabilitate this body of skills and practices, it seems a mistake (strategic and otherwise) to put so much emphasis on one-off identifications—attributional magic tricks, so to speak. When someone states, point blank, “This is Raphael because this is Raphael (full stop).”, it trivializes a complex and subtle process –and it doesn’t do nearly enough to help us understand the work of art.
I find it far more interesting when a “connoisseur” says something like, “I saw your picture. It looks like Bergamo or Brescia to me, not Venice, probably a little later than your are thinking. Have you considered those two altarpieces in San Giovanni in Alto and Santa Maria in Basso? Why don’t you put your picture in the middle and see what you can do with them?”
I personally see “connoisseurship” (or “ trained visual analysis” ) as the engine that powers art historical research of many kinds (needless to say, I am thinking primarily of Western Art from the 13th through the 19th centuries). It puts us on the ground in a particular place and time; it starts us thinking about the terms of the commission and the use and meaning of the object; it tell us where we should start looking for documentation. And so on…
A Kandinsky on the block
August 30 2012
Christie's have bagged a big 'un for their forthcoming modern art sale in New York - Improvisation No.8 by Wassily Kandinsky, which is expected to fetch up to $30m (but will surely make more). The previous Kandinsky record was set back in 1990, at $20.9m. More here.