Race to preserve post-war altarpiece

August 15 2022

Image of Race to preserve post-war altarpiece

Pictures: Guardian

Efforts to save an altarpiece by the Hungarian artist George Mayer-Marton have been boosted by the decision to grant it listed status. The Crucifixion was painted in Oldham 1955 by Mayer-Martin, a jewish refugee who had fled the Nazis in 1938. Bizarrely, it was partly painted over by a priest in the 1990s, in magnolia emulsion (image above). And recently, it has been vandalised, because the church is no longer in use. The campaign to save the artwork is being led by the artist's great nephew, Nick Braithwaite. I hope he succeeds, it looks like a fantastically important work. More on the listing decision here. More on Mayer-Marton's life from Apollo here. And a selection of his works here.

'Restitution - A Practical Guide'

August 15 2022

Image of 'Restitution - A Practical Guide'

Picture: ACE

Another sign the weather is changing in the UK restitution debate - Arts Council England have published a guide on what museums should do if presented with a claim for an item to be returned. It was commissioned from the Institute of Art & Law, and while it doesn't make any formal policy changes, the language is still interesting. For example, in the section on 'Assessing the Claim', insitutions are advised to consider how the item first came into their collection, as it is no longer deemed ethically acceptable to say, 'it was legally acquired at the time':

It is recognised throughout the museum sector today that museums must be especially sensitive to countries or communities of origin, and to past owners, in relation to cultural objects originally taken in ways considered unethical today (including during war, conflict or occupation, as well as by unlawful means or through duress). [...]

Questions to consider:

Did the removal occur in a way that was unlawful at the time or through a transactionentered into under duress or without consent (even if it occurred long ago)? If removal was illegal, the decision is often nolonger an ethical one, but a legal decision.

Did the removal occur at a time of war, conflict, occupation, famine, disease or widespread displacement of a population?

Did the circumstances through which the object was removed create particular harm and suffering that still resonate today for theclaimant?

Did the person(s) (if any) who facilitated the removal have the appropriate authority to do so?

August Burlington Magazine

August 12 2022

Image of August Burlington Magazine

Picture: Burlington

The latest Burlington Magazine is out, with articles on La Tour, Laguerre, and Lutyens. The editorial gives some tips for holiday art history reading.

'A Taste for Impressionism' in Scotland

August 12 2022

Video: NGS

There's a wonderful new exhibition at the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh looking at how Scotland and Scottish collectors were among the first to start seriously collecting the work of French Impressionist and post-Impressionist artists. The above video exlores the themes of the exhibition in more detail, and features me in my natural environment. More info on the exhibition here.

Cranach's bee baby

August 12 2022

Video: National Gallery

The National Gallery's Charlotte Wytema explains why Lucas Cranach the Elder has covered one of his angels in bees.

Digital recreation in the heritage sector

August 12 2022

Image of Digital recreation in the heritage sector

Picture: University of Reading

There's an interesting one day symposium at the Natural History Museum in October on the use of digital technologies in the heritage sector, including virtual reality (like the recreation of a virtual Rome, above). Say the organisers:

This symposium will showcase new methods by which heritage properties are restoring lost context and animating their stories in order to enhance visitor experience and engagement. All six speakers have practical experience in the application of the latest technologies to explain, educate and engage the public in a wide range of heritage attractions.  Attendees will learn about these technologies, the methodologies, the tools, the successes, the failures and the experiences gleaned from real-life projects.

Personally I think virtual reality will transform the way the heritage sector will engage with audiences. But we're only in the foothills now. The full list of speakers and more details are here.

New Sainsbury Wing designs (ctd.)

August 11 2022

Image of New Sainsbury Wing designs (ctd.)

Picture: Twitter

There's been some striking news about the National Gallery's new designs for their £30m Sainsbury Wing makeover (background on AHN here). The original architect of the space, opened in 1991, Denise Scott Brown, has called for the plans to be scrapped. She made the intervention in a call to the architectural writer Hugh Pearman, who posted the news in the below tweet.

Where does this leave us? Presumably, if anyone heeds Denise Scott Brown's call there will be a bit of a row as the development goes into the planning application process (which as far as I can see has not begun). Here's a new article in Architecture Today by Richard Pain, which calls the changes 'deeply regrettable'. It's unlikely permission will be refused by Westminster Council, and in any case time is tight - the refurbishment is supposed to be finished in time for the Gallery's 200th anniversary in 2024. But the Sainsbury Wing is already Grade 1 listed, so there may be some intervention from other parties, such as Historic England (but again I think this is unlikely).

Personally, I can see the logic in retaining the original entrance. Yes, it was a little dark and crypt-like, but that was the intention of the original architectural vision, as part of the experience before you went upstairs to the really beautiful, spacious and well lit galleries. Also, there's no doubt the Sainsbury Wing entrance today - with its in your face shop and lobby clutter - is a long way from the original vision. Perhaps we should try going back to that first.

But more significantly, it seems to me this is a battle the National Gallery doesn't need to fight, and an expense it doesn't need to incur. I find it slightly bemusing that some museums still think part of the answer to get people to visit their museums is to continually tinker with the front door. In fact, the problems of people feeling reluctant to visit go much deeper. If you've got millions to spend, spend it on that instead.

Update - the planning papers are now online, and you can see all the proposed changes in full here. Hugh Pearman has had a look, and, on Twitter, says:

The interventions into a Grade 1 listed building are extraordinarily intrusive and damaging...

John Wonnacott

August 11 2022

Image of John Wonnacott

Picture: Charles Saumarez Smith

Charles Saumarez Smith has written a new book on the British artist John Wonnacott. It's coming out on 5th September, but you can pre-order it here. On ArtUK Charles has written an article about Wonnacott's work, with illustrations of those in public collections.

Horniman Museum to return Benin Bronzes

August 8 2022

Image of Horniman Museum to return Benin Bronzes

Picture: The Sunday Times

The Horniman Museum in London has decided to formally transfer ownership of a collection of 72 items looted from Benin in 1897 to the Nigerian government. Here's the Horniman's statement. In The Sunday Times, Liam Kelly calls this a 'watershed moment', and I think that's right. This is a really significant decision, and the processes which have led to it must mean this is the first of many.

A few thoughts on why. First, the decision to transfer has been made following a request from Nigeria's National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM). In days past, one of the hand-wringing responses from UK museums was, 'well we'd love to give them back, but we've had no formal request'. That's now changed.

Second, the Horniman is a central government funded museum. So this decision has been - or will be - signed off by the Department for Culture, DCMS. There have been some instances of UK museums returning (or pledging to return, since only two items have actually gone back so far) some of their Benin Bronzes to Nigeria, but these have been regional museums, not sponsored directly by DCMS. In The Sunday Times, the arts minister, Lord Parkinson, is quoted as not necessarily approving the Horniman decision, but making it clear decisions like this are up to museums:

Lord Parkinson, the arts minister, said that it was not for government to “tell the museums what the right or wrong decision is” and that any restitution claims should be made “case by case, item by item

Parkinson added: “There are at least two sides to every argument. The job of historians and museums is to faithfully represent all of those sides and let people make their decisions. A lot of people are concerned that we rush to moral judgment about the past.

It's bad history if a nation sweeps things under the carpet and forgets them. It’s also bad history if you create new myths of wickedness and sins of the past. We have to confront the facts and learn lessons from them.

Third, this all builds pressure on the British Museum, which not only has the UK's largest collection of Benin Bronzes, but also of course many other high profile restitutable items, such as the Parthenon Marbles. For the British Museum, however (and some other major institutions such as the V&A) there are separate bars of statute preventing restitution. Recently, as mentioned on AHN, senior museum leaders like the V&A's Tristram Hunt have not only called for these laws to be reviewed, but have effectively taken the decision into their own hands with cleverly crafted 'long term loans'. While Lord Parkinson says 'the case has not yet been made' to change the law, it is hard to see how the now government-endorsed policy of 'this is up to individual museums' can be countered by 'well not that museum'.

In other words, it seems to me that the Horniman Museum and Lord Parkinson have made, or are about to make, a significant contribution to a change in UK government policy. Remember, this is a government which usually loses no time to strike a position of 'Britain first' in any culture war. So the fact that we are seeing these developments now probably does, however obliquely, herald a turning point.

One final technical point, I suspect the export licensing system, including the Waverley Criteria (by which the government judges whether cultural items can be permanently exported from the UK) will have to be amended in light of this new policy. Because all of these items will require export licences, and at the moment it's hard to see how items like the Benin Bronzes can be said not to satisfy the Waverley Criteria for blocking export. They are:

Is the item closely connected with our history and national life?

Is it of outstanding aesthetic importance?

Is it of outstanding significance for the study of some particular branch of art, learning or history?

If there is a change in the export licence system, we really will know that a nationwide restitution of these objects is finally going to happen.

"Diary of an Art Historian" (ctd.)

August 8 2022

Image of "Diary of an Art Historian" (ctd.)

Picture: BG

My latest Diary column for The Art Newspaper has gone online, here.

Van Gogh's pots

August 8 2022

Image of Van Gogh's pots

Picture: Van Gogh Huis

A new exhibition at the Vincent Van Gogh Huis has assembled as many objects as possible from his pictures, and through them has made a number of interesting discoveries:

Never before have all the everyday objects depicted by Vincent been accurately identified. Recent research by art historian Alexandra van Dongen, curator of historical design at Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, shows that a precise identification of Vincent's objects can sometimes shed new light on the possible place of manufacture and the dating of his work. For example, a very simple earthenware saucepan that appears on Still life with potatoes comes from the southern French pottery center Valuaties. It was previously assumed that Vincent painted this still life in Nuenen, but identification of the saucepan and technical research into the linen canvas indicate that Paris 1886 was the place and time of its manufacture.

More here.

"Reframing Picton"

August 5 2022

Image of "Reframing Picton"

Picture: via The Guardian

The National Museum of Wales has hit on a novel way to display its portrait of Thomas Picton, a major figure in Welsh history who was also a nasty b*stard. As Steven Morris in The Guardian reports:

After months of consultation and anguished debate, the portrait has been hung not in the museum’s grand Faces of Wales gallery but in a modest side room, and is contained in a specially built travel case made of softwood and scraps of plywood, with a strut covering the figure’s bulging groin area.

It is surrounded by vivid descriptions of Picton’s brutal treatment of the people of Trinidad when he was governor at the turn of the 19th century, including the torture of Luisa Calderón, a 14-year-old girl of mixed heritage.


More here.

The Parthenon Marbles (ctd.)

August 4 2022

Image of The Parthenon Marbles (ctd.)

Picture: BG

There was an interesting story in The Sunday Times signalling a major shift in the British Museum's approach to the Parthenon Marbles. Jonathan Williams, the BM's Deputy Director, has offered "a positive Parthenon partnership” with the Acropolis Museum in Greece. They're not clear what the partnership would involve - whether long term loans, transferring ownership (unlikely), or some sort of fudge (more likely) - but the language is I think important. It not only comes after George Osborne (Chair of the BM) saying 'there's a deal to be done' (as I wrote earlier on AHN), but because Williams himself had recently ruled out any substantial change in policy. So now we have trustees and executives at the BM both signalling they're open to a change in policy. This comes on the back of the UK government also (although more gently) signalling a change in policy, in saying the issue of the Marbles is entirely up to the British Museum, not ministers. Which, in this age of Tories never losing a chance to intervene in the culture wars, is surprising, and I think in itself revealing.

Women artists worth 10% of men.

August 4 2022

Image of Women artists worth 10% of men.

Picture: via The Guardian

In The Guardian, Mary Ann Sieghart reports that for every one pound a work by a male artist makes, a female artist makes just 10p. The figure comes from research by Helen Gorrill, for a BBC Radio 4 documentary, Recalculating Art. The Guardian story has this opinion - in my view completely correct - from the director of Tate Modern, Frances Morris:

“Women artists have fared very poorly because there’s been an unconscious collusion between the marketplace, art history and the institutions. Everybody lacks confidence, everybody’s looking for confirmation. So there’s been a sort of confirmational history, which you could call the canon. And, of course, convention and history were framed by patriarchy."

The Radio 4 documentary goes out on 11th August at 11.30. More here.

The NPGs 'Kit-Kats'

July 27 2022

Video: NPG

The National Portrait Gallery are restoring their 'Kit-Kat' portraits, the series of late 17th and early 18th century paintings by Sir Godfrey Kneller. There's a nice couple of videos about it, the first above, and the second here.

Hirst burns art

July 27 2022

Image of Hirst burns art

Picture: the Guardian

News today that Damien Hirst will something something money burn spot paintings something something NFTs money something money money money. If you're still interested, more here.

Did Neanderthals paint too?

July 25 2022

Image of Did Neanderthals paint too?

Picture: New Scientist

In The New Scientist, Michael Marshall looks at the problems of trying to date cave art, and wonders - if we've got it wrong - whether earlier hominids might not have been artists too. It turns out that not only is something of the technical analysis of cave art questionable (carbon dating, and so on) but our cave art connoisseurship might have been out too:

If a lot of the given ages are spurious, our ideas about who made the art are also spurious.

A succession of hominins have lived in western Europe and might theoretically have made the region’s cave art. Modern humans are the most recent inhabitants, having permanently settled in the region around 45,000 years ago after emerging from Africa. Before that, Europe and western Asia were inhabited by Neanderthals for hundreds of thousands of years. And before that, other hominins like Homo antecessor were around.

If all the cave art in western Europe is less than 30,000 years old, it could only have been made by our species. But in the cases where researchers like Pike have managed to get reliable dates, that hasn’t always proved true.

Back in 2012, Pike’s team showed that a red dot on the wall of El Castillo cave in northern Spain was at least 40,800 years old. That was old enough to be borderline: Neanderthals were still around, so they could have made the dot.

The benefits of copying

July 25 2022

Image of The benefits of copying

Picture: The Times

The Times' new chief art critic, Laura Freeman, has written about the benefits of not just looking at art, but copying it, even with a simple pencil drawing. She went to meet one of the National Gallery's art handlers, Tom Hemming, who sketches the Gallery's masterpieces in his lunch break:

Copying used to be the foundation stone of an artistic education. Pupils copied busts, plaster casts and the works of men who came before. The 20th century put a premium on creativity, self-expression and originality and the copy fell from favour. Derivative, slavish, stale? Not necessarily. The National Gallery’s exhibition Picasso Ingres: Face to Face shows just how inventive a copy can be. Picasso’s Woman with a Book is an outrageous reworking of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s Madame Moitessier. (“Lesser artists borrow; great artists steal,” said the quip master Picasso.)

Hemming describes the teaching at Byam Shaw as “quite . . . conceptual”. Many graduates from art school in the last 50 years would say the same. What then does copying give an artist? “Basic drawing skills,” Hemming says, “but probably even more, looking. It’s quite hard to sit for long enough in front of a painting to look as intently as you’d want to look to gain everything you’d want to gain without working through it. Drawing allows you to do that.”

More here.


Art & Protest (ctd.)

July 25 2022

Video: news.co.au

Further to my post about activists gluing themselves to museum masterpieces, a Uffizi employee demonstrates a no nonsense approach, by just pulling them off.

Waldemar on the 'immersive experience'

July 25 2022

Image of Waldemar on the 'immersive experience'

Picture: Timeout

For the Sunday Times, the Great Waldemar has been to visit some of these new 'immersive art experiences' popping up everywhere. He tried the Van Gogh one, and didn't like it:

Reader, I fled. It was all so ghastly. Having read some positive reactions to Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience, which has been “wowing visitors” in a trendier corner of London, I hot-footed over to Shoreditch expecting an improvement. Foolish me. It was worse.

The reproductions of the paintings were even less in focus. The son et lumière was even more tremulously pointless. And the storylines peddled in the surrounding info-niches even less reliable, notably the sudden claim, announced in a film, that Van Gogh was colour blind! This ludicrous suggestion, presented as a recently discovered fact, will leave hundreds of bemused visitors believing yet more porkies about poor old Vincent.


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