21st Century

The Hirst 'record' that wasn't

February 9 2015

Image of The Hirst 'record' that wasn't

Picture: Christie's

Colin Gleadell of The Telegraph alerts us to an interesting Damien Hirst coming up for sale at Christie's on Wednesday (11th Feb), called Lullaby Winter. The pill cabinet was sold in New York on 16th May 2007 for $7.4m, but, says Gleadell, was never paid for. Having guaranteed the lot before the 2007 sale, Christie's were obliged to take ownership of the piece themselves. Now it is on offer with an estimate of £2.5m-£4m.

Will Christie's recoup their investment? Last time around, the piece was estimated at $2.5m-$3.5m, and the guarantee was probably at around the lower estimate. So if the piece sells at the lower estimate this time, Christie's are ok. I bet you it does sell - a failure would be too alarming for the value of everyone else's Hirsts. 

The current Christie's catalogue makes no mention of the 2007 sale, or the buyer's failure to pay. But of course, the 2007 'price' has remained on the Christie's sale database all these years, helping to bolster other Hirst works.

Can we judge what effect the apparent $7.4m 'sale' had on the Hirst market in 2007 and subsequently? At the time, $7.4m represented a new auction record for Hirst, more than doubling the previous record of $3m for a pickled sheep sold at Christie's in 2006* (according to a list of prices on the Blouin Art Sales Index).

Speaking to Bloomberg at the time, Sotheby's Oliver Barker said that the apparent high price fetched by Lullaby Winter made the owner of a comparable work, Lullaby Spring, keener to sell:

'The record prices for Damien are all for his sculptural works,' he said. The price Christie's got for Lullaby Winter made the owner of Lullaby Spring more willing to sell, according to Barker.

Lullaby Spring was estimated at £3m-£4m when it was sold on 21st June 2007, and fetched £9.65m - a figure that was duly hailed as 'a new auction record' for Hirst, indeed for any living artist. As far as we know, the buyer of Lullaby Spring duly paid up. But if Lullaby Winter doesn't do well on Wednesday, they may be wishing they hadn't...

Actually, if I was the owner of Lullaby Spring, I'd already be worried that Christie's are not more confident in marketing Lullaby Winter. Surely, with the current contemporary art boom showing no signs of flagging, Lullaby Spring should be on the block for more than £2.5m-£4m.

Inevitably, there's some good guff in the catalogue note for Lullaby Winter, which says, with unintended irony:

As with so much of the artist’s work, the pill cabinets are fundamentally about our sociological need to construct belief systems out of nothing, about our need to come to terms with the often-mysterious fabric of existence. Lullaby Winter addresses this need and the aesthetic allure of the pills is rendered useless in the face of their unknown medical purpose, as Hirst reminds, ‘we have to simply believe that somehow our ills will be cured.’

That's the contemporary art market in a phrase there folks - 'simply believe...'

* People from the future, I am not making this up.

Update - a reader writes:

I think Damien Hirst must spend most of his day giggling uncontrollably at his skill in fooling people endlessly…

Update II - I've done a little more digging on how the Hirst 'record' was reported in 2007. Here's The Guardian:

new records were also set by the British artist Damien Hirst whose rise to pre-eminence as one of the world's most profitable artists continued with the sale of Lullaby Winter for $7.4m. The work, a rainbow-like arrangement of pharmaceutical pills set in a frame against a metallic background, had been expected to sell for less than half that amount.

Here was the FT:

If a visitor to London’s vibrant cultural scene were seeking a metaphor to describe the crazed buoyancy of the contemporary art market, here it is. The past couple of weeks have seen further records tumble for contemporary artists at auction, including Hirst’s own, when “Lullaby Winter”, one of his medicine cabinet altars, sold for $7.4m at Christie’s New York. [...] Hirst, who has already amassed a personal fortune of £130m, according to this year’s Sunday Times Rich List, is hotter, and richer, than ever.

Here was the New York Times:

Damien Hirst's prankish selections of "things" displayed in cases or dipped in glass tanks holding a formaldehyde solution made a spectacular progression, jumping from $3.37 million - given in May 2006 at Christie's New York for "Away from the flock, divided" - to $7.43 million paid this week for "Lullaby Winter," a title describing the parody of a medicine cabinet.

And here was The Art Newspaper looking at the wider Hirst price levels around that time:

Rumour has it that the Doig record was like a red rag to a bull for those in the Damien Hirst camp, while devotees of Lucian Freud thought that the senior painter was the rightful title-bearer. Since an auction record usually leads to a rise in prices for all the artist’s works, dealers and collectors (and a growing number of hybrid dealer-collectors) have a major stake in such accolades because they can have a serious impact on the value of their inventory.

Not surprisingly, last June at Christie’s in London (a few months after the Doig record was set), Freud’s Bruce Bernard, a connoisseur’s picture from 1992, knocked White Canoe off the top spot by selling for £7.9m ($15.7m). The next night at Sotheby’s in London, the sombre Freud was whacked off its pedestal by Hirst’s Lullaby Spring, 2002, which sold for a whopping £9.7m ($19.2m). Most importantly, Hirst grabbed the coveted worldwide title, which Johns had held (on and off) for 19 years.

Lullaby Spring is part of a seasonal series of four, but some 20 other large-scale pill cabinets are said to exist. Only the month before, its near-identical sibling Lullaby Winter, 2002, had sold for a mere $7.4m at Christie’s New York. Sometimes the consignor can add value; in the case of Lullaby Spring, New York lawyer Joel Mallin provided respectable, but not what one would describe as premium provenance. Some insiders pointed to the fact that Lullaby Spring’s little pills were more vibrantly coloured than Lullaby Winter’s, but the logic behind the $12m price gap lies elsewhere. Nobody understands better than an auction house that price appreciation of this magnitude is seldom intrinsic to the work.

Whereas Christie’s rarely puts all its marketing muscle behind a single work of art, choosing instead to promote a handful of lots on its front, back and inside catalogue covers, Sotheby’s marketing of contemporary works has tended to be doggedly single-minded. Much like their handling of Doig’s White Canoe, Lullaby Spring enjoyed a wrap-around cover. This time, however, their on-message communications predicted a new living artist auction record. In both cases, Sotheby’s had their reasons. With the Doig, they owned (or partially owned) six paintings by the artist, so it was imperative that this first work to hit the block should sell well. With Hirst, the logic was a little different. Since the Pharmacy sale in which Hirst made the unprecedented move of taking his own work to auction, Sotheby’s London had enjoyed a positive alliance with the artist as well as strong relationships with his primary dealers and loyal stockholders. The opportunity for a record was clear, if only they get could the right people interested.

Also worth noting is the Christie's press release for Wednesday's sale. It makes no mention of the non sale in 2007, but pushes instead the Sotheby's sale of Lullaby Spring for £9.65m, which of course was set immediately after the 'sale' of Lullaby Winter:

Damien Hirst’s iconic pill cabinet Lullaby Winter, 2002 is to be offered at Christie’s in February (estimate: £2.5-4million). Another from the series of four cabinets named after the four seasons, Lullaby Spring, sold at auction in 2007 for £9.65million, breaking the record for a work by a European living artist at the time of sale. Just as Monet painted the four seasons, Hirst captures the winter atmosphere with his assembly of thousands of beautifully hand-crafted pills. Precisely positioned on razor-sharp shelving and enshrined within a perfect, mirrored surgical steel cabinet, these pills number the amount a single human might expect to consume in a lifetime.

Guffwatch - More on those urinals

November 19 2014

Image of Guffwatch - More on those urinals

Picture: FT/AFP

Because I know you can't get enough of them, AHNers, I wrote a piece for the Financial Times on those multi-million dollar urinals, and what they tell us about today's art world. You can read it here. No podcast this time, as it was for the paper's main op-ed comment section. 

Isn't it incredible that the person who paid $3.5m for the urinals at Christie's wasn't dissuaded by the large warning sign hung beside them.

Update - Marion Maneker at ArtMarketMonitor says it's a shame I've 'succumbed to splenetic envy' about such an 'important and fascinating artist'. Well, he's perfectly entitled to think that of Gober, and in fact I'd certainly agree that he's fascinating, and even to some degree important. I can still, however, be baffled that Three Urinals is worth $3.52m. Probably, the $130,000 they made last time they appeared at auction in 1996 is about right. I don't know. I wish, as he I bet he does, that he could have scooped the full $3.52m windfall this time round himself. But I certainly I don't envy anything about his work or the contemporary art market. I merely question it. 

Anyway, Marion also says I've engaged in 'silly conspiracy theories' about guarantees. But when Christie's catalogues openly state that in the case of guarantor purchases “remuneration may be netted against the final purchase price”, it's not a conspiracy theory to ask whether prices reported always reflect what is actually paid for a work of art. Because they don't. That's a fact, not a theory. 

Update II - it's been interesting to see the reaction to my FT piece. First, those contemporarists are very touchy sometimes. It's almost like it's a cult. They assume that anyone criticising either the market or the art is criticising everything to do with contemporary art. But it may surprise them to know that I have more contemporary pictures on my walls at home than antique ones. 

Secondly, it seems very few people are aware of how the guarantor system works, even amongst those familiar with the market. One reader raises the question; if, in the provenance of a work in a sale catalogue, a price is given (as often happens) for the previous time a work sold, but that refers to a guaranor purchase, is that being misleading?

Koons goes to the Louvre

July 24 2014

Image of Koons goes to the Louvre

Picture: Christie's

Gareth Harris in The Art Newspaper reports that Jeff Koons is to have a show at the Louvre in 2015. There's probably no greater endorsement for a contemporary artist, but it probably tells us more about the museum than Koons. Anyway, standby for extensive Guffwatch in French.


February 11 2014

Image of Guffwatch

Pictures: Phillips 

Rich pickings for Guffwatch in the latest Phillips contemporary art sales, held in London yesterday. Above is Banksy's utterly pointless Rembrandt 2009, of which Phillips says:

The present lot shows Banksy’s lighthearted attitude as he attaches googly eyes to one of the most famous paintings in art history. Banksy recreates Rembrandt’s well known Self Portrait at the Age of 63 (1669) and covers the expressive eyes, perhaps what Rembrandt’s portraits are best known for, with googly eyes. This simple act undermines the painting itself and encourages the viewer to question the nature of art, creating a piece that is not only witty but visually very amusing. Poignantly, in this case Banksy has altered a work in a similar fashion to his grafti on London’s buildings. However, this practical joke is not without forethought. His appropriation of Rembrandt’s nationally beloved self portrait invites the viewer to question why this act seems so audacious, why this painting is valued so highly and, foremost, what constitutes great art. As a street artist, Banksy is no stranger to graffiti being deemed ‘low art’ or even ‘vandalism’. Consequently, he aims to subvert what we consider ‘high art’ by taking a famous painting, catching the viewer’s interest with attention grabbing googly eyes and creating a piece that is entertaining, thought provoking and progressive.

Someone paid £398,500 for that, twice the mid estimate. Wowee. And in case the buyer was concerned that the picture was just a rubbish pastiche in a crap frame (which it is), Phillips did at least sell it with 'a certificate of authenticity'. In other words, that's the valuable bit.

And there's more! For Lucien Smith's Feet in the Water, 2012 (below), which was painted with a fire extinguisher. Says Phillips:

Lucien Smith’s Feet in the Water, 2012, is part of a series of highly acclaimed rain paintings from the rising talent, whose work is becoming greatly sought after. They represent abstraction, emotion and nature with simple figurative gestures which mimic the rain, an instantly recognisable element fraught with symbolic meaning. Smith ironically pokes at this notion whilst depicting the beauty of the rain and, indeed, nature itself. The rain series was created when Smith, distracted and enclosed by the city, moved upstate. This isolation from the city allowed him to work on a larger scale and, most importantly, reconnect with nature, which Smith used as a catalyst for his art. Additionally, the time spent upstate encouraged Smith to work with different tools, in this case, the fire extinguisher. His innovative use of an old fashioned fire extinguisher filled with paint to spray his canvases is especially effective in this particular case as it physically imitates precipitation with falling droplets of paint. The effect is original and representative yet abstract, referencing the artists Smith was inspired by, from Jackson Pollock to Morris Louis. Rain as a subject matter is not only indicative of his appreciation of nature; it also illustrates a larger metaphor. Smith explains, “When I was looking through comics, I’d run across the same image of characters trapped in the rain. It’s like a universal symbolic image of being sad and alone.” (the artist Lucien Smith and Bill Powers, purple NEWS, 2012) For this reason, Smith progresses towards the use of light blue paint, as in this particular lot, because of the allusions to sadness. Furthermore, Smith noted that rain is often illustrated in light blue, which encouraged him to start using this colour. Consequently, the piece is representative of rain both physically and allegorically, whilst retaining a beautifully simplistic pictorial space.

Yours for £194,500.


February 4 2014

Image of Guffwatch

Picture: The Art Fund

A reader alerts me to this gem, which was enough to persuade the Art Fund to part with some cash* to help the Guildhall Art Gallery buy Mark Titchner's sculpture, Plenty and Progress:

At first glance, Plenty and Progress seems to embody the affluence evoked by its title: Titchner's sculpture is spectacularly glossy, bursting with a vibrant red reflected within its own mirrored surfaces. Yet a close inspection reveals that the apparent plenty is only surface deep. The sculpture isn't precious metal but stainless steel, a material of austerity, while the circularity of the work seemingly resists any notion of linear progress. The work invites the viewer to consider the issues raised, without providing any conclusions of its own.

What utter b*llocks.

My reader adds:

I wonder if Michelangelo and Raphael's tondi also resist any notion of linear progress. The last sentence is a classic of the genre.

* We're not told how much.

Update - a reader writes:

I wonder what the Guildhall Art Gallery paid for the Mark Titchner 'sculpture' - it's ironic that you should blog it on the very day you also report the export ban on the Benjamin West from St Stephen's Walbrook - which should surely go to the Guildhall if it isn't going back into the church.

Another adds:

On another topic, with respect to contemporary art such as Peace and Prosperity I prefer the old maxim "res ipsa loquitur" to the Guff that critics compose from their basket of jargon blocks.

Guffwatch - Koons edition (ctd.)

January 30 2014

Image of Guffwatch - Koons edition (ctd.)

Picture: Christie's

News that Christie's are to sell a Koons Cracked Egg in London in February brings plenty of Guff-tastic lines in their press release. Read the whole thing here. This is a good bit:

Cracked Egg (Magenta) plays with the fragile nature of the egg to explore themes of the ephemeral and the eternal. The fragments of shell emphasize the fusion of opposites, appearing simultaneously organic and synthetic, fragile and resilient. To contrast the vulnerability of the eggshell, Koons managed to perfect casting techniques that result in a mirror-sheen surface that is virtually indestructible. As the artist explains, “I was interested in the dialogue with nature and aspects of the eternal, the here and now, the physical with the ephemeral... the symmetrical and asymmetrical, a sense of the fertile …” 

In just this one paragraph we can see a whole range of the generic phrases that one needs to create contemporary art guff: 'explore themes'; 'fusion'; 'simultaneously'; 'contrast'; 'dialogue'. These are the key words any guff sentence needs, because they allow you to do the old art guff trick of combining opposites - 'the symmetrical and asymmetrical' - which sounds terrifically learned, but of course says nothing of any substance at all.

The estimate is £10m-£15m. If you buy it at even the low estimate, that's enough (with premium) to have bought the entire Christie's Old Master Part 1 sale in New York yesterday. 

Update - a reader writes:

The Koons Cracked Egg guff would have been even better if they had used "dialogue" as a verb.  Such a missed opportunity on their part.

Update II - another reader writes:

Reminded by your piece on Koons of this (below) from Lear.  As is often the case, the Fool is wise: as he says earlier in the same scene, 'Truth's a dog must to kennel; he must be whipped out....'  It's worth noting that, were one available, you could buy a First Folio for significantly less than a Koons 'Egg' (cracked or not).

King Lear Act 4 Scene 1

Fool; Give me an egg, nuncle, and I'll give thee two crowns.

KING LEAR; What two crowns shall they be?

Fool; Why, after I have cut the egg i' the middle, and eat up the meat, the two crowns of the egg. When thou clovest thy crown i' the middle, and gavest away both parts, thou borest thy ass on thy back o'er the dirt: thou hadst little wit in thy bald crown, when thou gavest thy golden one away.

Update III - a curious video from Christie's on the Egg here, in which you get an explanation of the bleedin' obvious.

Guffwatch - bouncer special

October 17 2013

Image of Guffwatch - bouncer special

Picture: Melanie Gerlis

The Art Newspaper's Melanie Gerlis reports on Twitter that at Gagosian's Frieze stand there are more bouncers than punters. Above, two guards look as they're really enjoying standing watch over Jeff Koons' Tweety Pie.

Go to Yeo

September 11 2013

Image of Go to Yeo

Picture: Johnathan Yeo/NPG

I saw the new exhibition of Johnathan Yeo's portraits at the National Portrait Gallery yesterday evening. You should go too. It's a small show, but left me with little doubt as to Yeo's talent, for many of the portraits on display are excellent. His portrait of Damien Hirst in a diving suit was given centre stage, and looked impressive, but I suspect in the long term it will suffer by association with a here-today-gone-tomorrow artist. On the other hand, his portraits of Grayson Perry in drag (who was there last night, looking bloody ridiculous in orange and yellow) and Kevin Spacey as Richard III deserve to become two of the great British portraits of the early 21st Century.

The Perry is superbly painted, and benefits from Yeo's greater than usual use of colour (hard to avoid, I guess, when your subject is in drag), while the Spacey is not only well executed, but demonstrates how a good portraitist needs more than just good technical skills - more than anything else, they have to get the overall approach to their subject right. The composition and characterisation of the Spacey portrait, for example, succesfully presents him in a suitably thespian light, but stays on the right side of being a portrayal of an actor, rather than a role. It's a portrait of Spacey as Shakespeare's Richard III, not Shakespeare's Richard III, which sounds simple enough to achieve, but you only need to look at all those hammy 18th and 19th Century portraits of actors, many by good artists such as Zoffany, to see that it isn't. 

I wonder if the exhibition will help propel Yeo onto the next level of recognition and critical acclaim (which I think he deserves). Can he step from being a society portraitist to an artist on the same level as his subjects, Hirst and Perry? That's hard for 'a painter' to achieve these days, and it's even harder for a portraitist. Freud, of course, managed it, but only relatively late on, and as I wrote some time ago, Freud, despite mainly painting people, eventually ceased being a portraitist in the conventional sense. He was a painter of flesh, one of the best ever, but not of character, and in Freud's portraits it is tempting to believe the argument that, beyond mere likeness, a portrait can only ever tell us something about the artist, not the sitter. I don't believe that this is always the case, not with artists like Thomas Gainsborough and, as I'm increasingly finding (in preparation for our exhibition here at Philip Mould & Co in November), the 17th Century miniaturist Samuel Cooper (who painted the famous 'warts and all' image of Cromwell).

Is it the case with Yeo? I think not - one can begin to feel real people in his sitters (easier, of course, when you've met some of them). The question is, how much can we know? One thing you notice about Yeo's subjects in the current exhibition is that (Grayson Perry aside) many of them are visibly enjoying themselves. And why not, you might say, for Yeo is famously good company, but one wonders whether Yeo's approach could benefit from a bit of Freudian dispassion, a sense that the artist has stepped outside his celebrity sitters' fame and studied them with a wider observation. Perhaps that's why Yeo's Grayson Perry and Kevin Spacey are so succesful. Because both subjects are adopting a role of sorts, Yeo has been able to focus on an extra dimension, the kind which, after getting the likeness, the drawing and the painting right, makes a good portrait a brilliant one. 

Guffwatch - Saatchi special

August 7 2013

Image of Guffwatch - Saatchi special

Picture: Guffwatch

Charles Saatchi is to sell a load of installation works at Christie's this autumn. As you'd expect, the Guffmeter goes off the scale in the accompanying catalogue, especially for such gems as the above 'piece' by Zhivago Duncan, which is called 'Pretentious Crap':

Pretentious Crap (2010-2011) is the remnants of a lost world reconfigured, contained within a heavy wooden and glass vitrine. We find towering rocklike formations that Zhivago Duncan has constructed out of Styrofoam and wax, and miniature railroad tracks, aeroplanes, locomotives and brightly coloured plastic monuments. Based on the fictional character of Dick Flash, the work was exhibited in 2011 at Contemporary Fine Arts, Berlin, at a show entitled Zhivago Duncan: Dick Flashs Souvenirs of Thought. The sole survivor of an apocalyptic catastrophe that has wiped out the rest of humanity, Dick Flash, a superhero persona, embarks on an odyssey in exploration of the devasted landscape. Pretentious Crap is one of Dick Flash's relics from his journey, where he has assembled former art objects in order to try and make sense of what has happened.

Embracing a variety of media that often has a gritty aesthetic associated with urban street culture, Zhivago Duncans work comments on contemporary cultural and socio-economic issues. In creating Dick Flash and these surreal recreations of a partially-remembered world, Duncan explores mankind, and the purpose of art within a postapocalyptic landscape, from a more objective perspective.

As Duncan has explained, 'Pretentious Crap is the result of the imaginary journey of Dick Flash, the worlds sole survivor of the apocalypse according to him and his legacy. Semiamnesiac, Dick Flash roams the converted world digging up the fruitful remains of his debauched ancestors. Without any recollection of his personal past, Dick Flash does, however, experience moments of epiphany, in which abstract notions of the origin of self, a collective memory, and the accumulated trials and tribulations of humanity are vaguely delineated, as revealed to him in prophetic visions'.

I think someone has had an irony bypass here.

The auction is a no-estimate, no-reserve sale. But before you think there may be bargains galore, note this nugget of Christie's small print, which is depressing on many levels: 'Extended payment terms are available on request for public institutions'. 

Sewell on the Royal Academy Summer Show

June 9 2013

Image of Sewell on the Royal Academy Summer Show

Picture: artnews.org

He doesn't like it:

In the past I have occasionally discussed the 10 best exhibits and ignored the other 1,200 or so; this year, as there are no best, I thought to choose the 10 worst, but in so universally dismal a gathering, even that has proved impossible and I have only three to offer, all in their own ways so ghastly that I must award them Equal First. They are Lorry Art, by Rose Wylie [above], a daub worthy of a child of four; Sudden Rain in Mombasa, by Mohammed Abdullah Ariba Khan, who has the impertinence to ask £1,400 for a seascape (in an ornate sham gold frame) of the kind to be expected in a Margate B&B; and The Vanity of Small Differences, Perry’s six tapestries in hideous homage to Hogarth, visually raucous and machine-made offences to all for whom the word tapestry conjures the glories of Mortlake and Brussels.

The Venice Biennale

May 22 2013

Image of The Venice Biennale

Picture: labiennale.org

I'm soon going to be covering the Venice Biennale, with Alastair Sooke, for BBC2's The Culture Show, so am trying to mug up on what there is to see. Already, however, my brain is aching. Does anyone know what this last sentence means?

“Over the years – the President [of the Biennale] Paolo Baratta explains– in representing the contemporary, our curators have developed an insight of how important it is to place artists in a historical perspective or in a context of mutual affinities, by highlighting ties and relations both with the past and with other artists of the present. At the same time, in contrast with the avant-garde period, attention has increasingly focused on the intensity of the relationship between the work of art and the viewer who, though shaken by artistic gestures and provocations, ultimately seeks in art the emotion of dialoguing with the work, which should cause that hermeneutical tension, that desire to go beyond what is expected from art.”

More here

Update - a reader writes:

Roughly translated, the final sentence reads: "It's not a load of rubbish, you just don't 'get' it."

Another reader seems to be able to make sense of it all:

"Though shaken by artistic gestures and provocations" That is to say - Even though the incomprehensible attitudes of the artist made an impact on the viewer (perhaps of fear, or puzzlement) he did not understand the artist's intent (and probably neither did we). To overcome this problem we will argue that to "understand" does not really matter - What matters is the "intensity of the relationship between the work of art and the viewer" and that the viewer should seek "in art the emotion of dialoguing with the work". In other words - Forget all the complex literature and focus on what you really think about the object in itself. 

See, it is possible to use plain English when talking in artspeak. People in the contemporary world should try it some time.

Finally, a reader adds:

Remember the mantra from Brideshead: 'Charles,' said Cordelia, 'Modern Art is all bosh, isn't it?'

BP Portrait Award shortlist

April 22 2013

Image of BP Portrait Award shortlist

Pictures: (left to right): 'The Uncertain Time' by John Devane © John Devane; 'Pieter' by Susanne du Toit © Susanne du Toit

Two pictures have been shortlisted for the BP Portrait Award. From the National Portrait Gallery press release:

The two artists shortlisted for the 2013 BP Portrait Award 2013 are John Devane for The Uncertain Time and Susanne du Toit for Pieter.

John Devane (17.08.1954) for The Uncertain Time (1720 x 2490mm, oil on canvas). 

A painter who also teaches at Coventry University, John Devane, has an MA from the Royal College of Art. He has been shortlisted for his large group portrait of his three children: Lucy, 25, Laura, 20, and Louis, 15. Painted over three years, the picture sets out to show how children emerge from childhood and begin to assert their independence revealing something of their adult selves. He says: ‘The composition suggests an almost stage-like shallow space constructed in two zones with the three figures presented as if they are awaiting some kind of event’. The artist’s key points of reference are the works of Courbet, Chardin, Degas, Balthus and Samuel Beckett. This will be the second time John Devane’s work has been exhibited at the BP Portrait Award, his In the House of The Cellist was seen in the 1995 exhibition. 

Susanne du Toit (05.03.1955) for Pieter (1080 x 830mm, oil on canvas). 

Educated at the University of Pretoria and the Massachusetts College of Art, Boston, Susanne du Toit is an artist now based in Crowthorne, Berkshire. She has been shortlisted for her portrait of her eldest son Pieter, aged 35. The sitting took place in the artist’s studio, as part of a series of portraits of her family. Susanne du Toit says she allowed Pieter to find his own pose, with the condition that his hands would appear prominently in the composition – she says she has always found hands essential to communicating personality. ‘I look to the body to provide as much expression as the face’, she says. ‘Having said that, the averted gaze of this portrait, which was his choice, struck me as characteristic of his reflective character, and became intensely engaging’. 

This year the competition received 1,969 entries from 77 different countries. 55 portraits have been selected for the exhibition (National Portrait Gallery, London, 20 June - 15 September 2013). 

Hard to say much about the pictures from the photos so far, but they both look pretty good to me. The main thing is, they're not photo-realist works. Encouraging... 

More details here.

New portrait of Maggie Smith unveiled

April 10 2013

Image of New portrait of Maggie Smith unveiled

Picture: National Portrait Gallery

The National Portrait Gallery has unveiled a new portrait of Dame Maggie Smith, and it is not good. It is, though, better than the portrait of Kate, so small mercies and all that.

The portrait of Dame Maggie is by James Lloyd. I used to be quite a fan of Lloyd. His early work, like the 1998 portrait of Paul Smith at the NPG, demonstrated inventive compositions and sharp-eyed characterisation. I even remember a long time ago, when I was working at the House of Commons, talking to him about a commission to paint Tony Blair. But sadly his most recent work is not nearly so good. His 2007 portrait of Kenneth Clarke, for example, is a poor likeness, and could be just about anyone's grandparent. You could probably say the same about his Maggie Smith too. The NPG needs to find some better portraitists, and fast. 

Christie's Online

February 25 2013

Image of Christie's Online

Pic: Christies


Tomorrow Christies will open bidding for the second batch of works from the Warhol Foundation after their decision to sell the lot last year. Intriguingly Christies have decided to offer them in an online auction over the course of one week;

"The timed online format allows clients to browse, bid, receive instant updates by email or phone if another bid exceeds theirs, organize shipping, and pay from anywhere in the world."

This eBay style of auctioneering seems to be all the rage at the moment and a few regional auction houses have also opted for this method of sale, normally for their lesser valued items such as wine as well as unsold lots. With the ever increasing overheads of large commercial spaces, this quicker method of public offering will no doubt become common ground in the years to come.

Kate's first portrait

January 13 2013

Image of Kate's first portrait

Picture: Mail

Oh dear, it is pretty awful, isn't it? And it’s so big too, which only amplifies the awfulness. When I went to see poor Kate’s new portrait earlier today it seemed I was not alone in instantly disliking it – there was much tittering and shaking of heads among my fellow viewers. That it is hung alongside some of the National Portrait Gallery’s very best contemporary portraits – opposite, for example, Michael Taylor's excellent portrait of John Tavener - further heightens the feeling that we have here a real turkey of a picture. I’m not surprised that it has been universally panned by commentators. But what I am surprised by, given that there is no shortage of good portrait artists out there, is how the NPG allowed this to happen to their new Patron.

The answer is, unfortunately, that it was probably inevitable, and for two reasons. The first is our (and the National Portrait Gallery’s) increasing obsession with photo-realist portraiture. The NPG’s main contemporary portrait competition, the BP Portrait Award, now seems actively to encourage photo-realism at the expense of traditional portraiture – indeed, the artist of Kate’s portrait, photo-realist Paul Emsley, himself won the award in 2007. The second reason, which is related to the first, is that there must have been a wish to choose a safe pair of hands for Kate’s first official portrait. One presumes that there was a desire to avoid a ‘controversial’ picture like Stuart Pearson Wright’s (brilliant) portrait of a half-naked Duke of Edinburgh holding a fly. Photo-realism allows for a safely conservative portrait, since the artist is effectively limited to just painting a photograph, one the sitter themselves can approve before anything goes too far.

The problem is, though, that the NPG has ended up with a safe but stultifyingly dull portrait, and, worse, Kate has been subjected to some needlessly negative media and public reaction on one of her first forays into the arts. Regular readers will know that I have long been unimpressed with photo-realist portraiture (to me, painting a photograph requires no more skill than photographing a painting, just more time). However, when done well there is no denying that photo-realism can have an initially impressive impact, as the viewer is allowed to feast on the minutest details of an interesting-looking sitter; the crevasses of a wrinkled face, the intensity of a dazzling eye. 

Sadly, Kate’s portrait is not only a woeful piece of painting, it’s also a woeful piece of photo-realism. There are few interesting details for us to be impressed by - indeed, Emsley himself has bemoaned the lack of ‘wrinkles’ on Kate’s face. But although the portrait relies on photographs, it nevertheless attempts a veneer of painterliness, and the result is an awkward collision between banal photography and bad painting. It reminds me of the washed out, soft-focus photos of the elderly one finds in high street studios, or, more commonly, American shopping malls. As a painting, it conveys nothing of note whatsoever, and fails entirely to bring the subject to life. The flesh tones are pallid, stale, and so unbalanced that Kate appears to be recently deceased. Visitors at the NPG need only walk three paces to their right to see, in a series of Mario Testino photos of Kate, that happily she looks nothing like Emsley's picture in real life. Emsley has tried hard, but he is out of his depth.

This painting then is a shining example of the fundamental weaknesses of photo realist portraitists. For all their attention to detail, for all the hours the artist spends standing close to the canvas labouring over a single hair, there is no corresponding sense of overall perspective, and certainly no penetrating exploration of character. The whole becomes lost in the detail. One wonders if they ever stand back and look at their portrait from afar. Might we hope, therefore, that the very public failure of this portrait leads to a reappraisal of photo-realism? 

The omens are not good. In a sense, the NPG is merely reflecting the public’s appetite for paintings that look like photographs. We are now so conditioned to looking at the world through a lens, be it in our mobile phones, digital cameras, or on the telly or in newspapers, that we expect our paintings to look like photos too. Stick-in-the-muds like me and Brian Sewell might say that a painted portrait should be the means by which we eschew the instantaneous, one-way, emotionless gaze of the camera lens. But these days too many portraitists rely on cameras, and the result is the increasing eclipse of the oil portrait done from life, in long sittings where artist and sitter could built up at least a semblance of some deeper understanding than is ever possible through photography.

The irony in this case is that there is one person who agrees with me to such an extent that he’s even established his own art school, where art students are taught the traditional techniques of the Old Masters. He is, of course, Kate’s father-in-law, the Prince of Wales.  

Update - a reader places the blame more in Kate's direction:

Wait....didn’t Kate receive a degree in the history of art not too long ago? Either her degree should be revoked, or it’s a sad testament to the quality of higher education in this country (not to mention the whole connoisseurship issue...)  Here was a good chance for her to champion all the things one hopes and assumes a history of art graduate would have learned with a unique practical demonstration of that knowledge, and all I can hear is scores of parents saying ‘we paid good money for you to study the history of art and that’s what you learned??’ 

I found the portrait pretty revolting to look at – it reminded me of a Breck shampoo advertisement from the 1960s aged to show how the sitter (missing? dead? fugitive from the law?) might appear today.

Another reader cautions:

At first glance 'Kate' is so ghastly that it transcends the Ecce Mono, and then gradually I wonder if the NPG was tricked into commissioning a conceptual, and subversive, Great Work of Art.

Update II - another reader writes:

Photorealism is an impressive style of art when painted well. However, more often than not this style of painting places the viewer's focus on the painting's technique rather than its subject (and as such, arguably emphasises the achievements of the artist rather than the sitter). 

If the aim was to make Kate's portrait seem modern and up to date then it seems a shame, with so many fantastic portrait photographers working in this country,  that the final outcome was not a photograph. On the other hand, if the aim was to produce a painted portrait for the sake of tradition and Kate's art historical background, then why not fully exploit the fact that paint is not reliant on reality alone. The result is an uncomfortable  hybrid of these two media, no doubt caused by an over-zealous attempt to express the new 'with-it' generation of royals but in a traditional manner. In doing so the painting becomes the equivalent of a postage stamp - it shows the image of the (future) queen, but not much else.

Another reader sees the influence of a recent Leonardo discovery:

I would hazard a guess that it is a rather poor attempt to make the Duchess of Cambrige look a bit like Leonardo's? Salvator Mundi. The blurry picture on the front of the weekend's newspapers made me come to this realisation.

The only real mystery seems to me to be why the expression of her lips don't seem to match the rest of her face.

Art auctions in China

December 31 2012

Video: CRI English/Dominic Swire

This film on the risks of buying art at auction in China by Dominic Swire is worth a click. Aside from some wise words from an art historian based at Peking University, there's also the views from a buyer, Zhou Benli, on what makes a great art collector:

It's really bad if a piece can't increase by 30% in value per year. If you find an artwork that goes up 100 or even 200% a year then you're a great collector. I store my paintings and don't show them to everyone because of insurance issues... It's like looking after treasure.

A reader rants

November 28 2012

Image of A reader rants

Picture: NPG

A reader writes:

Can´t believe AHN will not rant about NPG new acquisition [a portrait of Amy Winehouse]! Even I am bothered and I am not even English! It is just a bad, bad, bad picture! Painful! Really bad!

Yes, it is pretty bad. Here's the guff to go with it:

Sarah Howgate, Contemporary Curator at the National Portrait Gallery, London, said: "Dumas’s liquid handling of paint carries tremendous emotive power.

"Detail bleeds into and out of her work, directing and dispersing the gaze of the viewer. The rich, translucent blues of this portrait allude to Amy Winehouse’s musical influences as much as to the melancholy details of her career."

If I was in charge of the National Portrait Gallery, I'd have a rule against commissioning posthumous portraits. They always disappoint, usually because, as here, their purpose is overwhelmed by the circumstances of the subject's death. A portrait should be from life. The Amy Winehouse image above is just a memorial.

Hockney's riposte to the barbarians

November 21 2012

Image of Hockney's riposte to the barbarians

Picture: Guardian

With his beautifully observed sketch of the now vandalised 'totem' tree stump, David Hockney proves in one instant why he is (for me) the most adept, talented, communicative and relevant artist at work in Britain today. 

In The Guardian, Hockney said of the vandalism:

"It was just an unbelievably mean-spirited gesture," says Hockney as he creates a new sketch shown here.

The 75-year-old artist is convinced the stump was targeted because it had become possibly the most famous piece of dead wood in Britain after he portrayed it in several of his acclaimed landscapes of the countryside around his home in Bridlington. "It is something that has made me depressed. It was just a spite. There are loads of very mean things here now in Britain."

More details here.

Boom (ctd.)

November 15 2012

Video: Christie's

Alas, Sotheby's excitement at their highest auction total ever ($375m) was short-lived. Last night Christie's New York contemporary art sale fetched a record total of $412.2m. The top lot was, inevitably, a Warhol, the Statue of Liberty silkscreen featured in the video above. Another Warhol, of Marlon Brando, made $23.7m. The fact that it last sold in 2003 for $5m gives you an idea of how crazy the art world is.

Carol Vogel in the New York Times says Christie's knew they were in for a big night, because:

...in addition to a great deal of interest in the sale from collectors around the world, Brett Gorvy, chairman of Christie’s postwar and contemporary art department worldwide, said there had been a record number of requests for sky boxes — those invitation-only spaces secreted a floor above the salesroom, where the superrich can watch and bid without being seen.


NPG buys portrait of Gerry Adams

November 13 2012

Image of NPG buys portrait of Gerry Adams

Picture: Irish Times

The National Portrait Gallery in London has bought a portrait of the Sinn Fein leader, Gerry Adams (detail, above).

When should the NPG display portraits of contemporary figures? At what point in history does it decide who deserves to have their portrait included in the national collection? Should the NPG acquire and display portraits of here today gone tomorrow types, as it sometimes does now? Or should it remember that as Shakespeare wrote, 'all that glistens is not gold', and present a more discerning array of the nation's leading figures, one advised by the passage of time and not contemporary notions of celebrity, success or sanctity. If you think the former course is the right one, then there will inevitably be times when the NPG comes to regret spending public money on portraits of people it will one day have no desire to display. Because for some contemporary figures we cannot know now, with confidence, how history will judge them.

Update - a reader tweets:

I shouldn't think Gerry Adams will be wild about being included in the British NPG either!

Update II - another reader writes:

The NPG question is interesting. How much of its mandate is DNB and how much 'Who's Who'? The 'Who's Who' part is always very busy. Gerry Adams's teflon 'statesman' persona means he fits both criteria.

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