'Can Old Masters be relevant again?' (ctd.)

August 31 2016

Image of 'Can Old Masters be relevant again?' (ctd.)

Picture: Guardian

Regular readers may wonder why I get so exercised about articles in places like the New York Times that make up statistics to suggest that the Old Master is in dramatic decline. But on the Guardian website today we see how the view of a respected paper like the New York Times can quickly gain momentum, and even get exagerated. Here's Jonathan Jones' response to the Times piece:

I see a depressing feature in the New York Times claims that “old master” art has lost all relevance, is no longer of much interest to collectors, and may even cease to be sold by major auction houses.

Actually, the Times didn't say anything like that about auction houses ceasing to sell Old Masters - but you can see how easily rumours and sentiment spread. Jones (I presume) has mis-read a quote in the Times piece from Phillips auction house, which doesn't sell Old Masters (and of course has an interest in publicising its modern and contemporary wares over those of Old Masters).

But anyway, Jones then gives us his own somewhat curious diagnosis on why Old Masters have fallen so far from favour:

The reported crisis in the old master market is the inevitable result of the snobbery and elitism that has suffocated paintings for far too long. The very term “old master” is a horrible, destructive piece of pretension – what does it even mean? The custodians of oil paintings often seem to revel in the obscurity of their taste, putting on exhibitions that flaunt erudite connoisseurship and have little to say to the general public. 

Ironically, the Guardian website illustrates this piece with an image of a painting (Lady in a Fur Wrap from Pollok House in Glasgow, above) captioned as El Greco, which is of course now viewed by El Greco scholars as not being by El Greco.* But let's not flaunt our snobbish connoisseurship, for Jones has his own remedy for our Old Master woes:

This autumn’s exhibition Beyond Caravaggio at the National Gallery in London is exactly the kind of show museums need to put on. It starts with Caravaggio, a late Renaissance artist of huge modern appeal, and shows how his art influenced his time – in other words it uses him as a key to unlock art by painters many visitors won’t have heard of. Too much of the time, curators repress the universal appeal of great art by focusing on side issues and snobby footnotes.

If the National Gallery explored the most attractive artists in its collection with more big shows on Bruegel, Bosch, Caravaggio and their like, it could sell out [...] 

At this point, we wonder quite where Jones has been for the last decade or so. Exhibitions like Beyond Caravaggio have been the staple of museums for years. I don't know of any curators who obsess about footnotes over putting on a good show. All the ones I know want passionately to get new audiences into see Old Masters.

And the thing is, they're really good at it. Look at the Bosch show selling out in the Prado, and the Rembrandt show that sold out in London, like the Leonardo show in 2012. Look at the Royal Collection's highly successful tour of ten Leonardo drawings to regional museums in Britain. There are better ways to encourage people to see Old Masters than ranting against imagined snobby curators. 

Finally, Jones thinks he can see a good side to the alleged collapse of Old Master values - which is what the New York Times falsely claimed was happening:

And there’s another reason to shrug off the art market’s philistinism. If great paintings are going cheap that’s good for museums. They could actually buy a few. Meanwhile owners of great works from earlier centuries will be less likely to cash them in on the art market, which will help to keep them in places like Britain that still have a lot of old art stashed away in stately homes.

In fact, the reason more great pictures are leaving Britain than for many years (e.g. the Rosebery Turners, the newly discovered Rembrandt self-portrait, and so on) is because the best Old Master paintings are fetching sums never seen before. Many doubted that Rubens' sumptuous but challenging scene of Lot being seduced by his daughters would break its £20m reserve, but it soared to £45m, with six bidders, including three Chinese collectors. These are facts that the Guardian and the New York Times ignore. Because writing a 'new art beats old art' story is just easier.

*I was very kindly shown this picture recently by Glasgow Museums, and for what it's worth I certainly didn't see El Greco's hand in it at all. This makes it no less of an interesting and beautiful picture, one of the finest in Scottish public collections. I suspect it's closer to Sanchez Coello.

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