Previous Posts: February 2012

This is a joke, right?

February 24 2012

Image of This is a joke, right?

Picture: The Guardian

A reader has alerted me to a seemingly quite staggering story about the Tate and the V&A throwing out their photographic archive. In fact, it's so bonkers, I can't believe it. From The Guardian:

Art historians have been disturbed by allegations that the Tate was about to dump its invaluable photographic archive in a skip when another institution realised its importance and rescued it, and that the Victoria & Albert Museum has already destroyed its own thematic archive. Curators, who consider such resources vital, were not consulted.

The archives were full of photographs of artworks from their collections and beyond – crucial visual histories, invaluable for comparative research and for studying any deterioration as a result of time or restoration.

Brian Allen, director of the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, a UK educational charity with links to Yale University, expressed disbelief that the Tate, as the holder of a national collection of British art from the Tudors onwards, did not treasure its archive.

Allen says he received a call out of the blue from a "low-ranking" Tate employee, who told him: "Someone said … you might like the curatorial photo archive because we're about to throw it on to a skip."

Fortunately, Brian Allen sent some vans round to the Tate's skip, and rescued the archive. It is now safely stored at the Paul Mellon Centre. But alas, nobody was able to rescue the V&A's archive, which has been lost:

The V&A admitted dumping archival material using "a secure data disposal service". A spokeswoman denied the decision was a mistake, explaining that in removing the picture archive in 2007 to make way for new gallery space, it believed that a thematic archive "wasn't a method of classification that was really necessary any longer", as it had duplicates of photographs and digital files.

In case you were the ****** ***** *** plonker at the Tate who decided to chuck the archive out, here's why old fashioned photographs of paintings are of invaluable help to art historians.

1 - pictures change over the years, sometimes quite radically, and mainly as a result of restoration. A careful comparison between, say, a photograph of painting taken in 1935 at an auction, and the same picture today can be revealing. Sometimes, pictures lose their recent provenance, and are mistaken for copies, when in fact they are the same painting that was just over-painted years earlier.

2 - old photos often have seemingly trivial but highly useful notes on the back. This might be, for example, the view of a former curator on attribution, or a piece of provenance.

3 - digital archives are fine if you know roughly what you are looking for. But nothing beats going through the actual photographs. 

'Emily Bronte' portraits make thousands

February 24 2012

Image of 'Emily Bronte' portraits make thousands

Picture: J P Humbert

Yesterday a 'portrait thought to be Emily Bronte' sold at a regional auction for £4,600. Last year, the same auctioneer sold 'a portrait thought to be Emily Bronte' for over £23,000. And now, Mr Humbert says:

"We have another Bronte painting which we will put up for auction in April and we are hoping to make it three out of three."

New director appointed in Birmingham

February 23 2012

Image of New director appointed in Birmingham

Picture: Birmingham Post

Ann Sumner has been appointed new director of the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. Ann was previously director of the Barber Institute. Since the Barber has become the model regional art gallery, this is excellent news for BMAG (which has a great collection, but which, dare I say it, was looking a little tired last time I went). More details here

About that 'vaguely dodgy porn'

February 23 2012

Image of About that 'vaguely dodgy porn'

Picture: Christie's

Last week I posted a picture, 'Sleeping Beauty' (above) coming up for sale at Christie's, and wondered whether it was quite the sort of thing Mr Christie had in mind when he started the firm in 1766. A reader writes:

No, I don't suppose Mr. Christie had that in mind in 1766, but might his successors have had Bouguereau in mind -- he must have been a better painter, but still somewhat 'vaguely dodgy porn", perhaps? 

A very valid point. But I'm not sure Aydemir Saidov, talented though he is, is the next Bouguereau. And incidentally, just for fun, what do we think Mr Christie would have made of this

Kemp doesn't speak - almost.

February 23 2012

Image of Kemp doesn't speak - almost.

Talking of Martin Kemp (see below post), I've just noticed on his blog a sad tale about his involvement in the National Gallery podcast for 'Leonardo':

It is extraordinary though wholly familiar that arts professionals are expected to deliver high level services for nothing or next to nothing. Enthusiasm and commitment are exploited by those commissioning services. The most recent example is a podcast I was asked to record by the National Gallery in connection with the Leonardo show. I was asked to record items on the anatomical drawings, one of which, the vertical section of a man's head, provides a wonderful entry into Leonardo's ideas about seeing, thinking, imagination, memory etc. I negotiated the fee up to a grand £100! This was absolutely their "top fee". The gallery was unable to fix the recording at a date when I was due to be in London, and I therefore had to make the journey specially. On claiming expenses, I was told that they were not part of the deal.  Given average mileage rates for travelling from Oxfordshire, I end up with  £14.20 for something that consumed at least 4 hours of my time. I asked,  "would you expect to employ an accountant or solicitor for this kind of money?" adding that " I am a professional speaker, writer, broadcaster now! There's something very wrong with the priorities here."

Quite right. I am sorry to think that as I enjoyed Martin's contribution to the excellent podcast, I didn't know he had been paid only £14.20. It is shocking that he was treated like this. And sadly, it happens all the time. You've only got to see the low pay for curators in museums to see how little value art historical knowledge is afforded these days. What is the solution? A Union of Art Historians? Moto: "Art Historians unite - you have nothing to lose but your standard-class travel expenses (if you're lucky)!"

Mona Lisa copy - Kemp speaks

February 23 2012

From The Art Newspaper:

Martin Kemp, from Oxford University, is one of the top Leonardo specialists, and he has not yet seen the restored Prado copy, although he has studied high-quality images. His initial impression, he told The Art Newspaper, is that “the head is very pretty, but speaks of a careful pedantry which only hints at Leonardo’s melting ambiguity”. 

Kemp suggests that “the details of the hair and dress are based on close observation of Leonardo, but exhibit a certain niggling exactitude that comes from careful emulation”. The sketchiness of the landscape “seems to speak of a different artist from that responsible for the head.”

Kemp's observations seem entirely sensible to me. And I still can't see why one of the greatest artist's in the world would go to the trouble of having a copy made painstakingly alongside the original, only for it to end up looking like 'careful pedantry'. Surely, Leonardo's pupils were better than this. 

Lunatics. Asylum.

February 23 2012

Image of Lunatics. Asylum.

Picture: Guardian

I've tried to resist the temptation to write about Charles Saatchi's bonkers piece in The Guardian on selling Turners. Briefly, the contemporary art guru says we should sell many of the Turners in the Turner Bequest at Tate Britain, and use the money to buy modern and contemporary art. 

Saatchi's main gripe is that most of 30,000 watercolours and drawings by Turner in the Bequest are kept in storage...

...inaccessible to anyone but scholars.

If we were able to ask Turner if he would prefer to have, say, 25,000 of the watercolours and drawings spread around the world's great museums, with large archive centres in Paris, New York, Washington, Berlin, Rome, and the major museums in China, India, Brazil, Australia, South Africa, Russia – don't you think he would prefer it? 

Perhaps even 50 or so of his great paintings shared out for each museum to display in their own collection?

I don't know any artist who wouldn't prefer to have his work visible, and available around the globe; a dozen archives in the world's leading museums for students, critics, writers, anyone, able to study his work, rather than in one largely invisible one.

I'd go further.

How would Turner feel if we parted with some of those 30,000 works to be apportioned among the world's great institutions, enabling us to build a war chest to strengthen the nation's core collection of art of the past 100 years?

Purr-lease. I'll leave you to decide on the wisdom of selling works by an undeniably great artist to buy contemporary works that we, in our generation, think are great, but which in a hundred years time may well be considered worthless. Instead, let me concentrate on the factual ineptitude of Saatchi's case.

First, Saatchi is wrong about Turner preferring to spread his art across the world. Turner was obsessed with keeping his works as a single collection. He said that the primary aim of his Bequest was "to keep my pictures together". And Ruskin later said, "The only thing he would say sometimes [about his bequest] was, 'keep them together'".

Second, the works are not 'inaccessible to anyone but scholars'. If you want to see them, all you have to do is amble along to the Tate study room, and the excellent staff will bring out whatever you want in a jiffy. I did just that earlier this week. The system works perfectly, and you can learn far more about a Turner drawing in the study room than if it were glazed and hung in a dim gallery.

Third, there is a good reason many of the drawings and watercolours are kept in storage: sadly, displaying them permanently can lead to deterioration. Even if we sold them to China, as Saatchi suggests, they would still have to spend most of their time in storage. (That said, the Tate are currently testing new highly technical frames and mounts that may overcome this).

I could go on, but that's enough rebutting for now. 

Mona Lisa copy - the speculation begins

February 23 2012

Image of Mona Lisa copy - the speculation begins

Picture: Prado/Louvre

From Martin Gayford in Bloomberg:

Why produce two Mona Lisas, one a deluxe version entirely from the master’s brush, and one not? Since a scholar at the University of Heidelberg found a manuscript note from 1503, mentioning a Leonardo painting of “the countenance of Lisa del Giocondo,” the sitter has been known for certain.

Previously, the question of her identity was confused by a description of Leonardo showing the picture to a visitor in 1517, and -- apparently -- describing it as “a certain Florentine lady done at the instigation of the late Magnifico Giuliano de’ Medici.”

This was puzzling because Lisa del Giocondo, nee Gherardini, was married to a Florentine merchant named Francesco del Giocondo. So why would Giuliano de Medici (1479-1516), third son of Lorenzo the Magnificent, want a picture of her?

What if, as Charles Nicholl suggested in his biography of Leonardo, the lady had two admirers: her husband and a wealthy, exiled aristocrat? Giuliano and Lisa were both born in 1479, and belonged to the same elite Florentine circles. And what if the picture now in Madrid was in Florence during the 16th century, and seen by Vasari? That’s all speculation, of course, yet with Leonardo it’s always hard to resist.

View from the Artist no.9 - answer

February 23 2012

Image of View from the Artist no.9 - answer

Picture: Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Fund

Three correct answers within 24 hours, the first coming on Twitter within 2. Not too bad, considering it was just a glimpse of a bridge. Most of you thought it was in Italy:

I'm going to guess that view from the artist #9 is a view of Venice by Canaletto.

Right continent, but otherwise quite far out. Another reader, inspired by Shakespeare, wondered:

Is it "In fair VERONA where we lay our scene"? Castelvecchio bridge - it looks like Carel Weight but I can't find this  in a quick flit through the net.

And another:

About 'View from the Artist No.9', I think that it is the Ponte Vecchio in Firenze; the artist I don't know.

Two of you spotted the most important clue, the book sellers' boxes by the side of the river, which of course are still there today...

I think I've got it: Pont Neuf from the Quai de l'Ecole, Paris by David Cox, 1829, Yale Center for British Art.

Well done! Treat yourself to a croissant.

Accidenti! (that's 'Doh!' in Italian)

February 23 2012

Image of Accidenti! (that's 'Doh!' in Italian)

Picture: La Repubblica

In the post below, we have an example of an institution selling a masterpiece by mistake. Now, here's an example of the reverse - sort of. The Italian culture ministry has spent EUR3.2m on what they thought was a rare crucixif by Michelangelo. Except it isn't. And now the merda has hit the fan. More details at Artinfo.


After initially uploading this post, a reader wrote:

The image of the crucifix you posted today in “Accidenti! (that's 'Doh!' in Italian)” is of course a genuine Michelangelo!! Accidenti!!! That is in Santo Spirito, Florence. It’s beauty is so powerful I cannot understand how you confused it! I can tell that you had a very tiring day!

Whoops... image now corrected (I hope) - apologies!


February 23 2012

Image of Doh!

Picture: Huntington Library

It's red faces all round at the University of California, Berkeley. Three years ago they mistakenly sold, for just $150, the above carved panels by celebrated African-American sculptor Sargent Johnson (1888-1967). The New York Times has the story:

Designed to cover organ pipes at the old California School for the Deaf and Blind in Berkeley, this natural-world relief was affixed to a wall until 1980, when the school moved. As squatters (and rats) took shelter there, the university, which had taken over the premises, moved any valuable property to a secure basement warehouse, and the organ relief was disassembled. But one of the organ screens was misidentified as belonging to Berkeley’s graduate schools, so when the university reopened the building three years later, only one of the two Johnson reliefs was returned to its rightful place. The other remained in storage until 2009, when the university emptied the storage space in preparation for the sale of the building and transferred the relief to the university’s surplus store.

That’s where, in late summer of that year, Greg Favors, an art and furniture dealer, came upon eight cracked but still handsome panels in a plywood bin. Mr. Favors did not know what they were or who had created them, but he thought them “amazing and cool,” he said. He paid $164.63, including tax.

Then Mr Favors:

...e-mailed Gray Brechin, a Berkeley scholar of historical geography who specializes in New Deal art, asking for help.

At 9:08 a.m., the response arrived: “You BOUGHT this? They SOLD it?” He identified Sargent Johnson as the artist and added, “I am astounded that they deacquisitioned it.”

Mr Favors then sold them to a dealer for $225,000, who in turn sold them on to the Huntington Library.

In correspondence with the federal government, Andrew Goldblatt, who has the stressful-sounding title of assistant risk manager for the university, described the sale of the Johnson piece as “an error of ignorance.” “We do regret it,” Mr. Goldblatt said in an interview. “Something went wrong, and it just cascaded.”

I know of a similar case in a UK university. But I'm not allowed to tell you.

A home grown discovery

February 23 2012

Image of A home grown discovery

Picture: Philip Mould

We've just sold this, so I thought I'd put it on the site before it disappears into a private collection: a newly discovered self-portrait by Michael Dahl (1659-1743). Dahl, born in Sweden, was probably Sir Godfrey Kneller's nearest rival in England in the late 17th and early 18th Centuries. We found this in a country auction catalogued, like so many Dahls these days, as attributed to Kneller. Like many self-portraits, it is unfinished. It is not as striking as Dahl's earlier self-portrait, which is one of the finest works in the National Portrait Gallery, but gives a good indication of what he was capable of. The hand is particularly good. Most artists are at their best, I find, when they're painting themselves.

View from the artist no.9

February 22 2012

Image of View from the artist no.9


We haven't had one of these for a while: can you guess the location and artist? Just for fun, no prizes, but big respec' to the first correct guess.

Prado reveals evidence behind 'earliest Mona Lisa copy' claim

February 22 2012

Image of Prado reveals evidence behind 'earliest Mona Lisa copy' claim

Picture: Museo Prado

A few weeks ago the Prado unveiled a newly-cleaned copy of the Mona Lisa, and claimed that not only was it the earliest known copy of the original, but that it was made in Leonardo's studio alongside the master by one of his pupils. And today they released an excellent series of images and videos setting out the evidence behind the claim, in a first-class presentation that should be the model for all future museum discoveries.

The main evidence behind the claim is the infra-red imagery. Briefly, the Prado say that the infra-red image of their picture matches the infra-red image of the original, including in areas where Leonardo subsequently changed his mind. So, for example, in the infra-red images of both the original and the Prado copy we can see a line of under-drawing to the right of the Mona Lisa's veil at about the level of her neck. But in both the finished original and the copy this change is not visible on the final painted surface. This must mean, say the Prado, that the copy was drawn alongside the original, and when Leonardo made a change, so did the copyist. There is other quite convincing evidence to put the picture in Leonardo's studio, such as the walnut panel, and the type of ground layer used.

[more below]

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How much?!

February 21 2012

Image of How much?!

Picture: Sotheby's

The only version of Edvard Munch's The Scream to remain in private hands (he painted four) will be sold at Sotheby's New York in May. The upper estimate is $80m. Probably it will make more, if the recent $250m sale of the last privately owned version of Cezanne's Card Players is any precedent.


February 21 2012

...I'm at Tate Britain filming for the next series of 'Fake or Fortune?'. Normal service will resume tomorrow.

David Hockney - man of the moment

February 20 2012

Image of David Hockney - man of the moment

Picture: BG

David Hockney is not only the star of his own exhibition at the Royal Academy, but also takes leading roles in two other shows of the moment: in the NPG's Lucian Freud Portraits you can see Freud's portrait of Hockney (above), while at Tate's Picasso & Modern British Art you can see Hockney's imaginary self-portrait with Picasso. Is this unprecedented for a living British artist? 

Snooty art dealers

February 20 2012

Image of Snooty art dealers

Picture: Esquire

Here's a classic example of art dealer pomposity, and the ability of the trade to shoot itself in the foot:

Daniel Radcliffe (or Mr H. Potter as he's otherwise known) recently revealed his art collecting tastes [...] but not even Radcliffe, one of the most famous faces on earth, can win over the surliest art dealers at one of the world's biggest fairs. "I went to Frieze Art Fair and saw a painting by Jim Hodges. The guy said,'No, we're waiting for a more prestigious collector to take that.' I was like, thanks, thanks a lot," says the miffed movie star in Time Out.

Cristina Ruiz of The Art Newspaper had a similarly dispiriting experience of the art trade during her penultimate visit to Gagosian in New York:

It’s a good thing I didn’t start the spot tour in New York because, if I had, I probably would have given up after the first gallery. Why is it that Gagosian staff here, in what must surely be the three most commercially successful galleries in the international franchise, are always so caustic? Even when they’re polite and (reluctantly) helpful, they can’t be bothered to look at you for longer than three seconds so that all conversations take place while they’re staring at their computers... What on earth are they doing that is so important? Are they in the middle of a multi-million dollar sale to Steve Cohen? It makes you want to bang your head against the counter. I am reminded of a conversation I had a few years ago with one of Bill Gates’s art buyers. He had arrived at a Gagosian gallery in New York unannounced. Nobody knew who he was when he walked through the door. He was so put off by the snottiness of the staff that he left the gallery and never returned. 

In the trade, we have the phrase 'threshold resistance'; the fear that customers feel before they even come through the door, because they've had one too many Gagosian-like experiences. So instead of pressing the dreaded buzzer (which is, alas, often necessitated by the insurance company), they walk away. In my view it is one of the biggest problems facing dealers, and one which, here at Philip Mould, we work hard to overcome. But sadly, some galleries never learn, and give the rest of us a bad name.

Spotmania: another challenge completed

February 20 2012

Image of Spotmania: another challenge completed

Picture: The Art Newspaper

Top marks to The Art Newspaper's Cristina Ruiz for completing 'The Complete Hirst Spot Challenge', and all in economy class. The final stop was Beverly Hills, where she flew for a few hours, just to see the spots. 

Then my card receives its final stamp and the challenge is complete. I am asked to fill in a form where I can choose the personalised inscription Damien Hirst will write on my very own limited-edition spot print. What can I write? I want to choose something Hirst might actually want to say to me. So after careful consideration I come up with something short and to the point: “Dear Cristina, Fuck off.”

Let me know what you would have Damien write on your personal print. A reader suggests:

Yes, it really is a load of old b******s.

More nudity

February 20 2012

Image of More nudity

Picture: Norwich Evening News

This time in Norwich, where the police intervened to 'give words of advice' after two male nudes by artist Peter Kavanagh appeared in 'SinSins' shop window. The pictures were then removed. And it isn't the first time Norwich police have had to act:

In January, a display depicting a mannequin urinating on a wall had to be taken down from a shop window at clothes shop Philip Browne in Guildhall Hill, after a single complaint to police. 

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