Previous Posts: February 2012

London's big blue cock

February 20 2012

Image of London's big blue cock

Picture: Daily Mail/PA

Yes, we're starting the week with a juvenile Tory joke. London's mayor Boris Johnson, above, has unveiled the sculptures that will temporarily grace Trafalgar Square's 'fourth plinth' for the next couple of years. Among them is Katharina Fritsch's blue cockerel, which, in 2013, will 'symbolise regeneration, awakening and strength'. More here

Friday Amusement

February 17 2012


The best art gallery sketch you'll ever see, from Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. 

How to big up an auction

February 16 2012

Video: Sotheby's

A slick video from Sotheby's for their recent contemporary sale. I I dare them to try something similar for an Old Masters sale. Why not?

On Freud

February 16 2012

As a rule, I'm against self-congratulatory blogging. But this one's just too damn nice. A reader writes:

That is a superb, very sensitive review of the Freud portraits exhibition.  I am not as familiar as you are with Freud's work, or for that matter most art, and I will not be able to visit the exhibition (living in Ottawa, Canada, as I do), but from what I have seen I am entirely convinced by your review -- and wish I could have said that!

'Now, lot 72, the vaguely dodgy porn...'

February 16 2012

Image of 'Now, lot 72, the vaguely dodgy porn...'

Picture: Christie's

For a while now, Christie's has been doing a nice line in Russian porn contemporary nudes. For example, the above 'Sleeping Beauty, 2009' by Aydemir Saidov is currently on offer at South Kensington (est. £1,500-£2,000). There must be quite a market for this kind of thing, as there's usually a few sold every month. But I wonder if it's quite what James Christie had in mind, back in 1766.

Dictator Art - equestrian special

February 16 2012

Video: AP

In North Korea yesterday they unveiled a new statue of the late Kim Jong Il. Check out the plastic flowers. 

Sotheby's £50.6m - Christie's £80.5m

February 16 2012

Ouch! The Sotheby's press release may say that their Post-war & Contemporary result last night 'surpassed pre-sale estimates'. But it didn't. The total raised was £50.6m, including buyer's premium. The pre-sale estimate was £35.8-£49.7m, but this does not include the premium, which starts at 25%. And however you dress it up, Christie's won the battle of the week.

Queueing for Hockney

February 16 2012

Image of Queueing for Hockney

Picture: BG

How many living artists can do this?

'Picasso and Modern British Art' at Tate Britain

February 15 2012

Image of 'Picasso and Modern British Art' at Tate Britain

Picture: Huffington Post

The new 'Picasso and Modern British Art' show at Tate Britain is excellent. Regular readers will know that in both subjects I'm a little out of my comfort zone (I give up in about 1830), but even so I greatly enjoyed the exhibition. It displays with clarity and zest Picasso's influence on key British artists of the twentieth century, from Wyndham Lewis to David Hockney, via the likes of Henry Moore (above).

Normally these 'Big Name & ....' exhibitions are an excuse to put on blockbuster shows with tenuous links to something British or contemporary (like the recent Poussin & Twombly at Dulwich). Picasso and Modern British Art, however, sets out the great man's role in nurturing Britain's creative geniuses with a cohesive narrative so oten lacking in today's exhibitions. You can find other more insightful reviews of the exhibition here (from Richard Dorment, who gives it four stars) and here (from Jonathan Jones, who gives it three). So I'll confine myself to giving a deserved hurrah to the show's curators, James Beechey and Chris Stephens. Well done.

"Meisterwerk oder Fälschung?"

February 15 2012


We've now started filming for the second series of 'Fake or Fortune?', which will be broadcast on BBC1 later this year. Seeing yourself on telly looking nerdy can, if you haven't experienced it, be painfully embarrassing. But I never thought I would see myself on German TV, and dubbed into German while talking about the Nazis. Never.

Save Battersea Power Station

February 15 2012

Image of Save Battersea Power Station

Picture: 'Battersea Power Station' by Robert Lowry, Wandsworth Museum

Have you noticed? It seems there has been a quiet campaign in the press recently to demolish Battersea power station, the iconic building designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott (he of the red telephone box). The campaign would appear to have has the hallmarks of a cunning PR operation by someone. You don't normally get spontaneous op-ed pieces and calls from influential voices like the Daily Telegraph's City Editor, Richard Fletcher, in favour of demolishing heritage sites. Fletcher's piece was even accompanied by an online poll cunningly devised to make it look like a majority of people wanted to demolish the Station (by splitting the no votes into three options, with the single 'yes' vote in the lead at 41%). 

What's going on? Well today we find out: a report has concluded that the site will be worth almost an extra £470m without the station. Permission to knock the station down would make it easier for the site's owners (largely banks such as government-owned Lloyds) to sell to a developer.

At the moment the site is Grade II listed, and English Heritage would no doubt object to the station's demolition. But, sadly, that doesn't mean very much these days. Recently, the heritage minister John Penrose over-ruled (in my opinion, shamefully) English Heritage's call to protect the concourse buildings at Waterloo Station, and now the fine early 20th Century arches and columns are being covered by hideous steel and glass 'retail spaces'.

So will the government be able to resist calls from 'business', and their friends in the press, to demolish Battersea power station? I doubt it, on the evidence so far. But let's hope so. Someone should see what the London mayoral candidates, Boris and Ken, want to do with the station. Remember, if the similarly sited and designed Bankside station had been demolished, we'd have no Tate Modern. In the meantime, I urge you to at least click your way over to the Telegraph Poll, and vote 'no' to the station's destruction.

Update: There's a new poll here. Vote no!

A lost Goya recovered in India?

February 15 2012

Image of A lost Goya recovered in India?


Yesterday, police in Bombay raiding a house for suspected weapons seized what they thought might be a lost 'Goya masterpiece', Saturn Devouring his Son. As Bombay paper, Mid Day reported: 

After stumbling upon a painting that may (or may not) be Spanish painter Francisco de Goya's iconic 'Saturn Devouring his son', Oshiwara cops have now roped in experts to put their skills together and conclusively prove if the painting they recovered in a property dealer's house is an original. After artists failed to solve the mystery, scientists have now put their heads together. 

Cops at the Oshiwara police station had called in a number of prominent painters to determine the age of the painting, by examining the shades of paint and the age of the frame it was encased in. The team of painters however failed to determine the year to which the painting belonged. 

"We have now approached a team of scientists. They will take a sample of paint from the painting and conduct tests on it. They will then submit a report to us with their findings," said Pratap Dighavkar, deputy commissioner of police (zone IX). 

The police have also sent a formal intimation to the Spanish embassy, apprising them of the discovery of the painting.

"If we find out that the painting is a fake, we will charge Khan under sections of the Copyright Act, as he was selling it for Rs 20 crore, which is the cost of the original Goya," added Dighavkar. 

But as the Times of India revealed today, a quick search on Google has found that the original is safely on the walls of the Prado, where it has been since the 19th Century.

The best royal portraits

February 15 2012

Image of The best royal portraits

Picture: Telegraph/Postal Heritage

In The Daily Telegraph, the President of the Royal Academy, CHristopher le Brun, lists his favourite royal portraits, including Arnold Machin's portrayal of the Queen for the postage stamp:

This is the most elegant portrait of our Queen and the most enduring, as it is on our stamps. You can see the original plaster mould that Machin used for the stamp design at the British Postal Museum and Archive. The Queen is a symbol as well as a person and should never age, so it’s right that her most viewed portrait is youthful.

Up and up and up

February 15 2012

Image of Up and up and up

Picture: Christie's

Christie's Postwar and Contemporary Evening sale yesterday made a total of £80.5m, the strongest since the previously over-heated days of 2008. One of the strongest sellers was Christopher Wool's 'Untitled' of 1990, above, which will forever tell the buyer he is a fool for paying just under £5m for it. The top price was, inevitably, for a Bacon, 'Portrait of Henrietta Moraes', which made £21.3m. More details of the sale here.

Meanwhile, the head of Bonhams contemporary sales has gone public with his frustration at how works are now seen simply for their investment potential:

"A lot of us were frustrated, it is always about the estimates and the deal, not the art. We wanted to talk about the works of art. It's whether the art works are important.

"When I started at Christie's many years ago clients would ask me about the work of art or the artist. In late 2007 they started asking: 'what's it going to cost me and how much will it be worth.' That's when you become a commodities broker."

John House obituary

February 15 2012

Image of John House obituary

Picture: Courtauld Institute

In The Guardian.

On 'Freud Portraits' at the NPG

February 14 2012

Image of On 'Freud Portraits' at the NPG

Picture: National Portrait Gallery/Private Collection/Christie's

Last night, at the new 'Lucian Freud Portraits' exhibition at the NPG, I found myself repeating the mantra, ‘Freud was a great painter, Freud was a great painter...' I needed this reassurance because, after seeing about 30 of the show's 130 works, I began to think dangerously heretical thoughts. Such as, ‘I don’t like this portrait’. 

Now you may, like me, be used to seeing Freud’s portraits in small groups, perhaps in commercial galleries or auctions. And, like me, you may long have been an admirer of his undoubted genius, his skill with the brush, and his unerringly dispassionate eye. In a Sotheby’s Contemporary and Modern sale, for example, his pictures destroy the competition. But I must warn you that en masse it can all become a bit too much. All that brown, all those empty, soulless faces, and all that realistic but lifeless, cadaverous flesh. It’s like being in a morgue.

Of course, Freud really was a great painter. And yet, this show is billed as an exhibition of portraits, so it is as a portraitist that we are asked to judge him. And as a portraitist, as a purveyor of both human likeness and spirit, he comes close at times to failing. His subjects’ repeatedly blank look can become overwhelming, even depressing. If you subscribe to the widely held admiration of Freud’s 'brutal honesty', then you’ll like what you see. But if you think portraits should show a greater range of human emotion than from bored to vaguely terrified, you won't. This, I know, is a subjective view, and a minority one. 

So where does that leave Freud the portraitist? Most will enjoy the feasts of flesh and paint that are Freud's late nudes (the sort of pictures Rubens would have painted, had he dared), but it’s hard to tell whether the flesh is a means to the paint, or, as I suspect, vice-versa. In that sense the pictures are all, as Freud himself said, autobiographical. Now some say that all portraitists end up painting portraits of themselves, that it is impossible to meet a patron over only a series of sittings, and know them well enough to distill their character as well as portray a likeness. But the point with Freud is that he never seems even to try.

Perhaps the problem is our need to project Freud as a portraitist in the first place, rather than simply as an artist. We do this because we have few really good contemporary portraitists with which to compare him. Nobody paints people like Freud anymore, not least because, generally, we don't value painting people. We like our portraits, as the increasingly one-dimensional BP Portrait Award shows, to look like photographs. In other words, we applaud Freud the portraitist in the same way Samuel Johnson applauded a dog walking on its hind legs, because we are surprised to see it done at all.

Which is why I began to wonder last night if, by classing Freud as a portraitist, we're in danger of tarnishing the Freud brand, even of overdoing, if it is possible, the Freudian hype. For, if as a result of this exhibition we continue to project Freud as a portraitist, then in the greater narrative of art history it is unlikely he will be seen as a great one. In a hundred years’ time the allure of his celebrity will have vanished, and few will care that Kate Moss sat to him, or that his pictures broke records at the auction rooms. Instead, people will see his portraits of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire at Chatsworth (hung, as they inevitably will be, alongside previous Dukes and Duchesses by Van Dyck, Gainsborough and Lawrence) and wonder why he made them look so miserable, and drained of any soul.

I hope, therefore, that we remember Freud as a painter, pure and simple. A painter of people, yes, but primarily a painter of things. For it is in beholding the simple application of Freud’s paint onto canvas that one derives the most pleasure, the most how-the-hell-does-he-do-that. So if you go to this excellent exhibition, which you must, don’t view the pictures as portraits of this or that person you might vaguely recognise. Instead do this – look closely, sniff the paint, and breathe in Freud’s brilliance.

Exhibition closes 27th May.

Dictator Art - in Hungary??

February 14 2012

Image of Dictator Art - in Hungary??

Picture: The Art Newspaper

There's an interesting piece in The Art Newspaper on the new right-wing government in Hungary taking control of the arts. The government has even commissioned patriotic paintings, one of which features Viktor Orban, the Prime Minister. Which is what they do in North Korea. Julia Michalska has the story:

Since coming to power with a two-thirds majority in 2010, Orban’s Fidesz party has passed more than 350 laws and rushed through a constitution which, the international community argues, endangers Hungarian demo­cracy. Last month, to celebrate the official inauguration of the constitution, Orban opened a government-organised exhibition at the National Gallery. It chronicles 1,000 years of Hungarian history, focusing on sovereign statehood and Christ­ian­ity (until 16 August). The show includes 15 large state-commissioned canvases depicting important historic events spanning 150 years, including an image of Orban. The event contributed to the decision by the National Gallery’s director, Ferenc Csak, to resign before the show opened. “The government shouldn’t have the power to order exhibitions with such a high political agenda. Museums shouldn’t be getting involved in politics,” says Csak. 

The oldest paintings in the world?

February 13 2012

Image of The oldest paintings in the world?

Picture: Nerja Cave Foundation

Paintings discovered in a cave in Spain are thought to be the oldest in the world. In case you're wondering how they know:

...charcoal remains found beside six of the paintings – preserved in Spain's Nerja caves – have been radiocarbon dated to between 43,500 and 42,300 years old.

That suggests the paintings may be substantially older than the 30,000-year-old Chauvet cave paintings in south-east France, thought to be the earliest example of Palaeolithic cave art.

The next step is to date the paint pigments. If they are confirmed as being of similar age, this raises the real possibility that the paintings were the handiwork of Neanderthals – an "academic bombshell", says Sanchidrián, because all other cave paintings are thought to have been produced by modern humans. 

More in New Scientist here.

Curator vacancy at SNPG

February 13 2012

Image of Curator vacancy at SNPG

Picture: SNPG

How rare is this? There are three plum curatorships up for grabs at the moment. In addition to the two at Tate Britain, here's one at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. These are the requirements:

Educated to degree level, you will have experience of sharing specialist knowledge enthusiastically and effectively with a wide variety of audiences, as well as previous experience of working in a curatorial role. In addition, you will possess a strong interest in, and knowledge of, Scottish history and society. Specialist or post-graduate knowledge of Scottish and/or British history and of British portraiture would be highly advantageous.

Closing date is 5th March. Good luck!

Hockney at the RA - 5/5 for fun

February 13 2012

Image of Hockney at the RA - 5/5 for fun

Picture: David Hockney, 'More Crooked Timber on Woldgate', 2008, charcoal on paper.

The critics may have disliked David Hockney's show of new landscapes at the Royal Academy, but I thought it was excellent. Not every work will be seen as a masterpiece, but then the exhibition was never intended to be one of the 'best of' shows we're used to. Instead, it is a display of mostly new works, in a new style, of a curiously new genre in contemporary art; a great British painter painting Britain. In that respect we can allow the artist some failures in return for his certain successes.

Above all, the exhibition is great fun. Giant canvasses combine colour, passion, quirky perspective and sharp natural observation with a flair rarely seen these days. You can't fail to leave without a smile. One thing I immediately noticed in the exhibition was the noise. Normally, contemporary art exhibitions are muted affairs as visitors mentally struggle to understand whatever blob, squiggle or lump it is they are supposed to admire, or admit to their bemusement and wander silently by. But at Hockney almost everyone has a ready comment about each picture (in my experience, overwhelmingly positive comments), and the emerging hubbub of pleasure is a delight to hear.

That said, my favourite works in the show were not the paintings, but the drawings, which on the whole are the best works. Some of them are mesmeric, and reveal just how good an artist Hockney can be when he really tries. I found myself reminded of Van Gogh's charcoal landscapes; both artists share a similarly idiosyncratic view of nature, and are possessed of a similarly fluent ease with which to capture it. Happily, I'm not the only one who likes Hockney's drawings, for in Brian Sewell's otherwise damning review of the exhibition, he let slip this rare nugget of praise:

There was a time in the 1970s when I thought him one of the best draughtsmen of the 20th century, wonderfully skilful, observant, subtle, sympathetic, spare, every touch of pencil, pen or crayon essential to the evocation of the subject, whether it be a portrait or light flooding a sparse room; nothing has made me change that view, but Hockney has tried very hard.

So, do go to the exhibition if you can. In the meantime, you can see other recent Hockney landscape drawings here.

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