Previous Posts: May 2012

'Step away from ze painting!'

May 28 2012

Image of 'Step away from ze painting!'


It's Friday night, and you've decided to make a quick visit to the National Gallery, perhaps to unwind before going home. The galleries are hushed, the walls overflow with masterpieces, and soon the stress of the week is a distant memory. You stop to admire a little-noticed Titian, and, being a keen admirer of his technique, peer closely at his brushwork. But your heightened sense of calm and art historical appreciation is broken by a sharp, officious shout from across the room: 'Stay behind the barrier! Don't look too closely!'

Feebly, you protest that you hadn't stepped over the barrier, and had no intention of doing so. But that makes no difference to the little Hitler in the corner. You are merely an annoyance in his domain, there to be controlled and coralled. Explaining that you were looking no closer than you were in the previous room, you try and suggest that perhaps he is being over-zealous. Again, no good. Finally, by now riled at his complete lack of basic courtesy, and feeling emboldened by the fact that you have your name on the wall elsewhere in the gallery, you suggest that if he wants to stop people looking at paintings 'too closely' he might at least preface his request with a 'please'. But he cares not. Soon he will end his shift, and another tedious day overseeing the hordes will be over. 

Update - a reader writes:

I agree with most of your blog posts, but I have the opposite view of NG guards.  Several times I've seen people poking or stroking paintings at the NG, with guards doing nothing.  I remonstrated with one who refused to intervene, and he said that people only complain if he says anything.  He said that people have even kissed the Infant Christ in renaissance paintings.  I raised this directly with the Head of Security, who was immensely helpful.  He met with me, explained their policies, showed me the manuals used by the guard staff and went around the galleries with me to meet some of the guards.  Incidentally the Head of Security is knowledgeable and passionate about art himself (he keeps part of his personal collection of maritime paintings in his office, where they cost more to insure than in his home!).

Notwithstanding a few incidents, I've found NG guards to be generally alert, helpful and polite - certainly far more than in American and Italian museums, which I find the be worst.

I understand your annoyance, and I've been told off too.  But when it's a balance between protecting the art and protecting patrons' feelings, I know which way I'd like them to err.

All very valid points. But to me this is not about protecting patron's feelings, but about access to the art. Security, as we have discussed here before, must always be priority number 1. But in the NG we already have to deal with roped barriers that place the viewer further away from the paintings than any other London gallery, not to mention international ones like the Louvre. This makes things difficult for those who like to really study technique and condition. Surely there is a half-way point between the open access of, say, the Wallace Collection or Tate Britain, where the guards are, in my experience, unfailingly polite (and where, incidentally, you can also take photos ), and the current restricted viewing conditions at the NG. If all our other galleries can get it right, why can't the National Gallery?

A Boilly donation at the Met

May 28 2012

Image of A Boilly donation at the Met

Picture: Metropolitan Museum

La Tribune de l'Art has news of a bumper donation to the Met from Jayne Wrightsman, including the above delightful 1810 painting by Louis-Leopold Boilly of the crowds admiring David's The Coronation of Napoleon at the Louvre. 

Raphael Conference at the Prado

May 28 2012

Image of Raphael Conference at the Prado

Picture: Louvre

This looks like fun - a two day conference (26 & 27 June) on Raphael to coincide with the Prado's new 'Late Raphael' exhibition (opens 12 June). Speakers include Sir Timothy Clifford, Miguel Falomir, Charles Dempsey, David Franklin, Linda Wolk-Simon, Lorraine Karafel, and Carmen C. Bambach. Details here. If you can't make it, don't worry - Raphael blogger extraordinaire Three Pipe Problem will be covering the proceedings.

Update: here's 3PP's more detailed report on the conference. 

Chinese historical portraits

May 28 2012

Image of Chinese historical portraits

Picture: Bonhams

As a dealer in historical portraits, it was interesting to see that a rare Chinese historical portrait made US$5m in a Bonhams sale in Hong Kong yesterday. The sitter was of an imperial consort, Chunhui. If only Nell Gwynn fetched that kind of money...

The deranged and the desperate

May 28 2012

Image of The deranged and the desperate

Picture: Twitter

Here's a curious one - a 'Damien Hirst' spot painting being hawked via Twitter for 'a minimum of £2million'. The picture is being offered by @TomMersey via the unique (and so far unsuccessful) method of sending the same tweet (above) to everyone he can think of. And when he can't think of anyone, he simply sends a tweet out with the hopeful hashtag of #billionaires. 

'It's not vulgar, it's...'

May 28 2012

Image of 'It's not vulgar, it's...'

Picture: Jamie McCartney

Several of you have written in to flag up an exhibition in London's Cork Street, entitled 'The Great Wall of Vagina'. Here's the bumpf, which I reproduce without comment. But do note the last, perhaps unfortunate line:

Female genitalia have long been a source of fascination, recently of celebration but generally of confusion. Today it seems that creating images of the vagina is the sole preserve of pornographers, erotic artists and feminists. Step in British artist Jamie McCartney who has grasped the nettle to create a monumental wall sculpture all about this most intimate of places. For 400 women their privates have gone public... [...]

It’s not vulgar, it’s vulva! This isn’t just sensation, it is art with a social conscience and McCartney wants people to stop, look and listen. This is about grabbing the attention, using humour and spectacle, and then educating people about what normal women really look like. Described as “the Vagina Monologues of sculpture” this piece is intended to change the lives of women, forever. [...]

The Great Wall of Vagina makes for fascinating and revealing viewing which is a far cry from pornography. It is not erotic art. It is not about titillation. McCartney has pulled off an amazing trick - to deliberately make the sexual nonsexual and take you much deeper.

Art history jobsworths

May 25 2012

Image of Art history jobsworths

Picture: Royal Academy

Welcome to the first in an occasional series dedicated to people who make art historical life impossible, just because they can. You know the sort I mean; the room guards who shout at you for 'looking too closely' at pictures, or, in more distant times, the Royal Academician committee who banned female RAs from attending life classes (hence Angelica Kauffmann and Mary Moser's portraits included seperately in Zoffany's group painting above).

The first entrant in this particular hall of fame is the librarian at the Courtauld Institute Book Library who has just refused me admission, purely for the fun of it. For many years now, we have subscribed as 'friends' of the Courtauld (minimum, £500 pa). One of the perks is to be allowed access to the book library at all times. Normally, when my library card expires the staff look me up on their system and renew it, as we pay by direct debit. This year, all was going well, for the librarian in question could see me on his database as a member under 'museum and gallery members'. He was all set to admit me - until he realised that I was (gasp!) from a commercial gallery. So he decided he couldn't be bothered, and sent me packing. Thanks Mr Librarian!

Update - a reader writes:

I was sorry to hear about the Courtauld librarian - very annoying for you, and very out of date of them. 

It reminds me of the old days when you had to pretend you were visiting the Heinz Archive simply for fun.

I exchanged letters with a venerable (and ultimately very nice) eminence a while ago who noted that the Trade always want to barter academics' lifetime expertise into £££s on a price tag.

Very true, I said, but the Trade is the plough constantly churning up treasure for academics to publish and make their reputations on.

Presumably you sent some people round at closing time to 'explain things', the librarian in an armlock while the rest of the boys do a bit of mis-shelving.

Update II - the same reader adds:

I wouldn't want words written in indignation on your behalf to be taken askance by your academic readers. May I pay tribute to them? Everyone in the Trade is indebted to academic art historians for sharing their time, their opinions and their imprimatur so generously. Their work is a bedrock of centuries stretching back to Vasari, and anything we achieve is built on that.

Hear hear!

Last chance to see 'Van Dyck in Sicily' at Dulwich

May 25 2012

Picture: Dulwich Picture Gallery

This Sunday, the 'Van Dyck and Sicily' exhibition closes at Dulwich Picture Gallery. It's well worth a visit if you haven't been - I'm certainly hoping to go again for a final glimpse. If you can't make it, then above is a video of a lecture by Xavier Salomon, the exhibition's curator. 


May 25 2012

Image of Bunting!

Picture: BG

We are officially the most patriotic art dealers in London.

(Overseas readers, HM Queen Elizabeth II celebrates her diamond Jubilee next weekend. Lots of Union Jacks out in London at the moment.)

Two new acquisitions at the National Gallery

May 25 2012

Image of Two new acquisitions at the National Gallery

Picture: National Gallery

My sharpest-eyed reader has spotted two new acquisitions at the National Gallery, London. He writes:

It appears that the National are going to be given two of the paintings shown in their recent exhibition of the Lunde collection [The Lower Falls of the Labrofoss by Johan Christian Dahl, above, and At Handeck by Alexandre Calme].

Two things are interesting about this.

The Dahl and Calame will actually be given to the Gallery's not-for-prodit arm based in New York - the American Friends of the National Gallery London - for tax reasons I imagine.  As you know gifts of works of art to charities in the US attract tax relief but this option has only been introduced in the UK from 1st April this year.  The government are now proposing to limit any charitable gift to £50,000.  

Aside from the fact that the AFNGL holds the donation from Sir Paul Getty and is used to filter other US gifts of money, again for tax reasons, this mechanism has been used before to donate at least one other work of art.  The Sara Lee Foundation gave them this Degas in 1998.

The other interesting element is the acquisition of 19th C Northern European landscape paintings itself.  Unlike the Met, the National has not collected extensively in this field aside from the two Danish scenes, the Balke given to them last year, and the surprising - and brilliantly imaginative - purchase of the Gallen-Kallela in 1999.

As far as I am aware, there are only a couple of Dahls (Johan Christian not Michael!) in any UK collection - at the Barber and the Fitzwilliam - and they are more typical of the sort of Dahl other institutions have been buying.

Calame is better known, and was collected in the UK in the 19th C - the National already has one example given in 1900 though, oddly, in the item on the exhibition in the June 2011 podcast one member of gallery staff seems not to be aware of the fact.

Of course, if the Gallery had wanted to have a better display of this sort of painting, it need only have borrowed from the V&A, which holds two paintings by Calame, as well as works by Steffan, Diday, Schleich, Baade and lots of others of that ilk.

A puzzling acquisition by LACMA

May 25 2012

Image of A puzzling acquisition by LACMA

Picture: LACMA/Tribune De l'Art

Didier Ryckner at La Tribune de l'Art has news of an intriguing acquisition in Paris by the Los Angeles Museum of Art of the above picture. Nobody knows who it is by, or what it is of. But it's a great thing nonetheless. Let me know if you have any clues. More details here

A Jacobean bargain?

May 24 2012

Image of A Jacobean bargain?

Picture: Savills

This is a bit off-topic, but we like discussing anything old here. A reader writes:

Not sure this is quite 'on topic' for your blog, but I noticed in Country Life yesterday that Apethorpe Hall in Northamptonshire has been put up for sale by English Heritage, through Savills, for £2.5m.

It's an amazing building but years of neglect left it on the verge of ruin, such that English Heritage compulsorily purchased it in 2004, under the 1990 Planning Act, only the second time these powers had been used. It cost £3.6m, plus a further £4m restoring the basic fabric. So £7.6m in all.

If the house goes for the asking price - and it will only be sold to someone willing to commit to further very expensive work, who's happy to let the public in for 28 days a year, can deal with some annoying trees that are owned separately, and doesn't mind that it comes with next to no land - the taxpayer will have lost over £5m.

Who will save this important ancient pile? Remember, there's room for plenty of pictures if you do!

Update - a reader writes:

One of your readers wrote;

".....and doesn't mind that it comes with next to no land"

Yes, only 45 acres according to the details - barely worth employing a gardener then.

More nuts, and the rest

May 24 2012

Image of More nuts, and the rest

Picture: Margaret Sutherland

Following my post yesterday about a controversial picture of South African President Jacob Zuma that shows his genitalia, a reader writes:

Further to your AHN entry "Nuts" (May 23,2012) President Zuma is not the only politician who recently received revealing artistic attention. So did Stephen Harper, the Prime Minister of Canada, although his office quickly pointed out that obviously it was not a realistic rendering, since "everyone knows that he is a cat person."

The picture has been sold for C$5000

'The Happy Museum Project' leaves me sad

May 23 2012

Image of 'The Happy Museum Project' leaves me sad

Picture: The Happy Museum

Did you know about the Happy Museum Project? I didn't. But I do now, and I can't say I feel ecstatically happy. The Happy Museum Paper has been published, written by a learned team, and funded by a well meaning foundation. Like many of these museum world papers, it is a jargon-filled, impossible-to-read exercise in navel-gazing, twinned with right-on thinking and impossible idealism. Here, for example, is one of the paper's top ten tips to being a happy museum:

 5. Lead on innovation towards transition

Ride the inevitable changes by positively embracing the need for innovation. Show that museums don’t have to be only storehouses of the past but can also be hubs of innovation. Test ways that assets like your collections, staff and communities can be imaginatively applied to current problems. For example, could you work with corporate sponsors to develop products and services that are high well-being, low-carbon? 

If anyone cares to send in a translation of what this actually means in practice, I'd be most grateful. Of course, you won't be surprised to hear that the root of all this is the premise that museums shouldn't exist to educate and entertain with their collections - that's way too patronising. Here's the Happy Museum view of museums:

Museums are more accustomed to telling than to listening. Understandably, they see themselves as the ‘impartial expert’ whose role is to educate their visitors and, in many cases, they have become adept at presenting information to their visitors in an engaging and accessible way. However, they may be less adept at helping audiences find answers for themselves. [...] Treating visitors as passive consumers underestimates their capacity. Too often there is a one-way monologue whereas what is needed is dialogue that produces lasting change in both visitor and the museum itself. (Museums may be surprised to find that they have as much to learn from their audience as the audience does from them!).

Now I'm all in favour of museums listening to feedback from visitors. But the idea that museums should cease to see themselves as purveyors of expertise and information not available elsewhere is, if you take it to its logical conclusion, profoundly dangerous. The best response to all this can be found in an anonymous comment on the Museums Association website:

Anonymous (MA Member), 23.05.2012, 13:56

I never signed up to be a social worker.

"The Happy Museum" project was very exciting - for the first couple of pages. Yes, of course the primary purpose of museums is to improve lives, and it's thrilling when they do. But the project's call to turn our backs on collections in favour of communities (whatever they might be) left me with a bad taste in the mouth, which Maurice's article has strongly reinforced. 

I came to work in museums because I love old things, their beauty and what they can teach us, and I have aways had a strong belief in their value in bringing joy and insight to society. As a curator, I have always understood my purpose to be the care, study and interpretation of collections. It now seems that the skills and knowledge of collections curators are redundant (as well as the collections themselves), and that we are expected to abandon everything we hold dear (including the loyal audiences who have always enjoyed and sustained museums) to become social workers.

Finally, just when you thought things were getting loony enough, we have the article alluded to in the comment above, by Maurice Davies, the Museums Association's head of policy, who suggests that in these austere times it may be better to close a museum, and forget about looking after the collections therein, because:

Working on Museums 2020 [the Museums Association’s campaign to formulate a vision for the next decade] has led me to think that the core business of museums (like any service organisation) is in fact to have an impact - to make a difference to people’s lives. 

How about this: if times ever get so tough that we can no longer have it all, perhaps it should be the building - and collections care - that we let go, giving priority instead to Keith Merrin’s “facilitating communities to celebrate their own heritage”?


May 23 2012

Image of Celeb-tastic

Picture: Uffizi

Further to the post below, a reader has kindly alerted me to this tumblr of famous faces in art history. To be honest, some of them are a bit far out. But Georg Penckz's 1544 Portrait of a Man with an Enormous Red Codpiece Portrait of a Seated Youth does look eerily like man-of-the-moment Mark Zuckerberg. And oddly enough, the actor Hugh Bonneville seems to vaguely crop up in a number of pictures, one here, and another here.

More celebs in art

May 23 2012

Image of More celebs in art

Picture: Dorotheum

Silliness alert: I recently featured The Sun's attempt to spot celebrities in art (with Rocky in a Raphael). I've just come across this fellow at an auction in Austria. Charlton Heston, anyone?

ArtHistoryNews 3.0

May 23 2012

I'm thinking of investing a little in the site to make it more mobile and tablet friendly. People are increasingly viewing sites like mine on the move, and I'm aware that at the moment AHN can be a little slow to load on mobiles. Also, we're building up a small Twitter following, and apparently most Tweeters view links on their mobiles. If  you have any cunning suggestions on this, please let me know. Thanks!

Update - a reader writes:

Interested that you're thinking of making your blog more mobile friendly. I follow you on twitter (I am @GeorgeVertue), and see that you occasionally link to the blog but not invariably. I do most of my reading nowadays on the mobile; in fact if you make this upgrade, I will probably no longer read your site on my laptop, as it distracts me from my work. Instead, the blog would be a treat saved for moments spent waiting at the school gate or on the train.

'Art and Money'

May 23 2012

A reader has alerted me to a learned paper published by Tilburg University in Holland in 2010 entitled 'Art and Money'. The abstract says:

This paper investigates the impact of equity markets and top incomes on art prices. Using a newly constructed art market index, we demonstrate that equity market returns have had a significant impact on the price level in the art market over the last two centuries. We also find empirical evidence that an increase in income inequality may lead to higher prices for  art, in line with the results of a numerical simulation analysis. Finally, the results of Johansen cointegration tests strongly suggest the existence of a long-run relation between top incomes and art prices.

The paper itself runs to 40 pages, and includes complex graphs and statistics. But forgive me for asking, isn't the argument that more money leads to higher prices, in all things, simply a statement of the bleedin' obvious?

That said, it's interesting to note that here at Philip Mould & Co. we increasingly see people looking upon art, even in our Old Master end of the market, as an asset class. At the beginning of the crash, people in my business forecast excitedly that people might start investing in art as a safe place to store cash. At the time I took such predictions with a pinch of salt - but it does seem to be happening. 

John House Scholarship Fund

May 23 2012

Image of John House Scholarship Fund

Picture: Courtauld

The Courtauld Institute is fundraising for a scholarship in memory of the late Professor John House. John was a pre-eminent Impressionist scholar, and viewers of the first series of 'Fake or Fortune?' will remember him from the first programme on Monet. The Institute is seeking to raise £10,000, and has already passed the £5,000 mark. If you would like to contribute, please ask for Stacey Pulley at the Institute. 

Durer exhibition opens

May 23 2012

Image of Durer exhibition opens

Picture: Playmobil

The new Durer exhibition in Nuremburg opens tomorrow. 120 of the master's works will be on display, so it's certainly worth a trip. In the meantime, there's a good exhibition site here (tho' sadly only in German), and an interesting article over at The Art Newspaper by Bernhard Schulz on Durer's legacy, and on the row over the loan request for the artist's Self-Portrait. Of course, don't forget the most important new Durer discovery, the Playmobil Durer, above.

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