Previous Posts: April 2013

The High Art of the Low Countries

April 19 2013

Image of The High Art of the Low Countries

Picture: BBC

The excellent BBC4 series The High Art of the Low Countries, presented by Andrew-Graham-Dixon, is well worth catching on iPlayer if you missed it. All the major names are engagingly discussed; Rembrandt, Rubens, Vermeer, Hals. Sadly, Van Dyck doesn't get a mention.

He does, however, make an appearance in Graham-Dixon's programme on the re-opening of the Rijkmuseum (also worth a watch if you missed it). Sadly, the programme makes a bish with the sitters of the above Van Dyck; the sitters are William II of Orange and Mary Stuart, daughter of Charles I, not William III and Mary Stuart, daughter of James II.

Met buys Ritz Le Brun

April 19 2013

Video: Christie's

The Metropolitan Museum in New York has emerged as the buyer of Charles Le Brun's Sacrifice of Polyxena, which was sold at Christie's this week for EUR1.4m. It will be the Met's first work by Le Brun. The picture had been discovered in the Coco Chanel suite at the Ritz in Paris. 

One might have expected the French authorities to pre-empt the picture, though I suppose there's no shortage of Le Brun's in France. 

Update - more details here on Joseph Friedman's website. Joseph first discovered the picture.

A Real Van Gogh?

April 18 2013

Image of A Real Van Gogh?

Picture: Nevada Museum of Art

No, but that still hasn't stopped the Nevada Museum of Art putting on an exhibition to investigate the 'Goetz' Van Gogh, which has been comprehensively rejected by the Van Gogh Museum. Here's the background:

In 1948, William Goetz, the famed Hollywood producer, head of Universal Pictures, and legendary art collector, purchased a painting attributed to Vincent Van Gogh for $50,000. Although it was acquired from a reputable art dealer and deemed genuine by a prominent Van Gogh expert at the time, debate about the painting’s authenticity ignited an art world controversy that impacted U.S. foreign affairs.

For decades, only a handful of people knew the whereabouts of the painting, known as Study by Candlelight. Today, the Goetz family heirs hope to learn more about the provenance of the painting by drawing upon recent scientific developments in the study of artist materials and working methods.

In presenting this exhibition, the Nevada Museum of Art makes no attempt to determine the authenticity of the legendary painting. Rather, the exhibition re-visits its extraordinary story through archival documents, correspondence, photographs, and press materials that have never before been brought together in one place. The exhibition will look closely at the Goetz family’s Hollywood lifestyle and legendary art collection, assess what is known about the provenance of Study by Candlelight, consider the painting within the stylistic and historical context of Van Gogh’s body of work, and report on the art world controversies and international politics that have surrounded the painting.

A rather curious book was published on the picture in 2010. An interesting account of the case from 1949 is in Life magazine here

Why you don't want to be an auctioneer in France

April 18 2013

Image of Why you don't want to be an auctioneer in France

Picture: Art@Law

The Art@Law website brings us news of an important case in France. The case revolves around the above sculpture, which in 1987 was bought as a 'Rodin' at Tajan auctioneers in Paris. When the owner tried to sell it in 2006, again through Tajan, they told him it wasn't in fact by Rodin, but a later cast. So the owner sued Tajan, and in his favour the Paris Court of Appeal:

[...] held that an auctioneer was strictly liable to the buyer of an artwork if he described it as authentic when it was not. Strict liability means that the auctioneer is liable irrespective of whether he was negligent in cataloguing the artwork. He is liable if he gets it wrong.

If I was a French auction house, I'd be getting very sweaty right now. Imagine the possible liabilities that are on the horizon, given that attributions can change over time, often at the unreasonable whim of a specialist who doesn't know what they're talking about. It's one thing to be sued if you casually decided something was by Rodin, didn't check with the Rodin scholars, and catalogued it as Rodin in full. But as most auction houses are generalists, it's quite possible that they consulted the Rodin scholars of the day, and were assured that the piece was indeed by Rodin. In which case, you might argue that they were perfectly entitled to sell it as a Rodin.

In sculpture cases like the one above, advances in scientific analysis mean it's easier to tell an original cast from a later one. But the case is even more vague with attributions of period oil paintings. Let's imagine that in the 1980s you were an auctioneer in Paris who sold a picture as by Rembrandt, an artist whose oeuvre famously increases and decreases with each successive generation of scholars. You may have acted with all the diligence in the world, and had the backing of all the Rembrandt scholars of the day. Fast forward to 2013, however, and suddenly the Rembrandt Research Project is not so sure. That's one big bill...

In the UK, however, the situation is very different. Says Art@Law:

The English Courts approach these matters very differently. First, the attribution of an artwork to a particular artist or period is typically held a matter of opinion. Secondly, the English Courts are unlikely to attribute contractual force to an opinion. Thirdly, in order to establish negligence, the claimant must show that the defendant owed him/her a duty of care; that is rarely the case in a relationship between buyer and seller. For these and other reasons, it is generally more difficult to persuade a court to find against an auctioneer or expert in England than it is in France.

Still, the French Court of Appeal decision means (I suppose) that France might suddenly look like a good place to buy art - after all, you have an indefinate guarantee of authenticity enforced by the state. You may struggle to find someone to sell you anything, though...

Cleaning test fun (ctd.)

April 16 2013

Image of Cleaning test fun (ctd.)

Picture: Philip Mould & Co.

Here's the cleaned early Lely portrait I showed you a cleaning test of recently. I've never handled a Lely portrait in such good condition. The sitter's identity eludes us for now, but at least not the attribution - Erik 'Larceny' Larsen once included it in his deeply flawed catalogue raisonne on Van Dyck!

Guffwatch - 'Vernissage TV'

April 16 2013

Video: Vernissage TV

If you've ever wondered what goes on at trendy contemporary gallery openings, but were too afraid to go, then check out The above video gives you a good idea of how opening nights work - bizarre artworks which nobody looks at, random 'performances', and people standing around wondering what the hell is going on.

Taking loonery seriously

April 16 2013

Image of Taking loonery seriously

Picture: Mona Lisa Foundation

I was recently asked to take part in a documentary on the Isleworthless Mona Lisa, which is to be shown on Channel 4. The programme would, I was told, be:

[...] a balanced programme. We'll carry out more tests and give equal attention to the painting's supporters and its detractors.

Equal attention? Why? This is not some political issue requiring partiality. It's a documentary about a not very good copy of the Mona Lisa, which some people are, fantastically, trying to say is by Leonardo. A documentary should be about facts and a search for the truth. In this case, the facts - that is, facts recognised by art historians, not 'sacred geometry', whatever that is - only point in one direction; that it's a copy. To give the picture's supporters 'equal attention' would be to seriously mislead the viewer as to the value and significance of the case for the picture.

The story is more evidence of what I shall call Grosvenor's Law of Art Discoveries: the louder they shout, the less likely it is to be right. 

Did you know...

April 15 2013

Image of Did you know...

Picture: IAA

...that today is World Art Day? Me neither. Apparently it's something dreamed up by the International Association of Art (again, me neither), who say:


There are very many special days that we have the change to celebrate throughout the year: Women’s Day, Peace Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Valentines’ Day, Worker’s Day, Theater Day and so on. But we did not have any “ONE” special art day that would unite the whole world. On April 5-6, 2011, the 17th General Assembly of AIAP / IAA World, holding its meeting in Guadalajara, (World Art Associations founded in 1954) has voted unanimously the proposal brought by Turkey and co-signed by several world delegate countries: the AIAP General Assembly accepted that the birthday of Leonardo da Vinci, April 15, becomes “World Art Day”. It goes without saying that the existence of such a united World Art Day will help tremendously the spreading of the “art awareness” throughout the globe. The celebrations will start on April 15, 2012. On that day we suggest that all museums and galleries stay open long nights, we expect conferences and panel discussions to be held on that day (and eventually throught out the week, following April 15). In the evening, celebrations and wild parties should follow all the exhibitions opening simultaneously on “D Day”! Long Live Art!

Let the Wild Parties commence!

Is Google bringing us too close to art? (ctd.)

April 15 2013

Image of Is Google bringing us too close to art? (ctd.)

Picture: Google Art Project

Further to my earlier post on this, Google tells us that the picture most viewed on the Google Art Project is Van Gogh's The Starry Night, and that:

While nothing beats seeing a painting in real life, the ability to examine a work of art in this level of detail seems to be encouraging viewers to linger. One minute is the average time spent looking at any given painting on the Art Project website, compared to under 20 seconds (according to several studies) in a museum. 

More here.

A collection disperses

April 15 2013

Image of A collection disperses

Picture: National Gallery

A sharp-eyed reader writes:

It seems as if the Lonsdale/Lowther collection is giving up its secrets.  The Turner painting of Lowther castle, accepted in lieu, has been allocated to the Bowes [Museum].  As you have already posted, their Steen is on the block this Summer.  And now this charming work [above] from the same source is on loan to the National Gallery.

Our reader also has this excellent idea on the old problem of increasing public access for pictures that are exempted from tax, but which are for practical purposes difficult to see:

All are listed by HMRC on their site detailing objects which have been conditionally exempted from tax.  As one of the “conditions” is a degree of public access, I have wondered whether, for example, the PCF shouldn’t include works from this source in their database – they do, after all, include collections generally on view to, but not actually owned by, the public.  And what a great, additional resource it would be.

Update - a reader adds:

Surely paintings in the Royal collection could be included in the PCF catalogue, as they are state holdings, their inclusion would be natural.


Picasso's Child with a Dove goes to Qatar

April 15 2013

Image of Picasso's Child with a Dove goes to Qatar

Picture: Tate

The sale of Picasso's Child with a Dove, which I first revealed here on AHN, seems to have been completed. After no UK museums stepped forward to try and buy the painting, it will be heading, so The Art Newspaper reports, to Qatar. 

A reader writes:

I find this extraordinary.  Yes, dismissed by many as 'cute kitch', it is, in fact, one of P's most iconic paintings.  Having just seen it in the (brilliant!) early Picasso show at the Courtauld, it simply is a phantastic image and the paint is beautiful.  I suppose the response was negative due to over-exposure?  A bit like Ravel's 'Bolero' we are all so sick and tired of?

Forging Giacometti

April 15 2013

Image of Forging Giacometti

Picture: Der Spiegel

Interesting article in Der Spiegel about Robert Driessen, a Dutch forger who made millions out of fake Giacometti sculptures:

 "Long, thin figures, and an amorphous, crumbly surface," says Driessen. "It isn't difficult to make Giacomettis." After a while, he says, he "literally had Giacometti in my fingers." According to Driessen, it took him 30 to 40 minutes for the small figures. But they weren't simply recast versions of the originals. Instead, Driessen just added to Giacometti's body of work. He made his own models, had them cast and stamped them with the stamps of the foundries Giacometti had used.

'Elizabeth I and her People'

April 15 2013

Image of 'Elizabeth I and her People'

Picture: National Portrait Gallery/Government Art Collection

The National Portrait Gallery's 'major Autumn exhibition' will be - 'Elizabeth I and her People' (10 October 2013 - 5 January 2014). The exhibition will, says the NPG, be:

[...] the first exhibition to focus in depth on Elizabethan society. As well as gathering together important portraits of Elizabeth herself, and building on fascinating new research, the exhibition will explore the lives of men and women who lived and worked during her reign from courtiers to country gentry, explorers, bankers, physicians and lawyers, artists and writers.

The exhibition will consist of rarely or previously unseen loans from private collections as well as iconic portraits from historic houses and museum collections.

Lend, lend, lend!

April 11 2013

Image of Lend, lend, lend!

Picture: BBC

Are oil paintings put at unnecessary risk by lending to exhibitions, and moving them about it? Short answer, no. But lots of people think they are. So I was surprised to read, following my rather unkind appraisal of the Museums Association 'vision' document, Museums 2020, that the MA agrees with me. Page 19 of Museums 2020 says:

Museums can take greater risks in the way they use and share collections. Handling and lending rarely cause significant harm.

This is true, and worth emphasising in light of a recent article in The Art Newspaper suggesting that, because of the risk of damage, museums should lend less often. Blake Gopnik says we need far fewer exhibitions, and cites:

[...] the physical risks run by works of art every time they are moved; as recently as 2008, at the National Gallery in London, a panel painting was dropped and broken as workers took down the great “Renaissance Siena” show. We also have to worry about the wear and tear that will diminish every well-travelled picture or sculpture. (Conservators wouldn’t fill in condition reports on every loan if there had never been a thing to note on their forms.)

Well, it's now 2013, so the National Gallery's dropped picture debacle was five years ago. Of all the major exhibitions in the world, one damage every five years is, I would say, not enough to argue for fewer exhibitions, the activity around which is the life-blood of any museum. In my experience of moving (lots and lots of) pictures, there is very little risk of damage or ‘wear and tear’, because - and here's the great secret everyone - these things are pretty damn tough. Much tougher than us, in fact.

The fuss made over loans and handling by conservators has reached levels of new silliness. Did you know, for example, that curators at one of London's major museums aren't actually allowed to pick up and move paintings? To move a picture, a curator has to book a team of art handlers. I once watched another London museum use 12 people to hang a single painting. All this costs money, of course, and leads to unnecessary strictures on the handling and lending of objects. 

What is especially curious about the increasing nervousness over art handling is the varying approach taken by museums. Some museums are still happy with a relaxed and common sense approach to loans. For a recent loan exhibition here at Philip Mould & Company the most valuable item arrived, via the Underground, in a curator's handbag. In the same exhibition, however, another object cost more to transport than every other exhibit combined. It had to be flown first class, in a large crate, and accompanied by a specialist courier who was put up in an expensive hotel for three days each side of the journey. It was a miniature. And then there's the inconsistency of museums keeping objects in a cold basement, but demanding that they be housed in a permanently stable environment with the temperature at 21 degrees and the humidity at 50%, were it ever to be put on public display.

Now it is hard to disagree with the idea that we must be as cautious as possible with the handling of museum objects. And yet if preservation was our sole aim, we would never display anything. Some museum conservators would undoubtedly prefer it this way. But we must strike a balance between care and display, and I would argue that we have lately gone too far in the wrong direction. The result is that exhibitions have become harder, and more expensive, to mount. At some institutions there is now almost a presumption not to lend objects. The procedures to approve a loan are so tedious and time consuming that for many curators it's not worth the effort. The captive grip of the museum basement is getting stronger and stronger. 

Update - Michael Savage, aka The Grumpy Art Historian, disagrees, and wonders why we need exhibitions at all.


April 11 2013

Video: Bilston Craft Gallery

Stand back everyone, this one's good. It's Guff-ing genius in fact, probably the best we've yet had here on AHN. Watch the whole thing if you can. As an appetiser, here's the blurb:

Letter worker, graphic designer, type designer and action calligrapher Timothy Donaldson created a new piece of calligraphy at Bilston Craft Gallery. The piece was commissioned by The Harley Gallery as part of Signs for Sounds. This touring exhibition curated by Jeremy Theophilus explores the contemporary practice of letter-forming from traditional calligraphy to the use of digital technologies and performance. It considers the impact of letter form, an art that we are surrounded by everyday – from traditional calligraphy to hi-tech type design. The event was beautifully captured on video by Anthony Davies for Last Phoenix Films. We witness the creation of a calligraphic work of art, as gesture becomes calligraphic movement becomes word, whose meaning is gradually obfuscated until it becomes meta-text. Timothy eloquently comments.

From the scratch of the quill curling across the page, to letters painstakingly chipped and carved from stone, Signs for Sounds looks at the ways that artists use the age-old shapes of letters to amplify the effect of words. This exhibition examines the traditional skills of letter-forming, along with how we use lettering in the modern world – with artists’ films of graffiti and virtual typography where visitors can experiment with Jason Edward Lewis’ virtual typography to re-shape poetry on touchscreen monitors. Featuring examples of outstanding skill in letter-forming by leading practitioners, the exhibition shows how writing communicates meaning and how this is changing with the use of new media in the digital age. Exhibitors include letter-engraver Tom Perkins, calligrapher Ewan Clayton and performance artist Julien Breton, who dances letter forms using light. There is also a family-friendly activity area, and a display of creative writing by local writers’ groups Bilston Writers and Bilston Scribblers on the theme Sights and Sounds of Bilston.

This 'drawing' was funded by the Arts Council - in other words, you and me. I like his line about incorporating words from the audience in his 'writings', but couldn't on this occassion because everone was so quiet. Probably they were just pissing themselves laughing. It's a shame we weren't allowed to see the audience. Perhaps there was nobody there. If that's what Donaldson does though, I'm definitely going to his next performance, with a mega-phone. 

New acquisition at the Met (ctd.)

April 10 2013

Image of New acquisition at the Met (ctd.)

Picture: Metropolitan Museum/New York Times

A reader alerts me to another Met acquisition announced today, one that's slightly more important than the wee drawing I mentioned below. From the New York Times:

For more than 40 years Leonard A. Lauder, the philanthropist and cosmetics tycoon, has been diligently and deliberately putting together a world-class collection of Cubist art that rivals those of such institutions as the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg and the Pompidou Center in Paris. Consisting of 33 Picassos, 17 Braques, 14 Légers and 14 works by Gris, it has been promised to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Update - apparently the total value of the gift tops $1 billion.

Update II - Blake Gopnik in The Daily Beast says Lauder deserves not a jot of gratitude for the gift:

I don’t understand why collectors get the kind of praise and attention they do, unless it’s because of universal sycophantism. Collecting is just shopping, and when you have close to infinite wealth, and the money to pay for the best advice, nothing could be easier. Any decent curator with a few billion dollars in her pocket could build a collection like this with her eyes closed. (Or maybe I should say without breaking a sweat.) And of course it’s worth remembering that Lauder only has his pockets so full because the thousands of people who work for him don’t; give those workers a bigger slice of the American dream, such as they used to have, and Lauder starts hogging less of it – to spend on things like fabulous Cubist art.

The true heroes of yesterday’s announcement are the Met’s curators and their new-ish leader, Thomas Campbell. While managing the tricky courtier’s task of coddling a billionaire donor, they’ve also managed to play aesthetic Robin Hood, getting art from the rich and giving it to the rest of us poor slobs. They redistribute artistic wealth, and the wealthy don’t seem to mind.

This is what you call a well-balanced article - written with a chip on both shoulders.

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. 

New acquisition at the Met

April 10 2013

Image of New acquisition at the Met

Picture: Philip Mould & Company

We sold a portrait to the Met! This very fine self-portrait drawing by John Vanderbank can be dated to c.1720.

Picture of the Day

April 10 2013

Image of Picture of the Day

Picture: Christie's

This little girl looks like something out of The Shining. Poor duck. The picture is coming up for sale in May at Christie's. Zoom in the duck's discomfort here

Global attendance figures

April 10 2013

Image of Global attendance figures

Picture: TAN/Asabi Shimbun

There are two interesting numbers in The Art Newspaper's annual round up of exhibition attendance. First, that Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring drew over 10,500 visitors a day in Tokyo (I hope the Mauritshuis got a good share of the proceeds). And secondly, that more people went to see a single Leonardo at the Louvre, the recently cleaned Virgin and Child with St Anne (3,985 a day), than went to the National Gallery's Leonardo exhibition (3,856).

Incidentally, that Tokyo show must have been busy. I don't know how long it was open for every day, but let's assume from 10 till 6. That means each visitor would have had just over 2.5 seconds in front of the painting. 

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