Previous Posts: May 2013

I'm off...

May 31 2013

Image of I'm off...

Picture: Venice, where I'll be making a short programme for BBC2's The Culture Show with Alastair Sooke. Alastair is going to wow me with some of the contemporary art on display at Biennale, and I'll wow him some of the glories of the Venetian Renaissance. That's the idea, anyway.

I'll be back on Thursday. If you're lucky, my colleague Lawrence Hendra will post the odd bit of art historical news in the meantime. Ciao.

Britain at the Venice Biennale

May 30 2013

Video: Telegraph

Alastair Sooke in The Telegraph gives Jeremy Deller's exhibition in the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, called English Magic, four stars out of five:

Does English Magic work as “art”? In a sense, that’s almost beside the point. Here is a sequence of tough and uncompromising statements skewering the forces that Deller feels are blighting Britain. You could interpret the exhibition as an indictment of our entertainment-obsessed media culture, which, in the artist’s book, does not sufficiently hold Britain’s rich and powerful to account.

Whether or not that’s the case, English Magic contains some uncomfortable home truths that need to be expressed. You don’t come to Deller looking for life-changing aesthetic experiences. But it's hard to resist the strength of his ideas, or the persuasive nature of his democratic politics.

Museums and image reproduction fees

May 30 2013

Image of Museums and image reproduction fees

Picture: BG/National Gallery

Regular readers will know that AHN takes a dim view of UK museums charging reproduction fees for scholarly and informative publications: if an object belongs to the public, then so should its image. In a timely article for the Times Higher Education, Jane Masseglia highlights the inconsistent approach taken by museums:

Many museums and collections either do not charge at all, or charge a small administrative fee and request a copy of the finished publication. God bless the British Museum, for instance: the file is attached free of charge, and with permission to reproduce it. The Wriston Art Center Galleries in Wisconsin give their permission, waive the fees and would like to know which format would be most convenient. The staff of the Museum für Abgüsse Klassischer Bildwerke München are happy to provide the image free of charge but are, they say, very fond of chocolate. You feel the warm glow of being a member of an international community working together to bring ancient objects to a wider audience.

But then you read the other replies, and your heart sinks. One museum’s image service demands €78 (£66) for each image and permission to reproduce it - and the same amount to reuse a photo you’ve bought from them before. Another asks for £120 per image and then unexpectedly begins to haggle when you express your horror. And, most bafflingly, a museum in the US charges $50 (£33) per digital image sent by email but only $25 for a posted, picture-quality A4 printout. Clearly the cost and the administrative labour involved are unrelated. There can be only one conclusion: the image services of such institutions are primarily a commercial enterprise.

The National Portrait Gallery is, many tell me, an offender when it comes to high image fees. Here's a letter to The Author from the historian and broadcaster Dr Ian Mortimer on his attempt to use the NPG's images, here published with his permission:

Recently I set about arranging for pictures to illustrate my forthcoming book, The Time Traveller's Guide to Elizabethan England. With a budget of £3,500, I deliberately selected images in public institutions, so the money would benefit the public as much as possible. Sadly, many of them demanded too much money. In the end, twenty-four of the thirty-seven pictures used came from commercial image libraries. The British Library was the only publicly funded institution that proved competitive. 

I find this lack of competitveness alarming and disappointing - not so much as the writer of this particular book (because there are many alternative images available in galleries) but from the point of view of a supporter of the institutions in question. My book should have resulted in several thousand pounds going to help public bodies curate their collections, not to fatten shareholders’ wallets. But the point to which I especially want to draw members’ attention is the lack of regard to authors’ businesses implicit in this. Subsequent correspondence has revealed that the galleries assess their competitiveness by measuring their fees aginst those of similar institutions. I would contend that this is the wrong approach; instead they ought to consider their customers (especially authors) who ultimately decide whether or not to use their images. 

To prove my point, consider the National Portrait Gallery images (the most expensive in my sample). I originally intended to use five quarter-page images from the NPG, and to obtain world, all-language rights in case my agent found a foreign-language publisher. For each ¼-page image the NPG quoted £20 plus VAT for delivery of the digital file, plus £175.00 for the rights for up to 25,000 copies sold, plus 50% of that fee for simultaneous ebook publication. This totals £282.50 + VAT for each ¼-page image. 

If the NPG thinks this sum is reasonable then it follows that it considers a fee totalling £18,080 for a sixteen-plate non-fiction book exclusively using its images is reasonable. It is not. It equates to a charge of 72.3p per copy just for the images. Looking at my statements for my earlier Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, the first 25,000 paperback sales in 2009 realised a total royalty of £17,530.50 (average 70.1p per copy). Were I to use just ¼-page NPG images in my forthcoming book, every sale would lose me money. And that is just home sales: each export copy realises a much lower royalty (26.3p per copy in the case of a TTGME paperback). If I used sixteen whole-page images from the NPG (total cost per image £400.62p plus VAT, a charge of 25.6p per copy) I would earn less than a penny on every export copy sold. Does the NPG really think that reasonable: 25.6p for the images, 0.7p for the author?

While there may be some limited benefit in pricing images at high levels – to extract the maximum revenue from specialist books, which have to include specific images – I cannot help but think the current pricing strategy of most institutions is shortsighted and in need of complete review. They should be undercutting commercial galleries if they want more UK non-fiction authors to use their images. And I applaud the British Library for leading the way and making its manuscript images available at reasonable prices in these austere times, which are difficult for all of us, not just the public sector.

I should perhaps add that here at Philip Mould & Co. we licence our archive of images (searchable here) to the Bridgeman Art Library, and get a regular, if small, income from it. We are of course a private operation, and I have no qualms charging, for example, Innocent Smoothies a handsome fee for reproducing one of our portraits of Henry VIII on the back of their cartons, as happened last year. We usually provide reproductions for academic books gratis, if authors ask nicely...

Ian Mortimer's new series, A Time Traveller's Guide to Elizabethan England, starts on BBC2 tomorrow, at 9pm.

Update - a reader alerts me to an article in the New York Times on this very topic, in which Taco Dibbits, director of collections at the Rijksmuseum says:

 “We’re a public institution, and so the art and objects we have are, in a way, everyone’s property,” 


Update II - I should of course have mentioned the NPG's new policy of allowing free image use for qualifying academic books with a print run limited to under 3,000 copies, which I covered here on AHN last year. My apologies to the NPG for not remembering to mention it again on this occasion. 

New Curatorial Head at National Gallery

May 30 2013

Many congratulations to Letizia Treves, who is the new Curator of Italian Painting 1600-1800, and indeed Head of the Curatorial Department. Letizia was previously a Senior Director of the Old Master Department at Sotheby's in London. Such high profile moves from the art trade to the museum world are rare, but greatly to be encouraged. It's a pleasing recognition, perhaps, that some of the best Old Master expertise is to be found in the art trade. 

How not to hang a painting

May 29 2013

Image of How not to hang a painting

Picture: NY Times

Reader Adam Busiakiewicz from Warwick Castle sends this clipping from The New York Times in 1890. Happily, the picture, which is a studio piece, is now hung much more securely, and in a frame. 

2 years for Picasso vandal

May 29 2013

Video: ITN

The plonker who did this has been jailed for two years. More here in The Art Newspaper. 

PCF goes commercial

May 29 2013

Image of PCF goes commercial

Picture: PCF

Very interesting to see that the Public Catalogue Foundation is building on its expertise and offering a commercial digitisation service. If you run an institutional collection and want to have, say an online catalogue of your collection, then why not hire the people who've put a whole nation's art collection online? More details here.  

How not to respond to art criticism

May 29 2013

Video: via The Daily Dish

An art student who says 'like' a lot is goaded to an extreme reaction by critics who also say 'like' a lot.

Rubens drawing discovery

May 28 2013

Image of Rubens drawing discovery


The Reading Post reports:

A 17th century drawing by artist Sir Peter Paul Rubens has been discovered at the University of Reading.

Just 10.8cm x 8.9cm in size, the drawing is valued at £75,000 and shows a profile view of the head of Marie de Médicis, Queen of France as the second wife of King Henry IV of France.

The sketch was probably made in preparation for some life size paintings in the collection of the Louvre.

The drawing was acquired by an Oxford collector Henry Wellesly, the illegitimate son of the Duke of Wellington, who bought drawings for the Ashmolean. The university acquired the sketch for teaching purposes in the 1950s for no more than £50.

Update - a reader asks:

Am intrigued. 

Was it acquired in the 1950’s as an anonymous drawing and has now been correctly attributed ? 

£50.00 for a drawing in the 1950’s would have not been insignificant.


Have they now just worked out where it’s been all this time (like stuck to the back of a David Shepherd watercolour of an elephant) ?

'Figurative painting is a lie'

May 28 2013

Video: TAN

The Art Newspaper has an interview with Turner Prize nominee David Shrigley, who makes this defence of conceptual art:

Conceptual artists aren't involved in craft, so they can't hide behind their craft skills. It's almost like craft is blag in a way, it's like if you're a really good painter, and a really good draughtsperson, then you can sort of hide behind that as an artist. But when you're just a conceptual artist, you've got nothing to hide behind, except your own ideas. [...] Conceptual art is honest, figurative painting is a lie.

So there you have it, Michelangelo, Leonardo and [insert your own favourite artist here], should be seen as mere dissembling cowards, hiding behind their ability to paint, draw and sculpt. 

Why you should stare at a painting for 3 hours

May 28 2013

Image of Why you should stare at a painting for 3 hours

Picture: National Gallery, London

Here's an interesting article in the Boston Globe:

Are distracting smartphones making us more stupid? New research suggests that could be the case: When Carnegie Mellon researchers interrupted college students with text messages while they were taking a test, the students had average test scores that were 20 percent lower than the scores of those who took the exam with their phones turned off.

Another study found that students, when left to their own devices, are unable to focus on homework for more than two minutes without turning to Web surfing or e-mail. Adults in the workforce can make it to about 11 minutes.

Jennifer Roberts, a professor of the history of art and architecture at Harvard, thinks she has a fairly simple solution to help her American art history students appreciate the act of focusing: They must pick any painting, sculpture, or object made by an American artist and stare at it — for three hours.

“They’re usually skeptical at first,” she told me, “but afterward, they tell me the process was really astonishing, enabling them to see things, make observations, and develop original ideas about the work that never would have occurred otherwise.”

Have any readers stared at a painting for this long? Can't say I have. If you were going to, which picture would you choose? I think for me it would be one of Rubens' epic landscapes, like the above View of Het Steen - so much for the eye to feast on.

By the way, checking AHN regularly, even every 11 minutes, doesn't count as distraction, but education.

Update - a reader writes:

What a wonderful idea!

I'd probably only manage two and a half hours of Bosch's Last Judgement…before being classified as insane….maybe a wee bit longer on a Rothko! 

I suppose it changes with my mood, but right now I'd love to be spending three hours looking at Turner's Norham Castle with Sunrise. Just calm.

Paintings can also be responsible for changing your mood, after looking at them you can feel better or sometimes worse.

Update II - a reader adds;

Indeed yes, a great idea!   Can't say I have done that, either -- unless staring at a fresco cycle in one chapel counts!!??  If so, surely I am not the only one: Pieros' frescoes in the chapel in San Francesco, Arezzo, the Masaccio and Masolino frescoes in the Carmine in Florence, or of course Giotto's Scrovegni chapel in Padua, for instance  (when they had no restrictions on time spent, which tells you this was a long time ago!!).  Or the Sistine chapel, but that really must count as a cheat!   However, does sculpture count for lists of the artworks to spend three hours staring at?  If so, I vote for Donatello's 'cantoria' from the cathedral, in the Museo di Santa maria del Fiore in Florence, and the same museum's Maria Magdalena also by Donatello.  Or if tapestry counts, would it be cheating to cite the huge "Maximilian" tapestry series in the Louvre and the even huger "Apocalypse" cycle in Angers?   Probably so, alas...

Update III - another reader sends this gem:

Just about your post on looking at a painting for three hours.  You might recall that in one of his books ('Looking at pictures' I think), Kenneth Clark says that the optimum period of time you can look at a picture is the time it would take you to peel and eat an orange.  I tend to agree.

Update IV - this reader aims for somewhere between an orange and the full 3 hours:

I like the orange quotation - that's generally my view.  I've never spent three hours looking at a painting, but I've sometimes spent much longer than orange-time.  I think it takes the combination of a great picture and good viewing conditions.  I don't think your Rubens would work - that corridor in the NG is just not conducive to long looking.  Its pendant in the Wallace might be better.  I've spent a long time with some of the Poussins in the aptly named Orange Wing, and the great Rembrandt portraits of Jacob Trip and Margarethe de Geer.  And Piero della Francesca's Baptism.  Others that have engaged me for a long time are the awesome Velazquez Pope Innocent X in the Doria Pamphilj, the late Cezannes in Washington, Weyden's Deposition in the Prado, Bruegel's Hunters in the Snow.  Oddly some of my very favourite artists, like Raphael and Rubens, haven't inspired me to look for a very long time in a single sitting.

City in debt? Flog the museum!

May 24 2013

Image of City in debt? Flog the museum!

Picture: DIA/BG

Alarming news from Detroit, where the city's $15 billion debt has led to the entire contents of the Detroit Institute of Arts being seen as a disposable asset. Choose which picture you would buy in the Search the Collection page here. More details in the Detroit Free Press

'...all my pictures'

May 24 2013

Image of '...all my pictures'

Picture: The National Archives

It's always tempting to check wills when doing provenance research, but I'd say that almost all of the time I come across the above short, dispiriting phrase. It's interesting to note the extent to which land was described in wills, often over countless pages, whereas even great art collections were invariably just described as 'all my pictures', along with the linen and cutlery. Have any readers had lucky hits with pictures in wills?

Update - the king of all things pastel, Neil Jeffares, writes:

Indeed: how many £3.36s [the price for downloading a will here in the UK] have we all thrown away! But yes one does occasionally find gold, as in my long piece on La Tour’s Mlle Ferrand.  

But the main value in wills (and in law cases which are often even more fruitful, and show a less public side to the people we encounter) is the biographical information they give on artists and sitters.

 I started to draw up a list of more minor discoveries: instant examples included Katherine Thornhill identified from Sarah Clayton’s will (copied from a pastel which I tentatively attribute to Cotes), whle the pastellist/opera singer Mrs Du Parc was properly identified through her will (and that of Goupy), as was Mrs Gibbons but it instantly became obvious that this would take far too long…

 I’m not sure that I would call these “lucky” hits as they involve quite a lot of work!

Update II - Dr. Richard Stephens, editor of the University of York's online project The Art World in Britain 1660 to 1735, writes:

Quite a nice example is the will of painter Edmond Lilly, 1715, in which he gives "to my said nephew Edward Lilly the originall Picture of the blessed Virgin and the Angell commonly called the Salutation about 5 foot in breadth and 7 and half in height, one Picture of the Goddess Minerva about 5 foot in breadth and above 8 foot in height, one whole length picture of Queen Ann of or near the size of the said picture of Minerva. Also a picture of a devout Virgin 3 foot 4 Inches by 4 foot 2 Inches or thereabout" A year later he added a codicil, in which he mentions: "one whole length Picture of the Dutchess of Richmond copyed after Vandike 5 foot and half in height and above 4 foot in broeadth marked on the back with Letter (L) and likewise the Picture of Grapes soe much esteemed by his Papa 30 Inches by twenty five."

In 1708 Simon Dubois bequeathed to Lord Somers "my father and mothers Pictures drawn by Van Dyke" and to his wife "my Pictures of the Tower of Bable and of a Woman playing upon the Lute a little fruit piece that my Wife's Sister Coppied and the Battle of my own painting which hangs in the inward[?] Room"

Update III - another reader has news of of the Dobson family: seems William Dobson's grandmother was a bit of a collector, leaving ‘a great picture of Judyth cutting of Hollofernes head',  ‘six small pictures of allabastor’, ‘twelve round pictures of the twelve monthes of the yeare’, and a picture each of King James and the King of Denmark. 

Interestingly for the grandma of a Royalist, she left the Judyth picture to another grandchild's husband, the regicide Sir James Harington...

Clooney's 'Monuments Men'

May 24 2013

Image of Clooney's 'Monuments Men'

Picture: Bloomberg

Catherine Hickley in Bloomberg has the story of George Clooney's new film, The Monuments Men, which tells the story of the hunt for Nazi looted art in World War Two. Scheduled for release in December.

Update - read more on the Monuments Men here.

Brian Sewell on the state or art history education

May 23 2013

Writing in Times Higher Education, the Great Brian weeps at the state of students' art historical knowledge today:

The bare bones of art history are linear studies of painting, sculpture and architecture, the simple first-this-then-that sequence that connects the painted image on the flat gold ground to the bucket-and-slosh business of the contemporary abstract painter, the iconography of Christ crucified painted for the devout veneration of the peasantry, to the Mapplethorpe photograph of a naked male with another man’s fist thrust into his anus. With experience, the student will recognise that the history of art is far from linear, that its threads are looped and tangled in cat’s cradles that may never be undone, and that it has always been affected by the external forces of political and social history. Art and its history are inseparable from the patronage of monarchs, popes and despots, from the propaganda of church and state, from the effects of famine, plague and war. They are inseparable from historic theological and philosophical debate, even from Marxism, capitalism, feminism, race and other modern orthodoxies. They are inseparable from music, literature and science - even from maths (in terms of perspective and proportion) - and from the wider cultural background of their day, and of all these the student must know almost as much as of his core subject. Thus to understand the history of art we must understand history itself, the history of political ambitions and the conflicts of religion, the history of nations, dynasties, the rich and powerful, the middle classes and the poor. The most inclusive and wide-ranging of academic disciplines, it opens many doors.

Students in my day had the necessary background for it. Now they do not. The history of art is now taught in all sorts of universities; and in an attempt to compare the requirements of a student at the Courtauld in Blunt’s day with those of a student at a provincial university now, I probed a professor at a far more ancient seat of learning. Asked about their knowledge of the Bible, his response was “The Bible is a worrying problem - knowledge of it is not to be taken for granted” - yet without that knowledge and the theological distinction between the Old and the New Testaments, without the Apocrypha and the Golden Legends of the saints, how can students recognise the subject and the iconography? To my enquiry about classical mythology, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Roman history and other sources of the painter’s imagery with primary and secondary meanings, the glum response was: “They may be utterly ignorant. We cope with the school- leavers we get.”

Update - Dr Ben Thomas from the University of Kent writes:

While I read Brian Sewell’s description of art history as the ‘most inclusive and wide-ranging of academic disciplines’ with cheerful agreement, I could not help sighing in weary exasperation at his characterization of today’s art history students, and also at the notion that they should be as well-read as Dr Johnson before looking at a picture. 

Today, my students – a mixture of second and third-year undergraduates - have opened Two-Faced Fame: Celebrity in Print 1962-2013 in the University of Kent’s Studio 3 Gallery. This exhibition, which they developed and curated themselves, manages to be professional, scholarly and fun. The catalogue can be found online here

In my opinion art history students have never been more creative and ambitious, nor more curious and passionate about art. That opinion is not just based on the experience of teaching at Kent, but also of acting as external examiner at ‘all sorts of universities’ including the Courtauld.

I fear the Great Brian would be shocked at my lack of the general art historical knowledge he describes above. I know very little of the classical world, for example. While it doesn't stop me knowing a thing or two about, say, British portraiture from 1500-1830, I wish that I had been taught everything Sewell suggests. More fun than triple maths.

Update II - another reader writes:

Surely it is an overtly “Panofskian” and old fashioned art historical way of thinking to suggest that unless you read the bible inside out you are not going to understand/appreciate a single art work? I agree with Sewell’s concern that art history students of today are not well enough informed in other spheres such as politics, literature, history and classics and I couldn’t be more worried about this aspect. However I fail to see that you need to know the entire bible or all of Ovid.

In fact, the emphasis he puts on the bible in his final paragraph is worrying… It seems to imply that Western Culture and Christianity is the sole contributor to art and culture and just goes to show how flawed Sewell’s own art history teaching was…

'A Walk Through... Salisbury Meadow'?

May 22 2013

Image of 'A Walk Through... Salisbury Meadow'?

Picture: National Gallery

I hear an announcement will be made tomorrow. And at a time when we need some good news here in the UK.

Can you guess where it's going?

Update: most of you got it from the headline above, which was meant to lead you to Tate's new 'Walk through British Art' - yes, it's Tate Britain! More here at BBC News. The published price tag was £23.1m, though I assume with tax liabilities that the picture was valued for much more.

A reader writes:

I guess from your heading that the Constable is destined for Tate Britain??! 

I won’t be happy if that is correct! At the National Gallery “Salisbury Cathedral from the Water Meadows” was always on display as part of a logical exhibition of British painting.  It will be a great pity if it is now to be subject to the Tate’s odd display policies.

Leave it where it was on display for years I say!

One reader made the link to Tate because, when he was there yesterday, the Constable room was closed.

Anyway, well done to Tate Britain for pulling this one off. What a coup, not least in wresting the picture away from the National Gallery. The picture is an illustration in how, when Tate was founded, the split between the National Gallery's British collection was never satisfactorily resolved.

Great thanks are also due to the Heritage Lottery Fund, who came up with £15m. What a relief it is to know that the icons of our artistic heritage are more likely to remain in the UK, now that the HLF is at last pulling its weight on acquisitions. 

Finally, a small plug that at every stage in the story, AHN had the news first!

Update II - a reader writes:

Wow!  Well done them.  Bet half of them are thinking they could have got a Basquiat for that kind of money...

Update III - a reader adds:

It seems the Manton Foundation chipped in with a whopping $10M donation.

Bravo them. The Manton Foundation was formed by the late Edwin Manton, a longstanding Tate benefactor.

Update IV - another reader writes:

So the news is out and it is Tate Britain as owner plus four other galleries across the width and breadth of the ( still, just ) United Kingdom. It looks like a dog’s dinner of an arrangement and one where you will need to have access to a fortune teller to find out where this pushed, pulled and shoved masterpiece will be on display. Of course, great for PC Access but not for actually getting to see the painting…

For better or worse, these group purchases are a thing of the future. I think I can see it working out, though it'll largely come down to how long a painting stays at each location - too long, and people will wonder where it's disappeared to, too short, and it'll turn into a gimmick.

Another reader isn't bothered about the shared purchase, and points out that it was probably a good way to secure the HLF's £15m:

As well as being a long time Tate supporter Sir Edwin Manton was a great collector / enthusiast for Constable, hence the big donation from the Manton foundation.

It should also be noted that the work is in fact to be shared (at least in terms of display) by several other galleries (National Museum of Wales, Scottish National galleries, Colchester, and Salisbury). The idea is, as far as I understand things, that the work will be more or less permanently on display at one of these galleries on a rotating basis. I don't yet know the exact details of this arrangement but it is likely to mean that the painting will be absent from London for extended periods. 

Obviously when this happens it will be missed, but given the very large number of Constable's that can always be seen in London it is arguably no bad thing. A work of this quality will give a huge boost to small gallereis like Colchester and Salisbury and there are very few Constables on public display in either Wales or Scotland.

I suspect that the sharing of the work around the UK was key to securing such a large contribution from the HLF. Great that funding ccan still be found (sometimes)  to keep expensive masterpieces in the UK. I gather that the work had a market value of about £40 million.

The same reader kindly sends us details of where the picture's going:

The work is to be on display at TB until the end of this year, then it goes off on a five year tour of the partner venues;

  • Cardiff 2014
  • Ipswich 2015
  • Salisbury 2016
  • NGS 2017
  • Back on display at TB 2018

After this initial 5 year period the parnter galleries will continue to have "special access" to the work for their future displays and exhibitions and the work will also be made available for loan to other galleries in the UK and abroad.

I guess what this means in practice is that most of the time it will be on display at TB from 2018, except when it is on loan to either the partner institutions for a specific exhibion, or to other gallery, perhaps as part of a touring exhibition.

Let's end this photography ban

May 22 2013

Image of Let's end this photography ban

Picture: BG

There's an excellent article by Caroline Miranda in ARTnews on why many museums are lifting their photography bans:

No-photo policies can be difficult to enforce. “Guards are spending so much time focusing on someone holding a device that they might not see the person next to them touching the art,” says Alisa Martin, senior manager of brand management and visitor services at the Brooklyn Museum, an institution that has allowed photography in the majority of its galleries for roughly half a dozen years. “As the devices get smaller, it gets harder to manage. We have to ask ourselves, are we using our guards appropriately?”

Social media also complicates the issue. This past January, the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project reported that 97 percent of the more than 1,200 arts organizations it polled had a presence on platforms like Twitter, YouTube, and Flickr. [...]

With museums sharing so much imagery themselves, it can be difficult for visitors to understand that they can’t necessarily do the same. “If a museum is really active on social media, they’re putting forward the idea that they represent a venue that is all about being conversational,” says Simon. “For the visitor, it can be disturbing to then go to the physical space and be confronted with a policy that isn’t.” 

This reminds me that, about a year ago, I sent the above email to a grand fromage at the National Gallery, London, which is one of the few places left that prohibits photography. At the time, I had just seen a room guard shout (a little too aggressively) at a hapless tourist who had dared to get out their phone for a quick snap. I felt action was required. But reader, answer came there none...

Update - a reader writes, after just returning from Tate Britain:

On my last recent visit I spent time at the Courtauld Institute galleries: of course, no photography in the Picasso exhibition, but in the main galleries no prohibition; then off to the National for the wonderful Frederic Church sketches, where, the moment I entered the hallowed halls, I heard a guard shout threateningly at some hapless tourist who had dared to lift a camera phone. [...] In galleries there has to be an acceptance of photography - it's a losing battle, bad for business and for tourism - if in one gallery, why not in another? Commercial use of images is another matter altogether of course, and flash photography should not be allowed - it's just too distracting.

Update II - a reader in Australia writes:

I headed off to the National Gallery in Melbourne yesterday to discover if photography is allowed. The answer is yes - but no flash. Here is a lovely van Dyck for you, including label, since labels have been a bit topical on your blog recently. (Not super quality, just used my phone).

That's a fine and informative label. I've often noticed that in overseas museums, labels about British art are more detailed than those you'd find in Britain. Other countries don't seem to share our obsession with dumbing down.

Update III - the Grumpy Art Historian is very much against allowing photography. 

Update IV - 22.01.14 - still no response from the NG...

Fakes, fakes everywhere? (ctd.)

May 22 2013

Image of Fakes, fakes everywhere? (ctd.)

Picture: New York Times

The alleged Knoedler Gallery fake scandal gets murkier and murkier. Now, art dealer Glafira Rosales (above) has been arrested and charged with tax fraud. To recap, Rosales was the agent through whom a mystery collector was selling to Knoedler previously unknown works by Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Now, prosecutors say that this collector never existed, and that the monies paid to Rosales to be paid to him never was, hence the tax charges. More here in the New York Times

The Venice Biennale

May 22 2013

Image of The Venice Biennale


I'm soon going to be covering the Venice Biennale, with Alastair Sooke, for BBC2's The Culture Show, so am trying to mug up on what there is to see. Already, however, my brain is aching. Does anyone know what this last sentence means?

“Over the years – the President [of the Biennale] Paolo Baratta explains– in representing the contemporary, our curators have developed an insight of how important it is to place artists in a historical perspective or in a context of mutual affinities, by highlighting ties and relations both with the past and with other artists of the present. At the same time, in contrast with the avant-garde period, attention has increasingly focused on the intensity of the relationship between the work of art and the viewer who, though shaken by artistic gestures and provocations, ultimately seeks in art the emotion of dialoguing with the work, which should cause that hermeneutical tension, that desire to go beyond what is expected from art.”

More here

Update - a reader writes:

Roughly translated, the final sentence reads: "It's not a load of rubbish, you just don't 'get' it."

Another reader seems to be able to make sense of it all:

"Though shaken by artistic gestures and provocations" That is to say - Even though the incomprehensible attitudes of the artist made an impact on the viewer (perhaps of fear, or puzzlement) he did not understand the artist's intent (and probably neither did we). To overcome this problem we will argue that to "understand" does not really matter - What matters is the "intensity of the relationship between the work of art and the viewer" and that the viewer should seek "in art the emotion of dialoguing with the work". In other words - Forget all the complex literature and focus on what you really think about the object in itself. 

See, it is possible to use plain English when talking in artspeak. People in the contemporary world should try it some time.

Finally, a reader adds:

Remember the mantra from Brideshead: 'Charles,' said Cordelia, 'Modern Art is all bosh, isn't it?'

Houghton Revisited (ctd.)

May 22 2013

Image of Houghton Revisited (ctd.)

Pictures: BG

If you're in the UK this summer, you must visit the new exhibition at Houghton Hall in Norfolk. To recap, Houghton Revisited sees a large number of the Old Masters amassed by Britain's first Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole, return to the house from the Hermitage in St Petersburg, where they have been, more or less, since 1779, when the whole collection was sold to Catherine the Great. On display are works by Rubens, Rembrandt, Bordone, Jordaens, Murillo, and, best of all from my point of view, four exquisite English-period Van Dycks.

I went to Houghton last week, and there aren't superlatives enough to describe my admiration for those behind the exhibition. What an ambitious thing to do. A hefty AHN pat on the back to all involved. 

What struck me most about the Hermitage pictures was their extraordinary condition. I don't think I have never seen a Van Dyck in as good a condition as his Portrait of Henry Danvers, Earl of Danby (below, which must be one of the best British portraits ever painted). It seemed that every stroke, detail, and glaze was exactly as the artist left it. The picture's untouched state means there is a great deal to be said for perennially cash-strapped museums - that is, ones which could not, in the old days of scrubbing, afford to constantly clean their paintings.

My tip for visitors to Houghton Revisited is to take a pair of binoculars. There's a lot of roping off, and it's hard to get close to the paintings. Many are hung high, in the places they used to be. It's also quite dark in there.

Update - Brian Sewell also, though more lucidly, says that you must go and see this excellent show.

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