Previous Posts: September 2013

Go to Yeo

September 11 2013

Image of Go to Yeo

Picture: Johnathan Yeo/NPG

I saw the new exhibition of Johnathan Yeo's portraits at the National Portrait Gallery yesterday evening. You should go too. It's a small show, but left me with little doubt as to Yeo's talent, for many of the portraits on display are excellent. His portrait of Damien Hirst in a diving suit was given centre stage, and looked impressive, but I suspect in the long term it will suffer by association with a here-today-gone-tomorrow artist. On the other hand, his portraits of Grayson Perry in drag (who was there last night, looking bloody ridiculous in orange and yellow) and Kevin Spacey as Richard III deserve to become two of the great British portraits of the early 21st Century.

The Perry is superbly painted, and benefits from Yeo's greater than usual use of colour (hard to avoid, I guess, when your subject is in drag), while the Spacey is not only well executed, but demonstrates how a good portraitist needs more than just good technical skills - more than anything else, they have to get the overall approach to their subject right. The composition and characterisation of the Spacey portrait, for example, succesfully presents him in a suitably thespian light, but stays on the right side of being a portrayal of an actor, rather than a role. It's a portrait of Spacey as Shakespeare's Richard III, not Shakespeare's Richard III, which sounds simple enough to achieve, but you only need to look at all those hammy 18th and 19th Century portraits of actors, many by good artists such as Zoffany, to see that it isn't. 

I wonder if the exhibition will help propel Yeo onto the next level of recognition and critical acclaim (which I think he deserves). Can he step from being a society portraitist to an artist on the same level as his subjects, Hirst and Perry? That's hard for 'a painter' to achieve these days, and it's even harder for a portraitist. Freud, of course, managed it, but only relatively late on, and as I wrote some time ago, Freud, despite mainly painting people, eventually ceased being a portraitist in the conventional sense. He was a painter of flesh, one of the best ever, but not of character, and in Freud's portraits it is tempting to believe the argument that, beyond mere likeness, a portrait can only ever tell us something about the artist, not the sitter. I don't believe that this is always the case, not with artists like Thomas Gainsborough and, as I'm increasingly finding (in preparation for our exhibition here at Philip Mould & Co in November), the 17th Century miniaturist Samuel Cooper (who painted the famous 'warts and all' image of Cromwell).

Is it the case with Yeo? I think not - one can begin to feel real people in his sitters (easier, of course, when you've met some of them). The question is, how much can we know? One thing you notice about Yeo's subjects in the current exhibition is that (Grayson Perry aside) many of them are visibly enjoying themselves. And why not, you might say, for Yeo is famously good company, but one wonders whether Yeo's approach could benefit from a bit of Freudian dispassion, a sense that the artist has stepped outside his celebrity sitters' fame and studied them with a wider observation. Perhaps that's why Yeo's Grayson Perry and Kevin Spacey are so succesful. Because both subjects are adopting a role of sorts, Yeo has been able to focus on an extra dimension, the kind which, after getting the likeness, the drawing and the painting right, makes a good portrait a brilliant one. 

Kunsthal theft trial (ctd.)

September 11 2013

Image of Kunsthal theft trial (ctd.)

Picture: AFP

The trial of the Romanian gang accused of stealing the Kunsthal pictures has been halted again. It turns out that the original owners of the works, the 'Triton Foundation' has already taken $24m in insurance money, and so the title to the works has passed to the insurers. According to the Romanian court documents, however, Triton are the injured party. All very odd. More here in the New York Times

Still more Van Gogh news

September 10 2013

Image of Still more Van Gogh news

Picture: TAN

We've probably learnt more new things about Van Gogh in the last week than in a whole decade. Amazing. Following on from his Sunflower revelations, and the epic unveiling yesterday in Amsterdam of an entirely unknown painting by the artist, Martin Bailey reports in The Art Newspaper on a previously unknown drawing by Van Gogh (above).


September 10 2013

Image of Oops...


The Independent reports on an art world opening night disaster:

Quite a few hacks were probably thinking “there but for the Grace of God…” when on Saturday evening in Lugano’s swanky Meno Uno gallery, one of their number, tanked up on free cocktails, made a lunge for a passing nibble but instead knocked over and destroyed a priceless work of art.

With the famous Swiss sense of decorum notably absent, “one guest at the preview," intoned Radio Switzerland (RSI),  "caught between a canapé and a chat with someone, unfortunately knocked over a work by Luciano Fabro and smashed it to pieces. It is, or rather, it was, the famous Impronta (Imprint) dated 1962-1964". [...]

The sculpture, an opaque glass disk with a central impression of Planet Earth at its centre, was left in a thousand pieces, while the other 30 guests picked their jaws up of the floor. Ironically, the work was said by its creator to represent the longevity of the world.

Even more Van Gogh news - a new Van Gogh unveiled

September 9 2013

Image of Even more Van Gogh news - a new Van Gogh unveiled

Picture: New York Times

It's all go for Van Gogh at the moment. The Van Gogh museum has unveiled a previously unknown painting by Van Gogh. The New York Times reports:

The painting has been in the private collection of a family for several years, but the museum would not release any more information about the owners because of privacy concerns, Mr. Rüger said. Two years ago, they brought it to the Van Gogh Museum to seek authentication, and researchers from the museum have been examining it ever since, said Mr. Rüger. The museum recently concluded that the work was a van Gogh because the painting’s pigments correspond with those of van Gogh’s palette from Arles.

It was also painted on the same type of canvas, with the same type of underpainting he used for at least one other painting, “The Rocks” (owned by the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston) of the same area at the same time. The work was also listed as part of Theo van Gogh’s collection in 1890, and was sold in 1901.

“Sunset at Montmajour” is comparable in size to van Gogh’s “Sunflower” painting of the same year. The owners brought it to the museum once before in 1991, said Mr. Rüger, but at the time no one recognized it as a van Gogh. “This time, we have topographical information plus a number of other factors that have helped us to establish authenticity. Research is so much more advanced now, so we could come to a very different conclusion.”

Update - read more on the Van Gogh museum website here. the full analysis will be in October's The Burlington Magazine

Turner's villa 'at risk'

September 9 2013

Image of Turner's villa 'at risk'

Picture: Tate

Did you know that Turner was a frustrated architect? And that his only surviving building (for which the above drawing is a design by him) is in Twickenham, and is suffering from severe damp? I had no idea, and for some years I used to live near Twickenham. Behold my ignorance.

Anyway, news that the house - Sandycombe Lodge - has passed the first hurdle in its pursuit of a Heritage Lottery Grant (they need £2m to fix the place) leads me to this interesting website. I hope you'll visit it too. Looks like a good cause. 

Update - Thomas Ward from the Soane Museum sends this fascinating note:

Interesting footnote about the villa. It was long speculated that John Soane had a hand in the design of the house

- some elements are unmistakeably Soanean. A sketch recently came to light at Sir John Soanes museum (where I work) which more or less confirms his involvement. Makes for a very interesting collaboration. It's a very odd building indeed.

Turner and Soane were close friends, they spent weekends at that house fishing and entertaining.

Not art history...

September 5 2013

Image of Not art history...

Picture: AFP

I don't know why this picture of Francois Hollande in a classroom is so funny, but it's made my day. The AFP agency in France tried to withdraw the photo, after it was accused of making the President look like 'a village idiot'. It tells us, I suppose, something about the sensitivity to power of portraiture and image.

Yet more Van Gogh news

September 5 2013

Video: Al Jazeera

If you're as fascinated as I am by Martin Bailey's revelations on Van Gogh's Sunflowers, but can't quite afford the real thing, then why not buy a $30,000 3D printed copy?

More Van Gogh news

September 5 2013

Image of More Van Gogh news

Picture: Savills

A brief update on the sale of Van Gogh's London home in Stockwell, which, as I reported here last year, was sold at auction for £565,000. Following the interest in the sale and the building, the council has now renamed the street Van Gogh Walk. 

'The Sunflowers are Mine'

September 5 2013

Image of 'The Sunflowers are Mine'

Pictures: Aurum Publishing, and TAN

You might think that of perhaps the two most famous images in art history, Leonardo's Mona Lisa and Van Gogh's Sunflowers series, we know all there is to know. For the Mona Lisa that is, I would say, true, though that doesn't stop the fantasists coming up with new theories on who she is and what she's doing. It seems, however, that we knew comparatively little about Van Gogh's series of sunflower paintings, given how much extraordinary new information has been uncovered by Martin Bailey in his new book, The Sunflowers are Mine: The Story of Van Gogh's Masterpiece.

Perhaps the most eye catching revelation is the discovery that Van Gogh designed his own frame for at least one sunflower painting, which was destroyed in World War 2 (above):

A rare early colour image of Vincent van Gogh’s Six Sunflowers has been tracked down in Japan. It reveals that Van Gogh designed a bold orange frame for his still life. The framed painting, once in a private Japanese collection, was destroyed in an American bombing raid during the Second World War.

This newly discovered image is from a very scarce portfolio produced in Tokyo in 1921, which has escaped the attention of art historians. It is reproduced in The Sunflowers are Mine: The Story of Van Gogh’s Masterpiece, by Martin Bailey, to be published by Frances Lincoln on 5 September.

Van Gogh’s narrow wooden frame was painted in orange, producing a dramatic effect when set against the blue background of the still life. This reflects Van Gogh’s love of complementary colours (such as orange and blue), which have a vibrant effect when placed next to each other. Van Gogh has also varied the orange, so that it is a deep orange where it is next to the blue background and a lighter orange next to the lilac table.

We can now see how Van Gogh wanted to present his Six Sunflowers: the yellow-ochre sunflowers were set against a rich royal blue background and then framed in orange. This framing would have been revolutionary in 1888, when pictures were traditionally hung in gilt frames or, for very modern works, in white frames.

Astonishingly, Martin also managed to find new information about one of the most celebrated stories not only in Van Gogh's life, but in the whole of art history - the artist's mutilation of his ear. Writing in The Art Newspaper, Martin says:

While researching my book on Van Gogh’s Sunflowers I was astonished to find that the artist’s self-mutilation had been reported soon after it happened in a Parisian newspaper. It appeared in Le Petit Journal on 26 December 1888, three days after Van Gogh slashed off the lower part of his left ear, following a row with Gauguin. Until recently, only one short newspaper report of the mutilation was known, which was published a few days later in an Arles weekly, Le Forum Républicain.

The newly discovered article in a Parisian daily records important details. Le Petit Journal reported that Van Gogh used a razor. He then went to a “house of ill repute”, where he “gave his ear in a folded piece of paper” to the doorkeeper. Van Gogh told the recipient: “Take it, it will be useful”. These baffling words suggest that Van Gogh must have been suffering from an acute mental problem throughout the night, and did not just slice off part of his ear in a passing moment of madness.

The Parisian report is also important in another sense. Van Gogh’s self-mutilation was the first item of provincial news in Le Petit Journal, so the article must have attracted considerable attention in the capital. It would have been seen by many of his friends and much discussed in the Paris bars that Van Gogh frequented. This must have only added to the distress of his brother Theo, who was a respectable figure running an art gallery.

It seems astonishing that a virtually unknown individual living over 600km away who mutilated himself would have warranted this attention in a four-page Parisian newspaper (taking a quarter of the space devoted to provincial news that day). But even then, there was something sensationalist about the ear incident which grabbed public attention.

Other discoveries include news that:

  • Van Gogh completed his original four paintings of Sunflowers in less than a week, twice as fast as has been assumed. He chose to depict sunflowers because the weather was bad and his models failed to show up. 
  • There is also a second “unknown” Sunflowers painting which has always been hidden away in private collections. This is Van Gogh’s Three Sunflowers, with a bright turquoise background. It has never been exhibited in living memory and its whereabouts have been a mystery. Bailey reveals that Three Sunflowers was acquired by the Swiss-based Greek shipping tycoon George Embiricos, who sold it in the late 1990s. It was then bought by the present owner, a very discreet collector with a taste for Van Gogh.

Martin has written other books on Van Gogh; Van Gogh and Britain: Pioneer Collectors, Van Gogh and Sir Richard Wallace's Pictures, and Letters from Provence (the Illustrated Letters).

Gainsborough's influence on Goya?

September 4 2013

Image of Gainsborough's influence on Goya?

Picture: ArtFund

Here's something I doubtless should've known but didn't - the ArtFund makes grants to support art historical research. Splendid. 

Dr. Xavier Bray, Chief Curator of the Dulwich Picture Gallery, has been given a grant to look into any possible connections between Gainsborough and Goya. He writes on the ArtFund website:

I am delighted and extremely excited to have received an award from the Art Fund's Jonathan Ruffer Curatorial Grant programme. For the next seven months I will be able to put aside two days a week to spend time in London’s libraries and museum collections hunting down any possible link there may be between Britain and Spain’s leading 18th-century portrait painters: Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788) and Francisco de Goya (1746-1828).

This project was inspired by the visual similarities between Dulwich Picture Gallery’s portrait of the musician Samuel Linley (1778), which Gainsborough reputedly painted in 48 minutes, and Goya’s portrait of the Spanish composer, Manuel Quijano (1815), which is in the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya in Barcelona (see above). Both portraits are half-length portraits and set in oval frames, and both are evocative portrayals of each sitter’s artistic sensibility.

Although the visual similarities between the two artists have often been remarked upon they have never been properly explored. Goya, who was 19 years younger than Gainsborough, would have known the elder artist by reputation. My hunch is that he is very likely to have known the numerous prints that were made after Gainsborough’s portraits and widely circulated throughout Europe, some which surely made it to Madrid where Goya worked.

In order to ascertain this, my first port of call will be to the British Museum’s Prints and Drawings department to look through the many boxes of prints after Gainsborough’s portraits. I hope to determine which prints Goya might have been able to see in Madrid and demonstrate the role they might have played in his development as a portrait painter, particularly in terms of pose, gesture, facial expression and the setting of a figure in space.

Buyers whacked again at auction

September 4 2013

Image of Buyers whacked again at auction


I learn via Art Market Monitor that Christie's has again increased its buyer premiums. The threshold at which the additional 25% is charged has increased to the first £50,000. Add VAT to that, and it means that the amount you actually bid in the auction room is sometimes only close 2/3 of the final price. I don't think we'd stand for that in Tesco. 

I've said this before here, but every time the buyer's premium increases, it makes it seem more illogical to me that the major auctioneers are working almost entirely for the seller. There's a significant conflict of interest here. By far the greater portion of Christie's fees come from the buyer, and yet as the buyer you get the bum end of the deal - the price can only ever go up.

I'm currently trying to buy a house in London, and am used to estate agents regularly telling fantastical lies. But that's fine, for not only are some estate agents pathologically incapable of speaking the truth, it is also clear to everyone that they're getting their fee from the vendor, so I'd expect them to do all they can to up the price.

However, that's not the case for major auctioneers, where the balance of fees now comes more and more from the buyer. For me, the most grating area is the practice of bidding a single buyer up to the reserve (which is set by the vendor on the auctioneer's advice, and never disclosed to the buyer) by making him or her believe that there is another bidder in the room, and thus creating the illusion that there is a more competitive market for a work than is otherwise the case. If, for example, I was working for a client who had asked me to bid on a lot for them (that is, I had to work in their interest to secure the best price), and I suspected that a picture was about to fail to sell (once you know the signs, they're easy to spot), and thus potentially buyable after the sale for a reduced price, then I would be bound to advise them not to bid, and to let a picture get bought in. But that's not advice you recieve very often in the auction room.

Update - an auctioneer writes:

I agree with you on this one (being an auctioneer), the auction industry is heavily favouring the sellers. Naturally this comes from the notion that it is easier to get someone to buy than to sell, especially in the high-end segment of art and antiques. The fierce competition between the auction houses also promotes the idea that it's better to have it bought in at your own house than sold somewhere else. That makes it the seller's market and since consignors believe a high estimate will bring a high result, they usually go for the highest estimate offered (or lowest commission, everything else alike).

The practice of aftersales has only emerged during the recent years in my country (not being Britain), so previously all BI's were reoffered at the next sale with a revised estimate/reserve. I believe that practice had the best of two worlds. If the piece was offered the market too high, this would be adjusted a few months later until it hit market value or the consignor got bored and withdrew the whole thing. 

The aftersales are a nuisance because, as you say, possible clients will gamble that the lot will be BI, and make an offer out of the public market (often on a first come, first served basis). I believe this is bad for the consignor as well as the potential buyers, since it is off-auction and not under any market scrutiny. 

And speaking of buyer's premiums, they are as irritating to a buyer as the American sales tax additions are to Europeans used to VAT being included in the price.

Update II - another reader with auction house experience writes:

Firstly Christie's aren't the first to implement this new rate of 25% up to £50,000 they are just following in Sotheby's footsteps. I am not defending Christie's actions in doing so but it problem this highlights is that becasue both are such dominant players there is a fear factor - if one does something the other has to follow. And, so far copying each other seems to have paid off for them both.

Secondly in regard to after-sales: 

The market never lies - if someone truly believed in something's worth i believe they would never 'gamble' that it would BI and so I dont agree that this sort of gambling happens. Anyone in trade who 'gambles' on after-sales I presume had no idea they were going to buy the work until after they knew it had BI'd (there will however be some exceptions to this rule)... in which case I find it bizarre that they can suddenly have a customer of theirs believe that are passionate about such a work and believe in it's quality when they previously had no intention of buying it. Further, because the work is never re-offered a fair market value for that artist is never established (and a customer is often duped).

Interesting on the first point, but very odd logic on the second. The market may indeed never lie - but the question is whether an auctioneer bidding someone up to the reserve (by pretending there is a rival bidder in the room) is in fact a genuine market at all. 

Update III - our first auctioneer correspondent writes again:

On 'Interesting on the first point, but very odd logic on the second. The market may indeed never lie - but the question is whether an auctioneer bidding someone up to the reserve (by pretending there is a rival bidder in the room) is in fact a genuine market at all': 

You have a point here, but to be fair, it is not only the potential buyers that constitute a market. The reserve is the seller's part in the deal. However, one could argue that the most fair practice would be publicly known reserves, as in many of the online action sites these days. That would of course lead to the loss of estimates, but really, would anyone miss them? My guess is that's the direction we're heading.

Faultless logic here - and a good idea.

'Young Durer' exhibition in London

September 4 2013

Image of 'Young Durer' exhibition in London

Picture: Courtauld

Looking forward to this, at the Courtauld from 17th October:

Discover the early figure drawings of the great German Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer.

The Young Dürer concentrates on the artist’s journeyman years (c. 1490-96), during which he travelled widely and was exposed to a range of new influences.

The exhibition explores how Dürer reinvented artistic traditions through an ambitious new approach to the figure rooted in the study of his own body.

Don’t miss your chance to see outstanding early works by Dürer as well as rare drawings and prints by his contemporaries, many of which have never been seen in the United Kingdom.

The price of darkness

September 3 2013

Image of The price of darkness

Picture: Tate

I learn via Gareth Harris of The Art Newspaper that Tate has acquired Martin Creed's Work No.227: The Lights Going On and Off (2000). This won the Turner Prize in 2001, and consists of a room, or in fact anywhere, where the lights are switched on and off, repeatedly. The purchase (for an undisclosed price) was supported by the Art Fund.

The Tate website describes the work thus:

Artwork details

Artist Martin Creed (born 1968)

Title Work No. 227: The lights going on and off

Date 2000

Medium Gallery lights

Dimensions display dimensions variable

Collection Tate

Acquisition Purchased with funds provided by Tate Members, the Art Fund and Konstantin Grigorishin 2013

Reference T13868

I'm not going to try and display my modernist credentials by somehow pretending that I 'get' this work. The description of a work whose medium is (pre-existing) 'Gallery lights', with 'display dimensions variable', and which has to be illustrated on Tate's site as above is of course about as close to nothing as you can get. The only thing that can be acquired, I suppose, is the idea, and the capitalist in me can't help but admire Creed for making money out of something so daft. I'm sure some people will like it. And if you're one of them then don't forget you can try it in the comfort of your own home whenever you like (or your office, or your car, or your fridge).

I remember when I worked in the Houses of Parliament (advising on the art collection there) we were offered the chance to 'buy' Creed's work for the House of Lords. The lights would go on and off in the chamber, which would  be photographed at the same time. I think the price mooted was some £50,000. I may be wrong, but I remember it being a lot - enough to ensure that their Lordships said thanks, but no thanks.

Update - a reader writes:

As a member of the Art fund (the NACF when I joined) I'm not happy at the way museum purchases, in many cases, are now directly from studio to museum, with no intermediate life for the work in between. In the past many Art fund acquisitions would gather about them a body of criticism, good & bad, that members could come to some conclusion about.

There's an interesting debate to be had about just when a museum like the Tate should start buying work. Is it the role of the state, through such museums, to build collections of the future by intervening in the contemporary art market? Or should such collections only be formed after the passage of a certain period of time?

There's an interesting parallel with the UK's export controls. Any work, no matter how good or famous, can be sold abroad if it is less than 50 years old. In other words, for the purpose of export controls, it is thought that we cannot really judge whether a work of art should remain part of our national heritage until it has had time to amass a critical weight of appreciation. Given that so much appreciation of contemporary art is about fashion and hype, then it seems to me that a similar rule should apply for institutions like Tate when it comes to buying modern art. We, critics, and Tate trustees may judge that a work fresh from the studio of some zeitgiest artist is 'good', and worth paying a hefty zeitgeist price for. But will it be judged so in 50 years time? Art history tells us most likely not...

How the White House lost its Cezannes

September 2 2013

Image of How the White House lost its Cezannes

Picture: LA Times

Christopher Knight in the LA Times has details of an art history mystery in the White House:

Eighty-five years ago, Charles A. Loeser, an American living abroad, gave the White House eight Cézanne paintings, a bequest that would have been the envy of any museum in the world.

Loeser donated the six landscapes and two still lifes "to the President of the United States of America and his successors in office for the adornment of the White House" and required that the paintings be displayed together, as an ensemble.

Yet only two of the eight — the two that Kennedy ignored — have spent a significant amount of time inside 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. At least one has never hung there.

The White House's art collection is mostly American-themed art, including fine works by Gilbert Stuart, Jean-Antoine Houdon and John Singer Sargent. The presence of the French masterpieces is little known, even among experts.

Asked recently about them, Paul Schimmel, former museum curator and member of the presidentially appointed Committee for the Preservation of the White House, responded: "What Cézannes?"

The story continues here.

Update - a reader writes:

There may be another reason for the White House to be a bit quiet about the Cezannes.

 The Skull or Crane - Rewald 565 was bought by Loeser from Ambroise Vollard.  The short comment in the catalogue says:  

 "The colours of this picture, especially the blue-purple curtain behind the skull, as well as the dry execution are very unlike those of any other work by Cezanne.  There exists a watercolour of the same subject, RWC No 231, of about 1885, and one may wonder whether it was not used by another artist for this oil."

'The Best Offer'

September 2 2013

Video: Warner Brothers

Here's a new film which looks like it's worth seeing - mixing fine art with two of AHN's favourite actors, Geoffrey Rush and Donal Sutherland. 

Apparently the film contains the following paintings:

Among the female portraits in his collection, one can spot: "Portrait of a Young Woman (La Fornarina)" (ca. 1519) and "Portrait of a Young Woman (La Muta)" (1507) by Raphael, "Violante" (ca. 1515) and "La Bella" (1536) by Titian, "Portrait of Eleaonor of Toledo" (1560) and "Portrait of Lucrezia Panciatichi" (1541) by Bronzino, "Portrait of Caterina Sforza" (ca. 1490) by Lorenzo di Credi, "Zingarella" (1505) by Boccaccio Boccaccino, "Lady with a Book of Petrarch's Rhyme" (ca. 1528) by Andrea del Sarto, "Portrait of Bianca Cappello" (ca. 1572) by Alessandro Allori, "Portrait of Elspeth Tucher" (1499) by Albrecht Dürer, and "Jeanne Samary in a Low-Necked Dress (La Rêverie)" (1877) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir.

There are also works of Lucas Cranach the Elder, Pieter Paul Rubens, Francisco Goya, Élisabeth Vigée-Le Brun, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Amedeo Modigliani, Morgan Weistling, and many others.

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