Previous Posts: June 2014

'Fake or Fortune?' needs you

June 3 2014

Image of 'Fake or Fortune?' needs you


We're looking for new pictures to investigate for Series 4 of our BBC1 programme 'Fake or Fortune?' So if you have a lost Raphael in your attic, now is the time to get in touch. 

Would you steal a painting?

June 3 2014

Image of Would you steal a painting?

Picture: Museo Prado

Following news that the man who stole a supposed (but not) Rembrandt from a French museum did it because he 'became obsessed' with the picture and felt compelled to own it, Jonathan Jones in The Guardian fesses up, and says he would do the same:

is it believable that he really was motivated initially by an obsession with this work of art?

Yes, it's believable. I can easily imagine being so obsessed with a painting that you feel compelled to steal it. Not this painting, though: I do not believe it to be an actual Rembrandt. But sure, I might be tempted by a real Rembrandt.

After all, the entire art world rests on its power to seduce and fascinate and obsess people, to make them covet it. Collectors are people who cannot bear to just see art in museums. They need it in their house. They get it (usually) in legal ways, by buying from galleries or at auction. Similarly, curators who work in public museums are driven to get physically close to art, to dedicate their working lives to being in close proximity to it. And writing about art is another way of taking possession of it.

On the other hand … writers share art with their readers. Curators care for it on the public's behalf. Only private collectors come close to the art thief in selfishness, yet even they bequeath works to museums or loan them to exhibitions.

Jones' dig at private owners' 'selfishness' is hardly unusual. But given that 80% of the UK's national collection of oil paintings is in storage at any one time, the surest way to make sure a good picture isn't seen is for it to be in a museum.

Anyway, if you could 'steal' a picture for, say, just a day, which would you chose, and why? I think I'd go for Van Dyck's intensely moving portrait of Martin Ryckaert

Update: a reader writes:

I would happily steal The Guitar Player for a day.... Saw it last year at Vermeer and Music at the National Gallery, it sparkled and leapt off the wall.

Pretty much any Vermeer would do me.... Have never seen Girl With a Pearl Earring, could faint I think.

Update II - this reader has built up quite a collection:

Been playing that game for a few years now with an Italian colleague. But its what would you like to steal and keep, not return after a day. 

So far I have Polynesia Air and Polynesia Sea by Matisse, an altarpiece by Rogier van der Weiden, Giorgione's Tempest, a small landscape by Patinir, assorted Roman glass from a cabinet at the Louvre, an etching and a drawing by Rembrandt (still making up my mind which ones), a photograph by Michael Kenna and an early 14th century Arabic Astrolabe built in Spain. I am currently thinking about acquiring an Anselm Kiefer piece.

Another reader writes:

That’s an almost impossible question, but I suspect I’d take Bellini’s portrait of Doge Leonardo Loredan. The sense of calm and confidence the Doge has largely explains why it’s on the pinboard above my office desk.

Runner up probably goes to Rembrandt’s Belshazzar’s Feast, but my office is quite small…. 

Not sure I could deprive others of either of them for too long, though.

Update III - here's another ambitious list:

The Enchanted Castle by Claude, and the  Gerrit van Honthorst , Saint Sebastian, and the Lady Colin Campbell by Boldini,  if you needed to be beguiled by someone... late in the evening.

Update IV - here's a nice one:

Taking a bit of time out in between running the current GCE & GCSE exams and musing through the AHN website – one painting I would steal every time and I wouldn’t give back is the Van Dyck of ‘Lord John Stuart and his Brother, Lord Bernard Stuart’.  I first saw this painting by accident years ago when the RA had a van Dyck and Soane exhibition and we had gone because my husband is an architecture freak.  I love the arrogance and the complete self-assurance of both boys and it is sad to think that in just a few years they were both killed.  I look at the boys wandering around outside the school gates (we are an all-girl school) and the way they strut and pose around the girls and 400 years on the young mean may dress differently but underneath they are all the same.  When I am in London I often pop into the NG just to take another quick look at it.

One more painting I like is in Upton House – Thomas  Hardy’s painting of the pirate William Augustus Bowles as an Indian chief.  Nice looking chap to pin up on my board but slightly spoilt by my husband gleefully telling me he was nicknamed ‘Billy Bow Legs’ – slightly ruins the image!


June 2 2014

Image of Guffwatch

Picture: Tate/Amazon

I'm indebted to Private Eye's 'Pseuds Corner' for this single, incomprehensible sentence from a recent Tate Modern catalogue on Richard Hamilton, written by Benjamin Buchloh:

After all, it was precisely at this moment that the museum was beginning its transition from a site within the bourgeois public sphere where democratically formed subjects would encounter experience of the unconscious, to an institutional rallying point where all the forces of contestation and subversion, initially operative in the artistic practices of the avant-garde and the neo-avant-garde, could now be condensed and controlled under the mythical auspices of universal democratic accessibility in the enforced practices of consumption

Buchloh is a professor of art history at Harvard. Special AHN pat on the back to anyone who can tell us what he's trying to say. 

Update - a reader writes:

Think it’s a rather ‘end of career’ cynical commentary that our museums etc. are nothing but extensions of 21st century rampant consumerism / that the 60’s have been and gone (and v. few people read Art Monthly any more) / that we all need to read David Marquand’s new book: 'Mammon’s Kingdom' ...

Another reader adds:

As far as I can tell (which isn't very far), I think Prof. Buchloh is saying "buy this picture".

Update II - another reader sends in this excellent, pat-on-the-back-winning analysis:

I don't think it means anything. Difficult text is often difficult because the underlying ideas are hard and take some work to understand (Hegel). Or sometimes it's badly written but intelligible if you make the effort to untangle it (e.g. Roy Bhaskar). I think Buchloh is padding his text with literal nonsense. The give away for me was the term 'democratically formed subjects'. In that context he can't mean 'subject' in the sense of subordinate ('the Queen's subjects'), but rather subject as in 'active agent'. But 'subjects' are logically prior to democracy, not formed by democracy. You can of course make an argument that it's a dialectical process, but I don't see what relevance that would have for a catalogue entry on Richard Hamilton, or why it matters for that sentence. There seem to be lots of redundancies in the sentence, but that's an example of a redundancy that doesn't even make sense. 

 I think he's trying to say something like "At this time museums were changing from public spaces where people could be awed by art to more critical spaces that reflected the radicalism of avant garde art. But under the rubric of democracy and access, that radicalism was rather blunted by a consumerist ethos". Put that way, it raises lots of questions that are avoided by added verbiage (why does he need to qualify 'public sphere' as 'bourgois', for example?). But I can only guess at what he might mean. 

It's a nice balance to Alain de Botton - both writing drivel, one over-simplifying, one over-complicating, neither elucidating anything.

A US reader adds:

Buchloh clearly has picked up a set of cubes with art pseudo jargon (the sort reserved for petit bourgeois sushi parties) and let the roll of these dice assemble what you generously call a sentence.  As for meaning, that too is clear - Obfuscation can be a substitute for scholarship - at least at Harvard.  I prefer New Haven...

While another reader alerts us to a similar-sounding precedent:

In the immortal words of the Swedish Chef from The Muppet Show: 'Bok, bok, bok...'

"Room A"

June 2 2014

Image of "Room A"

Picture: National Gallery

Good news from the National Gallery - Room A, the great basement room of wonders where pictures not on display are hung, is now open again [above]. As I reported in July 2012, it was closed for renovation. Previously the room was open only on Wednesday afternoons, and half of it was invariably roped off. It will now be open all day on Wednesday and Sunday. Jonathan Jones has more details in The Guardian, and says:

Unlike other London museums that store hundreds of works off-site, the National Gallery keeps its entire collection in its Trafalgar Square building and tries to offer the maximum possible access. But in practice this had not been working. Only researchers could really get much out of the old, obscure Gallery A. You had to know what you were looking for, or at least have the knowedge to make some sense of the dim aisles.

Now, a two-year refurbishment has transformed a dowdy labyrinth with state-of-the-art lighting, subtle wall colouring and a clever choice of paintings. This new take on the museum's collection is a wonder. The pictures that go on permanent view here this week as part of the free displays will be unfamiliar to most people although they are all in the gallery's permanent collection, and the majority have been since the Victorian age.

Some are considered to be "studio" creations, in which a famous artist let his apprentices do most of the work – such as the beautiful Botticellis that fill a wall. Others are perhaps a bit clumsily restored or were never quite up the master's best, or are painted sketches or copies. Some are by artists who are just not famous any more, such as the intense, chaotic oils of the 19th-century painter Adolphe Monticelli. In his lifetime this artist of nature was acclaimed as a visionary. He was revered by Vincent van Gogh, who thought he was imitating Monticelli when he painted the Sunflowers. Monticelli's strange daubs can now be compared with the Van Goghs upstairs.

Yet again, the papers have felt unable illustrate an art story without the ubiquitous girl-walking-blurrily-in-front-of-the-camera shot. There's a similar one below. Should we call this 'everyday art history sexism'?

Update - a reader who has looked carefully at the collection website writes, cautioning:

Actually not so good news.  Room A, and several other linked subterranean galleies, used to display almost every painting the NG had that was not on display elsewhere.  Now, having done a quick check of some old favorites, it clearly doesn't do that.

In other words, and after all the expense and years in refurbishment - it does look pretty! - the public is worse off than before.  The Gallery now actually DOES have a reserve collection of works not on display.

I would agree that that old gallery was neither an ideal nor a pleasant place to view pictures but at least everything was on display and it was always a fascinating exercise sorting the wheat from the chaff in the cheek-by-jowl hanging.  Over the years I remember peering through darkened varnish at a number of works wondering about their status: why was Reni's Susannah thought to be a copy when it was clearly well painted under the yellow, and the lynx fur on the portrait of Fracastoro continully raised the interesting question that the work might actually be by Titian. And what yet is there to discover: the National's dirtiest painting is not hanging anywhere for people to make their mind up.

I do hope this isn't the case. I'll go tomorrow and report back.

'Italy for the Connoisseur'

June 1 2014

Image of 'Italy for the Connoisseur'

Picture: Bitter Lemon Press

Christie's Deputy Chairman Francis Russell is famous in the Old Master world, and he's also an accomplished travel writer. His latest book, just out, looks to be a gem and is called '101 Places in Italy; a Private Grand Tour'. You can order it here on Amazon, and here is some more info from the Christie's website:

[A Private Grand Tour] takes readers through the iconic monuments and lesser-known treasures of Italy’s great art centers, including Milan, Venice, Bologna, Florence, Siena and more. For an unforgettable Italian excursion, here are just a few of his favorite sites:

Maser: In Palladio’s Villa Barbaro, with eight rooms and a nymphaeum frescoed by Paolo Veronese, the heartbeat of 16th-century patrician civilization can still be sensed. Almost miraculously the villa remains a private residence.

Cortona: Still largely confined within walls first built by the Etruscans, Cortona was the birthplace of a great artist, Luca Signorelli. However it is for the incomparable Annunciation by Fra Angelico that we return: one of the predella panels shows the little-changed view southwards towards Lake Trasimene.

Segesta: There are more well-preserved Greek temples in southern Italy than in Greece itself. None is more nobly sited than that of the late 5th century B.C. structure at Segesta in Sicily. Happily the setting remains as untrammelled as when Edward Lear painted it.

Monte San Giusto: Among the numerous small towns of the Marche many boast remarkable treasures. But none is more extraordinary that the Crucifixion of 1531 by Lorenzo Lotto that dominates the modest church of Santa Maria in Telusiano. The charged drama of the design owes much to Lotto’s genius as a colourist.

Atri: Many Italian cities testify to the artistic ambition of members of the princely dynasties that held these. Atri in the Abruzzi was ruled from 1395 until 1775 by the Acquaviva family, who employed a local artist with a taste for narrative, Andrea Delitio, to fresco the choir of the Cathedral in the mid-15th century.

Update - a reader writes:

Segesta is my favourite site in Sicily and returned there six years ago to find it still pristine with few visitors unlike the sites in Greece last week.

Another tweets this glowing endorsement:

Every page a delight.

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