Previous Posts: May 2014

Where are the women in art? (ctd.)

May 20 2014

Image of Where are the women in art? (ctd.)

Picture: Guardian/Annie Kevan

Hot on the heels of my post below comes this story The Guardian, looking at 'women who have been airbrushed from art history'. These women damned by male art historians include, says The Guardian, the likes of Sofonisba Anguissola and Angelica Kauffmann. What a load of phooey. 

The story comes as a result of a series of copies portraits of female artists by Annie Kevans, who in The Guardian says:

"For hundreds of years there was this very strong control over the canon and [the male-dominated establishment] didn't want women written into it," says Kevans, when we meet in her small, portrait-lined studio in north-east London. Her project was partly inspired by the realisation that she, too, could be erased from our collective cultural archive. "As a contemporary artist, there are still concerns. I do think, what if that happened to me?"  [...]

So why does Kevans think Anguissola, Meurent and the rest have been written out of art history? She lays much of the blame on the mainly male academics who compiled what we think of as the artistic canon. "There hasn't been enough research into female artists and attributing their work properly. So when historians see a fabulous painting they tend to attribute it to a well-known man."

Moreover, critics living at the same time as these women not only ignored female artists, but treated them with a combination of condescension and distrust. "Critics just didn't take women seriously," says Kevans. "Because a lot of women were married to other artists, people assumed they were helped by their husbands. But, actually, those women were artists before they were married; indeed, that's how they met their husbands."

Regular readers will know that I don't often leap to the defence of 'art history' as an academic discipline. But this claim that big name painters like Kauffmann have been subjected to a conspiracy of male art historians and contemporary critics is simply rubbish. A very quick rebuttal: Vasari wrote enthusiastically about Sofonisba, as did Van Dyck, who paid her homage in Sicily and took care to write down her views on painting; London went 'Angelicamad' when Kauffmann came here in 1766; there is no shortage of the works of either on display in museums large and small around the world; and even a quick check of their historiographies shows that both figures have been studied for considerably longer than some people who can't be bothered to read believe. 

Met buys rare Le Brun portrait from UK

May 18 2014

Image of Met buys rare Le Brun portrait from UK

Picture: Met/New York Times

The above portrait of Everhard Jabach and his Family by Charles Le Brun has been acquired by the Met in New York. The picture had been in an English private collection since the 18th Century, and was temporarily blocked from export by the UK government. However, no UK museum tried to raise the $12.3m required to match the Met's offer. 

The New York Times reports:

In February, after the museum had agreed to buy a rare 17th-century portrait by Le Brun, which had been in private hands in England since the late 18th century, the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest in England, issued a three-month export ban on the painting, “A Portrait of Everhard Jabach and Family,” to give British institutions time to match the $12.3 million price the Met had agreed to pay for it.

Arguing that it should stay in Britain, Nicholas Penny, director of the National Gallery in London, wrote in a statement to the Export Reviewing Committee: “There are only a handful of paintings by Le Brun in British collections. All represent religious, historical or mythological subjects, and most are much influenced by Poussin’s style. None is a portrait.”

Luckily for the Met, no British institution tried to buy the painting, which is now being prepared for its journey to New York. “It’s a landmark in the history of French painting,” said Keith Christiansen, the chairman of the Met’s European paintings department.

Jabach is a great source of information on the painting technique of Van Dyck, to whom he sat twice. It's sad to see the painting go. I missed any announcement it was at risk of leaving.

Update - a reader writes:

This is the second time in recent months that the Trustees of the National Gallery have not moved to acquire major works subject to export licence deferral: and where, in both cases, the artist is not represented in their permanent collection .   First there was the Coello - which the Gallery made a bid for some years ago - and now this magnificent Le Brun.

And they could have bought both for less than the price of the Bellows. That painting, however fine, simply does not fit within the corpus on display - however hard they try - and falls outside their collecting range (by the time it was executed, Kandinsky was producing some of the first, truly abstract works). Indeed, it would have found a more appropriate home at Tate.

What the hell is going on?

Update II - another reader writes:

Your reader comments that the export of an important Le brun is the second recent occasion when the National Gallery failed to try to save a significan old master of a type poorly represented in British collections. I personally think the Bellows they bought is a fine painting, and if they could find ways to get another half a dozen 19th and early 20th century American works of similar quality (no easy task, but well chosen individual acquisitions are the way to get there) it would be a very real achievement. The harsh reality is that our museums and galleries have continually to make hard choices as collections build hundreds of years ago are sold off, almost always to foreign buyers. This has been happening for a century, and will stop only when there is nothing left to sell.

Isn't the real question why there are now so few Britsh collectors of note? That is why we see museums putting their collective finger in a dyke rather than the UK being part of an ebb and flow of great art. We have more millionaires and billionaires than ever before. More British people than ever before are visiting our great museums. Where have all the collectors gone? Are our bankers all philistines, or does modern British society somehow treat collectors less well than other countries?

Update III - a reader writes:

However regrettable its departure, one cannot gainsay the information provided on the Met’s website. And it’s not even on display yet.

Far, far better than anything the National Gallery has available. Perhaps they didn’t deserve it.

It's true that individual picture entries on the NG's site are rather thin. 

Exclusive - Sleeper alert!

May 18 2014

Image of Exclusive - Sleeper alert!

Picture: Lempertz

The above 'Nederlandischer Meister' picture, estimated at just EUR15,000-EUR18,000, sold yesterday in Germany for EUR1.3m. An explanation as to why probably lies in the fact that, as the catalogue noted, several faces in the background appear in the oeuvre of one Rembrandt. What the catalogue didn't point out is that one of these, top right, in fact shows Rembrandt himself. You can zoom in on the image here

If it is by him (and I've no idea, as it's outside my rather limited field), it must be an early work. It used to be called Flinck. Needless to say, I didn't pay the picture any attention at all in the catalogue. Whoops...

Update - a reader writes:

What makes the Lempertz picture an odd candidate for being by RHL is that it is on canvas, while all history paintings by Rembrandt and Lievens from their Leiden period are on panel. The figure at the left derives from Rembrandt's painting in Lyon from 1625, which was discovered by Horst Gerson in 1962.

Update II - a reader corrects the above, and supplies us with further information:

Have to be pedanty with reader above - Lievens Raising of Lazarus is most def on canvas...

This Lempertz painting relates to some sketches in the British Museum attributed to Nicholas Maes which are also thought studies for the National Gallery's Christ blessing the Children by Maes (all of which were formerly attributed to Rembrandt).

There are some sketches attributed to Hoogstraten at the RKD and other sketches (read the British Museum curator notes) that relate more to the Lempertz picture.

Another sleuthing reader suggests an alternative attribution:

A very fine Claes Moeyaert, see comparison [below]... Moeyaert was also a partner of Uylenburgh, RHL's dealer and friend. Background figures show other familiar faces. A daring purchase...

Met goes for free image use

May 18 2014

Image of Met goes for free image use

Picture: Sir Anthony Van Dyck, Self-Portrait (detail) Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Hurrah - another major museum goes for free image reproduction - three cheers for the Metropolitan Museum in New York, which announced on Friday:

Thomas P. Campbell, Director and CEO of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, announced today that more than 400,000 high-resolution digital images of public domain works in the Museum’s world-renowned collection may be downloaded directly from the Museum’s website for non-commercial use—including in scholarly publications in any media—without permission from the Museum and without a fee. The number of available images will increase as new digital files are added on a regular basis. 

In making the announcement, Mr. Campbell said: “Through this new, open-access policy, we join a growing number of museums that provide free access to images of art in the public domain. I am delighted that digital technology can open the doors to this trove of images from our encyclopedic collection.”  

The Metropolitan Museum’s initiative—called Open Access for Scholarly Content (OASC)—provides access to images of art in its collection that the Museum believes to be in the public domain and free of other known restrictions; these images are now available for scholarly use in any media. Works that are covered by the new policy are identified on the Museum’s website ( with the acronym OASC. (Certain works are not available through the initiative for one or more of the following reasons: the work is still under copyright, or the copyright status is unclear; privacy or publicity issues; the work is owned by a person or an institution other than the Metropolitan Museum; restrictions by the artist, donor, or lender; or lack of a digital image of suitable quality.)

OASC was developed as a resource for students, educators, researchers, curators, academic publishers, non-commercial documentary filmmakers, and others involved in scholarly or cultural work. Prior to the establishment of OASC, the Metropolitan Museum provided images upon request, for a fee, and authorization was subject to terms and conditions. 

How much longer can UK museums hold out?

Who is Barnett Newman? (ctd.)

May 18 2014

Video: MoMA

A reader keen to educate me sends in the above video from MoMA.

Where are the women in art?

May 18 2014

Image of Where are the women in art?

Picture: BBC

I mentioned earlier Amanda Vickery's new series on women in art. I haven't been able to see it yet. But I did see in The Guardian an article by Prof. Vickery (who is a historian) on the difficulties she had finding pictures to film from before the 19th Century. In seeking to find out why so few works by professional female artists were available to film, Prof. Vickery leans not towards the reason that, for good or ill, there weren't that many of them, but that an anti-female artists conspiracy still exists:

I was prepared for a hunt, but nevertheless the near invisibility of women's art was shocking: I was forced into storage facilities and basements. The Advancing Women Artists Foundation estimates that 1,500 works by women are currently stored in Florence's various deposits, most of which have not been on public view for centuries. To the question "Are all of these works of a high artistic standard?" Jane Fortune, head of the foundation, answers: "We'll never know unless they are seen."

Public galleries seem tacitly to endorse the conservative view, exemplified by Brian Sewell's assertion that "only men are capable of aesthetic greatness". But painters and sculptors were artisans working within family-based workshops, just like tailors, locksmiths, goldsmiths and cabinetmakers. Art was a trade. Few paintings were the product of a single hand – only the face and hands might be the work of the "master". The male artist's brand was a fiction. Marietta Tintoretto worked alongside her father in Venice, Barbara Longhi beside her brother in Ravenna, their labour a vital constituent of the family economy, but unrecognised outside the workshop.

A deep belief in the impossibility of female genius is at work. Many of Leyster's sunny canvases celebrating the social life of the Dutch golden age were so skilful they were attributed to Frans Hals, despite her signature.

Meanwhile, Neil Jeffares notes with some surprise that Vickery omitted to look at pastel painting, where female artists abounded in far larger numbers:

In fact, as you can see throughout my Dictionary of pastellists before 1800, pastel was a field offering women far greater opportunity than most areas of the arts. There were a number of reasons for this. From a purely practical point of view, pastel portraiture is an essentially solo activity requiring no large studio with an army of assistants to manage the large canvases used in history painting. It could be practised without lengthy training in life drawing (all but impossible under the prudish restrictions imposed in the eighteenth century).

Some 17% of known pastellists (i.e. those recorded in my Dictionary) were female overall, but this figure also varies considerably among different cohorts. Women made up less than 10% of the “significant” artists (chose with a surviving œuvre in at least double digits), while accounting for 45% of amateurs. They represented half the recorded Spanish artists but only an eighth of the Dutch and just over a fifth of the English and French schools. There are of course inevitable biases in such data, which reflect varying cultural traditions, for example, in relation to the admission and recording of honorary members in academies.

You can catch the series here on iPlayer.

'The Craze for Pastels' (ctd.)

May 18 2014

Image of 'The Craze for Pastels' (ctd.)

Picture: Tate

I mentioned a while ago Tate Britain's new mini display of pastels, featuring the newly discovered portrait above, Baron Nagell's Running Footman', by Ozias Humphrey. Pastel scholar Neil Jeffares has been, and his excellent review is well worth reading. He wasn't overly impressed...

Sotheby's contemporary sale bombs

May 15 2014

Video: Sotheby's

Oops. It all went a bit flat at Sotheby's yesterday, where their contemporary art sale fetched 'just' $364.3m. The day before, Christie's had realised $745m. The Sotheby's total includes buyer's premium, and it was only thanks to this that the sale could be said to have 'beaten' its low estimate of $336.7m, a figure which of course does not include premium. Jeff Koons' Popeye (above) sold to the casino magnate Steve Wynn for $28m.

I saw that Sotheby's Tweets began reporting the sale with much bravado, each result being given the hashtag #aheadofthecurve. These tailed off as the some of the bigger names failed to sell, and it became clear that Sotheby's were slipping far behind their rivals.  

Carol Vogel in The New York Times looks into what happened:

After two consecutive nights of sky’s-the-limit bidding, Sotheby’s sale of contemporary art started out on a high, but quickly fell back to earth, with picky buyers passing up paintings and sculptures by major figures like Rothko, de Kooning and Takashi Murakami.

It has been a tough time for Sotheby’s. On the cusp of the spring auction season, Sotheby’s and Daniel S. Loeb, the activist hedge fund manager, declared a truce in one of the most bitter corporate fights in recent memory. After a long proxy battle, the auction house agreed to give Mr. Loeb and two allies the board seats they had been seeking and to allow his firm, Third Point, to increase its stake to 15 percent.

Officials at Christie’s, Sotheby’s archrival, are said to have used Sotheby’s troubles in the competition to win art to sell this season. If they did, it worked.

The York Avenue auction house had a hard act to follow. On Monday and Tuesday, Christie’s held contemporary art auctions that topped expectations, selling nearly $745 million worth in less than three hours on Tuesday alone. But despite having eight more works than the Christie’s auction, Sotheby’s sale on Wednesday only managed less than half as much, totaling $364.3 million, just above its low $336.7 million estimate. Of the 79 works up for sale, 12 did not sell.

A set of six Andy Warhol self-portraits sold for $30m, a figure which puts the £10m for Van Dyck's last self-portrait into some perspective. The Warhol portraits were described as 'Utterly compelling, urgent and sensational'. If the NPG in London had used that to describe the Van Dyck, people would have laughed. But the contemporary market is a different world. 

Warwick collection on offer at Sotheby's

May 15 2014

Video: Sotheby's

Sotheby's in London have an impressive haul of Old Masters for their forthcoming sales from the collection of the Earls of Warwick. Romney's portrait of a turbaned Edward Wortley-Montagu is one of the best-known British 18th Century portraits, and is estimated at £2m-£3m.

Update - a reader writes:

As you know, there's another version in Sheffield.  So is the price difference between Sotheby's portrait and that now in Yorkshire, accepted in lieu in 2004-205 settling £315,000 0f tax, the difference between the original and a replica?

The state got a bit of a bargain...

'Mr Turner'

May 15 2014

Video: Film Four

Ooh, now this looks like a cracker, to judge by the trailer. And Timothy Spall is never less than brilliant either. I can't wait to see it. The Telegraph has already given it 5 stars.

I presume the enthusiastic young fellow praising Turner's works to him is Ruskin. In which case, I hope the film shows Turner saying of Ruskin (in what is my favourite art historical quote of all time), 'He sees more in my pictures than I ever painted.' It's a line all theorising art historians should remember...

The Tattoo in art history

May 15 2014

Matt Lodder on his research and studying art history at Essex from University of Essex on Vimeo.

Video: University of Essex

Here's an unusual video for you; Dr Matt Loder talks about his research on tattoos in art history. Not normal territory for AHN, you might think, but I've often wondered about how tattoos have become, as Matt says, 'not just for sailors', especially now that they have become so very middle class (at least, here in the UK). Also, at the end of the video, Matt gives a good explanation about why studying art history can be useful for your career.

Who is Barnett Newman?

May 14 2014

Image of Who is Barnett Newman?

Picture: Christie's

I know I'm a reactionary stick-in-the-mud, but when even I haven't heard of the top-selling artist at Christie's contemporary art evening sale, you have to wonder what's going on in that market. The above Black Fire I fetched $84,165,000 (inc. premium), which made the sale's Francis Bacon triptych look almost reasonable at $80,805,000.

The sale total was $744.9m, which, as Christie's website says (in bold, just in case we missed the significance), "represents the highest total for a single auction in art market history". Add on the total from their 'curated sale' of the day before, and they're on $879.5m for the week so far. Sotheby's will doubtless add to the fun with their sale tonight. 

So what's going on? Well, as in any rapidly inflating market, we're now in a situation where buyers can set their own rules when it comes to value. As Andrew Renton, director of Marlborough Contemporary, said yesterday on CNN:

"We've got an economic model which is slightly contradictory [...] Prices seem to set the value. Overpaying is almost the best thing you can do, because you start to define your own market."

The only question, of course, is when will it all end. 

Here, for your pleasure, is some of the guff from the catalogue for Black Fire I:

The simple geometry of this structure is brought alive by the presence of Newman's active brushwork throughout the inky-black left side. The oil paint that creates this passage, and the 'zip' to its right, has also been allowed to bleed out from under the tape that formerly masked them off, causing craggy edges and an irregular thickness of line that adds to the painting's sense of brooding vitality. The remainder of the canvas is untouched save for the application of a transparent size. The balance of proportions together with the imposing scale of Black Fire I imbue it with a classical stateliness, while the subtle differences between line and texture in each of the vertical elements lends it a sense of energy. This extremely restricted mode of painting was part of Newman's test to himself to create "the living quality of color without the use of color;" that is, a tonal relationship between the black oil paint and exposed canvas that would cause the ground to appear as if it possessed its own sense of light (B. Newman, quoted in "A Conversation: Barnett Newman and Thomas B. Hess," 1966, in J.P. O'Neill (ed.), Barnett Newman: Selected Writing and Interviews, Los Angeles, 1992, p. 277). Black Fire I is certainly a triumphant realization of this aim as the contrast of the raw canvas against the receding depths of black pigment cause it to emanate a glorious soft, flaxen glow that appears to intensify in brightness between the compressed central band. 

If in 40 years time and Black Fire I is still worth whatever $84m in today's prices equates too (and if I'm still alive) I will publicly eat my trousers. Hold me to it.

Update - a reader writes:

For any American history of art undergraduate or post-graduate who takes a survey course in 20C art, Barnett Newman is right up there with Jackson Pollock (and features as such in the Museum of Modern Art, for example).  In other words, a leading figure in the heroic age of abstract painting as defined and created in New York City in the 1940s and 1950s.  This is a very American-oriented perspective on the history of art, of course.  His reputation has lasted this long--your trousers may be in jeopardy.

Yikes! That said, I think even Pollock prices will be hard to sustain at their current rate.

Update II - another reader is shocked at my art historical lacuna:

Am in despair that you claim not to have heard of Newman, but also think you are safe from future trouser-eating.

I'm going to ask everyone I meet to day if they've heard of Barnett Newman. I'll let you know what the score is.

Update III - another reader adds:

I have heard of Barnett Newman from when I was about 17 on foundation. As your reader says, he’s pretty big in US centric art history terms. You’re going to need the Rennie’s I’m afraid.

But here's a glimpse of hope that I may not need them:

What a Barnett Newman or Jeff Koons will be worth in forty years has mostly to do with what is in fashion then and who is buying.  Currently its a runaway train and some of the smart money has jumped off it recently. 

Van Gogh peaked in constant dollar terms about twenty years ago based on Wikipedia  art record data.  The new museums and their contributors are filling collections with contemporary art.  And there is a lot of liquidity around supporting this.  If the liquidity goes or the fashion changes then there go the self defining values.  

Do you prefer your trousers served sweet or savory.

I'd bet on Francis Bacon keeping value over Koons.

Update IV - so far (three hours in) it's six who haven't heard of him versus one who has.

Update V - another reader thinks me and the trousers'll be ok:

I have no opinion on the edibility of your trousers, but don't let the art-guff put you off abstract art such as Barnett Newman's: his work is vastly superior to Jeff Koons's, in my view at least, and art guff is spouted about even about great representative art, possibly even from time to time about van Dyck's!  Although more by academics concerned with "heuristics" and "contextualizing" and "agency" than by dealers including auctioneers, I expect.

Update VI - a reader adds:

Sounds like you missed the Barnett Newman Exhibition at the Tate Modern.  It was in their main exhibition rooms. (2002-3)

Yes, so I don't go to Tate Modern enough. By a strange coincidence, Jonathan Jones in The Guardian, when discussing the recent Rothko re-hang, helps explain why:

What – seriously – would he make of Tate Modern?

At the old Tate, the one that is now Tate Britain, his paintings had their own room until the end of the 1990s, as quiet as a chapel. You can still contemplate them mystically at Tate Modern, but never as purely. Like everything else they must fit into this museum's nervously unpredictable displays and banal "juxtapositions" of past and present.

The mood of this museum is the antithesis of everything Rothko stood for. It's noisy, riotous, and pop-cultural. Teens in the toilets, art lovers crying in the corner. Interactive art was being stressed at the museum at the time the Rothko was attacked. Did the idiotic vandal, who claims to be an artist, somehow gain courage from that?

Update VII - the Grumpy Art Historian takes me to task, and refers me to his latest post on relative art values from 1959:

Really? Surely you're winding us up? Even I've heard of Newman, and I take great pride in my ignorance of modern art. I seem to recall Robert Hughes speaking highly of Vir Heroicus Sublimis in The Shock of the New (though I might be misremembering). I even quite like Newman. Well worth it, if you move the decimal point five or six places.

I think he will continue to be valued as one of the iconic representatives of an iconic movement. But your bet hinges as much on the fate of the super-rich as on the critical fate of Newman. I just read Sotheby's review of the season 1959-60, when a decent Rembrandt sold for the equivalent of £780k.

Thomas Piketty's much-discussed book Capital speculates that without political action the richest of the rich will continue to move further ahead of everyone else, which would imply further forward march of top prices. I'm not convinced by Piketty, but if the richest get richer you might be eating those trousers!

In my travels amongst non-art world folk (and people who don't read this blog) I still haven't found anyone who has heard of Barnet Newman. I'm surprised some readers don't realise quite how closeted the worlds of modern and contemporary art really are.

Update VIII - another reader stands up for Barnet:

I saw a mention of your blog and thought I'd have a read, but on seeing the Barnett Newman discussion, I'm quite shocked – enough so to feel I should stand up for him.

In response to another commenter, I would have thought Newman would be well know to anyone who had studied Art History, whether in the US or the UK or elsewhere (I was at Edinburgh around the same time you were studying). I sympathise with those who don't find him particularly interesting but you can't claim he doesn't have a place in modern art history. It seems to me very misleading to suggest that he's an unknown, rather like writing off Mark Rothko or Agnes Martin, so I'm hoping to redress the balance a little in your polling.

Another reader adds:

99.9% of people couldn't begin to reproduce a Van Dyck and even many seemingly simple 20thc abstracts would be impossible to copy perfectly. 

But give any vaguely sane adult a brush and two pots of paint (beige and black) and they would be able to accurately reproduce the Newman maybe half an hour at the most.

Is there any point even saying this and isn't that the point - it is just MAD!!!!

Update IX - just back from a meeting of the Lord Chancellor's Advisory Council, which I'm a member of. Nobody there I asked had heard of him either.

Update X - a reader writes:

Oh dear.  Predictably, I hadn't heard of him, but Mrs W is absolutely SHOCKED that you hadn't.

Another reader adds, in reference to the GAH's point above:

If I may have a second comment.  We have two discussions here. One regarding Barnett Newman and one discussing art prices.  At the intersection of these Newman achieves remarkable prices based on his name, his position in current art,  two very affluent bidders, and price expectations rather than any refinement of style.  Prices in general depend on the ability and desire of buyers.  If you are buying a Jeff Koons to put in your casino [Steve Wynn bought Koons' Popeye at auction yesterday for $28m] it has an advertising value which is greater if you paid more for it.  

The 1960 Rembrandt price mentioned is consistent with current Rembrandt prices if US inflation is applied and well above current prices if UK inflation is applied especially as compared with other prime assets like London or NYC residential property.

Update XI - more admonition:

[...] actually I think you are not likely to have to eat your trousers but I am fascinated that Tate Modern's  retrospective of the paintings, sculpture and works on paper of Barnett Newman's works never crossed your radar screen because it made as much of an impression on me as the exhibitions there of Warhol or Lucien Freud and is therefore one of my all time favourite Tate Modern exhibitions; unlike for example the over-hyped Matisse cut-outs. Looking back I am surprised to see that the exhibition was as long ago as 2002.

Back in those days I was still busy being a historian.

Update XII - the GAH responds:

Not sure where your correspondent is getting his/her data, but £40k in 1960 = $112k USD at exchange rates then prevalent. That's equivalent to $871k applying US inflation rates.

I'd say the 1960 Rembrandt must be worth comfortably seven figures in sterling today. Best comparison is probably the Otterloo portrait (same period/size/format), which I think went for about £20m. The Norton Simon one isn't as attractive, but I can't believe it would make less than half that today. 

Incidentally the comparison with other trophy assets is precisely my point - that today wealth is more unequally distributed and the very rich have more liquid wealth that they're willing to spend on trophy assets, so scarce things that they desire are worth relatively more.

Another reader looks at a far wider question:

Isn't it funny how misunderstood  and neglected Duchamp was/is especially in the US.

His cynical and witty observations of a declining interest in what Andre Malraux called : La Promesse de Bonheur of the pictorial arts, were succinctly expressed in his en  prevision du bras casse, the snow shovel whose objet trouve title was translated correctly as 'In Advance of a  Broken Arm', i.e. an ABC for new pathways towards future  artforms. 

Instead  this was taken as full license to Anything Goes as Cole Porter wrote,  because artists mistakenly adopted  his wry comment that their  authority determined what is art and what it is not. The elitist character  of much of what is produced today is in direct opposition to Duchamp's  intentions and by its deliberate exclusivity hopes to obtain  significance.

Vandalised Rothko back on show at Tate

May 13 2014

Video: Tate

In October 2012 some deluded fellow vandalised one of Tate Modern's Rothkos. He got two years in jail, and now just over a year and a half later, the picture has gone back on display. To their great credit, Tate made the above video about the painstaking process of restoring the work. 

Update - the wally who vandalised the picture has written a strange article for The Guardian. He goes on and on about his new creed, 'Yellowism', but doesn't actually say what it is.

Broke Italian museums

May 12 2014

Image of Broke Italian museums

Picture: Wikipedia

News that the Galleria Borghese's air conditioning system has broken down reminds me that I've been meaning to post a rant something about my recent trip to Rome, and the art galleries there. First, here's what The Guardian reports about the Borghese's climate crisis:

Concerns have been raised about the preservation of one of the world's finest art collections after it emerged that a cash-strapped museum in Rome had resorted to opening its windows to reduce humidity.

Home to masterpieces by Caravaggio, Titian, Raphael and Rubens, Rome's Borghese Gallery has been without air conditioning in one section for two months due to a funding slowdown, just as Rome sweats through a hot spring.

While most of the world's most prized art is increasingly housed in climate-controlled rooms to shut out humidity and pollution, guards at the gallery are opening windows to try to lower the temperature.

"We have been in the grip of this emergency for two months," the museum's director, Anna Coliva, told Italian daily La Repubblica. She said the air conditioningwas worn out after years of scant maintenance, with requests over the past few years for a new system falling on deaf ears.

Built in the 17th century by Cardinal Scipione Borghese to house his burgeoning art collection, the Borghese Gallery boasts such works as Caravaggio's Boy with a Basket of Fruit and Titian's Sacred and Profane Love, as well as sculptures by Bernini and Canova.

Custom built for the cardinal's collection, the frescoes on the ceilings of the building echo the themes of the works of art beneath them.

Opening windows might bring in cool air now, but with summer approaching, the race is on to get the air conditioning working again. In the meantime, the paintings risk exposure to humidity and pollution from Rome's heavy traffic.

The fact that Italian museums are feeling the pinch comes as no surprise, given the austerity regime there at the moment. But what should be surprising is the fact that major museums like the Borghese, with their priceless Berninis, Titians and Raphaels, cannot even get the basics right like climate control. When you've got large panel pictures, a stable environment is pretty crucial, and simply leaving the windows open won't do.

The sad fact is that Italian state-run museums are often hopelessly and ineffeciently run. Useless websites, arbitrary opening times, optimistic labelling (beware anything which says 'Titian'), and idle staff all combine to leave you yearning for the UK's impeccably run and free museums. Sometimes you wonder if there's more than a hint of corruption involved. A favourite job-creation trick, for example, is the ticket selling and ticket checking routine: one person sells you a ticket at the entrance, and then, just a few inches away, another person then has to check it before you are grudgingly admitted. You may have first had to go through a security scanner, but of course nobody seems to care if it goes beep. If you're lucky, all the rooms in the museum may be open, but usually they're not, and woe betide you if you dare ask for a partial refund, on the not unreasonable basis that only a fraction of the place is actually visitable (like the Palazzo Venezia, in my case). It's no accident that by far the best art gallery in Rome is the privately owned and run Palazzo Doria, where not only can you can get a handy picture-list and an audio guide, but there's even a shop and a cafe.

Finally, a few words of advice to anyone wanting to go to the Vatican museums:

  1. Never , ever go in the morning - the queue goes on forever, and there's literally a giant, seething scrum to get in. Only do this if you've been to Eton and excelled at the Wall Game (I didn't, so ran away).
  2. Book your ticket first online, and go for the last available slot in the day, usually 3.30pm. 
  3. Go round the route slowly, so that you're at the end of hordes, and get a little more space than usual.
  4. Ignore the touts at all costs. 
  5. Take binoculars, to look at all the frescoes.
  6. Take some form of guidebook - there are no labels.
  7. Don't forget the Pinacoteca, go there first.
  8. Spend more time in the Raphael rooms than the Sistine Chapel - they're better, and haven't been wrecked by "conservation".

But despite all this, there's probably no finer city in the world to visit, from an artistic point of view. I loved it. It's my new favourite place.

Update - a reader has much better advice:

Rome is glorious despite the infuriating closures, queues, exhaustion and heat. Your advice is sound- but I recommend a totally different policy: GO IN JANUARY. I strolled straight into any museum or gallery I chose- and never saw a queue.  At the Vatican the people were so spread out that it was easy to see, to linger and to go back. The café was half empty and as the dusk crept through the corridors and the lights went on, it became so quiet that I was afraid I had been locked in. Reaching the main door with half an hour before closing time, I set off around again. As the last entries had already hurried off towards the Sistine Chapel, I had endless vast classical galleries, dimly lit, entirely to myself.  Cold but sublime.

Another reader adds:

And in Italy a small gratuity will encourage museum guards to open a closed gallery or two.

Regarding the Villa Borghese collection, It is important to recall that most of these works sat in uncontrolled climatic conditions for three centuries. Now the buildings are leaking and crumbling around them especially in southern Italy..    

I am truly delighted that you share my opinion of the Sistine Chapel which was produced while on endorphins from painful working conditions. Buonaroti was a great sculptor. Visit St pietro in Vincoli in Rome to see his Moses.

Another suggests a private tour:

If you pay 2 or 3 hundred euros, you can have a quasi- private viewing in the evening with only about 6 other people.

Worth it, no doubt.

Lost Van Gogh found 'in a bank vault'

May 12 2014

Image of Lost Van Gogh found 'in a bank vault'

Picture: Madrid Daily

We've only got the above grainy (and not entirely convincing) photo so far, but Reuters reports that Spanish tax authorities have found what may be a lost Van Gogh. The picture was found in a bank vault during a tax investigation:

Spanish tax inspectors checking the contents of a safety deposit box discovered a painting believed to be by Dutch master Vincent Van Gogh that went missing almost 40 years ago, a tax office source said on Saturday.

Confirming a report by Spanish newspaper El Mundo, the source said the painting was entitled "Cypress, Sky and Country" in English translation from Spanish and dated 1889. The pastoral work had last been on view in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in the Austrian capital Vienna, the source told Reuters.

He said an investigation was under way into how the painting wound up in the safety deposit box and whether it disappeared as a result of a robbery.

Art experts told the tax office that the painting, bearing three seals of authenticity and measuring 35 by 32 centimeters 13.7 by 12.5 inches), is most likely genuine although this must still be confirmed by Spain's Culture Ministry. The value of the painting has not yet been assessed.

More details when I get them.

Update - a reader writes:

The Spanish newspaper said the canvas has three wax seals. One of the Rijksmuseum (04/08/1944), one of the Museum der Schöne Künste in Berlin (undated) and the last of the Kunsthistorisches Institut der Universität Wien (04/10/1974).

According to the person investigated by the Tax Office, the work is in Spain since 2010 and he is a mere depositary, painting belonging to a foreign millionaire.

Guffwatch - Koons Special (ctd.)

May 9 2014

Video: Christie's

Standby for a deluge of multi-million dollar mega art sales over the next two weeks, as Sotheby's and Christie's hold their New York contemporary sales. A 'highlight' of the week is one of Jeff Koons' toy trains, which you can see the artist sounding off guffily about above. Robert Hughes, where are you..?

This version of Koons' train is apparently expected to sell for up to $35m. It's one of four; another sold for just $5.5m in 2004. Bubble, anyone

Here at the Daily Mail you can see a load of gratuitous blond-bird-with-white-gloves shots. There's also a Francis Bacon triptych with the ubiquitous leggy-bird-walking-blurrily-past-the-painting shots.

Update - it made $33.7m.

Another discovery on 'Your Paintings'

May 8 2014

Image of Another discovery on 'Your Paintings'

Picture: Your Paintings

French art historian Francois Marandet has identified the above Pool of Bethesda' belonging to the Wellcome Library, as a work by Louis Cheron. It's a study for a larger work, and had been called 'after Poussin'. More details here.


What they get up to at Christie's New York

May 8 2014

Video: Christie's

Conservators and art owners look away now, there's a dude with a skateboard on the loose in Christie's storage area. 

Update - the video was a plug for Christie's one-off contemporary auction called 'If I live I'll see you Tuesday'. And the description of this sale easily qualifies for Guffwatch, as auction house specialists now seem to be passing themselves off as 'curators':

If I Live I’ll See You Tuesday… encapsulates the gritty and underbelly-esq side of Contemporary Art. Tough, controversial, and beautiful, this sale will bring together established names along with a  new generation of artists. Built around a mood and an atmosphere, Loïc Gouzer sought to convey the darker side of what art can be. “There’s very often some kind of flashy and instant gratification factor to art, and then there’s the other side; almost like matter and anti-matter. There’s a constant tension in art between happiness and sadness, life and death – this sale was about trying to explore this ‘anti’ part of art creation. It’s like music in the 1960s – you had the Beatles and the Rolling Stones , the Marilyn and the Electric Chair – this sale explores the legacy of the Electric Chair. ”

“We all have memories of a song or a melody that was so strong and perfect that it became ingrained in our minds and somehow formed the backdrop of our youth. The same can be said about art, and with this auction I have sought to bring together these special works that have left a lasting  imprint on the visual hard drive of our generation. Jeff Koons’s Equilibrium series, Richard Prince’s Cowboys, Andy Warhol’s Electric Chairs, and Dan Colen’s Candle paintings all have this wow-factor that made them immediate modern day icons.  If I Live I’ll See You Tuesday… will be a rare opportunity to see these radical works activating each other,” declared Loïc Gouzer , International Senior Specialist. 

“The selection of works conveys Loïc Gouzer’s decisive vision of Contemporary Art today and his instinct for great objects. Tight and very edited, If I Live I’ll See You Tuesday… will provide a great platform to appreciate these defining works of Contemporary Art. Everything in this sale is of the highest caliber and it will probably be the last chance to acquire some of these more recent masterpieces before they too move on to the $20 million + price bracket. ” added Brett Gorvy, Chairman and International Head of Post-War and Contemporary Art.

What a load of shite. 

'Bakersfield Mist'

May 8 2014

Image of 'Bakersfield Mist'

Picture: Bakersfield Mist

If you're in London over the next few months, you might be interested in seeing a new play all about art attribution, called Bakersfield Mist, which opens on 10th May. Starring Kathleen Turner (who was in a string of hits in the '80s and '90s) and Ian McDiarmid (best known as the Emperor in Star Wars), the play is all about a possible Jackson Pollock painting, which was bought in a junk store for a few dollars by Maude, a heavy-drinker who lives in a trailer park. The play shows Maude's discussions with Lionel, the Pollock connoisseur whose opinion can determine whether or not Maude has hit the jackpot. 

I was asked to go to the rehearsals to advise the actors on how a connoisseur's mind works, and how attributions are made. It was a fascinating afternoon, and I came away with a sense that they were keen not only to show the human drama of such a scenario, but how it works from an art historical perspective. I've also written a note for the programme. You can book tickets here

Update - a reader writes:

You gave them good advice, I went to the first preview tonight and I recommend it, Ms Turner seems to be growling a bit, but the subject matter is very interesting, and Ian Mcdiarmid was excellent.

Update II - another reader asks:

Have you seen the documentary on this subject?

Nope. I think certain elements of the 'evidence' have since been proven to be false. 

Waldemar in Van Gogh's London house

May 8 2014

Video: ZCZ Films

I do like Waldemar's short online films. Here's one about Van Gogh's London home, which, regular readers may remember, was sold at auction in 2012 for £565,000. At the time, i thought it was a bit of a bargain, but seeing the inside now it looks like it needs more than a few quid spending on it.

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