Previous Posts: May 2014

"Like a bolt from the blue..."

May 8 2014

Image of "Like a bolt from the blue..."

Picture: Kunst Museum Bern

That's how the Bern Art Museum, above, described the news that Cornelius Gurlitt, who died on Tuesday, has left the institution his entire estate. Here's their statement:

Despite speculation in the media that Mr Gurlitt had bequeathed his collection to an art institution outside Germany, the news came like a bolt from the blue, since at no time has Mr Gurlitt had any connection with Kunstmuseum Bern. The Board of Trustees and Directors of Kunstmuseum Bern are surprised and delighted, but at the same time do not wish to conceal the fact that this magnificent bequest brings with it a considerable burden of responsibility and a wealth of questions of the most difficult and sensitive kind, and questions in particular of a legal and ethical nature. They will not be in a position to issue a more detailed statement before first consulting the relevant files and making contact with the appropriate authorities.

So Bern has, potentially, an institution-changing bequest, but also a migraine-inducing set of legal issues to resolve. The German government, however, must be left wondering if they might have handled things rather differently. It's good, though, that most of these pictures, whose true ownership might never be established, are likely to end up on public display. 

Update - a reader writes:

I too feel extremely sorry that Gurlitt was given the rather unfair title of ‘Nazi Looter’ by artnet. Additionally on news of his death I was concerned that the German gov, having made a hash of it all in the first place, might try something sneaky and sell it off to line their own pockets so I’m glad to see its going to a public institution (albeit hopefully where they, the german gov, won’t interfere any further).

'Fake or Fortune?' Monet owner loses Paris court case

May 7 2014

Image of 'Fake or Fortune?' Monet owner loses Paris court case

Picture: David Joel/BBC

We featured the above painting in the first series of 'Fake or Fortune?', as a possible Monet. The picture had been excluded from the Monet catalogue raisonne published by the Wildenstein foundation in Paris, and the owner David Joel, wanted our help to prove that his picture was right. For the programme we came up with a mass of evidence to show that it was painted by Monet, including an illustration of the picture in the artist's obituary in Le Figaro in 1926 and provenance going back to Monet's dealer Georges Petit. We also had expert opinion that it was by Monet from the likes of the late Professor John House of the Courtauld, who had published extensively on the artist. Anyway, the Wildenstein's said 'non', and that was that.

Then, David Joel decided he would try and sue the Wildensteins, and force them to change their mind. Personally, I think such cases are always a mistake - how can you expect a judge to rule on an attribution, and why should art historical opinions be subjected to a court ruling? And in this case it was a big ask, especially being a plucky Brit in a French court ,against one of France's most important art historical establishments. Another 'non' was inevitable.

And so it came to pass - yesterday, Liberation reported that a Paris court has ruled against Joel. There is only a short news story, but it mentions a 'fake signature' (rubbish) and a possible attribution to an artist called Louis Latouche (more rubbish). It's a Monet! I'd happily buy it as such.

Update - I suppose we must hope the French don't destroy the picture as a 'fake', as happened to Martin Lang's 'Chagall'.

De-accession time in Delaware (ctd.)

May 7 2014

Image of De-accession time in Delaware (ctd.)

Picture: DAM

The Delaware Art Museum (DAM), which is a bit broke, has now announced the first of their planned de-accessions. It's Isabella and the Pot of Basil by William Holman Hunt, and the picture will be sold at Christie's next month. No estimate has been released yet. DAM, which has (or had) the most significant collection of pre-Raphaelite paintings outside the UK, needs to raise $30m.

More here in Delawareonline

Gurlitt dies

May 7 2014

Image of Gurlitt dies

Picture: Artnet

Cornelius Gurlitt has died from heart complications. It's hard not to feel sorry for him, when one sees the headlines like the above from Artnet: Gurlitt may have inherited some Nazi loot, but that doesn't make him either a Nazi or a looter. 

Quite what will happen to his collection now is anyone's guess. Bloomberg reports that the German courts will have to decide on whether there is a valid will. The Art Newspaper reports that:

At the beginning of April, Gurlitt signed an agreement with the federal government of Germany and the state of Bavaria to allow a dedicated task-force to research the collection and to return those works with a questionable provenance. The seized works were subsequently released.

It's thought that not many of Gurlitt's pictures will fall into the provably returnable category, however.

Update - he's left it all to a Swiss Museum! See the above post.

'Kenneth Clark' at Tate Britain

May 6 2014

Image of 'Kenneth Clark' at Tate Britain

Picture: Tate

Regular readers will know that my art history hero no. 1 is Kenneth Clark, whose great TV series Civilisation I must have watched countless times. I'm greatly looking forward to Tate Britain's forthcoming exhibition on Clark's career, called 'Looking for Civilisation', which opens on 20th May. Ahead of that, here's an excellent editorial on Clark in The Burlington Magazine, which is well worth a click.

Incidentally, I heard at a conference on Friday that Janet Street Porter was favourite to present the BBC's new version of Civilisation. I'm not entirely sure if this was a joke.

Update - apparently it was not a joke. A TV presenter of great repute (who would've done the job excellently themselves) confirms to me that J S-P is in the frame.

Update II - However, a telly source of impeccable credentials (ie, who knows) says to me: 'utter bollocks!' Funny how these rumours gain traction.

'The Story of Women in Art'

May 6 2014

Image of 'The Story of Women in Art'

Picture: BBC

This looks interesting, 'The Story of Women in Art' on BBC2 soon, presented by Prof. Amanda Vickery.

Guffwatch - 'Art as Therapy' (ctd.)

May 5 2014

Image of Guffwatch - 'Art as Therapy' (ctd.)

Picture: National Gallery of Victoria

Bad news readers - this gufftastic Alain de Botton 'Art as Therapy' nonsense is spreading fast. A reader alerts me to the fact that the National Gallery of Victoria in Australia has now succumbed to it. Here's an example for the above c.1540 Flemish school picture of St Jerome:

Once Jerome was young – he ran about the fields, he climbed trees and he got excited when he was given a bit of cake. He had a successful career. His efforts were rewarded. Now he’s old and is facing the brutal facts of his mortality. The sand in the hourglass will soon run through. He is going to die.

He touches a skull – a terrifying reminder of what is going to happen to his body. Like us, he is bewildered – how can this happen to me?

How can it be that I, who am alive now, will one day be dead? Jerome is forcing himself to admit the truth.

The book he is reading has a picture in it of the Crucifixion. Jesus, the person Jerome has most admired, is meeting his death. If you keep the idea of death at the front of your mind, it helps you to live well. It keeps things in proportion.

'The book he is reading'? It's the bible and he translated it into Latin. That's (partly) what the picture is about. Not cake, you plonkers.

You'd have thought that plain speaking Australia would be the last place to succumb to this sort of thing. But no. My reader, who works in the NGV, writes:

I’ve been following your blog and goings-on at Philip Mould for a while now. I’ve been giggling and shaking my head incredulously at the utter twaddle that is ‘Art as Therapy’, the book and collaborations with galleries. 

I was stunned to learn that our state Gallery, the National Gallery of Victoria was “collaborating” with School of Life for ‘Art as Therapy’. The final product is a self-guided tour (they’ve even got an app), with nice and discreet labels alongside the works on display. This is quite unlike the Rijksmuseum with their shouty post-its. I have a problem with the themes. Most are under “Sickness”.

If you can bear it, there's more NGV Art Therapy labelling here. And here's a good review of 'Art as Therapy' in the New York Times. Money quote:

[...] perverse, playful reductiveness has always been de Botton’s shtick — he’s just never done it so badly.

Update - a reader writes:

As for Alain de Botton and psychobabble about paintings, we are looking at a triumph of marketing over substance so common, very common indeed, in popular culture.

Albert Barnes viewed painting as line, color, and composition, viewed sentimental criticism as intellectually flabby, and built an extraordinary collection on that basis.  it was a peculiar and narrow approach, but had more substance than the labels Art as Therapy provides.

Indeed St. Jerome late in life would be concerned with eternal salvation, a belief and concept alien to the authors of the label.

Update II - another reader writes:

Well, art is "therapy" -- if "therapy" means that great art makes me happy, thoughtful, sometimes troubled, excited, uplifted and in awe of the wonders humanity and individual creativity can accomplish.  But understanding the times and circumstances in which the artist worked, his or her intentions and the patron or commissioner's intentions, the meanings and ideas expressed, the technical artistic means deployed to such marvellous effect, and -- yes -- other people's interpretations with which I can agree or disagree, all that contributes, it does not detract.  But calling all this  merely "therapy" impoverishes our experience of art and artistry and artisanship, insults us by presuming that we have some disorder that needs therapeutic treatment, and insults the English language too.

Update III - a reader wonders:

I think the Flemish St. Jerome you discussed recently might actually depict the saint with a Missal and not a Bible. In his study of Durer, Panofsky mentions Missals with large images of the Crucifixion, and even today Catholic Missals still have large color images of the Crucifixion.

Sleeper alert! (ctd.)

May 5 2014

Image of Sleeper alert! (ctd.)

Picture: Pook & Pook

A sharp-eyed reader has sent this update to that sleeping 'School of Bronzino' drawing I mentioned last week, which made $228k against a $1k estimate:

The chalk drawing of the seated male nude, which went for so much money at Pook and Pook is, I believe,  by Alessandro Allori (1535 - 1607), a preparatory drawing of Adam for his fresco of Adam and Eve in the Capella di San Girolamo in Santissima Anunziata in Florence [below], and not by his adoptive father, il Bronzino (1503 - 1572).

I was a bidder on it, up to a point.

If so, then at least the auctioneer has the consolation that his cataloguing, 'School of Bronzino', wasn't technically incorrect.

'Clear win' for Loeb in Sotheby's battle

May 5 2014

Image of 'Clear win' for Loeb in Sotheby's battle

Picture: NYPost

That's what the New York Times calls Sotheby's latest deal with activist investor Daniel Loeb, and rightly, for it looks as if the current board has caved in:

Sotheby’s said on Monday that it had ended its fight with the hedge fund mogul Daniel S. Loeb, agreeing to add his three director nominees to its board.

The last-minute settlement – reached a day before investors were scheduled to vote on the board – represents a clear win for Mr. Loeb, the veteran activist investor who has waged a monthslong fight against Sotheby’s in a bid to shake up the 270-year-old auction house.

The fight had become one of the biggest and most intense battles between a company and an activist this year, with each side hurling insults at the other.

Under the terms of their agreement, Sotheby’s will expand its board by three, to 15, to take on the activist’s full slate of nominees: Mr. Loeb himself, the restructuring expert Harry Wilson and the former investment banker Olivier Reza.

And Mr. Loeb’s firm, Third Point, will be allowed to raise its stake to 15 percent from its current level of 10 percent. The hedge fund had sued Sotheby’s in Delaware’s Court of Chancery, arguing that a “poison pill” defense plan that limited him to a 10 percent stake while letting mutual funds acquire up to a 20 percent stake was unfair.

Art Detective is go!

May 5 2014

Image of Art Detective is go!

Picture: Art Detective

I'm very pleased to be able to tell you about Art Detective, a new website created by the Public Catalogue Foundation to help discover more about the UK's collection of publicly owned oil paintings. The site, which is refreshingly easy to use, allows curators, for example, to upload an image of a painting they have a query on, and ask not only a panel of experts for information about it, but everyone in the world.

Of the over 200,000 pictures in the UK's collection, some one in five has either no attribution or an uncertain attribution. For thousands more we have other questions, such as where is the landscape, who is the sitter, and so on. Art Detective is designed to help solve some of these mysteries, and will prove a valuable support for institutions struggling to open up their collections to expertise in these days of increasing funding constraints. You can read more about the initiative in today's Guardian which, very nicely, gives me a little plug:

The effort to identify the paintings is being thrown open because many of the owners, including small museums and institutions such as the Scottish Police College – which wants to know more about a fireman struggling through the snow carrying a child – have no resident curators, access to specialist knowledge or funds for research. The project has the backing of Nicholas Penny, the director of the National Gallery. "Art Detective should provide a central exchange and a podium where expertise can be shared, problems can be aired and discoveries can be publicised," he said.

Interested members of the public already contribute along with distinguished historians including Bendor Grosvenor, himself renowned as an art detective – he recently found a portrait of Bonny Prince Charlie that had been lost for centuries – and Professor Martin Kemp of Oxford University, a world expert on the work of Leonardo da Vinci.

Any mystery painting with a splash of salt water is a magnet to Pieter van der Merwe, from the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, who recently suggested, just from looking at hazily depicted flags, that a fleet of tall ships – artist, date and location unknown to the Russell-Cotes gallery in Bournemouth – might represent the fourth battle of Cape St Vincent on 5 July 1833.

The discussions are drawing out some arcane information. Argument is rumbling about the date of a portrait of a soppy looking boy standing at a piano – the child prodigy Frederick Jewson, owned by the Royal Academy of Music – and whether the flamboyant carpet suggests an interior in Edinburgh, London, Paris or Russia.

Now, more plugging - I confess to feeling a little pride in seeing Art Detective finally go live. I was kindly asked to be on the steering panel for the project, and will also be the group leader for British 16th and 17th Century portraiture. Regular readers may also remember that I've been suggesting something like Art Detective for some years now, first at a conference on deaccessioning in 2011, and also in, amongst other places, this Museums Etc. book

Most of all though, I'm proud that it's the UK which is leading the way in projects like this. Art Detective is the world's first professionaly created art historical crowd-sourcing project. How cool is that? The PCF and the site's designers have done a terrific job, as has the Arts Council, which as paid for it (and how good to see the state at last recognising the amazing work the PCF has done so far in photographing the UK's collection, all of which was privately funded). So what lost treasures will you be able to help find? 

Update - a reader writes:

Brilliant!!!  Even for those of us who cannot contribute special expertise, what fun....

Mona Lisa theories new & old

May 5 2014

Image of Mona Lisa theories new & old


The Mona Lisa's in the news again. First up comes the unsurprising story that they have not, after three years of extensive digging (above), found Lisa Gheradini's body in the Sant 'Orsola convent in Florence. I say unsurprising, because the man leading the dig, Silvano Vinceti (who is apparently President of Italy's Committee for National Heritage) has form when it comes to crazy Mona Lisa theories: he's the fellow who claimed to find 'letters' hidden in her eyeballs a few years ago. Quite why this fellow was allowed to spend public money digging up an ancient church is beyond me. Still, at least they found a nice poster.

Another Mona Lisa theory reported this weekend, and similarly far out, is the news that scientists have deduced it may even have been intended to be a 3D stereoscopic image. Live Science reports new proof that the Mona Lisa in Paris and the recently 'discovered' copy in the Prado (which is now being heavily marketed as 'The Prado Mona Lisa') were painted at exactly the time in Leonardo's studio:

When I first perceived the two paintings side by side, it was very obvious for me that there is a very small but evident difference in perspectives," study researcher Claus-Christian Carbon of the University of Bamberg in Germany wrote in an email to Live Science. "Maybe the view of a perceptual psychologist is highly sensitive for such tiny differences, but it is very clear that also persons who are not so strongly involved in perceptual sciences can see it easily after having received information on the change in perspective." [See Images of "Mona Lisa" Paintings in 3D]

Turns out, the real "Mona Lisa," or "La Gioconda," and the Prado cousin were painted from slightly different perspectives. Carbon and Vera Hesslinger of Germany's University of Mainz figured out this perspective shift by looking at so-called trajectories, or the paths from a distinctive point on the source, such as the tip of Mona Lisa's nose, to a target, or the observer's (or painter's) eyes. The scientists also asked people to estimate the perspective of the "Mona Lisa" sitter, something Carbon called a psychological assessment of the perspective.

"This is particularly clear if you observe the chair on which La Gioconda sits: In the Prado version, you can still see the end of the end corner of the chair at the background of the painting, which you cannot see in the Louvre version, because the painter of the Prado version looked at the' Mona Lisa' more from the left than the painter of the Louvre version," Carbon said.

The researchers then could recalculate the position the painters took relative to each other and to the "Mona Lisa" sitter in Da Vinci's studio. They found that the horizontal difference between the two paintings was about 2.7 inches (69 millimeters), which is close to the average distance between a person's two eyes. (When a person observes an object, each eye sees a slightly different perspective of the object, both of which are sent to the brain and transformed into the three-dimensional representation of the object that we "see.")

The scientist's report is helpfully illustrated, above, with lego figures! And immediately you can see the problem with the theory that the two artists, Leonardo and A N Other, were observing the sitter from just 2 inches apart. They'd have to have painted so closely together as to make mutual observation of the subject almost impossible, with one artist looking to the right of the easel, immediately in the way of the other looking left. The report doesn't explain why, in the above Lego-illustrated scenario, one Mona Lisa isn't bigger than the other, since one canvas had to be behind the other.

But as regular readers will know, the theory that the 'Prado Mona Lisa' is an exact studio contemporary of the Mona Lisa is already deeply suspect. And sadly this latest theory is what happens when we let scientists loose on art history. Their limited understanding of visual culture means they come up with whacky theories like this. But the press tends to believe them, because scientists must be right, right?

Goliath's Revenge (ctd.)

May 4 2014

Image of Goliath's Revenge (ctd.)


Michelangelo's 'David' apparently has weak ankles, and may fall over at any time (report various media outlets). This story isn't exactly new, however, and seems to come around once every couple of years - here's a similar one from 2011.

Update - Florence's museum authority says the statue is tickety-boo, and that the cracks, as I suspected, are no cause for alarm. The Guardian reports:

"Even if there is an earthquake of 5.0 or 5.5 on the Richter scale, Florence will stay in one piece. And David would be the last to fall," Marco Ferri, a spokesman for the authority, told Agence France-Presse.

Durer at the Albertina

May 1 2014

Video: ZCZ Films

The Albertina in Vienna has put Durer's Hare on display, as it does once every ten years. I was lucky enough to see it the other day. The great Waldemar, in the short film above, urges you to go too. You have until 29th June.

NPG buys Van Dyck's Self-Portrait

May 1 2014

Image of NPG buys Van Dyck's Self-Portrait

Picture: NPG/Philip Mould

Well, hurrah - the National Portrait Gallery in London has successfully raised £10m to buy Van Dyck's late 'Self-Portrait'. The Heritage Lottery Fund has generously contributed over £6m to add to the amount the NPG had already raised, which included £700,000 from its own funds, £500,000 from the Art Fund, £1m from the Monument Trust (the Sainsbury family) and over £1m in individual donations from some 10,000 members of the public. It's a terrific achievement, and well done to all of those involved. Special pat on the back to AHN readers who contributed.

So now he'll be in public display for everyone to see, forever. It's been quite a journey for the picture, from relative obscurity just over two decades ago (having hung since the war in a private house in Jersey) to now one of the most famous self-portraits in the world. It's incredible to think that in at least two old catalogue raisonnes of Van Dyck's work, the portrait was mistaken as a copy, and even in the definitive 2004 catalogue raisonne the late Sir Oliver Millar described it rather meekly as 'the best version', and included only a rather hazy black and white photo. The picture's first significant exposure came about when Karen Hearn at Tate Britain persuaded the Earl of Jersey to lend it to the 'Van Dyck in Britain' exhibition in early 2009.

Not long afterwards, as is sometimes the way, the picture was offered at Sotheby's, in December 2009. The estimate of £2m-£3m reflected the picture's slightly uncertain status, not in terms of its attribution, but in terms of, for want of a better word, its fame. It was clear to most observers even then, however, that the picture would dramatically exceed that unduly cautious estimate, and we were delighted to acquire it in partnership with Alfred Bader for £8.3m. In fact, we had been prepared to bid much higher, and were slightly surprised when the hammer came down. Underbidders included at least two overseas museums. I remember how the picture shone out in the auction room, its quality overwhelming everything else on offer.

I may write more about the acquisition process later, but I'm quite proud to have been involved in both that and the process of research and advocacy that has resulted in the portrait becoming what it is today. It's certainly been a privilege to have handled the picture here at the Philip Mould Gallery. Seeing Sir Anthony in our offices every day made it feel as if he was part of the family. I don't mind admitting that most days I would greet him with a quiet 'Morning Ant', and if I was the first in I'd positively shout it, and even give him a wave. He never waved back of course, but that vivid, knowing expression made it seem as if he was reciprocating in some way. And then there was the strange feeling of having Van Dyck look over us as we made the occasional discovery of a new work by him. These have included - if you'll forgive the boast -the Portrait of Olivia Porter in the Bowes Museum, the Portrait of a Young Girl now hanging at the Ashmolean, two male full-length portraits painted by Van Dyck while he was in Italy, a Holy Family painted in Sicily, three important head studies, and his last Portrait of Queen Henrietta Maria as St Catherine. There are others which unfortunately I can't tell you about - at least, not yet. I hope, now that he's left us, the discoveries don't dry up.

Update - a reader writes:

Hurrah, indeed -- or in Canadian, hurray !!!!  Seriously, congratulations -- and envy greens me for your being able to live with that portrait and the others.

Another writes:

For a long time to come ……..on a rainy day in London like today…….one can lift the spirits by going to NPG to see Van Dyck's self portrait! Actions like this keep London on top of the world. Happy for the children of this great city. Rule Britannia!!!

Hear hear...

Another writes:

All us readers are doubtless patting ourselves on our collective back, although the Heritage Lottery Fund was of course the sine qua non - not even mentioned by Will Gompertz [on the BBC] (come on Will be fair) and well done Bendor. Do show the fabulous frame as well.....

And another adds:

Sir Ant is now your guardian saint (if only one believed in such things).

Here's hoping...

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