Previous Posts: September 2015


September 18 2015

Image of Guffwatch

Picture: Christie's

The New York contemporary auctions are always a rich source of contemporary art-speak. In Christie's 'First Open' sale, an over-painted Ikea map (the medium is given as 'Ikea inkjet canvas, oil paint') by Rob Pruitt is on oeffer at $30,000-$50,000. Here's some priceless guff in the catalogue note:

World Map continues this investigation. Originally an IKEA product designed for mass-consumption, the company’s Pjätteryd picture series are inkjet prints of a variety of subjects, stretched onto canvas to resemble fine art. But these products are in fact not art, but rather commercial goods churned out by a factory, designed for mass-appeal, consumerism, and profit. In order to subvert their functionality, Pruitt appropriates IKEA’s inkjet prints and transmutes them into art objects by painting over their surfaces with thick, impasto-laden oil paint. Through Pruitt’s alchemy, World Map loses its factory-like hollowness and becomes a playful, craft-like work whose thick surface resembles the hand-stitching textiles of Alighiero Boetti’s Mappa series or the sumptuous, tactile, and delicious cakes and pies of Wayne Thiebaud.

Simultaneously, Pruitt’s World Map also exists in dialogue with much of post-war art history. By using pre-defined subject matter in a fine art context, Pruitt’s paint-by-numbers strategy sardonically recalls the flags and targets of Jasper Johns and the rigorous orderliness of Frank Stella’s canvases. Perhaps Pruitt’s most significant influence, however, is Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain from 1917. By appropriating a readymade object with a (very) non-art function, Duchamp converted the urinal into a work of fine art by painting “R. Mutt” onto the surface and displaying it in a gallery setting, permanently changing the work’s context and calling into question the very nature of art itself. Pruitt extends this strategy to simulated art. By layering his own craftsmanship on top of a machined surface, Pruitt questions whether the artist’s power can also convert non-art into high art. World Map unquestionably succeeds.

When you see an Ikea map compared to 'delicious cakes and pies', you know there's something wrong in the world.

And isn't it a bit rich for the purveyors of Koons and Hirst to say: 'these products are in fact not art, but rather commercial goods churned out by a factory, designed for mass-appeal, consumerism, and profit'?

Art History sexism (ctd.)

September 18 2015

Image of Art History sexism (ctd.)

Picture: Dukes Auction

To publicise the sale of a picture by L. S. Lowry, English auctioneers Dukes came up with the above photo. A gem of its kind, it only fails to score a perfect ten for ghastliness by the lack of white gloves. See more here in the Mail.

Inside the Google Cultural Institute

September 16 2015

Image of Inside the Google Cultural Institute

Picture: Google Art Project/Royal Collection, detail of Charles I in Three Positions by Sir Anthony Van Dyck

There's an interesting article by Maureen Dowd in the New York Times on the Google Cultural Institute's mission to digitally replicate the world's art. I'm a big fan of the Institute, especially when you see how good Google's Art Project images are (as above), and even more so when I see comments like this:

“I don’t care so much if they use Google or not, to be very blunt,” [Institute head Amit Sood] said. “I care more that cultural institutions that have great stuff under lock and key put it out there for anybody to download.

Hurrah. Though I must say, looking at (for example) what passes as a 'Van Dyck' on the Institute's Van Dyck page, that they could benefit from a little diligence in their cataloguing.

New Churchill portrait discovered

September 16 2015

Image of New Churchill portrait discovered

Picture: Telegraph

In The Telegraph, Colin Gleadell reports that a study of Churchill by Sickert has been discovered by the Court Gallery. It was on sale at the 20/21 art fair in London, and was apparently bought by the London sculpture dealer Danny Katz for about £50,000. The picture is a study for this famous portrait in the NPG.

Tate reconsiders Constable restitution (ctd.)

September 16 2015

Image of Tate reconsiders Constable restitution (ctd.)

Picture: Tate

The Tate gallery has been asked to return a looted Constable to the heirs of its war-time Hungarian owner. The case has been rumbling on for a time, and at one point it looked like the Tate were going be able to keep it, after new evidence emerged. But now the Spoliation Advisory panel has said the painted must be surrendered. More on the latest news here in The Art Newspaper.

Everybody out! (ctd.)

September 16 2015

Video: via Facebook

I went to the National Gallery on Monday, and was surprised to see so many of the major rooms open. More than half I would say. So I wonder if the strike is beginning to loose its edge. There have been over 90 days of strike action so far.

It's likely the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party will give the strikers a boost, for he has been a strong supporter of their cause. He mentioned the strikers at yesterday's TUC conference. Many strikers were there to welcome his comments (including, I see from the photos, AHN's favourite troll). But as sincere as he is, the patchy start to his leadership suggests he will have bigger issues to focus on. It might not have helped that his speech was delivered in the manner of Michael Palin's boring prophet character in The Life of Brian.

Anyway, at the end of the day it will I suppose come down to money, and whether the strikers can continue to forgo their salary. There is a 'strike fund', which I suppose is helping out. It's a sad state of affairs. As far as I'm led to believe, the Securitas contract has been signed, and the new operation will commence in November. The strikers plan a 'day of action' on 24th September.

In the video above, the strikers were addressed by former Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis. He said that the struggle is not about money but a '...question of decency and power... it's about putting good people down, just because they can... the real people who make the Gallery tick... Britain's integrity is in peril.'


September 15 2015

Image of Apologies...

Picture: BG

Sorry about the lack of posts lately - I've been asked to review the new 'Face of Britain' exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery for The Financial Times. The show is a tie-in with Simon Schama's new book (above, which is excellent) and a TV series too. I saw the show yesterday (it opens tomorrow, Wednesday), and must now write up my thoughts.

Update - there's a good article by Schama on portraiture here in the FT.

Was Duchamp's urinal a fraud? (ctd.)

September 11 2015

Image of Was Duchamp's urinal a fraud? (ctd.)

Picture: TAN

In The Independent, John Higgs has picked up on the theory, first put forward by Glyn Thompson and Julian Spalding, that Duchamp's famous urinal was actually the work of someone else, a German baroness called Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven. I find the evidence rather compelling myself.

But does it matter? Wasn't Duchamp, or whoever had the initial idea of displaying the urinal as a work of art, merely making a point about 'the readymade'?

Of course it matters. We need to know whether the forgotten baroness was actually the iconoclastic genius art historians have lauded Duchamp for being. Personally, I like the idea that one of the most provocative interventions in the history of art - a subject which for the most part gives the term patriarchy a bad name - was actually the work of a woman.

A wee Scottish discovery

September 11 2015

Image of A wee Scottish discovery

Picture: Lyon and Turnbull

The main auction house up here in Edinburgh, Lyon and Turnbull, asked to me write an article about a re-discovered 17th Century portrait of King Malcolm III, best known as the slayer of Macbeth. The portrait is by George Jamesone, and was painted for the entry of Charles I into Edinburgh in 1633. 

The article is on page 54 here, and the picture comes up for sale in December with an estimate of £20,000-£30,000.

The Queen

September 9 2015

Image of The Queen

Picture: Nye & Company

Today the Queen becomes the longest reigning British monarch ever. You'll find elsewhere better-written analysis on how she's done it and what it means. Personally, I think the fact that she's still monarch, and that we still have a monarchy, is an extraordinary achievement by an extraordinary person.

All of which reminds me that I've been meaning to write about a portrait of the Queen that came up for sale recently, by the well-regarded contemporary artist Tai-Shan Schierenberg. The above picture was painted from life at Windsor Castle with the Duke of Edinburgh. It's no masterpiece, and the Duke looks unnervingly like Bobby Charlton, but I liked it, and at 6ft by 5ft thought it was an impressive enough thing. It had been commissioned in 1997 by Reader's Digest magazine, which has lately gone bust, hence the sale.

The estimate, at a minor US auction house, was a dismal $800-$1200. A life portrait of the Queen for less than a thousand bucks? I was intrigued, and thought it my patriotic duty to bid strongly and bring this picture back home. But I'm ashamed to say I forgot - there goes the knighthood - and it made a still derisory $5,250, or about £4,000. Isn't that absurdly cheap - or does nobody care for pictures like this anymore?

Update - here in The National, where the Queen is pointedly referred to as 'Mrs Windsor', is an example of silly politics can be up here in Scotland. 

Art History Ads (ctd.)

September 8 2015

Image of Art History Ads (ctd.)

Picture: James Mulraine

Reader and fellow art sleuth James Mulraine has kindly sent me the above photo from Paris, where Van Dyck's portrait of Charles I is being used to sell... something, I don't know what.

Achtung - Spitfire!

September 8 2015

Video: tmnrsociety

Longstanding and extremely loyal readers may remember that some years ago I bid, at a charity auction, for a ride in a Spitfire (I am unashamedly obsessed with Spitfires). The flight was to take place when a full restoration had been completed - and now the work is nearly done. So there is greater than usual excitement here in AHN towers, and much humming of the theme tune from Battle of Britain.

Above is a video of an engine test earlier this year. Now we await an inspection by the Civil Aviation Authority, then test flights, and then - all being well - we'll be ready to go.

Everything you need to know about 18th Century pastels

September 8 2015

Image of Everything you need to know about 18th Century pastels

Picture: Neil Jeffares

Neil Jeffares has posted an extremely useful, free and interesting guide to all things pastel in the 18th Century on his website. It's a PDF - yours to download and keep - and is meant as a form of introduction to his invaluable online dictionary of pastellists (above). He says:

The book aims to answer the questions that used to (or in some cases still do) baffle me, such as

  •     why did some pastellists also work in oil – and which sitters opted for pastel?
  •     why did pastel disappear from fashion with the French revolution, returning a century later, but vanishing just as abruptly?
  •     why does the word have such negative connotations?
  •     was the Académie de Saint-Luc just a virtual concept, or was there a building?
  •     how many pastellists were there?
  •     how can you physically safeguard your pastels for a few pence each?
  •     how were and are pastels displayed?

Neil calls it a 'prolegomena', but it's in PDF form partly because, as he points out:

I’m aware that not everyone enjoys browsing websites. There’s something about riffling the pages of a book that the internet, tablets etc. haven’t been able to replicate. And it’s in the nature of reference books that one doesn’t sit down to read them in a linear fashion. 

And this means it's easy to navigate and use.

On a seperate post on his blog, Neil also looks at the wider question of publishing online, and its various shortcomings. For him, a particular bugbear is authors often not citing proper references. My bugbear is that for some writers online is a licence to go on meandering endlessly, for paragraph after paragraph, with no beginning, middle or end. Print and paper may have been expensive, but they encouraged brevity and discipline.

Art-knapping (ctd.)

September 8 2015

Image of Art-knapping (ctd.)

Picture: Philip Ide via Mail

Regular readers will know that I worry about paying ransoms for stolen art - doesn't it just encourage more thefts?

The Mail recently reported that a number of pictures were returned to Esmond Bulmer (above), a former MP, from whose home they were stolen in a rather brutal raid in 2009. The return came about after the involvement of Dick Ellis, a former police officer who is now one of the world's best known and most effective art investigators. On this occasion, a reward for £50,000 was advertised in The Antiques Trade Gazette, and after a while;

Mr Ellis received a phone call [...] to say that ‘he had been contacted and told that someone he knew, knew somebody else, who knew somebody else who had information’. What followed was a period of tense negotiation. Mr Ellis said: ‘It is not an easy process. But you can be assured that the money went to those whose information led to the recovery, not the raiders themselves.’

Now, I'm very pleased the pictures - inlcuding a Watts and a Clausen - have been safely returned. But can we really be sure that someone, somewhere along the line, hasn't profited from the original criminal act? Would the original thieves have simply given up the pictures, gratis, to the person who then claimed the £50k? If, for example, the case was one in which somebody had simply found the pictures, then wouldn't they go to the police and claim the reward? That seems not to have happened here. And the suspicion in cases like this is that such art thefts inevitably manage to extract a payout, in the form of a ransom. All you the villains have to do is wait a few years, put in place a middleman or two, and then begin negotiating. 

In this case, the thieves have yet to be caught, and some £1m of jewels are still missing.

Is this by Goya?

September 8 2015

Image of Is this by Goya?

Picture: National Gallery

I'm looking forward to the National Gallery's forthcoming Goya exhibition, which opens on 7th October. I must confess to never being that impressed by Goya's portraits - awkwardly painted things - so hopefully I'll learn something, and be proved wrong.

Anyway, as a taster to what we can expect, the National Gallery has new small display looking at the above portrait of Dona Isabel de Porcel, and more specifically its attribution. Apparently, when the picture was;

[...] purchased by the National Gallery in 1896, [it] was among the first paintings by the Spanish artist to enter the collection and has long been heralded as one of his most dazzling portraits. And yet it is precisely this flamboyance that has led scholars more recently to cast doubts over its attribution to Goya.

Although painted with tremendous flair, the picture’s brushwork – when compared with his other portraits – lacks Goya’s customary subtlety in describing transparencies and textures. The sitter, Isabel de Porcel, is extremely charismatic but we struggle to grasp her psychological state; something in which Goya’s portraits invariably excelled.

Technical examination of ‘Portrait of Doña Isabel de Porcel’, including X-rays and paint cross-sections, has revealed that Isabel de Porcel was painted directly on top of another portrait. Although perhaps surprising, this is not unique in Goya’s work – nor was it a practice adopted exclusively by him.

This thought-provoking display brings together the historical and technical evidence surrounding ‘Portrait of Doña Isabel de Porcel’, and looks again at the attribution question of one of the most striking and recognisable paintings in the National Gallery.

I'm no Goya scholar, and it has been a while since I've looked at this picture, so I won't dare proffer an opinion. Except to say that Goya connoisseurship has gone through a bit of a muddle of late. Rather like Rembrandt in the early days of the Rembrandt Research Project, a number of long accepted pictures have been doubted. 

You can read more on the display here. You can zoom in on the picture here. You can book tickets to the main Goya exhibition here.

Van Dyck 'Selfie' returns to London

September 8 2015

Image of Van Dyck 'Selfie' returns to London

Picture: BG

The National Portrait Gallery has put on a good display to welcome the Van Dyck self-portrait back to London. It's there until 3rd January, when it goes to Dulwich Picture Gallery, and then Birmingham. When I went to see the picture on Friday, it was being assiduously copied by a number of admirers.

The show includes a number of Van Dycks from the NPG's collection, as well as two portraits of Charles I and Henrietta Maria on loan from Chequers, the country home of the UK Prime Minister. These pictures benefit from being in good condition, but are perhaps not the first version of their type by Van Dyck. Inevitably, there was demand for multiple versions of Van Dyck's royal portraits, and it's interesting to see the varying levels of vivacity he was able to impart on each one. The Chequers Henrietta Maria is a fine autograph work, for example, but I've seen better versions of that head by Van Dyck. The format of the drapery is re-used in other portraits, and gives us an idea of how Van Dyck's studio was sometimes involved in laying in these areas in his portraits.

Anyway, the point of the show, which is called 'Van Dyck - Transforming British Art', is to demonstrate that even in these repetitions, Van Dyck was so much better than any other artist at work in England, and in that it succeeds. Poor old Cornelius Johnson, whose work can be seen in a fine selection in the next room at the NPG, could never match Van Dyck's portraits for characterisation and overall presence, even if he could, for example, paint the detail of silk ruffs with extraordinary skill.

The self-portrait is back in the same place it was hanging when, almost two years ago, the NPG began its campaign to buy the picture. What a lot has happened since then.

I was pleasantly surprised by how good the self-portrait is looking, after its recent 'surface clean'. It's always surprising to see even the slightest layer of dirt can alter a picture's appearance, especially a portrait. 

Britain's 'hidden £3.5bn art collection'

September 7 2015

Image of Britain's 'hidden £3.5bn art collection'


There was much excitement in the news here in the UK on Monday over a report published by the 'Taxpayer's Alliance' on how much art is in storage. The Alliance's 'research' showed that Britain had an art collection worth £3.5bn, and that only 3% of this was on show. The Alliance's Chief Executive Jonathan Isaby said that:

"Public bodies and local authorities should make an effort to display more of their art for people to enjoy, and they also need to take a good, hard look at their art portfolio and think about what does and does not need to be retained."

And he also said here that:

The public sector has a role to play in preserving Britain’s artistic heritage, but that’s not a reason not to look at the possibility of using some of the assets to fund frontline services. With a budget deficit of more than £60bn, nothing can be off the table.

The clear implication is that deaccessioning should be considered, and that the sale of art is a justifiable way of funding public services. Which of course is silly. Try and fund the NHS by selling the UK's art, and you'd empty the nation's museums quicker than you can say Philistine.

Now regular readers will know that I'm often going on about the scandal of how much art we have in storage in this country. You can read more on the question from me here in the FT (and listen to the podcast here). 

But the suggestion here that the matter should be seen in monetary terms, and one of assets ripe for the selling, is a mistake. Many councils hardly need encouraging that deaccessioning is a justified option. And besides, the reality is that it isn't the relatively valueless, rarely seen print collection (for example) that councils decide to sell, but the more valuable oil paintings and sculptures.

You can look further at the Alliance's research here. It's not exactly thorough, and relies on a blizzard of 859 Freedom of Information requests, many of which were unanswered. We can be sure, therefore, of two things: that the £3.5bn figure is a significant undervaluation; and that the Taxpayer's Alliance wasted a whole heap of taxpayer's money in cobbling together these statistics. The average cost of answering an FoI request is £293 (according to this research here). 

A better way to calculate the value of the nation's art would be to look at the annual reports of museums, which, under new accountancy rules, must now list the value of their collections as 'heritage assets'. But that would be a lot of work - and certainly more than sending the same FoI request out over 800 times.


Schama's 'Face of Britain'

September 7 2015

Image of Schama's 'Face of Britain'

Picture: Sunday Times

I'm looking forward to seeing Simon Schama's new series of the history of British portraiture, which starts on BBC2 later this month (I don't think the transmission date has been confirmed yet). To coincide with the series, the National Portrait Gallery will put on an exhibition of works curated by Schama, which opens on 16th Sept. More here.

In the press photo above, the good Professor goes for the dreaded white gloves, just to hold a frame.

Why study Art History?

September 7 2015

Image of Why study Art History?

Picture: AAH

In Apollo Magazine, Christine Riding looks at who studies art history, and why. For those in the state sector, the omens are not encouraging:

Out of some 3,000 state secondary schools, only 17 schools offered A-level history of art, and only 15 sixth–form colleges. This compared with over 90 fee-paying schools – which only 7 per cent of UK-based children attend – that offered the subject.

Such statistics are rather grim, and reflect a general trend in state education away from anything vaguely 'arty'. 

But fear not, art history aspirants: studying art history at school or university is not necessarily the best way to learn about, or have a career in, the history of art (and the history of art is often something entirely different from the academic discipline of 'art history').

I never studied art history at school or university, and thank goodness - I'm not sure I could have coped with all that theorising - it makes my brain ache. My particular stroke of luck in education was to have a series of brilliant history teachers who taught me the value of assessing evidence. The art stuff I first picked up in my spare time. So if you're wondering what A-level subjects or degree to do, then think about doing history. But most of all, do what you enjoy.

I'm often asked which books people should read before they start an art history degree. My general advice is to skip the books, and instead look at as many pictures as you can. There's no right or wrong way to interpret paintings, and very few artists gave us instructions on how to do so. 

But on the subject of books, Christine Riding, who is Chair of the Association of Art Historians, enthuses in her Apollo piece about a new art history book aimed at A-level students called 'Thinking About Art' (above). The book has its own website here. Like the A-level syllabus itself, it doesn't follow a chronological approach to art, but instead takes a thematic one. 

Inside Lucian Freud's studio

September 3 2015

Video: Channel 4 News

David Dawson, Freud's assistant, inherited the artist's studio. He's keeping it as it was.

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