Previous Posts: May 2016

Google's new 'Art Camera'

May 19 2016

Video: Google Cultural Institute

Regular readers will know I'm a great fan of the Google Cultural Institute, and in particular its high-resolution photographs of museums and their collections. Now, a new camera is enabling Google to take more photos more quickly:

Simply dubbed the Art Camera, Google’s design — which is supposedly far simpler to use than similar setups — allows museums to easily digitize their collections for preservation. Operators simply point the camera at each edge of the painting and then the camera goes about taking extreme close-ups of the work before sending them to Google’s servers to be transformed into a single gigapixel file and uploaded to the project’s website just hours later. In fact, that aforementioned day-long wait time from years past? It’s been drastically reduced to just 30 minutes for a one-meter by one-meter work.

Google has loaned 20 cameras to museums around the world. More here.

A Koons for $40

May 19 2016

Image of A Koons for $40

Picture: Google

Google has unveiled a phone with a case designed by Jeff Koons. It's not just any phone case, but a 'live case', and it's yours for $40. As a bonus, you get (says Google):

you’ll receive exclusive digital artwork created by the artist and sent directly to your phone.

And in case you wondered why you wanted Jeff Koons' artwork on your phone, then Google has some fine artguff on 'The Importance of Koons'. Note the pointless use of contradictory adjectives and adverbs, which is so prevalent in modern artspeak:

Known for his monumental public sculptures, Koons’s innovative work creates a dialogue between timeless and timely. Vastness and intimacy. From balloon animals to classic figures, his pieces often challenge our perception of scale, weight and even the laws of physics. That’s why we love them.

59 lost Berlin sculptures found

May 19 2016

Image of 59 lost Berlin sculptures found

Picture: TAN

The Art Newspaper reports that, at a conference in Florence on 3rd May, art historians announced the discovery of 59 Italian Renaissance sculptures that had been presumed lost in Berlin after the Second World War. A fire at the flak tower in which many of Berlin's art treasures had been stored was thought until now to have destroyed almost everything inside. For example, most of the Gemaldegalerie's large paintings perished, which is why all the pictures on display in that museum today are on the smaller side. But many sculptures survived, chiefly of course those made of marble and bronze:

For decades, German art historians had no way of knowing what was lost in the fire and what survived in the Soviet Union. But since 2005, dozens of German and Russian museums have been cooperating on a number of projects to investigate the fate of art missing from both countries. The discovery of the 59 sculptures was revealed at a symposium in Florence on 3 May.

"Most of the sculptures were damaged, some are even in fragments," says Neville Rowley, curator of Italian Renaissance art at the Bode Museum, who was part of the research team. "They can’t currently be shown because of the state they are in. But there are plans to exhibit the sculptures at the Pushkin Museum after they’ve been restored."

Imagine if even some of the large pictures have in fact survived...

New Tate Modern director shakes the tin

May 19 2016

Image of New Tate Modern director shakes the tin

Picture: TAN

Frances Morris is the new director of Tate Modern, and has been interviewed by The Art Newspaper. I was glad to see her - as all museum directors must do these days - be so enthusiastic about fundraising. She says:

I love it! I can’t tell you how gratifying it is when somebody says, “I’m going to give you £100,000!” In a sense, I’m never really not fundraising: you are out talking to people and always alive to the possibilities of who you might want to bring on board. Over ten years with colleagues, I have recruited almost 300 patrons to support the acquisition committees. People who give to art are rather special people—they are very rare. One thing I haven’t done much of is corporate fundraising, but I have an appetite for it and the more mixed the economy, the greater the degree of independence.


May 17 2016

...very sorry about the radio silence the last two days. I have been in Wales for the first shoot of my new BBC4 series (on which more soon).

And tomorrow I'm speaking at a conference in London on regulating the art market: a good or bad idea? I think it's a bad idea - but haven't yet prepared my talk. I'd be grateful for any thoughts readers might have either way!

Update - a reader writes:

Regulation generally has a cost and only makes work for solicitors and government bureaucrats. 

Having said that there is a need for some industry standards in the art world.

The first of these is transparency and full disclosure.  Many undisclosed conflicts of interest exist and a buyer or a seller is entitled to a fair deal at auctions and with consultants. 

The conflicts are myriad but auction guarantees and phantom bidders come to mind. Similarly art advisers must disclose when they are acting as agents on commission or fixed fee and when they are acting for their own account.  It is desirable to know the sale history of a work.

A seller should provide a statement of known impediments to a work such as repairs and conservation or challenges to authenticity, title, and provenance.   Such disclosures are required generally for real estate and art is real property that can have similar value.

A mere admiration of what is needed but the introductory caveat must be noted.

Another writes:

On regulating the art market, some common rules on disclosure and transparency might help. Like banks’ communications, which are specified by the Financial Conduct Authority. EG

1)      Salerooms to disclose any guarantee, or interest in an object.

2)      Salerooms to disclose all reserves.

3)      Salerooms and dealers to disclose all attributions/opinions obtained by them prior to sale. (Good salerooms of course do this).

4)      Full provenance to be disclosed ( including the last provincial sale where the vendor bought it for £50).

5)      Something about offerors of lots under in lieu system being obliged to sell.

I agree that one should not need a particular qualification or particular financial resources to operate in the market, like a financial adviser or bus driver, and don’t approve of regulation generally, but transparency is a good thing.

Guffwatch - Turner prize edition.

May 13 2016

Image of Guffwatch - Turner prize edition.

Picture: Tate

The Turner Prize shortlist has been unveiled. It's the usual yawn inducing stuff, the most notable of which is a sculpture of a man pulling his bottom apart (above).

But hurrah for Will Gompertz, the BBC's arts editor, for taking aim at the curatorial artspeak that accompanies the Turner Prize announcement:

Where do they go to learn to produce these texts laden with pseudo-academic speak? Does their dense, mangled prose reflect a lack of confidence in the artists whose status and work - the curators' might think - needs to be elevated by arcane, pompous language?

Or, perhaps, it is insecurity about their own place in the "snobby" artworld (as Laurie Anderson described it to me) that leads them to write such nonsense?

To be clear: The purpose of the Turner Prize is to provoke a conversation about contemporary art among the public. The stated role of the Tate is to "increase knowledge, understanding and appreciation of art".

Both objectives are undermined and poorly served by the incomprehensible "artspeak" used by the institution's curators. It is not clever and it is very off-putting. 

Here, by way of example, is an explanation of Helen Marten's work: "Whilst their complex references might not be made immediately explicit to the viewer there is something alchemic in the way the materials collide, and ideas are often communicated through the obstinate wilfulness of the finished form.

"Marten's objects read almost as hieroglyphics, a visual system of communication that is expressive yet rooted in logic, which makes rational the combination of a pickle with an electrical circuit, or a pillar drill alongside a bowl of fish skins."

You get the point, I won't go on - and nor should the curators who wrote the texts, until they've been on a plain-speaking course or locked in a room with a collection of books by masters of writing about art such as Ruskin, Gombrich, Hughes and - for good measure - Bridget Riley.

AHN is not alone!

Why does the National Gallery only show 'western art'?

May 12 2016

Image of Why does the National Gallery only show 'western art'?

Picture: Chen Hongshou, 'Magnolia and Erect Rock', Palace Museum, Beijing.

In a thoughtful essay for The Art Newspaper, Giles Waterfield looks at the gently shifting remits of institutions like the National Gallery in London. He discusses the National's desire to be less bound by its current 1900 dividing line with Tate, but also says:

What would be truly revolutionary would be if Finaldi suggested breaking out from the National Gallery’s restriction of its permanent displays to Europe, in order to embrace the world in the way that the Tate is doing. A bold start was made in this direction by the former director Nicholas Penny’s acquisition of George Bellow’s Men of the Docks in 2014, the National Gallery’s first-ever modern US painting. Could the National Gallery go much further than crossing its chronological frontiers, and leap beyond Europe too?

These days, inserting contemporary art in amongst more traditional displays is all the rage. In the National Portrait Gallery in London, in which galleries have traditionally been arranged on a strictly chronological basis, modern works have now been inserted into the hang, even in the Tudor galleries. They call it 'contemporary conversations', and slightly to my surprise I thought it worked quite well.* 

But perhaps more relevant to today's globalised world is to obsess less about mixing old art with the new, but instead to have what we might call 'international conversations'. Once you think about it, institutions like the National Gallery present a very sealed view of mankind's artistic achievement. Why not hang a Dutch floral still-life by Roelandt Savery beside the work of Chen Hongshou (1598-1652) (above)?

* Although that said, I thought I counldn't help noticing that in the NPG's contemporary galleries downstairs no older portraits had been introduced into the hang - a shame, for the premise of mixing old and new is valid, and shouldn't be an excuse to try merely jazz up the old stuff.

Verona pictures recovered

May 12 2016

Video: Euronews

Excellent news - the 17 paintings that were stolen in an armed raid on Verona's Castelvecchio Museum have been recovered. According to footage released by the Ukraine authorities, above, they were found hidden in undergrowth near the border with Moldova, wrapped in plastic. News stories last month suggested that Italian police knew the pictures had been taken to Moldova. 

It seems the frames have been lost along the way.

Allan Ramsay's 'Bonnie Prince' acquired by SNPG (ctd.)

May 11 2016

Image of Allan Ramsay's 'Bonnie Prince' acquired by SNPG (ctd.)

Picture: SNPG

Just to say I've written more about the history of this picture in Country Life, which is available in all good newsagents now.

Dutch and Flemish drawings at the V&A

May 11 2016

Image of Dutch and Flemish drawings at the V&A

Picture: V&A, Sir Anthony Van Dyck, 'Christ Crowned with Thorns'

Here's a good exhibition coming soon at the V&A: 'Master Strokes: Dutch and Flemish Drawings from the Golden Age'. The show opens on 14th May and runs till 13th November. Says the V&A press release:

This summer the V&A will for the first time display some of the most important works from the Museum’s outstanding collection of Dutch and Flemish drawings: one of the principle holdings in Britain. Master Strokes: Dutch and Flemish Drawings from the Golden Age will present over 70 works from the 16th to the 19th century, including masterpieces by Peter Paul Rubens, Sir Anthony van Dyck and Rembrandt van Rijn, and a recently re-attributed drawing by Carel Fabritius. These will be supported by rich collections of works from many lesser-known Golden Age artists who were hugely relevant in their day yet are no longer considered household names, such as Hans Bol and Jacob Jordaens. Designs for architecture and the applied arts will also be on display, demonstrating the diversity and enduring artistic and technical excellence of Netherlandish artists of the 17th century – a period of extraordinary prosperity and artistic output.

But what's this 'Jordaens no longer considered a household name'? We'll have to see what we can do about that...

Boom (ctd.)

May 11 2016

Picture: Twitter

Things seem to have been a little bumpy at the top end of the modern and contemporary market this week in New York. Things still sold well, but one wonders if cracks are beginning to appear. I was particularly struck by a tweet (above) from Marion Maneker, whose blog Art Market Monitor is the leading source of information and opinion on the health of the modern market. 'Liz' was a Warhol on offer at Christie's for $10m-$15m. The Mugrabis are mega Warhol collectors.

I think it's fair to say that Marion has been, if not a cheerleader, at least a believer in the strength and resilience of the booming modern and contemporary art market. So if people like him really are beginning to wonder about the health of Warhol prices, then I think that's significant. Warhol prices seem to have been teetering for a while now. Tonight Sotheby's will offer a 'fright wig' self-portrait by Warhol at $7m-$10m, so we'll see how that does.

Still, Christie's post-war and contemporary sale yesterday made an impressive enough $318m, so we're a long way away from disaster territory. The 'hammer' total excluding premium was $277m, just nudging the lower pre-sale estimate of $280m-$391m. A truly monstrous Basquiat sold for a record $57.3m - more here from The Art Newspaper.

In other market news, Sotheby's announced a slightly larger than expected loss for the most recent quarter, but their share price went up amid reports of an investor seeking to increase their shareholding in the company. The share price closed yesterday at $28.72, which is still some way off its more recent highs (in summer 2015) of about $46, and follows an extended 'buy-back' of shares by the company itself.  

Update - Sotheby's contemporary evening sale did ok last night, realising $242m with premium, or $209m hammer, which apparently was just above the lower estimate. Reuters tells us there were 'cheers of relief' in the room at the end of the sale. The Warhol 'Fright Wig' self-portrait sold too, for $7.6m inc. premium, or $6.65m hammer (est. $7m-$10m).

The 'Isleworth Mona Lisa' (ctd.)

May 11 2016

Image of The 'Isleworth Mona Lisa' (ctd.)

Picture: FT

In the Financial Times, Georgina Adam probes further into the mysterious world of those non-Leonardo exhibitions that keep popping up in places like China. The latest is the outing for the 'Isleworthless Mona Lisa' in a shopping complex in Shanghai:

This is the unlikely venue for the second outing for Leonardo da Vinci’s “Earlier Mona Lisa”, an exhibition showcasing a portrait also called the “Isleworth Mona Lisa” and designed to “prove” that Leonardo really painted it. It was first shown in Singapore last year.

The multimedia presentation, held in a low-ceilinged former hotel, features just one painting — the “Mona Lisa” — which its owners maintain was painted by Leonardo 10 years before the Louvre version. Leading up to it are interactive computer displays and posters all designed to hammer home its authenticity, including the statement: “Twenty-eight out of 29 experts believe this is either possibly or certainly a painting created by da Vinci.”

Others beg to differ, among them the renowned Leonardo scholar Martin Kemp. “Everything points to the Isleworth painting being a copy,” he has written. “There are families of copies of the Mona Lisa. This family … is not the best.”

The inauguration of the Shanghai exhibition was accompanied by a great deal of hoop-la. The portrait arrived last month “under maximum security protection” in a 500kg, bulletproof case, say the promoters. A Chinese TV star and former Miss Asia, Kristy Yang, was shipped in to say how much she liked the work, which was presented to the media at a “select invitation-only ‘Box Opening Ceremony’”.

New evidence, say the organisers, confirmed that the work is “without a shadow of doubt” by Leonardo himself and so makes a “groundbreaking change to global Art History”.

So what is it doing in a shopping district in Shanghai?

And this last question tells you all you need to know about the merits of this painting.

National Trust acquires Gainsborough portrait

May 11 2016

Image of National Trust acquires Gainsborough portrait

Picture: Sotheby's

The National Trust has acquired a fine portrait by Thomas Gainsborough for Knole house in Kent. Says the Trust (on its 'Recent Acquisitions' website):

Thomas Gainsborough’s elegant portrait of Louis-Pierre Quentin de Richebourg, marquis de Champcenetz (1754-1822), has returned to Knole after an absence of more than eight decades. This reacquisition for Knole marks the important return of a significant work by one of Britain’s most treasured artists.

Champcenetz was a French courtier and soldier who fought in the American War of Independence. He later served as Governor of the Tuileries Palace where he survived an assault by revolutionary forces on 10 August 1792. His portrait  formed part of the collection at Knole since at least 1793 when it was in the possession of John Frederick Sackville, 3rd Duke of Dorset. In 1930 it was sold to a collector in the United States where it remained, in several different hands, until its reappearance for sale this year.

The portrait was purchased at auction at Sotheby's, New York with contributions from a fund set up by the late Hon. Simon Sainsbury, from the Winchelsea National Trust Centre and Association and from other gifts and bequests.

It will go on public display in 2017 upon the completion of Knole's conservation project.

The picture was at Sotheby's in New York in January, and sold for $334,000 (inc. premium) against an estimate of $250,000-$350,000.


May 11 2016

Image of Apologies...

Picture: Derek Brown

Sorry for the slow news lately, I've been doing a spot of 'Fake or Fortune?' in London.

Hitler statue sells for $17.2m

May 10 2016

Video: Christie's

In case we needed any more evidence that 'value' in the contemporary market derives in large part from an artwork's ability to shock, Christie's yesterday sold a statue of Hitler - titled 'Him' - for $17.2m. Normally, Hitler is a taboo subject, as both auction house and artist stressed in their marketing of the piece. But because 'Him' wasn't a statue of Hitler put up by the Nazis in the 1930s, but rather made by Maurizio Cattelan out of wax and 'human hair', that made it ok.

As Christie's press release said, 'Him' set a new:


And looking at the price databases I can see that the previous auction record for Cattelan is $7.9m. In other words, one could say that the 'Hitler premium' was worth almost $10m.

Art that fetishises dictators is nothing new, of course. Indeed, it is partly because of Andy Warhol's Mao prints that we tend to gloss over the tens of millions killed by Mao-ism, the Chairman's thinly threatening smile made jaunty and benign by Warhol's brash colours.

Is Hitler now to fall into the same category? Does making 'thought-provoking' art based on Hitler's crimes in some way help us see the Nazi legacy in a different or more thoughtful way? Or is it just another means to generate headlines, and make money? Doubtless to even ask such questions is to raise eyebrows among the contemporarti. I won't deny that much of the world is, despite the horror and magnitude Hitler's crimes, still grimly fascinated by every aspect of his story. But I find it instinctively uncomfortable to see people bid millions of dollars, with such euphoric joy, for an image that celebrates the most savage meglomaniac the world has ever seen - even if, we are told, it does so critically. Ugh. 

Update - Christie's press release tells us the bidding lasted for 'five minutes':

The depth of interest for this work speaks to its international notoriety, and its ability to breach the boundaries of fine art and popular culture, forcing the viewer to reconsider challenging questions about action and absolution. 

Update II - a reader writes:

Surely ‘Him’ is the ‘new nadir’ for the contemporary art market, compared with which selling themed dinners is innocent if daft fun? It seems to me that the price makes ‘Him’ more tasteless than the market in Third Reich ‘souvenirs’. One would hope that someone with $17.2m knew better than to own such an image, even if intended to satirise its subject.

Update III - another reader adds:

You're so right about Hitler. He should arouse many emotions, but not the curiosity of supposedly intelligent people. This Robert Carlyle 'young Hitler' series on Netflix is a worrying symptom.

The Christie's waxwork reminded me of the 'Pope Hit By Meteor' at Sensations in 1997, and it's by the same guy. These megabuck shock-artists never touch subjects that could actually get them killed of course.

Sleeper alert! (ctd.)

May 8 2016

Image of Sleeper alert! (ctd.)

Picture: AHN

Remember the early Rembrandt that came up for sale in the US as a '19th Century' work by an unknown artist, with the bidding starting at $500? Its subsequent purchase by the renowned Rembrandt collector Tom Kaplan has been covered on AHN already, but in the LA Times is a fascinating account of how Kaplan bought it - before the picture was cleaned and the attribution confirmed, in part by the discovery of a signature. Brave.

The picture was bought at auction by the Paris-based Galerie Talabardon et Gautier, and:

The following day, they received word that New York financier Thomas Kaplan was interested in purchasing the painting. Kaplan heads the Electrum Group, a privately owned investment management company that invests primarily in natural resources and precious metals, including gold. 

Kaplan and his wife, Daphne, also own one of the world's largest private collections of art from the Dutch Golden Age. The Leiden Collection holds works by Vermeer, Rembrandt and other painters from around the 17th century.

Gautier traveled to New York to negotiate the deal aboard Kaplan's yacht, according to the gallery. The negotiations lasted about an hour. The gallery declined to say how much Kaplan paid for the work.

Kaplan wasn't available for comment but said in a statement that the discovery of the painting and its inclusion in his collection have been "a tremendous delight for me and my wife."[...]

After Kaplan purchased the Rembrandt, the painting was restored. During the process, which removed a layer of varnish, an artist's monogram was discovered in the upper left corner that reads "RF." 

The monogram has been taken to stand for "Rembrandt Fecit," or "Made by Rembrandt." It is believed to be the earliest signature by Rembrandt on a work of art.

"After that, there was little doubt," said Talabardon, the Paris dealer.

A great purchase by a great collector - something you can't often say these days. The painting is now going on loan to the Getty.

Van Gogh in cake

May 8 2016

Image of Van Gogh in cake

Picture: Mail

Someone's baked a cake with icing that looks quite like a Van Gogh. If you're interested, more here. (Art history news is a bit slow at the moment).

Poor Leonardo (ctd.)

May 8 2016

Image of Poor Leonardo (ctd.)

Picture: Uffizi

Here's a curious story on Sky News:

DNA from Leonardo da Vinci's paintings could be used to digitally recreate his face and confirm exactly where he was buried after his death in 1519.

Researchers are going to attempt to recover hairs and flakes of skin from within his paintings and notebooks, which could be used to construct how the Italian polymath's face looked.

They plan to use advanced genetic analysis techniques to determine his eye and hair colour, as well as face shape and skin tone.

They believe they could also discover clues about his lifestyle and states of health during his lifetime. [...]

Their first tests are due to take place on the Adoration of the Magi painting [above], which is being restored in Florence, Italy.

Any DNA recovered from his works will be compared to known living relatives - as well as to DNA recovered from the graves of his parents.

The shape of their skulls will also help the researchers to recreate his face, along with portrait paintings of the artist from his contemporaries.

What pointless nonsense. Who pays for all this stuff?

Up yours, ISIS

May 5 2016

Video: RT/You Tube

A few weeks ago they were beheading people here. Today, an orchestra played Bach.

London mid-season OMP sales

May 5 2016

Image of London mid-season OMP sales

Picture: Christie's

I've been meaning to mention the mid-season Old Master sales in London - they did really quite well, with some strong prices and good selling rates. So bah to all those writing off the 'middle market'. 

I noticed that portraiture did quite well. For example, the above Cornelius Johnson, which was in fine condition and extravagantly signed, soared to £158,500 against an estimate of just £15,000-£25,000.

Highlighting the vagaries of the auction world was this portrait by Gainsborough, which made £60,000 from an estimate of £15,000-£25,000, even though it had failed to sell earlier at a higher estimate.

Old Master fans are fortunate that the major auction houses are sticking with the OMP middle market, and not only that but still trying hard with it.

Notice to "Internet Explorer" Users

You are seeing this notice because you are using Internet Explorer 6.0 (or older version). IE6 is now a deprecated browser which this website no longer supports. To view the Art History News website, you can easily do so by downloading one of the following, freely available browsers:

Once you have upgraded your browser, you can return to this page using the new application, whereupon this notice will have been replaced by the full website and its content.