Previous Posts: September 2018

Artemesia heads for the National Gallery (ctd.)

September 10 2018

Video: National Gallery

Fascinating film from the National Gallery about taking the old lining of the back of their newly acquired Artemisia Gentileschi self-portrait. 

Garden party at the Frick

September 10 2018

Video: Frick

A glimpse into the mwah mwah world of US fundraising.

Restitution (ctd.)

September 10 2018

Image of Restitution (ctd.)

Picture: 16th century brass plaque depicting the Oba of Benin, from the British Museum, via

There's an interesting article by Gareth Harris in the FT looking at the issue of restitution, following President Macron's pledge to return items taken to France from Africa during the colonial era. It was one thing to make the pledge, says Harris, but quite another to persuade notoriously conservative French institutions to actually do something about it:

The issue of restitution, which increasingly dogs western museums, has become an even hotter topic since President Emmanuel Macron of France pledged to repatriate African artefacts. His declaration in Burkina Faso last November that “African heritage can’t just be in European private collections and museums” reignited the debate around colonial artefacts.

Macron has since asked two independent experts, the French art historian Bénédicte Savoy and the Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr, to draw up a set of recommendations for repatriation; their report is due in November. But a question mark hangs over how the policy will be implemented.

The French culture ministry is typically hostile to any changes on matters of restitution. “In 2010, the French parliament voted to set up a scientific commission to study proposals for repatriation, but the ministry failed to act,” the journalist Vincent Noce reported earlier this year, explaining that curators at French museums fiercely defend the principle of inalienability.

One presumes that Macron will be slightly less forthcoming about any art taken by Napoleon from various European countries, and now in the Louvre.

Of course, in Britain we face many of the same issues, only they're always supercharged by the Elgin Marbles. Recently, the Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn said he thought they should be returned to Athens. I doubt the Marbles will ever leave Bloomsbury. But Harris reports that the British Museum is slowly inching towards doing something about other items taken in controversial circumstances, such as the Benin Bronzes:

At the British Museum, the wheels are turning. A governmental delegation from Nigeria attended a meeting in March with members of the museum’s Africa section and representatives of other European museums that have Benin collections. “At that meeting, a declaration was proposed that outlined an intention to work towards a permanent, but rotating, exhibition [in Nigeria] of loaned objects from the Kingdom of Benin,” a museum spokeswoman says.

The problem for the British Museum is that restitution is really the thin end of the wedge; once you start returning objects that really shouldn't have been taken from their country of origin in the first place, you'll soon end up with a rather empty museum. 

I used to be a diehard 'keep the Elgin Marbles in the BM' sort of a person. But now I'm more ambivalent about it. In the case of the Benin Bronzes, taken from Nigeria in the most brutal circumstances, I think the case to return them is increasingly unanswerable. I also think the old argument that a place like the British Museum allowed you to see and study so many aspects of the world's culture in one place is actually less relevant in the age of cheap travel, and of course, the internet.

Often, however, the issue of restitution is seen in binary terms; either you believe objects should always stay where they are now, or you believe they should go back to whence they came. If it was up to me, I'd try to work out some kind of protocol to allow us to reach a more reason-based decision. Something like:

  1. What were the circumstances of the object's removal from its country of origin? (If items were sold, or traded, then that might be less evidence in favour of return than if they were stolen by individuals, or looted by an invading power).
  2. How long ago did the removal take place? (There can be no hard and fast rule here, but clearly something looted within the last hundred years has a stronger claim for restitution than something taken in the 16th Century).
  3. If an object were to be returned, is there an appropriate environment in which to display it to the public? (That is, is there a museum with the necessary facilities to house the object, and secure its long term survival?)
  4. Would the object be better appreciated and understood in its original setting? (This follows on from point three - if, say, a statue was taken from a palace that has since been destroyed, then there may be less sense in sending it back to its country of origin. But if that palace was still extant, with a sad gap in the niche in which the statue once stood, then the case is much stronger).


There you go. We can call it the AHN Protocol. 

Image fees (ctd.)

September 10 2018

Image of Image fees (ctd.)

Picture: NationalMuseum via Wikipedia, Joseph Ducreux, Portrait of the Artist's Mother.

Another major museum has put its images into the public domain; the National Museum of Sweden has made 6,000  high resolution images of historic artworks available via Wikipedia (e.g., here). The most important thing, from the point of view of those campaigning to abolish museum image fees here in the UK, is the National Museum's unequivocal statement that there is no copyright in its photos of historic artworks:

Images in the Public Domain belong to our shared cultural heritage and you are free to use them however you like. The Nationalmuseum has dedicated these images to the Public Domain as they have been made exclusively by digitally reproducing works of art that are no longer protected by copyright. Even though this sometimes requires substantial resources and time, the Nationalmuseum does not consider that a new copyright emerges for the reproduction.

Meanwhile, here in the UK the question of image fees will be debated in Parliament for the first time later this week. Lord Freyberg has secured a debate in the House of Lords on Wednesday 12th September at 3.45; "Encouraging national museums and galleries to balance public access and commercial reuse of digital content".

Hopefully the debate will be a good chance to make the case for increased open access in UK museums. At the very least, it will an opportunity to put the arguments to government, and to see what they say. That said, I'd be surprised if the government said in response anything other than; 'not for us to get involved'. In advance of the debate, word has gone out from museum image departments to try and get supporters to take part. It'll be interesting to see what happens.

Tintoretto 500

September 10 2018

Image of Tintoretto 500

Picture: via

To mark the 500th anniversary of Tintoretto's birth, Venice has a number of exhibitions devoted to the great man. The FT's Jackie Wullschlager has been to check out what's on:

Marking the 500th anniversary of the artist’s birth, the unmissable Tintoretto retrospective that opened this weekend at Palazzo Ducale (the mature work) and Gallerie dell’Accademia (The Young Tintoretto) invites all this and more. The first exhibitions here since 1937, they are centrepiece of a feast to be savoured over days, for they only fully make sense in the wider context of the city’s permanently installed painting cycles and altarpieces, all proclaiming the dash and verve — “tutto spirito e tutto prontezza” according to suspicious, awed contemporaries — of this native Venetian through half a century.

More here.

Mona Lisa theory no. 769

September 10 2018

Video: via You Tube

A doctor in the US says she had a thyroid condition, because of what he thinks are her bloated hands, thin eyebrows and high hairline. File under 'Phooey, Load of'. More here.

More 'botched restoration' in Spain?

September 10 2018

Image of More 'botched restoration' in Spain?

Picture: BBC

It's not quite as bad as 'Monkey Jesus Lady', but in Spain, another over-enthusiastic church restoration job has attracted attention. In the village of El Ranadoiro (popn. 28), parishioner Maria Luisa Menendez decided to brighten up a wooden icon, but not everyone approved.

I think it looks great. If Jeff Koons had done it, they'd be selling replicas for millions. 

More here

'Fake or Fortune' Lego

September 10 2018

Image of 'Fake or Fortune' Lego

Picture: David Warner

Someone has made a Lego version of 'Fake or Fortune?', and it gives me great hair, and a fine jumper. More here


September 10 2018

Image of Guffwatch

Picture: Tate

Tate has opened a shop at the Bicester Village shopping centre near Oxford. But, this is no ordinary shop - it's where:

The worlds of art, technology, shopping and experience will come together at Bicester Village in an exciting new partnership with Tate.

The partnership combines virtual reality and film with bespoke digital printing and exclusive art-themed gifting in an innovative experiential pop-up.

A variety of well known artists will feature, including Amedeo Modigliani, whose studio will come to life. In another area, Tate’s award-winning short films will showcase a changing series of artists – kicking off with David Hockney in September, with more to follow...

Immerse yourself further in the experience at the pop-up’s shop and discover Tate’s famous collection, where you can browse high-quality prints of your favourite works, each custom-made to your choice. If you’re looking for a beautiful book or art-inspired gift, Tate’s exclusive retail range will have something to suit.

'The man who said museums should charge for entry' (ctd.)

September 10 2018

Image of 'The man who said museums should charge for entry' (ctd.)

Picture: HM Bateman

Here's a postscript to a story which first appeared long ago on AHN, in early 2011 (in fact, not long after AHN began): Tristram Hunt, director of the V&A, has changed his mind on free museum entry in the UK. Back in 2011, when he was a Member of Parliament for the city of Stoke-on-Trent, he argued that giving large amounts of public funding to mainly London museums to support free entry was wrong, given the fact that so many other museums across the UK were struggling with funding cuts. This caused some outrage, because free museum entry has become a Holy Grail in the UK.

Back then, I thought he had a point, insofar as we spend so much to subsidise overseas visitors (about half the British Museum's visitors are from overseas), when no other country does the same. Now, however, he says he backs free entry wholeheartedly, but has argued for a tourist tax to help fund museums. It's a tricky balance to strike, and I still don't think we've made it work. More here.  

Incidentally, I forgot to note that a little while ago AHN made its 5,000th post. To those readers who have been here from the start, thanks!

Tate and Wikipedia

September 7 2018

Image of Tate and Wikipedia

Picture: Tate

Had you noticed that Tate's website now no longer features its own biographical entries for artists, but simply takes text from Wikipedia? The one on Van Dyck misspells his name, and tells us the highly important fact that the Van Dyck beard is named after him. This is typical of the sort of trivia you find on Wikipedia, but we might expect better from Tate. 

Of course, while Tate is only too happy to take text from Wikipedia, it absolutely won't allow any of its own images to be used on the site.

Update - after a few Tweets, this story seemed to take off, and was featured in The Art Newspaper, The Telegraph, and elsewhere. The fact that Tate was relying on Wikipedia sparked, at least on my Twitter feed, a near universal condemnation, which slightly took me by surprise. 

What people seemed to object to most was the fact that Tate is supposed to be the nation's leading gallery (and centre of expertise) for British art - but it evidently can't be bothered to provide authoritative information about the artist's who shaped British art. It tied in too with their dismissal of a number of expert curators over the last few years, and their refusal to publish a research-led catalogue for their collection. 

The story reflects, I'm afraid, Tate's current view of expertise, and 'authority', which a certain type of museum person can get very anxious about. For some, authority is to be ashamed of, or elitist. For these peopleit's better to have a 'democratic' source like Wikipedia, where everybody's opinion is equal.

But here's the thing - most people looking for information about British artists will want reliable facts, and informative opinions written by people who know what they're talking about. Wikipedia, for all its usefulness, can be a place of errors, hoaxes, and self-interest. Some ask why art historians don't simply go onto a Wikipedia page themselves, and fix any errors? One Wikipedia editor even told me that a distinguished British art historian was 'selfish' for having his own authoritative website, and not putting all his information on Wikipedia. The general assumption is that art historians should all work for free. But the greater truth is that Wikipedia is a difficult platform to operate, is policed by editors who sometimes want to do nothing more be pedants, and values industry over expertise. I wouldn't necessarily mind if Tate had an active programme of making Wikipedia better, with both text and images. But it doesn't. Tate is just being cheap, and treating its audience like idiots.

Tate's response to me and others on Twitter was as follows:

Sharing accurate and up-to-date information on the works in our collection is of course Tate's priority and we continue to share sources, links and insights from curators every day across our digital platforms. We have not replaced our online texts with Wikipedia. We introduced links to Wikipedia as an additional resource for artist biographies on our website two years ago. The information from Wikipedia is there to supplement the texts written about artworks by Tate's curators & researchers. This method is in common with other cultural institutions.

First, it's not true to say they haven't replaced previous online texts. Here, to take just one example, is a snapshot of the page as it used to be for Peter Lely. The current Tate page just points you to Wikipedia. The Wikipedia page on Lely is longer than the old Tate text, certainly, but not as reliable; it says without caveat that he came to London in 1641, despite the fact that other sources say 1643. Second, I don't see the Louvre, the Met or in fact any other major gallery in the world relying on Wikipedia. The National Gallery in London shows us how museum artist pages should be done with its page on Titian, with well written text that also gives context to works by Titian in the Gallery's collection. 

Another Twitter user was given a slightly different response by Tate, that it was all to do with a lack of resources:

"The motivation for adding Wikipedia biographies is that, as there are so many artists in the collection, which is growing all the timewe do not have the resources to create biographies for every individual. Likewise we do not have the resources to regularly update existing biographies, which means that for living artists these can often become outdated. On the other hand Wikipedia pages are constantly being reviewed and renewed, so are usually more up to date than other artists biographies found online. We felt the best way of championing art and artists is to provide the most up to date and reliable biography possible within the constraints of our resources."

'Britain's Lost Masterpieces' podcast

September 6 2018

Sound: ArtUK

I recorded a podcast on some of the challenges of making 'Britain's Lost Masterpieces' with Ferren Gipson of ArtUK. You can listen here

'Art and Suffrage'

September 6 2018

Image of 'Art and Suffrage'

Picture: Francis Boutle

Leading the fight against relocating the Emmeline Pankhurst statue (see below) has been the writer Elizabeth Crawford. She has a new book out, Art and Suffrage, which:

[...] discusses the lives and work of over 100 artists, each of whom made a positive contribution to the women’s suffrage campaign. Most, but not all, the artists were women, many belonging to the two suffrage artists’ societies – the Artists’ Suffrage League and the Suffrage Atelier. Working in a variety of media – producing cartoons, posters, banners, postcards, china, and jewellery – the artists promoted the suffrage message in such a way as to make the campaign the most visual of all those conducted by contemporary pressure groups.

You can order a copy here

Don't move Emmeline! (ctd.)

September 6 2018

Video: via You Tube

I mentioned earlier the misguided attempt to move a statue of the leading Suffragette, Emmeline Pankhurst, from Victoria Green beside Parliament to the campus of Regent's University in Regent's Park. The statue was erected by the Suffragette Fellowship in 1930 and unveiled by the then Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin. The video above shows the unveiling, and part of Baldwin's speech (the sound must be dubbed in).

The plan to move the statue is the brainwave of a former Tory MP Sir Neil Thorne. He wants to erect another statue of Pankhurst in Canning Green, a narrow strip of grass to the west of Parliament Square. And because you couldn't have two Pankhurst statues so close to each other, the argument goes, we need to move the existing one, which, incidentally could not itself be moved to Canning Green because 'it is too small'.

This is really the daftest possible idea. Pankhurst had no connection with Regent's University, and the Suffragette Fellowship specifically wanted the statue to be as close to Parliament as possible, and gave the government an endowment to pay for its upkeep. (They intiially wanted it to be in Parliament Square, but the government of the day baulked at the idea, and offered Victoria Gardens instead.) But Thorne's proposal seems to have a good chance of happening, almost by accident. A planning proposal is under consideration by Westminster Council. And for the plan to have got to that stage means it already has the approval of the owners of the current site in Victoria Green, the Royal Parks. 

Currently, objections to the plan have focused on the planning application. But I've found that the statue in fact belongs to the government, specifically the Department for Culture Media and Sport, as successor body to the Ministry of Works. It should be in the government's power to immediately veto the idea. Hopefully, political pressure can be brought to bear. Happily, the Houses of Parliament have opposed the plan, with the curator's office commissioning this excellent report, which states that moving the statue would do 'serious harm' to the site and area.

This is not the first attempt to move the statue. When Rodin's Burghers of Calais was due to be placed in Victoria Green in 1958, the then government wanted to move the Pankhurst statue further away from Parliament. A great protest was launched, and the government agreed that while the statue needed to be moved, it should be moved closer to Parliament, and the base enlarged with a memorial to Emmeline's daughter, Christabel. The then minister, Nigel Birch, gave 'the most categorical assurance to the Suffragette Fellowship that there is no intention of any kind of moving the statue again'.

What I find most troubling about the whole affair is the assumption that we, today, know best how to commemorate Pankhurst. The existing statue is not just a memorial to her, but, through its very creation and siting, to the wider Suffragette movement. Moving it to Regent's Park - in the centenary year of women getting the vote - would be a terrible act of historical and art historical vandalism.

You can make your own objection to the plans at Westminster Council's planning portal here. All AHN readers are urged to do so!

Tinder for art buyers

September 6 2018

Video: Obvious

The people behind the artificial intelligence portrait being sold at Christie's (see below) are also making an AI tool to help people buy art. The video above tells that searching for art online can be 'tedious and time consuming'. So their programme works by showing you a few examples which you either swipe to like or dislike, which is how Tinder works (I'm told). Then the programme learns what you like, and offers you a shortlist, which you can then buy directly through the app (with, I presume, a commission for the makers).

All of which I find rather dispiriting. If you're lucky enough to have the budget to buy works of art, then choosing for yourself is a rich and rewarding process. How can anybody find it 'tedious'?! 

AI art

September 6 2018

Video: Obvious

There was a great deal of press excitement over Christie's decision to sell a painting made by artificial intelligence. Portrait of Edmond Bellamy, made by the French art collective Obvious will be auctioned in October with an estimate of £5k-£7k. There'll be a lot of vested interest, so watch it fly.

The picture was made by feeding an algorithm 15,000 portraits from the 14th to the 20th Centuries. And the end result was a blurry smudge that looks like, well, 15,000 portraits from the 14th to the 20th Centuries mixed together. Above is a video from Obviosu which shows how the end result was made. The Baron had a wife, called Comtesse de Belamy, which you can see being made here

I'm not one of those to say 'this isn't art'. Sure it's art. But I think we're entitled to say it's not much good. There's a lot of talk at the moment about computers taking away human jobs. But I think artists can rest easy. As the AI painting shows, if you try and make art that can only ever look back, it's not going to be very successful. You need human ingenuity to create the art of the future.

More here in a well written and mercifully giff free piece on 

Installing Koon's 'Play-Doh'

September 6 2018

Video: Christie's

I wish the Deputy Editor was this tidy when using Play-doh.

Museum of London buys c.1815 view of London

September 6 2018

Image of Museum of London buys c.1815 view of London

Picture: Sotheby's

I missed the excellent news that the Museum of London managed to buy at auction in London the enormous c.1815 panorama of London taken from beside Westminster Abbey by Pierre Prévost. Over six metres long, the panorama records the city in astonishing detail - for example, you can even see the restoration of the Henry VII chapel at Westminster Abbey in progress. And of course the picture gives an excellent view of the Houses of Parliament before the fire of 1832. 

I remember standing in front of the painting at the Sotheby's view saying to people; the Museum of London should buy this! And wonderfully, they did, which was no mean feat. The estimate was £200,000-£300,000 and the final price was £250,000. Well done to everyone involved.  

How to make copies interesting

September 6 2018

Video: Sotheby's

Sotheby's has a new online auction category; Old Master copies. In the above video, Georgina Eliot explains why we're wrong to often be so dismissive of 'copies'. Bidding ends on 13th September, and the sale catalogue here. I love the memorial portrait of Charles I, which looks like a very early copy after Van Dyck, not least because it's on panel. Was it the sort of thing produced illicitly during the Interregnum?

'Old Masters, New Perspectives'

September 6 2018

Video: Sotheby's

A nice video from Sotheby's highlighting their recent attempts to take Old Masters to new audiences. Where the art market leads, will museums follow?

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