Previous Posts: March 2019

'Diary of an Art Historian' (ctd.)

March 18 2019

Image of 'Diary of an Art Historian' (ctd.)

Picture: Louvre/Mona Lisa Foundation

Here's my latest Art Newspaper column, in which I look at the allure of Mona Lisa copies.  

Sir John Richardson (1924-2019)

March 18 2019

Image of Sir John Richardson (1924-2019)

Picture: The Guardian

Sir John Richardson, the biographer of Picasso, has died. Michael McNay has a good obituary in The Guardian. It includes this sad fact about image fees:

At least part of the reason for the gap of many years between volumes [of Picasso's life] was because the fees to the Picasso estate for reproductions of his work were so high that Richardson was forced into writing volumes of memoirs to raise money.

One of my favourite Richardson facts is that his grandfather was born in the reign of George III. 

A feminist guide to art history

March 18 2019

Image of A feminist guide to art history

Picture: National Gallery

The National in Gallery in London is doing a five session course (spread over 5 weeks) on how women have shaped art history, which looks like fun.

Find out how women have broken into and reshaped the ‘boys’ club’ art establishment; whether the female nude can survive #MeToo; and how women leaders are redressing the balance when it comes to the representation of women artists.

This course explores the work of women artists, patrons, collectors, art writers, and leaders in the arts. It considers how women have represented themselves in paintings, the challenges women artists grapple with, and how feminism has opened up an alternative history of art.

It starts on 22nd March. More here

The Carabinieri Art Squad strikes again!

March 18 2019

Video: via Thelocal.it

AHN is a great admirer of the flair with which the Italian police's specialist art squad goes about its business. They seem to be much more active than comparable police forces in Europe, though this may have something to do with their PR department. I love the shots of immaculately attired Carabinieri standing in front their latest haul. Above we see works recovered after they were stolen from churches in the aftermath of the terrible earthquakes in Aquila in 2009. More here

Restoring Van Dyck's equestrian portrait of Charles I

March 18 2019

Video: Tefaf

The National Gallery in London are restoring Van Dyck's large equestrian portrait of Charles I. The conservation has been funded in part by Tefaf, who have made the above video. I saw the picture in the conservation studio when work was just beginning, and although the condition is generally excellent, it was clear that there are many gains to be made, especially in the rear legs of the horse, which had become difficult to see, largely because of surface and varnish issues. 

Leonardo's Nude Mona Lisa! (ctd.)

March 12 2019

Video: France 3

Regular readers may remember that back in 2017 it was reported that experts in the Louvre were taking a fresh look at the 'Joconde nue', a drawing held at Chantilly previously considered to be by Leonardo da Vinci himself. The results are now in, and the answer is... inconclusive. They've determined that it was mostly made by someone who was left-handed (as Leonardo was) but that the drawing's overall condition make it impossible to determine attribution with any certainty. More here

Perhaps the best painted version of the drawing is this one in the Hermitage. 

Sorolla at the National Gallery

March 12 2019

Video: National Gallery

A new exhibition on Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida's (1863–1923) opens at the National Gallery in London on 18th March. More here

The women who shaped the National Gallery

March 12 2019

Video: National Gallery

Director of Collections Caroline Campbell looks at how women have shaped the works and history of the National Gallery in London. 

A lost Leonardo sculpture in London?

March 11 2019

Video: via You Tube

Research for a new exhibition on Andrea del Verrocchio in Florence has raised the fascinating possibility that a small terracotta sculpture in the V&A previously attributed to Antonio Rossellino is in fact by Leonardo da Vinci. If so, it would be the only known, surviving sculpture by him. The attribution has been proposed by Francesco Caglioti, and is supported by Carmen Bambach of the Met.

A video preview of the exhibition is above, with the terracotta appearing about halfway through. More on the attribution here. A link to the exhibition is here. The V&A's online catalogue still gives the attribution as Rossellino (readers of my Art Newspaper column may know that the V&A doesn't always leap enthusiastically on new attributions, if they are proposed by outsiders - though to be fair this is common in major museums, which can get very territorial). If you click on the download button and promise not to be naughty with the V&A's images, you can access a number of high resolution photos. Let's hope that the V&A are preparing to capitalise on the news by putting the sculpture on display as soon as it gets back from Florence in July. 

Online Bosch course

March 7 2019

Video: Prado

The Prado has launched an online course all about Hieronymous Bosch. You'll need to speak Spanish, but it looks like fun. More here

'Boilly: scenes of Parisian Life'

March 7 2019

Video: National Gallery

I've always liked the work of the French 18th Century artist Louis-Leopold Boilly, so am looking forward to seeing the new exhibition on him at the National Gallery in London. In the video above, curator Francesca Whitlum-Cooper introduces the exhibition and the artist. Show runs till 19th May.

Art Fund sacks its volunteers

March 6 2019

Image of Art Fund sacks its volunteers

Picture: ArtFund

I've been meaning to mention the Art Fund's decision to get rid of all its volunteer committees. These are the 48 or so volunteer committees (480 members in all) who organise fundraising events across the UK, drive membership, and help maintain links between museums and their local communities. They've been going for many decades, and are brilliant. I'm often asked to do talks for Art Fund groups, and always agree (and never charge) because it's heartening to see how people engage with the art and institutions around them, all whilst helping to raise money to support new acquisitions. 

The Burlington has written an excellent editorial on the Art Fund's bizarre decision, and asks some pertinent questions:

Why was there no consultation with the committees in advance of this decision? Why was the announcement made before a fully worked-out alternative to their work had been decided upon? And, crucially, what are the motives for the decision? The only reason given in the article is that participatory opportunities are now better organised by means of ‘digital and other media’, but that does not explain why a system that is working well needs to be closed down. [Art Fund director Stephan] Deuchar also fails to acknowledge that the volunteer fundraising programmes function as much-appreciated educational activities in regions where, in many cases, few such opportunities exist. [...]

Finally, how much do the volunteers contribute financially? According to the Art Fund’s website they raise £100,000 annually, but its most recent annual report states that in 2017 the volunteer committees raised ‘£354,000 through a variety of special events across the country’.

The last point - about the amount the volunteers contribute annually - is an interesting one. The AF website now says they only raise '£100k after costs', but this is a recent change. A snapshot of the same page before the story broke gives a figure of £350k. In previous years, going back to 2012, the same page has said '£300k', so it appears the net revenue was growing. Which figure is true? Did the Fund quickly tweak their website to make the decision to axe the committees seem less daft? 

But the money is almost beside the point. I think the decision to tell the volunteers to go away is rude, mistaken, and needlessly damaging to the Art Fund's long-term interests. Most organisations would kill to have a profitable, nationwide volunteer body. It's the sort of decision which should have prompted trustees to ask the executive some serious questions. But like most boards of trustees these days, the Art Fund's is another list of the great and the good, who tend not to have time for detailed scrutiny.

Update - a reader lets rip:

The post about the art fund was excellent. I have to admit its an organization that I've found challenging for a long long time. I've thought about contributing but have always held back. Your article sort of confirms my view that it really has lost its way. My own difficulties are as follows

I'm a great believer that organizations should have a clear brief. In the old days as the NACF I knew where it stood it's primary aim was to support the acquisition of artworks by public collections. I'm not actually sure what it does now if you look at its website its actually incredibly difficult to find the information on the purchases/acquisitions it has supported. In the current environment of cut-backs I really cannot see an excuse for not focusing on this agenda.

It really seems to prefer to commissioning  work rather than saving existing work. It seems to really want to be the contemporary art society rather than the  National Art Collections Fund. Again in an age when it is increasingly difficult for museums to purchase existing work why is the Art Fund wasting resources as a commissioner.

What is the point of the museum of the year completion which seems to be its focus for a lot of time. No one outside the sector has a clue what it is and I'm sure no one visits the V&A or anywhere else because it has won this rather odd award that pitches institutions which have very little in common against one another. It does, however, take up a lot of staff time at the Fund , which again represents a wasted resource which could be allocated to buying stuff. I'm sure that the Fund would argue that it raises the profile of the organization with philanthropists both individual and corporate but I'm afraid I'm not convinced.  

A final point that you may disagree with me on is what I feel to be the utter waste of time that is their curatorial training programme. It seems to largely recruit individuals from well established departments of Art History.  These individuals already seem to largely have MA's in a relevant discipline so I would argue they are probably ready for the world of work even if that might perhaps mean gaining relevant experience in the commercial sector.

In short the Art Fund really has lost it sway, it's original purpose was clear but it has been lost in a cloud of projects which I can only assume are the individual priorities on members of staff or trustees. Given this total organizational drift I've never felt able to join the Art Fund. I would really like to support an organization that focusses on supporting museums and galleries to purchase works. Perhaps its time to consider founding something that might be called a National Art Collections Fund (NACF) which might have this focus.

The sad thing is, we can perhaps assume that members of the 480 committees might now agree.

Update II - I'm told some trustees are unhappy about the move. But I have yet to hear of any resignations. If I was a trustee, I'd particularly want to get to the bottom of this confusion over the revenue brought in by the volunteers. Was the figure changed on the website purely to suit the PR message? If so, someone should be sacked. Or is it true that the Art Fund is so well off, that it can be seen to enthusiastically forgo a revenue stream of between £100k-£350k a year? 

Update III - I've had a deeper look into the Art Fund's accounts. In the 2017/18 accounts (p.89), the Fund states that volunteer committees 'raised a value of £354k net of costs'. So this figure is quite at odds with the current Fund webpage which states that the committees 'contribute £100k a year to our charitable programme after costs'. In 2016/17 (p.74), the committees raised even more, £387k. The 2015/16 accounts (p.84) give more context to the committee's fundraising abilities, saying; 'the network of volunteer fundraising committees raised £809,000 which net of costs of £453,000 generates a contribution of £353,000.' The net figure in 2014 £356,000. So, it seems that income from the volunteers is a pretty stable £350k a year. The costs of running the operation seem to be quite high; I don't know how they're calculated, but I'd have thought there was room for efficiencies to be made in the operation, rather than closure. For 2017/18, the Fund's total income was £13.6m, so it's true to say that the committees only raise a small portion of their overall income, 2.5%. But £350k is still £350k, and then there are the uncountable benefits, such as how many memberships are sustained and created by such a volunteer network. Total grants paid in 2017 were £5.56m. 

Update IV: a reader writes:

I understood that there was quite an issue with the newish Data Protection rules and my county committee were unhappy that the ArtFund stopped them from communicating at all with their local members - instead taking it all to a central office. Perhaps the discontent with this contributed to a breach of trust between the main body and the regions which in turn contributed to the decision to disband those committees. 

I also entirely agree with the notion that the Fund has lost its way. The ArtQuarterly has become heavily weighted towards contemporary art, a trend which sends a message about its priorities. This may suit some members very well but but what message does it send to those numerous small museums in desperate need of assistance to buy local items of historic interest, who would naturally have looked to the Fund for that help?

Another reader has this suggestion:

Regarding the Art Fund's disingenuous justification for disbanding its local volunteer organization, the only answer is that they should subcontract its management to the WI, who have a century of experience in managing local groups profitably and in the national interest. 

Update V - I have asked the Art Fund press office for an explanation on the £100k vs £350k figure. So far, no response.

Update VI - Jane Crease writes:

I read with great interest your blog on the Art Fund's disbanding of its volunteer network.

I am the regional chair for Yorkshire for the Art Fund volunteers and so am at the sharp end of this controversy. As might be expected, the volunteers themselves are incandescent with rage at this development; a decision taken without consultation but with the fig leaf that we can all now go away and support our local museums and galleries (almost all of whom have Friends who already perform this function). The letter from the Director announcing the decision to the volunteer network contained not a word of thanks to the volunteers for their efforts over the years. Only a swift intervention by the Chair of the Fund, Chris Smith, who sent out a courteous and grateful letter to us, together with an invitation to a function at the House of Lords and life membership for current volunteers, saved the Fund's face.

However, we did not run all those events and raise all that money to have it spent on events at the HoL and life memberships (I shudder to think what all that will cost). We raised money for the core purpose of the Fund; the purchase of works of art for public collections.

It is not only the volunteers who are angry. What surprised (and touched) me was the dismay expressed by so many of the Art Fund members when they heard the news. Many have written to the Art Fund (all receiving the same, anodyne response) and some are likely to resign their memberships. It may well impact on legacy income; I have personal knowledge of an individual who had bequeathed 40,000 pounds in her will and is now considering re-writing it.

Two things: we simply cannot understand the reasons behind the decision nor can we see any sign of the alternative "vision for volunteering" which was suggested as a substitute. 

The Art Fund is a cause to which I have devoted over 25 years because I believe in its core purpose. In common with other volunteers we want to enrich both local and national collections so that anyone can come face to face with art which moves and excites them. I am saddened that the practical contribution that I and other volunteers have been able to make is now regarded as worthless.

Update VII - I see that the Fund's annual salary bill is £2.1m. If we go back to the Fund's core purpose, helping museums buy artworks, then that's an inefficient way to distribute £5.56m.

Update VIII - another Art Fund member writes:

When I joined the Art Fund some 15 years ago it was to save art, with discounts to exhibitions very much a secondary consideration.  Back then, the website was updated on an almost weekly basis with news of latest grants, the online database of all art-funded works was fully searchable and the letters page of the Quarterly magazine provided a voice  for the membership.

Now, the Art Fund positions itself as a membership body offering discounts through the National Art Pass - not dissimilar to Costco in the retail sector - and the promotion of the acquisition of artworks is very much a secondary consideration. The Art Fund website and their social media channels almost never highlight acquisitions.  There are none on today’s home page with seven out of the eight new items centred on curators.   I am aware of a significant Art-funded Old Master painting secured at auction last summer which has still not been publicly announced.  News of acquisitions is now relegated to the back of the Quarterly magazine.  The Annual Review, an in-depth review of acquisitions was abandoned long ago and there is no longer a letters page in the Quarterly.   It is nw no longer possible to search online for art-funded works by year of acquisition.  

I was recently asked to complete an online member survey.  All the questions were focused on the effectiveness of the National Art Pass.  There was no curiosity about my views on the core activity of funding artworks.

The disgraceful treatment of the volunteer network is very sad and highlights how this institution has lost its way.  Whilst the Art Fund is busy promoting all sorts of ‘other’ rather than its core activity, the flow of precious artworks leaving these shores is unabated.

Rent-a-Rembrant!

March 6 2019

Image of Rent-a-Rembrant!

Picture: English Heritage

In the FT, James Pickford has news of a rather alarming new policy for English Heritage. They've agreed to lend the celebrated Rembrandt self-portrait from Kenwood House to an exhibition at Larry Gagosian's gallery in London. I've no problem with public institutions lending pictures to commercial galleries, indeed I've been involved with such shows before when I used to work for Philip Mould. Ultimately, both dealers and museums are interested in the same thing; getting people to look at art.

But there has always been an understanding that such shows would not be selling exhibitions. The Gagosian show, however, will have works for sale, including new works by Jenny Saville, Richard Prince, and Albert Oehlen. (The Saville portrait will be commissioned directly in response to the Rembrandt.) These artists are all multi-million dollar selling artists. And what is English Heritage getting in return for being such an integral aspect of Gagosian's shop window? £30,000 towards the repair of the painting's frame. That'll be a snip for Gagosian to pay.

English Heritage are making a big noise about the reduction in their public subsidy, and the fact that they are meant to be self-funding by 2023 (although they're more reticent about the one-off payment of £85m they recieved in 2013 to help manage the new policy). So they claim that this is an example of 'a new model'. From the FT:

Anna Eavis, curatorial director at English Heritage, said: “This sort of partnership, the first of the kind we’ve done, shines a light on the collection. It’s a way of reminding people of this great asset we have and I hope will lead to other things which will enable us to take care of Kenwood in the long term.”

But if this is a new model, then English Heritage are selling themselves cheap. The Kenwood Rembrandt is one of the best known paintings in the world. To lend it to a commercial gallery, which will be selling paintings in the same show for millions of pounds, for over a month, for just £30,000 is hopelessly naive. Don't you think? 

But it's probably typical of the sort of bad decision we can come to expect from English Heritage. Recently, we asked if we could film a scene for Britain's Lost Masterpieces at Apsley House in London, which is run by English Heritage. The fee quoted was £1,000 for an hour, in addition to an unspecified additional bill to cover things like staff costs on the day. While we're always happy to pay a fee to cover costs, we simply don't have the budget to pay that kind of money. In vain did we try to point out that the exposure might be good for Apsley House, which is one of the jewels of London, but which few people know about (mainly because English Heritage are no good at marketing it). But I got the impression they're not that interested in visitors. Opening times for Apsley House have now been reduced to weekends in the winter. Which is odd for a central London site, with an amazing history and collection. English Heritage's response was that it costs them so much money to keep Apsley House open that they have to charge such high fees. But when I asked (under the Freedom of Information Act) to know how much their annual costs and revenues were for Apsley House, they refused, saying it was 'commercially sensitive information'. I've never encoutered that response from a public institution before - there is simply no way that the running costs for a public asset like Apsley House can be regarded as 'commercially sensitive'. I'm appealing the ruling. Often, if an institution is reluctant to tell you something, it's because they're telling porkies.

Update - a reader writes:

It is quite possible that Gagosian is paying more to transport, guard, and insure the Kenwood Rembrandt Self Portrait for a month than he is paying English Heritage to rent it.

Sculptures on ArtUK

March 5 2019

Image of Sculptures on ArtUK

Picture: ArtUK

The first of many sculptures have been uploaded onto the ever wonderful ArtUK

Brexit and the Art Market (ctd.)

March 5 2019

Image of Brexit and the Art Market (ctd.)

Picture: via TAN

Anny Shaw has a good piece in The Art Newspaper on the coming peril of a No Deal Brexit, and how it might effect the shipping of artworks between the UK and the EU after March 29th. None of it is good:

The prospect of hefty EU import taxes is already disrupting exhibition programmes in the UK. Tornabuoni Arte in London is closing its show of paintings by Alberto Burri and Lucio Fontana two weeks early and transporting the works back to Italy to avoid a potential multimillion-pound reimport bill. Italy’s import rate stands at 10%.

“We are covering our backs because no decision has been made yet, but we are looking at an enormous amount of money to reimport incredibly expensive works. It’s crippling,” says a gallery spokesman.

Whatever happens on March 29th, the moving of artworks from the UK to the EU will be more difficult and expensive. 

Is there a €120m Caravaggio in your roof? (ctd.)

March 5 2019

Video: Cabinet Turquin

Regular readers may remember the Judith & Holofernes painting that was discovered in an attic in Toulouse in 2016, and declared to be by Caravaggio. When it was discovered, the picture was placed on the list of French national treasures, but now the picture is not listed as such, and can therefore be sold internationally. To publicise the forthcoming sale, the French art expert who first helped find the picture, Eric Turquin, brought the picture to London for a press conference. It is now described as 'the Toulouse Caravaggio'. The picture will be sold later this year in Toulouse, but with no reserve. It's a bold move, and Turquin has been quite open about the picture's mixed reception among Caravaggio scholars. 

I've never met Eric Turquin, but I like his approach to this picture; as you can see in the video above, it's combative, which is unusual in the art world. Normally, you're supposed to be exceptionally deferential, and modest. People will shower more claim on you for finding a minor, footnote worthy document than for discovering anything as vulgar as a new painting. Turquin is having none of it, and points out that there are many more discoveries to make. 

Scott Reyburn has a good article in the New York Times on the split scholarly opinions on the attribution, after the picture was put on display in Milan. Backers of the picture include Keith Christiansen of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, who is highly respected. At least one of the doubters has been shown, from another recent case, to be a good scholar on Caravaggio, while not having a good eye for Caravaggio. Some doubters point to areas of apparent 'crudeness', and yet it's worth remembering that Caravaggio could often be exceptionally crude. We can happily dismiss those whose kneejerk reaction was the picture was a modern fake. I wouldn't presume to have an opinion, not having seen the picture, but I think nonetheless that Turquin and his colleagues have made a strong case. If I were the powers that be in France, I would think twice about letting the picture out of the country.

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