Sotheby's 'Anatomy of an Artwork'

February 5 2019

Video: Sotheby's

I like this series of videos by Sotheby's on some of the world's most famous Old Masters. They're simply made, but informative and accessible. It's also good to see the art market doing its bit to build new audiences for Old Masters. 

'The year of Rembrandt'

February 5 2019

Image of 'The year of Rembrandt'


It's the 350th anniversary of Rembrandt's death. As a year of shows and events begins in Holland, Simon Schama writes about the artist's impact on him;

Yet another commemoration and yet another mega-show at the Rijksmuseum. Is it possible to have too much Rembrandt? Can you have too much love, wisdom, fine weather? No, you can’t.

His was the first art that properly caught my eye; or rather his eyes caught mine and wouldn’t let go. Those eyes, one lit, the other in shadow, belonged to the late self-portrait at Kenwood House. I was, I think, just nine years old, but even then I registered the transfer of the artist’s intense observation of himself as somehow a scrutiny of my own attentiveness. It was a gaze a small boy dared not break.

For more on the year's Rembrandt-ian events in Holland, see here. I love the way the Dutch make art central stage in their national narrative. In Britain we're too afraid of 'art' to do such a thing. Although in this year of Brexit, perhaps we should adopt that old curmudgeon Hogarth as our national figure.

Codart 22

February 5 2019

Image of Codart 22

Picture: Codart

I'm honoured to be chairing the annual Codart conference this year, in Berlin, 2nd - 4th June. Among the places we'll be visiting are the Gemaldegalerie. The theme is; 'What it means to be a curator'. The full programme is here. I hope to see some of you there!

TAN podcast; 'female Old Masters'

February 5 2019

Sound: TAN

Here's another good Art Newspaper podcast, this time on female Old Masters (can we come up with a better term? Surely), and how the art market tried to pretend their paintings were by men. 

White glove shot (ctd.)

February 5 2019

Image of White glove shot (ctd.)

Picture: Sky News

The Banksy that did the thing with the thing has gone on display on Germany. More here, if you can bear it. 

'Diary of an Art Historian' (ctd.)

February 4 2019

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

Picture: Christie's

Here's my latest 'Diary' piece from The Art Newspaper, and also here's one from last month, when the blog was on airplane mode. 

Is this a fake??

February 4 2019

Image of Is this a fake??

Picture: National Gallery

Almost certainly not, but The Guardian had a big splash on the suggestion it is by the art historian Christopher Wright. He produces not much evidence, save the haircut of the sitter, which is apparently from the 1960s. Judge for yourself on the high-res image here. Wright is best known for seeing fakes in many places, especially works claiming to be by Georges De La Tour (for example this picture in The Met). 

Update - a sharp-eyed reader makes this point:

I am puzzled by the wooden shutter with its studded nails that, totally by coincidence, form the monogram EH. 


Battle for the Battle of Anghiari

February 1 2019

Image of Battle for the Battle of Anghiari

Picture: Sotheby's

There was a fierce bidding battle for a drawing copy of Leonardo's Battle of Anghiari at Sotheby's drawing sale in New York. It made $795k against an estimate of $25k-$35k. The drawing had once been thought to be by Rubens, and had belonged to Sir Thomas Lawrence before entering the Dutch royal collection. But a long line of current Rubens scholars have said it's certainly not by Rubens. Does the market think it knows something else? Or was it just a combination of Leonardo's lure, some royal provenance, and a dash of speculation? See a high res of the drawing here

An undoubted Rubens drawing from the same Dutch royal collection made $8.2m at Sotheby's, a new record. 

The $1.7m Mona Lisa copy

January 31 2019

Image of The $1.7m Mona Lisa copy

Picture: Sotheby's

The above copy of Leonardo's Mona Lisa just made an extraordinary $1.7m at Sotheby's Old Master Day Sale in New York. The estimate was just $80k-$120k. There's quite a few of these copies knocking around - they're all suddenly rather more valuable...

Although it's always dangerous judging from photos, I can't immediately see what got people excited about this copy. It's not even on panel, like the original, but canvas, which generally suggests a somewhat later date. But maybe it's just the Leonardo effect. The catalogue entry is here

The sale results have been pretty strong. 


The Watercolour World

January 31 2019

Video: The Watercolour World

Here's a new project I've been keen to tell you about for a while; The Watercolour World. More in the film above (produced by none other than Ishbel Grosvenor), and here


November 13 2018

Many apologies for the lack of news recently. Recurring migraines has made screenwork rather difficult. Hope to be back soon.

Update - many thanks for all your kind emails! My apologies if I haven't replied to all of you. Hoping to get the blog back up to some kind of activity soon, but probably it will have to be weekly updates rather than daily ones.

Update II - the Deputy Editor has also asked me to apologise on her behalf; my recent blogging hiatus has coincided with her starting a new kindergarten. Had it not been for the demands of that, she would of course have been keeping you up to date with all the latest art history news.

AI art (ctd.)

October 29 2018

Image of AI art (ctd.)

Picture: Christie's/Obvious

After the sale of the 'artificial intelligence' Portrait of Edmond Bellamy at Christie's in New York for $432k, many people were asking; 'but is it art'? In fact, the question we should have been asking was; 'is it AI?' To which the answer, according to this interview in Artnome by Jason Bailey with one the artwork's creators, Hugo Caselles-Dupré, appears to be 'no':

JB: Why did you say, “Creativity is not only for humans,” implying that AI was autonomously making the work, even when you knew that was a false statement?

What about your narrative that “creativity isn’t only for humans”? Were you playing up the machines and now saying that is not what you meant?

HC: Yeah. Exactly. I think that's what happens when you're doing something and nobody cares, then you’re just goofing around and doing really clumsy stuff. And then when everybody has this view, then they go back to what you did before and then you have to justify it. We kept justifying, because we still think that this part of the GAN operator that creates the images is really interesting and there is some form of creativity there … and we just thought it was cool to just do it like this. For us, it was just a funny way to talk about it. 

JB: You didn't know you were going to be under the microscope.

HC: If we knew we were going to have to 400 press articles on what we do, we most definitely would have done that. But at [that] moment we were like, 'Yeah, it’s silly, okay, whatever, let's put this.' But retrospectively, when we see that, we are like, 'That's a big mistake.'

JB: All you can do is admit the mistake. What creative behavior do GANs exhibit? Many feel they don’t exhibit creative behavior.

HC: For me, the fact that you give it a certain number of examples and then you can continue to see results in the latent space, for me, the gap has to be [bridged]. So necessarily, there's some kind of, like, inventing something. So I guess there is some kind of creativity for me… because creativity is a really broad term, so it can be misunderstood, because creativity is something really related to humans. But at the basic, low level, it was given a set of images, it can create images that does not belong to the training set. So that's something that is transformed by the model, and there's some kind of creativity. So it's just a way you interpret the word "creativity." Maybe from certain perspectives you can say it's creativity. 

JB: So it sounds like you believe it is dependent upon your personal definition of creativity? Some people say GANs are just are approximate distributions and that is not really creative - but it sounds like you think it is creative?

HC: Yeah. It's like, whatever you think creativity is, if we fit on the same definition, we are obliged to agree on something. So if we go to the same definition that creativity is something like, let's say, this ‘Concept A,’ then GANs will fit this concept. Or not? It's just a point of view thing, I guess -- and I understand that people can argue that [it’s] not great, we understand that, but it's just a point of view.

Update - David Knowles on Twitter sums it up perfectly:

If it was AI then the IQ was very low.

Brexit and museums

October 26 2018

Image of Brexit and museums

Picture: NPG

If you're not 'British' and work for a UK museum, watch out; the government wants to know about you. I've learnt that the Department for Culture Media and Sport has asked nationally funded museums to gather information on the nationality of their employees, to "think about the implications of Brexit". The language of 'thinking' about employees sounds mundane enough, but if you think about it, it's pretty insidious. It leaves the door open for the government to take action against people purely on the basis of their nationality.

What's interesting about the DCMS request is the language they've used. I'm told that DCMS has said it only 'expects' museums to gather this information for them. In other words, it's not framed as an instruction, because the government likes to maintain the pretence that nationally funded museums are 'arms length bodies', in whose affairs it does not directly interfere.

Of course, in practice that's not the case. You might think that the nationality of who museums employ is up to the museums themselves. But in the era of Brexit it's not.

If I was a museum director, I'd tell the government where to go. But alas that's not what has happened at the National Portrait Gallery at least; there, staff have been told that while the museum "values all colleagues", they're still expected to submit information about their nationality. Sad times. 

AI art (ctd.)

October 26 2018

Image of AI art (ctd.)

Picture: Christie's

My prediction that the 'first AI work to be sold at auction' would fly above its estimate of £5k-£7k has come to pass; it made £337k at Christie's yesterday. Truly, there is no shame in the contemporary art market; what a woeful blancmange of a painting.

Now, I don't deny at all that their is a genuine and laudable creative process behind the concept of art-producing AI. To that extent, what we're really being asked to appreciate is the human creativity behind it. But the much vaunted 'AI' artwork at Christie's, Portrait of Edmond Belamy, is little more than a composite blurring of the 15,000 portraits fed into the programme in the first place. It's you or I fiddling around on Photoshop for an hour, just scaled up. A regular cry against much contemporary art is 'my child could have done that'. But now we can replace that with; 'my laptop could have done that'. 

In none of the breathless reporting of the auction result will you find any analysis of how easy it is to game the contemporary art market at auction.  Let us suppose you have a direct financial interest in an artist. You may be that artist. You may be their agent. You may own a number of their works. If you want to set a new, higher value for that artist, then the combined opacity and visibility of the auction market is perfect for you. The contemporary art market is driven by auction values; they take the place of stock indices, and are widely seen to be 'authentic'. But everything else is done in secret. You can consign anonymously, buy anonymously, and bid anonymously. You, and others, can bid on artworks without any disclosure, driving up value. If by some misfortune you end up being the last bidder, then no matter; a new high 'value' has been established, often with global press coverage, and all it has cost you is the price of the auction house's commission. 

Update - here's an article on The Verge showing how the 'collective' behind the picture sold at Christie's seems actually to have borrowed the code from, er, someone else:

[...] for members of the burgeoning AI art community, there’s another attribute that sets the Portrait of Edmond Belamy apart: it’s a knock-off.

The print was created by Obvious, a trio of 25-year-old French students whose goal is to “explain and democratize” AI through art. Over the past year, they’ve made a series of portraits depicting members of the fictional Belamy family, amplifying their work through attention-grabbing press releases. But insiders say the code used to generate these prints is mostly the work of another artist and programmer: 19-year-old Robbie Barrat, a recent high school graduate who shared his algorithms online via an open-source license.

Update II - there's an interesting article from Jerry Saltz in Vulture. He makes the important point that although Christie's promoted this as 'a first', really it's anything but:

I’ve seen the process done with landscapes, flowers, dogs, movie stars, clouds, buildings, and food. This poster is an individual image, but it’s not unusual to see it done in grids or series of images printed out. People have done it with Hollywood blockbusters arranged by superhero, color, setting, and even credits. It’s been done with porn films that render one Ur-orgy, superstar, or set of sexual fetishes. I’ve seen every abstract painting reduced to one meta-abstraction and seen it done with these same abstract paintings morphing endlessly one into the next like a hypnotic screensaver. Benjamin Edwards has been doing it in paintings since the late 1990s — compiling all the Starbucks in Seattle, for example, into one wild structure. Artists Jason Salavon and the late Jeremy Blake were doing this sort of thing in video and painting back then too. Julie Mehretu’s paintings are said to be handmade versions of the same visual overlay strategies. Really, this generic tic has never not been around since these sorts of digital files, compiled pictures, found footage, and captured images became a genre. World famous photographer Thomas Ruff has made, shown, and sold pictures like this for almost 20 years. In other words, it is a flat-out lie that this is the “first portrait generated by an algorithm to come up for auction.” The question is, why did so many collectors go crazy for it?

As to his last question, I think it's an assumption that 'collectors' did go crazy for the picture. I think it's more likely to have been speculators and vested interests.

That said, there was of course 'a first' in action at Christie's; the first time such a work had made a ton of money. And what made it 'valuable' in the first place was the fact that Christie's chose it for inclusion in an auction. That act was part of the art itself, if you like, just as Sotheby's auction in London was an integral part of Banksy's new work, Love is in the Bin.  

But let's think about what that artistic 'moment' actually said about the market and indeed the art world. Earlier this week I went to the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester to give the 49th Pilkington Lecture (and I only found out afterwards that the first lecture had been given by none other than Kenneth Clarke - which pleased me no end). The topic of my talk was 'Why connoisseurship matters', and as part of my explanation of the history of connoisseurship I touched on the controversy of 'the canon' in art historical academia; the idea that the canon as promoted to us by art history in the 19th and early 20th Centuries was almost exclusively one shaped by white, privileged men, from Western Europe with Christian beliefs. In other words, deeply conservative.

And what was 'the first' AI artwork to make a ton of money? Why, a portrait of a white, privileged man from Western Europe. He was actually given the title 'Count'. Isn't it a bizarre contradiction that the painting hailed as revolutionary leap in art should be something so backward looking? 

Museum image fees (ctd.)

October 23 2018

Image of Museum image fees (ctd.)

Picture: AIC

Good news; the Art Institute of Chicago has announced that it is making over 44,000 images of artworks from its collection 'open access'. That  means you can use them for free in any way you want. 

Critics of open access working in UK museums say that institutions like the AIC can afford to do this, because they charge for entry. UK museums, so the argument goes, cannot afford to give away their images for free, because they have to support free entry. But not all open access museums charge for entry; the Nationalmuseum in Sweden, which makes thousands of its images open access, has now introduced free entry. So it is in fact possible to have both free physical entry, and free digital entry.

We can get a glimpse into the UK's nationally funded museums' mindset through an interesting document recently made available through a Freedom of Information request from my colleague Richard Stephens. In advance of the House of Lords debate on image fees last month, only one UK museum made a submission to the government in favour of selling images; the V&A. Predictably, they relied on the point that many open access museums also charge for entry. And they cited Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum as their main example. You can read the submission here (it's at the end of a large number of documents released as part of the same FoI request).

But let's look at the numbers first. Is it as simple as saying the V&A is worse off than the Rijksmuseum, and thus cannot afford to give its images away for free? No. The V&A's total government subsidy last year was £40.2m (you can read the accounts here). A large part of that subsidy is given especially to subsidise free entry. It represents 42% of the V&A's total income of £95.3m. The Rijksmuseum, which charges for entry, receives a significantly smaller government subsidy, of €15.5m (in 2017, accounts available here). This represents only 26% of its total income of €58m. UK museums do well from public subsidy by international standards. We need not believe the V&A's insistence that it needs to sell images in order to support free entry. 

Finally, the V&A in its submission defending their right to sell images made a crucial point in favour of open access. They said:

Where British museums must work hard to generate revenue from assets (such as the IP rights in their images) to supplement grant-in-aid, the Rijksmuseum is primarily concerned with driving visitor numbers through its doors and thus raising ticket revenue. The Rijksmuseum makes all its images available to download for free because it knows that the more people that it enables to see* its images, the more people will be likely to pay €17.50 for entry to the museum. 

In other words, the V&A agrees that open access increases visitor numbers; the more people see images of a collection, the more people want to go and visit that collection. This is an important concession. But you might think from reading their statement that the V&A does not want to increase visitor numbers. Instead, they appear to be more interested in maintaining their ability to use their public collection as a commercial entity.

*their italics. 

£7.8m Leighton House museum refurbishment

October 23 2018

Image of £7.8m Leighton House museum refurbishment

Picture: BDP

New plans for a £7.8m refurbishment of the Leighton House museum in London have been announced. Due to be completed in 2021. More here

New Fitzwilliam director

October 23 2018

Picture: Cambridge University

Congratulations to Luke Syson, who has been appointed the new director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. He joins from the Met in New York - and previously the National Gallery in London, where he curated that extraordinary Leonardo show - and takes over from Tim Knox, who is now director of the Royal Collection. More here

Art historian's diary (ctd.)

October 23 2018

Image of Art historian's diary (ctd.)

Picture: via TAN

My October 'diary' column for The Art Newspaper has gone online, and is available here. The November column is in the printed paper now, and will be online next month. 

Theodoor Van Loon exhibition

October 23 2018

Image of Theodoor Van Loon exhibition

Piccture: Bozar

The first exhibition devoted to the Flemish Caravaggist Theodoor Van Loon has opened at the Bozar centre for fine arts in Brussels. Says the blurb:

Theodoor van Loon was one of the first painters from the Southern Netherlands to be deeply influenced by the art of Caravaggio. Like his contemporary Rubens, Van Loon developed a powerful, original style and throughout the whole of his career he remains marked by the Italian masters.

For the very first time this exhibition brings you into contact with the work of this atypical artist. By placing his paintings alongside those of his contemporaries (Rubens, Barocci, Bloemaert) the show reveals the particular role Van Loon played in his era.

Until 13th January 2019. More " target="_blank">here

Murder in the Gainsborough family (ctd.)

October 23 2018

Podcast: TAN

The latest Art Newspaper podcast discusses the story about the newly uncovered murders in Thomas Gainsborough's family, and features yours truly. 

The research is a central feature of a new exhibition on the young Gainsborough at Gainsborough House Museum in Sudbury, Suffolk, where the artist grew up. 

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