Apologies (ctd.)

November 20 2022

I'm sorry for the radio silence. I've had quite a few things on. I'll post some catch up stories shortly. Some of them you'll doubtless be familiar with! 

£8m for Lowry's Going to the Match?

October 7 2022

Image of £8m for Lowry's Going to the Match?

Picture: Christie's

Christie's will sell on 19th October L S Lowry's Going to the Match, with an estimate of £5m-£8m. It's being sold by The Professional Footballer's Association Charity, The Player's Foundation, which bought it in 1999 at Sotheby's. The Foundation seem to be having a financial crisis, but what's interesting is that a charity should have bought the painting in the first place. It has recently been warned by the Charities Commission over mismanagement. But if it makes its estimate, they'll have done quite well on their investment - it went for £1.75m back in 1999. More here, and bid here.

Vandalism in the Vatican Museum

October 7 2022

Video: Rome Reports

A man denied an audience with the Pope took his anger out on two ancient statues in the Vatican Museum, smashing them on the floor. More here.

Where should the Queen's statue go?

October 7 2022

Image of Where should the Queen's statue go?

Picture: The Times

There's been much debate over whether a statue of the Queen should be placed on the 'fourth plinth' in Trafalgar Square. It was long being kept vacant for her statue by the powers that be, but some say the revolving programme of contemporary art works being displayed there has become such a success, it should remain.

The Burlington Magazine, in its latest editorial, suggests that the understanding is the Queen's statue will be an equestrian one, given her love of horses. It therefore argues that Trafalgar Square isn't quite right for the Queen since it will be in the company of other equestrian statues of George IV and Charles I, who are hardly happy royal precedents. The Magazine suggests instead a new spot, in St James' park, overlooking the Mall:

Queen Elizabeth is unlikely to have desired either aesthetic or geographical novelty for her monument, so an equestrian statue in St James’s Park, perhaps facing her parents on the far side of the Mall, would be appropriate, especially as it would evoke memories of the Queen’s appearance on her favourite horse, the black mare Burmese, riding down the Mall for Trooping the Colour on her official birthday. There are at least two precedents for exactly such a statue – in the Queen Elizabeth Gardens, Saskatchewan, by Susan Velder (2005) – Burmese was a gift from Canada – and another by Caroline Wallace, a monument due to be erected later this year at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst. It is a great pity that when the Mall was laid out to encompass both Admiralty Arch, which commemorates Edward VII, and the memorial to Queen Victoria in front of Buckingham Palace, nobody thought that this grand processional road might be developed as a via sacra of royal monuments, but since one strength of a monarchy is that it looks to the long term, it is perhaps not too late.

I think this is a good idea. I had always thought the Queen should go on the Fourth Plinth, partly because I assumed it was her wish. I've also not been a huge fan of the rotating contemporary works, which, really, could be displayed anywhere. It's great to have contemporary works in Trafalgar Square, but to the exclusion of a statue of our longest serving monarch? The plinth's purpose, whether we like it or not, is for a commemorative statue; it is a place of history, and we should think not of what we think about the merits of having a statue of the Queen there, but how it will look like in two or three hundred years time. On the other hand, there's no escaping the fact that Trafalgar Square is really quite grim these days, between the pigeons, the buskers, and the traffic. So I think I'm inclined to agree, something surrounded by trees and nearer the Mall would be better. What do you think?

More discussion here in The Times.

Update - a reader makes this excellent suggestion:

There is a third option. Earmark it instead for a future statue of Charles III. What more fitting backstop could there be for his memorial than the Sainsbury Wing?

The king was also a trustee of the NG for a while.

Liz Truss on the Parthenon Marbles

October 7 2022

Image of Liz Truss on the Parthenon Marbles

Picture: BG

The UK's new prime minister, who has not had the best start, was asked in an interview whether she supports any attempt by the British Museum to come to 'a deal' (as Chair George Osborne said) with the Greek government. She replied; 'I don't support that'. Which is further than even fag-waving classicist Boris Johnson went when he was Prime Minister; he stuck to the formula simply that it was a matter for the British Museum. Any deal between the BM and the Greek government was always contingent on the issue not become caught up in a political culture war. So I hope Truss hasn't undone the political space to do a deal which has been carefully built up by both sides over the last year or so.

In other UK government news, we have a new Arts Minister, The Rt Hon Stuart Andrew. He replaces Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay, who was replaced by Truss just ten days short of a year in the post (and who I thought was doing a fine job). Andrew is the sixth Arts Minister in five years.

Lucian Freud, New Perspectives

October 7 2022

Video: National Gallery

Here's Paloma Alarcó, Chief Curator of Modern Painting at the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, discussing three paintings from the Thyssen which are featured in the new National Gallery exhibition. The show has got good reviews, including five stars from Jonathan Jones in The Guardian, and 'never a dull brushstroke from Jackie Wullschläger in the FT.

Dictator Art (ctd.)

October 7 2022

Video: AP

In Finland, they're removing their last public statue of Lenin, in response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine. More here.

New Sainsbury Wing designs (ctd.)

October 3 2022

Image of New Sainsbury Wing designs (ctd.)

Picture: AHN reader

A reader alerts me to the fact that the Sainsbury Wing at the National Gallery is now closed. It will re-open in 2025, which means it will be closed for the National's bicentenary celebrations in 2024. I was under the impression that redesigning of the wing (a £35m project) was a central part of the 'NG200' plans.

Meanwhile, in The Burlington Magazine, the architectural historian Otto Saumarez Smith has written a letter urging the Gallery to reconsider aspects of the redesign, in particular the ground floor entrance. You can read the text of his letter here.

There's one line in Otto's letter which is interesting; 'The NG ... is already nearly back to pre-pandemic levels of visitors...' I've seen this line repeated by the Gallery itself - iin fact Otto says it came from the Gallery. It is this pressure on visitor numbers which is the central justification for rebuilding the Sainsbury Wing entrance.

However, it is not quite right, or in fact nearly right. According to the government's most recent national museum visitor survey (to June this year), the National Gallery is still about 50% down on visitors from pre-pandemic levels. There is as yet no detailed analysis of what makes up this change, but we knew before the pandemic that about 70% of the National Gallery's visitors were from overseas. This demographic has changed dramatically post-Covid and post-Brexit. So it must be right to wonder if the central assumption on which the NG is rebuilding its entrance - that it will soon be overwhelmed with visitors - is in fact correct. You can download the visitor data here.

Meanwhile, the architecture critic Hugh Pearman has written a new piece for The Art Newspaper, echoing some of Otto's concerns. In particular, he disagrees with the plans to make the Sainsbury Wing entrance the main entrance for the whole Gallery:

In my view this unbalances the whole composition of the National Gallery. William Wilkins’s 1838 building is very far from great—it wrecked his reputation when built—but at least it put its presently closed-off entrance in a central portico. In the early 2000s East Wing building programme, the Getty entrance was added at pavement level to the right of the portico, leading to the Annenberg Court within. Another entrance was mooted to the left, but this was never done. I would urge the gallery to scrap the Selldorf plans and return to the drawing board—this time with a much improved central entrance as the brief. Then let the Sainsbury Wing return to being the subsidiary entrance/exit it was designed to be. But if the gallery continues to insist that its main entrance should be at the far western end of the main complex, then only the most minimal and respectful alterations to Venturi and Scott Brown’s unique building should be allowed.


September 27 2022

I'm on a bit of a writing deadline, back on Thursday.

Ken Howard RA (1932-2022)

September 26 2022

Image of Ken Howard RA (1932-2022)

Picture: Royal Academy

Sad news that the British painter Ken Howard RA has died, the Guardian has an obituary here.

KMSKA re-opens

September 26 2022

Video: KMSKA

After eleven years, and five years later than anticipated, the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp has re-opened. The video above gives you a glimpse into what to expect. This video here gives you a blimpse into some quirky Old Master marketing, Belgian style. The New York Times liked what it saw here. One reader sends me, in despair, photos of the inevitable 'contemporary interventions' in the Old Master galleries (below). If you go, let me know what you think. I'm very much looking forward to seeing again some of the greatest Flemish art in the world.

Update - a reader who has visited the museum sends this fascinting and well informed review of what they've seen so far:

Thank you for mentioning the reopening of the Fine Arts Museum in Antwerp on Art History News. You asked for comments, so I’m happy to send you mine. I live 5 minutes from the museum and have visited it three times since the reopening. 

Apologies if this message is a bit long, these are just my personal observations and appreciations, especially on the old masters’ section. The museum building was always very imposing and is even more so now, beautifully restored and cleaned. From the outside the expansion is not visible, inside there is now a 20th century section, built on top and in between the old masters, but completely separate. Architecturally very cleverly done. Entrance fee is 20 euro, taking pictures is allowed everywhere, and the entire collection is also available for research and downloadable on the website. The old master rooms are beautifully restored, nice colors, perfect hanging of paintings, etc. Impeccable. The most important fact is probably that many, many paintings have been cleaned and restored. A long closure has its advantages as well. Many masterpieces look fresh and alive again. Except for some really large Rubens altarpieces, but these will be restored next year, in the rooms were they are now displayed, so that the public can view the ongoing restoration.

Instead of ordering the paintings by school and chronologically, in many rooms there is now a thematic display. ‘Power’, ‘Abundance’, ‘Suffering’, but also just landscapes and portraits. This also enables paintings from different schools and times (a Basquiat next to a Jean Clouet, for example) to be confronted. Sometimes this works, but not always. In several rooms, the choice was to show not too many paintings, so that people are not overwhelmed and spend more time watching a particular painting. In the end, the total display capacity of the museum was expanded by 40% and the number of artworks displayed has actually diminished (to about 600)! Something about the average visitor only being able to absorb so many paintings during a visit … I think this is a missed opportunity.

In the great Rubens room, there used to hang 16 original Rubens paintings before the closure. Now 5. All the others are spread out over the other rooms. Van Dyck fares even worse. The Van Dyck room needs a new name, since there is only one Van Dyck left hanging there (there used to be 6, the Van Dyck collection was never very strong, with no examples from his Italian or English period). The other Van Dycks are spread out, but two are even put in storage. Personally, my greatest regret is that the world of Bruegel has completely disappeared. With Rubens and Van Dyck, undoubtedly the greatest artist ever having worked in Antwerp, he is completely ignored. While there has never been an original Pieter Bruegel the elder in the collection, there is a great collection of works of both his sons and followers, which gives a wonderful and valuable overview of the world of Bruegel. Only 1 or 2 paintings are left of that. Of course, that might not matter much to most visitors, but it is a great regret to people like me who know what is put in storage … I don’t even want to think of the masterpieces of Dutch painting, which even many Dutch museums envy us, that are not on show.

On the other hand, three entire rooms have been given over to modern technology. In one of them you can put on a virtual reality visor, and imagine yourself walking in Rubens’ studio. Another large room is now an ‘immersive experience’ like those travelling shows you have everywhere these days, and which Waldemar Janucsczak (rightly so), despises. Further there is, inevitably these days it seems, contemporary art in a number of rooms, like the camel in the picture on your website. These are enlargements of details of paintings, intended for children. Sometimes they are playful and not very obtrusive (like the camel, a detail from Rubens’ adoration of the kings) but in other rooms they are terribly disturbing, ugly and annoying. The picture I include shows a room called ‘horizon’, with the monstrous thing in the middle (it’s supposed to represent a cave) destroying exactly that, the view of the room with landscapes. 

I realize that by now I might have given my personal concerns too much attention, since the overall impression is still quite positive. There are a lot of very interesting and well-displayed interventions (the integration of sculpture, the tasteful lighting, a room where you can sit in front of some small 15th century jewel-like panels and study them in detail, the 19th century salon, etc.) and just many, many stunning works of art.


PS do you like the joke in one of the pictures I include, where the peasants in an Adriaen van Ostade painting seem to be tumbling out of their frame … ? most people don’t even get the joke and think that someone has pushed the picture from its normal position …

Update - in La Tribune de l'Art, Didier Rykner gives the revamp both barrels.

New Lagrenée catalogue

September 21 2022

Image of New Lagrenée catalogue

Picture: Arthena

A new book on the French 18th Century history painter Louis Lagrenée (1725-1805) by Joseph Assémat-Tessandier will be published on 15th November. Order yours here.

Brad Pitt, sculptor

September 21 2022

Image of Brad Pitt, sculptor

Picture: Guardian

Brad Pitt has opened an exhibition of his sculptures, and Jonathan Jones, in The Guardian, is impressed:

Pinch me – I must be dreaming. Brad Pitt is an extremely impressive artist. I certainly didn’t expect to be saying that when I got up this morning. He has sidestepped the embarrassment of celebrity art to reveal what by any standard are powerful, worthwhile works.

Hirst burns art (ctd.)

September 21 2022

Image of Hirst burns art (ctd.)

Picture: Sunday Times

In The Sunday Times, the Great Waldemar reflects on Damien Hirst's latest stunt, burning some of his paintings as part of an NFT promotion, and takes a dim view:

I was thinking the other day about an art book I want to write. Its title would be: Art — How It All Turned to Shit. Every word in the book would be true. Playing a central role in the tragedy would be Damien Hirst.

Among art critics working today, I do not believe Hirst has a more loyal admirer than me. I have followed his artistic progress ever since he photographed himself as a teenager in a mortuary smiling next to a corpse. I’ve interviewed him frequently, heaped praise on him and defended him stoutly when he went too far. I’ve done all this because — and this really marks me out — I believe in him. Fundamentally I believe he has inside him what only true artists have inside them.

But because I have been with him every step of the way, I also know how it all went wrong, and why. It’s a telling story. It says a lot about him, yes, but it says a lot more about the jealous, small-minded, play-acting entity that is the contemporary art world. If I could put a stake through its heart, I would.

In a couple of weeks, to coincide with the opening of the Frieze art fair, we are going to witness Hirst’s latest art gimmick. In an effort to promote his NFTs, he is burning thousands of his pictures, valued at about £10 million. The television cameras and headline writers will be there. My faith in him will receive another clout.

More here.

New Huntington acquisitions

September 21 2022

Image of New Huntington acquisitions

Picture: The Huntington

The Huntington Library in California has announced some new acquisitions, including a full length Jacobean portrait probably by Robert Peake, and the above portrait described as being Unknown 19th century British, Portrait of a Young Black Man, 1800–1820. It's oval and on an 8 inche high canvas, which reminds me of Thomas Hickey's similarly sized portraits. More details here.

Job opportunity

September 21 2022

Image of Job opportunity

Picture: NG

The National Gallery in London are looking for a new Associate Curator (Post 1800 Paintings). Here's the job summary:

The Associate Curator (Post 1800 Paintings) supports the Curator of Post 1800 Paintings, with the care and growth of the National Gallery’s nineteenth and early twentieth-century collections, and for associated scholarly research, publication, and interpretation. The Associate Curator supports the Curator in seeking and recommending relevant new acquisitions and loans, and, as appropriate, acts as the curatorial lead on exhibitions, collection displays and gallery refurbishment projects.

The salary is £42,630. Details here.



Restitution in the UK - how to make it work

September 13 2022

Image of Restitution in the UK - how to make it work

Picture: The Times

Following on from the publication of the Arts Council's report on how museums should deal with restitution claims, the Burlington Magazine, in its latest editorial, suggests the government should set up an indepedent body to assess such claims:

The creation of such an independent forum with the power to resolve restitution claims would be a way to end accusations that the national museums and the Government are passing the buck between them about the issue. There is precedent in Britain for such commissions or committees to intervene in issues of ownership of cultural artefacts, not least the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art, although there would almost certainly be reluctance by the present Government to endow such a body with the power to decide finally what should leave the country as well as what should stay.

All of which sounds quite sensible, and obviously such a body would have to operate closely with the Export Committee. And yet one would hope that in most cases, museums would be able to work out the answer to whether something should stay or return themselves.

There is one way, however, in which the creation of a Restitution Committee could help overcome the last major hurdle for significant restitution progress in the UK, and that is by resolving the legal question on whether some major institutions can deaccession works to overseas institutions. I've been having a think about this, and would welcome your thoughts on the below possibility.

Currently, the British Museum says it cannot return looted items like the Benin Bronzes (and the Parthenon Marbles), even if it wanted to, because it would require a change in the law. And this is true, for the 1963 British Museum Act allows disposals only under very specific circumstances, under Section 5:

5 Disposal of objects.

(1) The Trustees of the British Museum may sell, exchange, give away or otherwise dispose of any object vested in them and comprised in their collections if—

(a) the object is a duplicate of another such object, or

(b) the object appears to the Trustees to have been made not earlier than the year 1850, and substantially consists of printed matter of which a copy made by photography or a process akin to photography is held by the Trustees, or

(c) in the opinion of the Trustees the object is unfit to be retained in the collections of the Museum and can be disposed of without detriment to the interests of students:

Provided that where an object has become vested in the Trustees by virtue of a gift or bequest the powers conferred by this subsection shall not be exercisable as respects that object in a manner inconsistent with any condition attached to the gift or bequest.

(2) The Trustees may destroy or otherwise dispose of any object vested in them and comprised in their collections if satisfied that it has become useless for the purposes of the Museum by reason of damage, physical deterioration, or infestation by destructive organisms.

Other Acts, like the National Heritage Act 1983, place similar restrictions on other institutions like the V&A. So, on the face of it, this leaves no room for anything other than a long-term loan of items to overseas institutions. It is on this basis that more forward looking institutions in the restitution debate, like the V&A under Tristram Hunt's leadership, are engaging in de facto restitutions through long term loans, as seen in a recent example of Asante gold treasures to Ghana here.

But in many restitution cases, for a British institution to retain legal title to a looted object is problematic, and that is why Hunt has been leading calls to change the law. The next question is whether this would require primary legislation, or secondary legislation. The former is very time consuming, and is unlikely to get a look in with a government trying to deal with a cost of living crisis, not to mention one keen on fighting culture wars. Which Secretary of State for Culture is going to want to take up valuable parliamentary time risking a fight with their backbenchers over what should happen to the Parthenon Marbles? Just imagine the trouble Boris Johnson would cause.

Secondary legislation, however, can be done in an afternoon, and is the means by which a government minister can revise an earlier piece of primary legislation, if permitted to do so in the original Act. The British Museum Act 1963 does not give the Secretary of State the power to amend section 5 on Disposals. Although it does allow them - in section 10 - to designate a new place of  'authorised repository'. So, in theory the Parthenon Museum in Athens could be become a place of authorised deposit for the British Museum.

As cunning a plan that would be, it still doesn't resolve the question of title. However, the 1992 Museums and Galleries Act does give government ministers a route into resolving this, and via secondary legislation. Section 6 of the 1992 Act sets out which UK institutions can transfer objects to other UK institutions, and this list - set out in Schedule 5 - includes those museums which, in the acts which specifically govern them (like the 1963 British Museum Act) forbids them from otherwise deaccessioning.

In other words, Section 6 of the 1992 Museums and Galleries Act effectively allows the British Museum and others to deaccession as they wish, but only by transferring objects to other UK institutions listed in Schedule 5. There are 15 institutions listed, and it's essentially those funded 'nationally' by the Department for Culture. Therefore, in theory the British Museum could transfer its Benin Bronzes to one of the institutions on the list which is not forbidden from deaccessioning, like the Horniman Museum, which recently deaccessioned its own Benin Bronzes.

And there is another, perhaps neater alternative. The 1992 Act can be amended by secondary legislation, via Section 6 part 6, as follows:

(6) The Secretary of State may by order amend Schedule 5 to this Act by adding any body in the United Kingdom to those for the time being specified in that Schedule.

Therefore, it would be possible for the government to establish a body, as The Burlington Magazine recommends, to examine and decide on restitution claims, and then to add this body to Schedule 5 of the 1992 Act. This body can then deaccession, because nothing in its remit, when established, will prevent it from deaccessioning.

If any of this is adopted, we can call it the Burlington Solution.

Art history tattoos (ctd.)

September 13 2022

Image of Art history tattoos (ctd.)

Picture: Rembrandthuis via Twitter

The Rembrandthuis museum has shared the above photo of Rembrandt fan Timothy Englisch's new tattoo, based on Rembrandt's c.1630 self-portrait etching. Fine effort.

HM the Queen in art

September 13 2022

Image of HM the Queen in art

Picture: Nev Wilson, via Twitter

The sad death of Her Majesty the Queen has given rise to some terrible artistic tributes, perhaps the greatest of which is this mural from Hounslow. Unfortunately, HMQ's reign in art, at least, was not a success, though this is more a reflection on the abilities of contemporary portraitists than her own taste. There were of course some successes early on, with for example the Annigoni. But the less said about the efforts by Lucian Freud, and even, goodness, Rolf Harris, the better. Although the former at least gave us the great Sun headline, when the portrait was unveiled; "A Travesty Your Majesty".

Baselitz on women artists

September 12 2022

Image of Baselitz on women artists

Picture: Guardian

In The Guardian, Jonathan Jones has interviewed Georg Baselitz, and in particular about his views on women artists:

But Baselitz’s edgy remarks can sometimes get him into scrapes. In 2013, he was quoted in Der Spiegel as saying: “Women don’t paint very well.” A couple of years later, he doubled down on that, telling the Guardian: “The market doesn’t lie. Even though the painting classes in art academies are more than 90% made up by women, it’s a fact that very few of them succeed. It’s nothing to do with education, or chances, or male gallery owners. It’s to do with something else and it’s not my job to answer why it’s so. It doesn’t just apply to painting, either, but also music.”

These words have become a millstone. So. I wonder, has he changed his mind?

On the contrary.

Baselitz is right that for too long the current contemporary art market has placed far more 'value' on male artists than female artists. It's more than a little tragic that he cannot see the underlying structural reasons for such an imbalance, and worse, for someone in his position, that he is reluctant to do anything about it. More here.

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