Study art history for free!

August 20 2018

Image of Study art history for free!

Picture: Art History Link-Up

The excellent Art History Link-Up has opened applications for state school students to study art history for free, in major museums. This is an excellent opportunity, and the deadline is 10th September. More here

'Fake or Fortune?' (ctd.)

August 20 2018

Video: BBC

There was another good episode of 'Fake or Fortune?' last night, looking into two sketchbooks said to be by the young Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (above). I thought the evidence was very strong, but sadly the programme's rather frustrating conclusion was that the Toulouse-Lautrec 'committee' was not able to give an opinion in the time available. I suspect the committee didn't want to be seen changing its mind so easily on television, since they had once rejected the attribution on not entirely satisfactory grounds. This follows on from last week's show - one of the best yet - where the authority on William Nicholson refused to budge in her opinion that a work once sold as genuine for £165k was an imitation. But it all makes for good telly.

Next week's show is on Henry Moore, and the Gurlitt collection, should be good! Clips here

NPG acquires Dylan Thomas portrait

August 20 2018

Image of NPG acquires Dylan Thomas portrait

Picture: NPG

The National Portrait Gallery in London has bought Augustus John's portrait of the poet Dylan Thomas. The portrait had been on loan at the NPG for many years. More here.

To hear Richard Burton reading Under Milk Wood - surely the best recording of a poem in modern times - click here. "To begin at the beginning..."

How to find Open Access works online

August 15 2018

Image of How to find Open Access works online

Picture: Europeana

There's an interesting article by L. Kelly Fitzpatrick on Medium showing how easy it is now to find images of artworks that are Open Access; that is, available to use without a fee, however you like. She looks at three collections in the US, and also Europeana, the fantastic resource of European artworks which now has links to over 50 million images online, over half of which are Open Access. 

Sadly, British institutions are nowhere to be seen. There is a way to search for Open Access artworks on ArtUK, but sadly not a single artwork has been listed as such on the site. The UK government makes great claims about digital culture, but at the moment, we're lagging far behind everyone else.

'Fleming at 50'

August 15 2018

Image of 'Fleming at 50'

Picture: Fleming Wyfold Foundation

We went last night to the opening of a new exhibition at the Edinburgh Fine Art Society, celebrating 50 years of the Fleming Collection. The collection, focused on Scottish art of all periods, was begun in the 1960s by Flemings bank. The exhibition is part of the Edinburgh Art Festival, and includes well known works such as John Watson Nicol's Lochaber No More (above), about the Highland Clearances. Until 3rd September. More here.  

'Britain's Lost Masterpieces' (ctd.)

August 15 2018

Video: BBC

The third series of Britain's Lost Masterpieces begins tonight on BBC4 at 9pm. Above is a clip; we're looking at a possible Rembrandt in this one. Hope you can tune in!

More here

'Anatomy of an Artwork'

August 15 2018

Video: Sotheby's

Sotheby's has a new series of videos called 'Anatomy of an Artwork'. Here, they look at Van Gogh's famous 'Bedroom'.

Finding Michaelina

August 15 2018

Image of Finding Michaelina

Picture: KHM, via Apollo

Here's a fascinating article in Apollo from the art historian Katlijne Van der Stighelen on her research into Michaelina Wautiers, the mid-17th Century Flemish artist, who is the star of a major exhibition now on in Antwerp:

I discovered Michaelina Wautier back in 1993, when attending a symposium at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. I’d wanted to view a portrait attributed to Van Dyck that was in storage. A curator led me down long corridors in which ‘second class’ Flemish paintings were stored. As I was leaving the stores, my eye fell upon a monumental piece I wasn’t familiar with. Looking closer, I saw that it was an enormous Triumph of Bacchus [above], executed in a style I didn’t immediately associate with the 17th-century Antwerp School. I learned that the work had been recorded in 1659 in an inventory commissioned by the Archduke Leopold Wilhelm, of paintings he had acquired in Brussels, where Wautier lived. The curator noted that it had been painted by a woman: ‘Jungfrau Magdalena Wautier’. While the Triumph of Bacchus is Wautier’s greatest work, it is by no means her only one. Very soon a small body of work had been assembled – the 15 fully signed paintings that had survived served as the basis for attributing 10 more works to her.

It's all very well art historians like me claiming to make the occasional discovery of a painting. But to discover an actual artist, forgotten about for centuries, is a major undertaking, and an extraordinary contribution to art history. AHN hereby adds Prof. Katlijne Van der Stighelen to the list of 'heroes of art history'! 

Katlijne's exhibition is on until 2nd September.

Uffizi sculptures in 3D

August 15 2018

Image of Uffizi sculptures in 3D

Picture: Uffizi

This is cool - a joint project between Indiana University and the Uffizi gallery has 3D scanned the latter's famed collection of classical sculptures. Whizz around antiquity in high definition here

Sharp visitor decline in London galleries.

August 10 2018

Image of Sharp visitor decline in London galleries.

Picture: The Times

There's been a rather worrying decline in visitor numbers at some of London's leading art galleries. The Times reports that directors are holding 'crisis meetings'. The significant drops are at Tate Modern, the National Portrait Gallery and the National Gallery.

An immediate thought might be that the drop has something to do with Brexit and foreign travel. But in fact it appears the decline is linked to Londoners and people who live in the South East, particularly younger audiences. The Times article searches for various causes, but the fact is that nobody really seems to know. 

Overall, the numbers are not encouraging for art lovers. The one institutions to break the trend is the V&A, which has seen a consistent rise, and a sharp increase of late. There was an interesting piece in The Guardian recently attributing part of the rise not only to a strong exhibition programme, but also a new entrance, which the V&A's director Tristram Hunt described as 'frankly less scary'. People always under-estimate 'threshold resistance' in museums, so well done the V&A for tackling it - it's a museum which is a pleasure to enter.

But what of the rest? Here, for what it is worth, is my diagnosis. This is a decline which, if it is because local and younger audiences are turning away, has been a long time coming. Institutions like the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery are now paying the price for disregarding a key part of their core mission; that is, telling the story of the nation's art and its portraits in a readily accessible way. For too long they've chased the tourist pound on their doorstep (not surprisingly, given their locations), but they have neglected the need to reach out to new and younger audiences.

This is most evident in two areas. First, the most basic one; opening times. Regular readers will know that AHN has long argued for opening times that better suit busy working locals, and that means later opening hours, not just on one day a week. The Prado is open till 8pm Monday to Saturdays. 

The second is their online presence, and an antiquated approach to things like images, story-telling, and engaging with those who can help to share their message online. One of the worst offenders - I regret to say, because I love the place - is the National Portrait Gallery.

Have a look at their YouTube page, and you will find very few videos, none of great interest. They've been watched by very few people. It's really quite embarrassing. Maybe the new Michael Jackson exhibition will transform the way the gallery is seen by younger audiences. But somehow I doubt it; it's an old person's idea of a young person's show. The decline at the NPG's visitor numbers represents a consistent fall to about half its levels of a few years ago. That's not good.

What I think is interesting about the V&A's success is the way they are quite good at exploiting the diversity of their collection, and using individual objects as ambassadors in their mission. It helps that of all the UK's national museums, the V&A is the most generous at providing higher resolution images online, and with entries that are well-catalogued too. With the V&A you get the sense that they are keen to glory in all the fascinating stories that their collection has to offer. With the NPG, it doesn't feel like that, which is a shame, because with portraiture the story-telling opportunities are always so rich; you get the story of the sitter, of the artist, and the wider historical moment the poirtrait was made. Portraits are story-telling machines, in the way that (say) still-lifes are not. 

One gets a similar sense at Tate Britain, which in terms of visitor numbers continues to bump along the bottom. But there, a wholesale change in emphasis is needed if they're to hope to make the likes of Hogarth and Gainsborough more appealing to new audiences. Will the leadership at Tate ever allow 'historical' British art to emerge from the shadows?

The good news is that at the National Gallery, they're now doing a much better job with their online offering, such as their Facebook live talks, and videos on everything from framing to conservation.

Underneath the whitewash

August 10 2018

Image of Underneath the whitewash

Picture: Herald Scotland

Here in Scotland, work has begun to reveal a huge 18th Century decorative scheme in an Edinburgh church, which was covered up as 'idolatrous' in the 19th Century. The paintings were made by Alexander Runciman in 1774 in an Episcopalian church just off the Royal Mile. But when the church changed hands, and became a United Presbyterian church, the depiction of the Ascension was painted over, with the new congregation frowning on such things. Now, however, the church is a Catholic church, and when the Scottish art historian Duncan MacMillan figured out that Runciman's paintings might still be there, tests were carried out to see what remained. And these have been deemed so encouraging that the plan is to try and uncover the whole scheme. More here and here

Meanwhile, in a Glasgow nightclub, some early 2001 works by no less than Banksy are also being uncovered, after they were painted over by accident in 2007. More here

At times like this, we must give thanks that the whitewash ordered by Clement VII for the Sistine Chapel was lost in a freak road accident on the Appenine Way in 1534.

Update - I made the last bit up. 

Peter Ustinov on connoisseurship

August 7 2018

Video: ITV

At 6.30 in the above video is a tale by Peter Ustinov - one of history's greatest raconteurs - about an art historian discovering two previously unknown paintings by Pieter de Hooch.

In my experience, attitudes amongst the British upper classes to questions of attribution haven't changed much.

'Tate Shots: Maggi Hambling'

August 7 2018

Video: Tate

I do like Maggi Hambling, above is a short interview with her by Tate, focusing on her portraiture.

New 'Fake or Fortune?'

August 7 2018

Video: BBC

The new series of BBC1's "Fake or Fortune?" starts this Sunday, 12th August at 9pm. The first painting to be investigated is a work bought for £165,000 as a William Nicholson still life, but which was excluded from the most recent Nicholson catalogue raisonné. Is it a fake? There will be four more programmes in the series, looking at works connected to Giacometti, Henry Moore and Toulous Lautrec. 

'A History of Art in Four Colours'

August 7 2018

Image of 'A History of Art in Four Colours'

Picture: Ilex Press

Here's a new art history book you might like; 'A History of Art in Four Colours'. It does what it says on the tin, and is written by Ben Street, who has also been featuring in AHN of late as one of the 'National Gallery 27

Salvator Mundi - not Leonardo, but Luini?

August 7 2018

Image of Salvator Mundi - not Leonardo, but Luini?

Picture: Christie's

An Oxford academic, Matthew Landrus, has declared that the Salvator Mundi sold last year for $450m is not by Leonardo da Vinci, but Benardino Luini. From The Guardian:

“This is a Luini painting,” Landrus said. “By looking at the various versions of Leonardo’s students’ works, one can see that Luini paints just like that work you see in the Salvator Mundi.”

He said between 5% and 20% of the painting was by Leonardo, and that Luini was the “primary painter”. [...]

Landrus said: “I can prove that Luini painted most of that painting. A comparison of Luini’s paintings with the Salvator Mundi will be sufficient evidence.”

Describing Luini as one of Leonardo’s two most talented studio assistants (the other was Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio), he has compared Luini’s Christ among the Doctors in the National Gallery with the Salvator Mundi.

The evidence has led him to conclude that Luini was “the only reasonable candidate for much of the authorship”. He added: “By traditional standards, we can call it ‘a Leonardo studio’ painting.”

Landus highlighted stylistic similarities, including the depiction of the gold bands and the fabric on the robes, saying: “One sees a similar construction on both of those gold bands and on the way the drapery is done. Luini did other paintings that had very good gold tracery in them. Also Christ’s face in both paintings has very similar modelling and, while the hairstyles are slightly different, the approaches are quite similar. Also, the shoulders on Christ are very similar.”

Pointing to a photograph of the Salvator Mundi before its extensive restoration, he said: “There’s a lot of missing paint in certain sections. So it really does add to the discussion about how overpainted it is.”

Landus believes that, if Leonardo’s hand is there, it is in the sophistication of the “sfumato technique, the subtle gradations of shading that avoid perceptible contours or dramatic shifts in tonal values”.

The key painting for Landrus that links the Salvator Mundi to Luini is the National Gallery's Christ Among the Doctors. The construction of important areas such as the face and hands seems to me to be rather different; but this is not at all my area. Either way, on a purely empirical level, I don't agree that simply comparing the Salvator Mundi with known works by Luini is 'sufficient evidence' to prove Luini's authorship, when so many other respected scholars say otherwise.

The new book will be out in September.

Sir Charles Saumarez Smith

August 3 2018

Image of Sir Charles Saumarez Smith

Picture: RA

I'm late to the news that Charles Saumarez Smith, the Secretary of the Royal Academy and former director of the National Gallery, has been given a knighthood. This news was announced on 10th June, only 5 days after AHN had called for him to receive such an honour, so we can conclude that HMQ is, indeed, a reader. Bravo Sir Charles; the award is thoroughly deserved, not least for helping transform the RA into the lithe and emphatic institution it is today.

And last week, Charles announced he would soon leave the RA to become a director at Blain Southern, contemporary art dealers in London. If he carries on matching his ties to the artwork with such flair, as above, I have no doubt he will be a success; as a former art dealer, I know these things. More here.

Finally, I was glad to see on his blog this reflection on current British politics, written during a visit to the Venice Biennale:

I now feel a slight sense of embarrassment as I approach the British pavilion in the Venice Biennale.   The Biennale started in 1895, the British pavilion was designed by Edwin Alfred Rickards, the architect of Methodist Central Hall, and opened in 1909.   We were given a central place in the Celesteville view of national competition in culture.   I no longer feel we deserve this with our insular retreat in Little Englandism and xenophobia and our determination to renounce our historic links and collaboration with neighbouring countries in Europe;  and I am glad to be able to say this when freedom of speech has been so stifled amongst all those in any way on the payroll of the state.

Trump art (ctd.)

August 1 2018

Video: Jon McNaughton

I think it's time for a new category in art history; Trump realism. Unlike some socialist realist artists, however, this fellow can't paint. More here

Brexit art (ctd.)

August 1 2018

Image of Brexit art (ctd.)

Picture: RA

This portrait of a lying spiv former UKIP leader Nigel Farage is currently on show at the Royal Academy's Summer Exhibition. The price, if you're interested, is £25,000. I think this is what they mean by 'Brexit dividend'.

Norton Simon Museum wins case, loses morals?

July 31 2018

Image of Norton Simon Museum wins case, loses morals?

Picture: via

Regular readers will know of the long-running restitution battle over a pair of works by Lucas Cranach the Elder which hang in the Norton Simon Museum in California. The paintings, of Adam and Eve, once belonged to the Dutch Jewish art dealer, Jacques Goudstikker, whose collection was looted by the Nazis (there was a forced sale in 1940, after the invasion of Holland). For a time they hung in Goering's house, and after the war were returned to the Dutch government, along with over 200 othe Goudstikker works. But they were then given to a Russian Prince, George Stroganoff, in the 1960s, who claimed that the pictures had previously been looted from his family by the Soviets after the Bolshevik revolution in 1917. Stroganoff in turn sold them to the Norton Simon in 1971.

For decades now Goudstikker's heir, Marei von Saher, has been trying to reclaim the paintings from the museum, but has always lost her case in the US. Yesterday, she lost her latest case, in the Ninth Circuit Court in California.

The Norton Simon Museum has consistently fought her in the courts, arguing that because the Dutch government sold the works lawfully at the time, then it acquired lawful title to them. The Norton Simon case centres on the fact that under Dutch law, no proper legal claim was made to the Goudstikker collection immediately after the war, and before a 1951 deadline for such claims, after which most of the Goudstikker collection became part of the Dutch national collection. The US courts have accepted this argument, saying that to remove the paintings from the Norton Simon Museum would involve undoing a legal ruling in another country.

However, this disregards the fact that in 2006, the Dutch government restituted over 200 artworks to Marei von Saher, and acknowledged in the process that the Dutch government's retention of the pictures after the war had been unjust, for in fact Goudstikker's widow had made many attempts to get her husband's pictures back. 

The fact that the Norton Simon Museum's pictures were stolen by the Nazis is not in doubt. Nor is the fact that they were stolen because and - only because - their owner was Jewish. Not in dispute also is the fact that the Dutch government was wrong to retain the pictures after the war. But still the Norton Simon Museum refuses to hand them back. The museum clings to the fact that they have 'legal' title, because the specific Dutch law under which Goudstikker's wife was denied her original claim has not been repealed. 

One could argue that the Norton Simon Museum's refusal to return these pictures is a morally bankrupt, even disgraceful action, which knowingly perpetuates an injustice of one of history's greatest evils; the holocaust. I'm inclined to think it is. I don't think we can say that the Goudstikker family's claim to have the pictures back is invalid because the pictures might originally have been looted from someone else. At the very least, the museum should have cut a generous deal with Marei von Saher long ago, saving themselves a fortune in legal fees, and much criticism.

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