New Chair at ArtUK

May 30 2022

Image of New Chair at ArtUK

Picture: ArtUK

The British charity ArtUK, which, building on the work of the Public Catalogue Foundation, photographs and displays online digital images of every publicly owned oil painting and sculpture in the UK, is looking for a new Chair. It's a fantastic charity, the first of its kind in the world, and aims to connect the public to our fantastic national collections. I have benefited from it directly many times, as the first stage to finding discoveries made on the BBC programme I co-presented, Britain's Lost Masterpieces.

I note that in the job spec, there is this:

The successful candidate will be very familiar with the UK museum world and the visual arts scene and have a good understanding of the potential for digital to connect the public with the art they own.

Which indeed goes to the heart of ArtUK and all it does. There is one thing which I hope the new Chair might think about, however; British museums' adherence to an outdated model of selling images means ArtUK can only ever show lower resolution images, because museums restrict the size of image ArtUK can use. This means that using the ArtUK website will always be of limited use, because you can't truly enjoy the art.

And sadly, ArtUK doesn't challenge this model, but reinforces it. It recently submitted a report to the body aspiring to look again at how we promote our national collection which accepts image restrictions. And, by selling image licenses through its website, it directly profits from image fees, even for academic publications. I struggle to see how any of this fulfils the mission of 'digitally connecting the public with the art they own'.

The deadline is 1st June.

Mona Lisa caked

May 30 2022

Video: YouTube

Someone threw a cake at the Mona Lisa in the Louvre. Some sort of protest. She's behind bulletproof glass, so the cake came off worse. More here.

Update - I was on BBC News about this, though I can't link to it, because they don't archive news anymore. I'm afraid I only thought afterwards of saying she had been 'ambushed by cake'. One of the questions was what cake might the perpetrator have used, which of course I didn't know, but it gave me an opportunity to show off my knowledge of La Biscuit Joconde, a type of thin sponge made of almonds. It seems to have no connection to Leonardo, or Mona Lisa, but is thus called because French pastry chefs rate it so highly. I'd never heard of it before, but one of our Ukrainian guests made one on Sunday.

The Parthenon Marbles

May 27 2022

Image of The Parthenon Marbles

Picture: BG

When I went to the British Museum to see the new Stonehenge exhibition (cramped, and not really about Stonehenge), I looked in at the Parthenon Marbles. Many years ago, before I grew up, I used to think the Marbles should certainly stay in the British Museum. But now that I've changed my mind, I was struck by how different the Duveen Gallery (built to house them in 1938) felt as a space. Slightly oppressive (like so much classical architecture of the 1930s it feels like the sort of place Mussolini could stride through at any minute) and as an exercise in museum display, utterly hopeless. Most museums would have at least somewhere in the gallery a representation of the Parthenon itself, to show the connection between the Marbles and the structure from which they came. But evidently here it would serve as an obvious reminder that that is where they should always be. So there's no context. It's all slightly embarrassing.

It's also tempting to see the Gallery as a reflection of the contradictions which make up the modern British story. Where once we were so confident of our place in Europe that we effortlessly plundered it, now we have withdrawn from it. We have a government a little too deeply interested in the cultural and historical purity of Britain, and which wants to send at least the people who it thinks don't belong here back whence they came. But the Marbles, or the Bronzes, and everything else we stole from around the world? We'll keep all that, and just hope nobody notices.

Anyway, let me know what you think.

Update - a reader writes:

Thoughtful paragraph and thank you for sharing your opinion. I fully agree with you, the marbles that the 7th Earl of Elgin “bought”  from the Ottoman guards, ( Greece was occupied by the Turks at the time) should be returned to the Acropolis museum.

Another adds:

I so very agree with your post just now. The Parthenon Marbles story joins a lot of other items in the multifarious soup of our imperial (and plundering) past….. there are constant awkwardnesses cropping up in the path but in all cases the need to - move on / acknowledge the overbearing behaviour / make amends -  indicates that modern diplomacy and ‘right-thinking’ need to have their way.

Your 30’s museum display comments can also be expanded where the context of an item gets unnecessarily and unhelpfully obfuscated in a lot of circumstances.

The Times today reports on some remarks made by Stephen Fry at the Hay Festival, also urging the Marbles' return:

“It would be as if our Stonehenge and Big Ben and the Stone of Scone all in one had been missing from our country for hundreds of years and was finally returned to where it belonged,” Fry told the Hay Festival.

He said the return of the statues from Britain “would be an act that uses a word that we haven’t been able to use of Britain’s acts lately, much: it would be classy”.

Munch at The Courtauld

May 27 2022

Video: Courtauld

An exhibition of works by Edvard Munch has opened at the Courtauld Gallery in London, comprised of loans from the Kode art museum in Bergen, Norway. The show is part of a new partnership between the two institutions. In The Guardian, Jonathan Jones gives it five stars.

Bond's Picasso makes £17m

May 27 2022

Image of Bond's Picasso makes £17m

Picture: The Times

A Picasso painting bought by Sir Sean Connery a few years before he died has made £17m at auction in Hong Kong. The proceeds will go to the Sean Connery Philanthropic Trust. I see from the catalogue entry that Christie's had guaranteed it, and that before the sale it was heralded as 'the most valuable work by Picasso to be offered in Asia'. All of which is an interesting reflection of where the market for these things is heading. More here from Stuart MacDonald in The Times.

AI does the Queen

May 27 2022

Image of AI does the Queen

Picture: Guardian

A robot has painted a portrait of the Queen and as you'd expect it's not good. More from Harriet Sherwood in The Guardian here.

Raphael cartoons digitised (ctd.)

May 26 2022

Image of Raphael cartoons digitised (ctd.)

Pictures: Factum Foundation / BG

Last year, Adam reported on the Factum Foundation making digital scans of the Raphael 'cartoons' at the V&A. The giant works on paper were all photographed in ultra high resolution, from which Factum could make their 3D printed facsimiles. Yesterday, I went to see the Raphael exhibition at the National Gallery, and got to see one of the facsimiles (Paul Preaching at Athens) up close, where it was hung beside the tapestry of the same scene on loan from the Vatican. And I've got to say it is an extroardinary recreation; even from inches away, in the dim light of the exhibition, you'd struggle to tell it was made last year. The surface texture is amazing, right down to the tears and ridges in the paper.

I've written before for The Art Newspaper on how such facsimiles will change the way we value and display artworks, especially contentious ones like the Parthenon Marbles.

Australia repatriates aboriginal art

May 26 2022

Image of Australia repatriates aboriginal art

Picture: Sotheby's

An important painting by the celebrated aboriginal artist William Barak has been acquired by the state of Victoria in Australia from an auction in New York. The state contributed AU$500,000, to add to a fundraising campaign to buy the 1897 painting, 'Corroboree (Women in possum skin cloaks)', at Sotheby's. A wooden parrying shield was also acquired. More from Benita Kolovos in The Guardian here.

Turner 'between the sheets'

May 26 2022

Image of Turner 'between the sheets'

Picture: Turner's House

Turner's House museum in London will soon open an exhibition dedicated to Turner's 'erotic' drawings. The drawings are on loan from Tate. More here.

A recovered $7m Titian?

May 26 2022

Image of A recovered $7m Titian?

Picture: AFP

There was a story doing the rounds a few days about Italian police seizing a 'lost' Titian worth $7m. The picture was unveiled to the press in Italy, and with much fanfare 'returned to the Italian state'. It seems the picture was not stolen, but illegaly exported to Switzerland in 2004 without a correct export licence (any picture worth more than €13,500 and over 70 years old requires an export licence in Italy).

And yet, the picture doesn't really look like a Titian, even from the available photos. So I don't see how it could ever be worth $7m, and to be honest I'm not sure it would even be worth more than the threshold required for an Italian export licence. And even more curiously, the picture was 'recovered' in Italy. So it may never have been permanently exported in the first place.

What's going on? Who knows, but in the Italian press, the politician and superstar art historian Vittorio Sgarbi has waded in, saying the whole thing is a bit of a 'scam'. He also says the picture is certainly not by Titian. And best of all, he's  recorded a You Tube video on it here, which was filmed in a motorhome being driven on the motorway. I'm envious - AHN needs its own chauffeur-driven motorhome.

Stolen de Kooning returns to US museum (ctd.)

May 26 2022

Image of Stolen de Kooning returns to US museum (ctd.)

Picture: Silver City Sun News

Here's a PS to a story AHN first reported on back in 2017; a de Kooning painting stolen from Arizona University by a retired schoolteacher (simply because he liked it) will now be the subject of an exhibition at the Getty. More here on CNN, and exhibition details here.

Italian Museums (ctd.)

May 26 2022

Image of Italian Museums (ctd.)

Picture: Barberini Corsini

From the National Gallery of Art in Rome, exciting news that they have launched an online collections site. The images are tolerably good, and there are even photos of pictures in their frames, and the reverses. You can search here. Illustrated above is their Holbein of Henry VIII, which some Holbein scholars now doubt, but which I'm sure is right.


May 25 2022

I've been in London a few days, seeing Raphael, and cleaning a picture. Or rather, watching Simon Gillespie clean a picture. I'll catch up on AHN tomorrow.


The 'Ugly Duchess' at the National Gallery

May 20 2022

Image of The 'Ugly Duchess' at the National Gallery

Picture: National Gallery

Next year there'll be an intriguing exhibition at the National Gallery in London, based around one of their most curious pictures, the so-called 'Ugly Duchess' by Quentin Massys. Says the NG:

This exhibition looks again at one of the best-known faces in the National Gallery: Quinten Massys’s 16th-century depiction of an old woman, a painting known as ‘The Ugly Duchess’. For the first time, this work is displayed with a related drawing after Leonardo da Vinci, showing their shared interest in fantastical, ‘grotesque’ heads and the vibrant artistic exchange between Italy and Northern Europe in the Renaissance.

‘The Ugly Duchess’ is reunited in the exhibition with her companion, 'An Old Man', on rare loan from a private collection. Massys shows us a woman whose age, appearance and deportment are noticeably different to other women represented in the collection. This is a deliberate choice by the artist. Her exaggerated facial features, devil-like headdress, low-cut dress and wrinkled bosom were used by Massys to parody the traditional marriage portrait: this is an old woman acting like a maiden and offering her partner – who is more formally and soberly dressed – an unrequited token of her love.

You might think that this painting served only as a cruel joke, where we are invited to laugh at this woman’s self-delusion. However, when you look beyond the surface you may discover a Duchess who is also subversive, fierce, and defiant – brazenly flaunting the conventions of her day. The painting captures the rise of secular and satirical art during the Renaissance, two areas that Massys pioneered.

It's free, and runs till 11th June, more here.

Marble Hill House

May 20 2022

Image of Marble Hill House

Picture: English Heritage

The great Palladian villa outside London, Marble Hill House, has been closed for years, but is now reopening after a major restoration. The house was home to Henrietta Howard, best known as George II's mistress. Nadia Khomami has the story in The Guardian:

The major reformation by English Heritage, supported by funding from the National Lottery, has reversed decades of disrepair. The charity has reinstated the interior paint scheme that existed at Marble Hill during Howard’s lifetime and conserved the fine collection of early Georgian paintings, including portraits of Howard’s circle.

It has also restored and recreated some of the house’s furnishings including crimson silk wall hangings and an intricate carved peacock motif table (peacocks were the symbol of the ancient Roman goddess Juno, the protector of women). Also on display are a number of Howard’s personal items including a Chinese lacquer screen bearing her family’s crest and her prized collection of paintings by the Italian artist Giovanni Paolo Panini.

There's just something so perfect about Georgian architecture and interior design, isn't there? Look at this dining room, doesn't it make you instantly feel calm and contented?

Details on visiting here.

Waldemar in Ukraine

May 20 2022

Image of Waldemar in Ukraine

Picture: ZCZ Films

The Great Waldemar is back on the telly, with a film about art in Ukraine, and how it's being protected from Russia's war. Sky Arts, 23rd May, 7.25pm.

Mary, Queen of Scots' casket

May 20 2022

Video: National Museum of Scotland

The National Museum of Scotland has acquired an exceptional French silver letter casket which once belonged to Mary, Queen of Scots. In the video above, Dr Anna Groundwater, Principal Curator of Renaissance and Early Modern History at the Museum tells us why it's so important. And on this special website there's a whizzy high resolution 3D scan of the casket, which you can zoom in and out of, including the inside. Wouldn't it be great if all museum objects could be photographed like this?

More on the acquisition here.

'What should an art museum be?'

May 18 2022

Image of 'What should an art museum be?'

Picture: Thames and Hudson

Regular readers will doubtless already have a copy of Charles Saumarez Smith's new book, 'The Art Museum in Modern Times'. Here he is in a new podcast discussing the subject more broadly, not only on how architecture can help shape a museum's core purpose, but what an art museum should be.

Charles is very sound on these issues, but the use of architecture in a museum can be (in my museumgoer's view) a tricky balance to strike. Nowadays there seems to be too much emphasis on building vast, expensive (and usually empty) atriums, which are seen as essential to luring visitors in.

This is not to say that front doors - that is, entry spaces in general - are unimportant, and not worth getting right. For many people (disabled visitors, those on the autistic spectrum, and perhaps even just the timid) a sensitively designed museum entrance can be vitally important. There's a good phrase they use in retail which is just as applicable to the museum world; 'threshold resistance'. And yet, if anything the craze for swanky new entrances these days manifests itself in the kind of bright, loud entrances that may put off these minority groups.

If you want to bring in new audiences, AHN believes it's better to spend the museum's money on a decent website and digital outreach instead.

Glyn Philpot at Pallant House

May 18 2022

Image of Glyn Philpot at Pallant House

Picture: via The Guardian

In The Guardian, Hettie Judah reviews (and gives five stars to) a new exhibition on Glyn Philpot at Pallant House in Chichester. The show casts a new light on Philpot, who has (in my view at least) been unjustly ignored in the sweep of modern British art:

Philpot appears an artist – and a man – pulled in several directions. A practising Roman Catholic and gay, mesmerised by performance and masquerade, he allowed his interest in the male nude to play out in (at times awkward) symbolist works on classical themes. Influenced by developments in Paris and Berlin, in 1930 he experimented with modernism, painting the chrome, glass and glow of the transforming city. Indebted to Picasso, Cocteau and Matisse, Philpot’s new style was less appreciated in London.

His interest in Black subjects was unusual for its time. Some were performers: Portrait of Paul Robeson as Othello (1930) was rediscovered during research for this exhibition (an earlier painting of the African American tenor Roland Hayes singing is still unaccounted for). In Paris, he painted two portraits of Julien Zaïre, a Martiniquan who performed in cabaret as Tom Whiskey [above]. Positioned against the tubular furniture of a chic interior, Zaïre is the acme of handsome sophistication in black tie and pomade.

The show runs till 23rd October, details here. There's a good overview of Philpot's work on ArtUK here.

Carlo Crivelli in Birmingham

May 18 2022

Video: Ikon Gallery

I'm late to this, but I want to mention the first ever UK exhibition devoted to the Italian Renaissance artist Carlo Crivelli, which is being held in Birmingham, and which, for an Old Master evangelist like me, is a really inspiring story. First, it's great that such a show is being put on 'in the regions', as they're tempted to say in London museum-land, but it's also in a gallery normally devoted to contemporary art, Ikon. Above is a video in which Ikon director Jonathan Watkins describes how he has been fascinated by Crivelli since publishing an article about him in the 1980s. And now, thanks to a grant from the Ampersan Foundation, he's been able to realise a chance to evangelise for Crivelli. How fantastic that Jonathan and his colleagues have been able to give Crivelli the limelight he deserves, in such a great setting.

The show is on till 29th May - hurry! More here.

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