"Watercolour" at Tate

February 19 2011

Image of "Watercolour" at Tate

Picture: Barber Institute (detail of A Coastal Landscape by Van Dyck)

I loved this exhibition. Any show that begins with a watercolour by Van Dyck is a Good Thing. It's well worth a visit. Congratulations to Alison Smith and her colleagues.

I can't think why Richard Dorment disliked it so much. He said it was 'close' to being a 'disaster', and gave it two stars. He didn't like the inclusion of many of the artists or the subjects (such as the series of war scenes), and especially disliked the end rooms, which feature modern art's take on watercolour.

[More below]

But I wonder if he misunderstood the point of the exhibition. The star of the show was the medium - not the artists or the subjects. Instead, the exhibits reflect the immense variety that watercolour allows, from studied details of flowers to on-the-spot views of the trenches.

As a result, the exhibition is never going to be like the more focused exhibitions we have become used to. Which is good. The delicacy of watercolours means that the great majority of the exhibits are rarely on display. So this is a rare chance to see so many varied treats at once.

A highlight for me was John Singer Sargent's gripping A Crashed Airplane (above, Imperial War Museum), painted in France in the summer of 1918. Only watercolour could allow an artist to blend an apparently idyllic French rural scene and a crashed fighter plane with such authoritative immediacy. A drawing or an oil would not have had the same effect. Consequently, the curators are to be applauded for having a room devoted to war. 

However, I certainly sympathised with Dorment when I came across a plastic spoon (above; Hayley Tompkins, from Day Series, 2007, 'Gouache on wood and found object') stuck to the wall in the last room. And yet, some of the very poor works in the last room merely reveal that few can paint well with watercolour any more. And in many ways, that is the most revealing room of the show. Watercolour, RIP.

'Watercolour' runs until 21st August. Videos and more on the Tate site here.

The most valuable work of art ever?

February 18 2011

Image of The most valuable work of art ever?

Ai Wei Wei's 10kg pile of Sunflower Seeds sold at auction this week for £349,250. Sotheby's say that works out at about £3.50 per seed. 

Now, Wei Wei's epically delightful installation at Tate Modern was said to be made up of 100 million seeds. Is it therefore worth £350 million? No wonder they stopped people walking on it.

The Sotheby's seeds "can be installed either in a corner, as a carpet or as a mound".

Baffling Price of the Week

February 18 2011

Image of Baffling Price of the Week

Picture: Sotheby's

This self-portrait by Thomas Struth was offered at Sotheby's earlier this week. It shows Struth looking at Durer's self-portrait in the Alte Pinakothek. The photo being sold was one of a run of ten.

There was some great blurb in the catalogue:

There are many ways to interpret these museum pictures—as an exploration of the relationship between painting and photography, as critical commentary on the invasion of cultural institutions by mass tourism, or even as a twist on appropriation art. But above all, they are a meditation on the function of centuries-old art in a secular world and how contemporary audiences engage with these masterpieces as a means of interacing [sic (I think)] with history. 

It made £421,250.

And because I can't resist being a berk, here is my own, which you can have for free.

Caravaggio didn't like cooked artichokes

February 18 2011

Image of Caravaggio didn't like cooked artichokes

A new exhibition in Rome has uncovered some fascinating archival evidence about Caravaggio. We now know for sure where and when he was born (Milan, not Caravaggio) and died (in a hospital bed).

One document reports a fight over a plate of artichokes;

Statement to police by Pietro Antonio de Fosaccia, waiter, 26 April 1604:

About 17 o'clock [lunchtime] the accused, together with two other people, was eating in the Moor's restaurant at La Maddalena, where I work as a waiter. I brought them eight cooked artichokes, four cooked in butter and four fried in oil. The accused asked me which were cooked in butter and which fried in oil, and I told him to smell them, which would easily enable him to tell the difference.

He got angry and without saying anything more, grabbed an earthenware dish and hit me on the cheek at the level of my moustache, injuring me slightly... and then he got up and grabbed his friend's sword which was lying on the table, intending perhaps to strike me with it, but I got up and came here to the police station to make a formal complaint...

Full story in English here. Exhibition website, in Italian, here.

Hungary Resists Restitution Case

February 18 2011

Image of Hungary Resists Restitution Case

Picture: El Greco's Holy Family with Sainte Anne. 

The Hungarian government has resisted an attempt by the heirs of Baron Herzog, owner of one of Hungary's finest private art collections, to seek the return of their paintings. The paintings, which include works by El Greco, Zurburan and Cranach, were seized during the holocaust, when Hungary was an ally of Nazi Germany. 

[More below]

Most of the Herzog collection is now in the Budapest Museum of Fine Arts. The Herzogs have already won back one important painting, the majestic portrait by George Pencz of Sigismund Baldinger. This picture was taken for Hitler's planned personal gallery in Linz. It was returned by the German government in 2010, and sold at Christie's. 

The Hungarian government claims that the Herzog heirs' case is invalid because a 1973 agreement between communist Hungary and the USA settled all outstanding restitution cases. Under that deal, Hungary paid $18million, from which any US citizen affected by looted art could then seek payment. 

It's worth nothing that the works covered by the Herzog claim dwarf that figure in value - and might have done even in 1973.

More on the Herzog collection and case here.

Pictures that make you smile

February 17 2011

Image of Pictures that make you smile

Picture: Galerie Koller

This is a detail from 'Friede im Land (Aufe der Bastei)', or, 'Peace - On the Fortress', by Carl Spitzweg, painted in 1856. It is being offered at Koller on 1st April. The estimate is CHF500-800,000.

More on that Pollock

February 17 2011

Image of More on that Pollock

The University of Iowa's mega Jackson Pollock painting, which I mentioned earlier, has come a step closer to being sold. Now, the price is thought to be $120m.

The Iowa House legislature has voted to force the University to sell the painting, in order to raise funds for scholarships.

Is such a thing possible in the UK? I hope not. But I do know of some nice pictures in the Oxford and Cambridge area...

£5000 History of Art Book Prize

February 17 2011

Nominations are open for the William Berger Prize for British Art History, until 15th March. The prize is awarded to the best history of art book or catalogue of the last year, and is awarded jointly by the British Art Journal and the Berger Collection Educational Trust, in Denver, Colorado.

The judges include Robin Simon, editor of the BAJ, and Desmond Shawe-Taylor, Surveyor of the Queen's Pictures. 

If you see any of these...

February 16 2011


...they're nicked - and you should return them to the Egyptian police. Unless the person offering them to you is called Lord Elgin, in which case that's alright then. 

The BBC has a good film showing how the pieces were stolen.

Mary Beard, on her blog, says of the thefts; [more below]

Tactless it may be, but I have been itching to say this for several days. The sad looting of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo gives yet another reason why the dispersal of major treasures around the world may be a good thing, not an imperialist crime.

I don't mean that everything should end up in the British Museum (or the Met, or the Louvre). In the medium to long term, we can't be certain which parts of the world are going to be safest -- whether that is a question or crime, riot, flood or fire. Over the next millennium London may be no less vulnerable than Kabul. But we do know that 'all eggs in one basket' is bound to be a bad idea.

Only a year or so ago, Zahi Hawass was on the Today programme complaining that all the masterpieces of ancient Egyptian art were not in Egypt.

I hope he is eating his words.

This is a bit harsh, isn't it?

Picture comes down - value goes up

February 16 2011

Image of Picture comes down - value goes up

A portrait of ousted Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak has been removed from the government's cabinet room. As the portrait that will become a symbol of his removal, it's worth far more now than when he was in power. 

For anyone wondering what's in store for all those Mubarak images, a book called 'Toppled' has charted the fate of Saddam's statues. 

Improbably Strong Porter Lifts Warhol

February 16 2011

Image of Improbably Strong Porter Lifts Warhol

Picture: David Rose/Telegraph

Newspapers rarely like to print photos of 'flat art', and so some poor intern is often dragged in to put on the white gloves and told to 'hold' a painting.  

The Warhol seen here has just sold for £10.8m, way above its £3-5m estimate.

Watch de Laszlo Painting

February 16 2011

Image of Watch de Laszlo Painting

Picture: Philip de Laszlo Archive Trust

The Philip de Laszlo Archive Trust website has some fascinating footage of de Laszlo painting. Here, a model holds a rather uncomfortable pose while de Laszlo begins. 

Well worth a click. You can even buy a DVD too.

"Orgy of the rich!"

February 16 2011


Hats off to demonstrators from 'Arts Against the Cuts', who last night staged a daring demo in the middle of Sotheby's evening contemporary art sale. The bidders gave a generous round of applause at the end.

One of the protester's slogans was an ironic; 'I like my money on the wall'. Better than in the bank...

More here.

Tate's new 'Watercolour' exhibition

February 15 2011

Image of Tate's new 'Watercolour' exhibition

Picture: 'Scarlet Sunset' by Turner, Tate Britain.

Richard Dorment doesn't like it:

"Watercolour isn't a complete disaster, but it's a close call."

Matilda Battersby in The Independent is more enthusiastic.

I haven't seen it yet, but so far I hear good reports, and can't wait to go. 

Soane Museum Restoration

February 15 2011

Image of Soane Museum Restoration

The director of the Soane Museum, Tim Knox, has launched a £500,000 public appeal to raise the final funds needed for the museum's restoration. He has already raised a whopping £6.5m. More here, and at the museum's website here

Tim Knox said;

"Rest assured that it will all be done in the best possible taste... no brash new labels or burbling audioguides."

Van Gogh's Dying Sunflowers

February 15 2011


An international team of scientists has analysed the fading pigments used by Van Gogh, most notably his yellow. The findings confirm that over time his yellows have become brown, and will continue to get browner. 

Van Gogh's original use of ultra-bright colours was dependent on the limited type of pigments available at the time. Inevitably, they will not last as well as pigments available later on, when paint companies had to cater for the very style that Van Gogh and his like had created. 

Of course, Van Gogh was not the only artist who had trouble with his 'fugitive pigments'. Joshua Reynolds mixed his own experimental pigments, usually not very well. He had a particular problem with his reds and pinks. As a result, many of his portraits look like ghosts today. 

Will future generations wonder why Van Gogh was so interested in dead flowers?

New pictures at Hampton Court

February 14 2011

Image of New pictures at Hampton Court

Two rarely seen Royal Collection portraits are now on display at Hampton Court Palace. They've been up for a while, but I've only just got round to seeing them. Both are well worth the trip, and well done to the curators at Historic Royal Palaces for securing their loan.

On the left is John Michael Wright's magnificent portrait of the freshly restored Charles II, painted in about 1661. It is one of the finest royal portraits of the seventeenth century, by one of my favourite artists. Wright is often overlooked, being squeezed between Van Dyck and Lely. At his best, however, he comes close to the former, and beats the latter.

On the right is the Giant Porter, painted in 1580. I posted on this earlier, but it's difficult to get a sense of its scale unless you actually see it - it's enormous. To a Tudor viewer it/he must have been terrifying. 

On the Royal Collection website you can zoom in on Charles II here, and the Giant here.

A novel way of getting stock

February 13 2011

A US art dealer has been jailed for four years for stealing paintings from one set of clients, and then selling them to others. Apparently:

The scheme was doomed from the start, investigators claim, as Lidtke's big buyer since his release was an undercover FBI agent.

For sale: 'most important modern American painting ever'?

February 12 2011

Image of For sale: 'most important modern American painting ever'?

Picture: University of Iowa Museum of Art

The University of Iowa is considering selling 'Mural' by Jackson Pollock. Apparently valued at $150 million in 2008, the money would go to fund scholarships. It was given to the University by Peggy Guggenheim in 1951.

The University's website says of the picture; [more below]

Mural is considered by many to be the most important modern American painting ever made. For Mural, Pollock evoked the myriad stylistic techniques and theoretical methodologies to which he had been exposed. He synthesized these elements in the moment and created a painting that is inundated with personal, cultural, social, political, and art-world references: the work of his early mentor Thomas Hart Benton and the Regionalist style; the landscape of the Midwest and Native American imagery and philosophy; commercial art; the Works Progress Association (WPA); Mexican murals, Soviet Social Realism and Marxism; the influence of refugee artists from wartime Europe; Asian calligraphy; African and other non-Western art; film; the explosion of World War II and America's response; Picasso's work, especially Guernica (1937); and Jungian psychotherapy. Pollock harnessed all of these elements, with their diverse strengths, as he experienced them in a frenetic coming-togetherness, acting and reacting within his own bravura-painting performance.

Bacon & Freud continue to rise

February 12 2011

Image of Bacon & Freud continue to rise

Picture: Sotheby's

A 1952 Lucian Freud self-portrait sold at Sotheby's last night for £3.28m, beating its £600-800,000 estimate. Well worth it I'd say. Francis Bacon's triptych of Freud sold for £23m, a price that comfortably beat the $3.8m for a comparable work that sold in New York in 2003.

The pictures were part of the private collection of the late George Kostalitz.

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