New Royal Collection display at Hampton Court

November 21 2014

Image of New Royal Collection display at Hampton Court

Picture: Guardian

Excellent news from the Royal Collection and Historic Royal Palaces; the 'Cumberland Rooms' at Hampton Court Palace have been refurbished and re-hung with some of the Royal Collection's finest paintings. There's even a Rembrandt self-portrait. Many pats on the back for both the RC and HRP for helping get so much great art out on display.

The Guardian's Jonathan Jones has been to see the new display, and writes:

The Cumberland Art Gallery – named after the Georgian prince William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, for whom in the 1730s William Kent created the suite of palace rooms where the superbly lit and sensitively selected new gallery has now been installed – is the Royal Collection’s latest attempt to display its art to us, the public. It is like looking into the Queen’s jewel box. This is a much more convincing royal art space than the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace, which always feels like a liveried adjunct to the royal tourist industry and has never succeeded in competing with London’s big museums – its exhibition of Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings a few years ago, for instance, drew nothing like the attention the National Gallery’s Leonardo show got. [...]

Curator Brett Dolman says the thinking behind the new gallery was precisely to free the art from “heritage”. Paintings by artists as lofty as Rubens can be seen all over this palace, as part of its decor or even as props in tableaux of royal splendour.

“We’re aware that when you hang paintings in that way you sometimes can’t get near to the art,” he concedes. So the new gallery “is where art speaks for itself”.

It does so absorbingly in what amounts to a permanent gallery of some of the Queen’s very best paintings. The Rembrandt is stupendous. Admittedly the Queen has some other mighty Rembrandts that are not on view here, as well as a drop-dead Vermeer. But there are enough splendours of Renaissance and Baroque painting to satisfy anyone. Two Caravaggios reveal the opposing sides of his vision – a boy peels fruit in one of his early sensual works while Jesus calls his disciples to him in a sombre Christian scene. I was more moved however by a painting of St Jerome looking downward with deep introspective eyes by the 17th-century French master of light Georges de la Tour.

The new display is largely due to one of HRP's energetic curators, Brett Dolman, who I'll embarass by identifying here as posing in the above picture on the left, where he and a colleague are partaking in The Useless White Glove Photo Opportunity. Brett has done a great job persuading the Royal Collection to lend so many treasures, and for turning a part of Hampton Court Palace which used to be a little lost into a destination in its own right. He kindly asked me along when the Cumberland rooms were mid-renovation, and asked my views on the potential hang. Of course, I lobbied for Van Dycks to feature prominently... I can't see from the photos in The Guardian's piece whether they are - here's hoping!

Sotheby's CEO steps down

November 21 2014

Image of Sotheby's CEO steps down

Picture: FT

Sotheby's long-standing CEO Bill Ruprecht has agreed to step down. For some time now he's been in the cross hairs of Sotheby's activist investor, and recently appointed board member, Dan Loeb. The FT reports:

Bill Ruprecht, Sotheby’s chairman and chief executive, is to leave the auction house 13 months after activist investor Dan Loeb launched a blistering public campaign against his managerial style and demanded his resignation.

Sotheby’s said on Thursday that Mr Ruprecht was stepping down by mutual agreement with the board after 14 years at the helm. It added a search was under way for a successor and that Mr Ruprecht would remain in his role until a replacement was found.

Sotheby’s shares – which have fallen steadily since peaking at $53.51 in January – surged 7.4 per cent to $42.12 on the management shake-up in after-hours New York trading.

Personally, from a customer point of view, I've always found Sotheby's a well run and highly effective organisation. I've no idea, but I suppose the resignation has something to do with Christie's continued trouncing of Sotheby's, for four sales on the trot, in the all-important modern and contemporary sectors. A recent Sotheby's fanfare highlighted their highest ever sale total, $422m. But Christie's recent '$852m' contemporary sale puts that figure into stark perspective.

Of course, it's important to note that Sotheby's don't go in for guarantees in the same way Christie's does. That is, they don't give guarantor buyers an effective discount on works they succesfully bid on at auction. I think there can be little doubt that it is Christie's willingness to rely heavily on guarantees that's helping them win in the modern and contemporary sector. 

This might change with a new CEO. If I were a Sotheby's share holder (and I wish I'd bought some stock at $8 back in late 2008 - it's now at $39) I'd hope not, for the last time Sotheby's and Christie's engaged in a guarantee battle, it ended horribly for both sides.

I have no information on who might take over at Sotheby's. But I wonder if we'll see a return of the great Tobias Meyer in some capacity.

Art History ads (ctd.)

November 21 2014

Image of Art History ads (ctd.)

Picture: Stella Artois

There are good ones, and there are bad ones. And then there are those that are just wrong. 

The first painting to make a million quid

November 20 2014

Image of The first painting to make a million quid

Picture: Metropolitan Museum

This surprised me - the first painting to ever sell for more than a million pounds, in 1970, was an Old Master; Velazquez's Portrait of Juan de Pareja. Nowadays, it's hard to imagine anything other than a post-war & contemporary work breaking price records. Richard Cork, who was at the 1970 sale, relives the moment in this article for The Spectator:

The atmosphere was extraordinary. Most observers could not believe that the painting would fetch £1 million. But the bidding, in an auction room that I had never seen so packed and tense, outflew all expectations. It started at £315,000, and took just 130 seconds. After reaching £1 million, the bidding did not slacken. If anything, it strengthened, and eventually shot past £2 million. It was finally knocked down for a staggering £2,310,000, almost tripling the previous world auction record for a painting. Even the most hardened dealers sitting in the audience breathed gasps of disbelief. Then there was a spontaneous burst of applause. The auctioneer left his rostrum, the painting was hastily removed, and sheer pandemonium broke out.

Scores of people swarmed around Alec Wildenstein, the 30-year-old dealer who had bought it. He had been sitting in the second row of the auction room and was escorted out by staff. But it took about ten minutes before a way could be found through the packed hall. He was visibly flushed, and at first seemed lost for words except to say that he was ‘very happy’. Then he managed to explain that the purchase realised the dream of his great-grandfather Nathan Wildenstein, who had founded the family firm 95 years before and thought this Pareja portrait was the greatest painting he had ever seen.

Update - A reader provides this valuable information:

To be pedantic, the painting was knocked down for £2,200,000 guineas - those were the days!  For more detail, Agnews, who were one of the underbidders, provided an account in a book they published on their history.  And, to put ther price in context, one could have bought four of these [Van Goghs] for the same price at around the same time and probably a studio's worth of Rothkos.

It has to be said, as far as the saleroom is concerned, the work was exceptional - a undoubted masterpiece by one of the greatest artists who has ever lived, in great condition (unlined), and not on the market since the Regency period (it was owned by the Radnors).

Wildenstein's guff about his great-grandfather was just that, as he had been commissioned by the Met to buy it - against fierce competition from Washington, who still don't have a major Velasquez, and, it was said, The Louvre.

Update II - another great comment comes in:

I too attended the sale of Juan de Pareja; and when I returned to Sotheby's where I was working at the time, I asked people to guess  what it had gone for. I had various offers of £250,000 and some. When I announced the figure; there was an audible sound of collective jaws dropping to the floor.

As a footnote; the final triumph was the discovery of some centimetres of painted canvas that had been folded over the right hand side, which when revealed, altered the balance of the composition to the left and to a state of perfection.

Update III - an economist writes:

Just for comparative purposes the Velasquez sold for about £ 33 million in current prices based on the UK consumer price index.     probably around two thirds of its current value which would complete well with the inflated contemporary art values.

Curiously it is also 33 million dollars if one converted the original purchase price to dollars in 1970 when the pound was around $ 2.40 and applies the United States price index since 1970 but 66 million dollars if valued at British inflation rates.   

Old masters at the top of the market have risen faster than consumer prices in either country but have been outpaced recently by tulip bulbs….. err… contemporary art, the prices of which have less to do with the art than collecting and competition in general spiced with some greed and lots of guff.

While another reader says in terms of buying power, the number is more like:

[...] about £60 million today. Certainly, central London property prices have risen well in excess of 30x during the last 44 years, but that's another planet.

Update IV - a reader points out that there were more expensive pictures sold before, albeit privately:

To be absolutely accurate, this was the first painting to exceed a million sterling at public auction.  It does remain remarkable that not only was the million pound ceiling broken through but the two million pound mark, but the point is that works could have, and indeed did, break the million pound limit in private sales some years before.

In 1967 the National Gallery of Art in Washington paid a reported $5 million for Leonardo’s Ginevra de’Benci – equivalent at the time to around £1.8 million.  More startlingly, in 1969 the Bavarian State Government – on behalf of the Munich Alte Pinakothek – paid a reported nearly £1.5 million for Hals’ full length portrait of Willem van Heythuysen.  Ironically, given they are now substantial collectors, both works came from among dispersals from the collections of the Princes of Liechtenstein.

Update V - Michael Daley from ArtWatch writes:

The Velazquez was not only priciest, but politically a v. hot purchase (at a time when Harlem was very restive). Hoving had the painting, then in fabulous, scarcely ever touched, condition secretly spirited into Wildenstein’s lair until he found the best formulation for the Met’s spin on such a potentially dangerous purchase 

...and while there, he had it secretly restored so that no one every again got to see it in its fabulous condition...the shenanigans were recalled here.

National Gallery buys newly discovered Wilkie

November 20 2014

Image of National Gallery buys newly discovered Wilkie

Picture: The National Gallery

The National Gallery in London has acquired its first painting by the Scottish artist David Wilkie, after it was discovered in a US auction by the sleuthing, London based art dealer Ben Elwes. Says the NG press release:

A Young Woman Kneeling at a Prayer Desk was discovered in the USA after last being heard of in1872, when it was put up for sale by a relative of the 1st Earl Mulgrave. It is thought his daughter – Lady Augusta Phipps, who died in 1813 aged just 12 – is the subject of the painting.

The work was known to exist because it had featured in an oil sketch Display of Eight Paintings that the artist sent to his brother, Captain Wilkie, an army officer in India.

It was London-based art dealer Ben Elwes who recognised the painting as a Wilkie when he saw it in the catalogue for a sale in New York. He says “I know the work of Wilkie very well and I could see straight away that this was a painting of very great quality. It was tremendously exciting to make this discovery.”

The National Gallery is able to purchase A Young Woman Kneeling at a Prayer Desk thanks to Marcia Lay – an art teacher who taught at Lordswood Girls School, Harborne, for more than 20 years. She died in June 2012, leaving a generous gift in her Will to the National Gallery, and this will fully fund the purchase of the painting in what is Legacy Awareness Month.  Culture Minister Ed Vaizey said “This acquisition is a fantastic example of legacy giving and one that I hope will inspire others to do the same. Thanks to the wonderful generosity of Marcia Lay, an art teacher, this beautiful painting will be seen and enjoyed by a huge audience for the first time, so helping to ensure that her name – and her gesture - is celebrated for generations to come.”

Congrats all round - a great story.

Update - a reader writes:

The Wilkie is nice but I don’t think it’s outstanding enough for the National, nor can I believe Wilkie could ever have been a priority for them in filling gaps.

Another reader, Selby Whittingham, points out that of course this is not in fact the National Gallery's 'first' Wilkie; there were plenty before the official split of the National's collection to form the Tate gallery in 1954, including The Blind Fiddler, which was part of the original 1826 Sir George Beaumont bequest which got the National collection going. Such was the artist's repute in those days that the National even had a statue of Wilkie by Samuel Joseph. The statue is now in storage at Tate, along with 58 of 60 works by Wilkie in Tate's collection.

Update II - another reader writes:

This is hardly a National Gallery-level picture. Regional museum at best. And on top of their recent acquisition of Lawrence's Portrait of Emily Lamb, which is the sort of thing you'd find in a Christie's or Sotheby's Day Sale. What's happening with the NG's quality control?

Re-framing Titian

November 19 2014

Image of Re-framing Titian

Picture: The Frame Blog

The National Gallery is hoping to raise £27,000 to reframe the above picture by Titian, called An Allegory of Prudence. The new frame is on the right, the current one on the left. The new one is eye-wateringly expensive. But it's a good cause worth supporting, which you can do here. They're at 55% so far.

The painting is one of my favourite pictures in the National, mainly by virtue of its message. There's an inscription above the heads which translates as: 'The present does well to remember the past, lest future generations go astray'. It's an appropriate motto for a historians' trade union.

Personally, I hope the National spends some money getting the picture into conservation; they call it 'Titian and studio', but I suspect the 'less good' aspects of the picture that are deemed 'studio' are actually due to condition issues.

You can read more about the new frame and why it's such a good thing to re-frame the picture here on The Frame Blog.

Update - a reader isn't so keen:

I have to confess that I like the old frame.  It may just be that the 2  photographs differ slightly but the reddish gold on the new frame cancels out the red in the skin tones of the portraits and makes the painting look dull in comparison to when the picture was in the earlier frame.  It looks like a waste of money  but I'm sure it will brighten the overall decorative effect in the room, even if it 'kills' the painting!

Help restore Brunelleschi's 'Pazzi Chapel' in Florence

November 19 2014

Video: Opera Di Santa Croce

Great video this to help fundraising for a good cause:

The Pazzi Chapel is a landmark of Renaissance architecture in Florence, Italy. Located in the Santa Croce church complex, the structure was designed by Filippo Brunelleschi – the master architect who is most famous for engineering Florence’s beloved cathedral dome. The loggia in front of the Pazzi Chapel is a prime example of 15th-century architectural decoration in grey pietra serena sandstone, colourful maiolica and terracotta.

550 years have taken their toll on this structure and its decoration. The loggia of the Pazzi Chapel requires urgent restoration to stop further deterioration. Opera di Santa Croce, the non-profit institution in charge of the church’s administration, has raised 50% of the funds needed to carry out this restoration, slated to begin in early 2015. Your support of the loggia’s restoration will help to raise the remaining amount. In so doing, you will become part of the 720-year-long history of Santa Croce.

More details here

Update - a reader writes:

[...] my wife and I exchanged new wedding rings in the Pazzi chapel, all by ourselves, twenty years ago.  There is no more moving space, even if there are equally beautiful ones, which speaks to the Pazzi Chapel's architectural perfection.

Guffwatch - More on those urinals

November 19 2014

Image of Guffwatch - More on those urinals

Picture: FT/AFP

Because I know you can't get enough of them, AHNers, I wrote a piece for the Financial Times on those multi-million dollar urinals, and what they tell us about today's art world. You can read it here. No podcast this time, as it was for the paper's main op-ed comment section. 

Isn't it incredible that the person who paid $3.5m for the urinals at Christie's wasn't dissuaded by the large warning sign hung beside them.

Update - Marion Maneker at ArtMarketMonitor says it's a shame I've 'succumbed to splenetic envy' about such an 'important and fascinating artist'. Well, he's perfectly entitled to think that of Gober, and in fact I'd certainly agree that he's fascinating, and even to some degree important. I can still, however, be baffled that Three Urinals is worth $3.52m. Probably, the $130,000 they made last time they appeared at auction in 1996 is about right. I don't know. I wish, as he I bet he does, that he could have scooped the full $3.52m windfall this time round himself. But I certainly I don't envy anything about his work or the contemporary art market. I merely question it. 

Anyway, Marion also says I've engaged in 'silly conspiracy theories' about guarantees. But when Christie's catalogues openly state that in the case of guarantor purchases “remuneration may be netted against the final purchase price”, it's not a conspiracy theory to ask whether prices reported always reflect what is actually paid for a work of art. Because they don't. That's a fact, not a theory. 

Update II - it's been interesting to see the reaction to my FT piece. First, those contemporarists are very touchy sometimes. It's almost like it's a cult. They assume that anyone criticising either the market or the art is criticising everything to do with contemporary art. But it may surprise them to know that I have more contemporary pictures on my walls at home than antique ones. 

Secondly, it seems very few people are aware of how the guarantor system works, even amongst those familiar with the market. One reader raises the question; if, in the provenance of a work in a sale catalogue, a price is given (as often happens) for the previous time a work sold, but that refers to a guaranor purchase, is that being misleading?

How to solve the museum storage problem

November 19 2014

Image of How to solve the museum storage problem

Picture: Museo Prado

Now this is what I call a picture hang (as tweeted by the Prado earlier today to celebrate their 195th birthday). Which would you rather experience as a gallery visitor: fewer pictures with acres of space around them, and great works still in store; or more pictures on display, but hung closely together like this?

I'd go for the latter, with binoculars available to borrow. 

Update - a reader writes:

Well, I am with you half-way. For grand rooms, yes the old-fashioned hang could be a good way to see more art out of storage and even kind of fun (doesn't the Wallace in London do this, now?). But could we have as well smaller rooms where selected pieces are presented in some semblance of their original settings, such as altarpieces on plain altar-like structures and rooms with domestic art furnishings?  I expect this is anathema to curators (or am I wrong?), but what about the rest of us?

This is one reason I loved the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston - they go for the occasional crowded hang, and in other rooms hang pictures with relevant objects, such as furtniture and sculpture. 

Update II - another reader writes:

Nice photo from the Prado in days of old.

I wonder if it worth starting an on-line petition to get the Tate Britain Duveen Galleries rehung to the maximum? A grand 18/19th Century Royal Academy-style hanging.

The Art Fund arrange projects through crowdfunding these days.

Update III - a reader adds this memory of a trip to the Sorolla Museum:

When reading about the proposal to hang arrange the pictures "old-style", i disliked the notion at first.

But then I remembered my visit to Madrid's Sorolla museum. I fondly remember it as being one of my favourite museums, with quite an intimate atmosphere.

The walls are filled with sorolla works from bottom to top.

I'd be curious to see some modern museums attempt it. Altough it may be more suitable for a wood-furnished artist's atelier than for a stark white museum hallway. (since many museums nowadays resemble nothing more than a collection of corridors).

While another reader sends this image from the Frye Museum in Seattle:

I agree with you, I would rather have more on display and less wall space, which leads me to dwell on the color of the wall rather than the art.

We are fortunate to have a small gem of a museum in Seattle, The Frye Museum.  The Frye Museum along with contemporary exhibitions displays the original 232 paintings purchased by Charles and Emma Frye and left to the city for all to enjoy, and we do.

Guffwatch - have we reached peak Koons?

November 18 2014

Image of Guffwatch - have we reached peak Koons?

Picture: Sotheby's

Despite the headlines around Christie's $852m contemporary sale last week, it seems there are one or two stories that got buried amongst the hype.

The first is that, according to The Art Newspaper, almost half the lots in the sale were guaranteed lots. Therefore, we might be entitled to ask whether the sale really did total $852m, given that sometimes the price paid for a guaranteed lot is actually less than the 'price' reported by the auction house. For a recap on how the guarantee system works, see here.

Secondly, it was interesting to see the re-emergence of Jeff Koons' 'Pink Panther', which sold for $15.8m, against an estimate of $8m-$12m. This figure, however, represented a loss on the last time 'Pink Panther' sold, at Sotheby's in 2011  for $16.8m.

Regular readers may remember that back then, the 'Pink Panther' was the subject of more than one Guffwatch (here, and here, where Koons says the piece is 'all about masturbation'), after Sotheby's gave it the full Guff treatment when they estimated the work at $20m-$30m. Then, Sotheby's said that it was one of the greatest works of contemporary art ever created:

'Representing the highest tier of Jeff Koons' artistic achievement, Pink Panther is immediately identifiable as a masterpiece not only of the artist's historical canon, but also of the epoch of recent Contemporary Art...

The 'Pink Panther' was apparently underbid on this occasion by the mega dealer Larry Gagosian. It seems, though I can't be sure, that the buyer at Sotheby's in 2011 was the guarantor, in which case it's a rarely open example of someone taking a hit on Koons. There's three other examples out there too, so if you've got one, don't hold out too much hope for it.

Anyway, might the fact that the 'Pink Panther' struggled to get away for anything like its previously hyped level suggest that the market's wider enthusiasm for Koons isn't as great as we've been led to believe? 

Christie's Vs. Sotheby's

November 17 2014

Image of Christie's Vs. Sotheby's

Picture: Christie's.

Looking at the numbers, it's clear that Christie's is absolutely whipping Sotheby's at the moment in the all important post-war and contemporary market. In the last four New York 'evening' sales (the big money ones), Christie's has taken in $2533m against Sotheby's $1380m. That's nearly twice as much. Ouch.

Guffwatch - Cy Twombly edition

November 16 2014

Image of Guffwatch - Cy Twombly edition

Pictures: Christie's 

One of the attractions of contemporary art, from the market's point of view, is the fact that so much of it comes in 'series'. An example is Andy Warhol's 'Elvis' paintings, one of which, a 'Triple Elvis', sold last week at Christie's in New York for a record $82m. These series translate, financially, into readily identifiable units in which the only thing that matters is the price made by the last one. So if a Warhol 'Triple Elvis' is now worth $82m, then we can adjust the value of all the other Elvis paintings accordingly. I don't know how many 'Triple Elvis' paintings there are, but there's 22 of the 'Double Elvis' versions. 

A similar series, which featured in Christie's mega $850m sale in New York last week, is Cy Twombly's 'Blackboard' paintings. Again, I don't know exactly how many there are of these, but it seems there are many, for they crop up regularly at auction. But spare a thought for the poor sod who has to write the thousands of words necessary to justify the immense status of these works in an auction catalogue. Surely, there's only so many ways you can describe a doodle?

Well, it seems there is indeed only one way to describe Twombly's tedious loops, but the solution cunningly adopted by the auctioneers is one recognised by students the world over; cut and paste!  

See if you can spot the difference between the two following paragraphs. The first appeared in a Christie's New York sale catalogue last week, for the above 'Blackboard' painting, which sold for $69m:

The nuance and strength of expression that Twombly manages to inflect in his line while still maintaining a continuous rhythm and flow is what makes these lasso-works truly exceptional. Twombly’s incisive and idiosyncratic line simultaneously manages to express both a continuity and a fracturing of this flow, which generates a pervasive sense of dynamic independent movement caught up in a collective progression caused by an irresistible, insistent and perpetual force. In this, the lasso-line paintings reflect something of Italian Futurists’ use of the dynamic rhythm of disjunction to suggest motion, energy and simultaneity. Predating the advent of Fascist art and the Stalinist Realism of the 1930s and 40s, the motion studies of the Futurists were largely untainted by recent political history and as such they informed much of the new art in Italy in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Of particular relevance for Twombly were works like Umberto Boccioni’s 1911 studies for States of Mind and Giacomo Balla’s many studies of air currents and the flight of birds that also followed the example set in the 15th century by Leonardo. Twombly is also known to have been looking closely at Duchamp at this time, in particular, his early Futurist works, such as Nude Descending a Staircase and Sad Young Man on a Train, although it is perhaps the French artist’s Three Standard Stoppages that is most resonant in connection with such measured and yet poetic explorations of line as those that Twombly’s Blackboard paintings present. 

The below paragraph appeared in another Christie's New York catalogue, for the below Twombly 'Blackboard' painting, which made $15m in 2011:

Twombly inflects his line with expressive nuance and strength, while maintaining a continuous rhythm and flow, making these lasso-works truly exceptional. Twombly's incisive, idiosyncratic line expresses this flow as simultaneously continuing and fracturing, generating pervasive, dynamic, independent movement, caught up in a collective progression, caused by an irresistible, insistent and perpetual force. In this, the lasso-line paintings reflect the Italian Futurists' use of disjunction's dynamic rhythm to suggest motion, energy and simultaneity. The Futurists' motion studies predated the advent of the Fascist art and Stalinist Realism of the 1930s and 1940s, and so were largely untainted by recent political history. As such, they informed much of the new art in Italy in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Of particular relevance for Twombly were works like Umberto Boccioni's 1911 studies for States of Mind and Giacomo Balla's many studies of air currents and the flight of birds, which also followed the example set in the 15th Century by Leonardo. Twombly also looked closely at Duchamp at this time, in particular Duchamp's early Futuristic works such as Nude Descending a Staircase and Sad Young Man on a Train. However, it is the French artist's Three Standard Stoppages that resonates most with Twombly's "blackboard" paintings' measured and poetic explorations of line.

The fact that some of the words have been shifted about a bit, to make sure that the two paragraphs are not absolutely identical, helps explain why so much contemporary art guff makes little sense. 

Update - a reader writes:

In an entry of your blog you wonder how many"tedious loops" by Cy Twombly there are and you conclude that "there must be many since they regularly crop up at auction". You stress that contemporary art seems to like series.

Asking such a question is similar to asking how many abstractions Mondrian painted, or how many water lilies Monet painted, or how many Mounts Sainte Victoire Cézanne painted...I could go on and on. It is perfectly all right to find Twombly's abstraction "tedious", yet a closer look at the surface of these paintings, at the difference in light, the intensity of the brush strokes, might give your readers a different view of those works. It is a little too easy to dismiss them the way you do with simplistic conclusions based on the reading of a Christie's catalogue (a type of literature that is universally scoffed at, even among auction house staffers and collectors...).

Another point if I may: the price of a painting has nothing to do with its aesthetic value. They sometimes coincide and sometimes not. It is not Twombly's fault if two people were rich enough to compete at such heights for one of his works. It doesn't make it better or worse.

But perhaps, in your opinion, a Mondrian grid is just a grid and they look all the same. I do hope it is not the case though...

Personally, I'd say Monet's water lilly paintings are on a slightly different level, when it comes to variability and inventiveness, than a series of identical Warhol prints, or indeed even a monochromatic Twombly blackboard painting.

Many people make the mistake of thinking I begrudge wealthy contemporary artists their financial success. But this is far from the case. As I've said before, I even admire Damien Hirst from this point of view. My criticisms are always directed at the occasionally daft marketing and presentation of such works, and the justification of their immense value.

Guffwatch - 'Three Urinals', a million bucks each

November 15 2014

Video: Christie's

This video is a classic example of the guffy genre, with Christie's cataloguing of Robert Gober's 'Three Urinals' (1988). It made $3.5m earlier in New York this week. If you thought the urinal idea was old hat, having been done before by Duchamp in 1917, then think again, because Gober's uniquely inspirational achievement is to, er, 'recontextualise' the meaning of the urinal. And as the catalogue entry breathlessly notes, Gober's really amazing achievement is that he actually made these urinals himself:

Unlike Duchamp, who made art of mass-produced objects, Gober takes the form of a factory produced object and reconstructs it by hand, thereby reasserting his (and by default) the artist’s hand in these objects. 


Though the purity of its form is almost Minimalist in its reduction, the hand-made quality of Three Urinals contradicts its formal austerity and Minimal coolness. Meticulously crafted by the artist, this work is composed of the humblest materials—plaster, wire, wood and enamel paint—in striking contrast to its real-life porcelain counterpart. The smooth contours invite the viewer’s touch, and the sheen of all-white enamel perfectly mimics the cleanliness and rigor of porcelain. But the difference in encountering the warmth of plaster and wood versus the cold, unfeeling indifference of porcelain provides a striking contrast. It exudes the uncanny feeling that the Surrealists termed frisson—the unexpected, chill-producing effect that two seemingly illogical objects could produce when combined. Lined up at regulation height directly onto the surface of the wall, Three Urinals celebrates the prosaic nature of the objects they purport to mimic. Except, on closer examination, this striking triptych is far removed from the ubiquitous sanitary ware on which they are based. This object is resolutely handmade, carefully constructed with a human quality and reinforcing the artist’s search for meaning in form and content rather than the artworld stratergizing that is associated with Duchamp’s readymades. 

There are four 'striking contrasts' or 'contradictions' in the above paragraph. In fact, the whole paragraph seems to contradict itself. Read the full catalogue text here.

Update - another typical guffy construction in the description of Christopher Wool's 'Fool',* with an early deployment in the catalogue note of one of our favourites here on AHN, the Pointlessly Contradictory Sentence:

At once refined and elegant in its Minimalist simplicity, the painting is quiet yet shouts by use of the large-scale black lettering that extends to the uttermost limits of the canvas edge.

Can anybody tell me in what way the above painting is refined, elegant or quiet? It made $14m.

By the way, that's not just any old stenciled lettering we see here:

By breaking the words into their constituent letters and separating them out within a pictorial grid, Wool destabilizes the coherence of each word, thereby hinting at the fallibility of language itself. In the present work, he separates “FOOL” into “FO” and “OL,” so that the letters are prohibited from their descriptive role in forming words, and are left to exist simply as formal elements within a white field. This technique is especially potent considering the letter-count of “FOOL:” it contains four letters that fit so perfectly within Wool’s four quadrants, not unlike Indiana’s LOVE or Warhol’s early photo-booth self-portraits. Even the letters themselves are fractured by virtue of their stenciled nature; small slits cut into the stencil to allow for easier dissemination so that the “O” in “FOOL” is not a perfect circle, but bifurcated down the middle into two separate halves.

* Actually, officially the painting is called 'Untitled'.

Boom (ctd.)

November 14 2014

Video: Christie's

Wednesday evening saw a new record total for a post-war and contemporary art auction; $852m (at Christie's in New York). Which comes first, the bust or the billion dollar sale? One of the hotly contested lots, an Ed Ruscha painting that made $30m, was actually a giant canvas with the word 'Smash' written on it in large letters. Was the market being prophetic, ironic, or just dumb? 

In the Financial Times, Melanie Girlis has this interesting take on who was buying what;

Melanie Gerlis, art market expert at the Art Newspaper, said: “There’s always been a huge American trading circle in modern, postmodern and contemporary art. But there are definitely more Chinese people buying. And at Sotheby’s there was a lot of Russian buying.”

Ms Gerlis said there were about 20 artists whose works had continued to rise “exponentially” over the past decade, fuelled by competitive buying between a comparable number of very wealthy collectors. But she added that these buyers would sometimes pay exceptional amounts for a work in order to boost the value of their existing collection, rather than for the work’s intrinsic value.

Other reports of the bidding frenzy here in The Guardian and here in The New York Times.

The National Gallery and the Slave Trade

November 14 2014

Image of The National Gallery and the Slave Trade

Picture: National Gallery

I haven't yet seen Frederick Wiseman's new (much admired) documentary on the National Gallery, but I was interested to see in this review in The New Yorker that the film contains a scene in which:

[...] a guide recounts for a group of black youths the founding of the National Gallery, in 1824, with wealth derived in large part from the slave trade. The question of what to make of that hangs in the air. It must matter. How?

I know I should really see the scene, and listen to the guide's full description, before making any comment on this. In fact, probably in today's climate of hyper-sensitivity I shouldn't really make any comment on it at all. But it says 'opinions' at the top of this blog, and sometimes they're shot from the hip.

The thing is, there's something about the 'I'm talking to black youths so I must mention the slave trade' assumption that I find just a little depressing in this context. Would we introduce all school groups, who one supposes are there for their first time, to art at the National Gallery this way? I doubt it.

Now, I'm not saying that we should gloss over any aspect of the slave trade and its legacy in any way. But I think it's fair to point out that it's not as easy to draw the National Gallery as an institution into the story of slavery as many think (and as the guide in Wiseman's film seems to think).

Nowadays it's often commonly stated that the National Gallery was indeed founded with 'wealth derived from the slave trade'. This assertion centres on the collection of John Julius Angerstein (above), who made his money in marine insurance, often under-writing slave ships. His 38 paintings were one of the group of works that formed the National's original collection.

However, it's worth noting that Angerstein's collection was not donated to the National Gallery, but bought by the government for £57,000 in 1823. Other what we might call 'founder collections' came from the likes of Sir George Beaumont and the Rev. William Holwell Carr, and these were donated, and, as far as I can tell, were not acquired with money connected to the slave trade; Beaumont's wealth came from coal, while Carr's was a rich benefice in Exeter (which he rarely visited), and money from his aristocratic wife. 

The point is, does the purchase of Angerstein's collection therefore mean that the National Gallery itself was founded on 'wealth derived from the slave trade'? I'm not sure it does, but what do you think? (Specifically, the money in question came from the repayment, by the Austrian government, of a war loan). 

Or is the argument here that should we judge each painting on who owned it, and the means by which they earned, stole or borrowed the money to buy it? If so, should we be more concerned that this picture by Cranach in the National Gallery once belonged to Hitler? 

Update - a reader writes:

I'm not sure the analogy to the Cranach allegedly owned by Hitler in the NG is entirely apposite. From what the NG says, it seems they were given misinformation at the time of purchase. Subsequent information which came to light suggests at least the possibility that it was looted  as there appears to be a gap in the provenance between 1909 and 1945 when it was taken from a warehouse to USA. We should not be concerned therefore about whether it once belonged to Hitler but how how he acquired it.

The Angerstein collection was acquired in 1823, the same year that the Anti-slavery Society was founded. Although in 1772 it was held that no law in England supported slavery this did not apply outside England and Scotland. The attitude towards slavery appears to have  been somewhat ambivalent in the early part of the 19th century. The Slave Trade Act of 1807 abolished the slave trade but not slavery itself. The Slavery Abolition Act 1833 finally abolished slavery  but importantly provided for huge sums in compensation to the slave owners for loss of their assets which speaks volumes about the attitude of the the legislators. To-day one assumes the compensation would have been paid to the slaves and the owners locked up for false imprisonment. The point is that the purchase has to be looked at in the overall context of the time in which it occurred. From that perspective it seems to me that the purchase can hardly be viewed as objectionable.

Van Dyck discovery at Christie's

November 12 2014

Image of Van Dyck discovery at Christie's

Picture: Christie's

Christie's have unearthed the above, previously unknown head study by Van Dyck, and will offer it for sale in December with an estimate of £200,000-£300,000. It relates to the series of head studies for Van Dyck's now lost portraits of the magistrates of Brussels, which were probably painted in the early 1630s. The study is similar in handling to the two studies in the Ashmolean (here and here), one in a private collection (and formerly with the London dealer Fergus Hall, who discovered it in New York), and the study found recently through the BBC television programme, the Antiques Roadshow, with which I was involved. This last study was offered at Christie's in the summer, but failed to sell with an estimate of £300,000 - £500,000.

Christie's sent me an image of the picture some time ago, and I had little hesitation in agreeing with the attribution. But like the four studies listed above, I suspect we can be fairly sure that the Christie's picture is somewhat unfinished, as there seems to be later overpaint in the drapery and background. The concept of the unfinished picture wasn't nearly as appealing in centuries gone by as it is today, and almost all Van Dyck's head studies (as with many other artists) were finished up by later artists to make them more saleable.

The Christie's catalogue speculates that the newly found study relates to Van Dyck's grisaille in the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris (above), which is all that survives of the artist's commission to paint the Brussels magistracy. In the grisaille, 7 sitters are seen. But we are fast running out of candidates for the head studies to relate to, for the new Christie's study and the Ashmolean heads could be said to candidates for the figures with their heads turned to the right.

However, most people forget that there was another, far larger Brussels magistrates group portrait painted by Van Dyck, for which we have not even a grisaille or drawing to give us an idea what it looked like. Both the large magistrates group and the smaller group related to the grisaille were destroyed in 1695 when French forces bombarded Brussels. The larger portrait had about two dozen sitters. So in fact the surviving studies could relate to either picture.

I'm fairly sure we can add to the five studies above heads such as this example in the Royal Collection. A series of similarly composed heads were worked up into more finished pictures with the addition of painted ovals, probably some time after Van Dyck's death. Some of them feature known magistrates such as Antonio de Tassis, but the majority are of unknown sitters. 

Turner's 'Rome from Mount Aventine'

November 12 2014

Video: Sotheby's

Sotheby's wheel out the superlatives in their video for the £15m-£20m Turner coming up in December. 

Fixing 'Adam' after the fall

November 11 2014

Video: Metropolitan Museum

This is well worth watching - a fascinating video from the Met on how they repaired a full-length marble 'Adam' by Tullio Lombardo which smashed to the ground in 2002, after its plywood base collapsed. The Met pioneered new restoration techniques for the project, which has taken over ten years. More here on the Met's site, and also here in the New York Times.

We should also congratulate the Met for being so ready to document and publish the restoration process. Many other museums would have preferred to keep the whole thing under wraps. But the Met is streets ahead of other institutions when it comes to their online presence.

Detroit safe at last

November 10 2014

Image of Detroit safe at last

Picture: The New York Times

The 'Grand Bargain' put in place to secure Detroit's debts has now been ratified, which means that no art needs to be sold from the Detroit Institute of Art. In effect, over $800m was raised to secure the DIA, from private donations, foundations and the State of Michigan.

More here from Randy Kennedy in the New York Times.

It's an extraordinary feat, and we should all hail the efforts of the DIA's director, Graham W. J. Beal (above). Has there ever been a museum rescue like it? How easy it would have been for him to follow the path of so many other US museums in distress, such as the Delaware Museum of Art, and simply sell stuff. 

Update - there was a good programme on Radio 4 about all this, presented by the excellent Alvin Hall.

Meanwhile, in Norway

November 10 2014

Image of Meanwhile, in Norway

Picture: TAN

...they're moving their National Gallery, into a new purpose built location by Oslo's waterfront. But, reports The Art Newspaper, a campaign group is hoping to keep the existing building, above, in use. 

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