Previous Posts: October 2015

'God hates Renoir'

October 6 2015

Image of 'God hates Renoir'

Picture: Boston Globe

Here's a great story from The Boston Globe:

It’s nothing personal, says Ben Ewen-Campen, he just doesn’t think French impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir is much of a painter. Monday, the Harvard postdoc joined some like-minded aesthetes for a playful protest outside the Museum of Fine Arts. The rally, which mostly bewildered passersby, was organized by Max Geller, creator of the Instagram account Renoir Sucks at Painting, who wants the MFA to take its Renoirs off the walls and replace them with something better. Holding homemade signs reading “God Hates Renoir” and “Treacle Harms Society,” the protesters ate cheese pizza purchased by Geller, and chanted: “Put some fingers on those hands! Give us work by Paul Gauguin !” and “Other art is worth your while! Renoir paints a steaming pile!” Craig Ronan, an artist from Somerville, learned about the protest on Instagram and decided to join. “I don’t have any relationship with these people aside from wanting artistic justice,” he said. The museum hasn’t commented on the fledgling movement, but a few folks walking by Monday seemed amused. “I love their sense of irony,” said Liz Byrd, a grandmother from Phoenix who spent the morning in the museum with her daughter and grandchild. “I love Renoir, but I think this is great.”

I think I'd definitely have joined the protest. I had to spend way too much time in the (un-indexed) Renoir catalogue raisonné for the latest series of 'Fake or Fortune?'.

Update - the protest was *not a serious protest*. Ok? That said, I remember discussing Renoir's occasional badness with the late Prof. John House, of the Courtauld, and he said straight out: 'Renoir could be a truly awful painter. But every now and then he had moments of sublime genius'.

Update II - here's Jonathan Jones in The Guardian sticking up for Renoir. And also having a minor sense of humour failure.

#MetKids

October 5 2015

Video: Metropolitan Museum

With its new series #MetKids the Met continues to leave other museums in its wake when it comes to online presence.

'Le Catalogue Goering'

October 4 2015

Image of 'Le Catalogue Goering'

Picture: Amazon

I recently ordered a copy of a new book on Goering's 'collection' of looted art. It's the sort of book anyone doing provenance research needs to have, not least because of the sheer scale of Goering's looting. The book is useful in that it is illustrated and is a simple transcription of the inventory kept by Goering himself. But it is maddeningly un-useful in the fact that it has no index, and nor are the artists listed alphabetically.

Still, I recommend it. Although quite why this material is not already online somewhere is a mystery.

Men on top

October 4 2015

Image of Men on top

Picture: via Flickr

Here's Susan Jones in The Guardian:

The Cultural Value and Inequality report by Kate Oakley and Dave O’Brien, discussing inequality within both the creation and consumption of cultural value, indicates that women make up nearly 70% of the workforce in museums and galleries. But according to my research, within those top galleries getting £1m+ of Arts Council England funding, just 37% of director or CEO roles are held by women. The situation is only a little better in the other UK nations, with women leading in 40% of Scotland’s best-funded galleries and 50% of those in Wales.

For those 'national' museums and galleries (ie, those funded directly by DCMS) the situation is even worse; just one director is a woman.

'M*rde'

October 4 2015

Image of 'M*rde'

Picture: Getty

Double disappointment yesterday at AHN towers, with two potential sleepers slipping the net. The first was a rather damaged possible Rubens sketch, which I didn't bid very strongly on. It might have had nothing to do with Rubens at all, and as I've mentioned here before optimism is an art dealer's worst enemy. But it's also the thing that drives you on.

The second was a composition that recorded a lost work by Giorgione. Was it by Giorgione? I doubt it very much. But the annoying thing was I didn't get a chance even to dream - the auction house hung up the phone line just as the bidding got under way. They made no attempt to call back, and wouldn't answer the phone when I called. Cases like that make you wonder if there's something awry going on.

That said, it's a moot point whether it's ever worth going to sleepers in France. Under French law, a vendor can cancel a sale if a picture was incorrectly catalogued, or sue the buyer for the difference in value - and what is more they have a twenty year window in which to do so. Pehaps it was just as well the auction house today was useless. Bof

National Gallery strike over

October 2 2015

Image of National Gallery strike over

Picture: Guardian

News just in that the strike is over. It seems to be a more or less complete defeat for the Union. 'We will not be slienced', they said last week when protesting about 'privatisation' at the Gallery. But now they've agreed unanimously to silence themselves. The Securitas contract will go ahead, as it always would. Here is the strikers' statement:

Our members at the National Gallery voted unanimously today to return to work after we reached an agreement to end the dispute.

The news comes shortly after we marked 100 days on strike since February.

We opposed the privatisation of the gallery's visitor services staff and regret we have been unable to prevent it going ahead.

We are however pleased to have reached an agreement with the gallery and contractor Securitas that would mean protection of terms and conditions and a return to work for our senior rep Candy Udwin. We thank the new director Gabriele Finaldi and the company for their commitment to genuine negotiations.

Strike action is being suspended pending ministerial approval and a ballot of our members over the deal, which also includes union recognition with the company and the London living wage.

Staff will meet outside the gallery at 9am on Monday 5 October to go back in to work together.

More information will be published as soon as it is available.

Our general secretary Mark Serwotka said: "We are pleased to have reached this agreement and on behalf of the union I would like to pay particular tribute to Candy, who is looking forward to returning to the job she loves, and to all our members at the gallery.

"We still do not believe privatisation was necessary but we will work with the new company and the gallery to ensure a smooth transition and, importantly, to ensure standards are maintained at this world-renowned institution."

The terms and conditions and London Living wage were agreed long ago, and are already part of the Securitas deal. The only 'victory' here for the strikers seems to be the reinstatement of Candy Udwin, something AHN predicted a few weeks ago as the only way out of the impasse.

However, the PCS union and the strikers had presented this battle as one against the Securitas deal in any form. 'No privatisation at the National Gallery' was their rallying cry. And so by their own terms they have failed to achieve anything meaningful. Over 100 days of continuous strikes, with no pay for striking staff, tens of thousands of visitors disappointed, numerous education trips cancelled, all for the reinstatement of one employee who was always likely to be re-instated anyway by an employment tribunal. Was it really worth it? What did all that social-mediary, rallying, shouting, petitioning, and protesting really achieve?

However, let us hope that lessons have been learnt at the National Gallery on how not to conduct negotiations like this in the future. With greater political deftness the whole affair might easily have been avoided. 

Update - there is some heroic spinning of the outcome over on Socialist Worker. It's worth looking at their coverage in full. First:

Gallery bosses have conceded to almost all of the strikers’ demands. 

Hmm. Not really, since the 'all out strike' was an attempt to stop the Securitas deal in its tracks, and was called in response to the Gallery signing the contract. By giving in now, before the Securitas regime has even taken over, the strikers have effectively signalled their acceptance of a 'privatisation' they said would be museum armageddon.

Next up:

[...] the strike has forced Securitas to agree to recognise PCS in the gallery.

Nothing unusual there. Even 'privatised' workers have the right to union membership. And should they wish to join a union other than PCS, they are perfectly able to.

And [Securitas] have guaranteed that terms and conditions will not be changed without the agreement of the union. They have also won guarantees on rosters and staffing levels.

By law, staff transferred from the public sector to the private sector are guaranteed the same terms and conditions. So the 'agreement of the union' is moot. As The Socialist Worker later concedes '[Securitas] had already agreed that conditions for existing staff would not change.'

Securitas have also agreed that new staff will be recruited on terms and conditions “broadly comparable” to those of existing staff. 

'Broadly comparable'. In other words, Securitas are not under any new obligation here at all. Window dressing.

Securitas will continue to pay workers the London Living Wage plus enhancements, which they won during the course of their dispute in April.

Yes - 'won... in April', long before the 'all out strike'.

Meanwhile gallery bosses have agreed to a review of the privatisation after 12 months.

An unconditional 'review'. More window-dressing.

And there will be an investigation run by the gallery into relations between bosses and workers broke down in the run up to the first strike in January.

Good.

Finally:

But the reinstatement of Candy is one of the biggest victories of the strike. The fact that it was one of the strikers’ key demands is the reason she is getting her job back.

Good news for Candy, and from what little I can gather, deserved. But was the reinstatement of one worker really worth the wider disruption and campaign? Would a fairly run Employment Tribunal hearing not have come to her aid anyway? One would like to think so, but she has been reinstated before the hearing, which was due later this month.

The Socialist Worker calls these 'huge concessions' and argues that they are 'proof that strikes can win'. But these are not huge concessions. They are barely even minor ones. Instead, they are what diplomats call a 'pont d'or' - a carefully choreographed series of 'golden bridges' over which the PCS union could retreat without too much loss of face. 

The article ends with a warning of further action to come:

“We feel like we’ve come a long way,” one striker told Socialist Worker. “But there’s also a feeling we have to take it further—and we are going to take it further. We’re still opposed to the fact that a private company is going to be running the National Gallery.”

Update II - the PCS seem to be faring no better in Wales.

Update III - the Grumpy Art Historian, a supporter of the NG striker's cause, blasts PCS and the NG for handling the whole affair badly.

New ivory trade ban

October 2 2015

Image of New ivory trade ban

Picture: Telegraph

The US and China have agreed a new 'almost total' ban on ivory trade. The bad news for lovers of portrait miniatures (which, since the early 18thC were painted on ivory) is that there is no concession for authenticated works of art like portrait miniatures. Here is the text of the US order banning the ivory trade - you can bring in an 18thC portrait miniature for an exhibition, but not for sale.

Whether preventing the sale of, say, a 1770s miniature by Richard Cosway will save any elephants remains to be seen.

Update - a reader has pointed me to this exemption for antiques. However, as far as portrait miniatures is concerned, the crucial paragraph of the regulations is this one:

The importer must provide documented evidence of species identification and age to demonstrate that the article qualifies as an ESA antique. This can include a qualified appraisal, documents that provide detailed provenance, and/or scientific testing. The Service considers this to be a high bar, particularly as it relates to the import of African elephant ivory (because the AECA moratorium prohibits the import of most African elephant ivory, including most antiques). Notarized statements or affidavits by the importer or a CITES pre-Convention certificate alone are not necessarily adequate proof that the article meets the ESA exception.

The 'high bar' referred to is a little vague, but in effect it means that you have to prove your portrait miniature on ivory is from an Indian elephant, not an African one. It so happens that Indian ivory was in fact the medium mostly used for portrait miniatures, but it's more or less impossible to scientifically prove that fact (with DNA testing) without destroying the miniature in question. And nor is it cost effective, when most miniatures are sold for less than £10,000. All the signs are, so far, that the US authorities are not goint to take a simple factual or art historical statement as proof that the ivory is of the exempt kind.

Update II - Dr Nicholas Welham, a Consultant Hydrometallurgical Engineer, writes:

There is apparently a non-destructive scientific method for determining whether ivory is African or Asian. A summary is presented in Paul Craddock's book "Scientific Investigation of Copies, Fakes and Forgeries" p.422 et seq, along with references to assorted learned publications which detail the methodology. The equipment (a Fourier Transform Laser Raman Spectroscope) is something most university chemistry departments will have.

I used one of these many years ago and the same instrument was being used by the conservation department at the National Gallery of Australia to examine paint pigments on assorted items in the collection (including Pollock's Blue Poles).

Providing the methodology holds up to closer scrutiny, then it shouldn't be too costly to distinguish between the two different elephant ivories.

Fascinating. Emails like this are one of the reasons I love doing this blog. 

Update III - another reader writes:

I was interested to read your piece about the tightening of the trade in antique ivory. I also remember the ATG piece on ivory in April, about how supportive the art trade is of efforts to save the elephants, which contained an especially feeble quote from Marjorie Trusted of the V&A about how effective CITES has been in preventing the importation and sale of illicit African ivory. What bullsh*t.

I am a bit of a militant on this. The fact is, the mass slaughter of elephants is going on right now in sub-saharan Africa to the extent that perhaps no elephants will be around in a generation. For example, the elephant population of Ruaha in Tanzania has declined to *one third* of its size in 2013, so rapid and extreme has the slaughter been. In the 1970s, there were over 100,000 elephants in the Selous, now it is 13,000, and the rate of killing is escalating.

You make the point that banning 18th century ivory won’t help a single elephant alive today, and in a sense you are right. But how would you feel about banning artefacts made with antique human skin? After all, banning their sale won’t help the poor souls whose bodies were used. The reason we understand that the trade in such items is to be discouraged is because we can see that the circumstances of their production were highly reprehensible. It is that link - between the antique ivory artefact and the bloody elephant carcasses scattered in the grass - which has been severed & which a blanket ban aims to rejoin. The inherent ugliness of these objects has been laundered through time & through their generations of respectable owners.

Most historical African ivory was brought to the coast by slave labour (I can’t speak of Indian ivory). It’s a trade with a very unhappy history indeed. Banning all ivory sales isn’t about directly saving the lives of elephants alive now, it’s about getting people to recognise that ivory, then and now, has always been a deeply unpleasant trade tainted with cruelty. We humans face an uphill struggle to save elephants, and we have a better chance of success if we simply say that no ivory may be sold. In the great scheme of things, so what if a few dealers and auctioneers lose a few pennies on miniatures?

In the ATG piece, a dealer said “there is no correlation between a 17th century baroque ivory cup, and the illicit trade in poached tusks - none.” I see a close link, which goes like this: in the 17th century, people went to Africa and plundered it, killing elephants and taking their tusks. They took their ivory, used Africans as slaves to carry it to ships, and took it to Europe where it was turned into highly marketable artefacts. And now - guess what? - other people are going to Africa and are plundering it, killing elephants for their tusks. The very same thing is happening. You may feel it’s ridiculous to care about the murder of a seventeenth century elephant - and I partly agree. If elephants today weren’t being so threatened, it wouldn’t seem to matter - it would seem like a historical issue only, rather than a problem that began long in the past and which is still very much with us today.

National Gallery strike - end in sight?

October 1 2015

Image of National Gallery strike - end in sight?

Picture: TAN

The new director of the National Gallery, Dr Gabriele Finaldi, held his first press conference yesterday, and a few interesting things emerged. First, it seems there has been a drop of 35% in visitor numbers over the summer (reports The Art Newspaper). And second, Dr Finaldi appears to have stated (as reported in The Guardian) that the Securitas contract will still go ahead, in November as planned:

Finaldi confirmed that the jobs will be outsourced to Securitas from November, but said he hoped for a smooth transition with no jobs lost, and all staff paid the London living wage. “I hope to see all our staff back to work as soon as possible, and to offer an open gallery to all our visitors.”

Today, the BBC reports that the PCS union has spoken positively of new talks with the Gallery. This is most unusual - the PCS' language has until now been brimming with hostility. Says the BBC:

A PCS union spokesman said talks with the National Gallery had made "good progress".

"We are very hopeful of a resolution shortly," he added.

Since the PCS has turned this strike into a campaign against any outsourcing and privatisation at the Gallery, it's hard to see how they can back down now without having stopped the Securitas deal from going ahead. I wonder what has changed.

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