January 28 2013

...just back from a New York Old master viewing trip, so I'm catching up on things at the gallery. See you tomorrow...

This is not Katherine Parr (ctd.)

January 25 2013

Image of This is not Katherine Parr (ctd.)

Picture: NPG

Excitement in the news that the National Portrait Gallery has restored and put on display an early portrait of Catherine of Aragon. For many years it was called 'Katherine Parr', but now the NPG says it isn't. Readers of AHN, naturally, have known this for some months.

'Mona Kate' - a portraitist writes

January 25 2013

Image of 'Mona Kate' - a portraitist writes

Picture: NPG

A fine portraitist (take it from me) writes:

I couldn't agree more that the increasing (or very nearly complete?) reliance on photography for portrait painting is a very great shame.

The really sad thing is that visitors to the NPG are now so inundated by photo-based work that it has become not just he norm, but the ideal.  In recent years  the Visitor's Choice at the BP Portrait Award has always been a photo-realist work, usually enormous in size.

Importantly, photo-realism is not always a fetishistic audit of wrinkles and pores, but is often disguised with a lots of brushy paint, a painterly interpretation of a photo.

 I once asked one of the BP Portrait Award judges about how seriously they take the rule that "the work entered should be a painting based on a sitting or study from life", when for so many pictures that sitting must only consist of taking some photos.  How softly do they use the word "should"?  She said that they trust that the artists have followed the rule, but she didn't sound so sure that it was possible to tell when a painting was done from a photo.  I can't say I was too encouraged.

I must say I had no idea that the BP Portrait Award had a 'life sittings' rule - I'd assumed from the quality of the entrants that there were no rules at all. Similar views on the BP Award from Brian Sewell here.

PS - aren't those good photos of the Duchess? If only the NPG could just put those on the wall instead...

Lost Charles Le Brun found in Paris Ritz

January 24 2013

Image of Lost Charles Le Brun found in Paris Ritz

Picture: Liberation/AFP

Here's a nice story: an English art consultant has found a lost painting by Charles Le Brun in the Paris Ritz. The Ritz is currently closed for renovation, so the hotel decided to ask Joseph Friedman to look at their art. And lurking in a suite (below) apparently used by Coco Chanel he saw a signed and dated (1647) Sacrifice of Polyxena. The picture will be auctioned at Christie's in Paris in April, with an estimate of EUR 300k-500k. Shame they couldn't keep the picture at the Ritz, but I guess they let anyone in these days...

'Mona Kate' - it really is just a photo

January 24 2013

Video: NPG

Turns out 'Mona Kate' is even more reliant on photographs than I thought. Says artist Paul Emsley in the above video:

For many years I worked from life [...] but [...] photography today is so accurate and so good that it's really so much easier just to take photographs and work from that.

I find this a sad comment - in fact, it makes me despair. And from a BP Portrait Award winner? Will art history look back at this painting and decide that this was the moment traditional portraiture - the art of painting someone from life (or at least not by relying entirely on photographs) - finally died? If so, then it will forever be the National Portrait Gallery's misfortune (in choosing the artist, and in so readily promoting photo-realism) to be associated with that moment.

Update - a reader writes:

I agree with you about the Emsley's comments on his practise, it is very dispiriting (especially so as I'm a painter myself). But I wonder if he's taken his conceptual thinking in the matter any further? 

Might it be that he's not actually making a portrait of Katherine per se (in the normally understood sense of the term), but has - according to his desire to transmit verisimilitude - instead made a still life painting of a photograph that happens to have her as a nominal subject-matter? This still life of a piece of photo paper with an image on it having then been executed (somewhat paradoxically) in a photo realist style. If he eschews the skill needed to reproduce tones, composition and accurate colour straight from the eye because he thinks the camera capable of doing this much more precisely, then what is he adding to the image by replicating an accuracy (using his eye and brush) that he thinks his eye cannot make in the first place? Futhermore, if he were to place the photo on a table and let it reflect some sheen from the surface, then include both in a depiction, would it not then be more accurately termed a 'still-life'?

Once the photograph has been made, and the decision to replicate it has been made, this can all too easily lead to the neutering of  just about all the potentially interesting creative decisions in an unquestioning drive for a desired verisimilitude of reproduction. Also we must ask how far a mechanically produced photo accords with what he may see with his own eye when Kate was sat before him. If it is very accurate, then he must still use his skill as an artist in mixing tones to accurately represent those in the photo. So, if he needs skill in doing this, why not just skip the photo and use them in front of the subject directly onto his canvas? He'd probably grow more as a painter.That is where the true art lies, and what sorts the men from the masters.

The camera is not an eye.

Another reader makes a very telling comparison with the NPG's excellent portrait of Diana, Princess of Wales:

I never forget Freud's portrait of the Queen when it was published in the papers.  I thought it was quite awful.  Then I saw it in the flesh and it turned out to be a stunner: in fact, one of his very greatest works.

Kate's portrait looked pretty awful in the papers but I did have hopes... oh my God: it's ten times worse in the flesh!  What a great shame.  Compare this with the truly iconic early Diana portrait by Brian Organ: very 80's and very great!  A real icon of its time.  Why this obsession with photo realism and the BP awards?  It's been going on for years and we are all sick and tired of it!  The Duchess of Cambridge portrait is the worst example of its kind. DEPRESSING.

'Dear Guardian (& other newspapers)'

January 24 2013

Image of 'Dear Guardian (& other newspapers)'

Picture: Guardian

Would you please stop using this portrait to illustrate Shakespeare stories? Lovely painting - but it isn't him. As NPG Chief Curator Tarnya Cooper has explained, it is Sir Thomas Overbury.

A congress on art authentification (ctd.)

January 24 2013

Image of A congress on art authentification (ctd.)

Picture: AIA

The website of the planned 2014 Authentication in Art congress I mentioned a while ago has been updated with some additional information. The Committee of Recommendation is comprised (so far) of Professor Martin Kemp (of Oxford and Leonardo fame) and Dr Rudi Ekkart (of the RKD in Holland). So far so eminent. Here's some more info on what the Congress hopes to achieve:

Within the disciplines mentioned above until now no specific education is available to experts specialising in authentication processes. Nowadays training mainly entails the gradual development of empirical knowledge that appears mainly within the international art and auction sector and in some cases in museums. Structural development of academic skills and competencies focussed on the complex domain of authentication in art simply does not exist. The congress organisers strive towards the development of specialised professional training entirely focussed on expertise on authentication matters.

The educational character will be demonstrated through a well-balanced and academic selection of topics, speakers and specific workshops. The congress requires participants with an inquisitive attitude that are willing to look across the boundaries of their own field.

Students from disciplines Art History, Conservation techniques, Material and Legal sciences from around the world will be invited to participate.

Presentations, lectures and discussions at workshops will be recorded and audio/video reports will be made available.

Programme overview

  • Common terminology and understanding
  • Standards for scientific research and technological research
  • Education and training
  • Cataloguing and publishing
  • Dispute settlement
  • Practical use, users
  • Finance, Legal, Art trade implications
  • Legal implications

This all sounds most encouraging. Hopefully, the educational aspect can be spread further, particularly to university art history departments and students. Perhaps there might be a concerted attempt to get teaching departments involved?

It's an area I feel strongly about. I was recently invited to a seminar (and a fine lunch) at the Paul Mellon Centre to discuss matters of attribution and connoisseurship, along with others from the art trade. The discussion was to look at ways in which the trade could help art history academics and students, and vice-versa. I noted that one thing my fellow dealers had in common was that they had only really started to interract with paintings on a meaningful level (that is, really subject to close study) once they had left university. Isn't this a shame?

Now, I know some art history courses are better than others when it comes to the close analysis of objects. But too much art history teaching is done from small screens and books. The result is that many art history students are missing out on the basic skills they need to work in the art world, particularly when it comes to attribution and authentication, and assessing condition. Students and teachers need to get out more. Hopefully events like this authentication congress can encourage further debate in this area. I know the Mellon Centre are looking to explore this further too.

That said, I'm still looking for the 'c-word' - connoisseurship - on the authentication congress website, but so far with no luck. I do hope the congress will make the case for connoisseurship as part of the authenitication process, but it appears that the emphasis is heading towards a scientific one. This is all well and good, but as I've said before, it is rare that you can scientifically prove a painting.

Science can help you rule out a number of factors - for example, whether a painting is a later copy. But it is rare that it can rule something in. Some artists worked in isolation from the mainstream, and thus developed their own idiosyncratic painting techniques (Vermeer is a good example), and it is true that here scientific evidence can assume a greater importance. But with most artists, particularly those who used a workshop (and who therefore had a number of followers working with exactly the same painting tecniques and styles), science can only offer a more general guide. And since many of the artists we are most interested in authenticating are those who did operate large studios, such as Rubens and Rembrandt, then science can usually only ever get you so far. You still need the connoisseur's eye for the final conclusion. 

That said, I would also make the case for the connoisseur's eye at the beginning of any authentication process. Here's why - the trend for getting paintings scientifically analysed has given rise to an interesting phenomenon I call 'the dossier delusion'. Increasingly, we are presented here in the gallery (and also at 'Fake or Fortune?' HQ) with paintings that are manifestly not by, for example, Turner, but which have nonetheless been subjected to a full technical examination; x-rays, infra-red, pigment and support analysis. The analysis invariably comes up with a conclusion such as; 'yes, this is an early 19th Century painting, with the right sort of canvas and paints, and there is nothing to disprove the suggestion that this is by Turner'. In other words, it's all a bit vague. The conclusion is presented with a thick, professional-looking dossier - and of course a whopping bill. 

However (to continue our Turner example), despite this dossier all the Turner experts, and even anyone with a general knowledge of his work, would say merely on looking at the painting, 'this is not by Turner'. So here's an interesting, indeed ethical question - why, if a connoisseurial look can tell you that a picture is manifestly not by Turner, should an owner be encouraged to spend a great deal of money to prove, scientifically, that it is? If the owner of the putative Turner had asked the Turner experts first, and trusted the expert's judgement, he would have saved himself many thousands of pounds, a great deal of time, and not a little hope. But, as someone wise once said, 'hope is the most powerful human emotion'.

I didn't mean this to become a rant about connoisseurship, but you know me, once I start...

Update - a reader writes:

I read your comment about connoissuership with interest. I seem to remember a program in the "Fake or Fortune" series about a disputed Monet painting during which the presenters,especially a certain Mr. Philip Mould, railed against the Wildenstein Institute. A barrage of scientific tests, and the testimony of the other experts, indicated the painting was authentic but the Wildenstein's in their infinite wisdom said "non" for the sole reason, as I remember that it didn't look right. Isn't that the problem with connoissuership ; there are just too many connoisssuers?.

Should the program "Fake or Fortune" speak to the connoissuers first before the barrage of tests or would that make it a ten minute program each week?

Having said that, I agree in many ways. I would much prefer to look at a painting and make up my own mind than read a 500 page report which has probably been commissioned simply to justify an insurance valuation. My judgement is probably wrong but it doesnt matter as painting is not a science; it is an art.

Good points - yes, 'you could say there are too many connoisseurs'. But I would say instead - 'there are too many bad connoisseurs'. As I've said before, in any occupation or skill there are good and bad practitioners. Some doctors are good, some are rubbish. But we don't say as a result, 'medicine is rubbish, let's try another way to cure people.' The trick with attributions and connoisseurship is very simple; to find someone who is good, who is tried and tested. In the case of the 'Fake or Fortune?' Monet we did have a tried and tested connoisseur, Professor John House of the Courtauld, who knew merely from looking at the painting that it was right. Ultimately, I think one of the reasons the Wildenstein's refused to play ball was because the science never proved that it was vraiment a Monet, merely that it could be.

Update II - Another reader writes:

Your flagging-up of the conference and its ramifications also bring to mind the intense hostilities engendered over declarations of authenticity across the board in paintings etc. from Monet onwards where there are committees and families involved.

I have in particular been hearing about one deceased artist’s foundation, now fronted by the grand-daughter. This is now insisting on scientific analysis of anything put in front of them, which has just recently led to a certain work being ‘removed’ from the canon despite having earlier written testimonials from both the artist’s daughter and said grand-daughter (used as back-up by Christie’s).

This is as nothing against the Warhol shenanigans which have been well reported.

You are also quite right to highlight the need for students to include real experience of artworks away from the computer screen or slide show.

Subsidised unsnobby internships would be ideal our dreams !

I've never understood this business of having an inherited right to authenticate paintings. Who the hell came up with that idea?

Update III - a reader writes:

With growing concern I witness how museums and art historic scholars are trying to reattribute paintings of minor quality to be "masterpieces" simply by arguing with science. The most "shocking" example in my opinion is the new John the Baptist at the Prado. Even someone who is not a conoisseur can see at an instant, that this painting cannot have anything to do with the master.  The clumsy manner in how the upward gaze of the figure with his hand pressed to its chest has been handled is unworthy of a Titian. This is such a "baroque" gesture that one can ask if the painting has anything to do with the master at all. At an auction such a painting would fetch a few thousand Euros at its best. One could therefore just forget about it if there would not have been a noted scholar affiliated to an institution like the Prado who brought it to the attention of the art world. Now we have to deal with it which means that a lot will be written and about it. In my opinion the discussion will not be about the style, becaus here the painting can definitely not stand its ground.

To make one's point the discussion will therefore focus on the restoration report instead. Take the alleged Raphael painting of pope Julius II, that has recently been aquired by the Städel in Frankfurt. The x-rays show pentimenti what has been interpretated as part of "the creative process" that was inflicted upon the painting by the master himself. A standard argument by now to silence critics. As none of us has been with the artist as the painting was created how can we be so sure it was him? Only because a scientific report says so? It is hard to argue against it if you have only got your eye and your subjective opinion on your side. But what will become of conoisseurship if we rely exclusively on science? Nothing much, I guess. 

Update IV - a reader from Spain adds, in response to the above comment:

The authenticity of the work by Titian from Prado is not based obviously in the picture visible surface. The paint surface is destroyed by the heat of fire and in my opinion the restoration has not had the best results. I can not say if the work by Titian or Titian's workshop, but what I have clear is that the x-rays show that the work is a composition masterminded by Titian. The manner in how the upward gaze of the figure with his hand pressed to its chest is presented in a secure work by Titian and its radiograph. 

True, the St. John the Baptist only would be sold at auction for a few thousand and for this we must be thankful that there are museums that spend money on restore and analyzing a painting, which draws an important lesson about how the master worked. That said and knowing that the Prado recognizes that the value of the painting is essentially documentary I just hope that when finished the exhibition about its restoration and discoveries the curators are responsible enough (and I'm fear that no) to not expose the painting next to other works by Titian, because like happens with the Fracastoro in the NG lowers the level of collection.

Science to art history is not the end, [it] is an aid that connoisseurs have to learn to read.

The National Gallery's next Titian upgrade?

January 22 2013

Image of The National Gallery's next Titian upgrade?

Picture: National Gallery

Hot on the heels of the National Gallery's elevation of their 'Attributed to Titian' Portrait of a man thought to be Girolamo Fracostoro from store-room obscurity to gallery wall, I read of another possible promotion. In the latest edition of Harper's Bazaar (article not available online), National Gallery trustee Hannah Rothschild has written a piece on the above painting, The Concert, which is currently described on the NG's website as by an 'Imitator of Titian'. It has not been on display for many years.

However, the picture is currently being cleaned by NG conservator Jill Dunkerton, who thinks that it might well be by Titian. So far, de-lining (taking a later canvas off the back of the original one) has revealed a 'CR' brand, which means that the painting was in the collection of Charles I, where it is indeed listed as a Titian. Prior to that it formed part of the celebrated Gonzaga collection, which contained many Titians. X-rays have reavealed the presence of pentimenti, and paint analysis has shown similarities to Titian's known technique.

Apparently the picture is much over-painted - as indeed it would have to be for it to become a Titian. While it's certainly Titian-esque in many aspects, there are quite a few areas of the picture which at first look too weak for the master himself, such as the drawing of the hands, and the rather vacant expression of the flute player on the right. It would need quite a dramatic transformation to improve to Titian's standards. But as I've said before, it's easy for the eye to be misled by condition issues. We know that other Titians bought from the Gonzaga collection arrived in London in bad condition, and had to be restored (by Van Dyck, no less). 

The Concert certainly has both good and bad elements. The central figure in the red hat looks to be very well observed, but the flute player to the right carries a rather comical air, one untypical of Titian. The diaphanous scarf(?) on the woman on the left suggests underlying technical competence, but the structure of her arm does not. We shouldn't be too distracted by her wonky gaze - one would expect dark pigments like those in the eyes to have suffered over time. Anyway, I'll look forward to seeing how the picture looks after conservation.

Update - a reader writes:

One element you haven’t mentioned and is quite striking is the garment (cloak?) of the man in the immediate foreground. If it is any sort of accurate reflexion of the original composition it is the sheer amount of the picture space it takes up. Reminiscent of the Nationals man with a blue sleeve perhaps?

Another reader writes:

It's not just the vacant expression of the figure on the far right that seems to be a problem, it's the way that his head fits into the composition.  If he was taken out (or even reduced in size) the composition would improve enormously!  Anything to get rid of the heavy rectangular block across the tops of their heads.  It will be interesting to see what the conservator discovers.

Update II - a reader adds:

It always is slightly lamentable that the workshop is brushed aside when these stories hit popular press. Many commissions required significant workshop input - such was the great demand on his studio.

As a related curiosity, the female figure seems to be a familiar/recurring face in many works attributed to Titian and his school - although a consistently utilised model has never been conclusively identified from documentary sources. 

Update III - David Packwood on Art History Today concludes:

Possibly a member of Titian’s workshop, or more likely a minor Venetian painter familiar with the conventions of Venetian painting working later in the century- they’re dating it 1580- but clueless how to weave them all together into a coherent composition. 

Points of interest, but not a great painting.

National's new Titian - Waldemar not convinced

January 22 2013

Image of National's new Titian - Waldemar not convinced

Picture: National Gallery

In his Sunday Times column, art critic Waldemar Januszczak casts doubts on the National Gallery's new claims. It's worth reading his thoughts in full, but here's his main argument:

Rescued from its dark banishment in the basement, it now hangs in Room 10 of the National Gallery, surrounded by other Titians and further fine examples of Venetian painting, looking distinctly underwhelming and overpromoted. If this is a Titian, then it is not a very good one.

The first problem is the sitter’s presence, which seems small and standard when compared with the other Titian sitters in the National’s collection. There is none of the psychological force that glues you to the thoughts of the marvellous Man with a Glove on the opposite wall; and none of that fabulously brave picture-making that thrusts an elbow in your face in the nearby Man with a Quilted Sleeve.

The Burlington article admits the painting is in poor condition, which may explain a lot. Much is made of the skill shown by the artist in capturing the textures of the big fur coat, made of lynx, that the putative Fracastoro is wearing. It’s definitely the best bit of the picture. But in the next gallery, in Titian’s superb group portrait of the Vendramin family, the leading Vendramin also sports a coat lined with lynx, and in that instance the painting of the fur is beyond good — it is actually breath­taking. So swift and ­subtle and nuanced.

The single most un-­Titiany thing about the new Titian is its background. The putative ­Fracastoro seems to be standing in front of a grey wall in which we see two peculiar openings: a circular one above his right shoulder and a kind of rect­angular doorway above his left. This weird architectural arrangement appears nowhere else in Titian. The Burlington admits that it cannot be explained by recent overpainting. So why would ­Titian add such a strange background to what is otherwise an unambitious image?

Before it was hauled out of the basement, the painting was attributed to Francesco Tobido, known as Il Moro, who studied under Giorgione in Venice and worked in Fracastoro’s home town, Verona. Though he is largely ­forgotten today, we know that he, too, painted the syphilis doctor. Indeed, the only time I have seen a background like this before was in Il Moro’s portrait of a couple — one of whom is wearing thick fur — that hangs in the Doris Ulmann Galleries at Berea College, Kentucky.

I've been to see the picture twice now. Although I can still see the arguments for calling the picture 'Attributed to Titian', there is a nagging doubt in my mind. I think I'm going to stick to my initial response to the painting; that because of the condition we can never be entirely sure. Bit of a cop out I'm afraid...

Update - a reader writes:

On Waldemar Januszczak's doubts about the Fracastoro portrait attributed to Titian in the National Gallery, and in particular his point about the unusual architectural background: there is, or rather was, a circular window in "La Schiavona", also in the National Gallery, which was painted out by the artist.

Having seen the upgraded painting now myself I agree with your verdict that its condition means the attribution will continue to prove uncertain. Bits of it look good, but its not immediately likeable.

Guffwatch - Old vs New

January 21 2013

Image of Guffwatch - Old vs New

Picture: Christie's

Here's something I'm looking forward to seeing at the Old Master viewings in New York. I think there's lots of potential for a Guffwatch Special. From Christie's website:

Two major contemporary video works – Bill Viola’s The Last Angel and Eve Sussman’s The Rape of the Sabine Women – will be on view alongside the historical works featured in Old Masters Week. This dialogue between the old and the new will highlight the power of visual languages at two distinct and transformative moments in time. Visitors to the view are encouraged to experience the relationships that exist in this art historical continuum across a variety of media.

And here's more detail about one of the videos:

Bill Viola’s The Last Angel is a ten-minute meditation on spirituality. Projected lengthways on a large plasma screen, the cryptic and hypnotic imagery depicts the lazy flow of water at the top of the frame, much like clouds scudding across the sky. While we are being mesmerized by this slow-motion imagery, eventually some bubbles start to collect at the bottom of the screen. In the final moments of this looped video, a fully-clothed angel emerges, plunging upwards through the shadowy underwater realm, creating a poetic visual experience.  His sudden arrival hauntingly evokes innumerable Renaissance depictions of divine visitations, visions and resurrections, with a beautiful, startling immediacy.

The auction house's increasing attempts to lure contemporary art buyers into the world of Old Masters is to be applauded. As a dealer in the latter I can't help but hope it succeeds. However, I wonder what a contemporary art buyer, used to the diet of guffy verbiage seen above, makes of the more plodding variety of art history found in an Old Master catalogue. Will they open a page on a Rubens, and be disappointed if they find no mention of 'hauntingly evoked and cryptically hypnotic depictions of startlingly immediate beauty'? One hopes not...

Click here for a reminder on how contemporary art guff is written.

The value of government indemnity schemes

January 21 2013

Further to our discussion below about whether governments should support exhibitions by effectively insuring them for free, a reader alerts me to this nugget of information from the National Endowment of the Arts in the US:

The National Endowment for the Arts administers the U.S. Government's Arts and Artifacts Indemnity Program on behalf of the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities (FCAH). The Indemnity Program was created by Congress in 1975 for the purpose of minimizing the costs of insuring international exhibitions. In December 2007, Congress expanded eligibility under the Program to include coverage for works of art owned by U.S. entities while on exhibition in the United States. The Program has indemnified more than 1000 exhibitions, saving the organizers nearly $335 million in insurance premiums.

As a number of readers have pointed out, major exhibitions simply would not be possible without state indemnification. For example, the recent Late Raphael exhibition at the Prado was indemnified to a value of EUR954m

Update - a reader who knows all about the government indemnity scheme here in the UK writes:

As someone who was "involved" for over a decade, I will defend it with passion.  It is a brilliant scheme and should not be knocked, although it will be by those who seek to profit by selling commercial premiums - especially unnecessary ones such as for War Risk. 

GIS probably saves our museums and galleries well over £15 million a year in commercial insurance, without which, as others have pointed out, so many exhibitions would simply not be possible because of the enormous costs of commercial insurance.  This is a substantial public benefit and government auditors have given it a clean bill of health, for the time being at least 

However, it depends absolutely  on every single person involved at every stage of the process behaving impeccably and taking the greatest possible care of every single object and never running any careless risks.  All need to be aware that these days there is no special "contingency" fund, so that any large claim would fall to be deducted from the overall allocations to the sector.  Also borrowers should be quite certain that the objects to be borrowed have a clear and clean provenance - but that is another story. 

GIS also depends on owners (especially trustees) not insisting on unreasonably high valuations.  If they do and the Scheme's administrators insist on a more realistic and defensible valuation, then the borrowers are in the awkward position of being asked to take out top up, commercial insurance which strictly they are not meant to do - as Government and Gov't funded bodies should not be paying any commercial premiums.

Update II - Michael Savage writes:

There's no disagreement that government indemnity schemes make possible exhibitions that otherwise wouldn't take place.  But the 'saving' of $335m in US/£15m p.a. UK isn't a real saving.  It's the market value of services that the government is providing with no charge.  I think it's wrong to consider it nearly free just because there haven't yet been huge claims.  It's like saying Russian Roulette is really safe because I played it three times without dying, or that slot machines are a great investment because my mate won £20 on a £1 game.  The idemnity is a real cost that should be calculated as the probability of loss multiplied by the value of loss, and the question is how it should be allocated.  Currently the state seems just to write a blank cheque.  A really big claim could have a catastrophic impact on overall funding to the arts if the government re-balances the books.

It encourages museums to mount the most spectacular shows of the most valuable works, because it makes no difference to them whether they borrow something worth ten thousand or ten million.  Curators crow about how they've cleverly managed to negotiate loans of the most precious and most delicate paintings, when these loans are actually the most dangerous and shameful.  How is it decided that the goverment will provide a subsidy of, say, £15 a head to people visiting a Van Gogh show, £20 for Leonardo or a few pounds for Barocci?  The answer seems to be no one.  Tax money is being arbitrarily allocated to subsidise the most risky enterprises, simply because the costs aren't properly allocated and accounted for.  Meanwhile basic security measures are being cut back, and museums can't afford enough guards to stop morons scribbling on their paintings.  There is a much stronger case to be made for providing more funding to look after existing collections.  

It's a subsidy that appears to be free, because no one seems to be picking up a tab at the end.  But the cost is real, it incentivises the wrong behaviour, and subsidy would better be directed at basic preventative security.  And to give full disclosure - yes, I loved seeing Late Raphael and I'm looking forward to Young Van Dyck.  Maybe that makes me a hypocrite, but it doesn't undermine the case against indemnities.  

 As an aside, surely the Prado show was under-insured at EUR954m?  It included:

Nine studies by Raphael for the Transfiguration.  One sold recently for ~35m EUR.  Not all are that good, but it included the Ashmolean study, which is the best of them all, so let's say 250m for the group.

St Cecilia altarpiece - can't think of anything like it on the open market for well over a century.  More important even than anything in the Mellon purchases from the Hermitage.  Surely 200m?

Baldassare Castiglione, Great Holy Family and Self Portrait with Friend - say 500m for the three, putting each at less than twice Munch's The Scream.

The other 4m then has to cover three or four other portraits, other Raphael paintings including St Michael, St John Baptist in Wilderness, Small Holy Family (etc...), the works by Giulio Romano & Penni, and all the other drawings.  That obviously excludes exhibits from the Prado's own collection, which wouldn't be covered.

Waldemar on 'Mona Kate'

January 21 2013

Video: ArtFund

Tucked away at the end of Waldemar's Sunday Times column was this reappraisal of his view on the Kate portrait:

The other much-hyped portrait of the year so far is the first painted likeness of the Duchess of Cambridge, by Paul Emsley, unveiled last week by the National Portrait Gallery. Some of you must have seen me disliking it on the BBC news, because you have kindly written in to point out that I, too, am no oil painting. No arguments there.

Yet I realise it was wrong of me to describe it as “disappointing”. I apologise unreservedly. It is substantially worse than that. It’s not just that the composition has been crudely borrowed from a passport photograph, or that the lack of proper texture gives Kate the complexion of an embalmed corpse. The very worst thing about the picture is that Emsley has managed to make Kate Middleton look like Edwina Currie.

Working both ends (ctd.)

January 21 2013

Image of Working both ends (ctd.)

Picture: New York Times

The court room travails of mega dealer Larry Gagosian continue to shed interesting light on the art dealing world. Eric Konigsberg has a fascinating article in New York Magazine on the latest revelations. Of chief interest to me is the note of a conversation between AHN's favourite 'collector', Alberto Mugrabi, Sotheby's, and Gagosian, about a forthcoming auction of a work by Warhol, Hammer & Sickle, which was in danger of failing to sell, something Mugrabi and Gagosian, as holders of numerous Warhols, were keen to avoid. It highlights the inappropriate way in which many in the art world take commissions from both ends of a deal - and how, in an auction setting, it can give rise to substantial conflicts of interest:

[...] according to a word-for-word record of Mugrabi’s end of the conversation, witnessed and transcribed by an associate who was at Claridge’s, he [Mugrabi] agreed to phone Sotheby’s again to negotiate. It appears that Gagosian told Mugrabi to try to float by Sotheby’s a price of £350,000, for one particular work with an estimate of £500,000, and then call Gagosian back.

What the two dealers were apparently attempting to do was thread the needle on the two lesser Warhols. To bid high—as much as the consignor was hoping to get—might serve to prop up values for the Warhol market at large, but would be expensive and make the paintings that much more difficult to sell down the road. When Mugrabi got off the phone with Gagosian, he immediately phoned Alexander Rotter, a Sotheby’s director. “The Hammer and Sickle will be difficult,” Mugrabi said. “This painting should be much less than that, you know?” He told Rotter that “at the height of the market,” he had sold “a painting like this” for $3 million. “But it’s insane that the market has gone down and I have to pay the same price because there is some stubborn guy?”—meaning Froehlich [the vendor] —“That’s surrealist. He’s a surrealist.” When Rotter attempted to say his piece about the consignor’s attachment to the painting, Mugrabi got agitated. “Obviously, he’s putting the painting because he wants to fucking sell it, not because he wants to, you know? If he wants to sell the picture, tell him to be realistic … Which is only better for him and better for me.”

Rotter doesn’t remember the specifics of the deal, but says that “as a rule we don’t disclose the reserve to a buyer. We have conversations with the seller throughout the process. The buyer can’t say, ‘I’ll give you this’ and make it a sure thing, but we can relay that information to the consignor and say, ‘This is a good price, you might consider lowering your reserve.’ ”

Regular readers will know that I find this practice most curious. Either the auction house can be most effectively working for the buyer or the seller, but not both? How can an auction house ever think it is appropriate to tell a potential buyer what the reserve is? That is, if the auction house's prime contractual responsibility is to the vendor, how can it ever say to a buyer, 'by the way, you don't need to make you offer higher than $x'. And then how, if a reserve is set by the vendor on the advice of the auction house, can the auction house then in good faith change its advice to the vendor, on the premise that the buyer's much lower offer is suddenly 'a good price'? In such cases it seems to me that the auction house is failing in its duty to the vendor. But then since the auction house ultimately takes most of its commission from the buyer, who can blame them?

New director for the Fitzwilliam

January 20 2013

Image of New director for the Fitzwilliam

Picture: NMDC

Congratulations to Tim Knox, who has become the new Director of the Fitzwilliam museum in Cambridge - a most covetable role. Tim was formerly at the Soane Museum, which he has transformed through an ambitious, multi-million pound restoration project. I'm not really one for predictions, but I suspect Tim will do similar wonders for the Fitzwilliam, and with ease.

At the top of his list should be the museum's website. Regular readers may remember that I occasionally whinge about the Fitzwilliam's introspection, and particualrly it's inability to keep its site up to date. It comes as no surprise, for example, to find that there is no mention of Tim's appointment. More of a surprise, however, is the fact that The Lamentation by Marcantonio Bassetti, which the museum bought for £225,000 in October 2011, is still not listed in their online database. Happily, at least the Fitzwilliam's bold acquisition of Poussin's Extreme Unction is given appropriate coverage.

Is art history only for poshos? (ctd.)

January 20 2013

Image of Is art history only for poshos? (ctd.)

Picture: British Museum

Reader Dr Ben Thomas from the University of Kent's art history department writes with news of an interesting example of pioneering spirit from the art historical front line:

There have been some very interesting responses to your question ‘is history of art only for poshos?’. Your readers may be interested in some developments in the university department where I work since 2006.

Widening participation in art history has long been a concern for us at the University of Kent, where the majority of students come from state schools. It is clearly more difficult for students from less well-off backgrounds to support themselves through unpaid internships, and this does tend to mean that opportunities to get valuable work experience fall to those who can afford them. This is one of the reasons why at Kent we have been devising ways in which students can acquire the skills and experience that would make them more employable in the art world while they are studying for their degree. We have an internship module that at least allows students to earn credit for their degree while working voluntarily for an arts organisation or business, and this can be extended to a ‘year in industry’.  We also have ‘practice-based’ modules where students learn through engaging in projects that have a vocational focus. For example, my ‘print collecting and curating’ module involves students devising an exhibition based on the Kent Print Collection – a collection where only undergraduates can acquire works of art - and then realising it through making purchases or negotiating loans, and then curating the show and writing the catalogue. As well as learning how to contextualize the works they haveselected art historically, the students also learn how to manage a budget, work with partners and to deadlines, and to organise and promote an event. The catalogue for the last exhibition from this module can be found online here.

The four catalogues produced by students taking this course have been reviewed favourably by Print Quarterly and were recently described by Art in Print as ‘exemplary’. Another module of this type is ‘visual arts writing’ where the focus is on critical writing, and where students who have graduated from this module maintain a blog.

These courses are practical examples of ways in which students from all backgrounds can acquire relevant skills and experience, and hopefully start to challenge the perception that art history is a subject only for posh people.

Excellent - clearly, more art history departments should follow Kent's lead.

New Walpole Society online guide

January 20 2013

Image of New Walpole Society online guide

Picture: Walpole Society

The new editor of the Walpole Society, Jacob Simon, has been in touch, with news of a handy guide to online art historical resources.  

Did you know that membership of the Society is a snip at just £45? Well worth joining if you can.

700 year old painting's export blocked

January 20 2013

Image of 700 year old painting's export blocked

Picture: DCMS

A panel by Pietro Lorenzetti has had an export licence deferred by the government. It is apparently the only picture in the UK to have an unquestioned attribution to Lorenzetti, although the press release says the picture has 'only recently come to light'.

Institutions now have until April to attempt to raise the £5.2m required to keep the picture in the UK. More details here

Update - a reader writes:

If you check Christies website entry for the actual auction last July, you will see that it was estimated at £1-1.5M.  As it was from an established British collection, I assume it might have been possible for a UK collection to acquire it by private treaty at something like 2/3 of the upper estimate; ie around £1M.  Now we’re looking at five times that.

An unwanted art collection in New York

January 20 2013

Image of An unwanted art collection in New York

Picture: Brooklyn Museum

The New York Times reports on an attempted mass deaccession from the Brooklyn Museum, to include the above portrait of Louis XI of France:

The Brooklyn Museum seemed to have garnered a bonanza in 1932 when it received a large bequest from the estate of Col. Michael Friedsam, president of the elegant retail emporium B. Altman.

But eight decades later that cache of Dutch and Renaissance paintings, Chinese porcelains, jewelry and furniture has become something of a burden.

A quarter of the 926 works have turned out to be fakes, misattributions or of poor quality, and the museum potentially faces a hefty bill to store the 229 pieces it no longer wants.

The obvious solution — to deaccession (to sell or give away) the relatively worthless items — has been blocked, however, by clauses in Colonel Friedsam’s will that require the museum to obtain permission from the estate’s executors. The holdup? The last executor died in 1962, said Francesca Lisk, the Brooklyn Museum’s general counsel.

I'm tempted to make an offer for the lot...

Update - a reader writes:

[Brooklyn] sold a Hals in the 1960s (I believe thinking it to be a copy) - it was a highlight of the Met's recent Hals exhibition, and is now recognised as authentic and important.  Hope they do better this time...

Fakes everywhere? (ctd.)

January 20 2013

Image of Fakes everywhere? (ctd.)

Picture: NPR

Ken Perenyi claims to be a master forger, and has been touting his new book, 'Caveat Emptor' quite widely recently. You can hear a new interview with him here on US public radio. He claims to have painted thousands of fakes, which have ended up in galleries and museums around the world. I'm afraid I don't entirely believe that Perenyi operated on anything like the scale he claims (for example, he does not point to any examples of his work on public display), but he does seem to be yet one more reason to be careful when buying modern works by less well-known artists. More AHN on Perenyi here.

The Mannerist Queen

January 20 2013

Image of The Mannerist Queen

Picture: Telegraph

It's been quite a week for woeful royal portraits. Hot on the heels of 'Mona Kate', we now have a mannerist Queen Elizabeth II, as seen in a portrait that has only now gone on display some 61 years after it was painted. It has since been hidden because officials in Liverpool, where the picture was commissioned, thought the Queen's neck was too long. More details in The Telegraph here

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