Art pun of the year
March 14 2013
Spotted this great headline in the Evening Standard the other day. The exhibition is on at the Museum of London till 14th July. Definitely going to go - Caine's a legend.
Why connoisseurship matters (ctd.)
March 14 2013
Pictures: The Bowes Museum/BG/Your Paintings
Thanks for all your emails and comments about The Culture Show programme. It was fun to make, and I'm always glad to have a chance to evangelise about two of my favourite subjects; Van Dyck and connoisseurship. I promised a more detailed note about the picture, so here goes. I’m afraid it’ll be a little rushed, so don’t expect a Burlington type write-up.
I'll start with condition. At first sight, the picture looked a bit of a mess, and it was easy to see why it had been passed over as a copy for many years. One of the most disfiguring aspects of the portrait was the sitter's left eye, which did not seem to point in the right direction. With a portrait, small damages in a face can make the viewer question the whole image. We tend to look at portraits almost as human faces - and if the eyes are wonky, we assume that the whole portrait must be, in effect, also wonky.
However, as is often the case with condition issues, things looked worse than they in fact were. The wonky eye in question, which at first I thought had been over-painted, was merely missing a dark glaze over the pupil, and a tiny white highlight. Both of these had been cleaned off in a previous campaign of over-zealous restoration. Delicate glazes and pigments like those in an eye on a portrait can be easy to accidentally remove. Possibly, this was done centuries ago, for cleaning pictures used to be the job of the house keeper. Sliced potatoes, stale urine, and worse were used to wipe down paintings, sometimes with disastrous consequences. Wipe too vigorously, off comes a highlight, and suddenly an eye loses its direction.
Elsewhere in the picture, it was the usual story of old layers of dirt and varnish making the paint strokes and colours unreadable. There were also a few holes and some areas of abrasion. Although the picture had been over-cleaned it had not (and this is most unusual) been 'restored'. That is, there were no layers of old over-paint covering the losses and holes. Often, areas of old over-paint can be very hard to remove, especially if applied in oil. Even more fortunately, the picture was unlined, which meant that the original surface of the canvas was actually in excellent condition. I don't recall dealing with an un-lined Van Dyck before. Consequently, the paint layers had not been pressed or flattened in an old lining process (they used to use hot irons to bond the two canvases together, therefore melting and flattening the paint), and all the impasto was just as the artist had intended it. The picture had a fine texture, especially in the drapery. So despite appearances, the painting was in relatively good condition.
There was, however, one area where it had been dramatically altered by a later intervention, and this was in the curious grey, oval additions at the top and bottom. I've not seen these on a Van Dyck before, and again they must have been another reason to doubt the painting in the past. It was fairly easy to see that the edges were additions, especially at the bottom of the picture, as the remains of the sitter's sleeves were visible beneath the later paint. Our paint analysis also confirmed that, at the top, the grey background extended underneath the oval, and so we could safely rule out any question of the oval being original to the picture. In the past, it was not uncommon for owners to add ovals like this if a portrait was intended to be hung as part of a decorative set, perhaps in an architectural feature. When we cleaned the picture, it was decided to leave the oval additions on. It might have been possible to remove them, but they formed part of the picture's history. Below you can see a not very good effort by me at removing them on Photoshop, to give you an idea of how the portrait would originally have looked.
Cleaning the picture was a delicate but enjoyable experience. I was lucky that the Bowes Museum entrusted the picture to our care, and we were able, with Simon Gillespie's help, to use all our experience of conserving Van Dycks (over 20 so far, and many more studio works) to full advantage. Unless you really know what you're dealing with, cleaning Van Dycks can be a fraught business, given the extremely complex and delicate glazes he used. It is very easy to get things wrong, especially in areas with darker pigments like the hair. (If I may say so, the case demonstrates how sometimes the art trade and commercial restorers can have a greater understanding of how to conserve a painting than the museum world. Because we're portrait specialists here at Philip Mould & Company, with a particular expertise in Van Dyck, we have dealt with, researched and restored more Van Dycks in the last few years than a museum conservator might do in a lifetime.) Simon and I decided that the best approach would be to intervene minimally, and so where possible we have left on a layer of the oldest, possibly original, varnish over the whole picture. After the cleaning, there was some re-touching required, for example in areas of abrasion in the drapery, and most notably in the sitter's left eye, where a highlight was replaced. Fortunately, we had a useful guide for any re-touching with a good quality studio copy of the picture at Lamport Hall (below).
Although the picture was of an unidentified sitter when John Bowes bought it in 1866, curators at the Bowes museum had more recently suggested Olivia Porter (d.1663) as an identification, by comparing it to other portraits of her by Van Dyck. And they were right. The copy at Lamport Hall had originally been acquired in the late 17th Century as an unknown sitter, but was subsequently identified as Dorothy, Countess of Leicester. However, some further research, including a trip to the Heinz Archive at the National Portrait Gallery and some help from Olivia Porter's descendants, allowed us to prove conclusively that the Leicester identification was wrong, and that the sitter was indeed Olivia (or Olive, as she called herself). Olive was the wife of Van Dyck's closest friend in England, Endymion Porter, one of Charles I's key courtiers. Porter was the only person whom Van Dyck painted himself with [below, Museo Prado]. Olive was a lady-in-waiting to Henrietta Maria, and later, in 1637, converted to Catholicism with such zeal that she was eventually ordered to leave the country by Parliament.
The Bowes picture was of such high quality that I think we can safely say it was done from life. The portrait was not only exceptionally well painted (as Professor Christopher Brown said, ‘this is Van Dyck at his best’), but carried real authority in terms of characterisation and overall human presence. It's dangeours to be subjective about these things, but it feels as if it was someone Van Dyck knew intimately, and liked. The sketchy and unfinished nature of the drapery further suggests that the picture was conceived as a portrait from life, probably done with the intention of being able to use the likeness in the other portraits of Olive that Van Dyck was to paint. The same head, with a slightly different direction of gaze, was used again by Van Dyck in a larger three quarter length portrait now at Syon House (below, Duke of Northumberland collection), a picture which has been in the Northumberland collection since at least 1652.
The late Sir Oliver Millar, author of the section of the 2004 Van Dyck catalogue raisonne devoted to the artist's English works, dated the Syon House picture to c.1637, which I would agree with, and which also seems a most likely date for the Bowes Museum picture. Given Van Dyck's own strong Catholic faith, it is interesting to speculate whether the portraits of Olive done at this time were in any way linked to her conversion. Van Dyck also painted a group portrait of her with her husband and child [Private Collection - a copy (perhaps that recorded as being made by Mary Beale in 1672) is at Dunham Massey], but this is more difficult to date. A less securely identified portrait of Olive by Van Dyck was formerly at Shrubland Park. Two smaller copies of the Bowes picture exist, on panel. One was formerly at Balnagowan Castle, and was later sold at Christie’s as a portrait of Henrietta Maria, and the other remains in the private collection of Olive's descendants.
After filming was over, I was subsequently alerted (again by Olive's descendant) of another important likeness of her at Lacock Abbey. This portrait, above, is an early copy probably by Theodore Roussel (1614-1689) after the head of Olive in Van Dyck's group portrait of her with her family. The Lacock Abbey copy is important because Van Dyck’s original group portrait is in bad condition (even George Vertue in 1751 records this fact), and consequently the likenesses are not reliable as the picture has been substantially over-painted*. So the Lacock Abbey copy, done soon after the original was completed, is another useful guide to what Olive looked like. For more information on Olive's life and the history of some of her portraits, the best source is Gervas Huxley's ‘Endymion Porter: the Life of a Courtier’ (London, 1959).
John Bowes bought the portrait of Olive in Paris in 1866, from one of his regular dealers, Madame Lapautre. A receipt records that he bought it with another portrait then attributed to Van Dyck, of Henrietta Maria. The Henrietta Maria picture is also still at the Bowes Museum, but has sadly been very heavily over-cleaned, and badly restored (many years ago). It is hard to tell the quality due to the paint loss, but I would say that it was probably painted in Van Dyck’s studio. The earlier history of Olive’s portrait was unknown, but I found the remains of a wax collector’s seal (below) on the back of the un-lined canvas.
It's hard to make out from the photo, but what you can see is a coronet, the top of a shield with 'mascles' or lozenges, and part of the chain of the order of the Holy Spirit, France's highest order of chivalry (as denoted by the tiny ‘H’ in the chain). All of these combined meant that I was looking for a titled (the Coronet) member of the Rohan family (a coat of arms with nine mascles, since the shield was undivided) who was a member of the order of the St Esprit. With help from Dr. Clive Cheeseman, Richmond Herald at the College of Arms, and Hervé, Baron Pinoteau of the Académie Internationale d'Héraldique, we were able to establish that the arms belonged to either Henri, 2nd Duc de Montbazon (d.1654) (below, with his arms in the engraving), or his son Louis (d.1667).
Hopefully, further research in any Montbazon archives might yield further clues, but it was decided not to do this in the programme. What the wax seal does tell us, however, is that the picture was in France by the middle of the 17th Century. It is likely, therefore, that the Porters took the painting with them when they fled England into exile after Charles I lost the Civil War, and probably sold it soon afterwards. We know that the Porters were in dire financial straits when in exile. The supposition is that the picture remained in France until John Bowes bought it in Paris in 1866.
You can see a larger image of the cleaned painting here on the Your Paintings website. In addition to Professor Christopher Brown, the attribution to Van Dyck is also supported by the Rev. Dr. Susan Barnes, a renowned Van Dyck scholar who was one of the original authors of 'Van Dyck: A Complete Catalogue of the Paintings' (New Haven and London, 2004)
* Incidentally, if you own the group picture, and would like some advice on possibly restoring it...
Cleaning test fun
March 13 2013
Top marks if you can spot the artist.
Update - we've had bids for Francis Hayman and Thomas Lawrence so far. Nope!
Update II - the right answer comes in within the hour, via Twitter, from the Rowntree Clark gallery. It's by Sir Peter Lely. An early picture, 1650s. Well done!
Changing values and taste in art history
March 13 2013
Picture: Metropolitan Museum
Professor David Ekserdjian has written an interesting article for The Art Newspaper on how artists' reputations, and values, can rise and fall. He cites the classic example of Van Gogh, who despite only selling one picture during his lifetime is now one of the most sought after in the world, but says such cases are rare:
Maybe we should blame the film “Lust for Life”, 1956, in which Kirk Douglas strutted his stuff as Vincent Van Gogh. What is certain is the fact that the conventional idea of the artist as an unappreciated genius starving in a garret, whose merits will only be recognised when it is far too late for him to reap any earthly benefit, is ominously well entrenched. What is more, this heart-warming scenario of posthumous glory also has a flip side. It requires that any artists who have the misfortune to be admired in their own day had better make the most of it, since they will inevitably fall from favour in the fullness of time. According to the 2012 Sunday Times Rich List, whose accuracy it would be foolhardy to question, Damien Hirst (number 360, £215m) and Anish Kapoor (number 908, £80m) are doing quite nicely, thank you. So, does this mean that we should be musing on the posthumous obloquy they are bound to suffer?
The simple answer is no. The long view suggests that while some artists inevitably go up and down in the rankings, especially when it comes to the second best, there are exceptionally few genuine rediscoveries of slumbering giants. It is true that whole historical periods and regional schools can suffer blanket dismissal, but the pecking order within them tends to stay the same.
I'm not so sure, especially when it comes to artists travelling in the opposite direction to Van Gogh. It's a sure bet that many of today's star artists will be worth relatively little in, say, 50 years. Art appreciation and art valuing today is largely about fashion, but art history is more discerning. Prof. Ekserdjian's article reminded me of a story on BlouinArtinfo the other day, entitled '10 Former Art Sensations the Art Market Left Behind'. My favourite examples were the final two in their list:
Anselm Reyle (1970-present)
Even with the might of Gagosian Gallery behind him, Reyle’s 10-year-old flame appears to be dimming. The German artist’s big signature foil paintings used to bring in a half-million dollars in the boom years, and became ubiquitous at art fairs — and somewhat symbolic of the “bling art” favored by contemporary collectors. Now you can find them for less than $100,000. What’s worse, nearly half of the paintings that came to auction in 2012 failed to find buyers at all.
Damien Hirst (1965-present)
Okay, this one is speculative. It’s too early to say what’s going to happen to the onetime YBA’s career now that he has left Gagosian amid what some analysts have called a “crash” in his market. Recent works by the artist seem to have dropped by a third when they have come up at auction recently. Does the drop in his secondary-market prices signal the end to his reign as the wealthiest artist in the world? Or is his primary market still holding strong? We’ll have to wait for time to tell on this one.
A reader got in touch with me about the Blouin piece, to say that it:
[...] misses out probably the most expensive contemporary artist ever – at least in modern times. Let me introduce you, if you don’t know it already to Friedland [above, a battle scene by Ernest Meissonier, painted c1861-75, which was bought for the whopping sum of $60,000 in 1878].
To put the Friedland sale in context, the most expensive paintings in the world at that time were Murillo’s Immaculate Conception – which the Louvre bought at the Soult sale in 1852 for nearly £25,000 and Raphael’s altarpiece, the Ansidei Madonna, bought for the National Gallery from Blenheim Palace in 1885 for £70,000. As a Van Dyck nut, you’ll be astonished to learn that Friedland was almost as expensive as the Equestrian Portrait of Charles I, which was bought by the National Gallery as part of the same deal for £17,000.
The auction record for Meissonier today is $490,000, for a painting called Guide, sold in 2002.
March 12 2013
...I said I'd do a write up of the Bowes' Van Dyck discovery today, but I've had too much on in the gallery. Sorry. Tomorrow, hopefully...
Update - Thursday, promise! Sold three paintings today, so rather busy.
Van Dyck does contemporary
March 12 2013
Pictures: Fred Bancroft/Marlborough Fine Art
Or rather, contemporary art does Van Dyck. Reader Fred Bancroft alerts me to the above inclusion of Van Dyck's 'Portrait of Charles I in Three Positions' in a (?)montage by an American artist called Red Grooms. It's for sale at the Armory Show in New York, on the stand of Marlborough Fine Art. Below is a picture of the whole work, which is called 'Anthony Van Dyck at the Court of Charles I'. Anyone know what the asking price is?
New Leonardo anatomy exhibition in Edinburgh
March 12 2013
Video: Royal Collection Trust/Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
This summer, the Royal Collection will mount a new exhibition at Holyroodhouse on Leonardo's anatomy drawings, called 'The Mechanics of Man'. 3D animations (above) and imagery will be used to fully explore Leonardo's drawings. From the RC press release:
An exhibition that sheds new light on Leonardo da Vinci’s anatomical work opens at The Queen’s Gallery, Palace of Holyroodhouse, in August. Long renowned as one of the finest artists of the Renaissance, Leonardo was also one of the greatest anatomists the world has ever seen. Almost 500 years after his death, Leonardo da Vinci: The Mechanics of Man, part of the Edinburgh International Festival, uses 21st-century technology to explore the modern relevance of Leonardo’s anatomical research. Thirty sheets of his groundbreaking investigations into the workings of the human body will go on display alongside images prepared using the latest medical technology. The juxtaposition shows how far-sighted Leonardo’s work was, and how relevant he remains for anatomists today.
More details and images here.
They don't have Renoirs in Australia
March 12 2013
Picture: Adelaide Now
The theft of six paintings from a house in Adelaide, one of which was apparently a Renoir (above), prompts an unusual comment from the Curator of European Art at the Art Gallery of South Australia, Jane Messenger. She doubts that anyone would own a Renoir in Australia:
"It is an very unusual situation that such a masterpiece is within a private home," she said.
"It would be an exceptional circumstance to have a Renoir in a private collection in Australia."
Watts archive to go online
March 12 2013
The National Portrait Gallery is to catalogue and put online the archive of George Frederic Watts. From the NPG's website:
The Watts Collection, held in the Gallery’s Heinz Archive and Library, contains approximately 3,000 letters written to, or received by, the artist. This series was compiled by his second wife Mary Seton Watts (1849-1938) following her husband’s death, in preparation for her biography of him, published in 1912. In July 1905 Mary Watts advertised for the loan of Watts’s letters, intending to make copies for biographical research. The correspondence, both original and copied, was arranged and pasted into 15 albums, of which the National Portrait Gallery acquired 14, plus many loose letters.
The letters represent a broad cross-section of the artistic and social circles in which Watts moved. Many important Victorian figures are represented, including Matthew Arnold, Robert Browning, Julia Margaret Cameron, Thomas Carlyle, William Ewart Gladstone, Sir John Everett Millais, Cecil Rhodes, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson. The shortest letters record appointments for sittings and social engagements. More detailed exchanges relate to the organisation of exhibitions of Watts’s work and his art practice.
The NPG is currently looking for an archivist to catalogue the papers. More details here.
3 National Gallery highlights on tour
March 12 2013
Picture: National Gallery
From the National Gallery's press release:
Three much loved works from the National Gallery Collection – Manet’s The Execution of Maximilian, Canaletto’s A Regatta on the Grand Canal and Rembrandt’s Self Portrait at the Age of 63 – will be visiting galleries and museums around the country between 2014 and 2016. The Masterpiece Tour is part of the National Gallery’s aim to promote the understanding, knowledge and appreciation of Old Master paintings to as wide an audience as possible. This opportunity to bring hugely popular National Gallery paintings to the public’s doorstep is being made possible by the generous support of Christie’s.
March 11 2013
...for your kind emails on the Culture Show. I am away today, back tomorrow with a full write up of the Bowes' new Van Dyck.
Final plug for the Culture Show
March 8 2013
At least, for today...
A framer in action
March 8 2013
Picture: Anthony Gregg
Our framer, Anthony Gregg, sent us this photo, to check the section of a frame he's making for us. It's a nice image of a craftsman in action, so I thought I'd put it up here.
Test your connoisseurship
March 8 2013
Picture: Bowes Museum
The picture above belongs to the Bowes Museum, and will be the subject of a Culture Show Special presented by Alistair Sooke tomorrow, Saturday, on BBC2 at 6.30pm. Long called a copy 'after Van Dyck', is it in fact by him? Watch tomorrow to find out...
But in the meantime, I invite you to hazard a guess on the attribution. Let me know if you would stake your reputation on the above pre-conservation photo, and say whether it is or is not by Van Dyck (as I, er, have). Or is it attributable to the range of options we have with an artist like Van Dyck; 'studio of Van Dyck', or 'Van Dyck and Studio'? Or is it even an out of period, 18th Century copy? In which case, have I made the biggest blunder of my career?
PS - As loyal readers of AHN, it is your duty to spread the word about the programme!
Update - a reader writes:
I assume that it is not a later copy.
IMO not by Van Dyck, studio of Van Dyck or Van Dyck and studio. Surely if it had been anywhere near Van Dyck’s studio it would have a more interesting background. It looks English. The fictive oval frame invites the idea of Cornelius Johnson, but the style doesn’t match him.
You don’t say what the support is – presumably canvas rather than panel.
The neckline is low, and there is little sign of lace. Could the costume be second half of the 17th century? The uninteresting background makes me rule out Lely and its probably not Wright either.
Ellis Waterhouse’s Painting in Britain has some small black and white illustrations of work by a painter by the name of John Scougall. I know nothing about him, but that’s my guess.
It is on canvas.
Update II - another reader writes:
Update III - a reader goes for half and half:
The head on the 'Van Dyck' looks to be better than the very poorly painted lower body and costume,I'd plump off a unfinished portrait by Van Dyck? but finished by an inferior hand.
All no's so far. Another:
The angle of the shoulders looks too sharp for the proportion of the face and the rest of the body. The mis-balance suggests overpainting.
Update IV - at last, a reader takes the plunge:
I'd venture to say it does indeed have a very good chance!
What is 'digital art history'? (ctd.)
March 7 2013
Picture: Courtauld Institute
The current quagmire around image copyright & failure to sort out the law restricts the full power of digital art history.
Quite so. I was discussing the new UK copyright laws at a meeting at The National Archives today. The new laws will make life very difficult for art historians, especially the rules about 'orphan' works, or those where you are not sure who holds the copyright. This is often the case for old photographs of paintings.
So if, for example, the Witt Library at the Courtauld wanted to digitise its collection of old photographs, as the RKD in Holland has begun to do, it would now have to pay an 'orphan' rights fee to the government for every individual photograph where it wasn't sure who owned the copyright. In other words, most of the photographs in the Witt Library. And the Witt Library would only be able to do that after it had conducted a 'diligent', and expensive, search to find the copyright holder of each individual photograph. So in effect the new laws will make it impossible to make mass digitisations of old photographs. It will simply be too expensive.
Yet another legislative success by the UK government, and also, in this case, the EU.
It's still not Shakespeare (ctd.)
March 7 2013
This portrait of Sir Thomas Overbury still keeps popping up as Shakespeare in the press, this time in the Sunday Times.
Liz & Bob together at last
March 7 2013
I went to the opening of the new V&A show, Treasures of the Royal Courts, last night. The exhibition allows you, as the blurb says, to:
Experience the majesty of the courts of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I to Ivan the Terrible and the early Romanovs in a major exhibition at the V&A. From royal portraits, costume and jewellery to armour and heraldry, Treasures of the Royal Courts tells the story of diplomacy between the British Monarchy and the Russian Tsars through more than 150 magnificent objects.
A star of the show was the 'Hampden Portrait' of Elizabeth I, which was almost entirely unknown until we here at Philip Mould & Company bought, restored and published it, with the help of Tudor historian Dr David Starkey. It used to hang, unloved, in the judges' changing room at Aylesbury Crown Court. I was delighted to see Elizabeth hanging next to a portrait of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, her most determined (and possibly successful) suitor. The portrait of Dudley, on loan from Waddesdon, always struck me as being, most likely, by the same artist as the Hampden portrait. I think that more than ever having seen the two pictures together last night. Not that my opinion matters very much - if you think connoisseurship is frowned upon amongst art historians, wait till you try discussing it amongst 16th Century specialists. 'Authorship' is mightily sniffed on, and there's a determination to call everything 'English School'. You can read more about the painting and its history here, and about its possible artist, Steven van Herwijck, in my British Art Journal article here.
The exhibition comes highly recommended from AHN - I greatly enjoyed it. Being a multi-disciplinary exhibition, with everything from costume to statuary, it's one of those shows which shows the great value of a good curator. So great praise then to the V&A's Tessa Murdoch, whose selection of objects gives the perfect overview of what one might have found in a Tudor diplomatic baggage train wending its way to Moscow. The fine catalogue, which has the Hampden Portrait on the front cover, is also well worth having.
Update - a reader writes:
Was wondering how they got the loan of Bob from Waddesdon but checking on the website confirmed that it’s not part of the permanent collection there – which never lends – but one of the objects on loan from the Rothschild family trusts.
I think you’ve remarked before how unhelpful it is for specialists to be averse to attributing 16th portraits to particular artists or their circle. What’s worse is the approach is inconsistent: going through the PCF records as I have done there are cases where versions of the same portrait are, depending on the view of the collection curators, are in one case given to a named artist and in another to English School – or even British School. Aargh!
Can a $75,000 degree get you a job in the art world? (ctd.)
March 6 2013
Picture: Sotheby's Institute
Further to my article in the The Art Newspaper on whether a new $75,000 course at Sotheby's Institute could help you get a job in the art world, a reader writes:
I have read your article in The Art Newspaper about Sotheby's Institute MA Program and agree with you completely.
My MA in Lisbon has a partnership with Sotheby´s and I have also participated in other of their courses - Could not be more pleased with the Institute.
Like you mentioned the school is, indeed, very good - Well-structured programs, high quality classes, really good teachers and so on.
Nevertheless, I would like to add the following, regarding to the expensive fees:
- Sotheby´s Institute students have many visits and lectures outside the school. Also many visits to museums, auctions, exhibitions, galleries... (Which is fantastic!) Usually the school take care of all expenses (tour guides, entrance tickets, trips - Last time I was at Sotheby's we had a bus and a boat trip that were totally organized by the Institute) This, facilitates students lives and solves logistics problems, but it is an additional economic burden to the school - Not sure if other schools do the same (in Portugal, certainly not).
- Sotheby´s Masters students have access, during (I think) a week, to personalized support in order to help them to develop a plan on how they should approach the job market. I suppose this help includes: tips on how to write resumes; motivation letters; approach on interviews. To decide which type of job position is best suited for them to start and to pursue their professional goals. They provide a "guide" with places where to look for jobs and (I guess) they even make the first approach for you. They care and want to help their students to find a job, which is, obviously, good for the school as well.
- Sotheby´s Institute have one of the best networks in the art world. Certainly, their employability rate is quite high and, I guess, that is also included in the $ 75,000 fee.
Sometimes I wonder if instead a Postgraduation in Art Connoisseurship + a Master in Art Business (a total of 4 years + 5 in college!!!) I should not have gone for a one-year course at Sotheby's... The answer is, probably, yes...
What is 'digital art history'? (ctd.)
March 6 2013
Video: Getty Trust
Three Pipe Problem alerts me* to the above video, posted online two days ago at the start of the Getty Trust's Digital Art History Lab. It's well worth a watch, as it makes clear - much clearer than the article I rather meanly parodied earlier - why and how art historians should be embracing the digital age.
My heart soared when I heard this opening statement from Murtha Baca, head of digital art history access at the Getty Research Institute, in answer to the question, 'Why does art history need to be resuscitated?':
I work at the Getty Research Insititute [...] and we attend these very obstruse lectures by the various residential scholars [...] and the people that can understand the presentations might be five or ten other scholars throughout the world. So I think that art history, also because of its apparent hesitation at embracing digital technology, really risks being left behind, and becoming marginalised or obsolete. It's also being dropped in a lot of academic programmes.'
Way to go Murtha! If the digital age forces art historians to broaden their audience, and by necessity speak a language that everyone can understand, then art history will once more flourish as a subject. If they don't, then we're all toast. You can read more from Murtha here.
I must, however, add one caveat about art history's, or indeed any academic subject's, embrace of the digital age. In the above video, the discussion moves onto how digital access to scholarly material can save time, as Susan Edwards says:
The literature studies field was actually really early to adopt [digital means], by digitising texts and making it really easy to analyse vast quantities of data. And it really transformed the literature field, so in the past a scholar who would have to spend his entire career learning all of the classical texts, for example, in order to analyse and create meaningful analyses of the text, now, through something like the Perseus digital library [...] within hours can do the research today that it would take a scholar, forty years ago, his whole career [to do].
As a practising art historian, I find it increasingly useful that I can just type random words into Google or JSTOR, and up comes a vital lead in, for example, my provenance research. But I'm increasingly aware that my overall knowledge is suffering. Because I can save time by searching for tiny nuggets of information, I miss absorbing all the peripheral material which, over time, gives one the overall command of a subject. I find it harder to remember things, because my brain instinctively knows that I no longer have to. It's frustrating.
I'm old enough to remember learning in a non digital age, and I'm so glad I did. In 'the old days', one's whole approach to learning was to actively absorb knowledge with the aim of retaining it, because it was often impossible to instantly retrieve, say, a book in a library. Now, we actively don't retain information, because we know where it can be found, usually through our phones. Samuel Johnson once said: 'Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it.' These days, it's the latter which dominates, almost exclusively. We live in a cut & paste world. So the point of this rather long-winded and decidedly analogue paragraph is to say, by all means embrace digital art history, but don't let it turn your brain to mush.
Update - a reader writes:
Yes I quite agree about digital art history - brilliant, but binary. Either you find what you are looking for, or you don't; nothing else.
It's like my beef about music. No one listens to albums any more, just cherry-picks tracks they've already heard elsewhere. In the old days your favourite song on an album would often be one you'd discovered on it, not the ones they played on the radio.
But as you say, digital benefits are vast.
Update II - another reader adds:
Access to digital articles and research is fantastic, especially when thirty students get set the same essay title and there are limited library books…and book hoarders!
But as Annelisa Stephan points out, art history needs to find ways of getting the full use of digital scholarship. Surely Your Paintings has already made huge headway with this, after all where would art historians be without art, especially art in excellent digital quality that can be pasted and referenced easily into essays! Even more excitingly, with the increased development of 3D scanners and digital microscopy, perhaps at some point in the future someone in, for instance, China will be able to digitally tilt/rotate a painting in, say, Hawaii, every direction to analyse brushstrokes in minute detail. Or, if the painting has been conserved, to see the paint layers and therefore be able to analyse the artist’s technique, date the painting etc. This would obviously be 10x more awesome for sculptures and other three dimensional art and artifacts.
* I love the fact that a blogger in Australia can alert me, in London, to a discussion happening in Los Angeles. Digital art history in action!