How do you sell a £10m Raphael drawing?
October 31 2012
If you're Sotheby's, with a touch of Hollywood, and lashings of hyperbole. In this cleverly shot 'trailer', Sotheby's have gone all moody, with string music and tilt shift focussing to give a tempting glimpse of the Raphael Head of an Apostle on offer in their December Old Master sale (with an estimate of £10m-£15m). They have also drafted in their 'voice' of art, Tobias Meyer, which suggests, given that he is usually to be found selling modern and contemporary art, that Sotheby's are hoping to look beyond the circle of Old Master buyers for the drawing.
I'm all for presenting Old Masters in a trendy new light. But check out the guff here - Meyer says, presumably without blushing:
This drawing is the complete pivotal centrepoint of art history. It opens up everything toward the future.
Now it's a fine drawing, and will no doubt exceed its estimate. But if an art history undergraduate said that a drawing (or more specifically, an 'auxilary cartoon') for an unnamed apostle by Raphael was 'the complete pivotal centrepoint of art history', that is, a work so important that every other work of art before or since revolved around it, their tutor would not only choke on his or her biscuit, but stab the paper violently with a red pen.
Must try harder...
Not seduced by art
October 31 2012
On Monday, I was lucky enough to have two invitations on my desk for private views. One for the National Gallery's new exhibition 'Seduced by Art' - which pairs photography with painting in a 'dialogue' - and another for the Royal Collection's new show The Northern Renaissance - Durer to Holbein. Which one to go to?
It was of course a no brainer. As I wrote last week, I find the new 'contemporary resonance' route being taken by the National Gallery all a bit off beam. I'll write more on the excellent Northern Renaissance later. But I'm interested to see in The Guardian today that Jonathan Jones finds that Seduced by Art makes little sense:
It is all very interesting, but it feels like a conversation between people speaking different languages. Photography and painting are profoundly different. One is made by hand, the other by a machine. Painting is an transfiguration of reality by the painter's imagination, a photograph is a deposit of light on to paper or digital memory.
Incidentally, if you are ever similarly spoilt for choice for private views, always go to the Royal Collection. They let you take drinks into the exhibition, so that even for die-hard anti-socials like me the combination of fine wine, art and good company is all most convivial. And they even allow you to take photos. I snapped the above Noli me Tangere by Holbein; don't you think it should be re-named Karate Jesus?
Bond on art
October 31 2012
Pictures: Eon productions
I haven't seen the new Bond film Skyfall yet,* but apparently it features a nice scene in the National Gallery. Daniel Craig, above, can be seen admiring works by Gainsborough and Wright of Derby. (In Derby, this has caused great excitement.) I'm secretly hoping that, in return for allowing the filming, National Gallery director Nick Penny managed to blag a role as an extra. Has anyone spotted him?
Bond clearly likes good old fashioned painting. In Dr. No, a scene in Bond's London apartment (below) reveals him to own a Kneller or Jervas-like portrait. And in the same film, Bond spots that Dr. No has stolen Goya's Portrait of the Duke of Wellington. Clearly, Bond reads AHN.
* and please let it be better than the woeful song by Adele.
Van Dyck watch
October 30 2012
Spotted in the new Burlington Magazine, coming up at Christie's in London this December, a fine Italian period work, probably unfinished. The estimate is £700,000-£1,000,000. I bet it makes more...
Guffwatch - Koons special
October 30 2012
I always love the contrast in these videos between artists speaking guff, and the Christie's suits trying desperately to explain why the guff is worth millions of dollars. In this case, the 'piece' is so special it's catalogued as 'estimate on request'. And if you need to request, you can't afford it.
For more guff, check out the lot notes for Tulips (which, inevitably contains the word 'iconic' not once but twice). Here's a good couple of lines:
It is an enchanting sculpture that casts the illusion of joyous weightlessness but is paradoxically heavy, employing over three tons of meticulously sculpted stainless steel. This is a multivalent sculpture, operating on a number of different levels from the simple and directly arresting visual beauty of the object and its awe-inspiring scale, to the ground-breaking complexity of its fabrication and to the deep conceptual themes which lie beneath its apparently flawless surface.
Update - Dr Ben Harvey tweets:
The tulip, symbol of deluded markets and vastly overinflated prices?
Ah, but it's multivalent you see - so it could be a symbol of anything.
Update II - In The Star Ledger, Dan Bischoff tells us that Tulips is (are?) being sold by Norddeutsche Landesbank, and is slated to fetch up to $20m. It was bought for $2.2m in 2002:
“Tulips” has been on display in the bank’s courtyard in the German city of Hanover since it was bought for $2.2 million in 2002. The bank hopes to raise $20 million in the sale, which gives some idea of the incredible price spike we’ve seen over the past 10 years for contemporary art.
Banks, Koons, profit, guff - Tulips presents a good narrative of all that's crazy in the art world.
Got a dirty picture?
October 30 2012
Video: Museo Thyssen
If you have a picture at your museum which needs conservation, then consider applying to the Bank of America Merrill Lynch's Art Conservation Project. The closing date for this year's grants is 30th November. Above is a video from the Museo Thyssen, which has been funded by the bank to clean Tintoretto's Paradise.
The headless Duke
October 30 2012
Just in time for Halloween, Bonhams are offering this decapitated bust of the Duke of Wellington. Bit of superglue, and he'll be right as rain.
The honey bee as connoisseur
October 29 2012
'Buzzzz. It's a Picasso'. I'm grateful to Bullet Shih of Ahomina.com for alerting me to a bizarre but seemingly true scientific research paper on the art historical skills of honeybees. Despite what you might think, this doesn't seem to be a hoax. Bullet writes:
While artist elephants and orangutans have made headlines over the past century, it is now honey bees who are making headlines for having the critical eyes to differentiate between works done by Picasso and those done by Monet. In a study done by researcher Dr. Judith Reinhard at the The Queensland Brain Institute (QBI) at The University of Queensland Australia (UQ) she found that,
"honeybees had a highly developed capacity for processing complex visual information, and could distinguish landscape scenes, types of flowers, and even human faces…[the study] found honeybees had remarkable visual learning and discrimination abilities that extended beyond simple colours, shapes or patterns."
Meanwhile in China...
October 29 2012
The BBC reports that in China's famous painting village of Dafen, where Mona Lisas hang from every wall, artists are changing their output to reflect the growing demand in China for Chinese pictures. As a purveyor of Western art I can't help but be sad that the Chinese don't all want to buy Old Masters, but there it is. Some do, though - in Christie's last London Old Master sale, a Chinese client bought a Rembrandt.
October 29 2012
The Guardian has entered into the Halloween spirit with a top ten list of scary paintings. My own favourite, if you can call it that, is in at no.10 - Severed Heads by Gericault.
Mr & Mrs Beckham
October 26 2012
A reader sends in this photo from street artist 'Mr Brainwash's' exhibition in Oxford St, London. I suppose we must glad that a street artist even knows who Gainsborough is.
How to network if you're an art historian
October 25 2012
Ahead of its annual conference, the CAA (the main American umbrella body for art historians) has published some networking tips on their website. They include:
Look at your neighbor’s conference badge. The badges serve as an immediate form of identification for a person and can be a good way to gauge whether you want to introduce yourself and start a conversation. Don’t feel the least bit embarrassed to check out a badge before saying hello.
Plan your thirty-second elevator introduction. You’ll be meeting lots of new people during the four days of the conference. Be able to summarize who you are and what you do professionally in half a minute.
Bring plenty of business cards. If your institution doesn’t provide them for you, make your own using any word-processing software and perforated paper. Or use one of the many websites that offer design and printing. Check out Moo.com and create your cards in a jiffy.
Be bold! Get to know people over coffee, lunch, and dinner. Don’t be too shy to ask “where are you going for lunch?” if you’re in a conversation and it’s about that time of day. Also, identify people during the day who are interesting and offer to make plans for later, whether that’s meeting for dinner or exploring the city. Have a few specific ideas in mind (restaurants, gallery openings, music or theater performances). Remember, the rules are different at large conferences where many people are strangers.
I can't think of anything to say that doesn't make me sound like a pompous Brit. Except, I love the first one, which presumably means it's also ok to look closely at someone's badge, and then decide not to have a conversation with them.
Update - or as a reader writes:
"Don’t feel the least bit embarrassed to check out a badge before moving onto someone important".
And another reader adds:
Why don't they just put the '30 second elevator introduction' onto the badge. Would save time.
Appreciating Wright of Derby, ctd.
October 25 2012
Picture: Derby Museum
I recently wrote about the apparent lack of appreciation for Joseph Wright of Derby's paintings in Derby, where the local paper foolishly asked if the town should sell its collection of Wrights. Now, a reader alerts me to a PhD grant available for research into how Derby embraced Wright's work in the 19th Century:
The aim of the research project is to examine the meanings and reputation of Wright's art in the century following his death in his home town of Derby, in relation to wider currents of culture and society, including programmes of civic improvement. The project will primarily involve study of the collection, curation and exhibition of Wright's work, and the development of new cultural institutions, notably Derby Museum and Art Gallery which now has the world's largest and finest collection of Wright's paintings and drawings.
Probably, the conclusion will be that Wright was more appreciated in the 19th Century. Sigh. If you want to apply, more details here.
The difference between seeing and thinking
October 25 2012
Picture: J. Paul Getty Trust
See if you can spot the difference between these two 'mission statements' from the Getty Center. Here's the new one:
The J. Paul Getty Trust is a cultural and philanthropic institution dedicated to critical thinking in the presentation, preservation, and interpretation of the world’s artistic legacy. Through the collective and individual work of its constituent Programs—the Getty Conservation Institute, Getty Foundation, J. Paul Getty Museum, and Getty Research Institute—it pursues its mission in Los Angeles and throughout the world, serving both the general interested public and a wide range of professional communities with the conviction that a greater and more profound sensitivity to and knowledge of the visual arts and their many histories is crucial to the promotion of a vital and civil society.
Here's the old one:
One of the largest supporters of arts in the world, the J. Paul Getty Trust is an international cultural and philanthropic institution that focuses on the visual arts in all their dimensions. The Getty serves both the general public and a wide range of professional communities in Los Angeles and throughout the world. Through the work of the four Getty programs—the Museum, Research Institute, Conservation Institute, and Foundation—the Getty aims to further knowledge and nurture critical seeing through the growth and presentation of its collections and by advancing the understanding and preservation of the world’s artistic heritage. The Getty pursues this mission with the conviction that cultural awareness, creativity, and aesthetic enjoyment are essential to a vital and civil society.
In case you didn't spot the difference, President and CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust spells it out in his blog:
You will see that up front we emphasize critical thinking. Previously we had stressed critical seeing. But the more we thought about it, seeing seemed too passive: it’s what we do when simply opening our eyes. Of course, it may become looking, as in looking for something or someone. But that is just a more focused way of seeing. It uses the mind only to the extent that we recognize someone or something we were looking for.
Critical thinking is something altogether different. It uses the mind to examine and make sense of something. And thus it underpins everything we do at the Getty, whether in the acquisition and analysis of works of art, the investigation of our discipline’s literary sources, the selection of scholars, the examination of artistic materials and the environmental conditions affecting art and architecture, the training of conservators, the analysis of project partners, the consideration of new grant programs and grantees, or the analysis of administrative, legal, financial, communication, and investment options. Everything we do and every decision we make in pursuit of our mission involves and requires critical thinking.
Update - a reader writes, delightfully:
There's something of the inspirational new headmaster to it.
Up to 1960: We're extremely keen here.
1960 to now: Everyone looks, but how many of us really see?
Now: We can all see but who can think?
I reckon Sherlock Holmes would rate seeing pretty high. Comparing unknowns with knowns is the basic tool of human understanding. Thinking is the digestion that comes next.
Soon it will be 'But the art historian has to feel.'
All are true, but they have to be in the right order.
Curiously I have heard of a people who don't use simile. Nothing can be compared to anything except itself. Every thing that happens is like nothing but the last time it happened. But they must be the exception.
The old one tells me more about what they do, and aesthetic enjoyment gets squeezed out. A vital and civil society is a beautiful phrase though.
It's probably a case for using the old test of whether the opposite of a statement makes any sense: in this case, if an institution said it was 'dedicated to uncritical thinking', we would all laugh.
Spall to make Turner biopic
October 25 2012
Interesting news in The Guardian about Timothy Spall playing Turner in a new biopic directed by Mike Leigh. It'll be shot next year for release in 2013. Can't wait!
'ThoughtOut', and why art history needs to change
October 25 2012
How can arts and humanities academics best disseminate their research to a wider audience? If there is a gap between ivory-towered researchers and the wider public, how can we overcome it? Is there any point in publishing research in obscure academic journals nobody ever reads? Is the digital world killing academia?
Last night I went to the launch of a project called ThoughtOut. Sponsored by UEA and Editorial Intelligence, it aims to help academics transmit their ideas to a wider audience, primarily through a new website. The background to all this is partly to do with changes in the complex funding formula for universities, which I won't bore you with here. But essentially the idea is to have a platform where research in arts and the humanities, often with 'contemporary resonance', can be made accessible to all.
To launch the project, ThoughtOut organised a debate on the question, 'can elite ideas be accessible?', with David Aaronovitch, Orlando Figes, Mary Anne Sieghart, Sarah Churchwell, and Tom Holland. It was an interesting discussion. Much of it centred around the need to break down the obscure, isolating language some academics seem to revel in. It was hoped that a positive side-effect of the decline in traditional publishing, and the need to reach as wide an audience as possible through digital means, might be to persuade academics to write in less mystifying language. This can only be a Good Thing.
The presence of Figes and Holland meant that the debate was slightly skewed towards history as a discipline, and it was agreed that by and large history has escaped the descent into jargon suffered by so many subjects. Fans of this site's regular 'Guffwatch' entries will be well aware that art history has not had such luck, however.
The presence of a self-regarding elite (I use that term reluctantly) whose development of a special art history language, one designed not only to exclude the ignorant but to make the writers believe they are more clever than they really are, has done much damage to the subject we love. In part this is because 'new art history', as for convenience I like to call it, is a bullshitter's charter. For example, there is so little written evidence to give us concrete proof of an eighteenth century artist's or patron's intentions that we are given free rein to speculate endlessly from images about what a composition means, what and who it was painted for, how it fits into its social and gender contexts, and so on. And that's to say nothing of the more far out art history concepts we are all asked to consider these days - last week I went to a conference where a speaker went on about an artist's 'sovereignty', whatever that is.
The consequence of such endless, jargon-fuelled speculation, especially when combined with the right-on mindset that academics often feel compelled to work within, is that art history is in far greater danger as a discipline than other subjects. It has disconnected itself from the mainstream, and writes books and articles that nobody wants to, or can, read. Because (especially in America) university art historians and museum art historians mutually sniff at each other, and in turn sniff mightily at writers who publish 'crossover' popular art history books (not to mention art dealers!), we have ended up with a subject which, despite 'the history of art' being more popular than ever in terms of a museum-going public, is often incapable of connecting with the wide audience it needs to if it is to survive.
Proof of this is surely the fact that art history departments around the world are often the first to face the axe in these days of squeezed university budgets. And that's why art history needs to engage in projects like ThoughtOut. The subject must stop talking to itself. The eventual collapse of the traditional routes by which research was published means that art history has no choice but to engage new audiences.
The good news is that we can make the digital cuckoo in the nest work for us. A cleverly written art history book self-published on Amazon really can sell well. We no longer have to spend two years getting an article approved by academic journals. We are all now our own publishing houses, and have websites, blogs, and even Twitter at our disposal. Sites like the University of York's Art World in Britain are leading the way in making one of the long-ignored basic ingredients of art history, documentary evidence, available for everyone for free (and can help stop the bullshit). And perhaps best of all, we have the increasing availability of free-use images from museums like Yale. Of course, this means that there may be a little less money to be made from publishing your first monograph (if indeed anybody ever did make money from publishing a monograph). But art history must come down from its ivory tower. In short, it needs to globalise.
Update - a reader writes, eminently:
As I was reading your post, I was making the point to myself that you made in your final paragraph. You observe that "there is so little written evidence to give us concrete proof of an eighteenth century artist's or patron's intentions that we are given free rein to speculate endlessly from images". Well, true enough. But actually for me, there is a ton of evidence out there, waiting to be found and exploited. There is a strange fatalism among even senior art historians & curators, who say (of painters etc) that "we just don't know" about so and so. Actually, more often than not there is a fair bit about so and so that can be deduced from even quite unpromising-looking scraps of evidence. But, as you say, instead of having a good rummage in the archive, we have collectively chosen a different route. I recently asked a very senior historian of British art if he'd heard of the National Register of Archives: he hadn't! Historians, I suppose, don't have any pictures to hide behind: all they have to go on are the sources.
Quite true - and as a member of the government's advisory body on historical manuscripts I would urge all readers to make use of the wonderful resources available to study archives (in the UK we really do have the best level of archive accessibility in the world). Too many (but not all!) art historians shy away from archives, however. I suspect it may even be idleness - after all, theorising is much easier than learning to read 16th Century script.
Another reader takes us back to our old friend, contemporary art-speak, and alarmingly informs me that it's being partly funded by our tax pounds:
This is even more of a problem in the world of contemporary art, try spending an afternoon with a little Arts Council funded magazine called Art Monthly!
“Higher-intelligence-speak” also now pervades Tate Magazine, this must be very puzzling for the ‘ordinary’ Tate member receiving it.
Progress indeed required.
I don't see why the state needs to support a magazine like Art Monthly, which it does to the tune of about £40,000 a year. Perhaps AHN should apply for a grant - my readership is certainly larger than Art Monthly's (which prints 3,500 copies a month, with a claimed readership of c.20,000. AHN's readership last month was 23,896).
Picasso two for the price of one offer
October 25 2012
Picture: New York Times
In the New York Times, Carol Vogel reports on how conservation has revealed more details of an abandoned painting by Picasso:
Picasso painted "Woman Ironing" when he was in his 20s. And like so many struggling young artists he often reused old canvases. He first began painting a portrait of a man with a mustache; abandoned it and several years later turned the canvas upside down and painted the image of a skeletal woman ironing over it. The ghost of the man underneath was first detected with an infrared camera in 1989. "Woman Ironing" was recently cleaned and restored by the Guggenheim Museum and is now on display as part of the exhibition, "Picasso Black and White."
Pictures that make you smile
October 24 2012
Or rather, grimace. My colleague Lawrence Hendra has been doing some research into Balthasar Denner, and came across this picture once attributed to him. That must have been some pose to hold.