Art History Comedy
August 22 2014
Picture: Hannah Gadsby
I've always kept an eye for art history jokes. There's the old Tommy Cooper one about him finding a Stradivarius and a Rembrandt in his loft, and then confessing that that sadly Rembrandt made rubbish violins, and Stradivarius was no painter. But to be honest, that was about it.
Or so I thought, until last night I went to see the Australian comedian and trained art historian Hannah Gadsby at the Edinburgh Fringe. Her show, The Exhibitionist, is about portraiture, and in particular how sitters, including artists, represented themselves in art in the past in relation to how we do so today, when photographs and the 'selfie' are ubiquitous. Her show is both completely hilarious, and thought provoking. I would urge you all to see her if you get the chance. There are two more days to go for the Edinburgh show, which you can book here. You can follow Hannah on Twitter here.
We also went to see Phill Jupitus talking about art, and specifically his attempts to make copies of various pictures in the National Gallery of Scotland. He was excellent too, and loves paintings. He's slightly obsessed, but in a rather touching way, about John Singer Sargent's Lady Agnew. He did a number of shows for the National Gallery of Scotland for free, so good for him.
Update - a reader sends in another old favourite:
Years ago a clever thief devised and executed a brilliant theft at the Louvre and made off with numerous impressionist and post-impressionist paintings. Tragically for him his van, loaded with the paintings, ran out of fuel a mere few blocks from the Louvre and he was apprehended by the Gendarmes. Later under questioning the incredulous Gendarmes asked him how it was possible that in the execution of such a daring crime could fail on such a small point as fuel.
With a typical Gaelic shrug he said “I did not have enough Monet to make my Van Gogh”…
Here's a genuine art history joke though; when Van Dyck was asked why he took such care with his sitters' hands, he replied, 'Because the hands pay the bill'.
August 22 2014
Still having some issues, and many from the last week have only just come through. So sorry if you've sent comments and they haven't been posted. Should all be up now.
The world's greatest forger?
August 22 2014
Video: Oscilloscope Laboratories
A new film has been made about an elderly American called Mark Landis, who for my money is one of the most ingenious forgers of all time. Landis' trick is to fake a work of art, by artist's as diverse as Picasso and Watteau, and then pose as a benefactor to a museum, duping them to accept the work as a gift. Sometimes he dresses up as a vicar, to persuade unwary curators and registrars of his good intentions. Despite being unmasked in 2008, he has never been, and cannot be, prosecuted in the US because he never took any money for his 'donations'. He merely exposed, with what are really very simple and occasionally crude forgeries, a worrying lack of connoisseurship in some institutions. Sometimes he just painted over a photocopy.
Update - a reader sends this link a good piece on Landis in the New Yorker.
A stolen Van Dyck recovered?
August 21 2014
The Telegraph has a report of a nasty robbery in a castle in Staffordshire, which describes the above 'portrait of Oliver Cromwell' as having been stolen, but fortunately later recovered. The sitter is in fact Charles Louis, Elector Palatine, and the image is this portrait of him by Van Dyck, which sold at Sotheby's in 2005 for £456k. Is it the same painting, or perhaps just a photographic reproduction? A nice recovery if the former.
A fox in the National Portrait Gallery
August 21 2014
Video still: Francis Alys
The National Portrait Gallery has just tweeted this video, which was an 'installation' (I think that's what contemporarists would call it) by Francis Alys in 2004, where:
On the night of 7 April 2004, a fox was freed in the National Portrait Gallery. Its wanderings through the galleries were recorded by the institution's CCTV system.
Update - a reader writes:
The should have freed a lama, to see what painting it would spit on
Guffwatch - academic edition
August 20 2014
A reader alerts me to some classic academic Guff, which deserves to ranked as one of the most impenetrable art history paragraphs of all time:
Call for Papers: Special Issue of Culture, Theory and Critique
ART MATTERS: Philosophy, Art History and Art’s Material Presence
The aim of this special issue of Culture, Theory and Critique scheduled for April 2016 publication is to rethink the relationship between art history, on the one hand, and the development of a materialist philosophy of art on the other. There are three points that will provide the issue with its points of orientation.
3. This idea of the specificity of the work of art plays out not only in time but also within the work of art itself. Indeed, the third point that we wish to address concerns the particular ways that works stage themselves as art, the ways in which the work of art is always a stage on which art’s works is played out. Art rarely, if ever, evinces the caricature of realism in which the work is taken to be no more than the immediate presence internally of that which is present externally, a position that can be defined as the Parrhasius myth. If this mythic structure were followed – and it is a structure that continues to haunt accounts of presentation – it would be as though internality were externality’s immediate presence. To the extent that this structure is not applicable – and its non-applicability can be taken as axiomatic – what works of art inscribe within themselves as part of their being as art is the way their presence is originally mediated. This is to say, then, that the process of mediation is part of the way the work stages itself as art. This process – art’s self-staging – is an important trope in the development of any philosophical encounter with the work of art. What is more, the latter, which is to say the presence of the work as originally mediated, means that any account of art’s work will demand recourse to art’s material presence. Or to put this another way, the impossibility of immediacy necessarily provides an opening towards a materialist philosophy of art.
All attempts at translation welcome. Maybe Google has a programme for it. But I doubt it'll be easy. Does "the particular ways that works stage themselves as art, the ways in which the work of art is always a stage on which art’s works is played out" even constitute anything vaguely like a sentence?
More details of the call to papers here.
Update - Dr Matt Loder of the University of Essex tweets this response:
Your latest "guff" is certainly a little dense & jargon heavy, but it's perfectly grammatical and certainly understandable. It's essentially a critique of philosophers writing about art without talking about art objects or art history.
Update II - Michael Savage, aka, the Grumpy Art Historian, has kindly had a go, and isn't as sure as Dr. Loder:
That's the first Guffwatch that I've really struggled to understand. They've all been preposterous and dreadfully written, but I've usually been able to understand what they're getting at fairly readily. I don't see Matt's point from Twitter at all; it seems to presuppose a critique rather than offer one, and it seems to be about philosophy and art history coming together rather than philosophy learning one-sidedly from art history. Anyway, I've had a go at translating, as best I can. I've had to translate rather freely, because I can't re-arrange the individual sentences to make sense:
"What makes something a work of art? Art doesn't just try to imitate reality perfectly. You don't judge a picture of grapes by its ability to trick a bird into thinking they're real. So let's assume that's not the case. Works of art present themselves not as representations of something external (or at least not only as that); they present themselves as works of art. A painted portrait doesn't just claim to represent an individual; it also draws attention to itself as a work of art, a skilful re-creation of a likeness within an artistic tradition. This question of how a work of art establishes itself as art is important for any philosophy of art. Because a work of art is never a direct copy of reality, we have to consider how it establishes itself as art, assessing it within an artistic context rather than judging it against the external reality it's trying to represent. That question can't be answered abstractly, as a purely philsophical problem. That opens the door to a materialist philosophy of art that engages with actual works of art rather than just using art to illustrate more abstract thinking."
Or it might mean something else entirely. Perhaps we could ask the authors when you've had a few more contributions?
Update III - a reader asks:
Could you induce your native guide (excellent, I must say) to clarify the following for me and/or your readership (?). The original states;
"Because a work of art is never a direct copy of reality, we have to consider how it establishes itself as art, assessing it within an artistic context rather than judging it against the external reality it's trying to represent."
But why can't a work of art just remain an indirect copy of reality without 'establishing itself as art' when it already self-evidently is - a work of art, that is, otherwise it wouldn't be self-evidently obvious that is was an indirect copy of reality.
I'm still impenetrably lost, so can't answer that alas.
Update IV: another reader writes:
In the guff, perhaps the work of art means work of creating art Versus a work of art which is a sculpture. Still unintelligible.
Van Dyck or Rubens? (ctd.)
August 19 2014
Picture: Courtauld Collection
Or neither? The above picture has recently gone on display at the Courtauld Gallery in London. It's currently catalogued as 'Van Dyck'. I think was last published by the late Erik Larsen (whose Van Dyck catalogue raisonne is, alas, probably the worst single demonstration of connoisseurship ever published).
The picture was not included in the 2004 Van Dyck catalogue raisonne published by Yale. And I think rightly, for my instincts keep leading me towards Rubens. But I wouldn't want to go to the stake on it. While it's almost certainly good enough to be by one or the other, it dates to that fiendishly difficult period of about 1615-18, when Van Dyck was able to paint almost entirely in Rubens' style.
Unfortunately, this area of scholarship has become very muddled of late, with there seeming to be something of a fashion amongst some Rubens scholars to say things are 'early Van Dyck', despite the outright rejection of such attributions by Van Dyck scholars. The continuing (but entirely unnecessary) uncertainty over Rubens portrait of a young Van Dyck [Rubenshuis] is illustrative of this (incidentally, Larsen thought that picture was by a Scottish artist called Jamesone, of an unknown sitter!) I showed some good photos of the Courtauld picture to a leading and highly respected Van Dyck authority, who also thought it more like Rubens. The characterisation reminds me of an exquisite portrait of a Carmelite Monk sold by Sotheby's in 2011 as Van Dyck, but which had always been known as a work by Rubens, and even descended from that artist. Again, the attribution to Van Dyck of that picture was rejected by Van Dyck scholars.
The Courtauld very kindly allowed me to see the picture in their stores a couple of months ago. If you happen to see it, I'd be interested to know what you think about the attribution.
Update - a reader writes:
Was never wholly convinced by the van Dyck attribution but wouldn’t want to bet on it either.
The thing that intrigues me is that such a fine painting is in store. Seems to be just one more example of a significant work in the Courtauld’s collection not on display and proving yet again what unsuitable premises the Somerset House Fine Rooms are: not enough space to cater for the collection, rooms not being conducive to exhibition (poor side-lighting from windows and works over fireplaces), etc.
It was a disastrous decision to move out of their galleries in Woburn Square – generally reckoned to be the finest small spaces in London being both intimate and light-filled, I wonder what’s happened to them.
And having moved, what do they do? Parcel up the famous Great Room and block out the light. What’s worse, they’ve had at least two goes – and two lots of funding – at improving the public spaces.
Fine paintings in store is nothing knew alas. At any time, 80% of the national collection is in store. I never knew the Woburn Square galleries. I'm a fan of Somerset House, I must say.
Update II - a reader tells us what happened to the Woburn Square galleries, as highlighted in this 2004 University of London report (p.24):
In February 1991 the University granted a 21 year lease of the former Courtauld Gallery in Woburn Square to University College, London for a payment of £900,000.
Bargain. One might say that it's a shame the University isn't as generous when it comes to the Warburg Institute. But we should note that the introduction of the report states that the UL wrote off £7.5m when assigning the lease of Somerset House to the Courtauld Institute.
Update III - a reader wonders:
In response to the van Dyck or Rubens attribution. Instead of neither, could it be by both? A collaboration of sorts? I’m certainly not well versed enough in the career of either artist to offer an erudite opinion, but as they were in the same studio at the same time could the master have completed a section and then his student (van Dyck) have painted another?
Update IV - a reader from the Courtauld writes:
The move to Somerset House was meant to reunite the Institute with its collection (which was not the case before, when the collection was in Woburn Square and the Institute in Portman Square). We are actively working on plans to restore the Great Room to its former glory.
Update V - a reader adds:
When the Van Dyck 'portrait of a man in an armchair' was sold from The Lord Penrhyn collection by Sotheby's in 1924 it was sold as Rubens, so the pendulum seems to be swinging back...
Update VI - a Facebooking reader writes:
I have Le Connoisseur (Facebook) on the case and members of the Rubenianum are helping as well with your query regarding the Courtauldʼs Rubens or Van Dyck painting ! Will get back to you if anything is forthcoming. [...] "fat files" in Antwerp sound promising.
Here's a link to the Facebook group, but you need to be a Facebooker to get into it. Which I'm not.
'Could computers put art historians out of a job?'
August 19 2014
Picture: University of New Jersey
So asked yesterday's Daily Telegraph, which reported that:
Computer scientists have used the latest image processing techniques to analyse hundreds of works of art and unearth previously unconsidered sources of inspiration between artists.
Art can be analysed by looking at space, texture, form, shape, colour and tone, but also more mechanical aspects such as brushstrokes and even historical context. Traditionally this has been the role of art historians, but computers could soon be sufficiently advanced as to be able to take over, claim researchers at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey.
The story boils down to the fact that computers can recognise things in paintings. Researchers concluded that the above pictures by Van Gogh and Joan Miro had 'similar objects and scenery but different moods and style'. They soon realised that 'determining influence is always a subjective decision. We will not know if an artist was ever truly inspired by a work unless he or she has said so.’
So I think art historians are safe. This is the sort of story which reminds me of an episode from the old TV series The Prisoner, in which Patrick McGoohan is confronted with a new 'wonder machine' which knows the answer to every question in the world, and which will render man redundant. But when McGoohan simply asks it 'why?', it explodes.
That said, I've always thought that computers should be able to practise some form of connoisseurship. It's probably just a question of loading enough high-res images.
Update - a reader writes:
The whole thing reminds me of what one of my professors said to me in undergrad "just because they look alike doesn't mean they're the same". And isn't that just where computers fail - in distinguishing between similar 'objects' and the numerous ways those combinations of objects are used to create meaning.
Regardless, computers can only truly generate data, so we still need historians to research, analyse, and interpret that data. Let alone disseminate it. If x-rays can't replace connoisseurship, then I hardly think algorithms can replace art historians.
Although, if they were to be used as a means to supplement connoisseurship as you suggest, then I think they would be more successful if the focus was limited by a particular artist, historical era, or artistic genre in some way so that they're not analyzing such wide stylistic swatches. I imagine that could get interesting, especially for your work looking for 'sleepers'.
Museum swapshop in Washington (ctd.)
August 19 2014
The sad closure of the Corcoran museum in Washington DC (which I reported in February) is now official. Yesterday, a court ruled that it could go ahead with its plans to merge with the National Gallery of Art. There had been a last minute attempt to prevent the new arrangement.
Now, the building (above) will be closed on 1st October for renovation, and a redution in the amount of gallery space. The National Gallery will get first pick of the art collection (which you can peruse here), with other museums in the US getting what's left. I expect the National curators will enjoy their shopping spree. More details in the Washington Post.
Gurlitt horde (ctd.)
August 19 2014
Picture: Zuma Press
The German government body looking into restitution claims around Cornelius Gurlitt's collection has decided that the above Max Liebermann painting was indeed 'Nazi loot' (the Wall Street Journal reports) and should be returned to the heirs of David Friedmann, a German-Jewish collector who died in the early 1940s. However, that doesn't mean the heirs can claim their painting just yet, for the Kunstsmuseum in Bern, which Gurlitt bequeathed his collection to, has yet to decide whether to accept the works. If it does, it will have to return the Lieberman. The WSJ article tells us other intriguing facts; the picture has a 'milky white grime' over it, as a result of being stored amont fruit in Gurlitt's flat.
'Two minutes in front of the Sunflowers'
August 19 2014
Video: Jon Sharples
For anti-photoists, the video above is evidence of gallery armageddon. There's even a flash! O.M.G.
Personally, I think it's pretty encouraging; the scene is orderly enough, people seem happy to be near the picture, some of them even take photos and 'look'. In fact, for one of the most famous pictures in the world, and certainly the most popular in the National Gallery, I'd say that it shows photography isn't nearly as distracting as some fear. And, although we've no video of the picture from before photos were allowed, you can be sure that it was just as busy.
Update - a reader writes:
Shock horror, there was a woman actually looking at the sunflowers, blocking snappers from getting a good clear photograph. Can we now establish a new etiquette?
Yes, urgently needed.
Update II - Rebecca Atkinson of the Museums Association writes of 'Selfie Scaremongering' here.
Update III - a reader writes:
I am an avid reader of your blog and following all your posts on photography in art galleries. Almost every art gallery abroad I have been to have been ok with photography (without flash!). I even think that photography has become a huge part of my culture, we see something pretty or weird and we whip out our camera phones and take a snap.
Last year I was naughty and snuck two photos of Michaelangelo's David at the Accademia Gallery. Though I did notice lots of others doing so as well! During my studies I was obsessed with Michaelangelo's work and so couldn't resist (I am usually one for respecting the rules and even check them before visiting places). I still managed to come out with a book and a jigsaw puzzle post card of the statue. I don't think it damaged their profits from me!
Update IV - a reader adds:
You won't be able to establish a new international etiquette, I'm afraid.
The last time I was looking up close at the Baptistry doors in Florence, a woman tried to nudge me away so she could have her photo taken in front of them. I told her I hadn't come to Florence to see her having her picture taken. She harumphed, rolled her eyes and moved on.
You really have to be tough, determined and stand your ground to look at art these days!
While another reader makes this essential point, which should be taken up by the National Gallery swiftly:
One small practical point that should be addressed is that there is no clear signage about what current National Gallery policy is. Now that photography is permitted, that might as well be stated big and boldly, with an accompanying statement about flash photography. At the moment there is nothing and the demoralised guards are left to fight a hopeless battle.
Update V - a reader asks:
Wouldn't it be nice if people left looking happier. The first selfie was the only one to smile, and that was for the camera. Everyone else seemed to come away tight-lipped and slightly desperate.
Probably people feel quite self conscious.
Update VI - another reader adds:
The sunflower video makes me want to go and stand in front and ‘look’ at the picture for a few minutes. It looks like there is so much pressure from the photographers, forcing the lookers to keep moving.
I would find that extremely annoying, luckily my 18th century tastes mean there generally isn’t such a scrum!!
August 18 2014
I've been changing email servers, and seem to have missed quite a few over the last days. So sorry if you've sent one and not had a reply yet. I'm trying to get to the bottom of it now.
On taking selfies in the National Gallery (ctd.)
August 17 2014
Here's probably the best article on the whole photo thing yet, by Archie Bland at the Independent. It's not only well written, but he's got some useful further thoughts from others, including Susan Foister at the National Gallery:
"I spend a lot of time watching how people look at the art, and I don't think I've seen any great change in approach," says Dr Susan Foister, the gallery's director of public engagement.
"Yes, you always want people to be drawn in by a single work – but we have six million visitors a year, and probably there are six million ways of looking at the art. We think it's important to offer lots of ways in. The National Gallery has always been a public space. You have to consider that other people may not enjoy it the way you do."
Quite. Do read the whole piece, but here's his conclusion:
In the meantime, if you don't like cameras in museums, the solution is simple: don't take one. A punter with an iPhone is no more obtrusive than one with a sketchbook unless you have a chip on your shoulder.
Update - but Neil Jeffares tweets:
[...] constant shutter clicks; iPhones, iPads, large DSLRs; shoot pntg, then label, move on [...]
Which doesn't sound quite as encouraging.
Update II - but another reader writes:
It occurred to me today while visiting today – and not too disturbed by photographers – that there might be one really useful upshot of this development. We won’t have to wait for the Gallery to upload images of cleaned works to its site. And they can take years.
Update III - a reader adds:
The purpose of museum rules is to prevent harm and to accommodate the public and the institution. It is now clear that photography unlike smoking is harmless and nearly unpreventable so the battle won further debate is moot.
But another disapproves:
I think that the National Galleries policy on photography is a bad mistake & the Gallery over night has gone from broad sheet to tabloid. Management probably had little idea about the numbers of visitors snapping away, in many cases for the sake of it with little appreciation of what they are taking. The signs next to paintings that may not be photographed are too small & ambiguous resulting in most people ignoring them & taking pictures anyway. This means that those owners who do not want their paintings photographed are having their wishes ignored. One lady came into a very popular room yesterday with a small camera mounted on a monopod. Resting the monopod on her tummy, with camera effectively sitting on top of a long stalk, she grinned from ear to ear before doing a ‘selfie' in front of a prohibited painting before staff could take action in the crowded room! Some visitors who wish to view the art works quietly & appreciate it are complaining that their experience is spoilt by throngs of people obsessed with snapping away & in some cases getting far too close to the paintings.
Update IV - another photo-approver writes:
Those who are objecting to photography in the NG seem to be confusing correlation with causation. Some people may take pictures in a gallery without looking at the subject but they do that at sports matches and concerts too (in spite of there usually being several cameramen present to document the thing in great detail). This type of consumption is a behaviour in society at large and is not restricted to nor encouraged by galleries allowing photography.
Neither is it a new phenomenon of the Facebook generation (of which i'm one). Robert Hughes said a while ago (70s judging by his hair) that people no longer went to look at an artwork, they come to have seen it. This is presumably in part because they've already seen the famous works/buildings/sights before they arrive - nobody who sees the Mona Lisa is seeing it for the first time.
Yes those people should look a bit closer and longer but there are many different ways of looking at art and many different reasons people take pictures. Sometimes you want to wander round slowly and sometimes you nip in when you have 10mins spare round Trafalgar Sq. Sometimes you want T20 and sometimes you want a test match.
Luke Syson said in an interview about designing the Leonardo exhibition that people often spend longer looking at the label than the picture, which suggests that there is more to the experience of art than just the image and people like to have context and be informed. Taking the odd snap for research, posterity, fun is presumably part of that too.
Surely what matters is fostering a bit of politeness and courteous behaviour in public spaces, something galleries could encourage a little by employing some crowd management so the numbers remain enjoyably atmospheric without being unworkably rammed. This would be a much better use of the NG's time than preventing people from enhancing their visiting experience. Also from a PR point of view the NG has managed to look like they've been forced into this when it could have been a positive announcement about them embracing technology with wifi.
Update V - a US reader writes:
As a faithful reader of Art History news and The Grumpy Art Historian I have been following the debate regarding photography in the National Gallery. In particular I have been interested in looking at the pictures of those taking pictures in the gallery.
I have asked myself why the need to take the pictures. While they may of course they may purchase a postcard or poster of a favorite painting, it occurred to me the draw to take the picture is it somehow becomes more personal experience when they do.
We learn through our senses and not being able to touch the art work the next best thing is to take the picture.
In those few moments perhaps there is a connection between the viewer and the art. Living in the USA I have had only a few opportunities to visit the National Gallery. To give myself the best experience I arrive when it opens for the day having a better chance of fewer people and time to really look.
All this being said, I believe there is room for those who take pictures and those who don't. We all "look" in our own way.
History of the Musee d'Orsay
August 16 2014
Picture: Google Cultural Institute
If you haven't seen it, here's a good online illustrated history of the Musee d'Orsay. At one time, after the station was abondoned (above), it was going to be pulled down and a new hotel built (below). Can you imagine?
On taking selfies in the National Gallery
August 16 2014
Good piece in the Guardian by Zoe Williams on the National Gallery's photo policy:
[...] I have some good news for the purists: there was nobody taking selfies in the National Gallery on Thursday; nobody except me. It's possible that this memo hasn't got out yet, and not enough people know that it's allowed. But I think I can exclusively reveal the real reason: it is technically extremely difficult, but never quite difficult enough to distract you from the exquisite embarrassment.
People taking photos of art with their phones divide into two categories: thoughtful, discreet snappers of obscure tiny portraits of princesses, and everyone else taking pictures of Van Gogh. It seemed fitting to me that Van Gogh would be the go-to guy for an iPhone photo; he's the painter (I like to think) who would find the trend the most depressing.
You can't take a selfie without going for the original selfie, Rembrandt's Self-Portrait at 63. The problem with the positioning of this painting is that Rembrandt comes out slightly better from the lighting, so I ended up looking older than 63. Also, this is one of the most venerated paintings in the gallery, even the nation. The disapproval in the room flooded towards me. I thought I heard someone hiss. It was like that bit at the end of Dangerous Liaisons when Madame de Thing is booed at the opera.
In short, there is nothing to fear, for either the art crowd or the custodians of the human spirit. The National Gallery will not be overrun by people taking selfies for the same reason it is not full of people in bikinis; we humans have a keen sense of humiliation, exposure, pride, vulnerability. That's what makes us worth painting in the first place.
Update - and here's the leading french art history blogger Didier Rykner of Tribune de l'Art saying that in two hours at the Louvre recently he was not bothered once by a photo taker. He applaudes the National's new policy.
Update II - but here's an editorial in The Guardian saying photos shouldn't be allowed in any art gallery:
it would in fact be simpler and better for both the pictures and the public if no photography was allowed at all. Looking at the art may be an old-fashioned priority, but it ought to be the essential one, all the same.
Typical Guardian preaching; it knows better, and must tell people how to behave and think?
Update III - anti-photoist Jon Sharples tweets this selection of Sunflower selfies:
As I've said before, I have no problem with (discretely taken) gallery selfies at all. Can anyone really object to people being this happy to be in front of a Van Gogh?
Update IV: the Grumpy Art Historian objects very much indeed, still, and agrees with the Guardian. Unlike Zoe Williams, he saw selfie-takers everywhere (he went today to report from the scene). He also saw a few flash takers, and reports that the guards aren't that interested in telling people not to use flash. This last point puzzles me, for if they leapt on the flash users with the same vigour as they used to leap on the photo takers (I saw many times loud shouting from the other side of a room) the practice might soon stop. But we maybe learning more here about a demoralised staff threatened with losing their jobs, as I've reported before, at least if the vigour with which they're criticising their employer's own rules and policies is anything to go by.
Guercino stolen in Italy
August 16 2014
Picture: Gazzetta del Sud
The above painting by Guercino, a 1639 Madonna with Sts John the Evangelist and Gregory Thaumaturgus has been stolen from a church in Modena, in Italy. The picture, thought to be worth about £5m, is large, 293 x 184.5 cm, and was removed in its frame, which can hardly have been the work of a moment. Gazzetta del Sud reports that was uninsured, and the alarm system had been turned off, because 'it was expensive to keep up.'
In my experience, alarms (even fancy art ones) don't cost much to run at all after they're installed. This particular alarm had been installed in the early 2000s. Incompetence or an inside job? Or simply another example of the chaos of Italian heritage protection?
Bidding up your own stock
August 15 2014
Picture: Joseph Daniel Fiedler in Gallerist
There's an interesting article in Gallerist by daniel Grant on how many contemporary art dealers 'manage' auction prices on behalf of their artists:
When artists agree to be represented by a gallery, they usually work out with the gallery owner such matters as the amount of the dealer’s commission; how often their work will be exhibited in solo or group shows; the price of their artworks; that sort of thing. Another expectation, usually not as explicitly stated but increasingly crucial, is that the dealer will attempt to control the market for the artist’s work even after it has been sold. Some dealers go so far as to bid up, and even buy, pieces when artworks are consigned to auction. The practice is legal.
“I have bid up prices to appropriate levels, when auction houses have estimated too low works by artists whom I represent,” said Manhattan gallery owner Renato Danese. “I want to protect the work from going below the low estimate or not selling at all, because that puts a cloud over the work and over the artist.” Disappointing results at auction can potentially come back to haunt works sold at the gallery. “I don’t like to spend fruitless hours explaining why a good piece went for a quarter of the price I charge at the gallery.” He added that “artists expect me to protect their market and their reputations.”
Happily, Old Master dealers do not do this for, say, Gainsborough.
Update - a reader writes:
On bidding up, I remember a certain St James's dealer doing this in the 1990s, to protect the value of the Edwardian watercolour artist whose works he'd become closely invested in. So it's not only contemporary art.
Does flash photography really damage paintings?
August 14 2014
Effectively not, and no more than normal light exposure, according to this paper by Dr Martin Evans. It's worth reading in full, but here are some key parts.
First, the National Gallery did a test in 1995 to see how pigments reacted to extreme and repeated use of flash. The answer was, not much:
These trials showed that 'fugitive' pigments deteriorated while on the walls of a controlled-light gallery at about the same rate as if a modest 'hotshoe' flashgun was fired at them every 4 seconds from a distance of about 4 feet [over a million times!].
Following these tests, the National Gallery decided that professional photographers could use flash when photographing their paintings. The crucial thing to note here is, as Dr Evans says:
In practice almost all small camera-mounted flashguns now incorporate a correction filter to bring the xenon light balance close to natural daylight. These filters also remove most of the UV wavelengths which conservators fear.
He goes on to note that the problem is even less of a concern for smartphones, which, no doubt, is how most gallery visitors will be taking photos (or selfies):
Many 'smartphones' include an illuminator that may be a tiny xenon flash, or a light-emitting diode (LED) that briefly flashes light onto the subject. It is hard to estimate the power of these little illuminators in terms of strict guide numbers, but the consensus is that they can be rated at GN 2 to GN 4. Clearly, flashes from 'smartphones' cannot be regarded as a conservation threat in any properly lit gallery.
Is it worth getting steamed up about such a tiny extra quantity of light, as far as pigment fading is concerned? Several photographers have already suggested that any trifling damage done by a few hundred of these little flashes in a day could be fully offset by closing the gallery and turning off the lights a few minutes early. A ban would be justified in rare cases, where large numbers of photographers might be taking many flash photographs very close to something that could reasonably be considered photosensitive. The more advanced (and expensive) cameras used by serious photographers also have a built-in flash facility. The flash units fitted in digital single lens reflex (DSLR) cameras have guide numbers in the range GN 10 to 14 - somewhat more powerful than those built into the small cameras. However, these DSLR and similar advanced cameras can now take photographs at such high ISO sensitivity settings that their users seldom need to use flash. Does the ban on photography in some galleries really reflect a genuine, though misplaced, fear of light damage, or is it part of a hidden general anti-camera attitude by some administrators?
There are therefore some plausible reasons why a museum or gallery might decide to ban the use of photographic flash. However, to prohibit the use of flash on the grounds that it will harm the exhibits is the least plausible reason of all.
Of course, I absolutely agree that flash photography should be prohibited in galleries and museums, not least for the disruption it causes other visitors. The point of this post is merely to rebut the widespread belief that flash photography kills paintings.
Photography in galleries - Van Dyck's view
August 14 2014
Pictures: British Museum
I was asked on the BBC yesterday whether great artists of the past would have approved of photography in museums. My answer was unhesitatingly yes, as the sketchbooks of Old Master artists around the world attest. I cited Van Dyck's Italian sketchbook, which, as you can see from the page above [from the British Museum], contains hundreds of lightning quick drawings as he captured what he could from the great masterpieces by the likes of Titian that he went to Italy specifically to see. If he'd had a smartphone, you can bet he would have been an avid snapper of great paintings.
Can you imagine someone saying to Van Dyck, 'no, you cannot make a sketch of that Titian, I insist you simply look at it for a long time instead'? Those who say we must ban photography to make people appreciate art 'in a better way' make the same argument.
By the way, while I'm on Van Dyck's Italian sketchbook, allow me to show you perhaps my favourite drawing by him. It's a beautifully observed drawing of an ostrich. To the right of the image, however, is a hurried sketch of the ostrich head-on, with its wings flapping. Above it, Van Dyck has written; 'If the ostrich gets angry, run'.
Update - Nathaniel Hepburn, the new director of the Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft, tweets:
I am an avid photographer in galleries & it is patronising to be told that I am 'shooting not looking' by some in the NO campaign. How do they know how long I have looked before shooting, and many times after. Grrr
But Jon Sharples tweets:
This sort of specious reasoning is very bad for @GrumpyArt's health!
Dr Matt Loder of the University of Essex tweets:
I don't always see eye-to-eye with @arthistorynews but on photography in the NG I am in rapturous agreement!
If you're not on Twitter by the way, I do recommend it, and all the above are worth following.
Update II - a reader writes:
I hadn't seen the Van Dyck Ostrich before your post today, so thank you for including it, such a fun sketch and now also one of my favourites.
Restoring Le Brun's 'Jabach and His Family' (ctd.)
August 14 2014
Picture: Met Museum
I mentioned recently that Met curator Keith Christiansen is charting the restoration of their recently acquired portrait Everhard Jabach and his Family by Charles Le Brun on his blog; now he's highlighting something I didn't know, that there were two versions of the picture. The other (above, right) was in a museum in Berlin, and destroyed during the war. The question is, however, which one is or was better? Christiansen says he;
[...] worried about this as we entered into negotiations for the purchase of the picture.
the quality of the Berlin painting is vastly inferior: the figures have a smooth, almost airbrushed quality and lack the expressive liveliness of those in the Metropolitan's version. No wonder that in the eighteenth century, the Metropolitan's painting became a principal sight in Cologne—it's noted in guidebooks to the city and was seen by the great poet-philosopher Goethe as well as by the British painter Sir Joshua Reynolds. In contrast, the Berlin version was reputed to have been painted in part by the workshop.
Update - a reader writes:
This feels like rubbing salt in to a wound.
Really interesting though – pity the National doesn’t do blogs. Would this be your next campaign?