November 12 2011
Apologies for the lack of service on Friday - I was away.
To make up for it (and also because I am away on Monday at the Gainsborough Study Day) standby for a touch of weekend Art History News...
Sold for Â£646k, estimated at Â£3-5k
November 10 2011
I love it when these little Chinese things go through the roof. Here is the latest example, an ivory dragon seal catalogued at Christie's as 19th/20th Century and estimated at just £3-5,000. It sold for a massive £646,050 (or $1,035,628). I'm no expert on this area, but it looks pretty fine, and old, to me.
Imagine ringing the vendor to tell them the good news...
'Fake or Fortune?' returns...
November 10 2011
I'm delighted to announce that BBC1's art programme 'Fake or Fortune?' has been recommissioned (I'm the nerdy looking one above, with presenters Philip Mould and Fiona Bruce). We start filming in January - and are still keen to hear of your ideas for a programme. So if you've always wondered about that Leonardo-looking thing your Gran has hanging in her downstairs lav, then send me an email. You never know...
'And in the middle of a recession...'
November 10 2011
Sotheby's last night triumphed in the battle of the auction sales, with their contemporary art total of $316 million beating Christie's $247 million. This follows on from Sotheby's whooping Christie's... gavel in the impressionist sales last week. From Reuters:
The $315,837,000 total including commissions easily beat the presale estimate of $192 million to $270 million.
"It was one of the best auctions I've ever seen in my life," said Nicolai Frahm, a leading London-based contemporary art adviser. "And in the middle of a recession," he added.
Sotheby's scored a coup by landing a group of four Stills [Clyfford Still, two works above], whose works virtually never come to market and which were being sold by the city of Denver to benefit a new Still museum opening there this month.
Led by "1949-A-No. 1," which soared to $61,682,500 against an estimate of $30 million and smashed the record for the artist, the group of abstracts took in $114 million, nearly twice the pre-sale estimate.
Is this the contemporary art market temporarily defying gravity? Or a sign that everything will be alright? Who knows. I'd like not to be reminded of the record breaking Damien Hirst sale on the day of the Lehman collapse...
More on that strange French restitution case
November 9 2011
More details have emerged about the French government's curious attempt to seize a painting by Nicolas Tournier it says was stolen almost two hundred years ago. The picture, above, was being offered by the London-based dealer, Mark Weiss, to the Musee des Augustines, in Toulouse, where it had hung until it vanished in 1818. But when the museum contacted the French culture ministry to raise funds for the work, a sharp witted official appears to have decided that instead of buying the picture, it would be far cheaper to simply seize it.
The picture had surfaced at a Sotheby's auction in Italy, as by a 'follower of Caravaggio', and sold for EUR 59,500. Mr Weiss has told The Independent that he had been asking considerably more for it:
Earlier this year, the Weiss gallery offered the Tournier for sale for €675,000. "That would have been a fair price to a private buyer," Mr Weiss said yesterday. "But we were ready to sell it to the Toulouse museum for less than that."
Normally we picture-hunters love to find a piece of museum provenance. But in this case it seems to have caused all manner of problems. Is it a case of the sleeper bites back?
And now for something completely different...
November 9 2011
That's enough Leonardo stuff for the moment. At Christie's New York last night the contemporary art crowd ('Leonardo who?') breathed a collective sigh of relief at some strong prices. Headlining the sale was Roy Lichtenstein's 'I Can See the Whole Room! ... And There's Nobody in it!', which sold for $43.2 million, beating it's lower estimate of $35m. The picture was guaranteed, so Christie's will be relieved.
The sale of 91 works realised a total $247.6 million, and went some way to making up for Christie's poor showing last week with impressionist and modern works. Still, I'd happily trade those 91 for Leonardo's Salvator Mundi. Full details of the other sales here.
Leonardo - footage from the opening day
November 9 2011
November 9 2011
Picture: National Gallery / Sky Arts
Did you watch it? Let me know what you thought if you did. I don't have Sky, and was too busy penning my review to get to a cinema (3,500 words in a few hours - I felt like a proper journalist).
Over in The Telegraph, Mark Hudson was underwhelmed by the show, giving it two stars out of five:
It felt strange, at first, to be watching a presentation in a resolutely small-screen format in overwhelming widescreen; and to be honest it didn’t get any less strange. Seated in unnerving proximity to the base of the screen, I had Frostrup’s waxed calves looming over me like great chicken bones, while her irrepressibly chuckly smile was about as far as you could get from the enigmatic Giacondaesque. Marlow meanwhile bounded from room to room, discoursing on Leonardo’s early life, his arrival at the court of Milan and presumed homosexuality in rapid-fire addresses to camera designed to bring a breathless nowness to the remote 16th century. The format felt two parts ‘Election Night Special’ to one of ‘Grandstand’. If Marlow didn’t actually predict a great result for Leonardo and the National Gallery, his adenoidal eagerness and slight northern accent make his commitment to arts programmes a huge loss to sports broadcasting.
Hudson did however find that the audience seemed to like it more than he did:
The audience, who had paid £8 a head, appeared well pleased with the experience: a great introduction to the exhibition, was the general view in the foyer afterwards – "a great balance of expert opinions you’d never otherwise have the opportunity to hear", "better than straining to read the information panels". A trio of game Irish ladies in subdued leisure wear declared themselves particularly satisfied.
"But then", said one, "we are drawn to all aspects of Christ and the spiritual." And why was that? "We’re nuns."
'Only a few people got tetchy...'
November 9 2011
So far so good in terms of crowds at the National on day one of Leonardo. From Mark Brown in The Guardian:
Day one of an unprecedented exhibition that has already been called the "greatest show on earth" and the National Gallery's Leonardo da Vinci show is certainly busy. Packed even, with a civilised huddle of around a dozen people silently taking in the newly discovered masterpiece Christ as Salvator Mundi.
But there's busy and then there's busy. "There wasn't a problem at all for the paintings because you can just queue and take your time," said Sue Salsbury from Putney, west London. "It was more difficult for the drawings but I have to say people were remarkably good natured. Only a few people got tetchy. I'd say if you're going to come, just give yourself enough time to be able to stand back and enjoy it."
A jolly lady from Kew – "just call me Anonymous from Kew!" – agreed. "I think the crowds were predictable but they weren't that bad. I could see everything."
That will be music to the ears of managers at the National Gallery who say they are doing everything they can to make the Leonardo experience as enjoyable and comfortable as possible.
'Leonardo' exhibition - an in depth review
November 8 2011
Picture: National Gallery
Giorgio Vasari once described how Leonardo:
...made a cartoon wherein Our Lady and St Anne and a Christ, which not only filled all artists with wonder, but, when it was finished men and women, young and old, continued for two days to crowd into the room where it was exhibited, as if attending a solemn festival: and all were astonished at its excellence.
As in 1500, so in 2011 – though fortunately this exhibition runs for more than two days. In fact, depending on your reading of Vasari’s dating, it is possible that the cartoon he describes above is the Burlington Cartoon, which is now part of this incredible exhibition [Cat.86].
Today was the press preview for Leonardo da Vinci – Painter at the Court of Milan. And, courtesy of this blog and you readers, I was able to go. What a treat. I stayed till the bitter end, by which time the rooms were empty, making four hours in all. I’ve read the labels, had the guided tour, sampled the audio guide, and bought the catalogue. Rarely have I left an exhibition with such a sense of elation. It may be hard to write this review without overdosing on superlatives, but here goes…
First, the essentials. Does it live up to the hype? Undoubtedly. Should you go? Yes. Should you go if you live in the Outer Hebrides, with a difficult bus connection? Of course. Is the newly discovered Salvator Mundi ‘right’? Unquestionably. Is this the best exhibition the National Gallery has put on in modern times? Yes. Is it the best art exhibition ever? Quite possibly.
To answer why, we have to look no further than Leonardo’s own genius. As the weight of Leonardo books, posters and conspiracy theories show, the man was one of the most fascinating that ever lived. An exhibition on his toenails would be worth a visit. So in a sense the National Gallery could not go wrong when they decided to look at Leonardo’s most productive period, the 18 years he spent working in Milan under Ludovico Sforza.
[If on the home page, click 'Read on' for more]
Nevertheless, despite the quality of the works on display, the exhibition is a triumph even from a purely curatorial point of view. I’ve not been to a show where everything is so clearly laid out, properly - yet accessibly - researched, and just plain enjoyable. The catalogue is excellent, a model for all curators (and ideally you should read it first before seeing the exhibition). Faced with the challenge of so few Leonardo paintings in existence, the curator here, Luke Syson, has resisted padding out the exhibition with too much peripheral work. Instead he has allowed Leonardo’s brilliance to speak for itself. Each room of the exhibition is focused around one or two paintings by Leonardo, and each has a collection of related drawings and paintings by both Leonardo and those in his immediate circle. Contrary to Richard Dorment’s rather odd complaint in The Telegraph, those few paintings by other artists, such as Leonardo’s highly talented pupils Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio (d.1516) and Marco d’Oggiono (d.1524), are not a ‘major flaw’ in the exhibition, but help frame our view of Leonardo’s skill, since his own paintings tower over everything else from the period.
In part, the success of the exhibition is due, ironically, to the scarcity of Leonardo’s paintings (he is thought to have painted only about 20, and 9 are included here), for his drawings play an equally starring role. Too often in monographic exhibitions an artist’s drawings are relegated to a separate area or room, tacked onto the display of paintings like an awkward relative. But in Leonardo, the drawings are arranged as the ultimate appetiser to the paintings. And thanks to the large number of Leonardo drawings that survive, along with his copious notes, we can chart the creative development of each painting, from an early doodle, to preparatory drawing, then cartoon, and then finally the painting. This is possible with very few artists, and probably Leonardo is the only case where we can chart the evolution of genius so fully.
Picture: Leonardo, 'The Musician', oil on walnut, 44.7 x 32 cm, Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Milan (99), De Agostini Picture Library.
So, onto the works themselves. The exhibition begins appropriately with Leonardo’s ‘The Musician’ [above, Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, Milan] (his only painting of a male sitter), dated to 1486-7. This unfinished portrait (only the face and some hair can be considered complete) was ground-breaking in its day because it turned away, literally, from the convention of painting portraits only in profile. A profile portrait was considered to best show the nobility and breeding of a sitter, and was valued by rulers (particularly in Leonardo’s case Ludovico Sforza) for its instant recognisability, rather like a monarch’s profile head on a coin (how Leonardo, who himself painted profile portraits, though none survive, must have felt so limited by such a turgid convention). And The Musician, despite its unfinished state, bristles with originality, not least in its presentation of light and shadow on the sitter’s strangely alert face. The sitter’s hand and the musical score have sadly been abraded, due to having been over-painted at some point. The over-paint and unfinished state may explain why the picture has not always been accepted as a work by Leonardo - though it is hard to see who else could have painted it – and this is lucky, for when Napoleon’s army took away their haul of art from Italy they left The Musician behind, thinking it a mere Luini.
Picture: Leonardo, 'La Belle Ferronniere', oil on walnut, 63 x 45 cm, Musee du Louvre (778) RMN/Frank Raux.
Inevitably, the question of attribution rather haunts the exhibition, as I shall explain below. Almost all of Leonardo’s paintings have at some point been debated back and forth by art historians. La Belle Ferronniere [Louvre] has often been ‘given’ (as Renaissance art historians are fond of saying) to Leonardo’s followers, though again it is hard to see why since it is evidently so much better than any work of, say, d’Oggiono. As so often with paintings from the Louvre, which has an aversion to cleaning pictures, one wonders whether the portrait’s darkened and dirty state may have led to doubts among scholars. The flesh tones are now practically non-existent beneath the yellowed varnish. A slight damage and crude retouching to the bridge of the sitter’s nose breaks the gentle rhythm of her features. Equally, the picture, like all Leonardo’s paintings, is overwhelmingly better in the flesh than in reproductions. I’m ashamed to say that even I have occasionally looked at photographs of La Belle Ferronniere and wondered what all the fuss was about. The craquelure, which seems so disfiguring in photographs, is hardly noticeable in real life, while the contours and delicate lighting of the face work in a way that the photograph can never relate. It is a testament to Leonardo’s skill that even the most advanced forms of photography cannot capture the brilliance of his work. (Doubtless Leonardo would have been intrigued by this, and set about inventing a new type of camera.) There are many suggestions in the catalogue as to who the sitter is, and it is one the ironies of history that the two most plausible are Ludovico’s wife, Beatrice D’Este, and his mistress Lucrezia Crevelli.
Picture: Leonardo, 'Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani', oil on walnut, 54.8 x 40.3 cm, Princess Czartoryski Foundation, on deposit at the National Museum, Cracow.
Hanging in the same room as La Belle Ferronniere, and, if it is possible, entirely overshadowing it, is Leonardo’s Cecilia Gallerani, or ‘The Lady with an Ermine’ [Czartoryski Foundation]. It is not hard to see why this was the only exhibit which arrived under armed guard. The sitter, another mistress of Ludovico, is an undoubted beauty, and Leonardo would have been pleased to hear Luke Syson remark ‘it is hard not to fall in love with her’. And yet Leonardo manages to elevate her from a mistress (and how often do we see them portrayed as purely sexual beings) to an engaging and astute figure in her own right. A perceptive contemporary, Bernardo Bellincioni, wrote that Leonardo ‘makes her appear to listen…’ Much has been written about the symbolism of the ermine, but I want only to note how well it is painted. Again, a number of studies of the ermine are hung nearby, allowing us to see how much care Leonardo took to convey details such as the beast’s claws sinking into the sitter’s dress. (It's worth noting that Leonardo liked this portrait so much, he recycled part of it - the hand can be seen in The Last Supper, for St Philip.)
One omission from any discussion about Cecilia, indeed, throughout most of the exhibition and the catalogue, is any mention of condition. When dealing with an artist such as Leonardo the question of a painting’s condition, of what original remains and what is added by a later hand, must be of the greatest importance. But here it is almost entirely lacking. Surely, viewers need to know that the background of Cecilia is entirely over-painted, making the sitter’s profile seem unduly hard and unnatural, and the turn of her shoulders stiffer than the artist intended, or that the tips of her two lower fingers have been repainted.
Picture: Leonardo, 'The Madonna of the Rocks'. Left, Musee du Louvre (777) RMN/Frank Raux, oil on wood, transferred onto canvas, 199 x 122 cm, and right The National Gallery, London (NG 1093), oil on poplar, 189.5 x 120 cm.
The central room in the exhibition shows the juxtaposition – for the first time ever, it is believed – of the two versions of Leonardo’s Madonna of the Rocks. They are hung opposite each other, which does not allow for close comparison of the various details, but, surprisingly, helps emphasise their differences and respective qualities. The version in the Louvre, dated to 1483-c.1485 generates more impact, despite the fact that it is hidden beneath the ubiquitous layers of dirt and yellowed varnish. It is hard to say why this is, and the respective merits of the two have been argued about endlessly by scholars. The National Gallery’s later version, completed in fits and starts between 1491/2 and 1506/8, has always been perceived as slightly inferior, and perhaps the work of Leonardo delegating areas to his assistants. The recent cleaning of the National picture, however, has seen the gallery declare that it is ‘a Leonardo’. I do not doubt this, for whether parts of it were painted by assistants or not (and there is plenty of documentary evidence to confirm that Leonardo used trained artists to help him complete this and other commissions, one source describes ‘two of Leonardo’s pupils […] doing some portraits and he from time to time put a touch on them’) Leonardo considered it ‘a Leonardo’, and so did the people paying him. But one thing is clear from this exhibition – the Louvre version is better by several degrees.
In the Louvre’s Madonna of the Rocks the drawing is as close to perfection as one sees in a Leonardo painting. Each finger, join, muscle and glance seem to be inspired with life. In the London version, however, some of the details, most particularly Christ’s right hand (below), are executed so cursorily as to be almost painterly, not a practice we normally associate with Leonardo. The lower part of the blue drapery worn by the Madonna in the London Rocks is so perfunctory it seems she is wearing a sleeping bag.
Picture: National Gallery, London, detail from 'The Madonna of the Rocks'.
It seems evident from the comparison of both works that Leonardo could not muster the same level of interest or precision in the second version. And who can blame him, for a genius obsessed with detail and innovation there can be no more tedious task than repeating something you have already done to perfection. It is telling that not long after the London Madonna of the Rocks was painted, Castiglione described Leonardo as ‘one of the world’s finest painters, [who] despises the art for which he has so rare a talent…’ To me, there is no more obvious indicator that Leonardo, could, in effect, simply not be bothered to complete the London version of the Rocks to the same degree as the Paris version than in the omission of the angel’s pointed hand, an element which forms such an important part of the narrative in the first version.
Unsurprisingly, the catalogue entry for the National’s version of The Madonna of The Rocks sees a spirited defence that the picture is almost wholly by Leonardo. Another picture receiving a spirited defence that it too is a Leonardo is the Madonna Litta [Hermitage, Cat.57]. This picture, on loan from the Hermitage in St Petersburg, was lent only on condition that it was called ‘a Leonardo’, and that the Hermitage could write the catalogue entry. They duly have, and consequently it reads a little like a Soviet propaganda piece, a curious blend of nationalism and art history. Perhaps this approach is understandable, when you consider how high the stakes are – the prestige to a museum of having ‘a Leonardo’ is priceless. It is telling that Syson himself, however, in a prelude to the Madonna Litta catalogue entry, clearly conveys his own doubts over the picture. I found it equally telling that, in his speech at the beginning of the press preview this morning, instead of saying ‘we have nine Leonardos’, he used the phrase ‘we have nine pictures lent by their institutions as Leonardos’.
Picture: Leonardo, 'The Madonna Litta', about 1491-5, tempera on canvas, transferred from wood, 42 x 33 cm, The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg (GE-249).
The Madonna Litta was celebrated in its day. But scholars have long had doubts over whether it is by Leonardo, or based on his design. And here we come back to the question of Leonardo’s studio, a question which is dealt with clearly in both the catalogue and exhibition. I won’t go into those details here, save to say that the Madonna Litta, as we see it today, is extremely hard to quantify. Again it comes down partly to condition. It is painted in tempera (unusual for Leonardo at this date) on a panel which has been thinned down and laid onto canvas. As a result, the picture’s surface has lost the delicacy of the original. It appears flat and uniform. Kenneth Clark described the picture as looking ‘like an oleograph’, and he was not far out. I found it an underwhelming picture, too severely painted and unsubtle for Leonardo, even accounting for the different medium.
Picture:Leonardo, 'Head of a Woman', metalpoint heightened with white on grey paper, 17.9 x 16.8 cm, Musee du Louvre (2376).
For me, the most telling clue as to whether the Madonna Litta is ‘right’ or not could be found in Leonardo’s drawing for the Madonna’s head [above, Louvre, Cat.59] hung next to the painting. The comparison is a cruel one for advocates of the Litta. All Leonardo’s figures are characterised by the expressiveness of their faces, even in the most trivial doodle. In the drawing of the Madonna the characterisation is so acute that we cannot fail to notice at once both her pride as a mother and also her fear at Christ’s ultimate fate, as symbolised in the painting by him holding a chaffinch, a symbol of his torture and death. And yet in the painting, the Madonna’s delicate expression is noticeably lacking, with deadened features and a less lifelike gaze. One is constantly reminded when looking at the Madonna’s flesh tones of the more uniform and silvery tones of Leonardo’s immediate followers, most notably Boltraffio, two of whose studies for the Litta hang nearby [Cats. 61 & 62].
Picture: Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio, 'Portrait of a Young Woman as Artemisia', about 1494, oil on wood, 49 x 37 cm, Mattioli Collection, Milan, photo, Vittorio Calore, Milan.
A number of paintings by Boltraffio are in the exhibition, and he seems clearly to have been the most able of Leonardo’s followers (better than Marco D’Oggiono for example). Of particular note is the Portrait of a Young Woman as Artemisia [Cat.18, Mattioli Collection, Milan]. This is dated in the catalogue to c.1494. It was discovered in the mid-twentieth Century, and despite an attempt then to attribute it to Leonardo, was given to Boltraffio. If it is by him, then it is one of his masterpieces, for I find it difficult to accept that the startling fidelity of this fresh and modern face could be by the same artist as some of the other Boltraffios in the exhibition, with their stiff and mannered expressions. Particularly noticeable is the way the face is lit, deftly and with great control, especially around the eyes. The fine shadow cast by the sitter’s right eyelash is worthy of Leonardo himself, as indeed is some of the drawing in the hand. As heretical as it may sound, the portrait is so good that I found myself wondering if this picture might be by someone better than Boltraffio... Again, condition governs our view of this curious painting (which Richard Dorment, incidentally, calls 'second rate', and which photographs horribly). The picture has been severely damaged and very badly retouched. Little of the original veil remains, and there is extensive damage in her neck, forehead and hair. The bowl is largely reconstructed, along with the hand too. But there is enough modelling in the hand, especially in the sinewy stretch of flesh between thumb and index finger, to suggest the highest skill. Is this one of the lost portraits Leonardo made by his assistants, but which he ‘put a touch on’? Go and see it and let me know what you think.
Picture: Leonardo, 'Christ as Salvator Mundi', about 1499 onwards, oil on walnut, 65.5 x 45.1 cm, private collection, (C) Salvator Mundi LLC/Tim Nighswander/Imaging4Art.
Let me turn now to the two pictures in the final room, the rediscovered Salvator Mundi and the Duke of Buccleuch’s version of the Madonna of the Yarnwinder. The two make good bedfellows, being dated to c.1499, and similarly painted in areas. Much has already been written about Salvator Mundi, but I will say that it is far better in the flesh than the photographs suggest. And nor is it as badly damaged as I had originally feared. Most importantly, it works as a picture, and still delivers an ethereal vision of Christ, just as Leonardo would surely have intended. It is hard to overstate the significance of its inclusion in the exhibition. There are still those who mutter about the National Gallery including a picture that was found by ‘the trade’. But if it wasn’t for the trade, the picture would never have been found (in a minor US auction in 2005). Who cares who owns it, or how much they paid for it? It dramatically adds to our knowledge of Leonardo, and that, as far as this exhibition is concerned, is all that matters. The Madonna of the Yarnwinder is a picture that I was prepared to be sceptical about from the few reproductions of it that I have seen. But again, in the flesh, this is an exquisite work, albeit one that has been finished in the background by someone else.
Picture:Leonardo & a later unidentified artist, 'The Madonna of the Yarnwinder', about 1499 onwards, oil on walnut, 48.9 x 36.8 cm, Private Collection (C) The 10th Duke of Buccleuch and the Trustees of the Buccleuch Living Heritage Trust.
Finally, the Last Supper. This section of the exhibition is upstairs in the main gallery, in the Sunley Room. At first it seems a little disappointing – the photographic replica of the original Last Supper is not full-scale, while Giampetrino’s scale copy is badly lit. But around it are some of the finest drawings in the exhibition – all of the surviving drawings by Leonardo for the Last Supper. My favourite are two studies which show how hard he strove to achieve the calm harmony and unity of grouping Christ and the Twelve Disciples convincingly. These drawings (Cats. 69 & 70) show some of the disciples on the near side of the table – and it is clear from the problems of scale why Leonardo chose to abandon this concept in favour of arranging the figures all on one side (thereby inspiring my favourite art history cartoon).
So what then can we make of Leonardo? This exhibition shows how we are left with only a fraction of his bewildering brilliance. We cannot hear his exquisite and much remarked upon music, nor his celebrated conversation, we cannot see his sculptures (although we know he made them), nor marvel at any of his engineering schemes (nor even his own beautiful good looks). As Vasari states:
The heavens often rain down the richest gifts on human beings, naturally, but sometimes with lavish abundance they bestow upon a single individual beauty, grace and ability, so that, whatever he does, every action is so divine that he distances all other men and clearly displays how his genius is the gift of God and not an acquirement of human art. Men saw this in Leonardo da Vinci.
It says something of our era that we still see Leonardo as the defining figure of art. We will queue round the block to pay homage - in 'a solemn festival' - to a handful of paintings made by a curious man who lived 500 years ago. How should we feel that we, today, have nothing to match him? Indeed, will there ever be anyone to match him? Or do the unique circumstances which led to such a creative force no longer exist? Suffused throughout the exhibition is Leonardo’s own sense of faith. He was clearly painting from both a sense of personal belief and scientific exploration, and it was this combination of curiosity restrained by faith that allowed him to create objects of startling originality. Was this era of great geniuses the high point of creativity, the confluence of the two great drivers of artistic expression in western art, religion and the exploration of humanity? Today, we have the answers to more or less everything, and yet nobody is as creative, artistically, as Leonardo. The two giants of contemporary art make millions either by casting enlarged jelly babies or painting spots on canvas (in fact they get other people to do it for them.) And certainly, there is no shortage in the world of people of faith, but it tends to be of the fundamental kind, unquestioning, and binary - either on or off – the type that excludes a Leonardo-esque curiosity. The contrast between Leonardo and, say, Koons suggests that great art grows out of both observation of the outside world, and a combination of sensory impulses, be they religious or otherwise emotionally driven, from within. Leonardo, as this exhibition shows, had both. For while today we make art with the human hand, Leonardo made it with the human spirit.
Leonardo - where the loans have come from
November 8 2011
The BBC have put together an interesting map of where the Leonardo exhibits have come from. As you can see, we're fortunate in the UK to have so many Leonardos - chiefly drawings admittedly, but still some of the best examples of his work in the world.
Salvator Mundi, dude
November 8 2011
Picture: Robert Simon/National Gallery
In The Guardian, Adrian Searle looks at Leonardo's Salvator Mundi, and sees a hippie:
New research published this summer has now identified this as an authentic Leonardo. Or at least some of it. Maybe. What a difficult painting this is to like, let alone to be affected by. Jesus has the glazed look of someone stoned. You can imagine the raised fingers holding a spliff. Once imagined, the image won't go away. In the same way that it is hard to forget the moustache Marcel Duchamp supplied the Mona Lisa with, making her a cartoonish drag king (and amplifying the idea that the Mona Lisa is a sort of transvestite self-portrait of the artist), I can no longer see the Salvator Mundi on its own terms. It is difficult enough, in any case.
Check back later today for my review of the show.
The oldest restitution claim in history?
November 8 2011
The French government has placed an export ban on a painting it says was stolen almost 200 years ago. The Carrying of the Cross by Nicolas Tournier was being exhibited in a Paris art fair by London-based dealer Mark Weiss. But French officials have said the picture has been missing from a state museum since 1818. Mark Weiss, it seems, now cannot take the picture back to his London gallery.
The French Culture Ministry said:
This was the property of the French state that was deposited at the Augustins Museum in Toulouse and was stolen in 1818. It is a non-transferable work," [...] "We are claiming this painting as the property of the state and it will not leave the country."
The French government's action is a very strange one. How far back do we have to go before restitution cases become untenable? Surely a painting 'stolen' in 1818, if indeed it was, cannot now be reclaimed? What about the mass of art stolen by Napoleon and his forces from across Europe? There is an irony too in that the picture was itself stolen (or rather, 'confiscated') by the French state during the revolution, from the chapel of the Company of Black Penitents in Toulouse. The effect of this decision will doubtless be far reaching, not least for museum loans of items that do not have full provenance (which is most things).
November 8 2011
The first cleaning test on a picture is often the moment of revelation - is the picture beneath the grime and yellowed varnish a beauty, or a beast? Cleaning, we say in the trade, is the friend of a good picture, and the enemy of a bad one. The filtering effects of old varnish can not only hide the virtues of a masterpiece, but also the weaknesses of a copy.
Here are the remains of a little cleaning test we did on a picture last night. The various potions include acetone for removing the layers of old varnish, and white spirit, for 'wetting out' the surface. We occasionally also have to use scalpels for really stubborn areas of over-paint. The yellow gunk on the cotton wool swabs is the removed old varnish and surface dirt.
View from the Artist no.6 - Leonardo special
November 7 2011
There's a number of links from Leonardo's life to the answer of this one. Good luck!
(Newer readers - can you guess where the view is taken from? No prizes, just for fun - but a cornucopia of adulation and praise for the first correct answer, giving title, artist and date.)
New British Art Journal
November 7 2011
The latest issue of the BAJ is out. Articles include:
- New evidence of Rossetti's admiration for Theodor von Holst (1810-144) by Max Browne
- A contribution to the iconography of Maria Walpole (1736-1807) [ie, a newly attributed portrait of her, by Nathaniel Dance] by Corey Piper
- George Wilson (1840-90) and late 19th Century watercolour painting, by Margaretta S Frederick
- New Light on Nicholas Hilliard, by Graham Reynolds [this piece contains some distinctly, how shall I say, interesting new attributions to Hilliard. Accept with caution!]
- Censored flesh: The wounded body as unprepresentable in the art of the First World War, by Debra Lennard [a fascinating piece]
- Liotard at the Royal Academy, 1773, by William Hauptman
- Jacques Laurent Agasse (1767-1849); An investigation of his painting practice and an overview of his career, by Jessica David
- A New Portrait of Mary Rogers, Lady Harrington, by John Stephan Edwards
- Fact or Fiction? Elizabeth Thompson's 'Balaclava' and the art of re-construction, by Rachel Anchor
Leonardo used assistants shock
November 7 2011
There was a curious story in the papers recently about a 'new' theory that Leonardo used assistants. This, it is claimed, explains why both versions of the Madonna of the Yarnwinder, above, could be by Leonardo.
The findings were published by Leonardo scholar, Martin Kemp, ahead of publication of a new book on Leonardo. According to The Telegraph, Kemp announced that both pictures (called The Buccleuch Madonna and The Lansdowne Madonna):
"...are not iffy. They are not right up there with the Mona Lisa but they are certainly the next rung down."
He added that the research would challenge art experts' ideas on what makes an "original" artwork, showing similarities between da Vinci and modern artists such as Damien Hirst and Marc Quinn, who are known to have outsourced some of their work to assistants.
"The trade, the galleries and our own romantic idea of these artists as passionate creators working in a fire of creative genius works against our acknowledging that they were picture producers and that most of them were trying to make a good living," Professor Kemp told the newspaper.
He said da Vinci is unlikely to have been the only Italian Renaissance or Baroque painter who used apprentices to help speed up their commercial projects.
"Not iffy" is a good one - I love it when art historians get all technical. However, I find it hard to believe that anyone can claim the fact that artists, even great ones, used assistants is somehow 'new'. With the reference to Hirst et al, the story feels more like a press release than a piece of research. I'm sure the book, when it is published, will be more illuminating. In the meantime, the Buccleuch version of the Yarnwinder will be on display in the National Gallery's Leonardo exhibition. There it is called 'Leonardo and an unknown artist', presumably on account of the rather weak background.
Leonardo - the movie
November 7 2011
Picture: National Gallery
There's a good film here on the Leonardo exhibition, with curator Luke Syson.
November 7 2011
Picture: Louvre/National Gallery
Critics from some of the major publications have been given sneak previews of the Leonardo show, ahead of its opening on Wednesday. In The Times (paywall), Rachel Campbell-Johnston said that it was the best show she had ever seen, so good it made her cry. Adrian Hamilton, in The Independent, calls it 'unmissable'. Over in The Telegraph, Richard Dorment is a little less enthusiastic, and gives it four stars out of five. He complains about there being too many pictures by Leonardo's followers and pupils. He's also a little wary of the newly discovered Salvator Mundi (tho' less wary than he was of La Bella Principessa, the 'Leonardo' drawing sold by his ex-wife for $21,000). The Guardian seems not to have been invited yet, while The Daily Mail, predictably, manages to find a negative angle, and focuses on the £1.5 billion insurance bill for the taxpayer if all the pictures are stolen.
Dorment also reveals that the two versions of the Madonna of the Rocks are not hanging side by side, but opposite each other. I was looking forward to making a close comparison of the various details. So I expect to be practising my pirouette tomorrow when I see the show. Check back soon for the first in-depth review of the exhibition.
Stolen Hals and van Ruysdael recovered
November 4 2011
Two works by Frans Hals and Jacob van Ruysdael stolen from a Dutch museum in May this year have been recovered following a tip off. Hals' Two Boys Laughing and Rusydael's Wooded Landscape were taken from the Hofje van Mevrouw van Aerden Museum. Three villains have been apprehended by Dutch Police. See a photo of the Ruysdael here.