Previous Posts: January 2012

Dictator Art - evil buttock edition

January 20 2012

Readers may remember that last year a former SAS soldier, Nigel Ely, tried to sell at auction a piece of Saddam's statue from Baghdad, to raise funds for injured troops. The sale gained publicity with the claim that the fragment of bronze represented Saddam's buttock, and a wildly optimistic 'valuation' of £250,000. It didn't sell. Now, police in the UK have arrested and interviewed those alleged to be trying to sell the piece again, and who may be acting in contravention of the 2003 Iraq Sanctions Order (specifically the importation of Iraqi cultural property).

In The Guardian*, Mr Ely questioned why the piece was being described as cultural property:

The ex-soldier asked: "How can it be classed as cultural property when it was put up by the biggest tyrant since Attila the Hun?"

Ely believes that Iraqi officials decided to demand the return of the war relic after seeing media coverage of its value.

"American Marines gave it to me and at that time Baghdad was under American control," he added. "There wasn't even an Iraqi government and I have since turned it into a piece of war relic art. "This is like having a chunk of the Berlin Wall – it's part of history but it's not cultural property."

Mr Ely is of course entirely wrong. You can't decide if a statue is culturally valuable on the basis of whether the sitter was a nice chap or not. That statue was a symbol of Saddam's power in Baghdad, and its globally-broadcast removal came to be seen as the defining moment of his downfall. As such, it is an important part of Iraqi history, and the Iraqi's are entitled to want it back, even bits of it. The bigger question, of course, is what happened to Saddam's head?

*via Steven Moore

Friday Amusement (vintage edition)

January 20 2012

Image of Friday Amusement (vintage edition)

Picture: Punch

As they say, the old ones are the best. Presumably the setting is the cast galleries at the V&A. 

Everybody out! (for 2 hours)

January 20 2012

35 rooms were temporarily closed at the National Gallery yesterday as room warders went on strike. The stoppage lasted two hours, but the Gallery managed to keep the Leonardo exhibition open. Between 30 and 40 warders took part, according to The Guardian. Two anonymous warders were quoted in the paper:

"Although we've been assured that CCTV equipment and the glazing of the pictures will prevent any kind of a situation and offer security and deal with any security issues, I think there's still a feeling that a human presence is more effective than a camera," he said.

Another said the gallery was focusing on rare incidents of major vandalism and ignoring the "minor but continuous" damage done to paintings by visitors touching them or falling against them. "It's happening daily," he said, adding that, if he was in the other room under his responsibility, "I wouldn't see it".

It's a tricky one this. Nobody wants to risk paintings being attacked, as happened recently with a Poussin. Glazing pictures is most tedious (thankfully, very few paintings at the Gallery are glazed). And it is sad to see any staff at galleries threatened with redundancy.

But as a frequent visitor to the Gallery it seems to me that the practice of having one warder per room is inefficient and expensive, not least because many rooms are quite small. I suspect that boredom amongst warders, not a lack of them, is a greater risk when it comes to guarding the gallery. No painting can be safe when a warder is playing sudoku. Would it be better to have fewer but more alert warders, which would be the practical result of a single warder occasionally having to cover two rooms?


January 19 2012

I'm a little tied up today I'm afraid, so blogging might be a bit thin till later...

A vacancy at Tate

January 18 2012

Not everyone's getting the chop at Tate - in fact they're hiring. Here's a vacancy for a Marketing & Communications Manager for the Tate Membership programme, at £27k per year. The candidate will:

...line manage the Marketing Executive for Tate Members and be responsible for the Tate Members’ marketing budget.

I guess this means sending out the stuff which, if you're a recurrent member like me, goes straight into the bin.

Still, it's one of the best museum memberships around - if you're not already a member, I can thoroughly recommend joining. Who knows, if enough people sign up, Tate may even be able to hire a curator or two. 

How many people does it take to hang a spot?

January 18 2012

Video: Gagosian/via ArtInfo

I make it 14 in all.

Curious similarities in art history

January 18 2012

Image of Curious similarities in art history

Picture: Baldwin & Sons/Sammlung Albertina

[Pointless post alert] Earlier this month the above ancient Greek gold coin sold for $3.25m. The only known example, it shows the head of a satyr from Pantikapaion. Don't you think it looks a bit like Peter Brueghel the Elder? Perhaps he had a Greek ancestor. 

On the sackings at Tate Britain

January 18 2012

One of Britain's top art historians writes:

I see you did a short piece in the blog on the Tate curators, but I think it deserves more - they are the single repository for historic British art, and it sounds as if the cuts are a way of abnegating that responsibility...? Many friends whom I saw yesterday at the Hockney opening were in a state of shock about the Tate situation.

Why Damien Hirst uses assistants

January 18 2012

From an interview in GalleristNY:


“I keep getting this thing about painting your own work,” he said. “You don’t paint the spots and all that shit. I’m doing this other stuff where I’ve got two guys in Italy carving a sculpture out of granite. So I’ve made a plaster, working in the foundry, of two figures. One of them is based on Michelangelo’s Slaves, the other on the sculpture of a female slave by Hiram Powers.

“These two guys are amazing granite carvers and they are working day in, day out. And it’s like two and a half years to make one. And it’s an edition of three. So that’s 10 years, with an A.P.”—Artist’s Proof. “If wanted to do it I would have to go and study for 10 years, five years. To learn how to carve granite. Fucking hell! If these guys live to be 70 they are going to be able to make 12 of these. And that’s their whole careers. And that’s your whole life gone. So you have to get people.”

Michelangelo didn't.


Leonardo as handbag designer

January 17 2012

Image of Leonardo as handbag designer

Picture: Times

Just how talented was this man? More here

Leonardo as comedian

January 17 2012

Image of Leonardo as comedian

Picture: Royal Collection

Following on from the rather lame jokes in the East Anglian Times' review of 'Leonardo' (see below), here's a genuine Leonardo joke from one of his notebooks:

It was asked of a painter why, since he made such beautiful figures, which were but dead things, his children were so ugly; to which the painter replied that he made his pictures by day, and his children by night.

Isn't that pretty funny? I bet it was during the Renaissance. In fact, you only have to look at Leonardo's drawings to see that he had a good sense of humour. One of my favourites is the above finely executed head of a man in profile [Royal Collection]. I like to think that Leonardo thought his subject needed livening up, and so hurriedly added the impish face to the left. Another favourite is the drawing of a Rocky Cavern, complete with cheery-looking duck [also Royal Collection].

The worst 'Leonardo' review you'll read

January 17 2012

Image of The worst 'Leonardo' review you'll read

Picture: EADT

From the East Anglian Daily Times' columnist Lynne Mortimer (above, amusingly portrayed in the paper as The Mona Lisa):

The Leonardo exhibition was extraordinary. You could get close enough to his sketches to see his left-handed pen strokes and backwards writing.

He had a bit of the same trouble doing hands as Walt Disney, it seems. Fortunately Leonardo did not resolve this by giving his figures three fingers on each hand and white gloves. It would have spoiled the look of Woman with Ermine (stoat in its winter coat).

The cartoon was there... and, to trot out the old joke, it still didn’t make me laugh.

The two versions of The Virgin of the Rocks, one from the National Galley the other from the Louvre, in Paris, were brought together in one room. Leonardo’s Last Supper wasn’t there. It was painted on to a wall in a convent in Milan and has badly deteriorated over the centuries. But a painting of the original is on show and you can see the very long toes of the apostles.

As we left the exhibition my husband turned to me and shook his head. “It was very good... but...”

“But what?”

“There was nothing about Titanic, was there? And we didn’t see that painting he did of Kate Winslet in the cabin.”

Boom. Boom.

Art History students just love the net

January 17 2012

Students at Yale are being turned away from an art history course because too many of them surf the web during class.* Professor Alexander Nemerov is limiting this year's intake to fit a smaller room on the campus - one where there is no Wifi. He told Yale Daily News:

In the past many students in the lecture were doing Facebook or email or all kinds of things on their computers. So for me it’s better if there’s a room where that is not possible, and one of the unfortunate effects of that is that I have to limit the enrollment of the class to the capacity of the auditorium.

Clearly, they were all reading Art History News.

*Via art historian Dr. Ben Harvey

Hitting 'le jackpot' - eventuellement...

January 17 2012

Video: Francetvinfo

The town of Vic-le-Comte in France is celebrating a EUR2.3m windfall, after the Louvre bought the above Pieta by Jean Malouel (d.1415). The Louvre paid EUR7.8m for the picture - but part of the price went back to Vic-le-Comte in order to resolve a potential legal dispute over its ownership.

The work had first been sold by a parish priest in the town for just a hundred francs in 1985. The priest thought it was an 18th or 19th Century work, and needed to raise funds to pay for the heating. But - heureusement - in France all works of art in churches have belonged to the state since 1905, so it was never the priest's to sell. And happily, as it says in the film above, the town has now been able to reclaim at least a part of 'le jackpot' it missed out on in 1985.

In Le Figaro, the chief curator of paintings at the Louvre, Vincent Pomarede, called the acquisition 'the most important in the last fifty years'. For more details in English head over to Le Tribune de l'Art here

Elizabeth Taylor's Van Gogh...

January 17 2012

Image of Elizabeth Taylor's Van Gogh...

Picture: Christie's

...will be sold at Christie's in London next month, with an estimate of $7.5-$11m.

Hockney at the RA: 'what happened?'

January 17 2012

Image of Hockney at the RA: 'what happened?'

Picture: Royal Academy/David Hockney, 'Woldgate Woods, 21, 23 & 29 November 2006', oil on 6 canvases.

Alastair Sooke in the The Telegraph is not convinced by the new blockbuster, and gives the show three stars out of five:

Whether or not we accept this argument, the simple truth is that the show is far too big. Like a sprawling oak in need of a tree surgeon, it required a stronger curator prepared to lop off the deadwood. I could happily have done without the watercolours recording midsummer in east Yorkshire in 2004, or the suite of smallish oil paintings from the following year.

Perhaps it’s a generational thing, but I don’t understand paintings like these. Fresh, bright and perfectly delightful, they are much too polite and unthinkingly happy for my taste: if they offer a vision of arcadia, it is a mindless one. Moreover, they resemble the sorts of landscapes that we expect from amateur Sunday painters. Hockney is anything but that – yet whatever game he is playing here eludes me.

The iPad drawings from 2011 are similarly irksome. Some people get excited because they were made using a piece of fashionable technology (a tablet computer with a touch screen). Yet the technique is surely immaterial – as Hockney says, an iPad is just another tool for an artist, like a brush.

I love the bracketed explanation of what an iPad is, presumably for the Telegraph's more disconnected readers. Over at The Guardian Adrian Searle is similarly unimpressed. It all seems a little unkind to me. Here, at last, is a great British painter painting Britain. Isn't that, on rarity value alone, worth praise? 

Painting underwater. Really?

January 17 2012

Video: ITN

A Russian 'underwater artist' has been making the news lately: Denis Lotarev and 'The School of Underwater Painters' say they paint in the depths, on waterproof canvases. There's something about this that I find hard to believe. 

Hockney at the RA

January 17 2012

Video: Royal Academy

Here's a nice interview with the great man on his new show at the Royal Academy.

A new Rubens discovery in Oslo

January 16 2012

Image of A new Rubens discovery in Oslo

Picture: National Gallery, Oslo

Rubens scholar Dr Nico Van Hout has published a newly discovered early sketch by Rubens in an excellent article in the Rubensbulletin (the image in the bulletin can be magnified in great detail in pdf). The sketch, which belongs to the National Gallery in Oslo, has for many years been catalogued simply as 'Flemish School'. Van Hout, however, is convinced that it is by Rubens, and dates it to 1610-11. He believes it may relate to Rubens later painting of 1618, the Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus in the Alte Pinakothek, Munich (below), as a ‘first draft’. 

The picture has had a chequered attributional history. Julius Held, the late guru of all Rubens sketches, believed it was ‘not autograph’. He noted that ‘the gamut of colours is darker than is normal with Rubens, and the paint film lacks the characteristic use of delicate glazes’. Van Hout argues that some of the ‘darkness’, such as in areas of the background, is due to later over-paint and the fact that the sketch appears to be painted over another composition. He also suggests that the original study has been worked up into a finished picture, and this may be why it has lost some of the fluidity of a normal Rubens oil sketch. 

I can see elements of both arguments here. The brushwork is first class, and the expressions of the male figures are very Rubensian, as is the drawing of the horse. On the other hand (and obviously I am far from being an expert on Rubens and his studies), the handling of areas such as the flesh tones in the daughters does seem to me to be a little unusual. A layer of darker than usual ground (Rubens studies are usually on a pale imprimatur) gives the flesh tones a grey and slightly heavier quality than the deft and rapid application one might expect, and the face of the central daughter might almost be described as laboured. And perhaps the overall composition is overly lyrical at the expense of the subject’s narrative power, something Rubens so often focuses on, as seen in the 1618 Rape. For example, in the Oslo study the figures are finely arranged in a harmonious, rising cascade from left to right, which gives rise to a very pleasing composition – but it gives no obvious explanation as to how the figures got there. They seem to be floating, which is something noted by Elizabeth McGrath in her volume of the Rubens Corpus Subjects from History, where she did not identify the sketch as being by Rubens. In the 1618 picture there is no such ambiguity - the daughters are clearly being hoisted up by the twin brothers Castor and Pollux, called the Dioscuri. Perhaps this is why Rubens abandoned the earlier composition. Hopefully more technical evidence will be available; it would be good to see an x-ray of the panel to see what lies beneath.

The composition is known in five other works, including this drawing in the Musee Conde ascribed to Rubens but not by him, and intriguingly a panel previously called ‘Van Dyck’ in the Roselius Collection in Bremen. I'll see if I can find an illustration of this. 

An art historical cornucopia

January 16 2012

Image of An art historical cornucopia

Picture: University of York

Richard Stephens of The University of York has been in touch about the website of The Art World in Britain 1660-1735. The project aims to put as many primary materials on the web as possible from the period in question, and has begun already with invaluable sales catalogues, newspaper adverts, and a checklist of some 8000 paintings in Irish and UK collections. It is a fantastic resource - and another demonstration of why the future of art history is online. 

Richard also asks me to mention that if anybody out there has any additional sources the project might find useful (like, say, Sir Peter Lely's 'List of Paintings made by my Studio Assistants but Which I Signed as my Own'),* then he would be grateful if they could please let him know. 

*I made this up. Tho' there should be such a list; Lely was rather naughty late in life, and quite a few later signed works are largely studio productions. 

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