Previous Posts: March 2012

Martin Postle on Zoffany's 'Tribuna'

March 7 2012

Video: Royal Academy

A lovely tour round Zoffany's masterpiece by Martin Postle.

New discovery heralds 'Zoffany' at the RA

March 7 2012

Image of New discovery heralds 'Zoffany' at the RA

Picture: BG

Well, where to begin? The classy layout? The excellent catalogue? The varied and invigorating selection of works? The virtuoso display of the dying art of curation? For me, there aren't superlatives enough to describe the new Zoffany exhibition at the RA. Yes, Zoffany may never be in the top rank of artists from his ultra-talented generation. But there are few artists who tell us more about painting and painters in the 18th Century.

Born in Germany, studied in Italy, celebrated in England, and, at the end, almost abandoned in India, this perpetually peripatetic artist and his unprecedentedly varied network of patrons from German kings to Indian maharajahs gives us an unparalleled view into how art was valued and commissioned in the 18th Century. We can see in Zoffany the desire for large formal portraits, for conversation pieces, for subject pictures, for landscapes, for still lifes, for historical pictures, and even religious ones. He could paint the lot. True, the studied control of his paintings may bely a lack of fluency, and even genius in handling oil paint. But he was still capable of producing great paintings, such as the Tribuna [Royal Collection]. What he may have lacked in talent, he made up for in labour.

And in this exhibition, excellently curated by Martin Postle, we can see the whole range of Zoffany's work. Proof of how varied he could be in his approach comes in an exciting new discovery of the above landscape The South Gate of Lal Bagh, Dhaka, dated 1787. This picture was at auction in Sotheby's only last December, where it was catalogued as by Robert Home. I remember standing in front of it and being sure it wasn't by Home (on whom I'm something of an anorak), but I never made the connection to Zoffany. The figures are so unlike his usual figures, more sketch-like and elegant. But there, hanging next this landscape at the RA is another very similar scene by Zoffany which confirms the attribution beyond doubt. The picture was estimated at £60-80,000 at Sotheby's, and seemingly didn't sell (I'd value it at about £250,000 now). It's a great coup for the exhibition, and an important discovery, being one of only three surviving landscapes from Zoffany's time in India. 

But perhaps the most pleasing thing about the show is that it is happening at all. This kind of single artist, scholarly exhibition is seen, at least amongst those who now control  many of our exhibition spaces in the UK, as unfashionable. Now, funders and marketing people want 'thematic displays', onto which you can tag on topics of (dread phrase) 'contemporary resonance'. It should forever be to Tate's shame that they cancelled this exhibition ('too idiosyncratic' apparently), not least when we see the piss-poor effort - 'Migrations' - they have put on in its place. And it should be to the Royal Academy's perpetual credit that they have stepped in and rescued it. I suspect that most of all, however, we have to thank the Yale Center for British Art, who first sponsored the exhibition. Ultimately, of course, we must be grateful to the late Paul Mellon, whose largesse is now almost single-handedly keeping good old-fashioned art historical research in the UK going, not least through the Paul Mellon Centre in London. If it wasn't for his money, these kind of exhibitions, with their spin-offs of new research and discoveries, would most likely not take place any more. So please support the exhibition by going to see it. I promise you won't be disappointed. 

Beltracchi - 'I made thousands of fakes'

March 6 2012

When the German master forger Wolfgang Beltracchi was convicted and sentenced to six years in prison, German police revealed a list of over 50 paintings they believed were fakes. But now Beltracchi has said he painted many, many more. From Der Spiegel:

Speaking to the media for the first time since he was sentenced, Beltracchi refused to name the exact number of paintings he forged throughout his career, which he began in the 1970s by creating "unpainted works by old masters, and later Jugendstil and Expressionists" and selling them at flea markets. But during the interview with SPIEGEL, Beltracchi said that due to high demand, he could have easily put "1,000 or 2,000" forgeries on the art market.

That's a lot of dodgy pictures. Where were they all sold? If I was a modern art auctioneer, I'd be feeling rather anxious. To see how easily the likes of Christie's and Sotheby's were fooled by Beltracchi, see my earlier post here.

Update: A reader comments: 

Truth or puckish shit-stirring?

Prado copy hits the news again

March 6 2012

Image of Prado copy hits the news again

Picture: Prado/Louvre

A classic example of how speculation can become fact. From the Daily Telegraph:

'Mona Lisa copy may have been painted by Leonardo's lover'

Last month, a copy of Leonardo's most famous painting rocked the art world with revelations about its provenance.

Two weeks after it went on show to the public at the Prado, the museum's conservation team believe they are closing in on a conclusion about the painting's authorship.

The most likely candidate is Gian Giacomo Caprotti, the apprentice known as "Salaì" - which translates as "Little Devil" - who went to work in Leonardo's workshop when he was ten years old.

Many historians believe, though it is not proven, that Salaì was Leonardo's lover. He is presumed to be the youthful model for Leonardo's paintings 'St. John the Baptist' and 'Bacchus', as well as numerous drawings.

Things we can't know for sure in relation to this story:

  1. Nobody knows if Salai was Leonardo's lover, or even if Leonardo was gay.
  2. We can't really be certain that the Prado copy was painted simultaneously alongside the original.
  3. We don't know much at all about Salai's style or oeuvre, and certainly not enough to make a stylistic attribution. 

On Tate's new seeds

March 5 2012

Image of On Tate's new seeds

Picture: Graham Turner/Guardian

A reader writes:

To answer your question, yes!

Perhaps the reason behind the Tate/ArtFund decision not to disclose the price is that they are embarrassed. However, as you rightly say, that is not a valid reason. If they believe in the 'work' they must be able to defend the expenditure.

For the ArtFund to collude in this, when they are always begging for funds from their members, is a disgrace.

Strong stuff. I've asked the Art Fund if there was any reason behind not releasing the extent of their contribution. But answer comes there none.

Of course, it is possible that the secrecy is to protect a super low price paid to Mr Weiwei, which would be seen as lowering the market rate for his seeds. But why would the artist want his benevolence to be secret?

It would be interesting to know what the going rate for Weiwei's seeds was before the recent Tate installation, to compare with what they fetched after it. I suspect, in other words, that in return for all that publicity and establishment endorsement, Mr Weiwei owes the Tate a big favour...

Update: it has been hinted to me that the lack of disclosure has something to do with the artist's recent run-in with the Chinese authorities. Presumably, if that is the case, Weiwei won't be selling anything publicly at auction for a while either.

A Lely in Louisiana?

March 5 2012

Image of A Lely in Louisiana?


This came up for sale over the weekend in the US, and made a strong price. Catalogued as 'Follower of Van Dyck', the picture looked to us like a portrait by Sir Peter Lely, from early in his career. The sitter was identified as Lady Newburgh.  

New Tate website

March 5 2012

Image of New Tate website

Picture: Tate

Still in beta form, and not officially launched, but you can have a play around here. Looks very good. And nice size reproductions too, which is a great improvement on the old site. 

£8m-£12m Rembrandt at Christie's

March 5 2012

Image of £8m-£12m Rembrandt at Christie's

Picture: Christie's/Bloomberg

Christie's have released a sneak preview of their July sale, and will include the above Rembrandt Bust of a Man in a Gorget and Cap at £8m-£12m. The picture is on panel, and dated to 1626-9. Interestingly, according to Bloomberg:

Christie’s plans to stimulate fresh interest in historic paintings by taking the single-owner collection on a promotional tour to Doha, Moscow, New York, Hong Kong and Amsterdam before its sale.

Tate buys Wei Wei sunflower seeds - but won't say for how much

March 5 2012

Image of Tate buys Wei Wei sunflower seeds - but won't say for how much

Picture: Graham Turner/Guardian

The Tate has bought 8m of Ai Wei Wei's porcelain sunflower seeds. More details in The Guardian. But, intriguingly:

The Tate acquired the work with the help of a grant from the Art Fund charity, but has not revealed the price.

Why not? For more on Wei Wei seed prices, see my earlier post

Update: the ArtFund, which supported the purchase, has put up a statement on their site, but also makes no mention of the cost. This appears to be unusual for the Fund. Their own conditions state:

The Art Fund may publicise the amount and purpose of a grant in whatever way it thinks fit, other than in relation to grants for the purchase of objects coming up at auction or in other cases in which the Art Fund agrees that it would be appropriate to waive this right. The Art Fund will publish the cost of all Art Fund-assisted Objects unless the Beneficiary can satisfy the Art Fund that there is a valid reason why such information should be withheld.

I'm intrigued as to what the 'valid reason' in this case is, if there is one. If public money is involved, it had better be a good one, don't you think?

Tracy Emin does the Olympics

March 5 2012

Image of Tracy Emin does the Olympics

Picture: Tracy Emin/GAC

A reader has alerted me to Emin's Olympic art at the Government Art Collection:

Describing this print as 'a love letter' to the Paralympic athletes, 'And I love you' is a very personal expression of Emin's own feelings and beliefs. Two small birds lean forward to kiss beneath her words 'You inspire me with your determination And I love you'. Birds frequently appear in Emin's drawings as symbols of freedom and strength, while handwritten text conveys her personal admiration for the dedication and commitment of the participating athletes.

Using her life history as inspiration and source, Tracey Emin has created a body of work which encompasses painting, drawing, video and installation, photography, needlework and sculpture. Her major retrospective held at the Hayward Gallery in London in 2011, included different aspects of her autobiographical work from embroidered tents to neon text works. Whether creating words and phrases in neon or stitched embroidery, Emin is a consummate storyteller – as she herself once commented, 'it's my words that make my art unique'.

Cleaning Vermeer

March 5 2012

Image of Cleaning Vermeer

Picture: Rijksmuseum

Martin Bailey in The Art Newspaper reveals that the Rijksmuseum's has recently cleaned Vermeer's Woman in Blue:

Visitors to the Rijksmuseum will soon be able to see Vermeer’s newly restored Woman in Blue Reading a Letter, 1663-64, when it returns home following a Japanese tour which funded the work’s restoration. A century ago, the critic Jan Veth wrote that “nothing has ever been painted that is more noble and refined than this blue young woman”, but age took its toll and the blue appeared to gradually fade beneath the varnish. The painting has once again regained its colour and is due to be unveiled at the museum on 30 March.

On banning photography

March 5 2012

Image of On banning photography

Picture: BG

Following my plea for the photography ban to be lifted at the National Gallery, a reader writes:

Yes, Young People do indeed take photographs with their mobile phone. And in galleries such as the Wallace, the Louvre and so on, young & older people take photographs with their professional cameras they mostly do not know how to use. 

Although I understand your frustration in being prevented of taking a picture of England's new Titian, I have seen too many times people taking photos of a work and then looking at the work ON their camera, instead of looking at the work itself. Or people taking over a work because they want a picture of themselves NEXT to it (apparently taking a photo is not a proof of presence anymore, they have to be on the photo to make it clear). In very popular galleries, this tends to be particularly annoying, very much like in concerts when half of the audience is more preoccupied filming the show than actually living it. 

Therefore, as a fairly Young Person and soon-to-be-curator, I hope the prohibiting measure will continue at the National Gallery and in other museums. Even though it means I will sometimes be frustrated when seeing a work I'd like to keep visual record of.

This has never been a problem for me before - except, of course, in front of the Mona Lisa

Where AHN leads...

March 5 2012

Image of Where AHN leads...

Picture: BG

...others follow. The Picasso story we had here on Friday was the big page 3 splash in this weekend's Sunday Times. There are more details on the sale here on the BBC News site.

Exclusive - the next mega acquisition?

March 2 2012

Image of Exclusive - the next mega acquisition?

Picture: Tate

Hot on the heels of the £45m Titian purchase, a reader has alerted me to this, which has quietly appeared on the Arts Council's website, under 'Notices of Intention of Sale':

Arts Council England has received notifications of sale for the following items which have previously been exempted from capital taxation. Please note that the price given is intended as a rough guide only, and does not constitute an offer to sell at this price. The practice of the auction houses is usually to pitch this at their high auction estimate or, sometimes*, even higher.

Pablo Ruiz Picasso (1881-1973)

Child with a Dove, 1901, oil on canvas, 73cm by 54cm

Guide price: £50,000,000

It would be helpful to know if the £50m includes the tax liability, and the extent of it (in the event of a UK museum purchase, the tax due would be written off by the Treasury). No UK museum could afford the full £50m (unless the Heritage Lottery Fund has a miraculous change of heart on acquisitions).  The picture used to belong to Samuel Courtauld, and has passed down from him by descent. It has been on long-term loan to the Courtauld Institute, and is now on display at Tate Britain as part of the Picasso and Modern British Art exhibition. (Normally, the Tate has strict rules about this sort of thing - but I suppose these days it's enough to know they won't chuck it out by mistake).

If you're interested in the picture, but haven't got £50m, you can buy a poster of it for £25 at the Tate shop.

* for which read 'invariably'.


March 2 2012

Image of Guffwatch

Picture: Christie's

Just as I was thinking 'I haven't done a Guffwatch for a while', along comes Christie's New York with some glorious candidates from their forthcoming ''First Open' Post-War Contemporary Art Sale'.

Here's the introduction to Wade Guyton's Untitled (above, inkjet printed on linen, executed 2006), estimated at $200,000 - $300,000:

A candid example from the artist's ongoing series of "printer drawings," Untitled poses a poignant double query of form and function. By folding the primed linen in half and repetitively feeding it through a large-format inkjet printer, Guyton performs an obsessive ritual that can only be realized by modern means of photographic reproduction. And all the while, the artist is also paying a personal tribute to form by referencing modernism and conceptualism.

Phoney words for a phoney picture. Think of it this way, if Nick Penny wrote verbiage like that to describe Titian's Diana and Callisto, we'd laugh at him. 

Still, proof that even those skilled in art guff can sometimes struggle to produce anything meaningful may be found in Christie's catalogue entry for the top lot in their sale, a Hirst spot painting estimated at $600-800,000. The entry is simply a lame and seemingly random excerpt from a 1996 interview with Hirst. Here's a snippet:

Damien Hirst: Imagine a world of spots. Every time I do a painting a square is cut out. They regenerate. They're all connected.

Stuart Morgan: Why are you cutting out squares? Is this a cipher for infinity?

DH: It's an idea of painting and I've always wanted to paint but this is more sculpture than painting. I guess it's infinity.

SM: And in front much smaller versions of infinity, like people dying. [...] How do you feel about nature?

DH: I've seen better (laughs). There isn't anything else.

In case you were wondering:

First Open is the perfect opportunity for new and established collectors who are eager to discover emerging artists and ready to explore lesser-known works by famous artists. 

In other words, the not so good stuff (laughs).

Titian - we may own it, but we can't photograph it

March 2 2012

Image of Titian - we may own it, but we can't photograph it

Picture: BG

Despite the fact that we have collectively stumped up £45m to buy the Titian (and yes, I did my bit), we still can't take a picture of it. I just tried. Got a very stern no from the room warden.

Surely, the National Gallery's 'no photography' policy needs to change. You can now snap away at anything you like at, say, the Wallace Collection, the Louvre, and even at the Queen's Gallery in Buckingham Palace. But not at the National (unless you're from the press, in which case, you can photograph it all you like, even with flash).

I'm reliably informed that Young People take photos of things they like on their mobile phones, and send those images to other Young People. Isn't the National limiting their potential engagement with a younger audience by preventing photography?   

Titian - press reaction

March 2 2012

Image of Titian - press reaction

Picture: National Gallery

The press reaction to yesterday's glorious £45m acquisition has been entirely positive. Even The Mirror gets into the spirit, saying that not only is it an 'incredible purchase', but that the pictures will prove to be a bargain. This, in a time of austerity, is a Good Thing. Of course, the 'is it worth' question has been asked, but it's a notion quickly damped down by Nicholas Penny's sound common sense. From The Telegraph:

Dr Nicholas Penny, director of the National Gallery, said: “The decision was made by the Trustees that we must secure these paintings and I think that’s why people make bequests to the National Gallery.

“I know some people might think, ‘Why not buy ten lesser things?’ but the National Gallery was founded principally as a great collection of masterpieces.”

Dr Penny added: “You could ask, ‘What on earth is the National Gallery doing spending so much money on works of art by foreign artists?’

“But that’s what we do here. And if you lined up Reynolds, Gainsborough and Constable, not only would they feel this was a very great day for Britain, but they would also admit they would not have been the artists they were without Titian.”

Of course, by far the best article on the acqusition was the one that quoted me, in The Independent. There, Adam Sherwin focused on the extent to which the National Gallery raided its reserves:

Concluding that a public appeal would appear inappropriate in the economic climate, the National Gallery was forced to delve deep into its own reserves to raise the money. The Trustees agreed to spend £25m from the £32m which has been accumulated from 67 bequests over the past century. Donations from The Art Fund, Heritage Lottery Fund and anonymous contributions, some for up to £500,000, made up the shortfall, with the Duke accepting a £45m price.

Dr Nicholas Penny claimed that "no greater pair of old master paintings could possibly be secured" for the nation. But he admitted the buy: "Had wiped out all the obviously available funds in reserve. We have depleted our reserves very considerably with this purchase." With 20 Titians already in the National Gallery, did it really need to spend so much on one more, however distinguished? "It's like saying you've got one Shakespeare play, do you need any other ones?" Dr Penny said. "I don't know if you can have too many Titians."


However Bendor Grosvenor, a London art dealer and Old Masters expert, questioned the funding balance. He wrote on the Art History News blog: "I'm staggered that the Heritage Lottery Fund, which is awash with more money than it has ever had, only coughed up a measly £3m. That's about the same as it spent on accommodation, postage and office equipment last year."

Mona Lisa copy - it was painted by Leonardo's lover??

March 1 2012

Image of Mona Lisa copy - it was painted by Leonardo's lover??

Picture: Prado

The speculation on this is just going to run and run. Here's the latest headline from The Art Newspaper:

"Leonardo’s lover probably painted the Prado’s Mona Lisa"

How do we get to this news-tastic conclusion on the basis of hard-to-interpret infra-red imagery - and no other evidence whatsoever

Here's the reasoning:

In attempting to identify the copyist, curators at the Prado began by eliminating pupils and associates such as Boltraffio, Marco d’Oggiono and Ambrogio de Predis—since they each have their own individual styles. They also eliminated two Spanish followers of Leonardo, Fernando Yáñez and Fernando de Llanos, whose work is distinctively Valencian.

Miguel Falomir, the head of Italian paintings at the Prado, now believes that the copy of the Mona Lisa “can be stylistically located in a Milanese context close to Salaì or possibly Francesco Melzi”. Melzi was an assistant who joined Leonardo’s studio in around 1507, but the Prado’s copy may well have been started earlier. Of the two, Salaì now seems the most likely.

So it's by a process of elimination. Boltraffio, d'Oggiono and da Predis must be ruled out because they are far superior painters than the hand responsible for the Prado's copy. Presumably the same goes for Yáñez and Llanos. Melzi only joins Leonardo after he began the Mona Lisa, so that's him out. And we're left with Salai, for whom, perhaps conveniently, we have very few firmly attributable works for comparison. I'm not sure about this...

Titian - now that we've bought it...

March 1 2012

Image of Titian - now that we've bought it...

Picture: National Gallery

...please can we restore it? Like many Titians, Diana and Callisto has suffered over the centuries, and is in less than ideal condition. For me, the most jarring passage is seen in Diana's head, above. All sense of definition around her profile has disappeared, and, through a combination of abrasion and transparency, her face dissolves into the background. Surely Titian never intended the star of his picture to be so obscure and hard to see. Judicious intervention through minor retouching would easily remedy the situation, and make the picture's sense of narrative work once more. 

You can zoom in on the painting here

Titian - the ingrates have a field day

March 1 2012

Image of Titian - the ingrates have a field day

Picture: NG & NGS

The comments section of the Guardian is always a good place to go for sound thinking on the arts. Here's a few snippets in reaction to the Titian purchase:

It's a crap painting, idiotic titillation as artful as page 3, and the money spent on this rubbish is disgraceful while real artists scrape a living.

I love the idea of Titian not being 'a real artist'.

It's a terrible waste of funds spent on a novelty which only 12 people will ever see.

I would love to have seen the Duke of Sutherland donate these for free. Given that this was never going to happen (which is a damning indictment of the man), this is definitely the second best course of action.

More public money to money-grubbing aristocrats. Time for change.

The wealth of his family was made from the robbery of many. And the descendents of thieves and gangsters that are today's royals and old aristocratic families have the nerve to look down on 'new money'.

This presumably refers to the Highland Clearances, carried out by the Sutherlands. But for what it's worth the present Duke of Sutherland's picture collection comes from Bridgewater money (digging canals), not Sutherland money. 

Finally, the 'schools 'n hospitals' brigade:

If you spent 50,000 on educating 900 people, that is £45m.

And so it goes on.

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