Previous Posts: January 2013

Fakes, fakes everywhere? (ctd.)

January 31 2013

Image of Fakes, fakes everywhere? (ctd.)

Picture: Getty Research Institute

The recently closed Knoedler gallery in New York has been hit with a fresh lawsuit, this time over an allegedly fake Rothko. From Bloomberg:

New York’s defunct Knoedler Gallery was sued by a Liechtenstein-based family trust, which accused the gallery of selling a forged painting by the late artist Mark Rothko for $5.5 million.

The Martin Hilti Family Trust, named for the founder of construction tool firm Hilti AG, alleged in a complaint filed yesterday in Manhattan that the gallery deliberately withheld information about the painting that would have hurt the sale.

The gallery, on East 70th Street in Manhattan, has been sued by other collectors who alleged they were duped into purchasing fakes of works by noted artists, including paintings purportedly by Rothko, Jackson Pollock and William de Kooning. Knoedler unexpectedly closed in 2011 after 165 years.

The Hilti trust alleged in its complaint that it purchased what was represented as a 1956 Rothko work“Untitled” in November 2002. The gallery and its chairman Michael Hammer and director Ann Freedman falsely described the painting as coming from a previously undiscovered cache of masterworks owned by an unknown collector, described in the complaint as “Mr. X.”

For previous AHN on the Knoedler debacle, put 'Knoedler' into the search box top right.


January 31 2013

Image of Really?

Picture: Mail/Newsteam/Mullock's Auctioneers

There's been lots of excitement in the UK press about a 'newly discovered' portrait of Goering. From the Mail:

A never-before-seen portrait of Nazi leader Hermann Goering painted by a Jewish artist during the 1930s is set to go under the hammer.

The oil painting by Imre Goth enraged the tyrant after it was completed, as he was furious that it depicted him as the morphine-fuelled drug addict he was.

Goering was so outraged by the artwork that Goth feared for his life, and was forced to flee Germany and seek refuge in Britain. The portrait never left the possession of its creator, and on his death 30 years ago he asked a friend to destroy it. But the confidante kept the unique work, and it is expected to sell for thousands of pounds when it goes up for auction next month.

I'm no Imre Goth expert, but from what I've seen of his work he was a much better artist than this. There's something rather disingenuous about the picture on offer here - its surface, colouring, and drawing all look most odd. Caveat emptor, as they say...

And in any case, why would you want to sell, much less buy, a portrait of such an odious figure. Check out this peculiar argument for buying the portrait from the auctioneer:

The portrait forms part of a war memorabilia sale to be held by Mullock’s auctioneers in Ludlow, Shropshire on February 14. Its reserve price is £8,000, but it has previously been valued by experts as high as £50,000.

'The historical significance of this portrait cannot be denied,' said Richard Westwood-Brookes of Mullock's.

'As opposed to the official Nazi portraits of Goering, this shows him exactly what he was - a depraved drug addict - and for that reason I personally think it should be displayed publicly to show successive generations exactly what the Nazis really were, as opposed to their now more familiar propaganda images.'

Update - a reader writes:

I agree who would want it. The sad reality though is that there are lots of people out there who are Nazi sympathers/fans/memorabilia collectors and all it really takes is two of them!

..If you Google nazi memoribilia there are even dealers!

Update II - another reader writes:

I too was bemused by Mullock's angle on the portrait. There's a faint sense like a bad smell in the back alleys of the auction world that shiny boots and swastikas are considered rather impressive.

An ironic attribution

January 30 2013

Image of An ironic attribution

Picture: Your Paintings/Maidstone Museum

A reader alerts me to this unfortunate, if ironic attribution on the Your Paintings database. Is there a John Collier expert out there to resolve this ignomy?

More Tudor & Jacobean treats

January 30 2013

Image of More Tudor & Jacobean treats

Picture: English Heritage 

Following my post below on two forthcoming Tudor and Stuart exhibitions in London, Amina Wright, Senior Curator of the Holburne Museum in Bath, writes:

For readers who can't wait until May, the Holburne has just opened "Painted Pomp: Art & Fashion in the Age of Shakespeare" based around the nine Larkins from the Suffolk Collection, currently in exile from Kenwood.  Judging by the numbers at the private view and over the opening weekend, not to mention the excited Twitterings, this is going to be one of our best yet....

New British portraits website

January 30 2013

Image of New British portraits website

Picture: UBP

Here's a handy new website, from the Understanding British Portraits [UBP] subject specialist network. The UBP is funded by the National Portrait Gallery, the National Trust, the Arts Council and the Foyle Foundation. On their new website you can find all sorts of useful information:

New online publishing and best practice case studies, guest blog, and queries board are just some of the additions to our website which has been designed with your portrait-needs in mind! Find out what recent delegates at our Annual Seminar found relevant to their collections, how to identify portrait specialists, and practical guides to researching and interpreting portraits and devising learning programmes. Tell us what you think, submit reviews, and share your thoughts on the illustrated queries.

The list of British portrait specialists will be useful. Though when I put in Van Dyck, 'no matches' came up. Mind you, 'no matches' also came up when I put 'Grosvenor' in...

Update - this clarification comes in about the funding:

The network is supported by the National Portrait Gallery, National Trust, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums, and Bristol Museums Galleries Archives. A grant from Arts Council England is assisting a great deal with our programming costs, and the website is entirely funded by the Foyle Foundation, for which we’re very grateful indeed.

Prado donation

January 30 2013

Image of Prado donation

Picture: Prado

The Prado press office writes:

The Museo del Prado has received an important donation of works from the Várez Fisa Collection in a ceremony attended by the President of the Spanish Government, Mariano Rajoy [above].

The donation, which comprises twelve, 13th- to 15th-century works of Spanish art from the Várez Fisa Collection, will enrich and complement the holdings of Spanish Medieval and Renaissance art in the Prado’s collections.

That's a fine donation, but what intrigues me most about the story is the presence of the Spanish Prime Minister. I can't remember ever seeing Tony Blair, Gordon Brown or David Cameron photographed at a similar event in the UK.

More details on the Prado gift here

Tudor & Stuart royal fashion at the Royal Collection

January 29 2013

Image of Tudor & Stuart royal fashion at the Royal Collection

Picture: Royal Collection

What's this - yet another Royal Collection exhibition to look forward to? From the Royal Collection press office:

For the Tudor and Stuart elite, luxurious clothing was an essential component of court life.  Garments and accessories – and the way in which they were worn – conveyed important messages about wealth, gender, age, social position, marital status and religion.  Through the evidence of portraiture, In Fine Style: The Art of Tudor and Stuart Fashion traces changing tastes in fashionable attire and the spread of fashion through the royal courts of Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries.  Using paintings, drawings and prints from the Royal Collection, and rare surviving examples of clothing and accessories, it explores the style of the rich and famous of the Tudor and Stuart periods.

The exhibition will follow the current show, the epic, brilliant The Northern Renaissance: Durer to Holbein* (if you haven't yet seen it, you have until 14th April), and opens on 10th May.

London will be a feast of Tudor-iana this summer, as the V&A are also having a Tudor themed show, called 'Treasures of the Royal Courts'. A key exhibit will be the earliest full-length portrait of Elizabeth I, the Hampden Portrait (below), which I had the pleasure of researching when we sold it here at Philip Mould & Company some years ago. If you fancy it, you can read my article on the picture here in The British Art Journal. The V&A show is in collaboration with the Kremlin Museum in Moscow, and will also feature goodies from the courts of the 16th Century Tsars.

*by the way, I know I once promised a review of 'The Northern Renaissance', so apologies for never writing it. Damn good show though, and a typically excellent Royal Collection catalogue to go with it too.

X-ray-ing Rembrandt

January 29 2013

Image of X-ray-ing Rembrandt

Picture: Getty Institute

The Getty has known since 1984 that their 1630-31 Portrait of an Old Man by Rembrandt (above) was painted over another, inverted, portrait - but now new x-ray techniques have apparently allowed curators to get a better idea of what the mystery picture looks like, and even attempt to recreate it. From Live Science:

"Our experiments demonstrate a possibility of how to reveal much of the hidden picture," Matthias Alfeld from the University of Antwerp said in a statement. "Compared to other techniques, the X-ray investigation we tested is currently the best method to look underneath the original painting."

Alfeld and an international team used macro X-ray fluorescence analysis to examine a mock-up of Rembrandt's original, created by museum intern Andrea Sartorius, who used paints with the same chemical composition as those used by the Dutch master. Sartorius painted one portrait on the canvas and then an imitation of "Old Man in Military Costume" on top.

Here's what the reproduction looks like:

Guffwatch - how it began (ctd.)

January 29 2013

Thanks to everyone who alerted me to this article in The Guardian on 'International Art English' (IAE), or as AHN readers know it, Guff. The article, by Andy Beckett, looked at the research of artist David Levine and sociologist Alix Rule into the origins of IAE (first featured on AHN in August last year). Apparently they can plot the annual variations in the use of in vogue words:

 "Usage of the word speculative spiked unaccountably in 2009; 2011 saw a sudden rage for rupture; transversal now seems poised to have its best year ever." 

There are two key constituencies we can blame for IAE, first, the French:

In fact, in its declarative, multi-clause sentences, and in its odd combination of stiffness and swagger, they argued that IAE "sounds like inexpertly translated French". This was no coincidence, they claimed, having traced the origins of IAE back to French post-structuralism and the introduction of its slippery ideas and prose style into American art writing via October, the New York critical journal founded in 1976. Since then, IAE had spread across the world so thoroughly that there was even, wrote Rule and Levine, an "IAE of the French press release ... written, we can only imagine, by French interns imitating American interns imitating American academics imitating French academics".

And, secondly, interns:

The mention of interns is significant. Rule, who writes about politics for leftwing journals as well as art for more mainstream ones, believes IAE is partly about power. "IAE serves interests," she says. However laughable the language may seem to outsiders, to art-world people, speaking or writing in IAE can be a potent signal of insider status. As some of the lowest but also the hungriest in the art food chain, interns have much to gain from acquiring fluency in it. Levine says the same goes for many institutions: "You can't speak in simple sentences as a museum and be taken seriously. You can't say, 'This artist produces funny work.' In our postmodern world, simple is just bad. You've got to say, 'This artist is funny and ...'"

For a reminder in how interns do indeed come up with much of the guff we see in the contemporary art world, see earlier AHN here.

New book on authenticity

January 29 2013

Image of New book on authenticity

Picture: Ashgate

This sounds like a good buy - a new book on 'Art and Authenticity' by the staff of the Sotheby's Institute. It's edited by Megan Aldrich and Jos Hackforth-Jones, who are respectively the Academic Director and Director of the Institute. I'm pleased to see from the blurb that the authors still see a role for connoisseurship, and despite the increasing reliance placed on scientific analysis:

Historically, the idea of scientific verification has arisen as a reaction against the perceived excesses of the connoisseurial tradition, a tradition which has fallen from favour over the last 50 years. The idea of individual 'expert knowledge' rests uneasily in the current climate. However, recent attempts by experts to develop definitive scientific methods for authenticating artworks are also proving to be problematic. Connoisseurship, it will be argued, still has its role to play within these debates.

I give regular talks in the gallery here, and lectures at UCL, to Sotheby's Institute students, because it's one of the few places where art history students are taught about connoisseurship. So I'm always keen to help out if I can. Incidentally, Sotheby's Institute is no longer anything to do with Sotheby's - the auction house sold it off a few years ago.

As David Packwood notes over on Art History Today, this is a timely publication. The book is published by Ashgate - venerable publishers where you can also sample some of my writing....


January 28 2013

...just back from a New York Old master viewing trip, so I'm catching up on things at the gallery. See you tomorrow...

This is not Katherine Parr (ctd.)

January 25 2013

Image of This is not Katherine Parr (ctd.)

Picture: NPG

Excitement in the news that the National Portrait Gallery has restored and put on display an early portrait of Catherine of Aragon. For many years it was called 'Katherine Parr', but now the NPG says it isn't. Readers of AHN, naturally, have known this for some months.

'Mona Kate' - a portraitist writes

January 25 2013

Image of 'Mona Kate' - a portraitist writes

Picture: NPG

A fine portraitist (take it from me) writes:

I couldn't agree more that the increasing (or very nearly complete?) reliance on photography for portrait painting is a very great shame.

The really sad thing is that visitors to the NPG are now so inundated by photo-based work that it has become not just he norm, but the ideal.  In recent years  the Visitor's Choice at the BP Portrait Award has always been a photo-realist work, usually enormous in size.

Importantly, photo-realism is not always a fetishistic audit of wrinkles and pores, but is often disguised with a lots of brushy paint, a painterly interpretation of a photo.

 I once asked one of the BP Portrait Award judges about how seriously they take the rule that "the work entered should be a painting based on a sitting or study from life", when for so many pictures that sitting must only consist of taking some photos.  How softly do they use the word "should"?  She said that they trust that the artists have followed the rule, but she didn't sound so sure that it was possible to tell when a painting was done from a photo.  I can't say I was too encouraged.

I must say I had no idea that the BP Portrait Award had a 'life sittings' rule - I'd assumed from the quality of the entrants that there were no rules at all. Similar views on the BP Award from Brian Sewell here.

PS - aren't those good photos of the Duchess? If only the NPG could just put those on the wall instead...

Lost Charles Le Brun found in Paris Ritz

January 24 2013

Image of Lost Charles Le Brun found in Paris Ritz

Picture: Liberation/AFP

Here's a nice story: an English art consultant has found a lost painting by Charles Le Brun in the Paris Ritz. The Ritz is currently closed for renovation, so the hotel decided to ask Joseph Friedman to look at their art. And lurking in a suite (below) apparently used by Coco Chanel he saw a signed and dated (1647) Sacrifice of Polyxena. The picture will be auctioned at Christie's in Paris in April, with an estimate of EUR 300k-500k. Shame they couldn't keep the picture at the Ritz, but I guess they let anyone in these days...

'Mona Kate' - it really is just a photo

January 24 2013

Video: NPG

Turns out 'Mona Kate' is even more reliant on photographs than I thought. Says artist Paul Emsley in the above video:

For many years I worked from life [...] but [...] photography today is so accurate and so good that it's really so much easier just to take photographs and work from that.

I find this a sad comment - in fact, it makes me despair. And from a BP Portrait Award winner? Will art history look back at this painting and decide that this was the moment traditional portraiture - the art of painting someone from life (or at least not by relying entirely on photographs) - finally died? If so, then it will forever be the National Portrait Gallery's misfortune (in choosing the artist, and in so readily promoting photo-realism) to be associated with that moment.

Update - a reader writes:

I agree with you about the Emsley's comments on his practise, it is very dispiriting (especially so as I'm a painter myself). But I wonder if he's taken his conceptual thinking in the matter any further? 

Might it be that he's not actually making a portrait of Katherine per se (in the normally understood sense of the term), but has - according to his desire to transmit verisimilitude - instead made a still life painting of a photograph that happens to have her as a nominal subject-matter? This still life of a piece of photo paper with an image on it having then been executed (somewhat paradoxically) in a photo realist style. If he eschews the skill needed to reproduce tones, composition and accurate colour straight from the eye because he thinks the camera capable of doing this much more precisely, then what is he adding to the image by replicating an accuracy (using his eye and brush) that he thinks his eye cannot make in the first place? Futhermore, if he were to place the photo on a table and let it reflect some sheen from the surface, then include both in a depiction, would it not then be more accurately termed a 'still-life'?

Once the photograph has been made, and the decision to replicate it has been made, this can all too easily lead to the neutering of  just about all the potentially interesting creative decisions in an unquestioning drive for a desired verisimilitude of reproduction. Also we must ask how far a mechanically produced photo accords with what he may see with his own eye when Kate was sat before him. If it is very accurate, then he must still use his skill as an artist in mixing tones to accurately represent those in the photo. So, if he needs skill in doing this, why not just skip the photo and use them in front of the subject directly onto his canvas? He'd probably grow more as a painter.That is where the true art lies, and what sorts the men from the masters.

The camera is not an eye.

Another reader makes a very telling comparison with the NPG's excellent portrait of Diana, Princess of Wales:

I never forget Freud's portrait of the Queen when it was published in the papers.  I thought it was quite awful.  Then I saw it in the flesh and it turned out to be a stunner: in fact, one of his very greatest works.

Kate's portrait looked pretty awful in the papers but I did have hopes... oh my God: it's ten times worse in the flesh!  What a great shame.  Compare this with the truly iconic early Diana portrait by Brian Organ: very 80's and very great!  A real icon of its time.  Why this obsession with photo realism and the BP awards?  It's been going on for years and we are all sick and tired of it!  The Duchess of Cambridge portrait is the worst example of its kind. DEPRESSING.

'Dear Guardian (& other newspapers)'

January 24 2013

Image of 'Dear Guardian (& other newspapers)'

Picture: Guardian

Would you please stop using this portrait to illustrate Shakespeare stories? Lovely painting - but it isn't him. As NPG Chief Curator Tarnya Cooper has explained, it is Sir Thomas Overbury.

A congress on art authentification (ctd.)

January 24 2013

Image of A congress on art authentification (ctd.)

Picture: AIA

The website of the planned 2014 Authentication in Art congress I mentioned a while ago has been updated with some additional information. The Committee of Recommendation is comprised (so far) of Professor Martin Kemp (of Oxford and Leonardo fame) and Dr Rudi Ekkart (of the RKD in Holland). So far so eminent. Here's some more info on what the Congress hopes to achieve:

Within the disciplines mentioned above until now no specific education is available to experts specialising in authentication processes. Nowadays training mainly entails the gradual development of empirical knowledge that appears mainly within the international art and auction sector and in some cases in museums. Structural development of academic skills and competencies focussed on the complex domain of authentication in art simply does not exist. The congress organisers strive towards the development of specialised professional training entirely focussed on expertise on authentication matters.

The educational character will be demonstrated through a well-balanced and academic selection of topics, speakers and specific workshops. The congress requires participants with an inquisitive attitude that are willing to look across the boundaries of their own field.

Students from disciplines Art History, Conservation techniques, Material and Legal sciences from around the world will be invited to participate.

Presentations, lectures and discussions at workshops will be recorded and audio/video reports will be made available.

Programme overview

  • Common terminology and understanding
  • Standards for scientific research and technological research
  • Education and training
  • Cataloguing and publishing
  • Dispute settlement
  • Practical use, users
  • Finance, Legal, Art trade implications
  • Legal implications

This all sounds most encouraging. Hopefully, the educational aspect can be spread further, particularly to university art history departments and students. Perhaps there might be a concerted attempt to get teaching departments involved?

It's an area I feel strongly about. I was recently invited to a seminar (and a fine lunch) at the Paul Mellon Centre to discuss matters of attribution and connoisseurship, along with others from the art trade. The discussion was to look at ways in which the trade could help art history academics and students, and vice-versa. I noted that one thing my fellow dealers had in common was that they had only really started to interract with paintings on a meaningful level (that is, really subject to close study) once they had left university. Isn't this a shame?

Now, I know some art history courses are better than others when it comes to the close analysis of objects. But too much art history teaching is done from small screens and books. The result is that many art history students are missing out on the basic skills they need to work in the art world, particularly when it comes to attribution and authentication, and assessing condition. Students and teachers need to get out more. Hopefully events like this authentication congress can encourage further debate in this area. I know the Mellon Centre are looking to explore this further too.

That said, I'm still looking for the 'c-word' - connoisseurship - on the authentication congress website, but so far with no luck. I do hope the congress will make the case for connoisseurship as part of the authenitication process, but it appears that the emphasis is heading towards a scientific one. This is all well and good, but as I've said before, it is rare that you can scientifically prove a painting.

Science can help you rule out a number of factors - for example, whether a painting is a later copy. But it is rare that it can rule something in. Some artists worked in isolation from the mainstream, and thus developed their own idiosyncratic painting techniques (Vermeer is a good example), and it is true that here scientific evidence can assume a greater importance. But with most artists, particularly those who used a workshop (and who therefore had a number of followers working with exactly the same painting tecniques and styles), science can only offer a more general guide. And since many of the artists we are most interested in authenticating are those who did operate large studios, such as Rubens and Rembrandt, then science can usually only ever get you so far. You still need the connoisseur's eye for the final conclusion. 

That said, I would also make the case for the connoisseur's eye at the beginning of any authentication process. Here's why - the trend for getting paintings scientifically analysed has given rise to an interesting phenomenon I call 'the dossier delusion'. Increasingly, we are presented here in the gallery (and also at 'Fake or Fortune?' HQ) with paintings that are manifestly not by, for example, Turner, but which have nonetheless been subjected to a full technical examination; x-rays, infra-red, pigment and support analysis. The analysis invariably comes up with a conclusion such as; 'yes, this is an early 19th Century painting, with the right sort of canvas and paints, and there is nothing to disprove the suggestion that this is by Turner'. In other words, it's all a bit vague. The conclusion is presented with a thick, professional-looking dossier - and of course a whopping bill. 

However (to continue our Turner example), despite this dossier all the Turner experts, and even anyone with a general knowledge of his work, would say merely on looking at the painting, 'this is not by Turner'. So here's an interesting, indeed ethical question - why, if a connoisseurial look can tell you that a picture is manifestly not by Turner, should an owner be encouraged to spend a great deal of money to prove, scientifically, that it is? If the owner of the putative Turner had asked the Turner experts first, and trusted the expert's judgement, he would have saved himself many thousands of pounds, a great deal of time, and not a little hope. But, as someone wise once said, 'hope is the most powerful human emotion'.

I didn't mean this to become a rant about connoisseurship, but you know me, once I start...

Update - a reader writes:

I read your comment about connoissuership with interest. I seem to remember a program in the "Fake or Fortune" series about a disputed Monet painting during which the presenters,especially a certain Mr. Philip Mould, railed against the Wildenstein Institute. A barrage of scientific tests, and the testimony of the other experts, indicated the painting was authentic but the Wildenstein's in their infinite wisdom said "non" for the sole reason, as I remember that it didn't look right. Isn't that the problem with connoissuership ; there are just too many connoisssuers?.

Should the program "Fake or Fortune" speak to the connoissuers first before the barrage of tests or would that make it a ten minute program each week?

Having said that, I agree in many ways. I would much prefer to look at a painting and make up my own mind than read a 500 page report which has probably been commissioned simply to justify an insurance valuation. My judgement is probably wrong but it doesnt matter as painting is not a science; it is an art.

Good points - yes, 'you could say there are too many connoisseurs'. But I would say instead - 'there are too many bad connoisseurs'. As I've said before, in any occupation or skill there are good and bad practitioners. Some doctors are good, some are rubbish. But we don't say as a result, 'medicine is rubbish, let's try another way to cure people.' The trick with attributions and connoisseurship is very simple; to find someone who is good, who is tried and tested. In the case of the 'Fake or Fortune?' Monet we did have a tried and tested connoisseur, Professor John House of the Courtauld, who knew merely from looking at the painting that it was right. Ultimately, I think one of the reasons the Wildenstein's refused to play ball was because the science never proved that it was vraiment a Monet, merely that it could be.

Update II - Another reader writes:

Your flagging-up of the conference and its ramifications also bring to mind the intense hostilities engendered over declarations of authenticity across the board in paintings etc. from Monet onwards where there are committees and families involved.

I have in particular been hearing about one deceased artist’s foundation, now fronted by the grand-daughter. This is now insisting on scientific analysis of anything put in front of them, which has just recently led to a certain work being ‘removed’ from the canon despite having earlier written testimonials from both the artist’s daughter and said grand-daughter (used as back-up by Christie’s).

This is as nothing against the Warhol shenanigans which have been well reported.

You are also quite right to highlight the need for students to include real experience of artworks away from the computer screen or slide show.

Subsidised unsnobby internships would be ideal our dreams !

I've never understood this business of having an inherited right to authenticate paintings. Who the hell came up with that idea?

Update III - a reader writes:

With growing concern I witness how museums and art historic scholars are trying to reattribute paintings of minor quality to be "masterpieces" simply by arguing with science. The most "shocking" example in my opinion is the new John the Baptist at the Prado. Even someone who is not a conoisseur can see at an instant, that this painting cannot have anything to do with the master.  The clumsy manner in how the upward gaze of the figure with his hand pressed to its chest has been handled is unworthy of a Titian. This is such a "baroque" gesture that one can ask if the painting has anything to do with the master at all. At an auction such a painting would fetch a few thousand Euros at its best. One could therefore just forget about it if there would not have been a noted scholar affiliated to an institution like the Prado who brought it to the attention of the art world. Now we have to deal with it which means that a lot will be written and about it. In my opinion the discussion will not be about the style, becaus here the painting can definitely not stand its ground.

To make one's point the discussion will therefore focus on the restoration report instead. Take the alleged Raphael painting of pope Julius II, that has recently been aquired by the Städel in Frankfurt. The x-rays show pentimenti what has been interpretated as part of "the creative process" that was inflicted upon the painting by the master himself. A standard argument by now to silence critics. As none of us has been with the artist as the painting was created how can we be so sure it was him? Only because a scientific report says so? It is hard to argue against it if you have only got your eye and your subjective opinion on your side. But what will become of conoisseurship if we rely exclusively on science? Nothing much, I guess. 

Update IV - a reader from Spain adds, in response to the above comment:

The authenticity of the work by Titian from Prado is not based obviously in the picture visible surface. The paint surface is destroyed by the heat of fire and in my opinion the restoration has not had the best results. I can not say if the work by Titian or Titian's workshop, but what I have clear is that the x-rays show that the work is a composition masterminded by Titian. The manner in how the upward gaze of the figure with his hand pressed to its chest is presented in a secure work by Titian and its radiograph. 

True, the St. John the Baptist only would be sold at auction for a few thousand and for this we must be thankful that there are museums that spend money on restore and analyzing a painting, which draws an important lesson about how the master worked. That said and knowing that the Prado recognizes that the value of the painting is essentially documentary I just hope that when finished the exhibition about its restoration and discoveries the curators are responsible enough (and I'm fear that no) to not expose the painting next to other works by Titian, because like happens with the Fracastoro in the NG lowers the level of collection.

Science to art history is not the end, [it] is an aid that connoisseurs have to learn to read.

The National Gallery's next Titian upgrade?

January 22 2013

Image of The National Gallery's next Titian upgrade?

Picture: National Gallery

Hot on the heels of the National Gallery's elevation of their 'Attributed to Titian' Portrait of a man thought to be Girolamo Fracostoro from store-room obscurity to gallery wall, I read of another possible promotion. In the latest edition of Harper's Bazaar (article not available online), National Gallery trustee Hannah Rothschild has written a piece on the above painting, The Concert, which is currently described on the NG's website as by an 'Imitator of Titian'. It has not been on display for many years.

However, the picture is currently being cleaned by NG conservator Jill Dunkerton, who thinks that it might well be by Titian. So far, de-lining (taking a later canvas off the back of the original one) has revealed a 'CR' brand, which means that the painting was in the collection of Charles I, where it is indeed listed as a Titian. Prior to that it formed part of the celebrated Gonzaga collection, which contained many Titians. X-rays have reavealed the presence of pentimenti, and paint analysis has shown similarities to Titian's known technique.

Apparently the picture is much over-painted - as indeed it would have to be for it to become a Titian. While it's certainly Titian-esque in many aspects, there are quite a few areas of the picture which at first look too weak for the master himself, such as the drawing of the hands, and the rather vacant expression of the flute player on the right. It would need quite a dramatic transformation to improve to Titian's standards. But as I've said before, it's easy for the eye to be misled by condition issues. We know that other Titians bought from the Gonzaga collection arrived in London in bad condition, and had to be restored (by Van Dyck, no less). 

The Concert certainly has both good and bad elements. The central figure in the red hat looks to be very well observed, but the flute player to the right carries a rather comical air, one untypical of Titian. The diaphanous scarf(?) on the woman on the left suggests underlying technical competence, but the structure of her arm does not. We shouldn't be too distracted by her wonky gaze - one would expect dark pigments like those in the eyes to have suffered over time. Anyway, I'll look forward to seeing how the picture looks after conservation.

Update - a reader writes:

One element you haven’t mentioned and is quite striking is the garment (cloak?) of the man in the immediate foreground. If it is any sort of accurate reflexion of the original composition it is the sheer amount of the picture space it takes up. Reminiscent of the Nationals man with a blue sleeve perhaps?

Another reader writes:

It's not just the vacant expression of the figure on the far right that seems to be a problem, it's the way that his head fits into the composition.  If he was taken out (or even reduced in size) the composition would improve enormously!  Anything to get rid of the heavy rectangular block across the tops of their heads.  It will be interesting to see what the conservator discovers.

Update II - a reader adds:

It always is slightly lamentable that the workshop is brushed aside when these stories hit popular press. Many commissions required significant workshop input - such was the great demand on his studio.

As a related curiosity, the female figure seems to be a familiar/recurring face in many works attributed to Titian and his school - although a consistently utilised model has never been conclusively identified from documentary sources. 

Update III - David Packwood on Art History Today concludes:

Possibly a member of Titian’s workshop, or more likely a minor Venetian painter familiar with the conventions of Venetian painting working later in the century- they’re dating it 1580- but clueless how to weave them all together into a coherent composition. 

Points of interest, but not a great painting.

National's new Titian - Waldemar not convinced

January 22 2013

Image of National's new Titian - Waldemar not convinced

Picture: National Gallery

In his Sunday Times column, art critic Waldemar Januszczak casts doubts on the National Gallery's new claims. It's worth reading his thoughts in full, but here's his main argument:

Rescued from its dark banishment in the basement, it now hangs in Room 10 of the National Gallery, surrounded by other Titians and further fine examples of Venetian painting, looking distinctly underwhelming and overpromoted. If this is a Titian, then it is not a very good one.

The first problem is the sitter’s presence, which seems small and standard when compared with the other Titian sitters in the National’s collection. There is none of the psychological force that glues you to the thoughts of the marvellous Man with a Glove on the opposite wall; and none of that fabulously brave picture-making that thrusts an elbow in your face in the nearby Man with a Quilted Sleeve.

The Burlington article admits the painting is in poor condition, which may explain a lot. Much is made of the skill shown by the artist in capturing the textures of the big fur coat, made of lynx, that the putative Fracastoro is wearing. It’s definitely the best bit of the picture. But in the next gallery, in Titian’s superb group portrait of the Vendramin family, the leading Vendramin also sports a coat lined with lynx, and in that instance the painting of the fur is beyond good — it is actually breath­taking. So swift and ­subtle and nuanced.

The single most un-­Titiany thing about the new Titian is its background. The putative ­Fracastoro seems to be standing in front of a grey wall in which we see two peculiar openings: a circular one above his right shoulder and a kind of rect­angular doorway above his left. This weird architectural arrangement appears nowhere else in Titian. The Burlington admits that it cannot be explained by recent overpainting. So why would ­Titian add such a strange background to what is otherwise an unambitious image?

Before it was hauled out of the basement, the painting was attributed to Francesco Tobido, known as Il Moro, who studied under Giorgione in Venice and worked in Fracastoro’s home town, Verona. Though he is largely ­forgotten today, we know that he, too, painted the syphilis doctor. Indeed, the only time I have seen a background like this before was in Il Moro’s portrait of a couple — one of whom is wearing thick fur — that hangs in the Doris Ulmann Galleries at Berea College, Kentucky.

I've been to see the picture twice now. Although I can still see the arguments for calling the picture 'Attributed to Titian', there is a nagging doubt in my mind. I think I'm going to stick to my initial response to the painting; that because of the condition we can never be entirely sure. Bit of a cop out I'm afraid...

Update - a reader writes:

On Waldemar Januszczak's doubts about the Fracastoro portrait attributed to Titian in the National Gallery, and in particular his point about the unusual architectural background: there is, or rather was, a circular window in "La Schiavona", also in the National Gallery, which was painted out by the artist.

Having seen the upgraded painting now myself I agree with your verdict that its condition means the attribution will continue to prove uncertain. Bits of it look good, but its not immediately likeable.

Guffwatch - Old vs New

January 21 2013

Image of Guffwatch - Old vs New

Picture: Christie's

Here's something I'm looking forward to seeing at the Old Master viewings in New York. I think there's lots of potential for a Guffwatch Special. From Christie's website:

Two major contemporary video works – Bill Viola’s The Last Angel and Eve Sussman’s The Rape of the Sabine Women – will be on view alongside the historical works featured in Old Masters Week. This dialogue between the old and the new will highlight the power of visual languages at two distinct and transformative moments in time. Visitors to the view are encouraged to experience the relationships that exist in this art historical continuum across a variety of media.

And here's more detail about one of the videos:

Bill Viola’s The Last Angel is a ten-minute meditation on spirituality. Projected lengthways on a large plasma screen, the cryptic and hypnotic imagery depicts the lazy flow of water at the top of the frame, much like clouds scudding across the sky. While we are being mesmerized by this slow-motion imagery, eventually some bubbles start to collect at the bottom of the screen. In the final moments of this looped video, a fully-clothed angel emerges, plunging upwards through the shadowy underwater realm, creating a poetic visual experience.  His sudden arrival hauntingly evokes innumerable Renaissance depictions of divine visitations, visions and resurrections, with a beautiful, startling immediacy.

The auction house's increasing attempts to lure contemporary art buyers into the world of Old Masters is to be applauded. As a dealer in the latter I can't help but hope it succeeds. However, I wonder what a contemporary art buyer, used to the diet of guffy verbiage seen above, makes of the more plodding variety of art history found in an Old Master catalogue. Will they open a page on a Rubens, and be disappointed if they find no mention of 'hauntingly evoked and cryptically hypnotic depictions of startlingly immediate beauty'? One hopes not...

Click here for a reminder on how contemporary art guff is written.

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