New Sainsbury Wing designs (ctd.)

October 3 2022

Image of New Sainsbury Wing designs (ctd.)

Picture: AHN reader

A reader alerts me to the fact that the Sainsbury Wing at the National Gallery is now closed. It will re-open in 2025, which means it will be closed for the National's bicentenary celebrations in 2024. I was under the impression that redesigning of the wing (a £35m project) was a central part of the 'NG200' plans.

Meanwhile, in The Burlington Magazine, the architectural historian Otto Saumarez Smith has written a letter urging the Gallery to reconsider aspects of the redesign, in particular the ground floor entrance. You can read the text of his letter here.

There's one line in Otto's letter which is interesting; 'The NG ... is already nearly back to pre-pandemic levels of visitors...' I've seen this line repeated by the Gallery itself - iin fact Otto says it came from the Gallery. It is this pressure on visitor numbers which is the central justification for rebuilding the Sainsbury Wing entrance.

However, it is not quite right, or in fact nearly right. According to the government's most recent national museum visitor survey (to June this year), the National Gallery is still about 50% down on visitors from pre-pandemic levels. There is as yet no detailed analysis of what makes up this change, but we knew before the pandemic that about 70% of the National Gallery's visitors were from overseas. This demographic has changed dramatically post-Covid and post-Brexit. So it must be right to wonder if the central assumption on which the NG is rebuilding its entrance - that it will soon be overwhelmed with visitors - is in fact correct. You can download the visitor data here.

Meanwhile, the architecture critic Hugh Pearman has written a new piece for The Art Newspaper, echoing some of Otto's concerns. In particular, he disagrees with the plans to make the Sainsbury Wing entrance the main entrance for the whole Gallery:

In my view this unbalances the whole composition of the National Gallery. William Wilkins’s 1838 building is very far from great—it wrecked his reputation when built—but at least it put its presently closed-off entrance in a central portico. In the early 2000s East Wing building programme, the Getty entrance was added at pavement level to the right of the portico, leading to the Annenberg Court within. Another entrance was mooted to the left, but this was never done. I would urge the gallery to scrap the Selldorf plans and return to the drawing board—this time with a much improved central entrance as the brief. Then let the Sainsbury Wing return to being the subsidiary entrance/exit it was designed to be. But if the gallery continues to insist that its main entrance should be at the far western end of the main complex, then only the most minimal and respectful alterations to Venturi and Scott Brown’s unique building should be allowed.

Apologies...

September 27 2022

I'm on a bit of a writing deadline, back on Thursday.

Ken Howard RA (1932-2022)

September 26 2022

Image of Ken Howard RA (1932-2022)

Picture: Royal Academy

Sad news that the British painter Ken Howard RA has died, the Guardian has an obituary here.

KMSKA re-opens

September 26 2022

Video: KMSKA

After eleven years, and five years later than anticipated, the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp has re-opened. The video above gives you a glimpse into what to expect. This video here gives you a blimpse into some quirky Old Master marketing, Belgian style. The New York Times liked what it saw here. One reader sends me, in despair, photos of the inevitable 'contemporary interventions' in the Old Master galleries (below). If you go, let me knwo what you think. I'm very much looking forward to seeing again some of the greatest Flemish art in the world.

Update - a reader who has visited the museum sends this fascinting and well informed review of what they've seen so far:

Thank you for mentioning the reopening of the Fine Arts Museum in Antwerp on Art History News. You asked for comments, so I’m happy to send you mine. I live 5 minutes from the museum and have visited it three times since the reopening. 

Apologies if this message is a bit long, these are just my personal observations and appreciations, especially on the old masters’ section. The museum building was always very imposing and is even more so now, beautifully restored and cleaned. From the outside the expansion is not visible, inside there is now a 20th century section, built on top and in between the old masters, but completely separate. Architecturally very cleverly done. Entrance fee is 20 euro, taking pictures is allowed everywhere, and the entire collection is also available for research and downloadable on the website. The old master rooms are beautifully restored, nice colors, perfect hanging of paintings, etc. Impeccable. The most important fact is probably that many, many paintings have been cleaned and restored. A long closure has its advantages as well. Many masterpieces look fresh and alive again. Except for some really large Rubens altarpieces, but these will be restored next year, in the rooms were they are now displayed, so that the public can view the ongoing restoration.

Instead of ordering the paintings by school and chronologically, in many rooms there is now a thematic display. ‘Power’, ‘Abundance’, ‘Suffering’, but also just landscapes and portraits. This also enables paintings from different schools and times (a Basquiat next to a Jean Clouet, for example) to be confronted. Sometimes this works, but not always. In several rooms, the choice was to show not too many paintings, so that people are not overwhelmed and spend more time watching a particular painting. In the end, the total display capacity of the museum was expanded by 40% and the number of artworks displayed has actually diminished (to about 600)! Something about the average visitor only being able to absorb so many paintings during a visit … I think this is a missed opportunity.

In the great Rubens room, there used to hang 16 original Rubens paintings before the closure. Now 5. All the others are spread out over the other rooms. Van Dyck fares even worse. The Van Dyck room needs a new name, since there is only one Van Dyck left hanging there (there used to be 6, the Van Dyck collection was never very strong, with no examples from his Italian or English period). The other Van Dycks are spread out, but two are even put in storage. Personally, my greatest regret is that the world of Bruegel has completely disappeared. With Rubens and Van Dyck, undoubtedly the greatest artist ever having worked in Antwerp, he is completely ignored. While there has never been an original Pieter Bruegel the elder in the collection, there is a great collection of works of both his sons and followers, which gives a wonderful and valuable overview of the world of Bruegel. Only 1 or 2 paintings are left of that. Of course, that might not matter much to most visitors, but it is a great regret to people like me who know what is put in storage … I don’t even want to think of the masterpieces of Dutch painting, which even many Dutch museums envy us, that are not on show.

On the other hand, three entire rooms have been given over to modern technology. In one of them you can put on a virtual reality visor, and imagine yourself walking in Rubens’ studio. Another large room is now an ‘immersive experience’ like those travelling shows you have everywhere these days, and which Waldemar Janucsczak (rightly so), despises. Further there is, inevitably these days it seems, contemporary art in a number of rooms, like the camel in the picture on your website. These are enlargements of details of paintings, intended for children. Sometimes they are playful and not very obtrusive (like the camel, a detail from Rubens’ adoration of the kings) but in other rooms they are terribly disturbing, ugly and annoying. The picture I include shows a room called ‘horizon’, with the monstrous thing in the middle (it’s supposed to represent a cave) destroying exactly that, the view of the room with landscapes. 



I realize that by now I might have given my personal concerns too much attention, since the overall impression is still quite positive. There are a lot of very interesting and well-displayed interventions (the integration of sculpture, the tasteful lighting, a room where you can sit in front of some small 15th century jewel-like panels and study them in detail, the 19th century salon, etc.) and just many, many stunning works of art.

 


PS do you like the joke in one of the pictures I include, where the peasants in an Adriaen van Ostade painting seem to be tumbling out of their frame … ? most people don’t even get the joke and think that someone has pushed the picture from its normal position …

 

New Lagrenée catalogue

September 21 2022

Image of New Lagrenée catalogue

Picture: Arthena

A new book on the French 18th Century history painter Louis Lagrenée (1725-1805) by Joseph Assémat-Tessandier will be published on 15th November. Order yours here.

Brad Pitt, sculptor

September 21 2022

Image of Brad Pitt, sculptor

Picture: Guardian

Brad Pitt has opened an exhibition of his sculptures, and Jonathan Jones, in The Guardian, is impressed:

Pinch me – I must be dreaming. Brad Pitt is an extremely impressive artist. I certainly didn’t expect to be saying that when I got up this morning. He has sidestepped the embarrassment of celebrity art to reveal what by any standard are powerful, worthwhile works.

Hirst burns art (ctd.)

September 21 2022

Image of Hirst burns art (ctd.)

Picture: Sunday Times

In The Sunday Times, the Great Waldemar reflects on Damien Hirst's latest stunt, burning some of his paintings as part of an NFT promotion, and takes a dim view:

I was thinking the other day about an art book I want to write. Its title would be: Art — How It All Turned to Shit. Every word in the book would be true. Playing a central role in the tragedy would be Damien Hirst.

Among art critics working today, I do not believe Hirst has a more loyal admirer than me. I have followed his artistic progress ever since he photographed himself as a teenager in a mortuary smiling next to a corpse. I’ve interviewed him frequently, heaped praise on him and defended him stoutly when he went too far. I’ve done all this because — and this really marks me out — I believe in him. Fundamentally I believe he has inside him what only true artists have inside them.

But because I have been with him every step of the way, I also know how it all went wrong, and why. It’s a telling story. It says a lot about him, yes, but it says a lot more about the jealous, small-minded, play-acting entity that is the contemporary art world. If I could put a stake through its heart, I would.

In a couple of weeks, to coincide with the opening of the Frieze art fair, we are going to witness Hirst’s latest art gimmick. In an effort to promote his NFTs, he is burning thousands of his pictures, valued at about £10 million. The television cameras and headline writers will be there. My faith in him will receive another clout.

More here.



New Huntington acquisitions

September 21 2022

Image of New Huntington acquisitions

Picture: The Huntington

The Huntington Library in California has announced some new acquisitions, including a full length Jacobean portrait probably by Robert Peake, and the above portrait described as being Unknown 19th century British, Portrait of a Young Black Man, 1800–1820. It's oval and on an 8 inche high canvas, which reminds me of Thomas Hickey's similarly sized portraits. More details here.

Job opportunity

September 21 2022

Image of Job opportunity

Picture: NG

The National Gallery in London are looking for a new Associate Curator (Post 1800 Paintings). Here's the job summary:

The Associate Curator (Post 1800 Paintings) supports the Curator of Post 1800 Paintings, with the care and growth of the National Gallery’s nineteenth and early twentieth-century collections, and for associated scholarly research, publication, and interpretation. The Associate Curator supports the Curator in seeking and recommending relevant new acquisitions and loans, and, as appropriate, acts as the curatorial lead on exhibitions, collection displays and gallery refurbishment projects.

The salary is £42,630. Details here.

 

 

Restitution in the UK - how to make it work

September 13 2022

Image of Restitution in the UK - how to make it work

Picture: The Times

Following on from the publication of the Arts Council's report on how museums should deal with restitution claims, the Burlington Magazine, in its latest editorial, suggests the government should set up an indepedent body to assess such claims:

The creation of such an independent forum with the power to resolve restitution claims would be a way to end accusations that the national museums and the Government are passing the buck between them about the issue. There is precedent in Britain for such commissions or committees to intervene in issues of ownership of cultural artefacts, not least the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art, although there would almost certainly be reluctance by the present Government to endow such a body with the power to decide finally what should leave the country as well as what should stay.

All of which sounds quite sensible, and obviously such a body would have to operate closely with the Export Committee. And yet one would hope that in most cases, museums would be able to work out the answer to whether something should stay or return themselves.

There is one way, however, in which the creation of a Restitution Committee could help overcome the last major hurdle for significant restitution progress in the UK, and that is by resolving the legal question on whether some major institutions can deaccession works to overseas institutions. I've been having a think about this, and would welcome your thoughts on the below possibility.

Currently, the British Museum says it cannot return looted items like the Benin Bronzes (and the Parthenon Marbles), even if it wanted to, because it would require a change in the law. And this is true, for the 1963 British Museum Act allows disposals only under very specific circumstances, under Section 5:

5 Disposal of objects.

(1) The Trustees of the British Museum may sell, exchange, give away or otherwise dispose of any object vested in them and comprised in their collections if—

(a) the object is a duplicate of another such object, or

(b) the object appears to the Trustees to have been made not earlier than the year 1850, and substantially consists of printed matter of which a copy made by photography or a process akin to photography is held by the Trustees, or

(c) in the opinion of the Trustees the object is unfit to be retained in the collections of the Museum and can be disposed of without detriment to the interests of students:

Provided that where an object has become vested in the Trustees by virtue of a gift or bequest the powers conferred by this subsection shall not be exercisable as respects that object in a manner inconsistent with any condition attached to the gift or bequest.

(2) The Trustees may destroy or otherwise dispose of any object vested in them and comprised in their collections if satisfied that it has become useless for the purposes of the Museum by reason of damage, physical deterioration, or infestation by destructive organisms.

Other Acts, like the National Heritage Act 1983, place similar restrictions on other institutions like the V&A. So, on the face of it, this leaves no room for anything other than a long-term loan of items to overseas institutions. It is on this basis that more forward looking institutions in the restitution debate, like the V&A under Tristram Hunt's leadership, are engaging in de facto restitutions through long term loans, as seen in a recent example of Asante gold treasures to Ghana here.

But in many restitution cases, for a British institution to retain legal title to a looted object is problematic, and that is why Hunt has been leading calls to change the law. The next question is whether this would require primary legislation, or secondary legislation. The former is very time consuming, and is unlikely to get a look in with a government trying to deal with a cost of living crisis, not to mention one keen on fighting culture wars. Which Secretary of State for Culture is going to want to take up valuable parliamentary time risking a fight with their backbenchers over what should happen to the Parthenon Marbles? Just imagine the trouble Boris Johnson would cause.

Secondary legislation, however, can be done in an afternoon, and is the means by which a government minister can revise an earlier piece of primary legislation, if permitted to do so in the original Act. The British Museum Act 1963 does not give the Secretary of State the power to amend section 5 on Disposals. Although it does allow them - in section 10 - to designate a new place of  'authorised repository'. So, in theory the Parthenon Museum in Athens could be become a place of authorised deposit for the British Museum.

As cunning a plan that would be, it still doesn't resolve the question of title. However, the 1992 Museums and Galleries Act does give government ministers a route into resolving this, and via secondary legislation. Section 6 of the 1992 Act sets out which UK institutions can transfer objects to other UK institutions, and this list - set out in Schedule 5 - includes those museums which, in the acts which specifically govern them (like the 1963 British Museum Act) forbids them from otherwise deaccessioning.

In other words, Section 6 of the 1992 Museums and Galleries Act effectively allows the British Museum and others to deaccession as they wish, but only by transferring objects to other UK institutions listed in Schedule 5. There are 15 institutions listed, and it's essentially those funded 'nationally' by the Department for Culture. Therefore, in theory the British Museum could transfer its Benin Bronzes to one of the institutions on the list which is not forbidden from deaccessioning, like the Horniman Museum, which recently deaccessioned its own Benin Bronzes.

And there is another, perhaps neater alternative. The 1992 Act can be amended by secondary legislation, via Section 6 part 6, as follows:

(6) The Secretary of State may by order amend Schedule 5 to this Act by adding any body in the United Kingdom to those for the time being specified in that Schedule.

Therefore, it would be possible for the government to establish a body, as The Burlington Magazine recommends, to examine and decide on restitution claims, and then to add this body to Schedule 5 of the 1992 Act. This body can then deaccession, because nothing in its remit, when established, will prevent it from deaccessioning.

If any of this is adopted, we can call it the Burlington Solution.

Art history tattoos (ctd.)

September 13 2022

Image of Art history tattoos (ctd.)

Picture: Rembrandthuis via Twitter

The Rembrandthuis museum has shared the above photo of Rembrandt fan Timothy Englisch's new tattoo, based on Rembrandt's c.1630 self-portrait etching. Fine effort.

HM the Queen in art

September 13 2022

Image of HM the Queen in art

Picture: Nev Wilson, via Twitter

The sad death of Her Majesty the Queen has given rise to some terrible artistic tributes, perhaps the greatest of which is this mural from Hounslow. Unfortunately, HMQ's reign in art, at least, was not a success, though this is more a reflection on the abilities of contemporary portraitists than her own taste. There were of course some successes early on, with for example the Annigoni. But the less said about the efforts by Lucian Freud, and even, goodness, Rolf Harris, the better. Although the former at least gave us the great Sun headline, when the portrait was unveiled; "A Travesty Your Majesty".

Baselitz on women artists

September 12 2022

Image of Baselitz on women artists

Picture: Guardian

In The Guardian, Jonathan Jones has interviewed Georg Baselitz, and in particular about his views on women artists:

But Baselitz’s edgy remarks can sometimes get him into scrapes. In 2013, he was quoted in Der Spiegel as saying: “Women don’t paint very well.” A couple of years later, he doubled down on that, telling the Guardian: “The market doesn’t lie. Even though the painting classes in art academies are more than 90% made up by women, it’s a fact that very few of them succeed. It’s nothing to do with education, or chances, or male gallery owners. It’s to do with something else and it’s not my job to answer why it’s so. It doesn’t just apply to painting, either, but also music.”

These words have become a millstone. So. I wonder, has he changed his mind?

On the contrary.

Baselitz is right that for too long the current contemporary art market has placed far more 'value' on male artists than female artists. It's more than a little tragic that he cannot see the underlying structural reasons for such an imbalance, and worse, for someone in his position, that he is reluctant to do anything about it. More here.

Stolen: Catching the Art Thieves

September 12 2022

Image of Stolen: Catching the Art Thieves

Picture: BBC

There's a new series on BBC Two about art theft. The first programme is on Munch's Scream, then a Rembrandt, and then the two Tate Turners. More here.

New Vermeer discoveries

September 8 2022

Video: Rijksmuseum

Ahead of two new exhibitions on Vermeer, there have been a number of news stories about new technical analysis done on his paintings.

The first (which I missed a few weeks ago) concerns four paintings in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, summarised by Martin Baily in The Art Newspaper here, and settling some doubts about two of their paintings, Girl with a Red Hat and Girl with a Flute. The latter painting is only deemed to be 'attributed' to Vermeer. Further discoveries about these two paintings will be revealed when the NGA's exhibition, Vermeer's Secrets, opens on 8th October. (And what's the betting Girl with a Flute will be upgraded to Vermeer in full.)

The second relates to the forthcoming mega exhibition on Vermeer at the Rijksmuseum next year (10th Feb - 4th June), which will feature 27 out of his known 35 works. For this show, the Rijksmuseum have been infra-reding and x-raying their Vermeers as never before (as shown in the video above), and found previously unknown details and pentimenti, as reported by Bruno Waterfield in The Times here.

The National Trust 'Richer than ever' (ctd.)

September 7 2022

Image of The National Trust 'Richer than ever' (ctd.)

Picture: NT

The latest National Trust annual accounts have been released. Last year, I wrote that the Trust was 'richer than ever', and, after a bumper year, it's now richer than ever, again. This is undoubtedly a Good Thing. It's a reflection of the impressive effort everybody working at the Trust has put into re-opening their sites after the pandemic, as well as the public's determination to revisit country houses and outdoor spaces. But it also shows, in my view, that the Trust's senior management over-reacted to the pandemic, in sacking over 1,700 people, and restructuring what it calls its 'mansion offer'. I wrote about the restructuring plans (the ten year 'vision' document, illustrated above) at the time, here.

First, a look at the latest numbers (you can see the accounts in full here). My richer than ever description comes from what the Trust's 'total funds', which includes reserves. This year, total funds are £1.68 billion, up from £1.47 billion last year, which was already a record (you can see last year's accounts in full here). Total income was £651m, up from £507m last year, but still a little down on pre-pandemic figure of £680m from 2019. However, the Trust's preferred lead indicator of its financial health is what it calls its Operating Margin (in other words, a profit), and this year it was a record £177.5m, or 30.6%. To put that into context, in the last five years, the Operating Margin has been as follows:

2018 £111m 20.7%
2019 £112m 19.7%
2020 £131m 21.4%
2021 £94.2m 19.9%
2022 £177.5m 30.6%

This year's healthy Margin is in part due to surging visitor numbers, up 7 million on last year to a total of just over 20 million. The Trust has enjoyed stable membership numbers, and, as with last year, has some sharp fund managers working for it, seeing its reserves rise again. But having a significant effect on the Margin are staff costs, which were £257m pre-Pandemic, and last year (after those redundancies) were lower, at £218m, a saving of £39m.

The question is, however, did the Trust need to sack those 1700 people in the middle of a pandemic, and in quite a brutal fashion? The redundancies cost £22m in cash, and an unquantifiable figure in goodwill; I remember at the time hearing some really heartbreaking stories of staff not only losing their jobs, but their homes too. Trust management at the time told me they believed the pandemic would seriously impact their finances for up to three years, and they had to plan accordingly. But looking at the latest financial figures, there's no doubt the Trust could have afforded to retain its staff (by putting them on furlough), and still, once visitors flocked back post-lockdowns, have made an above average Margin. 

You might say, of course, that at the time nobody knew how long the pandemic would last, which is true. And yet there's a difference between planning for an unknown, and panicking. Even as late as mid 2020, when the Trust was implementing its redundancy plan, it was clear the government's furlough scheme would be effective. I remember a conversation with a senior Trust leader where they refused to believe the furlough scheme would be extended, and even said - I was so surprised made a note of it - that they didn't want to be reliant on state funding. By late 2020 it was also clear vaccines would arrive by Spring 2021, and that planning for a return to full activities by about mid 2021 was likely. And so it proved.

In addition to job cuts, the legacy of the Trust's rushed savings plan can be seen today in numerous properties which have reduced opening times, just as the Trust's 'flexing' plan set out, all the way back in early 2020. Properties like Peckover House, which used to be open regularly throughout the year for self-guided tours, is now only open at very limited times for guided tours. Recently, on a visit to Hardwick Hall, I found one floor  closed, due to a lack of volunteers. Those of us who, back in 2020, were somewhat suspicious at the speed with which the Trust unveiled its flexing plan will wonder why, after two bumper years of financial growth, these properties are not now fully accessible again. Perhaps that's what it was about all along.

I write all this as a member of the Trust, a lifelong fan, and an admirer of all those who work and volunteer there. I have no time for the misguided culture warriors at Restore Trust, who unjustly criticise the National Trust's scholars and curators. (In fact, they have helped make the situation at the National Trust worse, by taking attention away from what really matters.) I just hope the Trust learns from its mistake - and a good way to start would be by apologising to those it sacked.

'Art Detectives' in the US

September 6 2022

Image of 'Art Detectives' in the US

Picture: Ovation

The series I made for the BBC called 'Britain's Lost Masterpieces' is shown internationally under a different name, Art Detectives. The latest series is available for US viewers, for free, on Ovation here. If you're in the UK, there is one episode being shown again on the BBC iPlayer, here.

Michelangelo in action!

September 6 2022

Image of Michelangelo in action!

Picture: TAN

Here's a nice story, the author James Hall has discovered in a 15th C copy of Dante's Divine Comedy a sketch (probably) of Michelangelo carving David. Hall was researching his new book, The Artist’s Studio: A Cultural History (Thames & Hudson). More here.

Winslow Homer - Force of Nature

September 6 2022

Video: National Gallery

Here's the trailer for the National Gallery's new Winslow Homer exhibition, opening 10th September (till 8th January 2023). More here.

'Censored Art Today'

September 6 2022

Image of 'Censored Art Today'

Picture: Lund Humphries

There's an excellent new book out on censorship in art in the age of cancel culture, written by Gareth Harris. Says the publisher:

Censored Art Today is an accessible, informed analysis of the debates raging around censorship of art and so-called ‘cancel culture’, focusing on who the censors are and why they are clamping down on forms of artistic expression worldwide. Art censorship is a centuries-old issue which appears to be on the rise in the 21st century - why is this the case?

Gareth Harris expertly analyses the different contexts in which artists, museums and curators face restrictions today. 

Copies can be ordered here. Gareth has also started a regular new blog at The Art Newspaper, where he is Chief Contributing Editor, called Trigger Warning. He writes:

Along with the book I am launching the bi-monthly blog Trigger Warning, which will examine censorship cases worldwide, focusing on who the censors are and why they are clamping down on forms of artistic expression. The aim is to drill down on censorship episodes, analysing the implications for artists and the art world, and how such cases inform the debate around issues that dominate contemporary discourse.

The divide between "woke" and "anti-woke" factions is, for instance, not lessening but intensifying; this ideological chasm is complex and shifting but the fallout of censorship is often ignored (not anymore). In the course of my blog journey, I want to look at the different contexts in which artists, museums and curators face restrictions today, focusing on hot topics such as the algorithms policing art online and the narratives around problematic monuments. Unpicking the new “culture wars” is challenging but necessary.

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