Sunday, 30 December 2012

Conventional Thinking

Photo: Art Newspaper
Fred Wilson is a conceptual artist who appeals to me, even as a hardened fogey who hates most contemporary art.  Some of his interventions in museums are quite witty.  I love that he dressed as a guard to give an artist's guided tour, and was of course not recognised by the patrons.  But there are only so many ways to make the point about exclusionary practises in museums; his work is losing its edge and becoming a bit repetitive.  And I'm not sure his criticism has bite any more.  Museums are falling over themselves trying to prove their inclusive credentials and highlight historical sins. 

Fred Wilson's upcoming exhibition in Cleveland "attempts to undermine the discourse-determining status of cultural institutions, almost from the inside out, by employing those institutions' own vocabularies, concepts and methods".  So many redundant words, so little content.  You have to know something of Foucault's concept of 'discourse' for this even to make sense - this guff is so much more exclusive and elitist than the old fashioned stuff that it criticises.  Then that weasel-word 'almost' - why 'almost' from the inside out? 

We're told that he's a political activist infiltrating museums.  His works "speak to the realization that culture is almost never homogeneous".  The terminology is conventional and banal.  Who ever said that culture was homogeneous?  This is the new insider art, and these are the new conventional ideas, dressed up as radical infiltration. 

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

The Shaping of Art History

Photo: Amazon
I enjoyed Patricia Emison's book on the discipline of art history.  Her critical discussion of feminist art history is especially deft and I liked the comment that, "We cannot of course look at works of art with perfectly impersonal eyes, but we can try to make looking at art an exercise in being human rather than merely frail, mortal, cultured and gendered." (p. 75)  In such a short book on such a big topic it's inevitable that it sometimes has a provisional quality.  You can choose to see that as a limitation, but I  relished it as an invitation to further thinking - not so much a lecture as a chat in the pub.  There's an excellent short bibliography if you want to read more. 
Emison's discussion of connoisseurship provides balance and perspective in a debate noted for stridency.  She notes that taste in methodology is supplanting taste in art, and that the connoisseurs seeking to establish their status have been usurped by theorists invoking the status of fashionable thinkers.  It's now a canon of art historians rather than a canon of art history.  Her defence of breadth in an time of narrow specialism is welcome beyond just art history, and I thought many of the book's themes speak to wider debates about the academy. 

Friday, 21 December 2012

Raphael Drawings at the British Museum

Photo: BM
I've been inspired by the Raphael drawing exhibitions in Haarlem and Frankfurt (and seeing the outstanding drawing sold at Sotheby's), so I took a couple of days off work to look at the British Museum's amazing collection of Raphael drawings.  It was my first really sustained and focused study of drawings, and I'd prepared by reading as much of the vast literature on Raphael as draftsman that I could find.  But reading and looking at reproductions is truly no substitute for the real thing, and it was striking how quickly I learnt to discern differences in quality and to appreciate Raphael's artistic development.  I deliberately selected drawings by Raphael's students as well as attested originals so that I could make comparisons.  As I'd already seen in the Frankfurt exhibition, the students' work looks relatively better in reproduction.

The drawing above is from the Pink Sketchbook, in silverpoint on prepared paper.  No reproduction captures the astonishing subtlety of the original. 

Now I'm on a mission to see as much of Raphael's graphic work as I can.  Tomorrow I head to the Ashmolean, and I've got an appointment at the Louvre in January. 

Kudos to the National Gallery

Photo: Yale UP
My natural disposition is grumpy rather than grateful, but can I just say hurrah for London's National Gallery, which must be one of the most open public institutions in the country.  They publish board minutes online and have loads of really useful material on their website.  Their Raphael Research Project is an outstanding collaborative project with a plethora of information that's rarely made available in the public domain.  I recently wanted to consult their files on Raphael's Julius II, and it couldn't have been easier - a couple of emails and I was granted an appointment almost immediately.  Of course it's only right that a publicly funded institution should be transparent and available to the public, but it so rarely works that way - and the NG goes out of its way to be helpful.  Compare that to many publicly funded universities, which won't even let the public in to consult their libraries unless they pay for the privilege. 

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

'National Treasures'

Photo: BBC
The catchily-titled 58th annual report of the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest is out now.  It's really much more interesting than it sounds.  Four works were acquired by British institutions after export licenses were deferred.  The wonderful Manet of Madamoiselle Claus, above, was the best - a great acquisition for the Ashmolean, complementing a good collection of nineteenth century French art.  A pair of tables was acquired jointly by the Victoria and Albert Museum and the National Museums of Scotland.  The habit of museums buying art jointly is lamentable, ensuring certain and needless deterioration as they are ferried between them.  In this case it's not clear if they will be kept as a pair, or if the museums will get one each. 

It's a great shame that Watteau's La Surprise (below) 'got away'.  It's true that there are lots of Watteaus in the UK, but most are in poor condition and few are as good as this one. 

Photo: Art Daily

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Piero della Francesca at the Frick

Photo: Frick
The Frick is hosting an exhibtion of Piero della Francesca next year.  I've seen all of the panels from the Sant'Agostino altarpiece, but I really want to see the Virgin and Child Enthroned with Four Angels, above, from the Clark Art Institute.  It's said to be in poor condition, and its attribution is much disputed - although the Frick's publicity material doesn't mention any controversy.  He's a great favourite of mine, so I will have to try to get over for it and try to decide for myself whether it's 'right'. 

Spending money on the wrong things

Photo: York Art Gallery
I went to York Art Gallery recently and was underwhelmed.  There are some good things, but the display is dull and the wall text poor - the well-known artist Domenichino was listed only by his less familiar proper name, Domenico Zampieri.  One of the best-known paintings in York is a fine Baburen Cimon and Pero (below), which was badly lit and hung too high to be seen, with only mediocre paintings hung at eye-level. 
Photo: BBC
Instead of curatorial content, there's a big notice board inviting comment from the public.  None of this inspires confidence in the £8m redevelopment.  A few tens of pounds would pay for re-hanging the collection more sensibly and enhancing the wall text.  The current building is perfectly adequate, but they could make some really excellent additions to collection for £8m. 

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Musee Ingres

Photo: Louvre
I love small museums in out-of-the-way places.  I got the train from Toulouse to the Musee Ingres in Montauban last month, and it was well worth the trip.  Ingres can be a bit austere and he's unfashionable today, but he could really paint!   His portraits remain popular, represented particularly by the excellent Portrait of Madame Gonse - an ugly lady, but a really powerful portrait.  Ingres' love of Raphael is well-known, but I hadn't previously appreciated his debt to Poussin, which was really apparent in two large works from the start and end of his life, the Christ Handing the Keys to St Peter and Christ Among the Doctors (above).  It's beautifully painted, but you can really see how far the composition falls short of Poussin.
Ingres is particularly valued as a draftsman, and the museum has lots of drawings on open access in drawers in the main galleries, allowing direct comparison of the Christ Among the Doctors with the preparatory sketches.  One odd thing was the painting below, which is claimed as an Ingres copy of a painting by Giulio Romano.  The copy isn't good enough to be by Ingres, but the painting it copies is generally (and in my view rightly) now regarded as a Raphael.  It was copied in Rome, but it's now in the National Gallery, Washington, having been sold from the collection of the Alte Pinakothek in the 1930s. 
Photo: Wikipaintings

Michelangelo Attribution at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Photo: Telegraph
Great post by CultureGrrl on a daft attribution of a sculpture to Michelangelo.  It raises questions about curatorial responsibility.  Everyone is free to assert an attribution, but when a museum label claims a work for a certain artist it lends institutional authority to the claim.  It's misleading to the public when a work is so contested, and it's especially problematic with loaned works that may subsequently be sold.  Explaining the debate is the safer course, and it is more respectful of the visiting public to engage us in the discussion rather than hiding the dispute.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Raphael Drawings in Frankfurt

Photo: Staedel
I liked the Raphael drawings exhibition at the Teylers Museum in Haarlem.  I like the Raphael drawings exhibition in Frankfurt even more.  The Haarlem show gave us context, showing Raphael alongside his pupils, and explaining the process of attributing drawings to the master.  The Frankfurt show is a display of 'greatest hits' based on the Staedel's own excellent collection of Raphael drawings. 
The first section shows the young Raphael developing rapidly, particularly through his engagement with variations on that most traditional subject, the Virgin and Child.  A section focuses on later narratives, including a group of studies showing the evolution of Raphael's ideas for the Disputa, and another section gathers an outstanding selection of studies for the Chigi Chapel.  I was delighted to have the chance to see the magnificent Windsor Castle version of the Massacre of the Innocents, and the Boston Papal Procession, a late work in coloured chalk that has been questioned but which I agree is authentic. 
The wall text is just right - enough to provide context without being overwhelming, with small colour photos of related paintings.  Unfortunately there are videos showing in side rooms, creating a constant distracting drone that's unavoidable at so many exhibitions today.  But the drawings are just amazing.