Sunday, 16 November 2014

A Day in Detroit

Picture: Wikipedia
I've recently returned from a grand tour of American museums, focused on a cluster of superb collections in the Midwest. A particular highlight was the chance to see the Detroit Institute of Arts, which has happily now been saved from having to sell off part of its collection following the city's bankruptcy. Pieter Bruegel the Elder must surely have painted the scene above, from the DIA's collection, in anticipation of the celebrations. Detroit has a fabulous collection that they display well, and I was impressed by the lively and engaging docents. 
America's biggest museums - the Met and the National Gallery - are collections of collections, reflecting the taste of the collectors who donated their pictures. The biggest influence at Detroit is their scholarly director William Valentiner, who ran the DIA from 1924 to 1945. His taste for Dutch golden age painting, Renaissance sculpture, baroque art and German expressionism has shaped the DIA, both through direct purchases and his advice to local collectors. The sculpture was a particular treat; they have some really outstanding works, and an impressively coherent collection. The Judith (above) is one of the very best renaissance small bronzes, as good as anything in the Frick or the National Gallery. The sculpture collection harmonises with the pictures, the Judith alongside early Italian pictures by Sassetta, the Master of Osservanza and Fra Angelico, and a pair of large bronzes attributed to Vittoria flanking one of America's best Titians, the Judith with the Head of Holofernes.
Picture: MS
This trio is another great display - self-portraits by Max Beckmann and Otto Dix either side of an early German portrait by Michael Wolgemuth. Beckmann and Dix are two of my favourite twentieth century artists, and it's great to see them linked to the tradition that they clearly responded to. Three very different but clearly related pictures that look fantastic together.
Picture: New York Times
The collection of Dutch art is justly celebrated. A particular favourite of mine is the picture above by the rare and eccentric Michael Sweerts, one of his best and all the better for being rather well preserved. I commend the series of posts on Sweerts at Rembrandt's Room. There's also an exceptional group of Ruisdaels led by the large version of the Jewish Cemetery, a splendid Ter Borch and a small group of still life pictures is anchored with a fine flower piece by Rachel Ruysch, bought in 1995. It's an understandable addition to Detroit's collection, but I question the wisdom of its purchase given that a similar picture can be seen an hour's drive away in Toledo. Best of the Dutch collection is a group of pictures by Rembrandt and his school, led by The Visitation (below), a great religious picture by Rembrandt, of a type rare in American collections. It's one of those pictures that seen in the flesh looks vastly better than you could imagine from pictures. Even the high-quality photo in the Rembrandt Corpus fails to do justice to the dark background or the varied texture of the finely preserved paint surface. It's a much better picture than I'd previously appreciated, genuinely moving in its emotional range. 
Picture: New York Times
Valentiner was a celebrated Rembrandt scholar in his day, though many of his acquisitions have since been downgraded. The wall text is prudently cautious, only giving the Visitation in full to Rembrandt. There's a good version from the group of seven heads of Christ, which is rejected by van de Wetering, and a small Weeping Woman that I thought impressive and van de Wetering gives to Rembrandt. There's also a large Death of Lucretia from Rembrandt's studio, that is interesting rather than good. There is a group of large history pictures from Rembrandt's school of varying quality, which it is speculated might have been student's graduation pieces. Lucretia is a theme that Rembrandt himself painted twice, each time as a single dramatic figure rather than a group, as in the Detroit picture. 
Picture: Wikipedia
Elsewhere I thought some of the attributions to be somewhat optimistic. The lovely early Netherlandish picture of St Jerome in his Study is given to Van Eyck, but most scholars think it a school piece. Seeing it in the flesh I don't believe the alternative attribution to Petrus Chrustus that's sometimes mooted either, though it is a fine and rare painting. Mind you, that's a singularly ridiculous lion, even by the standards of the early renaissance!

There's a strong collection of American art, particularly Hudson River school landscapes, many in their original frames. The only place in Europe with any meaningful collection of American art is the Thyssen in Madrid, so I was glad of the chance to see so many strong collections on my US tour. There are also some fine impressionist and post-impressionist pictures including superb C├ęzannes, a fine Seurat and Degas. The modern art eclipses most European collections, including major works by Picasso and Matisse, and a large Giacometti sculpture alongside a David Smith from the Cubi series. And the baroque art is justly celebrated, augmented with the loan of a fine Mathias Stom Christ Disputing with the Doctors from the Taubman collection.

Christie's valued the artworks that had been bought with City funds as part of the bankruptcy negotiations. It's interesting reading, and in my view their valuations are reasonable; they have to ground their valuations against comparable sales, and given that old masters of this quality almost never come up for sale there is a large element of uncertainty. Some of the best pictures may soar, depending on how many billionaires are ready to compete for the best old masters, and the Sweerts is such a rare and lovely thing I suspect it would sell far above the Christie's estimate. But it's a shame that the valuations were made public at all. I overheard one tour guide ask a group of children if they wanted to see a hundred million dollar painting, which is such a degrading way of introducing a Bruegel. 

Detroit is not a big tourist destination and the DIA gets fewer out of town visitors than it deserves, but it is clearly cherished by Detroit residents, a shining star in a distressed city. Understandably great and successful efforts have been made to engage local people with the museum, which is laudable but sometimes seemed at the expense of more substantive information. The wall text is breezy and engaging, but I'd like to be able to read more about the artworks. It's a terrific collection, and well worth the effort of getting there. Detroit also has the wonderfully idiosyncratic Henry Ford Museum, and it's close to Toledo, which I'll be writing about later.


  1. Here is another review of the Detroit Art Institute: