Wednesday, 17 December 2014

From my book pile

Picture: Amazon
Nicholas A. Eckstein Painted Glories: The Brancacci Chapel in Renaissance Florence Yale University Press 2014 £40

This is an excellent study of the context for one of the supreme masterpieces of the Renaissance, the great fresco cycle begun by Masaccio and Masolino and completed by Filippino Lippi. Here is where I disagree: "the Brancacci Chapel and its stupendous, incomparably beautiful decorative programme add up to something less than the sum of their parts unless both are treated as the property of everyone who had a stake in their fortunes or belonged in some way to the Carmelit culture responsible for their existence" (p. 207). Of course to understand context we need to understand it in the round; that much is truism. But I think something stronger is implied about our ability to appreciate the frescoes, and there I'm less sure. I think they stand as stupendous works of art even if you don't know their context. I was fascinated to learn more about the circumstances of the Chapel's creation and use, but I'm not sure it has much shifted my appreciation of it as a work of art. Looking at it another way, this study could have been written about an utterly forgettable and minor fresco cycle without looking very different. There isn't much here about the artistry of the chapel. 

I don't mean to criticise attention to context; this book takes a different approach, and I think it's a profitable one. But for a book length study to neglect so much the artistic aspects of the fresco cycle is to lose something. The one part that I thought unforgivable was his failure to address the consequences of an aggressively thorough cleaning that many, including myself, think enormously damaging to the frescoes. Eckstein mentions it only in passing, and always uncritically. 

It also strikes me that despite its bent towards the historical rather than the art historical, this book remains rather speculative. "Understanding how they may have spoken to ordinary Florentines ... requires something more than another look at these sensationally beautiful images. It requires sustained analysis of a range of factors influencing the ways contemporary men and women approached, regarded and used the Chapel, and of impressions and associations it may have triggered in their minds at different times", Eckstein tells us (p. 19). "Associations it may have triggered" in fifteenth century minds must remain speculative, and I thought more consideration of methodology would have been profitable in that context. And as Eckstein himself mentions, they were a rich source for later artists (famously including Michelangelo), whose reaction is more likely to have been admiration for sensationally beautiful images before appreciation of their Carmelite context. 

I've accentuated my critical thoughts about this book, because Grumpy. But despite my frustrations, I enjoyed and profited from it, and I do commend it. Eckstein discusses the pictorial programme in relation to the Carmelite order, and has a particularly interesting chapter on 'the Miracle of Anghiari' as a context for the Brancacci Chapel, when Saints Peter and Paul intervened to save the Florentines. I find the contextual and historical stuff fascinating, and I learned a lot from this thoroughly researched and well written study.
Picture: Amazon
T.G. Otte The Foreign Office Mind: The Making of British Foreign Policy, 1865-1914 Cambridge University Press 2011 £22.99

Brilliant diplomatic history told through the eyes of the foreign office. Otte's narrative of British foreign policy is interspersed with an account of the office politics within the tiny and often seriously underfunded foreign office. I found it illuminating, particularly as the establishment grappled with new challenges on continental Europe and Britain's post-Napoleonic hegemony was revealed as increasingly tenuous. The narrative structure downplays theories and ideas and focuses on process rather than structure, but it would be impossible to address every dimension in a single study. 

Otte concludes that diplomats "were not the Wooster-ish types that stride along the corridors of power in the pages of popular fiction or in certain forms of popular history", referencing "most egregiously" Niall Ferguson's The Pity of War (p. 394). I enjoyed the disparaging reference to that flimsy celebrity. And I appreciated the nuanced picture of British diplomacy that emerges from this masterful study. 
Picture: Amazon
Dominic A. Pacyga Chicago: A biography University of Chicago Press 2009 £16

I found this book too unspecific and sometimes banal: "the use of machinery to cut costs would provide a key element of the Industrial Revolution" (p. 41), and "The nature of the continuing Industrial Revolution and the world market system shifted regional, national, and even international relationships" (p. 82). Its strategy is to give some macro-level background in broad strokes, and then illustrate in the context of Chicago.

It's good on class and ethnic tension, but again it was too much a journalistic account of local manifestations of regional, national and even international phenomena. I'd particularly like to have seen more on planning issues, which are touched on but not analysed effectively. The book reads well and has some interesting material, but lacks analytic heft.
Picture: Amazon
Joanna Merwood-Salisbury Chicago: The skyscraper and the modern city University of Chicago Press 2009 £35

This is much better; a book that takes a more specific theme but draws out wider implications. Merwood-Salisbury quotes from Landau and Conduit's history of the skyscraper: "The skyscraper building type owes its existence and much of its character more to the desire for money and prestige, to advances in technology, and to adventures in real estate speculation than to abstract ideals or theories of style or aesthetics" (quoted p. 4). This gets to the nub of the problem, but doesn't answer it well. The quotation sets out to refute a view that no one holds (has anyone really claimed that skyscrapers exist due to abstract aesthetic theories?). The common view is that they are build for exclusively financial reasons, but interestingly the quotation undermines that view by lumping together two things that must be separated - money and prestige. The two are not natural bedfellows. The most profitable building might not be the most prestigious. The question that struck me on visiting Chicago is why their skyscrapers are stunning - why have developers there chosen to spend extra money on beautiful rather than merely functional buildings? In London few skyscrapers are beautiful. The overwhelmingly dominant form is the ugly boxy glass stump.

The book takes history and historical ideas seriously, but doesn't neglect the micro-level technical factors that shaped the Chicago skyscraper, such as the use of terra cotta tiles to clad the steel-framed buildings, giving opportunity for decoration, and the use of white glazed tiles in interior courtyards to improve the quality of light in interiors. I found the small details like this fascinating. 

Merwood-Salisbury's deadpan style is not always appropriate to her material. I laughed at this unintentionally funny passage: "The desire for a worldwide uprising of workers was antithetical to the local architects' belief in the development of a harmonious western society out of the acclimatization of different races. For the anarchists, a new society would arrive not through evolution but through revolution" (p. 31). At a time when anarchists were bombing and assassinating and assorted socialists and communists were credibly agitating for social transformation, calling them 'antithetical' to architects seems somewhat insufficient, even if it is a relevant observation in context.

Later she writes of Louis Sullivan: "His principal task was to create an architecture that expressed the triumph of business and technology over forces that threatened to destabilize the city. His design for the tall office building was a political manifesto about the fractious relationship between art and labor, and ultimately about the future of industrial society and its governance" (p. 38). She goes to to compare his clad steel-framed buildings as akin to political banners on parade. No doubt there was a political aspect to Sullivan's buildings, but returning to her own opening quotation that is not the primary purpose of the skyscraper, and Merwood-Salisbury sometimes indulges in a degree of rhetorical excess, trying too hard to link the sykscraper to its social and political context in 1890s Chicago. But despite the excesses, this is a first rate study that I found one of the most illuminating books on Chicago.
Picture: Amazon
I greatly enjoyed Kate Summerscale's Mrs Robinson's Disgrace: The private diary of a Victorian Lady (Bloomsbury 2013 £7.99), a micro history of a sensational Victorian divorce trial, rich with soap-operaesque material"the idea that certain kinds of writing were dangerous - especially to young women - was commonplace (p. 116-7) finds uncomfortably close parallel in the 'trigger warnings' that proliferate on university campuses today. The contrast of social mores then and now is compelling, although I thought  The Idle Woman piqued my interest; her review here.

Assorted Links, mostly bad news

Picture: Britannica
Deeply depressing news about Chartres Cathedral 'restoration'. Pure vandalism. Artwatch and NYRB coverage is good.

It's bad enough that public libraries have turned their back on books and seek to become community centres where people can look at internet porn. Now universities are ditching books too. Sad news from Barnard College. Over the past few years I've been able to pick up cheap copies of lots of scarce but important books that have been deaccessioned by public and academic libraries. My gain doesn't make me feel any better about the public loss.

Do keep reading Elginism on the Elgin Marble loan. 

Frick director Ian Wardropper just doesn't get his institution. Wall Street Journal article talks about the need to expand because they have so much more stuff and do so many more exhibitions - in other words, they need to get bigger so they can compete with the Met and become just like every other museum in the world. The Frick just doesn't need to put on endless (and often trivial) exhibitions, and shouldn't keep acquiring works of art that don't stand comparison with the founder's collection. 

Laughable news release from the UK's culture ministry about the export block on a Roman statue. The statue in question was an integral part of one of the greatest rooms in the country - Robert Adam's brilliant entrance hall to Syon House (pictured above). It is in my view one of the most important work of art to 'save for the nation' in a generation, not because of its intrinsic artistic value (high though it is), but because it is a fixture from an architectural masterpiece. But the moronic press release thinks the highest possible praise is to make vague connections between this Roman masterpiece and, er, Henry Moore. It's an inherently stupid comparison. The connection between Moore and Roman sculpture is pretty tenuous, but there is no link at all with this particular work. And it's especially depressing that they can't think of any way to justify an ancient work of art for its own value, but only in relation to trendy modern art. All history is obliterated, reduced to footnotes to fashion. 

And while I'm on the theme of morons, the EU is proposing to ban cadmium pigments. Do they think artists eat their paints? More here, including link to petition (for what it's worth).  

Finally an interesting Guardian piece on consolidation of internet news, squeezing smaller sites and making blogs like this 'economically irrelevant'. Oh well, better get back to the day job then...

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Nicholas Penny: a Straussian museum director?

Leo Strauss was a political theorist who sought hidden messages in philosophical texts. He thought that great thinkers wrote esoterically, hiding their true meaning to protect themselves. Their message was reserved for an elite who had to grapple with deliberate self-contradiction and search for hidden clues behind the exoteric text. 

I think National Gallery director Nicholas Penny is a Straussian. He says one thing, but means another. If we pay close attention we can discern his hidden messages. Penny is in a difficult position. He is an intelligent and cultured man constrained by philistines. He must deal with convoluted internal politics, barbarians in government and a board of trustees of, let us say kindly, mixed ability. He is above all a scholar rather than a politician, and he has learned to express his views cannily, especially after first being passed over for the NG directorship, when he spend a few years at Washington DC's National Gallery of Art.

I find it interesting that almost everyone I respect thinks Penny is brilliant, even when we disagree on the merits of Penny's specific arguments. Bendor Grosvenor recently posted his Apollo interview on Art History News. We both like it, though he spoke in favour of photography in museums (which I oppose) and warned of the dangers of travelling exhibitions (which Bendor Grosvenor thinks exaggerated). Penny has a knack for neutralising critics and carrying people along even when they disagree with some of his views. But I have a sneaking suspicion that he is actually with me in opposing photography.

In the Apollo interview he defended photography because it's what visitors expect. I'm opposed to photography, but I recognise there are plenty of good arguments for allowing it. This isn't one of them. It's not just a bad argument, it's totally antipathetic to Penny's approach, which is about raising standards not deferring to existing prejudices. The NG would be full of Thomas Kincade and Damien Hirst if they ran it by opinion poll. Penny has consistently championed deepening engagement, but the NG's own statements about encouraging social media interaction and the popular excitement about museums selfies encourages a shallower encounter with art. Have a look at the YouTube clip of a random two minutes in front of Van Gogh's Sunflowers to see the effect. I can't think of anything more inimical to Penny's vision for the NG. The Straussian reading is that Penny is deferring to professional demands on him and publicly standing behind the NG's decision, but doing it in a way that makes clear to close readers that he actually takes the opposite stance because he's evidently too smart to make such a feeble argument.

Taking it a step further, is the NG's acquisition strategy also a Straussian ruse? Penny is a brilliant art historians with a great eye, but the NG's acquisitions have been lamentable. Is this a ruse to distance himself? No one could believe that Penny was responsible for a second rate pictures by Maulbertsch and Lawrence. And he couldn't possibly have thought the Bellows was good value for money, bought at a time when two of the richest people in the history of the world are ardently bidding up the price of his pictures. Did he deliberately leave the trustees to make decisions without adult guidance, to see how badly they'd do? I wonder if in years to come they'll dig up meeting minutes in the NG archives that will rescue Penny's reputation. I can imagine him commending Le Brun to the acquisition committee, with some genial old aristo or well-connected financier replying "Le Brun? Who's he? Hmm, French you say. No, no Nick old boy ... Tommy Lawrence, that's the ticket!". It's been a costly strategy, because we've missed out on so much great art. Le Brun's Everhard Jabach and his family, bought by the Met from a British collection, is a particularly painful loss. But The NG's loss is the Met's gain, so I can't get too upset by it. Perhaps he's just being pragmatic about where paintings end up, in this age of cheap travel. 

We already knew that Penny was brilliant. Recent comments make me think he might be even smarter than we'd realised.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

The old master market

Picture: Christie's
The best old master sold this season was a sculpture, Adriaen de Vries A Bacchic Figure Supporting a Globe, a large bronze by an immensely important and rare seventeenth century sculptor. I saw it on view in London a few years ago, when it was withdrawn due to questions over the legality of its export. These have been resolved, and it sold last night for $27,884,000. I was impressed when I saw it; it's a really outstanding sculpture. And I'm delighted that it's been bought by the Rijksmuseum. It's a great acquisition for them; they currently have a major Vries on loan from Stockholm while the Nationalmuseum is renovated, but this is the first of their own. It's so pleasing when a great work of art finds the right home.

Art market reports tend to focus on the handful of most expensive lots that always make up the bulk of total sales by value. That creates a misleading impression, because small samples are inherently volatile. Sotheby's £30m top lot, Turner's Modern Rome, was more than half the total for their old master evening and day sales combined. Sotheby's has been well ahead in old master painting sales volume;Christie's total for evening and day sales was just under £20m. But that lead is precarious; if Christie's had got the Turner tables would have been decisively turned. I was amused to see Artnet report that Christie's' sale was deliberately small to avoid unsold lots, as if they'd turn away good consignments because they'd prefer a smaller sale. Can you imagine an estate agent turning down your house because their window display is full?
A four-wheeled wagon
Picture: Christie's
The highlight of the Christie's sales for me was the I. Q. van Regteren Altena Dutch and Flemish drawings, which predictably saw some very high prices. But they weren't for the predictable lots. Who'd have thought a study of a cart would sell for €76k? It was quite lovely and beautifully preserved, but I thought the estimate of €10k - €15k rather high. At the top of the market there are collectors willing to pay well above the odds for things they really want, but prices for early drawings were generally on the low side, and there were some real bargains among the low-priced lots that were offered without reserve.

Most of the Dutch pictures sold well, as expected, and the bizarrely fashionable Brueghels continue to sell for prices well beyond their merits. A rather indifferent Bosch follower picture that should have been in the day sale but for its subject matter sold predictably above estimate for an undeserved £170k. A disappointment but not a surprise. The large and well preserved van de Herp tavern scene that I liked didn't sell. You could have had it for about the price of that tiny Ostade sketch of a cart! I was also surprised that the Antwerp School landscape at Christie's made just £422k. It's a rare and beautiful museum-quality picture. I'm disappointed a museum didn't step in to buy it at that bargain price.

The art market has always been dominated by the highest price works, and it's a staple of market reporting to lament the weakness of the middle market. But today's middle market isn't only weak relative to the highest priced lots. Mid-rank old masters are exceptionally cheap compared to disposable income, or to house prices, or to school fees, or contemporary art. There are more rich people than ever before - legions of lawyers and bankers and consultants, IT professionals and entrepreneurs. And the internet means the market is now global. But despite a static pool of old master pictures available for sale, prices stagnate. One reason is taste, which has been widely noted and I'll address in a future blog post. Another reason is the structure of the market, and particularly the changing role of dealers.
Picture: Sotehby's
The changing nature of the market can be seen in the result for this picture, attributed by Sotheby's to an eighteenth century follower of Van Dyck and estimated at £8k - £12k. It is actually thought to be seventeenth century, and it sold for £332,500. That's a really odd price - too little for a Van Dyck, too much for an artist in his circle. I blame the internet. It's now easy to look up auction prices, which means dealers struggle to justify big mark-ups. Buyers will counter with an offer based on the auction price, which squeezes the dealers. Dealers need to be seen to be 'adding value', to be able to justify a mark-up above a commission-like percentage above the auction price. Discovering a 'sleeper' is one way of doing that, so misattributed pictures can actually sell for more than if they were correctly attributed. Obviously there's potential for some very cynical manipulation here, but it's tempered by the need for the auction houses to demonstrate their expertise and not be seen to get it wrong too often. The dealer's perspective on this was nicely explained by Bendor Grosvenor in his write up of the summer old master sales.

A major role of dealers in the market was always to provide liquidity. If there is no private buyer on the day of an auction, a dealer will step in and hold onto a picture until it can be sold. Obviously individual dealers gain competitive advantage and profit from knowing which pictures to buy, and at what price. But the unglamorous business of stockholding has always been the cornerstone of the economic function of the art trade. That is tougher and less profitable when buyers know what you paid. But private buyers aren't necessarily confident enough to compete head to head in the auction room. Dealers can give potential buyers time to think about a purchase, and information about what they're buying. Of course some dealers are hucksters and of course some dealers charge outrageous prices. But they still play an important and valuable role.
Picture: Sotheby's
Despite the extensive marketing and much-vaunted 'relationship management' of private collectors, dealers still underpin the market and there are still seriously undervalued pictures at auctions. I was amazed that this Jan van der Heyden sold under estimate for just £230,500. It's a really attractive picture, and I thought it under-estimated. But for whatever reason the buyers stayed away on the day. It really is worth much more than that; the buyer got a bargain. If it was bought by a dealer I'll be interested to see how it's priced, and whether they can justify a market price as opposed to a marked up price. 

Assorted links

Jerry Saltz gives us the definitive guide to Art Basel. Do click through - this is inspired!

Best guide to the Elgin loan debate is the blog Elginism, which has doggedly pursued the BM on Twitter. To their credit, the BM has engaged in the debate. Elginism is for repatriation and I'm anti, but I still agree with much of its argument and find its coverage invaluable. I also liked this perceptive piece by Lee Rosenbaum. 

Two writers I particularly enjoy have written articles that play to my prejudices. I commend Julian Spalding on crass modern art and Roger Scruton on fakery in modern art.

Tiffany Jenkins on artistic censorship in Europe is a must-read. I don't much care for the art in question, but I care greatly about the principle - as we all should.

Laurence Summers wrote in the FT about infrastructure investment, and the need to fund maintenance as well as paying for fashionable grand projects that politicians love to associate with. I thought his points particularly relevant to museums pursuing endless expansions and building projects as the neglect running costs and fail to provide basic protection for their collections.