Thursday, 26 December 2013

This is not a Rembrandt

    about 1633
    Rembrandt van Rijn 
    Dutch, 1606-1669 
    Oil on panel 
    Charlotte E. W. Buffington Fund, 1958.35
Picture: Worcester Art Museum
The Worcester Art Museum's new director has re-hung the collection and branded the display 'Remastered'. The branding has nothing to say about the art, but much to say about the 'visitor experience'.  They claim it's about 'encouraging the viewer to make personal connections with and between the works', but it looks more like the kind of curatorial imperiousness that is already so widespread in contemporary art displays. Rather than deferring to the collection and helping visitors to understand and appreciate the art, it shifts the focus to the work of the curators in putting on glitzy displays. 

A telling example arises with the picture above, which features in a new movie, American Hustle. In the move it's asserted that it's not a Rembrandt. The museum doesn't provide any wall text (too old-fashioned), but they have assured blogger Lee Rosenbaum that it is certainly a Rembrandt. Rosenbaum's criticism of Worcester's lack of wall text is spot on, but this painting is not in fact a Rembrandt! How revealing that for all the rhetorical deference to the audience, the museum asserts an untenable attribution rather than sharing knowledge.

We are being cheated when they tell us we're looking at a Rembrandt, but it isn't. There is of course room for debate about many attributions, and I don't blame museums for taking a different view from mine when it is well-founded and honestly held. But this is scarcely credible as a Rembrandt. Just as forgers cheat us by distorting our understanding of an artist's work, curators cheat us when they assert indefensible attributions.

Most recent authorities have ignored it. Albert Blankert rejects it ("not autograph" on the basis of a transparency in Rembrandt: A Genius and His Impact Waandars 1997: 145, but quoting favourable view from Peter Sutton in A Guide to Dutch Art in America 1986). Arthur Wheelock damns with faint praise, saying that it's "now attributed to Rembrandt and almost certainly produced in his studio" (Rembrandt's Late Religious Portraits University of Chicago Press 2005: 78). 

I haven't seen the original and can't get a high-resolution image of the Worcester 'Rembrandt', but the brushwork seems more undifferentiated than a Rembrandt and the cloak and background seem poorly painted. The texture of the face imitates the liveliness of Rembrandt's early work without the master's subtlety and the chiaroscuro is ineffective. The artist has focused on surface effect at the expense of depicting solid form. The big, blocky hand is too crude for Rembrandt. It's probably from Rembrandt's school or circle, but in my view has no serious claim to be by the master himself. Of course caution is needed when expressing a view based only on a web image, but this seems sufficiently weak to opine with some confidence. There is at the very least a substantial burden of proof on Worcester Art Museum to defend its attribution.

The Worcester Art Museum thinks it's being hip by dispensing with labels and mixing things up. But it's doing us all a disservice. They have a responsibility as custodians to share their knowledge of the collection. They're excited about 'interaction and participation', but it will remain superficial interaction and participation if it isn't based on knowledge. They're inviting visitors to write their own labels, but a better start would be for the museum to get its own labels in order first. 

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Kids in Museums

Picture: Kids in Museums
There is happily no debate about the merits of introducing children to art galleries. But there ought to be more of a debate about how art galleries should cater for children, so I welcomed a recent exchange in the Scotsman between Tiffany Jenkins and Dea Birkett. Birkett founded the campaigning group Kids in Museums, which has an ambitious agenda for remaking museums around the needs of children and families. But the compelling point made by Jenkins is that they fail to take children seriously.

Birkett's response to Jenkins misunderstands the challenge as being from the 'culture isn't for children camp'. But the only person who seems to think that is Birkett herself, who espouses entertainment rather than culture. She mocks people who might be impressed by a Tintoretto and is excited only when the audience reacts noisily. Burkett raves about opera for the under twos, who yelp and dribble, and she asks, "which opera would you rather be at? One full of people who've paid an awful lot to feel very little. Or one where the audience is so entranced and enthralled that they forget to eat their plastic pot of mashed banana?" Well, I know which I'd choose!

Just because grown ups aren't reacting visibly and volubly doesn't mean they're 'feeling little'. I feel a great deal, though I rarely yelp or dribble. Even people who do not themselves react emotionally to opera or to painting recognise that others might value the experience even if they're not shouting about it. Birkett seems to appreciate culture only vicariously, enjoying the reaction of the audience rather than art itself.

Kids in Museums does a disservice to both kids and museums. Their drive to re-orient museums around children spoils the experience for adult visitors who are frustrated by dumbed-down displays. But they also treat kids shabbily, because they fail to recognise their potential to appreciate great art. Some of the Kids in Museums demands are banal ('say hello'), some are misguided ('say "please touch"'), but most are simply extrinsic to the museum. 'Conversations between generations' should not be at the heart of what museums do, museums are not teenage hangout zones and whilst I like coffee and cake as much as the next person, I don't judge a museum by its café. Surely the focus should be on the thing that you can't do anywhere else - to appreciate great art. 

Museums are not just places where kids can play and hang out. They should be places that people want to return to throughout their lives - with family, with friends or alone. You can get more and more out of the experience by returning and engaging with the exhibits. Of course it's fun and enjoyable. But to get the greatest rewards does require an element of discipline, learning the difference between good and great art. If museums were really just about encouraging family conversation it wouldn't matter if they displayed Rembrandt or Rolf Harris. Entertaining babies is different from mounting a great opera, and it's demeaning that a great opera company is reduced to amusing children.  

I don't think it's right to say that museums are exclusively adult spaces or child spaces, although there are norms of behaviour that children will find restrictive. It's a bit like places of worship - not in the sense of being dreadfully solemn all the time (churches and temples and synagogues and mosques are places of joy as well as ritual, social spaces as well as sacred spaces), but in the sense that children are initiated into their practices. The idea of debating whether children should be welcomed or merely tolerated in a church is absurd. They are integral. But they have a higher purpose than family entertainment, and so do museums.

Kids in Museums has encouraged needless conflict between adults and children in museums with its noisy and noisome demand that every museum be turned into a children's playground. Visitors' needs will be served better if museums focused more on their collections and less on their visitors. 

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

New Raphael!

Picture: MS
Very excited to see this new Raphael drawing Ajax and Cassandra at the British Museum recently, just accepted by the government in lieu of tax. The drawing shows Ajax abducting Cassandra from the Temple of Athena, where she grasps at the statue of Athena.

If you're called a Cassandra today it's usually because someone thinks you're making a false prophecy of doom, which is ironic because Cassandra's prophecies were true, but doomed to be disbelieved. In this drawing she is being abducted by Ajax (Ajax the lesser - not the famous one!) after the Athenians have taken Troy. No one had believed Cassandra's warning about the big wooden horse. Ajax swore that he didn't rape her, though no one believes him. Anyway, abducting Cassandra from Athena's temple was itself a heinous crime and he was later drowned after Athena hit his ship with a thunderbolt and Poseidon then sank it with his trident. 

It was probably made soon after his arrival in Rome in 1508, and he's responding to a classical source, perhaps an ancient cameo.* Raphael shows his skill in drawing the male nude, and shows the tense moment when Cassandra, looking to the statue of Athena for protection, is torn away by Ajax. There's a great contrast between the figures of Athena and Ajax, each with outstretched arms. Cassandra is just being peeled away from her tight embrace of Athena, a space opening up between her head and Athena's bosom. But still she is turned away from Ajax, with a huge literal and symbolic space between them.

It's a metalpoint drawing, which is made by using a metal stylus (often, though not always, silver) to mark paper that's prepared with a ground layer. The groundlayer gives the pinkish tinge to the eponymous 'Pink Sketchbook', although it was probably never bound as a sketchbook. Metalpoint was rather archaic by the early sixteenth century, but Raphael - that most versatile draughtsman - continued to use it to great effect. The new sheet is rather worn and battered, with large repaired losses at the margins. The British Museum owns two better preserved sheets from the same sketchbook. Facial Studies of the Virgin and Child in particular still shows the fine texture of the ground layer, and demonstrates a remarkably varied use of metalpoint, which is a medium noted for its limited expressive range.

The drawing has been on loan to the BM for many years, although it's not in their catalogue. It's now been accepted in lieu of tax, and is on loan to the BM pending formal allocation (which should be a formality). The acceptance in lieu scheme is economically irrational but politically savvy. There is no economic difference between taking £750k in tax and giving it to the BM to buy a Raphael or forgiving £750k in tax in return for a Raphael for the BM. But one of those options is politically more acceptable; acceptance in lieu looks like a free gift, even if it's no such thing. The net effect is to save some transaction costs, but it distorts museum acquisitions towards the random selection of objects offered up by people with big tax bills rather than the kinds of objects museums would choose for themselves. Still, I'm glad we've got this Raphael.  

Other objects accepted in lieu of tax can be seen here.

* Ruth Rubinstein 'Ajax and Cassandra: An Antique Cameo and a Drawing by Raphael' Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes Vol 50 (1987) pp. 204-205

Monday, 16 December 2013

Mind the Gaps at the Louvre

Picture: MS
Drost's Bathsheba is lonely. She used to be flanked by two of the Louvre's great Rembrandts: his version of Bathsheba on the right, and St Matthew and the Angel on the left. The St Matthew has gone to the Louvre's new branch in Lens, the Bathsheba is 'being examined'. Lots of pictures are being 'examined' at the moment; my guess is that they're being prepared for transport to Lens. Instead of an opportunity to see rarely exhibited pictures from the basement, there are great big gaps in the displays. And what can compensate for the loss of Bathsheba and St Matthew from the Rembrandt room? The Louvre has some fine Rembrandts, but it's an area of relative weakness and these are two of the three highlights; only the late Self Portrait at the Easel remains.

Other pictures have recently returned, but the captions haven't been updated. There's a sign in the Ingres room advising that Monsieur Bertin is in Lens. But previously it didn't hang in the Ingres room; it was in the large format French paintings room, to which it has now returned. Unless you know the picture you wouldn't realise, though, because the captions haven't been updated. Here he is, with his 'caption':

And here is Raphael's Baldassare Castiglione, which was removed early from the Late Raphael exhibition for its rendezvous in Lens, with a detail of its caption:

and here is Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People:

Unbelievable that the Louvre would fail to give Liberty Leading the People its caption!

The Louvre used to be the greatest encyclopaedic museum in the world. Now it's a brand, selling merchandise and shipping art between its branches. Coherent groups of objects are being broken up to satisfy political and economic imperatives. The Louvre has acquired most of Fragonard's series of Fantasy Portraits, which look fantastic as a group. But now the most famous of them all, the portrait of the Enlightenment encyclopaedist Denis Diderot, has been separated from its companions and sent to Lens. 

The main reason for my visit was to see Raphael drawings, and I'm pleased to say that the print room remains an oasis of culture and civility. I look forward to some more upbeat posts about the drawings by Raphael and his school that I saw.

Monday, 9 December 2013

Bernard Berenson: A life in the picture trade

Picture: Amazon

Rachel Cohen Bernard Berenson: A life in the picture trade Yale University Press 2013, £18.99 

This short study is one of the best books written about Bernard Berenson, an art historian and one of the most fascinating figures in the intellectual life of the twentieth century. Rachel Cohen's beautifully written book brings balance and good sense to a subject that has has too often been distorted by hucksters and sensationalists. Mind you, his life was pretty sensational. Cohen describes him as "dignified and erudite but also capricious and heedlessly romantic; his arrogance was matched by his self-contempt" (p. 4). He was a great connoisseur, but his reputation is tainted by his secret association with notorious art dealer Joseph Duveen. He was a great reader and writer, and an art collector in his own right (unfortunately his collection is withheld from the world, cocooned in Harvard's study centre that has colonised his Villa I Tatti outside Florence). He was in many ways a nineteenth century figure stranded in the wrong time, a conservative - even a reactionary - who lived through Italy's fascist years, spending part of the war in hiding. 

Cohen's study focuses on a few key themes: his Jewishness; his relationships with women; and his life in the picture trade. The book was written for Yale's Jewish Lives series, but Berenson's relationship to his Jewish heritage, whilst interesting, is not central to his life. Fortunately it's not central to this book either. His relationships with the women he was close to are much more interesting. Cohen discusses his sisters, his early patron Isabella Stewart Gardner, his wife Mary Costelloe, his librarian/companion Nicky Mariano, Edith Wharton, and  J.P. Morgan's librarian and amanuensis Bella da Costa Greene. See also the cover photo, above! Berenson is renowned as a great conversationalist and correspondent who drew many of the greatest intellectuals of the twentieth century into his orbit (his correspondence with Hugh Trevor-Roper has recently been published). This book's focus on his more intimate relationships gives a different window on the life of his mind, and there are some wonderful quotations from his letters to Mary Costelloe, whom he later married. But most interesting is Cohen's take on Berenson's notorious connections to the picture trade.

Cohen appreciates the tension between Berenson's "passion for painting and his desire for wealth and security" (p. 272). Berenson's secret arrangement with Duveen is notorious, and he stands accused of puffing pictures that Duveen was trying to sell, and altering attributions to promote sales and earn his 25% profit share. Cohen rightly redresses the balance of blame, highlighting cases where he resisted pressure and recognising his internal conflict. She is nuanced on the question of Berenson's culpability, and rightly highlights the double standards between posterity's judgment of Duveen and of Berenson: "Toward both Duveen and Berenson, people were, and continue to be, indulgent, competitive, exculpatory, and dismissive - but, whereas Duveen is seen as charming, Berenson is both adulated and condemned" (p. 207).

Berenson had a major blind spot, which is that he dealt in images rather than painting. Cohen notes that he worked from photographs and "sometimes seemed almost unaware of what might be restoration" (p. 221). It's a flaw that we associate particularly with our own times, when internet images are so readily available. But many earlier art historians, curators and collectors were ignorant about pictures as physical objects. Berenson was sometimes critical of Duveen's outrageous restorations, but he was still complicit - and this is a far worse crime than signing a few optimistic attributions. His attributions transferred some wealth illicitly from American millionaires to himself and his partners - wrong, but relatively trifling in historical perspective. More damaging was the disservice to scholarship, but that's something that can be set right over time. It's his collaboration with Duveen's wholesale scrubbing of the works that passed through his hands that is most damning and most unforgivable because it has robbed us all of part of our artistic patrimony. Cohen's discussion of this is strong (pp. 221-223), but she could have made more of this shameful practice.

There are a few places where the art history is off-key. Rodolphe Kann did not own "ten glorious Rembrandts" (p. 167; some of his 'Rembrandts' are dreadful daubs, although he did own the great Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer), and his Castagno was uncertainly attributed when Duveen was negotiating its sale, though it is now generally accepted (interestingly its current owner, the National Gallery in Washington considers it a Castagno, but the author of its own catalogue, Miklos Boskovits, disagrees). But this short, erudite and articulate study redresses the balance of Berenson scholarship. I found the short length and narrow focus to be advantageous in addressing the most interesting controversies about this most interesting man, but our understanding could be enriched further by more research on the context of twentieth century connoisseurship and the art market.

Berenson's life is fascinating, but because he was such a great exemplar of a certain kind of intellectual, because he was clubbable and connected and articulate, and because he was flawed and human, his role has tended to be exaggerated. He was one of many experts for hire, and Duveen was only one of many flamboyant art dealers. It's not a criticism of this book, but the literature on twentieth century art dealing and connoisseurship is rather one-sided. Berenson is especially interesting for the conflict between high-minded ideas and grubby dealings that he personified. Other experts were the same, except that they lacked the high-minded ideals. There is much more to be said about connoisseurship and the twentieth century picture trade. 

Marco Grasso has written a fine review for The New Criterion, with more background on Berenson.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

New El Greco biography reviewed

Fernando Marías El Greco Life and Work: A new history Thames & Hudson 2013, £60

El Greco's life is fascinating. He was born in Crete, moved to Venice where he may have trained with Tintoretto, then to Rome where he stayed at the Farnese court, before moving to Spain and spending most of his career in Toledo. He was a prickly and outspoken character who dismissed Michelangelo, was expelled from the Farnese household and was often in dispute with patrons. He never joined one of the confraternities that were at the centre of social life in Toledo and seems always to have been regarded as an outsider. This splendid new biography vividly evokes the cities where El Greco lived and establishes the influences that shaped El Greco's great and unique oeuvre. 

Marías opens by rebutting the myths that have formed around this enigmatic artist and introducing us to the surprising range of primary sources, including El Greco's annotated copy of Vasari's Lives of the Artists. He is attuned to "the precarious nature of any attempt at writing a biography or reconstructing the journey of someone's life, which may leave behind little more than a body of work and a reputation, which is not straightforward nor everlasting, but subject to the vicissitudes of elusive and fickle fortune" (p. 283). 

El Greco was successful in obtaining commissions for vast altarpieces, and he often obtained high prices. Marías focuses on the altarpieces, because they are the highpoints of his art and because they are more often documented. El Greco and his studio also produced many small devotional pictures, including many of saints and apostles. We know little about the circumstances of their creation or of their purchasers and they are discussed only briefly, but it's interesting to speculate about how critical opinion regarded these pictures that were so different from anything else produced in Spain at that time. Today El Greco is generally regarded as a Spanish artist, especially by the Spanish, but I've always thought him closer to the Venetians. London's National Gallery wisely hangs him with the Venetian school. 

El Greco moved to Toledo after failing to get a position at the court in Madrid. The Martyrdom of St Maurice was commissioned later for El Escorial (where it remains). It's an unusual interpretation, showing the future martyrs conversing in the foreground, with the scenes of their martyrdom relegated to the background. Its artistry was esteemed, but it was considered unsuitable for the altar for which it was painted and relegated to a sacristy or corridor. Fray José de Sigüenza quotes El Mudo as saying that "saints should be painted in such a way that our desire to pray to them is not destroyed; rather, they should inspire devotion, since this ought to be the principal effect and aim of painting" (p. 146). Notwithstanding fogies like El Mudo, El Greco continued to get commissions for great altarpieces, although the vicissitudes of fortune caused him to suffer periods of greatly reduced income.

The production of this book falls short of the text. The captions don't give dimensions, which is particularly important with El Greco because he painted the same images as vast altarpieces and as tiny modelli and ricordi (the book illustrates the diminutive El Espolio at Upton House and the full-size altarpiece in Toledo, but you wouldn't know relative sizes from these illustrations). Some of the references send you to the wrong pages and the images in the copy I read were not of the highest quality. El Greco's early Flight into Egypt from the Hirsch collection is listed as in a private collection in London, but it was acquired by the Prado several years ago. Splitting the face across a double-page spread in a detail photograph of the great portrait of Fray Hortensio Félix Paravicino from Boston is particularly unfortunate (pp. 244-245); it means you appreciate the detail of the background and lose the face in the fold. 

This is still the best book published on El Greco for very many years. It's primarily a biography, but the discussion of the pictures themselves is excellent and I do hope Marías follows up with a new catalogue raisonné to replace Harold Wethey's, which was published back in 1962.

Friday, 6 December 2013

How to write about auctions (& Old Master sales update)

Christie's auction
Picture: Telegraph
Felix Salmon has written a superb post on how to write about art auctions. His Four Rules are:

  • It isn't a market for masterpieces - auction turnover has always been skewed towards top lots, so the endlessly repeated claim that only masterpieces do well 'in the current market' is bunkum; 'twas ever thus. The top 20% of lots have consistently made up 90% of auction proceeds.
  • Ignore auction records - markets are fickle and a new record for the latest hotshot doesn't mean much. This point is mainly relevant in contemporary sales. 
  • Adjust for inflation. Inflation is a measure of the value of money. If you want to measure the changing value of art, rather than just the changing value of money, you've got to adjust for inflation.
  • Make judgments. That's the most important point. Interesting sale reports make judgments about the aesthetic value of art as well as its market value. Many auction reports just regurgitate press releases and list numbers. The best add insight.  
I'd add two more rules:
  • Adjust for premium. Estimates are given for the hammer price, to guide bidders. Results include premium, to show how much was actually paid for a lot. So a work that they claim sold for its low estimate might actually have achieved a hammer price nearly a third below the low estimate. The auction houses don't make it easy for buyers with their stepped premiums. They don't provide a simple calculator to help bidders - but I do! Try my Auction Premium Calculator.
  • Be very, very cautious of generalising. Sample sizes are tiny and comparisons are inexact. Was that lot unsold because it's out of fashion, or because it's in poor condition? The art market deals in unique items sold in low volumes. Is a particular artist 'hot', or is it just that a few of his best works have changed hands this year? I'm especially wary of comparing the success of Sotheby's and Christie's. You're comparing a sample of two, where one or two lots or consignments make all the difference. And without knowing the terms they've negotiated with the sellers. there is no way of judging their commercial success as opposed simply to their relative turnover. 
Old Master Auction Update
There were some wonderful things in the recent Old Master auctions in London, but the results show the relative irrelevance of Old Masters to the art market. This week Sotheby's sold a Norman Rockwell for more than the entire Christie's Old Master Paintings day sale, evening sale and Old Master Prints sale combined. Bendor Grosvenor noted that you could buy the entire Christie's sale for half the price of Jeff Koons' Orange Dog.

Following my rule above, I've adjusted all of the estimates below (in parentheses) to include  the premium.

Most of the lots I thought cheap did well. The Van der Weyden copy made £962,500 (£242,500 - £362,500), the drawing from Raphael's circle made £7,500 (£1,000 - £1,500), the Rembrandt print £104,500 (£37,500 - £62,500) and the Menzel print made £27,500 (against an estimate of just £3,750 - £6,250 that tempted even the impecunious Grumpy). Excellent impressions of great prints by Rembrandt and Durer did well, but a rare and famous Schongauer The Tribulations of St Anthony failed to sell, perhaps because it had a large repair. 

There were some bargains in the Christie's drawings sale (Vasari for £6k, Federico Zuccaro for £3k). A copy of A Striding Soldier, a detail from Michelangelo's Battle of Cascina made £52,500 against an estimate of just £1,250 - £1,875. I thought at the viewing that the estimate must have been deliberately low to encourage the punters. It's a polished red chalk drawing, large and decorative in a nice frame. But I didn't expect it to do so well, and it didn't greatly appeal to me. I thought the draughtsman's skill fell short of his ambition, but perhaps I've been spoiled by seeing too many drawings by the greatest sixteenth century masters.

The Jan Brueghel that I thought poor value failed to sell. Most of the highly-estimated pictures sold within estimated range, many at the lower end. I thought the Heem good value at £1,314,500 (£1,762,500 - £2,882,500). It looked much better in real life than in reproduction. The Rembrandt and Studio that I wrote about made £2,546,500 (£2,322,500 - £3,442,500). Seems reasonable for a picture that's at least partly a Rembrandt, but is rather damaged as I discussed in my earlier post.
Picture: Sotheby's
The Rubens Hercules and Omphale that interested me sold for £398,500 (£242,500 - £362,500). I thought it would have done better, but its quality was conspicuously variable and parts were quite weak. This Rubens portrait, above, made £3,218,500 at Sotheby's, well above its estimate of £482,500 - £722,500. I thought it was good, but not that good! Rubens often amended other artists' drawings, and in this case he's painted over another artist's portrait. It looks a bit like a Velazquez from the X-ray, though obviously there's no way to be certain. I wonder how much of that three million quid is for the anecdote.
Jean Honoré Fragonard (French, 1732-1806) Portrait of François-Henri, 5th duc d'Harcourt, half-length and looking over his shoulder to his left
Picture: Bonhams
The great surprise to me was that the Fragonard sold for just £17,106,500. It's one of the best pictures I've seen at auction in recent years, and it's also historically important. I'm not a great fan of Fragnonard or of Rococo art, but I was bowled over by this. It would have been a better acquisition for the Getty than the tiny Rembrandt self-portrait and Canaletto that they bought recently, and it would be better to acquire this for the nation than the Van Dyck Self-Portrait (though ideally we'd buy both...). It's such a direct and accessible image I thought it would have appealed to a wider range of mega-rich collectors than the usual old master crowd. A lovely Prud'hon portrait that I thought rather highly estimated failed to sell at the same sale.

Monday, 2 December 2013

Old Master Auctions

Picture: Getty
This Fragonard portrait of the Duc D'Harcourt is the highlight of the upcoming old master auctions in London. It's one of his series of Fantasy Portraits that are the apogee of his art, and the supreme masterpieces of the Rococo. The broad brushstrokes are superficially reminiscent of artists like Hals and especially Rembrandt, whom Fragonard copied. But the approach here is quite different. Where Hals and Rembrandt sought to depict structure, Fragonard's approach is more whimsical, delighting in the varied application of paint for its own sake. Compare, for example, the relatively flat gold chain here with the rich, thick impasto of gold chains in Rembrandt's portraits. Thick brushstrokes in the face and collar contrast with thinly painted passages in the costume. It's a powerful but enigmatic image, somewhere between portraiture and genre, but an absolutely sublime masterpiece.

It's at Bonham's with an unpublished estimate of £15m, which seems low to me. It's well preserved, outstanding in both quality and importance, and will appeal to a great range of buyers. I think it's better than any eighteenth century French painting in the UK; better than the famous Fragonards and Watteaus at the Wallace, and far superior to anything at the National Gallery. The National Gallery in Washington has another in this series, and there are nine in the Louvre. But I'm sure the Met, the Getty and Cleveland would love to have it. And it's the kind of picture that will appeal to collectors of modern art too. 
Picture: Sotheby's
My other favourite is this copy of Rogier van der Weyden's Pieta, estimated at just £200k - £300k at Sotheby's. It's an exquisite painting - high quality and superbly preserved. The landscape background is stunning, as are the delicate white draperies and the beautiful interlocked faces of Christ and the Madonna. There are some losses clearly visible in the photograph, and some minor areas of repaint visible under UV (scattered minute retouching plus a couple of larger areas), but most of the image is in remarkably fresh condition. Despite its being an anonymous copy, and of an uncommercial subject, its quality and rarity make me think it will do rather better than the estimate.

The auction viewings are always some of my favourite exhibitions, and there's lots to enthuse about. Sotheby's has a tremendous Aert van der Neer winter landscape (£2m - £3m). Van der Neer painted variations of two pictures - nocturnal landscapes and winter landscapes. Most are a bit run of the mill, but this one is extraordinary. Venetian views come up frequently and their price generally exceeds their quality in my opinion, but the exceptional Canaletto pair (£8m - £12m) overcame my cynicism. 
Tulips, a sunflower, an iris, hydrangeas, honeysuckle, willow catkins, carnations and other flowers in a glass vase on a marble pediment
Picture: Christie's
Christie's has a magnificent floral Still Life by Heem, in wonderful condition (above). I examined only with the naked eye, and there seemed to be some minor repaint (e.g. yellow flower left of centre), but overall beautifully preserved and a really striking picture (£1.5m - £2.5m). The Hercules and Omphale from Rubens's studio is a large and striking picture (£200k - £300k). Rubens was a master of the production line, churning out strong images. This one is interesting for the range of technique and ability on display, and the almost paint-by-numbers approach to blocking in areas of colour and tone, then adding highlights. And there's a quintessential Claude, recently rediscovered (£3m - £5m). 

Just as some pictures seem under-appreciated by the market, others seem to me excessively esteemed. This Jan Brueghel I Temptation of St Anthony is a fantastic image, but its painterly quality in no way justifies an estimate of £800k - £1.2m for a picture less than twelve inches wide. Similar pictures have sold for high prices, so I'm not challenging Christie's estimate. But I think collectors could get much better pictures for that kind of money.

There are always lots of interesting pictures in the day sales, where impressive paintings can be bought for relatively very modest sums. This Venetian School Madonna and Child with Saints needs restoring, but parts are fine (£40k - £60k). Minor Dutch masters and Italian baroque religious paintings seem especially good value. 
A classical general, standing, holding his baton of command
Picture: Christie's
Christie's has a wonderful selection of affordable Old Master Drawings at South Kensington. I was taken by this drawing from Raphael's circle, estimated at just £800 - £1,200. It's not a great drawing (that awkward left shoulder and splayed feet), and it's unlikely ever to be attributable, but it's a vivid image, and how wonderful to have something associated with the greatest draughtsman of them all. There's also a Vasari estimated at just £4k - £6k (in a nice frame, too!) and a Federico Zuccaro Martyrdom of St Catherine of Alexandria estimated at £3 - £5k. Even with sizable premium on top, these are all tremendous value for money at these estimates.
Landscape with a Milkman (‘View of the Diemerdijk with a Milkman and Cottages’) (B., Holl. 213; H. 242; New Holl. 255)
Picture: Christie's
I don't know much about prints, but I was impressed by several things at the Christie's sale. The Rembrandt Landscape with a Milkman (£30k - £50k) stood out for its inherent pictorial quality and for the quality of the impression, which is on Japanese paper. It's also quite rare. One of the nice things about print viewings is the chance to see a range of different quality, and some of the late impression Rembrandts were frankly ghastly. There were some modestly estimated Tiepolos that I coveted, a range of fine impressions by Rembrandt and Dürer and some rare Schongauers. A rare print by Menzel seemed very modestly estimated (£3k - £5k), especially as it has autograph corrections. Menzel was one of the greatest graphic artists of the nineteenth century, but isn't particularly well represented in British collections. It would be a good acquisition for the British Museum.

All of these auctions take place over the coming week. It'll be interesting to see how far money aligns with taste!

Cheap Rembrandt?

Man with a Sword
Picture: Christie's
This picture was celebrated as a great masterpiece by Rembrandt, fell from grace, and has now been rehabilitated. It's being sold at Christie's tomorrow night as 'Rembrandt and Studio' with an estimate of £2m - £3m. The excellent catalogue entry sets out the picture's history and makes a compelling case that it began as a portrait by Rembrandt, and was then turned into a tronie (a character portrait valued for artistic or decorative purposes rather than as a likeness of a specific person or scene). Having seen the original, I'm convinced by the new attribution but concerned by its condition.

In 1928 it sold for a very high price as an authentic Rembrandt of the highest quality. It fits well the early twentieth century view of Rembrandt; a broadly painted tronie with exotic props emerging from darkness. But the overall articulation of the figure falls well below the best Rembrandts, which are brilliantly articulated to present a different perspective depending on your viewing position. This one sits more awkwardly. The one part where quality really shines through is in the face.

It was last sold in 1996 as a Govaert Flinck. The main reason for the re-attribution has been the partial cleaning of the painting, removing severely discoloured varnish. The varnish still remains in places, looking almost like repaint because it has become so opaque. It can be seen particularly in the cloak and on the sitter's right hand where it covers the craquelure. Assessment of condition is an art rather than a science, and there's a degree of subjectivity. But I formed a rather different view from that expressed in the conservation report that's available on request from Christie's. I saw it under ultraviolet light and examined it closely twice using a good torch (including the back), and I also draw on the condition report in these comments.

The old stretcher is in good condition. The picture has been re-lined, which involves sticking a new backing to stabilise the canvas. Relining often involved heating the glue with hot irons, which can crush the impasto of a picture. Rembrandt's Juno in the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles is a tragic example of how this can kill a picture; that one seems to have been re-lined by steamroller. In this picture areas of impasto remain, including the sword and chain, and in the nose. But it has still been flattened. The impasto is less pronounced than in other pictures, and most of the picture is flat and smooth including areas of the face that are more animated in other Rembrandts. 

The picture has been harshly cleaned in the past. The background is severely abraded, the column at the right has lost definition, the hands are strikingly worn. The hair is well-painted but has lost definition, particularly on the right. The lighter ground shows through in many areas, and is particularly distorting in darker parts of the picture such as the cloak. Numerous pentimenti are readily visible to the naked eye, and with the aid of a torch the exact contours of the plume in the hat can be seen clearly. Obviously pentimenti don't prove that this is by Rembrandt; a pupil is perhaps more likely to have made changes to an early independent effort. Evidence of authorship is found elsewhere, but the changes are an interesting record of the picture's evolution.

There are extensive areas of repaint, particularly in the cloak and background. The face is better preserved, with the exception of some repaint on the sitter's right cheek and on the mouth, a grey tone lower left that indicates some over-cleaning, and a few knocks (e.g. minor scratch in left pupil). We need to be careful about judging condition too harshly on the basis of visible wear, because lots of superficially better preserved pictures are just as worn, but have been restored and overpainted. There's a fascinating example in the Rembrandt Corpus volume on the self-portraits, where the Self Portrait in the Norton Simon museum is re-assigned from a well-preserved but not autograph picture, to a badly preserved and overpainted original. But even by the standards of a painting that's over 350 years old, I consider this picture's condition to be mediocre, saved only by the good fortune that has spared the face from the scouring that affected the rest of the picture.

So there are condition issues and studio participation; this doesn't show Rembrandt at his best. But it's still a striking image incorporating a superbly painted portrait by one of the world's greatest artists. It will look superficially much more impressive when fully restored and carefully inpainted and my hunch is that it will do well.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Save the Selfie ... or buy the picture?

Self-portrait by Van Dyck, 1640/41 © Philip Mould & Co.
Picture: The Art Fund/Copyright Philip Mould & Co
The National Portrait Gallery seeks £12.5m to buy this Van Dyck Self Portrait. This is exactly the kind of picture they should be going after; historically important and artistically great. I hope they get it. But the 'Save the Selfie' trope rankles. It's not a selfie and we're not saving it. As Ben Street points out on Twitter, it isn't going to be destroyed if they don't raise the money. But there is some sense behind the marketing.

Psychologists recognise two kinds of bias that relevant here: the 'endowment effect' and 'loss aversion'. In a famous experiment students were split randomly into two groups. One group was given a mug, and asked how much they'd be willing to sell it for. The other group was shown the same mug, and asked how much they'd be willing to pay for it. Classical economics would assume that the price quoted by each group would be the same, but psychologists discovered that people want more money to give up something they own than they would pay to own it in the first place (which explains why we're offered so many 'free trials'). The logic here is that by presenting the Van Dyck as something that is already in some sense part of Britain's heritage, we're raising money to avoid losing something we already have rather than buying something new.

The theory of loss aversion recognises that we are willing to pay more to avoid a loss than to make a gain. If you give people a choice between $100, or a coin toss that pays $200 on heads and zero on tails, most choose the certain $100. But given the choice between a certain loss of $100 or a coin toss where you lose $200 on heads, zero on tails people prefer the coin toss, hoping for the avoidance of loss. Again, classical economics expects no preference. Unfortunately it illustrates the limits of the 'saving for the nation' strategy, because we often end up paying too much for the wrong pictures. The relentless focus on 'saving' pictures that happen to have ended up in the UK has distracted us from buying the kind of paintings that never made it here in the first place. And waiting until it was sold to a foreign buyer rather than buying it directly has cost millions. The marketing is astute, but they should recognise that it's marketing based on cognitive biases - i.e. mistaken thinking.

There's some logic to campaigning to 'save' the Van Dyck, but pitching it as an early 'selfie' just makes me cringe. It's not just that it's crass, it's also the misguided attempt to get people to relate to the picture as something familiar. They underestimate their audience by assuming we can only relate to great historic art by relating it to something contemporary and commonplace. Part of the point of art is surely its transcendence, its ability to take us beyond the mundane.

I'm a bit grumpy about the marketing, but I'm completely behind the campaign. It fits the NPG collection brilliantly, and it's a really first-rate painting. Come on people, let's buy that picture!

Monday, 25 November 2013

Painting Under Pressure

Picture: Amazon
Michelle O'Malley Painting under Pressure: Fame, Reputation and Demand in Renaissance Florence Yale University Press 2013 £30

Books on social and cultural aspects of Renaissance painting often suffer from a lack of attention to (or even interest in) the paintings themselves. O'Malley's study benefits from sensitive and perceptive analysis of paintings produced by four major Florentine workshops, led by Perugino, Filippino Lippi, Botticelli and Ghirlandaio. Her conclusions about their diverse workshop practices are perceptive and interesting. The problem with the topic is inevitably the dearth of surviving evidence and parts of the book are excessively speculative, particularly on economic questions, but there are lots of suggestive lines of thought here. Unfortunately you have to cut through a lot of rather obvious generalisations to get at the nuggets. 

Most interesting to me is the analysis of the different ways that successful artists managed demands on their time. She really conveys the sheer busyness of successful artists. Perugino was working on six major altarpieces and a fresco cycle in 1499 alone - in addition to planning an altarpiece for a confraternity and the ongoing production of smaller pictures for private clients and for the market. He economised on design, re-using elements of other pictures and repeating some compositions almost exactly. On the other hand Botticelli sometimes lavished considerable attention on the design of even low-value commissions in faraway places, but then economised on production, which he left to assistants. The striking image of the Pentacost in Birmingham, for example, is inventive and original despite its destination in a remote town outside Florence, but its execution is weak. It is dreadfully damaged, but it seems never to have been of particularly high painterly quality. At some level I knew that about the oeuvre of Perugino and of Botticelli, but O'Malley draws out the implications in an engaging analysis. 

O'Malley concludes that Perugino's extensive re-use of motifs must have been driven by time rather than money, because he charged more than other artists but was busier. But that's a spurious distinction; we're all familiar with the trade-off between time and money. He could have charged higher prices, lost some commissions, and spent more time on others. Perhaps Perugino was greedy, or perhaps he was just less interested in innovation than we imagine a Renaissance artist ought to have been. We'll never know for sure, but O'Malley's failure to recognise the trade-off highlights this book's biggest weakness, which is its treatment of economic questions. A footnote tells us that Adam Smith's idea of the free market can be found in Wealth of Nations and then references a book about the Italian art market for a definition of neoclassical economics - the worst example of art-historical naval-gazing I've seen. Couldn't she have read some economics directly? And does she even need to invoke such a banality in this context?

The weakest chapter is on 'value systems'. O'Malley asserts that "the Renaissance economic system was rooted in scholastic thought" (p. 106), but she doesn't explain how ideas and material interests interact (note the elision of scholastic thought and Renaissance economic system). References are to other art historians rather than to economic historians or economists, and the intellectual foundation of the argument is lacking. Telling us that patrons in an artist's home town would seek (and sometimes obtain, albeit on rather ungenerous terms) a favourable price tells us nothing specific about economic practices in the Renaissance. People have always sought favourable terms from personal connections. There is still useful information here, particularly in tracking divergence between price and quality, which O'Malley analyses adroitly with perceptive assessment of artistic quality. But she is a better art historian than economist. 

Renaissance commissions were designed after the price was agreed, meaning that an innovative design was not directly a means of making more money. O'Malley suggests that the process might have worked the other way around - more attention would be paid to the design of works for which a high price was agreed (p. 176). It's an interesting idea, although elsewhere she notes the importance of establishing a reputation for innovative design, writing that "demand was, above all, based on a painter's reputation" (p. 213), which was achieved through personal approach to iconograpy, personal methods of craftsmanship and the support of prestigious clients (a function of the first two points).

Indeed you could say that reputation is itself merely a function of perceived skill in design and execution rather than supreme, and I found the trope of reputation to be of limited explanatory value. O'Malley's whole quality-reputation-demand schema is rather trite; it's obvious that high quality helps establish a high reputation, which creates high demand. Fortunately her specific observations are often apposite, once you cut through the attempts at generalising and theorising.

This book is sometimes too narrow and sometimes too trite, but it bursts with interesting ideas and insights and sets off many different trains of thoughts. It's clear that the next generation did value innovation, leaving Perugino perplexed that his repetitive designs were disfavoured against Raphael's novelties. The High Renaissance triumvirate of Raphael, Leonardo and Michelangelo were obsessed by innovation, to the extent that Leonardo and Michelangelo often failed to finish one thing before racing off to the next. John Shearman describes it as an increasing investment in research and development. O'Malley's book is an interesting attempt to understand the balance between R&D and the production line in the previous generation.

Sense and nonsense on the art market 'bubble'

Picture: Guardian
Christie's CEO Steven Murphy came across as a complete muppet in a recent FT interview (18 November 2013 p.18 and video here). He asserts that there's no bubble because each work in their NY sale "reached their proper and expected value". So, there's no bubble because works are selling for their 'proper' value. Which, in a triumph of circular reasoning, is the same as their auction price. Oddly enough that's not always the same as Christie's estimates, but definitely for extremely reasonable and non-bubbly prices. Murphy claims that "the number of buyers around the world who are intrigued and want to invest and want to own and live with this art, is just becoming exponential", which proves mainly that Murphy doesn't know what 'exponential' means. We know that CEOs have to act as salesmen, but this is demeaning. 

Maybe Murphy is getting excited because his rival Sotheby's continues to be battered in the press. Sotheby's' star auctioneer and head of Contemporary Art Tobias Meyer has just left the firm, accompanied by bland statements from both sides. I'm not sure it's good news for Christie's. The pressure on Sotheby's to ensure it snags the big game in next season's Contemporary and Impressionist & Modern sales will now be even greater. And having lost Meyer, it will be competing even more on price and guarantees. That's going to drive down margins and increase risk across the industry. 

The media focus on the big-ticket items, using record-breaking prices and highest sale totals as a proxy for judging the relative success of Sotheby's and Christie's. But the biggest lots are not always good for the bottom line, because the auctioneers have to offer such good terms to sellers - a point that Sotheby's beleaguered CEO has rightly emphasised. It means there can be a big gap between media perception of success and actual financial performance.

As an antidote to these flimsy claims, try Felix Salmon's analysis at Reuters, which claims there's a 'bubble' but not a 'speculative bubble', which is different. I suspect he's right, although I'm a bit more bullish on prospects for the overall market. Certain areas, like contemporary Chinese art, seem madly over-priced by any reasonable yardstick. But I would be cautious of shorting the likes of Koons just because I think they're ridiculous. Never underestimate the shallowness and credulity of the modern billionaire.

I also liked  this important technical article on art as investment, which Markus Stolz shared. It shows that evidence about art being a great investment is distorted because art that appreciates in value is most likely to be sold. So the research that says art is a great investment is based on analysis only of the winners. That accords with evidence showing that people are inclined to sell stocks that have performed well, but keep those that have done badly in desperate hope that they'll recover their value (the 'sunk costs fallacy'). I try to be especially sceptical when looking at research that accords with my prejudices (I've always thought investing in art is a fools' game), but this really does look robust. 

The question you should always ask yourself when investing is what you can know that no one else knows. The answer to that, for almost everyone almost all the time, is nothing. Even professionals fail to outperform the market, because the market price already reflects the consensus of knowledge between all buyers and sellers. You might think that the art market will continue to rise because so much new wealth is being created in emerging markets, but everyone else knows that too - so that expectation is already included in the current price. This idea - a version of the 'efficient market hypothesis' - is commonplace in finance. The fact that it's not widely recognised in the art world is a reflection of the more anecdotal evidence supplied in favour of investment in art. I like to think that a lot of art investors are really consumers who buy what they like, but try to rationalise their extravagance. 

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Grumpy's been reading...

Brief notes on some new books I've read recently, art & architecture followed by a selection of everything else. 
Picture: Amazon
John Marciari and Suzanne Boorsch et al Francesco Vanni: Art in Late Renaissance Siena Yale University Art Gallery 2013, £40

This exhibition catalogue is a fine introduction to Francesco Vanni, a Sienese follower of Barocci who deserves to be better known. A good short introduction outlines his career and offers astute judgment on his work. It highlights that he was not a student of Barocci's, but freely chose to adopt his style - unusual this early. There's only one painting firmly attributed to him in the UK (in Edinburgh), but the British Museum has a selection of his drawings. He's perhaps mainly valued as a draughtsman today; some of his drawings in red and black chalk are especially appealing. I'm sorry not to have gone to the exhibition, but this well-written and well-illustrated book is some compensation.

Picture: Amazon
Timothy Clark, C. Andrew Gerstle, Aki Ishigami & Akiko Yano (eds) Shunga: Sex and pleasure in Japanese Art British Museum Press 2013, £50

I was absolutely fascinated by the Shunga exhibition at the British Museum, and I was impressed by the artistry as well as the humour on display. I came to it from a position of complete ignorance, and I certainly don't feel qualified to review the show, but I recommend it. It's a shame the catalogue is so expensive, but it gives further background and good illustrations. I found some of the earlier Shunga especially beautiful, such as the Six Erotic Scenes by Hishikawa Morohira (c.1688-1704). And some of the images in the final room were hilarious. One problem I had in approaching it was the tension between trying to understand Shunga in the context of Japanese art, and trying to understand these frank depictions of sex in the context of Japanese society. I thought the exhibition focused more on the latter. But it was all new and interesting to me.

The book does a fine job of explaining the background and context of Shunga, but I'm sure I lack sufficient knowledge of Japanese culture and history fully to appreciate it. The section on censorship particularly interested me; even when it was formally censored, it seems to have been tolerated far more than equivalent images in contemporary western societies. 
Picture: Amazon
Melanie Doderer-Winkler Magnificent Entertainments: Temporary Architecture for Georgian Festivals Yale University Press 2013, £40

It's a commonplace that our knowledge of Georgian architecture is distorted by accidents of survival. This books shows that it's also skewed by our ignorance of the temporary structures and decorations that proliferated in Georgian cities. This fascinating book reconstructs the temporary pavilions and firework displays and illuminated pictures that enlivened the Georgian city. I was especially intrigued by a chapter about chalked floors. Apparently it was conventional to remove the carpets for Georgian balls, which revealed the rather dowdy bare boards below. These were decorated with chalked decoration. I wonder how they managed to make the chalk stand out against dark floorboards, and how well it stood up to a raucous eighteenth-century all-nighter. It would be interesting to try to recreate it. Anyone for an authentic Georgian ball with chalked ballroom?

This book offers a truly new perspective on a well-worn topic. Recommended!
Picture: Amazon
Susan Weber (ed) William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain Yale University Press 2013, £60

This is another exhibition catalogue, and the show is coming to London next March. I can't wait! The book is magnificent, a great doorstopper with superb illustrations and a rich range of scholarship on every aspect of Kent's multifaceted career. The book is thematic and doesn't give entries on each exhibit, which is probably appropriate in this case. The editor has been refreshingly pragmatic, allowing chapters of wildly varying length depending on the subject - a couple of pages on picture frames, dozens of pages on his country houses. I look forward to reviewing the exhibition in due course, but the book will more than whet the appetite. 

Picture: Amazon

This book surpassed my expectations. Bailey discusses the genesis of the Sunflowers series and then plots the paintings' subsequent travels, with some great pictures of versions of the paintings displayed in collectors' homes. Bailey shows us the world in this grain of sand; it's of far wider interest than its seemingly narrow focus. There's an excellent long review at The Frame Blog.
Picture: Amazon
Noel Maurer The Empire Trap: The rise and fall of US intervention to protect American property overseas, 1893-2013 Princeton University Press 2013, £27.95

The title implies a dryly academic tome, but this book is compelling and important and deserves wider attention. Through a detailed study of a specific question it offers new insights into several major areas of scholarship. That sounds commonplace, but few books achieve it; too many narrow studies are written to bolster conventional wisdom and entrench boundaries of discipline and method.

Maurer explains how sectional interests lobbied the US government to intervene to protect its overseas interests, often against perceived US interests. This process acquired its own dynamic, and the book explains the genesis of intervention to protect US commercial interests, from forms of sovereign receivership (Haiti, Cuba, Dominican Republic) to attempts to impose institutional reforms with a mix of carrot and stick (mostly failures) to more recent moves to a legalistic approach emphasising arbitration and reducing the role of direct force. He notes that the US was remarkably successful in obtaining compensation for its commercial interests, to a far greater degree than is generally recognised. But these gains were relatively small compared to their strategic costs. It's a superb study that has implications for international relations, international law and international political economy and economics.
Picture: Amazon
Philip Coggan The Last Vote: The threats to western democracy Allen Lane 2013, £20

Occasionally enlivening but disjointed jeremiad that itemises familiar woes about economic challenges and political extremism. This is the conventional wisdom of the modern cosmopolitan liberal, wearily rebuking the tribalism and sectionalism of the little people. I've enjoyed Coggan's journalism, and his earlier books (even when I've disagreed with them), but this was a disappointment.
Picture: Amazon
Jeremy Adelman Worldly Philosopher: The odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman Princeton University Press, £27.95

This is an exemplary account of an exemplary life. Hirschman was a great economist, and Adelman is strong on explaining his ideas and setting them in context. Hirschman wrote well and in non-technical terms, and his books are a joy to read as well as continuing to enlighten. His famous book Exit, Voice and Loyalty is a classic account of organisations that remains widely influential, and his works of intellectual history are fascinating. He was a man of many ideas who brought new insight to a variety of subjects rather than ploughing the same furrow ever more deeply. He also had the most fascinating life, including time in the French and American armies, and a stint fighting in the Spanish Civil War. His leftist sympathies were out of favour in Cold War America, so he spent time as an economic adviser in South America. He lived in interesting times, and had the drive and brilliance and luck to make the most of them - one of those rare individuals to excel as men of action as well as men of ideas. Adelman's biography is worthy of its subject. A great read, highly recommended.