Tuesday, 26 February 2013

A weekend in Vienna Part II: The Academy of Fine Arts

Picture: Platzpirsch.at
The Picture Gallery of the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna is just around the corner from the Kunsthistorisches Museum, but few make the trip.  The gallery is on the top floor, above the Academy of Fine Arts, through grand but dilapidated corridors and past grotty student noticeboards.  The approach reminds me of the Brera in Milan.  The picture gallery itself is narrow and the lighting isn't great, with hanging space carved out with partitions.  But what treasures within!  Famous things include the great Bosch triptych of the Last Judgment, a celebrated Rembrandt Portrait of a Lady, Van Dyck's Self Portrait Aged 16 (on loan to the Prado Young Van Dyck exhibition at the moment) and some excellent Rubens. 
Picture: wga.hu
The Rembrandt (above) is disappointing because it's so damaged.  Even in reproductions you can see that the hands are worn, but the ruff is also largely illegible and the inimitable details around the eyes are blunted.  It still creates a great impression by virtue of the dynamic pose, and the face still dazzles at a distance.  Up close, it lacks the finesse of better preserved works like the wonderful Aeltje Uylenburgh of the same period (in the Otterloo collection; I saw it on loan to the Rembrandt's Women exhibition in Edinburgh, and again at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts).  The Vienna painting is probably the best Rembrandt that I haven't seen before - on my only previous visit to the Academy Gallery the Dutch pictures were in store because they were refurbishing the building.

The Dutch still lifes were really excellent, and appeared to have escaped the ravages of the restorers who wrecked the Rembrandt.  Jan van der Heyden is celebrated for his meticulous townscapes, but he is represented here by a rare still life.  I've seen other still lifes of his in the Thyssen in Madrid and the Norton Simon in Pasadena, and I recall both as being in poor condition.  This one is very well preserved, and gave me a completely different view of van der Heyden's considerable talents as a still life painter.  There are two fine still lifes by Rachel Ruysch, the larger of which is one of the best flower pieces I've ever seen - she could paint even better than George Baselitz.  There is also a very large and luxurious still life by Heem and a good Aelst.

The rich collection of Rubens is strong in oil sketches including the justly famous Judgment of Paris.  Among the finished works, The Three Graces (above) is listed as Rubens, but it's obvious that only the figures are his, the landscape and still life elements probably by Jan Brueghel.  It's a felicitous collaboration where the different styles give a sense of separation between the figures and the background that adds something to the composition, creating a sense of artifice that suits the subject.
A special treat for me was the profusion of Ruisdael, one of my very favourite Dutch artists.  A number of these were on loan from a private collection (together with a large Allaert van Everdingen), including a splendid small seascape in especially good condition.  The sky has suffered, as usual with Dutch landscapes, but the choppy sea is strikingly fresh. 

The Botticelli tondo of the Madonna and Child with Two Angels didn't impress me.  It is hung high up, and glazed with poor-quality glass with distracting reflections.  There is more of a continuum of quality in Botticelli's studio than in many other renaissance collaborators, from the consistently sublime quality of, say, the Mystic Nativity, down to some frankly dreadful daubs that still have good evidence of originating in his studio.  This one seemed more studio than Botticelli, from what I could make out - an effective and surely autograph composition derived from the Magnificat, but prosaic execution with heavy-handed outlines and a poor sense of volume, particularly in the recession of the faces.

Dieric Bouts Coronation of the Virgin is an interesting picture.  My first thought was that it was closer to Gerard David - certainly it's much 'sweeter' than one usually finds in Bouts.  But on closer inspection, those toothy angels are too robust for David, and there are plenty of Boutsian touches in the detail.  It's an early work, but impressive and beautiful.
I have a soft spot for Giovanni di Paolo, a relatively minor Sienese artist whose workshop eschewed grand fresco cycles, but painted polyptychs prolifically. His predellas are scattered far and wide, with many in American museums. The greatest concentrations are probably in the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Siena, and the Met in New York, particularly from the Lehman bequest. There are some in English museums, and I've just discovered from the marvellous Public Catalogue Foundation that there's one that I haven't seen, which is in Rochdale. I don't think there have been any recent studies of his work, although John Pope-Hennessy wrote about him. A catalogue raisonné would be much appreciated if anyone can spare a decade or so. 

Giovanni di Paolo's The Miracle of St Nicholas of Tolentino in the Academy Gallery shows a laughable failure to understand perspective.  He's clearly tried - you can see the incised perspective lines - but multiple vanishing points make you feel seasick looking at it.  It's one of his less successful pictures, but still charming.
I've resisted adding comment on the Bosch because it is so famous and so widely written about, but its fame is deserved.  It was the second time I'd seen it, and it still overwhelms; seeing the original is always a fresh experience that makes you forget how often you've seen it reproduced.  It's a brilliant, fascinating, compelling picture that is worth a trip to Vienna on its own.
This was one of my most enjoyable museum visits.  I spent about four hours, which was enough to get a good look at the highlights but still hanker to return.  There is a handful of great masterpieces that would grace the walls of even the greatest museums, but there are also plenty of lesser pictures that are still full of interest and all the more sparkling for their unfamiliarity. 

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Vandalism at the Wallace

Picture: Suite101.com
I returned to the Murillo exhibition at the Wallace Collection this weekend, and found it in a worse state than last time.  A chunk has been snapped off a scroll on the frame of The Rest on the Flight into Egypt (painting above, frame below), on loan from Wrotham Park.  It looked like a new break, and I didn't recall it from my previous visit.  I asked the guard, who told me it had just happened recently, but they weren't sure when.  Other staff I asked said the same thing: "very unfortunate sir, no idea how it happened."  Eventually one guard let the cat out of the bag, and told me that it happened when the director was showing around a group of dignitaries, and 'Lady something or other' broke a piece off the frame.  There is now a flimsy barrier in front of the picture - but only in front of that one picture.
Picture: MS

The Wallace is usually very defensive about damage to its collection, which I suspect is commonplace.  On another visit I heard two guards discussing an incident that happened during a wedding that they hosted, but they clammed up when I enquired further. 
Picture: Grazia
The Wallace is one of the most fragile of museums, with a profusion of paintings and decorative arts displayed without barriers.  But they take few pains to protect it.  I've seen guards leave the room when large groups of raucous schoolchildren arrive, to avoid the hassle of intervening as they play with the fragile French furniture.  And you often see pushchairs rammed into exhibits, fingers poked against paintings, and sculptures caressed by visitors.  If you cross their palm with silver, you can even host a piss-up in its hallowed halls.  The latest incident speaks again to the privileges accorded to mammon by the Wallace - noble ladies getting special tours where they can poke and prod and smash the exhibits with abandon.  Just compare the 'touching side' with the other side of this gilt bronze to see the tragic consequences:
To be fair, I had noticed some improvement recently; visitors have been asked to check large bags in the cloakroom, and guards seem more alert (though my perception is based on a small sample of visits).  Some of the guards at the Wallace are outstanding - not only alert and careful, but helpful and knowledgeable when talking to visitors about the collection.  The Murillo show is lovely, perfect in scale and mood for the Wallace, and far removed from the previous director's scandalous Hirst exhibition, which I decried in a review on Culture Wars.  But this latest incident may cause prospective lenders to pause and consider if the Wallace is fit to be entrusted with loans given its failure to protect the Murillo. 

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Restitution after World War I

Picture: Getty
I just read a book on the collection of the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna that makes a cryptic reference to the return of 80 Venetian paintings to Italy in 1919. It clearly still rankles - "Italy's juristically controversial claim to the paintings led to their being returned" writes Renate Trnek in The Picture Gallery of the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna: An overview of the collection (Vienna: Bohlau n.d.) p. 10. 

I was already aware that panels from Van Eyck's Ghent Altarpiece (above) were returned from Berlin under the terms of the Versailles Treaty, so I did some more digging in the original peace treaties. The Reparations articles contain specific requirements for transfer of works of art, and in the case of Austria the open-ended requirement to submit to future demands to be determined by expert committee. 

It's remarkable that in 1919 the victors demanded that an African skull be repatriated ... to Britain! Also notable that the great Rubens St Ildefonso altar had to be returned to Belgium. It's still at the Kunsthistorisches in Vienna, so I assume it was never returned. 

There was no equivalent treaty after World War II; the allies simply arrogated jurisdiction over the Third Reich's territory. However, the paintings from the Berlin museum that weren't destroyed by fire or in the Soviet zone were transported to Washington D.C. where they were shown in the brand-new (and largely empty) National Gallery of Art. I understand that there was some debate at the time about keeping them, but they were swiftly repatriated to Germany. I suspect that World War I was the last major war where the peace treaties contained significant provision for the movement of cultural property as part of war damages. 

The Versailles Treaty required:

  • Return to France of objects looted in the Franco-Prussian War.
  • Return to the King of Hedjaz of a Koran taken from Medina by the Turks and given to Kaiser Wilhelm.
  • Return to Britain of the skull of Sultan Mkwawa removed from German East Africa.
  • Provision of books and manuscripts to Louvain to compensate for the burning of the library.
  • Transfer of panels by Van Eyck from the Ghent Altarpiece.
  • Transfer of panels by Bouts from the Last Supper Triptych in Louvain, from the Alte Pinakothek and the Berlin Museum.

The Treaty of San-Germain-en-Laye with Austria was even more demanding. In particular, Article 195 bound Austria to accept the determinations of a Committee of three jurists to be appointed by the Reparation Commission to investigate the conditions under which objects were removed from the Italian provinces to Austria. It also permitted submission of claims from Belgium, Poland and Czecho-Slovakia, and bound all parties to accept decisions taken by the Committee. A number of specific objects and collections were identified for return, including:

  • Medici crown jewels to be returned to Tuscany.
  • An Andrea del Sarto and four Correggio drawings, paintings by Rosa and Dosso Dossi and various bronzes to Modena.
  • Twelfth century objects made in Palermo for the Norman kings to be returned to Palermo.
  • Manuscripts and documents removed in 1718 to be returned to Naples.
  • Rubens Triptych of St Ildephonse and other objects to Belgium (this is still in the Kunsthistorisches).
  • The gold cup of King Ladislas IV to be returned to Poland.
  • Various documents and manuscripts to be returned to Czecho-Slovakia.

I'm now interested to learn more about details of what was actually moved after the War - what did Germany send to Louvain, and what did the Committee require Austria to relinquish?   More information and references gratefully received.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Mahon Bequest - terms broken already?

Picture: The Art Newspaper
Denis Mahon's bequest of 57 baroque pictures to British collections has just been completed.  He also made bequests to the National Gallery of Ireland, and to the Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna.  The National gallery produced a fine catalogue of his collection when it was exhibited in its entirety (Discovering the Italian Baroque by Gabriele Finaldi and Michael Kitson), including the non-UK bequests, and also a few paintings that he sold in the 1970s.  Much has been made of his condition that free entry must be maintained at the galleries benefiting from his bequests, but Temple Newsam received a painting, and it charges for admission - as does the Pinacoteca Nazionale.  So the terms are broken on the day it's announced! 

Monday, 18 February 2013

A weekend in Vienna I: The Belvedere

Picture: Colourbox.com
I'm just back from a long weekend in Vienna, inspired to return for the first time in a decade by David Packwood's fine account of his recent visit.

Vienna is a fascinating city, a great imperial capital from the fifteenth century and an intellectual and cultural powerhouse without equal in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.  After World War I Vienna went suddenly from being the cosmopolitan capital of a great empire to being just a big city in a small country.  It inherited a great imperial bureaucracy with a city hall exchequer.  The arts are an easy target in hard times, and there were serious discussions about selling off some of the Habsburg treasures, which had only just been nationalised; until after World War I the art collections were the private property of the Emperor.  The Albertina came close to being sold en bloc to Boston, split between the Museum of Fine Arts and the Fogg Museum at Harvard.  Lucky for Vienna, the sale was aborted. 
Vienna's fascinating history has inspired a vast literature. I recommend Alan Janic and Stephen Toulmin's Wittgenstein in Vienna and Carl Schorske's Fin de Siecle Vienna, both focused on the period of intellectual ferment in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.  I'm not aware of any monumental history of Vienna comparable to Alexandra Richie's Faust's Metropolis on Berlin, but I hope someone is writing one - I'd love to read it.

On this visit I went to the Belvedere for the first time, and it was a pleasant surprise.  Mitteleuropa-palace-baroque isn't generally my thing, but it's a fine building with good proportions and excellent light.  It has made the transition to picture gallery more successfully than some of its peers, perhaps partly because little of its exuberant original decoration survives.  The Belvedere has an odd selection of collections - medieval Austrian art (highlights in the Upper Belvedere, leftovers in the old stables at the end of the garden), eighteenth and nineteenth century Austrian art, odds and ends of European art (version of David's Napoleon on the St Bernard Pass, some impressionists), and of course the Vienna Secession.
Picture: Kunstpresse.at
It's worth visiting just for the room of Messerschmidt character busts.  A dozen are arranged in a circle in a small circular room with seven windows providing fabulous lighting.  It was a better experience than seeing the whole of the Louvre's Messerschmidt exhibition a couple of years ago, where the lighting was worse and the rooms too crowded. 
Picture: Wikipaintings
I enjoyed the Biedermeier and Baroque paintings, but my limited knowledge of these little masters made me impatient.  The masterpieces of the Vienna Secession are familiar to everyone, and easily appreciated.  I particularly liked the Kokoschka portraits in these rooms, with their wonderfully expressive hands.  His Portrait of the Painter Carl Moll is pictured above, but the reproduction is unjust to the feverish dynamism of the original.
Picture: Belvedere
Medieval Austrian art was moved to the Belvedere from the Kunsthistorisches in the 1950s.  Most of it is unfamiliar to me, but I thought some of it really rather good.  I liked the Michael Pacher - Dürer's master.  The fragments of an altar from the Franciscan Church in Salzburg are damaged but very impressive, and show awareness of trends in Italian art.  The figure binding Christ in the Flagellation (above) looks to be straight out of Mantegna.  It's a shame that some of these paintings can't be shown at the Kunsthistorisches, to allow better appreciation of Austrian art in the context of the more familiar 'greatest hits' of European painting. 
Conrad Laib's Crucifixion altarpiece was also impressive, but I wondered how much of its stunningly bright appearance is down to restoration.  It's a nice example of International Gothic that would provide a precursor to the Kunsthistorisches collection, which only properly gets going in the sixteenth century (give or take a Tura and a Mantegna or two...).  But that's a story for a future post.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Great wall text

Picture: Metropolitan Museum of Art
The latest Tate Britain show is dispensing with long labels so that we can find our own meaning, reports AHN.  Phooey, I say.  We can dispense with art history entirely if it's just about finding our own meaning.  The point of wall text is to help us to look out rather than in, to expand our understanding rather than narrow our vision to our internal thoughts.  One museum that does it really well is the Met.  It's quirky, variable and often brilliant.  Here's the text for the picture above:
De Witte's earliest architectural views, like this one, borrow compositional ideas from his fellow Delft artist Gerard Houckgeest (ca. 1600–1661) but treat the Gothic church interior less in terms of solid forms than of space, light, and mood. In stressing these intangible qualities De Witte suggests a spiritual environment and also anticipates the optical approach of Johannes Vermeer.
This breaks a lot of rules.  That first sentence is long and complicated.  It's heavy with art history - how many casual visitors will even have heard of Houckgeest?  But it's packed with useful, interesting information that helps us understand the painting as an aesthetic object and place it in an art historical context.  It resists the temptation to describe the painting.  The most obvious thing to do would be to draw attention to the urinating dog, and talk about the activities taking place in the church.  But anyone can see that; it's not necessary to state the obvious in wall text.  I can imagine one of the trendier British museums writing something like this:
This church is painted white inside because the Dutch protestants have painted over religious images.  The artist, Emanuel De Witte, specialised in painting churches.  These paintings were bought by the middle classes to hang in their houses.  Churches were social places in the 1700s - we can see lots of people hanging out.  Can you see what the dog is doing?
I'm caricaturing a bit, but you can recognise the simplistic anecdotal style.  Of course this has its place, and one of the nice things about the Met is that it seems capable of speaking to different audiences.  They run great docent tours and the wall text speaks with different voices.  It's a refreshing change from the uniform infantilism in some British galleries. 
The text for the Bronzino Drawings exhibition a few years ago was especially memorable; I noted down some of the text:
This study is among a group of drawings dating about 1545-60 that may be attributed with some confidence to Bronzino but are particularly reminiscent of Pontormo's mature figural style at the time he was working on the frescoes (now destroyed) in San Lornezo, Florence; Bronzino, who assisted Pontormo on the project, completed it upon the master's death in 1557.  Unique to Bronzino are the soft yet palpably defined sculptural quality [...], evident in the rubbed, relieflike interior modeling; polished degree of finish; nervous fineness of outline; stylized roundedness of individual muscles; and greater overall naturalism of anatomical structure and detail.  The technique of regular parallel hatching, not usual for Pontromo, was used throughout. [Agnolo Bronzino Standing Male Nude in Three-Quarter-Length Seen from the Rear c. 1545-60, Uffizi 6589F]
The anatomical modeling recalls that of cat. no. 47 [above], but the rendering is more diffused and impressionistic, with the strokes of the chalk more smoothly rubbed in while the contours are not as hard and fine. Bronzino's tendency was to contain forms within marked outlines and to define sculptural forms while rubbing the chalk strokes of the interior modeling into soft, nearly sfumato effects [...] [Agnolo Bronzino Standing Male Nude in Three-Quarter-Length Seen from the Rear c. 1550-60, Uffizi 6606F]
I think this is just brilliant.   It's well-written, and it flatters the viewer by explaining what is at issue in attributing these drawings.  This kind of text isn't a barrier to looking, it encourages us to look more closely and more carefully.  I can't imagine any major British museum daring to write wall text like that. 

Monday, 11 February 2013

The Computer Says "No"...

Picture: Tumblr
I got an astonishingly bureaucratic response to a query to the V&A - a museum that prides itself on being accessible and visitor-friendly.  I don't mind waiting to see the painting in question, but if I were engaged in time-sensitive research, or were visiting London only for a short time, I'd really want to know more about why it can't be seen for such a long and indeterminate period.  A direct response from a person would have been helpful in those cases.  Here's the email they sent me, with only the name of the sender redacted.  I bet they spent real money on all those forms and automated replies.
The painting in question looks interesting.  It's a full-size copy of Raphael's School of Athens that was commissioned for the Long Gallery at Northumberland House.  Roll on 2014 (at the earliest...)!

Subject: RT10086 Response to your Research Enquiries question
Victoria and Albert Museum
Response to your Research Enquiries Question #: RT10086 
Please describe how we can help you: 
Would it be possible to view the Mengs copy of Raphael's School of Athens, which is listed as in store?

Many thanks
Michael Savage 
Our response is:
Dear Michael Savage,
Thank you for your enquiry. Unfortunately the Mengs' copy of Raphael's School of Athens will not be available before the end of 2014 at the earliest. It will be then on display in the Cast Courts. I am very sorry about this inconvenience but its avalibility depends on the progress of refurbishments work currently carried out in the Cast Courts.
Yours sincerely,
[name redacted - MS]

The status of your question is now closed.
You do not need to respond to this email, however you can use any of the following links, if appropriate.
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Sunday, 10 February 2013

Murillo Day

Picture: Guardian
Yesterday I went to the Murillo exhibitions at Dulwich Picture Gallery and the Wallace Collection.  Brian Sewell has written a great review; the comments below can be read as footnotes to Sewell.
The most disappointing aspect for me was the lighting.  Soane's magnificent daylit galleries have been blacked out, presumably to evoke the crepuscular light of a church.  Exhibition curator Xavier Bray also organised the outstanding exhibition of Spanish sculpture at the National Gallery, The Sacred Made Real, which was similarly spotlit.  That could be forgiven given the absence of natural light in the Sainsbury Wing exhibition space, and it worked well with the sculptures.  But the constant harsh glare of bright spotlights does not replicate the dim, variable light of a church.  On some paintings the spotlighting was distorting, such as the Penitent St. Peter where white highlights around the eye in particular stood out too strongly.
I was especially taken by The Foundation of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome: The Dream of the Patrician and his Wife, pictured above.  The colour is fantastic.  However, the reds in particular seem to have suffered from harsh cleaning; even from a distance you can see a dramatic difference between the uniform colour of the tablecloth, and the shimmering impasto of the white cloth on top of it.  As a result, the tonal balance in the picture is upset; large areas of relatively undifferentiated red demand attention, whereas the lively subtlety of the colours in better preserved areas like the yellow seem to recede.  This picture also suffers from the harsh lighting at Dulwich; you have to stand to the right to view it.  From the left all you can see is reflected light.  The large lunettes are shown out of their grand gilt frames, and hung high.  This at least is effective; you can really appreciate how well these paintings function hung at a height.
Sewell criticised the catalogue for being too obscure - written for Burlington Magazine readers rather than the general public.  Even as an occasional Burlington Magazine reader, I was rather disappointed; it's a collection of academic essays rather than a catalogue.  It doesn't even include the exhibits drawn from the Dulwich collection's B-list of Murillo-ish paintings, which I thought instructive at least in the history of taste.
Dulwich Picture Gallery is a bit of a trek into the suburbs, but it always repays a visit. It's probably the best museum building in the UK, and the collection is fabulous.  At the moment part is off display to make way for Murillo, but there is still plenty to see.  A studio version of Titian's Venus and Adonis is on display following restoration - the first time I've seen it, and it's good in parts.  Poussin's remaining Sacrements are on loan from Belvoir Castle, and there are fine still lifes by Boschaert and Huysum on loan from an anonymous collection.  There are two damaged predella Saints by Raphael in the collection, and I noticed for the first time that the inscriptions on the frames give the wrong dates for Raphael (1483-1521 rather than 1520).  But failing to correct that historic error seems somehow more forgivable than the dreadful lighting in the Murillo show. 
The Wallace Collection has simultaneously mounted a small exhibition of Murillo based on its own collection.  The Wallace does these small exhibitions well, and the catalogue is superb.  Today's catalogues seem sometimes to be vehicles to boost the publications list on curators' CVs.  The Wallace's is designed for visitors - small, cheap, relevant (although calling the Bibliography 'further reading' seems inappropriate when seven of the ten publications are eighteenth or nineteenth century and two of the others are in Spanish!). 

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Open Mouths

There's a nice post on open mouths in Baroque art over at Alberti's Window yesterday.  It made me think about the development of these images, so common in seventeenth century art but rare in the early Renaissance.  Here are a few of my thoughts - fallible personal impressions, but I've been looking at Raphael a lot recently and I think his drawings are a key part of the genealogy of this motif. 
As is so often the case, sculptors were ahead of painters; all the early examples that come to mind are sculpted.  Donatello often carved and cast open mouths, for example in the Cantoria for the Duomo in Florence (1430s), and Desiderio di Settignano's famous Laughing Boy is another example (1460s): 
Picture: Web Gallery of Art
It seems to have taken some time for the motif to be established in painting, beyond isolated examples (e.g. Tura's Terpsichore).  Even Uccello's battle scenes have a strikingly limited range of facial expression.  The best example from early Renaissance painting that I can think of is Piero della Francesca's frescoes in Arezzo, such as the Death of Adam (detail below). 
Picture: Wikipaintings
The most important source in painting is perhaps Leonardo's The Battle of Anghiari, which can be appreciated from the extant preparatory studies such as the wonderful drawing in the Szepmuveseti Museum of an open-mouthed soldier (below), which I saw at the Treasures from Budapest exhibition at the Royal Academy a few years ago. 
Picture: Guardian
Interestingly The Battle of Anghiari (1505) was painted just before the discovery of Laocoön (in 1506), an ancient sculpture that may also have influenced the development of open mouths.  I recently saw a drawing by Raphael in the Royal Collection at Windsor (Studies for The Parnassus) that quotes Laocoön directly, although the source is less obvious in the final fresco.  Raphael also learnt from Leonardo, creating the most exceptionally varied and dynamic multi-figured compositions, using open mouths as an easily readable way of differentiating emotion.  The open mouth is particularly effective in drawings and prints, where nuances in the eyes are harder to capture.  Below is another Raphael drawing that I saw recently, this one at the Ashmolean; the shouting man at bottom right is clearly derived from Leonardo's Anghiari studies. 
Picture: Ashmolean

Raphael's compositions were very influential.  The Raphael-esque open mouth became a cliché in Giulio Romano's drawings in particular, and it's a trope found widely in the work of Raphael's school and his followers. They scattered widely; Giulio Romano went to Mantua, Polidoro da Caravaggio fled to Naples after the sack of Rome in 1527 and Luca Penni went to Fonatainebleau. But Raimondi's prints were surely the key route through which these images reached the widest audience, such as the Massacre of the Innocents below, which has been seen as Raphael's public demonstration of his burgeoning talent after working on the Stanza della Segnatura in the Vatican, which was a private room that couldn't be seen by many (see for example Chapter 1 of Francis Ames-Lewis The Draftsman Raphael Yale University Press 1986). 

Picture: Teylers Museum

The post at Alberti's Window opens with a Rembrandt print.  I suspect that open mouths continued to be more important in Rembrandt's graphic work, whereas in his greatest paintings (like those of Velazquez) the eyes do more of the work of conveying expression, taking psychological differentiation even further.  But lesser artists couldn't quote those fine details as easily as they could replicate the open mouths and grandiloquent gestures that were popularised in mainstream Baroque art.  
Neoclassical art seems to make rather less use of open mouths.  My sense is that the likes of Ingres and David are something of a synthesis of the serene figures of the early Renaissance and the animated dynamism of High Renaissance and Baroque compositions.  I think Monica Bowen (Alberti's Window) is right to link the more widespread depiction of open mouths in baroque art with increased interest in psychology, but it also reflects the evolution of visual forms from the renaissance, deploying pictorial ideas developed by the greatest masters of the High Renaissance.  I enjoyed her post, which got me thinking. 

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Michelangelo in jail

Picture: Minutemennews.com
Michelangelo's Rondanini Pieta is being moved from the Castello Sforzesco to Milan's prison, reports The Art Newspaper, so they can tart up the castle to attract more visitors.  The article quotes Andrew Neilson of the British Howard League for Prison Reform: "There is a long tradition of art projects aiding the journey of long-term prisoners as they serve their sentence."  Quite right, but this isn't an art project - it's a Michelangelo!  Showing art to prisoners is a fine idea, but this deprives everyone else.  It's a despicable example of what happens when well-meaning philistine politicians are allowed to pursue pet projects without concern for the value of art. 
Tim Robertson of the Koestler Trust, another prison arts charity tells The Art Newspaper: “This is what art is about, and the most useful art should be for people who are falling off the edge of society.”  What a horridly instrumental idea - that art is just a handrail, its purpose merely to stop people 'falling off the edge of society'.  I'm sure that Robertson's charity is engaged in laudable work, but I venture to suggest that some of us hold a rather broader notion of art - which can be for many purposes, or none at all. 
I've been to the Castello Sforzesco several times, and relished its relative quietude.  It is less polished than some museums, but all the more charming for that.  It's a massive castle in a prominent position, listed in all the guidebooks and freely accessible.  If 'only' 350,000 people a year choose to visit, so be it.  I'm sure disabled access could be added without a huge renovation; I just don't believe that the move is even necessary. 
This horrid plan puts a great sculpture at risk of damage and deprives the world of the opportunity to see it.  It is unavoidably a zero-sum game.  Prisoners have been sentenced to jail because society has determined that they should be deprived the benefits and freedoms of society.  What have the rest of us done to deserve this? 

Show me the way to a Murillo

Picture: Meadows Museum
The Guardian's pun, but I smiled.  I'm really looking forward to the Murillo exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, opening tomorrow.  The Guardian has an intriguing article about a discovery by the curator, Xavier Bray.  The Guardian piece whetted my appetite, but didn't provide much detail -I hope there's more in the catalogue.  I'm disappointed that Dulwich partly paid for the journalist to travel to Seville.  That kind of marketing spend is unnecessary and cannot avoid undermining the independence of the favoured journalists who benefit from these junkets.  I'll never donate to Dulwich again.  It also seems wrong that they've lent a painting from their public collection to Lord Faringdon in return for a loan to the exhibition. 

Incidentally I did find the way to Amarillo, where there is a great steak restaurant.  On the same trip I saw the Murillos at the wonderful Meadows Museum, including Saint Justa (above) and Saint Rufina.  The Meadows is a university museum that specialises in Spanish art, and has a really strong collection in a perfect setting.  The building reminds me a lot of the Barber Institute in Birmingham, except that it has a central gallery showing gothic paintings where the Barber has a concert hall.  They were closing early for a student reception, but I got talking to the curator who was there for the reception and he invited me to stay on, which I really appreciated. 

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Admirable and abysmal presentation at the Ashmolean

The Shoemaker Pot (Picture: Ashmolean)
I don't know much about Greek vases, but I like them.  They are outside my main artistic interests, but I've enjoyed hours perusing collections from Malibu to Moscow.  I've recently read excellent popular books based on the collections in the Met, the Getty and the Berlin Antikensammlung, which have given me a bit more knowledge and helped develop my appreciation.  But whereas in galleries of European paintings I read the wall text so that I can heckle the attributions, I'm still reliant on the curators to help me make sense of Greek vases.  In the Ashmolean they've let me down. 

The Ashmolean has one of the best collections of Greek vases in the world - certainly the best in the UK after the British Museum.  The presentation is thematic rather than chronological, which is quite common in displays of ancient art.  That makes it harder to show the development of Greek art, but it can still be an effective heuristic - the Getty Villa does a great job of combining a predominantly thematic display with enough chronological exhibits to make sense of historical development.  But at the Ashmolean the presentation is crushingly banal.  Here is the text of the 'Women and Children' section:
Women in most city-states of ancient Greece had very few rights.  They were under the control and protection of their husband or a male relative for their entire lives and had no role in politics.  Most women spent their waking hours in the preparation of cloth: whether carding, spinning or weaving wool.  To be considered respectable, women would remain at home, only going out for festivals or to fetch water from a public well.  The only important public role for a woman was to be a priestess.  Marriages were arranged by parents and dowries were paid to the groom's family.  Marriage was usually for purposes of family alliance rather than love (although Eros, the god of love, figures large in wedding imagery).
The only point where this touches on art is a parenthetic reference to the god of love featuring in wedding imagery (who'd have guessed?).   The Ashmolean is a museum of archaeology as well as art, and I think it's completely legitimate to tell the wider story of ancient society.  But even as social history this is pretty thin and unnuanced.  In any case, it shouldn't have to be a choice between either social history or art; Greek vases are valuable both as records of ancient Greek society and as great works of art that have resonated through history.  Other museums manage successfully to convey both aspects. 
Some Greek vases are signed, occasionally by both potter and painter.  Others have been grouped together under conventional names.  Generations of scholarship have brought us closer to the individual creative minds of ancient Greece.  The Ashmolean has examples by some of the greatest vase painters, but you wouldn't know it from the captions because they don't name any artist on the exhibit labels.  That's right.  Pause and read that again.  They really don't even name the artists. 

There is lively debate about the role of the individual artist in ancient Greece, and some are sceptical of applying methods of connoisseurship developed in the context of renaissance European art to the study of ancient Greece.  I certainly agree that assigning authorship shouldn't be the sole purpose of scholarship; that would be arid indeed.  But individual styles are readily apparent, and the presence of signatures (rare even in early renaissance art) must indicate some contemporary recognition of artistic personality.  I simply cannot comprehend any rationale for expunging all reference to authorship. 
Objects are subsumed in thematic stories, with only minimal information about individual vases.  The caption next to one piece is "Man and boy making love.  The nature of Greek homosexual love is the subject of current academic debate."  That is possibly the worst caption I've ever read.  We can see that it's a man and boy making love.  And to be told that there is an academic debate without giving us any information whatsoever about that debate is tantamount to saying 'move along people, academics are talking about this - we'll get back to you when we've concluded the debate, and in the meantime there's a gift shop just downstairs...'. 
The contrast in the renaissance bronzes display is refreshing and reassuring.  Some are shown in the paintings galleries, with others grouped together in their own room.  The accompanying text is short and relevant.  If you  want to learn more, there are folders of information provided in the room.  These samizdat binders have none of the glossiness of the wall text for Greek vases, but the content is really useful.  Timothy Wilson, the Keeper responsible for these galleries, will be displaying the Michael Wellby gift of renaissance silver.  I can see why Wellby entrusted it to the Ashmolean, and I share his confidence that they'll do justice to his collection. 
I felt that I was being invited in to join a conversation about the renaissance bronzes.  The curators were sharing their knowledge and interest, giving anyone the chance to follow at least part of the way towards their expertise.  If they were dealing with a scene of Greek gay sex I suspect they'd hand out copies of Kenneth Dover's Greek Homosexuality and give you a quick update of the debate since then. 

I was actually angry when I first saw what they'd done with the display of Greek vases.  On sober reflection, I feel belittled.  It felt like the they were trying to flatter our preconceptions and then send us on our way.  They should have higher regard for their patrons, and we should be more critical and more demanding of our museums.  I'm not writing this from a position of any authority.  I'm just a museum visitor who'd like some help, and who appreciates curators sharing their expertise rather than fobbing me off with assurance that the important academics are debating stuff.  I'm sorry to be so grumpy about a museum I love so much, but this really won't do. 

Friday, 1 February 2013

Old Master Sales

Picture: Christie's
This rather nice Claude fetched an astonishing $6,135,500 against an estimate of $500k-$800k at the Christie's sale of Old Master Drawings.  I can't help think that the money could be better spent elsewhere, but there seem to be a few collectors of old master drawings with very deep pockets who can push prices to extreme levels when they want the same thing.  The lower end of the market is great value for money, especially compared to contemporary art. 
Following my recent preview, I was surprised that the wonderful Ingres made only $1,930,500.  The Parmigianino that I liked made $722,500 (est $300k-$500k), and a Gainsborough pastel went to $2,434,500 (well above the $400k-$600k estimate).  Coming down to a mere-mortal price range, I was quite taken by Giulio Romano's Leaping Hound, which sold for $22,500 against an estimate of $6k-8k (almost in the range where I could consider re-mortgaging the house...).  Giulio clearly delighted in depicting animals and this is a lovely, unpretentious example of his draughtsmanship. 
Christie's Old Master Drawings sale made $16,544,625 (plus $1.2m for a Raphael drawing in the Renaissance sale), against $2,619,251 at Sotheby's - marred by the surprising failure to sell the Rubens Anatomical Studies.  Sotheby's sold the drawings from the Baroni collection separately, including the Umbrian school Massacre of the Innocents that I particularly liked, which made $140,500 against a $150k-$200k estimate.
Picture: Christie's

Raphael's Saint Benedict receiving Maurus and Placidus (above) was sold in the Christie's Renaissance Sale and made $1,202,500 (est $1m-$1.5m).  I haven't seen the original (if the buyer is reading this - can I have a look please?), but there's a good quality zoomable image available via the link above, and there's no real question about the attribution.  It's an early work, drawn before he achieved greatness.  It's somewhat worn and some of the contours seem re-enforced (e.g. the horses' heads), but it's still really impressive.  The faces on the right are particularly beautifully drawn and he's already revealing mastery in composing groups.  I think it would fit the Getty's collection perfectly, complementing their later Raphael drawings - but there's nothing on their website, so I assume it was bought by a private collector.  The Met is the another big institutional buyer of old master drawings, but there's already a closely comparable drawing down the road at the Morgan. 
In the paintings sales, the Botticelli I liked made $10,442,500 at Christie's (est. $5m-$7m) and at Sotheby's the Memling that I thought under-estimated made $4,114,500 (est $1m-$1.5m).  The Bronzino that I speculated might not sell, didn't sell (nothing for me to be smug about though; there's a limited market for $10m+ pictures).  On the other hand, the still life that I liked passed.  It was estimated at $2m-$3m, which was maybe thought high for a work without firm attribution.  The real surprise was the Portrait of a Young Girl by a 'follower' of Rubens, estimated at $20k-$30k, but selling for a Rubens-esque $626,500.  It looks really impressive online, but the most astonishing thing about it is that it was being deaccessioned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  If it turns out to be a Rubens, it will represent an astonishing misjudgment and yet another strike against the hateful practice of 'deaccessioning' (euphemism for flogging off the family silver so the curators can go on a spending spree).   

Acquisitions and Exhibitions

Picture: BBC
This collection of renaissance silver looks like a great acquisition at the Ashmolean, although weirdly there doesn't seem to be anything on their website yet.  See the BBC for some initial details, disappointingly focusing on speculation about improper provenance.  It will complement the Ashmolean's strong collection of renaissance bronzes, which they present particularly well. 
The Ashmolean is exhibiting a selection of highlights from its first rate collection of drawings from May 25 to August 18.  It will be well worth a trip - wherever you live!  The Palais des Beaux Arts in Lille has a comparable collection of drawings, also strong in Raphael.  They are exhibiting a selection of highlights from the Wicar collection 12 April to 22 July, including 15 Raphaels.