Friday, 29 March 2013

Exhibition Hell

Picture: MS
Picture: MS
This is the view from the Titian exhibition in Rome.  Throughout the exhibition there were large crowds entirely filling the rooms, with sometimes ten or twenty people trying to catch a glimpse of the same picture.  The exhibition itself is a stupid idea.  It's only a few years since the major Titian exhibition at the National Gallery in London; another Titian show adds nothing to our appreciation or understanding.  This lunatic overcrowding just deprives almost everyone of any opportunity to see these works. 
The exhibition includes lots of large paintings that should never have been subject to the stress of transport, and which are hardest of all to see in a crowd, where you can either inch your way to the front of the queue to see the foreground, or stand back to see the top of the panel above the sea of bodies. 
Coincidentally Blake Gopnik has just written an excellent article for The Art Newspaper about the exhibition phenomenon.  I can't commend it strongly enough; it's absolutely spot-on.  I suspect that many in the museum world will agree wholeheartedly with him, but the institutional imperative towards more and bigger exhibitions seems unstoppable.

Back home!

In the past two weeks I've been to Arezzo, Sansepolcro, Monterchi, Florence, Rome and Berlin.  I've seen the Springtime in the Renaissance exhibition in Florence and the Titian exhibition in Rome.  I spent two days in the print room in the British Museum, another two in the Kupferstichkabinett in Berlin and visited the Uffizi print room.  Lots to write about - I'll be updating regularly over the next few weeks.
I try to travel at quieter times, and rarely go anywhere in summer (my reading season).  I'm hoping to fit in a couple more trips over spring, and I'm already thinking about where to go in autumn.  I'd love to get to the Piero della Francesca exhibition at the Frick, but I could just go to Williamstown another time to see the one painting in the show that I haven't seen before.  The Durer drawings in Washington, on the other hand, is truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.  The Albertina is famously protective of its Durer watercolours; apparently you need a letter of introduction from Durer himself before they'll let you see them.  I also want to see the Raphael drawings in the National Gallery's own collection.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013


Picture: Visit Scotland
A slightly tongue-in-cheek argument is sometimes made that the best car safety feature would be a spike in the steering wheel pointed at the driver's chest.  Whereas air bags and side-impact bars give people confidence to drive more dangerously, a spike in the steering wheel would make people act safely and cautiously.  The underlying theory is that we have an internal 'risk thermostat'; we act more recklessly when safety improves, and more cautiously when perceived risk is greater, always tending to take the same level of risk. 
Today it is somewhat safer to transport art (but perceived safety improvement is probably running well ahead of actual safety improvement).  Curators have therefore responded to their risk thermostat and now try to send as much art as possible as far as possible and as often as possible. The lovely Burrell Collection in Glasgow might be the next victim.  Burrell made his fortune in shipping, and understood the risks inherent in transport when he stipulated that works from his bequest must not be loaned.  The barbarians in charge are seeking to overturn his reasonable requirement so that they can prostitute his collection around the world on a tour devoid of any artistic or scholarly purpose.

The council says that a tour will 'reaffirm the collection's status', whatever that means.  Maybe they think that  status arises not from the quality of the collection, but from how often and how far you ship it around the world.  More to the point is that they see it as an easy way to raise cash.  It is an easy way to raise cash, but it's a reckless and irresponsible way to raise cash.    

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Off on the Piero Trail

I've got the next two weeks off work.  On Monday I fly to Florence.  Although the major museums are closed, quite a lot is open on Mondays.  Tuesday is the Pitti Palace, then cycling down to Arezzo, Monterchi and San Sepolcro - three of the town on the Piero della Francesca trail.  The two Piero Trail towns on the Adriatic side of Italy - Rimini and Urbino - will have to wait for another time.  I might get to Citta di Castello too, where there's a ruined early Raphael and some other interesting pictures.  Then back to Florence for a day in the Uffizi, followed by the Springtime in the Renaissance exhibition at the Palazzo Strozzi (opening day!).  On Sunday I get the train to Rome to see the Titian exhibition at the Quirinale.
In the second week, I have a couple of days in the print room at the British Museum, and a couple of days in Berlin.  I'll update the blog whenever I get access to a computer.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

What's it worth? Eavesdropping at the Wallace Collection

                                             Picture: Wallace Collection
I came across a tour group at the Wallace Collection recently, and I couldn't resist eavesdropping.  The guide was excellent, giving intelligent and engaging commentary on the composition and art historical background of the Huysum still life (above).  But he couldn't resist talking about how much it's worth, telling them that a Huysum sold for more than any other still life except for Van Gogh (though surely Cezannes have also sold for more).  I've overheard tour guides elsewhere talk about monetary value, but I don't like it. 
I have no truck with the current high-minded fashion for disdaining the art market; art and money are old bedfellows, and kudos to the rich people who buy great art rather than trendy fripperies.  But talking about cash seems out of place in a museum, and monetary value isn't the same as artistic value.  The price of art is influenced by all kinds of factors, like fashion and rarity, that may be only tangentially linked to art historical importance and aesthetic greatness.   Price is interesting, but once a painting enters a museum collection the focus should be on artistic worth rather than monetary value.  Otherwise it begs the question of what everything else is worth.  If this Huysum is £5m and this Fragonard is £1m, is the Huysum five times better?  Maybe the Frans Hals is therefore, say, twenty times better than the Huysum?   It's a peverse way of thinking about the relative worth of art in museums; guides should stick to the art history.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013


To paraphrase Marx (Groucho), the critics all say that this is a brilliant show, but don't let that fool you - it really is a brilliant show.  It's a serious, well-curated retrospective that's also a great visual feast.  By concentrating on a relatively small number of major paintings it gives room to show the development of ideas through preparatory drawings, pastels and oil sketches.  It's tightly defined and nicely integrated; in the large central gallery you can look up from the preparatory sketches in a central display case to see the finished works on the wall.  Best of all, few have even heard of Barocci, so it's not too crowded and the people who are there want to see the art rather than to have seen the must-see show.   
The studies in pastel and oil are the stars of the show.  He produced brilliant head studies for the figures in his altarpieces.  I find it hard to believe that this effort was just an integral step in creating the altarpiece; the look like ends in themselves, labours of love and  great works of art in their own right.  I'm persuaded by the catalogue's assertion that some of these were produced for sale to private collectors.  Raphael loved to experiment with heads in different dramatic positions.  Barocci took the results of that experimentation and produced studies of immense beauty, dramatically lit and stunningly coloured. 
The life studies and compositional sketches do give a slightly one-sided picture of Barocci's art, emphasising its rootedness in nature and his individual creative energy.  The other side is the way he borrowed from other artists.  Dramatic gestures and bravura foreshortening draw directly from other High Renaissance innovators; it's no surprise to learn that Barocci owned a collection of Raphael drawings.  He seemed to be putting together elements of earlier art, taking individual figures and gestures and fitting them into new compositions.  I struggle to accept the grand claims that the catalogue makes on behalf of these compositions.  The combination of elements sometimes seemed less than the sum of parts, and the parts themselves are of variable quality.
The critics have understandably sought to rehabilitate Barocci and emphasise his greatness, but I do fear that reading some of the reviews out of context could give a false impression of his relative excellence.  For all the attention he paid to faces, hands and feet, his grasp of anatomy seems sometimes sketchy.  The most  silly example is the cat in the Annunciation (worn away in the painting, but visible in the etching); the leg is in entirely the wrong place.  The early sketch for the composition of the Visitation is oddly hesitant in depicting bodies.  Where Raphael captured human forms with graceful ovals, Barocci drew scrappy outlines.  Although hands and feet are beautifully rendered, knees and elbows are more summarily treated.  And sometimes his drapery doesn't so much reveal underlying forms as hide them away.
For all the effort that went into individual hands and feet, they don't work together to integrate a composition in the way that Raphael and Poussin mastered so well.  The Entombment is the best, I thought.  Some of the others seem an undisciplined agglomeration.  The Idle Woman astutely notes that the primary figures are often idealised to a point of saccharine sentimentality that's offputting; often the secondary figures are more compelling.
One thing that I haven't seen mentioned in reviews is the often execrable condition of the larger paintings.  Parts are very abraded, there are obvious areas of repaint, no trace of impasto (although this may largely be attributable to Barocci's technique), and odd patterns of craquelure that suggests in some cases that the canvases may have been rolled up or damaged by heat.  In some cases the condition may mislead us in assessing quality.  In the Last Supper, for example, there seems to be a fairly broad area of repaint in the horizontal arm of the servant in the foreground, giving a false impression of the contour.  The catalogue reproduces a drawn study that shows far more clearly defined muscles, which in the finished painting have perhaps been blunted by cleaning.  I would have appreciated more technical information in the catalogue; discussion of condition is very limited. 
I wish I could have seen the St Louis leg of the exhibition.  St Louis has a fine permanent collection including a Holbein, a late Titian, an important Michelangelesque sculpture by Montorsoli and some great Beckmanns.  I'm very impressed that this unfamiliar Midwestern museum collaborated on such a serious and impressive exhibition.  The catalogue isn't always reliable on which paintings were shown in each location (the Met's St Francis is in London, catalogue says St Louis only), but I'd love to have seen the small version of Il Perdino, and even more so the small version of the Entombment, in an anonymous private collection and looking ravishing in the catalogue.  It's a shame that provenance is provided only for the main catalogue entries, and not for any of the studies or replicas.
I always get a season ticket to the exhibitions I want to see, so that I can go little and often. I was in Madrid for the opening weekend, so my first chance to visit was late night opening on Friday. I was so impressed that I went back on Saturday and again on Sunday. Unfortunately the finger prints smeared across the glass protecting the drawings hadn't been cleaned at any point over the three days; it just got worse. Given the astonishing resources devoted to a conservation department that's endlessly scrubbing away at the surfaces of paintings, it's very disappointing that they can't keep the glass clean. Can't they give the conservators microfibre cloths and get them to spend twenty minutes in the exhibition before it opens each day? They'll do less harm polishing glass.
My gripes are just an attempt to bend the stick away from the slightly one-sided criticism that I've read elsewhere.  This is a fantastic and joyful exhibition.  The only ones from the last decade at the NG that are comparable are The Sacred Made Real and the Rubens exhibition in 2005, which I reviewed at Culture Wars.  I rarely encourage people to go to exhibitions; spending time in permanent collections is often more rewarding.  But really, you should go to Barocci. 

Quelle horreur!

Picture: Paris Breakfasts
The Art Tribune reports that the Louvre plans to move its excellent bookshop upstairs, presumably to make room for more profitable tourist tat.  The Louvre has tried to re-assure them (link in French), but I share their scepticism.  It's a great shame.  On my recent visit I was really struck by the excellence of the bookshop, which had lots of recent books that I hadn't come across. 
My memory may deceive me, but I recall the  National Gallery shop in the days of yore having a similarly strong offering.  It's still one of the best in London, but it's not equal to the Louvre; a lot of tired stock that's been on the shelves for years, and inconsistent stocking of new books (although it seems to have improved recently).  They even had this nonsense book featured on a display table for a while.  The shop that impresses me most is the Wallace Collection.  Despite its modest size, it has an outstanding stock of hard-to-find books related to its collection, it's one of the few places to stock foreign-language books and it sometimes offers good discounts.  It complements the museum, maintaining its tone and providing a great resource for visitors.  Changing the focus of the Louvre shop to souvenirs cheapens the institution, gives less opportunity for visitors to learn more about the collection by finding related literature, and cuts off a key showcase for harder-to-find art books.

Monday, 11 March 2013

Whither Fragonard?

Picture: Getty
It's reported that the remainder of the Rau collection, which he left to Unicef, is going to be sold by Sotheby's, Bonhams and Lempertz.  It's a mixed bag, but the highlight is the stunning Fragonard, above, from the series of Portraits de Fantaisie, which Rau bought at auction in the 1970s for a very high price.  The Louvre has several, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. bought The Reader from the auction of the Erickson Collection (from which the Met bought Rembrandt's Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer for a record price).  Others are in the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown Massachusetts and the Art Institute of Chicago.
The Unicef site indicates that it will be sold by Bonhams - in which case it will surely establish a new record for that auction house.  It was previously on loan to the Getty, and it would be a great acquisition for them, complementing the impressive newly discovered Watteau that they bought recently.  Cleveland is another plausible institutional buyer.  I suspect the Kimbell, another museum with deep pockets, will struggle to compete after recently buying expensive paintings by Poussin and attributed to Michelangelo (and they're completing a building project, too).  I'd love to see it in National Gallery.  It's obviously an impossible acquisition for them, but their collection of French eighteenth century art is weak (the good stuff is in the Wallace Collection), and there's nothing quite like this in any British collection. 

Sunday, 10 March 2013

More bad wall text

Picture: Melbourne Art Network
Melbourne Art Network tweeted this absolute gem from Kelvingrove in Glasgow, a museum that takes dumbing down to new heights.
It was in response to another strident and brilliant editorial in the Burlington Magazine on the state of art writing.  It's frustrating that the Burlington is so expensive to access on-line - I got dirty looks from the staff at the National Gallery shop yesterday when I started to read a third article, propping myself up by the cash register - but the freely available editorials are always brilliant and always right. 

Salad poisoning

Federico Barocci, subject of a current exhibition at the National Gallery, is said to have suffered illness for much of his life from eating a salad poisoned by jealous rivals.  This confirms all of my suspicions about salad.  It's a nice anecdote, and the exhibition catalogue makes a meal* out of explaining the cause of his illness.  But I'm reminded that psychologists warn us of a 'cognitive bias' towards perceiving agency behind events, even where there is none (imagining that the computer has it in for me and the rain is deliberately spoiling the barbecue).  The frequent references to poisoning in historical literature may reflect poor hygiene and bad food, rather than easy availability of effective poisons.
Another explanation discussed in the catalogue is that he was poisoned by lead in the paints he used.  This strikes me as pure speculation.  It begs the question of why Barocci got lead poisoning (which I understand to be a cumulative process) early in his life, whereas other artists continued to use lead paints to a ripe old age without succumbing.  I doubt we'll ever have a good explanation of Barocci's illness, not that it matters for appreciating his art.  I'm just glad to have a nice anecdote to back up my salad-phobia.  In restaurants now I'll look in horror at any dining companion considering a salad, and say, "do you know what that stuff did to Federico Barocci?"

Saturday, 9 March 2013

The Value of Old Books

Picture: Wikipedia
After visiting the National Gallery today I popped into Quinto on Charing Cross Road and was delighted to find a cheap copy of In the National Gallery: A first introduction to the works of the early Italian Schools as there represented.  By Mrs. C.R.Peers with many illustrations, published by the Medici Society in 1922.  It's a lavish production, leather bound with gilt edges and some early colour pictures.  The wonderfully archaic text hasn't really endured, but its value to me is in the old photographs taken before the disastrous campaign of 'restoration' undertaken by Helmut Ruhemann.  The colour picture of Uccello's Battle of San Romano (recent picture above) is a bit grainy and I can't get a decent scan, but it's quite different from its current appearance.  It shows areas of sky painted over the original landscape (now removed).  In 1922 it was already tragically over-cleaned, with broad flat areas of grey and white in the horse, but even in this grainy picture I discern more subtlety than is present today.
Even when they're in the bargain box, books like this rarely seem to sell.  The Internet offers fantastic opportunities for art historical research, but it's a shame to neglect old books. 

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

The Young Van Dyck, and some exhibition gossip

Picture: Prado
I went to see The Young Van Dyck exhibition at the Prado last weekend.  It is truly an outstanding show.  I'll write a full review later, but it's rare to see such a serious exhibition on this scale.  Poussin's Landscapes at the Met a few years ago was comparable, but there was less justification for it; it was great to see so many Poussin landscapes gathered together, but I can't say it made me see Poussin differently.  
The exhibition traces Van Dyck's precocious development at a very young age, trying out different techniques, working alongside Rubens and other artists in Rubens' studio.  Seeing different versions of his early paintings was instructive, and drawings were effectively integrated into the display.  I truly got a new appreciation of the artist.  I rarely say that after an exhibition; many are less than the sum of their parts, and any new insights come from seeing the individual works rather than gaining something extra from their assemblage and display.  This exhibition was insightful and intelligent without being arid - it's a real visual treat. 
It's been extended to the end of March, so it's not too late to go.  I was sceptical about the extension - it seemed like a planned marketing ploy to me, and I suspected that they'd negotiated loans with an option to extend.  But I spoke to the curator of one of the museums that lent to the show, and I was assured that they did contact lenders and ask for an extension.  I was also told that when the Vasari exhibition in Florence was extended a few years ago they simply returned the drawings to lenders without requesting an extension, and replaced them with facsimiles!  They were at least identified as facsimiles on the wall text, and apparently no one complained.
I'm delighted that they've extended, but I'm not sure why; it doesn't seem to be popular demand.  Admission is covered by the general entrance fee to the Prado, and they didn't seem particularly assiduous in counting people in.   I'm conflicted by my desire to see things in peace and quiet, and my wish for as many people as possible to see this superb exhibition.  Fortunate for me, the exhibition was fairly quiet when I went (on both the Saturday and Sunday).  By contrast, a frivolous-sounding impressionist exhibition at the Thyssen had a three hour wait for a timed entry slot.  Given the risk and expense of transporting the exhibits, it seems right that it should run for as long as possible. 

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Art trip cancelled - Adriatic coast closed

Picture: Visit Italy
I'd planned an art trip to Italy's Adriatic coast in late March.  I was going to cycle between the towns that have famous pictures that few have seen - Piero della Francesca in Rimini and Urbino, Lorenzo Lotto in Recanati and Jesi, Bellini in Pesaro, Titian in Ancona (etc...).   The first blow was when I found out that the Barocci are all at the National Gallery.  Then I discovered that the Pesaro museum is mostly closed for refurbishment.  Now I hear that the Ancona Titian is on loan to a show in Rome.  Basta!  I'm going somewhere else. 
I'm going to brave the crowds and go to the Titian show in Rome, I think, and maybe the Springtime in the Renaissance exhibition in Florence.  But I'm sad to be forced back to the main tourist centres.  Perhaps I'll do the other side of the Piero trail (Arezzo, Sansepolcro, Monterchi), and I'd like to see Citta di Castello too.  I'll let you know.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Time to slaughter the sacred cow?

Picture: Flickr
Free entry to museums enjoys bipartisan support in the UK, but it's been up for debate following Mahon's conditional bequest of paintings that can be taken back if the beneficiaries charge for entry.  Unfortunately museums are cursed with false friends, and their philistine advocates have made free admission untenable.  It is logically untenable because they have jettisoned all sense of what makes museums uniquely special; instead they defend them instrumentally as places that can deliver all kinds of mandated outcomes.  And it is morally untenable because the single-minded defense of free admission at any price has meant that budget cuts have led to more corrupting forms of fundraising, and to essential services being cut.

The Museums Association is currently debating whether museums should promote 'wellbeing' or 'social justice' - or maybe a bit of both.  The problem is that once you start selling yourself as a tool to promote fashionable public policy targets, you find yourself in a competition you cannot win.  You can twist museums to new ends, but most museums were founded long before people started thinking of wellbeing as a goal explicitly to be promoted by public institutions and museums are not well designed for these arbitrary new purposes. 

If the claim to funding rests on the ability of museums to promote wellbeing, the question isn't whether we should or should not provide free access to museums, but rather whether the 'wellbeing budget' will be spent more efficiently on museums or on something else.  It might provide better value for money if we closed all museums, sold off their musty old collections, and put the cash towards yogic flying instead.  People reasonably wonder why museums are free, but swimming pools charge.  Let's defer the debate about the purpose of museums, but we should recognise that these are weak arguments when competing for a limited and diminishing pot of public money.

Other false friends think museums should be free because they are good value for money on an economic calculation.  They cite studies purporting to demonstrate the positive economic contribution of culture.  Even if we accept their dodgy research, do they really imagine that this effect is greater because museums don't charge?  As if millions of visitors to crowded museums like the Louvre and Prado don't spend money elsewhere because they have to fork out for admission.  Given the high proportion of overseas visitors, free admission represents a subsidy by British taxpayers to wealthy foreign tourists.  Speaking as a British taxpayer, I'm happy to contribute to that subsidy - seems very hospitable, and the least we can do given that we're disproportionately blessed with masterpieces from around the world.  But the purely economic logic seems pretty tenuous.

I also have a moral challenge to free admission.  Free admission has become an absolute that is defended with hysterical zeal, and that zeal has blinded its advocates to other kinds of harm.  People fight for free admission even as other changes destroy the quality of the museum experience, corrupt its purpose and damage the artifacts that museums were supposed to protect.  Funding cuts have caused some museums to cut back on essential security, and others to permit riotous behaviour upon payment of a modest fee. These debasements are far more serious than the threat of admission charges, but they pass largely unmentioned.

The National Gallery reduced the number of guards in its galleries.  Shortly afterwards two Poussins were vandalised.  At the Tate it's sometimes hard to find any guards at all; they seem to move around in pairs chatting to each other, avoiding visitors where possible.  A Rothko was recently vandalised there.  The Wallace Collection raises cash by hiring itself out as a venue for posh parties.  A frame was recently damaged on a painting that was on loan.  Precious and fragile objects that were left in trust to nation, and which had rarely been moved, are now shuffled in and out of galleries on a regular basis to make space for dinner guests.  Where a reverential attitude was once maintained, drunken revellers now stumble.  Obviously free admission doesn't cause these harms, but revenue from admission charges could ameliorate them.

For all that, I'm actually a strong supporter of free admission to museums. People whine about snootiness and elitism discouraging people from visiting, which strikes me as errant nonsense. But cost is a real barrier; it is a barrier to any kind of entry, but it's especially a barrier to the kind of spontaneous brief visits that are the best introduction to more sustained engagement. In London, where I live, I go little and often, sometimes popping my head around the door and leaving if it's too crowded, or just going to see one or two things. If they charged admission, I expect I'd be able to buy an annual ticket for the National Gallery, but I'd probably never return to Tate Modern, which I visit maybe a couple of times a year.
A robust case for free admission requires greater intellectual courage from supporters of museums.  We must be able to make a strong case for the value of museums in their own terms, rather than hitching them to fashionable agendas.  Some people do, and not all who speak up for free admission are guilty of the errors I've highlighted.  But for now, the agenda has been captured by fools and knaves.  I am loath to see admission charges introduced, but they are a lesser evil then the defilement of museums as raucous party venues, or damage to collections that they cannot guard.