Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Barber Institute Exhibition - price tags at the National Gallery

Picture: NG
Copyright Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham
The Barber Institute is one of my favourite museums - a fine building with a really excellent small collection.  Almost everything there has been bought from the endowment left by Lady Hattie Barber, so the taste of successive directors is clearly evident.  Barber stipulated that acquisitions should be of a quality demanded by the National Gallery or the Wallace Collection - fine sentiments, although she seems not to have known that the Wallace Collection is a static museum that doesn't acquire new works.  

The Barber Institute's earliest acquisitions were displayed in London's National Gallery gallery until its own building in Birmingham was completed.  Last weekend I saw them back in the National Gallery for a small exhibition marking the 80th anniversary of the Barber.  An 80th anniversary is a particularly flimsy excuse for a show, but these pictures are worth seeing and the exhibition focuses on the formation of the collection under Thomas Bodkin, the first director.  It includes a fine Poussin, one of the best Monets in the country and Simone Martini's St John the Evangelist (above) - my favourite in the show.

Some years ago I looked through some of the files at the Barber Institute, and the receipts were always marked 'Not to be shown to students'.  In this exhibition even students can see the prices paid, and its a fascinating record of the collection's history.  The exhibition suggests that the £2,000 paid for the Poussin's Tancred and Erminia was high, but even for the time that seems quite reasonable - a much better buy than the very first purchase, a Lancret that cost £1,800.      

Bodkin bought the two greatest pictures in the Barber's collection - a superb Rubens landscape, and the exceptional Murillo Marriage Feast at Cana - the latter cost only £3,500 and is surely the best Murillo in the country.  The Simone Martini and Monet were also very good purchases.

But on the other hand, he paid £14,000 for a picture from Botticelli's studio (listed as Botticelli in the catalogue, but generally regarded as a good studio version of a painting in the Pitti).  That's more than the Rubens and Murillo combined.  Two expensive acquisitions were in particularly poor condition - a Tintoretto that cost £2,000 and Giovanni Bellini's Portrait of a Boy at £9,500.  Two costly purchases were really bad - a feeble 'Rembrandt' for £14,000 and 'Rubens' for £6,000.  And paintings by Constable Corot, Gauguin, Goya, Le Nain and Zurbaran turned out to be imitations or studio works - some of them conspicuously weak.

Bodkin had a relatively large budget and was buying during the depression, when prices were low and good pictures plentiful.  He bought some wonderful things, but I can't help thinking that he could have done much better.

The accompanying book is an interesting read, but a bit mixed.  I'd always wanted to know more about Lady Barber.  The chapter on her makes a valiant effort, but there's not much material to go on, and she doesn't seem particularly interesting.  The chapter on sculpture and decorative arts is especially strong, and its judgments of Bodkin's collecting seem astute.  The chapter on the paintings is more measured, and in my opinion too generous in its assessment of Bodkin.  I winced when I read the claim that auction trade with the US "literally stopped overnight" (p.71).  If the Assistant Curator of the Barber Institute doesn't know what 'literally' means, surely one of her academic colleagues could have caught that howler?  

A few pieces from the Barber's collection of sculpture and decorative art are on display at the Wallace, but don't get too excited - it's just four pieces in an area outside the toilets.  If you're in London, it's worth calling in on the Wallace and the NG to see the Barber loans.  Better still, wait until the exhibition's finished and go to see them at home in Birmingham with the rest of this great collection.

Monday, 27 May 2013

Detroit Institute of Arts for sale?

The Wedding Dance
Picture: DIA
Alarming news via AHN that Detroit's art museum might be sold off to pay city debt, because the City of Detroit itself owns the museum.  Detroit's financial position is dire, and if it seeks bankruptcy protection it might have no choice but to sell works from the museum to satisfy creditors.  It seems unlikely that the museum as a whole will be sold.  I understand that there are legal defenses around amenity value that the City could use to defend it from creditors, and there will be restrictive covenants around gifts to the collection.  I see two more likely scenarios.

First, the City might rent out the collection.  Unfortunately the precedent is well-established that art can be dragged around the world for regular money-making tours without regard for the fragility of unique works of art.  Maybe legal arguments about ownership could be side-stepped by sending the collection on tour for a few years, or even leasing for decades to a new museum in the Middle East or Asia.  This is probably the worst possible outcome.  The city will still be deprived of its art, and we all lose when irreplaceable masterpieces are battered and bruised from their peregrinations.  Detroit has an empty museum building to maintain, and the threat of future sale or further loans will always deter future donors.  It may also start a trend of every hard-up municipality boarding up its museum and renting out the collection.

Second, more limited sales might take place.  The works bought by the City of Detroit are at greatest risk of sale.  Ownership is least at risk of dispute in these cases, and they will not be subject to restrictive covenants.  I've listed the key works at risk below, which includes maybe their greatest picture - Bruegel's Wedding Dance.  

The third possibility - total or near total sale - seems unlikely, but it's not impossible.  It would be a tragedy for Detroit and a terrible precedent - but in my view less harmful than renting out the collection.  It's potentially a boon to the art market, but marketing so many great works at once will be a challenge.  Perhaps a couple of buyers could be offered billion-dollar job lots - Doha, maybe Carlos Slim and a couple of other plutocrats.  Detroit's bonds are trading at around 91 cents on the dollar, so maybe Doha could buy up cheap bonds and offer them back to the City in return for art - a cost-effective way of buying.

Potential donors will now be nervous of funding the DIA because their donations might just subsidise the city's creditors.  The best scenario is that the City applies now to transfer the museum to independent trustees - a more common form of museum governance, and one that would protect the museum and benefit the city.  Given Detroit's financial situation, that could be regarded as a 'gratuitous alienation', unfairly depriving creditors of their due.  A court decision should therefore be sought to agree to the asset transfer now, ahead of any potential future claims.

What's for sale?
The collection is strong in Dutch art (including Rembrandt's Visitation and Ruisdael's Jewish Cemetery), nineteenth century French art (excellent Degas, Van Gogh and Cezanne) and early Italian art (Sassetta, Fra Angelico), and it has an outstanding collection of European sculpture (including Pollaiuolo's Judith).  But  most of the collection was acquired by donation, bequest or from donated funds.  These works, including the valuable impressionist and post-impressionist masterpieces, might not therefore be alienable.  

The following works were bought by the City and are most at risk of sale.  The Bruegel is most important, despite being rather extensively restored.  Together with more minor works bought by the City, and any other works that might not be encumbered with restrictive covenants, it could raise as little as $250-500m.  That's not an enormous amount of money in context of Detroit's debt, so maybe it won't be worth the court costs and public opprobrium that would arise from attempting to flog them.

Bruegel the Elder Wedding Dance
Van Eyck St Jerome (not really a Van Eyck - but a good picture, sometimes attributed to Petrus Christus.  Last early Netherlandish painting of this importance on market was probably Bouts Resurrection in 1980)
Chardin Dead Hare

Luca della Robbia Madonna and Child

Met rehang - getting it right

Picture: The Art Newspaper
Good news from The Art Newspaper.  I love everything in this story - they seem to be addressing all of the things that frustrated me about the Met.  They're taking back space from temporary exhibition galleries, rationalising the sequence of rooms, reuniting parts of altarpieces stupidly separated between the main collection and the Lehman wing, and painting the walls a neutral grey.  The article doesn't specifically mention the Altman Collection, which (like the Lehman and Annenberg collections) was supposed to be shown together in its own galleries.  The Met got around that by placing them in the middle of the European paintings so that the Altman Italian and Dutch pictures were linked both to each other and to the main run of Italian and Dutch paintings.  But the Altman Rembrandt is shown above between Vermeers given by Wrightsman and Marquand - so maybe they're taking the sensible decision of integrating the Altman Collection.

Wisely, they aren't bringing lots of pictures out of storage - there's a popular myth that museum basements are full of wonderful hidden masterpieces, but it's generally better to show the good stuff well rather than cram the walls with damaged and second rate works.  I'm pleased that they've avoided lots of restoration just because they're redisplaying the collection.  And it looks like they've got some interesting loans.  Well done them!  Maybe we could hire them to sort out Tate Britain for us.

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Half a billion at Christie's - what does it mean? Probably nothing.

Picture: Christie's
There's been a lot of pontificating after the Christie's Post-War and Contemporary Art sale on May 15 made $495,021,500 (including premium).  Sixty five lots were sold.  That's not a lot of data points compared to the millions or trillions of transactions making up other data series, like stock market indices or GDP.  The background to recent record prices is that there are a lot of billionaires in the world, and a couple of billionaires competing for a fashionable 'trophy' work of art can push the price into the stratosphere.  At those rarefied heights fashions change quickly and should be understood with reference to 'Hello' magazine rather than the Burlington.

Some people have made a link to quantitative easing ('QE'), but I'm not so sure.  QE involves the central bank buying bonds in the market.  The effective is to increase the money supply, because the central bank is effectively printing new money that is released into the economy in return for the bonds they buy.  That increases inflation in the economy, because it means that (all things being equal) there is more money chasing the same goods and services.  It's reasonable to assume that art prices will creep up in line with everything else.

But the stronger claim is that QE encourages art prices higher because it makes bonds unattractive investments.  Bond prices go up, which is good if you already own them.  But it means that new buyers are getting a worse return, because the effect of bond prices going is that the interest rate received by the investor (the 'yield') goes down.  If a $1m dollar bond paying $100k annual interest rises in price to $2m, then the yield has fallen from 10% to 5%.  The argument is that wealthy bond investors are putting their money into art as an alternative investment.

I have a few problems with that claim.  First, I suspect that the uber-rich are disproportionately invested in equities (shares) rather than bonds.  QE is somewhat favourable to equities, partly because they are an inflation hedge, and partly because of the more generally positive effects of QE on the growth outlook.  Second, QE typically involves buying government bonds.  Riskier corporate bonds may still be attractive, partly because QE is positive for growth and inflation, meaning that the risk of corporate defaults across the economy may be slightly lower with QE than without.

Turning to the positive case for investing in art, I'm even more sceptical   Art as an asset class is inherently speculative, because art produces no income stream.  Property, bonds and equities can be valued based on the cashflows that they generate.  Art gives pleasure to the owner, but you can only guess how much some one might pay in future for the pleasure of ownership.  You cannot rationally account for high art prices as an outcome of asset allocation decisions.  You can rationally allocate investment funds between equities, bonds and property, but art is a different category.  

The extraordinarily high transaction costs associated with art (measured in tens of percentage points for art rather than hundredths of a percentage point for financial assets) means that it's not even a sensible inflation hedge, except over extremely long time horizons - meaning generations rather than decades.  And each work of art is unique, meaning that the price is uncertain and volatile relative to any index you can devise.  Precious metals are a better hedge, or even gemstones if you think gold is over-valued.

Prices of top-level artworks reflect spending decisions by a relatively small group of squillionaires.  We should be cautious of generalising too much from their behaviour.  It's possible that it reflects more limited investment opportunities, meaning that the rich are consuming more and investing less.  But it could just be that a lot of the new rich from emerging economies are getting to the stage in their lives where they want to enjoy their wealth - and inexplicably some people get more enjoyment from Basquiat than from Rembrandt.

A new record total for an auction is a headline without a story.  It's tempting to create narratives, but it really doesn't mean very much.  

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Tate Britain rehang - nice display despite the curators

Yesterday I went to Tate Britain, where they've re-hung the pictures.  The new display has been warmly received by critics, but I suspect the praise is partly because expectations had been managed down so far by spectacularly inept recent displays at the Tate.  The new display is all right, but anyone can produce an 'all right' display by taking the cream of the Tate's collection and hanging it chronologically.  I like the idea of integrating sculpture and painting, but too often large sculptures just got in the way.  I think dense hangs in large galleries sometimes work (e.g. the National Gallery's Italian Baroque room or the Boston MFA's central gallery), but here the mix of works is jarring, and smaller paintings are lost in the crowd.

The problem at the Tate is that it all goes wrong every time any curatorial skill is required.  The Tate sacked a number of its most renowned curators last year.  It's a searing indictment of arts journalism that this received almost no press coverage, whereas the rehang of the permanent collection has been reviewed almost everywhere.  I haven't seen anyone make a connection between the two stories.  The Tate has tried to justify the paucity of wall text with silly claims about not wanting to get in the way of people looking (as if a few words at the side means that we can't see the paintings?).  I wonder if it's because there's no one left at the Tate who knows enough to write the labels.

Critics have rightly welcomed the return to a chronological hang, but the Tate has managed even this seem philistine.  Rather than hang by artist or school, they have hung according to a rigorously strict chronology, removing the curatorial judgment about schools and influences.  Jackie Wullschlager spoke to them for an article in the FT: "Year-on-year chronology, says Tate Britain director Penelope Curtis, is a 'neutral search tool', disabling curators from imposing textbook schools and 'isms' that are outdated and narrow."  If they're outdated, propose something else Penelope.

Curator Chris Stephens is later quoted as espousing a "pluralistic presentation appropriate for 'a digital age where we find our own material and narratives through surfing'".  This isn't empowering the visitor, it's just the abdication of responsibility by the curators.  And how lazy to blame the 'digital age' for their failure to share knowledge with visitors.  A sign says that they're still constructing the new Tate Britain and 'improved learning facilities' will follow.  What will they teach?  How to Google?

The allocation of space between old and new is absurdly skewed towards the new, as if Constable and Gainsborough were mere precursors to the achievements of Rose Wylie and David Hockney.  The selection of new art requires more curatorial judgment because it has not been tested by generations of critics and scholars.  The Tate gets it wrong, as Brian Sewell's review explains.

A final point made by many reviewers is worth repeating (more emphatically!).  The sponsor's* intrusive branding is obscene.  It taints the reputations of both donor and recipient.  Art History Today has a post making some more general points on museum sponsorship that's worth reading.    I've previously been neutral on the question of sponsorship, regarding it as more or less free funding.  The corrupting intrusion of the sponsor at the Tate is making me reconsider.

The overall effect is positive, and a great improvement on recent displays.  But much of that is due to the collection itself and the fine suite of restored galleries.  The Director and her staff are doing a terrible job and they desperate need to recover the curatorial expertise that was jettisoned when their colleagues were sacked last year.

* I refuse to give the culprits any more publicity by naming them.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

This week I've been reading...

Picture: Waterstones

Roy Hattersley The Devonshires Chatto & Windus
The Devonshires are a fascinating family, and Roy Hattersley has written some fine biographies.  This isn't one of them.  It's hard to write a sustained narrative history of a great Ducal family over four centuries that encompasses so many different interests - great politicians, art collectors and scientists as well as dissolute gamblers, drunks and letches.  Hattersley pottered about in the Devonshire archives without much to show for it.  Some of the mini-biographies are good, but they reveal few coherent themes beyond counterbalancing talents for acquiring great fortunes and frittering them away.  It's a good read, but rather lightweight.  

There is almost no discussion of the Devonshire art collections, beyond some reference to the library and the sculpture collection.  The Rembrandt that he mentions as being given up in lieu of death duties isn't even a Rembrandt.  The great collection of drawings was largely inherited from the Burlingtons by marriage, so isn't covered here.  It's impossible to write about everything in such a wide-ranging survey, but the neglect such a great art collection seemed to me a serious failing.  
Picture: Times Higher
Jonathan Sperber Karl Marx: A nineteenth century life W.W. Norton
Nothing to do with art history, but I admired this new biography of Marx.  It's a serious intellectual history that situates him in the context of radical nineteenth century politics, and it's also a great read.  Sperber is immensely knowledgeable about Marx's context and sources, and he gives the best short account of Capital  that I've ever read.  It's a superb achievement, but I think he goes too far in situating Marx in the context of arguments in Parisian cafes and London pubs rather than arguments about the future of the world, and  he doesn't adequately explain why Marx's ideas were so much more successful than those of his interlocutors.   

Marx didn't have much to say about art, and I find the idea of Marxist art history ridiculous, but S.S. Prawer's superb study Karl Marx and World Literature gives a vivid picture of Marx's engagement with the arts, revealing a deeply cultured thinker with an endearing fondness for trashy novels.

I've also recently finished Anthony Powell's twelve-volume Dance to the Music of Time, named for the Poussin painting at the Wallace Collection.  Every time I saw those fat trilogies in bookshops I felt a sense of rebuke; keen to read them but always putting them off because of their formidable length.  Some one once engaged me in conversation in front of the painting at the Wallace and ordered me in no uncertain terms to go and read them immediately, and he was right.  It's a fabulous series, utterly compelling.  The characters are brilliant and unforgettable, and it's a remarkably quick read because you cannot but make time for it.  I wish I'd read it sooner; I'm sure I'll read it again.  

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Drawings at Christ Church Picture Gallery

It's a while since I've updated on my quest to see all of Raphael's drawings, but in the long gap since my last post I've been to the British Museum print room three or four times, a couple more times to the Ashmolean, and also to the print rooms in Cambridge, Berlin, Florence, Windsor Castle and Christ Church College Picture Gallery.    I've now seen more than half of the drawings with a reasonable claim to be by Raphael.

Christ Church has some great paintings, and one of the most important collections of old master drawings in the country.  It's a small gallery that doesn't have the print room facilities of more famous collections, and it took a while to get an appointment.  Despite their limited resources, they were extremely helpful and accommodating and I got to spend much of the day looking through their sixteenth century Italian drawings. 

Picture: MS
This worn and faded drawing is a copy from Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel.  It's often attributed to Raphael, although without much confidence or enthusiasm.  It's in red chalk with some white highlighting, although it's not clear that the highlights are original.  The highlighted areas are quite worn and the white areas now rather rubbed, but the undifferentiated 'lumpy' application doesn't seem consistent with Raphael's occasional and subtle use of highlights.  The problem to keep in mind is that this is a copy of a painting, not a representation of real figures.  That makes the problem of attribution harder, because it reveals less of the individual hand of the draughtsman.  On balance I'm doubtful about the attribution to Raphael, but it's not an opinion I hold with much conviction. 
Picture: MS
This damaged drawing is rarely reproduced, but the catalogue entry intrigued me.  It's listed as 'Raphael (?) or Giulio Romano (?) Head of the Child Christ, for or from the Madonna of Francis I (Louvre)' in the  catalogue by James Byam Shaw and it's described as possibly the 'sad relic' of the original cartoon, with later colouring.  It's hard to say just how good it might have been in its original state, but I can't see an attribution to Raphael as sustainable.  The hair, whilst rubbed, hasn't been coloured in.  The 'finicky' treatment is quite unlike Raphael's, and is especially unlike the bravura hair in some of his surviving cartoons. 

This image hasn't reproduced well, but it's an excellent authentic Raphael. It's part of a small group of drawings of putti that Joannides speculates may have been for a decorative project.  They may simply have been designs for prints, as there is a related print after Raphael by Raimondi.  The coherence established by skillful depiction of interaction between the putti is masterful, and well ahead of what Raphael's students and imitators could achieve; it's a really beautiful drawing.  There is a third Raphael, studies for a Madonna and Child from his Florentine period, once part of his Pink Sketchbook.  It's a fine and undoubtedly authentic drawing, but not as beautiful as the Putti.

The drawings at Christ Church were collected by General John Guise in the eighteenth century, and they're a mixed bag.  There are many minor and damaged drawings alongside outstanding masterpieces.  I saw a lot of drawings that aren't illustrated in the excellent two-volume catalogue, and to be honest many deserved their obscurity.  But there were some other fabulous drawings, including a remarkably lively Perugino cartoon fragment.  I've come to appreciate Perugino more and more, as both draughtsman and painter; I think he's under-rated because he's so much less inventive than the greatest stars of the Renaissance.  Raphael's school is well-represented with a fine series of designs by Giulio Romano and good examples by Polidoro, Perino del Vaga and Peruzzi, and a charming Study of Pigeons ascribed to Giovanni da Udine.

The majority of the collection is Italian, but there are some good drawings from other schools.  In a small exhibition in the drawing gallery I was struck by the powerful and beautiful Jacob and Rachel attributed to Hugo van der Goes (above).  The small number of extant early Netherlandish drawings makes attribution hazardous, and Byam Shaw justifies the attribution because of its similarity to a drawing in the Seilern Collection (now at the Courtauld) that is no longer believed to be by van der Goes.  Whoever the artist, it's a fantastic drawing.