Sunday, 28 July 2013

Detroit bankruptcy causes outbreak of woolly thinking

Ruisdael The Jewish Cemetery DIA
Detroit's bankruptcy has occasioned an outbreak of poorly argued, ill-considered and downright silly commentary about the fate of its art museum. Peter Schjeldahl wrote a hasty and careless blog in the New Yorker implying that selling the art collection is a no-brainer, only to recant two days later. Erstwhile libertarian Virginia Postrel wants the pictures sold, but only if she can chose who can buy them. And Tim Worstall tries to make a bold economic case for sale, but this free marketeer understands neither fine art nor free markets.   

Postrel argued that Detroit's art should be sold to US museums in larger and wealthier areas - trying to make an economic argument for their sale and a public good argument for their retention by US museums. The logic of these arguments points in opposite directions. They'd be seen by more people in a megalopolis like Karachi (which has 13m inhabitants but no money), and they'd raise more funds if they were sold to the highest bidder - more likely to be a private collector than a public museum. Postrel has failed to make a case for her preferred variety of fudge. 

Postrel is known as a libertarian, but her insistence on limiting sales to US museums and her stated preference that the art moves to more dynamic cities reeks of dirigiste authoritarianism, imposing her preferences by insisting on a constrained market. In any case, the idea that some cities are more worthy of great art than others is daft. Yes, it's a historical accident that a small declining midwestern city has ended up with a phenomenal museum of international importance, but lucky them. Florence and Venice are relatively less important cities than in their heyday - should they sell off their art too? 

Worstall thinks selling would be 'the very definition of wealth creation' because the buyer by definition values the art more than the money paid, and Detroit can pay pensions and benefits rather than keeping a few pictures "that the well to do like to oooh and aaah at".  He's right on the level of this old joke:
Experienced economist and not so experienced economist are walking down the road. They come across a pile of horse manure lying on the asphalt.
Experienced economist: "If you eat it I'll give you $20,000!"
Not so experienced economist runs his optimization problem and figures out he's better off eating it so he does and collects money.
Continuing along the same road they come across another pile of horse manure.
Not so experienced economist: "Now, if YOU eat this I’ll give YOU $20,000."
After evaluating the proposal experienced economist eats it and collects the money.
They go on. The not so experienced economist starts thinking: "Listen, we both have the same amount of money we had before, but we both ate horse manure. I don't see us being better off."
The experienced economist replies "Well, that's true, but you overlooked the fact that we've been just involved in $40,000 of trade."
Measured increases in wealth creation are only proxies for human welfare, and trade is a means to an end, not an end itself. We're obviously better off if some 'wealth' isn't created - the wealth we could make from building apartments over Central Park, for example (only used by a few yuppie joggers, as Worstall might say), or from selling Thalidomide. Sophisticated free market economists have always understood these commonplace observations, which are well established in the history of economic thought even if they haven't yet reached Tim Worstall. The irony is that Worstall does a disservice to the cause of free markets by turning it into an absolute principle to be pursued even when demonstrably against the public interest. 

The principle of preserving museums in good times and bad is inviolable, and the eternal public benefit is beyond measure. Detroit's museum makes great works of art available not only to their hundreds of thousands of visitors, but in principle to the entire world. Anyone can go and freely get access to see them. Selling them off to billionaires diminishes the public sphere, and destroys wealth by any sensible assessment, because the pictures are enjoyed only by a few dozen privileged people rather than anyone. 

Looking at the gain from sale in pure dollar terms is misleading. Worstall's theory is that if Detroit is willing to sell a particular picture if it can get at least $1m for it, and a collector pays $10m at auction, then $9m of value has been unlocked. But measuring the social benefit in these terms is wrong, because the marginal benefit of a few million bucks is trivial to the man with a fortune of $10 billion. Economists recognise that the obvious fact that the marginal benefit of an extra dollar is greater to the pauper than to the millionaire. 

A new revenue stream is tapped to the extent that the pictures are sold abroad, but it is humiliating for any nation to resort to selling its cultural treasures abroad to fill its coffers. If pictures are sold to other museums, the public loses to the extent that other pictures not yet in the public domain are not acquired. And if pictures are sold to American billionaires, the money surely could be raised instead by increasing taxes on the very rich. Economists argue about the extent to which marginal increases in taxation are counterproductive, and it's generally accepted that at very high levels tax increases are damaging. But an increase from current relatively low levels in the US would surely be more acceptable than the certain harm arising from selling its cultural patrimony. 

Friday, 26 July 2013

Friday fun

Picture: Telegraph
Connected to neither art history nor grumpiness, but I thought I'd share a lucky second hand bookshop discovery that I enjoyed: A Christmas Cracker, being a commonplace selection by John Julius Norwich, 2005. It looks like his version of a Christmas card, signed and inscribed to the recipients. But instead of the usual twee images, it's a wonderful collection of quotations like this from an official English translation of the Japanese Highway Code:
When a passenger of the foot hove in sight, tootle the horn trumpet to him melodiously at first. If he still obstacles your passage, tootle him with vigour and express by word of mouth the warning, "Hi, Hi".
Go soothingly on the grease-mud, as there lurk the skid demon. Press the brake of the foot as you roll around the corners to save the collapse and tie-up.
Ah  yes, darn that skid-demon! Even more irresistible was this gem from John Betjeman to Miss Jane Boulenger, whom Norwich suspects is - contrary to Betjeman's assumption - not in fact French:
Chere M'lle
J'ai correcte les typescrips. A la meme temps j'ai made a list of suitable illustrations que je suis keeping pour aide memoire quand nous come to review le whole libre.
C'est tres important pour emphasise au le Major que les illustrations sont tres importants, aussi make-up. J'implore lui ne settez anything up in type until we discuss format et whether je suis going to be allowed couleur aussi whether le libre est not trop plein de discontent & sur la meme note. Aussi comme far ce serai possible departer from photographs.
Au revoir
Sean O'betjeman [sic, passim]
All wonderful stuff.

Thursday, 25 July 2013

German Paintings in the Met

Picture: Amazon
Maryan W. Ainsworth and Joshua P. Materman et al German Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1650-1600 Metropolitan Museum of Art/Yale University Press 2013

This is a superb museum catalogue. Brief introduction on the collection, substantive entries on the pictures, good technical information and bibliography. Above all, it's judicious in its assessment of condition and generally balanced on questions of attribution. The greatest problem with museum catalogues is that they are often too uncritical. Some of the catalogues of London's National Gallery are utterly unreliable on questions of condition, believing every wreck to be 'well preserved'. Other catalogues are too optimistic on attribution. I thought the discussion of Holbein and Cranach in this catalogue especially good, rightly downgrading a number of good (but not quite good enough) pictures from Holbein to his studio. The analysis of the Met's Cranachs is also well-reasoned, although it's not a field I'm sufficiently familiar with to comment with any authority. However, I found the discussion of Durer's* Virgin and Child with St Anne (below) more problematic.

Picture: Metropolitan Museum of Art
The catalogue explains that this picture is in much better condition than is generally realised. It also points out that it's on panel, not transferred to canvas as many others have stated (surprising how often errors like this creep in and become firmly established through repetition). The catalogue firmly asserts Durer's authorship, but notes that Claus Grimm questioned it. Grimm is a scholar I admire greatly, but he is renowned for his connoisseurial parsimony. His splendid book on Frans Hals significantly reduces the corpus from Seymour Slive's earlier catalogue, and disputes the celebrated Merrymakers at Shrovetide in the Met - a challenge too quickly dismissed in Walter Liedtke's catalogue of the Met's Dutch pictures. This catalogue again dismisses Grimm without discussing the basis of his challenge, but what particularly piqued my interest was that an endnote points out that Christian Wolf's magnificent recent book on Durer also questions the attribution. It seems wrong to me that this wasn't brought out in the main text. The brusque dismissal of dissenting scholars makes me more sceptical, and I am not satisfied that this catalogue sufficiently establishes the case for Durer's authorship. Whoever painted it, it's one of the most important German paintings in America and merits a longer and fuller discussion than it receives in this catalogue.

Another quibble is that deaccessioned works are mentioned only in a checklist. The Met is notorious for flogging things it's bored by so they can buy shiny new things. Their choices are sometimes spectacularly inept, like this unrecognised Rubens recently sold. It would be helpful if the catalogue included brief entries on deaccessioned works, to give a fuller sense of the collection's history, and to enable independent assessment of their trading strategy.

Quibbles aside, I greatly enjoyed this valuable work on an outstanding and comprehensive collection of German art.

* I can't work out how to do umlauts, or accents, in Blogger and Duerer just looks wrong. Grateful if anyone can help? 

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Laura Knight

Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech Ring
Picture: Public Catalogue Foundation
My enjoyment of this lovely show was out of proportion to its quality. Laura Knight is a pleasant but not great artist. Some of the pictures are rather bad. So why did I enjoy the show so much? I liked its modesty, a small scale display of a variety of works. I liked the surprise of discovering an artist of whom I was only dimly aware. And I really liked some of the pictures. The World War II propaganda pictures are much better than I expected, some of the more experimental early pictures are striking and she was a good portraitist. She is said to be relatively neglected because she eschewed modernism and fell out of tune with the times, but she flirted with impressionism and tried out different styles and techniques. Laura Knight will stand the test of time better than many second rate modernists whose techniques were more radical but whose pictures were less good.

Her most innovative picture was of the Nuremberg Trial, but I don't think it works. I didn't care much for the Gypsy paintings, and the portrait of George Bernard Shaw is dreadful, but we can grant her some off-days. Knight was at her best as a more conventional portraitist. I don't mean to damn with faint praise when I say she was a technically competent artist, because there is much to enjoy in her technical competence. I've noticed that almost all the reviews have concentrated on her life rather than her art. She wrote two volumes of autobiography that I look forward to reading, and there's a new biography coming out soon.  It's hard to write about the good later portraits because their virtues are rather conventional - but do go along and enjoy them on their own terms. 

I'm quite tired of the endless round of predictable shows of great artists (Titian, Vermeer, Rembrandt ... again and again and again). They rarely show us anything new - in fact you can rarely see anything at all through the crowds. Small exhibitions of less familiar and less great artists can be much more rewarding - pleasing in their own right, and giving a deeper appreciation of the greatest artists by enriching our understanding of their context. This is one of the most enjoyable exhibitions I've been to in a long time. Congratulations to the NPG for doing it so well.

My only real disappointment was the catalogue, an outrageous £25 for a flimsy brochure. I had to have it because I'm an incorrigible bibliophile and I wanted a permanent record of pictures that were new to me. It's fine as far as it goes and the pictures are good, but the introduction comes to about eight pages of text padded out with a supplementary timeline, and the catalogue entries are rarely more than a paragraph. The bibliography (sorry, 'further reading' - they're trying to be accessible) looks excellent and I'm going to follow up my new interest in Laura Knight, but I would have hoped that those sources together with the surfeit of acknowledgments could have been a basis for a more substantive catalogue. The material here would better be presented in a cheaper handbook.

The exhibition is well displayed with good wall text and pictures that show a range of style, technique and quality. The gripe about the catalogue aside, this is a splendid show. 

Saturday, 20 July 2013

Interesting links

As Detroit goes bust, here's Virginia Postrel's argument that they should sell their art. Profoundly wrong and not well reasoned, but provocative and worth thinking about. She confuses an argument for sending art where it will be seen by most people with an argument for letting the market decide where art goes. Either argument is tenable, but she can't decide which she's making:

Leander buys a bear. Great blog post about buying art on a budget:

Bad decision by CofE (aren't they all?). Excellent common-sense demolition of convoluted reasoning by Church court:

I'm delighted that Hull has acquired this Lorenzetti, but scared that they've sent it to the National Gallery for cleaning:

Not an art story, but I loved this interview with Anthony Grafton. Now I want a stuffed crocodile:

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Rembrandt? Probably...

Portrait of Margaretha de Geer, Wife of Jacob Trip
Picture: Public Catalogue Foundation
One of the Rembrandt rooms at the National Gallery has been re-hung because the great portraits Jacob Trip and Margaretha de Geer, wife of Jacob Trip are on loan to the Frans Hals Museum. A couple of weeks ago I noticed that this smaller portrait of Margaretha de Geer (above) was listed as 'Attributed to Rembrandt'. I queried it at the information desk because I remembered it as being called simply 'Rembrandt'. I was surprised by the change, partly because I think it's by Rembrandt, and partly because the NG Director has said that he doesn't like using the term 'Attributed'.

I was impressed to get an email shortly after, giving me the full history of its labeling at the NG and sending me the entry on the picture from Art in the Making: Rembrandt. They confirmed that it was previously given to Rembrandt, and they've now updated the label to 'Probably by Rembrandt'. I think the avoidance of the term 'attributed' is silly, and I think the portrait is by Rembrandt, but on this occasion I think the new label is spot on. The NG is right to reflect scholarly dissent about the attribution, but also the balance of probability towards Rembrandt. Certain technical aspects of the picture are atypical of Rembrandt, and it rather pales beside the awesome power of the finished portrait, usually shown in the same room. But no other artist has come so close to capturing Rembrandt's late manner, and this is a very accomplished picture. The NG website still lists it as 'Attributed to Rembrandt'.

The portraits currently out on loan usually hang on a narrow wall at the end of a long room, which is exactly the wrong place for them. You need to be able to see them from either side to appreciate the brilliance of Rembrandt's artistry. He makes them appear to face towards you from either side, giving a different aspect. They're not meant to be seen only face-on. When they come home I hope they'll be hung on the adjacent wall where pictures by Jacob van Ruisdael and Simon de Vlieger currently hang.

When they were looking for the picture at the information desk they accidentally gave me a sneak preview of future loans, so I got advance notice of their Late Rembrandt exhibition and I know some of the pictures they're getting ... but I'm not going to tell.

Incidentally when I was looking for an image for the blog I came across this Mythological Scene on the Public Catalogue Foundation website. It's actually a copy of Rembrandt's Diana Bathing with Actaeon and Callisto

Monday, 15 July 2013

American collectors of Spanish Art, and other recently read books

Inger Reist and Jose Luis Colomer (eds) Collecting Spanish Art: Spain's Golden Age and America's Gilded Age Frick Collection 2012

I like Spanish art, I'm interested in the history of art collecting and I'm fascinated by America's gilded age. This is clearly a book for me. It covers the period from 1870 to 1930 when the American economy grew rapidly and the new plutocrats built up wonderful collections of European art. Three parts cover the developing American taste for Spanish art, the great collectors of Spanish art and the great Spanish artists that were collected. Inevitably there's a degree of repetition, but it's a price worth paying for the insights arising from the shifting perspective between collectors and artists.

I'm not convinced by the premise that there was a 'Spanish turn' in American art collecting in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, as Richard L. Kagan claims in the opening chapter of this book. The thesis is asserted with reference to the interest shown in Spain and in Spanish art, which I grant, but the relative neglect of other schools must be proven to make the case for a uniquely special interest in Spanish art. The great collectors bought fabulous Spanish paintings, but they bought fabulous Italian, Dutch and British pictures too. But no matter; the book's discussion of collecting Spanish art is fascinating. 

I especially enjoyed Susan Grace Galassi's chapter on Frick's Spanish art, which tells the story of his pursuit of famous paintings still in the Frick, his pursuit of others that got away, and a couple that were sold from the collection. There are two chapters on collecting of Murillo, but none on El Greco, which is a lamentable lacuna because America's gilded age coincided with El Greco's rehabilitation as one the greatest Spanish artists (albeit Spanish by residence rather than birth). American museums are therefore well endowed with El Grecos. Still, a fascinating book overall with lots of interesting information that was new to me.
Picture: Amazon
Mary-Anne Garry Wealthy Masters - 'provident and kind': The Household at Holkham 1697-1842 Larks Press 2012

I came across this book by chance in a second hand bookshop. It's from a small press, and hasn't had the attention it deserves. Holkham is one of the most wonderful English country houses, and I greatly enjoyed this social history of 'upstairs, downstairs' relationships, drawing on a rich seam of primary sources in the Holkham archives. Mary-Anne Garry describes a process of professionalisation when servants shifted from being regarded as part of the extended family to being seen (and seeing themselves) as professionals with more demarcated duties. She has an eye for good anecdotes. I was especially drawn to the account of travelling between Holkham and London - a couple of hours' drive today, but a major expedition in the eighteenth century. And in a crass instance of Georgian 'bling', Holkham's exterior windows were gilded in 1777, at a cost of a thousand pounds. There's lots more of interest in this fine book - well worth buying.

Picture: Amazon
Peter Hart The Great War Profile Books 2013

Lots of books are coming out for the centenary of World War I. I'm always suspicious of books rushed out for anniversaries, but those I've read so far have been excellent. This one's a corker. Peter Hart is the Oral Historian at the Imperial War Museum, and this narrative history is brought to life with extensive quotations from soldier's letters. He is relatively forgiving of the conduct of Allied military leadership, in line with the tenor of recent scholarship, but against the grain of cultural memory (e.g. Blackadder Goes Forth). This book is intellectually serious, but it's also a great read.
Picture: History Today
Anthony Pagden Enlightenment and why it still matters Oxford University Press 2013

Pagden is one of the most brilliant and learned historians of ideas, and I'd looked forward to this book. It is a highly readable and admirably opinionated book based on a lifetime's scholarship. But it still left me cold. The enlightenment is fated endlessly to be debated, and to be refashioned in the context of current concerns. But Pagden's enlightenment is just too Guardian for my taste - an enlightenment of multiculturalism, secularism and the European Union. I still think it's well worth reading, and the best recent volume on the enlightenment. But it's not enough on its own; you're going to have to read other syntheses and go back to some of the original sources to make sense of it for yourself. If the book provokes you to do that, it's succeeded admirably.

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Bernini: Sculpting in Clay

C.D. Dickerson et al Bernini: Sculpting in Clay Yale University Press 2012

This is  a superb scholarly study with excellent illustrations and fascinating technical details of Bernini's surviving clay studies. It's one of the best art history books I've read recently, but shame on all involved for publishing it half-finished.

Bernini is the giant of Baroque art, a talented draughtsman and painter, but a genius sculptor and architect. His greatest sculptures are grand dramatic marbles like the great Ecstasy of St Theresa, but he also produced small-scale clay models for many of his commissions, like three dimensional sketches. Bernini ran a busy studio and his assistants learned his techniques. Given the sketchy nature of the clay models, they present particular problems of attribution that are addressed in this book.

Like many of the best art books today this book was written to accompany an exhibition, which was organised by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and traveled to the Kimbell in Fort Worth. The show intended to bring together almost all of Bernini's surviving clay sculptures, but many are in the Hermitage and unfortunately were prevented from travelling because of the current Russian prohibition on loans to the US. These sculptures are particularly fragile, but I'm convinced that there was sufficient scholarly justification for mounting this exhibition to allow comparison of the work as a whole, supported by this serious scholarly catalogue. But there's no justification for showing it at more than one venue, and no justification for going ahead with half an exhibition. A more responsible museum would have postponed the exhibition until the sculptures could all be brought together, but the commercial juggernaut that is the modern museum over-rode scholarly and ethical considerations. 

The book remains an impressive achievement, with solid introductory chapters setting out the background and explaining connoisseurial challenges, and catalogue entries justifying individual attributions. The problem is that this is an exhibition catalogue and not a proper catalogue raisonne, because it fails to discuss rejected attributions. A catalogue that fails to consider marginal cases and explain why they are not autograph is only half a catalogue, and the harm done by this omission rises in proportion to the greatness of the book as a whole. It's hard to imagine that a publisher will commission another study of Bernini's bozzetti for a generation, which means that we must accept the diktat of the authorial team about the inauthenticity of the sculptures they don't deign to discuss.

This is an awkward half-way between an exhibition catalogue and a catalogue raisonne. These days the best exhibition catalogues are superb, but the rise of exhibition catalogue publishing seems to be squeezing traditional monographs. In this case it's detrimental to scholarship - I wonder the extent to which exhibition budgets and deadlines militated against proper consideration of rejected attributions. The book is a tremendous achievement and I commend it to you. I just wish they'd finished it properly.

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Around the galleries

I don't get to London's commercial art galleries as often as I'd like because they're not generally open at the weekends. But last week was extended opening hours and special shows to coincide with the old master auction viewings,so I went to see about a dozen dealer shows over a couple of days. 
Picture: Stephen Ongpin
I particularly liked Stephen Ongpin's show, in a small gallery in Mason's Yard. The Cecco Bravo (above) is a striking drawing by a Florentine baroque artist whose paintings I don't much care for. But this drawing of St Agatha, breasts on a platter, is a beautiful work of art that typifies a certain strain of counter-reformation high drama. It's priced at £42k. He also has a fine and well-preserved drawing by Menzel (£24k, below), another artist that I value more as draughtsman than as painter. It's a rapid study for a lost painting, but it's an effective work of art in its own right, finely worked up in the face. 
Picture: Stephen Ongpin
Menzel is not well represented in British collections. It would be a good acquisition for the National Gallery of Scotland, where it would complement a fine collection of nineteenth century European paintings that they've developed well in recent years. This unusual Interior of Ribe Cathedral, Denmark by Heinrich Hansen would be another good acquisition for them. It's £9k from Crispian Riley-Smith who had a fine display of mostly moderately priced drawings.
Heinrich Hansen Interior of Ribe Cathedral, Denmark
Picture: Crispian Riley-Smith
I was taken by this Gandolfi at Noortman (now a Sotheby's subsidiary and not formally part of Master Paintings Week). Oil sketches like this often look better than finished paintings because they weren't finished with the fine glazes that are so often damaged by repeated cleaning. There were more good drawings at Katrin Bellinger's gallery, but I was taken aback by the £20 asked for the catalogue. 
Picture: Tomasso Brothers
Tomasso Brothers had some wonderful things, maybe the most concentrated quality I saw on display. The lighting in their gallery is rather low, but they happily lent me a torch - which is anyway a more satisfactory way to examine bronzes, which can't possibly be illuminated from every angle. This superb bronze copy of the colossal Farnese Bull is probably Italian, but could be French. It's certainly excellent.
Picture: Tomasso Brothers
I'm glad to have such a concentration of art dealers on my doorstep, but I can see why they struggle against the auction houses. Big mark-ups are to be expected, and no one can reasonably object to a dealer making money from works bought well. But some of what's on offer seems awfully expensive. One dealer was asking £1.7m for a Van Dyck that was bought in at Christie's last December with a low estimate of £600k (just under £750k with premium and sales tax). I sometimes had the sense that dealers recognised I wasn't a buyer and responded to my price queries with the highest number they could think of - like Dr Evil in Austin Powers.

There's quite a range of dealers in Mayfair and I saw some extremes of quality. There were some over-restored, over-attributed and over-priced duds. One prominent dealer's stock was conspicuously dusty, another's paintings were crooked and some had typos on the wall text. A well-known dealer was asking over £80k for a picture with a label that mis-transcribed the clearly legible date. Others were excellent, and worked hard to earn their mark-ups. Philip Mould's gallery stood out as the most focused and well-displayed exhibition, centred on Peter Lely, and they had the single best painting - a Van Dyck self-portrait, which is sold. Johnny van Haeften had some fine things, particularly these by Dou and Frans van Mieris the Elder. There were enough galleries getting it right to make it worthwhile, although overall I enjoyed the drawings and sculptures more than the paintings. 

Monday, 8 July 2013

Frits Lugt biography reviewed

Picture: Fondation Custodia
J. F. Heijbroek Frits Lugt 1884-1970 Living for Art: A biography Thoth Bussun and Fondation Custodia Paris, 2012

Frits Lugt is my kind of guy - art collector and bibliophile, scholar and grouch. He's known for establishing the standard source on collector's marks, those little ownership stamps on old drawings that each have a Lugt number (Sir Thomas Lawrence's is Lugt 2445, Reynolds's is Lugt 2364). He built a large collection of drawings and prints, particularly Dutch and Flemish, and an unusual selection of mainly Dutch paintings.  He also collected old frames, antiquities and Asian art, and he built a magnificent library. A number of his pictures depict books, including the Heem below and a ter Borch Portrait of a Man in His Library. The Fondation Custodia in Paris that he established has published this handsomely produced biography of its benefactor.
Picture: Fondation Custodia
Lugt worked for an auction house until he inherited enough money to devote himself to collecting and to freelance scholarship. He catalogued the Dutch and Flemish drawings in the Louvre, and was an assiduous bibliographer of old auction catalogues. He spent the war years in the US, and returned to find those treasures that he'd left behind had been looted. The discussion of Lugt's partial recovery of his collection from thieving collaborators and opportunists after World War II is harrowing. The biography meticulously documents the life and work, but with Lugt I have the sense that the life was the work. 
Picture: Fondation Custodia
I suspect I'd enjoy harrumphing with Lugt. I don't always altogether agree with him, but his forthright views are often close to mine: "in my view an art historian is not worth much if he's not a connoisseur of art too. It is precisely in this regard that aptitude is of the utmost importance and the University helps the candidate barely at all" (p.318). He had no interest in honourary doctorates, and he was scathing about the corruption of those art historians who issued dodgy 'certificates of authenticity' for a fee. Lugt was cautious about lending his drawings, believing that public institutions lent their greatest treasures too freely, displayed them in light too long and lacked feeling for and understanding of their artistry - there are some juicy quotes about museum philistines, e.g. pp. 348-349.

Lugt's collection of drawings is comprehensive in Dutch and Flemish schools (especially Rembrandt and Rubens), and strong in French drawings, particularly Watteau. His collection of paintings is interesting; he went for more unusual works, like a summer scene by Avercamp, who is noted for his snowy winter landscapes, and a dead frog with flies buzzing around it by Bosschaert the younger, who is better known for versions of his father's pretty flower still lifes. His collection of Italian drawings is less comprehensive, but better than is often realised. There are plenty of first rate drawings, and areas of real strength, such as Guercino. Unfortunately it's all-but inaccessible. You can only 'see' the pictures on a one-hour guided tour, which is of no interest to me - I want to focus on the pictures I'm interested in, not those a guide chooses to point the group towards. It's apparently quite difficult to get access to the drawings, too.

Inspired by this biography I turned to the catalogues of his collection, which give further clues about his character. J. G. van Gelder wrote: "It is difficult for those who had dealings with him, which were not always the smoothest, to find a thoroughly convincing explanation of his character. To many people he appeared cold and impenetrable" (van Gelder 1977: xvi). James Byam-Shaw wrote: "I cannot say that I knew him intimately - I doubt if many people could claim that distinction - for he maintained a 'prestance presque militaire' [and] was decidedly stiff, both in appearance and manner" (Byam-Shaw 1983: xiv).
Picture: Frick
He seems to have been rather austere, but Byam-Shaw qualified his remarks by noting that he got on with Lugt. Judging by his collection he seems to have had a great fondness for nature and for animals - there are disproportionately many drawings of dogs in his collection, for example, including an excellent sheet of studies by Eeckhout (above). But that's a side of his character that's not documented, and probably rightly not speculated upon in the biography.

I question some of Heijbroek's assessments. Biagio d'Antonio's Portrait of a Young Man, which Lugt bought as a Pollaiuolo, is described as "one of the most important Renaissance paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York" (p.179), which seems overblown, fine though it is. All financial references are in guilders - even for British and American sales - which makes it difficult for non-Dutch readers to get an appreciation of magnitude. And it was irritating to have to rabbit around in the endnotes to find all sorts of key points that ought to have stayed in the main text. But these are quibbles. It's a fascinating book, well-illustrated and superbly produced. I do hope one day to see the collection for myself.

Byam-Shaw, James (1983) 'Introduction' to The Italian Drawings of the Frits Lugt Collection v.1 Paris: Institut Neerlandais  (I've taken the liberty of editing the quotation without distracting ellipses)

J.G. van Gelder (1977) 'Frits Lugt' in Rembrandt and his Century: Dutch drawings of the seventeenth century from the collection of Frits Lugt Institut Neerlandais Paris New York: Morgan Library

Saturday, 6 July 2013

Old Master Sales

Five studies of children
Picture: Christie's
Good drawings by the most famous draughtsmen made high prices last week, but there's a big gap in the middle market. Neil Jeffares points out on Twitter that the top two lots at Christie's and the top four at Sotheby's make up 43% of their respective sale totals. Some of the most interesting sheets went for relatively low prices. 

Christie's Old Master Drawings made £5,473,050. The fine Goya made £1,517,875 and the Watteau £817,875 (above). I thought the Watteau might have done even better. Watteau drawings in his characteristic three-crayon technique in black, red and white chalk are most esteemed. This one is a red chalk study, but it's superb - a great drawing, and a charming subject. The few outstanding Watteaus still in private hands are mainly in French collections, meaning that they could be pre-empted by a French museum or donated in lieu of taxes. This is one of the best still freely available. 

The Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo that I tipped made £21,250 - slightly above estimate, but still good value in my opinion. The lovely Danube School landscape made £60k hammer against a £50k-£80k estimate. Christie's reports the price as £73,875 but this lot is additionally subject to 5% sales tax on the hammer price, so the buyer might have paid £79,650 if liable for UK sales tax (5% on hammer price, 20% on premium). Ah, the complexities of auction prices! I was surprised that this Roslin pastel made only £22,500. Not the prettiest face, but a shimmering image. An unsurprising but regrettable failure was the album of Roman views by Pieter van Bloemen that didn't sell, which I was delighted to look through at the viewing. The estimate of £150k-£200k was reasonable for 255 views, but albums are hard to display. It will be a great shame if it's broken up. I wish a museum had stepped up to buy it and ensure it stays together - it would fit nicely in the Getty's collection, given the Getty's strong collection of Roman antiquities. Hope they buy it after the sale.
Picture: Sotheby's
The Sotheby's sale surprisingly did less well (£4,653,929), despite having a much larger sale with plenty of valuable lots. The headline numbers can be misleading in assessing relative commercial success, because so much depends on the terms achieved on private sales of the lots that didn't reach their reserves. The biggest casualties were the two Goyas, less nice than Christie's's and ambitiously estimated at £1.2m-£1.6m. Their more characteristic Watteau sold for £494,500 - a nice drawing, but it appealed to me less than the one at Christie's. The superb Boucher (above) did better, making £506,500 against an estimate of £150k-£200k. That's a high price for a Boucher, but absolutely deserved for this wonderful drawing. The surprises were that the marvelous Liotard failed to sell against a £350k-£450k estimate that I thought conservative, and that the anonymous drapery study that I admired made only £16k (£20k with premium). It's not the most commercial drawing, but still the bargain of the day.

The Mater Dolorosa
Picture: Christie's
Some one is seeing something I don't see in this 'Circle of Rubens' (above) that made £193,875 against an estimate of £2k-£4k at Christie's South Kensington. You can zoom in on the excellent Christie's website. It doesn't look like Rubens - in fact, it doesn't even look very good. Maybe I'm missing something. The impasto highlights seem crude and the homogeneous area of thick paint on the cheek isn't like Rubens. Art History News brought the 'Rubens' to my attention, and has great summaries of the paintings sales. Overall I thought there were few surprises in the evening sales. The Willem de Poorter that I thought underestimated made three times its high estimate at Christie's, selling for £217,875 including premium. Sotheby's estimated each of their two pictures by El Greco at £3m-£5m. I wasn't surprised that the better one made £8.1m (£9,154,500 with premium) and the worse made £3m (£3,442,500 with premium). I was surprised that the Rubens at Christie's made only its low estimate of £1.5m hammer (£1,741,875 with premium) - it would have done better if I'd only won the lottery in time. 

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Museum snobbery

Picture: Museums Association
The Museums Association recently commissioned a poll to find out what people want from museums. I was delighted to discover that the general public wants much the same as I want - in particular, a focus on collections rather than the silly platitudes in some mission statements. Unfortunately the imperious Museums Association believes that it knows better, and has launched a new 'vision' that, funnily enough, reflects closely the original consultation document put together by the Museums Association. 

I'm unabashedly in favour of the good kind of elitism, the kind that's based on earned authority and challenges us to rise to the highest standards (Kenneth Clark, I'm thinking of you here). I think it's perfectly reasonable to reject the findings of an opinion poll if you can make a case for giving people something better than what they think they want. But I'm appalled by the chutzpah of this document, which is all about involving audiences - but only, it seems, if you already agree with the Museums Association's 'vision'. The document talks of visitors as 'creators' of knowledge and calls for the facilitation of user-generated content, but on the evidence of this process I don't believe for a moment that they value user-generated content unless it's consistent with their prejudices. Theirs is a dishonest elitism that permits no challenge, hiding behind the spurious authority of rights talk and populism. My kind of elitism is demanding but democratic - anyone can raise a challenge provided they can establish sufficient expertise.

The 'vision' document is utter twaddle. It takes fashionable nostrums about community cohesion and social justice and asserts that museums are perfect instruments for implementing them. It talks of 'building' on museums' established expertise in interpreting objects, but as Tiffany Jenkins points out in this fine critique, in the past decade natural history curators have fallen 35% and art curators have fallen 23% (ironically the source is the Museums Association). It's simply not true that "museums use, understand and care for their collections better than ever before" (p.12). Museums aren't able to perform there core role as well as they used to, and nonsense objectives are being pursued at the expense of their actual purpose.

Parts of the document are moronic but harmless. Take this platitude: "Good museums offer excellent experiences that meet audience needs". Yep, I prefer those to the museums that offer mediocre experiences that no one wants. And museums "improve mental and physical health". Agreed, walking around a museum is better for you than sitting in front of the TV. Great point, Museums Association. Maybe 'excellent' museums will take it further and institute weekend museum racing? Who can get from the Leonardo to the cafe first? Hmm, thinking about it even the harmless bits start to worry me...

Some of the document is downright pernicious. Here's a claim that was decisively rejected in polling: "Social Justice is at the heart of the impact of museums". Social justice is a dreadful term. At one point the document claims that the 'essence' of social justice is that museums should be accessible to all, but if that's all there is to it then it was almost fully achieved in the nineteenth century. I think the point is that the term 'social justice' hints at a much bigger agenda, but it's an inherently contentious agenda. Is social justice served by equality of opportunity or of outcome? Is it served by low taxes that allow people to benefit from the fruits of their labour, or high taxes that facilitate redistribution? Is it served by permitting abortion to enable social justice for women, or prohibiting it to enable social justice for unborn children? This blog isn't the place to debate any of these contentious issues, and neither is a museum. The idea that there is some uncontested notion of social justice that should be at the heart of the impact of museums is dangerously naive, and if they think it'll help the case for government funding then they're fools.

Vacuous statements about changing lives and 'maximising social impact' are pointless at best, but in the current environment of reduced funding they are a dangerous distraction from museums doing the things that we really value - collecting, preserving and displaying objects that are culturally, historically or scientifically meaningful.

Monday, 1 July 2013

Old Master Drawing bargains

Picture: Sotherby's
The Old Master Drawings sales at Sotheby's and Christie's have some fabulous treasures. Each sale has top lots by Goya, Watteau and Fragonard, and some outstanding pastels (Liotard at Sotheby's, Roslin at Christie's - on which, see Neil Jeffares' excellent commentary). There are also some lesser works that offer exceptionally good value. 

I was struck by the excellent anonymous drapery study, above, at Sotheby's. It has so skilfully captured the solid form under the drapery, particularly in that right leg. Sotheby's thinks the figure is stepping to the right, but I agree with Wethey that he's climbing a stair (maybe ascending an altar). It's estimated at just £18k-£22k. The great scholar Philip Pouncey accepted the traditional attribution to Titian, whereas Wethey listed it as seventeenth century in his classic study of Titian's drawings, although the Sotheby's catalogue note doesn't mention that Wethey hadn't seen the original. I don't think either is correct. It can't be Baroque. I can see the attraction of attributing to Titian, partly by eliminating other artists of sufficient stature to have produced this masterful study (certainly not Tintoretto, for example). Sotheby's suggests the Bassano school, which is reasonable but I don't think it's by Jacopo and I know of no other artist in his entourage capable of anything this good. Whoever it's by - and I doubt attribution will ever satisfactorily be resolved - it's a fine work of art for a very reasonable estimate. 
Cupid with amorini and a flaming torch amongst the clouds
Picture: Christie's
There are no attribution issues with the next bargain - it's certainly by one of the greatest draughtsman of them all, Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo and it comes from one of a number of well-known albums of his drawings. It's estimated at £10k-£15k. He was quite prolific and his drawings come up for sale quite often, which keeps prices down. This is a fine and very pleasing example of his art, a life-enhancing thing to misappropriate a term of Berenson's that he'd never use for anything so decadent. 

The drapery study is from the collection of Denys Sutton, former editor of Apollo, who owned a number of other good mid-range lots at the Sotheby's sale including a Gaspard Dughet Landscape and this Jacques-Louis David view of Rome. If you buy the David, please leave it to the British Museum in your will - he is woefully under-represented there, especially in contrast with earlier French artists like Watteau. 

One other thing I wanted to share was this wonderful bronze Head of Bacchus from Riccio's studio, less than three inches high. It's a tiny wonderful thing that I'd love to have on the bookshelf above the desk where I'm writing this, to look approvingly at the wine I'm drinking. It's with Christie's estimated at £20k-£30k.
Picture: Christie's

Old Master Painting sales

Picture: Sotheby's
I've enjoyed a couple of days viewing the big old master sales at Sotheby's and Christie's, together with exhibitions at many of London's art dealers. Sotheby's has two pictures by El Greco, each estimated at £3m-£5m. The St Dominic above is superb. The catalogue note follows Wethey in giving partial responsibility to El Greco's studio, which is normal for his late works. Wethey says that "the technique of the picture is that of the workshop, but the quality suggests that the master retouched it" (Harold Wethey El Greco and his school Princeton University Press, v.2 p.113 - not quoted in the catalogue). I think he's referring to the way that the different parts of the picture have been built up separately, with red ground showing through as outlines between forms, especially around the figure. But it is rather thinly painted, so I find it hard to believe that he would have gone over areas painted by a studio hand. And lots of subtle touches reveal the hand of the master - the expressive flecks of red paint in the fingers and the impressive brooding sky. I think Wethey is rather harsh; it strikes me that this is a substantially autograph picture. 

El Greco's style is readily recongnised, but he ran a large studio churning out variants of his successful compositions. Sotheby's other El Greco is a Crucifixion - an imposing picture on a scale rarely seen on the market. But its quality is obviously weaker, partly because it's quite abraded. Just compare the sky between the two pictures. A lot of El Grecos have rather schematic skies like this one, far removed from the subtlety of the St Dominic. Although it suffers from comparison with St Dominic, it's still an impressive picture. I'd love to see it go to the Meadows Museum in Dallas, where it would look fabulous in the large central room with earlier Spanish altarpieces, showing the revolutionary impact that El Greco had on Spanish art.
Picture: Sotheby's
I'd never even heard of Paulin-Jean-Baptiste Guerin, a nineteenth century French painter admired by Ingres and Gericault, but this Self Portrait impressed me. It's estimated at £100k-£150k, presumably reflecting Guerin's relative obscurity. That seems good value for such quality.
Picture: Sotheby's
I've written previously about the Christie's highlights, so here are the lowlights. This Christ and the Woman taken in Adultery by Willem de Poorter looks superb behind rather discoloured varnish. Follow the link and use the zoom function to focus in on the wonderful Rembrandt/Lievens details of the figures on the right. The estimate of £40k - £60k seems absurdly low to me. It lacks the immediate charm of more expensive Dutch pictures, and the architecture rather overwhelms the figures, but the parts that are good are very very good.
Christ and the Woman taken in Adultery
Picture: Christie's
I also liked this small Rembrandt school Head of a Bearded Man, and for something completely different this large dog picture by Agasse stole my heart:
Hounds in a kennel
Picture: Christie's
The estimate of £400k-£600k reflects its charm as much as its artistic interest, but it won me over. The top dog looking out at us wears his authority so convincingly.