Monday, 30 June 2014

At the Jacquemart-André

Picture: Musée Jacquemart-André
Last week I went to the Musée Jacquemart-André in Paris. I made a special trip to see a masterpiece by Fragonard that I've long wanted to see, La Fête à Saint-Cloud (above), which is on loan until 21 July. This huge picture was probably part of an ensemble for a room along with some cut-down canvases at the National Gallery in Washington, one of which is also on loan here for the exhibition From Watteau to Fragonard: La Fête Galantes. I don't care for fête galantes, those briefly-fashionable bucolic bourgeois scenes that subvert the traditional hierarchy of painting types, falling somewhere between landscape, genre and history. These frivolous pictures epitomise for me all that is most despicable in the rococo. But they sometimes rose to great heights. I admire some of Watteau's smaller pictures, and you'd have to have a heart of stone not to love his drawings. And Fragonard's large decorative works are brilliant, especially the room at the Frick.
Pierrot Content, Jean Antoine Watteau
Picture: Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza
The small exhibition at the Jacquemart-André is well-conceived and on just the right scale to convey the range and development of the fête galantes without becoming repetitive. It starts with some of Watteau's best works, including the lovely Pierrot Concert in the Thyssen, which inspired Lucien Freud, and the Dulwich Les Plaisirs du Bal. His followers Lancret and Pater are often slightly regarded; Pater in particular is considered merely derivative. But well-chosen loans show both these artists at their best, as talented inventors in their own right. 

I had considered the fête galantes a monolithic type, but the exhibition illustrates its development, with Boucher's pastoral scenes, the incorporation of Orientalist themes and eventually Fragonard's grand decorations. There's also a small selection of drawings, which were an especially important part of the art of all the major exponents of the fête galantes. 

The final room with Fragonard's La Fête à Saint-Cloud was the highlight for me, because it included so many excellent pictures I hadn't seen before. La Fête à Saint-Cloud is owned by the French central bank, and is probably the most important Fragonard that isn't usually publicly accessible. It's shown here alongside a vivacious preliminary study for part of the composition, and Blindman's Buff from Washington DC, which was probably part of the same cycle. It must have been magnificent, better even than the famous surviving cycle at the Frick. The Frick pictures are represented here by two large oil sketches (another is in the Frick in Pittsburgh). It's all degenerate bourgeois frippery, of course, but so wonderfully painted and so magnificent.

The Jacquemart-André is a favourite of mine, but it's the wrong venue for exhibitions. It's a small house museum in a Parisian mansion, with detached frescoes by Tiepolo, some good French furniture, paintings by Mantegna, Uccello, Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Chardin and Fragonard, and sculptures including important bronzes by Donatello. There are some rather inflated attributions and some of the pictures are in quite poor condition, but I like its range and idiosyncrasy. Unfortunately one room from the permanent collection was utterly ruined for the exhibition - a large screen was showing a loud, intrusive film about the exhibition, with seating taking up half of the gallery, and the other half was roped off entirely. So the glories of the permanent collection were denied us in favour of a temporary show. And on a previous visit, during a more popular exhibition, the crowds were so immense that almost nothing could be seen at all; it simply cannot accommodate the large and variable crowds that accompany successful exhibitions. I liked this show, but I wish it were at a different venue. The Jacquemart-André should stick to displaying its own collection properly.

Around the corner is the Musée Nissim de Camondo, another house museum with a strong collection of decorative art and a handful of pictures, including good Guardi. Camondo's impressionist paintings were given to the state and are now stars of the Musée d'Orsay. Here the highlight is his superb French furniture. The house itself is a twentieth century pastiche of an eighteenth century townhouse, and it's not altogether successful. But the calm atmosphere is a welcome break from the frenetic Jacquemart-André, and I always like to visit the Camondo second, as a kind of decompression chamber. Unfortunately on this visit the Guardi room was closed, without explanation, but there's still so much else worth seeing. 

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Dear Louvre, please clean these pictures...

Leonardo Virgin of the Rocks, with dust. Picture: MS
Leonardo Virgin of the Rocks, with dust. Picture: MS
I was at the Louvre last week, and some of the pictures are filthy. I wasn't disturbed by discoloured varnish or darkened pigments. No, the problem was simply dust. No expensive campaign of technical restoration is needed; a feather duster will do the job. Leonardo's Virgin of the Rocks, recently returned from exhibition in London, is especially bad, with a thick layer of accumulated dust at the base and a good covering of dust over much of the surface.

I've often noticed dirty glass and dusty exhibits recently. It's always irritating, but it's especially outrageous in museums that spend millions on restoration projects that are supposedly vital to enable us to see pictures properly, but then don't bother with basic routine cleaning that makes at least as much of a difference to what we can see, without any associated risk of damaging the pictures. There is a problem of inverted priorities here. 

Here is a Pisanello with a thick layer of dust:
Picture: MS
The Louvre has historically been cautious about cleaning pictures, and the wisdom of their approach is evident when you see how much better preserved their pictures are than those in more aggressive British and American galleries. But there can be no controversy about dusting pictures. It's hard enough to see anything through the throngs of people at the Louvre. Now you need X-ray vision to see through the dirt when you do get through the crowds.

Many of the glazed pictures are also disfigured with fingerprints - sometimes dozens of them, which makes me fear for the preservation of the un-glazed pictures. Here is a Piero della Francesca covered in greasy fingerprints. They don't photograph well, but you can see the marks in the dark background; there are many more over the face too:
Ironically the Louvre is becoming more aggressive about restoring its pictures as it becomes less fastidious about basic maintenance. Its recent cleaning of Leonardo's Madonna and Child with St Anne was a disaster, and one hopes they will learn from this terrible error. A simple solution would be to equip the conservators who worked on the Leonardo with feather dusters, and have them dust the galleries rather than clean the pictures. That will contribute to the preservation of the Louvre's collection and make it more accessible and visible to its visitors.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Save the Frick!

Tragic news from New York that the Frick is planning a massive expansion. The Frick is run by arrogant, philistine self-promoting morons who want to make the unique Frick collection into a museum as much like any other as possible. They're taking a beautiful unique boutique and turning it into WalMart. 

The New York Times reports that staff at the Frick have increased from 160 to 220 in 25 years. Why? What do they need to do now that they didn't before? Looking after this small collection shouldn't take too many people, but hubristic senior staff and trustees want to expand for the sake of expansion - "Accumulate! Accumulate! This is Moses and the prophets". They want to build a bigger conservation lab for their tiny collection. Why not just share the Met's facilities, just across the road? Once they've built a grand new lab, the pressure will be on to restore relentlessly - creating work and doing harm. Don't expand the conservation centre, close it. 

The Frick is one of the most common choices for 'favourite museum' partly because of its modest size and quiet ambiance. New York has dozens of museums offering special exhibitions; the city doesn't need the Frick to join the competition for blockbusters, and the Frick doesn't need them. It was absurd that such a small space was used for the recent Mauritshuis show, when there are better venues in New York. The standard explanation is the need to accommodate rising visitor numbers. But adding square footage doesn't mean that you can see the pictures more easily. The Living Hall has two Titians, two Holbeins, an El Greco and a Bellini, together with some good Boulle furniture, bronzes and a fabulous Mughal rug. How is it any easier to see these works if you add some tens of thousands of square feet at the back for special exhibitions and an auditorium?

Previous expansions were modest and in keeping with the character of the house. This great carbuncle follows the fashion for big and brash expansions to provide ancillary spaces and does nothing for the art. Most of the collection is already shown, and much that isn't is second rate (a bad damaged Hals, a Cappelle that isn't, a Van der Burgh bought as a Hooch, etc). The extra space is for blockbusters, not to show treasures from the stores. And recent acquisitions at the Frick have been woeful. The money needed for this barbarous expansion would better be spent buying something really good (maybe the Mantegna that was on loan for many years and is still in private hands). 

There's a good critique in the New York Times, here.

Sean Scully, environmentalist

Picture: Guardian
There's an unintentionally hilarious interview with abstract artist Sean Scully in the weekend FT (gated link here). He says he 'recycles like a German' and he lives 'very simply'. For Sean, living very simply includes three homes ("a big operation here in New York, an apartment in Barcelona and a huge space that we rent on a biofarm in the Bavarian countryside"). And his one extravagance? Flying everywhere in private jets. But they're only 'little' private jets. Gotta love the lifestyle environmentalism of the very rich - we can live like kings, provided we separate the garbage. 

Monday, 9 June 2014

Not in my name

The connoisseur
Adolf Reich The Connoisseur Picture: Christie's
Bendor Grosvenor has written about his recent experience at a panel on connoisseurship hosted by the Yale Centre for British Art. It's worth watching; he makes a rousing and comprehensive case for the value of connoisseurship. But he is too polite about the response by Tate Britain's Martin Myrone. 

Myrone thinks that his critique of connoisseurship carries weight because as a curator of a national museum he acts on behalf of visitors, whereas dealers like Grosvenor are tainted by self-interest. It's a textbook example of the ad hominum fallacy, assuming that the truth of a statement can be established by the position of the speaker. Even if we assume Grosvenor to be utterly corrupt, his arguments stand or fall on their own terms because none of his claims about connoisseurship rested on his own authority.  His case was made in universalisable and disinterested terms, self-consciously avoiding examples of his own connoisseurship.

It was Myrone's argument that invoked the authority of position. He claimed that as a civil servant he is imbued with a higher calling, and that he is a representative of the people. He is not making an argument that we can engage with, but rather demanding that we defer to his authority. That authority, which he exercises in our name, was not gained by popular vote, but because he managed to secure an immensely sought-after job in a competitive and politicised field. The language of his subsequent article in The Art Newspaper is telling, stating that 'numerous studies' back up his position, but citing none, and emphasising at every turn the difference between commercial interest and public interest (not always a contradiction). 

In truth dealers have very little authority, because everyone knows they are trying to sell you something. A dealer claiming that a picture they own is by Van Dyck carries very little weight. They must convince recognised experts to back their claims. Of course there have been famous examples of outright corruption, of experts selling certificates of authenticity, but that is not the norm. Dealers have to work harder to maintain their reputations precisely because their motives are doubted. Unlike the tenured Dr Myrone, dealers must struggle constantly to maintain their reputations. Art dealing will inevitably attract connoisseurs with a more expansive view of authorship. Sceptical scholars with more parsimonious views will not do well ("some think this is a Rembrandt, but I'm not so sure" isn't a great sales pitch). That doesn't mean that dealers are inherently dishonest or acting in bad faith.

More engaged connoisseurship from academia and museums would provide a stronger counterweight (I am well aware that there is already much excellent connoisseurship in museums and universities; I'm just calling for more of it). It sometimes seems to me that the locus of connoisseurship is too much focused on the market. Some artists are radically contested between extreme contrasting views of their output, particularly in the world of old master drawings. Some scholars think there are twice as many extant drawings by major artists like Rembrandt and Titian than others. But guess which ones get consulted by dealers and auctioneers! 

There is often only one scholar regarded as authoritative on a particular artist, which means that only one view of that artist becomes canonical. And one venerable expert in early Italian painting is regularly quoted in auction catalogues because he is so willing to attribute pictures to major artists. I'm not suggesting anything untoward, but inevitably it is the experts with the expansive views that are endorsed by the art market. The fault is not with dealers and auctioneers; I believe they generally act with good faith. The fault rather is that connoisseurial debates in universities and museums are too quiescent and too focused on major artists and famous pictures.

Myrone is right that arguments about connoisseurship are related to claims to cultural authority, but it is trivial. All of us engaging in debate are trying to win others over and to assert our own voices, even if we work at an august institution like Tate Britain. Let us accept that participants in the debate will have their own interests and agendas, and argue about the substance. Myrone's inept and arrogant argument has set the debate backwards, but I share his scepticism about connoisseurial certainty and I think we should be more tolerant of ambiguity. There is much more to be said in the debate about connoisseurship, but we need to set aside claims to institutional authority if we are to engage in debate at all. 

The original debate is well worth watching, and I thought the starting positions at the Yale seminar were better than the subsequent articles. ArtWatch has also provided a useful account, here

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Recent books

Picture: Amazon
Simon Green and Jane Thomas Dumfries House: An Architectural Story Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland 2014 £30

Books about historic houses generally disappoint. Many are just coffee table books with some lavish pictures but superficial text, and few have comprehensive plans. Guidebooks are bigger and glossier than they used to be, but they're often just pricey souvenirs, not a patch on their cheaper and dowdier predecessors. But there have been some notable recent exceptions. Schmidt and Keller's book on Holkham Hall is excellent, particularly on the history of its construction. But this brilliant book on Dumfries House is a model for how to write about historic houses, taking the genre to new heights. 

Dumfries House is an early design by the Adam brothers, which was sympathetically extended in the late nineteenth century. Its owner, the Marquis of Bute, needed to sell it to pay death duties and its contents, including the Chippendale furniture original to the house, were nearly auctioned off. But at the last moment, after the auction catalogue had been printed, a consortium of charities headed by the Prince of Wales bought the house and its contents.

This book does full justice to the house. The highlight is the big fold-out plans of the entire building at different points in its history, a particular delight when set against the mean partial plans in many books, some with 'private' areas blocked out and few showing upper floors or historic changes. The book is arranged chronologically, deftly blending architectural and social history, with separate chapters on the design, buidling, fitting out and furnishing of the house. The whole book is exemplary - comprehensive, scholarly, clearly written and well illustrated. The authors work for the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland, which also published the book. It should be a model of its type; other publishers, take note!
Picture: Amazon
Fernando Marias (ed) El Greco of Toledo: Painter of the Visible and the Invisible Ediciones El Visio 2014 £55

This is the catalogue of an El Greco exhibition in Toledo, the Spanish city where he died 400 years ago. I'm especially frustrated by the discussion of the exhibits, which are described in turn in discursive chapters rather than given individual entries. El Greco's studio turned out multiple versions of his most popular compositions, and I'd like to know more about his studio practice and read assessment of the quality, technique and condition of the pictures in the exhibition. I doubt I'll get to the exhibition, though, and this is an excellent book about El Greco's time in Toledo even if it falls short as an exhibition catalogue. 

The illustrations are particularly good, with some great detail photos - much better than the pictures in Marias's biography. The book opens with four thematic chapters by major El Greco scholars. Richard L. Kagan revisits his account of El Greco in light of more recent scholarship, Marias gives a summary of some of the key points from his excellent recent biography and Joaquin Berchez discusses El Greco's 'architectural enigmas', with a fascinating discussion of the architectural settings of his great altarpieces. Nicos Hadjinicolaou's chapter is a learned account of El Greco's relationship to ideas prevalent in his time, and is the best account I've read of El Greco's relationship to 'modernity', avoiding the ahistoric pitfalls of this well-worn topic. These four chapters are more scholarly than is usual in exhibition catalogues, but they read well and give a wide view of this fascinating artist.
Picture: Amazon
Richard Roberts Saving the City: The great financial crisis of 1914 Oxford University Press 2013 £20

This is an authoritative and fascinating account of a massive financial crisis that is barely remembered today. It's a superb history that understands the economic and financial aspects thoroughly, and it's an important book that should inform current debates, particularly because it describes a financial crisis that was not a 'Minsky Moment' caused by credit expansion. Even if you don't have a specialist interest in financial history, this is still a good read. It's sophisticated and well-informed, but non-technical, packed with interesting anecdotes and worth reading for the discussion of the politics (grand and office) at the outbreak of World War I. 
Picture: Amazon
Eric H. Cline 1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed Princeton University Press 2014 £19.95

This book is better than its sensational title suggests. In 1177 BC, during the reign of Ramses III, the 'Sea Peoples' invaded Egypt. But the book is about a wider and longer process of decline of late bronze age civilizations around the Mediterranean. The introduction strains too hard to draw parallels with today, which is frankly daft. The Greek financial crisis is really not comparable to the decline of the bronze age. I was also unconvinced by the final chapter, which posits a 'murder on the Orient Express' explanation of multiple causes for civilizational collapse - invasions, earthquakes, environmental change. No major change is entirely monocausal, but I'm persuaded by arguments that climate change was decisive; it was the new variable that shifted the context for other occurrences, like the invasion of the Sea Peoples. And the relatively primitive, marginal societies of the bronze age were too precarious to adapt. I don't agree with the conclusion, but Cline's short book is an enjoyable guide to this remarkable period of history.