Sunday, 17 May 2015

Rijksmuseum to public: "If you don't like it, buy your own Rembrandt"

Picture: MS
It's a cliché that blockbusters are overcrowded, but Late Rembrandt at the Rijksmuseum was the worst I can recall. It's more spaced out than the London leg of the show, but that extra space isn't to give the pictures room to breathe. It's to cram in the maximum number of people. There were far, far more people per picture than in London (which was also badly crowded). The room above has just three pictures in it. There were rarely fewer than a dozen people in front of each of them. 

There have been many complaints. A Dutch newspaper headed its report of the show with a visitor quote, "I could have punched someone". Director Wim Pijbes responded to criticism by saying that if you want a contemplative experience you should buy your own Rembrandt. That must be the most disgusting thing I've heard from a museum. When Anatole France said, "The law, in its majestic majesty, forbids rich and poor  equally from sleeping under bridges" it was satire, criticising the economic inequality that mocks formal equality. Pijbes offers a grotesque perversion of this, offered not as criticism but as fact. He implies that the democratic experience must be raucous and crowded, describing the 'great buzz' at the show.

But of course Pijbes, art historian and museum curator, recognises the pleasure of looking at pictures rather than jostling with 'buzzy' crowds, and another comment he made last week is revealing. He explained that the reason the Rijksmuseum closes so early (5pm) is to give them time to set up for the 500 or so private evening functions they host each year. The contemplative experience is so valuable and so desirable that they can charge a fortune for it, reserving it only for the rich.

Meanwhile those of us stuck in the third class carriage get an experience that is deliberately degraded. Not only must we contend with crowds. Flash photography is permitted at the Rijksmuseum, including at their special exhibitions. The official regulations still say no flash, but there are no signs up and people were freely using flash in front of guards. There are also red focus dots on many modern cameras that linger on the surface of the pictures you're struggling to see. Between the red spots and the bright flashes, pictures were arbitrarily illuminated several times a minute. Here's a two minute clip of the Washington Self Portrait. People are more willing to move aside to let people take pictures than to allow people to look at pictures, so it's easier to snap pictures than to look at them. It helps move people through more quickly and more predictably, but trying to focus on looking at anything is impossible. 

Museum overcrowding is a problem with no easy solution. Some want to build more extensions, but even if there's more room to show Troost people will still crowd around Vermeer. It's the same handful of famous masterpieces that draws the crowds; as the Rembrandt show illustrates, the extra space in the Amsterdam leg just meant even greater overcrowding. But the answer can't be to reject a contemplative experience (actually never mind a contemplative experience; I'll settle for just being able to see the pictures). Treating people like cattle and encouraging a more superficial engagement for the masses and charging through the nose actually to see things is an absolute perversion of what museums ought to be, and a degrading way to show great art. Pijbes' vile elitism adds insult to the injury of the Late Rembrandt experience.

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

The final sale of a great collection: I.Q. van Regteren Altena at Christie's

Saint Christopher carrying the Christ Child, after Lucas van Leyden
I'm just back from a few days in Paris and Amsterdam where I caught the viewing of the final part of the stupendous I.Q. van Regteren Altena collection of old master drawings that Christie's is selling today. It's a scholarly collection, but it's attracted intense interest and some astonishingly high prices. The St Christopher above is a really refined copy of an engraving of  by Lucas van Leyden, drawn by Jacques de Gheyn II. It's a lovely thing, estimated at a modest €20k - €30k. Attribution of copies is especially tricky, but van Regteren Altena was the authority on the de Gheyns and wrote the catalogue raisonné of Jacques de Gheyn II.  A copy is less desirable than an original, but this beautiful sheet linked to two significant artists deserves to sell well. Mr Market will pass his judgment later today.
Four studies of a black-winged stilt (Himantopus himantopus)
This sheet of Studies of a Black Winged Stilt is one of Regteren Altena's Gheyn attributions that hasn't held up, because we now know that the paper was produced after his death. It's now being sold as anonymous Dutch seventeenth century, with the same estimate as the St Christopher. It's a high estimate for an uncommercial picture of dead birds without an attribution, but reflects its obvious quality. You can particularly appreciate it in the context of this sale, where there's a plethora of studies of flora and fauna that range widely in quality. The opportunity to see a gathering of related drawings collected by one connoisseur was the attraction of this viewing, a chance to get to know the minor masters as well as the most famous and celebrated. I wasn't disappointed. Saftleven's Litchi Tomato (€18k - €25k) and a study of a Male Lumpsucker from Goltzius's circle were the other natural history highlights for me. There are also more obviously attractive flower studies, including a Van der Ast and some pretty studies in mixed lots. 
Study of a plaster cast of the head of a crying child
Another cheaply estimated copy is this wonderfully striking Study of a Plaster Cast of a Crying Child, by the relatively little-known Leendert van der Cooghen (€6k - €8k). I expect it'll make much more, but it's odd what goes cheaply in these sales. This drapery study by Bloemaert will be good value if it sells within its estimated €3k - €4k, and there's also his tiny study of a Nun estimated at €6k - €8k. Cheap works by a fine draughtsman. The estimate that's most inexplicable to me is the mere €1,800 - €2,000 against a charming and fine Willem van Mieris Man Holding a Tankard, which is sold without reserve. Just not today's fashion, it seems.

Do peruse the online catalogue. There's much else to enjoy, including some nice Jan de Bisschop copy after Joos van Cleve, an unusual sheet of studies from the Prague school, a handful of sixteenth century drawings and a range of works by eighteenth and nineteenth century artists that are much less well known than the golden age masters. Many are attractive, and all modestly estimated. I leave you with Aert Schouman's A Pale Kangaroo Mouse. Because who doesn't love a pale kangaroo mouse?
A pale kangaroo mouse (Microdipodops pallidus)
(All pictures from Christie's)

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

UK Arts Policy Election Special

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The parties vying for votes in tomorrow's UK general election have quite rightly not focused their campaigns on cultural policy. They've also failed to address more important issues like housing, productivity and international relations, but that's another story. The parties can be blamed for many evasions, but they shouldn't be faulted for giving culture a low priority, I'm more concerned by the flaccid critique of such cultural policies they have laid out, which is squarely the responsibility of the cultural sector itself. 

Labour has produced a document elaborating on their rather bare-bones manifesto commitments. The pledge that's received most attention is the guarantee that every child will be entitled to creative education. I'm all for creative education, but the reason it's been squeezed out is that a generation of lazy politicians have responded to every fashionable concern by dictating that it must be added to the school curriculum. No one can reasonably disagree with creative education, but politics is about difficult trade-offs. Unless they're willing to tell us what schools should teach less of, we should treat it with disdain. Better to give teachers a bit more freedom to teach.

They think there's an 'urgent' need to 'rebalance' regional arts funding. It's funny what politicians think is and isn't urgent. Housebuilding? Can wait. Regional arts funding? Right on it. But really, what silly parochialism. London's institutions aren't local, they're global. You can't balance the British Museum against local museums in the north. The BM is a benefit to the whole world. There is, however, a chronic shortage of funding for regional museums. But neither party wants to address that, because they choose to blame local governments. Local government in the UK is dependent on central government for most of its funding, and has little freedom of action once it's carried out statutory duties. It exists mainly to shield national government from responsibility for poor local services.

The most stupid part of Labour's cultural charter is their commitment to 'robust' protection of intellectual property. It's already far too robustly protected, to the benefit of vested corporate interests rather than struggling artists. Patents and copyrights now act as a tax on creativity and innovation. But protecting special interests that benefit from copyright (or think they might in future) might win a few votes. No one is voting the common interest, so principles be damned. 

The Conservatives say almost nothing about culture. To be fair, their great cultural achievement in office has been to eschew the frenetic micro-management that characterised the previous Labour government. Benign neglect is an under-rated virtue. I'm not being facetious; they really deserve credit for this. The manifesto commits them to maintain free admission, which is unhelpful when they're also cutting funding. It reduces museums' freedom to maneuver in the context of reduced funding, which is their fault, whilst taking credit themselves for the benefit of free admission. Politicians legislating for free admission without funding it is grotesque. The Conservatives also want a 'great exhibition' in the north, which is the most feeble PR response to calls for increased regional arts funding I've heard. PR is also behind the Conservatives' expansion of tax breaks to fund acquisitions, which is bad policy but effective spin. That deserves a separate post later; it's not as good as it seems. I've said less about the Conservatives because they've had less to say about culture, not because they're necessarily a better option. Neither party offers much, and what they do offer isn't good. Rather a microcosm of the whole election, I think.

The response to the election debates from the cultural sector has been predictable and clueless. They kid themselves that they're being politically savvy by promising to deliver what they think politicians want: good value and economic growth for the right, social inclusion for the left. They've promised the same for a generation, but the same sort of people still go to museums, and the same sort of people don't. The economic growth argument is nonsense, and they know it. All spending has a multiplier effect, and the cultural industries don't have the biggest multiplier. Governments can get better value elsewhere. In boom times it justified a few extra pounds of spending, perhaps. But today they've made their own argument for defunding. 

The argument they all shy away from is the argument about why culture matters at all. They seem to think it's naive to imagine that it'll have any effect, though I suspect it's because they don't know how to make it. One thing's for sure. If all they can offer is dishonest claims about value for money and hollow promises about social inclusion, they don't deserve political attention or government funding.

Monday, 4 May 2015

The logic of our age

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The entire Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York was closed yesterday, so that rich people could have a party. In the UK museums were traditionally reticent about renting themselves out for private functions, but some now market themselves aggressively. It starts with out-of-hours rental, but once the principle is established and the tills start ringing the plutocrats encroach on normal opening times. It's like the old joke where a man asks a woman if she'd sleep with him for a million pounds. On careful reflection the impecunious lady agrees. "Would you sleep with me for five pounds?" he then asks. "What kind of woman do you think I am?" she replies angrily. "We've already established that; we're just haggling over the price". It might be more expensive to hire an entire museum during opening hours, excluding the public, but it's just a matter of haggling. 

The Victoria and Albert Museum is already notorious for its vicarious closing hours so they can set up for parties. A number of other museums often have random room closures for private events. I've also heard anecdotal reports of damage to art during a wedding piss-up at the Wallace Collection. Weddings are appropriately a time for drunken revelry. Museums are not an appropriate place.

It saddens me that people can travel from all over the world to see the Met, but then be denied access because only the super-rich can go today. It would be bad enough if the Met were making a difficult compromise to raise needed funds. But they actually seem proud of themselves. Its Twitter feed is stuffed with pictures of celebrities, as if the museum's purpose is to provide a backdrop for celebrity photos, 'drooling over wealthy people' as Tyler Green put it on Twitter.

This is the apotheosis of the modern museum. The real experience is reserved for the wealthy. But the rest of us can look admiringly at how cool museums are, because celebrities hang out there. Maybe drooling over celebrity photos on the Met's Twitter feed is the museum experience today.