Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Punching Pictures

A close-up view of the puncture in the canvas.

A child has fallen against a picture on exhibition in Taiwan, but there's something fishy about the whole incident. Bendor Grosvenor raises a number of concerns in an excellent post (if any lawyers are reading, I disagree utterly...). Even the footage of the fall itself doesn't look quite right to me; it smells like a publicity stunt. But it prompted a number of thoughts.
  • Why is this such a huge news story? I think partly because we're conscious of the vulnerability of heritage, and how easily the irreplaceable can be destroyed. But there's also been an outpouring of sympathy for the child; people are scared they too might accidentally damage something, like the irrational fear of falling from a tall building. A weird article by Jonathan Jones seems to say, "ho-hum, accidents happen". 
  • In reality people don't just fall against pictures. But they are fragile, and the constant packing, moving and unpacking is taking its toll on the world's best pictures, which seem always to be ferried between exhibitions.
  • AHN rightly notes that the picture's owner and exhibition organiser ought to have every interest in preventing publicity. I wonder how many incidents get covered up, especially of damage in transit. Everyone concerned has an interest in hushing up incidents. I suspect that more pictures are damaged than we realise.
  • The insurance valuation is crazy. This is nowhere near a $1.5m picture. But insurance valuations are often puffed up for exhibition shows, as a sop to lenders. In the UK insurance costs are absorbed by a government indemnity scheme, so museums have no incentive to ensure a fair valuation. The indemnity scheme is a daft subsidy that should be removed; there are better things to spend scarce government funds on.
  • The security was absurd. The child was allowed to wander around holding a drink, the rope barrier was redundant and the platform in front just acted as trip hazard. None of this is unusual, even in major museums. Guards are so scared of causing offence that they rarely speak out. Sometimes museums themselves seem the people least concerned about preservation.
  • I have a problem with the idea of museum exhibitions being run for profit - hiring out pictures instead of judging loan requests on their merits. But some are at least serious and well organised. Others are utterly trash, and they seem to be proliferating. I went to a Goya exhibition at the Pinacoteque de Paris where almost none of the pictures labeled Goya was actually by him. But the Bowes Museum lent them an absolute masterpiece unquestionably by Goya, without even charging a fee. Museums need to smarten up; the Bowes were taken for chumps, and seemed to have no idea what they were lending to. Museums need to smarten up about loan requests, and the Bowes curators and trustees were grossly negligent in lending such a masterpiece.
  • The same show at the Pinacoteque had just two guards in a whole parade of little galleries. One was on duty in the gift shop. It's revealing of priorities, and shows what happens when profit maximisation drives everything. 
  • The incident coincided with the utterly tragic destruction of Palmyra. You can't equate an accident with wanton wholesale destruction. But for all the rightful outrage at ISIS, we seem blind to the incremental damage and dreadful risks incurred in the global merry-go-round of exhibitions. We should take more responsibility for the protection of our own cultural heritage, which we actually have control over, as we weep impotently for destruction in Palmyra. 

Sunday, 9 August 2015

'Drawn from the Antique' at the Soane Museum

Picture: Soane
Drawn from the Antique: Artists & the classical ideal Soane Museum, London to 26 September

Artists were spontaneously drawn to ancient sculpture, and there are very early examples of renaissance artists copying Roman statues. By the eighteenth and nineteenth century, copying casts of ancient sculpture was an essential step in academic artistic training, a part of a curriculum that ossified and sometimes became a little pedantic. The picture above can be taken as a wry comment on 'high' art. It's a self-portrait by William Daniels, adopting the persona of an image seller with a bust of Shakespeare, casts of ancient statues, and a brightly coloured parrot. 

The Soane's exhibition on the theme of artists' copying of ancient sculpture could have been a little arid, but quirky exhibits like this make it an absolute delight. There are some really top-notch exhibits, but even the best works are of a type rarely seen in London - a superb drawing by the northern mannerist Goltzius, and a sadly damaged picture by the scarce and fabulous Michael Sweerts. Most of the exhibits aren't famous at all. Some are anonymous, and others are by quite minor masters. But all are interesting. 'Greatest hits' shows can be overwhelming, and are rarely revealing. It's the chance to see something different that marks out the best exhibitions.

The exhibition is sophisticated as well as quirky, apparent above all in the outstanding catalogue, which is one of the best produced for a show in London. The introductory essay by Adriano Aymonino lays out the history of painters' engagement with ancient sculpture with a rare combination of erudition and brevity. It's almost a stand-alone monograph, strong on critical history and art history. It mercifully avoids the pitfalls of excessive theory, to which the theme lends itself: a
rtists' relationships with classical sculpture passing from spontaneous to institutionalisation to reflexive critique. Pah! Glad to read some solid art history instead, and this essay makes me eager for Aymonino's forthcoming book on the collecting and patronage of the first Duke and Duchess of Northumberland. 

Something that bothered me in the exhibition was the preponderance of loans from Katrin Bellinger, a prominent dealer in old master drawings. Bellinger is a highly respected connoisseur-dealer whose shows I've always enjoyed, but there is still the perennial potential for conflict of interest in taking loans from dealers, when they are seeking validation for attributions and exposure for their stock. My concerns were assuaged by the catalogue's explanation that the exhibition is in part intended as a show of her private collection, which focuses on depictions of artists at work. In a sense the theme of the exhibition is one of the themes of Bellinger's well-chosen collection, so the combination worked.

London attracts plenty of blockbuster exhibitions, but recently most have been disappointing; obvious selections of 'greatest hits', flimsy catalogues, dumbed-down presentation. The best shows have been at the smaller museums, particularly the Courtauld and the Soane. The Soane in particular has taken risks with some rather offbeat exhibitions. Not all have appealed to me, but they have all been consistent with the ethos of this most idiosyncratic museum. An instructive contrast is the Jacquemart-AndrĂ© in Paris, which tries to shoe-horn miniature blockbusters into its small spaces, often disappointing and often invariably overwhelming the intimate space. 
This tiny show is much the most rewarding I've seen recently. And even if you can't make it in person, do try to read the catalogue