Sunday, 29 November 2015

Recent reading

Jan Royt The Master of the Trebon Altarpiece Carolinum Press 2015 £31.50

This is a book and an artist worthy of more attention. The artist's work is almost all in Prague, and the book was published by Charles University and seems not to have been widely reviewed. But the pictures are amazing, as you'll appreciate from the book's high-quality plates. The solidly academic text explains multiple contexts for the Trebon Master and discusses his known works. Its style is a little formal, and I thought it could benefit from the structure of a traditional catalogue raisonné, rather than an analytic monograph. As it is, parts of the text read like catalogue entries pasted together. But the quality of analysis is high, and the book is worth getting for the pictures alone.

Frank McLynn Genghis Khan: The man who conquered the world Bodley Head 2015 £25

This enjoyable popular history narrates the astonishing rise of the Mongols, who went from being central Asian subsistence nomads to conquerors of most of the known world, from China to eastern Europe. McLynn focuses on the great military campaigns which are both the most salient aspect of Genghis Khan's reign, and the best documented. But he ranges widely, discussing administrative practice and religious beliefs, which seem to have been rather new-age ecumenical. He leaves grand speculation on the causes of the Mongol hegemony to the last chapter, which I found least satisfactory and overly hasty in downplaying environmental factors. But although I learned a lot from the book, I was frustrated that the narrative pace trumped historical scruples. 

Sources on the Mongols are partial, biased and ancient. Reportage and myth are entwined. McLynn is a popular historian trying to tell a good story, so he doesn't pay enough attention to uncertainty. It struck me when he wrote definitively about the Mongol's skill as warriors, including the ability to time their shot at the exact moment when the horse's feet are all off the ground (p.130). But people didn't even know that horses even raised all their feet off the ground at once until Muybridge's photographs. Makes me wonder about the other claims, including the remarkably precise report of the archer who shot a bow 550 yards in a contest in 1225. He suggests that despotism is against Buddhist creed (p. 143); he should read Brian Daizen Victoria's Zen at War.

McLynn has a peculiar fascination with alcohol. Massive piss-ups are a staple of ancient culture, and hardly confined to the Mongols (though the shift to higher-alcohol wine was a shock to their system). But for McLynn it's an opportunity for wild speculation: "As a student of human nature, [Genghis Khan] knew that a ban or prohibition would be a pointless gesture which would not work, so he tried to moderate the problem by decreeing that none of his subjects should get drunk more than three times a month" (p.158). Remarkable that he was so much smarter than our current rulers, but of course it's an evidence-free assertion. Later McLynn writes that "Severe alcoholism was the major reason for the short lifespans of the great Mongol khans and aristocrats" (p. 363). That's an absurd assumption that tells us more about the author's preoccupation with a fashionable cause of our own times than about the health of thirteenth century warrior elites.

Academic and popular history are needlessly far apart. Often academics are to blame for bad writing and an excessive preoccupation with their peers rather than their sources, and also for a sometimes snooty disdain for history written by non-academic historians. But often the fault is with popular historians who are cavalier with evidence and think that telling a good story is sufficient. This book has many merits, and its daft speculative moments damage its credibility.

Rachel Laudan Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in world history University of California Press 2015 £19.95

Satisfying big history packed with delicious morsels, taking us from prehistory to the present day. Love the old warnings against vegetables, and the Soviet caution against drinking too much water. Laudan is a smart cookie who keeps a sense of narrative sweep holding together the details. For much of history innovation was limited to elite food; everyone else was stuck with dull staples. ‘Middling cuisine’ arose late, giving us all better and more varied options. She is cautious of the moralistic critique of diet, rightly celebrating our great success in providing such rich and varied food for all. 

Bernd Roeck Florence 1900: The quest for arcadia Yale University Press 2009 £25

The years from about 1890 to 1914 are some of the most fascinating in human history, a time of change that eclipses our own supposedly unprecedented dynamism. It was a time of rapid urbanisation, and cities like Vienna, London, Paris and New York led the charge. This book can be read as a fascinating oblique take on these changes, writing about a city that even in 1900 was becoming a tourist shrine, despite rapid growth. Roeck focuses on expatriate communities, the Germans and English who made Florence their home. It's remarkable to read about the extent of destruction in central Florence at this late date, and of plans for even more thorough-going redevelopment. I enjoyed it less than I expected; its tone is a little dry, and much of the material about expats was familiar to me from other sources. But weaves together a magnificent kaleidoscope; how wonderful it must have been as part of that cultural circle.  

Frank E. Zimring The City that became safe: New York's lessons for urban crime and its control Oxford University Press 2013 £13.49

Crime rates have collapsed across the western world. It's one of the most amazing social developments, yet good news stories prompt less discussion than bad. The rapid rise in crime from the 1960s prompted an industry of hand-wringing and competing explanations powered by different biases and ideologies. It's fascinating on many levels, and deserves much more attention; I'm always glad to find smart books addressing the question.

New York's crime statistics led the way up and down, and Zimring's book tries to explain it. I hadn't appreciated just how dramatically crime fell in NYC (99% decline in auto crime, for example). And some of the common explanations, like zero-tolerance, are less important than is commonly believed. Unfortunately the dearth of studies at the time means that data aren't available to test some hypotheses. But just as those in charge were blamed for rising crime rates, so those in charge more recently are credited with bringing about decline, and we accept their explanations too readily. Impressive book, and the lack of definitive answers is a failing of the data not the author.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

National Trust gets it right at Basildon Park

Picture: Wikipedia
This weekend I went to Basildon Park. Some of you will know it as home to Victorian art collector James Morrison, who owned a couple of Poussin's best pictures, plus Rubens, Claude, Rembrandt and modern British pictures, which in his day meant Constable and Turner. Others will know its interiors from Downton Abbey, where it was used as the family's London house. Basildon has been cruelly abused, and had to be substantially re-made in the 1950s. It's not entirely clear from the guidebook which bits are new, but I thought the plasterwork in the entrance hall a heavy-handed caricature of Adam's delicate neoclassicism. It's not clear if it was a heavy-handed eighteenth century plasterer, or modern work. The house is still a delight, and it has some wonderful things, including eight apostles by Pompeo Batoni. 
Picture: MS
I went particularly to see an exhibition of pictures from the late Brinsley Ford's collection. I have a two volume catalogue of his collection published by the Walpole Society. He owned a superb Michelangelo drawing that was sold a few years ago, and a magnificent Subleyras that is now a highlight of the eighteenth century French room at the National Gallery. But his house was also crammed with 'minor' works, including modern British and pictures related to the Grand Tour, which was a particular interest of Ford's. Basildon is an ideal venue to show the collection, and the display is perfect. It includes fabulous portraits by Batoni and Mengs, a famous drawing of a temporary ballroom attributed to Adam (more likely by an assistant who was actually a better draughtsman), drawings by Tiepolo and a wonderful big caricature of grand tourists by Patch. 

I like the dense hang, and it convincingly recreates the feel of Ford's own house, as seen in the Walpole Society volumes. A couple of the pictures are masterpieces, but I enjoyed the mix of more minor works, too. The NT wanted the light off; I don't know why the are so attached to darkness. The room guide sensibly used her initiative on a dull day and turned it on so we could actually see the pictures. Unfortunately they're not allowed to sell catalogues in the house (do they think the guides will defraud them?), so you have to remember to go into the shop before entering the house. But it's only a fiver, and it's very good, summarising the entries from the Walpole catalogue. Good art, good display, good catalogue. The NT has done everything right this time. 

The Basildon exhibition will be in place for at least five years, so do try to see it. It's an easy day trip from London. It shows the excellent things still done by the National Trust, despite the best efforts of 
Dame Beanbag. Speaking of which, I got a response from the NT following my gripe about Kedleston. The response went from the house manager to the regional manager to the head office, but of course I wasn't given any contact details other than head office. Despite drafting so many layers of management, the response could have been written by a computer, and the needless levels of bureaucracy and oversight are an ominous sign of mismanagement. Especially concerning to me is the delegation of accountability. Silly stunts like the Kedleston party have been encouraged from the very top. But they present it as a purely local decision for which they have no central accountability—except, of course, to coordinate and vet the responses to make sure they are written in the blandest possible corporatese. 

Monday, 9 November 2015

What happens without guards...

Picture: MS
It looks like some one has run their fingers across this frame at the National Gallery, breaking off a big chunk of gilding. I assume it happened quite recently, as the fragment is still there. There are quite a few other chips where the gesso is bright white, indicating that they could be recent. The picture, Departure of the Argonauts by the Master of 1487, is on loan from a private collector. It's in the same gallery as the celebrated Botticelli Mars and Venus and it's often packed, but the guards has to cover the room with the Leonardo as well, so it's usually unattended. Two renaissance cassoni are used as tripods for photos, and the gilding is noticeably worn in the middle. 

Cost cutting in museums imposes real costs, alas.

Exhibitions in London

Picture: Guardian
The only current exhibition that I'm inspired to review at length is the NG's Botticini's Palmieri Altarpiece, to follow. In the meantime, some thoughts on 'the rest'.

Goya: The Portraits National Gallery to January 16

Another rather formulaic idea for a guaranteed 'blockbuster': assemble pictures by the same famous artist around a particular theme and wait for the crowds. I haven’t even bought the catalogue, because recent offerings have been so feeble and yet again there’s no actual catalogue. You have to be really dedicated to see an NG blockbuster, because it’s just never quiet. Even at opening time the galleries are mobbed by people who’ve been at private views. The picture above is cruelly tempting: imagine twenty people between the bench and the pictures and you'll get a better idea. It’s interesting how much difference it makes. I recall the Family of the Infanta Don Luis when it was on extended loan at the NG some years ago, and it made a terrific impression on me. Seeing it behind thirty people deadened it. No point.

I was interested in the critical response. Fawning adulation from all the right-on critics in the main newspapers, but some intelligent criticism from Neil Jeffares. But must one be a great painter to be a great artist? I'm not so sure. Goya certainly had his weaknesses; just look at all those superficial hands. And some of the pictures in this show are absolute dogs. But others are, to me, quite wonderful. In the last room there are some especially feeble late works, but you can compare them to the superb Don Tiburcio (and look how cunningly he hides the hands!). I actually like many of the pictures a good deal, but we should take his critics seriously, and acknowledge his flaws. Indeed, a show focused on what's good and what's bad in Goya would have been much more interesting.

Ai Weiwei Royal Academy to 13 December

Wow, this is bad. This splendid Spectator article put it better than I could. But even people who recognise the art as execrable fawn over his politics. Actually Weiwei’s politics are as limp as his art. Banal, obvious and (from a western perspective) utterly safe. 

Jean-Etienne Liotard Royal Academy to 31 January

The Royal Academy puts on some of the best shows in London in its tiny little top floor galleries, whereas its grand blockbusters in the big rooms on the main floor are usually duds. The catalogue for Liotard is excellent, and I'd love to have written about the exhibition. I needed to see it a second time, and took a day off work to get there first thing and enjoy it quietly for a good block of time, but I was turned away at the door because my Friends card had expired and they haven't yet sent me a new one. I don't have many days off work, and to have wasted one of them because of such a stupidly bureaucratic response is utterly infuriating. It looks wonderful, so I hope you have more luck than me.
Picture: MS

Best thing I’ve seen in London. Really excellent and rarely-seen things, including a stunning Lelio Orsi and a Bernard van Orley (above) that I’ve coveted since seeing it in an auction catalogue about two decades ago. I didn’t know it would be in the show, and it was a wonderful surprise to see it.  A couple of superior Cranachs and a Spranger that I’d seen in New York were the other highlights for me, but there was a strong group of nineteenth century pictures too. I enjoyed this more than most of the big exhibitions. Really worth a look if you get the chance.

Bringing together drawings from wildly different traditions simply because they use the same medium seemed a weak theme for an exhibition, but this show is convincing. Rather than attempt a comprehensive narrative, it is separated into four relatively self-contained and coherent sections: the Italian Renaissance, Northern Renaissance, Dutch mannerism (stretching to other northern seventeenth century sheets), and the twentieth century. There are some sublime masterpieces here, and the connections and distinctions are revealing. The twentieth century section lacks the peaks of the other sections of the show, but there are still some fine drawings by artists that deserve to be better known. 

The show is well organised and the wall text is excellent, but unfortunately the display in London had some serious drawbacks. The early Italian drawings were wrecked by the reflection from a video loop, imposing moving images among the Raphaels. There's really no excuse these days for having an Open University style film showing in the gallery, when it could be put on YouTube for people to consult at home. And some of the northern mannerists were invisible, because they were so far back in vitrines. It didn’t matter as much with the rest of the exhibition, but some of the mannerist sheets are minutely detailed and demand close study. 

Even if you can't see the exhibition, I really commend the excellent catalogue. I especially hope it's read at the National Gallery. The Liotard and Metalpoint catalogues are both models they should follow.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Why is the National Trust hiding our pictures?

Picture: Lynn Roberts
Recent trips to National Trust houses prompt me to add to Art History News's concerns about this failing institution.

Last week I went to Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire with friends. It was seven hours of driving, and one of our party had traveled from the US, but worth it to see one of Adam's masterpieces, stuffed with fabulous furniture and baroque pictures. But the drawing room - one of the highlights - was in darkness. We couldn't see any of the pictures. The room has been set up to recreate the sense of an eighteenth century party. It fails on so many levels. It stops us seeing the things we had made great effort to visit. It patronises us by asking us to imagine a party at Kedleston, then assuming we're incapable of imagining and have to have the whole thing set up for us. And it fails because the execution is so feeble: a few wine glasses, electric lighting, and added spotlights on the gilt furniture for effect. 

Tracy Emin would do a better job (and I never thought I'd say that). The National Trust panjandrums are using great houses as backdrop for their own art projects. I am just furious that we weren't allowed to see anything in the room because of this childish prank. And I'm embarrassed that my friend, who is a passionate connoisseur of the Italian baroque, will now likely never get to see the pictures. They threaten to extend this throughout the house:

Adding to the sense that the National Trust doesn't care for the things in its trust is the dumbed-down guidebook. The original guidebook lists virtually all of the pictures. The new guidebook just mentions a couple in passing. In the library one pictures is listed, and we are told the theme of another (Diogenes), but they don't even give the artist (Asserto, according to the old guide I own). Stourhead, which I also visited recently, is even worse. It has one of the best picture collections of any National Trust house, and the old guidebook I own provided a separate handlist of all the pictures on display, and discussed some in detail in the main guidebook. The new one mentions just half a dozen paintings in the picture gallery, but speculates that the collector 'was especially moved by female distress', seemingly on the evidence of two pictures he bought. This kind of gossipy human interest speculation is typical; the older guide discussed his taste in the context of eighteenth century collecting and stylistic preferences that make historical sense. 

As I child I don't remember ever going to an art gallery, but my parents did take me to National Trust houses. I was enthralled, and I used to devour the guidebooks. Learning about this 'stuff' set off a lifelong interest in art history. Now they think I should instead have been distracted with gimmicks. The new guidebooks give a fraction of the information in the old. And instead of encouraging children to enjoy the houses and look at their contents, they put toy animals in the rooms and ask kids to locate them. I'm all in favour of engaging children with activities, but couldn't they make the activity in some way relevant to the house? They can play finding games anywhere. Here's the cat that I found:

Our visit also reminded me of all that is wonderful about National Trust houses. Kedleston really is one of the great neoclassical houses, with a vast entrance hall whose proportions work so much better than you'd imagine from pictures, its Roman austerity softened with alabaster pillars, leading through to a giant rotunda. Not everything works at Kedleston; the oddly reduced proportions of copied classical sculptures seem lost in the niches, and the functions of some rooms seem rather overwhelmed by the grandeur of their setting; modest bookcases are out of place in the library. But the collections are largely intact and so well-suited, the wonderful Linnell furniture and Italian pictures. Reminding us of the good work still done by the National Trust is a fine new acquisition, a delightful Carlo Dolci that was owned by the family until recently. For all its prejudice against 'stuff', they still acquire good things.