Monday, 23 May 2016

Let her go

Picture: The Art Fund
The Art Fund has launched an appeal to buy this picture for £16 million for the National Maritime Museum. It might be the prime version of a famous picture of a famous queen, but there are two others. One is at the National Portrait Gallery, which is just seven miles from the National Maritime Museum. Its importance is 'iconic', as The Art Fund press release says, rather than artistic. And we already have this icon in London. It's too much money for a picture that's essentially a duplicate, and of meager artistic quality.

The sellers have timed the offer well. The old master market is in the doldrums, but early English portraits are selling astonishingly well. Them seem merely clumsy to me, but their mix of 'merrie England' naivety and Tudor bling appeals to some of today's rich. I don't blame the sellers for timing the market. But Britain's public collections tend to mistime acquisitions perfectly, competing with the mega-rich for the most expensive pictures of the day and ignoring unfashionable bargains. The Art Fund has always known that this picture was in a British private collection. But they never seem to think strategically; did they try to buy it previously? And which unfashionable pictures are they trying to buy cheaply today?

And is this really a £16m picture? Portraits of Henry VIII from Holbein's workshop recently sold for £821k and £965k. They're not prime versions, but they're artistically better than the Armada Portrait, and equally iconic. I can accept that the likely prime version of the Armada Portrait is more valuable than studio replicas of Holbein's Henry VIII, but twenty times more seems a stretch. That money could buy a Titian or Rembrandt. For less than half the price (£7.3m) we could have had the fantastic Le Brun portrait bought by the Met, which is a great picture from a school poorly represented in UK collections. With the change we could have bought portraits by Scipione Pulzone, Ludovico Carraci and Girolamo da Carpi. Or for £14m we could have bought a great Poussin, an incomparably better picture. None of these are big names, and they're not especially fashionable. But we should be buying pictures based on quality and importance rather than choosing pictures that lend themselves most easily to publicity campaigns. Art collecting is being driven by public relations, which generally means pictures with some patriotic story behind them, because The Art Fund's PR department only has that one script.

If private donors think the Armada Portrait is good value, and really want to keep this picture in Britain, I won't stand in their way. I'll even agree that it would be a nice acquisition for the National Maritime Museum. But it's not just private donors. The Art Fund is largely subsidised by the taxpayer, in that its members receive free or reduced admission to publicly funded museums and exhibitions. That's a large part of why most people join, and that money funneled to The Art Fund comes straight out of the pockets of public museums. It's effectively a way of moving money from general expenditure to acquisition spending, but at immense bureaucratic cost. And The Art Fund seems especially unskilled at identifying the best things to buy.

There's another big subsidy in that £6m in tax will be remitted. I'm delighted by a £6m subsidy for the arts. But this is an arbitrary £6m subsidy, available only to specific works that are already in the UK. Effectively the government is paying full face value for a gift token that can be used only for one work of art, instead of just giving the money directly so that museums can choose the pictures they want.

The Art Fund has recently called for a review of the system of export licenses. I call for the whole rotten process to be abolished. If a foreign buyer is willing to pay £16m for this, let them have it. And let our museums compete to buy pictures from abroad, rather than having to go after the latest picture that The Art Funds wants to 'save'.

Sunday, 8 May 2016

Who will review the reviewers? Thoughts on Giorgione

In the Age of Giorgione Royal Academy London to 5 June

The word 'Age' is a warning sign in exhibition titles. It means 'we couldn't borrow the things we wanted, so we've blurred the edges a bit'. Blurring boundaries can be interesting and context is good, but it feels like they just gave up on this show when they couldn't get the big loans. They've stretched poor Giorgione to breaking point with mad attributions. The catalogue lacks conviction, just listing the views of other art historians next to the appalling grainy reproductions. And the display is filled out with a jumble of mostly early sixteenth century Venetian pictures of often questionable relevance.

It makes me yearn for Brian Sewell, who would have skewered it. 

Instead we have Laura Cumming in the Observer describing it as "something close to a miracle", and claiming that it includes a dozen Giorgiones. Two separate reviews in the Telegraph by Louisa Buck and Mark Hudson claim it includes seven out of 'ten or so' authentic Giorgiones. The New York Times's former art correspondent got in trouble for plagiarising Wikipedia. These critics don't even google. The FT is maddest of the lot, illustrating its review with one of the most implausible Giorgiones, claiming that the old dullard Cariani is the star of the show and describing the most mendacious curation as 'honest'. Even the smart reviewers have been too polite. A splendid, smart piece by Charles Hope casts a sceptical eye on the definition of this most enigmatic artist. Hope's essay is subtle; he isn't criticising connoisseurship, but implying preference for caution in face of uncertainty. I favour his epistemic stance, but he failed to give the show the kicking it so richly deserves.

Before I kick, I must urge you to see this show. There are some exceptional pictures here, and it does provide some valuable comparisons. It's worth travelling a long way just to see the Terris Portrait, top, which is one of the only secure Giorgiones on display. I've seen it at its home in San Diego, but it looks much better here, flanked by two Dürer portraits painted in Venice at the same time. It's a fantastic painting that's hard to appreciate in reproductions, with a monumental presence far disproportionate to its size. Confronting this picture in the first room really shows why Giorgione was so highly esteemed. 

I saw the Glasgow Christ and the Adulteress as more Titian-like than I'd previously appreciated; the current consensus for Titian now seems right to me. The wispy adulteress falling into the picture from the right looks especially Giorgionesque. But the dynamism, the gestures and the integration of figures is all Titian. It's worn and cut down, and even harder to appreciate on a tiny scale, but the composition is remarkably sophisticated. The catalogue describes it simply as diagonal, but it's more complex than that. There's nothing like it in Giorgione, who was more about mood than drama.

Another picture that I reassessed was the Cornbury Park Altarpiece by Bellini, which was one of my favourite pictures in my home town museum. Seeing it in a different context helped me appreciate better its weaknesses, and I absolutely disagree with the catalogue's assertion that, "the quality of the painting is so high that the contribution of the workshop, should it exist, is almost impossible to detect". On the contrary, different styles are readily recongnisable. The saints' heads are exceptionally Dürer-esque, the donor Memling-like and the Madonna and Child very typical of Bellini's workshop, and not of the highest quality. 

I like two Sebastianos that I'd never seen before, Birth of Adonis and Death of Adonis from La Spezia. The technique is unusual; they seem to have been painted quickly and broadly, which in this case seems not to be the result of bad restoration. The catalogue speculates that they may have been cassone panels, but they seem intended to be seen from below. Perhaps they once formed part of a frieze, hung high where that marvelous sky would have looked magnificent, but finely painted detail would be invisible. 

Consideration of condition must be at the heart of this show, and it's central to forming a view of Giorgione. A lot of the pictures are severely abraded, and some seem much repainted. Only a handful appear well-preserved, including a wonderful Lorenzo Lotto from the Louvre and a Virgin and Child with St Catherine and Saint John the Baptist only 'attributed' to Sebastiano del Piombo, but which seems quite right to me. The Venetian use of thin glazes renders them vulnerable to harsh cleaning, and maybe the soft contours appeared dirty to some early owners. But I wonder if there isn't also a selection bias here. The more badly they are scrubbed, the more they look like they might once have been by Giorgione. Some of these ghostly relics are now impossible to assess.

The connoisseurial potential of the show—trying to discern Giorgione's hand from others who painted in his style—is undermined by the sheer raving lunacy of the attributions. Giorgione is a controversial artist, and many pictures have been attributed to him over the years. But there are controversial pictures, and there are outright impossibilities. I'm not even convinced that all the pictures 'attributed to Giorgione' here are even Venetian, or of the right period. Two stood out as especially outrageous. 

A picture tentatively identified as David Between Saul and Jonathan is singled out for criticism in Charles Hope's essay. The attribution was originally made in a certificate bought and paid for by a previous owner. The modern equivalent of the 'certificate of authenticity' is the exhibition catalogue. It won't shift the view that this isn't by Giorgione, but inclusion at the RA lends it undeserved legitimacy. Maybe some one will buy it because they think it might be right, like the silly new 'Leonardos' that turn up from time to time, sometimes selling for high prices. It's evidently not Giorgione, and the prevarication of the catalogue entry makes it clear the curators don't think so either.

The second shocking misattribution is the Virgin and Child in a Landscape from the Hermitage, which is one of the only pictures given fully to Giorgione. It isn't. And I don't believe the curators think it is, either. It seems to have been substantially repainted at a later date, but there is nothing here to indicate it was ever by Giorgione. The Hermitage insisted that their Madonna Litta was given in full to Leonardo in the recent London exhibition, although few believe it is. I suspect this was another stipulation by the dogmatic anti-intellectuals there. But why on earth did the RA agree? The picture is trivial, and unnecessary to the show. The Hermitage gains, because they can cite another source seeming to endorse another of their extravagant claims. But the RA just looks meek and corrupt.

It's not the only picture whose inclusion in the show is perplexing. Cariani is a very different artist from Giorgione, and a rather repetitive painter. Yet there are six of them here. And some of the Sebastianos and Titians were oddly selected, some brought across continents when there are better examples five minutes down the road at the National Gallery. 

This is an obviously problematic show. I don't know the politics of the RA, but it seemed they themselves don't really believe in it. They have skimped on the catalogue, eschewed all commentary on the wall labels and avoided expression of opinion. I don't know where responsibility lies, whether with the powers-that-be at the RA or the curators who arranged this exhibition. But having seen the show, I am quite certain which critics deserve censure.