Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Springtime of the Renaissance

This is a perfect example of how art displays have been corrupted by the incessant demand to produce blockbusters.  The emergence of the Renaissance is probably the most familiar story in the whole history of art.  Every textbook account explains how artistic changes in the early fifteenth century can be seen first in sculpture.  And every guidebook to Florence explains that it's a story that can be seen most clearly in the encyclopaedic sculpture collection at the Bargello.  This exhibition, a ten minute walk from the Bargello, re-tells that story.

Parts of it are good.  Each room has a different theme, and some are successful.  The Disseminating Beauty  room was particularly worthy of being a stand-alone exhibition.  It focuses on the Donatello and della Robbia workshops, bringing together some wonderful masterpieces and shows their influence with works by their students and followers.  I got a new appreciation of the della Robbias from this display, although I'd seen the individual works before.  Donatello's great Pazzi Madonna can be seen better here than in Berlin, where it's displayed quite high.  There were several other works that could be seen more clearly than in their usual homes, including the Michelozzo Angels from the Victoria & Albert Museum.  Sculpture is hard to re-arrange because it often has to be fixed to the walls with big structural supports, but it did make me think that some of the great permanent collections of sculpture could do with being re-arranged from time to time.  

Other parts are weak, and relate badly to the rest.  The pottery knick-knacks in a room about rich patrons were out of place.  The main part of the exhibition is about the very highest art, and putting some contemporary luxury goods alongside adds nothing.  The latter part of the exhibition was running out of ideas, so they moved from from a focus on art to a focus on patronage.  Nothing wrong with that - it's an interesting theme.  But it stretched the exhibition too far.  Room 9 is devoted to confraternities as patrons, but who can focus on such an arcane area after the earlier treats?

The exhibition was consistently patchy.  It was great to see the ancient bronze horse head, the Medici Protome alongside Donatello's massive horse head, the Carafa Protome.  But the explication of the relationship between developments in sculpture and developments in painting was half-hearted.  Too often collections of sculpture and collections of paintings are kept apart (National Gallery and V&A, Bode Museum and Gemaldegalerie in Berlin, Uffizi and Bargello in Florence), so it would have been worthwhile to bring together painting and sculpture to show parallel development.  That is done to a degree, but the focus is firmly on sculpture, and the paintings are not always well-chosen.  It was a missed opportunity to show so many fabulous marble portrait busts without showing early painted portraits alongside.  

Turning to the positive, the exhibition catalogue is superb.  It sensibly avoids being another narrative overview of the Renaissance - general histories are already widely available.  Instead, it has a large number of short essays including some by leading scholars, many of which are excellent.  The kaleidoscopic approach gives an effective overview, and the catalogue section is informative and well-illustrated.  It's good value for money, and worth getting even if you're not going to the exhibition.   

Many of the works in the exhibition were cleaned specially for the occasion.  This seems irresponsible, because it imposes a strict deadline on the work.  If something is taking longer than expected to conserve, there must be immense pressure to hurry to job along to ensure it's ready for the exhibition.  The timetable of restoration on precious and delicate works of art should be dictated by need, not by the pressure of blockbuster exhibition schedules.

Despite getting all of these fabulous loans, and cleaning many of them specially, the display itself was unworthy.  Cheap plywood backing seemed to be imitating stone walls, but just looked tacky.  I was the first person through the doors on the first day of the exhibition (I have a long backlog of things to write up!), but several displays were conspicuously dusty and the glass on the Masolino was absolutely filthy.  The dirt was highlighted by bright spotlights that make it hard to appreciate sculptures in the round; as so often, a torch is essential.  The small bronze Marcus Aurelius by Filarete is especially hard to see.  

Exhibitions should be an opportunity to bring art together into a meaningful context.  Shamefully this exhibition has separated parts of a single artwork.  Donatello's St George and the Dragon is part of his sculpture of St George that is in the Bargello.  The main part is still in the Bargello, with a plaster cast in place of the lower part, which is in the exhibition.  Elsewhere pictures of works of art have been included in the exhibition where originals couldn't be borrowed (such as a fresco by Uccello).  This is a tawdry practice that elides the difference between original and copy, and shifts the whole focus of the exhibition away from the art itself and towards the curatorial narrative, treating works of art as illustrations of a thesis.

If this sounds harsh, it's partly because this lazy excuse for an exhibition has had an excessively easy ride from critics who were understandably impressed by the artworks themselves.  Parts were good, and could have been developed into excellent focused displays.  Bringing all of it together dulled the impact.  The demand for jazzy blockbusters rather than more focused and meaningful exhibitions impoverishes our appreciation.  Meanwhile, the top floor of the Bargello itself was randomly closed (again!) when I visited, without any advance warning.  So much effort is put into big exhibitions, whereas parts of great permanent collections are almost permanently off-limits, treated as the poor relations of the blockbusters that get all the attention.

What Maria Miller Should Have Said

There's been some good coverage of the Culture Secretary's recent speech.  I particularly liked this piece by Alex Massie.  A reader responded to my last post by challenging me to explain what a cabinet minister could have said, given the constraints of her position.  It's a fair challenge, so I've had a go at re-writing the speech.

I've tried to be consistent with the policy and ideology of the current British government whilst making a robust case for the intrinsic value of the arts.  I've also suggested where the inevitable cuts could be made.  These are not my views (at least not entirely) In a previous post I argued contra-Miller that the arts don't necessarily promote economic growth, so focusing on that argument is self-destructive.  This post shows how she could have made a different and better case for her department.  

I don't think that different points on the political spectrum are inherently more cultured or more philistine.  Culture is truly universal, and it can be defended from almost any ideological position - if they want to.  

Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.

Firstly thank you to Neil MacGregor for hosting us here today and thank you all for joining me for today's speech.

It's fitting that we meet here today in what was the world's first national public museum.  It was opened as a venue for 'the studious and the curious' and it allows people to consider their place in the world.  It continues to play that role; and many more besides.  Over 28,000 people a day have been coming through the doors.  The British Museum's ongoing popularity and success confirms my belief that culture is at the very heart of what it means to be human.  Culture educates and enriches, and it's great fun!

This museum is the UK's most popular tourist attraction.  It is little wonder that citizens from all around the globe are drawn to this collection of the world for the world, which tells such a compelling story of human civilization.  

We get so much from culture.  We get a sense of history and tradition, an appreciation of craftsmanship and artistry.  We get inspiration from the beauty and the genius of great art.  And we get a sense of wonder as we critically engage with the highest peaks of human civilization.  Britain has long been a great cultural power.  But although Shakespeare, Turner and Elgar have special meaning for us, they resonate globally as expressions of universal human experience.

It's a high mark of civilization when culture plays a fundamental role in society, as it does in Britain today.  Britain is fortunate to be blessed with so many great museums and galleries, concert halls and theatres.  They enrich our society and draw visitors from around the world.  Our cultural heritage is a vital part of our national narrative, giving us all an opportunity to experience history at first hand. It is also a living resource that is drawn upon by new generations of artists and designers, as well as millions of ordinary people who derive pleasure and inspiration from culture.  

This blessing brings with it responsibility.  Responsibility for preserving our heritage.  Responsibility for displaying it and making it available to the widest possible audience.  And responsibility for nurturing the arts today.  Because culture is a living thing, and we have a responsibility to the future Shakespeares, Turners and Elgars.  

Significant funding is available.  After the last election the government increased the share of arts funding received from the National Lottery.  This means that the Arts Council is now projected to receive £262 million of Lottery funding in 2015.  That's over £100 million more than it received each year before the Government took office in May 2010.

As a result nearly £3 billion will go to the arts sector over the lifetime of this Parliament: £1 billion in Lottery funding combined with almost £2 billion from general taxation.  

The government is committed to a mixed economy model where targeted public funding will stimulate money from other sources, whether that is philanthropy or commercially generated.  We are committed to that model because it helps organisations maximise their income, without becoming over-reliant on one funding stream over another.  As in so many other areas, I believe we tread a happy middle path between the American model, based on benefactor-funding, and the European approach, based on state subsidy.  Our system encourages risk-taking, but discourages complacency.  And I think it should be warmly celebrated.

You have heard a great deal from the Government on philanthropy over the last three years and with good reason.  We should all be grateful for the profound generosity of those donors who already contribute almost £700 million to the arts each year.

And the Government is doing its bit by introducing a reduced rate of inheritance tax for legacy giving.  We have further promoted philanthropy by listening to our museums and introducing the cultural gifts scheme; by simplifying gift aid; by ensuring greater recognition is given to philanthropists; and by developing the Catalyst scheme, which I know many of you in this room are actively participating in.  £110 million has already been earmarked for arts and heritage organisations, which will unlock at least as much again from private donors.  

I know there are reservations about this focus on philanthropy across the sector, and probably in the room today, so let me reassure you here and now that no one considers philanthropy a panacea, a silver bullet or a magic wand.  It is not seen as a substitute for government support, but it is complementary.

I therefore regard it as a crucial part of a longer-term strategy for arts funding.  The cultural sector is subject to the remorseless and universal laws of double-entry bookkeeping.  Successful organisations must combine creativity with commercial nous; entrepreneurial endeavour can support cultural excellence.  

Faced with a crippling budget deficit, there are big choices to be made at both a national and a local level, few of which are easy or palatable.  You will all have seen the reported headline figures of the savings that will need to be made as part of the forthcoming Spending Review.

Some in the sector say that arts funding should be treated as a special case.  They argue that Government support for the arts is less than 1% of total government spending, and that's a drop in the ocean.  Culture cannot be seen in isolation at a time of unprecedented economic challenge.  Everyone has to play a part in our efforts to reduce the deficit and my department is no exception.  

John Wanamaker said, "Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted.  Trouble is I don't know which half."  We can't know in advance what will succeed and what will fail.  We have to take risks.  We have to recognise that sometimes even great artistic breakthroughs aren't great financial successes.  That's why government needs to fund the arts.  We recognise that need and we're committed to supporting the arts.  

But let's remember that the great artists of the past succeeded without government grants.  Shakespeare wrote his plays without an Arts Council grant.  Walter Scott was driven to write most intensely when he lost his money in a failed publishing venture.  Government funding is not a precondition for creativity, and this government recognises the value of individual entrepreneurship.  Artistic effort is better directed towards creating art rather than writing grant applications.  And public bodies are not infallible arbiters of artistic potential.

Our priority is artistic excellence.  It is irresponsible to spend taxpayers' money on the second-rate, to fund cronies or to provide welfare for the artistically inclined.  We will resist salami-slicing, and take difficult decisions about where funding will have the greatest effect.  Whilst individual artists and writers should be expected to make their own way rather than live off government grants, we recognise the need to fund collective enterprises like orchestras and theatres and museums that cannot prosper from ticket sales alone.

Government funding will also be focused on ensuring wide access to culture.  That means ensuring that our great museums are able to offer free admission without compromising on their curatorial responsibilities.  It means ensuring that the regions can also experience great theatre and art and music.  And it means that the arts can take risks on new productions where box office success is uncertain.  

I ask you to continue your efforts to ensure that our traditions of cultural excellence are maintained.  For my part, I will continue to fight our corner in Cabinet.  

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Valuing Culture

Picture: Evening Standard

Britain's cultural institutions have been told that they must justify themselves in economic terms.  Maria Miller, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, thinks it's the job of museums and theaters to stimulate economic growth (which some of us might have thought was a job of government).  In a speech today she said that the only justification for public funding of the arts is on the basis of economic return on investment.  Aside from a few platitudes about the value of culture, she seems mainly to esteem culture for its economic contribution.  But measuring culture in money is stupid as well as philistine; it's like trying to measure height in ounces.  It's really hard to articulate the value of culture (although most people intuitively understand it), but it's actually even harder to make a convincing case for public subsidy of the arts on the grounds of financial return.

A theatre makes a direct economic impact by selling tickets and programmes and gin and tonic in the interval.  That impact is multiplied because the actors and ticket collectors and cleaners who work at the theater buy other things too, stimulating the wider economy.  But these are really measures of cost rather than value, accounting for the economic resources that are expended on staging plays.  There's no reason for the multiplier to be greater in the cultural sector, so it's no basis to justify state subsidy.  You might as well pay people to dig holes in the ground.  This argument still leaves the biggest question unanswered - what is the value of culture that justifies targeting of public money to that sector rather than to the hole-digging sector?

Miller talked about tourist revenue, but again it's not a compelling argument for subsidy.  Is she asking British taxpayers to subsidise holidays for wealthy foreigners?  Isn't there a more cost-effective way of promoting tourism?  Maybe some of the biggest national museums that are the biggest tourist magnets could stand on their own by charging high admission prices, and the smaller attractions can be closed.  If our only criterion is financial, that might be a better business proposition than current subsidies.  Then there's the wider effect; maybe companies will be tempted to locate in London because of the cultural opportunities it affords.  This effect is the most ethereal and the most stubbornly resistant to measurement.  It's really just a kind of proxy for the ineffable value of culture.  

In a superb critique of this kind of reasoning, John Kay writes that, "The only intelligible meaning of 'benefit to the economy' is the contribution - direct or indirect - the activity makes to the welfare of ordinary citizens."  That benefit cannot always be expressed meaningfully in pounds shillings and pence.  Adding up the money spent on culture doesn't tell you anything about its value.  I've seen lots of peculiar judgments in theatre reviews, but I've never heard it said that one play is better than another because it cost more to stage.  I particularly enjoyed John Kay's article because it lays bare the way that these arguments corrupt economics as well as culture.  

Monday, 22 April 2013


Picture: Google
Art criticism is too often too uncritical, but writing about museums and galleries is an especially hagiographic genre.  I enjoyed Jonathon Conlin's well-received history of the National Gallery, The Nation's Mantelpiece, but it's very much an establishment history.  Stewards of the Nation's Art by Andrea Geddes Poole dishes some dirt.  It's a fascinating account of institutional politics on the boards of the National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery, Tate and Wallace Collection between 1890 and 1939, full of great anecdotes that are unreported in the more sanitised official accounts. 

Geddes Poole remorselessly documents the failings of  the Trustees, which were astutely noted by the Treasury.  Treasury official R.S. Meiklejohn is quoted, "I have been told on good authority that one of the Trustees had never heard of Mantegna, another was ignorant of Masaccio, two of them seeing a photographic reproduction of Titian's Bacchus and Ariadne were surprised to learn that the original was in the National Gallery" (p.166, quoting from National Archives T1/11995, Meiklejohn to T.L. Heath 27 June 1916).  A number of trustees are revealed as ignorant, bullying philistines.

The future King Edward VIII was briefly a trustee of the National Gallery, and I'd heard that he was somewhat disengaged.  But I had no idea that the NG acceded to his request to borrow a few pictures for his own house - which he proceeded to re-frame!  It seems only by good fortune that the original frames were found in a bedroom.  It's a great story that she tells well, highlighting the dereliction of duty by the board.  

The research is compelling, but the narrative is spoiled by Geddes-Poole's heavy-handed use of Pierre Bordieu's ideas about cultural capital to tell a version of the well-worn story about declining aristos versus the ascendant middle class. It's hard to justify such a broad claim on a tiny sample of connected individuals who served on museum boards.  The evidence is anecdotal, and there isn't enough to convince that we're seeing anything more than the usual frictions of office politics.  Moreover her unconcealed preference for commoners against aristocrats causes her to judge the self-serving dealer Joseph Duveen too generously, and to glide over many exceptions to the 'rule'.  It's implied that Kenneth Clark was an especially effective Director of the NG because he managed the board so well, but on the other side was ongoing strife with the staff, which is discussed in Conlin's book.

Geddes Poole writes that, "Noting the disparities between the two varieties of cultural capital (inherited and educationally acquired) helps to illuminate the divide between the amateur and the professional.  As professional expertise rose in value at the Treasury and in the director's chair, aristocrats on the board found their cultural capital devalued and their authority threatened." (p. 219)  That's a rather highfalutin way of saying that some people got onto the board because of who they were, others for what they knew - but it's not really such a clear-cut distinction.  Some aristos knew a lot about art, and some commoners had inherited a lot of money and social cachet.  The comment about threatened authority is question-begging.  The more interesting question is how professional expertise in art emerged and became valued, but that is assumed rather than explained.

She claims that "the value of amateur connoisseurship was about much more than knowledge or taste.  The issues concerned power and authority and were fraught with implications for an aristocracy in the process of being eclipsed by an emerging professional class" (p. 219)  This is lazy writing.  What does "fraught with implications" mean?  What implications?  It's just left hanging, and we're expected to nod obligingly at the impossibly vague claim that important things are happening in the background.

The book is also marred by a profusion of errors.  In one sentence she misspells three artists ('Wouvermand', 'Tenier', 'Van Dyke' p.143).  It's Fra Filippo Lippi not Fra Lippo Lippi (p.196), unless she means the poem by Browning rather than the artist.  Ingres painted Madame Moitessier not Madame de Moitessier.  She mentions "a rare Cima da Conegliano head of St Jerome" purchased for the NG by Clark (p.183).  There is a Cima St Jerome at the NG, but it's not just a head and it wasn't bought by Clark.  I simply don't know what she could be referring to.  She describes Titian's Diana and Calisto (sic) as the less  (sic) good of three Titians, when the Venus Anadyomene is clearly the least good (wrong on grammar, spelling and art, p.142).  She weirdly judges Sir Philip Sassoon's collection insignificant because "it was too diverse and did not concentrate on period, artist or country" (p. 25, a judgment repeated on p.200) - so I guess collections like Thyssen's and Frick's must be trivial too.   

The thesis doesn't convince, the social theory is a distraction and the carelessness rankles.  But I truly recommend the book.  There's a wealth of fascinating information, if you can tolerate its failings.  

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Robert and Evelyn Benson Collection

Picture: Metropolitan Museum of Art
This painting by Ghirlandaio was part of the Robert and Evelyn Benson collection of Italian old masters, which the great dealer Joseph Duveen bought en bloc in 1927 for £500,000.  Last week I came across Benson's own copy of the catalogue of his collection, which he wrote with assistance from Tancred Borenius.  Benson is less well known than collectors like Frick and Mellon, because his pictures were sold and dispersed whereas theirs were donated to museums.  But his superb collection is a fascinating episode of cultural history that deserves to be better known.

The collection included four panels from Duccio's Maesta (now in the Thyssen, the NGA Washington, the Frick and the Kimbell), Giorgione's Holy Family (Washington NGA), and Giovanni Bellini's St Jerome Reading (also NGA).  It's a survey of Italian art from the thirteenth to the sixteenth century - very much Berenson's taste, but largely formed before his time. The catalogue was published in 1914 in two privately-printed editions - an illustrated version limited to 125 copies, and a text-only version.  Benson's own copies of both are in the London Library.
Picture: National Gallery of Art

The consistent quality is remarkable given that he was buying before the growth of professional connoisseurship, when collectors had to rely on their judgment rather than looking at Berenson's lists, or calling an established expert.  This Filippino Lippi, now in Washington, was apparently bought at Bologna Railway Station by Charles Fairfax Murray.  I thought I was lucky when I found a cheap copy of Lightbown's Mantegna catalogue at Bologna Railway Station a few years ago!

Looking through the illustrations, the attributions have generally held up quite well, and are now the highlights of some of the best American museums.  Some of the attributions have been upgraded since 1914; the Fra Bartolommeo St Jerome sold recently by Sotheby's was listed as an Albertinelli, and the Madonna and Child now generally accepted as an early Titian (in poor condition) was tentatively listed as 'Attributed to Titian'.  A Crucifixion and an Entombment (now called Lamentation) attributed to Ambrogio Lorenzetti are now in the Met as the Master of the Codex of St George.

The catalogue in the London Library is annotated by Benson, and is bound with a letter from Benson to the librarian, Hagbert Wright.  The preface notes that the collectors Charles Butler and Graham Holford "knew what they liked, and needed no expert to form their collections", to which is added the pencil note "like the Jews, who never could bear to lose compound interest; or the new American collectors (after 1896) who took warning by the number of false Corots etc, & Italian school pieces [situated?] in America, & led by Mrs J. S. Gardiner & J Pierpont Morgan employed their own experts" (p. vii).  It's a bizarre comment, and I have no idea why he introduces the anti-Semitic comment about compound interest.

The published text is discreet and anonymous: "There was a famous character in the latter half of the nineteenth century who had a passion for cleaning, and would reply to anyone who remonstrated, 'But I can put it back!'"  Benson's pencil annotation identifies the nameless vandal as the famous dealer Martin Colnaghi.

A letter bound into the catalogue advises the librarian that the negatives of photos of his collection were destroyed in World War I, but notes that "Brain's photos are pieces of consummate craftsmanship next door to works of art themselves: & good photos are necessary for students who are interested in the Science of Attribution, in which new discoveries, or conjectures, are continually being made."  He goes on to mention some recent changed attributions, and suggests contacting Duveen for photos, so the undated letter must have been written after he'd sold the collection.

The letter indicates a close ongoing interest in art, and he was also a Trustee of the National Gallery.  There doesn't appear to have been any great financial crisis, so the sale to Duveen seems very odd.  Benson was involved in the National Art Collections fund in its early days, so selling the whole collection without making any donations to public collections is surprising.  Duveen donated a Correggio from the collection to the National Gallery.

Published information about Benson is limited, so I'm going to do so more research, including the Duveen archives if I can get access.  I'd be very grateful if anyone can suggest other sources.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

The London Library

Picture: Christopher Simon Sykes
A comment left on a recent blog post urged me to join the London Library, which was a splendid idea.  It's a private library in a rambling old building in Mayfair with a million books that are almost all on open access and available to borrow.  It subscribes to the major journals and provides access to  electronic resources including the indispensable JSTOR.  There are fewer than 8,000 members, but I seem to have met quite a few of them over the years, and they've all been ardent ambassadors.  In the past I've been put off by the cost - £460 a year seemed very steep.  Now that I've joined it feels like a bargain.  The London Library just seems to get right all the basic things that some public libraries have forgotten.
The London Library has a fabulous collection of books.  They don't 'deaccession'.  You can find all kinds of wonderful old books that are undeservedly forgotten.  I find it depressing the number of important art history books that I've bought recently that have been sold off from public libraries - books like Seymour Slive's catalogue of Frans Hals, and Frances Ames-Lewis's study of Raphael's drawings, books that are still essential.  Some public libraries seem almost bibliophobic, preferring DVDs and computer terminals over books, and never buying much more than a few recent bestsellers.
The London Library still buys a lot of books, both new publications and old books that they missed first time around.  Acquisitions seem astute and timely - I even found a book in stock that Amazon still lists as not yet published!  The Art History section is particularly impressive.  There are a few weaker areas, like foreign museum catalogues and guides, and a few of the more expensive works like the Rembrandt Corpus and Capellen's Raphael catalogue are missing, but overall it's one of the very best collections I've found. 
The library is on St James Square, near the National Gallery, with an unassuming frontage leading to a maze of rooms that have been added over the years.  There's an appropriately magnificent main reading room, but also lots of desks dotted around in the stacks.  Best of all, it's mostly open access - you can just browse and find all kinds of things you never knew you were looking for.  Electronic catalogues are the enemy of serendipity (and anything mis-catalogued is lost in closed stacks).  The library pre-dates the horrid Dewey Decimal system; the arcane classifications here are much better, and more conducive to lucky finds.  The 'Science and Misc.' section has some wonderfully obscure sub-categories - "Fishing, Flagellation, Flags, Flax, Floods, Flower Arrangement...", for example.
The London Library is quiet.  Such a simple thing, but so important.  Even at the British Library it can be hard to concentrate when people are engaged in an iPod arms race to block out the incessant din.  Some public libraries try to be as noisy as possible to prove how friendly and relevant they are.  The tragic thing is that their patrons actually really value quiet space - as explained in this superb recent article.
I'm struck by similarities between recent changes in museums and in libraries.  In the UK, both were subject to incessant meddling by New Labour.  And to a greater or lesser degree, libraries and museums were happy to accept new responsibilities to promote social inclusion and public health and equal rights and whatever other worthy and irrelevant priorities were in vogue that day.  Some libraries wholly lost sight of their role of providing people with books to read and a quiet space to read them.  Some museums wholly lost sight of their role to preserve and present their collections.  Luckily there are still museums that get it right, and I'm delighted to have found one library that is just perfect. 

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Loan damage

Picture: NG via Artwatch
Bendor Grosvenor has taken issue with Blake Gopnik's recent call for fewer exhibitions.  The main disagreement is about the level of risk arising from loans, and I completely agree with Gopnik's call for caution. 
The picture above shows the consequence of dropping a Beccafumi at the National Gallery.  At most it fell a couple of feet, and the panel broke in two.  That must be cause for scepticism about Bendor Grosvenor's claim that paintings are "pretty damn tough".  Paint often adheres poorly to its support; even without movement, it can be subject to flaking.  Even in public displays you sometimes see paper stuck over the surface of pictures to protect flaking paint.  Perfectly preserved old masters are rare things; condition reports regularly highlight not only damage from excessive cleaning, but all kinds of tears and bumps. 
It's not just a theoretical risk.  I once spoke to someone who had worked as art handler in a summer vacation from university.  He described alarming carelessness and frequent minor incidents of damage, not all of which were disclosed.  He told me that one of his colleagues accidentally slashed a painting with a knife when removing its packing.  The painting was carefully re-packed, and the handling firm denied all knowledge of the incident.  Brian Sewell's memoirs include some horrific anecdotes about the damage done by art handlers when he worked at Christie's.

Even if they arrive safely, borrowing museums can fail to provide promised safeguards.  I heard from an insider about one major US museum that would routinely lie to lenders about the security measures in place, which were never audited.  London's National Gallery required a rope barrier to be placed in front of an unglazed loan to the Goya: Images of Women exhibition at Washington's National Gallery of Art, but when I visited the rope was pushed right up against the wall, so that visitors could poke it freely along with the other notoriously badly protected works at the NGA. 

The problem in debating this is that we have no idea how often incidents happen because there is no requirement to disclose them. There is no incentive for lenders or borrowers to disclose damage - quite the opposite, as both lender and borrower are responsible for protecting exhibits, so disclosing damage will inevitably reflect badly on whoever 'fesses up'. 
The frame that was recently damaged in the Murillo exhibition at the Wallace Collection would almost certainly never be known about if I hadn't spotted the damage between two visits to the show.  Their press office simply ignored my request for information about the incident.  There are therefore no reliable data on the harm done to art as a result of exhibitions, because damage is not publicised (nor even necessarily recorded).   The Telegraph reports a catalogue of damage to works of art in museums, not all related to exhibitions, but limited to British institutions, and obviously including only those that were recorded and disclosed.  We can only speculate how much damage wasn't properly recorded, and how much damage is done globally.
So what's on the other side of the balance sheet to make these risks worthwhile?  Exhibitions are indeed the 'lifeblood' of museums today, but again I think Gopnik's critique of the myopic focus on ephemeral exhibitions at the expense of the permanent collection is right.  In London there are so many exhibitions that I struggle even to visit them all.  It's really rare for an exhibition to offer much new, insightful or interesting; in praising exhibitions, reviewers often confuse the quality of the art on display with the quality of the exhibition itself. 
Bendor Grosvenor regrets the 'captive grip of the museum basement', but it's not basement pictures that are being lent; it's generally the greatest treasures.  Moreover, the handling requirements that he bemoans aren't slowing the rate of lending.  Gopnik's article together with The Art Newspaper's annual exhibition attendance survey provide ample evidence that art works are being lent more often than before and travelling further than before. Every museum now feels the need to organise frenetic exhibition schedules. The requirements imposed on borrowers do not seem to be slowing the pace of lending at all, and maybe reflect the additional risk arising from the increasing number of loans. Curators who should know better boast about wheedling loans of pictures generally viewed as too delicate to travel, such as large altarpieces or fragile panels.  
Some will no doubt see these concerns as out of all proportion to a few paintings getting some knocks and scrapes.  But the crucial point is that these knocks and scrapes represent permanent and irrevocable losses to our artistic heritage.  In this respect visual art is very different from music or drama.  No matter how much you mangle a production of Hamlet, the play remains for posterity.  Take a chunk out of the Mona Lisa, and something of Leonardo is lost forever. 

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Leonard Lauder Collection

Picture: Tablet
Leonard Lauder is giving the Met a billion-dollar collection of cubist pictures.  Blake Gopnik wrote a rather acerbic response suggesting that anyone with a cheque book could assemble a great collection.  I'm not so sure.  Lots of gazillionaires have spent fortunes on bad collections.  Some buy bad art, others assemble incoherent or repetitive collections.  My appreciation of modern art is patchy, but the museums that I've loved are those with the stamp of a distinctive taste.  The Beyeler Collection in Basel is magnificent.  I also enjoy the exceptional cubist paintings at the Kunstmuseum Basel, from the Raoul La Roche bequest (although I still prefer the Holbeins). 
Even museums with deep pockets don't always buy well.  I think the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth has done relatively better than the Getty, for example.  The Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westphalen has a comprehensive collection of classical modernist and expressionist art that was largely bought by the museum, under their brilliant director Werner Schmalenbach.  It's a small, coherent, brilliant collection that is a pleasure to visit.
Adulation of expensive art collections can be tiresome and excessive.  If I were a billionaire I'd want to commission Blake Gopnik to write an introduction to the catalogue of my art collection, as an antidote to the usual sycophancy.  But forming a great collection does take more than money, and some collectors do deserve admiration - especially when they donate their collections to public museums.  The Met hasn't given full details or images of the Lauder bequest, but what I've seen looks good. 

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Ban this filth!

Eric Gill, ‘Slaughter of the Innocents’ 1914
Picture: Tate
I was shocked to discover that the Tate still has sculptures and graphic art by Eric Gill, freely available for public viewing.  Don't they know that he sexually abused his children (& his dog)?  This print, which can be viewed by appointment, even includes an image of a naked child!
Landscape with Figures
Picture: BBC Your Paintings

Ulster Museum has this painting by Agostino Tassi (Landscape with Figures), despite Tassi being a well-known rapist.  
Sounds ridiculous?  Yes, but no more so than the Tate's decision to remove prints by Graham Ovenden when he was convicted of indecency with a child.  The prints have been widely shown before, but now the Tate says that his conviction 'sheds new light' on the images.  In other words, they are not being removed because of anything inherent in the pictures, but rather because of the perceived intent behind the works has changed.  That's a creepy concept - that an art gallery can remove works from view because of the inferences they have drawn about the intent behind their creation. 
I find it perverse that people are so ready to read indecent meanings into pictures, rather than appreciate artistic merit.  I don't know Ovenden's work at all (and the images are now not even available on the Tate website), but clearly the Tate judged them to be of sufficient merit to display.  However repugnant the artist's intentions may have been, their artistic quality is unchanged.  This is just a contemporary version of covering up nude statues. 

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

The Piero della Francesca Trail

Picture: Christina J. Weis via Flickr
Over the centuries the greatest old masters have gravitated towards major museums, mostly in big cities.  A famous hold-out is Piero della Francesca; if you want to see Piero, you still have to make the pilgrimage across central Italy.  There's a great book on the Piero trail by John Pope-Hennessy, available in a version including Aldous Huxley's essay on 'The Greatest Painting in the World' (Piero's Resurrection in Sansepolcro).  Apparently a British artillery officer avoided shelling Sansepolcro in World War II because he'd read Huxley's essay.  Last week I made it to Arezzo, Monterchi and Sansepolcro (above), leaving the Pieros in Urbino and Rimini for another trip later this year. 
Sansepolcro's old walled centre is well preserved and beautiful.  I stayed at the Palazzo Magi, a lovely old hotel near the Museo Civico that I heartily recommend.  There's some interesting art in local churches, including an important Rosso Fiorentino in San Lorenzo (inexplicably closed when I tried to visit).  The Duomo, just around the corner from the Museo Civico, has a polyptych by Niccolo di Segna and an altarpiece by Perugino.  But the Piero della Francesca towers above the rest.

Coming across the Resurrection fresco is a tremendous experience.  It's in a large room in the town hall, now the Museo Civico.  The light is fabulous, from four large windows supplemented with discreet artificial light.  I don't know if it's the greatest painting in the world, but it's up there.  The early Polyptych of the Misericordia was less impressive, partly because many of the panels were undergoing restoration and not on display.  There are also two detached frescoes by Piero.
The rest of the collection is less spectacular, but still worth seeing.  It's interesting to see the polyptych panel by Matteo di Giovanni that originally framed Piero della Francesca's Baptism in London.  There's lots of Sano di Tito, and some detached frescoes in poor condition.  This one is by Antonio d'Anghiari, Piero's master:
Picture: MS
Piero is an incomparably greater artist than his rather pedestrian master, but there are some notable similarities, particularly in the eyes.  Here is Piero's fresco of St Julian:
Picture: MS
and Antonio di Anghiari's St Sebastian:
Picture: MS
I suspect that the difference in appearance is partly because Piero's fresco has been more thoroughly worked-over by restorers rather than because it is better preserved, but the comparison is interesting. 
The Madonna del Parto in Monterchi is a disappointment.  The painting is an absolute wreck,  badly repainted.  It has its own museum, just left of the photo above, where it's kept in a darkened room behind thick glass, alongside three rooms of 'interpretive displays'.  The journey is nice and Monterchi is pretty, but the fresco isn't worth a special trip.
Arezzo is fabulous.  The Legend of the True Cross fresco cycle in San Francesco is one of the most amazing things I've ever seen.  In my opinion, it's the greatest fresco cycle before the Sistine Chapel.  Masaccio's frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel are probably of greater art historical importance, but for me Piero's cycle is a more overwhelming experience.  I won't say more about the fresco itself; there is a huge literature on Piero, and gushing superlatives are boring for writer and reader.  It's an easy day trip from Florence, even if you're not doing the whole Piero trail. 
The other frescoes in San Francesco are of more antiquary interest.  There are some quite poor works by students of Piero; it's interesting to see how his style was continued, but he had no direct followers of note.  The earlier frescoes by Spinello Aretino are better.  They were discovered under plaster, so the condition is compromised, but an Annunciation in particular is quite successful.

There is lots more in Arezzo.  In Santa Maria della Pieve, a wonderful Romanesque church, there is a Pietro Lorenzetti polyptych on the High Altar.  There is an exquisite fresco of Mary Magdalene by Piero della Francesca in the Cathedral, a Cimabue crucifix in San Domenico, and a remarkable museum that I'd never even heard of, the Museo Nazionale d'Arte Medievale e Moderna.  When I got there the doors were open, but there was no one at the ticket desk, and the lights were off.  I set off through the galleries anyway, using my torch to illuminate the thirteenth century paintings, including two versions of St Dominic, above (apologies for poor illumination from my torch!).  Eventually I came across a guard, who issued a ticket.  It's free, but the bureaucrats have to issue tickets.  I didn't see another visitor in the three hours I was there.  It's a big museum of mixed quality, with lots of second rate stuff.  But there are some great things, including a couple of Signorelli altarpieces, a Pierino da Vinci marble (below) and a Vicenzo Danti terracotta.  

There's a regular train from Florence to Arezzo, taking about an hour.  Sansepolcro and Monterchi are trickier, but there is a bus from Arezzo.  I hired a bike in Florence and cycled, which I recommend as a great way to see the stunning Tuscan countryside, and get a better sense of the challenges involved in renaissance travel.  Happy to provide advice on routes if you email me, and I recommend hiring from the excellent Florence by Bike

I've been meaning to do this trip for years, and now I wish I'd done it years ago.  It's a fabulous experience - great art, beautiful countryside, unpoiled old towns, quiet museums. 

Sistine Chapel 'Restoration'

Important update from Artwatch on the Sistine Chapel restoration - weep over the before and after pictures above, from their blog.  Artwatch has been right about the Sistine restoration from the very start, and it's tragic to see how long it took others to catch up, and to see how some still try to defend what was one of the greatest cultural calamities of the twentieth century. 

Monday, 1 April 2013

Metsu Catalogue

Picture: Yale University Press
I'm delighted that Adriaan Waiboer has followed up his catalogue of a recent Metsu exhibition with a full monograph and catalogue raisonne.  Outside the 'big three' (Rembrandt, Hals, Vermeer) there seems to have been a dearth of good catalogues of Dutch artists.  There has been more of a focus on symbolic and sociological aspects of Dutch art, rather than the traditional connoisseurial concerns that have characterised the history of Italian art.  Publishing has also been skewed towards exhibition catalogues, with discussion focused on borrowed pictures rather than the whole oeuvre.  Recently the situation has improved with some major publications including Seymour Slive's Jacob van Ruisdael and Frans Post by the de Lagos. 

Waiboer's superb and supremely useful book makes it clear why catalogues are so important.  It clarifies Metsu's independent artistry, distinguishing him from the fijnschilder like Dou and rescuing him from the shade cast by "hyperbolic admiration of Vermeer" (p. 152).  The monograph reconstructs a plausible chronology and is strong on discussion of Metsu's sources and influences, including Weenix and Kupfer as well as Ter Borch and Vermeer.  Exhibition catalogues and thematic studies present only a partial view; here we see Metsu in the round, alongside uncertain attributions and lost works, and with well-reasoned rejected attributions. 

The catalogue includes exhaustive details of provenance, literature and exhibition history.  Reconstruction of provenance seems thorough at first glance, but he fails to record Harold Samuel's ownership of the Norton Simon Woman at her Toilet (A-28), which is mentioned in the catalogue of the Harold Samuel collection that Waiboer cites under A-121 (p. 262).

Waiboer describes well the evolution of Metsu's distinctive technique from the earliest 'creamy' and sometimes careless brushwork to a soft and fluid technique in response to Dou, which evolved towards a more individual approach of "fine yet pronounced strokes ... [a]lthough his brushwork was intended to approach that of the Leiden 'fine' painters, Metsu did not deny the traces of the brush and aimed to retain a distinct pictorial liveliness in the paint surface" (p. 105).  Compared to the fine painters of Leiden, he had a more varied technique that included more broadly painted passages alongside meticulous still life elements in the same pictures.  It's a shame that there are so few details reproduced in the book to illustrate these techniques; comparison with details from rejected attributions would have been especially valuable in validating the author's judgments.

Waiboer's monograph is particularly good at distinguishing Metsu's unique artistic qualities from those of artists he responded to.  He draws out Metsu's particular fondness for showing people interacting with their pets, and his ability to show figures engaging with the viewer rather than preoccupied in their tasks.  His discussion of the relationship between the Hinlopen family portrait in Berlin (A-87) and Ter Borch's model draws out that Metsu's picture is "brighter and more varied in colour and richer in detail ... more informal in character" (p. 96), and the discussion of his relationship to Vermeer in Chapter 5 is masterful, and gave me a fresh appreciation for Metsu. 

Metsu was a painter rather than a draughtsman.  He delighted in meticulous depiction of different textures, and responded to the painterly technique of the fijnschilder and the light effects captured by Vermeer.  On the other hand, his figures are often poorly articulated, he struggled with foreshortening and the depiction of space is often unconvincing.  Two drawings are attributed to Metsu, although with such a small corpus they could easily be after Metsu.  But I suspect he must have drawn hands, because his hands are excellent, and more individualised even than his faces.  

The book has one serious failing, which is its almost total failure to discuss condition.  Waiboer is careful to assess the quality of photographs when he has not seen the original, but does not bother to discuss the condition of the originals that he has seen.  There can be more uncertainty about attributing a badly worn and repainted original than judging a high-quality photograph of a perfectly preserved painting.  From the 133 entries for authentic paintings, only three have any mention of condition (A-59, A-60 and A-65); in the monograph there is also passing reference to the poor condition of A Visit to the Nursery (A-86, p.94) and to possible retouching of Ecce Homo (A-111, p.117).  Waiboer, a privileged art-world 'insider', had access to many paintings in private collections, and was presumably also able to examine pictures off the wall and to consult museum records.  Failure to share the fruits of this study is deplorable.

An example of the importance of condition is that Metsu's reds seem on the whole much better preserved than Ter Borch's.  Ter Borch seems to have used thin glazes that are easily lost in cleaning, which has left many of his pictures with distracting areas of flat, dull red, particularly in tablecloths, that contrast awkwardly with the brilliant depiction of satins in more hardy white paint.  By contrast, the reproductions in Waiboer's book indicate that Metsu's reds are better preserved.  Waiboer specifically discusses the prominent reds in A Man Visiting a Woman Washing Her Hands (A-126, p.136).  It seems from the reproduction that there has been some loss of glazes in the chair and the bed, particularly at the top, but on the whole it seems much better preserved than most Ter Borchs, with fine and varied effects.  It's possible that this is due to skilful repainting, but it seems likely that Metsu employed a more robust technique.  But without the necessary information about condition, we are left guessing.