Monday, 25 November 2013

Painting Under Pressure

Picture: Amazon
Michelle O'Malley Painting under Pressure: Fame, Reputation and Demand in Renaissance Florence Yale University Press 2013 £30

Books on social and cultural aspects of Renaissance painting often suffer from a lack of attention to (or even interest in) the paintings themselves. O'Malley's study benefits from sensitive and perceptive analysis of paintings produced by four major Florentine workshops, led by Perugino, Filippino Lippi, Botticelli and Ghirlandaio. Her conclusions about their diverse workshop practices are perceptive and interesting. The problem with the topic is inevitably the dearth of surviving evidence and parts of the book are excessively speculative, particularly on economic questions, but there are lots of suggestive lines of thought here. Unfortunately you have to cut through a lot of rather obvious generalisations to get at the nuggets. 

Most interesting to me is the analysis of the different ways that successful artists managed demands on their time. She really conveys the sheer busyness of successful artists. Perugino was working on six major altarpieces and a fresco cycle in 1499 alone - in addition to planning an altarpiece for a confraternity and the ongoing production of smaller pictures for private clients and for the market. He economised on design, re-using elements of other pictures and repeating some compositions almost exactly. On the other hand Botticelli sometimes lavished considerable attention on the design of even low-value commissions in faraway places, but then economised on production, which he left to assistants. The striking image of the Pentacost in Birmingham, for example, is inventive and original despite its destination in a remote town outside Florence, but its execution is weak. It is dreadfully damaged, but it seems never to have been of particularly high painterly quality. At some level I knew that about the oeuvre of Perugino and of Botticelli, but O'Malley draws out the implications in an engaging analysis. 

O'Malley concludes that Perugino's extensive re-use of motifs must have been driven by time rather than money, because he charged more than other artists but was busier. But that's a spurious distinction; we're all familiar with the trade-off between time and money. He could have charged higher prices, lost some commissions, and spent more time on others. Perhaps Perugino was greedy, or perhaps he was just less interested in innovation than we imagine a Renaissance artist ought to have been. We'll never know for sure, but O'Malley's failure to recognise the trade-off highlights this book's biggest weakness, which is its treatment of economic questions. A footnote tells us that Adam Smith's idea of the free market can be found in Wealth of Nations and then references a book about the Italian art market for a definition of neoclassical economics - the worst example of art-historical naval-gazing I've seen. Couldn't she have read some economics directly? And does she even need to invoke such a banality in this context?

The weakest chapter is on 'value systems'. O'Malley asserts that "the Renaissance economic system was rooted in scholastic thought" (p. 106), but she doesn't explain how ideas and material interests interact (note the elision of scholastic thought and Renaissance economic system). References are to other art historians rather than to economic historians or economists, and the intellectual foundation of the argument is lacking. Telling us that patrons in an artist's home town would seek (and sometimes obtain, albeit on rather ungenerous terms) a favourable price tells us nothing specific about economic practices in the Renaissance. People have always sought favourable terms from personal connections. There is still useful information here, particularly in tracking divergence between price and quality, which O'Malley analyses adroitly with perceptive assessment of artistic quality. But she is a better art historian than economist. 

Renaissance commissions were designed after the price was agreed, meaning that an innovative design was not directly a means of making more money. O'Malley suggests that the process might have worked the other way around - more attention would be paid to the design of works for which a high price was agreed (p. 176). It's an interesting idea, although elsewhere she notes the importance of establishing a reputation for innovative design, writing that "demand was, above all, based on a painter's reputation" (p. 213), which was achieved through personal approach to iconograpy, personal methods of craftsmanship and the support of prestigious clients (a function of the first two points).

Indeed you could say that reputation is itself merely a function of perceived skill in design and execution rather than supreme, and I found the trope of reputation to be of limited explanatory value. O'Malley's whole quality-reputation-demand schema is rather trite; it's obvious that high quality helps establish a high reputation, which creates high demand. Fortunately her specific observations are often apposite, once you cut through the attempts at generalising and theorising.

This book is sometimes too narrow and sometimes too trite, but it bursts with interesting ideas and insights and sets off many different trains of thoughts. It's clear that the next generation did value innovation, leaving Perugino perplexed that his repetitive designs were disfavoured against Raphael's novelties. The High Renaissance triumvirate of Raphael, Leonardo and Michelangelo were obsessed by innovation, to the extent that Leonardo and Michelangelo often failed to finish one thing before racing off to the next. John Shearman describes it as an increasing investment in research and development. O'Malley's book is an interesting attempt to understand the balance between R&D and the production line in the previous generation.

Sense and nonsense on the art market 'bubble'

Picture: Guardian
Christie's CEO Steven Murphy came across as a complete muppet in a recent FT interview (18 November 2013 p.18 and video here). He asserts that there's no bubble because each work in their NY sale "reached their proper and expected value". So, there's no bubble because works are selling for their 'proper' value. Which, in a triumph of circular reasoning, is the same as their auction price. Oddly enough that's not always the same as Christie's estimates, but definitely for extremely reasonable and non-bubbly prices. Murphy claims that "the number of buyers around the world who are intrigued and want to invest and want to own and live with this art, is just becoming exponential", which proves mainly that Murphy doesn't know what 'exponential' means. We know that CEOs have to act as salesmen, but this is demeaning. 

Maybe Murphy is getting excited because his rival Sotheby's continues to be battered in the press. Sotheby's' star auctioneer and head of Contemporary Art Tobias Meyer has just left the firm, accompanied by bland statements from both sides. I'm not sure it's good news for Christie's. The pressure on Sotheby's to ensure it snags the big game in next season's Contemporary and Impressionist & Modern sales will now be even greater. And having lost Meyer, it will be competing even more on price and guarantees. That's going to drive down margins and increase risk across the industry. 

The media focus on the big-ticket items, using record-breaking prices and highest sale totals as a proxy for judging the relative success of Sotheby's and Christie's. But the biggest lots are not always good for the bottom line, because the auctioneers have to offer such good terms to sellers - a point that Sotheby's beleaguered CEO has rightly emphasised. It means there can be a big gap between media perception of success and actual financial performance.

As an antidote to these flimsy claims, try Felix Salmon's analysis at Reuters, which claims there's a 'bubble' but not a 'speculative bubble', which is different. I suspect he's right, although I'm a bit more bullish on prospects for the overall market. Certain areas, like contemporary Chinese art, seem madly over-priced by any reasonable yardstick. But I would be cautious of shorting the likes of Koons just because I think they're ridiculous. Never underestimate the shallowness and credulity of the modern billionaire.

I also liked  this important technical article on art as investment, which Markus Stolz shared. It shows that evidence about art being a great investment is distorted because art that appreciates in value is most likely to be sold. So the research that says art is a great investment is based on analysis only of the winners. That accords with evidence showing that people are inclined to sell stocks that have performed well, but keep those that have done badly in desperate hope that they'll recover their value (the 'sunk costs fallacy'). I try to be especially sceptical when looking at research that accords with my prejudices (I've always thought investing in art is a fools' game), but this really does look robust. 

The question you should always ask yourself when investing is what you can know that no one else knows. The answer to that, for almost everyone almost all the time, is nothing. Even professionals fail to outperform the market, because the market price already reflects the consensus of knowledge between all buyers and sellers. You might think that the art market will continue to rise because so much new wealth is being created in emerging markets, but everyone else knows that too - so that expectation is already included in the current price. This idea - a version of the 'efficient market hypothesis' - is commonplace in finance. The fact that it's not widely recognised in the art world is a reflection of the more anecdotal evidence supplied in favour of investment in art. I like to think that a lot of art investors are really consumers who buy what they like, but try to rationalise their extravagance. 

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Grumpy's been reading...

Brief notes on some new books I've read recently, art & architecture followed by a selection of everything else. 
Picture: Amazon
John Marciari and Suzanne Boorsch et al Francesco Vanni: Art in Late Renaissance Siena Yale University Art Gallery 2013, £40

This exhibition catalogue is a fine introduction to Francesco Vanni, a Sienese follower of Barocci who deserves to be better known. A good short introduction outlines his career and offers astute judgment on his work. It highlights that he was not a student of Barocci's, but freely chose to adopt his style - unusual this early. There's only one painting firmly attributed to him in the UK (in Edinburgh), but the British Museum has a selection of his drawings. He's perhaps mainly valued as a draughtsman today; some of his drawings in red and black chalk are especially appealing. I'm sorry not to have gone to the exhibition, but this well-written and well-illustrated book is some compensation.

Picture: Amazon
Timothy Clark, C. Andrew Gerstle, Aki Ishigami & Akiko Yano (eds) Shunga: Sex and pleasure in Japanese Art British Museum Press 2013, £50

I was absolutely fascinated by the Shunga exhibition at the British Museum, and I was impressed by the artistry as well as the humour on display. I came to it from a position of complete ignorance, and I certainly don't feel qualified to review the show, but I recommend it. It's a shame the catalogue is so expensive, but it gives further background and good illustrations. I found some of the earlier Shunga especially beautiful, such as the Six Erotic Scenes by Hishikawa Morohira (c.1688-1704). And some of the images in the final room were hilarious. One problem I had in approaching it was the tension between trying to understand Shunga in the context of Japanese art, and trying to understand these frank depictions of sex in the context of Japanese society. I thought the exhibition focused more on the latter. But it was all new and interesting to me.

The book does a fine job of explaining the background and context of Shunga, but I'm sure I lack sufficient knowledge of Japanese culture and history fully to appreciate it. The section on censorship particularly interested me; even when it was formally censored, it seems to have been tolerated far more than equivalent images in contemporary western societies. 
Picture: Amazon
Melanie Doderer-Winkler Magnificent Entertainments: Temporary Architecture for Georgian Festivals Yale University Press 2013, £40

It's a commonplace that our knowledge of Georgian architecture is distorted by accidents of survival. This books shows that it's also skewed by our ignorance of the temporary structures and decorations that proliferated in Georgian cities. This fascinating book reconstructs the temporary pavilions and firework displays and illuminated pictures that enlivened the Georgian city. I was especially intrigued by a chapter about chalked floors. Apparently it was conventional to remove the carpets for Georgian balls, which revealed the rather dowdy bare boards below. These were decorated with chalked decoration. I wonder how they managed to make the chalk stand out against dark floorboards, and how well it stood up to a raucous eighteenth-century all-nighter. It would be interesting to try to recreate it. Anyone for an authentic Georgian ball with chalked ballroom?

This book offers a truly new perspective on a well-worn topic. Recommended!
Picture: Amazon
Susan Weber (ed) William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain Yale University Press 2013, £60

This is another exhibition catalogue, and the show is coming to London next March. I can't wait! The book is magnificent, a great doorstopper with superb illustrations and a rich range of scholarship on every aspect of Kent's multifaceted career. The book is thematic and doesn't give entries on each exhibit, which is probably appropriate in this case. The editor has been refreshingly pragmatic, allowing chapters of wildly varying length depending on the subject - a couple of pages on picture frames, dozens of pages on his country houses. I look forward to reviewing the exhibition in due course, but the book will more than whet the appetite. 

Picture: Amazon

This book surpassed my expectations. Bailey discusses the genesis of the Sunflowers series and then plots the paintings' subsequent travels, with some great pictures of versions of the paintings displayed in collectors' homes. Bailey shows us the world in this grain of sand; it's of far wider interest than its seemingly narrow focus. There's an excellent long review at The Frame Blog.
Picture: Amazon
Noel Maurer The Empire Trap: The rise and fall of US intervention to protect American property overseas, 1893-2013 Princeton University Press 2013, £27.95

The title implies a dryly academic tome, but this book is compelling and important and deserves wider attention. Through a detailed study of a specific question it offers new insights into several major areas of scholarship. That sounds commonplace, but few books achieve it; too many narrow studies are written to bolster conventional wisdom and entrench boundaries of discipline and method.

Maurer explains how sectional interests lobbied the US government to intervene to protect its overseas interests, often against perceived US interests. This process acquired its own dynamic, and the book explains the genesis of intervention to protect US commercial interests, from forms of sovereign receivership (Haiti, Cuba, Dominican Republic) to attempts to impose institutional reforms with a mix of carrot and stick (mostly failures) to more recent moves to a legalistic approach emphasising arbitration and reducing the role of direct force. He notes that the US was remarkably successful in obtaining compensation for its commercial interests, to a far greater degree than is generally recognised. But these gains were relatively small compared to their strategic costs. It's a superb study that has implications for international relations, international law and international political economy and economics.
Picture: Amazon
Philip Coggan The Last Vote: The threats to western democracy Allen Lane 2013, £20

Occasionally enlivening but disjointed jeremiad that itemises familiar woes about economic challenges and political extremism. This is the conventional wisdom of the modern cosmopolitan liberal, wearily rebuking the tribalism and sectionalism of the little people. I've enjoyed Coggan's journalism, and his earlier books (even when I've disagreed with them), but this was a disappointment.
Picture: Amazon
Jeremy Adelman Worldly Philosopher: The odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman Princeton University Press, £27.95

This is an exemplary account of an exemplary life. Hirschman was a great economist, and Adelman is strong on explaining his ideas and setting them in context. Hirschman wrote well and in non-technical terms, and his books are a joy to read as well as continuing to enlighten. His famous book Exit, Voice and Loyalty is a classic account of organisations that remains widely influential, and his works of intellectual history are fascinating. He was a man of many ideas who brought new insight to a variety of subjects rather than ploughing the same furrow ever more deeply. He also had the most fascinating life, including time in the French and American armies, and a stint fighting in the Spanish Civil War. His leftist sympathies were out of favour in Cold War America, so he spent time as an economic adviser in South America. He lived in interesting times, and had the drive and brilliance and luck to make the most of them - one of those rare individuals to excel as men of action as well as men of ideas. Adelman's biography is worthy of its subject. A great read, highly recommended.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Warts and All: Samuel Cooper at Philip Mould

Picture: Philip Mould & Company
Warts and All: The Portrait Miniatures of Samuel Cooper (1607/8-1672) Philip Mould & Company, Dover Street 13 November - 7 December 2013

Emma Rutherford, Bendor Grosvenor et al Warts and All: The Portrait Miniatures of Samuel Cooper (1607/8-1672) Philip Mould & Company 2013 £25

I was driven out of the British Museum's print room by another fire alarm last Thursday, so I headed over to the Samuel Cooper exhibition at Philip Mould. The wall text gushes with superlatives, but in this case they're appropriate; he is a far better artist than I'd appreciated, and this is an exquisite and beautifully presented display. 

A great achievement of the exhibition is to bring this miniaturist back into the mainstream of British art history. As the catalogue notes, miniatures are often displayed apart from paintings (in London they're even in a different museum - the Victoria and Albert rather than the Tate or National Gallery), and kept under covers that are rarely lifted. But not only is Cooper part of the tradition of British portraiture, for a while he was its supreme exponent. A major revelation is that Cromwell's famous instruction to paint him 'warts and all' was given to Samuel Cooper and not Peter Lely as has generally been assumed. Lely based his famous painting of Cromwell on Cooper's miniature. 

The temptation with miniatures is to marvel at their meticulous technique, to wonder at the skill of reducing a portrait to minuscule scale. This exhibition shows that Cooper was an excellent painter as well as an excellent miniaturist. The faces are superb and the poses are sophisticated. The influence of Van Dyck is evident, and perhaps also of Rembrandt. And miniatures by Cooper's contemporaries show his influence and bring into relief his exceptional skill.

The catalogue is excellent. It addresses condition and discusses the difficulty of reproducing these tiny masterpieces. There is some important new research, with well-argued proposals on attribution, dating and sitters as well as the newly identified context for one of the most famous quotations in English history. I'm impressed that a small private gallery can produce something so much better than, for example, the Royal Academy with all its resources can manage for its current Daumier exhibition. I hope it gets distributed more widely.

I worry about the ethics of public galleries lending art to private dealers, because I'm a bit prissy about these things. But in this case it's hard to object. The exhibition is serious and scholarly (as well as beautiful and enjoyable - I don't mean to make it sound dour!), it's free and open to all, and the catalogue is a major contribution to our knowledge of Cooper. But there is inevitably a greater barrier to the public when faced with a grand Mayfair gallery where you have to ring a bell to gain entry, and having agreed to lend to one commercial gallery it is hard to resist the pressure to lend to its competitors. The trade is typically more cavalier in art handling than museums, and the risk of loan terms being disrespected is real - how do you refuse a request to handle a loan if it comes from a client who's just spent a million in your gallery? But these risks are equally prevalent when lending to other museums who are beholden to sponsors and donors. A degree of pragmatism seems appropriate and I think museums were right to lend to this show.  

Magnifying glasses are available and much appreciated - something more museums should provide too. Unfortunately many of the miniatures are set too far back in the case for them to be very effective, but it does provide some enhancement. The accompanying muzak is the one real disappointment. We know it's a commercial gallery, but it's still a shame that they have to impose piped music like a department store. Still, this is one of the best exhibitions mounted in London in recent years. Do try to get along before it closes early next month.

New Ingres?

Picture: The Art Tribune
The Art Tribune reports a new Ingres discovery, a version of his famous La Grande Odalisque. It's on view in Paris for the next few days; I do wish I could go! The Art Tribune is a reliable source with a record of scepticism on new attributions and it seems to have a good chance of being right. 

Ingres made a number of small versions of La Grande Odalisque, including one in Angers and another in the Wrightsman Collection that will perhaps find its way to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in due course (Jayne Wrightsman is of the Met's greatest patrons, and recently donated some Ingres drawings). 

Monday, 11 November 2013

Velazquez and the Family of Philip IV

One year before his death Velázquez created this portrait of the eight-year old Infanta as well as that of her little brother Philip Prosper (Inv.-No.
Picture: Kunsthistorisches Museum
Velazquez and the Family of Philip IV at the Prado until 9 February
Javier Portús (ed) Velázquez: Las Meninas and the Late Royal Portraits Thames & Hudson 2013 €40

Velázquez's late portraits are among the absolute highlights of European art and some of the pictures in this exhibition are breathtaking. There are just thirty pictures, which is enough to sate the appetite without overwhelming the senses. It opens with portraits from his stay in Italy 1649-51, including a version of Pope Innocent X from Apsley House. The prime version in the Doria-Pamphili in Rome is simply the greatest portrait ever painted (Mona Lisa? Pah!). These Italian portraits are surprisingly engaged and individual, reminding me of Rembrandt's late portraits of almost exactly the same date - his portrait of Jan Six was painted three years after Velázquez left Rome.
Picture: Alain Truong
The next section sets Velázquez's portraits of the royal family alongside versions by Juan Bautista Martínes de Mazo. Their doll-like visages and inbred identikit Habsburg features are more aloof than the earlier Roman portraits. Infanta Margarita in Blue (pictured top) is amazing, with a dazzling range of effects in the blue dress, which is animated throughout. His technique varies from liquid effects from applying dilute paint to the dress, to dry scumbling of white highlights in the brocade. Opposite is an almost identical version in green from Budapest by Mazo (above). The Mazo is an excellent picture, but it doesn't approach the brilliance of Velázquez's. Mazo animates certain areas by applying highlights whereas Velázquez makes the whole picture come alive. You get a great appreciation for their relative quality seeing them together in this show.

Velázquez's studio turned out many variants of his royal portraits, many of high quality. The exhibition includes two portraits of Philip IV, an undisputed masterpiece from the Prado and a contested attribution from London's National Gallery that is here given to Velázquez. Scholars agree that the London picture is of particularly high quality, but note that the torso is weak and the gold chain less well depicted than in Velázquez's best work. Given how little we know about how his studio operated and how well artists like Mazo could reproduce his work, I find it hard to take either side with much confidence, but I'm inclined to see it as a studio work, insofar as we can distinguish Velázquez on a bad day from his studio on a good day. 
La infanta Margarita de Austria
Picture: Prado
The picture above was celebrated as one of Velázquez's greatest works until comparatively recently, but is now securely attributed to Mazo. The white highlights on the dress look like spray-on snow, gaudy decoration quite alien to Velázquez, whose animated brushwork articulates structure. The rich reds point forward to later court portraits that can be seen in the final room of the exhibition. It's now hard to see how it could be mistaken for Velázquez, but rather than mocking earlier connoisseurs I see it as an opportunity to realise how our perceptions of great artists change over time. In future generations I suspect people will will be astonished by some of the attributions that we took for granted.

Mazo's reputation has suffered because he hewed close to Velázquez without equaling his brilliance. That said, he's a really good artist and a number of pictures long given to Velázquez have been reattributed to Mazo (most notably the View of Zaragoza) The re-assessment of Mazo in this exhibition is judicious. Miguel Morán's catalogue entry describes the difference between Mazo and Velázquez as the difference between excellence and genius, which seems right to me. Mazo's version of Las Meninas was disappointing; perhaps inevitably it cannot measure up to the original, and I sense that he was dispirited by the obvious gap. The portrait of his own family (below) has long been recognised as his masterpiece. The debt to Las Meninas is clear, although he struggled to replicate its articulation of space. But the figures are excellent, and the range of technique and variety of expression comes closer to Velázquez than even his close copies. It is somewhat abraded, and the reds have particularly suffered, but its excellence is conspicuous, undiminished even by proximity to some of Velázquez's best pictures.

File:The Family of the Artist by Juan Bautista Matinez del Mazo.jpg
Picture: Wikipedia
The final section shows the continuation of Velázquez's style after his death. Juan Carreño de Miranda stars with his more sumptuous royal portraits. But it's hard to appreciate their quality after Velázquez and the final room is redolent of decadence and decline. A catalogue essay by exhibition organiser Javier Portús reminds us that Spain's political and economic decline was already advanced by the 1650s, which was a golden age only in the cultural sphere. His essay provides fascinating context, explaining links between painting and literature. 

The pictures are superb, but that alone doesn't make a great exhibition. It's the meaningful comparisons between similar works, the quality of the interpretation and the scale that makes this show special. We see pictures that are certainly fully autograph works by Velázquez alongside more debatable attributions and works by his best students. The wall text is brilliant, giving useful background without being overwhelming, and inviting you in to consider the questions that art historians debate, focusing on technique and pictorial quality. It's not difficult to understand, and it doesn't presume any prior knowledge, but it treats everyone as capable of engaging in the same conversation. For me the most rewarding aspect of an exhibition is the opportunity to explore relations between objects rather than being instructed in the curators' latest theories. This exhibition helps us understand these great pictures brilliantly through the intelligence and thoughtfulness of its selection, display and interpretation.

I have just a couple of niggles. The failure to discuss condition is unfortunate; it's mentioned neither on the wall text (forgivable), nor in the catalogue (inexplicable). Velázquez's virtuoso technique is susceptible to damage, and a range of states of preservation was evident.  The Infanta Margarita in Blue was rediscovered in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in 1923, and it's better preserved than the other Kunsthistorisches loans - perhaps because the others were over-cleaned before 1923. Even in reproduction the difference between the bright white of the Felipe Prospero and the subtle greys of the Infanta Margarita is striking.

The Apsley House portrait is glazed with low-grade glass that gives off a nasty reflection, which is particularly unfortunate because it's hung opposite a wall with the exhibition title in large white text, which means you can see the word 'Velázquez' reflected across the picture. Given the costs involved in mounting an exhibition like this, surely it would have been possible to re-glaze it so we could see it properly. 

I went twice. Friday afternoon was quiet and wonderful. First thing Saturday quickly became an unbearable scrum with as many as ten people per picture, making a mockery of the timed entry. It's such a shame that the Saturday visitors couldn't get to appreciate the carefully choreographed contrasts, because the view from one picture to another was obscured. Still, it's an enormously rewarding exhibition that's worth a trip to Spain - but go on a weekday. It's really one of the best exhibitions I've ever seen.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

The King's Pictures by Francis Haskell

Picture: Amazon
Francis Haskell The King's Pictures: The formation and dispersal of the collections of Charles I and his courtiers Edited and introduced by Karen Serres with a forward by Nicholas Penny, Yale University Press 2013 £30

Haskell begins by taking us on a tour of Charles I's London, pointing out the palaces of art and enumerating their treasures. He describes a shallow art world in England, based around only a handful of aristocratic collectors. English art collecting collapsed after the civil war dispersal, and didn't fully resume until the dispersal of continental collections after French Revolution and subsequent wars. But for a short period some of the world's greatest art treasures could be seen in a small area of London.

Francis Haskell died in 2000, but the text of his Paul Mellon Lectures has been edited by Karen Serres for this new book. Nicholas Penny's introduction notes areas that Haskell would doubtless like to have developed further, but despite its brevity and its lacunae this is a superb book; well-written, beautifully produced and erudite. Although some areas could have been further developed, it is more comprehensive than some heftier studies because it provides better context, situating Charles I's collection alongside those of his courtiers, and their collections of paintings alongside their collections of sculpture and drawings. It is in the field of drawings that Britain has benefited most from Carolean collecting. The great collections of Renaissance drawings not only stayed in the country, but inspired and instructed Britain's artist-collectors like Sir Peter Lely, Sir Joshua Reynolds and Sir Thomas Lawrence. 

Much of Charles I's collection was parceled up and handed over to syndicates of his creditors, which meant that tailors and drapers came briefly to possess masterpieces by Raphael and Correggio: 
"we have been witnessing what is perhaps the single most extraordinary episode in the history of English art collecting, or indeed that of any other nation. Great masterpieces painted by Correggio and Titian, by Raphael and Holbein, by Rubens and van Dyck, for kings and princes, cardinals and courtiers were now to be found in small houses scattered through London and the countryside belonging to haberdashers and glaziers, cutlers, musicians and painters. It is hard not to be reminded of the surprise felt in these very years by English travellers when they saw how widespread was the distribution of pictures in Holland ... The English market was not so democratic, but neither was it aristorcratic, or even oligarchic. It did not, however, last for long." (pp. 146-151)
Haskell's subject was the consumption of art rather than its production. He wrote about patrons rather than artists, and focused on collecting rather than connoisseurship. But he was an art historian as well as an historian, and this book is particularly sensitive to the taste and connoisseurship of Charles I, the Earl of Arundel and the Dukes of Buckingham, Northumberland and Hamilton. He discusses their fondness for the Bassano family, and Charles I's surprising disdain for Veronese - in contrast to Arundel and Buckingham. He discusses their quest for Leonardo, noting that only Charles I was successful in obtaining St John the Baptist. Readers in 2013 will of course be aware that he had a second Leonardo, the recently rediscovered Salvator Mundi, oddly not mentioned by the editor even as a footnote.

Haskell enthuses over the Vendramin Family portrait more than I would, and I wondered if the caption on the plate ('Titian and Workshop') was subtle editorialising (if so, I approve!). It was bought by the National Gallery from the Duke of Northumberland in 1929; I'd sooner have had Bellini's Feast of the Gods, sold by the same family just over a decade earlier. On the other hand, the St Margaret in Vienna is listed as Raphael in the credit; it's surely more a studio piece than the Vendramin Family. But now I'm just nitpicking. 

This is a wonderful book: short, sumptuous and readable, and provocative, rigorous and serious. Highly recommended.
A related book worth looking at is Koenraad Jonckheere The Auction of King William's Paintings 1713: Elite international art trade at the end of the Dutch golden age John Benjamins 2008, which is particularly strong on the network of dealers and advisors, and has some interesting information about details like how pictures were transported and how auctions were publicised and managed. Not as spectacular as the Commonweath sales, but another fascinating story of the international art trade in the subsequent century, and this is a book that deserves to be better known. 

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Mantegna Drawing sold

The new Andrea Mantegna drawing that I reported recently has been sold for €420,000 at Farsetti, nearly double the high estimate but still a fraction of what a Mantegna would make on the open market, without Italian export controls. I went to look at the Mantegna drawings at the British Museum and the Courtauld Institute this week. I haven't seen the original of the new drawing, but I'm increasingly convinced by it - although I've heard some cogent dissent. It is possible that it will prove to be a forgery, hewing close to the related drawings rather than trying to create something completely new. But David Eskerdjian points out that the inscription matches one on the related drawing in Brescia that was only discovered when it was removed from its mount in 1992, so it would have to have been forged recently (after Hebborn was working), or for the inscription to have been faked separately. It seems to me absolutely typical of Mantegna and an impressive piece that displays the master's own nervous, experimental energy.
Screen Shot 2013-10-22 at 23.45.32
Picture: Vivante Drawings
The upper image of Christ frozen in his final death-agony is more dramatic than the related British Museum drawing (above). In the BM drawing, Christ's right hand rests limply on his leg, the fingers of his left hand clenching at the ground and his left arm tensed as if pushing himself up. The new drawing is more fully resolved, with better defined feet and knees, the right arm more confidently positioned and with a great contorted torso instead of the ambiguous position of the chest in the London drawing. The heaving chest is not entirely plausible in an Entombment scene - more like a dying Christ than a dead Christ - but it's a terrific image and a fine contrast to the inert body below. It's a tremendous discovery - few drawings survive from this period, and we now have three related studies by one of the greatest early Renaissance draughtsmen. Any more out there?

It's ironic that Italy has such strong laws against exporting art, but makes it so hard for people to see what it has. You need a letter of introduction from Mantegna himself to get access to some print rooms in Italy, whereas I just turned up on the doorstep at the British Museum and got to see the greatest collection of Mantegna drawings anywhere. And an appointment at the Courtauld required no more than an advance e-mail.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Knox Wrecks Fitz

Picture: Fitzwilliam
The Fitzwilliam Museum's newish director Tim Knox has outlined his vision, and it's deeply depressing. He seems to think it's unwelcoming, which I've never found before but suspect I will in future. And he thinks - wait for it - flowers in the galleries are what's needed. That's harmless enough, but next he wants to do away with 'surplus' Do Not Touch signs. I don't care much either way about the signs, but I care deeply about the ethos. Quite simply, people shouldn't touch fragile and irreplaceable works of art. If that's 'unwelcoming', tough. The first job of a museum is to preserve its treasures for people who want to see them, but too many museums are happy to allow their collections to deteriorate through handling if people fancy fondling them. Why does Knox find the signs so objectionable that their removal is central to his strategy? What kind of ethos is he trying to instill? I expect guards will now think twice about challenging visitors poking paintings or sculptures. It was at the Fitzwilliam, incidentally, that a visitor smashed three vases to smithereens - pictured above. 

Knox has grand plans for bringing conservators into the gallery so people can watch and 'participate' in conservation. Think that Titian's a bit dirty? Roll up your sleeves and grab a brillo pad. The Fitzwilliam becomes an integrated participatory experience - poke a hole in a picture, then restore it yourself. Smashed a vase? Don't worry, have a go at sticking it back together. I mock, but seriously - what can we make of the bizarre suggestion, arrived at after six months' thinking, that people should 'participate in conservation in action'? I suspect (and rather hope) that he means just watching, but it's a sign of how far simply looking has come to be stigmatised in museums that Knox cannot even say the word. It has to be spun as a 'participatory' experience.

Then, like every museum these days, he's initiated a building project. Museum directors seem to prove their worth by the extravagance of their building projects and the degree of disruption imposed. The Fitzwilliam has already gone through a vast construction project to give a 'proper shop and cafe', which some museums seem to think more important than their collections.

Finally, inevitably, he's allowing photography. I've written about this before, and I'll say more on the topic in a later post, but to raise just one crucial point: once photography is allowed, it is impossible to prevent flash photography. Flash is an intolerable distraction that makes looking at art impossible, and socialises everyone into the norm that museums are there only for the taking of pictures and not for looking at pictures. 

A wonderful museum that I greatly loved is being crushed by the juggernaut of bland mediocrity, the managerial ethos that insists on all museums looking the same and invites you to admire the cut flowers and take selfies instead of simply being inspired by great art. Knox wants to 'make it sing', but he presumes that it is Tim Knox that will make it sing, rather than Rubens and Titian and Poussin.