Category Archives: Art News

Are computers sending art historians straight to the dole queue? Not likely . . .

Dole queue

‘Computer scientists have used the latest image processing techniques to analyse hundreds of works of art and unearth previously unconsidered sources of inspiration between artists’, reported Matthew Sparkes in yesterday’s Telegraph. The article was reporting on a paper put together by a bunch of computer scientists from the Computer Science department at Rutgers, State Uni. of New Jersey, and is available online here.

The gist of the article is this: the identification of similarities between works of art has long been the prerogative of art historians, but now computers, which are becoming ever more sophisticated, are ready to take their place, being capable of identifying instances of formal similarities between given works of art that have hitherto elided the experts.

‘One important task for art historians is to find influences and connections between artists’ say, quite rightly, Babak Saleh, Kanako Abe, Ravneet Singh Arora, and Ahmed Elgammal — the paper’s authors. We’re off to a good start.

But things quickly go awry . . .

‘It must be mentioned that determining influence is always a subjective decision. We will not know if an artist was ever truly inspired by a work unless he or she has said so.’ This is mad as far as I’m concerned. Michelangelo never declares that his conception of God from the Sistine Ceiling was inspired by Ghiberti’s similar airborne God from the Gates of Paradise, but on the basis of formal and circumstantial evidence, which is to say it looks a damn lot like it and Michelangelo will have seen Ghiberti’s sculptures daily in his youth, I think we can say that it’s probably the case. But this isn’t my real issue with the paper; the article does after all acknowledge that instances of artistic influence proposed by art historians are usually demonstrably right, even if there is no “proof”. For example, we might not know FOR CERTAIN that Francis Bacon ever saw Diego Velázquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent X (do we? Raphael’s Julius II makes for just as neat a comparison?), but since the former’s picture of a seated, grand, albeit tormented, bloke really does look like the latter’s Papal portrait, then there most likely IS a relationship. Hence the comparison has found its way into the mainstream literature on Bacon.

Velzquez, Innocent X

Bacon, after Velzquez, Innocent X

My problem instead is with some of the previously undiscovered, but for my money far-fetched, relationships between works of art that the computers have apparently managed to unearth, as well as some of the frankly flippant, if not wholly misguided, claims the authors make along the way. (An important caveat here: the authors do admit that ‘We are not asserting truths but instead suggesting a possible path towards a difficult task of measuring influence.’) Let’s look at some of them.

‘Although the meaning of a painting is unique to each artist and is completely subjective, it can somewhat be measured by the symbols and objects in the painting.’ Art historians will nowadays wince at those words, and Roland Barthes will probably have had chickens . . .

‘The earliest style is the Renaissance period with artists like Titian and Michelangelo during the 14th to 17th century.’ Notwithstanding the arbitrariness of the period style classifications that the article leans on more generally (Renaissance, Romanticism, Baroque, Pop, Abstract Contemporary, American Modernism, Post-Impressionism…etc.), this statement is a bit worrying… Pedantry, perhaps, but Michelangelo and Titian weren’t about in the 14th century or the 17th, and if we’re being picky, traditional narratives of art history don’t usually include 17th-century art under the rubric of the Renaissance.

And the most major problem, I think, is this clanger:

‘Paintings do not necessarily have to look alike, but if they do, or have reoccurring objects (high-level semantics), then they might be considered similar.’

My issue here is that they’re effectively saying that even if pictures don’t look alike to the eye, computers, with all their mathematical wizardry and algorithms, can nevertheless spot relationships that otherwise defy human perception. Problem here, of course, is that people make artworks, not computers, and so if two artworks by two artists don’t look alike to the eye, then it is really doubtful whether there ever was a meaningful relationship between them. Common sense, which computers don’t possess, dictates as much.

See: Frédéric Bazille’s Studio 9 Rue de la Condamine (1870) and Norman Rockwell’s Shuffleton’s Barber Shop (1950). The computers threw this up as a match, and ‘After browsing through many publications and websites, we concluded, to the best of our knowledge, that this comparison has not been made by an art historian before.’ The authors’ faith in the technology is thus vindicated. But, hang on, there’s probably a very good reason why art historians have never spotted a relationship between Bazille’s Studio and Rockwell’s Barber Shop, which is that they simply don’t look sufficiently alike to warrant the positing of anything more than a coincidental relationship between them. Which is precisely what the next sentence says: ”The painting might not look similar at the first glance, however, a closer look reveals striking similarity in composition and subject matter, that is detected by our automated methodology . . . [emph. mine]’ I don’t buy it. And what the authors neglect to mention is what we, that is to say art historians, call iconographic conventions. Bazille’s picture belongs to a rich tradition for showing artists working in their studios, and perhaps Rockwell did, either knowingly or inadvertently, look to that that tradition for his Barber Shop. That’s a sound art historical judgement. But it doesn’t mean that Rockwell was influenced by Bazille. The authors also fail to mention whether there is any inkling whatsoever that Rockwell knew Bazille’s work(s)? These are the kinds of questions art historians ask, whereas computers, it seems, do not. Or perhaps can’t ask?

Bazille and Rockwell

Similarly, the paper heralds the similarity between Georges Braque’s Man with a Violin and Pablo Picasso’s Spanish Still Life as a “discovery”. Nah, not really. Braque and Picasso were immediate contemporaries, they knew one another(!!) and were pioneers of a movement retroactively called Cubism. A perusal of any monograph on cubism will generate Braque’s and Picasso’s names alongside one another and show ample similarities between their art. So, not a discovery after all. . .

Picasso and Braque

If you read the paper, you’ll quickly find that there’s loads of technical jargon, equations and mind-boggling graphs which apparently bestow scientific robustness on the findings:

Classme

Long equation

Erm…. I’m struggling. The tables and charts don’t exactly shed any more light, either:

Diagram

And what on earth is this?

Mingboggling

. . . answers on a postcard, please.

I can’t help but think that all this is a case of all fur coat and no knickers, and that the jargon simply conceals the fact that the computer’s supposed discoveries don’t stand up to the scrutiny of art historians. It’s nonsence masquerading as scientific art history. I really don’t think, for example, that Bazille’s and Rockwell’s pictures look sufficiently alike to warrant the claim that there IS a relationship. And this is where art historians differ from computers: art historians, or else, the good ones, weigh-up their proposals against a balance of probabilities, and posit relationships between artists and their works only where there is a demonstrable formal relationship that is meaningful, and, moreover, can be substantiated by consideration of the likelihood that X artist had seen Y’s Picture. That’s what art historians do, and, on the basis of this article, are capable of doing infinitely better than a machine.

Suffice it to say that I don’t think we can expect to see queues of bereft-looking art historians at the Job Centre any time soon . . .

Jamie

From religious toleration to local regeneration: why a series of Zurbarán paintings is at the heart of Auckland Castle’s past and future by Lauren Dudley

Growing up in Bishop Auckland, County Durham, I have spent many hours exploring the beautiful and mysterious palace grounds in the town centre, but I had never really wondered what was inside the house attached to them, which has been home to the Prince Bishops of Durham for the last 900 years. A few years ago, the palace’s art collection, notably its remarkable series of paintings by Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664), came under scrutiny when they were at risk of being sold. Thanks to philanthropist, Jonathan Ruffer the collection was saved and the palace has been granted charitable status as Auckland Castle Trust. With the support of the Heritage Lottery Fund, it is now open to the public and is part of a considerable investment project led by Ruffer in the regeneration of the town. So, during a visit home I took the opportunity to have a look around…

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My tour began in the impressive St Peter’s Chapel, the largest private chapel in Europe and formerly the Castle’s Banqueting Hall. The original chapel was demolished following the Civil War. In the 1660s Bishop John Cosin (1594-1672) began the renovation of the Castle, including the conversion of the hall into the present-day chapel. Much of the decoration dates from the 19th century – notably the beautiful stained glass windows.

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Upstairs, in the Throne Room a gallery of Prince Bishops is shown through a striking collection of portraits, which includes paintings by Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830) representing Bishops Shute Barrington (1734-1826) and William Van Mildert (1765-1836), one of the founders of the University of Durham. Barrington employed the renowned architect and Lunar Society member, James Wyatt (1746-1813), to make alterations to the Castle as shown through its neo-Gothic features.

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Entering the Throne Room, a portrait of Bishop John Cosin hangs above the chair

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Lawrence’s portraits can be seen on the top row, above the fireplace

From the Throne Room I went into the much anticipated Long Dining Room, which was specifically re-designed to house the series of Zurbarán paintings that have been the cause of so much talk in the town for the last few years. While some might find the paintings quite unusual, shocked that they were bought for £15 million, it is clear to everyone that they are rather special. Few Zurbarán paintings can be seen in the UK – the National Gallery houses some of the Spanish artist’s work and you can read more about it on their website here. The Barber Institute owns a painting attributed to the studio of Zurbarán, Saint Marina, c.1630s, which is an interesting comparison to the Auckland Castle series.

Dan VII

Dan VII, © Auckland Castle Trust

Zurbarán’s series at Auckland Castle is unlike anything I’ve seen before. It depicts larger-than-life individual paintings of Jacob and his Twelve Sons, the founders of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. The figures’ dress are somewhat theatrical and they are depicted in striking poses, almost like actors, and they tower over the landscape behind them. In fact, the artist depicted the figures in the dress worn during contemporary religious processions in his home town of Seville. The expressive gestures of the biblical figures is perhaps evidence of Caravaggio’s influence on Zurbarán. The interpretation in the gallery also highlighted the fact that his figures were based on Albrecht Dürer’s engravings.

Levi III

Levi III, © Auckland Castle Trust

The early provenance of the paintings is mysterious – with one story suggesting that they were destined for a wealthy Catholic buyer in the New World but that the ship carrying them was capsized by pirates! In any case, the paintings, dated c.1640-44, ended up at an auction house in London in 1756 and Bishop Richard Trevor (1707-1771) bought them for £124 (of his own money, in fact) to hang in Auckland Castle. He purchased the series as a deliberate political gesture – while the paintings can be considered as Counter-Reformation in style, produced in a Catholic culture, their reception in Britain was intended as a gesture of support for the toleration of the Jewish faith. In 1753 the government had passed the Naturalisation of Jews Act, but it caused outcry, and it was not until the following century that Jews were granted full civic liberties. In this context, the 12 Tribes of Israel depicted by Zurbarán represented the foundations of the Jewish faith and, indeed, its shared heritage with Christianity, which would have been a bold gesture in eighteenth-century Britain – showing the power of art patronage on the political stage.

Simeon II

Simeon II, © Auckland Castle Trust

Fittingly, an interesting temporary exhibition is currently on show in the room adjacent to the Long Dining Room, entitled, The Power and the Glory: How Religious Art made Tudor England and the objects on display are presented as ‘survivors’ of the destruction that would follow during the Reformation. The recent exhibition at Tate Britain, Art under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm, showed objects that had been damaged during the Reformation (see my post about the exhibition here), whereas The Power and the Glory presents beautifully preserved, intact objects such as Margaret Beaufort’s Book of Hours and Elizabeth of York’s signed prayer book. The exhibition highlights how the political and religious landscape in Britain changed significantly as a result of the Tudor reign. Future plans for Auckland Castle include the establishment of a museum dedicated to the history of religious faith in Britain and extending its collection of Counter-Reformation paintings (find out more about the castle’s regeneration on their website). It would be an apt site for such a museum given the link with nearby Durham Cathedral and a little further away, the Holy Island of Lindisfarne. The Castle reminded me of the Palais des Papes in Avignon and a much smaller version of the Vatican, so it will be exciting to see what becomes of Auckland Castle in the coming years.

 

 

“Spectacular discoveries”: The Ghent Altarpiece makes the news (… again!)

Ghent Altarpiece, St. Bavo's Ghent

Ghent Altarpiece, St. Bavo’s Ghent

Readers might remember that the famous Ghent Altarpiece by Hubert and Jan van Eyck was recently in the news. It last hit the headlines in April because of the ongoing puzzle over the whereabouts of the Just Judges panel, which was nicked from St. Bavo’s in Ghent in 1934 and has threatened to show up a several times in recent years; to no avail, unfortunately. You can read about all of that, plus a bit about the altarpiece’s tumultuous history more generally, on my previous post here.

For now at least, the Just Judges puzzle remains still a puzzle, and the altarpiece’s most recent foray into the public eye is in fact nothing to do with the Judges saga. The altarpiece is instead in the news this time for much more positive, if not exciting, reasons.

Restorers at work (image credit: kikirpa.be)

Restorers at work (image credit: kikirpa.be)

Since 2012, the Ghent Altarpiece has been in restoration. The work is being done at the Museum voor Schone Kunsten in Ghent, where visitors can apparently watch conservators at work on panels from the altarpiece through a glazed wall looking into a specially designed room where the restorers are at work (or so Christina Currie told me recently, who is from from the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage at Brussels (KIK-IRPA), the organisation responsible for overseeing the treatment). The total restoration of the polyptych has been split into 3 phases:

- Phase 1, underway now and due for completion this October, focuses on the outside shutters

- Phase 2, due to start on completion of phase 1, deals with the upper interior panels (the row commencing with Adam and finishing with Eve)

And…

- Phase 3, scheduled to start in April 2016 and complete the following October, deals with the bottom interior panels, so the Mystic Lamb, the Knights, Hermits and Pilgrims (and presumably they WON’T be doing anything with the Just Judges, which is a replica painted by Jef Van der Veken in 1945 to fill the gap left by the theft of the original)

Phase 1: outside shutters

Phase 1: outside shutters

Phase 2: Upper interior panels

Phase 2: upper interior panels

Phase 3: lower interior panels

Phase 3: lower interior panels

The cost of all this is pretty eye-watering: €1,260,433.20 (I wonder what the .20 is for?). So what do you get for that sort of money? Well, they’re examining and repairing the panels themselves, to allow for unconstrained contraction and expansion of the wood, thus preventing further cracking (i.e. panels have presumably been cradled at some point, which has lessened the “give” of the wood and caused fractures). They’re also removing those familiar yellowed and cracked varnish layers, which should make the whole thing look just that bit more brilliant. And finally, since they’re removing the varnishes anyway, they’re also examining the paint layers themselves, to establish if there are overpaints and restorations that ought to be removed, and whether any new restorations are required to damaged parts. All the while, the observations the restorers make will doubtless enrich our understanding of the van Eycks’ methods, and most probably shed light on the whole “what’s by Hubert and what’s by Jan?” problem.

And things are already getting very interesting indeed. During Phase 1, conservators have realised that much of the outside shutters actually feature extensive overpaints. And following 3D Hirox microscope and MA-XRF analyses (whatever they are), it was realised that the paint layers beneath the overpaints are, surprisingly, in good condition (I say surprisingly because overpaints usually hide nasty stuff). Consequently the decision was made to REMOVE pretty much an entire layer of paint from the surface of the outside shutters in a bid to reveal the van Eycks’ original paintwork. A CODART release (CODART is an international network for curators of Netherlandish art) tells us that this work is ongoing, and that centimeter by centimeter a steady hand(!!), wielding a scalpel (agh! – rather you than me), is removing the overpaint that obscures the van Eycks’ superior work.

And the results are impressive. The 2 images below from the Joos Vijd panel show sections where the overpaints have been removed, thus revealing the subtler, more nuanced brushwork that has hitherto been obscured:

Comparison of Vijd's hands: the hand on the far right has had overpaints removed, revealing subtler modelling (image credit: kikirpa.be)

Comparison of Vijd’s hands: the hand on the far right has had overpaints removed, revealing subtler modelling (image credit: kikirpa.be)

Patches of overpaint removed from Vijd's robe (image credit: kikirpa.be)

Patches of overpaint removed from Vijd’s robe (image credit: kikirpa.be)

Other discoveries include a cobweb in the corner of the panel showing Elisabeth Borluut, the wife of Vijd, the altarpiece’s patron; a finding of demonstrable iconographic significance, says the CODART release.

This is all pretty exciting stuff.

But the findings also also beg an obvious question: why were the overpaints done in the first place, if the paint beneath is in such good nick? Who in their right mind would paint over the van Eycks’ brushwork if there was no real cause to do so? From what I gather—and I am by no means especially knowledgable about this—the overpaints are OLD; they certainly have, or had, craqueleur consistent with 15th- or 16th-century paint, and they had, after all, gone undetected by the great connoisseurs of the 20th century (Panofsky, Friedländer and so on never, as far as I know, doubted very much that what they were looking at was the original paintwork–there is a great irony here that much of the scholarship on the altarpiece has been obsessed with discerning Jan’s hand from Hubert’s, whereas it seems, on the outside shutters at least, that up to now we’ve been looking at neither!). When I first heard about the overpaint (again, via Christina Currie), I’d presumed they had been done to conceal fire damage, inflicted on the work in the 16th century–a plausible story, I’d thought. But that can’t be the case, since the paint underneath is superior to the overpaints and well preserved. So it’s all a bit strange. I daresay answers will be forthcoming when the restorations are complete in 2017 and the panels are reunited—less the Just Judges, unless by some miracle it turns up just in time—inside St. Bavo’s, doubtless to great fanfare and accompanied by myriad publications! Watch this space…

 

Jamie

“I’d rather gouge out my eyes with a rusty penknife than call myself a connoisseur . . . ” Connoisseurship Now?

Anon. The Connoisseur, 1830, lithograph and watercolour, Yale Center for British Art

Anon. The Connoisseur, 1830, lithograph and watercolour, Yale Center for British Art

I’m writing (but not posting) this on the train back up to Brum from London. I’ve been at the Paul Mellon Centre for the Study of British Art, where I’d never been before and is really rather lovely, and which today (Friday 2nd May) hosted a one-day conference dedicated to a discussion of the future of connoisseurship and its (uneasy) place in modern art historical scholarship: An Educated Eye: Connoisseurship Now. And I must say, it was a thoroughly enjoyable, thought-provoking, and at times slightly strange, conference.

The big question is: does connoisseurship have a future? For the uninitiated reader, the question perhaps reads like an odd one. Isn’t art history all about who painted/sculpted/drew what and when did they do it? And aren’t art historians precisely the sorts of people who are qualified to pontificate on precisely those sorts of things? Art historians can spot their Rembrandts from their Rubens from miles off with their “Educated Eyes”, can’t they? For that matter, aren’t art historians and connoisseurs the same thing anyway? Once upon a time, perhaps the answer would have been “YES” on all these counts; the early days of art history in the 19th and early 20th centuries are marked by a noticeable desire to point out that “X painted Y in Z”, qualified along the way with statements like “We know this because that’s exactly how X did eyes, fingernails, hairdos…, ears,… especially in his “middle period”…” etc. (we’re in the realm of Morelli, here).

Morelli's artists' ears

Morelli’s artists’ ears

But it’s not quite that straightforward. For as long as connoisseurs have existed, they’ve been satirised by artists and derided as phonies (in Bruegel’s famous drawing of the Artist and Connoisseur, Bruegel has the connoisseur wearing glasses, which was probably intended as a dig at the connoisseur’s claims of possessing innately  “educated eyes”).  In other words, the label connoisseur always seems to have carried some pejorative associations. And things then got really tricky for connoisseurs in about the 1970s/80s with the emergence of so-called “New Art History”: so that’s stuff like social art history and feminist art history, with which art history undergraduates become intimately familiar from the get-go at Brum and pretty much every other art history department in the UK . The practitioners of new art histories professed a severe disinterest in the fact that “X painted Y in Z”, and “we know this because X always painted his eyes like that”, which it deemed myopic and trivial. New wave art historians instead sought to instill intellectual rigor into the discipline of art history and to analyse artworks with a view to revealing more profound, erudite insights about artworks in their social, political, religious . . . cultural . . . . etc. contexts.

Bruegel, Artist and Connoisseur, c.1565, pen and ink on paper, Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna

Bruegel, Artist and Connoisseur, c.1565, pen and ink on paper, Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna

As a consequence, the art world, encompassing the academy, galleries/museums, the art market, and the connoisseurs (which up to then had kind of straddled all those realms) was drawn into a polemic: proper art history ain’t about who did what when, said the new generation of scholars, whereas the art market and museums remained—remain in fact—steadfastly keen on precisely those sorts of things. Let’s not beat around the bush, a picture is worth a LOT more if it’s demonstrably a “Rembrandt” instead of a “Dirk, the painter from up the road”, and the gallery visitor is, I guess, more satisfied to learn that Rembrandt painted this image of himself in 1669, rather than “unknown self portrait of a 17th-century Dutch artist, date unknown”.

This conference was about making sense of those debates, casting an eye over what’s happened during the intervening years since the emergence of new art history, and to cast a prophetic eye into the future and ask what room there is for connoisseurship in art world going forward. And the answer was surprisingly comforting: there is still cause to be concerned with who made what and when, and that this is in fact a prerequisite for embarking on, say, a social art historical investigation into the work of a given artist. As Liz Prettejohn lucidly described, how are you supposed to know what social context to situate a work of art in if you don’t know/care about when/where the artwork was made, which, often, entails considerations of a connoisseurial kind. However, connoisseurship as an autonomous art is no longer viable, not least of all because it’s unsustainable, which is to say that if we cling on to practicing  connoisseurship in the traditional sense, what do we do once we’ve figured out the who made what and when for every work of art there is? We’d have, in other words, nothing left to do.

Everyone in the room seemed to agree here. There was a general consensus that we probably should all care about things like attribution, dates, provenance and so forth, if, for nothing else, for the sake of conscientious history and the preservation of our heritage, and because it provides the bare materials, if you like, for art historical research. There was pretty much agreement, as well, that perhaps connoisseurship should be re-introduced to university curricula–or else, something that is the same in gist but goes under a different name given the dodgy associations of connoisseur (although nobody in the room could come up with a suitable alternative!). As was pointed out on more than one occasion, connoisseurship, but in particular the vital skills of visual analysis and description, are no longer inculcated in university art history degree programs and far too many art historians consequently spend too much of their time NOT looking, or perhaps don’t know how to look, at the objects of their study. Visual discernment has gone out the window, and new art history has come in through the front door (and is refusing to leave the hallway). (PLUG ALERT: I don’t think the last statement holds true in the case of the Art History department at Birmingham. We’re blessed to be based in the Barber Institute, whose stellar collection is at our disposal, and so visual analysis is actually at the very heart of what we do here!)

But what was MOST revealing during the conference are the lingering antagonisms that have persisted from 1980s and continue to divide, say, the art dealer from the art historian.

It’s an antagonism that is brought into sharp focus when we contrast Martin Myrone’s opinions (who is curator of pre-1800’s art at the Tate) with those expressed by Bendor Grosvenor (the chap from the BBC’s Fake or Fortune… but who is also a serious scholar and the author of a very good blog), who represented the art-dealer-cum-unabashed-connoisseur at the conference. Grosvenor is all about the eureka moment that comes from when one is presented, as a connoisseur, with a picture that has languished in some dusty museum rack for decades but is “obviously” a lost van Dyck (= a hitherto undiscovered masterpiece worth squillions). Grosvenor was upfront about it: he needs connoisseurship in his line of work as a dealer because collectors want names. But he was also astounded by how few art historians actually practice connoisseurship and have no clue about how to look at pictures – “it’s like having a fully-trained doctor who is unable to make a diagnosis”, he said. For his money, good old fashioned visual analysis is a prerequisite to proper art historical research, and I think I agree with him here. For his part, Myrone said “so what?” to connoisseurship. In these difficult financial times, should museums/galleries really expend their time, effort and money on all-things connoisseurial? Does it really matter whether a landscape can be proved to be by Gainsborough or not (he had a dig at Bendor’s Fake or Fortune here)? Laying aside the matter of commercial value which is indelibly linked to authorship, a landscape’s a landscape, surely, and can be studied and enjoyed as such?

One of these two drawings, both in the BM, is by Michelangelo . . .

One of these two drawings, both in the BM, is by Michelangelo . . .

In all, pretty interesting stuff. The connoisseur problem is clearly still alive. Hugo Chapman, who is curator of old master drawings at the British Museum, avoids the label connoisseur, beginning his talk with the words quoted in the title to this post: “I’d rather gouge out my eyes with a rusty penknife than call myself a connoisseur . . . ”. Chapman explained that it isn’t necessarily what connoisseurship is that makes him anxious (Chapman, after all, does connoisseurship at work – how else did he decide which of the two drawings in the BM of an Ideal Female Head is by Michelangelo?) it’s more what the word means, or is perceived to mean: snooty, posh bloke who, just by looking, knows instantly what something is, who it’s by etc., and isn’t very much interested in anything else. In sum, then, perhaps connoisseurship is still important and relevant to us all, scholars, curators and dealers alike, but the word has too much baggage. Perhaps, then, we need to stop and have a re-think  as to what connoisseurship is, what it entails, how we do it and for what purposes, and, for that matter, what we call it. And perhaps we really do need to re-consider how or if it’s taught in universities.

 

Jamie

 

Where are van Eyck’s Just Judges?

Universally acclaimed as one of the masterpieces of European art of all time, the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb altarpiece–a.k.a. The Ghent Altarpiece–is in the news. Again.

Ghent Altarpiece, St. Bavo's Ghent

Ghent Altarpiece, St. Bavo’s Ghent

The Ghent Altarpiece was completed in 1432 by Jan van Eyck. Jan, who is dead famous, had inherited the project from his older and considerably less famous brother, Hubert, who was commissioned by Joost Vijdt to supply his family’s Chapel inside St. Bavo’s (then St. John’s) in Ghent with an altarpiece. Hubert died in 1426 leaving the project incomplete–exactly how much of the altarpiece had been realised by 1426 (i.e. just its design or had Hubert actually put brush to panel) has since generated reams of (mostly boring) art historical rumination. Vijdt, the patron, was a merchant, financier and warden (“kerkmeester”) of St. John’s, and we’re sure that it was for Joost that the van Eycks undertook their monumental, multi-panelled, triptych because its original frame bore an inscription saying so.

The altarpiece’s frame isn’t the only part of the triptych to have since perished, however. To say that the altarpiece has had a troubled history is to put it mildly. Parts have been lost in accidents—its predella (a row of short panels across the bottom of an altarpiece) was lost in a 16th-century fire—but other losses and movements have come about as a result of political and religious conflict.

Beeldenstorm

Frans Hogenberg, Iconoclasm in the Church of Our Lady Antwerp, 1566

Mercifully, the altarpiece was spared during the “iconoclastic fury” (“beeldenstorm”) that swept the Netherlands in 1566;  the altarpiece was moved out of its chapel and stowed away in the attic. (We get a sense of the very real danger posed to works of art during the 1566 “fury” in the above engraving by Frans Hogenberg, which shows coloured windows being smashed, statues being torn down and triptychs being bashed away at in Our Lady’s church in Antwerp.)

But over the course of the subsequent centuries, the van Eycks’ altarpiece hasn’t been so lucky. It has been the victim of over a dozen crimes and no less than 7 thefts! And it’s the thefts that have brought the altarpiece back into the limelight.

The altarpiece was nicked by the French after the Revolution and put up in the Louvre, only to be returned to Ghent in 1815 after the defeat at Waterloo. The wings, less Adam and Eve, were then pawned in 1815 by the Diocese of Ghent, which failed to redeem them. Consequently, they were then sold on to an English collector in 1816 and off they went to London. From there, they were re-sold to the King of Prussia, who had them packed up and sent off to Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie. Meanwhile, back at Ghent a fire damaged what was left of the altarpiece and Adam and Eve were sent to Brussels to be stored in a museum.

Things then get a whole lot worse in the 20th century.

Dismantled Ghent Altarpiece at Altaussee

Dismantled Ghent Altarpiece at Altaussee

During World War I German forces helped themselves to a couple more panels from the already fragmented Ghent Altarpiece (the wings were, we remember, already in Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie). At the close of the war, however, and following the 1919 Treaty of Versailles with its repatriation clauses, all the panels from the Ghent altarpiece then in Germany were returned to Ghent in 1920.

Things then go quiet for about a decade until 1934. In April that year the panel showing the Just Judges from the left wing was stolen–and we’ll come back to this in a bit.

Half a decade after the Just Judges vanished, on the outbreak of World War II, it was decided that the Ghent Altarpiece should go off to the Vatican for safe keeping–the Germans had got their hands on it before thought the Belgians! But this plan was thwarted when the Italians declared themselves as an Axis Power alongside Germany. By then, the altarpiece was already in France on its way to Italy, and so the altarpiece was held in a museum in Pau until the French, Belgian and German authorities could agree over what to do with it. Never one to miss an opportunity, though, Hitler had other ideas and decided to seize the altarpiece anyway. So off it went (some parts back!) to Germany, first to the Schloss Neuschwanstein and then, following raids there, to the Altaussee salt mines. The Americans finally recovered the painting for Belgium after the war—above is that remarkable photo of the dismantled panels being inspected at Altaussee—and it was triumphantly returned to Belgium in a ceremony overseen by the Belgian Royal Family. In Belgium, the altarpiece was displayed in the Palais Royal de Bruxelles for the worlds’ press, minus any French officials who weren’t invited because they’d “allowed” Hitler to seize it.

In light of all that(!), it’s hardly surprising that the altarpiece you see nowadays inside Vijdt’s little chapel in St. Bavo’s is a replica – that’s it below. (I happen to think that the replica’s a good thing to have though, not just for the safety of the original’s sake but also because you can have a go at moving the wings etc. of the replica, to see what the thing would have looked like in motion, opening and closing, which you never get to see happening with the “real” one.) The peripatetic actual Ghent Altarpiece is in now in the basement, displayed in an air-conditioned (bullet-proof?!) glass box.

Replica of the Ghent Altarpiece inside St. Bavo's

Replica of the Ghent Altarpiece inside St. Bavo’s

So all’s well that ends well? Well, not quite. The glistening, jewel-like behemoth that you now see dramatically lit in the darkened basement of St. Bavo’s isn’t exactly everything it first seems to be.

Of the many trials and tribulations that the van Eycks’ great work has endured throughout its history, the Just Judges panel that was stolen in 1934 is still out there, somewhere in the ether (picture below of the altarpiece with its missing bit, and alongside that an old photograph of that panel). What you now see when you look at the bottom tier of the Ghent Altarpiece’s interior left wing is a replica of the lost panel done in 1945 by Jef Van der Veken.

The theft of the Just Judges is a complete mystery.

On the night of 10th April when the panel went missing, a French note was affixed to the altarpiece saying ‘Taken from Germany by the Treaty of Versailles’, thus politicising the theft by referring to the panel’s repatriation to Ghent from Germany just a decade or so previously . This was followed-up with a ransom demand for 1million Belgian Francs, which went unheeded. Most astonishingly, following negotiations the ransomer did return–apparently as a sign of good will? Eh?–the grisaille St. John the Baptist, which was on the verso of the Judges panel and is what you see when the altarpiece is closed. Then in November 1934 the self-proclaimed thief Arsène Goedertier revealed on his deathbed to his lawyer that he ‘alone’ knew where the Just Judges is and vowed to take the secret with him to the grave. He also intriguingly said that the panel was hiding in a place where it would be impossible for him or anyone else to move without arousing public attention. So it’s somewhere prominent and public then? Goedertier died and the police concluded that he had indeed taken it.

Ghent Altarpiece without the Just Judges

Ghent Altarpiece closed. St. John is the second panel along from the left on the bottom tier

Ghent Altarpiece closed. St. John is the second panel along from the left on the bottom tier

And it’s for that reason that the Ghent Altarpiece is again in the news. Recently, there have been a couple of murmurs about the whereabouts of the Just Judges. At the beginning of this year, a retired police officer reckoned the Just Judges would be found buried under the soil in a cemetery near Brussels. Meanwhile, in 2008 somebody else tipped the Ghent police off that the panel could be found under some house in Ghent, which the authorities naturally proceeded to partially demolish but found absolutely nothing.

The latest addition to the saga comes from Paul De Rigger, who claims that he knows for certain who currently owns the panel. Apparently, it’s knocking around in the collection of an important and well-known Ghent family. De Rigger won’t out the family but is hoping that with pressure they’ll out themselves and that the Just Judges will finally be reunited with the altarpiece.

To be continued . . . !

Jay

Grayson Perry’s ‘The Vanity of Small Differences’ at BMAG

The Vanity of Small Differences opened at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery on Feb 13th, amid a flurry of excitement. I went along to the opening to take a look at this intriguing set of tapestries by Grayson Perry, which have been touring the country over the last several months, attracting plenty of attention.

Grayson Perry is a famous artist, probably one of the most famous British artists. In the guise of his flamboyant alter ego, Clare, he is instantly recognisable. I have seen, and enjoyed, some of his work from the 80s and 90s before. This mainly takes the shape of highly decorative ceramics (an example can be seen in BMAG’s permanent collection here) and deals with themes of identity, sexuality, gender, and self-discovery. Since the early 2000s, though, Perry has produced works of sharp and insightful social commentary, and this is where The Vanity of Small Differences fits in. I was less familiar with this aspect of Perry’s work, and keen to explore.

The Vanity of Small Differences (the title references the mainly middle class obsession with individuality) is about people; it is a commentary about and of contemporary Britain. It is also the tale of a journey. This set of six tapestries not only tells the story of their hero’s journey, they also tell the story of Perry’s journey in researching a producing this intriguing artwork.

The Adoration of the Cage Fighters

Perry designed thetapestries after working on a (BAFTA nominated) documentary series with Channel 4, All in the Best Possible Taste with Grayson Perry (2012). In it, Perry explored how ideas of social class and taste and inextricably linked in British culture. He was fascinated by the choices that people from different backgrounds made in ‘curating their possessions’, and the different messages that this transmits. Perry observed that taste is a particularly British sensitivity, because ideas about taste are linked to a class system that is still evidently very much alive in our culture. Perry knew that he wanted to create art based on the research he did while working on his documentary, and it is possible to hear the voices of the people he visited and interviewed, from the estates of post-industrial Sunderland to the estates of Cotswold gentry, coming through in the text and images.

All six tapestries follow Perry’s hero, Tim Rakewell, who is based on Tom Rakewell, the main character in Hogarth’s series of moral paintings, The Rake’s Progress. Perry cites Hogarth as a major influence on his work, and it is easy to see the parallels between Tim and Tom. Hogarth’s character inherits a fortune from his father, only to fritter it away on a life of extravagance and debauchery. In the end he can be seen naked and crazed in the poor house. Similarly, as you make your way around The Vanity of Small Differences, you watch at Tim rises to fortune and fame, climbing to the precarious precipice of the slippery social ladder. From ginger baby competing with his mother’s mobile in The Adoration of the Cage Fighters, we watch as Tim achieves success and great wealth, eventually transforming into a new money gentleman of leisure. Strolling in the grounds of his Cotswolds mansion, he watches as red dogs, bearing the words ‘tax’, ‘social change’, ‘upkeep’, and ‘fuel bills’, tear down a stag, clad in patched-up tweed, representing the aristocracy, in The Upper Class at Bay. Finally, in #Lamentation, Tim meets a grizzly and inglorious end, lying bloodstained and half-naked in the street, after wrapping his red Ferrari around a lamppost. We see how he could never really escape his roots, as the text proclaims, ‘All he said to me was “Mother”. All that money and he dies in the gutter.’ Following the tapestries around the room at BMAG, I felt genuinely wrapped up in Tim’s story. The larger than life caricatures are undoubtedly amusing, though in a gentle and inoffensive way, and this only adds to the richness of the story, bringing Tim’s tale vividly to life.

Walking into this exhibition space for the first time was like getting a slap round the face; the tapestries are so impressive, so vibrantly coloured, and so intricate. They have irresistible appeal, drawing you in closer in order to pick out every detail, to avoid missing anything. Impressive though they are from a distance, it is only once you get in close that you start to fully appreciate the intertwining strands of narrative and symbolism that run through the set, following the trail scrawly text from one scene to the next as it narrates Tim’s story in different voices. I defy anyone not to find some witty detail in each of the tapestries that provokes grin to spread across their face, from the pug sitting in the left hand corner of The Adoration of the Cage Fighters, to a tomato-faced Jamie Oliver cast as the ‘god of social mobility’, grinning down from the heavens in Expulsion from Number 8 Eden Close, or the boney-fingered angel/business partner announcing Tim’s new found mega-wealth in The Annunciation of the Virgin Deal.

The Annunciation of the Virgin Deal

For me, as a student of Renaissance art, this exhibition was full of amusing moments, as I looked out for the witty references to Renaissance art in each scene. As their intelligently playful names suggest, each tapestry draws on one or more Renaissance or old master paintings, and in each one, Perry plays around with Renaissance themes and iconography. The connection with 14th and 15th century religious art, he says, was used to lend moral weight to Tim’s story, as well as providing recognizable Biblical themes. The Expulsion from Number 8 Eden Close, for example, mirrors Masaccio’s The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden (c. 1425). The Annunciation of the Virgin Deal draws on three different paintings of the Annunciation, by Carlo Crivelli, Matthias Grunewald, and Robert Campin, and the convex mirror on the wall, replicating the scene from another angle, is reminiscent of the one found in the famous Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck, a 14th century display of status. #Lamentation was inspired by a painting of the same name by Rogier van der Weyden (c. 1460), but Perry has substituted the skull at the bottom of that picture with a smashed smart phone in this.

Expulsion from Number 8 Eden Close

It seems right that this artwork should have taken the form of a set of tapestries. Historically, tapestries acted as decorative objects that displayed the wealth of their owners, owing to the great expense and skill involved in their production. This links in nicely to the main themes of The Vanity of Small Differences, class and taste. Tapestries were also mobile, and were taken with their owners from home to home, like movable instant decoration. Mirroring that, this set, which Perry has gifted to the Arts Council Collection and the British Council, are destined for a nomadic existence. They can, as they have done already, travel from place to place, art venue to art venue. Unlike the historical tapestries of the very wealthy, these will be seen by all sorts of people, the length and breadth of the country.

I found Perry’s tapestries extravagant and enthralling, and the story woven into them thoughtful and entertaining. I also really enjoyed this exhibition, I’ve been three times already, and will go again. Each time I’ve visited the exhibition space has been packed with people of all backgrounds, busily picking out little details. I highly recommend anyone who hasn’t yet seen The Vanity of Small Differences to go to BMAG for a peek. I also highly recommend investing in the exhibition catalogue, which is beautiful and full of interesting insights into Perry’s research and the processes behind producing an artwork like this.

The exhibition is totally free, and open daily until 11 May 2014. For more information visit here.

 

You can read more from me, and find out about a plethora of arts and cultural events across Birmingham, over at Polaroids & Polar Bears.

 

Oli

 

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Michelangelo’s David: coming to a Facebook timeline (and ammunitions poster) near you

David, Accademia, Florence

David, Accademia, Florence

Expect an explosion of pictures of the David, standing tall, very tall, at the end of a fancy corridor of sorts (lined with other Michelangelos, the “Bound Slaves”) all over t’internet soon. Plans are afoot–might already be in place, actually–for the Accademia in Florence to relax its rules on photography and let its visitors freely take photos of the David.

The wisdom behind this is twofold, perhaps three: 1) the powers that be, including the Accademia’s director Angelo Tartuferi, finally accept that taking a photo of David doesn’t harm it physically in any way, shape or form (although there’s still going to be a ban on flash!); 2) they’ve latched onto the currently trending idea that photos of art/galleries/museums splashed all over social media can actually have a positive effect, getting people interested in art and ultimately increasing footfall, which is, really, the be-all and end-all; and 3) although unsaid, it will just make visiting the Accademia a bit more pleasant for all involved, with less guards exasperatingly screaming “No Foto!”, and fewer bereft, stressed-out-looking sneaky snappers running scared of being berated for their “gross misdemeanors”.

I was one of those sneaky snappers–that’s my pic at the top of the post – success for me!–and I must say that the atmosphere in there was pretty grim. On arrival you’re subjected airport-stylee security. And once inside things barely improve – caliber of artworks notwithstanding. The attendants behaved as if taking a photo of David really is the most reprehensible crime of all time, and the eager tourist spends most of his/her time dodging the attendants’ glances, finger poised to get that much-coveted memento of their trip to visit “il gigante”.

So all this is, I think, good news. And other museums and galleries, including those closer to home, are making similar moves. Just recently, our very own Barber Institute has decided that photos can be taken freely inside its galleries. And if I had to put a bet on it, I’d say we can expect more institutions to follow suit very soon. In the Digital Age in which we live, more and more cultural institutions will, I think, come to realise that iPhones and Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc. can have positive uses.

But I guess that you could also debate the merits of implementing a photography free-for-all inside galleries. Such a policy can, I suppose, have negative or else strange consequences.

David armed

David armed

Perhaps, for example, we can expect to hear more stories like the one that recently broke about the Accademia and Italy’s Culture Department getting into a twist about the kinds of uses people put their images of David to. Dario Franceschini, Italy’s culture minister, lashed out at American gunmaker ArmaLite, whose new ad campaign features David brandishing a massive rifle (inexplicably the image has been modified to cover David‘s genitals with a fig leaf… apparently it’s OK to promote gun ownership, but it’s definitely not OK to show a penis… eh?) .Franceschini’s department warned ArmaLite not to run the campaign, which it deemed  as being offensive and an affront to Italian cultural heritage. So photographs may not physically harm the David, but is there a real threat of cultural damage? Of defaming a country’s heritage?

And it’s fair to be a bit anxious about the new rules inducing the “Mona Lisa effect”. Legions of people flock to Paris every year to go to the Louvre, which allows photography wholesale, and proceed to follow the “La Joconde” signs. 15 minutes later, they end end up having to wrestle their way through a jostling crowd (all ignorant to the other ace art they pass by swiftly!), pressing forward, camera-first, to photograph Lisa Gherardini (and perhaps a cheeky “Mona Lisa selfie” as well), before spinning on their heels for the café. Again, this doesn’t really harm the physical integrity of the painting, but it makes life hard for those who want to actually look at it with their eyes instead of through a lens–and if everyone did that, perhaps more would realise that Leonardo’s portrait isn’t the most amazing thing they’ve ever clapped eyes on, after all, and certainly isn’t the most amazing thing there is to see in the Louvre.

… Coincidentally, the Mona Lisa has also been used to advertise guns (this time by an Italian firm):

Mona Lisa armed

Mona Lisa armed

Jamie

NEW ART WEST MIDLANDS @ WOLVERHAMPTON ART GALLERY

As a trainee curator at Wolverhampton Art Gallery I was invited to the spring season launch at the gallery on Friday, for the opening of the New Art West Midlands 2014 and BP Portrait Award 2013 exhibitions. (Look out for a future post about my internship, including my involvement in the BP Portrait Award exhibition.) To mark the occasion of the opening of these two new and exciting exhibitions the gallery hosted some live music, a congratulatory handing out of arts awards certificates to young artists associated with the gallery and visitors were even treated to watching a few artists, including Adrian Clamp who as well as being an artist is one of the gallery’s facilitators, create portraits on the spot. The event was a successful celebration of art, its local engagement and its power to enrich communities.

New Art West Midlands 2014 presents innovative new work from artists who have recently graduated from art schools in the region. The exhibition incorporates paintings, sculptures and films that display a range of artistic approaches and influences. At Wolverhampton Art Gallery the exhibition includes the work of seven female artists, so what a great idea to plan a visit for International Women’s Day on Saturday 8th March!

New Art West Midlands runs until 10th May at Wolverhampton Art Gallery, 27th April at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, 18th May at BMAG and 15th March at Grand Union.

Anna Smith, Torso, ceramic sculpture.

Anna Smith, Torso, ceramic sculpture.

Wendy Ann Titmus, ‘Hands’ and ‘Feet’, beeswax.

Wendy Ann Titmus, ‘Hands’ and ‘feet’, beeswax.

Sharon Farrelly, Babs, mixed media on canvas.

Sharon Farrelly, Babs, mixed media on canvas.

photo (2)

photo (3)

photo (5)

photo

photo (4)

Check out the previous post about the New Art West Midlands BMAG private view here.

For more information visit the New Art West Midlands Website

Hannah

New Art West Midlands @ BMAG

Works from the region’s best art graduates were unveiled at the Birmingham Musem and Art Gallery on Thursday 13th February.

A few of us were invited to the private view where we sampled the very best from the West Midland’s  contemporary art  scene, whilst sneaking a cheeky look at the  Grayson Perry tapestries!

IMG_0550[1]            IMG_0551[1] IMG_0554[1]          IMG_0556[1] IMG_0557[1]                 IMG_0558[1] IMG_0559[1]             IMG_0561[1] IMG_0563[1]               IMG_0565[1]   IMG_0567[1]

New Art West Midlands runs until 27th April at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, 18th May at BMAG, 15th March at Grand Union and 10th May at Wolverhampton Art Gallery.

Making music from asses in Hell

Hieronymus Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delights, Prado, Madrid

Hieronymus Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delights, Prado, ,Madrid

Just a short post this time. I’ve just noticed a rather fascinating little article in today’s Guardian. A keen American blogger (and apparently self-confessed nerd), has discovered some hitherto unknown sheet music on the ass of one the damned in the right wing of Hieronymus Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights” triptych (detail pic. below). I say hitherto unknown, what I really mean is sheet music nobody else has ever bothered to transcribe. What’s more, not only has she transcribed it, she’s also converted it into modern notation and made a recording of the sound, which, if you’re interested, there’s a clip of here.

Bosch Earthly delights detail

This triptych, which has long been a fascination of mine, was probably painted in the 1480s (most books say post-1500… but that’s another story) and was probably commissioned from Bosch by a member of the Nassau family (… again, another story, not for here). The triptych was copied numerously in the 16th century, in paint, in print and in tapestry. Although the picture is mired in controversy, I do think that it was in all likelihood supposed to represent, and warn against,  moral and sinful transgressions such as lust and gluttony; there is, after all, and in keeping with convention for triptychs at the time, a depiction of Hell on the right wing, which we must presume illustrates the fate of the protagonists who are leaping around and fornicating on the middle panel. But this isn’t to say that Bosch wasn’t willing to have fun with it. Musical instruments feature to a great deal in the Hell wing, probably as a playful, but still meaningful, indictment of mankind that continues to succumb to pleasure even though they have been cast headlong into fiery Hell, for punishment of their mortal sins. Links between music and depraved behavior, specifically lust, were not rare in Bosch’s world. And the representation of a disorganized and motley crew–an orchestra of sorts, conducted by a demonic creature in pink –, who are shown gleefully reading the ass music, fits in perfectly with this theme of folly and is testament to Bosch’s sardonic nature.

Jamie

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