Monthly Archives: April 2016

Turner and his Fighting Temeraire make the new twenty quid note


New 20£

The Bank of England have revealed the design of its new £20 note (above), which will begin circulating in 2020. It features Turner’s 1799 Self-Portrait (now in the Tate Britain) and his almost ubiquitously familiar painting The Fighting Temeraire, of 1839 (NG, London; below). Also featuring on the note will be Turner’s famous quote ‘Light is therefore colour’, a phrase first uttered by Turner in an 1818 lecture delivered at the RA.

Turner, The Fighting Temeraire, 1839; NG London

Turner, The Fighting Temeraire, 1839; NG London

The new design is the result of a landmark public vote, the first time that the public was invited to nominate candidates to feature on a new note. The bank ended-up with a list featuring some 29,000 nominees, 590 of which were artists. From these, a shortlist was drawn up: Turner, Charlie Chaplin, Barbara Hepworth, William Hogarth, and designer Josiah Wedgwood, and eventually Turner won.

This story has been the subject of some controversy. Rightly, it was pointed out that women are conspicuous only by their relative absence from the new batch of notes–by 2020, the £5, £20 and £50 notes will feature portraits of notable blokes, whereas only one woman (besides HMQ Elizabeth II, obviously) has got a look in: Jane Austen, who will feature on the £10 note from 2017. Caroline Criado-Perez, head of the campaign for more women to appear on banknotes, was rightly, I think, miffed that only one woman made it on to the Bank’s list of five notable historical figures for inclusion on the new notes, quipping that “I guess the Bank of England thinks one woman out of five historical figures ticks off their gender quota.” The Bank’s governor, Mark Carney, meanwhile, has admitted that although diversity was a consideration in the decision nevertheless conceded that “further progress” could be made in this regard.

I DO think, though, that we should acknowledge the Bank’s efforts to increase transparency and independence by involving the public in a vote (even if the final decision was made by a board headed by the Bank’s deputy governor, other high-fliers and some specially drafted in “advisors” etc.). I do also think–laying the gender inequality aside, if such a thing can ever be done–that Turner makes for a very appropriate choice. Turner is, after all, without doubt one of the preeminent and most important figures in British art history.


Theory no. 37,987,869*: the Mona Lisa really shows Leonardo’s gay lover


Mona Lisa

The Telegraph reports today the latest Mona Lisa theory.** Silvano Vincenti–the art detective, who has spent the last few years digging around in the ground beneath S Ursula’s convent in Florence looking for Lisa del Giocondo’s (née Gherardini) remains–has finally “come up with an answer to a question that has divided scholars for years – who was the Mona Lisa based on?”. Vincenti says that we’ve all been wrong for years, and that the Mona Lisa is actually not, strictly speaking, a portrait of Lisa at all. It’s really a portrait of Leonardo’s live-in assisatnt, and conjectured lover, Salai. Partly based on examinations of infra-red images, Vincenti says that the “androgynous” Mona Lisa is a fusion of Lisa’s face with the best bits of Salai; he says that the forehead, nose and that smile, are all Salai’s features. Underlying all this is the speculation that Leonardo and Salai were gay lovers–hence Vincenti’s comparison between the face of the Mona Lisa with the face of the Incarnate Angel, here reckoned to be a portrait of sorts of Salai, and notable because the angel has a stonking erection. Reading between the lines, the Mona Lisa thus goes from idealised portrait of a Florentine merchant’s wife, to a secret homage to Salai, Leonardo’s gay lover.

Leonardo, Angel Incarnate, Private Collection

Leonardo, Angel Incarnate, Private Collection

Frankly, Vincenti should’ve known better. The basic premise that the identification of the portrait’s sitter is ‘a question that has divided scholars for years’ is a false one. No scholar–or else, no serious one–actually doubts whether the portrait is a picture of Lisa, however idealised or imaginative it may, in many respects, be.

At any rate, it is frankly misleading to claim that even if Leonardo found Salai attractive, and even if he had, somewhere in his mind, Salai’s features when producing his pictures, that those pictures must then be understood as pictorial manifestations of Leonardo and Salai’s gay romance. This is a misunderstanding of the artistic process, what it entails and how it works. It’s also a rather naïve take on sexuality in the Early Modern period, during which relationships between older men and young boys would never have been understood according to a modern taxonomy of sexuality (gay, homosexual etc.). To say the Mona Lisa is actually about gay love, articulated in those terms, is simply anachronistic.

This latest theory is therefore a kind of dramatising and skewing of the known facts that gives rise, in this case, to a view not dissimilar to the wholly problematic interpretations of Michelangelo and Tomasso dei Cavalieri’s relationship and the works of art, poetry etc. that they exchanged.

Anyway, as Prof. Martin Kemp has been saying for years–and this is repeated in The Telegraph‘s article–we don’t actually know what Salai looked like. Vasari’s written description of him is generic, to say the least, and conforms to a standard type: “he was pretty and had curly hair”, basically. So any attempt to spot Salai’s features in Leonardo’s work is a lost cause from the off, and any results are wholly conjectural.

Thus Kemp’s view: “This is a mish-mash of known things, semi-known things and complete fantasy…”.

To put that another way, this is Dan Brown stuff.


* This is, by the way, the second time Vincenti has peddled this “theory”. This is just a re-hashing. In 2011, he said the same.

** do wish people would stop referring to Leonardo as “da Vinci”.

Silly but funny? at The Louvre


Stumbled across this on t’internet and I’m conflicted. Is it brilliant? Is it terrible? Or just plain weird? I won’t know, maybe it’s all those things. I’ve gotta say that’s face super-imposed on the Old Masters is quite funny, but the new captions on the frames are better: “”! Even funnier still is the moment Scherzinger begins warbling as the Mona Lisa. 


New Caravaggio found in attic?


BBC reports that a new Caravaggio might just have been discovered in the attic of a house in Toulouse. The picture, showing Judith Beheading Holofernes, came to light two years ago (on the occasion of trying to mend a leaking roof apparently). It subsequently fell into the hands of Eric Turquin (pictured below alongside the painting in question), who now suspects that the painting is another autograph version of Caravaggio’s famous Judith Beheading Holofernes (1598/99; Palazzo Barberini, Rome).

The French Government has placed a 30-month export bar on the picture. In the meantime, analysts at The Louvre are working on ascertaining an attribution; should they authenticate it as a genuine Caravaggio, the French Government will have first dibs on acquiring it.

Caravaggio, Rome

Caravaggio, Judith Beheading Holofernes (1598/99; Palazzo Barberini, Rome)

New Caravaggio? AFP:Getty Images

New Caravaggio? AFP:Getty Images

I’m no Caravaggio expert, but when you put reproductions of the “new” Caravaggio next to the version in Rome, the former doesn’t seem “right”–the composition’s a bit clumsy; the flesh colours a bit stark; the curtains behind, a tad sharp and staccato. These comments come, of course, with the important caveat that they are being offered about a pretty bad reproduction of a painting that is supposed to have spent its recent history under a leaky roof, so caution is needed. However, the fact that Caravaggio courted such a huge following, the so-called Caravaggisti, seems to me to be clearly relevant and imposes yet another reason to be cautious about making excited pronouncements about this discovery. I’m sure that The Louvre will be able to shed some light when their investigations begin to yield answers.


One week to go: Flatpack Film Festival

OLIVER STEVENSON (Finalist; Student Ambassador for Flatpack)


At the end of April (19th-24th), Birmingham will be taken over by Flatpack Film Festival for the tenth time. From its beginnings in a Digbeth pub and a Balsall Heath attic, Flatpack has grown and spread, and has become, over the course of a decade, an important week in Birmingham’s cultural calendar. Flatpack 10 will include shorts, documentaries, parties, installations, workshops, exhibitions and new features in venues all over the city from Brummie classics, such as the BMAG and The Electric Cinema to Centrala in Minerva Works and, for the last three days of the festival, in Action Space. “What is Action Space?” I hear you cry, well Action Space is new. An inflatable venue that will be right outside Birmingham Council House. It has to be seen to be believed.

I was lucky enough last year to go to some of the Flatpack 9 events, including a screening of the fantastic Sex & Broadcasting, a documentary about the independent, freeform radio station WFMU run out of Jersey City (if you have no idea what I’m talking about, I urge you to look it up). Though my personal highlight was a dinner party, but no usual dinner party. The installation The Dog House at Stryx, in Minerva Works, was what the festival described as ‘a dinner with a difference’. It involved being sat at a table with four others, all of us donning Oculus Rift virtual reality goggles, in order to experience a Danish family’s dinner time and all the dramas that ensue during. Before you sat down you had no idea what to expect or which character you’d be–I went with my girlfriend and she ended up being my boyfriend in the film. Each pair of goggles showed the film from a different character’s perspective so you end up discussing what you, and the others, saw. It was a truly unique and unreal experience that aimed to show the future of cinema (though by the time this kind of cinema becomes all the rage I’m hoping that the technology has evolved to make you feel less motion sick).

The Doghouse Installation1

The Dog House at Stryx; Minerva Works

Flatpack is a truly wonderful festival that brings so much to Birmingham. Though The Doghouse isn’t running this year, there is so much more to get involved with and have a try at. Go and see a film at The Electric Cinema (I am thinking of going and seeing the brilliantly named Chuck Norris Vs. Communism); go and see incredible light-paintings by the Japanese artists Tochka at the Ikon (which conveniently would also mean you get to see their Dan Flavin exhibition); explore the demonic presence in Birmingham with local historian Ben Waddington at Satan’s Birmingham; or join in with the lunar lunacy at the free Full Moon Party on the Friday of the festival (it’s free!).

Flatpack is definitely something that is worth getting involved in, and none of the events take place more than half an hour away from campus. The full programme is hereso don’t just take my word for it, go and book something and escape from the harsh realities of exams and deadlines just before the new term starts. It might just change your life.

Restoring Joachim Wtewael at the NG


Another excellent video by the National Gallery here, about the marvellous Jill Dunkerton’s work to restore their Raising of Lazrus (about 1605) by Joachim Wtewael. As Dunkerton explains, the picture was a right old mess just a few years ago, and this video charts her painstaking work to bring it back to something like its original glory.

Fascinating stuff, and another good example of how important conscientious conservation is for the preservation of important works of art for future generations to enjoy.

PS sorry about the lack of action recently (writing, writing, writing!). Many new posts coming next week!

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