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I’m just back from a scorching (and I mean scorching!) hot Madrid, where I went to see the Prado’s new exhibition celebrating the 500th anniversary of the death of Hieronymus Bosch: Bosch. The 5th Centenary Exhibition. It’s on until 11.9.2016, so you have plenty of time to see it. And all told, I think that you should–I am glad I came and the exhibition was good. It brings together a diverse collection of works by Bosch and others, active in his milieu and workshop, from collections all over the world, from Lisbon to London, Valencia to Venice via Vienna, which complement the permanent holding of the Prado that houses the largest collection of Boschs anywhere in the world.

Bosco, entrance
I’ll get the moaning out of the way first, though. And the first major gripe concerns the crowds. As always with a “blockbuster” such as this one, there were simply far too many people crammed into the exhibition rooms (which aren’t exactly huge) and there was, as a result, lots of elbowing people out of the way to actually see anything. The exhibition promised to be remarkable, and in some ways it was. But my enjoyment of it–even as a committed Boschiophile–was certainly mired by the number of people crammed in. Entrance to this show is by timed slot (a fairly common strategy now) but I think they should also have capped the visitors for each slot at a much lower limit. Seriously, Prado: this was not enjoyable.

The kind of behaviour on display amongst people in the crowds was also baffling, as well as irritating. There were so many people planted firmly right in front of each of Bosch’s large triptychs, wielding odd little magnifying glasses, zooming in on individual bits of the picture. The irony, of course, is that nobody in Bosch’s day looked at his pictures in this way, which is to say with the aid of magnification instruments. I couldn’t help wonder: what do people actually gain from doing this? Or, perhaps better, what do they think they gain from it? For those with impaired vision, I do of course see the value of such aids… but it can’t be the case that every single person using these things in that room yesterday morning had severely depleted vision. So what was going on? An equally large amount of people usually spent about 5 or so minutes hogging precious space in front of the pictures reading the free little brochure that was picked up at the entrance to the show. Now, I get that people want to know “stuff”, including “facts”, about what they’re looking it (especially when they’ve paid to look at it). But this was frustrating because often these people took only a cursory glance at the picture in question after reading the brochure, before moving on to the next. Why, then, spend 10 mins hogging the space and obscuring the view of someone else, who perhaps wants to look first and read later. The same goes for those damn audio guides!

A particular low point of visiting the exhibition was being told off by a cantankerous fellow visitor (coincidentally, one holding a brochure, headset and magnifying glass…) for standing too close to the pictures: “If you stand back”, she said, “more of us can see the picture”. Well, sorry, but this misses the point entirely. I went to the Prado to look at these pictures closely. And, as I said to my partner (who courageously braved the crowds with me!), by getting up close, pondering over the individual parts of the picture, and discussing them, we were responding to Bosch’s paintings exactly as he would’ve intended, and as viewers in the late 15th and earlier 16th centuries would’ve done. Point is, I guess, that if more people put down the brochure, the headset and magnifying glass (sigh) and pondered the pictures up close for a few minutes and then moved on, the whole experience would’ve been less irritating.


Image: Prado

Garden 1

Image: Prado

Garden 2

Image: Prado

Also baffling to us was the cavalier disinterest that many of the visitors had in some of the more interesting aspects of the exhibition. One of the nicest design features in this exhibition are the little “islands” they have created for displaying Bosch’s large triptychs such as the Epiphany, Haywain and, of course, the Garden of Earthly Delights (which you can make out in the above pictures). This is so that you can see what’s painted on the exteriors of the wings: either beautiful, and carefully executed grisailles, or a wayfarer etc. Yet nobody else except for us seemed to be taking advantage of this display. I, in fact, spent longer looking at the frankly stunning grisaille on the back of Bosch’s Epiphany triptych depicting the Mass of S Gregory–shown below–than I spent looking at the interior, because to catch a glimpse of the latter meant negotiating a semi-frenzied mob, whereas we enjoyed an unobstructed view of the back (and, let’s be honest, these paintings are immensely interesting and exceptionally beautiful!) Similarly, nobody else really bothered to look at Bosch’s exceptional–not to mention rare–drawings that are dotted about the place, including the famous Tree Man; ditto the virtuoso carvings by Adriaen can Wesel, which formed part of a carved altarpiece commissioned in 1475 by the Brotherhood of Our Lady, to which Bosch belonged, for their chapel inside S John’s church (this is to say that these are carvings that Bosch definitely will have known well); ditto a c.1600 manuscript copy of Felipe de Guevara’s Comentario de la pintura y pintores antiguos, which, written about 1560, contains one of the earliest ever critical appraisals of Bosch and his art, in which de Guevara raises some very interesting observations about Bosch’s decorum, naturalism and (most pertinently, given recent controversies ignited by the Bosch Research and Conservation Project) the number of imitations and pastiches of Bosch’s works doing the rounds already by 1560, not to mentioned outright knock-offs; and ditto the so-called Master of Princely Portraits’ Portrait of Engelbrecht II Nassau, of about 1475, which depicts the person who, in all likelihood, commissioned the Garden from Bosch… I could go on, but won’t. Point is, there was lots to see in this show–and I enjoyed seeing all these things–but lots of other people crammed in weren’t looking.

Bosch, Epiphany triptych (closed); Prado, Madrid

Bosch, Epiphany triptych (closed); Prado, Madrid

That was a fairly big moan and I am sorry to go on at length, but I hope it conveys some of the more frustrating aspects of visiting this exhibition. But, putting all that to one side and reflecting on it a bit more in retrospect, the exhibition was a little basic but good (by monographic exhibition standards anyway, and overlooking, for now (!), some of the unanswered questions and reservations I have). They’ve clearly spent a bit of money on it, it flows well, looks attractive and they’ve considered the likes of me, who want to see, say, the backs of the wings properly. Overall,  it’s good.

The show is organised thematically rather than chronologically. As the little leaflet conceded, we can hardly ever agree amongst ourselves on the chronology of Bosch’s oeuvre–though, for my money, good attempts have been made to do just that–so to even attempt a chronological hang would’ve been sort of futile. A chronological hang will also have disrupted the suspense-building that comes from having (predictably but not wrongly) the Garden of Earthly Delights as its crescendo. Had the curators adopted a chronological hang, this couldn’t have happened, since the Garden would have featured nearer the start, given that even the Prado now admits that the Garden is an early work, not a late one (they now think the Garden was made in the mid-1490s; myself and others think 1480s). It addresses seven main themes: “Bosch and ’s-Hertogenbosch”; “The Childhood and Ministry of Christ”; “The Saints”; “From Paradise to Hell”; “The Garden of Earthly Delights”; “The World and Men: Mortal Sins and non-religious works”; and “The Passion of Christ”.

“Bosch and ’s-Hertogenbosch” locates visitors in the city where Bosch lived and worked throughout his life, from which Bosch took his chosen name that he used to sign his works (his actual name was Jheronimus van Acken; “Hieronymus Bosch” was thus a bit of an advert, his signature functioning to say: “this is by Jerome from ‘s-Hertogenbosch, if you want a painting such as this, come visit me there”). This section includes van Wesel’s carvings; a c.1530 view of the mark’t at ‘s-Hertogenbosch, where Bosch lived from 1462 (we know which house was Bosch’s and can see it in the painting); the portrait of Bosch from Lampsonius’s Pictorum aliquot Germaniae Inferioris Effigies, published in 1572 in Antwerp by Volcxken Diericx, the widow of Hieronymus Cock (it was a shame that Diericx’s role in bringing this publication to fruition was not made more explicit, with only Cock himself being explicitly named as publisher in the exhibition’s bumf… recognition of successful women in art history still clearly has a way to go); and three engravings by Bosch’s direct contemporary in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, the architect and engraver Alart du Hameel. This section also boasted the triptych showing the Ecce Homo, produced in Bosch’s studio in around 1500. This work is exceptional. For one its predella has survived, which is quite unusual for Bosch and shows the instruments of the Passion. And secondly, the donors depicted on the wings have actually been convincingly identified as Peter van Os (municipal secretary of s’-Hertogenbosch and fellow sworn brother of Bosch’s in the Brotherhood of Our Lady) and his wife Henricxken van Langel, who died early in 1501 (possibly from complications arising during childbirth; note the swaddled baby at the feet of Henricxken on the right wing). The Ecce Homo is thus a rare instance in Bosch’s oeuvre for which we can identify a patron. A rather odd inclusion in this section, given its localised remit, is the manuscript copy of du Guevara’s Comentario… , which, though I was happy to see it, didn’t really fit in with the aim of locating Bosch and his art in the artistic and social ferment of ‘s-Hertogenbosch.

Workshop of Bosch, Ecce Homo triptych with donors; c.1500, Boston.

Workshop of Bosch, Ecce Homo triptych with donors; c.1500, Boston.

“The Childhood and Ministry of Christ” takes as its focus the Prado’s Epiphany triptych. This work–genuinely one of Bosch’s most complex, not to mention most beautiful–is set in some kind of artistic context alongside the: c.1475 Adoration from New York (a work that was once believed to be autograph, then fell from favour, but has risen again recently and is proclaimed here as being genuine on the basis of new technical examination); another Adoration from Philadelphia (traditionally associated with Bosch and his workshop); a drawing showing the Wedding Feast at Cana by a follower of Bosch (which relates to a bunch of paintings of the Ecce Homo, none of which were exhibited, that are believed to be copies after a lost prototype by Bosch); and du Hameel’s engraving of Thistle Leaves from about 1490, which relates to the African Magi in the Epiphany, whose fabulous costume features a similar thistle design on the shoulder and collar. It was great to be able to see these works collected together and to compare them, which really drives home the immense quality of the Epiphany triptych.

But, having seen them all alongside one another, I do struggle to see how the Philadelphia Adoration can seriously be counted among Bosch’s autograph works. The former, which is here dated to 1495-1516, is supposed to be contemporary with or painted after the Epiphany triptych but I just don’t see how somebody responsible for the Epiphany can have turned out at the same time the Philadelphia Adoration, which is altogether much cruder and less impressive. Admittedly some workshop involvement is here acknowledged. And sure, the painted surface of the Philadelphia picture has suffered extensive wear from cleaning, which has perhaps eradicated some of its original subtlety and its maker’s skill. But it is nevertheless perhaps telling that the Bosch Research and Conservation Project (BRCP) has revised the date of the Philadelphia painting to 1495-1520, which possibly takes us beyond Bosch’s death, thus admitting the possibility that it is a solely workshop production (or even the work of a follower, imitator or pasticheur). The catalogue rejects the BRCP’s finding: “no explanation for the latter end of the range [i.e. 1520] is given”; yet the catalogue is similarly guilty, in which the BRCP’s suggestion is offhandedly dismissed without further qualification.

“The Saints” section–very large in scope–includes what must figure as being amongst Bosch’s most fantastical pictures: no fewer than three renditions of the Temptation of S Anthony (Lisbon and two from the Prado), as well as the fragment of Anthony’s Temptation from Kansas, only this year authenticated as an autograph fragment. Also here are: the Saint Wilgefortis (?) Triptych from Venice; the Job Triptych from Bruges (the latter by a follower), the Saint John the Baptist from the Museo Lázaro Galdiano in Madrid and Saint John the Evangelist from Berlin, the Ghent Saint Jerome, Rotterdam Saint Christopher, and drawings by a follower of Beggars and Cripples. 

Bosch (?), Temptation of S Anthony; Prado Museum

Bosch (?), Temptation of S Anthony; 1495-1520 (?) Prado Museum

This section and the exhibition’s pronouncements on attributions again betray the fraught relationship between the Prado and the BRCP. Let’s take  just one example: the Prado’s Temptation of St Anthony (above)Regular readers will remember that the Antony is one of two loans that the Prado withdrew at the eleventh hour from the Bosch exhibition held earlier this year at the Noordbrabants Museum in ‘s-Hertogenbosch. Problem is, the BRCP has rejected the attribution of this picture to Bosch. It believes it was done by a follower, in the 1530s or 40s. Others have previously chimed in to this effect: Fischer in 2013 called it a workshop production, executed in Bosch’s lifetime; the 2001 Rotterdam exhibition ascribed it to Bosch or follower (and, as Vermet told me, the Prado threatened withdrawal of the loan then, too, if its status was undermined); and as far back as 1987, Marijnissen put a big ? over the Anthony. The catalogue and show maintain the attribution to Bosch, and previously the Prado has dismissed objections to Bosch’s authorship on the grounds of unfair connoisseurial subjectivity; the catalogue upholds this view, stating that no “technical or stylistic evidence [supports] these conclusions”, and it also places emphasis on the fact that dendrochronological analysis has shown that the panel on which it is painted could have been used from 1464, within Bosch’s lifetime. The catalogue then launches into an extensive formal and technical analysis of the painting which, for them, all points to Bosch’s authorship (including panel prep. and the execution of underdrawings). For me, I’m not sure–on some scores, it’s a bit like splitting hairs. But for what it’s worth, I did think that the picture looked a bit “flat” when I saw it. I am also troubled by the catalogue’s emphasis on the dating of the wood and the way it manipulates this evidence to support its own ends. The catalogue finds it unlikely that a panel would have sat in storage for some 70, even 80, years before it was worked on, which is precisely what the BRCP’s conclusions presuppose as being a routine occurrence. Yet, the Prado’s own dating of the picture, to 1510-15 (the last half-decade of Bosch’s life), similarly assumes that panels did sit in storage for ages, just for a shorter period of time (about 5o years). I can’t get my head around this: I don’t see how you can criticise the BRCP for believing that panels lay around unused for 80 years but at the same time state that this panel did indeed go unused for 50.

Bosch, Crucified female st (image:

Bosch, Crucified female st (image:

Sticking with this section of the exhibition for a moment, I was also struck by the Prado’s decision that the woman being crucified in the Venice triptych is S Wilgefortis. The identification of this figure is by no means certain and has been hotly debated: Julia? Liberata? Eulalia? Wilgefortis? I haven’t yet been able to get to the bottom of why we suddenly apparently know that it is Wilgefortis (the BRCP also plump for this identification; and, to be fair, other arguments have been proffered in favour of is). The catalogue itself is evasive on the issue, if not confused: it mentions the Julia identification, which relates to the question of whether Bosch visited Italy, since Julia’s cult flowered in Brescia; it mentions the troubling fact that the saint in Bosch’s painting doesn’t appear to have a beard, which is one of Wilgefortis’s main attributes; it adds to the mix by raising Silver’s interesting proposal that it is Eulalia, a patron saint of Barcelona, adding that the donors on the wings were ‘notables of that city’ (which confuses me because I’ve always been led to believe that the obscured donor portraits are of Italians?). What appears to have swung it is Zanetti’s testimony of 1771, which describes the triptych, seen in the Doge’s Palace, as a “saint, male or female, on the cross”. The catalogue extrapolates from this that the saint must at one point have donned a beard–why else would Zanetti have been confused about the saint’s sex? But I’m still baffled: when and why did the beard go? No trace of it has been found (as the catalogue admits). One resolution it does tentatively offer, however, is that Bosch himself removed the beard, so as “not to offend” the taste of an Italian audience; but this is hardly satisfactory, since why would Italian clients want a depiction of an obscure saint (Wilgefortis was practically unknown south of the Alps), and, moreover, a representation of an obscure “Northern saint” that has been divested of its main identifying attribute. This still doesn’t quite make sense to me–it didn’t make sense when I last saw the triptych in Venice, and it still doesn’t now.

Bosch, Haywain, after 1500, oil on panel, Prado, Madrid

Bosch, Haywain; after 1500, Prado, Madrid

“From Paradise to Hell” really focusses on the Haywain triptych, which is positioned in close proximity to the so-called Visions of Hereafter panels from Venice and the Last Judgment from Bruges. It’s a natural grouping: the Hereafter panels present two opposing spiritual ends, election (the Ascent and Eden) and damnation (Fall of the Damned and Hell), the latter of which plays out in the Last Judgment, both of which complement the essential eschatological message espoused by Bosch in the Haywain, which is that in Eden (left wing) Original Sin was introduced into the world; the central panel shows the outcome of this, a world overrun by gluttony and selfishness in which everybody snatches what they can from the enormous stack of hay (the proverbial basis is: “The world is like a haywain, and each man takes what he can”); while Hell, on the right, shows the inevitable consequence of all this–eternal damnation. The Haywain is both staggeringly beautiful in execution and wickedly, subversively satirical in its message–note that even nuns and a fat monk are complicit in the vast cavalcade of irreverence that trundles across the central panel.

“The Garden of Earthly Delights” is an unabashed celebration of Bosch’s largest and most visually spectacular surviving work. Ample space is provided both in front of and behind the triptych, which is raised on an island in the middle of a large room. Displayed alongside it on the walls are reproductions of infra-red reflectographs and X-radiographs, which reveal to the visitor the changes that Bosch made during the execution of the Garden. Also displayed here is the famous Tree-Man drawing (relating to the enigmatic figure in the Hell wing of the Garden), the Master of Princely Portraits’ Portrait of Engelbrecht II of Nassau, most likely the patron of the Garden, as well as The Book of Hours of Engelbert of Nassau by the Vienna Master of Mary of Burgundy and the manuscript of the Vision of Tundale by Simon Marmion. This section speaks for itself; the design of the room bestowing grandeur on the Garden that befits its status as Bosch’s most iconic work. Happily for me, but somewhat inexplicably, fewer people seemed to want to linger in front of this work than they did some of Bosch’s others, so I got to walk straight up to it and enjoy it. It really is a staggeringly inventive work that testifies to Bosch’s abundant imagination. Its message is–like the later Haywain–conventionally eschatological but it is told in daring ways. It’s easy to imagine the kind of joy that this picture brought to an art-lover and bibliophile such as Engelbrecht, and likeminded friends assembled in front of it in his Brussels palace. Surely it functioned there as a visually captivating “conversation piece”, in the literal sense of that term, in which Bosch provides a frankly gluttonous amount of food for thought.

I was also pleased to see that the Prado now not only endorses the suggestion that Engelbrecht was the work’s patron but also concedes that this must have bearing on the triptych’s date, which must have been executed before 1504 (the year of Engelbrechts’s death). On both scores, the Prado unfortunately lagged behind. Experts, namely, Vermet, have been arguing that the Garden is early and most probably commissioned by Engebrecht for some time. (As an aside, but an important one nonetheless, the catalogue rather unfairly, in my view, glosses over the careful scholarship done in this regard. It, for example, summarily dismisses Vermet’s arguments (plural) in this respect, citing instead only the 2001 exhibition catalogue, co-edited by Vermet, and accusing him of having no evidence to support a date in the 1480s, which is patently and misleadingly untrue… as anybody familiar with the literature will know. Once more, this brings into sharp focus the sometimes rather nasty nature of the “politics of art”.)

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

Hieronymus Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delights; 1480s (?) Prado, Madrid

The highlight of “The World and Men: Mortal Sins and non-religious works” is the grouping of Bosch’s Pedlar (Rotterdam), Ship of Fools (Paris), Allegory of Intemperance (more familiarly Gluttony, New Haven) and the Death of Miser (Washington), which originally were all part of a triptych that has since been dismembered. The central panel is lost: we have no idea what its subject was or the fate that befell it (though the drastic, heavy-handed dismemberment might suggest that the central panel was already in ruinous condition–a fire?). The Pedlar, Ship of Fools, Allegory of Intemperance, and the Death of Miser constituted the wings of the triptych. The two wings were detached and sliced down the middle, to separate the interior sides from the exterior. The two halves making up the Pedlar (originally the backs of the wings–that the Pedlar was the closed view is suggested strongly by its semi-grisaille colour) were then fixed together and sawn into an octagonal shape to make the picture now seen in Rotterdam. What was originally the interior left wing was then spliced horizontally to create two separate paintings (the Ship of Fools and Allegory of Intemperance), while the Miser remained pretty much as it was. Given that these fragments are now widely dispersed, I had never seen them alongside one another until now. Thinking about their themes standing in front of them all, I had the chance to think a bit harder about the likely subject of the non-extant central panel which must, in a similar vein to the Haywain, have focussed on unbridled human sin and folly (precisely the themes announced in the wings; while the pedlar, originally seen on the outside, reminded the viewer of their status as a pilgrim, who must negotiate the vicissitudes of human life–thus the interior functioned as exempla contraria).

Also here, in the “World and Men”, is the so-called tabletop showing the Seven Deadly Sins and Four Last Things, which, especially since the BRCP’s findings came out, is another “controversial” work. The Prado ascribe it without reservation to Bosch’s hand; the BRCP, following other, earlier arguments, reject such an attribution. Either way, it is a very interesting picture and its quite fun here to be able to walk around the tabletop to view each of Bosch’s representations of the Deadly Sins, in ways that Phillip II must have been prone to doing in his private apartment at El Escorial, where it was from 1574 until Phillip’s death.


Bosch or follower (?), Seven Deadly Sins and Four Last Things; Prado, Madrid

“The Passion of Christ” does what it says on the tin. A range of works are on show here, from the London Christ Mocked (assuredly by Bosch and one of his more austere and restrained works but, for me, one of his most moving) to the Passion Triptych from Valencia, made by a follower of Bosch’s (possibly in his workshop), for the wife of Henry III of Nassau, who inherited the Garden from his uncle, Engelbrecht. Also here was the Entombment of Christ drawing from the BM, which is hesitatingly associated to Bosch’s hand here (though compelling evidence suggests it was not done by Bosch, and years ago, in fact, the then keeper of Netherlandish drawings and prints at the BM, An van Camp, told me in no uncertain terms that the drawing is by a follower).

Overall this exhibition is worth seeing–it is, after all, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see so many works by Bosch and his contemporaries in a single place. It is a visually stunning romp through Bosch’s art and Bosch’s world–the exhibition’s design certainly, for my money, does justice to the quality of the works involved. The partner objected to the lighting, which here and there is a bit severe. (The glare on the reverse of the S John on Patmos picture, for example, did make it very hard indeed to see the beautifully executed and subtle little monsters lurking about in the very dark background surrounding the grisaille Passion tondo.)

The shop has a veritable cornucopia of the usual tat, from pencils to iPhone cases, as well as the now seemingly-customary high-end items including rather pricey silk scarves (does anybody actually buy these?!?). I was obviously only really tempted by the catalogue, available in English or Spanish, edited by the exhibition’s curator Pilar Silva Maroto (400 pages, paperback, €35). This richly-illustrated catalogue boasts a number of essays that shed further light on Bosch and his art, with individual entries on each object included in the show.

The show runs until 11.9.2016. General admission is €16; concessions priced at €8.

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.

Review of The Journal of Art Historiography: Issue 13, December 2015

Faith Trend

The Journal of Art Historiography is a unique journal dedicated specifically to the specialised field of art historiography. It has been successfully edited since its conception by the University of Birmingham’s own Richard Woodfield and was the basis for the university’s recent summer symposium series. Each issue is packed full of articles, translations, reviews and reports of the highest academic standard and this abundant yet critically weighty output is what has made the journal an authority in the area of historiography. Indeed, the Dictionary of Art Historians calls it ‘the major research organ of the field’.

For those who attended the Birmingham art historiography symposium back in 2013 you will be delighted to see two articles by familiar faces in the most recent issue of the Journal: the University of Birmingham’s Daniel Reynolds and collaborator Rebecca Darley reflecting on their role as curators of the recent coin exhibition Faith and Fortune, and Australian academic Catherine De Lorenzo’s article on ‘The hang and art history’.

Darley and Reynolds curated the successful and long running coin exhibition, Faith and Fortune: visualizing the divine on Byzantine and early Islamic coinage at the Barber between November 2013 and January 2015. Their article focuses on how the duo and their team decided to shake up the traditional method of numismatic exhibition display and instead present the coins in a revolutionary manner with the aim of engaging and educating a wider and more diverse audience. As Darley and Reynolds explain, the field of numismatics has long been seen as a rather esoteric and dry area, with exhibitions doing very little to sway audiences from these preconceptions. Exhibitions of numismatics have also, on the whole, focused on the visual and aesthetic qualities of the coins, and have been limited by the typical presentation method of the coins – placed in rows on pH-neutral cloth covered board, separated from their accompanying labels. With the Faith and Fortune exhibition, Darley and Reynolds chose to mount the coins on a large Foamex board integrated around the text which focused largely on the coins economic qualities.

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One of the cabinets showing how printed boards were used to mount the coins to encourage visitor engagement with the objects and their interpretation.

The team’s decision to focus on representing the coins as economic artefacts marked another break in tradition and reminds the viewer that coins were not typically meant to be perceived as art. Their aim, as the article states was to ‘reflect upon the multiple ways in which seeing and interacting with coins gave the objects value in the late antique world and how the coins in turn generated networks of shared expectation, rhetoric and material exchange which defined people’s lives.’ Darley and Reynolds then go on to weigh up the limitations and opportunities that the space at the Barber provided them with, other factors that had to be considered in the lead up to the exhibition, as well as general reflections on the successes and failures of the exhibition as a whole. In particular they highlight the research that has been stimulated by the exhibition, achieving a key aim of theirs to make the exhibition a ‘a forum for research rather than purely dissemination.’ The account provides a fascinating background to the exhibition and those of our readers who managed to see the exhibition will be able to judge for yourselves how successful you believe Darley and Reynolds to be in achieving their goals.

Catherine De Lorenzo’s article ‘The hang and art history’ is, as mentioned earlier, another one which may be familiar with our readers who attended the 2014 conference. De Lorenzo’s paper is one strand of a wider research project analysing exhibitions of Australian art over the last 50 years and focuses in particular on the subject of Aboriginal art, the increase in its recognition and acknowledgement as ‘quintessentially Australian’, and the implications this has on art history. Tony Tuckson’s Australian Aboriginal Art (1960-61) is the key example that De Lorenzo works with and she gives a fascinating and in-depth analysis of the ‘cross-disciplinary and cross-institutional’ curatorial strategies that directed the exhibition. While De Lorenzo touches on the curatorial and art historiographical legacies of Tuckson’s exhibition it would be interesting if she had looked at other exhibitions in the same level of detail, however I suspect that will be forthcoming as part of the goals of the wider research project that she is a part of. De Lorenzo’s article ultimately demonstrates how much the museum sector has changed over the past 50 years in its handling and understanding of Aboriginal art and how it can be further shaped in the future to continue to educate both scholars and the public on Aboriginal art and its essential place within the canon of Australian art history.

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The book that followed Tuckson’s exhibition

Further Birmingham art historians Matthew Rampley and Nóra Veszprémi are to be found in the reviews section. Rampley considers Vlad Toca’s Art Historical Discourse in Romania, 1919-1947 and suggests that the work does not constitute a particularly deep critical analysis but praises it for providing ‘a useful start to the discussion of an understudied subject.’ While Veszprémi provides a response to Rebecca Houze’s Textiles, Fashion and Design Reform in Austria-Hungary before the First World War: Principles of Dress, which is incredibly detailed and thorough, giving real insight into the many highlights of Houze’s text.

Another article which may hold particular interest for our readers is Claire Farago’s review of The Lives of Leonardo, a subject of great discussion among the writers and readers of our blog. Farago looks in depth at Thomas Frangenberg and Rodney Palmer’s collection of articles taken from a symposium in 2006 on the subject of Leonardo Da Vinci’s biography. Farago highlights the central theme of the book as considering the legacy of Vasari’s Lives and her fascinating review of the book makes it one to perhaps recommend to our undergraduates in the future as they tackle Vasari in their first year. While generally praising of the book on the whole, Farago is withering in her disdain of the lack of female contributors to the volume, a reminder to us all that there is still a great deal of work to be done in balancing out the field. Indeed our first years have recently been tackling the problems that arise when men are solely responsible for our understanding of artists biographies.

I have barely touched the surface of the multitude of articles contained in December’s issue of the Journal of Art Historiography, so richly packed as it is with such an abundant range of pieces. However, I hope I have done enough to whet the appetite and encourage our readers to take a closer look at further articles in the journal. Anyone who would like to review one or two in greater detail is encouraged to get in touch.


To read the December issue and the 12 past issues the website is:

Waldemar’s still unchaining the Renaissance (or not)


Waldemar .png

Just sat down to catch the latest instalment of The Renaissance Unchained, Waldemar Januszczak’s newest series for the BBC. We’re on to episode 3/4 now, and all of the previous shows are on the iPlayer. This week’s episode was called “Silk, Sex and Sin”. Important caveat, again, to what follows: I want to declare, right away, that I think we should be grateful that Waldemar is doing his bit, using his platform, to make sure that interest in Renaissance art doesn’t wane. However, this doesn’t mean there aren’t problems. Mainly, this concerns a general mis-match between what Waldemar thinks he’s doing, saying, and achieving, and what he’s actually doing, what he’s actually saying. The series is supposed to unchain the Renaissance, to give new insights, to speak the unspoken. But it doesn’t.

I didn’t post about last week’s film yet, partly because I didn’t have time, and partly because I didn’t have much to say that I hadn’t said before. Show 2 didn’t really seem to have a point: oh here’s Giotto, here’s Simone Martini, here’s Piero della Francesca, Fra Angelico, Michelangelo etc. etc. And then there was “wasn’t Jesus really ugly in the Renaissance?” I thought this series was supposed to be about unveiling a new side to the Renaissance? Well, none of those artists/subjects just mentioned are by any stretch of the imagination unfamiliar, even to the most pedestrian art enthusiast. To go back to my earlier point about show 1, if we really wanted to consider the untold Renaissance, wouldn’t we want to wonder, for instance, a bit more about such topics as: where have all the women gone? Might we not have spent less time raking over the dead familiar stuff, and spend a bit of time thinking about Sofonisba Anguissola, for example? And might we also not wonder why there aren’t many “Renaissance Women” to speak of in the first place? Waldemar was well up for highlighting that Vasari forgot about things going on outside Italy but what about Vasari’s even worse omission of women. Etc. etc.

At the end of show 2 I was still not convinced that the Renaissance was being unchained. Instead Waldemar simply espouses another potted history of the Renaissance–this is Gombrich’s Story of Art. So far it has featured all the well-known, mostly Italian, blokes (despite setting out to do the opposite), and, actually, all the old clichés. Since show 1 sought, so vehemently, to show that the Renaissance wasn’t an Italian phenomenon (even though everybody already knew that), I found it sort of funny that show 2 was all about Italian men…

Other annoyances:

Michelangelo battled not only with marble but with the ancients, too? Yeah, Waldemar (any old Michelangelo book will tell you that)! I also didn’t get the bit about “poor old Michelangelo” being duped by the Ancient sculptures, which, by the time they were dug up in the 1500s had lost their polychromy. But can we really be sure that if these sculptures had been found with paint still on them–and I’m not 100% sure that all Antique statues were painted (were they?)–that Michelangelo and others would have been less interested in the intrinsic visual properties of marble? I’m not so sure.

It’s also strangely ironic, I suppose, that at one moment in a show that claims to show new sides to the Renaissance, to cast light on hitherto neglected souls, that Waldemar did a piece to camera front of Senastiano del Piombo’s Flagellation (in S. Pietro in Montorio, Rome; below). Michelangelo was involved in designing this fresco, yet that collaboration was not mentioned, and poor old Sebastiano didn’t even get a look in, wasn’t even mentioned. Instead we were whisked off to the Sistine Chapel, for Botticelli, Perugino, the big M, and so on and so on (not necessarily a bad thing, but incongruous given Waldemar’s supposed aims).


There were plenty of other bold, wholly untrue claims. One was that nobody’s ever heard of, thinks about, or writes about Nicollò dell’Arca, who has been”written out”, Waldemar told us, of the story of the Renaissance: “you just don’t hear about Niccolò dell’Arca”. But that’s not quite true.

Anyway, those were my thoughts about show 2.

Anyway, felt compelled to write again, since show 3 was in many ways just as problematic. We’ve moved on to Venice. Splendid! There were lots of Bellinis, Carpaccios and all the rest, which are wonderful. But then, with Giorgione, the first big problem arose. We don’t know anything about Giorgione, true, but when Waldemar said that he had solved the mystery of Giorgione’s Tempest, he was, yet again, doing hard-working art historians a disservice. Waldemar, as though making a breakthrough, told us that he’d come up with a solution to the Tempest, which has troubled art historians, and told us the picture is actually based on Hesiod’s Theogony. Now that isn’t exactly “common knowledge”, granted, but the thing is it’s not (yet again) a Waldemar original (as he enthusiastically implied!). The idea that Giorgione’s famous picture was inspired by Hesiod was first proposed–as far as I know, and I could be wrong–by Ursula and Warren Kirkendale in 2015. Even if they weren’t the first, what is certainly true is that Waldemar isn’t. (Obviously I understand he need for TV drama, but would it have been so hard to say “as others recently have pointed out… and I agree…”? To put it bluntly, I don’t much like this kind of scholarly appropriation that Waldemar goes in for. True, a TV show doesn’t have the apparatus, nor the appetite, for dense, academic argumentation, but I think that there are ways of being scrupulous about acknowledging your sources without bogging the viewer down and which must always be done.)

Waldemar also went on to claim that it is only as a result of “recent research” that we now know that the glassworkers were moved to Murano, not only to protect the main city of Venice from fire, but also so that Venice could keep its glass blowing techniques a secret from their rivals. To his credit, Waldemar does not attribute this “recent research” to himself, but he still suggests that this is a recent revelation that he is sharing with his audience when it is a claim that has been asserted for centuries.

Ponte delle Tette (Venice)

At least in show 3 the women made it in–hurrah. Unfortunately this was in the way of the Ponte de le Tette, or Bridge of Tits. Obviously not the most empowering of guises in which women could make an appearance in Waldemar’s newfangled account of the Renaissance. Waldemar uses the bridge as a segue into discussing the audience grabbing aspect of this episode’s title–sex! In particular, he looks at Titian’s revolutionary portrayal of the female nude, which allows Waldemar to oggle Titian’s Danaë, the Rape of Europa, the Venus of Urbino and others. Titian was indeed a groundbreaking and consummate painter of the female nude. However, Waldemar completely ignores the really interesting aspects of these paintings, which is that despite all their sexiness a fair few of Titian’s mythologies (the ones with the most female nudes!) were commissioned by Spain’s Philip II, who just happens to have been one of the most powerful Catholics in the period of religious upheaval that we call the Reformations and Counter Reformations (an important context for understanding Titian, and, broadly speaking, all European art from the sixteenth century that Waldemar failed to mention). It might have been interesting, then, to think about how we can resolve or square the ostensible paradox that Titian’s sexy nudes were originally oggled by the very-Catholic, notoriously strait-laced Phillip!

Titian, Frari .jpg

Waldemar failed to mention religion in his discussion of sex, failing to address what appear to be the inherent dichotomies and incongruities. But he did later go off to visit one of my favourite buildings in Venice–the Scuola di San Rocco–as an example of a religious building that is covered in the most amazing collection of Tintoretto paintings. He also mentioned Titian’s famous Assumption of the Virgin in the Frari, but once again, missed the opportunity to share any of the more interesting things about that painting, going instead for the more banal ones.Waldemar could, for example, have talked about the fact that Titian was one of the first artists to really consider the space he was painting for and the picture’s relationship with its surroundings. I got excited when Waldemar started his talk about the painting from in front of the choir screen, guessing that he was going to talk about the fact that the Assunta is meant to be gradually revealed to you and you move along the nave towards the altar, until you reach the choir screen, which, when opened, perfectly frames the altarpiece ahead. Titian, and later Tintoretto, wanted the experiences of the audiences to be interactive, awe-inspiring and above all, spiritual (you know, that revelationary moment in the Frari when you reach the choir screen and see get a full glimpse of the Virgin’s assumption into the Heavens). However Waldemar said nothing about it. It was such a missed opportunity to talk about something that was really a very Venetian, and very pioneering, approach.

Again, though, is Waldemar really bringing us anything new and exciting about the Renaissance that we didn’t already know by talking to us about Titian’s most famous painting? While it is indeed a very, very good painting there are numerous others that do not get the same attention that Waldemar could have talked about and which really would’ve highlighted an under-appreciated side of the (Venetian) Renaissance. Venice is full of masterpieces that are not as well known as the Assumption. Titian, along with Tintoretto and Veronese (who also gets a mention for, unsurprisingly, his stunning representation of fabrics) represent the triumvirate of the most famous Venetian painters of the Renaissance. But what about all the others? If Waldemar had really wanted to uncover a more hidden side, he could have given a voice to painters such as Francesco Montemezzano or Jacopo Bassano, who were both very competent artists working in the same period as Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese but are nowhere near as well known. He might also have dwelled on Venice as an artistic crossroads, that played host to all sorts of artists as they moved about Europe.

All this week’s episode of The Renaissance Unchained did not really fulfill its brief of challenging “the traditional view of art’s most important epoch”. Instead it provided a watered down version of any good (or not so good) art history textbook, with some spurious “recent research” claims, and other breakthroughs, thrown in.


* Update

Bernard says:

The series is broadcasted early 2016, so probably filmed in 2015 and written maybe even earlier? Is it possible the Kirkindales and this Waldemar came to the same conclusion independently?

  • jamieedwards756 says:

    It’s possible, of course. But, being a skeptic, I guess I’m doubtful… It seems somehow too much of a coincidence, perhaps?! At any rate, I didn’t mean to make much of a big point about it. For me it’s just another (possible) example of how Waldemar can skew the truth by neglecting to mention that certain ideas are already out there in the world of art history.



Waldemar Januszczak “unchains” the Renaissance


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image: BBC iPlayer

Just managed to sit down to watch the first instalment of Waldemar Januszczak’s newest series for the BBC, which you can watch on the iPlayer (until it goes out of date, and unless you’re abroad) here. Called The Renaissance Unchained, it’s a four-parter, in which Januszczak is promising to deconstruct some of the great myths and misunderstandings that dominate, he says, in our collective understanding of the “Renaissance”.

Show one set out to destabilise the view that the Renaissance is a strictly Italian phenomenon, that the Italians, beginning about the turn of the 1400s, were solely responsible for art’s “rebirth” following the grim Dark Ages. This rebirth, so the familar story goes, culminated in Michelangelo, the Divine. He took pointed aim at Vasari, whose Lives (1550; rev. ed. 1568), established the very idea of the Renaissance–Vasari after all was the very first, as Januszczak points out, to use the term Rinascimento to describe the phenomenon in art that he charted right back to the time of Cimabue. The problem, as Januszczak made very clear, is that Vasari’s Rinascimento is unapologetically Italian: art was reborn only in Italy, it grew only in Italy and it was definitely perfected only in Italy. Nowhere in Vasari’s great teleological scheme of art’s progress do non-Italians get a look in (except in the ’68 edition which features a brief and rather patronising appendix on “Diverse Flemings”).

Anyway, all this, as the show argued, is a problem. A big problem.

Januszczak intends to fix this problem in his series by showing that the Renaissance didn’t happen only in Italy (even if it was only in Italy that the period was actually termed the Renaissance), and he started in the first show by telling us all about the important advances made in art in Germany and the Netherlands, mainly in the early 15th Century. Januszczak points out quite rightly that when Giotto et al. were making their art in Italy, in the Netherlands the van Eyck brothers were doing seriously revolutionary stuff, ditto Rogier van der Weyden etc. etc. He mentioned their mastery of oils as being a major contributing factor here (doing well to avoid repeating the erroneous view that the van Eycks’ invented the technique), likewise their interest in mirrors, optics, their use of lenses and so on (I couldn’t resist the screen grab above showing Januszczak sporting 15th-Century- style spectacles in front of Jan van Eyck’s Canon van der Paele Madonna!).

This was all good and quite right. And just before I say anything else, I’ll confess that I happen to be a fan (generally speaking) of Januszczak’s absorbing style, which is not too serious yet not at all patronising, and I am grateful for the fact that he is highlighting a serious bias in popular understanding of the Renaissance period (obviously, as a “Northern Renaissance” person, I see this as being a noble endeavour).

Eyck, Canon van der Paele

Jan van Eyck, Madonna and Child with Canon van der Paele, 1434-6, oil on panel; Groeningemuseum, Bruges

That all said, I have, perhaps predictably, some gripes.

First is the implication that Januszczak is the very first person to notice this bias, stemming directly from Vasari, in our understanding of the Renaissance period–“I’m arguing…”, “I want to show… “, “I am suggesting…”, that sort of thing. This, however, is quite unfair and misleading. A great deal of work has been done in recent times which has highlighted the many problems inherent in Vasari’s account of the Renaissance, which includes the many omissions. And this work  hasn’t limited itself to highlighting just the author’s Italocenticism (which, in any case, should more properly be his Tusco-centicism, since for Vasari the Florentine the Renaissance happened on the banks of the Arno). Many have asked, to give just a particularly pertinent and important example:”where are all the women?!”. This is to say, really, that it might have been nice to have acknowledged, somewhere, that there is a great deal of scholarship out there that already problematises Vasari’s account on a number of serious levels. (Indeed any one of our undergrads could have told you this, such is the emphasis placed on understanding and debunking Vasari’s account of The Renaissance in modern art history!)

Second–and this leads on from the first–I didn’t really appreciate the implication that all art historians fall for Vasari’s claims, and toe the Vasarian line, hook, line, and sinker. Especially annoying, perhaps, was Januszczak’s repeated observation that, because of Vasari, art historians refer to Jan, Rogier and company as the “Flemish Primitives”. He used this observation to draw attention to the lingering influence of Vasari: Giotto is a Renaissance Genius; Robert Campin a “Primitive”. Two points/problems. 1) Not many art historians (that I am familiar with anyway) make much (serious) use these days of the term “Primitives” to describe the age of Campin and the van Eycks. Netherlandish Primitives as a term enjoyed its heyday in much earlier times, about the turn of the 1900s. 2) That said, I’m not really convinced that the term “Netherlandish Primitives” was ever meant disparagingly anyway. The scholars that used the term “Primitives” were often not those that sought to show that Vasari was right, after all, and that northern European art is implicitly inferior to Italian. Obviously some might have done. But conversely, many others that used the term Primitives were precisely those that were instrumental in the excavation, study and critical re-appraisal of “Early Netherlandish Painting” (a term that came to replace Netherlandish Primitives, with its altogether more positive overtones–it is no coincidence that Erwin Panofsky’s 1953 magnum opus is thus titled Early Netherlandish Painting, Its Origin and Character).

In other words, I thought it was a bit unfair to say that all art historians are bewitched by Vasari, believe him, extend uncritical credence to his account, and that all us art historians (including us scholars of northern European in particular) consequently still go around talking about the Netherlandish Primitives!

With a bit more reflection, I also didn’t much appreciate the suggestion that van Eyck etc. produced art that was better than what was going on in Italy. I don’t think this the place for making value judgements. They’re different, that’s true, but that’s not the same (or shouldn’t be) as saying that one is better than the other.

I don’t mean for these words to sound unfair. I’m pleased, as I said, that Januszczak has chosen to use his tele platform to highlight the great art that was produced in the Netherlands from 1400 to 1600 (and before and beyond). But what I am saying is that, perhaps inadvertently, Januszczak did a whole bunch of scholars a disservice by presenting some of his main ideas in the way in which he did.

In the next episode Januszczak is threatening to delve into the world of Bosch… I wait, with interest and trepidation in equal measure, for that one.


The Mona Lisa(s). Re-blog.


Mona Lisas: the "Isleworth" and The Louvre's

Leonardo da Vinci is hot property these days. Recently we’ve had the silly furore about La Bella Principessa, and now there’s the 1 millionth new theory about the Mona Lisa, that world-famous, “mysterious” picture that is, in reality, a small but wonderful portrait of a Florentine merchant’s wife. The theory was announced in last week’s BBC2 documentary Secrets of the Mona Lisa, which I haven’t had time to write anything about yet. Let me just say that though the documentary made for riveting tele, the art history concerned was, well, let’s say optimistically dumbed-down. There were also a number of incongruous leaps made that I simply couldn’t understand.

Long story short, the basic premise that was explored by Andrew Graham-Dixon is that Leonardo painted two Mona Lisas. One of them is of Lisa del Giocondo (née Gherardini), and it was commissioned from Leonardo by her husband, the Florentine cloth merchant Francesco. This is the story related by Vasari, and tradition has married his story to the painting now in The Louvre. The documentary then alerted us to the supposed existence of another Mona Lisa, commissioned  by Giuliano de Medici, which we learn about from Antonio de Beatis, who writes that Leonardo himself told him about this, a second Mona Lisa. In the show, Graham-Dixon pursued this idea and he went off to visit the so-called Isleworth Mona Lisa (a bit about which here by Prof. Martin Kemp), and subsequently led us to believe that the Isleworth Lisa could be the “original” picture–which is to say, the one with the del Giocondo provenance–and that the Louvre painting is, in fact, a fanciful re-imagining of that painting done for Giuliano–a hyped-up version of del Giocondo, if you will. There are problems with this as a basic premise, but it nevertheless made sense in the context of the programme and it must be said that the plot spun by Graham-Dixon was engrossing. Especially interesting was Giuseppe Pallanti’s contribution to the show, who has done extensive and enthralling research on the Mona Lisa, the del Giocondos and their relationship with Leonardo’s family.

But having spun that narrative things then got massively confused. Graham-Dixon changed his mind and basically departed from the view that two separate Mona Lisas once existed that were painted on two separate supports, and conversely claimed that the Mona Lisa we currently see when go to the Louvre (that is, of course, once we’ve elbowed our way through the crowds) is in fact painted on top of the “original”. This was based on various images gathered by Pascal Cotte, which were adduced to show that the current Mona Lisa obscures an erstwhile version of approximately the same subject. Basically it is supposed that Leonardo painted a “real portrait” of a real Florentine, in real Florentine dress etc. etc. (i.e. del Giocondo), but later painted over this to produce the “enigmatic” picture we now see in Paris, which is “un-real”.

Gripping though all this was, in a Dan Brown-esque sort of fashion, I thought that Graham-Dixon ultimately lost his way. Things got muddled towards the end. The initial plot was abandoned too suddenly and based on spurious reasoning. Just for example, the whole eyebrows thing came up again, which is to say that Vasari waxes lyrical about how good Leonardo’s eyebrows are in his portrait of Lisa (“The eyebrows, likewise, were rendered in so nature a manner that one saw how the hairs issued from the flesh…”) but these are absent from the Louvre painting. Graham-Dixon used this as a reason to cast doubt on the authenticity of the Paris picture, traditionally believed to be the portrait of Lisa known by Vasari. This is despite the fact that eyebrows probably did once exist but have since become eroded, perhaps as a result of over-zealous restorations (I can’t help but think that there’s something in this just by looking at the high-res image below, obtained from The Louvre’s website, in which the general eye area seems suspiciously smudgy–coincidentally, the same Pascal Cotte aforementioned believes that Mona Lisa did once have eyebrows and eyelashes). In any case, on the basis of AWOL eyebrows etc. Graham-Dixon concludes that there probably were two different Mona Lisas, one of which is possibly the Isleworth one. Curiously, though, he then offhandedly dismisses the idea that the Isleworth could be the original, since the face has never been tested, and we cannot therefore know its chemical and material constitution. So is this just another copy after all? Graham-Dixon thinks so (as do most sensible people, Prof. Kemp included).

As a result of all this (and other evidence besides), the whole 2 separate portraits idea, derived from Vasari’s and de Beatis’s testimonies, was quickly dropped and not satisfactorily resolved; the viewer initially was told that what we are dealing with here is two separate pictures, but then, suddenly, it became a story about two pictures in one? These two are the one lurking beneath, which is a portrait of Lisa del Giocondo (and which has been digitally reconstructed by Cotte and is terribly ugly) and another one, painted on top for  Giuliano (which is either imaginary or even, says Graham-Dixon, a lover of Giuliano’s!). Inherent in all this are serious problems–ultimately Graham-Dixon’s vacillations moved the programme from the realm of the enthralling to the exasperating. And all along I couldn’t help but think that the initial suggestion the Louvre painting is not the one familiar (by whatever means) to Vasari as a picture of Lisa del Giocondo is a troubling one, which ought to have been properly dealt with and substantiated.

As it was, I ended-up feeling confused. Certainly I didn’t feel as though I’d just witnessed “one of the stories of the century” unfold before my eyes, which is what the doc. was promising to deliver.

Mona Lisa Eyes

Anyway, since there’s still no time (!) to write about this properly, I am instead re-blogging Dr Bendor Grosvenor’s review of the show (below), which is fairly detailed and amounts to a compelling put-down of the show’s big claims. You can read Martin Kemp’s briefer thoughts here as well.

Mona Lisa

Poor ‘Mona Lisa’. We can’t stop talking about her. Or speculating, theorising, investigating, filming, researching, and arguing about her. We seldom look at her. We are too busy trying to work out what we think ‘lies beneath’. But if we were to just stop and look at the picture, objectively and without pre-conceptions, we might then begin to accept that this mesmeric creation is simply a portrait of a Florentine lady who, as the old sources tell us, was born Lisa Gherardini. True, it is one of the best portraits every painted, by one of the greatest artist who ever lived, Leonardo da Vinci. But it’s still a portrait.

It is, of course, too late to just ‘look’ at the Mona Lisa. The picture has acquired too much history and legend. So all we can do is tackle each new theory as it comes along, and either bat it away as the latest in a long line of optimistic fantasies, or say, ‘well there may be something to this’.

I watched the latest theory, ‘The Secrets of the Mona Lisa’, on BBC2 last week. Regular readers might appreciate that, as an occasional BBC arts presenter myself, I’m loathe to critique other BBC arts programmes (though this one was made by independent production company). But the programme said it would not just rewrite art history, but reveal ‘one of the stories of the century’. And that’s a big claim. So – here goes.

As a piece of telly, I thought it was excellent. Enjoyable, well made, and, as ever with Andrew Graham-Dixon, well presented. It was ‘Grade A’ telly. As art history, however, it scored a ‘C minus’. A number of basic art historical errors were made early on, and these set the programme onto the pursuit of a flawed – but sensational – thesis.

Actually, the programme started well. We were presented with Prof. Martin Kemp of Oxford University, who might know more about Leonardo da Vinci than anyone else on the planet. He was asked some general questions about the Mona Lisa, but wasn’t given a great opportunity to say anything in any detail. He merely set the scene – a Professor to tell us that we were indeed about to look into a Very Important Painting.

Then we were off to Italy, and on the way unveiled some of the key evidence behind the Mona Lisa. ‘Exhibit A’ as Andrew Graham-Dixon called it, was the art historian Georgio Vasari’s description of the painting. He selected a few sentences, but it’s worth quoting a larger excerpt here:

Leonardo undertook to paint for Francesco del Giocondo a portrait of his wife, Mona Lisa. He lingered over it four years and left it unfinished. It is at present in the possession of the French King Francis, at Fontainebleau. In this head anyone who wished to see how closely art could come to imitating nature could easily do so; since here were rendered all those minute niceties which can only be painted with the most delicate means; the eyes had that lustre and liquid effulgence which are always to be observed in real life, and around them were all those rosy and pearly tints together with the eyelashes which could not have been depicted except by the greatest subtlety. The eyebrows, likewise, were rendered in so nature a manner that one saw how the hairs issued from the flesh, thick in one place, scanty and scarce in another. The nose with its beautiful nostrils, rose and tender, seemed to be alive. The open mouth and its corners, united by the red of the lips and the flesh tints of the face, appeared to be not painted but real flesh. By intently observing the pit of the throat the spectator would be convinced that he could see the pulse beating in it, and could but feel that this was a picture to make even the boldest artist tremble and lose courage. Leonardo made use, also, of this device: Mona Lisa being very beautiful, he employed people to play and sing, and continually jested while working at the picture in order to keep the lady merry and thus banish the air of melancholy which is so often seen in painted portraits. In this picture of Leonardo’s there was a smile of such charm that it seemed more divine than human and was esteemed a miracle since it was nothing less than alive.

Vasari (1511-1574) was first writing in 1550; a second edition was published in 1568. As Andrew Graham-Dixon finished reading from Vasari, he wondered whether the history of the Mona Lisa was really as ‘open and shut’ as Vasari implied. And with that we were off.

First, however, everything seemed to reinforce Vasari’s basic points. Graham-Dixon told us about the extraordinary discovery in 2005 by Dr. Armin Schlechter at the University of Heidelberg, who found a marginal note written by the Florentine official Agostino Vespucci on a text about the Greek painter Apelles, which said:

“Apelles the painter. That is the way Leonardo da Vinci does it with all of his paintings, like, for example, with the countenance [or, ‘head’] of Lisa del Giocondo and that of the holy Anne, the mother of the Virgin. We will see how he is going to do it regarding the great council chamber, the thing which he has just come to terms about with the gonfaloniere. October 1503.

In other words, the Mona Lisa was Lisa del Giocondo, wife of Francesco del Giocondo, a Florentine Merchant. Her maiden name was Lisa Gherardini.

The programme then gave us an interview with the Italian art historian Giuseppe Pallanti, who has done much extraordinary research on the Mona Lisa. He showed us, for example, that Francesco del Giocondo’s house was very close to the house of Leonardo’s father, and, furthermore, that del Giocondo had been a client of Leonardo’s father. Pallanti has also found a record of Lisa’s death. So far, so conventional. Was it case closed?

No – for Andrew Graham-Dixon then set out the theory, held by many people (and for various reasons, as we’ll see below) that there were two versions of the Mona Lisa. Certain things in the evidence so far, said Graham-Dixon, ‘don’t add up’. These included, first, that the Mona Lisa in Paris has ‘no eyebrows’ – whereas Vasari describes eyebrows. Second, Vasari says the Mona Lisa was painted for Francesco del Giocondo – but he never owned the Mona Lisa now in the Louvre, for Leonardo kept that painting with him, and after his death it was sold to the French royal collection.

Finally, Graham-Dixon introduced us to a third key piece of evidence about the Mona Lisa, a diary entry written by Antonio de Beatis. He was acting as secretary for a Cardinal making a tour of France, and wrote of visiting Leonardo in October 1517, where he saw;

[…] three pictures, one of a certain Florentine lady, done from life, at the instance of the late Magnificent Giuliano de Medici […].

This, said Graham-Dixon, was puzzling, for Vasari (in 1550) tells us the Mona Lisa was painted for her husband, Francesco del Giocondo – but Beatis in 1517 tells us, from Leonardo himself, that the picture was commissioned by Giuliano de Medici. All of these points added together convinced Graham-Dixon that we were dealing with two separate paintings.

And so off we went in search of the missing picture. About which more in a moment, for here I want to just unpack a little further the evidence cited so far to suggest that there were two Mona Lisas. Because it seems to me that the programme has fundamentally misunderstood how we should be assessing the evidence mentioned above.

First, those eyebrows. Are we really sure there weren’t any on the Louvre Mona Lisa? The picture is over 500 years old. Thinly painted eyebrows, made with a dark glaze as used by Leonardo (and thus of very soft pigments) could easily have been removed by some overzealous restorer. Such damage is the work of a moment, with the wrong cleaning solution, or too rough a sponge. Or, there could still be faint traces of eyebrow left – but we cannot clearly see them through the many layers of dirt and old varnish that now cover the painting. It is simply impossible to say in any objective way; ‘the Mona Lisa in the Louvre has no eyebrows, therefore Vasari must have been talking about a different painting’.

Furthermore, Vasari almost certainly did not see the Mona Lisa in the Louvre. The picture was in France, which he is not known to have visited. He must have been basing his description on either a copy or someone else’s account. In any case, we can already see how inaccurate his remarks are anyway when he talks about the Mona Lisa’s ‘open mouth’ – when her mouth is in fact closed.  And we ought to note here that the lavish praise Vasari gives the painting was no doubt ammunition in his broader campaign to convince the world of the benefits of his preferred school of Italian art; that is, of ‘disegno’ (where the design or drawing of a painting was the most important part) as practiced in Florence and Rome by the likes of Leonardo and Michelangelo, as opposed to ‘colore’ (where the colour and application of paint was the best feature of a painting) as practiced in Venice by the likes of Titian and Tintoretto.

So I think that’s the eyebrows taken care of. Next we have the evidence of the different owners, or commissioners of the painting. We have Vasari saying in 1550 that Leonardo ‘undertook to paint for Francesco del Giocondo’ a portrait of his wife. But apparently in 1517 Leonardo tells us (via de Beatis) that it was painted for Giuliano de Medici. Does this discrepancy point to two different paintings? I don’t think so.

Let us look at the evidence, and how reliable it is. First, we know Vasari hasn’t seen the painting, and that his descriptions of it are not entirely reliable. Can we believe beyond doubt Vasari when he says that Francesco del Giocondo commissioned the portrait from Leonardo? In fact, Vasari says only that Francesco commissioned the painting, not that he ever owned it. Secondly, de Beatis talks of a portrait ‘of a certain Florentine lady, done from life’. In other words, he does not say that it is Lisa del Giocondo. It could be another sitter, another portrait. The two other pictures de Beatis mentions seeing on that day are a St John the Baptist, and a Madonna and Child, which are now both in the Louvre, and because the Mona Lisa is now in the Louvre, most people assume that de Beatis’ ‘Florentine lady’ is the Mona Lisa. But it’s far from certain – that is, it is not certain enough for us to say ‘there must be another painting’. Indeed, de Beatis makes another note the next day in his diary which confuses matters, for he describes seeing a different painting at Leonardo’s residence;

there was also a picture in which a certain lady from Lombardy is painted in oil from life, quite beautiful, but in my opinion not as much as the lady Gulanda, the lady Isabella Gulanda’.

Was one of these pictures the ‘Florentine lady’ de Beatis saw? Or is he (as is more likely) in a bit of a muddle about names and pictures and who commissioned what? For how many of us really can recall with clarity all the details of conversations we’ve had the day before, on all topics? De Beatis, unfortunately, reveals himself to be a somewhat unreliable witness when he says that Leonardo was then in his seventies, when he was actually 65, and that a paralysis on the right side of Leonardo’s body meant he couldn’t reach such artistic heights again – when of course Leonardo was left-handed.

In other words, there really isn’t much in the way of reliable evidence, in the good old-fashioned historical sense, for us to say ‘there were two Mona Lisas’. Maybe both Francesco del Giocondo and Giuliano de Medici were involved in somehow pressing Leonardo (who was famously loathe to take commissions at that time in Florence) to paint Lisa. The point is, we just don’t know.

Nevertheless, Andrew Graham-Dixon next went to Singapore to see contender number one for the ‘other’ Mona Lisa – the so-called ‘Isleworth Mona Lisa’ (above, it once belonged to a collector who lived in Isleworth). Regular readers will know my views about this picture, which is (perhaps rather too glibly) referred to in these parts as the ‘Isleworthless Mona Lisa’. It’s most likely a later copy, and the fact that it’s on canvas tells you a great deal. A good summary of the efforts made by the proponents (and owners) of the Isleworth Mona Lisa comes to us courtesy of Luke Syson (see here), who curated the 2012 Leonardo exhibition at the National Gallery in London:

The story ignores art history, denies the principles of connoisseurship, and bypasses the experts. The whole thing is a little sad, especially for anyone visiting the display who is hoping to see a masterpiece by Leonardo.

Andrew Graham-Dixon, however, was impressed by the picture, when he saw it in a Singapore bank vault, saying:*

There’s a lot to be said for first impressions, and I did well not to jump backwards in shock. It’s too good in my opinion for any of the other school of Leonardo painters… I think it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that this is the picture that Francesco [del Giocondo] took, and then Leonardo goes off and paints another picture, and that’s the ‘Mona Lisa’ [in the Louvre].

To reinforce the Isleworth Mona Lisa’s claim to be an autograph Leonardo, we were shown an interview with ‘an eminent scientist in California’ Dr. John Asmus. Here, the programme really began to stray from the more acceptable realms of art history. Dr Asmus, who I am sure is indeed an eminent scientist, had, said Graham-Dixon:

[…] developed a new test to authenticate paintings by Rembrandt; it compares the subtle distribution of light and shadow measured as histograms to isolate an artist’s unique way of painting.

Sadly, attribution by computer simply doesn’t work. Nobody of any serious repute in the world of Rembrandt authentication is ever going to rely on Dr Asmus’ Rembrandt histograms. I’ve never heard them mentioned before. And it was wrong of the programme to suggest, to a general audience, that attribution by computer is even possible in the first place. Furthermore, we were told by Dr Asmus himself that his initial tests (which showed a result of ’99%’ certainty that the Isleworth picture was indeed painted by Leonardo) were made on the basis of a photograph of the Isleworth picture taken on an ‘instamatic camera’. We were even shown the bad photograph on the screen. It’s one thing to try and compare, with the aid of a computer, artistic techniques on the basis of good digital photos – but quite another to try it on the basis of a poor quality print. So when Dr Asmus concludes that his tests ‘demonstrate that the technique for blinding light and shade in each face [that is, the Isleworth Mona Lisa and the Louvre Mona Lisa] appears uncannily similar’, he is merely observing the characteristics of a copy.

Another piece of evidence we were shown in favour of the Isleworth painting – and as evidence in that there were once two Mona Lisa’s – was a drawing by Raphael which is said to be a ‘a copy’ of the Mona Lisa (below). The drawing shows a woman with a similar pose of hands, the head in the same direction, a landscape background, and two columns on either side of her.

The Isleworth backers say this relates more closely to their picture than the Louvre one. But of course it does not. There are too many differences between Raphael’s drawing and both the Louvre picture and the Isleworth picture for us to say it is a direct ‘copy’ of either. The ledge behind the sitter is at a higher level. The dress, both across the chest and the sleeves, is different. The landscape is different. Perhaps Raphael, whose own portraits at this date follow similar poses, was making an interpretation of the Mona Lisa, if he saw it, or a recollection of it.

(Much is made of the issue of the columns in Mona Lisa-ology. Proponents of the Isleworth Mona Lisa point to the columns in their painting and say it is evidence that it is not a copy of the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, because that has only fragments of column visible. We must here, however, coming back to the issue of condition. We cannot be entirely certain (though some claim you can be) that the Louvre picture has never been trimmed at the sides, perhaps even very early in its career. Or, perhaps an early copyist decided to add in slightly larger columns of their own accord. Again, it’s one of those things we can’t be certain about.)

In the end, Graham-Dixon decided that the Isleworth Mona Lisa wasn’t by Leonardo. His logic was curious. He correctly noted that the usual ‘barage of scientific tests’ such as infra-red, x-ray, carbon dating etc. cannot tell us that Leonardo definitely painted the Isleworth picture, only that he might have done (and in fact only that any half decent artist from the period might have done). He then, however, looked at the location of the paint analysis samples taken by the ‘Mona Lisa Foundation’ (which acts as cheerleader for the Isleworth picture) and noticed that none were taken from the face itself. He wondered if a later restorer might have interfered with the head in the Isleworth picture, to somehow ‘bring it up’ to a level good enough to make it appear Leonardo-esque. ‘Until the face is tested, doubt remains’, he concludes, as if (again) an attribution to any artist can be achieved by something as straightforward as a scientific test.

So, with the Isleworth picture duly ruled out (which was, I admit, a relief**), we followed one final lead on the hunt for the ‘other’ Mona Lisa. Enter Pascal Cotte, the scientist and inventor of the Lumiere multi-spectral high definition camera. The camera allows us, he claimes, to ‘peel back the layers of a painting, like an onion’, and he can reconstruct the way the painting was made as a result. M. Cotte took a series of multi-spectral scans of the Louvre Mona Lisa in 2004, and has been ‘decoding’ his results ever since. This programme was the first time he unveiled them.

Now, regular readers will know that AHN and Pascal Cotte have ‘previous’. His recent analysis of Leonardo’s ‘Lady with an Ermine’ showed, he said, that the picture was first not painted with an ermine, but with the hands in a different place. Then the ermine was added, and moved. Having looked at the published photos, I concluded that M. Cotte was leaping to conclusions. You can read about that here.

And I’m afraid to say that this time I think M. Cotte’s eyes are again deceiving him. The last part of the programme followed M. Cotte taking us through ever more extraordinary theories; that Mona Lisa was first painted with an elaborate head-dress, which Leonardo then scraped off; that she may have had a blanket on her lap (like the Queen Mum); that she once had a much larger head; that her face was moved 14 degrees; that her mouth was originally smaller; and so on. My favourite was the discovery of 11 hairpins (below), which were determined not to be random array of damages or blemishes (for example) by the fact that there were part of a special type of headdress, into which hair pins went in almost random manner.

The conclusion? That the Mona Lisa in the Louvre was actually two paintings all along. Leonardo had begun to paint Lisa del Giocondo, just like Vasari and Vespucci said. But then he painted over her, and put someone else’s head on instead. Graham-Dixon speculated that this may have been a lover of Giuliano de Medici, Pacifica Brandano. M. Cotte has made a digital recreation (below) of what the ‘original’ Mona Lisa looked like (answer; Gollum’s mum).

I’m sorry to say that all this is scarcely believable. I find it extraordinary that for decades now art historians have wrung their hands about the dangers of ‘connoisseurship’ – that is, the ability to look at the surface of a painting and tell who painted it – but now some are prepared to accept completely the much more dubious interpretation of images underneath a painting. We are now so reluctant to trust our own eyes, that we outsource these questions to scientists, and just because the results are presented by a man or woman in a white coat (or in this case a bow tie) we feel compelled to accept them. Science must be right.

But I’m afraid it isn’t – not always. And science in art history is in its infancy. We have no way of verifying M. Cotte’s tests. He’s the only one with a camera. And we haven’t tested nearly enough paintings for us to say with confidence that we know how to interpret such images. In fact, it seems to me to be quite easy to question Cotte’s results, just by using common sense and one’s own eyes. Where M. Cotte sees a larger head (below), artists and art historians will see a straightforward ‘penumbra’, which is the area of dead colour an artist lays down on the panel or canvas as a background colour, and then begins to paint the head on. Since we know that the Mona Lisa was painted over a number of years by Leonardo, it is likely that the background was added at a later stage than the initial life sittings, accounting for the differences M. Cotte’s cameras have identified around the head. Indeed, all M. Cotte’s images prove is that Leonardo, like so many portraitists, fiddled with and changed his composition as he went along. This is a long way from saying; ‘it’s two different people’.

And don’t just take my word for it. Here is the view of Prof. Martin Kemp, who has worked extensively with M. Cotte in the past. With apologies, I here quote Prof. Kemp’s recent blog post extensively. He’s much more diplomatic than I am:

Now that Pascal’s book is out in all its visual glory, and in the wake of the media interviews, edited as always to emphasise difference, it is worth laying out briefly how his researches look to me. It represents an extraordinary body of dedicated effort. He asked me for comments for his website – knowing that I disagreed with some of his interpretations.  He is a good guy.

The LAM technique undoubtedly provides an important new weapon in the armoury of those interested in scientific examinations of layered paintings. The Holy Grail of scientific examination is to disclose the successive layers that lie below the present surface. Pascal’s mode of analysis, adapting mathematical techniques from signal processing, is revealing far more from the deeper layers than was previously possible, but it does not definitively isolate information from a single layer. We are also unclear as to what is happening as the different frequencies of light penetrate the paint layers to varying degrees and interact in diverse ways with the varied optical properties of the materials within the layers of the picture. This means that tricky acts of interpretation are necessary – even more difficult than is the case with x-rays and infrared. There is always the danger of seeing what we want to see. None of us are immune from this.

Looking at a selection of the LAM images as an art historian, I can see things that are wholly consistent with Leonardo’s creative methods, such as the indication of the use of cartoon and the restless manoeuvrings of contours. Some of what Pascal sees and reconstructs, such as the elaborate headdress, makes no sense to me in terms of design procedures or in terms of Renaissance paintings. I have difficulties with his detailed reconstructions of finished or semi-finished paintings under the surface of the present one. Leonardo’s processes were very fluid, with things coming and going, and with varied levels of finish across the picture. There is obviously a question of presentation here, and I would have resisted the temptation to translate the complex and often ambiguous images from the lower layers into such definite “pictures”.

My strong sense, at this early stage in our understanding of what we are looking at, is that we are witnessing something consistent with the documentation and with Leonardo’s ways of proceeding. I see the painting beginning as a direct portrait of Lisa – building on the innovations of Leonardo’s Milanese portraits – and becoming increasingly conceptualised as picture that combines the combines the tropes of Renaissance love poetry with a profound interest in the microcosm of the human body and the “body of the earth”. I see a steady evolution from portrait to “picture”. The change in her draperies from a Florentine style (as Pascal shows) into a more conceptualised array of veils etc., is part of this process of generalisation. All this is consistent with the idea I first expressed in my 1981 monograph, that Giuliano de’ Medici asked Leonardo to finish the beautiful and remarkable picture when they were both in Rome from 1513-16.

Pascal is opening up very important fields for analysis.  We are at the beginning, Anyone is unwise to pronounce with certainty at this stage. I will have to make some sense of all this for the monograph of the Mona Lisa that I am currently writing with Giuseppe Pallanti.

All of which reinforces my earlier scepticism about Cotte’s analysis of Leonardo’s Lady with an Ermine.

Anyway, it’s a shame the latest Mona Lisa programme didn’t conclude with some form of independent assessment from Prof. Kemp. He was introduced at the beginning as an expert, why not have him at the end? In all the art discovery programmes I’m involved in, we always feel it imperative to show the audience some form of 3rd party, academic endorsement. So far, the Louvre has said rien.

I haven’t yet mentioned another picture that Graham-Dixon went to see as a possible ‘other’ Mona Lisa; a work in Russia. It was clearly a later copy – not even a very good one – and eventually, with the help of more science we were shown that it couldn’t have been by Leonardo, for the ground layer dated to the 17th Century. But a few days after the BBC programme went out, there was a fresh flurry of excitement about a ‘new Mona Lisa’. It was the same picture (detail below)! Only this time, it had the name of ‘leading da Vinci scholar’ Prof. Carlo Pedretti attached to it. Why is he so confident that the Russian picture has a chance of being by Leonardo? Because he too has developed a ‘new art analysis software’. So we’re back to square one in the Mona Lisa game, anything goes, as long as you can get enough media hype.

Computer software, ‘magic cameras’, mis-interpreted x-rays, optimistically assessed paint analysis, the views of scientists who don’t know their way around a painting; is this to be the new way of deciding (at least in the public arena) what is and what is not a Leonardo (or a Michelangelo or whatever else is next)? Not if I have anything to do with it. The public deserves better.

I’m not claiming to be uniquely right in any of the above. Do let me know what you thought of the new claims.

* I’ve been asked to see a few pictures in ‘bank vaults’. It’s usually a sure sign of something being a dud.

** This is not intended to be an exhaustive critique of the Isleworth Mona Lisa – I might get round to that one day.

Update – a reader alerts us to the fact that the new ‘Russian’ Mona Lisa was apparently that sold at Christie’s in New York as a copy for $122,000. The provenance would fit the bill for that shown in the Graham-Dixon progreamme, where oddly enough the recent auction history was not mentioned. The image looks the same too.




First-year Camila Poccard reviews ‘Antonio Berni: Juanito y Ramona’ in Buenos Aires

 golovine article-2

I was in Argentina recently and whilst I was there I visited an exhibition Antonio Berni: Juanito y Ramona at the MALBA (Museo de Arte Latino Americano de Buenos Aires/ Museum of Latin-American Art of Buenos Aires). The exhibition displayed a large collection of the work of Argentine artist Antonio Berni, the majority of which was created from the late 1950s to the late 1970s. The MALBA is one of the only art galleries in Buenos Aires that was purpose built to be an art gallery and consequently it has a modern, bright and clean interior, which seemed juxtaposed with Berni’s hectic and vibrant work.



Berni, ‘Juanito y su familia mirando el televisor’, 1974

The exhibition focused on a period in Berni’s career when he began to paint two fictitious characters he invented, Juanito Laguna and Ramona Montiel, to help explore social issues of large Latin American cities. This exhibition was the first of its kind to gather so much of Berni’s ‘Juanito and Ramona’ works, and MALBA collaborated with the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston to do so.

Juanito Laguna is portrayed as a young boy from a poor neighbourhood or shantytown, who collects garbage. Although his situation is bleak, he still retains his hopes and dreams, which Berni himself discusses in this video. This sense of hope can be seen, for example, in the painting of Juanito playing with a toy airplane and gazing up at a spaceship, dreaming of opportunities. As this was painted around the time of the moon landings, Berni makes Juanito like any other boy of his time who dreams of going to space, perhaps making him a relatable, contemporary character.


Berni, ‘Juanito Laguna y la aeronave’, 1978

Ramona Montiel, on the other hand, was created as a character to represent lower-class women. She becomes a prostitute in order to earn enough money to live and, through her character, Berni comments on the sex trade, the status of women, and also the lack of professional opportunities afforded to women.


Berni, ‘El Examen’, 1976



Berni, ‘Juanito Laguna going to the factory’, 1977

The paintings of Juanito in particular are large in size and striking. Berni was a very experimental artist and used new techniques in his artworks. Whilst he uses oil paints for the background and to paint Juanito himself, the work is dominated by collaged industrial waste and garbage that Berni collected. These objects protrude from the paintings, creating a 3D effect. The amount of metal used in the paintings is also quite jarring, as it reminds the viewer of the environment in which poor children represented by Juanito live. Instead of painting Juanito’s clothing, Berni places real items of clothing onto the canvas, often using popular clothes of the time, suggesting further how the character represents a particular class of children. However, the artist is also perhaps making a statement about how capitalist society and consumer culture fuel poverty. By using real, relevant and contemporary objects and popular culture to explore social issues, Berni creates in a way more ‘real’ characters. In fact, his characters have since taken on a life of their own in Argentina, becoming folks legends, incorporated into the lyrics of tango music and folks songs, as well as in poems and stories.


Berni, ‘Juanito the Scavenger’, 1978

In Juanito the Scavenger, the child is lost in a sea of industrial waste and garbage, and his face looks despondent. This painting depicts the common practice of children in slums rummaging in garbage for things to sell. Even though the scene is bleak, Berni’s use of colour brings life into the painting. I found that even though the paintings are gripping and have a serious political message, Berni’s use of colour makes them accessible and almost child-like. It suggests the vibrancy of Latin America, whilst also reminding viewers that Juanito is just a boy.

Overall I found the exhibition fascinating; it compiled so much of Berni’s work and was a testament to this experimental stage in his career. The exhibition was large and comprehensive, spread across different rooms over three floors, encompassing printmaking, sculpture as well as painting; I think it was a triumph. The exhibition opened in October in 2014 and proved to be very popular. Although Berni’s paintings were created in the late 1950s through to late 1970s, the social and economic issues they explore still plague many large Latin American cities today, so the political meaning of these paintings is still gripping and relevant.

Camila Poccard (1st-year History of Art student)


Second-year student Patricia Nistor reviews ‘Marlene Dumas: The Image as Burden’

Last term second-year History of Art student Patricia Nistor spent a Semester Abroad in Leiden at one of the most reputable universities in The Netherlands. She describes her experience as follows: “I developed a wide range of skills but also had a lot of fun, making for what were probably the best four months of my life.”  While in Amsterdam she took the opportunity to visit the exhibition Marlene Dumas: The Image as Burden at the Stedelijk Museum, which is now on at Tate Modern, and wrote a review for The Golovine…

‘Painting?! Are you kidding me?’ was my first reaction when I found out we were going to see the Marlene Dumas exhibition at the Stedelijk in Amsterdam. I consider myself a lover of all arts and all periods alike, but I was virtually convinced that painting has to be on its deathbed in the 21st century. There seemed to be no potency left for painting in a time where new media and new approaches are competing fiercely for our attention. Needless to say that Marlene Dumas is the exception that proved me wrong.

The Image as Burden is a retrospective of works created in the last 40 years by the South African-born artist Marlene Dumas. The Stedelijk is a particularly powerful place to hold such an exhibition, as it was the museum where she took part in her first group exhibition in 1978. The inclusion of the artist, then only 25, reinforces the museum’s position as a maker, rather than follower of canon.

Image 1

Marlene Dumas, ‘The Image as Burden’, 1993 © Marlene Dumas

The exhibition brochure opens with a quote that is key to what is on display: “images are always political. Something is always assigned to an image –this is a criminal, (…) that is erotic – and that’s what I am involved with: the psychology of perception’’. Dumas’ subject matter is incredibly wide and fluid: ranging from religion, war, race, love, death, guilt, and art itself – all converging in representing the theme we might call life itself. In the end, the power always lies in the hands of the viewer to decipher the meaning.

The varied subject matter in the exhibition is tied together by Dumas’ style and technique, and all her works somehow find a particular place within the pictorial universe she creates. Her art seems to be a construction of simplicity: all lines seem to be in the right place and the scarce amount of detail is perfectly controlled to achieve a vagueness but at the same time coherent figures.

Marlene Dumas, ‘Evil is Banal’, 1984 © Marlene Dumas

Another major characteristic in her art is reworking. Dumas never paints life directly; the mediation of photography is always present. She uses personal Polaroids as well as newspaper photographs as a basis as she launches into a radical decontextualisation and processing of visual culture. She ends up creating her own space where people are not exactly real but they are not imaginary either. In one piece, Jesus Serene, she uses existing images of Jesus, such as the one on the Turin Shroud, side by side with images of her friends. The result is an exploration of humanity itself, with the figures all seeming equal, genderless and not of any particular race.

Image 3

Marlene Dumas, Jesus Serene, 1994 © Marlene Dumas

Echoes from Dumas’ childhood in South Africa still deeply permeate her work. She unapologetically tackles feminism, race, grief and the naked body all at once in haunting pictures such as The Widow. She also works to include African figures ignored in the narrow Western standard of beauty. It is interesting to note how the Stedelijk chose to tiptoe around this issue, claiming the title of the exhibition refers to ‘the conflict between the painterly gesture and the illusion of the painted image’. Rachel Spence writing for The Financial Times offered an alternative reading of this. She reminds that South Africa was a country where representations of certain people were banned and that it ‘had become a country where images were regarded as bombs’.

Image 4

Marlene Dumas, ‘Naomi’, 1995 © Marlene Dumas

All in all, Dumas’ work probably owes its success to a strong mixture of emotional intensity and current political relevance. In this review, I barely touch the surface of the two hundred artworks displayed in the exhibition. The multiplicity of aspects and depth in her work would require many more words to be properly explored. However, this serves as a reminder that The Image as Burden is currently on at Tate Modern until 10 May 2015, and it is definitely a great opportunity to visit a wonderfully-curated exhibition of one of the most intriguing painters of our time.

Patricia Nistor (2nd-year History of Art student)

Second-year student Emily Robins visits the Newman Brothers Coffin Works…

With a touch of what some may deem to be ‘morbid curiosity’, I decided to spend a free Wednesday afternoon visiting Birmingham Conservation Trust’s latest project – the Newman Brothers Coffin Works. The slightly-misleading name ‘Coffin Works’ conjures up an image of a rather gloomy, depressing funeral parlour place but, to dispel some myths, this image couldn’t be further from truth. In fact, the Conservation Trust has succeeded in creating not only a sensitive portrayal of several aspects of the funerary industry, but also, more importantly, an intriguing time-capsule experience of factory life in the early 1960s. After 16 years of closure, and following a national campaign, this historic jewellery quarter business has been restored to the former glory of its post-war heyday.

On arrival I was greeted by staff in authentic 1960s uniforms and asked to ‘clock in’ using the original machine. It was pretty quiet for a Wednesday afternoon, so our tour guide, the exceptionally knowledgeable Robin, took me and two other visitors for a tour. We began with a brief history of the company. I was surprised to learn that Newman Bros had never actually made coffins, only handles, plates and shrouds. All of these objects are in keeping with the company’s Jewellery Quarter location and credentials. We headed over to the first stop on the tour, the ‘Stamp Room’. Here Robin provided a hands-on demonstration of the traditional equipment used to cut out coffin plates, crucifixes and other shapes from sheet metal. This was followed by an interactive experience in the storeroom, where we were invited to touch and examine designs used for handles and accessories. The room was full to the brim with all sorts of objects; I couldn’t help but admire the sheer quantity of original packaging and furniture still in-situ.


Inside the Stamp Room


Authentic Coffin-Handle Packaging and Embalming Chemicals

Afterwards, Robin took us through to the main office, again beautiful preserved and complete with the very Mad Men-esque addition of a drinks cupboard stocked with champagne! Here I was asked to answer the telephone and jot down the orders from a client on the other end of the line, half expecting the big boss to arrive back any minute!


The Big Boss’ Desk in the Office

Robin then ushered us upstairs to the last room on the tour, the ‘Shroud Room’. The name is enough to send shivers down anyone’s spine; you might imagine a ghostly and dusty attic room. However, once again Newman bros challenged my assumptions as I entered a light and airy workshop, more befitting to a designer atelier. Piled high across every available surface were luxurious fabrics in numerous prints, textures and colours. By the windows sit sewing machines and workstations which appear as if they were only vacated a minute or so ago, whilst the factory girls nip out to lunch. Throughout the tour, keen eyes will be drawn to more of these authentic and detailed touches, which make a visit to the Coffin Works feel like as if you’ve stepped back in time. My personal favourites were touches such as the tea-break corner, complete with a variety of cups and cosies and listing how everyone prefers to take their hard-earned cuppa.


Box of Shroud Labels


Workspace in the Shroud Room

Robin finished the tour with some final reflections and anecdotes about the staff and personnel who spent the best part of their lives in these very rooms. Overall, I left the Coffin Works with the image of a workplace that was not without its eccentricities, but that nonetheless played a crucial role in the shaping of Birmingham as an industrial city; a role which will remain crucial as Newman Bros continues its transformative trajectory as not only a heritage attraction, but a perfectly preserved slice of social, cultural and manufacturing history.

Emily Robins (2nd-year History of Art student)

Degenerate Art at the Barber Institute

Hannah Halliwell reviews the Barber’s Degenerate Art exhibition…


The Degenerate Art exhibition at the Barber Institute (24 October 2014 – 11 January 2015) complements the current Rebel Visions exhibition on the War Art of CRW Nevinson, also at the Barber. The Degenerate Art exhibition explores and examines how and why artists’ work was censured, corrupted and de-valued by the Nazi regime during the 1930s, with the Barber’s own examples from celebrated artists such as George Grosz, Emil Nolde, Egon Schiele and Käthe Kollwitz. Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art), was a term used by Nazis to dismiss virtually all modern art. It was also the title of an art exhibition put together by Adolf Hitler in 1937 which displayed a small percentage of confiscated art from recent decades (650 of 650,000 confiscated works were exhibited); the National Socialists rejected and censured virtually everything that had existed on the German modern art scene prior to 1933. I find this exhibition particularly fascinating in light of stories on the news which have appeared in recent years regarding the discovery of art which was previously deemed lost due to its confiscation by the Nazis (


Entartete Kunst exhibition

Entartete Kunst exhibition

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As can be seen in the above image, the Entartete Kunst was incredibly popular: its popularity has never been matched by another exhibition on modern art. Over two million people visited the exhibition whilst it was in Munich, before it toured Germany and its territories.

Hitler’s aim of the Entartete Kunst exhibition was to eradicate further production of various modernist art styles by clarifying for the German public what was unacceptable and thus “un-German”. The art was determined as such because it was seen as destabilising and undermining of the Nazi ideology of a pure and physically healthy Germany – any art which condemned the ‘ideal’ body, criticised the war, was anti-Christian or was remotely abstract was exhibited at the Entartete Kunst, confiscated and often unfortunately consequently destroyed. The Barber Institute is fortunate enough to own some surviving prints which were confiscated during the Nazi regime and exhibited at the Entartete Kunst.


Käthe Kollwitz, Woman and Dead Child, Berlin, 1903, etching.

Käthe Kollwitz, Woman and Dead Child, Berlin, 1903, etching.

I find this print particularly fascinating: the declaration of this work as ‘degenerate’ expresses the significance of the ideal body to the National Socialist Party – something which I have learned about since taking the third year module ‘The Body and Its Representations in Visual Culture’. The Nazi’s ideal female body was one which matched the idealised, classicised body of antiquity. Kollwitz’s female figure rejects the canonical and Nazi ideal of the ‘acceptable’ female body; this figure is muscular, naked and bound by raw emotion. The overtones of grief and desperation, presumably in response to the death of the woman’s son in the etching, were deemed to be critical of the Nazi regime, denouncing war and its injustice in society. It is thus clear to see why the Nazis would categorise such a work as ‘degenerate’ to their political agenda and regime.


Kurt Schwitters, Merz V, Berlin, 1923, lithograph.

Kurt Schwitters, Merz V, Berlin, 1923, lithograph.

This Schwitters print interested me because it is not obviously anti-Nazi, anti-Christian or explicit in anyway, and, in fact, by the time Hitler’s Entartete Kunst was opened all of Schwitters’ art work had been banned. So, why was this print determined to be ‘degenerate’? Produced in 1923, Merz V epitomises the anti-art aesthetic that defined Dadaism – the anti-war art movement which emerged in the inter-war period. Dadaism challenged the society’s ‘necessity’ of war, the bourgeoisie and the hierarchical nature of society, as well as promoting the movement’s pro-anti-art aesthetic. Schwitters’ political and known involvement in Dadaism, and its contrasting agenda to the speeches of Nazi party leaders, is most likely the reason Merz V was declared entartet (degenerate), though the print’s obvious abstract form and composition does also contribute to this.


Emil Nolde, The Prophet, 1912, Berlin, woodcut.

Emil Nolde, The Prophet, 1912, Berlin, woodcut.

A staggering 1,052 of Emil Nolde’s works, mostly of religious subject matter, were confiscated in 1937 and over 50 were shown at the Entartete Kunst, including The Prophet. Emil Nolde focussed on religion as his main topic, though his work was often accused of being blasphemous because of its humanist nature. The public were not accustomed to such raw images of biblical figures and the Nazi regime desired the gentle biblical image of the Italian and German Renaissance, thus determining such prints, like The Prophet, as degenerate. Here, Nolde does not idealise Christ – we are presented with a raw depressive emotion, implying Christ’s human mortality, not as the embodiment of God. The sorrowful expression on his face may also represent the suffering of millions after World War 1. In addition, Nolde was extremely popular during the Weimar Republic (pre-Nazi) which is perhaps another reason why the Nazi’s were so strongly against his work.


The ‘Degenerate’ Art exhibition at the Barber Institute is enlightening and the works that I have discussed here, along with the variety of others which I have not, are certainly worth the visit. It is extraordinary to learn how the visual arts – often a method used for freedom of expression – was condemned and censured under Nazi regime. As well as the defamation, segregation and extermination of people who did not fit or share ‘idealisation’ in Nazi Germany, it is fascinating to see how such extreme and discriminating views were transferred to the visual art world.

With 2014 marking the centennial, and many of these artworks produced in light of the First World War, it is great to see the Barber commemorating the art which was subsequently so condemned by the National Socialist Party. The ‘degenerate’ art shows us the contemporaneous views of artists in war-torn society, their views on bourgeois hierarchy, the expansion and dejection of religion and the body as non-idealised, as well as Adolf Hitler’s extraordinary dismissal of anyone, and thus anything, that did not fit his perceived ‘ideal’. The collection is a great reminder of our own freedom of expression in society today and of its progression since the Entartete Kunst.

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