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Two troubled Leonardos

Two supposed Leonardos are now in difficulties. The Salvator Mundi, sold for half a billion dollars just over a year ago, hasn’t been seen since. In France, the Saint Sebastian drawing saved for the nation was not bought and has now been put back on the international market.

In the Guardian today (“An £18m saint…but is Sebastian drawing really by Leonardo?”) Dalya Alberge reports that the Leonardo scholar Martin Landrus believes the recently discovered and attributed ink drawing of a Saint Sebastian that is being offered by the Tajan auction house is not entirely – or, rather, is mostly not by Leonardo. Dr. Landrus was struck by poor ink drawing “nervously traced” over “much lighter lines that may have been autograph”. Possibly so, but ink lines studiously executed over faint guidelines made in erasable materials like chalk, charcoal or pencil in what would appear to be a quickly executed inventive study (as opposed to a drawing made from an already posed life model) are also encountered in pastiche inventions made by third parties.

The possibility should also be considered that this newly-emerged Saint Sebastian (above right) is a “portmanteau” drawing composed from elements borrowed or adapted from bona fide Leonardo drawings such as the Saint Sebastian ink study (above left) in the Hamburger Kuntshalle. In questions of attribution, differences or inconsistencies weigh more heavily than similarities and correspondances. Both drawings above are made of ink over fainter drawing. Both are of Saint Sebastian tied to a tree. However, notwithstanding the subject’s extreme plight, the Hamburg figure is a clear adaptation of a classical figure: the raised shoulder is placed above a stretched torso contour, while the lower shoulder is placed above a raised hip with the inescapable consequence that the torso’s contour is compressed and bunched (see the comparison with a real figure below). Throughout the Hamburg drawing the lines are spare, elegant and sometimes almost notational – see the way the centre line that begins under the rib cage shifts into alignment with the plane of the abdomen which is set in opposition to that of the chest. There is no such clarity and figural acuity in the newly-emerged drawing even though it contains considerably more drawn marks. Where the Hamburg drawing has three differently placed heads (two inked and one in chalk or pencil) all are individually compatible with the body, while in the Tajan auction house drawing the single head is snapped and twisted back in almost broken fashion and there are two radically conflicting poses in the torso below it. In one of these both arms are tied behind the tree in a manner that leaves the true left shoulder dropped below that of the right. In the alternative version the situation is reversed: the true left arm has been pulled up as if tied to a higher branch but this dramatic change of design and anatomical orientation carries no consequences for the rest of the figure: the abdomen remains untidily anatomically bunched. The true left breast remains dropped below that of the right, even though the true left shoulder has been rotated both upwards and backwards. It is hard to believe that so great a draughtsman as Leonardo could have confined such a radical shift of positioning to a single discrete part of a figure. As well as anyone Leonardo understood the manner in which bodies combine “architectural” structures with fluidity, mobility and grace. By contrast, it is easy to imagine how someone wishing simply to compose a study in the manner and style of a Leonardo sketch/design might commit such solecisms.

(For discussion of the rising tide of discovered works by great old masters, see our 15 December 2016 post “Leonardo and the Growing Sleeper Crisis”.)

Michael Daley, 17 November 2018


Lest we forget

Frances Moreton, Director of the War Memorials Trust, writes: “Our war memorials remind us not just of those who lost their lives but the consequences of conflict and the importance of preserving these memorials to ensure that future generations learn from the experiences and sacrifices of those we remember.”

6 November 2018


Hyping museum-restoration wrecks

Today museums seem as likely as not to be closed for “re-development”. Even small “time-capsule” artists or collectors home/museums, like Leighton’s, are fair game. Closures present loan opportunities and the National Gallery has snaffled some Courtauld Gallery Impressionist plums.

The hyped plum-of-plums in the National Gallery’s four star (- the Guardian gives five) Courtauld Impressionists from Manet to Cezanne blockbuster is the Courtauld Gallery’s Renoir, La Loge (as above). Today, bigging-up such restoration-damaged masterpieces seems to constitute museum world chic, as we discussed in March 2014 in “From Veronese to Turner, Celebrating Restoration-Wrecked Pictures”. At that date the most blatant hype was bestowed on a borrowed Turner seascape in which one of the picture’s two steamboats had been scrubbed away in the restoration wash, as seen below:

The above detailed comparison of Turner’s Rockets and Blue Lights (Close at Hand) to Warn Steamboats of Shoal Water shows (top) a 19th century photograph – by courtesy of Christie’s – and the painting (above) as flaunted in the National Maritime Museum’s 2013-14 Turner and the Sea exhibition. Sinking a boat and turning its belching black coal smoke into a waterspout might be thought as clinching a demonstration of restoration injury as could ever be encountered. However, that early photograph had been preceded by a large chromolithographic copy (see below) that had even better recorded Turner’s original second boat and distressed crew, and therefore gives a truer indication of the magnitude of artistic injury.

Some art critics alert to words might have noticed that the picture was described by Turner to contain “steamboats” – not a single boat – but, if so, none paid heed. Seemingly taking their collective lead from a Tate press release to an earlier Turner exhibition that had proclaimed this wreck-of-wrecks to be “One of the stars of the show”, it having “recently undergone major conservation”, the critics gushed in unison with their four and five-star reviews and the Maritime Museum was able to flood the world with posters and reviews (as below) celebrating this most-wrecked Turner seascape:

“…this show contains some of the most extraordinary passages of painting ever applied to canvas. Its centrepiece, the recently restored Rockets and Blue Lights… is an unbelievable vision of swirling blue, orange and white light thrusting through fog” [Daily Telegraph]; “Easily the most stunning picture in the show is Rockets and Blue Lights…The canvas has been given a restorative makeover…Turner’s brushwork is revealed in all its glory” [the Independent]; “Most splendid…is the dramatic and recently restored Rockets and Blue Lights, a picture so spectacular, that like the shadowy group of figures on the foreshore, you can only stare and wonder” [the Times].

We sometimes wonder.

That was then. Today the much hyped wreck-of-the-moment in the National Gallery/Courtauld Impressionist bonanza is none other than the latter’s own “iconic” Renoir, La Loge – as below:

We had examined this specimen in an August 2012 post: “Reviews: Taking Renoir, Sterling and Francine Clark to the Cleaners”.

In the comparison above we showed a detail (left) of the painting as seen as seen in 1921 in Georges Rivière’s Renoir et Ses Amis next to the painting (right) as in the Courtauld catalogue of 2008 at Fig. 5. The two reproductions were of very unequal quality but, even so, the permitted comparisons were alarming: both ears are now fully exposed, where before only one had been; the background had been darker; the eyebrows had been less symmetrical; the flower at the bosom had been more distinct, and so on…

In the comparison above, the reproductions were better matched. That on the left came from a plate in Anthea Callen’s 1978 book Renoir; that on the right from the Courtauld’s 2008 catalogue. Here, in the earlier state, we see firmer modelling in the jaw; stronger drawing and modelling in the mouth; a stronger flower and bow below; and, again, a more subdued background. What might account for these differences? Our money would be on a “restoration” ahead of the 2008 exhibition – perhaps one of those restorations that are presented as discovery-yielding technical research… In any event, we can presumably all see that something happened in the thirty years between 1978 and 2008 to cause the paint on the chin to start to cracking – as can better be seen in the comparison below:

In our 2012 post we had shown a similar outbreak of cracking that attended the National Gallery’s restoration of Renoir’s “The Umbrellas”, as shown in details below. We observed that if the heavily cracked appearance of Renoir’s “La Loge” might be thought a poor advertisement for the Courtauld Institute’s own conservation training programme, what confidence should the emergence of massive cracking in the cleaned face of a principal figure in a major Renoir give in the National Gallery ’s cleaning policies?

With the National Gallery restoration there can be no casting of doubt on the photographic records: these images – above and below – are taken directly from the gallery’s own excellent photo-records of the painting that were made immediately before and immediately after the restoration in question – as photo-testimony, this is as good as it gets.

What conclusion can be drawn? We see above, as below, sudden outbreaks of cracking in two different and previously well-preserved Renoir portraits held in two prestigious London galleries. If these injuries are not consequences of restoration or conservation “treatments”, how might they have arisen? As things stand, the evidence of our eyes can only tell us that pictures are not safe in London museums. Must we further conclude that the museum staffs themselves simply fail to notice injuries and are therefore not up to the job? Or, that they feel so institutionally-protected as to be under no obligation to give account for injuries to the works they hold in trust for the nation? There has to be some explanation – and it is now, perhaps, time for it to be given?

Michael Daley, 31 October 2018


Christie’s recent sale of a stolen painting

In our 11 October post (“Two developments in the no-show Louvre Abu Dhabi Leonardo Salvator Mundi saga”) we suggested that new-style confidential legal conflict-resolution procedures might favour the big guys over the little guys – who “necessarily will forfeit their strongest card: the capacity to raise institutionally embarrassing press coverage”.

Just two days after that post, Mailonline carried a report that demonstrated the hard cash value that press coverage of grievances can unlock: “Painting stolen a week after being valued at £20,000 on Antiques Roadshow 30 years ago turns up at auction by Christie’s – who sell it to the astonishment of the disgruntled original owners”.

The Mailonline reports that the 1874 painting in question, Portrait of Mary Emma Jones, by Emma Sandys, had been stolen a week after the BBC show – in which its experts had valued it at £20,000 – was broadcast in January 1988. Christie’s, who sold the painting for £62,500 in July this year is now said by Mailonline to be involved in tense negotiations with the former owner’s daughter and to be “allegedly trying to buy the silence of the family from whom it was stolen by making an offer of £10,000 in exchange for them surrendering their claim and signing a confidentiality agreement.”

The family have rejected the offer as too low, according to the Times and Christies say that they won’t release it until a settlement can be reached.

Christie’s gushing catalogue entry said no more on the provenance than that the picture had been “recently rediscovered” and was “the property of a private collector”. This was the pre-sale lot essay in full:

“Emma Sandys was the sister of Frederick Sandys (1829-1904), whose luscious portraits in the Rossettian mould served as inspiration to his younger sibling. Although Emma’s work is similar in style and in the strength of its design, she established herself on her own professional terms, exhibiting at the Royal Academy, The Society of Lady Artists, and various Norwich galleries, thereby attracting patrons from amongst the local aristocracy. While images of women predominate in Pre-Raphaelite paintings, the wider artistic circle included many talented female artists, such as Emma, Elizabeth Siddal, Marie Stillman and Evelyn de Morgan, each of whom sustained successful artistic careers.

“Recently rediscovered, the present lot depicts Mary Emma Jones, Emma’s sister-in-law, who modelled for many of Frederick’s works including Perdita (Lloyd Webber Collection) and Proud Maisie (Victoria & Albert Museum). The oil painting appears to be based on a chalk drawing by Frederick from circa 1873, now in the Birmingham City Art Museum (see B. Elzea, Frederick Sandys (1829-1904), p. 249, no. 3.48) One of the characteristics of the oeuvre of the Sandys siblings was the sharing and repetition of models, studio props and costumes, as well as a similarity in technique which has often led to confusion over attribution between the siblings. Portrait of Mary Emma Jones bears all the hallmarks of Emma’s mature style, and shows the level of sophistication the genre achieved during the 1860s and 1870s.

“We are grateful to Betty Elzea, author of the monograph on Frederick Sandys, for confirming the attribution of the present lot.”

Under “Other information” and “Pre-Lot Text” was found the description “THE PROPERTY OF A PRIVATE COLLECTOR”. That was all. So, no names, no dates, no theft, no nothing.

Once again, we can only repeat our 2014 contention that “As things stand, it can be safer to buy a second-hand car than an old master painting” (“Art crime”, Letter, the Times, 13 August 2014) and renew the call we made in that letter for governments to make it a statutory requirement that vendors should “disclose all that is known and recorded about the provenance and the restoration treatments of works of art”. How else might auctioneers be persuaded to supply a proper log book with their goods?

Michael Daley – 14 October 2018


“Leonardo scholar challenges attribution of $450m painting”

Dalya Alberge reports in the Guardian that a Leonardo scholar, Matthew Landrus, believes most of the upgraded Salvator Mundi was painted by a Leonardo assistant, Bernardino Luini.

THE LUINI CONNECTION

In her Guardian article, “Leonardo scholar challenges attribution of $450m painting”, Dalya Alberge further reports that the upgraded version of the Salvator Mundi that Matthew Landrus has de-attributed to Leonardo’s assistant, Bernardino Luini, is the very painting that was attributed to Luini in 1900, when acquired by Sir Charles Robinson for the Cook collection.

Above, Fig. 1: Left, the Salvator Mundi that was bought for $450m as a Leonardo for the Louvre Abu Dhabi in November 2017 as it was seen in 2007 when only part-repainted and about to be taken to the National Gallery, London, for a viewing by a small group of Leonardo scholars who are said to have been sworn to secrecy. (For the many subsequent changes to the painting see our “The $450m New York Leonardo Salvator Mundi Part II: It Restores, It Sells, therefore It Is” and Figs. 4 to 6 below.) Above, right: A detail of the National Gallery’s Luini Christ among the Doctors.

BIG CLAIMS ON INCOMPLETE EVIDENCE

Even after being sold twice (in 2013 and 2017) for a total of more than half a billion dollars, the painting’s 118 year long journey from a Luini to a Leonardo and now back to Luini again, remains a mystery: no one has disclosed when, from whom and where the painting is said to have been bought in 2005. Professor Martin Kemp recently disclosed that the work was bought for the original consortium of owners “by proxy”. Long-promised technical reports and accounts of the provenance have yet to appear and keep receding into the future. These lacunae notwithstanding, the painting is scheduled to be launched at the Louvre Abu Dhabi in September, and also to be included in a major Leonardo exhibition at the Paris Louvre in 2019.

THE ROLE OF LEONARDO’S ASSISTANTS IN THE LOUVRE ABU DHABI SALVATOR MUNDI

As Dalya Alberge reports, a number of Leonardo scholars have contested the present Leonardo attribution and held the work to be largely a studio production that was only part-painted by Leonardo himself. Frank Zöllner, a German art historian at the University of Leipzig and author of the catalogue raisonné Leonardo da Vinci – the Complete Paintings and Drawings, believes it to be either the work of a later Leonardo follower or a “high-quality product of Leonardo’s workshop”. Carmen Bambach, of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, holds it to have been largely the work of Leonardo’s assistant Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio. One scholar, Jacques Franck, suggested in a 29 November 2011 interview in the Journal des Arts that an attribution to either Luini or Leonardo’s late assistant (and effective ‘office manager’) Gian Giacomo Caprotti, called Salai or Salaino seemed plausible and persuasive. More recently, in January 2018, he tipped to Salai as the author because of strong similarities revealed by penetrating technical imaging examinations – see Figs. 2 and 3 below and “Salvator Mundi LES DESSOUS DE LA VENTE DU SIECLE”.

Above, Fig. 2: Left, an infra-red reflectogram of the Louvre Abu Dhabi Salvator Mundi; above, right, an infra-red reflectogram of Salai’s Head of Christ, signed and dated 1511, Pinacoteca Ambrosiana (Milan).

Above, Fig. 3: An infra-red reflectogram detail of the Louvre Abu Dhabi Salvator Mundi. Jacques Franck writes: “This close-up view of the Fig. 2, left, document, reveals in the Saviour’s face, neck and head, the same typical underlying sketching-out technique using very thick dark lines to define the preliminary contours and modelling that are seen in Fig. 2, right. None of this underlying graphic/roughing out process is ever encountered in original Leonardo painting where the graphic/painterly stages are more subtle.”

CHANGING FACES: FOUR STAGES OF DEVELOPMENT IN THE LOUVRE ABU DHABI SALVATOR MUNDI

ABOVE, FIG.4: From the left, Face 1 – The former Cook collection Salvator Mundi when presented in 2005 (– when still “sticky” from a recent restoration) to the New York restorer, Dianne Dwyer Modestini.
Face 2: The former Cook collection painting after the panel had been repaired and the painting had been stripped down.
Face 3: The former Cook collection Salvator Mundi after several stages of repainting and as exhibited as a Leonardo at the National Gallery’s 2011-2012 Leonardo da Vinci, Painter at the Court of Milan exhibition.
Face 4: The face after yet further (- and initially undisclosed) repainting by Dianne Dwyer Modestini at Christie’s, New York, ahead of the 2017 sale – as was first published by Dalya Alberge in her Mail Online revelation: “Auctioneers Christie’s admit Leonardo Da Vinci painting which became world’s most expensive artwork when it sold for £340m has been retouched in last five years”.

Above, Fig. 5: Left, the former Cook collection painting’s face as in 2005; right, the face, as transformed over twelve years by Modestini, when presented for sale at Christie’s, New York, in November 2017.

Alberge’s current Guardian article, “Leonardo scholar challenges attribution of $450m painting” has gone viral – see for example: CNN’s “Leonardo’s $450M painting may not be all Leonardo’s, says scholar”, and the ABC (Spain) “Crecen las dudas sobre la autoría del «Salvator Mundi» de Leonardo”.

In the CNN report, it is said that:

“Others are in less doubt. Curator of Italian Paintings at London’s National Gallery, Martin Kemp, sent the following statement to CNN Style by email: ‘The book I am publishing in 2019 with Robert Simon and Margaret Dalivalle (…) will present a conclusive body of evidence that the Salvator Mundi is a masterpiece by Leonardo. In the meantime I am not addressing ill-founded assertions that would attract no attention were it not for the sale price.’”

We make the following observations. Although Professor Martin Kemp is not a curator at the National Gallery he does seem to have been considered at one point as a possible co-curator of the National Gallery’s 2011-2012 Leonardo exhibition, which, in the event, was curated solely by the Gallery’s own then curator, Luke Syson, who is now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Syson drew heavily for his 2011 catalogue entry on the painting on the researches of one of the owners of the Salvator Mundi, the New York art dealer, Robert Simon: “This discussion anticipates the more detailed publication of this picture by Robert Simon and others. I am grateful to Robert Simon for making available his research and that of Dianne Dwyer Modestini, Nica Gutman Rieppi and (for the picture’s provenance) Margaret Dalivalle, all to be presented in a forthcoming book.” That book has now been coming for some time. First promised by the National Gallery in 2011, it was more recently promised for 2017, and then for this year, and now, for next year – and possibly in time for inclusion in the catalogue of the Paris Louvre’s planned major 2019 Leonardo exhibition?

Professor Kemp also promised a conclusive body of evidence for his attribution to Leonardo of the drawing he dubbed “La Bella Principessa”. In his 2012 book Leonardo’s Lost Princess, Peter Silverman, the owner of “La Bella Principessa”, wrote: “Martin believed that the fingerprints [compiled by the now discredited fingerprints expert Peter Paul Biro], though not conclusive on their own, added an important piece to the puzzle. He wrote to me, ‘This is yet one more component in what is as consistent a body of evidence as I have ever seen. I will be happy to emphasize that we have something as close to an open and shut case as is ever likely with an attribution of a previously unknown work to a major master. As you know, I was hugely skeptical at first, as one needs to be in the Leonardo jungle, but now I have not the slightest flicker of doubt that we are a dealing with a work of great beauty and originality that contributes something special to Leonardo’s oeuvre. It deserves to be in the public domain.’” In the event, the “La Bella Principessa” drawing did not enter the public domain. Unlike the Salvator Mundi, which sold for $450m, it was not included in the National Gallery’s 2011-2012 Leonardo exhibition and it presently remains, so far as we know, unsold, in a Swiss free port.

Kemp’s present lofty disinclination to address “ill-founded assertions that would attract no attention were it not for the sale price” marks a change of policy. Last year, immediately ahead of the sale that produced the astronomical price of the Salvator Mundi, Kemp was happy to engage polemically with those who rejected the Salvator Mundi’s Leonardo attribution. As he has recently disclosed: “I was approached by the auctioneers to confirm my research and agreed to record a video interview to combat the misinformation appearing in the press – providing I was not drawn into the actual sale process.”

SCHOLARS’ NEED FOR FULL AND DETAILED REPORTS AND FOR OPEN DEBATES

Above, Fig. 6: Left, the small-scale published (infra-red) technical image of the Salvator Mundi; centre, the painting as exhibited in 2011-2012 as a Leonardo at the National Gallery; right, the painting as presented for sale at Christie’s, New York, in 2017.

Much remains to be examined with this restoration-transformed but still, effectively, unpublished work where the promised reports on technical examinations and provenance seem perpetually trapped in the post like Billy Bunter’s postal order. Note in Fig. 6 above, for example, the radical changes made to the true left shoulder draperies; to the orb and the sole of the hand that holds it; and, above all, to the face. We must hope that the painting’s new owners will encourage the old 2005 consortium of owners to publish their privately commissioned researches as soon as possible. In general terms, it would be a much better thing if new and elevating attributions were once more published by single scholars, taking full responsibility in a scholarly publication, so that the case for a work’s re-attribution might be examined widely and discussed openly on a fully informative account and presentation of technical evidence and history of provenance. The recent tendency for owners to hold and selectively part-release researches during promotional campaigns of advocacy is not conducive to best scholarly practice.

Michael Daley, Director, 9 August 2018

Coming next:
Professor Martin Kemp and ArtWatch – Part 1: Twenty-four years of abuse on photo-testimony


In Memoriam: Tom Wolfe (1930 – 2018)

The journalist and writer Tom Wolfe died on 14 May aged 88. He is survived by his wife Sheila (Berger) Wolfe, a graphic designer and former art director of Harper’s Magazine, and their two children, Alexandra Wolfe, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, and Tommy Wolfe, a sculptor and furniture designer.

The New York Times reports Tom Wolfe’s least-forgiven and most-wounding foray. In 1970 he mocked what he termed New York’s “radical-chic”. This had been prompted by a fund-raising party given for the Black Panthers by Leonard Bernstein, the conductor of the New York Philharmonic, and his wife, the Chilean actress Felicia Montealegre, in their 13-room Park Avenue penthouse. The guests were the Bernstein’s rich liberal and mostly famous friends. How very remarkably on-target that attack was – and how infectiously well and fast that chic travelled. At that period, across the pond in London, well-meaning pre-eminent thespians like Vanessa Redgrave rattled the revolutionists’ tin under the noses of artists like R. B. Kitaj. As the designer of UK New Left publications – first The Black Dwarf and then Idiot International – we, along with Jean Genet and a Parisian Leftist called Castro, attended a dinner given in the marble-floored, art-rich (Mondrians, Bellmers…) Paris apartment of the novelist, polemicist and publisher of L’Idiot International, Jean-Edern Hallier and his Italian heiress wife, Anna. The guests of honour were a group of visiting Black Panthers, lead by (the beautiful) Connie Matthews, who would later be killed in a police shoot-out in the United States. The books in the Halliers apartment had been rebound in white leather, with gold-tooled lettering and they were displayed on shelves made of polished black lignum vitae, the hardest, densest wood that makes the best truncheons, the most wind-resistant cricket balls and that is used as bearings for ships propeller shafts. This apartment, with its live-in servants was not, however, where “the real” Jean-Edern Hallier lived. He once told me that his true self was to be found in a small, occasionally used bed-sit furnished only with a single bed and a Che poster.

Above, Tom Wolfe as photographed in New York in 1968 by Sam Falk for The New York Times

Best known for his first novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, Wolfe blew the whistle on pretentious ideas-led, art critics-sanctioned contemporary art in The Painted Word which was excerpted in Harpers Magazine. Incensed art world players responded with scurrilous/puerile abuse. One victim accused Wolfe of having written his devolution – i. e. reverse-evolution – of modern art (“In the beginning we got rid of nineteenth-century storybook realism. Then we got rid of representational objects. Then we got rid of the third dimension altogether and got really flat – Abstract Expressionism. Then we got rid of airiness, brushstrokes, most of the paint, and the last viruses of drawing and complicated designs”…) without ever “getting away from his typewriter and into the thick of his subject”. Not many people know this, but Tom Wolfe took classes at the Art Students League in New York with the painter, Frank Mason, the scourge of art-destroying picture restorers (and a founder member of ArtWatch International) who had blown the whistle in New York on the restoration of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling. At a memorial service on 18 October 2009, Wolfe delivered this tribute to Frank Mason who had died aged 88 on 16 June 2009:

“I’m not sure how many people here have seen Tom Stoppard’s wonderful play, Artist Descending the Staircase. Well, in that play one of the characters turns to the audience and says, ‘Imagination plus lack of skill, gives us no-hands art.’ Andy Warhol showing photographs of commercial products to his elves, and ping-pong shots from amusement arcades of famous people. Or, Jeff Koons, who sends photographs of himself slogging at it with an Italian prostitute of some fame, and sends these photographs off to elves in Switzerland who then convert the photographs into three-dimensional ceramic objects. Or, Richard Serra, who orders ten-foot high raw core tin steel walls from the foundry and has unionized elves to transport them to open spaces and prop them up. Or, Richard Prince, a self-elf who takes photographs of photographs and sells them for stunning sums to culturally anxious hedge fund managers.

“Now I have to confess that those examples were supplied by me. But, what Tom Stoppard has his character actually say is, ‘Imagination plus lack of skill, gives us modern art.’ So there has to be a corollary to that, and I think the corollary would be: imagination plus real skill gives us Michelangelo, Bernini, Tissot and Titian. And, Frank was known in his youth as the rebirth of Titian, the comparison was made consummate of Frank Mason and Titian. And both Titian and Tissot loved the deepest perspective a painting could possibly effect and one of my favorite Frank Mason paintings is of – I think it might be the Italian restaurant below his apartment on Broome Street – and it is of a group of people, many, many people, and no person in the background is neglected at all. Every head that appears in a Frank Mason painting is developed and is an individual who is distinct from every other. But, what particularly surprised me was that in the vast, vast deep Titianesque, Tissot-like perspective of that painting is the carving on wood work at the very back of the room. These are details that the naked eye can probably not see beyond six feet. In this painting they are about sixty feet away. What he did with them was absolutely marvelous, I can’t think of another painter who could do it better, perhaps not even Tissot or Titian.

“There’s also . . . his skill went across every possible category – still life, which, in a way, is the opposite of Titianesque painting of deep perspective. Earlier, before the [memorial] programme started on the screen here was Frank’s Silver Pitcher. A still life with the silver pitcher in the middle of it – and that silver pitcher is so much more real than an actual silver pitcher you just want to grab it and drink some of that New York tap water. You know, New York tap water is some of the best water in the country. It’s better than anything that comes in a bottle, I assure you. Now Frank was much more than a great artist. And to say that somebody is much more than a great artist (particularly John Varriano brought it out) is saying a great deal. Frank is what I think of as a life force. You know, Darwin once appeared before a class of students at a university in England, and you know the young will ask questions that the old do not dare ask. And he would explain how life had begun out of a cell and all that is before us came from that tiny origin. So one of the students says, ‘Well, where was it?’ And Darwin says, ‘Where was what?’ ‘The cell? Where was it?’ And he said, ‘Well I don’t know. It was probably in a warm pool of water somewhere’. And then another student said, ‘Yes, so then how did it get there?’ And he said, ‘Well, I don’t know where, and I don’t know if it’s terribly important.’ And then another student said, ‘Why does it want to divide? Why does it want to reproduce? Why?’ At this point Darwin reflected and said, ‘To tell the truth, no one knows where the life force comes from and perhaps no one will ever know. If they do it will be hundreds of years from now before we learn where the life force comes from. Isn’t it enough that I brought you all these plants and all these animals? How much do you want from me?’

“But, this life force – it is not a metaphor, it’s a concept. I always thought when I first came to New York my ambition as a youngster was to work in a newspaper in New York. It took me many years to get here but I finally did it. Unfortunately, my image of New York City had gone from books written in the 1920s and 1930s about people like Ben Hecht. So I was waiting to see Mark Twain walking up Broadway in a white linen suit. I was waiting to see Walter Winchell who at that time was on the radio saying, ‘Good evening Mr. and Mrs. America and all the ships at sea. Let’s go to press.’ To me that voice of Walter Winchill, that was that excitement, that earnestness, that was New York. Or, Henry Luce the great creator of Time magazine threatening to throw Harold Ross out the window of his apartment because Ross had run a profile of Luce in the form of a parody of the famous Time magazine style, particularly its inverted rhetoric. And the piece ended, ‘where it will all end knows not.’

“All of this to me was, this excitement, this was New York. So, when I arrived all I saw was men in stingy rim hats with the rims about this wide, crowns right down on top of their heads. And they had their chins hooked in their collarbones, scuffling down the street and they were muttering, ‘Aw Hell’. That’s what was actually here. But then, well incidentally at least they had hats.

“125-30 years ago, men – in the English-speaking world anyway – wore tall stiff hats known as toppers. That began to change, by 1900 they began to shrink a bit and get dents down the middle or in the sides. By the time I came to New York it was the stingy brim hats. But, at least they had them. Back in the 19th century women had these little pieces of cloth with lace around them called kerchiefs. Today, the men wear the kerchiefs – they’re known as baseball caps – while the women have all the testosterone. Look at the great party hats you see everywhere in fashion today. But I did find a flip side. People here, Clay Felker, who was my editor at New York magazine, Roger Straus – an indomitable publisher – and I finally began to realize that every age is the same, every age has had the mass equivalent of the guy shuffling along the sidewalk in the stingy brim hat. What has made New York exciting, what has given it the reputation of excitement, what makes it exciting today is really a relative handful of people who are motors. They’re motors in a ship that goes hurtling at an unbelievable speed, making reckless turns and we’re all invited to jump on board for the ride. And that’s what living in New York means, either they enjoy the ride or they just get out. And Frank Mason was one of those motors, extraordinary.

“But, I happened to have the privilege of seeing Frank work – I saw him giving instruction at the Art Students League. I can’t describe it quite as well as John [Varriano] did or as Peace [Sullivan] did, but I saw it and I saw this congestion of not only human beings, but easels – when you see easel fights and they go ‘- there’s room!’ Everyone trying to get into that room and to get into a position to see the model, which was in deep perspective way over there. It’s an astonishing spectacle.

“I also had the privilege of participating in some of those Tuesday night sessions on Broome Street. You know Frank and Anne moved to Broome Street I think 20 years before you had all these, ‘You have to live down there, you have to live below Houston Street or you weren’t real.’ These sessions were held in that great studio and apartment. And Frank was very indulgent with me because the only thing I cared about was getting the hands right. To this day that’s the first thing I look at in a painting – the hands, all the rest is not as – is secondary. Frank could do, absolutely, hands that you wanted to shake and you want to look up into those eyes. This sort of spirit is so rare, so precious – and everyone [speaking] today has described it accurately – the booming voice, the laughter. I never saw Frank in anything but a mood of enthusiasm and love of life. So, I made a rather rash prediction in 1976 that by the year 2020 what Frank Mason prophesized would have come true.

“Frank at one point said that modernism is dying a slow death. Not far away from that we will climb the mountain once again, because you cannot kill genius. And, today it’s almost 2010. I don’t see the art world, as we call the little village that controls prestige, I don’t see it calming down very much. I think it’s really more frantic than ever – ‘No-Hands’ Art sweeps the art village.

“Tenure art sweeps the art village. ‘Tenure Art’ is conceptual art that is happening which cannot possibly be bought or collected. But, one thing for the artist is to be hired by the faculty of a university, hang on for ten years and you’ve got tenure. You’ve got a salary until the end of your days and then a great pension plan. ‘No-Hands Art’ and ‘Tenure Art’. So, we’ve only got ten years, folks. But, I think now is the time to do it. Frank Mason was the beginning of a neo-Renaissance. A Renaissance – is a rebirth. A neo-Renaissance is a rebirth of what should not have died the first time. So I leave here with the sense that I – I’m paying homage to Frank Mason. And that I also feel that some-how, all of us – me with my hands and you with the rest of the things that you do – can bring Frank’s prediction alive. I leave here with tremendous hope.”

Today, there are only two years left for that predicted expiration of modernism and, on the face of it, all the signs are that means have been found to buoy its markets indefinitely. But, then, there are jitters that might yet prove portents: culturally anxious chump oligarchs now queue in such numbers to buy Koons’ balloons on the never-never that even that artist’s legion of elves cannot keep pace with the orders. A restorer who part-painted a half-billion dollars Salvator Mundi recently donated the brushes she had used to Columbia Museum of Art to help the museum’s mission to celebrate outstanding artistic creativity. Roll up! Roll-up! “Own a piece of art history!” the museum urged, “These seven paint brushes were used to restore Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi, which set a new record for the price of a work of art when it sold for $450 million in 2017.” The brushes found no taker – no one met the Ebay reserve of $1,000. At Columbia university, as Artnet reports, disgruntled students in the visual arts MFA program are demanding a refund for the current school year’s ($63,961) tuition fees, in part because the buildings are disintegrating; in part because too many tenured professors have gone on sabbaticals at the same time; in part because the students have not been able to work with—or even meet—some of the notable artists whose reputations drew them to the school in the first place. (See “Columbia University MFAs Share Stories of Dysfunctional Studios and Overworked Faculty”.) In the UK, a superannuated Lecturer in Fine Art at the University of Lincoln dismissed the teaching of life drawing as “a deeply conservative and reactionary position” in the November/December 2017 Jackdaw magazine. A “Curator of Interpretation” at the Tate has explained that anything dragged into a gallery can be considered to be fine art providing only that the dragger-in is an art school-accredited person. Anything can be art except art. Such cultural lunacy must end sometime.

Above, the brushes that helped paint the $450m Salvator Mundi, as presented and offered for sale on Ebay. Below, a corner of Frank Mason’s Broome Street studio and a detail of his hurtling life-celebrating painting “Before the Storm, Nova Scotia”.

Above: Frank Mason in his studio; some of the plaster casts he had saved from destruction in a New York art school; and, his “Little Italy” mural, to which Tom Wolfe referred.

Anne Mason writes of Tom Wolfe’s death: “I hadn’t heard. Lovely person. We ran into Tom and Shiela on 5th Ave one night. Frank said, ‘What are you doing tonight?’ Tom answered, ‘Looking for you.’ A gentleman through and through. He was in Frank’s class at the ASL for a short while. Frank was so pleased to have him there. Don’t know if you knew that Frank painted Shiela’s portrait? It was a Christmas surprise for Tom. Nice memory. She carried it off. He had no idea. Thanks for telling me.”

Our thanks to Anne, and Frank and Tom Wolfe.

Michael Daley, 16 May 2018


Rodin and ancient Greek art – a personal view of a magnificent show

Last night we were bidden, as Sir Roy Strong might have put it, to the opening and reception of the joint British Museum and Rodin Museum exhibition “Rodin and the art of Greece”.

It proved an extraordinary and privileging occasion that was close to our heart in very many respects. Guests were ushered into a corner of the Great Court for drinks and canapés. In that dwarfing space the buzz of expectation among the small standing groups resembled a Royal Opera House opening of Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera. The company was illustrious. Among the many VIPs, journalistic aristocracy was present in Sir Simon Jenkins of the Guardian and Lord Gnome of Private Eye. The Two Greatest Living British Sculptors were represented by Sir Anthony Gormley R. A. (who sported some Palestinian headwear around his neck). The British Museum’s new director, Hartwig Fischer, opened the speeches well and graciously. The man from the generous sponsors, Bank of America, Merrill Lynch, followed and the French Ambassador opened the exhibition itself with certain ironical asides about the virtues of European cooperation. And we then poured into the exhibition.

As others have already indicated, this show, the combined product of a great dedicated artists’ museum and a great “universal” encyclopaedic museum, is simply stupendous. On entry, the shock of the space and its fabulous contents was also operatic: a beautifully lit elegantly constructed chip-board “set” snakes down the centre of the otherwise soul-less and dispiriting Lord Rogers’ black box, which, thankfully on this occasion, has been opened to disclose a courtyard. The continuous low plinth carries the larger, show-stopping sculptures and creates subsidiary spaces that house drawings and smaller works. Sparks fly between the works on display. The labels are good and the catalogue is exemplary. If the essential message of this engagement of a giant of modernism (Rodin) with a legendary classical artist (Phidias) – that to advance we must look back – seems subversively reactionary in today’s art world, so much the worse for us. But for this artist, the timing feels optimal: Modernism is a spent and disintegrating force. Its void is filling with assorted non-artistic activisms and relativisms.

The show is welcome in other respects. It springs from the strengths of museum curators working to their departmental briefs, in this case that of Ian Jenkins, a very fine classical scholar, who himself, as it happens, has carved stone. Even before the show opened Jenkins was creating sparks of his own. He had noticed a distinct echo in Rodin’s “Thinker” of a convention for mourning figures in Greek classical art. Yesterday (24 April), a sculptor took issue with this suggestion in a letter to the Times (see below) claiming a likelier source to be present in Michelangelo’s sculpture and paintings.

Certainly, Rodin’s awareness of and indebtedness to Michelangelo (who once said that he was never less alone than when alone with his own thoughts) was immense and, as David Breuer-Weil points out, there are strong figural resemblances. Nonetheless, Jenkins’ point was phrased with precision and he had elaborated it with striking eloquence on yesterday’s Radio 4 Today programme – this itself being a most welcome development: we have rather forgotten in recent years that museums are their curators. In the two cited Michelangelos the Lorenzo de’ Medici figure is thoughtful but imperious and unperturbed. His back is straight and his shoulders are held high. A forefinger touches his nose and lips but it has no structural function. In the painted prophet Jeremiah from the Sistine Chapel ceiling, while the figure slumps the lower legs are decorously crossed and bear little weight. It so happens, this is a figure with which we have engaged in the past and it is carried on the back of the current ArtWatch UK members’ Journal:

As seen in the Jeremiah detail we had adapted for a newspaper illustration (above), the head rests heavily on the hand which grips the lower face and entirely conceals the mouth – perhaps this near-universal indicator of thought stems from the source of speech being taken out of commission? There is a vital difference between the Thinker and the Jeremiah. In the former, the head rests heavily on the hand but the forearm/hand serves only as a prop or buttress. Indeed, the entire figure is a dynamic portrayal of weight, as we noted in graphic shorthand last night in the diagram below right. Even the legs are involved in buttressing the entire slumping figure who grips the very earth with his toes (photo. by promentary.net.au). Crucially, the hand does not engage directly or expressively with the face other than insofar as the upward buttressing force of the knuckles distorts the upper lip.

The face itself (above) is not simply thoughtful or absorbed but mournful, desolate. This head is as heavy as the heart within the figure. Jenkins seems vindicated on his observation. For artists and, particularly for sculptors, this show is, more than an invitation, a command to stop, look and draw. The British Museum has sensed as much and will be making drawing materials available to visitors. For our part, we would urge them not to be bashful and to seize the opportunity to draw unselfconsciously and purposively. Drawings are best seen not as a species of self-expression but as straightforward explanations. Draw to explain that which seems interesting significant or distinctive in a particular figure. There are no right answers here, just nice observations worthy of being made. Drawing regularly disciplines thinking and sharpens looking. (Degas once told a woman she had a beautifully drawn head. Draughtsmen know exactly what he meant.) Last night we snatched some drawings of the backs of figures, as below with Iris from the Parthenon whose flowing animalistic energy directly inspired Rodin to make an even more dynamically eroticised bronze.

RODIN’S METHOD ENCAPSULATED

We would especially urge all visitors to take careful note of a little showcase at the far end of the gallery (next to a demonstration of plaster piece/mould casting). In it are two small modelled figures that constitute a summation of Rodin’s sculptural insights. The models were made to explain/demonstrate the differences between classical sculpture and Michelangelo’s figures. We wrote of Rodin’s understanding of differing figural conventions four years ago in the Jackdaw magazine.

The quoted Rodin comments in the article above came from the 1912 English version of Paul Gsell’s Art by Auguste Rodin. We supplement them here with a fuller account from the horse’s mouth:

“One Saturday evening Rodin said to me ‘Come and see me tomorrow morning at Meudon. We will talk of Phidias and of Michael Angelo and I will model statuettes for you on the principles of both. In that way you will quickly grasp the essential differences of the two inspirations, or, to express it better, the opposed characteristics which divide them’…Rolling balls of clay on the table, he began rapidly to model a figure talking at the same time. ‘This first figure will be founded on the conception of Phidias. When I pronounce that name I am really thinking of all Greek sculpture, which found its highest expression in Phidias.’

“The clay figure was taking shape. Rodin’s hands came and went, adding bits of clay; gathering it with in his large palms, with swift accurate movements; then the thumb and the fingers took part, turning a leg with a single pressure, rounding a hip, sloping a shoulder, turning the head, and all with incredible swiftness, almost as if he were performing a conjuring trick. Occasionally the master stopped a moment to consider his work, reflected, decided, and then rapidly executed his idea…Rodin’s statuette grew into life. It was full of rhythm, one hand on the hip, the other arm falling gracefully at her side and the head bent. ‘I am not [f]atuous enough believe that this quick sketch is as beautiful as an antique,’ the master said, laughing, ‘but don’t you find it gives you a dim idea of it? […]Well, then, let us examine and see from what this resemblance arises. My statuette offers, from head to feet, four planes which are alternatively opposed. The plane of the shoulders and chest leads to the left shoulder – the plane of the lower half of the body leads towards the right side – the plane of the knees leads again towards the left knee, for the knee of the right leg, which is bent, comes ahead of the other – and finally, the foot of this same right leg is back of the left foot. So, I repeat, you can note four directions in my figure which produce a very gentle undulation through the whole body.

‘This impression of tranquil charm is equally given by the balance of the figure. A plumb-line through the middle of the neck would fall on the inner ankle bone of the left foot, which bears all the weight of the body. The other leg, on the contrary, is free – only its toes touch the ground and so furnish a supplementary support; it could be lifted without disturbing the equilibrium. The pose is full of abandon and of grace.

‘There is another thing to notice. The upper part of the torso leans to the side of the leg which supports the body. The left shoulder is, thus, at a lower level than the other. But, as opposed to it, the left hip, which supports the whole pose, is raised and salient. So, on this side of the body, the shoulder is nearer the hip, while on the other side the right shoulder, which is raised, is separated from the right hip, which is lowered. This recalls the movement of an accordion which, closes on one side and opens on the other…Now look at my statuette in profile. It is bent backwards; the back is hollowed and the chest is slightly expanded. In a word, the figure is convex and has the form of a letter C. This form helps it to catch the light, which is distributed softly over the torso and the limbs and so adds to the general charm…Now translate this technical system into spiritual terms; you will then recognise that antique art signifies contentment, calm, grace, balance and reason…And now, by the way, an important truth. When the planes of a figure are well placed, with decision and intelligence, all is done, so to speak; the whole effect is obtained; the refinements which come after might please the spectator but they are almost superfluous. This science of the planes is common to all great epochs; it is almost ignored today.’”

And then, Gsell noted, Rodin turned to Michelangelo: “‘Now! Follow my explanation. Here, instead of four planes, you have only two; one for the upper half of the statuette and the other, opposed, for the lower half. This gives at once a sense of violence and constraint – and the result is a striking contrast to the calm of the antiques. Both legs are bent, and consequently the weight of the body is divided between the two instead of being borne exclusively by one. So there is no repose here, but work for both lower limbs…Nor is the torso less animated. Instead of resting quietly, as in the antique, on the most prominent hip, it, on the contrary, raises the shoulder on the same side so as to continue the movement of the hip. Now, note that the concentration of effort places the two limbs one against the other, and the two arms, one against the body and the other against the head. In this way there is no space left between the limbs and the body. You see none of those openings which, resulting from the freedom with which the arms and legs were placed, gave lightness to Greek sculpture. The art of Michelangelo created statues all of a size in a block. He said himself that only those statues were good which could be rolled from the top of a mountain without breaking; and in his opinion all that was broken off in such a fall was superfluous

‘His figures surely seem to be carved to meet this test; but it is certain not a single antique could have stood it; the greatest works of Phidias, of Praxiteles, of Polycletes, of Scopas and of Lysippus would have reached the foot of the hill in pieces. And this proves how a formula which may be profoundly true for one artistic school may be false for another.

‘A last important characteristic of my statuette is that it is in the form of a console; the knees constitute the lower protuberance; the retreating chest represents the concavity, the bent head the upper jutment of the console. The torso is thus arched forward instead of backward as in antique art. It is that which produces here such deep shadows in the hollow chest and beneath the legs. To sum it up, the greatest genius of modern times has celebrated the epic of shadow, while the ancients celebrated that of light. And if we now seek the spiritual significance of the technique of Michael Angelo, as we did that of the Greeks, we shall find that his sculpture expressed restless energy, the will to act without hope of success – in fine, the martyrdom of the creature tormented by unrealisable aspirations…To tell the truth, Michael Angelo does not, as is often contended, hold a unique place in art. He is the culmination of all Gothic thought…He is manifestly the descendant of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. You constantly find in the sculpture of the Middle Ages this form of the console to which I drew your attention. There you find this same restriction of the chest, these limbs glued to the body, and this attitude of effort. There you find above all a melancholy which regards life as a transitory thing to which you must not cling.’”

Clearly, Rodin would have no shortage of ideas if invited to deliver the Reith Lectures. We think we understand what political point Gormley wishes to make with his neckwear. The point of his sculptures is less apparent, as we complained in a letter to the Daily Telegraph (12 March 2008):

This Rodin/Phidias show has not been cost-free in terms of disruption and the further cleaning of the Parthenon sculptures but, leaving such aside, it is the most sculpturally engaging and instructive we have seen since the great 1972 Royal Academy and Victoria and Albert Museum exhibition “The Age of Neo-Classicism”.

ArtWatch has no politics and, as mentioned, this is an entirely personal response to an exhibition but, nonetheless, we would respectfully point out to the French Ambassador that that earlier wonderful internationally cooperative Neo-classicism show – the fourteenth exhibition of the Council of Europe – was mounted two years before Britain voted to join what was presented to its electorate as a common market in goods. Culturally-speaking we were all Europeans then and we will remain so after Britain has exited the grand project (some believe great folly) that is the European Union. In or out of that organisation, Britain and France will continue to play roles in pan-European culture, just as did the two sculptors below, one being French, one British, whose work was included in the 1972 exhibition. The Briton, Flaxman, had earlier echoed the ancient convention of mourning that Ian Jenkins has so well spotted in Rodin. Art is a universal and welcoming, all-inclusive language. We should keep politics out of it at all costs.

Michael Daley, 25 April 2018


In Celebration: Paul Anthony Harford, Draughtsman

Recent sickening art world tendencies seem to be crescendoing and calling for some antidote; for some demonstration and reminder of how artistic scruple diligence dedication and humanity might trump the mightiest, most meretriciously hyped, art market-buoyed artefacts and no-talent productions that are currently feted in venerable museums and country piles.

A stunning distinctive show is currently running (until 22 April) at the Focal Point Gallery in Southend-on-Sea. It is accompanied by a modest thoughtful catalogue that celebrates a monumental achievement. An elegant, matter-of-fact foreword by the gallery’s director, Joe Hill, announces an utterly autograph voice and a most haunting corpus of pencil-drawn works (- some examples or details of which are shown below):

“‘Other Voices, Other Rooms’ is an exhibition publication dedicated to the work of Paul Anthony Harford.

“Harford lived and made drawings in Southend-on-Sea and Weymouth, before passing away at the age of 73 in Leigh-on-Sea in 2016. Harford produced hundreds of meticulous, large-scale drawings throughout his lifetime. His remarkable work delicately interrogates the everyday and the commonplace against the background of the faded British seaside.

“Harford attended Byam Shaw School of Art in London as mature student, following this he moved his young family to Southend-on-Sea after a chance advertisement for a seafront flat caught his attention. He secured a job cleaning windows in Southend’s High Street before eventually earning a new position, riding the electric cream and green pier trains to clean the arcades at the end of the pier where he witnessed the devastating fire of 1976.

“His drawings are rooted in his lived experience and shed light on his unique viewpoint of the British seaside town. Often putting himself at the centre of the work, Harford’s drawings disclose some of the underlying truths prevalent in these places. Later in life Harford depicts the seaside as a complex refuge, a site where addictive behaviours are acted out and the typically unseen realities of aspiration and decline are laid bare.

Harford had no real in interest in gaining recognition for his work and so never sought opportunities to exhibit. His emotional connection to the drawings made him unable to contemplate parting with or showing them. They were all kept, stacked several layers deep around the walls of his attic studio.

Unfortunately, I never had the pleasure of meeting Paul before he passed away. I came to know about the work through his family. Since this moment, I have tried to know this character through the illustrated world he had created. The series identifies a seaside life removed from the conventional picture of the bustling Victorian seafront. The draw of these towns as a place of refuge and solace is an all too familiar tale to all us seaside dwellers.

“I would especially like to thank Elsa Harford for her vision, enthusiasm and support throughout this project and her two sons Paul and Stefan Harford for lending the work for the exhibition.”

Michael Daley, 2 April 2018


Startling disclosures on the re-re-restored Leonardo Salvator Mundi

One of the many mysteries surrounding the sale of the Modestini Leonardo Salvator Mundi that fetched $450m at Christie’s on 17 November 2017 was the identity of the under-bidder who staked $370m. The Daily Mail would seem to have the answer:

“EXCLUSIVE: The world’s most expensive painting cost $450 MILLION because two Arab princes bid against each other by mistake and wouldn’t back down (but settled by swapping it for a yacht)

• Leonardo Da Vinci’s ‘Salvator Mundi’ sold at an auction last November for a record-breaking $405.3million
• It was later revealed the painting’s buyer was Saudi Prince Bader bin Abdullah
• Palace insiders said the purchase was on behalf of the country’s crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman, whose regime was criticized for the purchase
• De-facto United Arab Emirates ruler Mohammed Bin Zayed also sent a representative to bid on the painting at the Christie’s New York auction
• Neither knew the other was bidding, instead they both feared losing the auction to reps from the Qatari ruling family – fierce rivals of UAE and Saudi Arabia
• Qatar’s ruling family was offered the painting just a year earlier for $80 million
• Salman’s $450 million purchase was condemned by critics of his regime
• After facing criticism, he struck a deal with his Emirati counterpart to swap the painting for a superyacht also worth $450 million”

The Mail’s remarkable account rather makes monkeys out of those cheer-leading art market commentators who took the record price achieved by Christie’s as if a confirmation of the (untenable) attribution. See the whole account here:

EXCLUSIVE: The world’s most expensive painting cost $450 MILLION because two Arab princes bid against each other by mistake and wouldn’t back down (but settled by swapping it for a yacht)

The Royal Academy, having unsuccessfully requested the Dianne Dwyer Modestini Mark III Version of the painting for its (magnificent) Charles I Collection exhibition the day after the sale, may have had a close escape. Curators at the Louvre, who bagged the painting for their planned big Leonardo anniversary exhibition next year, might now be given pause for thought. The Mail article shows the $450m Salvator Mundi not as it was sold in 2017 but as it was exhibited in 2011 at the National Gallery in its Modestini Mark II version. Professor Martin Kemp necessarily reproduced the Modestini Mark II version in the 2011 edition of his book Leonardo but he continues to reproduce that now obliterated version in his new memoir Living with Leonardo – Fifty Years of Sanity and Insanity in the Art World and Beyond which goes on sale tomorrow.

To see the Mark II state of the painting, as in 2011, click on our: The Reception of the First Version of the Leonardo Salvator Mundi . To see the Modestini Marks II and III versions together, click on: The $450m New York Leonardo Salvator Mundi Part II: It Restores, It Sells, therefore It Is. To see the extent of the changes between 2011 and 2017, click on The “Salvator Mundi” attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, from the authentication in 2011/12 to the sale in 2017, on which site Dr Martin Pracher (- who first spotted the post-2011 re-restoration) shows a number of details in gif formats that will enable even the most aesthetically disadvantaged viewer to appreciate the scale of the transformation this attributed Leonardo had undergone without any acknowledgement by Christie’s before its now-legendary – if not notorious – 17 November 2017 sale.

Michael Daley, 29 March 2018


IN THEIR OWN WORDS: No. 3 [11 March 2018] – The Reception of the First Version of the Leonardo Salvator Mundi

Mounting concerns over transparency in art world deals are throwing back-dated light on the Salvator Mundi’s reception in its first-restored incarnation when included in the 2011 National Gallery exhibition Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan.

THE SALVATOR MUNDI’S FIRST PUBLIC OUTING IN 2011

Above, top, the Sunday Times magazine cover of 9 October 2011. Above, the face of Christ in the Salvator Mundi as seen after repainting in 2011, left; above, right, the face of Christ in the Salvator Mundi as seen in November 2017 after further repainting between 2012 and 2017.

In the 9 October 2011 Sunday Times (“LEONARDO? CONVINCE ME”), Kathy Brewis wrote:

“For a few weeks in London you will be able to see the Salvator Mundi (Saviour of the World) up close. It might be your only chance. Much of the painting’s history remains obscure. Its ownership is a closely guarded secret. Robert Simon, a New York art dealer, is representing the owner or owners – the official line is it is a ‘consortium’. Why all the secrecy? ‘It’s just privacy and security’, says Simon, ‘One doesn’t want people knocking on the door.’

“…He showed it to Mina Gregori, a retired professor at Florence University, who was stunned: ‘I believe it’s by Leonardo.’ Then he showed it to Nick Penny, who had just been appointed director of the National Gallery. ‘He understood it in a nanosecond. He said that one of his ambitions was for the gallery to be a venue for scholarly inquiry and research and that he’d like the painting to be brought to London so it could be compared with the Virgin of the Rocks.’ It was Penny who told him [Simon]: ‘You need a consensus…’

“Since Robert Simon went public with the discovery, he has received many emails from Leonardo fanatics. ‘There’s the serious obsession and there’s the lunatic one – people for whom Leonardo is a source of fantasy. The paintings are not knowable,’ he muses. ‘Every one of them presents a problem and a challenge.’ Even at this stage? ‘Art historians are a prickly, competitive lot. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone stuck their hand up and said “I don’t believe it”’. Could the experts be wrong? ‘They could be wrong about anything. But as much as I believe anything in this world, I believe this is by Leonardo.’”

Above, and top left, the Salvator Mundi as exhibited in 2011 at the National Gallery’s big Leonardo exhibition.

Kathy Brewis continued:

“…Frank Zöllner of Leipzig University [- and author of the Leonardo catalogue raisonné] is a rare dissenter: he thinks the proportions of the nose (‘too long’ for such a perfectionist as Leonardo) make it more likely to have been painted by a talented follower. The rest are convinced, if a little jealous that they didn’t unearth it themselves. ‘People in the art world get sniffy about dealers,’ says Bendor Grosvenor, director of the London fine-art dealership Philip Mould. ‘But if it wasn’t for the trade, discoveries like this wouldn’t be made. Specialist dealers are the ones who are prepared to buy a dirty picture, roll their sleeves up and get stuck in to seeing what it is.’

“Is it wise for the National Gallery to put it on show so soon after its authentication? ‘They are taking a risk,’ says Grosvenor, ‘and I can’t applaud them enough for it. Connoisseurship is a nebulous discipline. There can never be absolute 100% proof. You have to accept there’s an element of doubt and go with it.’”

Note – On 5 March 2018 Grosvenor declared himself an ex-dealer on his blog Art History News: “Now, portraiture can be a hard sell – I know this from having spent over a decade actually selling portraits, in my former life as a dealer.” This did not come as an absolute bolt out of the blue: although he remains a director of the Scottish auctioneers Lyon and Turnbull Limited, last year Grosvenor briefly closed down his website following certain professional criticisms, commenting as he did so: “at the same time AHN also makes me a significant number of, well, ‘enemies’ is not too strong a term. Every walk of life has its Salieris, but in the art market there are an awful lot of them.”

Kathy Brewis continued with a discussion on the Salvator Mundi’s owners:

“Luke Syson, the show’s curator is one of the few people who know who owns the picture. ‘We couldn’t exhibit it otherwise. It’s not being wafted to us in a brown envelope.’”

Ben Hoyle reported the Salvator Mundi’s owners’ plans in the Times of 12 November 2011 (“It’s kind of scary – I wrapped it in a bin liner and jumped into a taxi with it”):

“‘Everyone involved recognises the importance of it as a work of art. Doing the right thing has been very important and will continue to be,’ Mr Simon says. If that means selling it for half the price they could attract, to ensure that it stays on public view, then they would prefer to do that.”

In the event the picture was sold privately by Sotheby’s in 2013 to a Swiss businessman, Yves Bouvier, who is known as the “Freeport King” (and who, among many commercial interests, owns an art conservation and authentication service), for appreciably less than the sums of $150-200m being talked about in 2011 (when the owners reportedly had turned down a $100m offer). The original consortium and Robert Simon received $80m for the Salvator Mundi from Bouvier who resold it for $127.5m to the Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev.

To this day we do not know who owned the Salvator Mundi before 2005 or between 2005 and 2013. From whomever and by whomever it was bought in 2005, the painting’s reception as an attributed Leonardo in 2011 was very far from uniformly rapturous. In addition to the dissenting scholars we cited on 14 November 2017 (see THE CRITICAL RECEPTION OF THE NEW YORK SALVATOR MUNDI), a number of newspaper art critics were un-persuaded.

In the 13 November 2011 Sunday Telegraph (“The genius of Leonardo”), Andrew Graham-Dixon wrote:

“…The picture is certainly Leonardesque. But is it by Leonardo? That is the considerably-more-than-million-dollar question for the consortium of art dealers who acquired the work a few years ago for an undisclosed sum. If the attribution holds up they can expect to reap £125m as a reward for their good judgement.

“Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan is a breathtaking and truly remarkable exhibition which brings together around half of the surviving 15 or so surviving paintings by the famously dilatory artist of the Italian Renaissance…Two works in particular appear destined to come under scholarly fire.

“Although it gets the thumbs up from the National Gallery’s curator, [Luke] Syson, there will certainly be those who question the new Christ. The picture undeniably displays a number of the painter’s characteristic devices and mannerisms, but there are other aspects of it that seem foreign to Leonardo himself.

“He was prized by his contemporaries as one of the most innovative and forceful painters of emotion, yet the face of this Christ seems peculiarly inert. Taken individually, its elements are convincing enough, but viewed as a whole its expression seems to lack a certain subtle Leonardo magic: the spark of inner life and feeling…”

Even after the picture had been re-done-over by the restorer, Diane Modestini, ahead of the 15 November 2017 sale, the Sunday Times’ art critic, Waldemar Januszczak, responded with less tact than Graham-Dixon (“The Miracle of da Vinci: Turning a £45 Oddity into a £341m Old Master”, 19 November 2017):

“…To call the Salvator Mundi untypical is massively to understate the case. It resembles nothing else Leonardo painted

“The claim by Loic Gouzer, chairman of contemporary art at Christie’s in New York, that the record-breaking Jesus bears ‘a patent compositional likeness’ to the Mona Lisa had me laughing out loud. Yes, it shows the upper half of a figure in a frame. But that is the only compositional likeness the Salvator Mundi shares with the Mona Lisa

“The next time I saw the painting was in 2011 when the big Leonardo exhibition was opened in London. Full of magnificent loans – the Lady With an Ermine, from Poland; the Virgin of the Rocks from the Louvre – it really was a once-in-a-lifetime event. And there on the wall was the recently rediscovered Salvator Mundi looking just as strange and sci-fi as I remembered it.

“At the time it was owned by a consortium of art dealers who had bought it in an American estate sale for $10,000 as a work by a follower of Leonardo. The dealers had it comprehensively cleaned and repainted. The National Gallery, eager to give its show a boost, announced it as the first new Leonardo discovered in 100 years. Wow…

“Soon after its London unveiling it was sold on to the Russian Billionaire, Dmitry Rybolovlev, for a reputed £98m. It was Rybolovlev who sold it again in New York last week.

“How did Leonardo’s sci-fi Christ, who looks as if he belongs on the cover on one of L Ron Hubbard’s scientology textbooks, end up costing all those shekels? It was mostly due to the wicked brilliance of Christie’s.

“Not only did the auction house tour the picture noisily to Hong Kong, and London before the New York sale, drumming up interest among the newly rich, but its hype department was also in full swing on this one. Finding a new Leonardo, boomed Gouzer, ‘is rarer than finding a new planet’. It’s ‘the greatest discovery of the century’ repeated the Christie’s chorus.

Above, Patrick Chappatte’s take on the Salvator Mundi sale/attribution for the New York Times. Below, Patrick Blower’s incorporation of the Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, for the Daily Telegraph:

Waldemar Januszczak continued:

“In recent years modern art has been where the money goes. A new generation of mega-rich collectors who know a lot about luxury brands but not much about art, have piled into the market and sent prices soaring.

“Earlier this year a quickly splattered Jean-Michel Basquiat of a face shaped like a skull sold in New York for an astonishing £85m. By putting the Leonardo in such a context, Christie’s circumnavigated the knowledgeable world of the Old Master collector and headed straight for the dumb f**** with the money.

“There are various ways to understand events in New York on Wednesday night [of 15 November 2017].

“You can see them as evidence of Leonardo’s treasured and mythic status in art. You can see them as testimony to the power of attribution. Or you can see them as proof that we live in a mad world that has lost sense of true value and in which obscenely rich people waste obscene amounts of money on the obscene acquisition of trophy art. Going, going, gone.”

SUPPORT AND DISSENT

It so happens that the scholar who first attributed the Salvator Mundi to Leonardo, Professor Mina Gregori, was also the first scholar to attribute the proposed Leonardo drawing that was dubbed “La Bella Principessa” by Professor Martin Kemp. However, “La Bella Principessa” was not included in the National Gallery’s Leonardo exhibition and, seven years later, it remains unsold. Although we know precisely why the dissenting scholars rejected the Salvator Mundi attribution (- they published their views in the scholarly press), we have virtually no information of who said what and in what order among the consensus of scholars listed by Christie’s (see Problems with the New York Leonardo Salvator Mundi Part I: Provenance and Presentation).

SECRET DEALS – AND THE ARTS CLUB

Since we began warning on this site in 2014 of the threat to market confidence posed by the art world’s toxic attributions and specifically called for increased transparency through a statutory requirement that vendors should disclose all that is known and recorded about the provenance and the restoration treatments of works of art (“As things stand, it can be safer to buy a second-hand car than an old master painting” – “Art crime”, ArtWatch UK letter, the Times, 13 August 2014), secret deals have come under increasingly intense investigation. In her 2017 book Dark Side of the Art Boom, Georgina Adam wrote:

“At its base, the Bouvier/Rybolovlev dispute was about the nature of their business conducted within a market that has always thrived on secret backroom deals. By keeping vendors and buyers apart – they may never know who the other is – and insisting on discretion, agents, dealers, advisors can use this anonymity to their advantage. Various reasons can be put forward, from the need for security to the desire to avoid family quarrels or the taxman, to the risk of someone else bagging the work for sale. In the Bouvier/Rybolovlev case, one of Bouvier’s emails about a Magritte, said: ‘I must carry out this [negotiation] with the greatest discretion to avoid drawing attention to the painting and its owner; the risk is that we could lose it at auction.”

In this weekend’s Financial Times (10/11 March 2018 – “Laundering Picasso: British dealer among accused in $50m case”), Melanie Gerlis cites the emergence of another highly embarrassing series of documents:

“Potential shenanigans involving art are in the spotlight once again. London art dealer Matthew Green is among defendants in the case against Beaufort Securities, three other corporations and five other individuals, accused by the US Department of Justice of a multiyear $50m-plus securities fraud and scheme to launder money, partly through the sale of a £6.7m painting by Picasso.

“The indictment alleges that Green, described as the owner of Mayfair Fine Art Limited, met last month with an investment manager from Beaufort Securities (now declared insolvent), as well as a property developer and an undercover federal agent masquerading as a client of the brokerage firm. At this meeting held around February 5, the court papers say that the agent-client was told he could ‘purchase a painting from Green using the proceeds of the stock manipulation deals and later sell the painting to “clean the money”’…The papers describe the art business as ‘the only market that is unregulated’”.

“The papers also say that Green – who had allegedly asked for a 5 per cent profit on the transaction, ‘so that he would not be asked why he was in the money laundering business’”. [Green] sent a message via What’sApp to the Beaufort Securities manager that read: ‘[O]bviously because of the nature of this transaction we need to preserve a certain amount of anonymity which [the undercover agent] and I discussed and clarified at the Arts Club!’”

UNDERCHARGING FOR CURRENT MARKET PRACTICES

The Art Market Monitor blogger, Marion Manneker, made this observation in his (5 March) comments on the trial:

“Green doesn’t seem to know that the price for laundering money is much higher than 5% which definitely isn’t worth the risk if it gets you indicted after being in business all of three months. Worse still, Green and his partners don’t seem to be the swiftest criminals. They boasted that the art market is unregulated but then created a scheme that seems to have had little to do with the art market itself.

“The art sale is only one of several money-laundering venues that the person was offered. Offshore banks and real estate deals figure prominently in the indictment. What’s more, Green’s scheme could have been conducted in just about any commercial transaction. And, since the payment for the Picasso was due March 6, 2018, we’ll never know if Green was actually capable of pulling off the sale at the price he claims or would have survived any kind of audit.”

OLD HABITS DIE HARD?

Manneker’s comments on the cut-price scale of Matthew Green’s alleged laundering service charges recalls certain comments of Kenneth Clark who recognized that his appointment as director of the National Gallery at a very tender age owed much to the fact, as he wrote in his 1977 memoir Another Part of the Wood, that:

“[T]he ideal candidate for the post was disqualified. This was a Finnish art-historian named Tancred Borenius. He was a good scholar, a pleasant companion and a passionate upholder of the concept of the monarchy. He would have made an ideal courtier. Unfortunately, he was known to have followed the continental practice, described above, of taking payments for certificates of authenticity; and what was worse, quite small payments (known as ‘smackers under the table’); if he had taken large payments like a few scholars on the continent, no one would have objected.”

Michael Daley, 11 March 2018

UPDATE, 12 March 2018. On 11 March, a Sunday Telegraph supplement (“Arts, Antiques and Collectibles”) carried a “Promotional feature” – “Managing Risk When Buying and Selling Art” – for the law firm Constantine / Cannon. In offering the firm’s services, the article began:

“TRADING IN ART has traditionally been done on a handshake, but this is changing. You would not buy or sell a house without relying on a lawyer to prepare the contract, would you? The same goes with art, and now buyers and sellers are increasingly turning to lawyers to help them manage the risks associated with expensive works. The art market used to function like a club of like-minded people, but that’s no longer the case. The market now is truly global, and it has become less transparent in the process…”


IN THEIR OWN WORDS: No. 2 – The Curse of (revenue-generating, thought-precluding) Audio-guides

It’s official: museum audio guides stop people from looking at pictures. It is now clear that it would better to dump them – the audio guides, that is.

SYDNEY SCHAEFER, Staff Photographer. Clay Cofer, an Art Team member at the Barnes Foundation, does a pop-up gallery talk for visitors.

Nick Feldman photo. Courtesy Barnes Foundation. The Barnes Foundation Art Team members (from left) Tamara Mason, Ann Moss, Miriam Klingler, Clay Cofer, Amy Gillette, Florence Hsu, and Sara Land.

“…The Art Team is part of the Barnes’ [i. e. The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia] continuing effort to deepen its ties with its audience. Initiated by Shelley Bernstein, chief experience officer and deputy director of audience engagement, probably best known for her work with digital technology, the Art Team is notable for its relative lack of tech, at least for now.

“‘You begin with the most meaningful thing first,’ Bernstein said, alluding to engagement efforts. ‘So this is what we call the human-interaction layer. It’s not about technology. It’s not about providing people with a thing or device. It’s thinking about what human interaction should be in the galleries and what we want that to be and trying to get that right before layering in other things.’

“First came some testing. Perhaps surprisingly, Bernstein discovered that people spent a lot more time in the galleries without an audio tour guide (110 minutes) than with one (88 minutes).

“Why? Visitors always said they love and want the audio tour, she said. But they spend less time with the art when an audio tour is in play. People want to talk to one another. They even remove the audio tours.

“Bernstein checked with colleagues at other institutions, notably the Broad museum in Los Angeles, which has assigned a group to do everything from taking tickets to chatting about the collection with visitors.

“The Art Team is a result of these conversations and simultaneous visitor research. Audio tours were retired. Visitors were launched tech-naked.”

Brilliant. Never mind the art jargon, this account in The Inquirer (“Art Team is Barnes Foundation’s new twist on visitor ‘engagement’”) is a most heartening and culturally healthy development. Consider this passage:

“Orbe caught Cofer’s rap in a small gallery filled with a Goya, a Renoir, a Manet, a de Chirico, and several other paintings, and pieces of ironwork and furniture.

“‘Goya is a very important anchor from the past,’ Cofer said to the people crowding the room. He swiped through iPad images. Back and forth.

“Goya harks back to Frans Hals, he told them. Manet, across the room, relates to Hals, as well. Consider Goya’s brushstrokes, said Cofer. Consider the rosy complexion on his portrait here. Is it not like the rosy complexion of the Renoir portrait far down on the wall?

“Visitors watch Cofer’s almost magical manipulation of his iPad images. And then, five or so minutes are up and he’s gone.”

For one thing, that intervention sounds very much in the spirit of Barnes’ educational notions: let art speak through its own variously assembled images. More than that, it sounds positively subversive and revolutionary in terms of today’s museum practice. Here is a man (it could be a woman, of course) who talks about art as art and who is clearly alert to artists’ practices and to the distinctive, culturally-enriching uses to which past artists-of-talent, so to speak, have put them. In talking, he shows, he engages with images – he sees the eloquent testimony of brushstrokes (see picture below). How much more appropriate is that than the museum world’s now bog-standard aesthetically obtuse didactic and patronising “story-telling”? (Whenever people talk of “Art and its Stories”, we should all run a cultural mile: those who would convert art into class, sex or other politics are, by definition, technically philistine and therefore unfit for purpose.)

Is this historic photograph above – of a detail of Frans Hals brushwork – not worth a thousand of anybody’s words?

Once, when looking closely at Titian’s (now restoration-wrecked) Bacchus and Ariadne in a quiet lunch-time spell at the National Gallery, I half-registered a voice saying “I’m about to start talking about the painting” but, absorbed in thought, did not heed it. The phrase was politely repeated. When I turned I saw not only the NG badge-wearing speaker but an entire party of elderly grown-ups sitting on little fold-up stools like expectant primary school children. They were asked to identify the brightest colour in the picture. Hands shot up – “Blue!” they chorused. “That’s right”, the speaker said and she then asked: “and what is the pigment?” More raised hands and then a riff about lapis lazuli and its great expensiveness. Ariadne, the class learnt, was an abused and dumped woman whose depiction had been commissioned by a super-rich man for his private engendered-gaze…John Berger would have been so proud.

I wandered off and encountered another guide; another seated party (this time of teenagers sitting on the floor) in another gallery. The guide – a true “Dave Spart” – was explaining how Uccello’s Battle of San Romano was a “celebration” (Berger again) of capitalists’ hired mercenaries…and imperialist blood-letting.

On another occasion I went to re-examine the attributed Rubens Samson and Delilah without noticing a row of head-phoned tourists perched on a bench in the middle of the gallery. They soon began tutting. It seemed that by standing and looking at the painting I had breached cinema etiquette: the seated customers could no longer match the (paid-for) voice-in-their-heads to the image on the screen. They’ll have usherettes soon, selling ice cream.

The greatest benefit/privilege/luxury of museums – the opportunity for people to examine works of art at their own pace while thinking their own thoughts – is being systematically denied by museum staffs grinding their own (- but DCMS-demanded) axes and harvesting cash from contraptions. Such, no less than the cumulative debilitation of the artefacts in the name of the name their “conservation”, constitutes a crime against art and an injury to people.

Michael Daley, 6 March 2018

CODA – AN OPEN LETTER:

Dear all
The next issue of British art periodical The Jackdaw (May) will contain a statement against the current tendency in arts management to apply identity politics. The text is below. It does not contain any aesthetic, political or stylistic subtext. It simply asks for those in the art world to judge art works individually and on merit.

I and a number of artists, editors, writers and others will be signing the text. If you would like to add your name and how you would like it to be presented (i.e. “Dr Robert XX, art historian”, “Sarah XX, artist”) then please email David Lee, editor of The Jackdaw, at david.lee@thejackdaw.co.uk (T: +44 7773 673 722).

You are welcome to forward this email to anyone in the art world who may wish to add their name.
Thank you.
Regards
Alexander Adams

Against Identity Politics in Arts Programming

1) Art should be judged primarily on its intrinsic merit.
2) Artists should not be judged on their demographic characteristics but upon their merits as demonstrated through their production.
3) There should be no quotas (official or unspoken) along demographic lines regarding art programming, prizes, awards, bursaries, exhibitions and acquisitions, as well as the staffing of arts organisations.
4) Arts organisations should be staffed by individuals with sufficient competence, experience and personal attributes to make them suitable for their positions. In their official roles, they should be committed to serve art and their organisation not their private political convictions.
5) Consumers of art should not be patronised but treated as individuals of unique tastes and interests. If members of the public choose not to engage with art then that is not a failure; it is the choice of individuals. There should be no targets for audiences in terms of demographic characteristics.
6) It is healthy for opinions of various political outlooks to exist within the arts. It is important for reasoned dissent to be heard in order to combat the emergence of an unhealthy political monoculture.
We believe that if these principles are applied then the arts – and public life more widely – will benefit.
Yours, etc.


IN THEIR OWN WORDS: No. 1 – Civilisations and Burrell Loans

It’s official: the BBC remake of Kenneth Clark’s highly acclaimed television series Civilisation is an intellectually incoherent artistically obtuse “right-on” mish-mash. It is official: Glasgow is repeatedly dicing with Burrell’s bequeathed art for financial peanuts and supposed profile enhancement.

NICE PICTURES, POOR WORDS


Above, top, Kenneth Clark shooting on the still-acclaimed 1969 series Civilisation; above, Simon Schama fronting the scathingly-received 2018 multi-voiced Civilisations outside Itimad-ud-Daulah’s Tomb in Agra, Uttar Pradesh.

“…By adding a single pluralising letter to the classic BBC art history series Civilisation (1969), the programme makers of Civilisations opened up the tantalising possibility of producing a new TV series that didn’t simply match its singular predecessor, but was much better.

“You can see the sense in the idea. Instead of an old-fashioned, patriarchal, white, western, male view of human cultures and creativity, why not make a show that acknowledges there are different civilisations and different views, which can be put across by different presenters? (In this case, three TV-ready, scarf-wearing academics: Mary Beard, David Olusoga and Simon Schama.) …from the programmes I have seen, Civilisations is more confused and confusing than a drunk driver negotiating Spaghetti Junction in the rush hour.

Above left, Aphrodite of Menophantos, Praxiteles, (4th Century BCE), Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Rome; above, right, Hand Stencils found in the Cave of El Castillo in Spain.

“The series starts with Schama – who has ‘always felt at home in the past’ – showing us library footage of an Islamic State wrecking crew in Mosul destroying ancient art and artefacts.

“He tells us the grisly story of how they brutally murdered the 82-year-old Syrian scholar Khaled al-Asaad for withholding information from them as to the whereabouts of the antiquities under his curatorial care in Palmyra.

“‘The record of human history brims over with the rage to destroy,’ the historian tells us with his passion dial turned up all the way to 11 (it rarely dips below 10).

“There is no mention made of similarly barbaric acts that have taken place over millennia – on occasion perpetrated by a civilisation much closer to home – or an explanation as to the cultural rationale behind the actions of those wielding the sledgehammers in this instance.

“…Music swells, titles roll, and we’re off – back to the beginning and the caves of South Africa, where we are shown a 77,000-year-old block of red ochre with the ‘oldest deliberately decorative [human] marks ever discovered’.

“This is ‘the beginning of culture’, Schama tells us, but he doesn’t dwell. Moments later we’re travelling through time and space like Doctor Who in a sci-fi remake of Treasure Hunt, touching down around 40,000 years later in northern Spain to visit El Castillo Cave.

“Here, both the programme and the presenter start to settle down and enjoy what they’ve brought us to see: cave paintings and hand stencils.

“Apparently similar images have been found ‘as far apart as Indonesia and Patagonia’, which is interesting. But then frustrating as no explanation is forthcoming to enlighten us as to why that might be.

“We are told: ‘These hand stencils do what nearly all art that would follow would aspire to. Firstly, they want to be seen by others. And then they want to endure beyond the life of the maker.’

“Really? Was that actually the motivation behind our stencil-making ancestor? Was he or she honestly most concerned with artistic ego and posterity? Were the painted hands even intended as art? Could they not have been a functional way-finding device or a ritualistic mark or part of a magical spell?

“…These are patchwork programmes with rambling narratives that promise much but deliver little in way of fresh insight or surprising connections.

Above, Mary Beard fronting Civilisations at the Colossi of Memnon in Luxor, Egypt.

“Mary Beard’s episode, How Do We Look, is particularly disappointing because the premise is so enticing, as is the prospect of one of our foremost thinkers on matters cultural giving us a new perspective.

Sadly, other than a couple of memorable TV moments when Beard encounters an ancient statue for the first time, we are offered little to excite our imaginations.

We don’t get the alluded-to update on Clark’s Eurocentric views or on John Berger’s Walter Benjamin-inspired Ways of Seeing series.

There is no substantial new polemic with which to wrestle. Instead we are served a tepid dish of the blindingly obvious (art isn’t just about the created object but also about how we perceive it), and the downright silly (an ancient story about a young man who supposedly ejaculated on a nude sculpture of Aphrodite thousands of years ago, which Beard describes with great theatricality as rape – ‘don’t forget Aphrodite [the stone statue] never consented’).

Above, David Olusoga fronting Civilisations with Gauguin’s Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

“David Olusoga is altogether more measured and less mannered than his fellow presenters. His two films – one exploring the meeting of cultures between the 15th and 18th Centuries, the other looking at the enlightenment and industrialisation – benefit from his inquisitive nature and relaxed style.

“If the scripts in the series are far from being literary masterpieces, the camerawork is of the highest quality throughout – although there are too many stylised shots of out-of-focus presenters with their backs to us.

“But when trained on art and artefacts, the new technology and techniques at the 21st Century TV director’s disposal provide us with plenty of delicious visual treats (the images from Simon Schama’s trip to Petra are stunning).

“Ultimately though, Civilisations feels like a series made by committee: a terrific-sounding idea on paper that I suspect was a lot harder to realise in practice.

“The result is a well-intentioned, well-funded series that has top TV talent in all departments but which ended up being less than the sum of its parts. A case of too many cooks, maybe?”

– Will Gompertz, the BBC’s art editor (Will Gompertz review: Civilisations on BBC Two 3 March 2018).

NICE PICTURES, NEEDLESS MULTIPLE RISKS

Painting entitled ‘La Repetition’, depicting a rehearsal scene, by Hilaire Germain Edgar Degas

Above, Edgar Degas, The Rehearsal (1874) CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection

“Fascinating details about a tour of the Burrell Collection’s late 19th-century French paintings have been revealed. Financial data on touring exhibitions is normally highly secret, but the Burrell’s data has been recorded in a report for a Glasgow City Council meeting on Thursday (8 March). This meeting is expected to approve the exhibition loans.

“A group of 58 works is being lent to the Musée Cantini in Marseille, which reopens on 18 May after refurbishment. The council report values the 47 paintings and 11 works on paper at £180.7m. The pictures include Degas’s The Rehearsal (around 1874) and Cézanne’s The Château of Médan (around 1880).

“Although the Japanese tour will be larger, with 55 paintings and 25 works on paper (including seven non-Burrell works from Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum), the value of the loans will be lower: £141.8m.

“What is even more interesting [is] the complex financial details of the deal. No fee is being paid by the Musée Cantini, but a sponsor is assisting the Burrell. It will contribute €100,000 towards the exhibition costs and €50,000 towards the Burrell’s refurbishment costs. The Art Newspaper understands that the sponsor is likely to be the London-based financial advisors Rothschild & Co and its new Marseille banking partner, Rothschild Martin Maurel.

“The Japanese tour, which will go to five venues from this October to January 2020, is being financed on a different basis. Each venue is paying a hire fee of £30,000, plus £1 per visitor after the first 100,000. If, for the sake of argument, each venue attracts 150,000 visitors, then the full total from Japan would be £400,000 (plus €50,000 for the French venue).

“When the tour idea was first considered, five years ago, the Burrell hoped to raise many millions from a touring exhibition, but this target has proved much too ambitious. James Robinson, the director of the Burrell Renaissance project, says that ‘profile raising for the Burrell and for Glasgow is just as important as the funding’.

“The Burrell Collection… building is now in need of a fundamental refurbishment. The cost of the refurbishment project is estimated at £66m, which means that the touring shows may bring in around 1% of the total. Glasgow City Council is to provide up to half the £66m and the Heritage Lottery Fund has awarded £15m, with contributions from other donors.

“Under the terms of Burrell, who died in 1958, his works could not be lent abroad because he was concerned about transport risks. In 2014 the Burrell trustees obtained special approval from the Scottish Parliament to enable them to lend abroad. The collection’s works by Degas are currently on loan to London’s National Gallery, until 7 May.

“The Burrell Collection closed for refurbishment in October 2016 and is due to reopen in late 2020.”

– Martin Bailey, “Revealed: the profits of staging a touring exhibition”, The Art Newspaper, 5 March 2018

Above, Cézanne, Château de Médan (1880) CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection

Michael Daley, 5 March 2018

Coda: For our earlier words on the overturning of the terms of Burrell’s bequest, see:

“Protecting the Burrell Collection ~ A Blast against Risk-Deniers”;

“Betraying Burrell – Shame on Glasgow”;

“Barnes, Burrell and a Beck Memorial Lecture: ‘Philippe Mercier Watteau’s English Follower’ ~ by Martin Eidelberg”;

and, “THE FATE OF SCULPTURES AT: 1) The Metropolitan Museum of Art; 2) The British Museum; 3) The National Museum of Kolkata; 4) The Academy of Art in Perugia; And, the Burrell Collection next?”


Nouveau riche? Welcome to the Club!

Our previous news/notice – “A day in the life of the new Louvre Abu Dhabi Annexe’s pricey new Leonardo Salvator Mundi” – was pegged on Georgina Adam’s Financial Times interview with Christie’s CEO, Guillame Cerutti.

In today’s Art Market Monitor blog, Marion Maneker defends Georgina Adam’s book, The Dark side of the Boom: The Excesses of the Art Market in the 21st Century, against a review in The New Republic:

“Unfortunately, [Rachel] Wetzler’s idea of a critique is to somehow fault Adam for not belabouring the obvious context of her book:

‘But while Adams paints a detailed and convincingly dire picture of the art world’s excesses, she never fully probes its implications. Perhaps ironically, its central weakness is her narrow focus on the activities of the art market itself: Her book largely brackets an exploration of the art market from the broader context of rising income inequality, economic exploitation, and staggering concentrations of wealth in the hands of the very few, all of which have enabled activity at the its upper reaches to continue unabated despite global downturns in other financial sectors. According to the sociologist Olav Velthuis, the art market ultimately benefits from an unequal distribution of wealth, as newly minted billionaires turn to blockbuster art purchases as a means of announcing their arrival…’”

Maneker dismisses the general charge as “both obvious and silly” but sows confusion with a claim that the rich “have many ways to announce their arrival” other than by social climbing. While that, too, may be self-evident it distracts from the force and precision of Adam’s analysis of certain shortcomings within the art market’s own institutions. When speaking of an apparent art world unwillingness to eliminate decades-long fraudulent practices – even after the most revelatory scandals – Georgina Adam (p. 191-2) pinpoints specific failures:

“What is surprising is the lack of impact the art market scandals have actually had, as lawyer Donn Zaretsky told me:

‘I haven’t seen much change after Knoedler [’s great Fakes Scandal]…I still see people doing deals on a handshake. The fact is the art market is a market but also a social world. If people are buying Tribeca real estate they will do the necessary research, bring in the lawyers, stitch up the contracts, and yet if they buy a picture for $3m they will hardly do anything.

‘It’s all part of this social world, meeting the artist, going to the parties. And buying art is an entrée to this world. You need to understand this in order to understand why these things happen, and why the art market will be so hard to regulate.’”

Marion Maneker’s Art Market Monitor blog of 22 February linked to a discussion between Glenn Fuhrmann and Lary Gagosian and noted that: “in this interview, one can see some indications of how deeply Gagosian’s success is tied to his ability to create among his clientele the sense of belonging to an exclusive club.”

There exist further three-way relationships between dealers, auction houses and collectors. Gagosian reportedly underwrote the recent $450m sale at Christie’s of the Salvator Mundi with a $100m guarantee to buy. This is said to have been in exchange for a $60m guarantee from the Salvator Mundi’s vendor to buy – in the very same auction of modern art – a Gagosian-owned Warhol of Leonardo’s Last Supper.

Michael Daley, 27 February 2018


A day in the life of the new Louvre Abu Dhabi Annexe’s pricey new Leonardo Salvator Mundi

On February 10th the Financial Times carried an interview – “The king of King Street” – with Guillame Cerutti, the French-born and École Nationale d’Administration-educated CEO of the (French-owned) British auction house, Christie’s, by Georgina Adam.

On the same day as the interview by Georgina Adam, author of Dark Side of the Boom: The Excesses Of The Art Market In The 21st Century, the French Prime Minister, Edouard Philippe, toured the Louvre Abu Dhabi Museum on Saadiyat island in the Emirati capital, to launch the French-Emirati “Year of Cultural Dialogue” in the company of Shiekh Hamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, CEO of Abu Dhabi Investment Authority (see Figs. 4 and 5).

Above, Fig. 1: Christie’s CEO Guillame Cerutti, as photographed by Anna Huix for the FT, 10 February 2018.

Georgina Adam asked Christie’s CEO if he had been surprised by the price of the Salvator Mundi sold at Christie’s, New York, on 17 November 2017 for $450 million (as an entirely autograph Leonardo da Vinci painting):

“He pauses. ‘Yes, because before the sale it was difficult to ask anyone to predict that level. But at the same time our major clients are looking for trophies. They want quality and rarity in any field. This painting had both aspects, it ticked all the boxes.’”

On 11 December 2017 money.cnn reported that Abu Dhabi’s Department of Culture and Tourism had confirmed that it had purchased what was the most expensive painting in the world for the Louvre Abu Dhabi, the museum’s first outpost outside France, but it had declined to comment on the owner. The New York Times had reported (“Mystery Buyer of $450 Million ‘Salvator Mundi’ Was a Saudi Prince”) that the man behind the purchase was a little-known Saudi prince named Bader bin Abdullah bin Farhan al-Saud, an associate of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Saudi Arabia, through its embassy in Washington, subsequently said that the prince was acting as a middleman for the United Arab Emirates, a key ally in the region: “His Highness Prince Badr, as a friendly supporter of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, attended its opening ceremony on November 8th and was subsequently asked by the Abu Dhabi Department of Culture and Tourism to act as an intermediary purchaser for the piece.”

When Adam asked about the Salvator Mundi painting’s condition Guillame Cerutti responded:

“There were questions on that, we didn’t hide anything. It is 500 years old and the condition reflected that – but we were transparent about this. It is a beautiful painting, and the day after the sale, the Louvre requested it for an exhibition in 2019.”

In Christie’s pre-sale essay “Salvator Mundi – The rediscovery of a masterpiece: Chronology, conservation, and authentication” the painting was said to have been discovered in 2005 “masquerading as a copy” in a “regional auction” in the United States. The curiously anthropomorphised notion of an inanimate artefact seeking to deceive, might no less appropriately be applied today to a damaged and covertly re-restored painting that still lacks a secure provenance. The essay’s account of the work’s “conservation” revealed that in 2007 “A comprehensive restoration of the Salvator Mundi is undertaken by Dianne Dwyer Modestini, Senior Research fellow and Conservator of the Kress Program in Paintings Conservation at the Conservation Center of the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University.” Modestini was said to have concluded that: “the important parts of the painting are remarkably well-preserved, and close to their original condition”.

Above, Figs. 2 and 3: showing the new Louvre Abu Dhabi Leonardo Salvator Mundi when exhibited in 2011-12 as an entirely autograph Leonardo in the National Gallery’s Leonardo da Vinci ~ Painter at the Court of Milan exhibition, left; and then, right, as offered for sale by Christie’s, New York, on 15 November 2017.

In its pre-sale lot essay on the painting, Christie’s acknowledged an “initial phase of the conservation” that ran from 2005 to 2007, and that the entire conservation programme had been brought to completion in 2010 before the painting was included as “The newly discovered Leonardo masterpiece, dating from around 1500” in the National Gallery’s major Leonardo exhibition of 2011-12. The essay notes that the painting had been acquired from “an American estate”. At no point before the November 2017 sale, so far as we know, had Christie’s acknowledged the further extensive campaign of restoration that we have shown to have occurred between 2012, when the picture returned from London to New York, and the November 2017 sale where it fetched $450 million and caused some commentators to fear that an important and vital market might be “on the edge of becoming seriously troubling” – see: “The $450m New York Leonardo Salvator Mundi Part II: It Restores, It Sells, therefore It Is”.

Notwithstanding Mr Cerutti’s FT interview, we still do not know when – or to what purpose – restoration was resumed after the National Gallery Leonardo exhibition but, as we have reported, a Christie’s spokeswoman confirmed to the Daily Mail in December 2017 that Dianne Modestini, had worked on the painting “Prior to its presentation for sale at Christie’s”. (See “Auctioneers Christie’s admit Leonardo da Vinci painting which became world’s most expensive artwork when it sold for £340m has been retouched in the last five years”.)

In today’s Guardian (Financial, p. 32, “A switch is flipped and renaissance is suddenly fragile”), Larry Elliot attributes the Salvator Mundi’s gasp-inducing record high price to an “obvious” explanation: “Rock-bottom interest rates and Quantitative Easing have driven up the prices of assets sought by the already well-off. It has been the classic case of too much money chasing too few goods.” Georgina Adam noted that Guillaume Cerutti “quickly points out that in 2017 Christie’s sold seven of the top 10 lots at auction – including the Leonardo”. Cerutti might arguably be seen as one who has fuelled as well as benefitted from the current boom by having shut down Christie’s lower-value operation in South Kensington and cut-back that in Amsterdam so as to direct resources to Asia and Los Angeles.

Above, Figs. 4 and 5: Top, French Prime Minister, Edouard Philippe (right), tours the Louvre Abu Dhabi Museum on February 10, 2018, on Saadiyat island in the Emirati capital, to launch the French-Emirati “Year of Cultural Dialogue”. Above, the French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe (centre) poses with Shiekh Hamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (right), CEO of Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, during inauguration of BNP paribas Abu Dhabi Global market Branch on February 10, 2018, as photographed by Karim Sahib for AFP and featured in Art Daily’s The Best Photos of the Day on February 11, 2018.

Michael Daley, 12 February 2018


Degas and the Problem of Finish

Alexander Adams

Daphne Barbour & Suzanne Quillen Lomax (eds.), Facture: Conservation, Science, Art History. Volume 3: Degas, National Gallery of Art, distr. Yale University Press, 2017, 196pp, fully illus., pb, £50, ISBN 978 0 300 23011 6

Jane Munro, Degas: A Passion for Perfection, Yale University Press, 2017, 272pp, 250 col./mono illus., hb, £40, ISBN 978 0 300 22823 6

The new title published by the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., Facture: Conservation, Science, Art History. Volume 3: Degas, examines its large collection of art by Edgar Degas as a starting point for discussions about issues of interpretation, finish and conservation regarding Degas’s oeuvre. The problem of finish is one that applies more to Degas than any other French artist of the Nineteenth century. Contemporaries criticised (and, more rarely, praised) Degas’s art for its open and unfinished appearance. This was not a case of stuffy regressives wanting a glossy varnished surface to paintings but often genuinely perplexed viewers feeling the artist had not fully resolved matters. What Degas considered finished and unfinished was also unclear to the artist himself. He would exhibit pieces that seem to have been arrested at an early stage; at other times he would retrieve and rework paintings he had already signed, exhibited and sold. Multiple signatures on a work indicate radical revision of a piece as the artist reconsidered what he considered to be finished. His standards evolved over his long career but even experts have trouble deciding what is finished and what is unfinished, especially as the bulk of his art remained in the studio and much of it was unsigned.

Classicism and Radicalism

Visible pentimenti could be intrusive and Degas’s habit of sanding down surfaces of oil paintings but then not fully repainting them left viewers doubtful about whether the painting had actually been completed. (Specifically, the long working periods, extensive revisions and awkward and incomplete appearances of the canvases The Fallen Jockey and Edmondo and Thérèse Morbilli make these “problem pictures”.) Signatures do not resolve such questions as Degas did not sign all works, especially drawings, which could be categorised as either working material or finished art depending on who was appraising it (or trying to sell it).

Degas was the Impressionist who received the most thorough grounding in academic fine-art tradition and also the one who experimented most technically and aesthetically. He could be reckless and sometimes destroyed art by overworking it. He could also be impatient and imprudent. Hoenigswald and Jones (in Facture) mention the case of Portrait of Mlle Fiocre in the ballet “La Source” (c. 1867-8) as an instance when Degas prematurely varnished an oil painting for salon display. The varnish interacted with the wet paint and he had to call on the services of a conservator to remove the varnish, which inevitably damaged the picture surface. He rarely varnished work himself but did not rule it out and recommended that Pau museum varnish his Cotton Office in New Orleans (1873) when the museum acquired it. However, that instruction regarding an early highly-finished oil is not carte blanche for the varnishing of all his oils, especially later ones.

Degas could be both methodical and capricious. He would prepare carefully and spend long periods of reflection. There is Vollard’s famous anecdote of him “sunning” his pastels for extended periods to degrade fugitive pigments so that he could be confident of his colours not ageing too drastically once applied. At other times he could work hectically, impatiently fixing broken limbs of his statuettes with gimcrack bodges, later allowing his clay pieces to be reduced to crumbled dust. Rather than always fully conceiving his compositions beforehand, he would start a work and have to add strips of paper to expand the surface. The use of tracing paper – mainly to allow tracing and transferring of designs – as a support for finished drawings is problematic as the vegetable starch in the calque makes the support fragile and prone to discoloration; the oils in the paper oxidise and discolour. Degas would have tracing paper sheets glued to board supports to impart rigidity and prevent the paper curling or ripping. Exquisite sketches exposing areas of untouched paper have been changed irretrievably by the fading effect of sunlight on the dyes in the commercially prepared colour paper. (For whatever reason, many similar works by a colleague of Degas’s student days, Moreau, have fared rather better.)

The perplexing confluence of technical brilliance, peculiar material combinations, unconventional working methods and appalling insouciance makes Degas’s art a tricky proposition for conservators. Respecting the artist’s wishes is not always possible when the artist can be so contradictory in his approaches apparent even in one work of art.

Degas’s technique for many works was mixed. Monotypes in black ink would often be worked over so extensively in pastel, gouache and body colour that the original print disappeared under the colourful top layer. The artist’s penchant for privacy meant that his techniques and attitudes are a mystery which scientific analysis is only now uncovering. One of the great mysteries is his formula for pastel fixative. Pastels (particularly heavily worked ones) require fixing with a clear sealant for transport or for reworking. This fixative impairs colour intensity and tonal contrast and artists have struggled to find a solution that is effective yet as unobtrusive as possible. Views on the subject have ranged from the idea Degas creating his own secret formula (which has never been uncovered) to the view that Degas used a standard mixture common to the period. Microscopic analysis of a pastel in the NGA collection reveals a dried bubble of fixative (less than half a millimetre across) which contains protein, implying a solution including casein or rabbit/fish-skin glue applied with an atomiser.

Forensic analysis suggests that Degas worked pastels wet and dry, using hard and soft tools, brushes, his fingers, adding, subtracting and burnishing, with frequent layers of fixative. Despite the liberal use of fixative, the absence of tooth on the smooth tracing-paper support makes those drawings especially fragile, something that has to be born in mind in this age of frequent and distant travel for temporary exhibition.

Dance Examination

D12

Above, Fig. 1: Edgar Degas (1834–1917), Dance Examination (Examen de Danse), 1880, pastel on paper, 622 x 465 mm, Denver Art Museum, anonymous gift. Photography courtesy Denver Art Museum

The new exhibition at Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (closes 14 January; tours to Denver Art Museum 18 February-20 May 2018) allows viewers to decide what they think of the condition of Dance Examination (1880) [See “Fakes, Falsifications and Failures of Connoisseurship” – Ed.]. The catalogue Degas: A Passion for Perfection includes high-quality illustrations of this pastel and others. This pastel has previously been discussed by Artwatch. Compared to the 1918 photograph there has been noticeable change. It is difficult to ascertain what is due to fading, restorer intervention and variation in photography. Some changes seem clearly evidence of fading. The blue of the bending dancer’s sash is increasingly showing through the white overdrawing of the standing dancer’s dress. The top layer of white is less opaque than it was. The red cockade is less prominent than it was, though why that might be is unclear. Some areas do seem to have been deliberately altered: the wall seems to have been cleaned; the shadow between the leftmost leg of the bending dancer has been streamlined by slimming the wedge of shadow adjacent to the dancer’s other foot (to our right) and making the shadow more uniform; the bench seems to have been smoothed, with some near horizontal lines in the original (in the centre and right) having been blended or over drawn. That said, the new photograph has more contrast than the 2002 photograph, which seems way too pale and lacking contrast, demonstrating that the 2002 reproduction was a poor one. The new photograph suggests that there has not been a determined campaign to retouch the whole drawing but instead very particular instances of alteration (probably early, between photographs one (1918) and two (1949)) combined with fading of particular pigments. The pastel entered the Denver Art Museum collection in 1941.

The Bronzes

Arabesque over the Right Leg, Left Arm in Front. Degas, Edgar (French, 1834-1917). Red-brown wax, with wire armature which projects as fingers from the hands, and from the lifted foot; attached to rectangular wooden base. The nude dancer stands in an arabesque on her right leg with her left arm extended in front. Height, whole, 23.6 cm, height, wax, 20.6 cm,, circa 1882-1895.

Above, Fig. 2: Edgar Degas (1834–1917), Arabesque over the Right Leg, Left Arm in Front, First Study, c.1882–95, coloured wax over a commercially prefabricated metal wire armature, attached to a wooden base, 23.5 x 13.7 x 27.5 cm, © The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

What makes the NGA’s Degas collection unique is the group of the artist’s original statuettes. These were retrieved from multiple floors of Degas’s last house in the months after his death. The heirs agreed to the figures being catalogued, graded and (if possible) repaired with a view to casting them. Many remains were found to be unsalvageable but 74 items were repaired and cast in bronze in various editions. Exact casting details were not recorded methodically. The majority of original items were in pastiline (like plasticine) over a commercially manufactured articulated wire armature adapted by the artist, which was later coated with pigmented beeswax, which allowed detailed finish, though Degas rarely applied fine details. The exception is Little Dancer Aged Fourteen (1878-81), his famous life-size statue in a real bodice and tutu, which was the only sculpture he publicly exhibited. (The original is now in the NGA collection.) X-rays reveal Degas used clay, corks, paintbrush handles and rags to add bulk to the statuettes and when limbs became detached he would use pins of nails to reattach them. The figures (almost all of them either female figures or horses) were attached to wooden base boards, sometimes with props to support them.

Degas’s attitudes to his statuettes were mixed. He worked hard on them and sometimes showed them to visitors. He kept some in vitrines. Yet he neglected some finished pieces and allowed them to become badly damaged. He never cast any pieces in bronze though he did make notes about foundries; it was apparently his wish that none of the models be cast in bronze.

The restorer(s) of the statuettes who prepared the models for casting approached the task with a mixture of attentive respect and no-nonsense pragmatism. The decision to disregard Degas’s aversion to casting in bronze was a matter for the heirs. The restorer(s) had the practical task of repairing damage, most often in limb breakages. Sometimes the limbs had been fractured, sometimes completely detached. Breaks were repaired and blended with the original facture. Often props on the originals were replaced and completely removed from the casts. (There exists an incomplete photographic record that documents the original statuettes before preparation for casting, showing breakages.) The restorer(s) attempted to preserve as much as possible of the originals but felt no compunction about making alterations to suit the expectations of collectors of the day, including blending their repairs with the original facture. Obviously, the casting process made almost invisible the visible repairs in the original figurines.

In the 1950s the original wax statuettes resurfaced in the foundry. They were purchased by Paul Mellon and most were donated to the NGA. Three original dancer figurines ended up in the Fitzwilliam Museum collection and are included in the current exhibition; the catalogue reproduces x-rays of them, showing the armature and packing inside.

In Facture expert essayists from NGA staff address the chaotic editioning of the bronzes, authorised, unauthorised and possibly pirated. Two foundries cast bronzes from 1920 until the mid-1930s, often as and when demand necessitated new sets. Foundry records are incomplete or suppressed. Two essays in this book study of the construction of the sculptures and various stamps; measurement in millimetres of the exact dimensions of casts and metallurgical analysis suggest the chronology and status of hundreds of the over 1,200 genuine casts. Further sets, which are considered by some to be fakes, continue to circulate. Comparative photographs show differences between casts. These photographs show the variable results of the moulding and casting processes and others which might the work of the finishers.

These volumes (especially the NGA’s Facture) will be essential references for collectors, dealers and scholars in Degas.

Alexander Adams, 3 November 2017

[See also, Alexander Adams: Degas: Themes and Finish. For details of the 2017 James Beck Memorial Lecture (the speaker: Robin Simon – “Never trust the teller, trust the tale”) see A memorial lecture, two journals and an assault on scholarship.]


Leonardo, Salvator Mundi, and an “unusual lapse”

On 20 October, Bendor Grosvenor posted an attack, “’Mystery’ over Leonardo’s ‘Salvator Mundi’”, on a Guardian article written by Dalya Alberge, “‘Puzzling anomaly’ at heart of £75m artwork”.

The Guardian piece had reported my views on the viability of the recent attribution to Leonardo of a damaged and re-restored Salvator Mundi painting (Fig. 3 below) and it had noted the addressing of those views by Walter Isaacson in his new book Leonardo da Vinci ~ The Biography. (My concerns had been published in two – unchallenged – letters to the Times: “Leonardo viewed in a curious light”, 12 November 2011, and “Leonardo enigma”, 12 October 2017. See Fig. 1 below).

no 1 Times Salvator Mundi letters

Grosvenor carries the following passage from Alberge’s article:

“But in a forthcoming study, Leonardo da Vinci: The Biography, Walter Isaacson questions why an artistic genius, scientist, inventor, and engineer showed an ‘unusual lapse or unwillingness’ to link art and science in depicting the orb.
“He writes: ‘In one respect, it is rendered with beautiful scientific precision…But Leonardo failed to paint the distortion that would occur when looking through a solid clear orb at objects that are not touching the orb.’
“‘Solid glass or crystal, whether shaped like an orb or a lens, produces magnified, inverted, and reversed images. [See Fig. 4 below] Instead Leonardo painted the orb as if it were a hollow glass bubble that does not refract or distort the light passing through it.’
“He argues that if Leonardo had accurately depicted the distortions, the palm touching the orb would have remained the way he painted it, but hovering inside the orb would be a reduced inverted mirror image of Christ’s robes and arm.”

Grosvenor then contends that:

“All of which might lead you to believe that Isaacson did not think the painting was by Leonardo, or at least was raising serious questions.”

In so claiming, Grosvenor seemed to have overlooked this further passage in which Alberge reports a conversation she had with the author:

“Isaacson said Leonardo filled his notebooks with diagrams of light bouncing around. So did he [Leonardo] choose ‘not to paint it that way, because he thought it would be a distraction…or because he was subtly trying to impart a miraculous quality’.”

That passage correctly indicates that Isaacson was genuinely perplexed as to why Leonardo had on that occasion not painted in a way that might have been expected, given his great interest and passion for optical laws. It did not say that Isaacson himself had concluded that Leonardo had not painted the picture. However, Grosvenor adds:

“But on his Facebook page, Isaacson writes: ‘Just to be very clear, this article leaves a bit of a false impression. In my new book, I state clearly and unequivocally that the painting of Salvator Mundi is by Leonardo. And I explore the reasons that he did not show the crystal orb distorting the robes of Christ. I say it was a conscious decision on Leonardo’s part. I do not say in my book, nor did I say in the interview, nor do I believe, that anyone but Leonardo painted this painting. I believe he made a decision to paint the crystal orb in a way that is miraculous and not distracting. All of the experts I know agree, from Martin Kemp to Luke Syson.’”

It is not the case that all Leonardo experts endorse the Leonardo attribution. Nor is it apparent why Isaacson might have felt impelled to make such a “lawyered-sounding” statement over what he feared might at most be “a bit of a false impression” but Grosvenor seemed to relish the fact of it:

“So that’s that; nothing to see here. And please don’t be at all persuaded by the attempt, elsewhere in the article, to use Wenceslaus Hollar’s engraving of the Salvator Mundi to cast doubt on the painting. It has been suggested that because the engraving shows some small, in some cases actually imperceptible, differences to the painting at Christie’s, then the painting at Christie’s might not be the painting which was engraved. This is fantasy art history. First, such differences reflect more on Hollar’s ability as an engraver than the painting. Second, compare other examples of Hollar’s engravings with the paintings to which they relate and you will see that he regularly altered aspects of the composition. Third, we cannot know how long Hollar had to study the original. Finally, Hollar saw the painting more than one hundred years after it was painted. Who knows what might have happened to it in that period?”

Grosvenor’s strained disparagement of Hollar’s engraved testimony (“small, in some cases imperceptible”) alludes to quoted remarks of mine in the Guardian article and to my 12 October Times letter (“Leonardo enigma”). Coming as this does from a man who has likened himself to a Mozart among Salieris in the art dealing, sleeper-hunting community, it may require a response consisting of the very clearest visual evidence. Such will follow in a later post. Here, it might be noted that although my position is certainly not shared by Isaacson, it was not disparaged by him in his book. To the contrary, during his interview for the Guardian article he generously acknowledged having been prompted by my views to raise the very question of why Leonardo might have painted the orb in such a strikingly unexpected fashion. In addition, he cited our 12 June 2012 article “Could the Louvre’s ‘Virgin and St Anne Provide the Proof that the (London) National Gallery’s ‘Virgin of the Rocks’ Is Not by Leonardo da Vinci?”. (See Fig. 2 below.)

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CODA – Walter Isaacson on the Salvator Mundi in his Leonardo da Vinci ~ The Biography:

no 3 SM 1 800px-Leonardo_da_Vinci_or_Boltraffio_(attrib)_Salvator_Mundi_circa_1500 (2)

“There is, however, a puzzling anomaly in the painting [see Fig. 3 above], one that seems to be an unusual lapse or unwillingness by Leonardo to link art and science. It involves the clear crystal orb that Jesus is holding. In one respect, it is rendered with beautiful scientific precision. There are three jagged bubbles in it that have the irregular shape of the tiny gaps in crystal called inclusions.

“Around that time, Leonardo had evaluated rock crystals as a favor for Isabella d’Este, who was planning to purchase some, and he captured accurately the twinkle of inclusions. In addition, he included a deft and scientifically accurate touch, showing he had tried to get the image correct: the part of Jesus’ palm pressing into the bottom of the orb is flattened and lighter, as it would indeed appear in reality. But Leonardo failed to paint the distortion that would occur when looking through a solid clear orb at objects that are not touching the orb. Solid glass or crystal, whether shaped like an orb or a lens, produces magnified, inverted, and reversed images. Instead, Leonardo painted the orb as if it were a hollow glass bubble that does not refract or distort the light passing through it. At first glance it seems as if the heel of Christ’s palm displays a hint of refraction, but a closer look shows the slight double image occurs even in the part of the hand not behind the orb; it is merely a pentimento that occurred when Leonardo decided to shift slightly the hand’s position. Christ’s body and the folds of his robe are not inverted or distorted when seen through the orb. At issue is a complex optical phenomenon. Try it with a solid glass ball [see our demonstration at Fig. 4 below]. A hand touching the orb will not appear to be distorted. But things viewed through the orb that are an inch or so away, such as Christ’s robes, will be seen as inverted and reversed. The distortion varies depending on the distance of the objects from the orb. If Leonardo had accurately depicted the distortions, the palm touching the orb would have remained the way he painted it, but hovering inside the orb would be a reduced and inverted mirror image of Christ’s robes and arm.

no 4 IMG-20171021-00101

“Why did Leonardo not do this? It is possible that he had not noticed or surmised how light is refracted in a solid sphere. But I find that hard to believe. He was, at the time, deep into his optics studies, and how light reflects and refracts was an obsession. Scores of notebook pages are filled with diagrams of light bouncing around at different angles. I suspect that he knew full well how an object seen through a crystal orb would appear distorted, but he chose not to paint it that way, either because he thought it would be a distraction (it would indeed have looked very weird), or because he was subtly trying to impart a miraculous quality to Christ and his orb.”

Michael Daley, 23 October 2017


A memorial lecture, two journals and an assault on scholarship

‘Never trust the teller trust the tale’, cautioned DH Lawrence. He meant: don’t pay attention to what anyone tells you about a work of art, not even the artist; nor, we might add, a ‘curator of interpretation’. Study it yourself. But can we always trust the evidence of our own eyes?

THE ANNUAL JAMES BECK MEMORIAL LECTURE: ‘Never trust the teller trust the tale’

On 7 November the ninth annual ArtWatch International James Beck Memorial Lecture will given by Robin Simon and held in Burlington House, Piccadilly, London, W. 1. Robin Simon is Honorary Professor of English at University College, London, and the editor of The British Art Journal, which esteemed publication has launched an attack on the prohibitively high fees that museums now charge scholars for reproducing works of art – even when, as often, these are publicly owned and out of copyright – in their publications and lectures (- see below “A licence to print money, a licence to kill scholarship, at the Tate, the British Museum and the National Portrait Gallery”). His recent books include Hogarth, France and British Art and (with Martin Postle) Richard Wilson and the Transformation of European Landscape Painting. Professor Simon writes:

‘Never trust the teller trust the tale,” cautioned DH Lawrence. He meant: don’t pay attention to what anyone tells you about a work of art, not even the artist; nor, we might add, a ‘curator of interpretation’. Study it yourself. But can we always trust the evidence of our own eyes?

pic 1 Manfredi Mars chastising Cupid

Above, Mars chastising Cupid by Bartolomeo Manfredi (1582–1622), 1613. Art Institute of Chicago.

For details of the (evening) lecture and tickets, please contact Helen Hulson at:hahulson@gmail.com.

THE ARTWATCH UK JOURNAL AND THE PROCEEDINGS OF THE 2015 CONFERENCE ‘ART, LAW AND CRISES OF CONNOISSEURSHIP’

Later this month we publish the ArtWatch UK members’ Journal No. 31. It comprises 112 pages and contains the full and illustrated proceedings of the 5 December 2015 conference “Art, Law and Crises of Connoisseurship” organised by ArtWatch UK, the Center for Art Law, New York, and LSE Law – see below. It will be followed in December by issue No. 32, a special edition on Michelangelo. The ArtWatch UK Journal, is not sold but is distributed free to all members. For membership details please contact Helen Hulson at: hahulson@gmail.com.

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pic 3 covers_Page_2 16 oct

A LICENCE TO PRINT MONEY, A LICENCE TO KILL SCHOLARSHIP, AT THE TATE, THE BRITISH MUSEUM AND THE NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY

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The British Art Journal (XVIII, 1 2017) editorial in full:

Compare two statements, beginning with the National Gallery of Art, Washington:

NATIONAL GALLERY OF ART. OPEN ACCESS POLICY FOR IMAGES OF WORKS OF ART PRESUMED IN THE PUBLIC DOMAIN.

‘With the launch of NGA Images, the National Gallery of Art implements an open access policy for digital images of works of art that the Gallery believes to be in the public domain. Images of these works are now available free of charge for any use, commercial or non-commercial. Users do not need to contact the Gallery for authorization to use these images. They are available for download at the NGA Images website (images.nga.gov).’

Now the Tate:

‘One of Tate’s core goals is to promote enjoyment of, and engagement with, art and artists within our collection, to audiences wherever they are in the world. As part of this, we are releasing some of our Archive collection digital content and some items from our main Collection for use for non-commercial and educational purposes under a Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported) licence. The aim is to provide a simple, standardised way to grant copyright permission for the use of Tate’s intellectual property (its photography) and artists’ creative work for specific uses only, whilst safeguarding Tate’s own income from its IP in commercial contexts whilst ensuring artists, copyright holders and Tate get credit for their work and are protected by law.’

And so what, then, is ‘commercial’ use? The Tate begins:

‘Creative Commons defines commercial use as “reproducing a work in any manner that is primarily intended for or directed toward commercial advantage or monetary compensation”.’

Unfortunately for the Tate, this does not suit it at all, since no-one could argue that academic work in particular is ‘primarily intended for or directed toward commercial advantage or monetary compensation’. If it were to be excluded, the Tate would not be able to seize fees for the vast majority of publishing about its collections. And so it simply invents its own definition, even while still invoking the Creative Commons licence, bringing academic (and indeed any other) work within ‘commercial use’, as follows:

‘Tate further defines commercial use… [our italics] [as] use on or in anything that itself is charged for [! our exclamation], on or in anything connected with something that is charged for, or on or in anything intended to make a profit or to cover costs [we are running out of !s]… Tate would usually regard the following uses of Tate imagery as commercial activity: use online or in print by commercial organisations, including (for the avoidance of doubt) trading arms of charities; use on an individual’s website in such a way that adds value to their business, or for promotional purposes, or where offering a service to third parties; use of images by university presses [we can afford one more !] in publications online or in print; use in publicity and promotional material connected with commercial events; unsolicited use of images by news media, including front covers and centre-page spreads; use in compilations of past examination papers; use by commercial galleries and auction houses.’

And so any publication, however useful to the Tate in expanding public knowledge and understanding of works in the collection, if it is to avoid the hefty fees that the Tate imposes, must needs be handed out free and never, ever, published by a university press… This attitude is disgraceful. Alas, the British Museum, which under Neil MacGregor and Antony Griffiths had a praiseworthy free use of images in Prints and Drawings, has followed the Tate’s lead and now invokes a Creative Commons licence with the purpose of imposing reproduction fees, as does the National Portrait Gallery.

The Tate has given up on attempts to assert copyright in works of art that are actually out of copyright, and instead asserts that it is now, rather, protecting the copyright of its photographs of those works, defining them as its ‘intellectual property’ (IP) in what is meant to be a nifty sidestep. That cannot, however, avoid the fact that, as we have pointed out in these pages, this is unsound in law, in view of the purely mechanical nature of the image-recording operation. Fascinatingly, the NPG seems to have a different understanding of the matter, asserting in a letter in response to an enquiry about it:

‘The National Portrait Gallery owns the copyright of the majority of the images in its collection. Even if an image is “out of copyright”, as it is still part of the collection of the National Portrait Gallery, then copyright continues to be managed by the Gallery.’

This runs directly contrary to copyright law defined in the NPG’s own ‘Introduction to copyright’, as follows:

‘Under the UK Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 (as amended), copyright protects original literary, dramatic, musical and artistic works; films; sound recordings; broadcasts and typographical arrangements… Copyright usually lasts for the creator’s lifetime, plus the end of 70 years after their death.’

Precisely. We note that works under copyright must be ‘original’ in UK law. But the photographs of works in these collections, if they are to the job they are required to do, must needs exclude originality and remain precisely faithful to, yes, the original works – most of which are, of course, out of copyright.

The adoption of Creative Commons licences has nothing to do with the law of copyright in the UK. It is simply a device adopted in order to allow the museums to continue to charge for the reproduction of out-of-copyright works of art in their care, which, moreover, belong to the public they are charging for use. There seems, frankly, no good reason for this restrictive practice if these museums are indeed concerned, as the Tate puts it, ‘to promote enjoyment of, and engagement with, art and artists’. Could it be, then, that its purpose is to perpetuate the employment of the gallery staff who collect the money? Any fees collected will be largely cancelled out by costs: salaries, administration, office space, equipment, pensions and so on. Any profits are likely to be minimal and of no real help to the institution: but they are obtained at the greatest possible cultural and educational cost.

For a museum that is not a profit; it is a loss.

For whose benefit do these museums exist? Do they exist for the benefit of the staff who run them or for that of the public and the world of knowledge they were created to serve? Do they aim to enhance knowledge of their collections? If so, why do they go out of their way to penalize any publication or form of dissemination of images that does that work for them? The use of images of works of art in ‘news media… front covers’ or even on biscuit tins, bathmats or shower curtains, all serve the same purpose, which, to repeat, the Tate defines as ‘to promote enjoyment of, and engagement with, art and artists’.

Strange to say, these ‘Creative Commons’ licences originate in the USA where, however, the position, as set out by the NGA above, is clear and simple, and directly contrary to that of these UK museums. No wonder the Tate has to add so many subordinate clauses and pseudo-legal assertions to the provisions of the Creative Commons licence it invokes.

It would be a far, far better thing if these pointlessly rapacious museums in the UK adopted a different, transatlantic, model: that of the National Gallery of Art in Washington and of countless other museums throughout the USA. What are they afraid of?

And who pays for digitizing their images? It so happens that the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art handed out it largest ever grant, £500,000, to the British Museum to digitize its British drawings, surely not with the intention that the museum might now charge for their use. The Mellon Centre’s parent institution is the Yale Center for British Art – where images of artworks in the collections are offered free for any purpose.

To return to the Tate… If, say, you look up Arthur Melville on the Tate website you will find that his biography, far from being written by a curator, as one might hope, is simply a link to Wikipedia. By what right? Yes, by yet another Creative Commons licence which, luckily for the cynical Tate, states on the Wikipedia site that anyone may ‘share… copy, distribute and transmit the work… for any purpose, even commercially.’

Now that sounds like a sensible licence.

Michael Daley, 17 October 2017


The (not so-new) latest New Leonardo Discovery

On 29 September it was widely reported that researchers at the Louvre now believe that a drawing at the Musée Condé in Chantilly – the so-called “Joconde nue” – to be Leonardo’s lost preparatory nude study for the Mona Lisa.

The claimed discovery seemed bold and unleashed global coverage – see, for example, the BBC’s ‘Mona Lisa nude sketch’ found in France, National Geographic’s ‘Nude Mona Lisa’ Sketch May Have Been da Vinci’s, and Fortune’s ‘Historians Think They’ve Found a Nude Drawing of Mona Lisa’

In reality, this latest New Leonardo Discovery is a warm-up of an old, on-the-record, attribution. In 1988 Jacques Franck, the art historian/painter trained in Old Master techniques (and a current restoration adviser to the Louvre), had closely examined the Joconde nue in the Château of Chantilly along with Amélie Lefébure, former Head curator of the Musée Condé, and Dominique Le Marois, a restorer in the French museums. At that date the drawing had long been considered the work of an anonymous Leonardo imitator and contemporary but on close visual examination Franck concluded that it was mostly executed by Leonardo and he advised the then director of the Chantilly Estate, Prof. Germain Bazin, accordingly. His (written) ascription was accepted by leading Leonardo specialists, including Profs. Bazin and René Huyghe.

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Above, Fig. 1: Here attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, Joconde nue, c. 1500-1506 ?, black chalk on brown prepared paper, 72 x 54 cm. Chantilly, Musée Condé, Inv. 32 (27).

Fig. 2 Leonardo nude detail

Above, Fig. 2: a detail of Joconde nue (as published showing prick marks when the design was transferred for use on panel.)

Because the Joconde nue had been heavily retouched over the centuries and rendered barely legible in many sections, some thought it necessary that it be subjected to a wide range of forensic tests. This was rejected by Prof. Bazin for fear that, should the work be widely accepted as a true Leonardo, it would then undergo a drastic and likely harmful cleaning. Although forensic investigations have improved significantly in the last thirty years, that risk remains. On his personal recollections of the sheet and in the light of the restorer M. Le Marois’s alarming and still extant 1988 condition report, Franck now fears that an essentially technical underpinning of the Leonardo ascription will prompt further and more invasive technical interventions. He tells AWUK:

“The Joconde nue’s authentication by scientific means will be quite a challenge to the Louvre’s laboratory. For sure they will be able to check the paper and date it correctly, yet the materials in themselves cannot establish that the drawing is the work of Leonardo himself as opposed to that of a close disciple. The composition has been considerably harmed by apocryphal retouchings and the pricking for transfer onto a panel to get an oil painting out of it [See Fig. 2 above and Fig. 5 below]. Further, at a later date, possibly in the 19th century, some thick aqueous paint was applied to the background in order to conceal various alterations (stains, rings, etc.). As a result, many of the forms are hardly legible in terms of Leonardo’s artistic standards.

“The brutal interference of the alterations with the impalpable modelling on which Leonardo’s overall drawing is based has grossly denatured it. When I realized this, I intended to clean the work ‘virtually’ by reconstructing the drawn composition as closely as possible to what it had once been. The task would have been huge but this reaffirmation of my conclusions on the drawing’s status provides a compelling and urgent occasion for that task to be undertaken soon. The growing conceit of restorers that they can recover original states that have been largely subsumed within alien and deleterious additions has repeatedly been shown to be foolhardy with Leonardo.”

As in 1988, the authenticity of the Chantilly cartoon should stand or fall today on the strength of its aesthetic force and originality, which is to say: as seen by eye and not on the basis of some technical analysis of the drawing’s component material innards. Nearly three decades ago Jacques Franck felt that he had seen enough with his trained draughtsman’s eye to make a firm ascription to Leonardo (as was reported in letters to the then director) and today he recalls that:

“Besides the characteristics of Leonardo’s late style visible in so many chalk drawings (either red or black), kept notably in the Queen’s collections at Windsor, what struck me at once was the hands. Their execution reminded me of the underdrawing of the Mona Lisa’s own hands in the Louvre picture as revealed in infrared light [See Figs. 3, 4, 6, 7 and 8]. Although such forensics weren’t as developed in 1988 as they are now, at the time the extant infrared images of the Mona Lisa [see Fig. 7 for a more recent image] were defined well enough to help my eye notice that extraordinary resemblance between the painted and drawn hands at first glance. Leonardo had clearly used a very fine brush to trace the contours of the fingers in the cartoon and the painting, hence the thin outlines to be seen in the fingers in both. This similarity isn’t mere chance, it simply means that the hands and, of course the rest of the cartoon is indeed a Leonardo work. Also, the Joconde nue’s forefinger was obviously longer at the outset [Figs. 7 and 8] but Leonardo changed his mind and reduced its length afterwards using wash, exactly as it is in the Louvre picture now. A crucial pentimento probably meaning that the Chantilly cartoon preceded the painted version of the famous portrait.”

Fig. 3 drawn and painted hands

Above, Fig. 3: (left) Leonardo da Vinci, Studies of hands, c. 1480-81, silver-point on pink prepared paper, Windsor Castle, Royal Library, n° 12616; (right) a section of Leonardo da Vinci, the Adoration of the Magi, 1480-81, oil on wood panel, 246 x 243 cm. Florence, Uffizi Gallery, Inv. 1890 : n° 1594.

Fig. 4 hands touch

Above, Fig. 4: (left) a detail of the hands of Joconde nue, at Fig. 1; (right) Leonardo da Vinci, Studies of a woman’s hands, c. 1478 (?), silver-point, heightened with white on pink prepared paper, 21. 5 x 15 cm. Windsor Castle, Royal Library, n° 12558.

Fig. 5 derived painting

Above, Fig. 5: (left) Joconde nue; (right) After Leonardo da Vinci, Joconde nue as Primavera, 16th century (?), 89 x 65 cm. Switzerland, private collection (formerly Mackenzie collection).

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Above, Fig. 6: a detail of Joconde nue showing prick marks used for transferring the design, and, the artist’s revision and shortening of the index finger.

Fig. 7 two hands

Above, Fig. 7: (top) the revised right hand of Joconde nue and (bottom), by way of comparison, a circa 2004 Louvre infra-red image (all rights reserved) of the right hand of the Mona Lisa.

Fig. 8 Nue and Mona - Three hands - with lines

Above, Fig. 8: showing (top) the revised right hand of Joconde nue with the first state of the forefinger indicated in red and the revised state indicated in yellow – graphic by Gareth Hawker; (centre) the right hand of Joconde nue and, by way of comparison, (bottom) the right hand of the Mona Lisa as seen in the Louvre infra-red image at Fig. 7.

Michael Daley, 3 October 2017


Mondrian, Schmondrian – another lapse of museum expertise

Another day, yet another herd of museum experts are bitten by a work that should not, on a cursory glance, have been taken as what it purported to be.

Yesterday Nina Siegal reported in the New York Times (‘It Might Have Been a Masterpiece, but Now It’s a Cautionary Tale’) on the mega-embarrassment of museum experts at the Bozar Center for the Arts in Brussels, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and the Zentrum Paul Klee in Bern, Switzerland, who had all taken on trust a work of unexamined provenance owned by an anonymous private collector who lives in Switzerland. As Ms Siegal puts it:

“What started out as a potentially major cultural discovery now turns out instead to be a cautionary tale about the dangers of presenting works of art owned by private collectors that have not been systematically vetted. In this case, art experts seem to have passed the buck on conducting basic due diligence on the artwork before displaying it as a Mondrian — putting their own reputations on the line because they gave such credence to a private collector.”

It seems that the director of the Stedelijk Museum saw the pretendy Mondrian at the home of the said collector and discussed the possibility of exhibiting it at the Stedelijk – to which museum it was sent for examination. In self-exculpation the museum now bleats in a reported official statement that a) the Stedelijk was unaware of any doubts about the painting’s authenticity – despite the fact that it had twice been rejected by a leading authority on the artist, and, b) that, besides, the task of a museum is: “to promote art, try to show works that are not yet known to the public and in order to do so, build connections with private collectors. It is not the role of a museum to determine authenticity of a work.”

We beg to differ. We would respectfully suggest that it is the first and prime duty of a museum to know its art from its elbow. All museums should look carefully and critically at any work offered on loan and take nothing on trust. In this case the most obvious first step would have been to compare the photograph of the bona fide Mondrian that had been thought lost during the Second World War with a photograph of the newly presented work and see if any differences emerge. We show below the lost Mondrian on the right and its supposedly resurrected self on the left. Is it really so difficult these days for museum experts to see that these two photographic records are not of the self-same work?

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Michael Daley, 20 September 2017

23 September 2017, UPDATE. Philip Coucke, a member of the Brussels Bar, writes:

“The Belgian Bozar ‘center of the arts’ paid several thousand euros for a restoration of the fake Mondrian in consideration of the loan. Their lame excuses sound like a politician trying to explain away the inexplicable – ‘We are not a museum’ and we don’t do ‘authentications’. Why would any publicly funded institution pay for the restoration of admittedly ‘unauthenticated’ paintings?”


BOOK REVIEW – “For Our Freedom and Yours”

Don Reynolds, The Art and Life of Andrew Pitynski, Perennial Wisdom Press, 2015, hardback, 536 pp, ISBN: 978-0-9814755-0-9

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“A monument is an expressive symbol. A good one, looked at for even a few minutes, will remain in memory for years or even for an entire lifetime. Monuments are the milestones in a nation’s history.” – Andrew Pitynski

Peter Gibbon writes: On Boston Common once stood a gigantic sculpture of gaunt soldiers riding emaciated horses, spears pointed to the sky. The soldiers are Polish partisans resisting Joseph Stalin. A statue of Marie Curie, wearing her two Nobel Prize medals, stands in front of the Bayonne Public Library in New Jersey. The aluminum portrait bust of a proud, sad Frederick Chopin stares at a visitor in an artist’s studio in Poland.

These are just a handful of the 200 sculptures, commemorative medals, and portrait busts created by the Polish-American sculptor Andrew Pitynski that can be found in Donald Martin Reynolds’ splendid and beautifully illustrated new biography, “For Our Freedom and Yours,” The Art and Life of Andrew Pitynski, Portrait of an American Master.

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Above: Partisans 1, Andrew Pitynski’s 1979 sculpture, as installed in 2007 at The Silver Line World Trade Center Station, Boston MA.

Reynolds brings to Pitynski a lifetime of studying sculpture, a belief in the importance of monuments, and a commitment to the figure and realism. “Monuments,” Reynolds writes, “when properly celebrated, can become forces within society for the perpetuation of traditions and human values.” To research Pitynski, Reynolds travelled to Poland, interviewed Pitynski’s family and friends, walked through cemeteries, toured battlefields, visited the sculptor’s classrooms and studios, and immersed himself in the craft of shaping the human figure out of metal and clay.

The result is a vivid, often tragic family history, a compelling personal biography, and an odyssey through Poland’s painful past, filled with war, imprisonment, tyranny, and torture. The book is also a celebration of Polish resistance and resilience. It is elegant, nearly 500 pages filled with historical photographs, hundreds of Pitynski’s etchings and charcoal drawings, portrait busts, reliefs, commemorative medals, and monumental sculptures. The endnotes testify to Reynolds’ diligent research, and the detailed explanations of Pitynski’s intricate art demonstrate Reynolds’ critical acumen.

Reynolds starts by telling the fascinating story of how a young man, marooned in Communist Poland, became an artist. Pitynski comes from a distinguished Polish family. Embedded in his DNA are horses, rafting, fishing, Catholicism, and a fierce resistance to Poland’s many oppressors, particularly the Communists who shot Pitynski’s grandmother and captured, imprisoned, and tortured his father. One of the most powerful images in the book is the bronze portrait bust of his father, his face clearly battered by beatings, his gaze stubborn and defiant.

Under Communist rule, Pitynski struggled to get an education and find his artistic voice. An elementary school teacher recognized his talent and a high school principal encouraged his defiance. Though discouraged by Communist officials, Pitynski persisted, remembering, “I knew my day would come when I could speak out through my art.” Eventually, he was admitted to the prestigious Cracow Academy of Fine Arts, which in the words of Reynolds was “…a formal and tangible affirmation of the vitality and continuity of Polish culture…”

At the Cracow Academy, Pitynski learned the craft of bronze casting, studied Polish folk art, took a few lessons from “socialist realism,” and tried to ignore the Communist message he detested. By chance, in 1974 he obtained a visa to America. He remembers: “As I stepped on to that American plane on October 3, 1974, I looked back and smiled to myself. I knew that I would never return to that Poland, to those Communist bastards. And for the first time in my life, I felt really free.”

Pitynski worked in demolition, made contacts, and taught art and sculpture at schools in Princeton, New Jersey, and Greenpoint, Brooklyn. He received commissions and came to the attention of Seward Johnson, America’s foremost artisan/entrepreneur. Johnson founded the International Sculpture Center of Hamilton, New Jersey, and is known for his life-sized sculptures of ordinary people engaged in day-to-day activities. These sculptures can be found in cities all over America. Johnson encouraged Pitnyski to create his monumental partisan statue on the Boston Common. At the end of the Cold War, as Poland moved itself towards independence and self-determination, Johnson commissioned a more heroic version for his sculpture gardens in New Jersey

Pitynski has chosen to represent his nation’s calamity: Chopin’s exile, the 1940 Katyn Massacre of Polish officers and intellectuals by Russia, the deportation of Polish men and women to Siberia, the German and Russian torture chambers, the bitter civil war and underground resistance that continued after 1945.

Simultaneously, Pitynski portrays with painstaking research and historical accuracy his nation’s commitment to resistance and freedom. He also portrays its heroes: Jan Paderewski, the famous pianist who persuaded Woodrow Wilson in 1920 to include an independent Poland in his Fourteen Points; Jan Karski, the Polish resistance fighter, who first alerted the world to the reality of the Nazi death camps; and Pope John Paul who, along with the partisans, helped end Communist rule.

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Above: Andrew Pitynski at work on the plaster for Avenger in 1986; below, the bronze and granite Avenger monument at Doylestown, PA, 1988.

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Why does Pitnyski’s work matter to Americans? There are Polish Americans living in Greenpoint, Brooklyn; in Doylestown, Pennsylvania; on the Lower East Side of Manhattan; in Chicago’s South End; and spread out in Milwaukee. They and their ancestors fled deprivation and tyranny. They remember Poland’s catastrophic 20th century, offer commissions to an artist who remembers his homeland, and attend the dedication of his monuments.

Pitynski also celebrates Poles who fought for America’s freedom. In medals he celebrates Kazimierz Pulaski, the father of American Cavalry who, as Reynolds notes, wrote to George Washington: “I came here, where freedom is being defended, to serve it, and to live or die for it.” In St. Petersburg, Florida, a bronze, eight-foot high stature of Thaddeus Kosciuszko stands on top of a granite base. An engineer, Kosciuszko designed the fortifications along the Hudson River at West Point. He is portrayed in military uniform, his right arm thrusting forward his famous will in which he leaves his entire estate to the Negroes of America so that they could be free, educated and assimilated. Of Kosciuszko Jefferson said: “He is as pure a son of liberty, as I have ever known and of that liberty which is to go to all, and not to the few or rich alone.” Pitynski reminds us he is engaged in an eternal fight “for our freedom and yours.”

In a cynical age, Pitynski is patriotic, idealistic, and realistic. Where moral relativism is common, Pitynski is didactic and certain. In an art world fond of abstract sculpture, Pitynski is devoted to classical beauty, representation, romanticism, and reality—all making his work arresting and moving.

Donald Martin Reynolds has spent his career describing and appreciating monuments. They are, he insists, a reflection of a society’s values, a preservation of the past, an escape from death, and an inspiration to the living. In Pitynski’s work, he sees “the deeper truths of nobility, patriotism, and loyalty.” In this, Reynolds is describing his own credo.

Peter Gibbon is a Senior Research Scholar at the Boston University School of Education and the author of A Call to Heroism: Renewing America’s Vision of Greatness (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2002). He has directed four Teaching American History programs and is currently the director of an NEH Seminar, “Philosophers of Education: Major Thinkers from the Enlightenment to the Present.”

Don Reynolds gave the 2016 James Beck Memorial Lecture on the art and life of Andrew Pitynski.

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25 June 2017.


BOOK REVIEW – A Restoration Palindrome

Noémie Étienne, The Restoration of Paintings in Paris, 1750-1815: Practice, Discourse, Materiality, Getty Publications, 2017, paperback, 302pp + xiv, 35 col./34 mono illus., £45/$69.95, ISBN 978 60606 516 7

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Alexander Adams writes: This title does not discuss the actual techniques used by restorers of the period but discusses the way restoration was seen and how business was conducted. The author examines the underlying assumptions of collectors, critics, administrators and restorers at time of great change in French (and European) history.

“A painting cleaned is a painting ruined; a thing to which the dealers never agree, but it is nonetheless true.” So Pierre-Jean Mariette (1694-1774) wrote posthumously in 1851-3. Restoring was a controversial practice even in its early days. “Individuals engaged in some kind of restoration in Paris between 1750 and 1815 were generally also dealers, experts, copyists, or painters. That versatility underscores the breadth and variability of the profiles involved. The activity itself was nurtured by numerous related occupations, such as painting and forgery.” In business directories of the time, the classification of restorers was unclear and changeable. Dealers – initially based near the Louvre but later more widely distributed in central Paris – commonly repainted, retouched, cropped and expanded paintings that passed through their hands and a small community of restorers grew up to support such activity.

Restorers worked for the Louvre, the court and for private collectors. Restorers long maintained secrecy to prevent competition and to avoid criticism, though they were often berated for their secrecy, which began to dissipate in 1802 when the first published description of technique used on a specific art work by the restorer in question. There was a clear conflict here. Museum administrators recognised the right (and necessity) of allowing private craftsmen to conceal their methods from competitors; at the same time the administrators needed to know the safety and permanency of operations being carried out upon museum property.

Renowned restorers such as Robert Picault could command huge sums for work on important pictures, such as Raphael’s St Michael. Despite these triumphs there are cases such as that of a 35,000-franc Rubens painting being reduced in value to 5,000 francs due to Picault’s aggressive overpainting. Restoration sometimes made paintings more saleable, sometimes worthless wrecks.

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Only after the Revolution (and then only gradually) did restoration become to be seen as a distinct discipline. The proposed professionalization of restoration practitioners in Paris was complicated by the unclear division between the menial craftsmen who made the panels and stretchers and were more likely to do the work of relining oil paintings and detaching frescoes and the skilled artisans who reserved the prerogative of cleaning, varnishing and retouching the painting surfaces.

Already at this time there was a division between those favouring methods which distinguished between original and restoration and those advocated extensive, invisible in-painting, including invention of absent passages. Bedotti recommended improving works where possible:

“For it sometimes happens to even the most skilful painters to make mistakes that are too gross and too visible. In that case, one must not fear to seek and to remedy, wherever possible, and to improve the painting by eliminating or concealing the most shocking mistakes.”

Others explicitly opposed such intervention, sometimes on the purely aesthetic grounds that retouchings discoloured at a different rate (and in a different way) to the original paint, thus leaving old restored paintings an ugly patchwork of tones.

The more famous the master, the more enthusiastically it was overpainted in order to freshen it. Work on the Raphael St Michael was considered especially egregious, with details repainted. Jacques-Louis David was also critical of restorations to Raphaels, which had subdued the master’s colours. By 1800 the relining process was heavily criticised for flattening impasto and removing the brushstroke, thereby altering the character of paintings.

Attitudes towards cleaning differed. Some said darkening through age, dirt and deteriorating varnish was a patina which imparted special qualities to the art work, mellowing and harmonising colours. Others suggested moderate cleaning, even leaving a light veil of dirt. One writer stated that cleaning was more injurious to a painting than the yellowing of varnish.

Étienne makes the point that the practice of transferring paintings from their original supports to new ones (usually canvas) altered not only the character of the art physically but also conceptually, turning altarpieces, furniture panels and murals into cabinet pictures, moveable chattel. German historian Johann Dominicus Fiorillo wrote “Nothing is independent in an art work; each singular part is bound up in a coherent whole, and that unity and singular internal constitution means that it forms a unit. If one part is destroyed, then only a fragment remains, and the work can never regain its unity.” For the French, a painting consisted of a painted surface and the support was – technical considerations aside – a matter of indifference. Conversely, the dismemberment of altarpieces (common practice in Italy and Belgium) was apparently rare in France.

Political considerations also encouraged the mobility of art in order to make it available in grandes projets of the period – the construction of new museum collections which would centralise newly mobile paintings. When Vivant Denon, director to the Louvre, required works to fill gaps in the museum’s collection, there was a drive to transfer Daniele da Volterra’s Descent from the Cross (c. 1545) from its wall in Rome to a canvas support so it could be taken to Paris. French officials suggested that transfer was the only way to save the work that would surely be damaged or destroyed otherwise – hardly more veiled than an outright threat issued to reluctant Roman authorities. It was indeed detached and damaged but later replaced in situ, the French effort stymied by Italian resistance. The wholesale detachment and transferring of the Sistine Chapel murals was seriously considered.

Paintings were considered decorative in function and so were often altered in shape to fit a new location or to make a group of works conform in size. The author suggests that the Revolution altered perceptions among authorities regarding the function of art. No longer in the new French Republic would art be titillating and comforting decoration but moral, uplifting and didactic. As part of a wholesale reappraisal of Louvre practice in the wake of the Revolution, a review concluded that art works no longer be altered in size. Denon had had a change of outlook and adopted a minimalist approach to restoration.

Étienne describes the hectic rush to clean, re-varnish and frame paintings which had been the spoils of military campaigns in the Low Countries and Italy, in order that they could be exhibited in Paris. These restorations were acts of appropriation, as the French asserted ownership of these trophies. “Restoration work performed on the paintings was part of the process of appropriation of newly arrived items. The reasoning worked as a palindrome: Whoever owns the painting restores it, and whoever restores it owns it.”

This title is not intended as a discussion of practice and illustration is minimal. The notes and bibliography are thorough and there is a full index. There is a general biographical directory of restorers of the period. For anyone studying the history and theory of restoration, Étienne’s book is a fascinating, considered and informative survey with implications for practitioners today.

Alexander Adams, 6 June 2017


Leonardo and the Growing Sleeper Crisis

Another day, another new Leonardo drawing – this time a St. Sebastian with a mismatched verso and recto, with as many legs as a millipede, and lashed in a gale-force wind to a tree set in a landscape of icebergs…

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Above, Fig. 1. A newly proposed Leonardo whose problems will be the subject of our next post. See Scott Reyburn’s “An Artistic Discovery Makes a Curator’s Heart Pound”, the New York Times, 11 December 2016.

The old masters world is bursting with Leonardo “discoveries” that flaunt their five-century no-histories. (See Problems with “La Bella Principessa”~ Parts I, II and III; and, “Fake or Fortune: Hypotheses, Claims and Immutable Facts”. “Problems with La Bella Principessa ~ Part I: The Look”.) At the same time there is a near meltdown over a spate of recent high quality exposed fake “sleepers” and “discoveries”. Sotheby’s has hired its own in-house technical analyst to spot inappropriate materials in new-to-the-scene old masters so as to “help make the art market a safer place” (“FBI expert to head up Sotheby’s new anti-forgery unit”, 6 December 2016, the Daily Telegraph). This is no bad thing and the appointment has been universally welcomed when, following the fake Frans Hals affair, it is reportedly feared that 25 forgeries sold for up to £200million are on the walls of unsuspecting owners, and when the new Sotheby’s appointee had himself single-handedly unmasked 40 supposed modern masterpieces sold for £47million at the now deservedly gone Knoedler Gallery, New York.

The real crisis, however, is the product of failures of judgements even more than failures to carry out due diligence checks on the material components of works. It remains the case that aside from works instantly disbarred by technical diagnosis, identifying authorship and establishing authenticity will necessarily and inescapably continue to be a matter of professional judgement. (We hold that here is systemic methodological flaw in appraisals that has yet to be addressed.) Meanwhile, dealers, critics, scholars and collectors embarrassed by suspected fakes are left agonising: should they concede error and take a hit on credibility but thereby limit damage, or should they stand firm and double the risks?

Even professional sleeper-hunters are falling out in acrimonious fashion over rival BBC television platforms – sorry, programmes – with one said to believe the other jealous of his good looks and success: “It’s a copy: Fake or Fortune? Stars try to halt rival show”, Richard Brooks, Sunday Times, 4 December 2016.

One auctioneer shouts you’ve ruined my sale at a musical scholar on Radio4. “Sotheby’s view is shared by the majority of world renowned Beethoven scholars who have inspected the manuscript personally”, the Sotheby’s man insists when characterising a scholar’s refusal to come in to view the manuscript as “irresponsible” (“Sotheby’s give Beethoven expert an earful after copied manuscript row scuppers sale”, The Times, 30 November 2016.)

The charge is a red herring, we say: if errors in the manuscript are visible in an auction house’s high quality photographs, coming in to touch the paper will not make them go away. If the auction house’s (anonymous) world authority musical experts think there are no errors, we add, they should come forward and say so. A Cambridge professor of musical theory did step forward to affirm his endorsement of the manuscript but he also admitted having been bothered by an anomaly (“Sotheby’s expert admits doubts over Beethoven script”, The Times, 3 December 2016.) To Sotheby’s likely mortification, it was revealed that arch-rival Christie’s had refused to sell the score last year, after being unable to confirm its authenticity – “Beethoven manuscript row remains unfinished”, the Daily Telegraph, 30 November 2016: “There was some good news for Sotheby’s however as the auction house succeeded in breaking a new auction world record for another musical manuscript…Gustav Mahler’s complete Second Symphony (the ‘Resurrection’), written in the composer’s own hand…went for £4,546,250.”

“Sotheby’s catalogue was an artful dodge, claims Russian billionaire” – the Times, which reported on 8 December: “Mr Ivanov said that honest mistakes were understandable. The problem is at Sotheby’s the fakes are listed as the top lots and are published”. With experts in as much disarray as auction houses and dealer/broadcasters, what perfect timing, then, for the appearance of a new, cool and calm legal anatomy of the sleeper phenomenon and its associated problems of authentication.

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Above, Fig. 2. In “The Sale of Misattributed Artworks at Antiques at Auction” by Anne Laure Bandle of the London School of Economics and a director of the Art Law Foundation (Geneva), we encounter a book greatly richer and more urgently required than what is simply “said on its tin”. This work, the product of a PhD at the LSE, deftly turns over the law with regard to art market workings as encountered and applied under three key (for the art market) systems of law, those of Swizterland, England and the United States. Under all three it is shown how the auctioneer’s primary duty is to the seller (the consignor) not the buyer. It follows therefore that failing to identify the proper status of a work of a work when conferring an attribution can/should carry penalties of compensation to the consignor. However, in response to this duty/financial danger, auctioneers insert massive disclaimers of liability into their contracts and attributions. These disclaimers are also widely appreciated in terms of warnings to buyers of a need to satisfy themselves of the validity, accuracy and reliability of any catalogue description before buying. Such self-protective clauses have consequences that can bite hard on those who apply them. For one thing, we would add, forgers have not been slow to notice them.

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Above, Fig. 3. The American Ken Perenyi, cheekily called his 2012 Forger’s Memoir Caveat Emptor – The Secret Life of an American Forger. With little interest in consignors’ rights – he being both the knowing maker and the eager consignor of forgeries – Perenyi, after first studying the terminology of attributions in London auction house catalogues (“Attributed to; Signed; Studio of; Circle of; Manner of…”) swiftly moved to “Conditions of Business”; “Limited Warranty”; and thence “Terms and Conditions”. He reported (pp. 228-247) that when in London he noted that:

“In what can only be described as a masterpiece of duplicity, the terms and conditions made it clear (that is, if one has a law degree) that they warranted and guaranteed absolutely nothing. However, farther down, a paragraph entitled ‘Guarantee’ made it plain for even the most thickheaded. It stated: ‘Subject to the obligations accepted by Christie’s under this condition. Neither the seller Christie’s, its employees, or agents is responsible for the correctness of any statement as to the authorship, origin, date, age, size medium, attribution, genuiness, or provenance of any lot.’”

On return to the United States he then examined New York auction house catalogues: “Again and again we saw the phrase neither Christie’s nor the consignor make any representations as to the authorship or authenticity of any lot offered in this catalogue. ‘Hell, they don’t guarantee anything [over] here either!’ I said.”

After reading a paragraph on forgeries stating that if within five years of a sale the buyer could establish “scientifically” that a purchased painting was a fake, the “Sole Remedy” would be a refund of monies paid [- But for a cautionary case-in-point today, see UPDATE , below] Perenyi concluded the following: “A) Virtually nothing sold here was guaranteed to be what it claimed to be, B) Neither the auction house nor the seller assumed any responsibility whatsoever, C) Even if a buyer discovered a painting to be an outright fake, all he could do was ask for a refund, I came to the conclusion that this was an engraved invitation to do business.”

His late partner, José, concluded “Well, maybe we could save people the trouble of going to London and sell them [Perenyi’s forgeries] right here!”

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In her new book, Dr Bandle carries the full terms and conditions of three auction houses (Christie’s, Koller Auctionen’s and Sotheby’s) as an appendix. She notes that notwithstanding disclaimers, such is the volume and reach of art sales that many art market players take auction house catalogues as reference points on the identification and evaluation of art and antiques and do so particularly with regard to attributions, confidence in which confers authority and engenders trust. In this regard the “sleeper”, as an under-identified and therefore under-valued work, is a special problem. A (conceptually subtle and fascinating) chapter is devoted to the sleeper’s elusive and problematic character. In fact, a delight of this book is its constant precision, economy and deftness of language in what is a perpetually shifting and re-forming arena where the market structures have both democratised and globalised the ownership of art but where buyers gathered from around the globe must compete in heated races to acquire multi-million valued art in spectacular shows of competitive bidding that are over in minutes. In a recent double television celebration of Christies-in-the-World, the term “buyer’s remorse” was heard in counterbalance to auctioneers’ seductively whispered advice to “think how terrible you will feel tomorrow if you don’t get this”.

A “sleeper” is first identified as being not a legal term but a figurative illustration of a legal problem. It is one that fleshes the notion that an artwork can remain a “dormant treasure” until it is properly identified. If not so identified, it stands dangerously (to auctioneers, and expensively to consignors) as a work that has been “undervalued and mislabelled due to an expert’s oversight and consequently undersold”. Sleepers are products of three types of error and each receives its own section. The extent to which restorations aiming and claiming to recover original conditions may alter objects and mislead authenticators is examined.

(But for our specialised concerns, recognition of the inherently problematic nature of restoration’s role in the identification and subsequent elevation of authenticity is a rare instance of under-examination in this book. Stripping off later materials does not in itself recover original states. It may disclose little more than badly damaged remains of an earlier, more “authentic” state. How much repainting, or “retouching” as it is euphemised, should be considered permissible before a worked-over sleeper approaches a forged recovery of authenticity? – See “A restorer’s aim – The fine line between retouching and forgery”.
It should be said that sensitivity in this arena is not an art market-confined problem: the Frick Museum does not publish the photograph below – Fig. 6 – of a stripped-down, not-yet repainted Vermeer that the Getty Institute holds and makes freely available – and many museums, in our experience, sit on photographs of their own restoration-wrecked paintings.)

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Dr Bandle’s section on the relationship between sleepers and fakes or forgeries, between the unrecognised and the counterfeit, is adroitly introduced: “sleepers are the negative reflection of counterfeits: both are held as something that they are not.” Fine distinctions are drawn between a fake and a forgery. Both are characterised “negative concepts, referring, as they do, not to qualities but to their absences.” Before considering the legal status of sleepers, a fascinating examination is made of the tools and methods of attribution. So examined, too, are the hoped-for instruments of probity, the best-practice and ethical codes for authentication and dealing. Like auction house terms and conditions, ethical codes are shown carry their own disclaimers: “Similarly, the Swiss Association of Dealers in Antiques and Art contains a disclaimer of the attribution and appraisal’s accuracy.” (One hears a Perenyi expletive of delight here.) As for auction houses, while they “issue attributions in sale catalogues, they are not considered to be formal authentication reports”, whatever weight they might carry in the market and for buyers.

The section on the “Essence of Attribution” might be considered essential reading for all art market players and commentators, not least because the art market “greatly relies on scholarship”, and such expert appraisal is uniquely challenged “by the peculiarities of the art world” – one of which is that however long debates rage, scholars themselves “may very well never achieve a consensus”, in which case, the circularity is complete: “scholarship cannot halt during the art object’s identification process by establishing an attribution, not even temporarily”. Like painting the Forth Bridge, attributing an art object can be “an ongoing undertaking that never settles”. Existing attributions are constantly subject to challenge or revision.

The law itself can seem helpless or exasperated in the face of art world processes. Elusive notions of authenticity tax judges as well as scholars. With regard to establishing the merit or applicability of warranties of authenticity or the diligence of experts, even the admission of testimony is problematic within both Swiss civil law and the English and United States traditions of common law. Swiss courts can commission reports and instruct experts to answer set questions. Under common law conflicting parties support their rival positions by calling rival and conflicting experts. Courts may confine these adversarial jousts to “that which is reasonably required”. Under US Federal rules courts may exclude what they consider “unreliable expert testimony” and even when testimony is based on scientific principles it may be held acceptable only when these principles have “gained general acceptance”.

Under Swiss, English and United States jurisdictions alike, contractual relationships governing art auction sales are not clearly defined by law and are subject to scholarly debate (which, as mentioned, is a never-ending process). Further complications arise from the dual and conflicted position of the auctioneer. Does he really serve the buyer’s or the seller’s interest – or, somehow, both? In practice, we might think, he should/must aim to serve both since different people must always be persuaded any moment that it is a “good time” to sell and a “good time” to buy. Failures to recognise “sleepers” are the mirror image of failures to recognise fakes or forgeries: the one injures consignors’ interests, the other those of the buyer. But how to stay out of trouble as an auctioneer when case law results in unclear and unreliable notions of liability – and while there is a requirement to perform diligently but not one to produce to specific results?

By increments the law emerges as unfit for its presently allotted purpose in resolving sleeper disputes. Auctioneers are judged by standards predicated on what is little more than a fiction. Standards of performance must be interpreted on a case-by-case basis but these provide no benchmark in cases of sleepers sold at auctions. Aside from these problems, judges generally lack connoisseurship in art and art auction sales and may have difficulty in assessing authenticity and in reconstructing the attribution process – and while this is understandable because art connoisseurship and art market mechanisms are both highly sensitive and influential forces, judges, no matter how well educated and competent in other areas of the law, will struggle to redress a present structural imbalance between the interests of (favoured) buyers and (disfavoured) consignors.

Can applications of the law be made to work in this arena? Are alternatives to the law presently or potentially available? For answers to these questions it is necessary to read the concluding section of a timely book that will commend itself to Art’s players and watchers alike.

The Sale of Misattributed Artworks and Antiques at Auction, Anne Laure Bandle. ISBN: 978 1 78643 100 4 Price £100 or Web: £90

Michael Daley, 15 December 2016

UPDATE 17 December 2016

In the 17/18 December Financial Times “The Art Market”, Melanie Gerlis writes:

Art is notoriously a ‘buyer beware’ market, but even prolific professionals can get caught out. Micky Tiroche, a private dealer in London and co-founder of the Tiroche auction house in Israel, bought ‘Sun and Stars’, a gouache attributed to Alexander Calder, for £28,000 (with fees) at Bonhams, London in 2007. The purchase was made through his dealing company, Thomas Holdings, which has about 160 works on paper by Calder.

“In 2013, the gouache was submitted, along with other works, to the Calder Foundation in New York, which doesn’t officially authenticate the artist’s works but gives them an inventory number (known as an ‘A-number’ because the digits are prefixed with the letter A). ‘Sun and Stars’ was not given an A-number, making it effectively unsellable.

“Christie’s, Sotheby’s and now Bonhams will not sell Calder works that do not have an A-number.

“Tiroche, who buys frequently at Bonhams as well as elsewhere, says that he asked the auction house for a refund and was refused. He has suggested alternative, less visible ways of refunding (such as deducting its value from other works) and legal letters have been exchanged, but to no avail.

“A spokesman for Bonhams said: ‘It is [the auction house’s policy] not to discuss individual cases, beyond saying that we are in communication with Mr Tiroche’s company about the situation.”


The Louvre’s Leonardo Restorations: The Tide Turns

Recent newspaper criticisms of the Louvre’s controversial restoration of Leonardo da Vinci’s near-monochrome painting of St. John the Baptist continue in the scholarly press.

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Above, Figs. 1 and 2: Leonardo’s St John the Baptist, top, before restoration; and, above, after restoration. In some publications, the order of the before and after restorations was transposed and experts expressed preferences for the supposed after restoration state when in truth it was the before restoration record. The reason for that mis-judgement becomes clear when the photographs are shown in the right order: before restoration the painting showed a greater range of values and had a markedly more vivacious appearance. Below, Fig. 3, the December 2016 issue of Beaux-Arts magazine.

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In the December 2016 issue of Beaux-Arts, France’s leading magazine of the visual arts, under the heading “New” Leonardo in the Louvre, Daphné Bétard reports:

“Following the St Anne and Belle Ferronière, Leonardo’s Saint John-the-Baptist has just been restored. It is a very fragile picture, bearing much crazing. Regina Moreira, a skilled restorer, has been trusted with its cleaning and she has done a subtle job. As a result, the Saint’s face’s character is better defined while the heavy hair, the cross and the animal fur come out better. Some toning down, however: the scientific advisory committee hired by the Louvre has obviously been overtaken by this monotone brown-gold composition as Leonardo definitely wished it to be. As a result, the Louvre seems to have over-thinned the varnish (now half thick) hoping to retrieve unlikely fresh pink flesh tones. The Saint’s lighted arm now contrasts too strongly with the face. While Saint John-the-Baptist has become more legible, doubtless that it is far less radiant.”

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Above, Figs. 3, 4 and 5: top, Daphné Bétard’s report; centre, the head of St. Anne in Leonardo’s The Virgin and Child with St. Anne , before restoration; above, the head of St. Anne in Leonardo’s The Virgin and Child with St. Anne , as seen after restoration.

Earlier, the press reported on a number of occasions that during restoration a certain disruption had occurred between St. John’s beautifully, softly modelled face and his (proper right arm). For Eric Bietry-Rivierre in Le Figaro (5-6 November 2016), “the face and the arm are now unbalanced in terms of degree of modelling.” In La Croix online (10 November 2016), Sabine Gignoux judged that “the Precursor’s uplifted arm had acquired during cleaning a rather rigid outline along its lighted section”. Precisely such injuries to Leonardo’s uniquely subtle and refined modelling had occurred during the restoration of his “The Virgin and Child with St. Anne” – as seen above and below. Such judgements on the St. John restoration have been widely taken as vindications of warnings reported in the Wall Street Journal by Jacques Franck, a Paris-based Leonardo expert consultant to the Louvre. When the cleaning was about to start, the WSJ reported (16 January 2016) Mr Franck’s observation that: “I don’t oppose the removal of the latest layers of varnish, but am concerned they may go too far and touch original material, which could be vulnerable to the solvents used in the process for [contrary to the general belief] the aesthetics of the image were meant to be blurry and dark”.

Below, Figs. 6, 7 and 8, showing, top, a greyscale detail of the The Virgin and Child with St. Anne before cleaning, left, and after cleaning, right. The same detail is shown, centre, before cleaning, and, bottom, after cleaning.

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Against such technically and aesthetically informed concerns, the Wall Street Journal, also quoted the insistence by the museum’s Head of Paintings, Sébastien Allard, that “Louvre officials say that such concerns are unwarranted because restoration techniques have evolved in recent decades to the point the process is considered safe” and that, besides, “the doctrine at the department is prudence and pragmatism”. Every generation of restorers repeats this claim of a final achievement of safety-in-restoration. While such are the stock currency of defensive museum officials the world over whenever challenged on restorations, in this case, given the manifestly injurious earlier Louvre restoration (2012) of another Leonardo masterpiece, The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and a Lamb, as shown here, they might be thought to smack of complacency if not defiance. Such was the strength of opposition to the over-cleaning of the picture that two leading Louvre in-house curators resigned from the advisory scientific committee in protest.

For our own coverage of that controversy, see: The Louvre Leonardo Restoration Committee Resignations; What Price a Smile? The Louvre Leonardo Mouths that are Now at Risk; Another Restored Leonardo, Another Sponsored Celebration – Ferragamo at the Louvre ; and, Rocking the Louvre: the Bergeon Langle Disclosures on a Leonardo da Vinci restoration.

Mr Franck now wonders whether, before next listing the Mona Lisa for a face-lift, the authorities will consider whether the Louvre’s present Leonardo cleaners’ claims of “prudence and pragmatism are really reliable or mere imagination”. Her smile, he asks, “is what is now at stake, isn’t it?”

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Above, Fig, 9, a detail of the Mona Lisa’s ineffably subtle, heavily crazed mouth.

Michael Daley, 29 November 2016


Bendor Grosvenor’s Eye, a new Raphael, and further barbarism at the Louvre

Bendor Grosvenor has challenged our post on the so-called “Haddo Raphael” and asked for a right to reply.

Dr Grosvenor writes:

It is not correct to say that the Haddo Madonna ‘relates to no known Raphael work’. The picture bears a very interesting relation to a drawing by Raphael of the Head of a Virgin formerly in the de Triqueti collection. Sadly, that drawing is now lost, but it is listed in Paul Joannides’ 1983 catalogue, ’The Drawings of Raphael’ (no.64). A good quality reproduction is in the Witt Library. What I think Michael means is that the Haddo Madonna relates to no known work which he agrees is by Raphael (he does not agree that the de Triqueti drawing is by Raphael).

Michael seeks to establish the connoisseurial quality of my ‘eye’ by referencing the ongoing and recently uncovered fake Old Master scandal. He writes that, like numerous Hals scholars and the Louvre, I was ‘deceived’ by a Hals which has been proven to be fake. But there is an important distinction to be drawn between the Louvre’s deception and my alleged deception – I never actually saw the painting. As I make clear in the Financial Times article in which I discuss the Hals, I had only seen it via a photograph, long before the fake story ever began, and never paid it especial attention. In my business, seeing a picture in the flesh and via photographs offers a world of difference.

Michael then also states that I ‘came within a whisker of being deceived by a Gentileschi fake’ formerly on display at the National Gallery in London. I suppose that not actually being deceived by a painting which is indeed almost certainly a fake (it hasn’t yet been proved) could be characterised as ‘coming within a whisker of being deceived’. But that presentation of my views seems perhaps a little unfair. The Gentileschi is the only painting of a number of works currently being doubted as fakes that I have seen in the flesh. I have been the first to go on the record as saying that I think it is a fake. I have made that conclusion on the basis of ‘my eye’. I might be wrong, of course – in which case Michael will have further reason to doubt my connoisseurship, but for a different reason.

It might have been more helpful to ArtWatch readers if Michael had introduced them to the quality or otherwise of my ‘eye’ via the other re-attributions we made in the series ‘Britain’s Lost Masterpieces’; works by Jacob Jordaens, Peter Breughel the Younger, Allan Ramsay, and Claude Lorrain, all of which had been doubted before. (I must admit I am rather proud of them, so I’m sorry if it sounds like boasting, it’s not meant to.) For these pictures I felt confident enough to say, ‘this is what I believe them to be’, and happily had the agreement of other experts too. But in the case of the Haddo Madonna I have only ever said ‘it might be by Raphael’ (and happily had the agreement of Sir Nicholas Penny). I am very far from certain that it is. Much further work is clearly required. It seems at this stage that the preponderance of evidence, including the qualities of the painting itself, does suggest, at the very least, that the former attribution to Raphael ought to be re-considered.

I take no issue with Michael casting doubt on the possible attribution. Indeed, given his longstanding views on the Madonna of the Pinks, which Sir Nicholas Penny discovered and (rightly in my view) believes in wholeheartedly, I expected it. I welcome the debate. But I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to some of the points Michael has made so far, which I felt framed the argument in a rather unhelpful manner. I would also have preferred it if he had gone to see the Haddo Madonna in person before making such firm conclusions about its quality. But I suppose we must all practice our connoisseurship in our own ways.

Bendor Grosvenor, 23 October 2016

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Above, Fig. 1: BBC4 Factual Report, 03. 10, 2016: “Britain’s Lost Masterpieces discovers hidden painting believed to be by Raphael. ‘Finding a potential Raphael is about as exciting as it gets. At first I couldn’t quite believe it it might be possible, but gradually the evidence began to all point in the right direction.’ Dr Bendor Grosvenor.” Photograph showing the co-presenters of the programme, Jacky Klein and Bendor Grosvenor with the attributed Haddo House Raphael.

Michael Daley replies:

It is good that Bendor Grosvenor is prepared to engage in debate on the nature of connoisseurship. Bendor reproaches me for not adhering to practices employed in his “business”. I take his connoisseurship to be rooted in a niche art market where works of unrecognised quality (“sleepers”) are identified, stripped down and painted back together again by restorers, before being presented as reconditioned, aesthetically and financially elevated works. Within this milieu Bendor can indeed claim successes, but his “eye” is grounded in neither artistic practice, nor art historical studies. My eye has been sharpened by a long professional training in art and crafts; through art school lecturing; and, above all, by practice as an artist and illustrator. From 1990 this was supplemented and enriched through friendship with Professor James Beck whose rigorous scholarly method was respected even by his opponents.

Bendor complains that I have not trekked to Aberdeenshire to see his claimed Raphael in the flesh but, then, he underwrites it by appealing to the authority of a drawing that he has never seen and that nobody can see because it is lost and known only through a poor quality photograph (see Fig. 3 below). Bendor insists that this singular, un-examinable, slight and problematic drawing establishes that the Haddo painting was executed by Raphael, even though it is not related to the heroic and revolutionary works of Raphael’s first “Florentine period” (1504-08) when he – more student than genius, in Michelangelo’s view – was galvanised by sight of Michelangelo’s and Leonardo’s works.

Bendor appeals to the authority of two scholars, one of whom, Sir Nicholas Penny, described the Haddo picture as “Very beautiful – I’m very impressed by parts of it.” However, this curate’s egg is itself only a part. The composition would appear to have been brutally cut out of a larger panel but Bendor tells me that while the paint runs up to the (distressed) edges of the panel, it does so without evidence of saw mark injuries. Does that unusual relationship not suggest that the painting was made to fit this particular piece of old wood?

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Above, Fig. 2: The Haddo House Raphael, top left; an attempt by the author to extend the image on the cropped design of the painting, top right; a detail of a painting by Le Brun, showing a similar cross-over dress with a triangle of under garment showing (above).

On the impressive parts, would Sir Nicholas include the Virgin’s costume – a racy empire-style cross-over dress with a sash under the breasts (above) – when such costumes were as scarce as hens’ teeth in Florentine Madonnas of the first decade of the 16th century? Bendor appeals to authority of Professor Paul Joannides, the author of the 1983 complete catalogue of Raphael’s drawings, but has he read the book? Prof. Joannides gives this drawing not to the Florence Madonnas but to a group of studies made in Umbria in 1503-04 for one of the Virgin’s companions in Raphael’s first major work, The Marriage of the Virgin, (as shown below) when the artist was still under the sway of Perugino.

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Above, fig. 3: Above, two drawings given to Raphael by Professor Paul Joannides in his 1983 The drawings of Raphael with a complete catalogue. Prof. Joannides assigns these drawings to Raphael as studies made in 1503-04 for the central companion (above, top) to the Virgin in Raphael’s The Marriage of the Virgin. The drawing whose design coincides with head and neck of the Haddo House painting is here on the bottom right

My eye tells me that the drawing is the inferior of others in its group and that it was clearly not made as an auxiliary cartoon for anything, let alone for part of the Haddo picture, it being summary not exploratory. Connoisseurship consists more of discriminating between qualities than in identifying similarities. The highly schematic drawing proposed as Raphael’s intended cartoon for the Haddo House painting shows none of the flair, absorption in the model’s features, and sheer graphic brilliance brought by Raphael to other 1503 studies of heads made as auxiliary cartoons for major paintings. That this particular drawing should closely fit with the design of (only) part of the Haddo painting, is a problem for, not a corroboration of, Bendor’s Raphael inscription. This supposed “cartoon” shows the ear covered by hair that is tightly bound and held free of the neck by a simple head-dress. Such was entirely appropriate for a secondary figure in a large group painting. In this regard it is quite unlike the Haddo painting (below) where the coiffure is elaborately braided and pulled back to expose the ear, and where a long transparent veil is draped over the neck.

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Above, Fig. 4: In the monochrome block in the top right shows we see at the top how the neck on the Haddo House painting is draped with a transparent veil. Below it is two such near-identical arrangements of coiffures/necks are encountered on two of the very many copy versions of the Raphael’s Madonna of the Pinks. The one on the right, here, is the one that was attributed to Raphael by Nicholas Penny in 1992.

For Bendor’s proposed drawing to underwrite the new Haddo ascription we would have to believe that Raphael re-used an earlier atypically schematic Umbrian study at some point during his 1504-08 Florentine period, and that he elaborated it in a manner which, by a remarkable coincidence, closely anticipated the very treatment of hair and neck that is found in the painting (the National Gallery’s £35m Madonna of the Pinks) that Nicholas Penny upgraded to Raphael in 1992 as a work of c. 1507-08. Scholars of Raphael’s drawings have noted that his draughtsmanship was constantly evolving to meet the requirements of the task in hand. Bendor may believe that Raphael recycled an old study here. I do not.

As for that old chestnut, the “in-admissability” of photographic records, when I saw a before and after photo-comparison of a detail of Michelangelo’s cleaned Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes in 1988 (see below), my artist’s eye concluded immediately that the ceiling, which I had not yet seen, had been damaged. For the longest time, Bendor held critics of the restoration to be rather myopic. But then he visited the Chapel and concluded that we had been right all along. As he says, we each have our own way of proceeding.

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Above, Fig. 5: In demonstration that restorations can be appraised by photographs alone, we show above (top) a small photo-comparison of a section of the cleaned Sistine Chapel, as it was published in 1988 when I was working on the Independent as an illustrator. On first sight of that photographic testimony I saw instantly that the ceiling was being damaged; that James Beck’s criticisms were well-founded; and, that the restorers’ claims to have removed only soot and varnish were preposterously implausible. I had not yet visited the chapel and knew it only from photographs. In the second comparison above we converted the two images to grey scale and reversed their order. So, now, the cleaned state is on the left and the pre-cleaning state is on the right. It is striking how the two states resemble earlier and later stages of an etched plate (as can be seen in the third comparison which shows two stages of a van Dyck etching of a now lost Titian).
Had the ceiling really been painted and left by Michelangelo as seen in the cleaned state on the left of the second comparison, we would have to believe that over a period of more than four hundred years, soot and dirt had accumulated selectively and artistically purposively on the ceiling in patterns that followed Michelangelo’s design so closely as to complete his shading and add specific details like veins to the oak leaves. The challenge for those who continue to subscribe to this fairy story is to explain how it was that Michelangelo’s contemporaries and early copyists all contrived together to describe and record the ceiling, not as it was in their time, but as it would gradually become over the centuries.
As an illustrator I not only fully appreciate that images get built up from nothing in stages (as indicated in the development of a magazine cover drawing in the bottom photograph above) but also how much photographs can vary and then vary further still when reproduced for the printing process on different types of paper.

I have not seen the newly “restored” Leonardo St John (which is not yet on public display) but can see from the comparative before and after cleaning photographs that have just been published by the Louvre (as shown below) that it has – as with the Louvre’s recently restored Leonardo, The Virgin and St, Anne – been damaged. This time, however, it has been damaged in a most unusual and perversely misguided manner. It is virtually customary in big museum set-piece restorations for a trade-off to be licenced in which finishing, tonally-modulating layers are sacrificed in order get at the brighter, underlying colours. On this occasion, as seems obvious, none was to be found below. In consequence, this Leonardo has lost form-giving tonal modulations without even the slightest spurious intensification of hue. Worse, the Louvre (which for most of the 20th century constituted an institutional reproach to the restoration barbarians-at-large in the Anglo-Saxon sphere) has now achieved a new low: it has contrived to lower the highlights as well as the mid tones and thereby reduce the pictorial vivacity of an already sombre but divinely lucid painting. I hope that Bendor will see this too – or, perhaps we should wait and proceed to Paris together to judge the picture on the spot?

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Michael Daley, 6 November 2016


wibble!