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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


The Sixth James Beck Memorial Lecture

On 30 November 2015, Professor Elizabeth Simpson of the Bard Graduate Center, New York, will deliver the sixth annual ArtWatch International James Beck Memorial Lecture in London ~ “KING MIDAS’S FURNITURE: A TALE OF ARCHAEOLOGICAL CONSERVATION”. The 2015 winner of the Frank Mason Prize will be announced.

In “KING MIDAS’S FURNITURE: A TALE OF ARCHAEOLOGICAL CONSERVATION”, Prof. Simpson discusses the remarkable but problematic excavation of the huge “Midas Mound” (Tumulus MM) at Gordion, Turkey, by the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in 1957. The Phrygian royal tumulus burial contained a wealth of grave goods, including a rare collection of carved and inlaid wooden furniture dating to the 8th century B.C. The lecture details the excavation and initial conservation of the wood, along with subsequent efforts to rescue and reconstruct these spectacular pieces by the Gordion Furniture Project’s team of conservators, archaeologists, and scientists. Issues of display and storage continue up to the present, with the recent renovation of the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, Ankara, where the wooden furniture is kept.

The Gordion wooden objects comprise a large collection of furniture and other finds from Tumulus MM, Tumulus P, Tumulus W, and the city mound at Gordion. An introduction to the project can be found at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gordion_Furniture_and_Wooden_Artifacts.

Above, an inlaid table, Tumulus MM, Gordion, at the time of excavation in 1957 (top); in drawn reconstruction by Elizabeth Simpson (centre); in full restoration (above).

The lecture will be given at the Society of Antiquaries of London, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London, W1J 0BE – all inquiries to: artwatch.uk@gmail.com – at 6 p.m. for 6.15 on Monday, 30 November 2015.

Admission is free but entry is by ticket only. For tickets, please write to “James Beck Memorial Lecture Tickets” at: artwatch.uk@gmail.com

For full details and programme of the ArtWatch UK/Center for Art Law/LSE Law December 1st conference “Art, Law and Crises of Connoisseurship”, click here. To buy conference tickets, click here.


Now let’s murder Klimt

We have seen that works of art are under physical threat and that proper contemplation of them is becoming impossible through commercial exploitation and lax administration. (We will return shortly to the especially alarming case of the British Museum.) Aside from institutional mismanagement, all the while the stock of art is being debilitated in the name of its conservation.

It goes without saying that it is easier to destroy art than to create it. Gothic churches can be razed in an afternoon (and without explosives). With restoration injuries it is easy to recognise them but impossible to reverse them. Restoration is a one-way street: every little hurts; the harm that restorers can do individually and do do cumulatively can never be undone.

It was long ago contended that every picture restoration is a partial destruction, but every restoration is also a falsification. When destructive subtractions of material are completed, the restorer’s own painted additions begin. Restorers do not make the soundest judges of their own performance. Their accounts claim lots of different things simultaneously. First, that their additions (somehow) help to recover lost original conditions. Second, that their additions/ “recoveries” are made with removable synthetic materials so that the next restorer can easily impose his or her own interpretation of the lost original state. Worse, not only is there an expectation that each generation of restorers will have a different estimation of lost original states, within generations one restorer will have a different understanding from another. At the National Gallery (London) relativity has been written into the institution’s “philosophy” of restoration practice. It does not matter, the gallery claims, if restorers do their own things when attempting to recover authentic original states, so long as each version is realised “safely”.

Use your eyes – everything is in the looking

The proof of picture restoration’s pudding is not in self-protective philosophising or proclaimed professional “ethics”. It is in the looking – pictures are made by hand, brain and eye to be looked at, not to be bombarded by solvents, swabs, scalpels, heat-inducing imaging techniques, hot irons, adhesives, synthetic materials and such. In this regard, every day brings a new alarm.

Yesterday, the Daily Telegraph and many other media outlets reported that a painting made in 1902 of a young Jewish woman (Gertrud Loew) by Gustav Klimt has been “restored” to her family. Such cases are heartening and just, but so often the accompanying photographs of returned works are, as here, disturbingly unlike early photographic records. The image shown above of this returned painting is from a printed paper copy of the Daily Telegraph. Newsprint photography is never of the highest quality but, with all allowances made, the strikingly washed-out appearance of the painting is evident also in the higher quality online reproductions, as below where all images are shown in greyscale to facilitate fair visual comparisons. What can be seen in all of these comparisons is a progressive and debilitating loss of values in the painting’s design, drawing, modelling and spatial ‘envelope’. Such sequences invariably run chronologically from darker, richer, sharper and better-modelled depictions, to lighter, brighter, flatter, more abstract, less plastic, less life-like arrangements. If dirt alone had been removed, the opposite effect would be obtained: all values would be more intense; all relationships would be more vivacious in their effects.

Above, these details show the painting as successively recorded a) before 1956 (top), when it was at most 54 years old and probably never previously restored; b) as before 1986 (centre); and, above c) as it is today (albeit, here, in an over-enlarged detail).

Above, top, a detail of the painting as before 1956; above, the detail as seen today. In this comparison we see, for example, that the contour of the subject’s left arm was more clearly drawn and shaded before 1956; that the shaded modelling around the eyes was more emphatic before 1956 than it is today; that the costume had two distinct parts – a darker over-garment and a lighter undergarment; and, that the tone of the flesh at the neck and above the undergarment was appreciably darker before 1956.

Above, a detail of Klimt’s 1910 picture The Black Feathered Hat shown (top) before 1956; as seen on a Dover postcard (centre); and (above), as seen today.

The Black Feathered Hat, as used on a CD cover of music accompanying an exhibition at the Neue Galerie, New York.

Below, a detail of Klimt’s Danae of 1907-08.

Above (top) Danae before 1956 and (above), as seen today. Note in particular the radically altered (and weakened) relationships at the crucially intense and psychologically-charged face/sheet/hand/breast configuration.

Below, the figure Poetry from Klimt’s 1901-02 Beethoven Freeze, before 1956 (top) and today (bottom).

Below, finally: SPOT THE DIFFERENCES – AND WEEP

Michael Daley, 5 June 2015.


Bubbles burst.

25 November 2013

A few years ago a director at the Victoria and Albert Museum, was chided for producing blockbusters that bust no blocks. Today, aside from its catering and retailing outlets, that museum – which once advertised itself as “An ace caff, with quite a nice museum attached” – has a department exclusively dedicated to the production of special exhibitions. It generates eight exhibitions a year with a further fifteen travelling around the world at any one time (see “The world is her oyster”, in the Autumn/Winter 2013, V&A Magazine). As more and more of Art’s Flying Dutchmen encircle the globe, an awful lot of holes are appearing in the collections of great museums – as at the Louvre, as Didier Rykner has eloquently demonstrated (“The Louvre Invents the Gruyère Museum” ). This development is perverse as well as regrettable: a chief defence that museums make when seeking funding for expensive acquisitions is that they are needed to fill crucial gaps in a collection.

At the British Museum the number of loans (and therefore holes) doubled between 1985 and 2000, in which year 214 objects or groups of objects were loaned. That was for starters. In 2008, under its present globe-trotting director, Neil Macgregor, the museum got 2,500 objects “on the road” in Britain alone. In a submission this year to the Scottish Parliament, Mr MacGregor boasted that between 2003 and 2013 the museum had loaned over “over 30,000 (many very fragile)” objects, with only eight injuries. In 2006 the BM packed 160,000 visitors in three months into a (physically) small exhibition of Michelangelo’s drawings, at £10 a head (plus takings from the catering and retailing outlets). Mr MacGregor ruefully claimed that three times as many tickets could have been sold had space permitted. The following year he announced plans for a £100m expansion of the British Museum that was reportedly triggered because it had had to turn down a unique chance “to show off” the largest collection of Tutankhamun treasures ever seen in the west (Evening Standard, 6 July 2007), works which went instead to the former Millennium Dome, now re-branded as “02”.

It would seem that nothing in museums is now safe from this international exhibitions jamboree – no work plays too important a role within a collection, or is too fragile, or too unwieldy, to prevent curators from taking a gamble with its welfare (in hope of reciprocal loans and a curatorial buzz). The Metropolitan Museum in New York is one of the most voracious recipient/organisers of exhibitions. It needs to be. Its special exhibitions, which are free, are the biggest justification for the museum’s whopping “recommended” $25 entrance charge (- the legality of which is under challenge). As we have seen, the present director of the Metropolitan, Thomas Campbell, once boasted that only his museum could have shaken-down (“Item: The Met’s Strong-arming of Reluctant Lenders”) other great art institutions to get them to part with the fabulous Renaissance tapestries that were sent to a special show in New York.

The Metropolitan Museum will likely be the first international stop (after a six months stay-over at the British Museum) for a long-planned show of plum works from the Burrell Collection in Glasgow that will take place should the Scottish Parliament oblige the Glasgow City Council by over-turning the prohibitions in Sir William Burrell’s bequest on all foreign loans and vulnerable works within Britain.

Next October in New York, the Museum of Modern Art will host a show of some of the most fragile and difficult-to-transport works of modernism. As Martin Bailey reports in the current Art Newspaper, (“Journey at Snail’s pace”) Henri Matisse’s monumental 1953 paper collage, The Snail, is to leave the Tate for the first time since the gallery bought it more than 50 years ago. It will be a star exhibit in “Henri Matisse: the Cut-Outs”, at Tate Modern next April, that will include its sister works, Memory of Oceania, 1953, and Large Composition with Masks, before travelling to MOMA in New York. Although the itinerary is set, what is not yet clear, Bailey discloses, is how the Tate’s giant and fragile work will travel or even how it will be be packed:

The problem of how to transport the huge work, which measures nearly three square metres, has plagued conservators for years. Paris’s Grand Palais asked to borrow the work for a major retrospective on the artist in 1970, but was refused because of the risks associated with transporting it. Its original late-1960s glazing is being replaced with laminated glass, which will reduce the risk of damage during transportation. However, laminated glass is heavy: with its frame, the work will weigh around 300kg. If the collage is set at a 45° angle within a crate, it will fit more easily through doorways, but if the work is transported flat, it will need a case measuring around four square metres.”

Those keenest to lend and borrow lean heavily on the relative safety of international aviation, but with these particular monumentally large but flimsily constructed works, Bailey discloses that a spokeswoman for the Tate was unwilling to discuss transport arrangements. He has discovered, however, that they might travel by sea because there are almost no cargo planes large enough to carry them, and because the exhibition’s sponsor is… South Korea’s largest shipping company, Hanjin Shipping. Either way, as Nick Tinari of Barnes Watch has repeatedly testified, when Matisse’s mural La Danse was detached from its permanent home at the Barnes Foundation, Merion, and sent off at a 45° angle on an open flatbed truck to the first stop (the National Gallery of Art, Washington) of a world tour, it was to return home badly damaged.

Not only are museums gutting themselves to feed international loan exhibitions, they are, as our colleague in New York, Ruth Osborne, discusses (“The Dismemberment of the Louvre: Travels to Louvre Abu Dhabi promise damages and leave Parisian Museum-goers in the Lurch”), beginning to do so on an even greater scale as part of international “rebranding exercises” in which museum annexes are created in improbable but rich centres so that museums may present themselves as pan-national or global brands (- along with Gucci now read Guggenheim). A lot of money is being made and a lot of careers advanced. Some journalists effectively double as cheerleaders for the tourism-fuelled cultural arts economies of centres like London and New York. However, along with these booming arts economies, risks are rising – and not just with the works of art: those who blithely authorise streams of loans risk putting their own reputations on a block.

Michael Daley

NEWS UPDATE 26-11-13

The Guardian today carries this letter from ArtWatch UK:

You illustrate the new exhibition of Turner seascapes at the National Maritime Museum with a giant reproduction of the artist’s now badly wrecked, many-times restored ‘Rockets and Blue Lights’ without issuing any kind of art conservation health warning (Eyewitness, 21.11.13). A clue to the extent to which this picture is no longer a remotely fair representation of Turner’s work is found in the picture’s full title, ‘Rockets and Blue lights (Close at Hand) to Warn Steamboats of Shoal Water’ – for this was once a painting of two steamboats in distress, not of one. The now lost boat was recorded in a large chromolithographic copy of the painting that was commissioned in 1852, and in a photograph of 1896. Viewers who compare your present image with the recorded earlier states of the picture will likely marvel at the transformation by twentieth century restorers of the sky, and at the losses of storm-driven smoke from the funnels of the original pair of steamboats, one of which vessels has now disappeared under the waves along with its originally depicted crew members.”

In the ArtWatch UK Journal No 19 (Winter 2003), we carried an article by the artist Edmund Rucinski (“Ship lost at Clark. Many records feared missing. Establishment unfazed.”)

Unfazed the establishment was then – and, evidently, so remains today. Despite the disappearance of the second boat (and its smoke) in a recent cleaning, the owners of the Turner, The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute of Williamstown, USA, had included the work in a travelling exhibition (“Turner – The Late Seascapes”) that ran at the Clark from June to November in 2003, before transferring across the Atlantic to the Manchester Art Gallery in January 2004 and then on to Glasgow in March 2004.

At a public lecture at the Clark Institute, on 2 August 2003, Edmund Rucinski (who knew of the 1852 chromolithographic copy shown right) had been astonished to hear the restorer, David Bull, claim that the picture had originally depicted a single boat and that the second, now-removed, boat had not been painted by Turner but was a restorer’s addition made, possibly for Lord Duveen around 1910. That claim slowly sank. When Rucinski spoke to David Bull and asked on what authority the second boat had been removed, he replied that it was on a photograph of a single-boated copy of the painting that had been supplied by the Clark Institute’s senior curator, Richard Rand.

On 15 October 2003, the Times’ arts correspondent, Dalya Alberge, reported that when asked how it had been established that the second boat could not have been painted by Turner, Mr Bull had said: “The answer is we don’t know. It was a general consensus.” Thus, what had been presented publicly as a historically verified certainty was downgraded within a couple of months to a best guess, collective assumption. That position was maintained for several months and was reiterated in the Manchester Evening News of 14 January 2004, which reported: “The American owners of the painting and the restorer…say a second boat may have been added by an early 20th century restorer”.

On 28 March 2004 the show moved to Glasgow and the Glasgow Herald reported that the Clark’s senior curator had said “We have always maintained that the original Turner had two boats”. The importance of heavy promotion for travelling exhibitions was demonstrated in October 2003 when the Tate, which had not taken part in the travelling exhibition, nonetheless issued a press release that ended with the following claim:

One of the stars of the show is Turner’s dramatic “Rockets and Blue Lights (Close at Hand) to Warn Steamboats of Shoal Water”, 1840 which has recently undergone major conservation and is a loan from the Sterling Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, USA”.

In additions to newspaper reports of critisms of the restoration, many interventions were made by scholars, as below:

“Since ‘Slavers’ and ‘Rockets’…have ended up in collections geographically so close to each other, it struck Hamilton [James Hamilton, the show’s curator] as a good idea to show them together, arguing that Turner had intended them as a pair. The first snag was that Boston decided that ‘Slavers’ was too unstable to travel, even to Williamstown, so it was not in the show at all…But there is a danger that Turner has become a guaranteed crowd-puller, to be had recourse to at the expense of equally interesting but less certainly popular subjects. This is not a development to be welcomed, if only because Turner’s works are exceptionally vulnerable: the paintings, to the stresses of travel on their experimental construction; the watercolours to the exposure of light. He is not a resource that can be exploited indefinitely…”

~ The Turner scholar, Andrew Wilton, in a review for the Burlington Magazine, March 2004.

The ‘Slavers’ of which Wilton spoke, is Turner’s oil painting Slavers throwing overboard the dead and dying – Typhoon coming on. In 2000 the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston which owns the painting found it to be damaged and “extremely unstable” on return from a loan to the Tate Gallery. Despite having been “glazed and sealed against changes in relative humidity, the picture [had] reacted significantly to the voyage” and lost flakes of paint. An unfazed (and institutionally unrepentant) Tate spokeswoman said in response to disclosure of the damage:

“It arrived here safely where it was examined thoroughly. Its condition was stable…However, Turner’s paintings are notorious for becoming unstable.”

Indeed they are. So why the incessant demands from temporary exhibition organisers to keep borrowing them? And why the systematic attempts to deceive the public into believing that the most restoration-wrecked pictures are the “stars” of the shows?

For our part, we have repeatedly drawn attention to these travel-induced injuries. On 24 October 2007 the Daily Telegraph carried this letter from ArtWatch UK:

“Sir – The Mellon Center’s decision (report, October 17) to break its own rule never to lend Turner’s fragile ‘Dort or Dordrecht: The Dort Packet-Boat from Rotterdam Becalmed’ seems perverse: only seven years ago, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston lent its Turner ‘Slavers throwing overboard the dead and the dying, Typhoon coming on’ to the Tate. On its return to Boston, that painting was found to have suffered losses of paint and to be in an ‘extremely unstable’ condition. A Tate spokeswoman said: ‘It arrived here safely…Its condition was stable…However, Turner’s paintings are notorious for becoming unstable.’ This being so, why are trustees and curators prepared to take such risks with priceless works of art?”

Clearly, the question still stands.

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Above, Fig. 1: An empty Louvre plinth – one of very many shown in The Art Tribune: “Poitou, second half of the 12th c. Two Torsos of Bearded Men, one is being restored, the other is in Lens (but we don’t know until when)”. Photograph, by courtesy of Didier Rykner.
Above, Fig. 2: Matisse’s The Snail, by courtesy of the Tate. The paper collage is undergoing conservation so that it might be better secured to its linen canvas support, which is lined with brown paper. For the relationship between paper and support in another Matisse cut-out, see at Fig. 5, the raking photograph of his Large Composition with Masks at The National Gallery of Art, Washington.
Above, Fig. 3: Matisse’s Memory of Oceania, The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photograph: © 2013 Succession H. Matisse, Paris / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Above, Fig. 4: Matisse’s Large Composition with Masks, The National Gallery of Art, Washington. Photograph by courtesy of the BBC.
Above, Fig. 5: Matisse’s Large Composition with Masks, The National Gallery of Art, Washington. Note the imperfect adhesion of the paper to its support. Photograph: by courtesy of A Curious Gardner
Above, Fig. 6: A large painting being prepared for transport from the Musée d’Orsay.
Above, Fig. 7: A large painting from the Musée d’Orsay being loaded into a lorry.
Above, Fig. 8: Matisse’s three panels mural La Danse arriving at the Washington National Gallery of Art from the Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pennsylvania, for the first stop on its controversial world tour in 1993-95. Note that, contrary to reassurances given by the National Gallery of Art to the court that granted “once in a lifetime” permission to tour, the mural was carried on an open truck. Photograph by courtesy of Danni Malitski.
Above, Fig. 9 and below, Fig. 10: the right hand panel of Matisse’s La Danse, when on exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art at the end of the world tour. Note the corrugations on the formerly taught and “in-plane” canvas. Photographs by Nicholas Tinari.
TRAVEL INJURIES OF THE BARNES COLLECTION PICTURES:
For Nicholas Tinari’s submission to the Scottish Parliament’s scrutinisng committee on the Lending and Borrowing Scotland Bill, in which he testified to injuries witnessed when following the Barnes’ paintings on five legs of the 1993-95 world tour; and to wide swings in relative humidity witnessed when the works were in transit and on exhibition, click here.
THE DEGRADED CONDITION OF TURNER’S ‘ROCKETS’.
Top, a detail of Turner’s Rockets and Blue Lights, as recorded in Robert Carrick’s chomolithographic copy of 1852.
Above, the same detail of Turner’s Rockets and Blue Lights, as reproduced in the Guardian of 21 November 2013.
Above, top: A detail of Turner’s Rockets and Blue Lights, as copied in Carrick’s 1852 chromolithograph.
Above, middle: A detail of Turner’s Rockets and Blue Lights, as recorded in 1896. Photograph by courtesy of Christie’s.
Above: A detail of Turner’s Rockets and Blue Lights, as reproduced in the Guardian of 21 November 2013.
Above, top: The left-hand side of Turner’s Rockets and Blue Lights, as recorded in Robert Carrick’s chomolithographic copy of 1852 (and as published in the ArtWatch UK Journal No 20).
Above: The left-hand side of Turner’s Rockets and Blue Lights, after its last restoration at the Clark Arts Institute (and as published in the ArtWatch UK Journal No 20).
Above, the Boston Museum of Art’s Turner Slavers throwing overboard the dead and dying – Typhoon coming on; below, detail of the Slavers.
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Art and Photography

30 October 2013

Returning from an ArtWatch trip to New York and Philadelphia (refreshed and invigorated, as always), a first task was to take clippings from the previous week’s newspapers. On facing pages of the Times of 26 October, two startling and memorable images shouted in hilarious unison – and surely not in accidental juxtaposition? The first (here Fig. 2) was of a squirrel that had dropped a nut. The second was of one politician (Hillary Clinton, Fig. 1) endorsing another at a rally. The pendant pair of images testified to photography’s special, most distinguishing technical trait: its unique power to make/capture instantaneous-but-enduring mechanical records of particular scenes at singular moments. Photography (in its chemical and digital forms) has been a profoundly revolutionary addition to the world’s image making and recording capacities. That it is so at this point is beyond any dispute, but, then, it has never constituted, as some still hold, a replacement for those hand-crafted (painted, drawn or engraved) images made by people who are sometimes called artists. (See Gareth Hawker’s “A Photograph is a Copy, not a Creation“.)

On 25 October, at New York’s famous art school, The Art Students League, we were privileged to watch a kind of master class given by the painter Thomas Torak, who for thirty or so minutes, worked over a student’s oil painting of a model – a heretical procedure in many educationalists’ eyes. Using the student’s own palette, paints and brushes, he explained the artistic purpose of every change and adjustment as he went along. Starting at the passage depicting the model’s forehead, Torak suggested that the tones were too uniform. Lightening the student’s own flesh tint on the palette, he placed a firm highlight against the darkest tone on the shaded side of the head. Instantly – at a proverbial stroke – the form of the brow sprang forward from the canvas and turned convincingly in (evoked) space. With a stronger forehead, Torak moved down to the eyes in their sockets, darkening the shadowed hollows and placing strategic lights on the lids and the bulging eyes themselves. And so on and so forth down the head and into the body. Every adjustment was made on the authority of values seen to be present on the model herself, at that time and in that light. Seemingly, nothing was being invented: piece by piece, step by step, observable relationships between adjoining values were first carefully appraised and then artfully replicated in hue and tone on the palette, before being judiciously laid onto the painting.

However, as facet related to facet and form to form, the mosaic whole began to assume a compelling and designed narrative form from a brush that drew and revised as it coloured. Finally, Torak introduced consideration of the model’s entire body and clothing to the values of the background wall within the then-present natural top-down light. Here, again, the student had made too-equal an appraisal of the relative figure/ground values: the background was markedly too dark and too warm. Lightening and cooling its tone and hue caused the untouched figure to jump forward on the canvas in a startling “before-the-eyes” pictorial magic. Watching the demonstration and the entire group of students, it was apparent that without seeing Torak’s painting but simply by heeding his words of analysis and explanation, other painters in the studio were modifying their own work on similar rationales and to considerable benefits.

As a mild-mannered, softly-spoken man, Thomas Torak may be one of the art world’s most insufficently appreciated figures. Fortunately, the deftness of his speech and the acuity of his eye find other outlets at the Art Students League. Writing in that art school’s magazine LINEA (- and how very fortunate New York is that such an institution should have survived waves of modernist iconoclasm), Torak quietly, gently shredded a recent noisy attributional upgrade, rashly made on the back of a pictorially disruptive restoration at the now curatorially hyper-ventilating Metropolitan Museum of Art: see “The Rediscovered Velázquez” of 25 December last year.

Returning to our hotel at 11 p.m. on the last night of the trip, we witnessed another kind of artistic tour de force. On the corner of Times Square and West 48th Street, a “street artist” was working on a triple portrait, made in conté crayon on the basis of a photograph taken on a mobile phone (see Fig. 7), as his three subjects sat on the sidewalk behind him. The image of each head on the photograph could have been no more than half an inch high, and yet, from this miniscule photographic record, the artist was producing at speed perfectly credible heads with very fair likenesses. Like David Hockney – as we discovered once when drawing by the side of Lake Como – artists never pass one another without making an involuntary detour to take a peek. “Where did you learn to draw like this?” I asked the street artist. “In China” he replied. Ah yes, and alas, it could hardly have been recently at the Royal Academy Schools in London where Tracey Emin has been appointed Professor of Drawing. (See Harry Mount’s “Where will the Queen hang her rubbish portrait by Tracey Emin?”)

Michael Daley

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Above, top, and below right, Figs. 1 and 4, Hillary Clinton, detail of a photograph by Yuri Gripas/Reuters, as shown in The Times 26 October. Above, and below left, Figs. 2 and 3, a picture by Ajeet Vikram (detail) as published in The Times, 26 October.
Above, Fig. 5, a squirrel seen in Union Square on the morning of 27 October when en route to New York’s (magnificent) Strand bookshop, home, since 1927, to 18 miles of shelves of new, used and rare books.
Above, Fig. 6, an artist (“Han”) working on a triple portrait from a mobile phone photograph at the junction of Times Square and West 48th Street at 11pm on 27 October.
Above, Fig. 7, Jean-Baptiste Isabey’s “Seated Man Leaning on His Right Arm”, as reproduced in the 29 October Daily Telegraph review by Richard Dorment of an exhibition at the Wallace Collection of some forty drawings from the golden age of France’s royal academy system. (Photo: ENSBA)
Below, Fig. 8, the Royal Academy’s present Professor of Drawing, Tracey Emin CBE, RA (as drawn by the author for The Independent on Sunday).
NOTICE: On Thursday 31 October, the former Keeper of the Royal Academy Schools, Leonard McComb, RA, spoke at the Royal Watercolour Society on making large watercolour drawings.
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wibble!