27.07.2014 Museums, sales, and the telly

1. A promising newborn

I am glad to come back with some good news from this hidden jewel called Museu Marés in Barcelona. On Saturday, June 27th it joined forces with four other museums founded by private collectors (Fundaçao Calouste Gulbekian in Lisbon, The Burrell Collection in Glasgow, Museo Poldi Pozzoli  in Milan  and The Benaki Museum in Athens) to set up the first European Network of Collector’s Museums. It is the brainchild of the Marés new director, Josep Maria Trullén, and the president of its Circle, Antoni Gelonch, a former top executive with Sanofi Paris (the two gentlemen wearing a tie in the photo).  Its Secretariat will be based in Barcelona. Full disclosure: I am also member of the Circle, and I can advance that more exiting news are on the way – keep alert!

 

2. Few words to tell the truth.

Posting about this new feature in the Museu Mares’ website is also a small homage to Silvia Llonch, its former Curator for Sculpture. Thanks to her ground-braking research, we can now enjoy this candid series of photos illustrating the provenance of  a number of sculptures in the Museum collections. Longer explanations might come in a future book, should she find the time for it.

3. London, and then Vic.

 If you liked the current exhibition in the National Gallery, Making Colour, you have the perfect excuse for a summer trip to Vic, near Barcelona. Its wonderful Museu Episcopal is hosting Pintar fa mil anys. Els colors del romànic , (Painting a thousand years ago. The Romanesque colours), curated by Judit Verdaguer. A conference on September 18tth, will bring in Dr. Manuel Castiñeiras, a pioneer in using research on materials as an aiding tool to trace back routes of artistic influence in the early Middle Ages.

4. Sherlock au service de la République.

The French authorities had filed claims for no less than 1,195 works of art missing from their public inventories. They are about to upload all their details in an open website called Sherlock, which will also record the rest of the works already missed, but not claimed yet.

5. Sales to Museums

 

Works one sells to museums are always something special. So let me post here The Darcawy Holy Man from of Marrakech, by Josep Tapiró, purchased by the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, and the Saint Andrew by Marià Fortuny, wich went to the Prado.

6. Simple tastes.

Should public museums issue an Acquisition Policy note stating their areas of interest?  No, says Miguel Zugaza, Director of the Prado in this report by the Court of Auditors (p.45 of the Allegaciones’ Annex).  The general principles can be deduced from the museum’s mission statement, he argues, and there is no point in going beyond it- “the criteria would be so open that they would be  just useless”.  I think he is right. But documents like this note in the National Gallery website provides you at least with a useful template.

7. Talking about the art market….

…. on the telly, with Carmen Schjaer from Christie’s Spain and doctor Juan F. Campo, a very active collector from Girona– another way to brush up your Catalan.

18.11.2012: From Paris to Barcelona

1. Two for the price of one.

 

Bohèmesone of the current shows in the Grand Palais, Paris (until January 14th, 2013, admissions €13.-), plays on the double meaning of the word of the title in French, which refers both to gypsies, and to the marginal lifestyle led by advanced artists in 19th century, especially in Paris. The exhibition explores the common ground between them. It therefore offers you a double show, the first being a survey on gypsies in Western European Art (and 19th century Hungarian paintings), and the second on the struggles, miseries and works of art produced by impoverished, yet resolute free artistic spirits. Gustave Courbet’s (1819-1877) Bonjour Mr Courbet (oil on canvas, 1332 x 150.5 cm., 1854) from the Musée Fabre, Montpellier, offers the point of junction between the two worlds: the artist portrays himself as a wandering traveller, respectfully greeted on the spot by a middle-class friend and client. On the other hand, the show comes with a nice surprise for the Catalan visitor. Many of the paintings portraying the Bohemian Paris were in fact by Catalan artists living there at the time – a sense of accomplishment came from seeing Ramon Casas’ (1866-1932) Madeleine (oil on canvas, 117 x 90 cm, 1892, Museu de Montserrat) on the opposite wall from Edgar Degas’ (1834-1917) In a Coffee-Room or l’abshinte (oil on canvas, 92 x 68.5 cm, 1873, Musée du Quai d’Orsay).

 

 

 

2. Small is beautiful.

 

As noted, the Museu de Montserrat is one of the lenders to the exhibition in the Grand Palais (as a matter of fact, one of the major lenders to it). Part of the Benedictine Monastery in the hills of Montserrat, this not so little museum is living some extraordinary years under the leadership of Father Josep Laplana. It not only attracts new donations – except some very early purchases, the vast majority of the museum holdings have come in as gifts, but also dealing with major centres on an equal basis. On November 13th, it received two fine paintings  (The gipsy of pomegranate, c. 1904, oil on canvas, 114.5 x 147.5 cm, and Portrait of Sonia de Klamery, countess of Pradère, 1913, oil on canvas, 188 x 126 cm; see press note here) by Hermen Anglada – Camarasa (1851-1979), in a an 11-month loan from the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia – in exchange for Salvador Dalí’s (1904-1989) Neocubist Academy (oil on canvas 190x 200 cm, 1926), which travelled to París for the retrospective opening in the Centre Pompidou this Wednesday (until March 25th, admissions €13.-), that will then transfer to MNCARS in Madrid. Besides, the Museu publishes El Propileu, an interesting on-line news bulletin.

 

 

 

3. See you in Barcelona?

But precisely because of  this strong Catalan presence, the absence in the exhibition of any work by Isidre Nonell (1872-1911), was somehow disconcerting. In Nonell’s life and art, the two bohèmes clearly converged: his choice of earnest, human, not a bit topical portraits of gypsy women as his main subject gained him the establishment refusal, and a life as a bohemian artist in the Barcelona of the early 20th century – with some short stays in Paris. Works like Misery (oil on canvas, 75 x 100 cm,  1904, MNAC) shows that in his case, the double meaning of bohème was more than a happy troubaille. That said, and taking into account that one of the main sponsors of the Grand Palais show is Fundación Mapfre (the cultural arm of the Spanish insurance company), and that they will bring the show to its headquarters in Madrid in January 2013, I can only hope they will make it travel a little further east, so we can also greet it in this city.

 

4. Destination Madrid

Should you cannot make it to Bohèmes in Paris, think about waiting for them in Madrid. The Spanish capital is now a must-go for fans of Old Master’s and 19th century art, and the Museo del Prado will be its centrepoint.  Young Van Dyck  is inaugurating this Thursday in the Prado (until March 13, 2013, admissions €12,.-), Martín Rico, the landscaper is already there (until February 20th, 2013, admissions €12,.-), and two interesting works had joined the party a bit earlier:  Portrait of a Young Man  (oil on canvas, 68, 6 x 55.2 cm, 1630 – 1635) by Velázquez (1599-1960), from the Metropolitan (until January 23th, 2013), and the rediscovered, and heavily restored  Titian’s (c.1489 – 1576) Saint John the Baptist (oil on canvas, 195 x 127.5 cm, c. 1555, reclaimed by the Museum from the parish church of Nuestra Señora del Carmen in Cantoria in the province of Almeria; until February 10th, 2013). Add to that Goya and the Infante Don Luís (Palacio Real, until January 20th, admissions €5.-), about the Aragonese genius and one of his most important patrons,  the opening for the first time in history of Duchy of Alba’s family collection, in their Palacio de Liria  home (from December 1st to March 31st, 2013, admissions to be announced) – arguably the most important, and historically charged Old Master’s collection in Spanish private hands. Among the 150 or so works, expect the Titian, Goya, Rubens, Zurbarán, Renoir, and Chagall highlighted by the press – and also the only two pure landscapes by Ribera known to date. But  just in case you have a more modern taste, Gaugin and the Voyage to the exotic (until January 13th, admissions for €10.-) is open for you, with its international loans, in the nearby Museo Thyssen – Bornemisza.

 

5. And from Madrid to the stars

 

Coll & Cortés, a leading Madrid Old Master dealership which opened its shop in Calle Justianano just some ten years ago, has put a new milestone in on its road to stardom. If 2012 has already  seen their first official participation in TEFAF Maastricht, and in the inaugural Frieze Masters, London, they can now head to a merry Christmas after convincing the Metropolitan Museum, New York, to buy a stupendous The Penitent Saint Peter (1612-1613, measurements not given) by  José de Ribera (1591-1652; see report in NYT) from them.  This work from the artist’s early years comes 40 years after the Met’s last  purchase of a painting from the Spanish School, and it was discovered by Gianni Pappi, the Italian researcher who established the hitherto anonymous Master of the Judgement of Salomon was hiding the artist’s entire early output (as seen in The Young Riberain the exhibition at Museo del Prado from April 5th to August 25th, 2011).

 

6. Getting closer

We read in Le Figaro that the Musée Courbet of Ornans isnearing the fabulous 4 million euros asked by the Japanese owner of Gustave Courbet’s (1819 – 1877) masterpiece The Oak at Flagey (also known as The Oak of Vercingetorix, oil on canvas, 89 cm x 100 cm, 1864). It seems that the support shown by private firms (€2.5M) and the general public (€200,000  by a thousand donors) will prompt public authorities in the region and Paris to offer the remaining €1.3M, therefore backing the bid by Mr. Claude Jeannerot, the noted president of the regional council of the Franche-Comté, of transforming the town (population 4,000) into a Courbet’s international hotspot.

 

 

7. Porticvm works.

A year ago, we noted the launch of Porticvm, a half-yearly online journal on Medieval Studies managed by a group of young Catalan researchers, and focused on publishing the studies of their colleagues around Europe. They have just released its fourth issue, with no less than three studies coming from Italy. For the local news, there is an interesting article by Lorena García Morato, in which she bravely downsizes the catalogue Master of Roussillon to just four works, and also advances Arnau Pintor as his real name (Lorena García Morato, The Master of Roussillon. A catalogue raisonné, p. 64 – 79). The Master’s or Pintor’s Calvary (c.1415-1425, tempera on panel, 114,5 x 80 cm) from the Kunstmuseum Basel was one of the interesting discoveries (for the general public) in Catalonia 1400. The International Gothic Style,  the exhibition  hanging in the MNAC in Barcelona last spring (March, 29 – July, 15, 2012).

 

 

04.11.2012: From Provence to Switzerland

1. Parallel lives: Rico and Cézanne

Martín Rico (1833-1908), La Corniche,1881. Oil on canvas, 42.9 x 74 cm. Minnesota, Collection of the Tweed Museum of Art, University of Minnesota, Duluth, Gift of Howard Lyon.
Paul Cézanne (1839-1906), Mont Saint-Victoire, 1881. Oil on canvas, 72.40 x 97 cm, The Barnes Foundation, Merion.

Martín Rico (1833-1908) and Paul Cézanne (1839 – 1906) were not only contemporaries and fellow newcomers to Paris around 1860 and 1862, but also artists that used landscape as their preferred motive. Both are receiving a major retrospective now, Rico in Madrid (Martín Rico as landscaper, Museo del Prado, October 30 to February 10, 2013; admission €12; catalogue €35 here) and Cézanne in Budapest (Cézanne and the PastMuseum of Fine Arts, from October 26, to February 17, 2013, admission 3,200 HUF, catalogue available). But the coincidences stop here, says history of art. Rico, thanks to his encounter with Marià Fortuny (1838-1874) in Paris in 1871, and his joint trip to Granada, learned how to use his natural talent and his teachings from the Barbizon school to produce brilliant, attractive and dexterous renderings of the most topical views usually of Southern Spain and Venice, which brought him huge commercial success in his time, but critical derision today. Cézanne, as we all know, responded to the Parisian establishment snubs by returning home to Aix to start his lonely, stubborn, revolutionary quest on using the paintings’ plane to reveal the structure of the image, which will establish him as the pioneer of modernity. But in the same way that the excellent work of curator Javier Barón Thaidigsmann, Head of 19th Centruy Paintings Department at the Prado, reveals a more nuanced, investigative Rico, the current blockbuster in Budapest wants to emphasize Cézanne’s debt to the Old Masters. On the other hand, a new biography by Alex Denchev, reviewed here by Waldemar Januszczak, shows a more sensual, vital Cézanne at work (Alex Denchev, Cézanne: A Life, Pantheon Books, New York, 2012; $24.50 on Amazon).

2. Sold! 

Noche en Cadaqués

In a weak 19th Century Art Sale at Christie’s  New York (1st November),  marred by a post-Sandy atmosphere and phone lines recurrently cut-off, the three Catalan lots  (n. 60 to 62) in the catalogue gave auctioneer James Hastie the comfort of being sold, at least.  The best of them, Eliseu Meifrèn’s (1859 – 1840), Night in Cadaqués (oil on canvas, 130 x 151 cm), featured in this blog on October, 13th, was introduced by Hastie as a “fabulous painting” and did quite well, selling at the middle of the $80,000 – 120,000 estimate for $100,000 ($122,250 with commissions) to a bidder in the room. It has however failed to enter the painter’s top ten. The big days of 2003-2008 are gone, but it seems that Catalan painting, when offered at reasonable estimates, remains attractive even on the international circuit.

3. A bargain?

The Thebaid (tempera on panel, 27.5 x 37.5 cm, 1430 – 1435), a fragment cut from a panel by Fra Angelico (c. 1395 – 1455) and his studio, has been sold on October 27th in Leclere (Marseille) for €552,000 (commissions included), to a French collector,  informs Le Journal des Arts. They see it as a relative bargain in another weak sale (only 29% sold). But given that its condition was not pristine; that it does not show Fra Angelico at his best,  and that the Louvre, who had already passed on the chance to buy it during the export deferral, I think they should be quite happy to have found a buyer for it, and indeed someone from the same country it was about to leave – my guess was that it would go to the Philadelphia Museum of Art,  which holds the fragment, The Papacy offered to Gregory the Great(tempera on panel, 27.9 x 19.7 cm) that most directly relates to the one on offer.

4. Make your own Rijk

The Rijksmuseum has decided to open its digital doors well ahead of its off-line ones (now officially planned for April 13, 2013), and its new website is certainly a feast for eyes. Its on-line catalogue lists 275,556 files, of which 132,847 come with high-resolution images – including of course one of my absolute favorites, Johannes Vermeers  (1632-1675) The Street or a view of houses in Delft (oil on canvas 54.3 x 44 cm, 1656)which for some reason unknown even to me, I prefer to his even greater The Milkmaid (oil on canvas, 45.5 x 41 cm, 1660). However, there are some loose ends  (here and there, a text in Dutch pops up in the English version), and it would be great if they could include, in the same file, all the information about the painting available on line, and produced by the museum – it is a bit disappointing that Francisco de Goya (1746-1828) Portrait of Ramon Satué (oil on canvas, 107 x 83.5, 1823) does not include a mere link to the research that, just a year ago, discovered a portrait of a French high-ranking military underneath (see this blog’s note on September, 29, 2011). Anyway, they worked hard to develop the star feature of this digital trove of images, called Rijkstudio, which running with the motto “Create your own Masterpiece”, is designed to allow you to download any picture for free (expect when copyrights apply), and make use of it to give free rein to your creative appropriation instinct.

5. From Charles to Beatrix

The word “Rijk” in the name “Rijksmuseum” is a tricky one – it seems that in current Dutch it is used to refer to the whole of the kingdom (including the Caribbean territories), in the same way that, in German, “Reich” was used to include territories beyond Germany (perhaps near to English “Empire”, as in “Imperial War Museum”). So it’s only natural that the Rijksmuseum, besides its role as art museum, gives some idea of the different parts of the kingdom and their history – becoming in a way both an art and a national museum. You will find some of that on the new website: under the uncompromising label Timeline Dutch History, it offers you a general introduction to the history of the Low Countries, which they like to start with the unification of many of its current territories under emperor Charles V (1500-1558), and end with the current user of the Koninklijk Paleis, Queen Beatrix. It really works as a context to the artworks from the collection, and makes for an absorbing story in its own right – and reading it from Barcelona is a plus, not only because of our shared history under the Spanish crown.

6. Books: Vicenç Furió, Arte y reputación. Estudios sobre el reconocimiento artístico

How great have great artists looked to the following generations of artists, critics, and specialists? Is fame, and artistic reputation granted once and forever more? These are questions that Vicenç Furió tries to answer in six different essays, now revised and expanded in this new book. I found in it the healthy idea that there are no such things as discoveries of unknown artists, but rediscoveries of them – which can only be true if we agree that history of art is built upon pieces of memory, either ignored, tolerated or celebrated by our ancestors  (Vicenç Furió, Arte y reputación. Estudios sobre el reconocimiento artístico, Memoria Artium, Barcelona, 2012; €35.- here).

7. Make art, not war

I learned through the  Huffington Post (full of curious pieces of news), which clips a Reuters dispatch, that the Swiss government has found an imaginative solution to two different national issues at the same time; namely, the overcrowding of the art-depots in Geneva’s free-port (said to already store a fabulous, yet uncertain number of billions of dollars in art), and the disuse of the bunkers they built in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s for WWII and the Cold War. They are offering them to buyers willing to revamp them into big safes for art – last in the offerings list is a 1955 ammunition stockpile near lake Lucerne, for just 386,000 Swiss Francs.

13.10.2012: From the Pyrenees to Sitges, via Rome.

1. It was just one century ago.

 

The stellar news of the week follow a familiar pattern. In 1904, the architect and art historian Lluís Domènech i Montaner took the picture on the left, the first to show off the nave of the shockingly fine Sant Climent of Taüll church, lost in a remote valley in the Catalan Pyrenees. However it was not only architecture that drove him there, but also these hidden wall paintings sticking out behind the Gothic altarpiece. And for good reason: he had stumbled upon the Master of Taüll’s Pantocrator, a true Romanesque masterpiece, now in the MNAC. Last week, the Direction Régionale des Affaires Culturelles du Midi – Pyrenées reported a similar story of wonder from the other side of the Pyrenees: a new group of exceptionally well preserved Romanesque wall paintings was discovered in the parish church of Ourjout, a small village in Arièja, when restorers removed some panels of the noted Baroque altarpiece placed before it (see report and pictures here).  Specialists are now busy establishing its relationship with the other cycles in the Pyrenean area -my amateurish eye sees at least two hands in the Occitan examples, and a more direct link with wall paintings in Santa Maria de Boí (also in the MNAC), rather than Sant Climent.

2. Between Van Gogh and Dalí.

 

This is where the catalogue for Christie’s 19th Century European Art sale (November 1st, New York) places this powerful  Night in Cadaqués (lot 60, oil on canvas, 130 x 151 cm) by the Eliseu Meifrèn (1859 – 1840). Perhaps there is a gentle touch of spin that justifies the $80,000 – 120,000 (€60,000 – 90,000) estimate, but still a hint about how a fresh, open approach can help present Catalan painting in an international context. A very similar one, yet slightly less dramatic example with a starting price of €90,000, went unsold in October 2006 in Balclis, an auction house in Barcelona (lot 804, also 130 x 150 cm).

3. Is this really a Vermeer?

Well, you can decide for yourself after examining the impressive reunion of eight works by his hand (including this St. Praxedis, 102 x 83 cm, 1655; from The Barbara Piasecka Johnson Foundation), plus forty-two others by contemporary Dutch Masters, currently on show at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome (Vermeer. The Gold Century of Dutch Art, up to January 20th, admissions from € 9.50 to 12.-). But perhaps only a Titian would put you on a plane? Then wait for the next grand show of the Venetian master in the same venue, from February to January 2013 – why not pair it with a visit to nearby Palazzo Doria Pamphilj in Via del Corso?

4. Private hands in public venues.

 

Mondo Mostre is the private exhibition’s agency behind Vermeer’s show in the Scuderie.  Founded in 1999, and specialized in Italian – Russian exchanges, it offers a commanding international projects list that can help to brush off some of the prejudices against this kind of alternative partners for museums, both private and public.

 

5. First steps.

 

The new directors of the MNAC have announced its 2013 exhibition plans. Hampered by budget cuts, and the absence of any plans by the previous director, it offers however some degree of variety. It combines a retrospective of recent work by Antoni Tàpies (born in 1923 and deceased last February) and Joan Colom (1921; he donated his entire oeuvre and archive in July) with some in-focus presentations of certain works in the permanent collection. Above all, it is a feasible program, in which their curators have a real chance to shine – I am expecting how far and deep will go Drs. Francesc Quílez and Jordi À. Carbonell on the enormous The Battle of Tetouan (oil on canvas, 300 x 972 cm, Rome, 1862-1864) Marià Fortuny (1838-1874), on show between March and June 2013. Meanwhile, on the list of matters pending, I would put: widening a vision that for the moment does not embrace art from beyond Spain’s borders, and starting using the Museum’s loans for international projects as a way to secure the corresponding exhibition also at home.

6. Time for a Baroque rescue effort.

 

Whose is the hand behind this wonderful Still life with fish and seafruit (oil on canvas, 65 x 99 cm), bought by the Museo del Prado in 2009? A Dutch master in Italy? An Italian ex-pat in the Netherlands? A provincial French, or a Spanish court artist in Madrid? None of them, but the Catalan Antoni Viladomat i Manalt (1678-1755). His catalogue raisonné, already completed by Dr. Francesc Miralpeix but still unpublished, reveals a painter who, thanks to imported engravings, knew how to kept himself aware of what was happening elsewhere, and made his own interpretations of the available models. Which makes for an interesting book and its corresponding exhibition to add onto the waiting list.

7. Revelations in Sitges. 

As trumpeted in this blog in September, on Friday, 5th this month a sold-out 1st Meeting for Art, Markets, and Museums took place in Sitges, near Barcelona. The different speakers made interesting contributions to this world of close relationships, but the most interesting news for me came from dealer Artur Ramon. In his rapid sketch of art dealers in post-war Barcelona, he identified a couple of Jewish émigrés, Dr. Arnaldo and Rutta Rosenstingl setting the tone for high quality dealing, but also a German fugitive, Gestapo related Ludwig Losbichler-Gutjahr working from the shadows of a room in the Majestic Hotel. If Losbichler had had his hands dirtied by Holocaust-tainted property, then a door for restitution cases has been open in a city that, belonging to neutral Spain, at first seemed irrelevant to the matter. To make thinks even more complicated, the principal source of Ramon’s findings is the 1951-1969 correspondence between Losbichler and Germain Seligmann, a dealer in New York of Jewish origin.

From Bosch to the Courtauld

September 29nd, 2012

1. Books: Rush for Bosch!

 

I just received an email from the publisher Brepols reminding me next September, 30, their introductory offer expires for F. Koreny Bosch. Die Zeichnungen, the 456 pages (451 colour ill.) complete catalogue of the master’s drawings. 100 Euros, instead of 125 Euros: irresistible? Then buy it here now.

 

2. Putting together Peter’s puzzles.

 

The lists of works for the exhibition the Frick Collection in New York has just announced, lead to a natural question. Named  Piero della Francesca in America (February 12th to May 19th, 2013, catalogue by James Banker, Machtelt Israels, Elena Squillantini and Giacommo Guazzini) it will present Madonna and Child attended by Angels from the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, alongside with the different panels of  his Sant Agostino’ altarpiece now in New York and Washington. But it will also show an additional panel from the other side of the Atlantic: Saint Augustine from  the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon. “Why?” – I asked in my email to Heidi Rosenau , Frick’s Head of Media Relations. She promptly provided me with the answer from guest curator Nathaniel Silver:

“The title of the exhibition, Piero della Francesca in America, signifies the fact that this is the first exhibition of his work in the United States. Significantly, all of the paintings were made for the artist’s native city so the exhibition is about Piero working in his hometown. While the vast majority of paintings in the exhibition are in American collections and this theme introduces the exhibition catalogue, it is not the show’s primary theme. The magnificent painting from Lisbon was, however, discovered partly as a result of Miss Frick’s acquisition of St. John the Evangelist. In 1947, Kenneth Clark attributed the Lisbon St. Augustine to Piero for the first time, a discovery catalyzed by the recently published Frick acquisition.”

Then, the exhibition will perhaps be the first step to see, one day, all the surviving panels from the altarpiece at one place – this time, the Saint Michael in the National Gallery, and Saint Nicholas Tolentino in Museo Poldi Pezzoli, Milan, stayed home.

 

3. Your man in Paris.

And there attending last night of the Biennale des Antiquaires at Grand Palais, last day of Richter’s exhibition in the Pompidou, and second public day in the new Islamic Arts wing in the Louvre.  I could write a long post on all of that, but what really caught my attention this time were the not so new salles n .18 and n. 1 of the infinite museum – that is Ruben’s 1621 – 1622 clever cycle for Maria de Medici’s self-celebratory hall in Palais du Luxembourg, and the extraordinary Byzantine (Barberini Ivory, first half of the 6th century) and Caroligian ivories (The Earthy Paradise, c. 870-875.) you find on your way to the Baroque feast. What make a great museum grand are these permanent, sometimes unexpected lessons.

 

4. When did it all start? (2).

Francesc Lacoma i Fontanet (1784-1812), Self-portrait, oil on canvas, 68.5 x 57 cm, 1805, MNAC, Barcelona.

Last week’s note dealing with the pioneering relationship between Pelegrí Clavé and German Nazarenes in Rome around 1845, prompted an interesting comment from Dr. Francesc Miralpeix, from the University of Girona. This is it:

“The connection of 19th century Catalan artists with their European colleagues can be pushed some years back. I will propose the generation of Solà, Campeny, and especially the little known, yet very interesting Francesc Lacome. I suspect they were the link with the Romantics and the Nazarenes”.

Here you have a nice subject for your thesis. Anyway, what strikes me from Pelegrí Calvé is his willingness to surpass the Nazarene model in its own field, and his decision to embark on an international career (in Mexico) after his Roman years. In this sense, I would say he was a forerunner of the great star of the following generation, Marià Fortuny (1838-1974) – a truly European phenomenon.

5. A bold choice.

 

The “guess-who’s-coming-to-dinner” way, by which top posts in Barcelona’s museums are provided, has struck gold over these last months. If Dr. Pilar Vélez (Barcelona 1957) was an excellent choice as director of DHUB (which will hold the city collections of decorative arts, dress, industrial design and graphic arts) in May, now filling her previous post as director of  Museu Marès with Josep Maria Trullén (Barcelona 1954), deliver good news again.  Mr Trullén is a good friend of mine, which is totally irrelevant, especially when taking into consideration his brilliant job of first transforming the Museu of Solsona, then the Museu of Vic into regional powerhouses that involved up to three  different public bodies, plus the Church. His years as director of the Museu d’Art de Girona was not that successful, but we can be sure he will now show this was not his fault, by no means. But who will take the crown in Girona? Stay tuned!

 

6. Another good reason for transferring to Italy.

Just in case you wonder about spending a long time in Italy, let me give you another good reason for the move. This upscale  bocetto (Glory of Saints, oil on canvas, 92 x 136 cm) by Corrado Guiaquinto (1703-1766) has been denied an export licence, so it cannot travel outside the country. It will be auctioned, therefore, by Antonina in the Italian capital on October 2nd, with the ridiculous estimate of 12,000 / 15,000 Euros. Why not buy it, and doubly enjoy your stay in the land that produces such kind of wonders?

 

7. Work in a Royal Palace, Central London.

My alma mater is looking for a marketing “s/he” – political correctness can be so creative! Working in Somerset House selling world-class exhibitions and art-history courses, might perhaps lure you? At £59,715-£66,923 pa you will better paid than the President of Spain (the increasingly busy man gets only €78,000, according to the new budget). Details in The Art Newspaper.

9 August 2012

 1. Resurfacing Goya.

 

I learn via Artdaily, via The Telegraph and finally stopping at Koller Auktionshaus’s website, that this Zürich auction house will include the painting shown above in its sale on September 21, 2012 (lot 3034, Francisco de Goya, Lot and his daughters, oil on canvas, 91 x 125 cm). It was presented as a “new” Goya by the press reports, but for some reason they did not mention the logic behind this attribution. Not a problem, it has taken me just two emails (to Silvana Ghidoli, Koller’s Media Relations person, and to Karoline Wesser, Koller’s Old Masters’ specialist) to receive back a prompt, kind reply with the pre-catalogue schedule for the painting. It records a literature that goes from August L. Mayer Goya of 1924 (and a letter by him to the owner dated in November 12, 1923) to Jose Camón Aznar Francisco José de Goya of 1982, and includes Sanchez Cantón, Gudiol Ricart, Pierre Gassier with Juliet Wilson and Rita De Angelis.  In other words, the resurfaced work seems to come with blessings by the old specialists – but the nod from the current ones is always needed. Regarding to provenance, the work is listed as in a Linker collection in Bilbao in 1930, and later in a Swiss Collection – so further clarification for the 1933 – 1945 period would be useful. The estimate is CHF 600,000 – 800,000 (€ 500,000 – 666,000), which could prove attractive, since a much smaller contemporary The Appearance of the Virgen del Pilar to Saint James (oil on canvas, 47 x 33.3 cm, c. 1780) was sold by Christie’s London for GBP 453,250 on July 9, 2003.

2. August Liebmann Mayer (1885 – 1944).

 

Who was this man writing letters of authentication to the first known owner of the Goya featured above? August L. Mayer was one of the foremost specialists in Spanish Old Masters during the golden interwar years, when discoveries of works by the great masters abounded. He combined his unpaid job as curator in Alte Pinakothek in Munich from 1909 to 1931; with his teachings in the University; his wide, ground-breaking publishing in the field; and his writing of expert paid reports for private collectors. The practice, then accepted, was however used from 1930 on as the excuse for a personal hunt aimed as his Jewish birth – fellow art historians falsely accused him of giving sporious attributions for bigger gains; Nazi authorities fined him savagely for not declaring these gains. After a penniless escape to France in 1936, Mayer’s destiny was sealed by a 1941 order of arrest. It was made effective in Nice in February 1944, 13,  followed by immediate deportation to Auschwitz. Mayer was killed there on March 12, 1944, few days after his arrival. However, it is only recently he found his name reinstated, thanks to the works of Christian Fuhrmeister and Susanne Kienlechner in Germany (2008), and Teresa Posada Kubissa in Spain (2010). Also quite recently, some paintings from his private collection have been returned to his heir in California (see an Alte Pinakothek note in this respect, and also the Wikipedia corresponding article). Last, but not least, we can also reveal a Catalan connection: Mayer was the expert behind the many attributions (including a Velázquez, and a Tintoretto) in the Gil Collection, loaned in 1916, and purchased in 1944 by the MNAC in Barcelona.

Further reading:

-Fuhermeister, Christian and Kienlechner, Susanne: “Tatort Nizza: Kunstgeschichte zwischen Kunsthandel, Kunstraub und Verfolgung. Zur Vita von August Liebmann Mayer, mit einem Exkurs zu Bernhard Degenhart und Bemerkungen zu Erhard Göpel und Bruno Lohse.” in, Heftrig, Ruth, Peters, Olaf, and Schellewald, Barbara, eds. Kunstgeschichte im “Dritten Reich”:. Theorien, Methoden, Praktiken; Berlin: Akademie Verlag 2008 pp. 405-429.

-Posada Kubissa, Teresa: August L. Mayer y la pintura española – Ribera, Goya, El Greco, Velázquez, Madrid: CEEH, Centro de Estudios Europa Hispánica, 2010.

3. The adventure of an independent mind.

 

Last week I received an email from Dr. Francesc Ruiz Quesada, a respected independent scholar on Late Medieval Catalan painting, inviting me to spread the word about his blog, called Retrotabulum. Do not expect the usual casual stuff, but a series of long articles on Bartolomé Bermejo (active between 1468 and 1501), one of the key painters in 15th century Spain. I went through the first two essays. If I understood Ruiz properly, his thesis is that Bermejo was not a mere follower of models imported from the then innovative and dominant Early Netherlandish masters, but a genius artist that, like his Northern forerunners Jan van Eyck (1390/1400 – 1441) and Roger van der Weyden (1399/1400 – 1464), succeed in shaping an iconography – conveying a certain iconology – of his own.  He puts his case forcefully in Retrotabulum n.2, entirely devoted to the masterpiece pictured above (Bartolomé Bermejo, Pietà of Canon Desplà, oil on canvas, 175 x 189 cm, signed and dated 1490), now conserved in a compromised  condition in Barcelona’s Cathedral Museum. The other aspect making Ruiz’s endeavour special is that he carries it independently, through self-publishing. This is especially remarkable, since his proposal has the potential to add a new dimension of our understanding of Northern Renaissance’s reception in Spain. For the same reason, it could open the door to fruitful connections with the investigations on similar issues in Bermejo’s Northern predecessors, and contemporaries.

4. We are all connected.

Ruiz Quesada’s Retrotabulum is also featured in a blog called Publicaciones sobre Arte Medieval, written by Dr. Joan Valero Molina, a specialist in Catalan Gothic sculpture. He delivers exactly what its title promises – news about many books and some articles on Medieval Art, with an interesting international approach. Another very readable blog on Medieval matters is the fortnightly Medieval Histories, by Dr. Karen Schousboe, a Danish Ethnologist. She devotes every issue to a particular place, and April’s second half issue dealt with Crisis in Catalonia, and further subjects regarding this corner of Europe – among them, the Creation Tapestry in Girona, so cited in this blog.

 

5. Raphael in Polish fashion.

 

Polish is a challenging language, and the claim by Wojciech Kowalski, Poland’s Foreign Office representative for the restitution of cultural goods, that he has been misinterpreted is not perhaps just a worn-out excuse. No, he did not announce the recovery of Portrait as a young man (1514-1515), a presumed self-portrait by Raphael, and one the most famous missing art works since the end of WWII, after being looted for Hitler’s projected Führermuseum in Linz in 1939, from Czartoryski’s family collection in Crackow  – in whose museum you can see, among some exquisite Rembrandts, Leonardo’s Portrait of Cecilia Galerani or Lady with an Ermine (oil on panel, 54 x 39 cm, c. 1489 -90). But what Kowalski really meant is even more intriguing: that he knows the work still exists; that he has been informed that it is hidden away in a bank vault; and that the affected bank is placed in a country whose laws are in favour of a restitution of the painting to its former owners (see reports here, and here). A summer flop or the canniest of tactics by an international expert in the field? While we wait to find out, let’s have a look at Poland’s continued efforts for the restitution of its national art treasures from both Nazi and Soviet plunderings – in this official website.

Addition: Not exactly a Nazi looting victim, but Lucas Cranach’s wonderful early work Madonna Under the Fir Tree, (1510) has been restituted to the Wrocalw Cathedral last July 27, The Art Newspaper reports. 

6. More on Berlin’s road to stardom.

 

The other summer talk is Berlin’s Museums administrators’ plans to relocate its Old Masters painting collections, now at the Gemäldegarie in the Kulturforum, into the Bode Museum in the Museumsinsel. They want to make room for his 20th century art collections (recently enriched by the great Pietzch donation), and give every museum area a special focus, in which all kinds of art forms are included. This logical, apparently inoffensive move comes, however, with a cost, since space is limited at the already filled up Bode (house of the notable Byzantine and Sculpture collections), and therefore asks for the downsizing of the exhibits. Giving their extraordinary quality, an international uproar, now reaching the German conservators themselves (reports The Art Newspaper), followed the official notice. Pr. Michael Eissenhauer, director of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Preussischer Kulturbesitz, tried to calm everyone down with this letter (via Codart’s website), in which he announces the planning of a new building for the displaced collection. But he also reveals the reason behind the controversial decision, that is, the surprising approval by Germany’s Ministry of Culture of a €10 million grant for the refurbishment of the Gemäldegalerie, which, “although hoped for, was made much sooner than anticipated, and caught us off guard”. Let us praise him for his candid admission – but Berlin really needs better planning, since at stake are its chances to join London and Paris as Europe’s third art capital (see here the 1999 – 2015 Masterplan for the Museumsinsel; pictured above).

7. A place under Picasso’s sun.

 

The Art Newspaper reports a huge pre-booking success for Picasso’s retrospective in Milan (Pablo Picasso: Masterpieces from the Musée National Picasso in Paris, curated by Director Anne Baldassari, September 20th, 2012 – January 6th, 2013; Palazzo Reale, admissions from € 4.50 to € 9.-). It is another stop of the four-year-long international tour set up by the French museum, as a tool for self-promotion and revenue towards its current renovation and extension works, scheduled for summer 2013. Barcelona’s Museu Picasso has therefore one year to establish itself in Picasso’s changing constellation. Its current exhibition programme could help, since it underlines the museum’s characteristic origins as a donation by the artist and his related ones (Picasso Ceramics: a present from Jacqueline to Barcelona, curated by Marilyn McCully and Michael Raeburn, from October 26th, 2012, to April 1st, 2013); and its potential as a centre for alternative research – with a very promising exhibition on self-portraits, titled I, Picasso and curated by Dr. Eduard Vallès (from May, 28 2013 to September 1, 2013), who has already delighted us with his Picasso versus Rusiñol (May 28th – September 5th, 2010). They will be side-supported by some short, document-based exhibitions around the Museum’s 50 anniversary. That all makes more striking the absence of a clear research plan in the new guidelines (in Catalan), presented on June 12th –especially when a brand new Centre for Knowledge and Research was added last year, complete with a purpose-renovated annex. We hope City Council’s promise of administrative independence for the Museu does not go overlooked too.

2 August 2012

1. Hilda comes back home. 

Thanks to trustee Andrew de Mille, I discovered, in early July, Sir Stanley Spencer RA’s (1891-1959) fascinating art and Gallery in Cookham, Berkshire, which this year celebrates its 50th anniversary and is still entirely run by volunteers – entertaining a special relationship with the V&A, and some other important institutions. The Art Fund now spreads good news for them. The magnetic Hilda with the Hair Down (59.4 cm x 43.5 cm, pencil on five pieces of paper, joined, 1931), picturing Spencer’s first wife, is again hanging on the Gallery’s walls, after being bought in the Christie’s sale on May 23th this year. The acquisition is the common effort of Francis Carline (nephew of the sitter, who spotted the work on sale), the Stanley Spencer Gallery (40%) the Art Fund and the V&A Purchase Fund (sharing an about 50% slice) and the Friends of the  Gallery (GBP 10,000, nearly all their available founds). The work is the fourth most expensive drawing by Spencer bought at auction. As a matter of fact, the market is very selective with Spencer’s drawings. The vast majority of his generous outpost (artnet lists more than 640 drawings sold at auction) hovers at the £1,000 –  £3,000 level, but works of exceptional quality drive buyers wild. In the top five, estimates between £12,000 and £60,000 lead to final prices ranging from £87,650 to £142,500 (including commissions). The exception? This new drawing, with which the auction house tried to build on previous achievements – but its overestimate of £100,000 – £150,000 was eventually defied by the intelligent purchaser, who got it for £97,250 (including commissions). Still a brave and confident purchase, since it is the only portrait among the top fliers.  

Update August 16, 2012: Andrew de Mille emailed me the correct figures for the funding of the purchase.

2. And Courbet’s oak is on its way, too.

 

Gustave Courbet’s (1819 – 1877) virtuoso masterpiece The Oak at Flagey (also known as The Oak of Vercingetorix, oil on canvas, 89 cm x 100 cm, 1864) left his native Franche-Comté not long after the artist’s death, when his sister Juliette sold it to Philadelphian businessman and philanthropist Henry C. Gibson (1830-1891). Following his will, the oil was gifted to the Pennsylvania Academy of Art in 1896. It remained there until its auctioning at Sotheby’s New York in 1987, where it was bought for reportedly $450,000 by Japanese furniture emperor Michimasa Murauchi, and headed to his museum in Hachioji, near Tokyo, that opened just in 1982. Following his announcement this March that he is selling the entire collection (made up of French Barbizon and Impressionist works), Claude Jeannerot, the energetic president of the regional council of the Franche-Comté, raced to Japan and won an exclusive right of purchase for the painting for the Musée Courbet of Ornans. Mr Murauchi is asking €4,000,000 for it, of which Le Journal des Arts now reports nearly €2,000,000 is already secured, thanks to an ongoing appeal that has won over both significant official support, and no fewer than 350 private donators. Jeanneret, which was key in the acclaimed renovation and reopening of Courbet’s house museum in July 2011, is now pushing the French authorities into declaring the work an “œuvre d’intérêt patrimonial majeur”, so donors will become entitled to a tax cut worth 90% of their gift.

3. From great drawing to great painting.  

More on drawings. This blog’s star museum, the MNAC in Barcelona, has announced the acquisition of an important drawing by Joaquim Mir (1873-1940) named Sketch for “The Beggars Cathedral” (charcoal, pencil and white gouache on paper, 48 x 62 cm, 1898) – which refers to the building you see in the background, Antoni Gaudí’s Sagrada Família in 1898, at an early stage of its construction (see a contemporary photograph here). The Museum website’s title for the drawing links it to Mir’s painting below, also in the MNAC collections (The Beggars Cathedral, oil on canvas, 209 cm x 253 cm 1898): both works share the same composition and approach to the subject – at that moment Barcelona trembled with the achievements and conflicts of late 19th century industrialisation. But on close examination, one can see the differences between the two works. In fact the 25 year-old Mir did not keep the drawing’s everyday scene in the painting, but summed it up in a statement on hard times brought by infirmity and advanced age – in contrast with the healthy, young man at work, who stares from the right corner. The announcement came out just a week after the new trophy had actually crossed its threshold – a sign of the fast, very welcomed pace of the new manager’s drive.  

4. Books: Honouring Xavier Barral Altet.

 

I learn from La Tribune de l’Art some good news for the noted Catalan Medievalist Xavier Barral i Altet (Barcelona, 1947), Emeritus Professor of the University of Rennes, director of the MNAC between 1991 and 1994, and known by a wider public thanks to co-authoring  (with George Duby) La Sculpture: le grand art du Moyen Âge (Skira, 1989). On the occasion of his 65th birthday, no fewer than 129 of his Medievalist colleagues from around the globe had put up a weighty Festschrift titled Le plaisir de l’art du Moyen Âge. Commande, production et reception de l’oeuvre d’art. Mélanges en homage à Xavier Barral i Altet (Éditions Picards,2012; 1208 pages, €120 on the publisher’s website). Some of the Catalan contributors deal with some brisk subjects in the field – Manuel Castiñeiras and the Tapestry of the Creation from Girona; Gerardo Boto and the hotly debated newly-found cloister in Palamós, both in North Catalonia.    

5. Grassroots art history or the case for local, well rooted museums.    

It all started with an email from the Museu Diocesà de Lleida (170 km east of Barcelona), inviting me to their current exhibition, Fragments of a past. Pere Garcia Benavarri and the altarpiece of Saint John’s curch in Lleida. It did not look that exciting at first glance, since the artwork on display, that is the six panels by Pere Garcia Benavarri (doc. 1445 – 1485) — the only ones, with the seventh at the Isabella Gardner Museum in Boston, of which we know the whereabouts — all belong to the MNAC in Barcelona, next door home. But I was wrong – as already pointed by the fact that the invitation by  the Museum’s Head of Communications, Marga del Campo Andión came along with her well-written press clip, and the cell phone exhibition’s curator: conservator Albert Velasco. I therefore felt this could be an occasion to prove three things about the current state of our museums: first, that a new generation of well prepared and engaged young art historians has stepped in; second, that their talent is somehow tapped because museums have been nurtured mainly by public funding, and managed accordingly; third, that they have yet to win private support and civic praise. And I got the evidence. Albert’s talent is evident from the first exchange of words, and this little, well-crafted exhibition could only be his brainchild, as the result of his long years of research in the field, and his sharp sense of opportunity – the works came in exchange for the Museum’s loans towards MNAC’s just closed exhibition Catalunya 1400: The International Gothic. Although two private sponsors are listed in the credits (La Caixa, a bank, and an unheard of local foundation appropriately called Res Non Verba (“Deeds not Words”), the exhibition is not raising significant interest among the local press. Which is a shame, because we are dealing with the central altarpiece of the most important church in Late Medieval Lleida (after the Cathedral) –  this is what Albert himself explains in the book published for the occasion  (Fragments d’un passat. Pere Garcia Benavarri i el retaule de l’església de Sant Joan de Lleida, Lleida, 2012, 156 p., €20 at the museum’s desk), in which he also makes the important discovery of Flemish source for the Saint Jerome pictured above. Moreover, the show wants to be the first of a series called Dispersed works, which aim to return home the lost heritage of the city, even if it is for a short time. Our talking took us long and wide, so I asked him to explain more things about the Museum, especially about acquisitions. He promised me, and delivered, the list you can read in the following note.  

6. Consistent, well-paced, and publicly-founded.

These are the three common features of Museu de Lleida 2003 – 2011 acquisitions, as listed below. They are the result of a well-designed policy of buying Lleida’s local school works, with a preference for stone sculpture. In one case an item bought as “anonymous” could then be attributed thanks to the good eye of the Museum’s curatorial staff. One can only hope this good job will attract an increasing private support in the future. The list:

– Master of Albesa (14th century), Our Lady and the Child (painted limestone, 113 cm x 28 cm x 36 cm). Coming from the collection of Gaspar Homar it was bought by the museum from dealer Olga de Sandoval, Barcelona, in 2004 for an undisclosed sum – see a picture of it at p. 191 of the article by Albert Velasco and Joan Yeguas, “Noves aportacions sobre l’escola de Lleida d’escultura del segle XIV”, Urtx. Revista d’Humanitats d’Urgell, 2010, pp. 175 – 205).

– Master of Albesa, Saint Anthony Abbot (limestone, 115 cm x 38 cm x 22 cm). Coming from the collection of George Grey Barnard it was bought by the museum from the Metropolitan Museum of Art (deaccession), New York, in 2007 for an undisclosed sum – see a picture of it at p. 192 of same article by Albert Velasco and Joan Yeguas.

– Bartomeu de Robió (doc. between 1360-1379), Saint Thomas and Saint James (painted limestone, no measurements given, ca. 1375), a fragment of the predella of a dismantled altarpiece (see a picture of it at p. 181 of the same article by Albert Velasco and Joan Yeguas); other fragments in Museu Marés, Barcelona and a private collection.  It came form collection Hartman’s in Canet de Mar (Castell de Santa Florentina), and it was bought by the museum in 2007 from dealers Galeria Bernat, Barcelona, for an undisclosed sum.

– Bartomeu de Robió (doc. between 1360-1379), Imprisonment of Saint Andrew (limestone, 47 cm x 57 cm x 9 cm), bought by the Province of Lleida for €85,000 in February 11, 2009 from dealer Manuel Barbié – see the official note, with a video where you can see the piece and the matching fragment already in the museum. It came from a dismantled altarpiece devoted to Saint Andrew in the Church of Santa Maria de Castelló de Farfanya (another fragment in the MNAC); on permanent loan to the museum.

– Pere Garcia de Benavarri (doc. 1445 – 1485), Resurrection (upper panel of a lost altarpiece, tempera on pine wood, 112 x 97 cm, c.1450) from the parish church of Benavarri, bought by the Province of Lleida for €22,000 in March 25, 2009 at Balcli’s (an auction house in Barcelona); on permanent loan to the museum. – Pere Espallargues (active in the late 15th century), Saint Roch (fragment of a larger altarpiece, tempera on panel, 46 x 18 cm; ca 1490-1500), bought by the Province of Lleida for €4,000 in December 21, 2010 at Balcli’s, Barcelona; on permanent loan to the museum.

– Bartomeu de Robio (doc. between 1360-1379), Our Lady and Child from the Monastery of Santa Maria de Bellpuig de les Avellanes (painted limestone, 108 x 43 x 26 cm), bought by the Generalitat for €130,000 in March 16, 2011 at Balcli’s, Barcelona; on permanent loan to the museum (pictured above).

–  Joan Pau Guardiola, aka Joanot de Pau (active 1500-1530), Miracle of Our Lady of the Rosary and the Cologne Knight (fragment, oil and pastiglia on panel, 88.3 cm x 66.1 cm), bought by the Generalitat for £7,500 at Christie’s London in October 26, 2011, as an anonymous master of the Spanish School”, on permanent loan to the museum – the fragment with Our Lady of the Rosary is kept at the Museu Cau Ferrat, Sitges (see a reconstruction here).

Updating August 2, 2012: Albert Velasco noted us a ninth acquisition:

–  Master of Anglesola (first half of the 14th century), Crist in Majesty (alabaster, 24 cm. high, c.1320), a fragment of the upper half of the body that, after its acquisition and Albert’s visit to the Monastery of Poblet (South Catalonia), could be associated with lower part of the body still attached, as part of the ornamentation, to Count Ramon Folc VI of Cardona sepulchre, buried there. Bought by the Generalitat at Balcli’s in March 2008. See an image in p. 242 of Albert’s article “Els Apòstols de la desapareguda portalada de Santa Maria de Tàrrega”, Urtx. Revista d’Humanitats d’Urgell, 2009, pp. 229 – 247. He published a second artcle:  Albert Velasco, “Un nou fragment del sepulcre de Ramon Folc VI de Cardona del monestir de Poblet”, Aplec de Treballs, 29, 2011, p. 209-219.

7. Olympic art.

 

It has nothing to do with Old Masters, but the only bit of the opening ceremony I really enjoyed, the firing of the Olympic cauldron, proved as good as fine ageing painting in delivering a powerful message – in this case one of uniting the 204 participating states in peaceful competition, which goes directly to the roots of the Games in Ancient Greece. Cauldron designer Thomas Heatherwick explains it in this article on Phaidon’s website (Thomas Heatherwick ‘huge relief’ at Olympic opening, www.pahidon.com, retrieved on July 29th, 2012).

19 July 2012

1. Shaken, not stirred.

It is already half a year that the new director of the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Josep “Pepe” Serra, has been sitting in his new chair. Not exactly sitting, since the dynamic forty-something has been actively seeking public awareness and consent with his ideas and plans. If I grasped them during an open, candid speech last week, then his goal is to uncover the talent hiding in the Museum’s vaults, and open its doors to all kind of interesting proposals. It is difficult to say if he is following a very detailed plan for it. In his own words, he is still “shaking the house”, and identifying who among the personnel is open to embrace the challenge. His boost goes well beyond simple rehanging, but a fittingly sense of trial already pervades some of the new rooms – from the exquisite, yet diminutive Isidre Nonell (1872-1911) / Lluís Claramunt (1951 – 2000) drawings confrontation, to the exaggerated, stand-alone homage to Antoni Tàpies (1923-2012). Anyway, the time for inking the details in black and white is not that far off: Mr Serra announced that he will deliver an executive plan in October for 2013-2018.

2. A Phoenix on your wall.

Bought by the Museum in 1952 without a clear attribution, deposited in an office of Barcelona’s City Council, smoke-damaged there by a fire in April 1985, stored in the MNAC reserves, and finally rediscovered two years ago, The Conversion of Saint Paul (oil on canvas, 243 x 257 cm, c. 1614) by Juan Bautista Maíno (1581-1649) shines again with some of its past glory, after a thorough restoration. The man behind the move, conservator Francesc Quílez, suspected Maíno’s hand when he first spotted the work in 1996 – but he did not find the time to pursue his guesswork. It was only in 2009, when he chanced upon the 44.5 x 32.2 “modellino” for the work in Maino’s great retrospective catalogue in the Prado, that he had no doubt that a real masterpiece was hiding behind the darkened canvas. Now they are showing both the sketch and the final work, complete with some introductory texts, videos, and radiographies, in one of the MNAC’s upper rooms. Except for final ones, you can forget about the rest, and go directly to Mr Quilez’s essay on the website (only in Catalan, sorry), in which he convincingly argues this work confirms Maíno as something more than just the brilliant pioneer of  “caravaggism” in Spain. He was in fact an inquisitive spirit, ready to absorb many contrasting influences, even if that could lead to mixed (but really interesting) results, as shown in this “new” work – the bulk of his output is held in the Prado.

3. The Italian holidays of two British Tizianos.

If your chosen destination for the summer hiatus is Veneto’s jewel called Padova, you could complete Giotto’s must-see Capella dei Scrovegni (on-line bookings here) with a visit to the Musei Civici agli Erimitani next door. There you will be among the first to enjoy two recently rediscovered works by Tiziano, confirmed by specialists Andrea Donati and Lionello Puppi, which travel from two different British collections for the current exhibition Tiziano e Paolo III. Il pittore e il suo modello (from 7 July to 30 September 2012, admissions €10.-, no sign of a catalogue, but at least a fine review in La Repubblica). The smallest of them is a fresh self-portrait painted during his advanced years (oil on cardboard, 40 x 27.7 cm), the other a portrait of Pope Paul III (oil on canvas, 128 x 98 cm) that, according to this press note by the Italian Culture Department, should show him humble enough to win Emperor’s Charles V support. In other words, both works bear out Tiziano’s powers in giving elegant, but subtly incisive renderings of powerful, yet human, beings – for more about this point, have a look at the three portraits of Paul III at Capodimonte Museum in Naples.

4. Lessons from the art market.

In my annual trip to the centre of the world (that is London, for us Old Master freaks), I attended the first hour of Sotheby’s Old Master Evening auction, devoted to Dutch and other Northern European artists. Oud Holland art is not really my field, but even for the newcomer it was clear that dealers and collectors were not taking Sotheby’s name-based catalogue very seriously. They were focused solely on the works, and the quality they showed. Therefore, some of the star lots sporting resounding names only just reached the low estimate or even failed to sell; while other low-key artists with attractive works had their day – my preferred one was Hendrik van Steenwijck the Younger (1580-1649) Saint Jerome in his study (lot 17, oil on oak panel, 40 x 56.2 cm, estimate GBP 100,000 – 150,000, final price without premium GBP 280,000), in which, if I am not too presumptive, the painter had revisited an old ecclesiastical subject and set it in the clean-cut, unpretentious atmosphere fostered by the Reformation. A final reconciliation, however, was reached with the last lot in the section, The surrender of the Royal Prince during The Four Day’s Battle, 1st-4th June 1666 (lot 24, oil on canvas, 75.5 x 106 cm), a true masterpiece by the renowned sea-battle painter Willem van de Velde the Younger (1633 – 1707). The GBP 1,500,000 – 2,500,000 estimate was dwarfed when a new bidder, attended to on the phone by a young dealer standing next to me, joined the fight at 2 million, duelled against a sole opponent for several electric minutes, and eventually won it for a nearly record-setting GBP 4,700,000 (GBP 5,305,250 with premium) – the ultimate record was achieved by rival house Christie’s last 6th December, when it sold Dutch men-o-war and other shipping in a calm, (oil on canvas, 86.3 cm x 119.3 cm, sold) for GBP 5,921,250 (including premium).

5. The Prussian teenager is growing up.

Berlin is growing up to become the next international hotspot for art from all ages. Already nurturing an extremely live contemporary scene (which you can follow at the excellent berlinartjournal blog and its spin-off sugarhigh), the city has seen very long queues in the final months of 2011 for the Renaissance Faces exhibition. True that since 1990 the city has lived under the never-ending resettling of its pre-1945 fabulous collections, but you can read the latest quarrel on the matter as a kind of adolescent turmoil. Following the very generous donation of some 150 important Surrealist and Expressionist works (Miró, Dalí, Pollock and all the rest involved) by Ulla and Heiner Pietzch (a czar of the plastic trade), the city planers have decided to clean out the Gemäldegalerie of its collection of Old Masters (including the famous 18 Rembrandts), and, while waiting for a new building, show them in a shorter version in the Bode Museum, already house of the Byzantine and Medieval collections – the world largest in sculpture from this period. The petition against the move (which I signed) cannot mask the fact that, as Isabelle Spicer writes in this report for the French Journal of Arts, with better planning, this could be the last step before the Museuminsel turns up as the new Louvre.

6. Setting the day.

Summertime is a hard time to fill the newspapers’ cultural pages with real news, and that is one reason why they are not ashamed to make good use of old stories. Irene Hernández Velasco writes in the Spanish El Mundo this interesting piece on paying a visit to the origins of the Gregorian calendar. If you ever wonder why the Russians, following the old and unstable Julian calendar, celebrate Christmas 15 days after you, here you will find the definitive proof that made Pope Gregory XIII (1502 – 1585) proclaim the bull “Inter Gravissimas”, by which 4th October 1582 became 15th October that year. It consisted of drawing a meridian on the floor of the “Torre dei Venti” (“Tower of Winds”, where the Vatican Archives are now kept), and opening a little hole in one of Il Pomarancio’s (Nicolò Circignani, c.1517 – after 1596) frescos on the wall – matching the open mouth of an angel blowing. On 21st March 1581 the Pope was shown how the sunbeam that, entering through the hole, should have touched the meridian at the point marked by springtime equinox, in fact deflected some 60 cm beyond – because the equinox had taken place ten days before. The changes introduced by the new calendar of counting leap years (once every fourth year, except in the years ending in 00) explain the additional days of discrepancy within Old Caesar’s calendar.

7. She keeps her smile…

… despinte huge cuts in public funding for culture.

29 March 2012

An international approach for an international art.

Pressures of time threatened the issuing of this weeks’ dispatch, but the potential significance of the single event I will report this time is pushing me to give, at least, a hurried glimpse of the matter.

Yesterday evening I attended the opening of the new exhibition in the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, in Barcelona. Its title is the plainly descriptive “Catalunya 1400. El Gòtic Internacional” (Catalonia 1400. The International Gothic Style”, from 29 March to 15 July 2012, admissions €6,  catalogue for €35 at the museum’s website), which gives you the immediate idea that it deals with the Catalan part in the art movement that spread over central and Western Europe,  from the late 14th century until the age of Donatello (1386-1466), Massacio (1401-1428), Jan van Eyck (c. 1390-1441), and Robert Campin (1375-1444). The term that it names, as the catalogue of the exhibition remembers, was coined by the French art-historian Louis Courajoud (1841-1896) in a conference in 1887, published in 1901 (Courajod, L. Leçons professées à l’École du Louvre 1887-1896. Vol II: Origines de la Renaissance, Paris 1901; the original issue or printed-on-demand at abebooks.com, with prices ranging from $61.01 to $616.25).

But why is such a specific subject of art history, geographically narrowed to this corner of the Mediterranean Sea, of some importance? First of all, because of the quality of the works involved. And secondly, because it shows how to deal with a typical pattern for European cultural phenomena – a pattern that starts with being born out from the hybridization of two different main sources, then impacting on some territories of the rest of the continent, and finally giving way to general cross-dialogue, which, in some instances, establishes even new centres of irradiation.

In this respect, the introductory essay by the chief curator of the exhibition, Dr. Rafael Cornudella, is a perfect example of the balanced view the issue asks for. He rejects both a chauvinistic approach and a pan-European all-inclusive celebration, and clearly states that International Gothic had its own principal focus, in Paris and its North-East area, and in Northern-Italy, which influenced the rest of the central and western part of the continent. It is in this periphery where the Catalan or for this matter, the Bohemian – Prague examples lay, both in geographical and artistic terms. But, as Dr. Cornudella says, a European canon without them would be unforgivably poor.

Do we see this in the exhibition and its catalogue? In part yes, but in part no.  The selection of the works is certainly rich – the number of 48 can be misleading, since it includes 5 complete altarpieces. Loans come from a variety of institutions and some works are presented to the public for the first time. The job behind it should be Herculean. In the same vein, the catalogue touches all the disciplines involved (painting, miniature, sculpture, architecture), and comes up with some new attributions, based on serious research and an international bibliography.

But on the other hand, the “only Catalan works” restriction put on the show works against its spirit. Its message would be fully revealed with some works from the rest of the Catalan – Aragonese territories (especially Valencia and Mallorca from the last decades of the chronology span), and with some examples from the French and Italian workshops of the moment.  Not  least, the artists themselves worked occasionally for all these territories.

It is clear however that such an expansion would come at a cost, and that the current budget limitations do not allow for big dreams. But perhaps the exhibition organisers could find more supporters than just the one, the Fundació Abertis. And there is a cheap alternative still available: to give free entry to the rest of the museum to exhibition’s ticket holders, so they could continue their experience by exploring further examples from the museum’s collection – I think that extending free admission to all of the Catalan institutions contributing to the exhibition could also be a clever marketing move, since their attendance numbers are not robust.

The MNAC was not to blame for the absence of a certain crucial work. The central panel of the Saint George altarpiece  (c. 1434-35, tempera on panel, 155.6 cm x 91 cm) by Bernat Martorell (1400-1452), which is arguably the crest of the Catalan art of this moment, remained on the walls of the Art Institute of Chicago. They simply declared the work as permanently out of loan. Asking people engaged with the corresponding negotiations, the answer was that this was not a conservation, nor a shipping cost issue. It seems it could be related to the terms of the gift to the Chicagoan museum. But I would be surprised to learn that the American legal corpus and genius does not offer or find any means to get around such an ill-conceived provision, should it have been actually put in place. As a matter of fact, the work has not been included in any important exhibition since 1939 – the only instance was in 2008, but in a show focusing on in-house technical research.

But these shortcomings do not hide the inspirational value of this exhibition, and do not harm the real joy of coming and seeing it. Thanks to its European vocation, the show cleverly embodies a vision that hopefully will shape further, exciting developments, not only in the Gothic area – and it actually unveils its first promising fruits.