March 8, 2012

1. Job done. Brilliantly.

One of the missions of any museum is to acquire the works of art that enhance its collection and serve its “purposes of education, study, and enjoyment”, in the terms of the 2007 definition of “museum” by the ICOM. This is exactly what the National Gallery, London, and the National Gallery of Scotland have done in these early days of March (curiously enough, the official press note does not give the exact date), when they jointly purchased Titian’s (1489-1576) masterpiece Diana and Callisto (oil on canvas, 187 x 204.5 cm) for GBP 45 million, after the owner, the Duke of Sutherland, agreed to a 5 million reduction upon early payment, and  after the money had been found by combining grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund (3 million), The Art Fund (2 million), The Monument Trust and an array of private donors (15 million) with the NG’s own charitable reserves (25 million). A true masterpiece any serious collector and every major museum would cry out for; the match for this, Diana and Acteon, was purchased in 2009; the price is, even in nominal terms, below the amount paid 10 years ago for Ruben’s first version of The Massacre of the Innocents (oil on canvas, 142 x 182 cm, sold at Sotheby’s on July 10th 2002, for GBP 49,506,648 and subsequently presented by the purchaser to the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto); no tax money involved; two museums doing the job they are asked to; and as a side effect, the rest of the Bridgewater collection agreed to remain in the NGS for free: these are the features of this brilliant coup. On the other hand, as this article by Catherine Bernett in the Guardian advocates, that might leads to suspending free entry to the NG and the NGS for the sake of recovering some financing breath. Let us therefore discuss whether museums’ entry fees should not be addressed in the same way as the fees for any other public service: get it free for those who need it for free; and charge those who can and want to pay for it.


2. Job to be done. Exciting.

The new director of the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya (a recurring institution in this blog, and in this very post, as you will see), Josep Serra, who was appointed last December, finally gave some hints about his plans for the Museu, in a 25-minute interview to a local radio station last March 1st, – which gained the status of an official statement through its encrustation in the press office section of the MNAC’S website. He promised a strategic plan by this summer, but the general idea is already clear: specializing the Museu, meaning that from the 1,000-year span (clearly uneven) collection, he is ready to put the focus on the two sections in which they reach an international level: the Romanesque paintings and sculptures and the arts of the 1900 Catalan Modernism (the bursting, fruitful local version of Art Noveau, to put it in very broad terms). Moreover, he pledged himself to push the museum to fulfil its role as a social (public-orientated), scientific (research-orientated), national (locally-orientated) and international (world-open) institution; he asked for more exhibition floor space through the acquisition of two buildings close by, and finally he made a candid plea to foster the museum’s public legitimation, and to be judged for what he and his team will achieve. On the money front, he revealed he is already talking to private sponsors. One can only wish him every success for these sensible plans.


3. The Meduse strikes again.

It seems we must get used to having a new work by a major artist discovered or confirmed quite often. After the “new” Leonardo, Rembrandt, and possible Velázquez of last year, we can now add a rediscovered Michelangelo Merisi, Caravaggio (1571-1610). By jumping from a French website (Le Journal des Arts), via Corriere della Sera, to the news agency  ( that seems to be the original source for the previous two reports, you will find that in a press conference held in Rome last February 24th, the eminent specialist Mina Gregori could finally offer the technical evidence, provided by Mauricio Seracini (from the University of San Diego), she needed to confirm that a Meduse, kept in an Italian collection (that of the late Ermano Zofilli) is in fact not only by the hand of the notorious master, but actually his first version of this particular topic, rich in pentimenti and foregoing the example in the Galleria dei Ufizzi (see it at Google’s Art Project). The press conference also presented the accompanying book (Gregori, Mina; Marini, Maurizio; Seracini, Maurizio: The First Medusa. Caravaggio, Five Continents Editions, Milan, 2011; 160 pages and 299 ill., GBP 39.75 on the publisher’s website, but Euros 39.38 on Amazon).


4. Cerezo’s coming to light.

Although pictured above in rather obscure tones, Mateo Cerezo’s (1637-1666) The Nativity or Presage of the Passion (oil on canvas, 140 x 120 cm, signed) is a masterful exercise in lighting, which will amaze you when looking at it in flesh (I cannot resist revealing I was fortunate enough to do that some 2 years ago). On the other hand, I am more and more convinced that Cerezo’s worth lies in his ability to absorb the achievements of a variety of previous masters (whose works he could access thanks to the growing international collections and the enormous commissions entering Madrid’s palaces and churches of his days), and push them onto new paths. In this particular case, we can go as far as Rubens, as Eduardo Lamas-Delgado argues in his article in the RIHA Journal. His study is important because it marks the work’s official entry into Cerezo’s catalogue, and also because it offers an interesting discussion of the subject-matter, the Presage of the Passion in which the new-born Christ is linked to the forthcoming death Christ by means of the presence of the Cross, and other instruments of the passion, at the spot. It is precisely the subject matter that allows Lamas to identify this work with the work remarked on, for its novelty, in Antonio Palomino’s (1655-1726) Museo Pictórico y Escala Óptica (1715-24), one of the earliest and most important treatises on Spanish painting (see Eduardo Lamas-Delgado: Quelques considérations sur le thème du présage de la Passion en Espagne. À propos d’une image “très mystérieuse de la Nativité”, tableau retrouvé de Mateo Cerezo, 1637-1666, RIHA Journal, January 9th, 2012, online).


5. Fortuny online, Fortuny offline.

To celebrate the digitization of its 2,281 drawings and 177 engravings by Marià Fortuny (1838-1874), the most gifted Catalan artist of the 19th century, the Museu d’Art de Catalunya has devoted its Engravings room to 50 of his works, in a well-selected, highly-instructive exhibition that in more that one case offers different states of the same image. The Museu’s website already gives access to 169 engravings and 1,055 drawings, alongside a long article by the operation’s mastermind, Francesc Quílez, Head of the Drawings and Engravings Department. He covers not only the digitization process, but also the formation of the collection, and the exhibition’s history of Fortuny’s engravings – in Catalan, which is easy to read when you have a working knowledge of any other Latin tongue. To round off your Fortuny experience, you can have a look at the 797 drawings and engravings of his in the Louvre’s Inventaire du Département des Arts Graphiques website, and at 67 of them in the British Museum’s online archive.


6. Found in the virtual bookshelf: Steven Ozment, The Serpent and the Lamb. Cranach, Luther and the Making of the Reformation (plus a new website on the great artist).

 If the book in last week’s post dealt with Charles V (1500-1558) and Titian (1489-1576), today’s one is devoted to those that could be considered, to some extent, their counterparts, Martin Luther (1483-1546) and Lucas Cranach (1472-1553). Acclaimed Protestant History Professor Steve Ozment’s recent book (Yale University Press, New Haven, Nov. 2011; 344 p., USD 35 on the publisher’s website) traces their common work in Frederick the Wise’s (1463-1525) court in Wittenberg, and explains how Cranach’s paintings not only shaped the image of the reformer, but also of the Reformation itself – a helping hand that the artist extended to his good offices as court insider, and also as owner of the official press for Luther’s works. More on Ozment on his website at the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Harvard University. And more on Cranach on this impressive website, in which the Cranach Digital Archive, founded in 2009 by a range of German and international institutions and researchers, brings online “the art historical, technical and conservation information” of more  than 400 paintings by the master and his workshop, with nearly 5,000 images and documents (including a good deal of Luther’s portraits, needless to say). I came across it thanks to this post in the blog of the ApAhAu (Association des Professeurs d’Archéologie et d’Historie de l’Art des Universités).


7. Turning ivory into gold.


The fascinating story about the work pictured above was first broadcast last January 22nd in one of the finest art blogs I regularly check (Real Clear Arts, by art journalist Judith H. Dobrzynski, in this case complemented by this article by herself in the Wall Street Journal from the previous day). It showcased two of the processes involved in establishing the value of an artwork: authentication and validation.  It was also an instance of what a good deal of stamina a great dealer needs, a side of the business too often overlooked. You will find the story nicely reported in the article noted above, but just allow me to underline that when the dealers spent USD 1,202,500 at Sotheby’s New York on a lot that climbed from a pre-auction estimate of USD 120,000 – 150,000, they were doing it against the feelings of many other colleagues in the trade, about what the reasonable amount was in this case. And the job had only just started. After restoring and cleaning it (more costs), they sent it to some specialists in the field, gathering in Munich for a congress (costs again, and contacts you had to have forged well in advance). They were seeking authentication, that is, the specialists’ opinion about whether the work was really by the artist they suspected. A word against it, and the whole matter had a good chance of collapsing like a house of cards. They got the green light. But a further step was needed: validation, that is having the work made public in the right art history related environment – in this case, an exhibition. All in all, it is only one year later that they can put the work for sale (which is fast by trade standards), asking yes, a respectable USD 3.8 million, but who can assure them that they will find the client ready to pay for it?


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