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.
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).