11.11.2012: From Nonell to Van Eyck

1. The rise of the online auction

I do admit: it is not without a drop of envy that I report about these two extraordinary examples of 19th century Catalan art coming to auction – I wish I myself were handling them!  Isidre Nonell (1872-1911), and Joaquim Mir (1873-1940) shared formative years in the informal Colla del Safrà (The Saffron Gang, named after their use of strong colours, especially red), where they made their first attempts to free themselves from fin-de-siècle, bourgeoisie-loved  late Impressionism, in favour to of a more direct form of realism. However, they developed their styles in to two different ways: Nonell dug stubbornly in the social (gypsy) underworld, and found new depths for his style on the way (from which Picasso took good lessons while in Barcelona); Mir embraced an exalted, exhilarating vision of nature. This is what you can see in Nonell’s Soledad, old Gipsy (oil on canvas, 1908, 100 x 81 cm, signed) and The pound in Can Pau Segimon (oil on canvas, 1905-06, 133 x 202.5 cm, signed), perhaps not at their peak, but certainly at a very high level. In any case, Setdart, the online auction house in charge, is not shy about estimates, nor the strength of the market: €600,000 each, offered on two consecutive dates (November 27 and 28). At that price, they would become the second most expensive Nonell ever sold at auction, and the Mir that smashed the previous record, by nearly doubling it. Will this aggressive approach pay out? That is something hard to know, since Setdart distinguishes itself by not making the final price public, nor indeed the fact whether the lot has been sold or fallen below the reserve price.

2. From the American and French Revolutions to the outbreak of the First World War

It is called Nineteenth Century Art Worldwide and it is a peer-reviewed, on-line semestral journal published since 2002 by the AHNCA (Association of Historians of Nineteenth Century Art), an American learned society affiliated to the CAA (College Art Association). Its Vision Statement notes that “for too long nineteenth-century art historical studies have focused on France and, to a lesser extent, Great Britain, the United States, and Germany. The editors of the journal are making a particular effort to solicit articles that cover the arts in other areas of the world as well”. Regarding Catalan and Spanish art however, I could find only two excellent exhibition reviews. So why not start changing things with a scholarly comment about the Martin Rico retrospective now in the Prado, or your interesting findings about some of the artists featured in the previous note (or Gaudí, for that matter)? You will find their Guidelines for submissions here.

3. Books: Collecting Spanish Art (the bright side)

The Frick Collection is publishing the proceeds of its 2008 conference on the hunger for Spanish Art among the most active collectors in the States. All authors are noted specialists from both sides of the Atlantic, and collectors discussed include Isabella Stewart Gardner, Henry Clay Frick, Charles Deering, Archer Huntington, Algur Meadows, and yes, William Randolph Hearst (Jose Luis Colomer and Inge Reist, ed., Colleting Spanish Art: Spain’s Golden Age and America’s Gilded Age, New York, 2012; 376 p., $90.- at the Frick’s online bookstore).

4. Books: Collecting Spanish Art (the dark side)

This book, published last September, traces William Randolph Hearst’s (1863-1951) aggressive buying campaign of important pieces from the Spanish heritage, notably architecture –  including up to nine complete cloisters (Maria José Martínez Ruíz and José Miguel Merino Cáceres, La destrucción del patrimonio español. W. R. Hearst, el gran acaparador, Madrid, 2012;  704 pages, €32.- on the publisher’s website)His methods were not always clean, and the research gives a detailed account of his ways to put pressure on, and attract the will of officials in charge. For a broader picture on the matter, the reference work in the field is Francisco Fernández Pardo El Museo desaparecido. Dispersión y destrucción del patrimonio artístico español (Madrid, 2007; 5 volumes, apparently out of print, but available in some university libraries at home, and abroad).

5. Collecting for the nation

The UK’s Arts Council has published a 2010 -2012 Report on the Acceptance in Lieu Scheme, which it administers. Under this scheme, taxes are paid not with money, but with significant artworks – called in France dation en paiement, and in Spain and Catalonia “dació en pagament”. It seems it works very well, being able first, to identify important works of art; second, to find the way to value them fairly  – taking advice also from the trade, raising offeror’s valuations when necessary, and making the final figures public; and third, to allocate them to different public collections across the country (see Appendices in the report). The 2011 / 2012 exercise was extraordinary. Ruben’s (155-1640) grisaille sketch The Triumph of Venus (oil on panel, 34.5 x 48.5 cm; 1628; now in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge) was the star acquisition of the season, which closed with 24 objects accepted (and 9 rejected), valued at 31.3 million GBP, and paying 20 million GBP in taxes. This is a difference that needs some explanation: when the offeror (tax debtor) offers a work whose valuation exceeds the tax amount owned, it is the recipient institution who raises the difference – sometimes with the help of other public or private charitable institutions. In other words, the Art Council has been successful in not turning the Scheme into a state-controlled system to buy valuable pieces from a vendor under tax pressure at a bargain price – but a fair price. Next exercise they will start with the Cultural Gift Scheme, by which the offeror makes a lifetime gift of an artwork against income, capital gains, or corporation taxes.

6. We need a new word for that: “Expohell” (or “Mostrificio” in Italian)

I learn through Adkronos that the foundation behind Florens, the International Biennale on Cultural and Environmental Heritage (Florence, November 3 -11), has presented there its report on “Exhibiting in the Middle of the Crisis. The Italian Exhibiting System between 2009 – 2011” (see the press note and the full report). Their findings are very interesting: no less than 11,000 exhibitions every year (30 per day), held in 4,500 exhibitions centres (only a third in museums) planted in 1,500 different towns. 65% of the exhibitions were dedicated to contemporary work, and 10% to photography  – Old Masters got less than 3%. The good news was that 90% of them were free, therefore not asking to pay for something that presumably was already very cheap. Director of research Guido Guerzoni asked for “less ephemera and more museums, less quantity and more quality, less past and more future [why, sorry?], and more sensible cultural planning”.

7. Eyck’s magic

Are you fond of underdrawings, the kind of secret masterpieces hidden beneath the painted surface of a Medieval or Renaissance painting? Then take a look at closertovaneyck, the website that, under the leadership of Belgium Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage the Getty Foundation, opened some months ago to follow the restoration process of Hubert and Jan van Eyck Ghent Altarpiece (1432). Besides other features, it allows you to compare side by side macrophotographies and infrared reflectographies of the different panels, therefore revealing the Eyck brothers’ magic touch in transforming a black-and-white sketch into one of the finest colourings examples ever made. The wonders of the digital era!

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