Quick! Last chance to see the wonderful collection of book benches scattered around London as part of the collaboration between the National Literary Trust and Wild in Art.
The project comes to a close on the 14th and 15th of September and it is certainly worth visiting a few of the literary pews before they disappear.
For the dedicated among you, there are 4 trails around parts of London – the City Trail, the Bloomsbury Trail, the Greenwich Trail, and the Riverside Trail. Some seats are tucked away in hidden venues, such as the Noughts and Crosses themed bench at Fen Court in the City, whilst others are in popular tourist spots or public thoroughfares such as Mary Poppins in the shadow of St Paul’s Cathedral, or the Shakespearian homage plonked outside the Globe.
Some benches are specifically tied to their location – a series of pastel motifs and character portraits commemorating Mrs Dalloway is to be found in Gordon Square Gardens, adjacent to Virginia Woolf’s former home in Bloomsbury – an endearing Wind in the Willows bench is placed at the steps of the Bank of England, where Kenneth Graham once worked, – and a lively depiction of Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days featuring a mock newspaper front page detailing Fogg’s ambitious wager, is found in the basement of Stamfords, a well loved travel bookshop in Covent Garden.
A variety of local artists produced the series, which will be auctioned off in October to raise money for the National Literary Trust charity. Do try and spot a few if you’re wandering through London – they are a beautiful contribution to the bustle of city life, in the same vein as the ever popular Art Everywhere project that stretched throughout the UK over the summer.
China’s art is exciting – it really is. Extremely simplistically, the PRC’s art history can be divided by pre- and post-Mao’s rule. What little art there was in between was either so corrupted it is purely propaganda, or was destroyed in the Cultural Revolution. This makes modern Chinese art one of the few windows into their confusing, contradictory and colourful political system.
Graffiti in the 798 Art District, Beijing
Modern art in China comprises expressions formed by political, economic and cultural combustion. In the 798 Art District in Beijing, and M50 in Shanghai, China’s revived interest in nudging at societal boundaries have bred edgy art scenes. With many relics decimated during the Cultural Revolution, the low rent and spacious rooms in the disused factories of mutating cities gave artists a unique and low-cost way of creating a Chinese artistic history.
Closeted amongst decommissioned military factories built by the East Germans during the Maoist heyday of the 1950s, the 798 Art District in Beijing is a thriving microcosm of artists’ studios, boutiques and independent cafés. ‘Saw-tooth’ roof design, high ceilings, north-facing windows and right-angles give each building a distinctly utilitarian feel. Communist slogans paint the walls in fading red letters. Quietly riveting exhibitions confront depictions of the Cultural Revolution, Great Leap Forward and China’s “great leader”, with established or fresh mainland artists pushing forth ardent political messages from minimalist gallery walls.
Once the Chunming Slub Mill, and now the nerve centre of Shanghai’s art scene, M50 is a similar complex, with galleries and noodle bars stuffed into every crevice of a disused cotton factory. Satirical undertones pervade the air: the Maoist personality cult haunts modern China, which now paints Little-Red-Book-waving PLA soldiers with dummies in their mouths.
But no matter how exciting the art may be – no matter how many times it embellishes China’s rigid daily politics with under-the-surface views – it is neither Communism nor political repression that mars the 798 Art District or M50. Neither escapes the rampant, almost religious commercialism that paints nearly every street in the Chinese metropolises. Wandering the manicured boulevards, you enter a bubble of Sino-Europe. At Café – a wild café with bombed-out brick walls in Beijing – serves spaghetti bolognese and tuna niçoise. Illy Coffee signs jump out between every gallery, offering respite to tourists, and a chance to imitate the West. Previously an oasis of individualism, born by the low-cost nature of the shabby setting, both complexes have become playgrounds for people who want street-stall souvenirs to be sold in Scandinavian-style shops.
Perhaps this is utterly inevitable as China strides confidently forward into the world economy, squeezing every drip of GDP it can from its culture. But in doing so, the subtle political dissent the galleries quietly put forward is overrun by capitalisation of what attracts tourists to the art districts – shopping for mass produced Communist memorabilia and homesickness for good coffee.
The 798 Art District and M50 are triple-tiered exhibition fields. On one level, China’s socio-industrial history creates a backdrop to modern Chinese art where the forgone creativity of the late 19th century should have been. On the second level, the cultural aspirations of modern China offer timid satire of China’s political system. In reality, however, a third level of crazed commercialism drips over both, clouding what modern Chinese art is really for.
Abroad, Chinese government officials often justify their regime by putting the economic enfranchisement of millions on a pedestal. If everyone’s getting rich, who needs more than one political party? It is certainly ironic, but possibly even intentional, that the Chinese commercialism post-Mao Zedong has almost become a new form of political repression.
Supermodel stardom and being shot by David Bailey are positively correlated. So surprisingly it’s hard to walk away from ‘Bailey’s Stardust’ at the National Portrait Gallery with images of celebrity swirling in your head. Sure, innumerable stars pepper the exhibition, but ‘stardust’ relates more to the unseen and unique that Bailey attempts to catch and project. This exhibition brings forth a hidden side to his work, and teaches the viewer more about people than merely how super a supermodel can look.
Over 250 images have been personally selected and arranged thematically by Bailey, in a process lasting two and a half years. Glossy photos light up the National Portrait Gallery’s walls with star-wattage, to a relaxed white noise of jazz. The retrospective is an organised explosion of 50 years of Bailey’s style – at once witty and refreshing, brutal and perceptive.
Bailey burst into photographic history with his ‘Box of Pin-Ups’ portraits in 1965. Complete with his signature style, they started a trend which has spanned his career – blank white, sharp lighting and no set dressing. These photos are the epitome of pop culture and impetus behind a lifelong relationship with fashion and celebrity. Bailey has produced more than 350 covers for Vogue; but for this exhibition, he chose inimitable personalities – the subjects that were most exciting to capture. His monochrome vision is most striking on ‘Carlos Acosta‘ (2011) – highlighting the passion in his dance rather than the technicalities of ballet’s movements, which static film cannot portray. ‘Alexander McQueen‘ (2002) pops out against a flat white backdrop in an utterly British leap of vibrant eccentricity and wild tradition. Eruptions of ostentatious fashion are rare – Bailey keeps things strong and simple. But ‘Abbey Lee Kershaw’ (2010) offers a refreshing bang of the self-conscious, wide-eyed pretension of fashion – staring out in satisfied confusion.
Criticising Bailey for focusing on the material shallowness of celebrity ignores vast swathes of his work. Bailey shot artists who defined the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, in a cycle of creative talent behind and in front of the camera. ‘Man Ray‘ (1968) is captured in a convergence of photographer on photographer – the focus on an empty black eye, the key to his fame. Warhol and Dali are photographed together in decadent glamour and a ‘Midnight in Paris‘ vibe. ‘Salvador Dali and David Bailey’ (1972) is a vintage selfie: as today we imitate the past; then they imitated the future. ‘Damien Hirst‘ (2004) is shot naked surrounded by animal carcasses and foil – uniquely modern and awkward, displaying the discomfort many have with modern art. ‘Bruce Weber‘ (2013) shoots with a lime green phone as the picture convulses with the supernatural colour of modern technology.
Roots in London’s East End gave Bailey a proximity and fondness for the true grit of the criminal underworld; in stark contrast to the bubble of stardust he later encapsulated. A city scarred by war and grimy with poverty is ruthlessly exposed in photographs from the early 1960s. ‘Bernie Davis’ (2002) is a double whammy with Bailey’s portrait of the murderous Kray brothers on a tattooed leg. ‘Look’ is a poignant portrait of discomfort and instinctive rebellion. The ‘Democracy’ (2001-5) series is more celebratory, but still visceral and raw: biological grit remains the only star of the show as photographic method was kept entirely consistent, allowing only for variation in the sitters.
Powerful humanitarian images are plucked from around the world. The Kukukuku tribe in the highlands of Papua New Guinea provide a contrast to peaceful monochrome, with huge headshots bursting with colour (1974). Time with the Kukukuku tribe and aboriginals in Australia inspired rare and neglected sculpture by Bailey – including ‘X-Man’ (2008). Decaying waxworks in Delhi demonstrate a creeping modernisation in India, and increasing disillusion with native traditions. Photographs of Ethiopian refugees in Sudan (1984) reduce the viewer to tears: children with worn eyes and desperate limbs stare blankly down the lens, invoking inescapable guilt.
A recurring obsession with mortality scatters images of skulls around the exhibition. Bailey considers skulls ‘ just portraits without skin and flesh. I like the idea that we all end up as a piece of art. To me, the ultimate sculpture is a skull.’ In ‘Ralph Fiennes (with skull)’ (1995), there is easy movement between the two heads – live and dead – isolated against a rare background of black, illuminating the two structures through chiaroscuro.
Bailey exposes the celebrity to the viewer, giving his famed subject nothing to hide behind. In doing so he extrapolates their idiosyncrasies, making each portrait achingly cool and painfully unique. His portraits are not of chart-topping singers or Oscar-winning actors, but of friends; and he does not set out to flatter. Bailey’s photos – whether of London’s neglected underbelly, the Rolling Stones or Kate Moss – are timeless in their dazzling glamour. This exhibition is a masterpiece in bringing to the fore rolls and rolls of neglected work. It provides an electric retrospective of the past fifty years in world history.
With thanks to the National Portrait Gallery for photographs. ‘Bailey’s Stardust’ is displayed at the National Portrait Gallery until 1 June 2014. For more information visit http://www.npg.org.uk/whatson/bailey/exhibition.php.
Every Monday on AHA’s blog you will now find Pick of the Week – our recommendations of things you can do to spice up the week ahead, be it with art, music, theatre, travelling, food or anything else! We will review the best exhibitions on show that week, note exciting upcoming events, and maybe inspire you to take a visit somewhere different or try something new – across the UK and the globe.
Pick of the Week will tell you the things to look out for and incorporate into your week, discuss people and places that inspire, or introduce interesting ideas and matters that will offer something to think about in the following days.
There is loads to look forward to to in 2014. In the coming fortnight don’t miss the V&A’s exhibition ‘Masterpieces of Chinese Painting 700-1900’, on until 19th Jan. You can even join us for a lecture, lunch and exhibition day for this show on Thursday. There will be opportunity to experience more of the country’s unbelievably rich cultural history – which most of us know embarrassingly little about – and learn about a pivotal period of world history in the British Museum’s ‘Ming: 50 years that changed China’ exhibition that opens in September. With a range of some of the finest and most intriguing objects you will have ever seen on display, it promises to be a sensational show.
Feminist issues remain incredibly important in the modern day but in all the discussion have we forgotten about the men? Grayson Perry, Jon Snow and Billy Bragg, among others, will be at the Southbank Centre’s ‘Being A Man’ festival at the end of the month, where they will be talking about just that. This look to be an exciting event and a platform for the important discussion of what often remains undiscussed. (Being A Man events taking place at Southbank Centre Fri 31 Jan- Sun 2 Feb)
Brazil will be talked about a lot this year and Roche Court arts centre and sculpture park in Wiltshire (a hidden gem of the south) will host an exhibition of new work by David Batchelor – bold and colourful sculpture that reveals his interest in Brazilian concrete art. (David Batchelor: Concretos, 8 Feb – 16 March 2014, Roche Court, Wilts)
Visit the blog on Mondays from now on to discover something to excite and enliven each week!
Starting a career as a young artist can be tough: with inconsistent income, a heavy reliance on publicity and the need to gain a reputation. But a new coffee shop is changing that. Rather than contracting young artists, as a gallery might, they are offering their cafés up as hybrid coffee / art shops.
Taylor St Baristas treat coffee as an art, and want equally inspiring surroundings for their customers. The mod brand employs coffee enthusiasts who take their job extremely seriously: Costa and Starbucks are losing out fast. Their shops are more personal, their coffee delicious; even the milky patterns they weave on top of their cappuccinos are worth an extra five minutes walk.
Italy makes the best coffee; but in Taylor St Baristas, it is facing competition. The brand was started by Australian siblings Nick, Andrew and Laura, during a bleak London winter in 2006, ‘as a much needed response to the dire state of London coffee.’ They weren’t wrong. With not only the state of coffee poor, but the state of the big brand’s finances questionable (Starbucks suffered a crippling consumer boycott when its taxes were revealed) , Taylor St Baristas offers a less commercial, more ethical café: perfect for feel-good lazy Sundays or a morning dash for caffeine.
And now, visual art is on their menu too. Gone are the bland Ikea prints of Café Nero and Costa; Taylor St Baristas offers young artists their cafés as a place to display their works. The exhibitions change bimonthly, and only include artists at the start of their careers. If their increasingly loyal following of coffee-drinkers take a fancy to piece while sipping a hazelnut latte, they can email the shop (email@example.com) and buy the work in question.
When you think about it, it is a prime location. Hundreds visit a single shop in a day: with nine branches having popped up recently, that number is hugely multiplied. Not only do they get a large customer base, but they are placed in some of the most affluent areas of London: Bank, Liverpool Street, Canary Wharf and Mayfair, to name but a few. People spend a lot of time there – comfy seats and a warm atmosphere encourage long lunches and extensive chats, and their coffee is gaining fame.
Recently exhibited artists include Will Scobie (a Brighton-based illustrator and graphic artist), Imantas Selenis (a Lithuanian urban landscape and portrait photographer) and Hannah Devereux (who investigates the abstraction of landscape). Taylor St Baristas’ branch in the chaotic, commercial Canary Wharf is dripping with Michal Radzio’s calm landscapes – offering a caffeine boost and artistic refuge in one stroke.
In a cloudy economic climate, art has to be innovative – not just in its form, but in how it is sold. Taylor St Baristas is offering a personal hybrid with a huge network of potential art collectors. Artists, especially young up-and-comers, shouldn’t treat this as a second-best option to a gallery: it is an original and interesting display venue in itself.
With thanks to Taylor St Baristas and Imantas Selenis for photos.
There is hardly an abundance of Polish art on display in Britain. The vast majority of the population will never have seen Polish art at all. But interest is growing, in correlation with a cultural spring taking place in the Polish art world.
Poland is by no means lacking in renowned cultural figures – it has produced Joseph Conrad, Frederic Chopin, and has won four Nobel Prizes for Literature in the past 110 years. Henryk Stażewski (1894-1988) was a pioneer of the classical avant-garde of the 1920s and 1930s and co-creator of the Geometric Abstract movement. But between the early twentieth century and the early twenty-first century, there was somewhat of a cultural freeze.
The suppression of culture that went hand-in-hand with Communism stifled art in Central Eastern Europe in the twentieth century. Destruction of historical culture was perpetrated by all sides during the Second World War, and continued long afterwards with totalitarian regimes. This is now provoking an embrace of modernity in the Central Eastern European art world – perhaps to be considered a search for, or rebuilding of, an attention-grabbing artistic identity.
At the Venice Biennale this year, Polish artist Pawel Althamer displayed in the Arsenale. His installation Venetians was met with critical acclaim. The 90 ghoulish figures were composed of plaster casts (of the faces and hands of locals) and strips of plastic – draped over rough scaffolding supports to create a sinuous, muscle-like effect. Such work from a little-known artist exposed the dark imagination thriving beneath the surface of the glossy modern art world, often saturated with celebrity. Wojciech Fangor, Szymon Urbanski, Andrzej Cisowski and Andrzej Jackowski are other talented individuals.
Pawel Althamer with preview work
Wilhelm Sasnal’s work typically sells for several hundred thousand dollars, after being discovered by Saatchi. His work reflects Poland’s Communist history in a hazy memory. His piece Soldiers is mimics modern pop culture more than conflict. The Saatchi Gallery describes them as ‘reduced to a kitsch logo: war, oppression, and authority are reconstituted as youth culture communismo-chic.’ His work Factory is painted from a famous propaganda image, but swaps glorified labour for a hardened, grey, uniform reality.
One reason for the flourishing culture is a revival of the Polish art market. Acclaimed artist Anna Szprynger commented: ‘the trouble is after so many years of dictatorship that there is no tradition of an art market in Poland. People respect you if you’re an artist, but they expect you to lead the existence of a starving pauper and they don’t tend to buy the art.’ The modern art scene has been free from Communism for nearly 25 years, but it is restricted by poor financial support. Mentalities are changing, however. Disposable income is rising rapidly, and consequently the art market is now growing at around 20-30% a year. Skate’s, a New-York-based arts market research company, recently estimated the country’s “innovative and quickly growing art market” at an annual worth of £66m.
Recently there was a speedy 4-day exhibition called ‘Polish Art Now’ at the Saatchi Gallery – a mélange of highlights from the past 50 years and up-and-coming names. The force behind this project was Abbey House. Based in Warsaw, the auction house has devised a scheme whereby unknown artists are contracted for a 5-year period and given a permanent wage, in return for the auction house having exclusive rights to sell their work: amalgamating financial security with publicity and growth.
Many have denounced Abbey House’s work: they argue it hikes the price of the artists’ work to extremes, distorting the market. But is this too large a cost, when the house gives many new artists an environment in which to improve and create? The prices may be marginally artificial, but they facilitate thriving culture. They allow artists to become self-sufficient, and in turn encourage more to take up the profession.
Government funding for the arts is increasingly scarce and insecure. This may encourage the treatment of art as a commodity – something to be priced, and a market to be manipulated – but if this allows art to grow when public subsidy is dwindling, is it detrimental to the nature of the product?
The prosperous trajectory of Polish art is worth this cost. Hopefully, the nationality will ultimately drop from the label entirely. Art should be appreciated regardless of its origin, and technique and meaning should be the focuses. With Warsaw overtaking Berlin as Europe’s artistic hub, however, an influx of Polish art is on the horizon.
With thanks to the Daily Telegraph, the Muzeum Sztuki, Deutsche + Guggenheim, theartnewspaper.com, it.phaidon.com, the Tate Modern and the Saatchi Gallery for photos.
On a recent trip to Oslo, I visited the 150 year anniversary exhibition of the work of Norway’s most famous artist, Edvard Munch. The exhibition, spread across two of the city’s galleries – the National Gallery and the Munch Museum – is the biggest ever retrospective of the artist’s work. One of four versions of Munch’s world-famous ‘The Scream’ was sold last year at Sotheby’s New York for record $120m. With 250 pictures on display this summer in Oslo, I was brought to think about the painting, and question how one work might become the focus of so much attention while the rest of the artist’s prolific oeuvre remains relatively unfamiliar.
A painting often misunderstood, The Scream was created as part of a large series which Munch named the Frieze of Life, exploring ideas of love, anxiety and death. This painting, believe it or not, was the final work from the first in the list. It represents despair, which the troubled and morbid Munch believed to be the ultimate outcome of love.
Munch suffered terribly from a life illness and loss that began with the death of both his mother and sister from Tuberculosis during his youth. He was the victim of almost constant mental instability, that clearly fuelled his work as an artist. He wrote of the experience in Oslo that led to the creation of The Scream:
I went along the road with two friends—
The sun set
Suddenly the sky became blood—and I felt the breath of sadness
I stopped—leaned against the fence—deathly tired
Clouds over the fjord dripped reeking with blood
My friends went on but I just stood trembling with an open wound
in my breast I heard a huge extraordinary
scream pass through nature.
The title and imagery of the painting would lead most to believe that its representation focuses on the open mouthed figure (perhaps we thought it was the artist himself shrieking, or a figurative image of the suffering human soul). It is therefore interesting to consider that the eponymous ‘scream’ is not a human one, but instead refers to Munch’s dark psychological experience of the surrounding nature.
The work is powerful and eye -catching because of the sheer terror evoked by its bald, androgynous and ghost-like protagonist, surrounded by vivid blues and bloody reds. It has perhaps become so famous because it is such a memorable simple yet horrifying depiction. It conveys universally recognised emotion; the image of the ghoulish face has become globally iconic.
Despite a $120m price tag for a pastel version, I can confidently say that the scream is far from being the my favourite of Munch’s paintings. Other, equally melancholy works boldly portray scenes of death, love and the suffering of specific emotions. Thoughtful portraits paint sensitive images of Munch’s acquaintances, whilst group scenes subtly yet powerfully hint on themes of exclusion and loneliness.
But not everything is centred around such dark ideas. My particular favourites of Munch’s works are his depictions of nature, which are detached from his personal suffering and instead illustrate a strong relationship between the artist and the extraordinary Norwegian landscape. His images of moonlight over the fjords embody a strikingly beautiful tranquility, whilst scenes of forests and snow coated paths create boldly atmospheric depictions of the scandinavian surroundings.
A days spent looking at 250 works by Munch may not be the best idea if you are searching for a positive outlook on human existence, but it helped me to discover the great extent of the artist’s works, a powerful painter of both death and love, of the horrifying and the beautiful.
Culture Secretary Maria Miller argued in April 2013 that the arts had to make a case for their economic worth to receive government funding. Speaking at the British Museum, she said British culture should be viewed as a ‘commodity’ and ‘compelling product’ to sell at home and export abroad.
Investment in art, she went on, is only a means to ‘healthy dividends’. When British art is exported, it should be part of ‘relationship marketing’ to help ‘attract investment which will drive jobs and opportunities here at home’.
But at the heart of Miller’s speech was contradiction.
The arts can only grow and benefit Britain’s economy with significant government funding. Asking them to increase profit whilst reducing funding is paradoxical. The most successful theatrical exports of recent years – War Horse, One Man Two Guvnors (seven-times Tony-nominated and currently touring Hong Kong, New Zealand and Australia), and Matilda – came from the subsidised sector. Sir Nicholas Hytner, head of the National Theatre, said ‘she seems to be acknowledging that the arts are an engine for growth, but growth is what we are desperately in need of.’
Besides, Britain’s culture is already fantastic value for money. London theatre alone returns almost as much to the treasury in VAT as Arts Council England gives to theatre across the country. If we consistently reduce funding we may see a repeat of the 1980s, when persistent reduction in funding closed roughly a quarter of the country’s theatres. This would be an astronomical loss. Arts funding amounts only to 7p in every £100 of public spending, yet the creative industries, according to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), account for 6.2% (GVA) of goods and services in the economy, £16.6 billion in exports and 2 million jobs.
Despite this, Chancellor George Osborne announced a 7% spending cut to the DCMS as part of the Spending Review in June 2013. It was probably the best case scenario in a worst case economy. But Richard Mantle, general director of Opera North, pointed out that ‘it’s a 5% cut on top of a period of quite severe cuts…since 2011, so it’s the cumulative effect which is the challenging thing.’
That challenge is particularly felt outside the South East. We cannot hold up all British arts to of London theatres, in terms of revenue. This risks an increased split between the South East and rest of the country in terms of arts funding, and thus artistic creation – denying millions the opportunity to enjoy and generate culture. Keith Merrin, director of Woodhorn Museum in Northumberland, is facing a struggle as a result of a 10% cut to local authority budgets. ‘The belief that philanthropy will pick up the slack is simply unrealistic in most parts of the country,’ he lamented.
Making art a commodity most detrimentally risks reducing interest in new culture. It is not just profit that makes art valuable – it is the fresh and exciting risk it takes; the challenges it throws at society’s mores. Creative risk-taking produces excellence and modernity, but artistic figures cannot do this if they are programmed to focus on profits. A desperate need for funding will lead to overreliance on big names to generate the required investment. A cycle of reliance on celebrity artists will ensue – making the art market elitist, and denying opportunities to younger artists.
Above all, art is about more than money. Labelling it with an economic value is harmful. Art is generates a sense of community and identity, and offers a platform for opinions and public discussion. Miller’s speech seemed to sideline all other benefits the arts bring. The fact that art is about more, and that access to it is mostly free, is what makes it so culturally valuable. It is first and foremost a social commodity. Former Arts Council England chair Dame Liz Forgan summed it up well:
“The danger…is that people actually start to believe that because art produces huge economic benefits, we should start directing our investment in culture for its commercial potential. That’s not only philistine, it’s self-defeating, because then you get accountants making artistic decisions, which is as silly as having artists making accounting ones. If you start to invest in art because of an identified commercial outcome, you will get worse art and therefore we will get a worse commercial outcome.”
Culture undoubtedly has economic value. UNESCO has identified the UK as the world’s largest exporter of cultural goods – bigger than the US, Japan, Germany or France – and 40% of tourists to the UK cite culture and heritage as the primary reason for their visit. But this should be a pleasant, unintended (but not unforeseen) consequence of funding the arts. Making financial gain the ends of artistic creation will destroy and commercialise the means.
Miller admitted that ‘culture educates, entertains and it enriches. We must never lose sight of that fact.’ But in times of economic crisis, with harsh cuts being made everywhere, that is exactly what we risk. The British Museum is a pertinent example: the UK’s most popular tourist attraction, part of its appeal is that entry is free of charge – it is accessible to all. As I described with opera earlier this year, art and culture is unifying. If we give it an economic label, we risk splitting its audience by income and depriving future generations of artistic opportunities.
With thanks to Wikipedia, the BBC and the Independent for photos.
“This is a very, very special morning and you’re seeing a very, very happy director in front of you”.
These were the words of the Van Gogh museum’s Axel Rueger when he confirmed the authenticity of Sunset at Montmajour, the first full-size Van Gogh to be discovered in 85 years. Mr Rueger was not alone in his elation. I certainly felt a surge of joy on hearing the news, and I am sure I was not the only one to feel excited from afar. It is an odd type of happiness that accompanies the discovery of a lost or unknown artwork, however, and one that varies depending on the details of the case.
Sunset at Montmajour, for example, was not really ‘lost’ in the literal sense, but rather misattributed. The piece was long believed to be a fake, and so remained in the attic of a Norwegian collector for decades before it could finally be declared genuine. In a situation like this, the long road to verification leaves one feeling happy for the artist himself – authentication being a posthumous vindication of a work long misunderstood. In a similar vein, Pablo Picasso’s Seated Woman With Red Hat was ‘lost’ for years in the basement of a museum – mislabelled, unappreciated and kept from public eyes until it was tracked down by the head of an auction house. This type of discovery of lost art is satisfying, because it appeals to our sense of justice. Not only has the world been blessed with a ‘new’ Van Gogh piece, but a beautiful artwork is also finally getting the credit and exposure it deserves.
This being said, it is certainly more romantic when a lost artwork is discovered hanging on the wall of a modest family home, rather than the basement of a museum. The story of the recovery of Martin Johnson Heade’s Magnolias on Gold Velvet Cloth is a wonderful example of this. A man from Indiana bought the 19th century work for ‘next to nothing’ to cover a hole in his wall, where it stayed until he noticed the similarity between it and a painting in the art board game Masterpiece. After verification, he sold the work for $1.25 million.
The Golden Buddha reminds us that discovery of lost art takes many forms. The chance discovery of the 17,000-year-old Lascaux cave paintings by four boys and a dog in 1940 seems a world away from the sophisticated verification of Sunset at Montmajour, for example. Likewise, theVenus de Milo, one of the most famous sculptures in the world, was found by accident by a peasant digging in his field on a Greek island in 1820. More recent is the excavation of the sunken city of Heracleion. Lost for 1,200 years, it was considered legend for centuries, before being rediscovered in 2000. The images demonstrate how magical the rediscovery of long-lost treasure can be.
While this article has mainly dealt with the thrill of discovery or the justice of proper attribution, this overlooks the (admittedly geeky) joy of the detective work inherent in finding and verifying an important work. The popularity of The Da Vinci Code has certainly added to interest in locating Leonardo da Vinci’s Battle of Anghiari, believed to be hidden behind a Giorgio Vasari fresco in Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio. While this search, with cryptic clues, endoscopic cameras and hidden cavities continues, the recent discoveries of works entitled La Bella Principessa and Salvator Mundiappear to offer a greater chance of authenticating a genuine lost Da Vinci artwork. While the debate over these works is less ‘Dan Brown’ than the search for the Battle of Anghiari, an array of books, articles and lectures arguing both sides have been produced in the pursuit of verification. The desire to figure out the final piece of the puzzle is strong in human nature, and the potential discovery of lost works by great artists offers the perfect opportunity.
Whether the particular joy of the recovery of a lost piece of art comes from the justice of attribution, the improbability of the discovery or the puzzle of verification, there is always one common factor: that a work of beauty once lost, is now found. Having written for this blog before on artworks being stolen and defaced, it restores hope to witness what is essentially the opposite happening in Amsterdam right now.
Cape Town is a city bursting with expressive design. It seems the city has had to house and display this range of creativity almost overnight, resulting in streets of art galleries appearing in the city bowl. Because of this, attaining an internship at a Gallery proved astonishingly easy. During snowy January in Durham I decided to email a handful of Galleries that I had found online. To my delight I received quite a few offers. Choosing which one to accept looked a daunting prospect, but then I discovered that one of my offers, the ‘Mogalakwena Craft Art Gallery’, was running an exhibition called ‘A Glimpse: Dress and Fashion in Africa’ and so the decision suddenly became an easy one for me to make.
I did slightly wonder what I had got myself in for when on my first morning I was immediately shown the electronic buzzer for the metal gate door and the panic button! However, after realising that this was simply a precaution which most shops take in Cape Town I began to relax and focus on work.
I had a couple of days to learn about the Gallery before I had to take tours through the ‘Dress and Fashion’ Exhibition. I found myself discussing the missionaries influence on Namibian clothing and dye techniques of the Bamileke people from Cameroon. These were things that a few days previously I had never even imagined existed and all of a sudden I was explaining them to other tourists. The highlight for many visitors was a pair of high heels painted with a chicken feather by the famous South African artist, Esther Mashlangu.
I loved showing visitors the room full of 18 embroidered self portraits by the Mogalakwena craft artists. Each woman had to do a self portrait using embroidery because it is the medium they are most comfortable with using. They were asked to depict themselves in their favourite outfit. Many of them dressed up in their traditional clothes which they save for church and other special occasions. They were then photographed and interviewed about dress and fashion topics, a favourite subject was trousers and how women shouldn’t wear them.
Whenever I wasn’t taking tours through the Gallery I had lots of other things to be getting on with. The most exciting was helping the owner curate a new room. We began to transform the old store room into a marine themed space. I was also busy with a proposal for the exhibition space at the five star hotel around the corner. I had the time of my life interning in Cape Town and couldn’t be more thankful for that cold, miserable, January that encouraged me to send off my applications.