Archive for December, 2008

Tulpmania…2009 style

December 26th, 2008

from Prospect:

The prices of contemporary art works have risen to astonishing levels in recent years. Insiders say it’s because we have been living through a golden age of art. Nonsense, argue Ben Lewis and Jonathan Ford, it is a classic investment bubble.

The bubble in contemporary art is about to pop. It has exhibited all the classic features of the South Sea bubble of 1720 or the tulip madness of the 1630s. It has been the bubble of bubbles—balancing precariously on top of other now-burst bubbles in credit, housing and commodities—and inflating more dramatically than all of them. While British house prices took six years to double at the start of this century, contemporary art managed it in just one, 2006-07. (Over the same period, old masters went up by just 7.6 per cent and British 17th to 19th century watercolours actually lost value.) Contemporary art in the emerging economies did even better. The value of its sales in China increased by 983 per cent in one year (2005-06). In Russia they rose 2,365 per cent in five years (2000-05), while its stock market increased by “only” about 300 per cent.

Even these numbers understate the incredible tulip-like increases in the value of the hottest artists. The Chinese painter Zhang Xiaogang saw his work appreciate 6,000 times, from $1,000 to $6m (1999-2008); work by the American artist Richard Prince went up 60 to 80 times (2003-2008). The German painter Anselm Reyle was unknown in 2003; you could have picked up one of his stripe paintings for €14,000. Now he has a studio with 60 assistants turning them out for about €200,000 each. Any figures for the whole contemporary art market are guesswork, though Christie’s chief executive, Ed Dolman, recently estimated that it had grown in value from $4bn a year to somewhere between $20-30bn in the past eight years.

Lecture: Vermeer’s painting techniques

December 24th, 2008

from the: Norton Simon press release

Vermeer’s Painting Techniques: Time Stilled and Light Made Tangible
Melanie Gifford, Research Conservator, Scientific Research Department, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Saturday, January 3, 2009, 4:00 p.m.

Vermeer’s paintings suggest that time has been momentarily stopped, giving the viewer leisure to explore his light-filled rooms and contemplate his pensive figures. Technical study of Vermeer’s materials and methods has revealed painting practices the artist developed to achieve these luminous effects, and artistic choices he made to create a timeless and self-contained world. Melanie Gifford explores A Lady Writing in the context of Vermeer’s techniques throughout his career, illustrated with close details and microscopic images of the paintings that give a new view of his extraordinary gifts.

Vermeer’s Love Letter visits Vancouver

December 19th, 2008

Vermeer,  Rembrandt and the Golden Age of Dutch Art: Masterpieces from the Rijksmuseum
Vancouver Art Gallery
May 9 to September 13, 2009

This exhibition will highlight works of art of the 17th c. Dutch painting masters of the Golden Age. It will feature well over 100 works by many of the most celebrated masters of the period such as Aelbert Cuyp, Gerard Dou, Franz Hals, Rembrandt van Rijn, Jacob van Ruisdael, Gerard ter Borch and Johannes Vermeer, as well as an extraordinary selection of decorative arts, including furniture, silver, glassware, porcelain and textiles.

This exhibition is organized in collaboration with the Rijksmuseum and will include Vermeer’s late masterpiece, The Love Letter.

Van Meegeren Lecture in Washington

December 18th, 2008

I would not miss the lecture or the book.

The Man Who Made Vermeers:
Unvarnishing the Legend of Master Forger Han van Meegeren

Sunday, January 11, 2009, 2:00 p.m.
East Building Concourse Auditorium, The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Jonathan Lopez discusses aspects of his recently published book, The Man Who Made Vermeers: Han van Meegeren’s Life in Forgery. Book signing to follow. Sunday Lectures at the National Gallery are free and open to the public on a first-come-first-serve basis.

BTW, The Man Who Made Vermeers is fifth of the 10 Amazon Best Books of 2008 in the Arts & Photography section. Well deserved.

Secrets of a 17th-c. damsel – #4

December 18th, 2008

It is surprising to discover that the stark white-washed wall in Vermeer’s Woman with a Pearl Necklace was not a part of the artist’s original plan. Neutron radiography reveals that the girl’s silhouette was initially embraced by a large, decorative wall map of the United Provinces (identical to the one in The Art of Painting). Modern viewers do not regret the map’s disappearance. Other than being an extraordinary poetic statement in itself, Vermeer’s blank wall is a tour de force of pictorial technique.

Portraying the volume and play of natural light on white objects has always been problematic for painters. Aside from the rendering human flesh, no other motif challenges an artist’s technical skills and visual sensitivity more than a banal but elusive expanse of flat, uniformly blank wall illuminated with raking light. By comparison, analogous passages in Dutch genre paintings seem merely descriptive.

Although there are many ways to portray a nude white wall, Dutch 17th century painters habitually used a simple combination of three common pigments: white lead (a bulky pigment made by the renowned Dutch stack process), raw umber (a low-key, greenish brown made of natural earth) and black (usually selected wood, vegetable prod­uct or animal bones which have been calcinated).

Obviously, the most intensely illuminated area near the widow is painted with the greatest quantity of lead white although pure white pigment seems to be reserved for the shiny lid of a nondescript container of the still life. As the wall receives less light moving from left to right, the near-white paint mixture must be gradually toned down by adding small quantities of brown and black. However, it is extremely difficult to calculate the correct proportion of the base pigments so that the wall appears darkened rather than simply dirtied. Too much black creates a sullen, brackish effect which bears little relation with the overall warm harmony of the painting spoiling the illusion of light. If too much brown is added the wall fails distance itself from the foreground figure and create the subtle pocket of air which flows throughout the painting. At the same time, the paint must be carefully brushed on and delicately blended without overworking the paint layer so as to avoid producing a mechanical smoothness.

As much as I have observed Vermeer’s wall and probably understood how it was painted, in front of the real painting its effect is so commanding that I am unable to separate the pictorial artifice from the illusion of a sunlit white wall, perhaps the most perfect wall ever painted.

More about thieves (and black paint)

December 15th, 2008

Although art theft is a fairly fashionable topic, it is not one of my favorites most likely because it has less to do with art and more to do with theft. So the upcoming book about the sordid Gardener theft (which netted Vermeer’s Concert among its victims) is off my reading list for the time being.

Moreover, the loss of The Concert saddens me in particular because it was the first Vermeer I ever saw and one that taught me a big, free lesson as an art student at RISD.  The painting convinced me that, instead of opening doors, my painting teachers had more simply replaced old dogmas with new dogmas which were more or less as restrictive as the first.

Then, as throughout most of the 20th c., one of the most entrenched mantras of realist painting technique was that black pigment would single-handedly destroy the luminosity of shadows. Black was in fact an inexorable sign of the Sunday painter.  But even after my first glance at the real Concert, it seemed obvious that Vermeer had made abundant use of it to render the play of light on the background wall lending this passage a rare pearlessence full of mystery and nuance. Moreover, black was one of the principle components of the composition’s deepest shadows. Scientific analysis reveals that in one form or another, black is the only pigment which can be found in every canvas by Vermeer.

Back to the book:

PW Daily lets us know about the upcoming The Gardner Heist: The True Story of the World’s Largest Unsolved Art Theft by Ulrich Boser. In a pill, here’s the story.

In the early morning hours of March 18, 1990, thieves posing as cops entered Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and left with a haul unrivaled in the art world, including three Rembrandts and a Vermeer, valued today at $600 million. Boser, a contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report, turned amateur sleuth after the death of a legendary independent fine arts claims adjuster, Harold Smith, who was haunted by the Gardner robbery. Boser carried on Smith’s work, pursuing leads as varied as James “Whitey” Bulger’s Boston mob and the IRA. Along the way, he visited felons—including the notorious art thief Myles Connor—and Bob Wittman, the FBI’s only art theft undercover agent. Boser’s rousing account of his years spent collecting clues large and small is entertaining enough to make readers almost forget that, after 18 years, the paintings have still not been found: the museum is offering a $5 million reward for information leading to their return.

Invisible friends of art

December 14th, 2008

BBC’s Simon Worrall reports that the faceless, special Agent Robert “Bob” Wittman retires. Why should this regard anyone who reads an art blog?

“For nearly two decades, usually masquerading as a crooked art dealer with links to the Mafia or the Colombian drug cartels, Wittman has run undercover sting operations, luring criminals into selling him stolen works of art. Protecting his identity means the difference between life and death.

In one operation he found himself in a hotel bathroom in Copenhagen hugging a Rembrandt to his chest as a Danish Swat (Special Weapons and Tactics) team burst into the room to arrest an Iraqi-born hoodlum named Baha Kadhoum, who was trying to sell him Rembrandt’s self-portrait from 1630.

Art crime is big business. Estimated to be worth between $1.5 – $6bn (£1- £4bn) annually, it is now the fourth largest international crime, after drug dealing, gun running and money laundering.”

Vermeer’s Concert, stole on March 18, 1990 has yet to be recovered.

Read the Worrall’s article here.

Europeana blues

December 12th, 2008

Although the European Union’s new Europeana digital library may be a boon for art historians, it will remain shut down until January instead of mid December as previously announced. Inspired by nothing less than the ancient Library of Alexandria, the ambitious project will eventually employ the state-of-the-art technologies allowing users to access to films, paintings, photographs, sound recordings, maps, manuscripts, newspapers, and documents as well as books held in European libraries. A quick search on “Rembrandt,” for instance, turns up 1,747 paintings, etchings and drawings all in one place.

The downed prototype contained roughly two million digital items, all of them already in the public domain. However, some will be inevitably be plagued by issues linked to copyright and online use.

If you happen to be interested in the tech side of Europeana’s setback, this article is reveals what went on behind the scenes: Obvious Mistakes Caused Europeana Site Failure.

Steadman lecture

December 11th, 2008

Philip Steadman, the English architect who stirred up so much discussion with his book about Vermeer and the camera obscura, will be giving a lecture called Anamorphosis in Holland in the 17th Century: Van Hoogstraten, Fabritius and Vermeer at the National Gallery in London, Saturday 13 December, 10.30am – 4pm.

I expect he will be examining the intriguing lid of the painted virginal in Vermeer’s Lady Standing at a Virginal.

See my interview with Steadman here.

Opening night

December 11th, 2008

The other evening I attended the opening night of an exhibition of 25 oils which I have painted in the last three years.

Openings have their pros and cons. One valuable pro is that they have taught me that is it possible for a painter to form a realistic idea of his works only when they have been taken from the studio, framed and hung on the stark white walls of a distant gallery.

The moment I first set foot in the gallery (an hour or so before the public started to trickle in) it was apparent which were the most autonomous pictorial statements able to fend for themselves deprived of my personal expectations, affections and prejudices.

Surprisingly, or perhaps unsurprisingly, the public generally concurs with my view.

Above, I believe, is one of the mores successful works (Girl Writing an Email, 2008). Click on the image for an enlargement.