Tuesday, December 31, 2013

6:30. And I was wondering if they'd make it to midnight.

via Instagram http://instagram.com/p/imtnkzLusG/

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Billion-Dollar Question: Can Contemporary Art Keep Climbing?

by Eileen Kinsella

Billion-Dollar Question: Can Contemporary Art Keep Climbing?
At Sotheby's Contemporary Sale, Dan Colen's "Holy Shit" (2006) sold for $341,000 and Andy Warhol's "Liz #1" (1963) sold for $20,325,000.
(Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
Words like “surreal” and “dizzying” were used a lot over the last couple of weeks to describe the atmosphere at major fall auctions of Impressionist, modern and especially contemporary art at Christie’s and Sotheby’s, as prices for individual works shattered records, hitting new nine-figure highs, and overall sales of contemporary art surged to a new record. At the end of the two-week marathon that started at the beginning of the month, the tally for the two houses was $1.8 billion, roughly double the typical level of about five years ago and triple what it was a decade ago, when an average healthy season might net about $500 million.
Building on a trend that first became evident as the contemporary art market gathered steam around 2005 and 2006, the volume of sales of contemporary art far outpaced that of Impressionist and modern works, with contemporary art accounting for $1.25 billion at Sotheby’s and Christie’s compared with a $527 million for the earlier offerings. That trend subsided somewhat after the economic downturn finally caught up with the art market in late 2008 and there was a pronounced emphasis on blue chip Impressionists and early modern artists like Claude Monet and Alberto Giacometti. But contemporary art has clearly returned in full force. Last week, Christie’s led the category with a $782.4 million total for day and evening sales, while Sotheby’s comparable tally was $474.3 million.
Even before the sales, the number of eight-figure presale estimates on individual works was generating buzz: there were 17 at Christie’s; and six at Sotheby’s. At Christie’s all but one — Andy Warhol’s “Mercedes-Benz W 196 R Grand Prix Car (Streamlined version, 1954)” (1986), with a $12 million to $16 million estimate — hit the mark, and Sotheby’s wound up with nine such prices, even more than expected.
And after last week, each house could boast a $100-million-plus price tag for its respective top lot. At Christie’s it was $142.4 million, for Francis Bacon’s 1969 triptych portrait of painter Lucian Freud, and at Sotheby’s it was Warhol’s “Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster)” (1963) brought $105.4 million. It wasn't so long ago that only Picasso could break the $100 million mark; the first painting to do so at auction was his Rose Period “Garcon a la pipe (Boy With a Pipe)” (1905), which scored $104 million at Sotheby’s New York in 2004. Christie’s also captured the new record for highest price for a living artist when Jeff Koons’ monumental “Balloon Dog (Orange)” (1994) climbed to $58.4 million.
Can such astounding results possibly continue?
Immediately after the sale, Brett Gorvy, Christie’s worldwide head of Postwar and contemporary art asserted, “this isn’t a bubble, it’s the beginning of something new.” In a later interview, he pointed to the progressive growth in recent seasons, including the record evening sale last May of $495 million, and said the house's latest sale marked “a successful continuation."
"Basically we created a very strong foundation," he added. "The depth of bidding on those top lots, it is not something that is coming out of exuberance. It’s very controlled.” Gorvy points out that between seven to eight bidders were still in the running for the Bacon triptych even after the price hit $90 million.
Some experts expressed reservations about the likelihood of continued growth. Longtime New York dealer David Nash, director and co-owner of the Mitchell-Innes & Nash gallery, who called last week's results  “phenomenal,” acknowledged that “it’s definitely a new era. But whether that will last for the next sale or the one after that," he said, "I don’t know.”
He added, joking, “I had this idea I would go to the auction and ask if I could pay with tulip bulbs.”
Nonetheless, Nash concedes that there is a “wave of enthusiasm” for Postwar and contemporary art. “I think it’s for a number of reasons,” he said. “There were many first-class paintings in that category on the two nights, and secondly it is very difficult to get first-class Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and even early modern paintings. There is an enormous amount of money washing around, and I think there is a real feeling that this is a good place to to put money — into something tangible.”
Indeed, many experts see the explosion in contemporary prices as a supply-and-demand issue, given that the best examples of Impressionist and modern art have largely been snapped up by major institutions and private collection, leaving growing ranks of massively wealthy buyers to pursue the best of what’s out there now — meaning classic Postwar names like Bacon, de Kooning, Twombly, and Richter.
The New York dealer Dominique Levy noted the surprising depth of the bidding for top lots. Where there used to be slimmer pools of bidders chasing particular categories — European buyers interested in European artists, American collectors bidding on Americans — “the very big difference [now] is that you are  looking at a global market,” in which new collectors are competing with seasoned buyers on a level not seen before.
Asked whether she thought anything in particular explained the high level of eight figure works on offer this season, Levy — who bought Lucio Fontana’s ovoid-shaped canvas “Concetto Spaziale, La Fine Di Dio” (1963) for a record $20.9 million at Christie's on Tuesday night — said, “there is not just one answer for why people decide it’s the right time to sell." She added that she believes the current level of knowledge and connoisseurship that goes into collecting is remarkable. "I don’t buy the idea that people are cashing in.”
Nash, however, says he sees at least some speculative elements in the market. “I was a little surprised to find that many of the people who would normally be buyers were actually sellers,” he said, noting that Peter Brant and Steve Cohen both sold major works this season. Brant was the seller of the orange Koons balloon dog, while Cohen consigned several works to Sotheby’s, including Brice Marden’s “The Attended” (1996-99), which took in an above-estimate $10.9 million; Gerhard Richter’s “A.B. Courbet" (1986), which went for $26.5 million; and Warhol’s “Liz #1 (Early Colored Liz), which sold for $20.3 million.
Of these sales, Nash said, “it clearly means there is a huge element of trading.” And under the $10 million level, he added, “I noticed that there were pictures that have just been painted or on the market in the last five years turning around at much higher prices. I think that’s a little troubling. But there is no doubt that there are newer buyers out there who are willing to spend.”


Friday, December 20, 2013

Wal-Mart heiress uses fortune to build awe-inspiring art gallery in Arkansas

By Pat Brennan

Wal-Mart heiress uses fortune to build awe-inspiring art gallery in Arkansas

Visitors admire the painting of Rosie the Riveter.

Photograph by: Pat Brennan , For Postmedia News

Alice Walton was running out of wall space in her various mansions to hang her favourite pieces of art, so she hired Montreal architect Moshe Safdie to design an art gallery on her old childhood playground.

Safdie’s $350 million creation - Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art - opened in the fall of 2011 to worldwide raves. It stretches across a small river running through a wooded valley in Bentonville, Arkansas - population 35,000 - and has already elbowed its way on to the list of the world’s most impressive art galleries.

And Alice Walton, the youngest of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton’s four children, has filled its bright, spacious halls with, what art critics claim, is the world’s finest collection of American art.

You won’t have to cash in your collection of empty beer cans to see Alice’s collection.  Admission is free to Crystal Bridges.

Having $22 billion in the bank and being America’s 9th wealthiest person permits such generous gestures.

Crystal Bridges derives its name from the gallery’s two pavilions of exposed wood and glass strung across two ponds created by the stream that runs through the treed valley. Alice played in this valley as a child while her dad ran his five-and-dime store on the town’s square and dreamt of bigger things.

The art gallery blends unobtrusively into the valley’s nature.

Safdie has designed famous buildings around the world.  In Canada his draughting table gave life to Habitat 67, the revolutionary Montreal apartment complex sitting on the St. Lawrence River and unveiled for Expo 67.  The National Gallery of Canada, one of Ottawa’s most beautiful buildings, is a Safdie creation. In Toronto, terminal one at Pearson International Airport was designed by Safdie, so too is the 45-stotrey Pantages Tower, a condominium and hotel on Victoria St. at Shuter St.  Another Safdie condo tower is under construction by Great Gulf Homes on Lower Sherbourne St. at Queen’s Quay on the Toronto waterfront.

You’ll recognize many of the famous paintings as you wander through Crystal Bridges – such as Norman Rockwell’s 1943 “Rosie The Riveter” for which Alice paid $4.9 million, or George Washington sitting for his Gilbert Stuart portrait in 1796. She paid $8.1 million for that piece and $35 million for “Kindred Spirits,” an 1849 painting by Asher Durand. New York City aficionados were stunned when New York Public Library sold its prized possession at auction to buy more books. Dolly Parton attended the museum’s grand opening to see Andy Warhol’s painting of her adorned with large earrings.

Another Walton museum you should visit in Bentonville is the back room of Sam Walton’s original store on the town’s main square. That store has grown to more than 8,500 Wal-Mart stores with annual sales of nearly $500 billion.

He was America’s richest man when he died at age 74 in 1992. The museum contains Sam’s simple office, plus the vehicle he drove everyday – a 17-year-old Ford pick up.


Online: http://crystalbridges.org

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

This is how 76-year-old David Hockney became the world's preeminent iPad artist

 Before the advent of the iPad, Hockney used Adobe Photoshop with a stylus and touch sensitive pad to create digital works. Here is a detail of Matelot Kevin Druez 2, which was printed on paper using an inkjet.
It's mind-boggling to look at paintings from the 14th and 15th centuries and think that artists like Leonardo da Vinci created such vibrant portraits using nothing more than a free hand and the naked eye -- when just 100 years before, two-point perspective was unknown. If you're David Hockney, who's been a seminal figure in modern painting since the 1960s, you literally can't believe it.
Hockney holds nothing against his predecessors, but he does have a theory that some used early optical devices to improve and expand their skills.
The idea first occurred to him nearly 14 years ago and became the subject of his book Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the lost techniques of the Old Masters.

Hockney's latest show, A Bigger Exhibition, hosted by San Francisco's de Young Museum, looks back on the period since his revelation, highlighting how he's embraced technology ranging from video cameras to iPads, and integrated them into his art. (The exhibition's title is a play on Hockney's best-known painting, A Big Splash.)
In 1999, a long-standing and well known fascination with new media led Hockney to his controversial suspicions. Visiting the retrospective of a 19th century French artist, he noticed uncanny technical similarities to drawings that Andy Warhol had traced from slide-projected photographs.
Knowing that the tools Warhol had used clearly weren't available in the 1800's, Hockney began researching. It wasn't long before he came across camera lucida, a small prism mounted at the end of a metal arm that enables an artist to refract an image onto their paper. The device received a patent in 1807. Bingo.

The discovery was enough to prompt Hockney to expand his investigation, which quickly grew in scope and size. By the end of his study he'd created The Great Wall, a staggering arrangement of pictures organized chronologically from left to right, and geographically from top to bottom, charting of the evolution of western art across time and space. He used the Wall to trace this history of optical aids, identifying 1420 as the trend's likely genesis.
Shown publicly for the first time at the de Young, the 8-by-72-foot behemoth is the ultimate testament to Hockney's obsession with technology's influence on fine art. It's obvious that tools like camera lucida made creating realistic artwork easier.
But Hockney's broader concern, which he's explored extensively throughout his career, is how technology has allowed artists to experiment with new perspectives, and thus create new ways of considering the world around them.
Where Jan van Eyck might have used convex mirrors to create a larger field of view on his canvas, Hockney turns to a modern equivalent: video cameras. Tucked among the rows of hanging paintings and sketches, four large sets of nine LED screens roll footage of the same country road, each in one of the four seasons.
To make the piece, titled Woldgate Woods, Hockney mounted nine cameras on an SUV and while a studio assistant drove, he directed another who controlled each shot individually. The result is a video collage that's synchronized in timing, but visually unaligned -- a choice he hoped would challenge the viewer's understanding of perspective, encouraging them to explore each screen and become an active participant in the work.
Unsurprisingly, you can find more evidence of technological inspiration all over A Bigger Exhibition. Walking through the seemingly endless space devoted to the exhibit -- the largest in the museum's history -- it's seemingly in more places than not.
From towering 12-foot-tall prints of iPad drawings to rolling flat screens depicting each of his digital brushstrokes, Hockney's eye has remained steady while his tools have changed -- making you wonder what will be next in his arsenal

Monday, December 16, 2013

Not your typical art snob

He is one of the most influential figures in the Canadian art world, but the road that Marc Mayer took to get there was certainly off the beaten track.

Marc Mayer, director of the National Gallery of Canada, in front of David Altmejd’s “The Vessel” (Photo: Jessica Deeks)
by John Allemang
Marc Mayer, BA’84, has something he wants to get off his chest.
“It’s my dirty little secret,” says the director of the National Gallery, sounding nothing like a man who’s inclined to be secretive.
Mayer is in the attention-getting business: Since 2009, he’s run the country’s premier art museum with a look-at-me style that makes no concession to the traditions of public-servant reticence.
When the onetime high-school dropout describes his career trajectory, he talks about chasing tips as a Toronto waiter and haunting the eighties Berlin disco scene as if those were key incubators of Ottawa officialdom.  The well-travelled veteran of the contemporary art scene doesn’t think twice about characterizing his preferred milieu as “a snob magnet.” Free speech is in his blood.
So what’s left to confess?
“I’m an aesthete,” says the Sudbury, Ontario, native in his best conspiratorial voice. “I live for beauty and its pleasures.”
If anyone is going to win over Ottawa to rampant hedonism, it’s this animated 57-year-old who found his way to the McGill art history program as a self-taught mature student. His own life bears witness to the power of conversion: because Marc Mayer turned himself into an aesthete, you too can do the same.

Jargon is the enemy

A viewer looks at "Eco" by Omero Leyva during a media preview of Sakahàn: International Indigenous Art. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick)
A viewer looks at “Eco” by Omero Leyva during a media preview of Sakahàn: International Indigenous Art. (Photo: Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)
“My goal is to create art lovers,” he says, almost as if that were an unusual priority in a museum director.  “It’s not obvious to people how that can happen to you. You’re not born an art lover – I certainly don’t think I was – but it does happen to you at some point. So we have to find ways to attract people to this building, not just to talk to them about art history and point to these objects, but to give them many different reasons, social reasons, to come to the gallery. And once we get new people using the museum, we’re going to start making advocates for the art and people are going to start falling in love with these objects.”
The gallery as hangout – it doesn’t sound like the strategy of an aesthete, but Mayer’s reversed understanding of artistic discovery is that it can begin with basic human needs. Create a gallery bar where people feel happy talking, and the art around them will become part of their comfort zone. Culture, even official culture, doesn’t happen in isolation, and it doesn’t need elaborate interpretation by curatorial high priests to reach the people it was meant for.
“We take labels off the wall if they’re incomprehensible,” Mayer says about his plain-speaking regime, “and we replace them with labels that can be understood. I like the French term, vulgarisateur, meaning someone who can take complex ideas and simplify them without denaturing them, without lessening their import by oversimplification. That’s a skill curators need to have more and more.”
The populist approach could be seen to suit a Conservative government that’s uncomfortable with notions of cultural elitism – particularly if his dreams of a smart gallery bar (and restaurant and bookstore) can generate income and take some pressure off the public purse.  But Mayer isn’t playing to the political crowd so much as appealing to his own artistic instincts.
“I’ve been looking at art since I was a child, and at some point I started reading less and looking more. I was scared away by discourse and jargon; I thought, I’m never going to be an art lover if I have to read this stuff and understand it.”
The esoteric, exclusionary side of the art world has always bothered him. “I came to art differently,” he says, “and so I take a different approach.”
Mayer’s approach certainly caught the attention of Ottawa’s mandarin class when he took over the gallery’s directorship from the aloof Pierre Theberge in 2009. “Marc began with some of the style and verve of an enfant terrible, speaking brashly with quick and loud laughter,” says Victor Rabinovitch, BA’68, the former CEO of the Canadian Museum of Civilization who now chairs the board of Ottawa’s Opera Lyra. “He projected a watch- me message, saying that he would liven up the NGC from its seemingly quiet, academically rooted ways.”

The dropout finds his passion

Marc Mayer (Photo: Jessica Deeks)
He came by that style honestly, since his first intense aesthetic explorations took place not in some hallowed gallery but in Toronto’s vast modern reference library. “I was a very frustrated, intellectually ambitious high-school dropout who wanted to know how the world worked,” Mayer recalls. The library for him was a sort of prototype for his notion of the cultural hangout – a social centre with resources that could be life-changing for those who exercised their curiosity.
His education to that point had been highly imperfect. He’d skipped a grade and then been held back in primary school, never successfully learned to tell time until he was a teenager, remade himself into the class clown as a way to deal with the daily boredom of the classroom and was eventually felled by his extramural social distractions: “Sex, drugs, rock and roll etc.,” as he enumerates them.
He dropped out and started over as a waiter in Toronto. He found the work highly satisfying, and it remains a formative part of his worldview. “You develop a certain sang-froid and a dedication to service. At the end of the day you’ve got a pocketful of money because you’ve earned all these tips. But the thing you feel most rewarded by is that you’ve fed all these people.”
In his free time, he explored the library, systematically working his way through photography and history magazines, reading madly in all directions. A friend decided to channel his enthusiasm and pointed him toward a university program for adult dropouts.  The winning sales pitch, Mayer says, was “you’re no longer the child, you’re the client.” Client-based education delighted the intellectually ambitious autodidact, and he eventually worked his way to Montreal and McGill.
“McGill was a wonderful experience for me,” he says. “I love the fact that in those days they took the classical approach. You had to read the Bible and the Iliad to get through art history, you had to study foreign languages – I learned German and Italian.”
He actually set out to be a pure historian, but then got a taste of art history and found himself torn. Professor Winthrop Judkins, who’d established the rigorous art history program three decades earlier, took on the role of decider.
“I was one of his last students,” Mayer recalls. “He just looked at me and said, ‘You’re so good, stick with us. Don’t be a jack of all trades, and master of none; you’ll be a terrific art historian.’ And he was right: I was much more interested in objects that remained from the past than documents from the past. I’m more a looker than a reader.”

Old and new

Mayer’s career has been so predisposed to the present – with stints at the Albright-Knox in Buffalo, the Power Plant in Toronto, the Brooklyn Museum, the Musée d’art contemporain in Montreal – that his intense devotion to the past may come as a surprise.  In the cerebral gallery world, there’s generally a friction between contemporary and historical, but Mayer’s pleasure-driven aesthetic has made him a unifying force.
“My cast of mind is such that I’m always trying to make connections, trying to understand material culture and humanity through art. Art is history and it’s also information. I find I’m a little unusual  among the curators I’ve worked with in that I’m very passionate about Old Masters, I love African art, I love Chinese ceramics. Material culture to me is an endless cornucopia of fascination. But contemporary art is the most meaningful because I can actually know the creators, I can affect their thinking through our friendship.”
It was at McGill that he came to realize the boundlessness of art history. His passion was the Italian Baroque and his hero was a 17th-century polymath from Turin named Guarino Guarini – architect, playwright, philosopher, monk, master of geometry. “He made the most complex buildings you could imagine,” Mayer says. “Art historians ignored them because they were too complex to describe.”
The degree of difficulty intrigued him. “I decided that I was the guy to explain Guarini and the Italian Baroque by chaos theory and fractals,” he says, both amused and fascinated by the intense academic boldness of his younger self.
And then a new world opened up. The young historian liked to spend free time challenging himself at the Musée d’art contemporain, staring at everything, understanding nothing.  He came across a painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat, a fellow high school dropout whose graffiti-inspired work was the subject of an exhibition Mayer later curated at the Brooklyn Museum.
“Here was someone who was world-famous and he was actually younger than me. It was the moment when I realized that a painting hanging in a museum could be something being made today by someone who’s living and experiencing the same world you’re experiencing.”
The power of that personal discovery remains with him at the National Gallery. When he goes hunting for art to acquire, he says immodestly, “I’m looking for that key work in the artist’s corpus that’s going to open a whole new world for you and your life.”
Given his background, he has a soft spot for the kind of contemporary art likely to win over traditionalists who insist the only good art is old art. He points proudly to such acquisitions as Sophie Ristelhueber’s 71 large-format photographs of the aftermath of the First Gulf War, Yang Fudong’s five-part film Seven Intellectuals in a Bamboo Forest (“probably the most famous Chinese video art”) and Vancouver artist Geoffrey Farmer’s 120-foot long Leaves of Grass, which features 16,000 images cut out from old editions of Life magazine, mounted on grass sticks.
When calculating what to acquire, he starts with his gut instinct, that nagging feeling of desire that “makes you wake up, sit bolt upright in the middle of the night and say ‘Oh my God, we’ve got to buy that.’” The aesthetic rush is paramount – curatorial justification comes later.
He had that feeling with Farmer’s work. But he also had it with a more conventional painting by the French artist Pierre-Paul Prud’hon. It’s an unfinished erotic work that was commissioned by the Empress Josephine just before she was divorced by Napoleon and bears the winning title Love Seduces Innocence, Pleasure Entraps, Remorse Follows – “the story of everyone’s life,” Mayer notes.

A tough nut to crack

Designed by Moshe Safdie, BArch’61, LLD’82, the National Gallery is a familiar part of the Ottawa landscape (Photo: National Gallery)
The gallery under his leadership has drawn crowds with blockbuster collaborations on Van Gogh and Caravaggio, but he and his team have received the most kudos for “Sakahan,” an exhibition of contemporary indigenous art from Canada and 15 other countries. “It was an immensely high-minded endeavour to undertake,” says Globe and Mail art critic Sarah Milroy, BA’79, “really bold and expensive and risky. I don’t know that shows like that get huge foot traffic, but there’s no denying they’re the right thing to do.”
Indeed, the 2013 summer show drew barely 60,000 visitors compared to the 230,000 who attended the previous year’s Van Gogh event. “Marc has encountered the hard financial realities of popular shows versus important shows,” Rabinovitch observes. Contemporary art remains a hard sell – at least in Ottawa, in tourist season.
“It’s a challenge,” admits Mayer. “This is a museum that’s two or three times bigger than a city the size of Ottawa would support if it wasn’t a museum meant to serve the whole country. It’s the toughest of nuts to crack: How do you serve the whole country from Ottawa and still be very appealing to the people who live here?”
Partnerships with regional Canadian galleries have become part of the solution. But money, lots of it, remains the best way to solve the National Gallery’s awkward problems of scale.  “These are tough times for art museums,” Mayer acknowledges, and the generally bleak economic climate during his tenure has been exacerbated by the need to reconstruct the gallery’s aging Great Hall – responding to the recession and the need to modernize, he has chosen to cut jobs in education, library services, communications, security and IT.
But Mayer is at heart an optimist and an enthusiast, not a man who likes to bear bad news with a long face.  Others might take issue with the federal government’s commitment to the finer arts, but he happily says, “I’m not frustrated by politics in Ottawa.”
His funding has held steady, there’s been no interference on the artistic side, and when he wants to share his anxieties about, say, the fragile tourism market in Ottawa, he finds a willing ear in Heritage Minister Shelly Glover.
In return, he looks for ways to make a venerable cultural institution more responsive to contemporary needs and desires.
“The thing that’s important to me and in line with the thinking in Ottawa,” he says, “is that the gallery has to pull its own weight as much as possible.” Hence his hopeful thoughts about repositioning the gallery as a place to have a beautiful meal and a brilliant conversation – and his willingness, bordering on eagerness, to court wealthy donors.
“I’m much more involved in fundraising than my predecessor was,” he says. “I actually enjoy it.”
As the man said, he lives for pleasure.

John Allemang is a feature writer for the Globe and Mail.

Mayer on some masterworks

We invited Marc Mayer to tell us a little about some of his favourite items in the National Gallery’s extensive collection. Here are two of the works that he feels a special connection to. The photos are by Jessica Deeks.

Brian Jungen
Court, 2004
sewing tables, painted steel, paint, basketball hoops and backboards, 2500 x 300 x 250 cm installed
Gift of the Rennie Collection, Vancouver, 2012
Court makes me think of Marie-Antoinette, or rather the vile retort misattributed to her that I would paraphrase as: “Let them eat sports.” I’m usually not a fan of one-liners in art, but the socio-economic point Jungen makes by turning sweatshop sewing tables into a basketball court is so important, the lengths he has gone to make the point so extreme, the work’s coherence within the context of his larger project so seamless, that it meets my definition of brilliant. 
David Altmejd
The Vessel, 2011
plexiglas, chain, plaster, wood, thread, wire, acrylic paint, epoxy resin, epoxy clay, acrylic gel, granular medium, quartz, pyrite, assorted minerals, adhesive, wire, pins, and needles, 260.4 x 619.8 x 219.7 cm
Purchased 2012
The Vessel describes swans and describes a description of swans, but I don’t want to venture too much further because I want to keep savoring the awe of first glance. I’ve been looking at this wonder for the first time, over and over, for two years now. With art, the real work of pleasure is in your head as you analyze the details, testing and retesting your initial intuition against your knowledge and expectations. The process has risks for the work, of course. Are you really standing in front of something profound or is it just special effects? Though I don’t fear the answer, it’s a testament to Altmejd’s power that I’m not ready to ask that question yet.

It stinks! Art critic Julian Spalding was banned from Damien Hirst's Tate exhibition after calling him a talentless conman... but we smuggled him in - and here's his verdict

It stinks! Art critic Julian Spalding was banned from Damien Hirst's Tate exhibition after calling him a talentless conman... but we smuggled him in - and here's his verdict

By Julian Spalding

There is no party more tantalising than one you’re banned from. It was in that spirit that I joined the 100-strong throng outside the Tate Modern art gallery in London on Thursday to see the Damien Hirst exhibition. But while my fellow queuers were buzzing in anticipation of Hirst’s dots, pills and those dead animals, I was just relieved I hadn’t been barred by the bouncers.
That’s exactly what happened when I tried to visit the exhibition earlier this week with a BBC camera crew in tow. Dozens of reporters and cameramen swept into the press screening, but my film crew and I weren’t allowed past the door.
As former Director of the Glasgow Museums and author of five art books, I’ve been welcomed into hundreds of galleries around the world, but a feature I wrote for last week’s Mail on Sunday must have touched a nerve with the Tate’s bosses and earned me a place on their blacklist.
Sinking feeling: Julian Spalding contemplates Hirst's shark in formaldehyde at the Tate Modern
Sinking feeling: Julian Spalding contemplates Hirst's shark in formaldehyde at the Tate Modern
I had dared to say what many of my colleagues secretly think: Con Art, the so-called Conceptual Art movement, is little more than a money-spinning con, rather like the emperor’s new clothes. That goes for the ‘artist’ Carl Andre who sold a stack of bricks for £2,297. It goes for Marcel Duchamp, whose old ‘urinal’ was bought by the Tate for $500,000 (about £300,000). It goes for Tracey Emin’s grubby old bed. And, of course, it goes for Damien Hirst.
I was determined to set aside my preconceptions and experience the Damien Hirst retrospective, which opened on Wednesday and will close in September. I’ve long believed him to be a money-hungry charlatan but as the richest living artist at the age of 46, he must be doing something right.
He was worth £215 million in 2010, according to the Sunday Times Rich List, and he pulls in visitor numbers each day that many galleries would be lucky to draw in a month, so surely I’ve been unfair.
Yet four hours later I emerged from the exhibition weary, miserable and desperate to clear the lingering stench of rotten cow from my nose. Were there not a Tate fatwa stamped on my head, I might have stood in front of the hundreds still queuing to pay the £14 admission and shouted: ‘Stop.’
Of course, people should decide for themselves. But judging by the surly expressions of those dripping out, I wasn’t the only one left feeling drained – and conned.
In a series of conversations, I found out what propels people, many of whom rarely visit art galleries, to queue for 60 minutes for this marketing circus. ‘Is it art?’ I asked and pointed at a shark preserved in formaldehyde, a wall of dots, and flies feasting on a dead cow’s head.
Defining work: The artist with Mother and Child Divided, which comprises a cow and a calf cut in half and preserved in formaldehyde. The work is part of the Damien Hirst exhibition at Tate Modern, London, which runs from April 5 to September 9
Defining work: The artist with Mother and Child Divided, which comprises a cow and a calf cut in half and preserved in formaldehyde. The work is part of the Damien Hirst exhibition at Tate Modern, London, which runs from April 5 to September 9 

‘Of course it is, it’s a Damien Hirst.’ One plummy-voiced blonde accompanied by a gaggle of children looked offended that I’d dared to ask. But why is it art? ‘Because it makes you feel something.’ When I asked what it makes them feel, most referred me to the guidebook explanations.
What quickly becomes apparent  is that it is like a religion. Everyone is strangely committed to the cult of Hirst – but few can articulate what is fantastic about a soggy, sad-looking shark, preserved in a vitrine with all the menace of a sagging sofa.
Created by a Turner Prize winning artist, the dead tiger shark, grandly named The Physical Impossibility Of Death In The Mind Of Someone Living, should be one of the great artworks of the last century, yet most visitors spent less than three seconds looking at it.
What is also striking is the way disoriented visitors drift around the gallery. Traditionally, in exhibitions of ‘real art’, visitors cluster around the paintings or sculptures while the rest of the gallery is empty.
The Hirst exhibition is another matter. People mill about like unmagnetised iron filings. Why? Nobody is engaged. One enormous spot painting is half hidden behind  a formaldehyde-preserved cow.
Smaller vitrines containing skulls are dumped on the floor at random. A young boy trips over one and stops to look at it. ‘Why are you looking at that? It’s revolting,’ I say.
‘It is, isn’t it?’ the boy’s mother replies. ‘I have strange children.’
In fact, the only exhibit in the main exhibition (for the diamond skull is shown separately) drawing a large crowd is a cordoned-off room called In And Out Of Love, which contains exotic butterflies and bowls of fruit. Nobody in the 40-deep queue looks at the spot paintings on the nearby wall or the Ikea-style desk with an overflowing ashtray on it.
'Is it art?': Hirst's 1986 piece Spot Painting, household gloss on board. Julian Spalding says those he spoke to struggled to explain what was so special about the works on show
'Is it art?': Hirst's 1986 piece Spot Painting, household gloss on board. Julian Spalding says those he spoke to struggled to explain what was so special about the works on show

Thirty minutes later, we reach the front, and are granted two minutes’ access to a small humid room of butterflies, a lot less impressive than the Butterfly House at Berkeley Castle – which costs only £3.50 to visit.
This confusion begins in the first room. Few people notice the first exhibit, Kitchen Cupboard, a shiny orange Formica unit made in 1987. ‘Is it a fire extinguisher case or part of the show?’ asks one baffled man. Nobody answers because nobody else is looking at it.
Few pause at the grubby spot painting leaning carelessly against a wall. Worse, the glass case containing a string of limp sausages, imaginatively entitled ‘Sausages’, is held together with grubby gaffer tape.
Whoever was responsible for refreshing the paintings with butterflies didn’t notice that a butterfly’s abdomen has fallen away and the wings disintegrated.
One of the only exhibits to sustain visitors’ attention for more than a couple of seconds is a grotesque black-and-white photograph taken  in 1981. In it, Hirst grins and holds up a severed head with an uncanny resemblance to Sir Winston Churchill. Back then, Hirst was a sixth-form student. He scored an E-grade in A-level art and later wormed his way on to the Fine Art course at Goldsmiths, University of London, after first being rejected. Tellingly, the Tate has excluded Hirst’s paintings. Quite simply, Hirst can’t paint.
It was at Goldsmiths that he met Charles Saatchi, who would propel him from chancer to millionaire before they parted company in  2003 after a disagreement over the way Hirst’s works were staged at Saatchi’s gallery.
Around that time, Hirst admitted: ‘I can’t wait to get into a position to make really bad art and get away with it.’ Which raises the question: is he consciously playing us for fools?
I put this to an accountant from Norwich, who was gazing intently at a wall of preserved fish that could have been plucked from the Natural History Museum. ‘I like the fact that Hirst put the skinned animal skulls next to the fish, which have skin,’ says Giles Kerkham.
When I inform him that Hirst has amassed £215 million from such juxtapositions,  he concedes, ‘No one’s worth that.’
‘Think of all the hungry people in the world you could feed with that,’ says teaching assistant Kathryn Gynn as we stand in front of For The Love Of God, a skull encrusted with 8,601 diamonds that was reportedly sold for £50 million.
But it is the rotting cow head, called A Thousand Years, that I can’t bear to look at. Blood trickles out  of it, swarms of flies feast on it and  the horrific stench is pumped into the gallery. ‘It’s very macabre,’ says Craig Thurlby. What an understatement. ‘I interpret the flies and cow as life and death, so I guess it has meaning and stuff,’ says Craig.
‘Isn’t Hirst just playing us for fools?’ I explode.
‘Probably,’ agrees Craig. ‘If he is, he’s doing a bloody good job of it.’
Standing next to him, two young men shake their heads. ‘I don’t like any of it,’ one says. So why did they come? ‘We just wanted to see what everyone’s raving about.’
The same goes for a Moroccan tourist who hadn’t heard of Hirst until today. His reaction? ‘It’s not very nice.’
I bump into the same two young men at the sausages. ‘What’s Hirst’s meaning?’ I ask them.
‘Maybe he was hungry.’ I can’t imagine a more accurate answer.
One wonders why Hirst even agreed to be shown in the Tate. After all, in an interview in 1996, he said: ‘Museums are for dead artists. I’d never show my work in the Tate.’
Dead artists, indeed. For Hirst’s most loyal cult followers might champion this exhibition as his mid-career celebration, but the shrewder ones can see through his nonsensical cons. They see the truth: that Hirst, at 46, has reached the realms of dead artists. And this exhibition is his grubby, inglorious obituary.
  • Julian Spalding is an independent curator and museums consultant. His book Con Art –  Why You Ought To Sell Your Damien Hirsts While You Can is available via Amazon Kindle.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Show’s lost berets at the ICA paint a picture of Pablo Picasso's influence on Britain

London’s young art enthusiasts were keen to adopt the fashion tips of the Spanish painter

Pablo Picasso’s influence on Britain was sartorial as well as artistic, according to a new book that reveals the high number of berets handed in to lost property during his Institute of Contemporary Arts show in the 1950s.
Never-before-published documents from the early years of the institution show that London’s young art enthusiasts were keen to adopt the fashion tips of the Spanish painter, who at that time was known for his distinctive headgear.
The institute, which was founded in 1946, featured his work in its first exhibition – “40 Years of Modern Art 1907 to 1947” – and staged two Picasso solo shows in the 1950s.
“Among the monthly internal bulletins was lost property,” said Anne Massey, an art historian and  co-author of History of the Institute of Contemporary Arts, the first history of the early years of the ICA. “One revealed that berets were left behind around the time of the Picasso show. He wore one and everyone was trying to copy him.”
Ms Massey and the ICA’s executive director, Gregor Muir, are in the process of pulling together thousands of papers from the early years of the institution.
Mr Muir said: “There has never been a book like this about the ICA. The tendency to talk about the ICA’s recent past overlooks its extraordinary history. Looking through the archives it becomes so clear how vital this has been as an institution.”
He added: “Until I looked at the material not even I had an appreciation of the role the ICA had to play in creating contemporary British art.”
The ICA had the first survey show of Francis Bacon’s work, and promoted artists including Henry Moore, Richard Hamilton and Lucian Freud.
Ms Massey added: “I was lucky enough to go through the first management committee minutes. They were very interesting and there were a lot of arguments. Many of those involved were surrealists so the meetings were off the wall. In the very first meeting they voted in 12 Herbert Reads into the committee. I think there was a lot of wine involved.”
This is the fourth attempt to chronicle the founding of the institution which began life in the Academy Cinema basement, before moving to Dover Street and on to its current home in The Mall.
Massey said previous attempts to write a history “have all come a cropper, partly because it’s such a complex history”.
She added that she hoped the book, which is due to be published next year, would “make an impact on the understanding of modern British culture and how we look at modern British design, art and music”.


Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Conman: How One Man Fooled the Modern Art Establishment by Laney Salisbury and Aly Sujo

An illuminating view of the man who conned the art world grips David Pallister

Good art forgers have received what amounts to an endorsement from an unexpected quarter. Promoting the National Gallery's forthcoming exhibition Close Examination: Fakes, Mistakes and Discoveries, the director Nicholas Penny said: "I wish we had more fakes [in the collection]. You only get good at spotting them by seeing them." Penny touches a sensitive nerve in the secretive international art market which, according to expert estimates, is awash with forgeries. Astonishingly, some put the figure at up to 40%.
Forgers are a peculiar breed and money is only one motive. Anonymous by necessity, they yearn for recognition. Technically adept, often with formal training and a keen sense of colour and form, they have produced work, down to the singular brushstroke or cut of the clay, that rivals the originals. But, by definition, they have not found their own voice; they are unable to put their name to pieces of modest integrity and flair when they know that they are capable of simulating the greats. Lacking the prerequisite metropolitan social connections, they find the international art market – the galleries and auction houses of New York, London and Paris – intimidating, haughty and false: a mercenary, self-regarding conspiracy against the blooming of a thousand flowers. So beating the market is a challenge and a game: fraught with danger but ultimately exhilarating.
To varying degrees, of course, they are aware of the necessity for other technical subterfuges: the choice of paper and frame, the particular hue of the blue, the varnish and the sense of age – and how exactly did that painter scrawl his name? Experts who arbitrate authenticity often have only an instinct. "It's off," they might murmur. Or "It's not quite right."
It's extraordinary that John Myatt, an impoverished part-time art teacher and failed songwriter from Staffordshire, managed to get away with it for so long – producing more than 200 paintings over 10 years, which were sold around the world for a total of about £2m. With an aversion to the smell of expensive oils, which also took a long time to dry, he used house paint mixed with turpentine, linseed oil and lubricant jelly. His favourite targets were the modernists, the cubists Gleizes and Braque, Ben Nicholson, Nicolas de Stael, Giacometti and a dozen others.
But whatever doubts were harboured by the experts – and there were many – they were assuaged by that other essential ingredient of the good fake: the provenance. Laney Salisbury and Aly Sujo, two American journalists, have produced a riveting and perceptive account of Myatt and his Svengali – the obsessive and enigmatic fantasist John Drewe, who, with charm and apparent wealth, insinuated himself into some of Britain's leading art institutions and then systematically falsified and corrupted their archives to create bogus histories for Myatt's fakes. The two men met in 1986 when Myatt, struggling to bring up his two children, placed a personal ad in Private Eye offering "genuine fakes". He was impressed when a Professor Drewe called and offered him commissions. It took a while before Myatt realised – only half-reluctantly – that he was being drawn into a gigantic fraud.
Drewe was in fact the son of a telephone engineer and had left school at 16. But, brimming with self-confidence and erudition, he passed himself off as a nuclear scientist as he cruised around London in his chauffeur-driven Bentley, dining the great and the good of the art world at expensive restaurants. The Tate was a particular target and his £20,000 donation earned him privileged assess.
Salisbury never met Drewe (he was sent to prison for six years in 1999). But she and Sujo (who died in 2008) have beautifully captured his manic, intense and unstable personality, one moment oozing with charm, the next with menace. The gullibility and the greed, deliciously described, make for compulsive reading. They have even caught his loose-limbed gait, his obsequiousness smirk, and strange staccato laugh disconnected from humour. I can testify to their uncanny accuracy. Shortly after his arrest in 1996 but before he was charged, Drewe pitched up at the Guardian with a convoluted and utterly improbable tale of being a high-level physicist involved in selling a secret cache of art to fund shady Balkan arms deals and much more. I was invited to his substantial house in Reigate to see his "evidence". At the time the Guardian was embroiled in its high-profile libel battle with the Tory politician Jonathan Aitken and, sure enough, the canny Drewe had inserted into one of his files an intriguing reference to Aitken.
Every one of his assertions that could be checked out proved to be a lie, and when confronted he flew into a rage, dashing off a five-page denunciation of me to the editor. It became clear later, when he drove the prosecution (and the judge) in the case against us to despair with his rambling, conspiratorial rants, that his approach to the paper was just another attempt to spread algae on muddy waters.
Drewe's downfall came from an unexpected source, which pitches Salisbury's tense narrative into the realm of thriller. In 1993 Drewe left his Israeli partner, Batsheva Goudsmid, an eye doctor, for another woman and wrongly accused her of mental instability and abuse of their children. Goudsmid took her suspicions and a briefcase full of Drewe's forgery kit, which he had left at their house, to the police. Scotland Yard's art and antiques squad were alerted and Goudsmid turned up two black rubbish bags full of incriminating documents. The story of the painstaking, two-year investigation that led to Drewe's appearance at Southwark crown court is a wonder.
And Salisbury is able to sign off with a happy ending. Myatt served four months of a one-year sentence and has since become a celebrity – selling "legitimate fakes", lecturing and starring in several TV series, the latest of which, Virgin Virtuosos, is currently being shown on Sky Arts.
David Pallister is co-author of The Liar: Fall of Jonathan Aitken (Fourth Estate).


Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Famous Forgers of Oil Paintings

http://0.tqn.com/d/arthistory/1/0/H/1/1/picasso_themes_moma_2010_09.jpgArtists such as Van Gogh, Gauguin, Manet, Sisley, Cézanne and Renoir reached fame after their deaths and were therefore much copied.  

However, it was during World War Two that forgers became extensively busy. As soon as the Germans invaded a large part of Europe, Nazi leaders enacted a plan to plunder famous oil paintings belonging to their political opponents and Jewish families. The main Nazi leader involved in the theft of old master oil paintings was Hermann Goering who formed his own extensive collection.

Goering was interested in masterpieces and was told one day that he could obtain some oil paintings by Vermeer in Holland. The Nazi leader went on to buy one of them, Mary-Magdalene washing the feet of Christ, from the art forger  Hans Van Meegeren. In the 1930's, several experts, including Bredius, the best specialist for Vermeer's works, had said they had no doubts about the authenticity of this work.

At the end of the war, Van Meegeren was arrested on charges of collaborating with the Germans because he had sold Goering the Vermeers. While in prison, Van Meegeren baffled art specialists by confessing that he had in fact forged oil paintings certified as by Vermeer and sold to Goering as well as to other art collectors.

Peeved at being considered an obscure untalented artist, Van Meegeren told investigators that fooling art experts had been his revenge. He added that it had been quite exciting to fool art critics who had scorned his own works.  

The war did not affect the art market for oil paintings much especially in occupied Paris where the art trade blossomed despite economic restrictions. With the return of peace, the French capital became the main art trade centre while the United States was just seeing the emergence of its modern school of painters.  

The oil paintings of Picasso, Braque, Matisse, Miro, Dali were now famous and the art market was in constant development. The late sixties forgers saw the appearance of several renowned art forgers including David Stein, Elmir de Hory and Real Lessart. The former being specialised in fake Chagall, Picasso, Dufy and post-impressionist oil paintings, the latter two working for an agent called Fernand Legros who was selling his fine art reproductions with forged certificates. A former ballet dancer, Legros fooled a few rich American magnates, including Arthur Meadows, the owner of the General American Oil Co. in Texas.

Legros once used a subtle stratagem on entering American territory. When asked by U.S customs what was in his luggage, Legros explained that the oil paintings he was bringing were merely fine art reproductions. Eager to verify, U.S customs officials would call upon art experts to determine whether Legros was not trying to cheat them and driven by such suspicion, these art specialists concluded that these fine art reproductions were in fact genuine oil piantings. Unmoved by the fine imposed on him Legros would then further impress his customers by showing them the U.S customs documents proving the authenticity of the hand painted, fine art reproductions he was selling.

David Stein, who had managed one day to have a forged Picasso oil painting authenticated by the master himself, was arrested after Marc Chagall saw a forged oil painting exhibited in a New York Gallery. He later started a career as a painter after serving a prison term.  

Elmyr de Hory, who lived on the island of Ibiza, made hundreds of oil painting forgeries including works signed Van Dongen. The Dutch artist , apparently in need of money near the end of his life, endorsed more than once the fakes  sold by Legros as being genuine Van Dongens.  

In the 1960's certain artists repudiated some of their own oil paintings because they felt dissatisfied about the quality or about the low prices at which these were sold. This was notably the case with the Italian master Giorgio de Chirico who was charged in 1969 for having seized some of his sculptures as forgeries whereas he had signed a legal contract for their production. Another master, Maurice de Vlaminck refused to authenticate some of his own oil paintings simply because he did not like them anymore. He also was charged and received a fine for having rejected an oil painting which was in fact genuine.
In England, many experts were undermined by the Keating scandal in the 1970's. Tom Keating had made a speciality of producing forged water-colours by Samuel Palmer and oil paintings by Flemish, Dutch, English and French old masters.  

Keating, who came from a poor London family, failed to reach fame and therefore wanted to avenge himself by producing forgeries of oil paintings and drawings which were to be certified as genuine works by Gainsborough, Degas, Boucher, Fragonard, Renoir, Modigliani and Van Dongen.

Other artists who have been forged include Van Gogh, Boudin, Vuillard, Matisse, Léger, Braque, Utrillo, Rouault, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Franz Kline, Marie Laurencin, André Lhote, Chaïm Soutine, Modigliani and Signac. It is estimated that over 15% of paintings sold throughout the world are fakes.  

Why Creative People Sometimes Make No Sense


Why Creative People Sometimes Make No Sense

Posted by Matthew in for us
I’ve been having an insightful shuffle through Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Creativity: The Work and Lives of 91 Eminent People. Mihaly is a seminal professor of Psychology and Management, and is the Founding Co-Director of the Quality of Life Research Center at Claremont. He writes:
“I have devoted 30 years of research to how creative people live and work, to make more understandable the mysterious process by which they come up with new ideas and new things. If I had to express in one word what makes their personalities different from others, it’s complexity. They show tendencies of thought and action that in most people are segregated. They contain contradictory extremes; instead of being an individual, each of them is a multitude.”
Nine out of the ten people in me strongly agree with that statement. As someone paid to be creative, I sometimes feel kaleidoscopic in my views or opinions, and that “multitude” of expressions sometimes confuses those around me. Why does that happen? My thoughts make cohesive sense to me, yet others sometimes feel that I am contradicting myself or switching positions. What is wrong with me?
Mihaly describes 9 contradictory traits that are frequently present in creative people:


Most creative people have a great deal of physical energy, but are often quiet and at rest. They can work long hours at great concentration.


Most creative people tend to be smart and naive at the same time. “It involves fluency, or the ability to generate a great quantity of ideas; flexibility, or the ability to switch from one perspective to another; and originality in picking unusual associations of ideas. These are the dimensions of thinking that most creativity tests measure, and that most creativity workshops try to enhance.”


Most creative people combine both playfulness and productivity, which can sometimes mean both responsibility and irresponsibility. “Despite the carefree air that many creative people affect, most of them work late into the night and persist when less driven individuals would not.” Usually this perseverance occurs at the expense of other responsibilities, or other people.


Most creative people alternate fluently between imagination and fantasy, and a rooted sense of reality. In both art and science, movement forward involves a leap of imagination, a leap into a world that is different from our present. Interestingly, this visionary imagination works in conjunction with a hyperawareness of reality. Attention to real details allows a creative person to imagine ways to improve them.


Most creative people tend to be both introverted and extroverted. Many people tend toward one extreme or the other, but highly creative people are a balance of both simultaneously.


Most creative people are genuinely humble and display a strong sense of pride at the same time.


Most creative people are both rebellious and conservative. “It is impossible to be creative without having first internalized an area of culture. So it’s difficult to see how a person can be creative without being both traditional and conservative and at the same time rebellious and iconoclastic.”


Most creative people are very passionate about their work, but remain extremely objective about it as well. They are able to admit when something they have made is not very good.


Most creative people’s openness and sensitivity exposes them to a large amount of suffering and pain, but joy and life in the midst of that suffering. “Perhaps the most important quality, the one that is most consistently present in all creative individuals, is the ability to enjoy the process of creation for its own sake. Without this trait, poets would give up striving for perfection and would write commercial jingles, economists would work for banks where they would earn at least twice as much as they do at universities, and physicists would stop doing basic research and join industrial laboratories where the conditions are better and the expectations more predictable.”
Sometimes what appears to be a contradiction on the surface is actually a harmony in disguise. My problem has been primarily one of communication. I am learning to let people know what I am thinking and why, and explaining myself in a way that helps them understand why I am discussing multiple perspectives instead of just cleaning stating my own. At first it might not make sense, but give me/us long enough, and it will.
Photo by Sophia.


Friday, November 22, 2013

More Vibrant Tales of Obsolete Pigments

More Vibrant Tales of Obsolete Pigments

by Allison Meier 

Vintage paint tubes (photograph by Jody Morris/Flickr user)
Vintage paint tubes (photograph by Jody Morris/Flickr user)
After our first installment of obsolete pigments, we had such a strong response that we realized we’d only hit the tip of the curious history of vanished colors. Below are a few more pigments that have mostly gone out of favor, due to them being hazardous to the health of their manufacturers or artists, having a shortage of their weird material (antlers, for example), or just advances in technology replacing them with synthetics.


Detail of Jan Davidsz. de Heem's "Festoon with Flowers and Fruit" (1660s), oil on panel, said to have been painted with orpiment (via Wikimedia)
Detail of Jan Davidsz. de Heem’s “Festoon with Flowers and Fruit” (1660s), oil on panel, said to have been painted with orpiment (via Wikimedia)
Made from arsenic and sulphide, orpiment was naturally very toxic. According to New Scientist, the vivid “King’s Yellow” as it was known was very popular with 17th century Dutch masters, sometimes mixed with blue to make their landscapes green. Yet not only were the fumes poisonous, it also apparently smelled horrid. Furthermore, it would react with the then-common lead pigments. As John Emsley’s The Elements of Murder: A History of Poison describes, “not all artists were so enamoured because it caused other pigments to turn black if it was painted over, and this was especially so if they were using white lead, which slowly reacted with the sulphur in the orpiment to form black lead sulphide.”


One pigment that could mix with the above mentioned orpiment was Hartshorn. Yet the rustic-feeling white got its natural color from calcined deer antlers, which are hard to keep in abundant supply.

Ivory Black

Rembrandt, "Old Man with a Gold Chain" (1631), oil on panel (via Wikimedia)
Rembrandt, “Old Man with a Gold Chain” (1631), oil on panel (via Wikimedia)
Hartshorn, however, is not the only bone-based pigment that was once popular. Ivory Black, which was made from singed elephant tusks and other ivory, and bone char, were also used, and were particularly fond of artists like Rembrandt who would paint swathes of black on their work. According to Art in the Making: Rembrandt by David Bomford, the blacks the artist used were “almost always provided by bone or ivory black, prepared, as the name suggests, from animal bones or waste ivory by charring in a closed crucible.”

Paris Green

To go along with those infamously poisonous pigments is the notorious Paris Green. The incredibly toxic pigment was an effort to improve Scheele’s Green, a copper arsenite, with Paris Green involving arsenic and verdigris (see below). It gets its name from being used to kill rats in the sewers of Paris, and it was also used as an insecticide, but that was all after it had already been used as a pigment in art and other uses, including, most hazardously, wallpaper where when combined with moisture it released an arsine gas.

Iris Green

The Antichrist on the Leviathan, from "Liber Floridus" (1120). Illuminated medieval manuscripts regularly used Iris Green. (via Google Books)
The Antichrist on the Leviathan, from “Liber Floridus” (1120). Illuminated medieval manuscripts regularly used Iris Green. (via Google Books)
For a less deadly green, illuminated medieval manuscripts were frequently colored with the iris flower in a color called Iris Green. As the Pigment Compendium by Valentine Walsh and Tracey Chaplin describes, the juice from petals of plants such as parsley, nightshade, rue, and honeysuckle were frequently used, but it was the iris that gave a nice color from its blue and purple petals. Yet it was a time consuming process and required a whole heap of flowers to have enough juice to pull out the pigment (sourced from chlorophyl) with scraps of linen.

Sepia Ink

Sepia color has far from vanished, although its original main ingredient is not so common. The sepia pigment was originally made in the 18th century from ink sacs taken from animals, particularly cuttlefish (cuttlefish bones were also sometimes used in pigments). According to Painting Materials by R.J. Gettens and G. L. Stout, “the secretion from one cuttle-fish [was] able to turn a thousand gallons of water opaque in a few seconds.”


Smalt used in Hans Holbein the Younger's "Sir William Butts" (1540–43) (via National Portrait Gallery/Wikimedia)
Smalt used in Hans Holbein the Younger’s “Sir William Butts” (1540–43) (via National Portrait Gallery/Wikimedia)
The powder blue color of Cobalt Blue glass found its way into a pigment called Smalt. It was an affordable color as it was made from ground up blue glass, and the Renaissance painters frequently used it to add a shimmer to their work. You can also see it in Vermeer’s early pieces, like “Diana and her Companions,” as well as some portraits by Hans Holbein the Younger.

Uranium Yellow

Uranium gives off an entrancing glow, and that characteristic made an appearance as a pigment in glass and ceramics. Although the radioactivity of Uranium Yellow wasn’t as hazardous as, say, eating White Lead paint or using Paris Green, it was enough to stop its use.


Gamboge, a yellow resin-based pigment sourced from trees in Cambodia, has a rather macabre story as it progressed from the 19th century into the 20th. As Radiolab reported in “The Perfect Yellow,” during that century’s wars, unspent bullets and mud from battlefields were getting mixed into the Gamboge collected.


Veronese's "Allegory of love," where the fabric pattern in the background painted with Verdigris has turned from green to brown over the years (via Wikimedia)
Veronese’s “Allegory of love,” where the fabric pattern in the background painted with Verdigris has turned from green to brown over the years (via Wikimedia)
The chemistry of the canvas also resulted in the once widely prevalent Verdigris, a bluish green, almost entirely disappearing. It was used in the Middle Ages through the 19th as a popular vibrant green, made with copper plates and acetic acid. This tactic made it very unstable, however, and it would get darker with age. However, as Philip Ball points out in his book Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color, this may have been a result of mixing it with resin, and that organic addition later turning it black.


Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Colorful Stories of 5 Obsolete Art Pigments

The colors of art change not just with trends, but availability as well. For reasons of being incredibly poisonous, expensive, or just involving way too many snails, here are five pigments that have disappeared from art.

Maya Blue

Mayan Mural, involving the Maya Blue pigment (via Wikispaces)
Mayan Mural, involving the Maya Blue pigment (via Wikispaces)
On murals, pottery, even possibly painted on the hapless bodies offered as human sacrifices, a sky-blue color has been found in artifacts of the Maya and Aztec. It disappeared around colonial times in Central America, just like the pre-Columbian civilizations themselves. Known as Maya Blue, it’s long been recognized as a mix of a natural clay and a dye from the indigo plant, but how it was so durable in not being subject to fading or even the deterioration of solvents and acids has been a mystery. Earlier this year, however, some chemists announced they may have found the secret in careful variations in the preparation temperatures.

Tyrian Purple

Burial Shroud of Charlemagne (early 9th century), made of Byzantine silk colored with Tyrian Purple (via Wikimedia)
Burial Shroud of Charlemagne (early 9th century), made of Byzantine silk colored with Tyrian Purple (via Wikimedia)
The most prized, prestigious pigment of the ancient world was actually made from a rather slimy source: a predatory snail. Tyrian Purple got its name from the best of the marine shellfish used to make the pigment being found off the shore of Phoenicia’s Tyre, according to Pigment Compendium. Not only was it a properly royal color of rich, slightly red purple, it was said to get even more beautiful and brighter when exposed to the sun and the elements. Yet since you needed a whole pile of snails to have enough mucous secretions to make it, it was very expensive, and eventually disappeared.

White Lead

White Lead in Johannes Vermeer’s “The Glass of Wine” (1658), oil on canvas (via WikiPaintings)
The luminosity of classical European oil paintings was due in large part to White Lead, a pigment of lead carbonate and sulfate. Artists like Vermeer used it to create a special kind of light that radiated from the canvas, the traces of which we can see in its grainy texture. Unfortunately, its striking brightness was rather poisonous. Yet as Applied Polymer Science explains about the lead paint: “Toxicity was recognized, but accepted.” It’s since been largely replaced by Titanium White, a less hazardous, although not as structurally strong, pigment, yet some artists still seek out the White Lead for its believed superior color and permanence, even if it is more difficult to find and still toxic.

Lapis Lazuli

Lapis Lazuli used in a detail of "The Ascension," attributed to Jacopo di Cione (1371) (via The National Gallery, London(
Lapis Lazuli used in a detail of “The Ascension,” attributed to Jacopo di Cione (1371)
(via The National Gallery, London)
Widely believed to be the most expensive pigment ever created, more pricey than even its weight in gold, the Lapis Lazuli pigment was made from grinding up Lapis Lazuli semi-precious stones. Its use goes back to the 6th century in Afghanistan, but its popularity really took off with wealthy Renaissance patrons who wanted the stunning blue on the robes of Mary and Jesus in religious paintings. The “ultra marine” color, as it was also known, largely disappeared as it was so incredibly expensive and required quarries to collect the stones. However, you can actually buy it at at the Kremer Pigmente store in Manhattan for $360 for five grams.

Dragon’s Blood

Mural in the Villa of Mysteries in Pompeii, said to incorporate the Dragon's Blood pigment. (via Wikimedia)
Mural in the Villa of Mysteries in Pompeii, said to incorporate the Dragon’s Blood pigment. (via Wikimedia)
The pigment known as Dragon’s Blood had the most epic and ridiculous of origin stories, a supposed mix of actual dragon’s blood and elephant’s blood. Andrew Dalby’s Dangerous Tastes chronicles this incredible story from the 16th century navigator Richard Eden:
“[Elephants] have continual warre against Dragons, which desire their blood, because it is very cold: and therefore the Dragon lying awaite as the Elephant passeth by, windeth his taile, being of exceeding length, about the hinder legs of the Elephant, and when the Elephant waxeth faint, he falleth down on the serpent, being now full of blood, and with the poise of his body breaketh him: so that his owne blood with the blood of the Elephant runneth out of him mingled together, which being colde, is congealed into that substance which the Apothecaries call Sanguis Draconis, that is Dragons blood, otherwise called Cinnabaris.”
As freaking exciting as a battle between an elephant and dragon would be, the pigment was in actuality made from a Southeast Asian tree — though the story certainly helped hype it to outside buyers, and its blood red color was popular in the ancient world. It faded out of mainstream popularity around the 19th century, probably alongside the very much waning fascination with elephant vs. dragon battles.


Mummy Brown

Martin Drölling, "L'intérieur d'une cuisine" (1815), believed to have been painted with Mummy Brown (via the Louvre)
Martin Drölling, “L’intérieur d’une cuisine” (1815), believed to have been painted with Mummy Brown (via the Louvre)
A fantastic Twitter tip from Art vs Artifact informed us of another vanished pigment with an incredible story: Mummy Brown. The pigment, a favored shade of the Pre-Raphaelites, was first made with Egyptian mummies, both cat and human, that were ground up and mixed with white pitch and myrrh. It had a great fleshy color, but due to the actual fleshy components it would crack over time. Martin Drölling, who painted the work shown above, reportedly used the mummies of French kings dug up from Saint-Denis in Paris. According to a 1964 Time story, the Mummy Brown pigment didn’t last due to a shortage of its name defining ingredient. Managing director of the London based C. Roberson color maker told the magazine:
“We might have a few odd limbs lying around somewhere, but not enough to make any more paint.”

Indian Yellow

Here’s another curious, and unsettling, pigment tip from Twitter on Indian Yellow. According to Philip Ball’s Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color, the vivid color of Indian Yellow was a source of mystery until the late 19th century. It turned out that the yellow color came from the urine of cattle in the Bihar province of India that were fed only mango leaves and water. The mistreatment of the animals led to the color being illegal and it vanished by 1908.

Scheele’s Green

From the comments, we got a tip on Scheele’s Green. The yellow-green pigment was a cupric hydrogen arsenite, which was very toxic, yet made it into not just paintings, but candles, wallpaper, and children’s toys. In one incident at a Christmas party, a candle dyed with the color poisoned children, and other 19th century incidents include women in green dresses passing out and those using it to print newspapers suffering from its effects. The arsenic vapors also are believed by some to have played a role in the death of Napoleon, who lived in a room paintly brightly green, his favorite color, as traces of arsenic were found in his hair.