Art News Roundup: Invisible Hand Edition

Scottish Enlightenment economist and philosopher Adam Smith (1723-1790), who played a profound role in the development of free market economics, and indeed in the foundation of this country, is perhaps best known today for his seminal work, “An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations”, first published in 1776. On December 12th, Christie’s will be auctioning off Smith’s own, first edition copy of “The Wealth of Nations” in London, with an estimated sale price of between $650,000 to over $1 million. Given the provenance of the book, and the love of both conservatives and libertarians for Smith’s work, I predict that the final hammer price will be at the high end of this range, if not even a bit higher. All you really need for this to happen is for two modern capitalists with deep pockets to get into a bidding war with one another, and the sky’s the limit.

Granted, neither Smith himself nor the book in question have much of anything to do with art in a direct way. Yet Smith’s principle of the “Invisible Hand”, by which positive, public outcomes can result from the self-interested, private actions of individuals, are a major philosophical underpinning of museums as we know them in the Western world. A collector who accumulates great works of art, historic artifacts, or important specimens for his own private delectation, and whose collection subsequently becomes broadly available to others for enjoyment and education is, in a sense, an exemplar of that “invisible hand” creating a public good from what was originally a private motivation. Many paintings, sculptures, and drawings have been preserved for future generations because individuals in the past acquired them for themselves, and kept them safe from the ravages of time, war, natural disasters, the vicissitudes of fashion, and so on.

And now, on to some other news which you may find hand-y.

Michelangelo: The Hands of a Master

The so-called “Rothschild Bronzes”, once owned by the famous Rothschild banking dynasty, are a superb pair of early 16th century sculptures of warriors mounted on giant panther-like beasts, which of course anticipate “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe” by nearly 500 years. After considerable scholarly debate, as well as technical analysis using various methods of dating, measurement, and comparison to contemporary drawings, a group of art history experts at Cambridge recently announced their conclusion that the pair are by Michelangelo (1475-1564), making them the only known bronze figures of the Italian Renaissance genius to have survived to the present day. A book chronicling the 4-year research project involving these figures has just been published, and will be receiving a great deal of scrutiny from other art experts. Is this a rush to claim authorship? Or is there a legitimate body of evidence to err on the side of this attribution, which would fill a major hole in the record with respect to Michelangelo’s work in metal? Stay tuned.

Michaelangelo Bronzes

Rembrandt: The Fingers of a Master

A number of my readers – clever folk that you are – wrote to me over the past week regarding the interesting news that an oil study by Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) may bear the Dutch Old Master’s fingerprints. The work, which is roughly the size of an 8×10 photograph, depicts a model with his hands clasped in prayer, looking upwards. The young man in the picture, who was probably a Jewish neighbor of the artist, posed as Christ for Rembrandt on several other occasions that I’m aware of, such as in the Louvre’s “Supper at Emmaus” (1648); a number of other, related oil studies are known, including this slightly larger sketch in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. While at present there’s no way to know for certain whether the fingerprints are indeed those of Rembrandt, in time they may be able to establish a baseline for comparison to other works believed to be by the artist, should unexplained fingerprints be found on those paintings. This particular work is going up for sale at Sotheby’s in London next week, with a pre-sale estimate of about $7.6-$10.2 million.

Christ

Valadier: The Marketing of a Master

You’ve probably never heard of the Italian silversmith Luigi Valadier (1726-1785), a master of 18th century sculpture, decorative art, and jewelry, who was based in Rome but had an international clientele thanks to his excellent craftsmanship and the not-so-subtle marketing of his luxury goods by one potentate to the other: “If the King of Poland has one of Valadier’s goblets, I want one, too,” is how this sort of thing always works. Should you find yourself in New York over the holidays however, drop by The Frick Collection to see their current show on the work of this remarkable artist and artisan, who created jaw-dropping luxury goods for decades while managing to keep up with the changing tastes of the aristocracy, from Baroque to Rococo to Neoclassical. His opulent objects were so popular for palace decoration, diplomatic gifts, and tokens of friendship, that the studio couldn’t keep up with the orders pouring in from all over Europe. For example, shown below in an overhead shot is the 9-foot long plateau (base) of a massive 1778 dining table centerpiece by Valadier from a collection in Madrid, made out of precious stones, bronze, silver, and gold. If you want to see the whole thing, you’ll need to get to The Frick by January 20th.

overhead

 

Advertisements

Portrait Created By AI Sold To Some Fool For Six Figures

As you may have seen in the news, last week a painting that was (sort of) created using artificial intelligence (“AI”) sold at Christie’s in New York for a whopping $432,500.

Christie’s take on the sale is rather disturbing, but then of course, they have a vested interest in what they’ve done here, and of course in the fee that they’re about to collect for their efforts in this charade. “It may not have been painted by a man in a powdered wig,” commented Christie’s head of prints and multiples Richard Lloyd, “but it is exactly the kind of artwork we have been selling for 250 years.”

Well no, it isn’t.

Let’s assume that this was in fact an Old Master painting, created by an actual French artist working in around 1760, and portraying a real French aristocrat. It’s a blobby mess of an image, with no particular distinction in terms of technique or composition, and the top of the picture appears to be cut off. Is Christie’s really maintaining that it would have gone to all of the effort that it has to market this work back in the 18th century, if it was just some chopped-off, undistinguished oil study by an unknown 18th century artist of an obscure, minor member of the French nobility? Such a claim is utterly lacking in plausibility.

British art historian Bendor Grosvenor who, despite my occasional differences with him, is still the best online read when it comes to looking at Old Master paintings in the contemporary world, is all over this story, as you might imagine. As he points out here, not only is the “AI” aspect of how the image was created somewhat suspect, but the portrait itself is little more than a Photoshop project:

But the much vaunted ‘AI’ artwork at Christie’s, Portrait of Edmond Belamy, is little more than a composite blurring of the 15,000 portraits fed into the programme in the first place. It’s you or I fiddling around on Photoshop for an hour, just scaled up. A regular cry against much contemporary art is ‘my child could have done that’. But now we can replace that with; ‘my laptop could have done that’.

Over on ArtNet, Tim Schneider describes Christie’s actions as “reactionary”: not in the sense often used by the left to describe conservatives, but rather in the sense of someone jumping on the first available bandwagon, as it were. “To me, this is about as reactionary as looking up from a fortune cookie promising true love and proposing to the first person you see in Panda Express,” Schneider scoffs, “and it speaks volumes about how superficially the high-end of the market is engaging with art and machine learning right now.”

I won’t get into the issue, pointed out by Grosvenor and Schneider, among others, that a significant segment of the art community is bemoaning the fact that the “first” AI painting to be sold at a high-end auction features the image of a (supposedly) dead white man. For those of you who are interested in such things, there are plenty of comments to that effect scattered across social media. Yet wherever you fall along the social justice warrior spectrum, I don’t think that issues of race or gender are really the point here.

Rather, in this story we have further proof, as if that were needed, that the Contemporary Art world is first and foremost a speculative bubble. It continues to be inflated by auction houses, art dealers, art media, and the art establishment. The goal is not to celebrate and encourage the creation of great works of art, but rather to make money off of poorly-educated, socially insecure, extremely wealthy people.

The idea of the art world bilking the newly rich by convincing them to purchase art at inflated prices has been around for a long time. Renowned art historian Bernard Berenson (1865-1959) was giving intentionally iffy or flat-out wrong attributions on works of Italian Renaissance art to Sir Joseph Duveen (1869-1939), art dealer to the robber barons, a century ago. That way, Duveen could jack up his prices, and Berenson could receive a larger fee for his services. Colin Simpson’s superb book, “Artful Partners” is still the authoritative text on this nefarious arrangement, which was the most significant, but not the only, one of these sorts of arrangements that existed during the Gilded Age. The Faustian bargain between the two deceivers ended up having a negative impact on art history for decades, and their actions still carry repercussions for art scholarship even today.

Recently I was fortunate enough to acquire the sort of painting that Duveen might have carried in his gallery a century ago. It’s an oil on wood panel depicting St. Jerome in the wilderness, engaging in prayer and penitence, and accompanied by his iconic lion. It dates to somewhere toward the end of the Italian Renaissance, and although reminiscent of the work of artists such as Palma il Giovane (1548-1628), I’m by no means expert enough to make such a firm attribution. It was purchased by a wealthy Pittsburgh manufacturer from a European art dealer about a century ago, and donated to a Rust Belt art museum, which has now deaccessioned it for a hammer price that was no doubt considerably less than what the American collector who brought it across the Atlantic originally paid for it, in today’s dollars.

If our art collecting Northeastern industrialist were alive today, and of course he would not be in heavy industry but in some sort of digital business, the AI portrait sold at Christie’s last week would be exactly the sort of thing that an art advisor would recommend that he purchase. The impetus to acquire however would not be because the art in question was actually any good, but because his owning it would attract the notice of the public and the admiration of his peers. There is no such thing as “bad” publicity, in the present age.

There is a difference here, however, between the world of the early 20th century buyer and that of the early 21st century buyer. While a beautiful image of sacred art is always going to find an audience, so long as there are still Christians who treasure such things, it would surprise me to learn that someone living a century from now would pay the equivalent of nearly half a million dollars for an unremarkable piece of computer art. Perhaps I am wrong about that, of course, but fortunately, I won’t be around to find out.

AIpaint

Da Vinci Delayed: The Art Press Wants Scandal, And Wants It Now

After all the hullabaloo over the sale of Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi” for $450 million at Christie’s New York, as I commented on in The Federalist, speculation immediately turned to who bought it, and what they were going to do with it. In the end, it emerged that the picture had been purchased by the Saudi Minister of Culture, on behalf of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism of Abu Dhabi. The plan was to put the piece on display at the new Louvre Abu Dhabi, which had just opened shortly before the sale.

Originally slated to go on view September 18th, just two weeks prior the Ministry suddenly announced “the postponement of the unveiling,” and that “[m]ore details will be announced soon.” Initial speculation was that the museum wanted to hold off until the 1st anniversary of the opening of Louvre Abu Dhabi on November 11th. Creature of scandal that it (mostly) is however, the art press immediately went into scavenger mode, trying to find any scrap of information or rumor to explain the cause of the delay. It simultaneously began to cast aspersions on a picture which, only a year earlier, commentators had been fawning over, their reviews causing the public to flock to see the panel in droves.

The Art Newspaper, for example, invited “Salvator Mundi” skeptic Matthew Landrus, a Da Vinci expert at Oxford, to flesh out his argument that the painting was not an original piece exclusively from the hand of Leonardo, but rather was created by Leonardo with significant input from one of his best-known studio assistants, Bernardino Luini (c. 1480-1532). If you’ve ever seen his work, Luini gives you an idea, albeit a slightly second-rate idea, of what Leonardo could have done with his talent if he had ever managed to get his act together.

Of course, Landrus was not arguing that Leonardo never touched the painting. Rather, he made a reasoned argument that assistants in Leonardo’s studio played a significant part in the execution of the piece, and he thinks that Luini is one of the more likely candidates. That’s as may be, but this is something of an academic debate, rather than a cause célèbre for the art press to go into a tizzy over.

Then over the weekend, The Guardian published a piece by art critic Jonathan Jones arguing that the real problem with the “Salvator Mundi” was that it had been over-restored. Images of what the painting looked like before it was cleaned and the missing bits filled in are certainly quite shocking to the untrained eye. In its pre-conservation state, it looks as though you just got home from work to find the cat had got at one of your most prized possessions in your absence (and I know whereof I speak.)

Jones believes that the piece should have been left as it was, damage and all. He preferred the panel in its “raw yet beautiful state”, subsequent to the removal of all of the years of dirt and bad restoration work that sat atop the original surface. “Wasn’t that an incredible object in itself?” he asks. To me, this sounds rather like those who argued that the Sistine Chapel should never have been cleaned, because they maintained that Michelangelo’s frescoes looked better when they were covered in dust and soot.

In pursuing these narratives however – assistant work vs. over-restored – the art press needs to tread lightly: as usual, it doesn’t think about the consequences of these particular lines of reasoning.

If you study art history at all, you quickly learn that most highly successful Old Master painters, including not only Leonardo, but other art giants such as Raphael, Rubens, and Titian, had so many commissions to complete that they could not do all of it themselves. Oftentimes, these artists would come up with the design for a picture, and the bulk of it would be painted by their assistants. The boss would come in later to work on specific areas, such as the head, hands, or touch-ups. Moreover, many popular Modern and Contemporary artists, from Andy Warhol to Ai Weiwei, have employed assistants to help bring their works to fruition.

Is the art press really intending to argue that, because assistants participated in the creation of this particular Leonardo, that therefore it’s not really a Leonardo? What would that do to overall buyer and institutional confidence in the Modern and Contemporary Art market, where the use of assistants in generating works of art is heavily practiced? Why, for example, should the city of Paris be paying American Contemporary artist Jeff Koons millions of dollars for a sculpture which he himself only designed, rather than sculpted with his own hands?

As to whether the “Salvator Mundi” was over-restored, here too we find a bit of a slippery slope argument for the art press to ponder. I’m no art restorer, but looking at the piece as it was, and indeed as is pointed out in Jones’ article, there was more than enough left of the original surface for an art restorer to go in and fill in the missing bits. As it happens, in the weeks to come you’ll be seeing a piece from me in The Federalist about a Baroque painting which I’ve just had professionally cleaned and restored, instead of leaving in the grimy, dirty, flaking state in which I found it at auction.

Does the art press want to argue that any work of art which suffers damage should be left in its damaged state? Should we leave some works, such as Velázquez “Rokeby Venus” in the National Gallery in London, which was slashed by a suffragette in 1914, in a damaged state based on the nature of the attack made on them? What about rediscovered works that don’t look so great? Why is it acceptable to take 9 months to a year to clean and restore a painting by crazy-eyed one-trick pony Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1653)? Because that’s who The Guardian is pushing at the moment?

Interestingly, Jones’ pointing out that, prior to restoration, there appeared to be two right thumbs on the hand of Christ goes to my earlier statement regarding the work of the master on the painting. In art history, the term “pentimento” describes changes made by the artist as he is in the process of executing a picture. There are examples of pentimenti (plural) in many famous paintings, most of which are not visible to the naked eye because they get covered up by the artist when the painting is finished. Tthese changes can often be revealed through x-rays and other technology.

As a general rule, pentimenti tend to indicate that the work which one is looking at is the real thing. Copies by assistants don’t have these changes, because they are simply copies of something that already exists; no further changes are needed to the already-set composition. To Landrus’ argument then, the presence of this double thumb would at least tend to show that Leonardo did work on this painting, though how much of it is actually by his direct hand is open to debate.

At the same time, the double thumb pokes holes in Jones’ argument that the painting is over-restored. Leonardo would never have allowed a “raw” painting to leave the studio. Like any artist of his time, he would have intended for the painting to be corrected, and the pentimento covered over, whether by himself or by his assistants. A 15th century Italian or French Renaissance patron would never have accepted a weird, mutant double-thumbed Jesus in their art collection. Not only would such a thing be considered bizarre and unattractive to you as a collector, at a time when perfection and beauty were your life goals – how far we have fallen since – but it might have gotten you in trouble with the Inquisition if they called round.

We don’t know what the holdup is at this point, with respect to putting the “Salvator Mundi” on public display. We do know that, as usual, the art press loves a scandal, and is intent as a British tabloid publisher to create clickbait, even if it turns out that there’s no scandal at all, just an administrative or strategic delay. All we can do now is sit and wait.

Salvator