Sunday, September 11, 2011

Art Month

Gustav Klimt's portrait of Adele Bloch Bauer
was sold in 2006 for $135,000,000, making it,
at the time, the most expensive painting ever to change hands.
Does that make it better than his other portait of her?

With Bouchercon just around the corner and everybody packing and stuff, Leighton suggested we choose one of our favorite earlier posts and flourish it again: sort of a "greatest hits" approach.

But I'm contrary, and anyway I'm in the middle of putting together the September edition of my monthly newsletter, and it occurred to me that the intelligent and discerning readers who hang out here might be interested in the section of the newsletter where I sort of catch up on what I've been reading.  So here it is.

Other People's (Art) Books
It's been art month.  Pretty much everything I've read has been about art, and some of them have been dillies. Here are three I particularly recommend.

Sarah Thornton brings a trained sociologist's eye to the related worlds of art and art commerce.  Over the course of a year, she spent a single day -- after weeks of preparation -- with members of the art world's dominant tribes:  an auctioneer, a dealer, a critic, a classroom in a fine-arts university, the giant art fairs at Basel and Venice, the management of the Tate Gallery, and -- oh, yes, an actual artist.  Out of these sharply observed encounters, Thornton fashions an Impressionistic overview of the global art world, which turns out to be closer to Warren Buffett than La Boheme.  A great read and a fascinating introduction to a world populated in part by folks like the nice couple from Florida who are building a private museum to house their art.

Sociopaths are often interesting, and John Drewe, the subject of this book, is more interesting than most.  Drewe, a con man to his elegantly manicured fingertips, figured out that what makes a fake painting look real is not only the forger's skill, but the picture's provenance -- the paper trail that leads back from the present day to the artist or to an almost unarguable attribution.  Drewe donated tens of thousands of pounds to the archives of the Tate, one of the world's finest, and gained entry to do research there.  His bag was searched each time he left, of course, but Drewe wasn't taking things out; he was putting things in -- items ranging from phony bills of sale to entire forged catalogs of nonexistent exhibitions.  When the provenance accompanying one of his commissioned forgeries led the researcher to the Tate archive, there the evidence was.  And dealers and buyers fell for it, in spite of the fact that Drewe's forger created his masterpieces using ordinary house paint.  A riveting book and a real eye-peeler about "expertise" in the modern world of art.

The Ghent Altarpiece is the masterpiece of Jan Van Eyck, probably the first great oil painting in history, the most influential artwork of its day, and either the last great work of the Middle Ages or the first great work of the Renaissance.

It's packed with enough symbolism to engage the rapt attention of ecclesiastics, historians, iconographers, and crackpots for ages, and it has.  It's reputed to conceal vast and powerful mysteries, if they could only be decoded.  Adolph Hitler, always a sucker for the occult, believed that it contained clues to the location of the Arma Christi, items associated with the Passion of Christ, including the Crown of Thorns.  Possession of the Arma Christi was thought to confer supernatural powers.

Fully open, the Altarpiece's twelve panels stretch more than fourteen feet in width and almost twelve in height.  It weighs, as one scholar says, about as much as two full-grown elephants.

And yet, the Ghent Altarpiece is perhaps the most-frequently stolen artwork in the world.  Even now, one of the panels, "The Just Judges," is missing, replaced by a replica painted in the 1940s.

Noah Charney's book about the Altarpiece and its many thieves is worthy of its subject, and that's saying quite a lot.

Tim -- Sundays


  1. Thank you for bringing these art books to the attention of your faithful followers. PROVENANCE seems especially interesting. It seems like the process of establishing it is like trying to find the birth certificate of someone born in a village in Massachusetts in 1720.

    Interestingly, if you should ever need to do so, getting the equivalent of a birth certificate in Ireland is possible if the place of birth is known. Babies had to be baptized soon after birth and the baptism had to be recorded at the church. Two people couldn't get married in Catholic Ireland unless there was proof they were baptized and, once the marriage took place, the priest who performed the marriage ceremony had to notify the the churches where the baptisms took place. The date and place of marriage was recorded with the record of the baptism. It was a reasonably fool proof method of ensuring that no one could enter into an illicit second marriage. So provenance that the neither person getting wed was hiding another family somewhere.

    I look forward to investigating the three books soon.

  2. The art world is fascinating, and totally removed from my sphere of experience. All I know is museums, and heart breakingly beautiful art works, and how they touch the soul. I don't know if I want to know more about another group of charlatans. The story of the altarpiece is one I would seek out. Now that really touched millions. Safe flights and joy to you, Tim.

  3. Hi, Beth, hi, Lil -- All three books are great reads for different reasons, and so is the one I'm reading right not, THE $12 MILLION STUFFED SHARK, which takes a long, hard, and often puzzled look at how value is established for contemporary art, and who's willing to pay, for example, twelve mil for a big fat shark preserved in formaldehyde by Damien Hirst even when the shark is deteriorating rapidly.

    I love all these books primarily, I think, because our relationship to art is so complicated and there are so many people eager to insinuate themselves into it for fun and profit.