Mar 2, 2012

Van Gogh and the Signs of Spring

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Still Life with a Basket of Crocuses by Van Gogh

Basket of Sprouting Bulbs by Van Gogh

While he would work outdoors when he could, Van Gogh often spent the winter months indoors doing still life paintings and portraits longing for better weather to return. In a letter to his brother Theo from January of 1883, Van Gogh wrote,

“I long for the spring breezes to blow away the weariness from working indoors so long.”
Van Gogh saw the winter months as having the same effect on the poor and working class people as they have on nature. Later that same year on February 8, 1883, Van Gogh wrote the following in a letter to Theo,

“The cycle of the seasons is a thing which is strongly felt by the people. For instance, in a neighbourhood like the Geest and in those courts of almshouses or “homes of charity,” the winter is always a difficult, anxious and oppressive time, and spring is a deliverance.”
In the spring of 1887, Van Gogh captured the signs of spring and new life when he created the following still life paintings of sprouting bulbs. While he is more famous for springtime works like Almond Blossom, these early signs of spring in sprouting bulbs show the renewed sense of life that Van Gogh must have felt after a long winter.




Tangled web hides the truth behind three 'Whiteley' works

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SMH NEWS This is the alleged fake Brett Whiteley bought by Andrew Pridham, titled "Big Blue Lavender Bay 1988". Supplied
Suspect painting ... Big Blue Lavender Bay.

More evidence is emerging in the case of the mysterious trio of allegedly fake Whiteleys, writes Gabriella Coslovich.

NSW POLICE will be asked to investigate an alleged scam involving paintings that appear to have been passed off as the work of the late Australian artist, Brett Whiteley, after two of the buyers compared notes on the almost identical paintings.

One of the buyers, as revealed in the Herald two weeks ago, is Sydney investment banker Andrew Pridham, who is suing Melbourne art dealer Anita Archer who he alleges sold him what he claims is a fake Big Blue Lavender Bay for $2.5 million.

Mr Pridham has had the work tested by the University of Melbourne's forensic art expert, Robyn Sloggett, and alleges it is a fake. The banker also alleges Ms Archer acquired the painting from controversial Melbourne art dealer, the bankrupt Peter Gant.

The other man seeking answers in the case of the problematic Whiteleys is Sydney luxury car dealer Steven Nasteski, who first raised concerns about the paintings in 2010, after buying Orange Lavender Bay for $1.1 million from Melbourne art dealer John Playfoot, who was acting as an agent for Mr Gant.

The emergence of Mr Pridham has buoyed Mr Nasteski's resolve to have the suspect Whiteleys investigated. In his opinion, the paintings are fake. He has vowed to take his case back to the NSW police for investigation.

''It's strength in numbers … I have always been waiting for this guy with the blue fake to get involved. I have been trying to contact him for 18 months. Nobody would tell me who he was,'' said Mr Nasteski, who has been in contact with Mr Pridham's lawyer about the paintings.

''Just because we didn't prosecute a year and a half ago, doesn't mean that we can't do it now. I am picking up all my information in relation to the painting and I will be handing it over to the police.''

Mr Nasteski went to the police in July 2010 after concerns were raised about the painting's authenticity but withdrew his complaint when Mr Playfoot refunded the money.

Mr Nasteski had suspicions that other people had been unwittingly sold problematic Whiteleys because his painting was one of three listed on a consignment note that was faxed to him by Mr Playfoot.

The note is dated June 28, 1988 and consigns three art works to 'Chris Quintas', Whiteley's then studio assistant: Big Blue Lavender Bay, Orange Lavender Bay and Lavender Bay through the Window (which was given to a Melbourne restaurateur by Mr Gant in lieu of debts).

''I have seen the blue fake now and it's very similar to my fake, except it's blue … it's extraordinary how similar they are. One person has painted the lot of them,'' Mr Nasteski said.

A University of Melbourne forensic report into Orange Lavender Bay, commissioned by Mr Nasteski, concludes that the painting, which is signed ''brett whiteley 88'', ''cannot be ascribed to the oeuvre of Brett Whiteley ''without further evidence''.

It finds that the paint does not behave like paint from 1988 and that the painting is likely to be ''less than five years'' old. The report also states that the painting ''does not have the loose, calligraphic, painterly qualities of works of this subject, Sydney Harbour, that are securely attributed to Brett Whiteley'' and that the painting's motifs ''appear to be a pastiche from a number of other Sydney Harbour works that are by Brett Whiteley and have secure provenance''. The report notes that the painting is particularly similar to Whiteley's authentic Big Orange (sunset), from 1974, which is in the collection of the Art Gallery of NSW.

Another concern is a Peter Gant Fine Art exhibition catalogue from 1989, called A Private Affair, that Mr Playfoot gave Mr Nasteski in support of Orange Lavender Bay's provenance - the painting is featured in the catalogue.

But Neil Holland, of Scientific Document Services, who conducted tests on the catalogue, said that in his opinion, ''the catalogue could not have been printed at that time [the late 1980s] because the technology and the resolution [exhibited by the catalogue] just wasn't available at that time''. The origin of the suspect catalogue is unclear.

The case has also entangled high-profile businessman Robert Le Tet, a non-executive director of Village Roadshow. Mr Pridham's court documents allege Ms Archer bought Big Blue Lavender Bay from Mr Le Tet and that the artwork ''had always sat in Robert Le Tet's office in North Sydney''. Mr Pridham alleges in his court documents that Ms Archer told him that Mr Le Tet had purchased Big Blue Lavender Bay directly from Brett Whiteley in 1988.

In her defence document, Ms Archer denies that Big Blue Lavender Bay is a forgery or that she verified the provenance - or history of sale - of the painting. She did not return calls, nor did Mr Le Tet or Mr Gant. Stephen Nall, who was involved in a Victorian Supreme Court case last year against Mr Gant over the sale of three fakes - one purportedly by his stepfather Robert Dickerson - is heartened that Mr Pridham is taking his case to the Supreme Court of NSW.

Mr Nall said it was about time someone had the guts to take the issue on.

''It's something that the arts industry should have done some time ago in an organised fashion. But it appears vested interests make this difficult and that's the reason why new legislation is necessary.''


The week in art

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Julian Bell, Darvaza
Fired up … Darvaza epitomises the arresting vibrancy of Julian Bell's paintings, which marry rich imagination with an unexpected realism.
Exhibition of the week: Dreams of Here
Julian Bell's paintings are fireworks wrapped in brown paper. They are unassuming, but contain luminous wonders. Bell paints what look like meticulous images of real life, from a magazine stand to an English village. In fact, his compositions are imaginary, but the sense of reality is not an illusion. He is a very traditional artist in that he observes nature and the world closely, and his fantastic scenes arise from what he discovers: his skies are real skies, behaving as skies behave.

While David Hockney seduces multitudes with his return to rustic reality at the Royal Academy, so in this exhibition three painters – Tom Hammick and Andrzej Jackowski alongside Bell – affirm the delights of landscape and figuration. Hammick's nocturnes and Matisse-like tapestries of colour are vivid and romantic, and Jackowski's scenes of cruel relationships in small rooms are rats that bite at the skull. Dream (or nightmare) and reality merge for these three artists. But it is Bell who really startles and fascinates me, because he is doing something so deeply original and distinct from fashion.

Bell is also a critic and writer on art, and that may help explain why he can start from a different premise to most of today's artists. He has the intellectual equipment to make decisions about what he does based on on his own beliefs, instead of absorbing the received ideas of art colleges. To do the obvious is now a very sophisticated act.
Not that Bell's paintings are obvious. Beginning in the quotidian, they leap to amazing heights. His scenes are carefully, painstakingly drawn, but what flames them into life is a brilliant painterly feel for colour. He has learned to create almost blinding light effects – a white glow against a pale blue sky, a golden, heavenly newsagent's display, and – most dazzlingly – the flaming gas crater, like an impossible volcano, in his Wright of Derby-like painting Darvaza (2011), which is full of alchemical colour combinations.

Bell is a modern painter. In his 2004 picture Exercises at Imber, tanks aim their guns across a dreamy English landscape. The village nuzzling in a valley is actually an abandoned settlement at the heart of the military zone on Salisbury Plain. But in the painting it looks inhabited, warm and lovely – and archetypally English – as the guns brood over it with monstrous intent.



The Orrery by Joseph Wright of Derby
The figures in Joseph Wright of Derby's The Orrery seem almost literally to be illuminated by knowledge.

Joseph Wright of Derby, The Orrery, 1766, Derby Museum and Art Gallery

Children and adults gaze in wonder at a model of the solar system in brilliant lamplight. The lamp or candle appears to be actually inside the brass astronomical contraption of the orrery, shining out on rapt faces, so it is as if these people are literally being illuminated by knowledge. This is a painting that captures the atmosphere of the Enlightenment, the 18th-century cult of science and reason partly inspired by Isaac Newton. The British scientist and mathematician Newton found calculable laws in the mechanics of the universe, laying the foundations for the Enlightenment belief that science can save the world. Wright's picture is a manifesto for knowledge, a poster for curiosity. Yet it is paired with a more troubling work, Wright's Experiment with a Bird in the Air Pump, which shows a darker side to scientific progress – the domination of nature. Here, by contrast, wonder is truly innocent, and the universe unfolds in the imaginations of people gathered in a Georgian house one evening to travel in space in their minds.


Alighiero Boetti
Global standard … a detail from  Alighiero Boetti's Mappa, part of a new exhibition on the Italian artist at Tate Modern. Photograph: Carl Court/AFP/Getty Images


Painting Through Struggles

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There is something about creating a piece of art — tucked away beneath the concentrated etching of a pencil or the gentle gliding of a paintbrush — that carries the artist to a place of expression, reflection and restoration.

Jesse Fritzsch
Jesse Fritzsch, a studio art major in her junior year at Messiah, plans to pursue a career in art therapy
Junior studio art major Jesse Fritzsch has experience this feeling, and it has inspired her to pursue an uncommon career path for a student at Messiah College: art therapy.

"It's therapy that uses art as a form of expression, ultimately helping people work through their emotions in a different way," Fritzsch said, defining art therapy, a field of study that doesn't appear in Messiah's course catalog.
"A lot of people can't voice what they're feeling," she explained. "Think of kids, for example. Children suffering from trauma often don't know how to vocalize their feelings and work through their problems, but an art therapist can help that child undergo a creative experience to express their emotions."
An art therapist will set out an array of materials, and the patient can choose mediums and colors as they wish.

"It doesn't need to just be two-dimensional mediums like paint and crayons," said Fritzsch. "There might be cotton balls or pipe cleaners in the mix. I've heard about a lot of art therapists who base their projects off of mixed media — encouraging patients to create a piece of art using found or recycled objects."
Of course, there's a method to the madness. Along with the paint palettes and Popsicle sticks, an art therapist will also provide some meaningful guidelines in order to help unravel the patient's feelings.
Fritzsch gave a hypothetical example of a child who recently suffered a death at home. "An art therapist might prompt him to draw a picture of his house," she said. "What he draws or what colors he chooses might reveal his inner emotions."
"He's not thinking, ‘I'm going to draw my house black, because my dad just died,' but an art therapist can see into the drawing."
The child's artwork can then clue the therapist to tailor the guidelines of the next project to help the child express more and more of their inner emotions, and eventually serve as a catalyst for discussion or reflection.
Art therapy isn't just for children, though. Fritzsch said that it can also be beneficial for teenagers or adults suffering from a traumatic experience, struggling with an addiction, or dealing with a disease or disability.
Art therapy doesn't just happen within the quiet office of a clinical practice either. It can be found in the noisy clamor of a hospital building or in the cold, bleak corners of a prison. Many art therapists have brought their talent to other suffering countries, hoping to provide trauma relief with this unconventional method of healing.

According to Fritzsch, an art therapist doesn't need to have personally gone through a traumatic experience in order to relate to patients.

"Art is therapeutic for anyone," Fritzsch said. "It gives you a time to think through the things that are going on in your life … or a time to stop thinking all together and just focus on creating this one new piece of art."

Fritzsch sees that process itself — the process of creating something — as a representation of life and a learning experience for how to deal with it.
"When working on a piece of artwork, there is always a struggling point that I have to pass through in order to come to a satisfactory result," Fritzsch explained. "Art therapy focuses on that process and expressing thoughts through it."
Though Messiah doesn't offer a program on the nitty-gritty of how to do this, Fritzsch is synthesizing what she is learning as a two-dimensional studio art major and a psychology minor.

After she graduates, she plans to pursue a masters in professional studies of art therapy.
"In an art therapy graduate program, there are opportunities in various settings … through internships at hospitals or practices, or even experiences abroad," Fritzsch said.
Working with children is one avenue of art therapy that she is considering right now.
"When I do arts and crafts projects with the kids I babysit, I can always see a string of similarities in the things that they make," Fritzsch said. "I see those similarities in their artwork and what they represent about the kids themselves, and it makes sense to me how art can be used in a therapeutic setting."

However, Fritzsch has also seen the benefits of working with an older generation after recently volunteering with Paxton Ministries, an assisted living home in Harrisburg. "That experience was really rewarding, because the people had so many stories and experiences to share," she said.

Young, old or anywhere in between, Fritzsch is keeping her options open.

"I hope that my internship opportunities in grad school will help me see what works best for me," she said. For now, Fritzsch said she learns what she can about art therapy from reading blogs and research, keeping her passion on fire. 

"Art has helped me a lot throughout my life," said Fritzsch. "Now I want to share that with others." 



The Subtle Art of Investing in Art

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Most people buy art because they love to look at it, but there's always the hope that the payoff will go beyond aesthetics. The prices of photographer Cindy Sherman's works have risen 11-fold in 15 years, according to Artnet, while Gerhard Richter's paintings are 37 times more expensive. Damien Hirst's works are up 22-fold, while works by Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol have both risen 19-fold. 

Investing in the right artist, however, can be a crapshoot, and owning artwork can involve substantial hassles. Many collectors must worry about insurance premiums, art dealers, thieves, taxes and most of all, the fickleness of the art world. 

Cindy Sherman
"Untitled" (1981) by Cindy Sherman sold for $3.9 million at Christie's in New York in 2011. Photograph: Metro Pictures via Bloomberg

 Dorit Straus knows all about these complications from three decades working with collectors at the Chubb Group of Insurance Companies, where she is now the insurer’s worldwide fine art manager.’s Ben Steverman spoke with Straus, an archaeologist by training, about the challenges of owning art. Edited excerpts of their interview follow. 

Is art an asset class like stocks and bonds? 

There is some merit to that line of thought. A lot of people have a large portion of their assets in their art collections and they may not know it. It’s certainly important for financial planners to discuss this issue. 

There are lots of downsides to art as investment. There are costs of maintaining art. The physical condition of your stock or fund doesn’t matter, but you have to make sure your work of art is in pristine condition, particularly in today’s economy. 

My advice to most people: Art is not a commodity. It's an aesthetic object. If it turns out that you have made money on your initial investment, that’s great, but the most important thing is your appreciation of the art. I know that's kind of corny. 

I imagine it's difficult to predict which artworks are going to increase in value. 

Correct, because there’s no one art market. It’s a question of fashion. That’s not to say people haven’t made a lot of money on art. I see it every day looking at the collections we insure. 

Whether you're buying for investment or aesthetic purposes, I recommend people get the advice of art advisers. The art market is capricious and you have to find the right buyer at the right time. A lot of our clients -- major collectors -- put works up for sale and they don’t sell. These are good works of art. 

Art advisers and art dealers do establish a market. I don’t know about the idea that people, on their own, are discovering new artists in the hope those artists will turn into the next Damien Hirst. You may not be able to unload it at all. 

What do art collectors need to know when it comes to protecting their works? 

Insurance is not all about price. It’s about terms and conditions. Look at the financial strength of the companies. What is the track record of that insurance company and how do they pay claims? 

The insurance company can be very helpful to you. We have as much of an interest in protecting the art as the owner. It’s good for the client to have the company come in and look at how the art is protected in your home.
Also, when you’re moving art between homes or selling it, improper packing can result in damage. We’d rather help you deal with that by directing people to the right packers and shippers.

[Chubb and other insurers sell special art policies because basic homeowners' insurance usually covers just $1,000 to $2,000 in art, with added coverage available for up to $200,000 per item, according to the Insurance Information Institute. Homeowners' policies generally won't provide extra services offered in special policies, including advice on storage, coverage of appreciation or loss in value of the art, and damage caused by earthquakes, floods and transportation of pieces.] 

Water damage is something most people don't think of. You read a lot about heists. What you don’t read in the paper is when a penthouse roof is inundated with water, which seeps into the walls and a beautiful painting is turned into mush. You have all sorts of situations involving weather. The climate has changed. Fires are a big cause of loss. We have a special program for wildfire protection.

How have the economic disruptions of the last few years affected the art market? 

In 2009 and most of 2010, people were not buying and selling in the open market. People were afraid to put things up for auction because if it didn’t sell, it would mar the salability of the item. A lot of these deals were done more privately. 

Eventually things did turn around. The contemporary art market is rebounding at the top level. You’ve had an international influx of people with a lot of money -- the Russians, the Chinese and other Far Eastern people. 

There are still a lot of things that are not selling. The middle and lower market is still tough. 

Owning art can complicate estate planning. Do you have any advice? 

I would suggest a really good inventory. Bring in an outside expert like an appraiser. Valuations may fluctuate. You may have three children that have gotten paintings of unequal value, and that might create a dispute within the family. 

The tax implications are definitely something to think about. Art is not taxed at the [low] 15 percent capital gains rate, so I'd suggest one find an estate attorney that knows about tax rules and art. See whether it's important to set up some sort of foundation or trust. 

The other thing to think about is whether any philanthropy should be included in the estate planning. Understand that every cultural institution has a different mission. Your painting may not be what that institution wants. 



Spencer Finch aims to unite a master’s eye with high jinks

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The impossibility of making art

A detail of “Walden Pond (Morning Effect, March 13, 2007).’’
courtesy of the artist: A detail of “Walden Pond (Morning Effect, March 13, 2007).’’

Marcel Duchamp. Gerhard Richter. Maybe Gabriel Orozco and Olafur Eliasson: These are the sorts of names you might expect a contemporary artist on the make to drop when listing influences and inspirations. Not too many contemporary artists, however, claim Claude Monet as an abiding influence.

To his credit, Spencer Finch does. His show, “Painting Air,’’ which opened last week at the Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, reveals a deep debt to the bearded old Impressionist, beloved by the hoards, yawned at by the eye-rolling in-crowd. 

Finch, who was born in New Haven in 1962, made a copy of Monet’s “The Basin at Argenteuil’’ when he was a student at RISD in 1988 (it’s on show here a few feet from the real thing), and he has been thinking about Monet ever since.


Admittedly, there’s also a bit of Duchamp and Richter, a lot of Orozco, even more Eliasson, and a great deal of Roni Horn (who taught him at RISD) in evidence in Finch’s work. But as an influence and, what’s more, a generator of ideas, Monet trumps them all - belying Cezanne’s description of him as “only an eye, but my God, what an eye’’ and reminding us that there was an intelligence in Monet’s adamantly optical approach.

In an interview published in a brochure accompanying the show, Finch claims to see Monet’s serial work as an attempt “to capture something - a place, a moment, an impression, a light condition - and by repeatedly returning to it to get closer to its essence, while at the same time admitting the impossibility of doing so.

“That impossibility,’’ he continues “is interesting to me - the impossibility of representation, the impossibility of communication, the impossibility of making art to a certain degree.’’

Spencer Finch’s “8456 Shades of Blue (After Hume).’’

Spencer Finch’s “8456 Shades of Blue (After Hume).’’ 

Most of the works in Finch’s show - photographs, collages, installations, paintings and drawings - riff on this impossibility, and especially on the perceived absurdity of making art. 

As such, they constitute an unlikely attempt at uniting the retinal art of Monet with the anti-retinal high jinks of Duchamp.

The attempt doesn’t really come off. Finch is extremely engaging in interview; less so in the work showing here, which is smart enough but curiously bloodless, like a technically brilliant actor who knows all the lines and has all the moves but fails to convince. Or like Mitt Romney.

Three works, which perfectly illustrate his attempt to synthesize Impressionism and the Duchampian absurd, give a good idea of the problem. One is called “Nine Melting Snowflakes.’’ It’s a framed piece of paper on which nine snowflakes landed and melted on the last day of 2008. They left no trace, of course. Only Finch’s archly nonchalant handwriting at the bottom of the sheet describes what we are looking at.

Similarly, two almost identical works made six minutes apart earlier that year in New Zealand are described in their titles as “Particle of Dust Floating in a Shaft of Sunlight.’’ Again, no visible trace.

Which is all well and good. But hasn’t one seen dozens of similar gestures, carried off with considerably more chutzpah, by countless predecessors going back half a century and more - from Yves Klein, who offered empty spaces in exchange for gold (calling them “Zones of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility’’), and Piero Manzoni, who sold his own breath in the form of inflated balloons, to Orozco, whose “Breath on Piano’’ is a photograph of the artist’s own breath fogging up the surface of a piano, and whose “Extension of Reflection’’ is a photograph of the ripples in a puddle of water caused by a passing bicycle?

Without adding a great deal to any of them, Finch follows these interlinking paths in other works here: “Taxonomy of Clouds,’’ for instance, is a series of 17 photographs of clouds reflected in puddles. “Thank You, Fog’’ is a series of 60 small photographs of fog encroaching on a forest. 

These last, at least, are extremely beautiful. And they speak to Monet’s project of painting the same views in different light conditions (which has inspired not just Finch but literally thousands of subsequent painters and photographers). The gradual revelation of leafy detail as the fog disperses and thickens and the small format of the images combine to draw you in physically.

The series is not tremendously original. But it conjures some of the magic of early photography, with its exquisite tension between images that reveal a literal trace of reality and a conflicting sense that, because of time’s onward march, this reality is always disappearing (for which the obscuring fog becomes a metaphor).

Another work, “Walden Pond (Morning Effect, March 13, 2007),’’ is a collage of postcards of Impressionist paintings formed into the shape of Walden Pond. Finch has scrawled notes on the postcards, indicating how he has aligned colors in the reproduced paintings with actual colors he saw at the pond, made famous by Thoreau. 

The idea of applying prepackaged kitsch, in the form of Impressionist postcards, to Transcendentalist mythology (which in these parts amounts to its own kind of kitsch) is brilliant, in its way. But all the scrawled notes make the work feel neurotic and fussy, with too many stray bits, like the ends of a fraying shoelace.

Another piece, channeling Horn (who loves ice, and Iceland, too) and Eliasson (who has worked wonders with fog, ice, and waterfalls) is essentially an ice-making machine. It dispenses blocks of ice into a slightly sloping funnel, where they melt and drip into a shallow pool of mesmerizing blue. The overflow is pumped back into the ice-making machine, where the process begins again. 

The piece is Finch’s attempt to recall impressions of glaciers in New Zealand. The blue is transfixing. But the whole thing feels like a lot of trouble for a relatively small payoff. 

Some might feel the same way about the show’s major piece, “Painting Air,’’ an installation of hanging panes of glass rotating in the air currents. Depending on their and your position at any given moment, each pane either reflects the light coming off the colored walls (greens, blues, and yellows) and through the window, or lets it through. 

In a sense, it doesn’t amount to much. But the longer I spent with it, the more this uncontrolled dance between reflection and transparency beguiled me. It was like an optical version of wind chimes - a sort of sonorous futility, an ungraspable loveliness. And as such it distilled Finch’s wider themes: natural beauty, chance, the impossibility of capturing the ever shifting essence of things. 

In the adjacent gallery, part two of the show, Finch has been invited to act as curator, choosing around 60 works from the museum’s remarkable permanent collection and hanging them according to themes that speak to him (or, in some cases, according to sheer whim). 

The result is extremely lively. A section called “Tonalism,’’ for instance, includes unexpected works by Whistler, Julia Margaret Cameron, Robert Ryman, Bruce Nauman, and Andre Derain, as well as Georges Seurat’s unforgettable conte-crayon study of a monkey. 

Another section on Op Art has works by Bridget Riley and Victor Vasarely. There are studies of clouds by Constable and William Leighton Leitch, and evocative pairings of artworks with objects, such as an abstract drawing of thin, ropy black lines on white by Willem de Kooning alongside a very loosely woven Peruvian textile.
In many ways, the selection functions as an appendix or glossary to Finch’s show. But it doesn’t force connections. One part of the display, for instance, is simply a selection of miscellaneous work that was made around 1972. 

As a curator, Finch’s touch is light, modest, full of visual curiosity and glimmers of humor. As an artist, he has all these attractive qualities. He could only do with a little more oomph.



Mar 1, 2012

Leonardo’s assistant probably painted the Prado’s Mona Lisa

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Mona Lisa

The Prado’s copy of the Mona Lisa was most likely painted by Salaì, Leonardo’s assistant. Salaì, whose nickname means “little Satan”, joined his master’s studio in 1490, at the age of ten, and worked with him until Leonardo’s death. 

Giorgio Vasari, the mid-16th century art historian, described Salaì as “a graceful and beautiful youth with curly hair, in which Leonardo greatly delighted”. It has long been believed that Salaì and Leonardo were close friends, although there is no firm evidence.

The identity of the studio assistant who painted the Prado’s copy of the Mona Lisa is still being investigated, but Salaì (whose real name was Gian Giacomo Caprotti) has now emerged as the top contender. On 21 February, the newly-restored copy of the Mona Lisa, done side-by-side with Leonardo’s original in his studio, was unveiled in Madrid. The Louvre dates the original to about 1503-06.

If it is confirmed that Salaì was the copyist of the Mona Lisa, then it is unlikely that he once owned the original, as has previously been assumed. The Louvre would then have to reassess the early history of the world’s most famous painting.

In attempting to identify the copyist, curators at the Prado began by eliminating pupils and associates such as Boltraffio, Marco d’Oggiono and Ambrogio de Predis—since they each have their own individual styles. They also eliminated two Spanish followers of Leonardo, Fernando Yáñez and Fernando de Llanos, whose work is distinctively Valencian.

Miguel Falomir, the head of Italian paintings at the Prado, now believes that the copy of the Mona Lisa “can be stylistically located in a Milanese context close to Salaì or possibly Francesco Melzi”. Melzi was an assistant who joined Leonardo’s studio in around 1507, but the Prado’s copy may well have been started earlier. Of the two, Salaì now seems the most likely.

Bruno Mottin, the head curator at the Centre de Recherche et de Restauration des Musées de France (based at the Louvre), concurs. He believes that Melzi is less likely, and although Salaì’s style remains obscure, he is the most likely candidate.

Little Satan

Salaì’s nickname came from his behaviour. Leonardo described him as “a liar, a thief”, but admired his artistic talent. There are very few works which have been attributed to Salaì, although a Salvator Mundi signed by him was sold at Sotheby’s on 25 January 2007. The St John the Baptist at the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana in Milan, a variant of Leonardo’s picture now in the Louvre, has also been said to be by Salaì.

A third painting, in America, is now also being currently reattributed to the Workshop of Leonardo and Salaì. It is a copy of The Virgin and Child with St Anne (original in the Louvre, 1503-19), in the collection of the Hammer Museum, University of California, Los Angeles. This copy will be shown at the Louvre’s forthcoming Leonardo exhibition (29 March-25 June).

On Leonardo’s death in 1519, Salaì is thought to have inherited some of his master’s paintings as well as part of his vinyard. Salaì died a violent death five years later, from stab wounds. In 1991, an inventory was discovered which showed that he had left a painting known as “La Joconda”, an obvious reference to the sitter, Lisa del Giocondo. It was valued at 100 ducats. 

Until now, it has been assumed that Salaì must have inherited Leonardo’s original of the Mona Lisa, which was acquired by the French King, François I. However, if the Prado’s copy was done by Salaì, then it suggests that the Mona Lisa he owned (and possibly some of his other “Leonardos”) were actually versions he had made. This would mean that Salaì had not inherited the original of the Mona Lisa, so its early provenance will now have to be completely rethought.

Interestingly, Vasari reported that “some of the works attributed to Salaì in Milan were retouched by Leonardo”. Although so far, there has been no serious proposal that Leonardo’s hand can be seen in the Prado version of the Mona Lisa, Vasari’s comment does suggest that Salaì had made copies of his works.

Journey to Spain

Although Salaì had moved to France with Leonardo in 1516, he returned to Milan on his master’s death. How then did the Prado’s copy of the Mona Lisa reach Madrid?

Falomir proposes that there are two possible routes. The first is with a Spanish governor or administrator who had been sent to Lombardy, which was then ruled by Spain. An obvious candidate would be the Marquis of Leganés, who became the governor in Milan in 1635. He was one of the greatest art collectors of his day, amassing over 1,000 pictures. The marquis died in 1655 and some of his works ended up in the Spanish royal collection and eventually the Prado.

The second suggestion is that the copy of the Mona Lisa could have been bought by the sculptor Pompeo Leoni, who was born in Venice and worked in Milan and then mainly in Madrid. He was an avid collector and owned important works of art and manuscripts by Leonardo. Although a Mona Lisa is not recorded in his estate inventories, following his death in Madrid in 1608, it is possible that he had brought the copy to Spain, but disposed of it before he died.

So far, the earliest accepted reference to the Madrid copy of the Mona Lisa is a “female portrait by Leonardo”, which in 1666 was hanging in the Galleria de Mediodía of Alcázar Palace. The Prado’s director of collections Gabriele Finaldi remains hopeful that further archival research will reveal more about the mysterious past of the museum’s copy. And if Salaì’s authorship is accepted, then it will be necessary to reconsider the early provenance of the original of the Mona Lisa—how did it reach King François I, who hung it in his palace in Fontainebleau in the early 1540s?