The curious world of George Stubbs, horse whisperer

Milton Keynes used to be mocked for its concrete cows and empty boulevards. Now it is one of the fastest growing towns in England and boasts an admirable gallery displaying not cows by the glorious horses of George Stubbs. Not be missed.

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Latent Orient

Brilliant headline from the New European to go with this piece about show at the British Museum on oriental art.

Colonial baggage is not the only take away from western depictions of the east

Frederick Bridgman The Prayer

Frederick Bridgman The Prayer

PUBLISHED: 16:26 30 October 2019

Western artistic depictions of the East come freighted with colonial baggage. But they also show a powerful, inquisitive passion for another world as RICHARD HOLLEDGE reports

A group of men are gathered around a coffee shop in the ancient city of Jaffa. They sit, they stand, they gossip. The convivial moment was captured in a watercolour by the artist David Roberts in 1839 and is one of many scenes of everyday - but exotic - life featured in the British Museum's new exhibition: Inspired by the east: how the Islamic world influenced western art.

As the title suggests, the exhibition attempts to redress perceptions of the east as represented by 19th century artists like Roberts by demonstrating how design, ceramics and fashion in Europe were, in fact, influenced by eastern craftsmen over 500 years.

It also provokes discussion about the meaning of Orientalism. In 1812 the poet Byron defined an orientalist as someone who was an expert in the languages, history and philosophy of the east. During the 19th century Orientalism had become an art movement with western artists visiting the Middle East and North Africa in great numbers and producing studies of a strangely foreign culture in engaging, figurative works bursting with colour and energy.

This imagery - or the putative meaning behind it - was challenged by the Palestinian-American academic Edward Said in his 1978 book Orientalism in which he argued that such portrayals were symptomatic of a colonial view of the east, a lazy stereotyping of an inferior people with a culture that was backward and dangerous.

He argued that many western governments felt they had the right to decide what happened in the east - as if the entire population could be "shaken up like peanuts in a jar".

He wrote: "In the process, the uncountable sediments of history, a dizzying variety of peoples, languages, experiences and cultures, are swept aside or ignored, relegated to the sand heap along with the treasures ground into meaningless fragments..."

Of course, that 20th century perspective would have been incomprehensible to Victorians who would indeed have reckoned that not only did Britannia rule the waves and hold sway in the Middle East but had every right to do so.

That attitude of effortless superiority can be summed up with one of the smallest exhibits, that of an 1817 music sheet for a burlesque performance entitled Their Customs are Very Peculiar.

Take the Roberts water colour. The Victorian art lover would have taken the scene on face value, an attractive glimpse of an alien world, but a quote from the text accompanying the work reads: "Wherever there are pipes, coffees and Mussulmans, it is the resort of the idler."

That would have been accepted with complacent acquiescence by 19th century Europeans but today it would be considered a patronising sneer and one that supports Said's argument.

Debunking such stereotypes is at the heart of the exhibition, which is a collaboration with the Kuala Lumpur-based Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia (IAMM).

A map of the Bosphorous Straits which separate Europe from Asia at Istanbul is dated from 1588 and with its references to other states and distant peoples is a reminder that for centuries both the Safavid empire in Iran (1502-1736) and the Ottomans who dominated the region for 600 years until 1922 were at least as powerful as their western counterparts.

Inevitably, examples of sophisticated design and radiant craftsmanship made their way from east to west, such as ceramics from Iznik, in Turkey, which European artisans did their best to emulate. A plate produced in Veneto, Italy, in 1600 pales into lacklustre mediocrity compared with the original from the same period with its a floral pattern ablaze with vivid blues and golds.

The influence of the Ottoman craftsmen was acknowledged by leading French ceramist Théodore Deck who copied a plate from about 1530-40 in ravishing colours and almost matched it for quality. Almost. One can only marvel at the translucent quality of a mosque lamp from the northern Indian Mamluk dynasty with its gilded and enamelled glass, or the deep cerulean of a Safavid vase. No wonder they were in such demand and how eagerly they were imitated.

Wall tiles inspired by Islamic patterns and calligraphy became hugely popular in the Europe and North America of the 19th century. Perhaps the best-known examples of their use can be found in Leighton House, London, where tiles with turquoise flowers and birds etched around with Arabic script line the walls of the Arab Hall. Many were purchased by the House's owner, the artist Sir Frederic Leighton, during his travels in Cairo and Damascus and the rest were faithfully copied by ceramicist William de Morgan to create a house as "beautiful as a poet's dream".

Tiles decorated the smoking rooms and steam baths of the wealthy in Victorian England - later, they were even fitted on the Titanic - and inspired the decor of the Great Exhibition of 1851, which was coloured in primary shades of red, yellow and blue in a nod to the Moorish palette displayed in Granada's Alhambra.

Islamic crafts were all the rage at the Exhibition, with jugs, pots and filigreed jewellery catching the eye and wall hangings which were judged to be in "the gorgeous taste of Persia". Meanwhile across Europe the demand for Iznik faience ware in plates and vases boomed and the well-to-do lusted after silks from Safavid Persia to use in carpets and clothing.

In 18th century France purses made out of 100-year-old silk were turned into elegant embroidered fashion accessories. No high society lady could be without one.

Fascinating costume books from Turkey by European and local artists not only entranced the fashion conscious west but also revealed a society of some sophistication.

They were often used as aids by the artists who only fleetingly visited the east - if at all. Delacroix, who restricted his visits to Algeria, often relied on them for his sketches and the elegant robes worn by Cesare dell'Acqua's soulful harem woman (Oriental Woman Burning incense) were most likely copied in the comfort of his Brussels studio.

Most, however, did make the journey and spent time in Egypt, Tangiers and Morocco in order to understand their subject, and the results are works vibrant with colour and detailed observation which conjure up an idealised world where poverty and hardship rarely spoils the view.

Perhaps best known is John Frederick Lewis, who lived in Cairo and adopted the dress and customs of the Egyptians. His friend, the novelist William Thackeray, declared the artist was enjoying a life of "Arabian Nights glamour ... a dreamy, hazy, lazy, tobaccofied life".

His portraits of Arab chiefs, a stoic market stall owner, and A Mamlook Bey, a portrait of a desert warrior, are among the most striking, not least, for their authentic appearance.

But they are not what they seem. The characters in the Lewis painting are, in fact, self portraits. He is the stall holder, the warrior prince. What is one to make of that? Is it an example of western superiority, does he consider himself better suited to the role than an actual Egyptian or, rather, is he eager to prove he embraced both sides of the cultural divide?

Perhaps, more prosaically, he wanted to save on the cost of models.

What he did share with his fellow Orientalists was quite simply the passion to portray this world of endless fascination with as much verve as they could muster.

The British Museum exhibition has devoted one wall to paintings divided into religious works, street scenes and military figures.

The Hajj by Alfred Dehodencq is a tumultuous scene of pilgrims heading for Mecca with drums beating and cymbals clashing as they stumble along the shores of the Red Sea with their camels and horses and flags held high.

Altogether quieter, In The Madrasa by the Austrian Ludwig Deutsch shows children undergoing their religious education while the Swiss Otto Pilny captures the rawness of the desert with tribesmen on their knees in Evening Prayers in the Desert.

Frederick Bridgman, improbably a native of Alabama, USA, movingly captures a private moment in the mosque in The Prayer. The worshipper, hands apart in supplication, eyes raised beseechingly, stands out from the deep shadows in what is an intense expression of faith, painted with respect and emotion.

Bridgman was a stickler for detail. The man has followed the custom by removing his shoes and, as Bridgman wrote, "the soles of which are put together in order that the profane dust of the street shall not contaminate the sacred precincts".

He disapproved of those who failed to show the same respect. "A French officer in top-boots once showed me a mosque, walking about as if the place belonged to him, and told me to keep on my shoes."

No hint of patronising imperialism here.

Arab Warriors by the German Christian Schreyer has armed horsemen so vigorous they seem about to stampede off the gallery wall in a flurry of heat and dust while The Guard by the Spaniard Antonio Maria Fabrés y Costa is a tremendous character framed by guns and swords. Not a man to cross.

It is the street scenes of ordinary folk, the world of mosques and markets, that bring the Orient of the 19th century alive. The fine detail of The Pottery Seller by Alphons Mielich illuminates the busyness of market day; The Dice Players by Rudolf Weisse is photographic in its minutiae.

Jean-Léon Gérome's bucolic scene of husband and wife in Egypt perched comfortably on their cart as the oxen tramp around threshing the corn is highly idealised with bright yellow corn and just a fleck of cloud to disturb the clear skies. It is an idyllic scene free from drudgery, but here's what a contemporary writer and photographer had to say about scenes like this, quoting an Ottoman official: "The peasant is a bit less than an animal; a bit more than a plant."

Grist to Edward Said's mill; as was the portrayal of the harem, catnip to the artist as an excuse to paint women in various states of undress and boost their earnings by producing languorous soft porn for Victorian gentlemen.

The examples on show are all very decorous. The Hhareem by Lewis depicts a new slave from Ethiopia being presented to the pasha in his luxurious dwelling to see if she is a worthy addition to his collection of concubines, but there is nothing more racy than a bare shoulder.

As a corrective to the representation of women which, harem apart, is non-existent in this collection, works by three contemporary female artists round off the exhibition. Shirin Neshat, an Iranian-American artist addresses oppression in her home country in Women of Allah and a photographic triptych by the Moroccan Lalla Essaydi, The Women of Morocco, challenges 19th century perceptions of women such as a Delacroix sketch of a harem, Women of Algiers in their Apartment.

Boldest of all, Raeda Saadeh, challenges the dystopia of Middle East politics head on in Who Will Make Me Real? by wrapping herself in copies of a Palestinian newspaper which carries stories about the region's endless conflict.

A necessary balance perhaps to answer the perceived institutionalised imperialism of the 19th century artists, but not one that compares like with like, era with era. With hindsight, perhaps the Orientalist painters did stereotype eastern culture but what cannot be taken away from them is not just their virtuosity but their genuine curiosity and passion for a world they captured in all its richness.

Inspired by the east: how the Islamic world influenced western art runs at the British Museum until January 26

The Hajj, Alfred Deohodencq

The Hajj, Alfred Deohodencq

Ludwig Deutsch's 'In the Madrasa', 1890.

Ludwig Deutsch's 'In the Madrasa', 1890.

This is really torturing - the pain and shame of Korea's DMZ

One of the oddest tourist attractions - maybe in the world - is the Demilitarised Zone - the DMZ - which separates North and South Korea. Thousand flock from Seoul to peer over across the pleasant hills beyond. They see no sign of peril - but it lurks.

I found the whole experience beyond bizarre when I visited a few years ago - but I didn’t buy a tee shirt.

Read more in this piece in the New European -

One of Kyungah-Ham’s fabulous chandeliers

One of Kyungah-Ham’s fabulous chandeliers

Embrace by Joung-Ki Min

Embrace by Joung-Ki Min

Heinkuhn OH,  A soldier standing on the water,

Heinkuhn OH, A soldier standing on the water,

Make or rake

Things you find out… an outfit called Muck Rack lists the work of journalists Me included. Goes back four years. If you have the energy google my name and Muck Rack

Art of a state

Tate Modern gets most of its publicity from blockbusters so a relatively unheralded - and free - exhibition on the art of Weimar Germany was a refreshing, and bracing change. One of the great - and relatively unheralded - things about the New European are the art pages which are an exuberant of random but always interesting subjects. Hence this:

But as they rarely show complete arts stories on their site here it is:

For the poet Stephen Spender 1929 was the last year of that ‘strange Indian Summer - the Weimar Republic.’ He had revelled in the decadence of Berlin, living it up with the likes of writer Christopher Isherwood and the poet W.H. Auden and to them Germany was a paradise where there was no censorship and ‘young Germans enjoyed extraordinary freedom in their lives.’

A new exhibition at Tate Modern entitled “Magic Realism, Art in Weimar Germany 1919-1933” (until July 14, 2019) celebrates that freedom in what, far from a paradise, was a time of tortured creativity, a world disfigured by pain, perversion, rage and disgust.

Look no further than George Grosz and his disquieting work “Suicide” (1916). A man has shot himself and is sprawled on the ground grinning obscenely in his death throes. Dogs roam past, shadowy figures scuttle into the dark, another corpse hangs from a lamp post. But the world goes on its corrupt and heartless way; a harridan of a prostitute, red lips and rouged nipples looks on, indifferent to the death and her own degradation as she waits for custom.

“Suicide” is one of 70 works on display, most owned by Greek shipping magnate George Economou, which were born out of the turmoil of Germany’s Weimar Republic, which lasted from the end of World War One to Hitler’s rise to power as Chancellor in 1933. 

It was a time of upheaval. The Bolsheviks had seized control in Russia, the Austro-Hungary Empire had been dismembered. Germany was hamstrung by punitive reparations imposed by the allies, industry was hit by strikes, unemployment was high and inflation higher. In 1922, a loaf of bread cost 163 marks, one year later it cost two hundred billion. (corr).

Out of this chaos emerged thinkers, artists and provocateurs including German historian, photographer, and art critic Franz Roh, who in 1925 coined the phrase Magic Realism, long before the magical realism of the South American writers. 

He wrote: “To depict realistically is not to portray or to copy but rather to build rigorously to construct objects that exist in the world in their particular primordial shape.

“For the new art it is a question of representing in an intuitive way the fact, the interior figure of the exterior world.”

As definitions go it is pretty impenetrable. A little clearer were the aims of the New Naturalism (Neue Sachlichkeit) which sprung up around the same time and divided into the artists who took actual things from the world of real events and classicists who ‘search for timelessly valid object to realise in art the eternal valid laws of existence.’

Roh was influenced by Freud who had just published “The Uncanny” (Das Unheimliche) in which he examined the experience of perceiving a familiar object or a person in a strange situation with unsettling results.

Unsettling it is. Disturbing and destructive too. As Grosz wrote: “In this faithless and material time one should use paper and slate to show people the devilish mug concealed in their own faces. Let us tear down the storehouse of ready mades and all the manufactured junk and show the ghostly nothing behind them.”

A similar nihilism gripped his contemporary Otto Dix (1891-1969) who like Grosz (1893-1959) served in the trenches. Grosz suffered a breakdown and was admitted to a military mental asylum where doctors declared him unfit for service on grounds of insanity while Dix fought on the Western Front and won the Iron Cross. Utterly disillusioned Dix captured his experiences in a series of etchings entitled “Der Krieg” (The War), a savage denunciation of the conflict with unrelenting depictions of the dead, the dying and the shell-shocked, the shattered landscapes and the graves.

Surprisingly perhaps they were drawn after a 1922 series on the circus which greet the visitor to the exhibition. These are not the happy-go- lucky images one might expect. His circus is peopled by the grim and the bizarre.

The couple in “Scorners of Death” with their jaws clamped in tension are like living skulls, “Lily Queen of the Air” is demonic, in “The Illusion Act” a woman’s head on a spider’s body dances between a skeleton and a circus master. Another entitled “Sketch” has a grotesquely grinning dwarf apparently shooting at a globe while a lanky performer is impaled by an axe and giant screw. 

Everyone is ugly. Who, or what, is about to feel the lash of the whip brandished by the “Tamer” with her hard face, and stunted body? This is a world of the degenerate and the misfit, where the exotic and the permissive is the norm. 

It is a society too which had a gruesome, often misogynistic, fascination for killings with the newspapers dwelling enthusiastically on the latest atrocity. In ‘Dix’s “Lust Murder” the killer laughs  manically as his victim, a woman, lies spreadeagled by her bed, naked and bloody.

It is hard not to think that work like that owes as much to the predilections of the artist as the  pressures of the time. 

There is a definite undertone of fetishism in Rudolf Schlichter’s “The Artist with Two Hanged Women.”. The fact that he puts an artist  - maybe even Schlicter himself - in the frame suggests an unhealthy fascination for degrading women, and indeed for some years the artist earned his living from drawing and selling pornography. 

The Tate thought long and hard about even including the painting in the exhibition but decided to acknowledge that it reflected the artist’s attitude towards women however shocking.

Intriguingly in the next room “Lady with Red Scarf” is a striking portrait of the artist’s wife Evie, hands across her body staring boldly out of the picture. It looks a straight-forward enough image but one has to take a second look when it is revealed that she apparently indulged his various fetishes. Is her gaze bold or is it fearful? Complicit?

What to make of “Conversation about a Paragraph” by Richard Müller? He specialised in exotic nudes, often attended by alien creatures, and here two naked women, one seated wearing only a hat, the other sprawled on a bed with what could be the tattoo of an apple peeping from her nether regions. An angel, painted many years later in the Sixties, flutters by.

Perhaps this meets the Magic Realism label as well as any. It is certainly mystifying but it is also grounded in a political issue of the day. The small symbol for a paragraph hovers in the air between the women. It refers to paragraph 218 in German the constitution which at the time was debating women’s rights to abortion. 

Social issues, politics are all entwined with the hedonistic life immortalised by Christopher Isherwood in his 1939 novel “Goodbye to Berlin” which inspired the film Cabaret many years later in 1972. It captured a breathless dash for pleasure, drink, cocaine, crime and casual sex enjoyed perhaps by the “Girl with Pink Hat” (1925) by Hans Grundig with her smudged make up, heavy mascara and red lips. Judging by her basilisk gaze she doesn’t seem to have enjoyed herself very much  - or maybe she enjoyed herself too much.

Her bleakness is shared by the characters in the works of  Jeanne Mammen, who worked for satirical and fashion magazines. Maybe that’s what helped her portray the emptiness behind the glitter of the cabaret in “At the Shooting Gallery,”and “Boring Dolls,” young women who treat the world with a sardonic mix of nonchalance and boredom. Three prostitutes in “Brüderstrasse (Free Room) stand by a doorway with the sign Zimmer Frei register nothing but indifference and contempt for their potential clients. 

“Come to the cabaret, old chum,” sang Sally Bowles in the film - but she might have added: “Don’t expect to enjoy yourselves.”

From that jaded party it is quite a leap to the intense religious works of Albert Birkle. 

Religion was not seen as being an important part of Roh’s vision but one of Germany’s most sacred paintings Matthias Grünewlad’s “Isenheim Altarpiece” (c 1512-16) had been moved in 1917 from war torn Alsace for safety and had become an object of pilgrimage.

It inspired Birkle, only 21, who also saw active service, to produce a series of tortured images such as the “Crucifixion” and “The Hermit,” both cries of anguish for the lost souls of the war and, perhaps, a means to find a salve for the confusion of the times.

This hurly-burly of creative discord came to an abrupt end with Hitler’s rise to power. Degenerate art was banned, several of the artists fled. Grosz, for example, was charged with making pornographic images and dubbed ‘Cultural Bolshevist Number One’ but even Hitler’s ruthless purge could not destroy all the works.

In his wonderfully original show “Weimar” about the music of the period, which is on at London’s Barbican Centre, Barry Humphries recalls visiting an exhibition of German degenerate art with David Hockney.

“Why had so many pictures survived the Holocaust?” he wondered.

“Because somebody loved them,” replied Hockney.

Actually they are hard to love but it is impossible not to admire their dark audacity. 

Suicide by Grosz

Suicide by Grosz

Dix’s circus

Dix’s circus

Brazil, World War ll and painters

This was one of the more unusual exhibitions of the year. It appeared in the New European 


In November 1944 Brazilian troops joined a US force to attack the Italian redoubt of Monte Castello, 40 miles south west of Bologna.

    The same month, on November 23, an exhibition of Brazilian modernist art defied Hitler’s V2 rockets to open at London’s Royal Academy.

    Two extraordinary events that history has passed by but which are being saluted in an exhibition in London - The Art of Diplomacy: BraziIian Modernism Painted for War.

    Few will be aware that Brazil joined the war, let alone sent almost 26,000 troops and airmen to Europe as well as playing a role in the Battle of the Atlantic where nearly 1,600 died.  

    As for the show it scarcely warrants a footnote in the RA’s records. 

    Now thanks to three years of research by Hayle Gadelha, Brazil’s Cultural Attaché in London, paintings by 20 of the artists have been traced and are being displayed at the embassy. 

    “I heard about the story in my first week in London three half years ago,” says Gadelha. “I started research at the RA but no one had heard of it there. Eventually we found a few short footnotes about the exhibition in the Academy records and an original catalogue.

    “When I saw that the artists who had taken part would today be acclaimed as part of the second generation of Brazilian modernists I realised it was too important to ignore. It was a big story. 

    “I have tried to interpret it as a grand strategy of diplomacy. Very few people knew Brazil had joined the war because it wanted to project an image of a country which was on the side of western democracy not just by sending troops but also with the cultural diplomacy of the exhibition.”

    The main function of the 1944 exhibition was to raise funds for the RAF which was much admired by Brazil society and by the country’s best known artists. 

    Brazil’s Foreign Secretary Osvaldo Aranha said at the time: “It is fair that the artists join with their works of beauty the effort of all good men against evil in this war in which everything is at stake including the freedom of artistic creation.”

    With that noble sentiment 168 works were packed up in seven crates and crossed the Atlantic avoiding lurking German submarines to arrive in a war-torn London. In all, 623 kilos worth of talent, all insured for £2. (£83).

    The enthusiasm of the Brazil and its artists was greeted with churlish indifference, even hostility, by the RA, the art establishment and even the UK government.

    Art critic Sacheverell Sitwell wrote in the preface to the catalogue, a small A5 affair in a cheap blue cover as befitted war time shortages, that: “Foreign blood which had migrated to Brazil was not of first rate. what Brazil needs is not more exiles from Central Europe but the presence of true Chef D’Ecole from Paris  or even London. Should a great painter... transfer himself to the land of energy and opportunity then the results on the Brazilians would be most interesting.” 

    He added: “It would be tragically disappointing if the art of the South American tropics was in no way different from that of the Czechoslovakia or Norway. As much as if the first returning cargoes of oranges and bananas were in the end but pears and apples.”

    To add to the general tenor of racial superiority Sir Alfred Munnings, one of England’s finest painters of horses and recently appointed President of the RA lived up to his reputation as a hater of Picasso and all ‘abstractions and ‘isms by writing that: “No responsibility for its quality would rest on the RA or the Foreign Office.”

    But as Adrian Locke, senior curator of the RA who worked on the current project remarks: “This out dated attitude radiating an air of colonial superiority captures the anachronistic art world of London in the 1940s.”

    Gadelha takes a tolerant view of the reaction.

    “It was war time so the exhibition must have been seen more as a burden than a present,” he says. “The problem was that the work was Modernism and the RA were not exactly prone to like it. The artists were virtually unknown here at the time so it was the most unlikely exhibition at the most unlikely venue.”

    How did he track down the works 70 years after the event? He found a list of buyers in the National Archives and searched through the records of ten cities including Paris, Glasgow and Edinburgh and back home in Rio de Janeiro. Art Uk which puts public art collections online helped find 20 works, he talked to the auction houses Sotheby’s and Christie’s, as well as many of the foundations and institutes of the most famous artists.

    He discovered several were bought by individuals during a nationwide tour of the exhibition but had only the barest details of name and prices. One Tosti Russel paid £51,15d (£21,28 shillings today ) and a Muriel Currant spent £3 3d (£138)). 

    The British Council bought some to boost sales and they were eventually auctioned or sold to several galleries such as Tate, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Manchester Art Gallery, the Ferens in Hull, Bristol, Tullie House, Carlisle, the Mercer Art Gallery in Brighton and Hove and Kirklees.

    Seven have turned up in New Zealand, others in France, Portugal and many in Brazil, the rest are lost. 

    In all, the paintings were sold for £1,200 (£50,000) making a total of £2,000 (£85,00) for the RAF Benevolent Fund thanks to ticket and catalogue sales. 

    Despite the official hostility, 100,000 people attended the exhibition including the Queen Mother, the   Duchess of Kent and the opening night guest list included such art world grandees as T.S. Eliot. H.G. Wells, Paul Nash, Samuel Courtauld and J.M. Keynes,.

    “That was a lot even for the British,” says Gadelha. “For Brazil it was unbelievable. I found 43 articles on the event and they were very positive. Only two or three were negative about the quality of the art.”

    Ah yes, the art. Curator Locke says that the true historic and cultural value of the paintings is finally being recognised and he quotes the Brazilian critic Ruben Navarra who contributed to the original catalogue: “The history of modern painting in Brazil illustrates the conversions of a European influence into an indigenous artistic experience; for the modern movement in Brazilian art has as its basis the rediscovery of a native Brazil hidden behind a curtain of ceremonial and fictitious Brazil.”

    The impetus for modernism was sparked by The Modern Art Week (or Semana de Arte Moderna) in February 1922 during which artists in São Paolo dedicated a week to modern art as part of the celebrations for the 100 years of freedom from Portuguese rule.

    Among the works Gadelha rediscovered are paintings that sprang from that transformative week including some by Brazil’s most renowned figures including Candido Portinari, Emiliano Di Cavalcanti, Lasar Segall, José Pancetti and Roberto Burle Marx.

    They Amuse Themselves by Cardoso Júnior which was bought by the British Council for £2 2d (£92) was described by The Times as having ‘a poetic relation to that of the French ‘Sunday’ painters and it and it became the first of the works to enter the Tate collection. 

    It is possible to detect a difference between the Rio and São Paolo artists - Rio art is more colourful, more folkloric. For example, Emilio Di Cavalcanti’s Women from Bahia, has what critic Navarra described as a ‘magical sensationalism and colour palette that is distinctly Brazilian.’ 

    He wrote: “If regional and folklore spirit found a refuge in Rio, the city of the negro quarters and the noisy laboratory of popular music, Sāo Paolo represents the European element par excellence in our culture.” 

    Oscar Meira’s Sailor shows the influence of Sāo Paulo as an advanced industrial city with work that that is more cubist and cool as do the bold strokes of Manoel Martins’s Suburb. 

    Of the works for sale in 1944 best known perhaps is José Portinari disturbing The Scarecrow (The Half Wit) which was bought by a Brazilian diplomat for £180 (£7,500).

    “It would have £1,000 in the States or Brazil at the time,” reckons Gadelha. “Today it would be worth between $500,000 to £$1million for insurance but in Brazil I would guess $2 million.”

    In the current show the most valuable are by Lasar Segall with his reflective Lucy with Flower at $200,000 but which would fetch maybe four times that in Brazil and Little Girl with Cat by Lucy Citti Ferreira which was considered to be the outstanding work at the time of the original showing. 

    Sitwell compounded his lack of understanding of the art by assuming that the painters were all impoversihed amateurs but rather, says Gadelha: “The artists were mostly about 40, middle class and not at all destitute. They were important names in their own country and making their reputations in the US.

    “The important thing to understand is that they wanted their offer to be appreciated for its moral and symbolical significance rather than for it material value. 

    “I sincerely believe that in associating themselves with this democratic cause it was very much about values. The Brazil press of the day said it was a noble act, a symbolic and moral gesture by the artists.” 


brazil art .jpg
brazil art 2.jpg

Something eggstra in intoxicating Mexico

I'm too lazy to put this on the main page and anyway the rigours of the FT paywall means there is nothing to see. This is the result of a stimulating whiz around some of the many terrific galleries that are making Mexico City buzz. And what about Guadalajara? Just as creative without the traffic jams.


How better to launch a show than with an egg throwing party? All that yolk streaking down a pristine white wall. Like a Monet, murmured the hostess.

    Add the frolicsome British artist Sarah Lucas, clutching a glass of mezcal and sporting a woolly penis, several men in beards and frocks, and that was the scene last month (April) at the Kurimanzutto Gallery in Mexcio City. Not at all like Monet. 

    Twenty years ago Kurimanzutto was run from a flat with a telephone. Now it is housed in a glamorous space in a placid Mexico City suburb - all flowers and light - and is not just one of the best known galleries in the country but a player in the global market. Hence Sarah Lucas with her show, “Dame Zero” which ends next week (ie May 5). (Star exhibit: a mangled car picked out with her trademark cigarettes). 

    “There has been an increase interest in art from Mexico, South and Latin America over the past decade” says London gallerist Sadie Coles, who represents Lucas and was at the opening. Fundamentally this is because the deep history of modernism in Mexico has engendered the current generation of outstanding contemporary artists. 

    “Serious galleries like Kurimanzutto, OMR,  Proyectos Monclova, House of Gaga and many others have given a platform to these artists that extends beyond their immediate geographical location, through a presence at some of the major international fairs. 

    “The current generation in Mexico are very active internationally, and have aided their careers by not seeing themselves as ‘local’ artists, just as their galleries have never functioned merely as ‘local’ galleries. The endeavour is more sophisticated and ambitious than that - there is commitment and authenticity and a generous desire to educate.”

    As evidence of that in the next few months Mexican artists and galleries will be showing in Buenos Aires, in Dallas, in Saskatoon and Singapore, they will feature at Art Basel and São Paulo but none of the city’s galleries will be gracing Frieze New York.

    As one gallerist put it: “It’s too cramped, too crowded and too much like hard work having to dash around the city to catch up with outside events.”

    Kurimanzutto, for example, is going its own way by setting up a small project space on New York’s East 65th Street with Abraham Cruzvillegas, whose grid of soil-filled wooden triangles won the Hyundai Commission for the Tate’s Turbine Hall in 2015. In New York he will present an installation “Autoconstruccion,” which draws on the random and inventive way people build their homes. 

    “It’s the way we have always done things,” says as Mónica Manzutto, half of an elegant double act with her husband José Kuri who own Kurimanzutto. “The space recreates the spirit we had in the 90s when Mexico was very different from today. There were almost no galleries, almost no museums showing contemporary art and a very small group of collectors, two or three, no more than that.

    “Our gallery was nowhere and everywhere. We would rent a market stall for one day or a cinema where we’d show video programmes. There was no money at stake, we had no children so we were free to travel a lot and bring the work of the artists to curators and collectors.”

    The gallery was born out an ‘incredible synergy’. The couple were in New York studying for their masters when they were approached by an old friend, the artist Gabriel Orozco. Fresh from a successful show at The Armory, he suggested they got together to open a space back home.

    They teamed up with Damián Ortega, José’s brother Gabriel Kuri, Abraham Cruzvillegas and Jerónimo López Ramírez, better known as tattoo artist Dr Lakra.

    They are still together, still a family, maintaining the original spirit of collaboration and careful anarchy but significant names such as Daniel Guzman and the highly political Minerva Cuevas have been added. Oversea recruits include the Vietnamese Danh Vô and Korea’s Haegue Yang, who is currently showing at the Ludwig Museum, Cologne, Germany. And of course, Sarah Lucas. 

    Now they meet in the gallery, an old timber yard acquired nine years ago, which radiates professional élan - there is a bar and even rings for sale in the swirls and curves of Orozco’s Samurai Trees series.

    “There has been a boom since the early 2000s,” says Manzutto. “We continued surfing beyond this wave and we have succeeded in building up our market here and internationally.”

    Some commentators judged sales at the annual art fair Zona Maco this February, as ‘subdued,’ blaming the Mexico’s tricky economic relations with the United States while others point to the shadow of the drug cartels and more than 29,000 murders in 2017, including several journalists. 

    “It is a moment which demands artists to be involved,” admits Kuri. “In the six years of this president (Enrique Nieto) the drugs war has worsened. Our social fabric has been changed. 

    “But that did not affect us at Zona Maco. It was great for us.” He laughs, embarrassed. “I feel bad about it. Guilty.”

    Another major player is Galeria OMR, and they too had “one of the best fairs in our history” says the gallery’s director Kerstin Erdman. 

    “We have to be patient but many collectors and some galleries have been around for maybe only ten years and it takes time to build up a reputation. The collector scene is strong with about 70 per cent international, many from the US, London, Belgium and Paris.”

    She says prices ranged from $15,000 to $50,000. A solo show by Sol Lewitt saw works selling for between $300,000 to $600,000 while one of their roster of talent, James Turrell of the Light and Space Movement, can fetch a million.

    “But,” she admits. “That’s not happening every day.”

    OMR, once a record store and now a space of natural light with a terrace overlooking the busy Roma district, is currently showing the intriguingly engineered sculptures of Jose Dávila. Popular among their roll call of artists, are sculptor and painter Pia Camil, with her bold textiles and sculptures and Julieta Aranda, the first female Mexican artist to appear at the Guggenheim, New York, with “e-flux Video Rental” an archive of artists’ videos.

    Erdman has seen a dramatic change since she arrived from her home in Germany in 2003.

    “There are many more artist-run spaces, five times the galleries and more art fairs, Before Zona Maco we have Material which is an experimental space for young artists with some daring programming.”

    The boom is not contained to the capital. The city of Guadalajara is the home to several galleries, including Travesia Cuatro which is going to Frieze, and many successful artists.

    Alexandra Garcia Waldman relaunched Páramo Gallery in the city five years ago and has recently opened a branch in New York. 

    “I want to recreate the intimacy of Mexico City in the 90s when things were done with no real reason, just because people wanted it to be done, and have the freedom to produce projects that are not solely intended for commercial use.

    “New York is completely different from Mexico City. It is very market driven but the art world in Mexico is based very strongly on relationships. People and the artists love coming to Guadalajara for the pre-Maco fair because of the lunches, the dinners and the museums.” 

    Her next show which will be held in her home on the East Side to coincide with Frieze will feature Naama Tsabar, an Israeli musician, painter and sculptor whose act involves playing eight guitars until each one is broken.

    Perhaps it is the lunches and dinners that make Guadalajara popular with artists such as Jorge Méndez-Blake, fresh from an ambitious project in Hong Kong in which he created a steel pavilion decorated with his characteristic random lettering and set around a centre piece by James Turrell and a contribution by Jose Dávila

    Lesser known perhaps but every bit as talented is another Guadalajara-based artist Gonzalo Lebrija. 

    A cricket admirer - he went to school in England - he is a sculptor, painter and musician. This May in a splendid flight of fancy at the Soluna Festival, Dallas, he will present a 16-strong, all-female Mariachi band performing, improbably, Richard Wagner.

    He also takes striking photographs such as “Brief History of Time,” in which he captured a car at the precise moment before it plunged into a lake - a witty illustration of an upsurge of interest in photography which had slumped since a boom in the 80s and 90s. 

    It was given a boost by the revival of the Zona Maco photo fair in 2015 and by galleries such as Almanaque. In a first for the gallery and for Photo London (From May 17) the gallery will present the work of three generations of Mexican artists including a new documentary-style work by Pablo Ortiz Monasterio entitled “Border's Walls, Tijuana” which captures the precariousness of life in a city where 1,744 were killed last year. In contrasting style, Jesús León, depicts the often dark side of  Mexico sub culture with “Domestic Fine Arts.”

    “Mexico is an intoxicating place for artists,” says Sadie Coles says: “It is clear that Mexico is regarded – both in terms of its modern artistic heritage and dynamic contemporary scene – as one of the epicentres of the Latin American art world.”  


Lebrija's diving car

Lebrija's diving car

Gabriel Orozco

Gabriel Orozco

Pia Camil

Pia Camil

Fight the tyranny of the blockbuster


James Bradburne on the art of running a museum

The head of Milan’s Pinacoteca di Brera is on a mission to get galleries to raise their game

Picture on the front shows James Bradburne before 'St Mark Preaching in Alexandria' at the Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan

 Museum director James Bradburne fears for his profession. He is perturbed by the way some museums treat their visitors. He is dismayed by the “drug” of the blockbuster exhibition.

“We are killing museums,” says Bradburne, head of Milan’s Pinacoteca di Brera. “I really believe that. We are killing the things we love. “We lost our way in the ’80s when directors were forced to use blockbusters to drive a museum’s economy by increasing visitor numbers. Now they have become a drug because without them a museum won’t be able to survive, but that betrays the very nature of our stewardship of the collections.”

A baroque figure sporting round specs and prone to exotic waistcoats — for this interview a teaming of floral patterns, plaid and cord with disparate buttons — Bradburne has been in London to help oversee an exhibition of modernist Italian art at the Estorick Collection in north London. Until recently he was head of the Strozzi Gallery in Florence, where he produced highly acclaimed exhibitions such as Bronzino, Money and Beauty and Pontormo & Rosso Fiorentino.

Now he is revitalising the Brera, as one of the 20 new museum directors appointed in 2016 by Italy’s then prime minister Matteo Renzi as part of a shake-up of the country’s state-owned — and, some considered, moribund — cultural sector.

A British-Canadian, he was one of seven non-Italians to be chosen. “The Strozzi was like driving a Ferrari,” he says. “A state museum is like driving a 1930s Bentley because the machine is not adapted to its function very well. I am taking on the beast, a museum run as a department of a department of a Soviet-style state bureaucracy.” It does have its advantages, however — chiefly an enviable 74 per cent state funding.

The Brera was founded in 1809 by Napoleon as the Louvre of Italy and has 500 works by the likes of Raphael, Mantegna, Bellini, Tintoretto and Veronese, as well as “The Supper at Emmaus” by Caravaggio. Modigliani's 'Head of a Young Lady' (1915) is among the works in the Estorick Collection show There is also a substantial collection of Italian modernist art that was amassed and then donated to the Brera by Emilio and Maria Jesi.

The paintings and sculptures have been “squashed into a corridor”, but they will be found a new home nearby in 2019. It is a selection of those works that make up the Estorick’s show, The Enchanted Room: Modern Works from the Pinacoteca di Brera, opening this week. Artists include Umberto Boccioni, Gino Severini and Mario Sironi, with metaphysical paintings by Carlo Carrà and works by Giorgio de Chirico, Giorgio Morandi and Filippo De Pisis.

“This is one of the great collections of Italian modern art and it’s the first time it will be seen in Britain,” says Bradburne. “The Estorick is a symbol of excellence with arguably the best collection of Italian modern art outside of MoMA — even as good as MoMA.” For him the Estorick and the Brera represent what museums should be about, true to their core identity, eschewing the lure of boosting visitor figures.

Works from the Brera Gallery such as Gino Severini's 'Le nord sud' (1912) make up the Estorick Collection's new exhibition He argues that after the war too many European museums neglected “playing” their collections but instead became fixated on protecting the works.

“Taking care is fundamental but if it is the central aim it means you don’t have to give a damn about who is looking at the stuff. It’s totally self-referential. Yes, you are doing your job as an art historian, as a museum director, but that means you don’t have to worry if young people, old people, teenagers, a handicapped kid or someone with Alzheimer’s can’t get in or if there are no labels.

“In Italy people confuse an excellent collection with an excellent museum. Italy has superlative collections but very bad museums, while Cincinnati, Cleveland and Denver in the USA, for example, have far better museums than any in Italy but they don’t have such good collections. The Getty collection is second-rate — sorry if I offend my friends — but it’s a great museum. They do things with the collection that we are barely imagining.

“It is the difference between having the score of Mozart and playing it. The museum is the performance of the stuff in your collection, not the collection per se.” The average time people look at a painting is 15 seconds. If anyone thinks that is enough I don’t know which profession I am in Bradburne is particularly exercised by what he calls the tyranny of the blockbuster.

These mega-shows, he says, are “cannibalising” the great galleries: “Research demonstrates that if visitor numbers to temporary shows are subtracted, the permanent collections are, in fact, losing business.” It is an argument, however, which ignores the challenges facing museums that have only modest collections — or none at all — and have to rely on one-off shows for revenue, such as the Baltic in Gateshead, the Turner Gallery in Margate, the Royal Academy and even Tate Modern. The Dulwich Picture Gallery, currently showing the works of Moomins creator Tove Jansson, receives no regular public funding at all.

Indeed, the Strozzi itself exists only as a venue for short-term displays, but Bradburne insists: “We turned down a lot of the obvious blockbusters. We didn’t do ‘Sunflowers’, we didn’t do ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’, we did very interesting, experimental exhibitions of high emotional power which aimed to create new knowledge.” Mario Sironi, 'Urban Landscape with Chimney' (1930) Now, at the Brera, with that cushion of state cash, he has the opportunity to practise what he preaches and prove himself a worthy steward of a great collection — without recourse to anything as tyrannical as a blockbuster.

“I am running a museum where I have the instruments to produce — and the pun works — not ex-hibitions but in-hibitions, bringing in select works and putting them with our permanent exhibits as a way of learning new things about them.” At the Brera, for example, one of the museum’s treasures, Andrea Mantegna’s “Lamentation Over the Dead Christ”, is currently being contrasted with later paintings of the same scene by Annibale Carracci and Orazio Borgianni.

The way they are presented illustrates Bradburne’s enthusiasm for backdrops of strong reds and blues and labels, big readable labels, for which he has commissioned contributions from writers such as Ali Smith, Tim Parks, Orhan Pamuk and Sarah Dunant.

“The painting has all the answers but you need to get people to look at it,” he says. “The average time people look at a painting is 15 seconds. Fifteen seconds! If anyone thinks that is enough I don’t know which profession I am in.”

As we have met in the week when the Art Fund launched its annual quest for the Museum of the Year 2018, conversation turns to what makes a winner worthy of the £100,000 prize. Last year it was won by the Hepworth in Wakefield, which plays to its nucleus of works by Ben Nicholson, L.S. Lowry, Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, and in 2016 by the Victoria and Albert, which won predominantly on the strength of Savage Beauty, its blockbuster about fashion designer Alexander McQueen.

“The museum worth £100K is the one that works for the greatest, the widest, most diverse series of publics,” he says. “You know what the goal is — to get people to see more, to look longer. “Above all, we need a Copernican revolution in which you put the museum at the heart of the community and visitors at the centre of the museum.” Carlo Carrà, 'The Metaphysical Muse' (1917) He rattles off some of the museums that meet his criteria — the Frick in New York, “a masterpiece in its own right”, the Kröller-Müller Museum in the Netherlands, and for intellectual stimulation the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles.

“The Estorick show is a small gem. Every picture is there for a reason. I bet you the [number of] people who have an emotional experience is far higher here because they will have seen something new and discovered an artist they never heard of.”

He quotes the late cultural commentator Kenneth Hudson, who suggested that the museums that survive the 21st century will have either charm or chairs. “If you want people to look longer and see more, you give them something to sit on because nobody learns standing up,” says Bradburne. “I have just ordered 150 portable stools for the Brera.”

So there you have it: a museum needs charm, chairs and readable labels. A Caravaggio is a bonus. January 24-April 8,

A taste of Panama

In the early days of onlinery I wrote a clutch of pieces for The Times about Panama. We went there without any great expectations but absolutely loved the place. Even shared a hotel with a woman who was once accused of romancing Bill Clinton. She had a son with her. Just saying.

Anyway, had one of the great meals at this place:

For the people by the people.

Many of the critics are snotty about the Royal Academy Summer Show but actually it cheers up lots of 'amateur' painters like my local Big Issue seller who tried to enter and raise loadsa for the  RS students.

 Here's piece for the FT.




The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition is easy prey for the critics. As far back as 1794, only 26 years after the first exhibition had opened to display works by ‘all Artists of distinguished merit’ disillusionment had set in. The Morning Post attacked it for descending ‘into a parade of the hackneyed and incompetent amongst the little dirty paltry aristocracy of the Royal Academy.’

    More recently critics reported being filled ‘with a profound melancholy and disgust’ or dismissed it as the ‘largest festival of bad art in Europe.’

    None of this deterred Mereliis Rinne, 32, who walked all the way from Dalston with her canvas or Mary Barnes, 70-plus from Stony Stratford, Buckinghamshire. They joined the hundreds who carried their paintings and sculptures across the cobbles of the Royal Academy courtyard a few week’s ago to offer their work for the show which opens next week/tomorrow (June 13 - August 30). Nor did it daunt a young Eileen Cooper, who as a student in the 70s, had her first work accepted and hung in the main gallery. 

    This year she is the coordinator of the hanging committee, which includes Academicians, Ann Christopher, Fiona Rae and Farshic Moussavi, who is curating the architecture section. “All amazing women,” says Cooper. “Not that we are marketing it as such. It is just unusual for the RA to be so female centred.” Yinka Sonibare alongside RA stalwarts Gus Cumins and Bill Jacklin redress the balance.

    “I believe in the summer show,” she says. “What I really love and value about it is that if your work gets selected you will be on the wall next to a Ken Howard or Anselm Kiefer or a Barbara Rae.

    “The show’s main purpose is to raise money for the RA schools programme which does not receive any government funding so I think it is churlish to be negative about something that supports the next generation.” 

    She admits it is hard to win the plaudits of the critics, but, says, a little tartly in her still-broad Derbyshire tones: “Artists like a challenge so I don’t see why critics won’t take the challenge too.”

    So what can the 200,000-plus visitors to the 2017 exhibition expect? “We couldn’t think of one slogan to sum it up, which is a real drawback,” she admits. “Our aim is to bring something fresh to the show by finding emerging talent and recruiting more artists from countries as disparate as Congo, Peru, Spain and India as well as Turkey and Kurdistan. 

    “We had to spread the word and get the people who might not send in but whose work we have noticed.”

    The result was 12,000 digital entries which were narrowed down by the committee over one ‘surreal’ week in March to between two to 2,500 and then reduced in one eye - watering day to the 1,200 or so which will make up this year’s show.

    It is these amateurs who give the show its singularity and confuse the critics who perhaps are looking for something more ‘professional’ and more structured. 

    “I think the amateur is a difficult term,” protests Cooper, who is a painter and printmaker as well as the first female Keeper of the RA Schools. “There are some who have been Sunday painters since they retired, others might be teachers or academics who will be working at quite a high level and there are a lot of people, maybe a milkman or a bank clerk, for whom art is very precious but who don’t make a living as an artist.

    “Then there are the graduates. It’s harder and harder for them to find a studio and have the opportunities to show their work.”

    She argues that that the exhibition, which is the oldest open-submission show in the world, is a unique opportunity for people to be included who don’t fit into the mainstream, but often narrow, gallery idea of what contemporary art is. 

    “It is very liberating for them and for the possible buyer there is the reassurance that the works have been selected by the artists on the committee which might well be different to those preferred by a dealer,” says Cooper. “Furthermore it is a good place to buy because the commission is lower than most galleries - 30 per cent compared with, often, 50 per cent.”

    Her plan is to mix all the works together. This year, as well as the Academicians who are always encouraged to show - and sell - in support of the schools, there will be three film makers, including a room for a three-screen installation by Isaac Julien, photography by Gilbert and George, recently appointed Academicians and the first duo to appear, as well as a performance by recent RA school graduate Alana Francis. “Very special,” says Cooper. “She opens herself up massively. You’ll find it very moving.”

    Gallery Three - the main space - is the biggest challenge for any curator because the floor is taken over by a bar to quench the thirst of networkers and sponsors and that leaves no room to stage sculpture as a centre piece.

    “It is really hard to hang,” she admits. “The problem is that you have to have lots of different types of work together. Some fit well together, others, well, it can be difficult.

    “We have a very beautiful, very large, Sean Scully and lots of work by Olwyn Bowey one of our academicians whose work is all about keen observation of the house where she lives. They’re wonderful, rugged, fabulously observed, drawings of plants.” 

    One of the co-curators and major contributor is sculpture Yinka Shonibare and he is every bit as enthusiastic as Cooper to highlight emerging artists.

    “The RA does need to find ways of renewing itself,” he says. “It is a very well established institution but it’s not entirely great to rely on past glories and it is always good to refresh the organisation.

    “Institutions are not easy to break into. You have to go through a number of rituals, ceremonies and all sorts of different levels of initiation rites to get anywhere near these places. There are artists who perhaps who don’t have those opportunities - this is their chance to be seen.”

    Shonibare, who is curating two rooms, invited a diverse group to send in their works. One is Abe Odedina, of Nigerian origin,living in Brixton, south London, who paints dashing scenes based on African folk art 

    “I like the Japanese artist Tomoaki Suzuki,” says Shonibare. “He makes carvings of small figures using traditional Japanese methods and style but in a very contemporary way and Hassan Hajjaj, who isMoroccan-British, and who takes pictures of Muslim women on bikes called Henna Bikers. I like the kind of fun of them.

    “These are not the usual works associated with the RA.”

    Shonibare himself is displaying a new example of his razzle-dazzle Wing series in the courtyard while inside one of his Hybrid Angels will stand by a re-imagining of the classical sculpture, Venus de Medici, which he has decorated with a ‘a load of patterns.’

    Like Cooper he admits the vetting procedure is not entirely rational 

    “I go by gut instinct,” he says. “The selection is not a definite science. There are artists who are quite good but unfortunately if the judges can’t agree on that work it doesn’t mean it is necessarily no good, it just means the judges didn’t like it.”

    Cooper, who is also preparing for an exhibition at Wolfson College, Cambridge, with her distinctive depiction of the female form, admits to one or two ‘sparky discussions’ when it came to the show’s style and content. 

    She says: “Big areas of debate will continue through out the hang because there is so much work to accommodate and people get quite invested in their rooms. If you say you’ve got to hang this they might say I don’t want it there, or I’ve just got this room hanging beautifully I can’t add anything else. So I think I will be trouble shooting around the galleries.

    “It’s wonderful to find work you like and hang it well especially when it is by someone you are discovering. Artists need to show their work and it is fantastic for them to do that here and for me too, it is a great opportunity to use art as a means of communication with a new audience.” 

    Sadly, the determined Meriliis Rinne and her painting “The Danger of the Pink Cloud” did not make the cut but Mary Barnes did.

    “I have been painting for 50 years,” says Mrs Barnes, whose successful entry is a sombre black and work entitled “Alas, Poor Aleppo.” She is just the talented ‘amateur’ Cooper has in mind.

    “There is always a huge diversity on show,” says Mrs Barnes, who has sold five paintings over the years. “The fact that anybody can enter is brilliant.” 


Hepworth, hurrah

I told anyone who would listen that the Hepworth Museum in Wakefield would win this year's £100,000 Art Fund prize. Trouble is no one was listening. I cannot access the FT site for the piece I wrote in April but it went something like this:


What makes a museum a worthy winner of a £100,000 prize? A critically acclaimed exhibition, a new gallery full of light and space? That goes without saying. But how is it possible to compare, say, an internationally celebrated museum with more than three million visitors a year with one tucked away in an unremarkable suburb in south London which attracts a mere 12,000. 

    That is one of the challenges facing the judges of the Art Fund Museum of the Year 2017 as they prepare to announce the shortlist next week (April 27); how to compare unlike with unlike.

    When the Victoria and Albert (internationally celebrated museum) was revealed as the winner last year there was a distinct murmur among the arts world aristocracy gathered in the National History Museum to hear the result. The then MP Tristram Hunt was heard to express his surprise - perhaps not imagining that he would be appointed director of that very institution within a matter of months.  

    Some thought the extra cash would have been more beneficial to any one of the other museums on the shortlist, an eclectic quartet which ranged from the Bethlem Museum of the Mind (underdog from the London suburb), the Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol with its bravura contemporary art shows, the sculpture park of Jupiter Artland, near Edinburgh or York Art Gallery, which had been transformed after a two year refurbishment but was struggling financially.     

    Artist Cornelia Parker, who was one of the four judges last year, admits it was a ‘really difficult job.’

    “We had many discussions,” she says delicately. “One of our number suggested we all had big egos - which is fair enough - and it was so close fought that we did not make the decision until the day of the award ceremony. Because we could not agree we gave scores from one to five to each contender and even then one of us did not want the V and A to win.

    “The museums are all so different and there are lots of different criteria but with the runners up there was always one fatal failing whether it was York Museum which had lost one-third of its audience because they had decided to charge visitors or the Bethlem which was in a Portakabin not so long ago but is still at the beginning with its programmes.     

    “The money is a spit in the ocean for the V and A but we were impressed by their decision to take shows on the roads as they used to before they were abandoned in the 70s. And I do believe there is an accolade in being one of five on the list - Jupiter Artland doubled the number of its visitors for example.”

    But an accolade is not quite like winning, as a small, unfashionable museum like the Lightbox in Woking, Surrey, which won in 2008, testifies. The money meant they were able to build a new gallery to house contemporary works and afford to support one show every year by a local talent. 

    As marketing manager Pru Chambers says: “The publicity helped increase audiences from 70,000 to 100,000 and it raised the museums’s profile in terms of its peers so that we suddenly had credibility with other museums such as the Tate or the Courtauld who let us borrow from their collections.

    “The effect was much greater on us than on one of the big hitters like the V and A.”

    But that is to miss the point, as Stephen Deuchar, Director of the Art Fund explains: “This is the nub of the problem and also the strength of the Museum of the Year. You cannot compare a small museum with the British Museum or the V and A, they are completely different operations, yet they are put up against each other and the judges have to ask themselves the question; how well does this museum do what it does?

    “In a way that sounds very simple but it’s quite a searching thing to ask. Could the British Museum do better? You might say it could. It has the best collection in the world but is it making most of it? In fact, when the museum won in 2011 it was for the curatorial project, The History of World in 100 Objects, and nothing to do splendour of its galleries or the depth of the collection.

    “You are just as likely to get a brilliantly conceived curatorial idea from somewhere small or an imaginative redesign of an existing museum as we saw in 2012 with the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter which won not because of a single showy event but a reworking of what they already had. From that point of view it doesn’t seem quite so absurd to have very small museums up against the big.”

    His reasoning for the V and A victory moves unexpectedly into a reflection about art and elitism in a post-Brexit country.

    “We had the referendum result in June, our prize was to be announced in July. How can we explain this surprising result when the UK was divided, with a metropolitan elite who think in one way and the rest of the country, disenfranchised and forgotten? 

    “To have the decision going to the V and A as the embodiment of that elite rather than Artland, York or Bristol was a great surprise. I think some believed when they came to the dinner to hear the announcement that the V and A was almost certainly not going to win because it would look like another example of elitism but the reality is that we weren’t thinking about the political landscape, we weren’t worrying what kind of decision we should take to make us look good or the museum world look good.

    “We were simply asking; does the museum do what it does well? And we all thought the V and A’s Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty was one of the outstanding exhibitions of the year as its record - breaking 493,043 visitors testifies.”

    Above all he feels the Art Fund has to defend the ‘purity of the prize’ by not trying to meet the views of a particular constituency but by letting the judges decide.

    Jennifer Scott, who was director of the Holburne Museum in Bath, which was long listed for the prize in 2012, and has recently moved to the Dulwich Picture Gallery in south London, shares Deuchar’s vision.  

    “I love the idea that the Art Fund is across the spectrum and that everyone is in the same pot together. For us it is very important that the Art Fund is leading the perception that all museums are equal.”

    Big or small the contenders have to meet the same criteria. This year’s judges, sculptor Richard Deacon, Hartwig Fischer, Director of the British Museum, Munira Mirza former London deputy mayor for Culture and Education and DJ and television presenter, Jo Whiley with Deuchar as chairman will be deciding which museum has created a project which will provide a lasting legacy, whether it has a worthwhile learning programme and if it has done enough to inspire the enthusiasm of its visitors. Their targets this year could include the new Design Museum, the Tate Modern for its much vaunted extension and possibly the less known but constantly creative establishments such as the Holburne, the Pallant in Chichester and the Bowes in County Durham.

    Perhaps what makes the decision making so charged is that the Art Fund prize is not just the most generous but the only financial reward given to a museum in the world. The annual Council of Europe Museum Prize offers prestige and a bronze statuette while the $1 million prize given by the UAE Abraaj Group is split between five artists and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation in the USA awards the winner $100,000 plus a solo exhibition. 

    Runners up will win a consolatory £10,000 this year but just being on the short list was a ‘tremendous boost’ for the Bethlem Museum of the Mind, which is dedicated to the history and art of mental health. 

    “We were disappointed not to win but not begrudging,” says museum director Suzie Walker - Millar. “The Art Fund was very supportive and advised us on improving conditions for the disabled. 

    “We could have used the money on more outreach programmes and longer opening hours but the process raised our profile no end and the news of us being on the shortlist gave visitor figures a fillip. Above all, our staff and volunteers were so proud that they were no longer forgotten in the suburbs that they grew a foot taller.”



Far from the crowd

Sri Lanka has the lot. Ancient ruins, wandering elephants, birds of many a feather. The search for wild life can be like the North Circular in rush hour. There is a place to go.

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His. Not ours

I've been supporting Portsmouth Football Club for more years that I care to admit. It has, by and large, been an unrewarding experience. A few promotions,  a cup win and then a calamitous run of owners which resulted in the club almost disappearing from the league. 

Then, a small miracle; the fans bought the club. The football remained atrocious but it was ours. Miraculously, that's how it seemed the club won the bottom division with almost the last kick of the season. A real moment. Our club; our victory. But no more. The shareholders decided to sell to an American business, one Michael Eisner who used to run Disney. Cue Mickey Mouse club jokes.

It's a sad moment. This is what I wrote at the time. 



In The Pilgrim’s Progress, Jn Bunyan gives his hero a choice. Follow the blandishments of Mr Worldly Wisemen and take the easy way to salvation or take a harder path to the Celestial City.

    Or as Grandmother Willow said in the Disney classic Pocahontas"Sometimes the right path is not the easiest one.”

    This is the dilemma facing the supporters of Portsmouth FC. A new wannabe owner is standing at the crossroads and saying: ‘Come with me.’

    The temptation set out in the Supporter’s Trust info pack is that ‘one hundred per cent ownership is more likely to lead to a faster progression through the leagues - even to the Premier League.’ Ah, the Premier League, the celestial city of 21st century football.

    Maybe. We know something about 100 per cent ownership in Portsmouth. Since 1959 when the club was first relegated that model has resulted in PFC spending a mere 7 to 8 years in the top division. 100 per cent ownership as typified by a series of incompetents, crooks and clever businessmen has guaranteed nothing. In fact, it is the cause of our present financial difficulties and has - happily - resulted in the club being bought and owned by the supporters.

    So what’s on offer here from Mr Worldly Wisemen aka Michael Eisner late of Disney?

    No place for shareholders on the board. No place for shareholders at all except on a Heritage panel which can make three decisions - the club’s colours, its name, and an odd pledge not to move the stadium more than 15 miles from Portsmouth. The latter is a clear indication that a move is afoot. The design of the crest cannot be protected which, frankly, shows a huge misunderstanding of what these emotive symbols mean to a club. I’ll forbear from suggesting Minnie Mouse swinging from a crescent moon as an alternative.

    The offer of forums to discuss club matters is very nice but meaningless. It’s a sop. If you own a club, you own a club and no amount of bleating by the fans will change your plans.


    The money. Here’s the rub. The offer to buy our shares for £5 million and promise to invest £10 million - in an unspecified way - is not impressive. In fact, it’s a knock down bargain and if accepted does little to advance the cause. 


    The stadium.

    We know it’s the albatross left us by previous ‘caring’ owners. It seems we could truck along with current funding but on Page 19 of the statement it says ‘it costs £50 million to build a brand new stadium but there is no commitment by Tornante to carry out this work.’ Nor is it clear whether they want to separate stadium from the company. Haven’t we been there before? We have; a fate narrowly avoided when the fans took the club over.


    The statement also admits the actual requirements and the costings of stadium have yet to be finalised. Do we have to build a new stadium in one go? Can we repair, fix and improve as we go along? Build a new Milton End and work our way referring the North /South stand. In our First Division season of ’87-’88 home crowds rose above 20,000 only three times - we are not a ‘massive’ club we can afford to take time, stay solvent.


    The report also makes it clear that plans are in place to see what the costs are and how they could be covered. Perhaps we need the detail on that before we vote.


    In all this there is an assumption that we could never be an elite club without big investment. Well, see above, we have not been an elite club since the early Fifties. It also makes the point that many clubs in the Championship have debts over £50 million and we know most clubs run a horrendous rates of leverage. Is that what we want? Really? One puff of a wind - maybe a global economic crisis - and would Mr E bail us out like say, Mr Gaydamak, who owned the club when it won the FA Cup (hurrah) but, it transpired, had no actual money (not so good)?


    The assumption is that a wealthy new owner will spur the club through the leagues. Older (much older) fans will be aware of huge investment in players in the 70s. It came to nothing. Younger fans will remember the cynical way one Milan Mandaric bought the club for a knock down price and sold it some years later for ten times the amount without making any serious investment. Then we had the chimera that was Gaydamak. 


    If our model can get us to the Championship in a few years - boosted by share issues, crowdfunding, bond issues, dynamic marketing - then I’ll be content. After all, PFC is the very epitome of the second division side, always has been.    Above all, we have to ask why. Why does he want to buy the club? He wanted to buy Reading. Which other clubs? 


    We know what’s in it for us - what’s in it for him?


    The fans, particularly the shareholders have taken the pilgrim’s straight and narrow path and are in this for the long run. I doubt Mr E is - that’s just not the way it works in today’s football.


    I don’t want to sound too corny but what the club has now is a sense of integrity, decency and community. We won’t be citing image rights over the crest design.


    It’s ours. Don’t let it be his.

It's not just Trump

All right minded people are angered by the Trump ban - attempted and bound to fail - ban on several Muslim countries but It's worth remembering how hard it is for artists from the Middle East to get into this country as this interview with Mahmoud Bakhshi shows. 

Read more in the Gulf News