Guercino, Self-Portrait, c. 1635, Private Collection.
Following on from my trip to Christchurch. I also went to the Ashmoleon to see the Guercino exhibition of drawings. This was an exhibition of sheets, mainly from the late Sir Denis Mahon, champion of the baroque. Guercino refers to the painter’s nickname because of his cross-eyed condition. I won’t review the show on this blog, but I did one for the nice folks over at the Melbourne Art Network. You can read it here.
Claude Lorrain. Ascanius and the Shooting of the Stag, 1682, Ashmoleon Museum, Oxford
Decided to visit the Claude Lorrain exhibition in Oxford yesterday. I wasn’t disappointed: an excellent appraisal of Claude that takes in his paintings, drawings and etchings. Jon Whitley and the other curators have set every thing out nicely; you get three rooms devoted to the three types of media.
I spent about 90 minutes in it, most which was mainly looking at the room of Claude’s drawings. It’s fascinating to trace his use of wash, and eventually black chalk. It’s very instructive, especially the wall devoted to Claude’s drawings of figures and animals. It’s evident that Claude’s figure drawing is really awkward; some of the animals are ridiculously out of scale, such as the sheet with an eagle’s head. I was amused to discover that for a composition of the Golden Calf, he based his circle of figures on Poussin’s painting of the same subject. They were French painters in Rome who often shared a bottle of wine together. When Claude takes his cue from his friend he does better, but even on this sheet we get the disparities of scale. This should be borne in mind when looking at Claude’s Judgement of Paris (that subject again) whose figures may not even be by Claude, according to the curators. I find this quite plausible; the range of figurative expression is too wide for Claude, each of the goddesses have distinct poses and gestures, presumably so that they could be identified by the viewer.
The room of etchings is excellent too. The curators have even put out a glass case with all the tools of the process, so that you can appreciate how much labour goes into the art. Claude’s etchings are the least known of his work; I’m only sorry that my visit didn’t coincide with a talk that Jon Whitley's on that side of Claude.
Claude Lorrain, Psyche before the Enchanted Castle, 1664, National Gallery, London.
A nice selection of paintings, some of which have been lent from private collections like the Judgement of Paris, which comes from a private Scottish collection. It’s also nice to see Claudes in famous galleries, like the Psyche before the Enchanted Palace (NG, London) next to these lesser-known canvases. Best painting in this room? I’d probably say the Ashmoleon’s Ascanius and the Shooting of the Stag- at the top.
The Ashmoleon do these kind of exhibitions extremely well. To quote one of my students, “an anti-blockbuster experience”. During my visit there must have been about 10-12 people in the exhibition, at most. Well worth a visit, but you’ll have to hurry as it closes in early January.
And while you’re in Oxford, you might want to pop into Oxford Modern Art for a comprehensive (and free) display of 75 works on paper by Graham Sutherland. A far cry from Claude, with Sutherland’s representation of subterranean mines, surrealistic Welsh landscapes and war-ravaged London. Walking round this exhibition after Claude’s optimistic, sunshine soaked vistas, makes you feel that the sun has gone in and darkness has descended on the world. Curated by another artist, George Shaw, Sutherland: An Unfinished World, runs up to mid March next year.
And finally… if like me you like to unwind after a hard day’s museum going with a pint of Oxford real ale, there’s a nice poster setting out all the pubs of Oxford in the form of a tube map. This sort of thing has been done before by modern artists to make a political point, but the beer connection is much more palatable. The framed version is a bit pricey, but the unframed version is about a fiver. Cheers!
It doesn't surprise me to read in the Art Newspaper about how the art historian John Pope- Hennessy, better known to renaissance scholars as "the Pope", was allowed to export an important old master out of the country instead of delaying its export license. It's sickening to read that a former director of a British gallery, and an inspiration to lots of British art historians, sought to sell a Carracci abroad instead of seeking to secure it for a U.K. museum. This seems to have been a tendency with museum directors in the days before accountability. I recall that Blunt sought to find international buyers for old masters that appeared in this country.
The Art Newspaper pulls no punches. The declassification of these secret papers show that It was clearly negligent of the then director of the London National Gallery- Michael Levey- to recommend that the export licence for the Carracci's Vision of St Francis – above- should be not be held up. Levey's words are unnerving coming from the director of a British museum:
"Given that it was the private property of a major national museum director," it would be "difficult" to recommend that its export licence should be delayed, to allow a UK public collection to match the price."
Our loss was eventually the National Gallery of Canada's gain. But perhaps the most tragic part of this saga is the Pope's statement that he wanted his paintings to go to the Ashmolean in Oxford. Although Pope-Hennessy had reassured Michael Levey that his paintings would go to Oxford, it seems that his enmity with Levey and the N.G may have played some part in the decision to sell the Carracci to the London dealer Colnaghi, who did much to promote the painting for sale. In a few months its price had rocketed from £25,000 to near £100, 000. Unfortunately, this wasn't the end of the story. Pope-Hennessy sold his Domenichino to the Getty Museum for an undisclosed price, later revealed by the man himself to have been $750, 000. The Domenichino had also passed through the export licensing system with the same result.
A very sad coda to this disreputable episode- none of the Pope's paintings were willed to the Ashmolean. They would surely have boosted the artistic stock of that provincial gallery. What a waste!
I'm sorry but this is a Pope who should be inverted, as in Dante's Inferno!