Marketing Van Gogh

Thannhauser_open_2

Stefan Koldehoff & Chris Stolwijk (eds.), The Thannhauser Gallery: Marketing Van Gogh, Mercatorfonds/Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, 2017, hb, 328pp, fully illus. mono/col., (Dutch version available), English version: ISBN 978 9462 301 665

 

We are so used to encountering art by a single art in the form of a monographic exhibition or book, where the items are used as a chain linked by the fact that all the works are by a single author. When we look through a catalogue we barely notice the ownership of the works; the information is on labels and relegated to lists of lenders at the end of the book but it does not greatly inform our understanding or appreciation of the art. Yet there are many ways of looking at art works: as products of a certain artist, as objects from a specific region, as items bought and traded. Art is assuredly also property and its transfer through commerce tells us much about the status, reception and understanding of art over a long period of time. It is this study that shapes a new book, The Thannhauser Gallery: Marketing Van Gogh.

In 1905 Heinrich Thannhauser (1859-1935) co-founded branches of galleries selling Secession art in Berlin and Munich; his son Justin (1892-1976) joined the business in 1916. The Thannhausers operated galleries in Berlin (1905-37), Munich (1905-28) and Lucerne (1920-30); they soon featured the most advanced art of the period. They held a ground-breaking retrospective of Van Gogh’s art in 1908, in Munich. The Thannhausers did not treat art of the Modernist avant-garde merely as property but as part of a culture of a historically important movement, to be carefully documented, curated and researched. The gallery’s illustrated catalogues became valuable reference sources for the trade. Thannhausers’ clients were public and private collectors, the private ones being a mixture of Europeans, with a few Americans. Museums which hold ex-Thannhauser Van Gogh paintings include the Hermitage, the Metropolitan Museum, MoMA and many other museums, especially American ones. Promotion by Thannhauser and other dealers helped accelerate Van Gogh’s elevation to the canon.

The Thannhauser Gallery proved to be an important link between German audiences and non-German Modernist art. Thannhauser exhibitions, publications and informal stock sales were the way many Germans were introduced to the art of leading avant-garde artists, including the Impressionists, Post-Impressionists, Matisse, Picasso and Van Gogh. Although Thannhauser Gallery was not the sole Modernist dealer in Germany, it was one of the most prominent and highly regarded. A network of assistance, internal dealership and rivalry existed between the few dealers of Modernist art in pre-1939 Europe, all with a vested interest in disseminating information about the wave of new art.

Gallery stock is an unpredictable mix of what was available and acquired from private sources, other dealers and auction houses and artist’s estates. That peculiar scattershot quality gives collections and gallery stock their individual characters. This catalogue documents and illustrates 107 paintings and drawings attributed to Van Gogh that passed through the Thannhauser Gallery (and later Justin Thannhauser as a private dealer) between 1905 and 1963. There may have been more but incomplete documentation does provide enough information for listing in this publication. What is particularly rewarding about this project is that it includes fakes and copies that were once considered genuine and sold as such. Most current catalogues raisonnés do not include sections on known fakes; the present situation in the USA means that such sections are often inadvisable, as the legal and financial repercussions for declaring a work fake can be serious. The fate of future publication of catalogues raisonnés is in doubt.

Thannhauser_open_1

This catalogue includes essays on the way the gallery did business and communicated internally, how it recorded client details and an overview of the client base. Individual works are illustrated and a full provenance given – usually stopping at the point Thannhauser sold the work. Sources, bibliography and cross-references are given. Notes discuss the story of the item was acquired, how it was marketed and its fate. One of the masterpieces was Cypresses (1889), now owned by the Metropolitan Museum. Other works span the artist’s whole career and every subject: portraits, landscapes, figure studies, flowers, still-lifes, even a rare nude. They range from large oil paintings to ink drawings, drawings from letters down to a casual scribbled observation of figures on a street.

The Wacker scandal of the 1920s damaged collector confidence in purchasing art by Van Gogh. Van Gogh is an easy artist to fake in a superficially persuasive manner. Otto Wacker Galerie had sold numerous fakes as genuine works and once this became publicly known a cloud of suspicion descended on the Van Gogh market. Clients threatened to sue Wacker and a number of art appraisers (including prominent art historian Julius Meier-Graefe) were implicated in issuing certificates of authenticity for non-genuine works. Wacker was tried for fraud. Looking at the pictures illustrated we can test our skills of appreciation. Some works are relatively persuasive while others are obvious forgeries. Even great artists can have off-days and there are a number of genuine but poor Van Gogh paintings here. They have the bonus of unfamiliarity. You won’t have seen them in the usual books or the big museum exhibitions.

The catalogue illustrates the fakes – some now confined to the basements of museums. A handful of paintings cannot be traced and go unillustrated, leaving us with general titles, such as Woman, Landscape and so forth. These may be actual works still missing, fakes which have fallen into obscurity or already known works whose provenance has become obscured. There is a slight possibility that they are stock-keeping errors. A melancholy alternative is that these are paintings that perished in the war.

With the rise to power of the Nazi party and the increasingly onerous restrictions on Jewish ownership of businesses, Thannhauser looked to move stock abroad and divest himself of ownership of the Berlin branch. He relocated to Paris and began dealing there. In 1939, with clouds of war gathering, Thannhauser sent much of stock abroad for exhibition, seeing that it would be safer out of Europe. Thannhauser senior died in 1935; and in 1940 Justin, his wife and two sons left Switzerland, departing for New York. He was unable to retrieve all his stock, some of which was confiscated by German authorities. Much of that was destroyed during wartime bombing. In addition to the gallery stock, much of the archives, correspondence and library were also lost or destroyed during the war. The remaining records have been transferred to ZADIK, Central Archive for German and International Art Market Research, Cologne, where they have been consulted for this publication.

Thannhauser did not open a gallery in New York but instead sold stock privately and via galleries and auction houses until 1963, when he announced that he would donate 75 significant pieces from his private collection to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. This included two paintings, four ink drawings and three letters by Van Gogh.
The donation remains at the museum as a permanent legacy, paying tribute to his family, his adopted homeland and Modernist art his family championed.

24 October 2017

 

Advertisements

Degas: Themes and Finish

Jane Munro, Degas: A Passion for Perfection, Yale University Press, 2017, 272pp, 250 col./mono illus., hb, £40, ISBN 978 0 300 22823 6

Daphne Barbour & Suzanne Quillen Lomax (eds.), Facture: Conservation, Science, Art History, Volume 3: Degas, National Gallery of Art, distr. Yale University Press, 2017, 196pp, fully illus., pb, £50, ISBN 978 0 300 23011 6

 

To mark the centenary of the death of Degas, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge is holding an exhibition of his works (closes 14 January 2018), which will subsequently tour to Denver Art Museum (18 February to 20 May 2018). This is a review of the catalogue of that exhibition. Compared to the blockbuster shows of Degas in recent years, this is an intimate affair. It combines work from Cambridge and Denver with a few loans from other collections. Cambridge purchased a number of pieces from the posthumous auctions of Degas’s studio, work selected by John Maynard Keynes.

Items in the exhibition are divided into rough groups: Degas and England, copies of the masters, monotypes, landscapes, nudes, dancers and sculpture. There is a section of the catalogue and exhibition given over to Degas’s influence on following British artists. Degas made a handful of visits to England but unlike his youthful stay in Italy (admittedly a longer period) these made no discernible impression on his art. Degas rarely mentioned his English sojourns. Like his predecessor Gericault, Degas must have been impressed by the British passion for horse racing but whether it left much of an impression beyond that is an open question.

Although Degas did not win a scholarship to the French School in Rome, he had enough of an income to tour independently. He travelled with Moreau and they sometimes copied the same paintings and depicted each other. Degas spent time in Naples where he had family. Degas was the most academically gifted and inclined of the Impressionists and revered Ingres, himself a devotee of the Old Masters. The young Degas modelled himself on Ingres, using the same materials, spending hundreds of hours drawing, learning traditional techniques and acquiring the skills expected of an academic painter. This included long sessions copying paintings and sculpture in museums, including Greek and Roman sculpture, Donatello, Veronese and others. The exhibition includes copies by Ingres, showing parallels between the two painters.

Some of the most unfamiliar works are those actually typical to painters on a grand tour of Italy. The small landscape sketches in oils are acutely observed and sensitively painted views of Naples, Rome and other locales. As was common, these are painted on paper for convenience and later pasted on board for presentation. This was an easily portable medium though it is discouraged because of the technique’s unsuitability on both optical and conservation terms. However, the expediency was used for works that were not intended to be public and were only created as supporting studio material to be transcribed or adapted to more permanent works.

Degas never much cared for landscape. As for working en plein air, Degas derided painters who did so. Allegedly he had a good memory for landscape and produced his landscapes in monotype from memory in the studio. His adaptation of landscape as body suggests that forms rather than light or colour were a preoccupation and that he was willing to adapt in order to transform actual landscapes into more anthropomorphic images. One wonders whether those who claimed Degas had a good memory for landscape actually compared art to specific places. Most likely Degas did have a good visual memory but clearly the important thing was how the memory of the view seemed and how it might be adapted to suit the artist’s purpose, not the veracity of the art compared to the source.

Italian Landscape seen through an Arch, by Degas

(Image: Edgar Degas (18341917), Italian Landscape seen through an Arch, c.1856–9, oil on paper mounted on canvas, 36.7 x 32 cm, Howard and Nancy Marks)

So these landscape sketches, executed en situ, are anomalies in Degas’s practice as a whole but completely congruent with a young artist of the time. Degas used these views of legendary sites of history and culture as sources to be recorded the way he assiduously drew paintings of the Old Masters in the museums of Italy. Degas tended to use landscape as mere background for a subject wholly other and which was his real interest. In early paintings such as Scene from the Middle Ages it is obvious that Degas had no engagement with landscape and would have dispensed with it altogether if he had had the chance. (And he eventually would.) It was just a short step from Young Spartans Exercising (1860), with its perfunctory landscape, to Portrait of Mlle Fiocre in the ballet “La Source” (c. 1867-8), with its artificial landscape in the form of a painted backdrop. The play of artifice and verisimilitude allowed Degas to turn his limitation into a feature. He no longer had to be concerned about “getting things right” when flatness and lack of integration became an absolutely truthful presentation of stage backdrops. He would have entirely dispensed with landscape painting if he had not had to use views as part of his paintings of horses and jockeys. One wonders if Degas’s deteriorating eyesight played any part in his rejection of landscape as a subject for his mature art. The artist, his long vision seriously impaired, simply could not see well enough to paint them. It seems likely that physical limitations accorded with his artistic preoccupations rather than the other way round.

On the evidence of these oil sketches Degas was a competent landscapist in the line of Corot and Ingres. Watercolour studies of rocks are also included.

Monotype printing, where a design is drawn in ink on a metal plate before being run through a press with paper which transfers ink to paper, was one of Degas’s principal means of artistic expression. His monotypes outnumber his prints of other types. Degas often reprinted from the same plate a second impression, which is always lighter than the first print. Degas would usually modify the second impression with pastel, gouache and body colour. These alterations sometimes became so involved and extensive that additions entirely cover the underlying print. The atmosphere, emphasis and appearance of print could be radically changed, as was apparent in the recent MoMA exhibition, New York which included comparative examples of first and second impression monotypes. (For my full review of that exhibition see “Degas monotypes”, The Burlington Magazine, vol. CLVIII, no. 1360, pp. 589-90; July 2016.)

Subjects of monotypes on display include landscapes, horse-and-jockey and street scene. A comparative print by VLN Lepic is included to show how free and expressive the prints of the French C19th monotype revival could be. French monotypes of this period share in common the approach of expressive inking of etchings, wherein plates were inked in highly individual and expressive ways which altered the appearance of the original design and introduced new elements. This made each impression as individual as a unique drawing, quite at variance with the usual practice of printers attempting to make an edition of an etching as uniform and neutral as possible.

Nudes, dancers and sculpture are related in Degas’s art. Dancers were often drawn nude – either from life or imagined – before being used in paintings and the nudes of women washing and drying often include difficult, peculiar and transient poses that echo those of dancers either in actions or resting and stretching. Degas figurines in wire, clay, Plastiline and coloured beeswax were often of dancers in motion. Some poses were so unstable that Degas had to introduce props to keep the figures upright. Other sculptures were of horses. Britain has few really good Degas pastels of nude figures, so the exhibition has usefully drawn upon American loans. One can see many poses reoccurring in different mediums and figures repeated in pictures. Degas used tracing paper to experiment with positioning, tracing and reversing. He also used tracing paper as the ground for large-scale finished pastels, an unconventional choice which has caused some conservation issues for collectors. Using a slick surface for a powdery medium is problematic; Degas relied on applying extensive layers of fixative throughout the drawing process to keep the pastel in position. Using water sometimes turned the pastel to a paste which he would manipulate with brushes, creating a fusion of wet and dry techniques.

The sculptures are discussed more extensively in Facture: Conservation, Science, Art History, Volume 3: Degas, published by the National Gallery of Art, featuring works from its unique holding of original Degas statuettes.

Arabesque over the Right Leg, Left Arm in Front, by Degas

(Image: Edgar Degas (18341917), Arabesque over the Right Leg, Left Arm in Front, First Study, c.188295coloured wax over a commercially prefabricated metal wire armature, attached to a wooden base, 23.5 x 13.7 x 27.5 cm, © The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge)

The posthumous repairing, editioning and distribution of bronze casts of Degas is involved and covers a multitude of archival, legal and moral issues about the reproduction of sculpture. These questions are of great financial importance considering the value of the pieces and the proliferation of fakes (or at least “unauthorised copies”). Degas considered casting some of his figures but never did; he exhibited only one sculpture during his lifetime, the famous Little Dancer aged Fourteen (1878-81), at the 1881 Impressionist exhibition. It was Degas’s heirs who decided to edition the statues in bronze and sell them.

The generously sized illustrations in the Cambridge catalogue allow us to get a good feeling for the originals. Both Facture and the Cambridge catalogue include x-rays which display the armature and internal components of the originals. Degas’s gimcrack, improvisatory approach to sculpture is apparent in evidence of hasty repairs, scraps of cloth and cork used as bulk and numerous breakages. Degas was apparently serious about his sculptural practice but treated the objects themselves in a rather casual manner. Extensive repairs were needed to many of the figures before they could be cast and some figures were just a jumble of fragments. It is fascinating to see the nails and wire holding the figures to their wooden bases and all the other touches of the artist which are obscured in the bronze casts.

There is debate about how finished the statues and the paintings are. Degas’s art is a difficult to assess in terms of finish. He left some works unfinished, exhibited art that seemed incomplete, revised finished work and wanted to “re-touch” sold pictures in private collectors (often to disastrous results). For discussion on that point, the bronzes and possible restorer intervention in a pastel, see my discussion of Facture on ArtWatch UK’s website here: http://artwatch.org.uk/degas-and-the-problem-of-finish/

For the general reader A Passion for Perfection is a good overview of Degas’s output, with new observations on his themes and techniques. Facture is an essential publication for scholars and collectors of Degas’s art.

18 October 2017

Basquiat versus Banksy

“On the eve of the opening of a new exhibition of art by Jean-Michel Basquiat in London, Banksy revealed two painted homages to his American predecessor. The contrast between the most famous exponents of two different generations of street art from opposite sides of the Atlantic could not be greater.

“Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) is widely considered the founder of the street art movement, which is the crossover of, on one side, graffiti art, mural painting and inscribed poetry and, on the other, the fine arts of museums and galleries. In theory, street art could be simply graffiti or posters from non-gallery settings relocated into museums and galleries, but in practice this is rarely the case. More often, creators who began by making graffiti start working on more portable supports (like the traditional artist’s canvas or board) when there is a commercial imperative. They also make prints or multiples with professional assistants.

“‘Basquiat: Boom for Real’ (Barbican Art Gallery, London; closes 28 January) collects a wide range of Basquiat’s art made over the whole of his short career. Visitors can judge for themselves Basquiat’s stellar status in the art world. (This year a painting by him sold at auction for $110million.) The art was made in a mixture of fine-art materials and ordinary materials from drugstores and discount stores. Paint, oil sticks, spraypaint, pencil and marker were used on canvas and board but also on more unusual supports such as foam rubber, doors, plates, a refrigerator and even a football helmet. Subjects include street life, modern life, racism, sports, music, popular culture, ancient history, the Western canon, anatomy and mortality. All manner of seemingly random fragments of history surface in Basquiat’s paintings. Simple icons, lists of words, graphic symbols, colourful abstract painting and meandering grids occupy a variety of surfaces…”

Read the full review online at Spiked, 2 October 2017, here: http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/basquiat-versus-banksy/20383#.WdJ0X1uPLIU