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August 16 2012

Snap happy: photography to look forward to

From an ambitious survey of 1960s-70s photography in London to Kohei Yoshiyuki's controversial work in Liverpool and Amsterdam's Unseen Photo Fair, there's a lot to see

August is a quiet month for photography shows, so here's a preview of some of the exhibition highlights for the next few months.

The most anticipated London show is surely Tate Modern's ambitious double header William Klein/Daido Moriyama, which opens on 10 October. Taking the cities of New York and Tokyo as its starting point, the show contrasts the approaches of two pioneers of impressionistic urban photography. It considers the influence of Klein's seminal 1956 book, Life Is Good and Good for You in New York, on Japanese photography, and Moriyama in particular. The prodigiously productive Moriyama was a founder of the radical Provoke movement in Japan and, alongside previously unseen vintage prints, the exhibition explores photography's role in the representation of protest movements and civil unrest. This is an ambitious show that will be a chance for many of us to see lots of Moriyama's images outside of book form for the first time. I, for one, cannot wait.

The other big London exhibition is the Barbican's group show, Everything Was Moving: Photography from the 60s and 70s, which opens on 13 September. This survey show reflects on the radical cultural shifts that took place around the world during the two decades. It shows work by well-known names such as William Eggleston, David Goldblatt, Boris Mikhalov and Bruce Davidson alongside the likes of Graciela Iturbide, Shomei Thomatsu and Raghubir Singh. Iturbide's work was one of the highlights of last year's Rencontres d'Arles and Thomatsu is arguably Japan's most influential postwar photographer, so this show promises to be intriguing, if only for the range of styles on display from a seemingly disparate bunch of innovators.

In November, the Victoria and Albert Museum hosts Light from the Middle East, the first major show of contemporary photography from the region. This intriguing exhibition brings together 30 artists from 13 different countries, including Abbas, Yousssef Nabil and Shadi Ghadirian. I am most looking forward to Newsha Takavolian's provocative series Mothers of Martyrs, which may divide opinion, but is undeniably powerful in its evocation of belonging, belief and mourning.

Elsewhere, Amsterdam hosts the first international Unseen Photo Fair from 19 to 23 September, which will feature previously unexhibited work by emerging photographers. The aim is to give "new photography the platform in deserves" and, to this end, more than 50 galleries from around the globe will be showing work from their most promising new talents. Forty lucky visitors have already been given €1,000 each to spend on photography courtesy of the Dutch cultural lottery. There will be work for sale by the likes of Alex Prager, Pieter Hugo, Alessandra Sanguinetti and Richard Mosse. A place for the curious as well as the committed collector to look at – and buy – photography. Plus, it will be interesting to see just how far the galleries go in interpreting the definition of Unseen.

Also in September, as part of Liverpool Biennial, the Open Eye gallery presents two controversial series by the Japanese photographer Kohei Yoshiyuki: The Park and Love Hotel. Both investigate the seedier side of sex – and both precipitated furious debates in Japan about the blurred line between reportage and voyeurism.

The Park, already a cult photobook, is the end result of Yoshiyuki's participation in the nocturnal goings-on in Shinjuku's Chuo Park in the early 1970s, when he photographed voyeurs who lurked in the bushes to spy on couples having furtive sex on the grass. The images in Love Hotel were taken in 1978 from sex tapes made by clients of one of Tokyo's infamous book-by-the-hour hotels. Both series are grainy and indistinct, but undeniably evocative. And provocative.

In London on 12 October, the Photographers' Gallery presents a long-overdue retrospective of the Irish-born photographer Tom Wood, who has been working for the last 25 years in and around Merseyside and Liverpool. He also shot the unforgettable Looking for Love series in a "disco-pub" in Chelsea Reach in London in the 1980s. His book Photie Man – the name given to him by the kids he photographed on Merseyside – is the best introduction to his work, which skirts street photography, portraiture and reportage, but cannot really be classed as any of them. Great to see the work of a singular photographer who doesn't fit in neatly to any tradition being celebrated by the Photographers' Gallery.

The fifth edition of the Brighton Biennial takes place from 6 October to 4 November in venues across the city. It's titled Agents of Change: Photography and the Politics of Space, and will feature artists including Omer Fast, Julian Germain, Trevor Paglen, Jason Larkin, Corinne Silva and Edmund Clark, whose project, Guantánamo: If the Light Goes Out, is shortlisted for this year's Prix Pictet Prize. The winner is announced at London's Saatchi Gallery on October 9, and a show of the shortlisted artists runs there from 10-28 October.

Finally, and staying in London, the Taylor Wessing Photographic Prize Exhibition is at the National Portrait Gallery from 8 November to 17 February 2013. As one of this year's judges, I can't say much more about it at present, but will be commenting on it from the inside when the shortlist is announced in September. Watch this space.

Now see this

From 18 August, Third Floor Gallery in Cardiff is showing Encuentro by Irish photographer Maurice Gunning. It focuses on the Argentine-Irish community in Buenos Aries, descendants of the original immigrants that arrived there in the 1800s. Gunning's poetic, fragmentary style is perfectly suited to the kind of visual storytelling that draws on memory, text and longing to at once evoke the past and the present.


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Tate Modern's waste of space: why won't interactive art leave me alone?

Being interrogated by a psychic in Tate Modern's new underground art space, The Tanks, was not my idea of fun. Shouldn't art be a contemplative, personal experience?

I've just been interrogated by the Stasi in a concrete bunker somewhere beneath Berlin. I discovered that privacy means nothing. I recognised the pathetic, delusory nature of bourgeois freedom.

Then I went for a cup of coffee, assiduously avoiding being accosted by any lurking art enactors on my way through the Turbine Hall.

Oh look, I am just not the right audience for the live art programme in Tate Modern's new space The Tanks. When someone asks me questions as part of an interactive artwork, I feel as reluctant to engage as I do when a computer cold calls my home phone. Leave me alone! – was my barely restrained reaction as I sat being interviewed by a psychic in an austere subterranean concrete space as a participant in an artwork by Jon Fawcett.

Six psychics sit at plain wooden booths as part of Fawcett's contribution to the new Undercurrent series of live events at The Tanks. Psychics! It sounds on paper like an underground circus with smoke, crystal balls and tarot readings. But although my interviewer assured me she is a trained psychic, what she did was ask me a series of questions about my job and interests, how honest I am, my views on politics, economics and the nature of power. It was a questionnaire that started in the banal and tried to touch on larger themes. Then I was invited to give contact details to continue the "screening process".

It's probably a work that gets richer the more you put into it. If you get in the spirit, it might be fun. But why should I?

Sitting in a cubicle being interrogated, albeit politely, in the name of art confirmed my worst fears about The Tanks. What a fantastic art space! What a great gallery this would make for the Tate's Rothkos. But instead it is dedicated to live art, performance, installation and film works, with lots of interaction thrown in.

Art should be a contemplative, personal experience. It should leave us free to engage on our own terms. The idea that interaction is good for us is patronising and treats us as lazy-minded idiots who must be prodded like cattle in order to respond. Somehow, if I sit answering inane questions about politics from a psychic, that is supposed to be more active and real and meaningful than if I sat for an hour looking at a Rothko.

Can I go and see the abstract paintings now, please sir? I've done my interactions.

Undercurrent continues until 27 August, with artists or entities, including Orange Dot, W Project and Isys Archive, who have worked with Tate Young People's Programmes.


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Gerry Vaughan obituary

My husband Gerry Vaughan, who has died of prostate cancer aged 77, was an 11-plus failure who went on to work as painter, teacher, lecturer and education adviser for Derbyshire county council.

Born in Gravesend, Kent, he went to the town's Gordon school for boys, where his artistic talent was nurtured initially, and then from the age of 14 to Gravesend School of Art. After national service, he was accepted into the painting school at the Royal College of Art. He left in 1959, having been awarded the RCA life-painting prize.

His idealism and belief in education initially inspired him to teach, and he joined the staff at Gordano school in Portishead, Somerset. Two years later, in 1961, he went to Chesterfield College of Art as lecturer in fine art. He was appointed as teacher adviser for art by Derbyshire county council in 1969 and remained in the post until 1985. During those years he was responsible for much of the art education in Derbyshire. He was an early member of the Art Advisers Association and worked closely with colleagues from other counties and areas.

We moved to Wirksworth, Derbyshire, in 1963, where local concern for a very run-down, neglected small town caused Gerry to become a founder-member of Wirksworth Civic Society in 1969. When the Wirksworth Project to regenerate the town was established in the late 70s, Gerry's interest in the built environment came into its own. He was charged with liaison with the local schools and encouraged them to be fully involved with the project. He ran courses for teachers and children, organised a study of art in the built environment and staged major exhibitions of the young people's work. The project was widely reported in the national press and had a worldwide influence on regeneration.

His early retirement, as a result of illness, enabled Gerry to take up his own painting once more. His sense of colour, able draughtsmanship and love of water – especially the Thames estuary and the Greek islands – resulted in a body of work that earned considerable respect. He exhibited in various venues in the UK and Greece. He supported the Wirksworth festival from its inception, both exhibiting and participating in the selection panel from time to time.

Gerry was painting until the end, through sleepless nights and long days, his work still full of vibrancy and colour.

He is survived by me, our children Simon, Jane and David, and seven grandchildren.


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Scent of a kitten: the 20 irrefutable theories of book cover design

Do you judge a book by its cover? Designers Jon Gray and Jamie Keenan shared their theories on attracting readers – from cute cats to alluring perfume – at the Edinburgh book festival

1. Face theory

Research suggests that human beings spend 48.6% of their lives decoding facial communication, so a big draw for a potential book buyer will be the familiarity of a face. The cover of Nick Hornby's Otherwise Pandemonium, for example, uses a cassette tape to create the image of a face.

2. Association theory

Human beings make a connection with a given stimulus that leads to how they respond to something they see. The image on the cover of Luca Turin's The Secret of Scent uses the familiar image of the Chanel No 5 perfume label to help the reader respond to the idea that the book is about scent.

3. Zen theory

This theory presents a challenge to the human mind that some will accept and some won't. A zen theory cover mainly involves text with few images, telling the reader little about the book other than the name of the author. This is often used for books from well-known authors, such as Philip Pullman's The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, who will attract readers with their name alone.

4. Type as image theory

This theory uses original or customised typefaces to create images and ideas. The type often becomes the image, such as on the cover for Steven Levy's The Perfect Thing.

5. Textual plasticity theory

The human mind reads words as a whole not individual letters. If a letter is missing, the brain will still understand the word. The design for James Gleick's Faster has all the vowels missing from the author's name and title on the cover, but is still readable.

6. Overdetermination theory

The image on a cover using Overdetermination theory suggests the beginning or snapshot of a narrative rather than an overall end result.

7. Ringfence theory

The difference between positive and negative space can determine what the reader sees. The Rubin vase is a good example, where some people see two faces and others see a vase. In this cover, the iPod headphones shape a womb and two lovers' faces.

8. Zoom theory

Zooming in can give a taster of a narrative without giving too much away, while zooming out creates a bigger picture, depending on what is required. The pen nib on the cover of Miguel Syjuco's Ilustrado is an example of close zoom.


9. Encapsulation theory

Typeface and image combine to create one unified image for the reader. Unity is more attractive to humans, as making connections doesn't require as much effort. The cover of Marina Lewycka's A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian has a picture of a tractor and the word "tractor".

10. Molecular theory

Layers of symbols that make up a whole, understandable theme define molecular theory. The cover of Karen Maitland's The Company of Liars uses skull symbols inside a silhouette of a dog to symbolise that this is "a novel of the plague".

11. Unheimlich theory

This theory takes a familiar image or symbol and makes it strange or unsettling. One cover of Lolita uses the image of a girl's bedroom wall to represent a girl's legs and underwear.


12. Absent presence theory

A gap is left on the cover, a missing image or text, that implies something. By having this space, the reader is forced to fill the gap with their imagination in order to understand the meaning.

13. Ju Jitsu theory

The opponent, the cover, forces a view or conception upon the defender, the reader, such as the bloody, violent implications on the cover of Anthony McGowan's love story Stag Hunt.

14. Toy theory

A fixed image allows the reader to remain passive and distance themselves from a cover. A fluid image, like the one on William Boyd's Fascination requires the reader to actively explore the cover and become curious about the content.

15. Obfuscation theory

If something is hidden it suddenly becomes more interesting to the curious nature of the human mind. The cover of an edition of Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day obscures the image that depicts the content with white lines and text.

16. Combination theory

Because a book is static, two ideas can be presented at once to create a doubly effective but meaningful image to the reader. Moses Isegawa's novel Abyssinian Chronicles is about modern Africa, and the cover uses old books to create the shape of the continent.

17. Navigation

The eye is deliberately led via an understandable pattern; left to right, bottom to top, to create an easily recognisable overall image. Hannah Holmes's Quirk depicts the brain through a mind map.

18. Turd theory

A single, unsightly object can be seen as repulsive. Multiply the image and use bright colours, and it can become attractive. Usually used in series design, the effects can be seen in a sequence of Georges Simenon books designed by Keenan.

19. Maximisation

Everything is huge and thrown on to the cover. Bigger images and text can catch a reader's eye in a sea of detailed designs. The cover for Zadie Smith's new book, NW, is a good example of maximisation.

20. Fluffy kitten theory

Nothing draws a reader to a book like a picture of a fluffy kitten.


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Eye saw this: the top 10 most popular Guardian Eyewitness images

As the Guardian Eyewitness app relaunches, we list the top 10 most popular and most shared images from the past 12 months





Artist of the week 203: Sung Hwan Kim

This Korean-born, New York-based artist spins beguiling tales that mesh elements from sci-fi, folk tales, personal memories and history

Sung Hwan Kim has a gift for getting under the skin. The stories he and his friends spin in his beguiling videos and performances are delivered in the hushed tones you might use to soothe a child or an invalid. His restrained bedside manner is pitch-perfect, casually launching into parables with an ominous psychosexual charge and mysterious symbolism, which builds to fever point on unsuspecting ears.

In one of the Korean-born, New York-based artist's most haunting film works, From the Commanding Heights, a woman finds a family of snakes set up home in her throat. She manages to bite off their heads but their bodies remain lodged in her slender neck.

Kim brings the tale to life with a green marker pen, sketching phallic snakes on to a transparency, placed over a camera lens that he talks into, so that the felt-tip snakes seem to grow in his own gullet.

This flair for quick-thinking low-fi effects, coupled with the gang of chums who act in Kim's videos, might call to mind current Turner-nominee Spartacus Chetwynd's dishevelled performance troupe and their DIY wardrobes. Typical costumes for Kim's works include hand-drawn paper masks which call to mind both children's fancy dress and S&M gear, or bedsheets used to conceal crouching bodies so they become volcanoes with human heads. Simple camera tricks make everyday things hallucinogenic: see Manahatas Dance, where footage of a woman dancing in a Native American top is projected upside down in slow motion, so that her leather tassels and hair start to look more and more like the tendrils of a jellyfish.

Kim's approach always flits between reality and fiction and draws on different mediums and cultures. A single work might mesh elements from sci-fi, folk tales, personal memories and human history, as in the unsettling Summer Days in Keijo. The Dutch traveller who narrates this story of Keijo, the formerly Japanese-ruled city that is now Korea's capital Seoul, starts out like a dull tour guide. Soon enough, though, things take a sinister turn.

We're told that the little kids innocently dancing and playing have been wheeled out creepily for her amusement, having been rescued from sewers to become industrial workers. Nothing is to be believed, it seems, in a city whose name is always changing. Even the architecture in the film is subject to reinvention, with buildings pushed around, their landmark status revoked. It seems that in both life and art, you cannot trust what you see or hear.

Why we like him: For the delirious soundtracks Kim creates with New York-based musician David Michael DiGregorio AKA dogr: intense orchestrations of experimental acoustics, found sounds and eerie vocals.

One plus one: Kim originally studied maths and engineering. He was on the way to becoming an architect before he attended a class taught by performance and video art legend Joan Jonas.

Where can I see him? At Tate Modern to 28 October.


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Story of British art: the Wilton Diptych

This rapturous work of 14th-century art belonged to Richard II, although the artist is unknown. The king had it made so he could carry it around as a mobile altarpiece





August 15 2012

John Minihan's best photograph

'This is Samuel Beckett in a cafe in Paris. He set it all up. He wanted the picture to say: This is who I am'

I'd never heard of Samuel Beckett until he won the Nobel prize for literature in 1969. After that, I went to see some of his shows and quickly became fascinated by this Irishman living in Paris. In 1980, he came to London to direct Endgame. Sam was a recluse, with a real aversion to journalists, but an Irish porter at the Hyde Park Hotel gave me a tip-off that he was staying there. I left him a note and, when I called the hotel the next day, I got put straight through.

At our first meeting, I showed him pictures I'd taken at the wake of a woman from Athy, the Irish town where I grew up. She was called Katy Tyrrell and I took shots of her and her family for three days and two nights. Clocks were stopped, fires were put out, and the mirror was covered with a sheet. He was intrigued. Then I took several pictures of him. Sam probably thought this was the last he was going to see of me, but I don't operate like that. To my mind, a 16th of a second is nothing out of someone's life.

After that, I would photograph stagings of his plays, starring everyone from Patrick Stewart to Ian McKellen. Actors would appear for nothing, simply because the work was beautiful to perform. It was perfect for a black-and-white photographer, too. I sent Sam all the photos, and he would write me thank-you notes on postcards.

In 1985, just before his 80th birthday, Sam invited me over to Paris. We agreed to meet at his local cafe in Montparnasse at 3pm on a Sunday. I arrived at 2pm and found a secluded table by the window with good light. I can still see Sam walking towards me with a smile on his face – he knew exactly why I had chosen that spot.

We talked until 4.50pm. He mesmerised me. Daylight was quickly disappearing and I thought the moment had passed. Then Sam said: "John, would you like to take a photograph?" I got out my Rolleiflex and took three frames. They turned out better than I expected because Sam directed the whole scene. He wanted it to say: "This is who I am."

That night, I was so excited to have snapped Samuel Beckett in Paris, his chosen city, that I went out and got completely and utterly pissed.

CV

Born: Dublin, 1946.

Studied: London School of Printing and Graphic Arts.

Influences: Cecil Beaton, EO Hoppé, André Kertész.

High point: "As an apprentice on the Daily Mail, developing images and seeing them appear before my eyes."

Low point: "When I lose a subject I love, like Beckett."

Tip: "Research your subject. If it's a writer, read their books – it will tell you who they are."

• John Minihan is speaking on 27 August at the Happy Days Enniskillen Beckett festival, where his photographs are on display; 23-27 August.


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Medieval mischief: monks bring light relief to Macclesfield

Religious books were 'illuminated' by monks, who filled the margins with cheeky images, and the Macclesfield psalter is a master of English illumination





Crazy golftime for Hitler

A model of Hitler on a crazy golf course at Grundy Art Gallery has been called 'tasteless' by a Jewish organisation. But shouldn't artists have the right to offend?

Hitler golf? Now that's what I call crazy. An exhibition called Adventureland Golf that has just opened at the Grundy Art Gallery in Blackpool (where else?) features crazy golf course obstacles created by artists who include David Shrigley, Gary Webb, and Jake and Dinos Chapman.

Can you guess which of them is responsible for a lifelike statue of Hitler's head and torso, its arm poised to rise in a Nazi salute every time the ball goes through a hole between its legs?

Take a bow, Chapmans. Or give a salute, whatever.

In a bit of national publicity that must be welcome to any exhibition opening in the middle of August, Michael Samuels of the Board of Deputies of British Jews has condemned the Chapman brothers' piece, calling it "tasteless" and declaring that it has "absolutely no artistic value whatsoever".

Is it worth him making those comments? What has been gained by them? The exhibition is in the news as a result. The Hitler artwork will be seen by many more people than would otherwise have attended the Grundy. Surely this is an object lesson in how not to criticise art you find offensive.

Artists have the right to offend. We do not have the right, as citizens, to be free from every image that upsets, shocks, or even disgusts us. To call this crazy golf representation of Adolf Hitler "tasteless" is a bit like calling the Colossus of Rhodes "colossal". Does anyone think the artists were trying to be anything other than tasteless?

I only hope Mr Samuels is never exposed to the Chapmans' much more ambitious (and famous) work Hell, which features thousands of melted, melded and otherwise abused toy Nazis enacting an apocalyptic vision of torture and death.

But when does an image of Hitler become offensive? Hitler as a crazy golf statue apparently offends. But what about Basil Fawlty doing his funny walk, Mel Brooks's Hitler musical in The Producers, or the bizarrely characterful portrayal of Hitler in the film Downfall?

Why should the Blackpool Hitler be seen as an outrage too far, when this vicious mass murderer is such a familiar, even comic image in our culture?

The trouble seems to lie in our belief that statues are honorific. To make a statue of someone, even as a proposal for an imaginary crazy golf course, is – we assume – to praise and ennoble them. That's why statues get toppled in revolutions and wars. The exhibition in Blackpool also includes an image of dictator Saddam Hussein. Is that praising him?

Does the crazy-golf Hitler have artistic value? As an exercise in causing offence, it is apparently quite effective. That may not be the highest artistic achievement, but it's not bad for mid-August.


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Guardian Camera Club: Gethin Thomas on summer events

Gethin Thomas participates in the summer events assignment





Peter Duggan's Artoons: Tracey Emin

Cartoonist Peter Duggan redraws art history with a light-hearted look at how Tracey Emin might have created her famous tent artwork, Everyone I Have Ever Slept With, 1963-1995





August 14 2012

Your story of British art - in pictures

To kick off our Story of British art series charting 5,000 years of art history, we asked you to name your top artworks. From William Blake to Tracey Emin, here are your favourites





Paint the town gold

The Post Office's gold-painted postboxes – celebrating Team GB's success – have gone down so well that now we all want one in our town. Has London 2012 set a new gold standard?

The most unlikely Olympic artwork of the summer has to be the postbox that was illegally painted gold in Lymington, where Ben Ainslie lives.

Did you see the story? A local man was so disappointed to hear no postbox was to be painted gold in Lymington to mark the triumph of the most successful sailor in Olympic history that he did the job himself. He was arrested. But show mercy, for it was the Post Office that came up with the notion of painting boxes gold in the first place.

In a plan perhaps reminiscent of Krusty the Klown's Los Angeles Olympics give-away in a vintage episode of The Simpsons, the Post Office vowed to paint a postbox gold for every British victory in the 2012 Games. Krusty promised free meals at his fast-food outlet Krusty Burger for every American Olympic victory, but lost millions when the USSR pulled out and America hit a gold rush. Similarly, our postal providers probably expected to be gilding a couple of postboxes here and there – but instead, their map of gold boxes shows a constellation of customised mail inlets all over Britain.

A decision to give Ainslie a gold postbox in Cornwall, where he grew up, and not in Lymington, where he lives, prompted the Olympic postal paint outlaw. And perhaps the postal service has set a dangerous precedent here. You give people an idea ...

British postboxes have been painted red since 1874. Like our old-style red telephone boxes used to be, they are a renowned national image. Is this the beginning of the end for that red uniformity? The point of the gold postboxes is that they represent a unique variant on a rigid formula. But now, everyone wants a gold postbox. Places that have been honoured want to keep their temporary festive postbox as a timeless memorial – Manchester is already asking for its gold letter receptacle on Albert Square to stay that way as a permanent reminder of cycling success.

Red just won't cut it anymore. Those poor towns on the map that have no gold postboxes are surely shamed, as places where no sporting legends are nurtured, where no one's been busy training on the fields of this green and pleasant land.

Green and pleasant? Perhaps the grass should also be painted gold in places that have raised Olympic heroes. Park keepers of Britain, where is your patriotism?


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Digging with dignity: Adam delving, Canterbury Cathedral's wondrous window

Jonathan Jones: This stunning stained glass window, created around 1176, still glows with vivid colour and moving humanity. It depicts Adam working the land – the ideal portrayal of a medieval peasant





August 13 2012

Fitzwilliam Museum appeals for £3.9m to buy Poussin masterpiece

Cambridge museum has until November to buy Extreme Unction, one of a series on the sacraments by 17th-century old master

The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge has launched a £3.9m appeal to buy a sombre masterpiece by Poussin with a tangled recent history that belies its calm grandeur.

The painting, Extreme Unction, is from a famous series depicting the seven sacraments by the 17th-century French artist, which has been in an aristocratic English collection for more than two centuries, but has been on and off the market in recent years.

This one is available as a tax deal with the government, in lieu of the inheritance tax owed by the trustees of the Dukes of Rutland from the sale of another painting in the series to the United States last year.

Timothy Potts, the director of the Fitzwilliam, said securing the work for Cambridge would be its most significant old master acquisition in a century. It would be a parting coup for Potts, who leaves next month to take over as director at the Getty museum in California, the wealthiest art museum in the world.

The Art Fund charity – its pockets almost emptied by the £850,000 it gave the university museum's great rival, the Ashmolean in Oxford, to buy a Manet – is giving £100,000. It is also appealing to all its members and supporters to back the appeal for a painting seen as a landmark in art history that has influenced generations of later artists.

When the seven paintings first came to England in the 18th century, Joshua Reynolds, then president of the Royal Academy – where George III came to see them – said: "I think upon the whole that this must be considered as the greatest work of Poussin, who was certainly one of the greatest painters that ever lived."

Poussin regarded Extreme Unction – the ashen figure of a man on his deathbed being anointed with oil, the final sacrament for a Christian – as one of his greatest. He wrote to his friend Fréart de Chantelou, who commissioned a second series, that the subject was "worthy of an Apelles", the most famous Greek painter of antiquity.

The paintings were bought by the Dukes of Rutland in 1785. One was destroyed in a fire at Belvoir Castle in the 19th century, and another was sold to the National Gallery in Washington in the early 20th century. The remaining five were on display for several years at the National Gallery in London.

Their sale was announced, the gallery began fundraising, and then the sale was cancelled. By the time the sale was confirmed again, the gallery was in the throes of fundraising to purchase, with the National Gallery in Scotland, the great Titian paintings – currently the subject of Metamorphosis, a multimedia arts project – and had no hope of raising the money to buy the Poussins as well. Ordination was duly sold last year to the Kimbell Art Museum in Texas for $24.3m (£15.5m).

Extreme Unction is regarded as of such outstanding importance that the government has accepted it in lieu of the tax owed on the American sale, but since it is valued at £14m, more than the tax owed, the Fitzwilliam has to raise the balance.

The future of the remaining three paintings in the series – Eucharist, Confirmation and Marriage – has not been announced.

The painting is already on display, free, at the Fitzwilliam. Potts called it "a national and international treasure" which would prove a "destination painting", drawing many new visitors to the museum. The museum has until November to raise the money.


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Why Mo Farah stole the show from British artists

Damien Hirst's closing ceremony union flag was magnificent but empty and Martin Creed's bell-ringing at the start of the Games rang hollow compared with the depth of soul shown by athletes

The London Olympics began and ended with art. The morning of the first day started with people all over the nation ringing all kinds of bells to perform Martin Creed's Work No 1197: All the Bells. But the big art surprise was reserved for the closing ceremony: this mashup of great, bad and indifferent British pop music was set on a gigantic Damien Hirst painting of the British flag.

In retrospect, it was always a bit fishy that Britain's biggest modern artist seemed so invisible from these Olympics. It was never really likely that Hirst would let a modest fellow like Creed steal the show. And Hirst's outsized union flag in the Olympic arena unfurled his art at its best: a colossal pop icon.

On the other hand, it was in tune with a closing ceremony that was, however much the nation strains to celebrate it, a lot less interesting than the opening show. In contrast with Danny Boyle's imaginative history spectacular, this was a pop concert with very little to it. Hirst's great big daub fitted it well – magnificent but empty, a slather of patriotic baroque. (... although the Who were great.)

The truth is that art was a bit of eye-candy, or in Creed's case ear-candy, for these Olympic Games. It was inevitable that contemporary British art would be wheeled out as a national asset during this self-celebratory summer. And its strengths were on show: excelling at the pop statement, the public moment. Unfortunately its weaknesses were also apparent, when you compared Creed or Hirst with the athletes, the true artists of London 2012.

I don't care how many medals Britain got or any of the patriotic guff that will wash around for a few more weeks. I care about Mo Farah. It's sometimes said of people who are very good at something that they make it look easy. Farah is great because he makes it look difficult. Neither of his gold medals seemed inevitable. Seeing his first victory on television involved and moved me more than any sporting event ever has. It had what I want from a work of art. It touched on deep hopes and fears. It made you, looking at it, aware of the human condition in some deep, primal way.

This race – and other Olympic events too – taught me that sport can be profound.

By contrast, where is the profundity in Creed or Hirst? Where is the soul in modern British art? It's good for a laugh, a party, a bell-ringing breakfast. But where is that sense of mortal testing and absolute absorption we got from the athletic highlights of the 2012 Olympic Games?

Our culture should take a lead from athletics. The real lesson of these Olympics is that the best things in art and life are deadly serious.


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