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August 16 2012

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





July 31 2012

Why Picasso's Joker trumps Van Gogh and Cézanne

While others were besotted with beauty, Picasso showed a radical appetite for ugliness in his painting of the bohemian, Bibi la Purée, which has just gone on display at the National Gallery

Pablo Picasso's portrait of Bibi la Purée stands out bizarrely in the post-impressionist room at London's National Gallery where it has just gone on view. The horrible complexion of this absinthe-drinking former actor, painted by the 20-year-old Picasso in Montmartre in 1901, is an uneasy interloper among Van Gogh's Sunflowers and Cézanne's Bathers. Even in this youthful work, the shocking radicalism and daring of Picasso glares from the wall like the awful flower in Bibi's jacket.

Grotesque, ugly and monstrous, this man could be an early design for The Joker or a junk-addled clown. Clearly the young Picasso was fascinated by the low life of Paris and drawn to the demi-monde where art met absinthe. If Bibi la Purée seems to belong to the world of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec that's because Toulouse-Lautrec was Picasso's hero when he first encountered the art and atmosphere of Paris. The 20-year-old Spanish visitor here tries his hand at painting like the chronicler of Montmartre's dancers and prostitutes. Being Picasso, his attempt at emulation turns into a work of uncomfortable originality.

Seeing Picasso in the National Gallery, which has got the portrait of Bibi la Purée on long-term loan from a private collection, is tremendous. He belongs here. His art exploded out of the European traditions of art this museum exhibits, and all his life he engaged with the masters of earlier centuries as rivals, enemies, models. It is in the context of such a collection that you see his audacity to the full.

This painting, in this collection, reveals Picasso's revolutionary appetite for ugliness. Next to Bibi la Purée, the nearby paintings of Van Gogh and Cézanne seem besotted with a cult of beauty invented by the Renaissance. Their colours harmonise and they exult in nature. Picasso instead delights in coarsely ill-matched colours and a face pale and diseased from modern city life. He is really on to something here, in 1901, as he sees discord as the art of modern life. Les Demoiselles d'Avignon is just six years away. He will paint it in a studio in the same Montmartre where he met Bibi la Purée.


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July 21 2012

Metamorphosis: Titian 2012 – review

Royal Opera House/National Gallery, London

The National Gallery and the Royal Ballet are collaborating in an uncommon and marvellous way with Metamorphosis: Titian 2012. Leading artists (Mark Wallinger, Conrad Shawcross, Chris Ofili) and more than a dozen of our finest poets (including Seamus Heaney, Christopher Reid and Simon Armitage), along with seven choreographers (Kim Brandstrup, Wayne McGregor, Christopher Wheeldon and others), not to leave out three composers (Mark-Anthony Turnage, Nico Muhly and Jonathan Dove), have been commissioned to produce Titian-inspired work and, specifically, pieces relating to paintings of Diana and Actaeon.

The National Gallery's exhibition is a stimulating homage. The tricky thing is to resist judging the differing responses as rivals – the show is not a compeTitian. And actually there should be no contest, because Titian's three great paintings hold supreme sway and define Diana. In Diana and Callisto (1556-59) she's a figure of voluptuous ruthlessness, her pointed finger like a lightning conductor. In Diana and Actaeon (1556-59) her flesh looks soft but her look is as hard as the pearls she wears. In The Death of Actaeon (1559-75) she is a murderous force of nature. The paintings have spurred on splendid poetry but are less obvious as a basis for ballet – Diana and her comely entourage could not look less like ballerinas.

Yet at the Royal Opera House, as the curtain goes up on Conrad Shawcross's predatory, grey metal sculpture of Diana – like a praying mantis dominating the stage – it seems not only bold but prudent to have travelled such a distance from Titian. I love Shawcross's crazy, imaginative presumption in Machina. He has translated Diana's mettle to metal and her imperious finger into a robotic proboscis – at the tip of which a light burns like a cigarette in the dark. His Diana is pure intent, as she revolves and evolves to become part of the dance.

Kim Brandstrup and Wayne McGregor's choreography is at once miraculously sensual and, intermittently, mechanical. Carlos Acosta is at his sensational best, conveying ecstasy and sorrow, dancing with a galvanising Edward Watson against a background of fog, and alone with the machine as it turns against him. Nico Muhly's music is a beautiful mixture of trance and foreboding.

In Trespass, the second of three dances, Mark Wallinger's mirrored core of a set makes Alastair Marriott and Christopher Wheeldon's choreography seem busier. The inventive dancing complements Mark-Anthony Turnage's agile, driven, percussive score. And there is some virtuoso human sculpture, making it appear easy to be a figurehead standing on another dancer as prow. The fabulous costumes look as if sequined stars have been stitched into flesh. Trespass is intriguing, but I failed to see the piece as voyeuristic, as apparently intended.

Might too many choreographers spoil Diana's aim? Diana and Actaeon, choreographed by Liam Scarlett, Will Tuckett and Jonathan Watkins, is the most narrative-dependent of the dances. After Actaeon sees Diana naked, in a fury she turns him into a stag and his hounds kill him. Chris Ofili sets Ovid's story in a tropical paradise with a decorative 60s feel. A false move, because it shifts visceral tragedy into fey inconsequence. Similarly, although the hounds are wittily choreographed, they have a pantomime feel. And while Jonathan Dove's incantatory music is beautifully sung, it is impossible to hear the libretto. Still, the principals are again impeccable. Federico Bonelli's dashing, purple-suited Actaeon has a matador's grace. Marianela Nuñez's terrific Diana has jittery orange feet, red hair, golden breasts and neurotic energy. She resembles a flame thrower, her body the flame. And after Actaeon's annihilation, she shows what it means to dance on someone's grave.


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May 18 2012

A little house made of human skin

Poignant, thoughtful and exhilarating by turns, the art of the family comes to the Laing in Newcastle. The Guardian Northerner's arts explorer Alan Sykes finds much to enjoy and admire

Family Matters, which opens at the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle today, Friday 18 May, shows over 60 artists and their very differing depictions of the family, going back to a 1542 portrait after Holbein of Edward VI aged six, and on to the 21st century.

The exhibition is organised around five broad – and overlapping - themes:
inheritance; childhood; couples & kinship; parenting and home.

Perhaps not surprisingly, death is frequently in the foreground or background of the paintings. Poor young Edward VI, dressed up in imitation of Holbein's grandiosifying iconography of Henry VIII to symbolise the power and continuity of the Tudor dynasty, only survived his father by a few years and died a teenager. Donald Rodney's 1996-7 "In the House of My Father" is a photograph of a miniature house held in the artist's hand. The house is made of skin removed from Rodney in operations for the sickle cell anaemia which was to kill him only a year later, aged 37.

In Gainsborough's charming "The Painter's Daughters Chasing a Butterfly" from the National Gallery, it is thought that the fragile butterfly may have been the painters way of depicting his older daughter Mary, who had died young. Sometimes the portraits are even done post mortem. In Pompeo Batoni's "The Hon Thomas and Mrs Barrett-Lennard with the daughter Barbara Anne", the daughter had been dead for a year when the grieving couple arrived in Rome on a grand tour. The painter had to make the likeness of Barbara Anne from a miniature which the Barrett-Lennards carried with them. Van Dyck's portrait of Venetia Digby was apparently commissioned by her widower, who had plaster casts of her face, hands and feet taken after her death. The sitter had died very suddenly and mysteriously aged only 32, and some suspicion of foul play fell on the husband, but nothing has ever been proved.

It's not all doom and death, however. Zoffany's amusing picture of David Garrick in drag and a rage in Vanbrugh's "The Provok'd Wife" is here, contrasting with the amusing for different reasons and much more overtly theatrical "The Prodigal Daughter" of 1903, by John Collier, in which a modern and independent-minded young woman is pitched against her Victorian-in-every-sense parents.

David Hockney's "My Parents", of 1977, shows his mother smiling fondly at her talented son, while his father is hunched over a copy of "Art & Photography" - apparently he was inclined to fidget when sitting if not allowed to read - while in a mirror on the chest we see a reflection of Piero della Francesca's "The Baptism of Christ" from the National Gallery. Michael Andrews' touching "Melanie and me Swimming" shows the artist teaching his daughter to swim, and looks at parenthood from the opposite end of the lens to Hockney.

Of course, one can have fun thinking of works that could have been included – I would have loved to have seen the extraordinary 1635 portrait">portrait of Sir Colin Campbell, 8th laird of Glenorchy, and his seven ancestral predecessors as laird, by George Jamesone, from the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. And some one can do without: even the Laing's Marie-Thérèse Mayne admitted that Joshua Reynolds' "The Age of Innocence" portrait of a young child is "cloyingly sweet", and it certainly makes one understand why the Pre-Raphaelites lampooned him as "Sir Sloshua Reynolds".

Although the "themes", which are enforced through colour-coding in the labels and in the catalogue - which is irritatingly divided into 5 flimsy pamphlets with no index, rather than being in a single handy volume - are too vague to be of any real use, there are certainly enough treasures to make it worth visiting the Laing to enjoy this free show. Other artists in the show include Gillian Wearing, Rachel Whiteread, Vanessa Bell, Mona Hatoum, Sickert, Stanley Spencer, Lely, Julia Margaret Cameron and Allan Ramsay.

Councillor Ged Bell, Chair of Tyne & Wear Joint Museums & Archives Committee (which runs the Laing and other museums and galleries in Tyne & Wear), says:

"It's very exciting to see the North East being involved in a partnership such as this Great British Art Debate project. The North East, as well as the rest of the UK has a wonderful artistic heritage which powerfully illustrates our sense of who we are and the Great British Art Debate is designed to encourage people to take part in an important debate about Britishness."

The Laing is one of the venues in Newcastle and Gateshead which will be taking part in this year's "The Late Shows", which takes place on the evenings of Friday 18 and Saturday 19 May, and this year includes a ukele jam session in the Sage Music Centre, a Space Hopper disco in the Shed, Gateshead, tours of the Victoria Tunnel under the streets of Newcastle, new sculptures at the Mining Institute and exhibitions and events in over 50 other venues – all accessible via a free bus service. Last year 24,000 people visited the 46 participating venues over the two nights, and this year the organisers hope to break that record.

"Family Matters" has been seen at the Norwich Castle Museum and at Museums Sheffield. It is on at the Laing until 2 September and then travels to Tate Britain (1 October to 21 December).


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May 10 2012

Richard Hamilton's last painting to be centrepiece of posthumous exhibition

The artist, one of Britain's best-loved of the 20th century, worked on the National Gallery show until the eve of his death last year

The last unfinished picture by Richard Hamilton, one of the most admired and best-loved British artists of the 20th century, will be the centrepiece of a National Gallery exhibition on which he was working until the eve of his death last September.

Hamilton died just short of his 90th birthday, and in his last months he knew he would not get it finished and that the exhibition would prove a valedictory from beyond the grave. On his last working day he was completing the layout for the gallery's Sunley room, a labyrinth through earlier works leading to the last picture – which poignantly deals with the failure of art.

"This was the picture literally on his easel, or rather in his computer, on the day he died," curator Christopher Riopelle said. "The whole concept of the exhibition changed very much, shaped by his knowledge that it would be his last."

Hamilton, credited with launching the British pop art movement with his 1956 collage Just What Is It That Makes Today's Homes So Different, So Appealing?, was a passionate supporter of free admission to national collections. The exhibition, which could well have been a moneyspinning blockbuster like the Lucian Freud retrospective around the corner in the National Portrait Gallery, will be free.

In order to ensure that his chosen works would be available for the National Gallery, he deferred a major international touring show which will be seen at four cities in Europe and the United States, including the Tate in London, from next year.

It will include many works linked to his lifelong interest in the art of Marcel Duchamp, and to pictures in the National Gallery collection including his startling version of Fra Angelico's 15th-century Annunciation, with two naked women taking the places of the demure angel and Virgin.

The exhibition will culminate in three large working versions of his last work, inspired by a 19th-century short story by Honore de Balzac, The Unknown Masterpiece, in which an artist invites his peers to view a painting in which he claims to have created a nude indistinguishable from real life: they see only meaningless swirls and daubs of colour. In Hamilton's multi-layered version, the artists are based on self-portraits by Poussin, Courbet and Titian, standing by a reclining naked woman based on a 19th-century photograph, in turn referencing classical nudes including Titian's sexy Venus of Urbino.

The work will be titled The Balzac. Hamilton's widow, Rita, thought he would not like it called The Masterpiece, in case people thought he was claiming that honour for himself.

"The origin of the exhibition was one day when Nick [Nicholas Penny, director of the National Gallery] said: 'Come on, we're going to lunch at Richard's," Riopelle recalled. "The food was excellent, as always at Richard's, as was the wine, as always at Richard's. We probably had far too much for lunchtime – but at the end of it the germ of the exhibition was there. We lost two giants within a few months of one another last year in Hamilton and Freud. I'm not sure we're realised the scale of the loss yet."

Richard Hamilton: the Late Works is at the National Gallery, London WC2N, from 10 October to 13 January


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April 24 2012

The transformative effect of Ovid's Metamorphoses on European art

As a summer National Gallery exhibition will show, Titian was the greatest visualiser of Ovid – but he had some major competition

The National Gallery once put on an exhibition about the influence of the New Testament on western art. Seeing Salvation argued that if you don't know the biblical story of Christ, you can't comprehend such paintings as Titian's Noli Me Tangere. But this summer the same gallery showcases another, very different book that has also exerted a vast influence on European art – Ovid's Metamorphoses.

Written in Latin in the reign of the ancient Roman emperor Augustus, who exiled Ovid for naughtiness, this epic poem retells the myths of ancient Greece for a sophisticated Roman audience. Ovid's audience worshipped these same gods, giving the Greek pantheon Latin names (Zeus became Jupiter or Jove, Aphrodite became Venus, and so on) but found the antics of their deities by turns salacious, shocking, hilarious and tragic.

Ovid tells stories in verse about the crazed love life of Jupiter, driven by his lusts for various nymphs to take the forms of a bull, or a cloud, or a shower of gold in order to trick or seduce them. He tells of the courage of Perseus, who killed Medusa, and the folly of Phaethon, who tried to drive the sun's chariot. He was the favourite source of classical myth for artists in the 16th and 17th centuries, and reading his book is like flicking through a series of descriptions of famous paintings, so copiously has he been illustrated.

The National Gallery is putting on its show Metamorphosis to celebrate the two great Titians it has purchased in partnership with the National Gallery of Scotland. Diana and Callisto and Diana and Actaeon both depict scenes from Ovid. But if Titian was the greatest visualiser of Ovid he had a lot of competition. Such marvels of art as Correggio's Jupiter and Io, Michelangelo's Fall of Phaethon, and Carravaggio's Medusa all draw heat from Ovid's imaginative fire.

The exhibition Metamorphosis, an Olympic special tied in with new opera productions, involves works by contemporary British artists – including Chris Ofili and Mark Wallinger – that respond to Ovid's myths. The gallery is also publishing newly commissioned poems after Ovid by writers who include Seamus Heaney.

But why wait? I happen to have translated the following bit of Ovid the other day. In this passage, Ovid gives the background to the scene in Titian's Diana and Callisto, on view now at the National Gallery. In the painting, the goddess Diana discovers that one of her supposedly chaste and virginal followers has become pregnant. Here's how it happened, in my English and the original Latin. The god Jupiter, lusting after Callisto, took the form of Diana to fool Callisto and disguise himself from his suspicious wife Juno:

"Here certainly my consort will know nothing of my tricks", he said,
"and if she does, it will be worth the rows, oh yes it will!"
Immediately he put on the face and fashion of Diana
and said: "O dearest of my followers, maid,
where did you hunt today?" From her tuft the maid
raised herself and said "Hail, goddess, judged by me,
though he heard it himself, greater than Jove." He heard and laughed
and rejoiced to be preferred to himself, and kissed her,
neither modestly nor in the manner of a maiden.

"hoc certe furtum coniunx mea nesciet" inquit,
"aut si rescierit, sunt, o sunt iurgia tanti!"
protinus induitur faciem cultumque Dianae
atque ait: "o comitum, virgo, pars una mearum,
in quibus es venata iugis?" de caespite virgo
se levat et "salve numen, me iudice" dixit,
"audiat ipse licet, maius Iove." ridet et audit
et sibi praeferri se gaudet et oscula iungit,
nec moderata satis nec sic a virgine danda.

Ovid rocks, that's for sure.


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April 03 2012

Titian's earliest masterpiece in UK for first time

National Gallery borrows The Flight Into Egypt, not seen outside Russia since it was bought by Catherine the Great in 1768

Catherine the Great bought Titian's The Flight Into Egypt in 1768. Since then the large painting, described by the 16th-century art historian Giorgio Vasari as Titian's first masterpiece, has not been seen outside Russia – until Tuesday.

Loaned to the National Gallery in London by the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, the 505-year-old artwork is looking better than it has for decades, after undergoing intensive cleaning and restoration.

The Hermitage began restoring it in 1999, and the whole process took two people more than 12 years. "It was so dark, under layers of varnish and retouches which completely altered it," said Irina Artemieva, curator of Venetian paintings at the Hermitage. "There was no green or blue, only grey and brown and black."

Two years ago, Artemieva sent an image of the work to the National Gallery director Sir Nicholas Penny, another specialist in the Venetian paintings of the period. "He was so surprised by the results of the restoration, we immediately had the idea to present it here in the National Gallery."

The painting is displayed alongside works that inspired it, by artists including Giovanni Bellini, Giorgione and Albrecht Dürer. Titian trained under the first two, and the third was working in Venice at the time The Flight Into Egypt was painted. The curator Antonio Mazzotta described the other works as the ingredients that went into Titian's painting.

"The National Gallery has an ideal context for this painting," Artemieva said. "You have so many pictures [here] which can explain how this masterpiece was born – and in other British institutions too.

"In the British Museum there are drawings by Dürer and his circle and also in some private collections we have many painting from the same period – the same crucial decade of the 16th century."

The Flight into Egypt was painted in 1507, when Titian was still a teenager, working for Giorgione. Commissioned by Andrea Loredan for his palace on Venice's Grand Canal, it depicts the holy family riding through a vibrant rural landscape alive with animals, plants and children. Vasari marvelled that the animals in the picture were "truly natural and almost alive", an impression not diminished by time.

Penny said: "It's a very ambitious picture, enormously important for our understanding of his work. There are very few large paintings of this kind produced by Italian artists at that date."

He said the depiction of landscapes and animals prefigured those in Titian's later masterpieces such as Diana and Actaeon and Diana and Callisto, which the National recently acquired for £95m. "It's fundamental in any posssible meaning of that word."

Later this year the painting will be displayed at the Accademia art gallery in Venice, and after that, said Penny, "it will never travel again in our lifetime", adding: "We're very honoured that having scanned the museums of the world to find the most suitable place for the debut of this picture our colleague Irena should have selected the National Gallery."

The Titian is the latest in a series of loans between British and Russian cultural institutions, marking a thaw in relations after a crisis four years ago when the British Council was ordered to close its offices near Moscow. However, Artemieva stressed that the loan was nothing to do with diplomatic policy but the result of good relations between the Hermitage and the National Gallery.


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Ten more UK galleries join Google Art Project's virtual tours

V&A and National Galleries of Scotland join likes of Versailles and the White House as online archive grows to 30,000 objects

Google has added a further 151 galleries and museums to its Art Project, which allows anyone with a computer to consider a virtual wander through the treasures of Versailles, the joys of the National Gallery in London or, if the mood takes them, Brazilian street graffiti in São Paulo.

The expansion of the project, which allows virtual access to artworks in 40 countries, means more than 30,000 objects are available to view, compared with 1,000 in the first version launched last year.

The head of the project, Amit Snood, said: "The Art Project is going global, thanks to our new partners from around the world. It's no longer just about the Indian student wanting to visit Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It is also about the American student wanting to visit the National Gallery of Modern Art in Delhi."

Ten more British galleries are joining the National Gallery and the Tate, which were already in the scheme. In London they include England's first public gallery, the 201-year-old Dulwich Picture Gallery, the V&A, the Serpentine Gallery, the Royal Collection, the Imperial War Museum and the Jewish Museum. Also there are the National Galleries of Scotland and the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool.

A total of 46 museums have been given the 360-degree Google Street View treatment, allowing visitors to wander through crowd-free galleries using only their mouse – from Tate Britain to the White House to the National Gallery of Australia.

For the others, users will be able to browse a vast array of treasures in high resolution, whether paintings, photographs, sculptures or decorative pieces.

The V&A's director of programming and public affairs, Damien Whitmore, said he was delighted to be joining up. He said: "Some of the V&A's greatest treasures will be able to view in extraordinary high resolution for the first time – from the famous Gloucester candlestick, a masterpiece of English metalwork, to the Ardabil carpet, one of the largest examples of Islamic carpets in existence, the wedding suit that the Duke of York wore to his wedding in 1673 to one of the finest examples of Donatello's work in relief."

Google also said it was adding new explore and discover tools allowing users to find artworks by period or type or artist.


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March 30 2012

Letters: Art and arms trade

Today sees the launch of a campaign calling on the National Gallery to end its support for the arms trade. The gallery regularly hosts events for the arms industry, as a result of a sponsorship deal with global weapons manufacturer Finmeccanica. These events include receptions for the weapons fairs Defence & Security Equipment International (DSEi) and the Farnborough air show.

Such arms fairs are a key part of the global arms trade, bringing authoritarian regimes and weapons manufacturers from around the world to the UK to do business. In 2010 Libya, China and Saudi Arabia were among the customers being courted at Farnborough. In 2011, Bahrain and Egypt were shopping at DSEi, even though both were using lethal force against protesters at the time.

By entering into this deal the gallery not only provides a gloss of legitimacy for a reprehensible trade; it is also providing very practical support for the arms industry. How can an institution which celebrates the creative spirit of humanity open its door to those dealing in products designed to kill and destroy?

We urge the gallery not to host a reception for the Farnborough air show in July and to end its sponsorship arrangement with Finmeccanica.
Peter Kennard Artist
Will Self Novelist and journalist
Matthew Herbert Sound artist/composer
Mark McGowan Artist and associate lecturer at Chelsea College of Art
Lisa Wesley Artist
Steve Duncombe Co-director, Center for Artistic Activism, New York
Tim Jeeves Artist and writer
Ian Mack Painter
Leila Galloway Artist and senior lecturer, DMU
Space Hijackers Artists
Leah Borromeo Journalist and film-maker
Brett Bloom Artist
Hayley Newman Artist
Brian Holmes Art critic
Cecilia Wee Curator and writer
Noel Douglas Artist
David Caines Visual artist
Nathan Witt RCA
Sarah Waldron Campaign Against Arms Trade
Stop the Arms Fair Coalition


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March 01 2012

Second part of £95m Titian pair bought for Britain

Diana and Callisto goes on show in National Gallery, to be joined by Diana and Actaeon in July, after £45m raised

Titian's masterpiece Diana and Callisto has been secured for Britain after the National Gallery stumped up £25m from its reserves and the painting's owner dropped the asking price by £5m, it has been announced in London.

It now joins its pair, Diana and Actaeon, in the shared ownership of the National Gallery and the National Galleries of Scotland (NGS) without any need for a big public fundraising campaign – something the galleries thought would be a challenge too far in the economic circumstances.

The news was announced in London. The National Gallery's director, Nicholas Penny, said the two Titians had long been regarded as pre-eminent among masterpieces in private hands in the UK. "We have been able to secure both of them for the public, in a period of economic hardship, because of the esteem and affection that both institutions have enjoyed for many decades," he said.

"It is a triumph for us, but also for our predecessors, made possible by today's supporters, but also by benefactors who have long departed."

The two paintings were offered to the nation in 2008 by their owner, the Duke of Sutherland. The asking price was £100m – an enormous sum but by most estimates perhaps half of their market value.

The first painting was secured in 2009, with the biggest sum, £17.1m, coming from the Scottish government and NGS purchase funds. The race then began to raise the next £50m with a deadline of December 2012.

On Thursday it was announced that £45m had been raised and the Duke of Sutherland had reduced the asking price by £5m. A total of £25m came from the National Gallery reserves, mainly money left in wills to the gallery. Then £3m came from the Heritage Lottery Fund, £2m from the Art Fund and £15m from various donations and grants, some from individual donors and some from trusts including the Monument Trust and the Rothschild Foundation.

The acquisition also secures the continuation in Edinburgh of the Bridgewater loan from the duke, an incredible collection of works by artists including Raphael, Rembrandt and Poussin. John Leighton, director general of the NGS, said that loan allowed the gallery to maintain its "triple A status" in the realm of major public galleries.

"We are delighted that the purchase of Callisto will now keep that loan intact and allow the public to continue to enjoy some of the greatest achievements of western European art."

Diana and Callisto went on display in Room 1 of the National Gallery on Thursday. It will remain in London for 18 months and be joined by Diana and Actaeon in July. It will then go to Scotland for 12 months. After that the pair will be shown in London for three years and Scotland for two before settling into a display cycle of six in London, four in Scotland. The 60:40 share reflects the fact that the National Gallery put in more money.


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February 01 2012

The real Mona Lisa? Prado finds Da Vinci pupil's take

Prado says pupil painted remarkable portrait alongside Leonardo da Vinci, affording insight into how Mona Lisa actually looked

A contemporaneous copy of the world's most famous painting has been sensationally discovered by conservators at the Prado in Madrid, allowing us to see the Mona Lisa as she would probably have looked at the time.

In art historical terms, the discovery is nothing short of remarkable. The Prado painting had long been thought to be one of dozens of surviving replicas of Leonardo's masterpiece, made in the 16th and 17th centuries.

But, the Arts Newspaper reports, recent conservation reveals that the work was in fact painted by a pupil working alongside Leonardo.

The original painting hangs behind glass and with enormous security at the Louvre, a gallery it is unlikely to ever leave. There is also no prospect of it being cleaned in the forseeable future, meaning crowds view a work that, although undeniably beautiful, has several layers of old, cracked varnish.

This newly discovered work – found under black overpaint – allows the viewer to see a much fresher version of the captivating young woman, generally acknowledged to be Lisa Gherardini, the wife of the Florentine cloth merchant Francesco del Giocondo.

The Prado said the restoration had been carried out over the past few months in preparation for an exhibition at the Louvre in March.

Details of the discovery were revealed at a recent Leonardo symposium of experts at the National Gallery in London, which is how the story emerged, a spokeswoman said, adding that there was more conservation work needed and that the painting would not be revealed in its full glory for around three weeks.

"There is much more to see. The process of conservation is still going on, we have not finished."


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January 15 2012

Hockney, Freud, Turner and Hirst: art blockbusters of 2012

As the works go up and the buzz begins, we speak to the movers and shakers about how they got here …

David Hockney: Royal Academy

It's an Olympic year for artists too, and first out of the blocks is David Hockney: A Bigger Picture at the Royal Academy. Like the athletes competing in London this summer, Hockney – now a veteran at 74 – has spent the past four years pushing himself beyond his limits in preparation for what could be the defining test of his career. The result is one of the most ambitious shows in the Academy's 244-year history: more than 150 works, some of them gargantuan, more than 80% of which have been made specially for this exhibition and the particular spaces of this light-filled gallery.

For Edith Devaney, co-curator of the exhibition, the most invigorating part of the process has been watching the new paintings emerge first-hand. "Like David, we didn't know what to expect, but we knew it would be exciting," she says. "I remember him saying to me when we started off this process, 'We won't get this wrong.' And I thought, 'No, we won't.'"

Hockney has always dabbled in landscapes – notably his photo collages of the Grand Canyon and Pearblossom Highway in the 1980s and 90s when he was still in the States – but they have been a sustained focus of his work since he returned to live in Bridlington, East Yorkshire a decade ago. In recent years he has produced paintings at a complusive rate, first with watercolours then oils, and most recently on his iPhone and iPad. "David's not actually that interested in technology, he's just interested in other methods you can use to make art," she explains. "The work he did on his iPhone is charming, but the work he does on his iPad has the painterly quality of his oils – it's astonishing."

Another new direction for Hockney is his use of film. Showing as a world exclusive at the Royal Academy his films are created by nine high-definition cameras pointing in fractionally different directions – the result has been described as a "moving cubist collage".

"It has the same multiplicity of perspectives," says Devaney. "When you look at this film you feel as though you are seeing the world through David Hockney's eyes."

With Hockney's canny knack for self-promotion – he recently declined to paint the Queen because he was "very busy painting England actually, her country" – marketing expectations for the show are off the scale. As a private and independent institution, the Royal Academy is not obliged to supply a projected attendance, but there are whispers that A Bigger Picture could challenge the 1999 Monet exhibition, which hosted 813,000 visitors. Demand was so relentless back then that the Academy opened its doors 24 hours a day, a UK first. "In principle we'd do that again," says Jennifer Francis, head of press and marketing. "Certainly in the final few weeks, if we think people will be there at three in the morning."

Advertising for the show will have local, national and international targets – from buses in Bradford to the LA tourist board. "It's the first time I've bought space on buses up and down the country," says Francis. "There is a massive buzz about this exhibition."

"I really sense the position of this exhibition in history," interjects Devaney. "It's a slight change of direction for us: we are picking someone like David, who is at the height of his powers, and giving him freedom. Working very closely with him, but allowing him to take off. In 100 years' time people at the Academy will look back and think, 'Oh my God, this was a really important thing for the Academy to have done.'"

David Hockney: A Bigger Picture is at the Royal Academy, London W1, 21 January-9 April

Lucian Freud: Portraits

The cynical among us might wonder if the National Portrait Gallery's auspicious Lucian Freud: Portraits exhibition was hastily conceived in the aftermath of the artist's death last July. We would, however, be missing the mark by, ooh, about five years. "The idea came to me in 2007, just after we won the Olympic bid," says the National Portrait Gallery's contemporary curator Sarah Howgate. "Everybody felt it would be a fantastic exhibition to do in 2012, when Lucian was going to turn 90. Our director, Sandy Nairne, told him, 'You are going to be our Olympian,' which Lucian found quite amusing."

Howgate can also measure the complicated gestation of the show in another way. "I started writing to lenders in 2008 to request his work and then I went off on maternity leave," she recalls. "Now my little boy is three and the exhibition is just about to start!"

There are 132 works in Lucian Freud: Portraits, the largest exhibition of his portraiture that has ever been assembled. Howgate secured almost all of the key paintings that she requested from museums and private collections, including Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, bought in 2008 by Chelsea FC owner Roman Abramovich for £17m, a world record auction price. Other coups include one of Freud's grandest works, Large Interior, W11 (After Watteau), not seen in the UK for a decade, and Portrait of the Hound, his final, unfinished painting.

"It's a balancing act for lenders," says Howgate. "Works, which quite often hang on their walls, have to come down for a year and that creates quite a gap. But on the other hand their work is going to be hanging in this really important exhibition in a great venue, so it's prestigious to be part of it. And it's happening at a time when the world's attention is going to be on the UK and London in particular."

The NPG is anticipating around 160,000 visitors, which would match the number that came to see David Hockney Portraits: Life Love Art in 2006 (also curated by Howgate), their record for a paid-admittance show. Denise Vogelsang, head of marketing, advises booking in advance and coming in the morning; an "early-bird offer", for example, gives you two-for-one tickets for the first slot of the day. "But the show takes over pretty much the whole of the ground floor," says Vogelsang, "so it's a bigger space than we normally have and we can accommodate a larger number of visitors without it feeling too crowded."

Howgate is adamant that Lucian Freud: Portraits be viewed as "a celebration, not a memorial", and she points out that the artist had seen and approved the paintings that are being shown, even the layout of the exhibition and the merchandise. Nevertheless, it will be almost impossible to view the show, which spans 1939 to 2011, without speculating on Freud's colourful personal life. His two wives and assorted lovers are prominently featured, and it sometimes feels that you can see relationships deteriorating over the course of their sittings.

It will also be hard not to consider Freud's legacy as you wander round. "It's just really sad that Lucian isn't going to see it because he would have been incredibly moved by it," says Howgate. "Obviously his family are all going to come, so it's going to be an emotional time for them and that is going to make it all the more powerful. There was a feeling in the art world that a real master had died, and I think it will become even more clear that we have lost one of the greatest realist painters of the 20th century."

Lucian Freud: Portraits is at the National Portrait Gallery, London WC2, 9 February-27 May

JMW Turner: National Gallery

The venerable National Gallery was just five years old in 1829 when JMW Turner wrote a will leaving his entire oeuvre – more than 1,000 works – to the nation. The artist had just one stipulation: when he died, he wanted a pair of his own paintings (Dido Building Carthage and Sun Rising Through Vapour) hung between two landscapes (what he called The Seaport and The Mill) by a baroque artist who had inspired him more than any other, Claude Lorrain. The request is still honoured to this day, in the cosy, octagonal room 15, but in March the National Gallery is preparing a much grander statement of the affinity between the two masters.

Turner will be the draw for most visitors but Jill Preston, the National Gallery's head of communications, believes that Claude's mastery of light and composition will be a revelation. "We're hoping that a lot of people out there will, through the Turner name, be introduced to Claude for the first time," she says. "Outside the art world a lot of people who are not familiar with Claude will find his work absolutely delightful, really inspiring."

Turner was formally introduced to the work of Claude, who died almost a century before he was born, when two of his landscapes came through London in 1799. These paintings, along with Turner's sketches of them, open the exhibition. "They really caused a splash those two Claudes, they were what everybody was talking about," says Susan Foister, deputy director of the National Gallery. "The sketchbooks record Turner's reactions to these works and he refers to them again and again throughout his career because it's material he can keep reusing but making different each time. This room really sets the scene for their relationship."
Turner Inspired: In Light of Claude might seem the most traditional of the big 2012 shows, but the National Gallery believes it has much to intrigue enthusiasts of Hockney, Freud, even Hirst. "Our show "is about looking backwards and forwards at the same time," she says. "Turner saw that you could look at a work painted decades earlier and make something very different of it. That's what artists go on doing and I think that's what Turner was showing he could do with Claude."

Preston is determined to spread the word that the gallery is becoming more rounded, less stuffy even. The programme for 2012 includes a show where contemporary artists, dancers and poets respond to three works by Titian. Friday Lates, where the collection and shows stay open till 9pm, offers live music, debates and a roomful of people sat cross-legged with pencils and paper doing a Talk and Draw session. "We would like the process of discovering an exhibition to be an active one," she says.

"Five million people come to the National Gallery each year so variety is very important."

Turner Inspired: In the Light of Claude is at the National Gallery, London WC2, 14 March-5 June

Damien Hirst: Tate Modern

Everyone in the art world agrees: the factor that has by far the biggest impact on the success of an exhibition is the fame of the artist. This is probably why Marc Sands, director of Tate media and audiences, can't help smiling broadly as he talks about Damien Hirst's first UK retrospective, opening at the Tate Modern in April. "It will be the most talked-about show of the year," he predicts. "The name recognition couldn't be much higher. I've never met more people with a view on an artist. Largely it tends to be more on the artist, whom they have probably never met, than it is on the work that many of them have never seen."

The 46-year-old Hirst will always polarise opinion, Sands concedes, but he hopes visitors can suspend judgment until they see the work, dating from 1988 to the present day. "The divisive nature will only make the discussion, the debate, the interest more prickly and more alive," he says. "I already know what some newspapers will say, but the public should decide for themselves."

For the curator, Ann Gallagher, Tate's head of collections, the exhibition started with a single work: the 14ft tiger shark suspended in formaldehyde or, if you prefer, The Physical Impossibility Of Death In The Mind Of Someone Living from 1991. "For obvious reasons, it's a piece that everyone would want to see," she says.

Most of Hirst's most notorious pieces will also be among the 70-odd works: there are spot and spin paintings, medicine cabinets and the £50m platinum and diamond skull, For The Love Of God, will be displayed in the Turbine Hall for the first 12 weeks. There's also a room devoted to the works he sold for £111m at Sotheby's in September 2008, the day before Lehman Brothers disintegrated. But Gallagher is keen to draw attention to lesser-known exhibits. She is particularly excited by the reconstitution of 1991's In And Out Of Love, which fills two rooms with hundreds of tropical butterflies, some of which are spawned from canvases on the wall.

There is no room in the exhibition for Hirst's recent, little-appreciated skull paintings, but there will be at least one new piece. Gallagher, however, remains tight-lipped as to what form it might take. "You have to leave something as a surprise." There has already been controversy earlier this month with reports – subsequently denied – that David Hockney had criticised Hirst for his over-reliance of assistants. For the Tate, he has been a model collaborator: "Damien's very involved, he's very busy, but he has a good team," says Gallagher. Sands has found him "hands-on, but with an incredibly light touch".

Any rivalry between Hockney and Hirst is likely to be settled after the summer by visitor figures. Sands is quietly confident. "If you come to London as a tourist, you're likely to go to Buckingham Palace, Tate Modern, the British Museum and Camden market," he says, "not necessarily in that order." Gallagher has a much simpler ambition: "I'd like people to come and actually look at Damien Hirst's work," she says. "Whatever they may have heard about him previously, just look at the work."

Damien Hirst is at Tate Modern, London SE1, 4 April-9 September


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December 30 2011

December 21 2011

Night of revelation: The Nativity at Night by Geertgen tot Sint Jans

Continuing with his series of favourite wintry artworks, Jonathan Jones feels a warm glow looking at the tender beauty of Geertgen tot Sint Jans's The Nativity at Night



November 20 2011

Leonardo da Vinci exhibition threatened by strike vote

National Gallery staff support action over security cuts which they believe will make collection vulnerable to damage or theft

Art lovers planning to attend the National Gallery's blockbuster Leonardo da Vinci exhibition could find themselves unable to view the show after staff voted in an indicative ballot for strike action.

Gallery assistants voted overwhelmingly to support the action over security cuts which they believe will make the national art collection more vulnerable to damage or theft.

Under government pressure to make cuts, the gallery ordered that each assistant should keep watch over two rooms rather than one. The gallery insists this is a "more effective" approach, adopted by other important institutions worldwide, and is not driven by cost-cutting.

But warders say security includes controls against vandalism – such as the spray paint attack on two Poussin masterpieces in July – and frequently having to prevent visitors from touching pictures. They talk of "blind-spots" in the gallery's layout and argue that it is not just art that will suffer from security cuts. The move to reduce the number of warders has already raised concerns among some art and security experts, as the Guardian reported in August.

Warders argue that nothing is safe and security is more vital than ever. Earlier this month, even toilet seats were targeted by a thief. A man was able to stuff four of them into his rucksack and walk out.

Wynne Parry of the Public and Commercial Services union (PCS), which represents the warders, said almost 180 members voted in an indicative ballot. "It was a very strong, four-to-one support in favour of taking strike action." He confirmed that random two-hour walk-outs are planned over the Christmas period, which would force the evacuation of visitors.

Under UK legislation, they must now hold a formal ballot, he said. "But we've heard a clear message. They're prepared to take industrial action … We are still seeking a solution [with management], but it's proving very difficult to get to."

The Leonardo exhibition has attracted superlative reviews, sold-out advance tickets and visitors prepared to endure long queues for limited entry slots on the day. Two £16 tickets were offered yesterday on eBay for £133.


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November 11 2011

Desperately seeking Da Vinci

Jonathan Jones visits the most keenly anticipated exhibition of the year, at London's National Gallery



November 09 2011

Leonardo da Vinci show opens to 'civilised' crowds

National Gallery restricts tickets to unprecedented Leonardo show in order to avoid crushes and gallery rage

Day one of an unprecedented exhibition that has already been called the "greatest show on earth" and the National Gallery's Leonardo da Vinci show is certainly busy. Packed even, with a civilised huddle of around a dozen people silently taking in the newly discovered masterpiece Christ as Salvator Mundi.

But there's busy and then there's busy. "There wasn't a problem at all for the paintings because you can just queue and take your time," said Sue Salsbury from Putney, west London. "It was more difficult for the drawings but I have to say people were remarkably good natured. Only a few people got tetchy. I'd say if you're going to come, just give yourself enough time to be able to stand back and enjoy it."

A jolly lady from Kew – "just call me Anonymous from Kew!" – agreed. "I think the crowds were predictable but they weren't that bad. I could see everything."

That will be music to the ears of managers at the National Gallery who say they are doing everything they can to make the Leonardo experience as enjoyable and comfortable as possible.

The show opened to the public on Wednesday and already no tickets are available online until January. That's because it brings together nine of the only 15 or 16 Leonardo paintings that are known to exist – it is, as curator Luke Syson admits, "an unprecedented opportunity".

The gallery has restricted the numbers to avoid the crushes experienced at previous blockbusters, with 180 people allowed in every half hour. The more organised are encouraged to do their homework by downloading and reading the exhibition guide before they get there and the £4 audio guide is shorter than normal, regularly asking you to stand back and let others go forward.

"It is going to be busy," said Razeetha Ram, the National Gallery's head of press as she accompanied the Guardian around the show at noon on the first day. "It is going to be crowded. We can't pretend it is going to be anything but." The gallery, she added, was doing everything in its power to make it as pleasurable as possible.

Certainly on Wednesday there were no signs of it being too crushed. There was no gallery rage and no raised voices – far from it, more of a reverential hush. If you went slowly, you could take everything in.

Pia Mårtensson, on holiday from Eksjö in Sweden, was lucky, getting one of the 500 on-the-day tickets available for queuers. She waited just over an hour. "It was worth queuing for, absolutely. It was a lovely exhibition – it's a feeling, hard to express. I could see everything but then I have sharpened my elbows. It was fine."

The Leonardo show was her last thing to do before leaving London. "I can go back to Sweden happy. We also saw the football on Sunday, Fulham v Tottenham. It's been a great trip."

Not everyone was satisfied. Gloria Sanchez from Albuquerque, New Mexico, has been coming to London since she was stationed in the UK with the US air force in the 1960s. She bought her ticket "easily" on 31 October. "The pieces were beautiful but it seemed to me they tried to flesh it out with these little cartoons which were almost impossible to see," she said. "It's very dim in there and they're very faded and very fine lines. That was difficult and then there was the crush of the crowd. It was packed … Too busy. It moved along eventually but you felt constricted and people were shoving you.

"The Leonardos were positioned well so you could get a very good view. I would have liked to stand there and contemplate a little longer but I tell you this is a lot better than the Hermitage. Have you ever been to the Hermitage?"

The gallery's Sainsbury wing lobby was more like a busy city train station, with a queue for advance tickets snaking out and up the adjoining street. One woman said she had queued for two hours and managed to get evening tickets for November and January.

She was happy. Kathleen Ashe from Dublin was less so as she had missed getting an on-the-day ticket and did not want a ticket for January as it was non-transferable. "I'm 81 next birthday. I might not be here. I think I'll come tomorrow. They said 9.30am might be all right. Do you know where I can get one of those fold-up chairs?"

Ashe was off for some lunch and a matinee of Driving Miss Daisy but ironically if she had wanted to see some beautiful, life-enhancing art in peaceful circumstances she need only have walked a short distance. Before Leonardo the Guardian sat for five minutes in Room 26 of the National Gallery, with its 17th-century Dutch scenes of everyday life and crowds, and not a single person stopped to look at them.


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Face to face with Leonardo da Vinci

Interactive guide: As visitors flock to this year's blockbuster show at the National Gallery, Jonathan Jones takes a detailed look at some of the Renaissance master's most admired drawings



November 07 2011

Leonardo: the power of the grotesque

What makes this drawing one of Leonardo's most compelling studies?

Five Character Studies is the most compelling and uneasy of the drawings that have come to be known as Leonardo's "caricatures". He regularly drew grotesque or unusual faces, and these studies were some of his most popular and influential works from the 16th century up to the time of Hogarth. But to modern eyes, they are not so much funny as strange, and connect with the hellish visions of Bosch and Bruegel.


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Leonardo da Vinci gifts – in pictures

The National Gallery has surpassed itself with the breadth of its range of merchandise to accompany the Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan exhibition



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