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June 03 2010

Monet painting set to fetch £30m

Waterlily painting is latest addition to June's highly anticipated - and highly expensive - London art sales

A breathtaking waterlily painting by Claude Monet was today added to one of the most anticipated series of high-end art sales for years. Both Christie's and Sothebys are set to sell some exceptional works at their June sales of impressionist and modern art.

Christie's, announcing the addition of the French painter's Nymphéas (1906) to its catalogue, said its 23 June art auction would be the most valuable ever take place in London. The painting has an estimate – arguably a conservative one – of between £30-40m. The estimates of all 63 works in the sale add up to £163m-£231m.

Some astonishing prices have been paid for art at auction this year. The record price for any work was broken first in London in February – a Giacometti Walking Man sculpture sold for £65m – and then once more in New York when a Picasso sold for $106m (£70m).

Giovanna Bertazzoni, head of impressionist and modern art at Christie's, London, said there was a "fierce international demand" for the "rarest and the best". He added: "The strong results at our auctions over the last year, and during the last six months in particular, have further fuelled the confidence of vendors. We are witnessing a great willingness from clients to consign works of art of the highest quality."

The Monet up for sale was part of his famous exhibition of waterlily paintings held at the Galerie Durand-Ruel in Paris in 1909. Robert E Dell, the Paris correspondent of the Burlington Magazine, wrote, rather excitedly, at the time: "One has never seen anything like it. These studies of water lilies ... are beautiful to a degree which one can hardly express without seeming to exaggerate."

The work being sold is one of nine surviving pieces painted by Monet in 1906. It has spent most of its life in the collection of the Durand-Ruel family and was bought by the present anonymous owner at auction in 2000.

Other highlights of the Christie's sale include a Picasso, Portrait of Angel Fernández de Soto, being sold by the Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation with an estimate, also, of £30-40m. Deep-pocketed art-lovers can also bid on works by Klimt, Van Gogh and Matisse.


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Meteorologists track down Monet

Scientists have pinpointed exactly where Claude Monet was in the Savoy Hotel when he painted Charing Cross Bridge and Waterloo Bridge in heavy smog

Through a thick blanket of pre-war smog, it is hard to make out the bridge reaching across the Thames and the sun shining weakly above it.

Equally unclear is where the artist, Claude Monet, stood to create the painting, one of the "London series" knocked out by the great impressionist during his time in the capital between 1899 and 1901.

Now scientists claim to have solved the puzzle of Monet's vantage point, using computerised records of the sun's movement, ordnance survey maps of London and historical weather records. Together they reveal the exact spot where Monet stood on the balcony of the Savoy Hotel.

Monet was drawn to London at the turn of the century to paint the extraordinary effects of smog on sunlight. The combination of soot and fog caused the lighting conditions to change dramatically throughout the day, a phenomenon that was captured by Whistler in earlier etchings.

Diaries and other documents place Monet at the Savoy for his paintings, but historians have disagreed on which rooms he may have stayed in.

Researchers led by John Thornes, an applied meteorologist at Birmingham University, measured the position of the sun in the sky in Monet's paintings and cross-checked it with solar records. They then took further measurements of features in the paintings, such as the obelisk, Cleopatra's needle.

Putting all of the details together, Prof Thornes' team traced Monet's position for his paintings of Charing Cross Bridge (now called Hungerford Bridge) to the balconies of rooms 610 and 611 on the sixth floor in 1900 and rooms 510 and 511 in 1901. All of his paintings of Waterloo Bridge were from a balcony on the fifth floor of the hotel.

"Smogs fascinated Monet in the way they changed the light. He spent nearly six months in the end living at the Savoy, gazing out across the Thames, but sometimes the visbility was so bad he couldn't even see the river and the bridges," Prof Thornes said.

"Most art historians have got it wrong. They think Monet was in the corner suite of the Savoy, where Whistler stayed a few years beforehand, but he was more to the middle of the building," he said. The paper is due to be published in the Royal Geographical Society journal, Area.

"From our study, it is clear that Monet faithfully represented the weather and climate of central London at the time, and it is also clear how much the air quality has changed for the better since then. We can say that the London series of paintings can be cautiously used as a pictorial 'weather diary' of typical Victorian London fogs."


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May 14 2010

Royal Academy to exhibit Hungary's art treasures

Masterpieces that have never been loaned before to go on show in London this autumn

Masterpieces from one of central Europe's finest state collections – many of which have never before been on loan – are to fill a rather large hole in the Royal Academy's autumn schedule, it was announced yesterday. The works being lent by Hungary's Museum of Fine Arts and its National Gallery represent a who's who of art history.

The dazzling list of artists includes Claude, El Greco, Gauguin, Goya, Leonardo, Manet, Monet, Picasso, Pissarro, Raphael, Rembrandt, Rubens, Schiele and Veronese.

Details of the Treasures From Budapest show were revealed in London yesterday, five months after the Prince of Liechtenstein abruptly cancelled the planned RA autumn show because of a row with customs and excise. The academy's director of exhibitions, Kathleen Soriano, admitted she had been forced to bring forward plans for the Budapest show but said she believed audiences would be surprised and delighted by its unprecedented scale.

David Ekserdjian, one of the show's curators, said he and his colleagues had been like children in a sweet shop when they were selecting the works.

"It was a very collaborative process," he said. "What was quite amazing, having had slightly similar experiences in the past, was that when one said: 'Could I have one of those?' – and it might be a Leonardo drawing – the response was: 'Why don't you have two.' "

One Leonardo drawing in the show, Studies for the Heads of Two Soldiers in the Battle of Anghiari, was described by Ekserdjian as "one of the most important and spectacularly impressive Leonardo drawings in the world".

Curators say there will be a good mix of genres including religious, portraits, landscapes, impressionists and expressionists as well as strong representation from Hungarian artists such as Jacob Bogdani who, in his day, was extremely popular in England. His Still Life with Fruits, Parrots and White Cockatoo (c 1700-1724) features exotic birds he painted in an aviary owned by the Duke of Marlborough at Windsor.

The last ever portrait of Liszt, by Mihály Munkácsy, will also form part of the show ahead of the bicentennial of the composer's birth next year.

Other highlights include an evocative Goya painting of a female water carrier which for a long time was classed simply as a peasant genre painting but has, in fact, a far more important place in Spanish history. It was painted between 1808-1812, around the time of Napoleon's siege of Zaragoza, and represents sustenance for Spaniards fighting for their independence.

There will also be works that were once owned by the British. For example Cornelis van Poelenburgh's portrait of the children of the Elector Palatine Frederick V – known as the "winter king" – was owned by Charles I and has his crowned monogram on the reverse of the panel.

The show's opening work will be dramatic and monumental – the 4 metre high St Andrew Altarpiece, made in about 1512, which shows the outstanding levels of skill and sophistication in early Hungarian wood carving.

And the exhibition may finish with a rather racy Egon Schiele called Two Women Embracing. "It is a highly emotive and erotically charged drawing and a very powerful image," said co-curator Joanna Norman.

The autumn hole in the schedule was caused by the cancellation of a show of works owned by the Prince of Liechtenstein. It would have been one of the exhibitions of the year, with works by Rubens and Van Dyke, but it was pulled because the prince was upset that a Coello painting he bought three years ago was impounded by UK customs and excise.

The Budapest exhibition is not entirely without purpose from Hungary's perspective. The country takes up the EU presidency in 2011 and this show forms part of that drum-banging.

Hungary's state collection of international art was begun in the 17th century and expanded dramatically during the rule of Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy in the late 18th century.

Under communism, few westerners would have had any sort of access and even reproductions were rare, so many of the works on show will be new to British eyes.

Treasures from Budapest: European Masterpieces from Leonardo to Schiele at the RA, 25 September-12 December


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April 12 2010

Can Google gauge the greatest art?

The search engine may list only obvious artworks – and a limited number at that – but it's hard to argue with its taste

It's amazing how many works of art can be found online. In researching visual links I am increasingly impressed by how easy it is to find good images of important works of art. But not every painting and sculpture can be found in the ever-expanding digital archive, and not every work is equally visible there. If a universal web museum is taking shape, it is one with its own guided tours already built in – because search engines point you, without your asking, towards their own choices, their own greatest hits.

Art blogger Tyler Green has tried an interesting exercise: keying the names of great artists into Google to see which of their works came up first. The results are:

Matisse: Le Bonheur de Vivre (1905–06). Barnes Foundation
Picasso: Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907). Moma
Vermeer: Girl With a Pearl Earring (c1665). Mauritshuis Smithson: Spiral Jetty (1970). Dia Bonnard: Model in Backlight (1907). Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels Arbus: Tattooed Man at Carnival (1970). Georgia O'Keeffe: Ram's Head, White Hollyhock and Little Hills (1935). Brooklyn Museum Magritte: Golconda (1953). Menil Collection Titian: Venus of Urbino (1538). Uffizi Monet: Impression, Sunrise (1872).

Green's point is that Google has its own insidious "number one" works by these artists, which are automatically determined by the number of hits. But even if they are, does it matter?

It's hard to argue, critically, with some of Google's choices. Any picture researcher at an encyclopedia would be likely to go with Impression, Sunrise to illustrate Monet, or the aerial photo of Spiral Jetty to embellish Robert Smithson. In fact, I vividly remember the latter from my home encyclopedia when I was growing up; much the same for Monet's painting.

Google, then, is populist about art, and tends to point users towards iconic masterpieces. Is there any downside to that? Actually, no. People (critics, curators, "experts") make too much of obscure knowledge and over-refined erudition. Art's greatest hits are often the greatest works, full stop; if you want the basics about Picasso, a glance at Les Demoiselles d'Avignon will tell you a lot of what you need to know.

What's more worrying is the lack of correlation between the immense online archive of art and the even more immense reality. Because so many works can be found online, there's a danger of forgetting how many cannot (not to mention the inadequacy of a picture on your screen compared with the real thing). A student can't really research a dissertation on art from digital sources alone, however tempting the illusion. And there lies the real vice of Google.


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January 11 2010

Why Monet's art haunts my dreams

Misconceived as an 'easy' artist, Claude Monet's unnerving talent for mood in fact speaks directly to our subconscious

Last night I dreamed about a painting. It was Claude Monet's Bathers at La Grenouillère (1869), on display at London's National Gallery. (Except that in my dream, it became a black-and-white photograph.) In this painting, people at leisure are glimpsed in a spatter of dancing light: a group of three figures stand on a jetty, fragmented silhouettes against the brightness, while boats, bodies and water flicker hauntingly in the haze.

Anyway, it haunts me enough to enter my dreams, it seems. A dream can tell the truth, and this one reminds me of a fact I've been ignoring, that Monet has the power to obsess. No artist is as misconceived in the popular imagination as this painter of haystacks and cathedral facades in misty, melting twilight. Monet is loved. But he is also sometimes slighted as an easy artist, fit to decorate a table mat but not to namedrop as a hero of modern art.

It's a strange misunderstanding. Monet slips easily into our perceptions not because he is "easy", but because of his profound receptiveness to atmosphere and ability to recreate it on canvas. His paintings are impregnated with mood, saturated in suggestion. Their nostalgia, elusiveness and delicacy speak to irrational parts of the mind. The reason his paintings give immediate pleasure is not that they are cheap entertainments but because they bypass the prosaic parts of our consciousness and reach us deep down.

I looked for a long time at Bathers in an exhibition last summer, and meant to write about it. But here it is again, welling up in my dreams – a masterpiece of life and longing.


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