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August 17 2012

Return of lost Matisse revives questioning of Caracas museum

Auditor found 14 works unaccounted for in checks following discovery that Odalisque in Red Trousers had been stolen

For the curators of Venezuela's most prestigious modern art museum, the recent reappearance of a Matisse that was stolen from their collection more than a decade ago ought to have been cause for joy and relief.

But the FBI sting operation that recovered the French painter's 1925 work Odalisque in Red Trousers in Miami last month has also resurrected awkward questions about more than a dozen other valuable pieces said to be "unaccounted for" at the Caracas Museum of Contemporary Art (MACCSI), including works by Jasper Johns, Henry Moore, Lucian Freud and Jesús Soto.

A former director and an investigative journalist have raised concerns about the works that may be missing, some of which are estimated to be worth as much as $3m (£2m). They claim these are signs of deeper problems, including a lack of transparency, inadequate supervision and personal animosities at an institution that was once deemed among the leading contemporary art centres in Latin America, but has struggled since its founder, Sofía Imber, was sacked by the Venezuelan president, Hugo Chávez, live on public television.

The theft of the Odalisque was the biggest indication of problems at the museum, which was founded in 1973 and became a symbol of the country's oil wealth. Matisse's depiction of a semi-nude, dark-haired woman, which hung in a place of honour, was stolen at some point and replaced by a fake that was discovered in 2002.

It remained missing until last month, when the FBI arrested two suspects – Cuban Pedro Antonio Marcuello Guzman and Mexican María Martha Elisa Ornelas Lazo– who had allegedly been trying to sell the picture to undercover FBI agents for $740,000.

For the former director of the museum, Rita Salvestrini, the investigation in Miami has brought back doubts she raised in 2002 about the running of the museum that she took over after Imber was fired.

After discovering the Matisse hanging on the walls was a fake, Salvestrini ordered a series of full inventory checks. When she realised several pieces were missing, she called in an external auditor, who reported that 14 works – including Jasper Johns's Brooms and a piece by Soto that once hung behind her predecessor's desk – were unaccounted for. In addition, close to 200 other works were uncatalogued. "Both instances were equally alarming because they reflect that none of the controls were being followed," Salvestrini said.

"To me the findings [of the auditor] should have been used to correct a situation but the museum became a place where people's answers were designed to confuse and not to clarify," she said.

It was unclear whether the 14 pieces were temporarily misplaced or stolen, but efforts to track them down came to little.

One work, an etching by Freud, was purchased from the Timothy Taylor gallery in London, but appears not to have arrived at the museum. The London gallery said it had sold 55 Freud etchings to the Caracas museum between 1998 and 2001, "all of which were invoiced to the museum and shipped directly as per instruction".

Marinela Balbi, author of The Kidnap of the Odalisque, said there were 365 discrepancies in the number of works catalogued and accounted for at the museum. "These were institutions that were managed as if they were private, even though they are public. There was no accountability, or controls," said Balbi, who added that the tumult caused by the sacking of the founder also created a period of confusion that thieves may have exploited. After the sacking of Imber "there was a lot of institutional uncertainty coupled with a certain carelessness in inventory practices and a permissiveness in moving works to and from the museum", she said.

The museum denies any of its works are missing.

"Works of art get stolen all the time … Until the FBI reports its findings it would be irresponsible to speculate," said Adriana Meneses Imber, former director of the Jacobo Borges Museum and the daughter of the MACCSI founder. She said: "With the change in administration from my mother to the other person, an inventory was conducted and they said several pieces were missing. That is completely untrue."

The museum did not respond to repeated requests by the Guardian to be shown the works said to be "unaccounted for". On a recent visit there were very few pieces from its permanent collection on display – although Picasso's Suite Vollard etchings were among them. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 08 2012

Matisse, Munch and mischievous tapestries – the week in art

The fruits of Matisse's manual labour are revealed, Munch takes Scotland by storm, and Grayson Perry tackles class issues in new tapestries – all in your favourite weekly art dispatch

Exhibition of the week: Mantegna to Matisse

Drawings are the purest and most intimate documents of how artists see, feel, and shape the world. Old paintings may well have undergone extensive restoration, so that it is hard to tell what is authentic and what is added. Even works that are undamaged may have been the work of assistants as well as the "master" of a workshop. Drawings, however, are the direct manual labour of an artist sitting there, pressing down a point against a sheet of paper. This gallery has a tremendous collection of such scintillating survivals and if you have never had the chance to visit, go, and see its tremendous permanent collection too.
Courtauld Gallery, London, from 14 June until 9 September

Other exhibitions this week

Art that you can't see! Those crazy curators!
Hayward Gallery, London, from 12 June until 6 August

Jo Spence
A radical artist remembered.
Studio Voltaire, London, until 11 August

Edvard Munch
The dark heart of Scandinavia laid bare.
Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, until 23 September

Summer Exhibition
The dark heart of the Home Counties laid bare.
Royal Academy, London, until 12 August

Masterpiece of the week

Titian's Tarquin and Lucrezia

One of Titian's most powerful and troubling works, this late painting reveals the violence and danger behind the windows of Venetian palaces. Titian was the supreme painter of sensual beauty in 16th-century Venice but here he depicts a rape. This is a true masterpiece that looks as if it was painted with smoke and blood.
• Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Image of the week

The National Portrait Gallery in London has bought a portrait of celebrated diplomat, soldier and cross-dresser Chevalier d'Eon.

What we learned this week

Why the Royal Academy has launched a new pamper plan

What Grayson Perry's new 'middle class' tapestries look like

Why Jenny Holzer has been painting the US battleplans for the invasion of Iraq

Why a catcopter has taken the art world by storm

What your art on the theme of Britain looks like – roadworks, union jacks and all

And finally

Have you seen the Guardian Art and Design Flickr page? Share all your latest cultural snaps there

Or share all of your artworks with us

Or follow us on Twitter

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April 12 2012

John Golding obituary

Artist, teacher and historian of modern art, he wrote a seminal work on cubism

John Golding, who has died aged 82, packed into his life separate but intertwined careers as artist and historian of modern art. Soon after he had completed his doctoral dissertation on cubism at the Courtauld Institute of Art, London, it was published as Cubism, A History and an Analysis, 1907-1914 (1959), and has stood ever since as the clearest exposition of that extraordinary era in the history of the art of the 20th century.

In a field in which so many literate and knowledgable writers had known Pablo Picasso well – from the compiler of the Dictionnaire Picasso, Pierre Daix, to his first English biographer, the painter Roland Penrose, his most discriminating collector, Douglas Cooper, and the writer of what is likely to be the definitive biography, John Richardson, – this was a remarkable achievement. Golding added to it in 1988, when an exhibition in Paris and Barcelona, organised around Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907), overlapped with another show, Late Picasso, in Paris and London, of Picasso's late period (1953-73), and Golding wrote what remains one of the finest accounts of Picasso's achievement in an essay of nearly 11,000 words in the New York Review of Books.

Yet more than with any of his writings, he made his public mark with another Picasso scholar, Elizabeth Cowling, by curating two groundbreaking Tate exhibitions: Picasso: Sculptor/Painter, in 1994, and Matisse/Picasso, in 2002-03, which also travelled to the Grand Palais in Paris and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

The first of these shows demonstrated what many people already suspected, that as a sculptor/painter, Picasso had more sculptural ideas than most specialists in that field. After its success, the Tate's director, Nicholas Serota, challenged his dream team to come up with something as good. Cowling suggested Matisse/Picasso to Golding, who concurred enthusiastically. Everybody knew about the creation of cubism by Picasso and Georges Braque, "like two mountaineers roped together", as Braque described it. The idea that the wary and slow-burning relationship between Picasso and Matisse should have been just as productive, though lasting more than half a century rather than the six or seven hectic Picasso-Braque years, had never been so boldly proposed as in this exhibition.

Golding attacked the project with determination, talking not just great galleries but reluctant private collectors into parting with masterpieces chosen not simply for their quality but to be placed in conjunction, Picasso with Matisse, Matisse with Picasso, to show how they fed off each other. Together with a catalogue essay by Golding, argued with characteristic calmness and lucidity, the exhibition was a triumph of enlightened scholarship and sheer pleasure.

Neither Picasso nor Matisse of course was ever an abstractionist. Golding was, and the clue to his practice as a painter lies in his Paths to the Absolute (2000). This effectively stood as his credo, that abstract art was not simply decorative but, as he put it in the preface, was "heavily imbued with meaning [and] with content", a case he argued with studies of seven abstract artists, beginning with the early 20th-century Europeans Piet Mondrian, Kazimir Malevich and Wassily Kandinsky and ending with the post-second-world-war Americans Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still. The book was essentially a transcript of his AW Mellon lectures of 1997, the famous series of talks that also produced such celebrated studies of art history as EH Gombrich's Art and Illusion and Kenneth Clark's The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form. Golding's rigorous but approachable work comfortably takes its place among them, and in the year of its publication it won the Mitchell prize, the principal annual US award for art history.

Although he was born in Hastings, East Sussex, Golding's parents brought him up from early childhood in Mexico. During the second world war, he came to know the maverick English surrealist Leonora Carrington, who had made her home in Mexico, and in her eclectic circle Golding met the film-maker Luis Buñuel and the poet Octavio Paz, as well as emigre surrealists such as the French poet Benjamin Péret and the Austrian artist Wolfgang Paalen. But it was the Mexican muralists Diego Rivera, Juan O'Gorman and especially José Orozco who really interested him. He was especially impressed by the boldly schematic figures of Orozco that aimed at the grand simplicity of early Italian masters in the circle of Giotto, and it was these that he remembered after the war when he himself began to paint.

First though, Golding took a degree at Toronto University. He made frequent visits during this time to the Museum of Modern Art and worked for a period as a stage designer. He returned to London to take an MA at the Courtauld. In 1953 he saw the major show of cubism in Paris at the Musée d'Art Moderne and decided to write his doctoral thesis at the Courtauld on the formative years of the movement, from 1907, when Picasso painted Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, until the outbreak of war in 1914. The resulting book won the approval of both Braque and Picasso and became a keystone in Golding's life. Although he had decided while he was studying that he would work as an artist as well as a historian, inevitably the acclaim for his book drew Golding deeper into academic life.

He started to teach at the Courtauld in 1959. He was a reader in art history by 1981, at which point the Royal College of Art made him the siren offer of senior tutor in the painting school. Golding took it, in the knowledge that at the RCA he could immerse himself full time in the practice of painting, his own as well as his students'. "I am not interested in art as self-discovery or therapy," he said. He wanted to be a full-time professional, committed to pushing painting forward in the exploration of colour and light.

His painting was already gaining recognition, notably when he was included in the 1974 Hayward Annual, British Painting, selected by Andrew Forge. In the 1980s he had a run of one-man shows in top galleries, including Juda Rowan in London and the Oxford Museum of Modern Art, as well as in Tokyo, Sydney and at the Yale Centre for British Art in Connecticut, where the catalogue for his show was written by Forge, who, like Golding, was a painter and deeply sensitive critic.

Golding's knowledge of Renaissance painting, especially the great Venetians and particularly their rendering of the fall of light on to bodies, the way it breaks up outlines and dissolves form and mass, informed his own work as he moved out of figuration and into abstract canvases in which light was the subject. He painted vertical streaks of colour down his canvases like pleated light (as he put it) and occasionally on, say, a misty blue, he would scatter clusters of gold pigment to reflect the actual light. After the end of the 20th century, he started to structure his paintings so that they appeared to be based on photographs from thousands of feet above the Earth, with "roads" and "bridges" and "canals". He even called one of these canvases Mappa Mundi.

In retrospect, though, it seems to have been inevitable that Golding's own painting should be overshadowed by his reputation as a historian. As a teacher, he was popular with his students. In person he looked a little like Picasso, but his voice was soft and his delivery almost contemplative, as though he was thinking his way forward, trying his ideas out on his audience as he formulated them, even on subjects he knew well.

The historian James Joll, with whom he shared his life for many years, died in 1994. He is survived by two nephews, Michael and Richard.

• Harold John Golding, artist, art historian and curator, born 10 September 1929; died 9 April 2012

• This article was amended on 12 April 2012. The editing of the original located Hastings in Kent. This has been corrected. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

August 17 2011

10 of the best museums in Berlin

Berlin resident and travel writer Rory MacLean chooses some of the city's most impressive museums, whether you want to taste life in the former DDR or admire works by world famous artists

• As featured in our Berlin city guide

Käthe Kollwitz Museum

Of all Berlin's artists, no one captured the pain suffered in and exported from this place more than Käthe Kollwitz. The intense intimacy of her work revealed residents' hopes and horrors, as well as the unspoken pains of the poor, in images and forms which – 60 years after her death – still appear to burst from the artist's heart. This privately owned museum, just off the Ku'damm, includes hundreds of her finest drawings, etchings and sculptures. A passageway connects the museum to the neighbouring Literaturhaus, with one of the city's most civilised cafes.
• Fasanenstrasse 24, +49 30 882 5210,, adults €6, concessions €3. Open daily 11am-6pm

Neues Museum

Over the last decade the Neues Museum, a bombed-out ruin since 1945, has been repaired and rebuilt by British starchitect David Chipperfield. His recreation is a striking building which can be read like a book, telling – through its original walls, surviving textural details, all-but-lost classical frescos and soaring new spaces – the story of man's ability to create, destroy and preserve. It is the perfect museum for Berlin. The collection, which includes a Neanderthal skull, the bust of Egyptian queen Nefertiti and Heinrich Schliemann's Trojan antiquities, isn't half bad either.
• Bodestrasse 1, +49 30 2664 24242,, adults €10, concessions €5, under-19s free. Open Mon-Wed, Sun 10am-6pm, Thur-Sat 10am-8pm

Bauhaus Archives – Museum of Design

Berlin has long been a capital of creativity but unlike London, Paris and New York the radiance of its arts shines brightest against the darkness in its past. The city is the spiritual home of the Bauhaus, the most influential school of architecture, design and art in the 20th century. Its Archive – or Museum of Design – houses a sensational collection of sculptures, ceramics, furniture and architectural models by Walter Gropius, Moholy-Nagy, Klee, Kandinsky and the many others who – with the Nazis' rise to power – fled Germany and carried modernism to the New World. A free guided tour runs every Sunday at 3pm.
Klingelhöferstrasse 14, +49 30 254 0020, Open Wed-Mon 10am-5pm (closed Tuesday), adults €7, concessions €4

Museum Berggruen

Heinz Berggruen bought his first painting in 1940 for $100 – a watercolour by Paul Klee. Half a century later, he gave to Berlin the bulk of his fabulous collection, then valued at $450m and including 165 masterpieces by Braque, Matisse, Klee and Giacometti. This intimate gallery, situated opposite the Schloss Charlottenburg, also has more than 100 works by Picasso from early student sketches to the blue and rose period through his cubist years and up to the year before his death in April 1973. Guided tours for children are offered on most Saturdays (paper and crayons provided).
• Schlossstrasse 1, +49 30 2664 24242,, adults €6, concessions €4. Open Tue-Sun 10am-6pm

Topography of Terror

That Germany is open and dynamic today is a consequence of taking responsibility for its history. In a courageous, humane and moving manner, the country is subjecting itself to a national psychoanalysis. This Freudian idea, that the repressed (or at least unspoken) will fester like a canker unless it is brought to the light, can be seen in Daniel Libeskind's tortured Jewish Museum, at the Holocaust Memorial and, above all, at the Topography of Terror. Be aware that this outdoor museum, built on the site of the former headquarters of the SS and Gestapo, is not for the fainthearted.
• Niederkirchnerstrasse 8, +49 30 2545 0950, Open daily 10am-8pm, free

Jewish Museum

At the start of the 20th century, Berlin was the largest Jewish city in the world. One third of the 100 richest Prussians were Jews. By 1945 Hitler had destroyed Germany's rich diversity, making it both poorer and more homogeneous. Berlin's Jewish Museum – with its extension by Daniel Libeskind – explores two millennia of German Jewish history. But far from being locked in the past, the museum looks forward with child-friendly tours, weekend workshops and special shows including a histories of Jewish football and radical Jewish music in New York.
• Lindenstrasse 9-14, +49 30 2599 3300, Open Mon 10am-10pm, Tue-Sun 10am-8pm, adults €5, concessions €2.50, under-6s free

Allied Museum

At the end of the second world war, the victorious Allies divided Berlin into four sectors. Stalin's secret intention was to draw Berlin – and then the whole of Germany – into the Communist orbit. In 1948 he blockaded the city as a means of driving the Americans out of Europe, but the Allies retaliated by launching the Berlin airlift to sustain its freedom. The cold war heated up and in 1961 the Soviets built the Wall to completely encircle the western sectors. The Allied Museum tells the story of those years. Displays include the guardhouse from Checkpoint Charlie, an RAF Hastings, as well as a section of the Berlin spy tunnel, the largest ever SIS/CIA operation.
• Clayallee 135, +49 30 818 1990, Open Mon, Tue, Thur-Sun 10am–6pm, free

The Berlin Wall Memorial

Bernauer Strasse witnessed some of the most tragic scenes when the city was divided in 1961: East Berliners jumped from apartment windows, vaulted over barbed wire, tunnelled beneath the streets in an attempt to reach freedom. The Berlin Wall Memorial – which includes the city's only unadorned stretch of border fortifications and a superb museum – marks the iniquity, compliance and heroism of East and West Berliners during those tragic years. A must.
• Bernauer Strasse 111/119, +49 30 4679 866 66, Open April–October, Tue-Sun 9.30am-7pm, November-March, Tue-Sun 9.30am-6pm, free

DDR Museum

Trabants, hidden microphones, beach volleyball nudists and Spreewald pickles: Ostalgie (or nostalgia for life in former East) might worry parts of country (a recent survey found half of 16-year-olds believed East Germany was never a dictatorship), but at the DDR Museum visitors can safely experience life in under communism – at least for their 90-minute visit. Watch TV in the authentic East Berlin living room, spy on your neighbours, join the FDJ pioneers or march in the May Day parade. The museum is located on the river Spree opposite Berlin cathedral.
• Karl-Liebknecht-Strasse 1, +49 30 847 123 731, Open Mon-Fri, Sun 10am-8pm, Sat 10am-10pm, adults €6, concessions €4

Currywurst Museum

The currywurst is as much a part of Berlin as the Brandenburg Gate, with more than 70,000,000 curried sausages scoffed in the city every year. No surprise then that Berliners should celebrate their civic dish with a feel-good museum. Uncover the story of fast food through the ages, learn about the "currywurst war", lie back on the Sausage Sofa and discover why Volkswagen is one of Germany's largest sausage makers. Entrance is far from cheap but the souvenirs are among the best in Berlin (for non-vegetarians) and the complimentary "Currywurst in a Cup" has the tastiest, fruitiest sauce I've found anywhere in town.
• Schützenstrasse 70, +49 30 8871 8647, Open daily 10am-10pm, adults €11, concessions €8.50, children €7, under-6s free

Rory MacLean's book on Berlin will be published in 2012. He writes a weekly Berlin blog for the Goethe Institut © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

April 08 2011

Henri Matisse: Acanthes. Conservation Project 2009 – 2012 at Fondation Beyeler

Fondation Beyeler’s Acanthes Conservation Project 2009 – 2012 is an extensive investigation and conservation project that focuses on French artist Henri Matisse’s Acenthes. Acanthes was created by Henri Matisse in 1953. It’s a major work from the series of large-format “papiers découpés”. Since March 30, 2010, the museum visitors have the opportunity to observe the conservation process in a room specially equipped for this purpose.

Henri Matisse: Acanthes. Conservation Project

The papiers découpés are very special “paintings” as they consist of numerous layers. They are at the same time drawings (the establishment of contours), paintings (the composition of colored paper shapes), and sculptures (the cutting of the paper). With the papier découpés Matisse developed an entirely new form of expression – at the end of his life!

The above video is an excerpt of a 40 Min. long interview with the conservators of the Acanthes Conservation Project 2009 – 2012, Chief Conservator Markus Gross and Conservator Stephan Lohrengel. In the complete video, the conservators talk about the concept and different stages of the project, the tools the conservator use, the specific challenges of preserving Matisse’s papiers découpés, the work “Acanthes”, the relationship with the work, how Matisse developed these works, the importance of catalogs for the research, etc. – and what they already found out. You will also see a veritable icon of modernism and one of the most prominent works in the Fondation Beyeler, “Nu bleu I” (1952), a work Ernst Beyeler acquired for his collection in 1960, together with “Acanthes”. The full-length video will be available soon as download and DVD.

Henri Matisse: Acanthes. Conservation Project 2009 – 2012 at Fondation Beyeler. Interview with Chief Conservator Markus Gross and Conservator Stephan Lohrengel. Riehen / Switzerland, March 28, 2011.

> Right-click (Mac: ctrl-click) this link to download Quicktime video file.

February 14 2011

Al Pacino to play Henri Matisse

Pacino set to star in film, directed by Deepa Mehta, about French artist's relationship with his muse, Monique Bourgeois

Al Pacino looks set to play the French artist Henri Matisse in a film about the painter's relationship with his nurse, model and muse, Monique Bourgeois, Variety reports.

No start date has yet been picked for the project, titled Masterpiece, with producers still searching for two female leads. Bourgeois was hired by Matisse in 1941, when the painter was in his 70s. She later became a Dominican nun, and the pair re-encountered each other in Vence, France, where she inspired him to decorate the Chapelle du Rosaire, often known as the Matisse chapel and one of the most important works of art of the 20th century.

Bourgeois, or Sister Jacques-Marie as she was later known, died in 2005. She insisted her relationship with the painter had always been purely platonic. "I never really noticed whether he was in love with me," she told an interviewer in 1992. "I was a little like his granddaughter or his muse, but he was always a perfect gentleman."

The Indian-Canadian Oscar-nominated film-maker Deepa Mehta is set to direct a script by Donald Martin. Pacino will next be seen on screen in Son of No One, which debuted at Sundance last month and stars Channing Tatum as a cop assigned to a precinct in the Queens neighbourhood where he grew up. The film also features Juliette Binoche, Ray Liotta and Katie Holmes. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

January 07 2011

Gauguin tribute to Van Gogh for sale

Works by Picasso, Matisse and Degas also on offer at blockbuster Christie's art sale

A still life of sunflowers painted by Paul Gauguin as a tribute to his friend Vincent Van Gogh, which has not been seen in public for more than 20 years, will lead one of the blockbuster impressionist art sales in London next month.

Christie's today announced details of its February impressionist and modern art sales which will include works by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Georges Braque, André Derain, Edgar Degas and Pierre Bonnard. The total pre-sale estimate is between £74m and £109m – the second highest for equivalent Christie's sales in London and a sign that sellers are more confident than a year ago, when the estimate was between £57m and £81m.

Certainly there is a detectable buoyancy in the trophy art market, as evidenced by largely successful sales in New York and London last year that included a record for any artwork bought at auction – the sale in May of Picasso's Nude, Green Leaves and Bust for £70m.

Christie's head of impressionist and modern art, Giovanna Bertazzoni, called 2010 a landmark year for the art market, with record prices driven by a demand for top quality works.

"The category continues to engage new collectors from both established and emerging markets, including China and Russia," she said. "When there is a healthy supply it has been shown that there is a tremendous demand for the rarest and the best."

Few would quibble about the Gauguin being in that category. Nature Morte à L'Espérance was painted in Tahiti in 1901 – two years before his death from syphilis and 11 years after Van Gogh's suicide – and was shown at Gauguin's first big retrospective in 1906. Although not seen in public since 1989, it has featured in more than 20 major museum exhibitions over the years and has the highest estimate, at £7m to £10m.

The Christie's sale will include four works being sold by the Art Institute of Chicago. It is selling two Picassos, a Matisse portrait and a Braque still life – Nature Morte à la Guitare (Rideaux Rouge) – estimated at between £3.5m and £5.5m.

Other highlights include an Degas ballet painting – Danseuses Jupes Jaunes (Deux Danseuses en Jaune), which has been in the same family since 1899 and is estimated at between £3m and £5m – and a Bonnard summer's day view from his house in Normandy, Terrasse à Vernon, estimated at between £3m and £4m. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

January 06 2011

Gwyneth Johnstone obituary

Daughter of Augustus John, she painted in her own complex, dreamlike style

Gwyneth Johnstone was an artist of great dedication, whose characteristic style – a hallucinogenic, haunting pastoral – was forged more than half a century ago and developed and refined over the decades. She was still working and exhibiting in the last few weeks of her life. She has died aged 95, after a successful studio show at her house in Norfolk.

Johnstone's heroes were Matisse, Braque, Picasso and, more surprisingly, the Catalan artist Antoni Tàpies. Paul Klee and Italian painters of the Trecento were another vital resource. But she was also a very English painter, and Blake's Virgilian woodcuts, the intense landscapes of the Shoreham primitives and the naive popular art of chapbooks were among her influences. Provence, Brittany and Normandy, and the mountain villages of southern Spain were her topographical inspiration.

Her paintings and exquisite, spiky ink drawings were peopled with archaic fishermen, shepherds and lovers. Doves, owls, suns, moons, young women holding symbolic leaves, blockily rendered village houses and small chapels, secret hills and safe harbours made up an Arcadian world of prelapsarian innocence that was given unexpected power by Johnstone's compressed spatial formalism. Her paintings, invariably oil on board, were heavily worked and reworked, layer upon layer, to achieve complex colouristic effects.

Johnstone's beginnings were not easy. Her father was the painter Augustus John, her mother Norah Brownsword, a young pianist and the daughter of a wealthy Nottingham lace manufacturer. Fortunately, Norah had independent means. She gave her daughter the allusive surname Johnstone and brought her up in London and Norfolk. There, Norah married a member of the Back family, East Anglian landowners, solicitors and doctors. The marriage was not a success, and after a year John Back departed to live with his sister in Norwich, leaving Norah the chatelaine of his house and farm at Great Hautbois, some 15 miles away. Gwyneth was sent to St Felix school, Southwold, where she saw paintings by Christopher Wood and other early 20th-century modernists, bought by the school's enlightened headteacher, Lucy Mary Silcox.

From March 1933 until June 1938, she studied at the Slade School of Art in London, where she formed lifelong friendships with Mary Fedden and Virginia Parsons. In her last year at the Slade, she studied stage and decorative painting, which may explain the strikingly scenographic quality of her larger paintings. There followed a period in Paris, where she was taught an academicised cubism at André Lhote's private art school. She found her true voice only in the 1950s after joining Cecil Collins's remarkable classes at the Central School of Arts and Crafts. Collins helped Johnstone develop into a harmonious and daring colourist.

During the 1950s Johnstone and her mother owned a succession of houses in Ramatuelle, a Provençal village hidden in the hills above St Tropez. Their London base was in Charlotte Street and, later, a pair of houses in Barnsbury Terrace. Rooms were divided up in an ad hoc fashion, panelled with wood salvaged from skips, and rented out to a series of charmed and bewildered lodgers. By the early 1970s, Provence seemed overrun and Johnstone bought a house in Chirles, a remote village above Alicante in Spain. In all these places, Norfolk included, mother and daughter won hearts as fantastical raconteurs and bohemian housekeepers who appeared endlessly amused by life's vagaries. They were devoted to each other and, when together, invariably slept in the same bed.

Johnstone never married, but from the 1940s shared her life with Francis Davies, a classical pianist who eventually divided his time between Australia and Europe. He predeceased her. Both became disciples of the Russian mystic George Gurdjieff, from whose writings Johnstone drew strength and solace.

Johnstone appeared in many group shows, including Young Contemporaries, the London Group and the Women's International Art Club, but her first London solo show was in 1960 at the shortlived Woodstock gallery, followed by a series of exhibitions at the Portal gallery and, in 1963, at the Scottish gallery, Edinburgh, where the critic TE Dickson was struck by her gift for turning the everyday into "an enchanting drama full of touching solemnity and seriousness".

Enlightened educational authorities, the Contemporary Arts Society, the Norfolk magnate Sir Timothy Colman and the actor Vincent Price were among those who bought and commissioned. Price wrote eloquently on Johnstone in 1966, warning her audience not to be "captivated by the obvious charm of colour and subject matter to the point where the brilliance of her composition and technique is overlooked".

By the 1970s her art must have appeared wildly out of step with contemporary practice, but from the 1980s onwards she was being rediscovered, with solo exhibitions at the New Grafton gallery (1983), Sally Hunter & Patrick Seale Fine Art (1985), the Michael Parkin gallery (1993) and, most recently, the School House gallery, Norfolk (2007). In 2007 she was the subject of an admiring article by Mirabel Cecil in World of Interiors.

She became a legend whose ancestry fascinated the gossipy and whose drawling laugh and speech patterns belonged to a vanished world. But this was never how Johnstone saw herself. She worked hard, perched on an office chair, preferring above all to draw and paint, and to talk and write letters about painting. Her thoughts always remained fixed on future work.

Johnstone had no children, but her goddaughter, Georgia Tennant, was a much loved friend and confidante. In her last year she was looked after devotedly by Gabrielle Masaryk.

• Gwyneth Johnstone, artist, born 18 June 1915; died 8 December 2010 © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

October 04 2010

Matisse sculpture set for auction

Back IV, owned by unnamed European collector, is being auctioned for the first time at Christie's in New York

A life-size bronze sculpture by Henri Matisse, never sold at auction, is expected to be the talking point of the autumn art sales and could fetch up to $35m (£22m), art experts said. Matisse's Back IV (Nu de Dos, 4ème etat), circa 1930, is being sold at Christie's on 3 November by a private European collector, whom the auction house declined to name. Christie's said the owner recognises the tremendous market opportunity for modern sculpture at this time.

"Conceived on an epic scale, Back IV is a powerfully reductive expression of the human form that stands as a milestone in the evolution of modernist style," said Conor Jordan, the head of impressionist and modern art for Christie's Americas.

Giacometti's life-size Walking Man I briefly became the most expensive sculpture ever auctioned in February when it sold for more than $104m. The Matisse work is the last of a series of four sculptures that Jordan described as Matisse's most ambitious project, which the artist worked on for more than 20 years.

Twelve bronzes were produced of each piece in the series.

"As our upcoming sale represents the first time that any of the Back sculptures has ever been offered at auction, we expect tremendous enthusiasm from collectors around the world who will recognize this superb bronze as one of the most important sculptural achievements of the 20th century," he said.

Apart from its rarity, intense interest in the sale is expected following the enthusiastic response to the Matisse: Radical Invention exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art (Moma) in New York which is ending soon.

All four of its Back sculptures were moved from the museum's sculpture garden to its galleries, where they were among the show's focal points.

In May Christie's sold Pablo Picasso's Nude, green leaves and bust, for $106.5 m. – just days after a Picasso exhibition opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

"We have witnessed great strength at the top end of the market, particularly where superlative examples of modern sculpture are involved," said Marc Porter, chairman of Christie's Americas.

Among the 12 Back IV works produced, all but two are in museum collections including Moma, London's Tate Modern and the Pompidou Centre in Paris. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

August 15 2010

Matisse at the Moma, New York | Sam Leith

The Museum of Modern Art in New York has a cracking Matisse exhibition on at the moment. Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913-1917 concentrates on four years of the painter's life, in which he scratched and gouged his way to a whole new style. Or, I should say, set of styles – so extraordinarily various are the ways he attacked his art in those years.

Superbly curated, the show is especially fascinating because real trouble has been taken to put these paintings in the context of the works that influenced their creation, as well as in the context of Matisse's previous experiments with subject matter and composition. "Cezanne, hmm, yes," you say, looking hard at an oddly proportioned Cezanne and seeing, sort of, how it relates to the figure in the Matisse to its right. "Legs too short."

You start to get a sense of how urgently Matisse is trying to convey how he actually saw – how the quotidian physical world, for him, was vibrating with possibility; how volumes, planes and blocks of colour interrelate; how gestures in paint could negotiate between the typical and the particular.

Two hi-tech video presentations give you a clearer sense of the struggle. One concentrates on Matisse's monumental sequence of reliefs, Back I to Back IV, which show a long-haired woman from behind. We see how he went back and forth from clay to plaster to clay as he adapted the hefty, boulder-shouldered original to its monumental but minimal final form, thickening her bum here, carving off a curve there. Some 3D imaging lets you see exactly how it changed over the two-and-a-bit decades between I and IV.

The other astonishing presentation reconstructs the progress of Bathers by a River, over the eight years Matisse worked on it. Using x-rays as well as computer-enhanced glimpses of the canvas in photos of Matisse in his studio, it shows you how dramatically and obsessively that piece was reworked.

I found it thrilling. But taking these paintings in is hard, slow, intellectual work. You really have to look. By the time I was two rooms in, I was what art critics call pooped. If Matisse spent eight years getting Bathers right, how long should we do him the courtesy of looking at it for? This is a widespread problem. For people who, like me, are eager-but-bewildered amateurs of the visual arts (what Ben Elton would call "farties"), the process of travelling round a gallery, particularly one stuffed with masterpieces, is fraught.

Buried within us somewhere is the feeling that fine art is less something to be looked at and enjoyed, than a field of knowledge to be conquered as a badge of cultivation. In this respect, we resemble my late grandfather: having once been told by a Finnish merchant seaman that anyone who had read Paradise Lost could regard himself educated, he promptly did so – and barely read another book thereafter.

As well as causing you to annoy people by bending forward to peer carefully at the notes on the wall ("Ah, impasto," you note and inwardly digest), it gives you what could be called quantity anxiety. The problem is the embarrassment of riches. It's there in MoMA, as it is in Tate Britain and Tate Modern. It is certainly there with the Met, and it's there, to the furthest imaginable extreme, in St Petersburg's Hermitage, where walking through the whole joint at a brisk clip without even looking at the pictures would still take several days.

Nicholas Carr's interesting new book, The Shallows, talks with regret about how the internet age atomises the way we take in music and books: we listen to songs now rather than albums; and, rather than reading books cover-to-cover, we can use Google Books to find the best bits.

However, you could say the opposite is true in terms of how galleries present visual art. You feel that the unit in which paintings should be consumed is the galleryful, or the exhibitionful. Even if you are determined to give the pictures time, a nagging sense remains that you should be moving on: your audioguide wants to direct you to the Demoiselles, someone's jostling you from the side, or your pals have done this floor and are going downstairs for coffee and a bun. Yet the more works you take in, the less you see.

Asking galleries to show less wouldn't get us anywhere: it's hard to imagine them boasting of a collection of unrivalled smallness. It isn't exactly a draw. What I wonder is whether we farties could be helped by a labelling system, like the ones I ignore on the sides of cans of cider. Minor works by forgotten Flemish landscape artists would be two units, Bathers nine, and Guernica an imposing 10. The government might even like to suggest weekly consumption guidelines: 21 units for experts and 14 for farties, with special restrictions, of course, on pregnant women and people operating heavy machinery. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 14 2010

Christie's sale dazzles public with 33 centuries of masterpieces for four days

Art auction covering work from 13BC bronze items to Picasso, Klimt and Warhol expected to break world sale records

It is surely the shortest ever art exhibition to cover the longest period of history. For only four days, Christie's is showing some breathtakingly impressive examples of artistic achievement stretching over 33 centuries.

The show at the auction house's London headquarters is a once in a lifetime opportunity to see some amazing works, everything from 13BC bronze cooking vessels to some of the finest 13th century illuminated manuscripts to an important blue period Picasso. The exhibition ends at 4.30pm on Thursday because all the works are being sold – most of them this month and next.

Christie's European president, Jussi Pylkkanen, said the auction house had decided to put on a curated show of this year's highlights because the auction season was shaping up to be the strongest for a generation. "I can honestly say we've never had an exhibition of this quality in my 25 years here," he said.

Certainly, both Christie's and Sotheby's have persuaded sellers that 2010 is the year to sell. Pylkkanen said: "The art market is particularly firm at the moment, there is a flight to quality and we have what I would term 'medici collectors', who are keen to buy the very, very best irrespective of the categories in which they are being offered."

And the super-rich buyers are coming from far more parts of the world than ever before. Western European and American buyers are now joined by Russian oligarchs and secretive Asian and Middle Eastern millionaires – or billionaires – keen to create art collections.

There are high expectations that the auction record for a work of art will be set in next week's London auctions at Christie's and Sotheby's, after it was twice broken this year – first by a Giacometti Walking Man statue, and then by a Picasso in New York that sold for $106m (£70m).

The best bet to break the record is, arguably, a Picasso being sold for charity in aid of the Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation. Portrait of Angel Fernández de Soto, or The Absinthe Drinker, is conservatively estimated at £30-£40m.

The Christie's show groups works thematically – "power", "patronage", "women in art". It is a free opportunity for the public – the majority of who probably can't quite stretch to the asking prices, at least not this year – to see jaw-dropping art.

In one room you can see a Chris Ofili next to a Gustav Klimt deathbed portrait of Ria Munk, who killed herself in dramatic fashion – she aimed a shotgun in to her chest – after she fell out with her lover. In another room is a Warhol Silver Liz – Elizabeth Taylor, that is – opposite a colourful Matisse nude unseen in public since the year after it was painted. And in another room is a heartstopping Monet waterlily painting, not far from a Van Gogh work executed while he was in voluntary confinement at the asylum of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole.

• Juxtaposed: Masterpieces Through the Ages is at Christie's in St James's until 8.30pm tomorrow, and then 9am-4.30pm on Wednesday and Thursday. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 11 2010

Comfort zones

From the backless bench to Matisse's 'good armchair', furniture has always been about more than bums on seats. But when the surrealists entered the drawing room, domestic interiors would never be the same again. By James Hall

Are you comfortable? Since you are reading the Saturday edition of a British newspaper published in the summer of AD2010, you are probably sitting or lying down rather than standing, your body supported by upholstery, or by moulded or flexible material of some sort. If seated at a computer, or reclining in a hammock, you may be gently rocking. By most western standards, you are comfortable – though whether your present position is doing long-term damage to your spine is another matter . . .

The concept of comfort and discomfort, as social historians and historical novelists are at pains to point out, is a modern invention. It is a key issue in two current exhibitions, the V&A's Horace Walpole and Strawberry Hill and The Surreal House, which has just opened at the Barbican in London. Walpole was one of the first to identify domestic comfort and discomfort with particular historical periods, and he concluded that comfort was both something very modern and very desirable; the surrealists rejected home comforts as too bourgeois, and instead romanticised discomfort.

In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, even elite Europeans had little furniture, and what they had was rudimentary. They sat on backless benches, stools and the x-shaped "Savonarola" chair, or on straight-backed wooden chairs placed against the wall. Loose cushions – squabs – might sometimes be provided, though as people often wore several layers of clothing to ward off the cold, these might have been redundant. At court, or in big households, being seated while others stood was a sign of prestige – hence, the terms "chairman", the bishop's "seat", and the "heir to the throne".

Sir Walter Scott concluded his description of the interior of a medieval castle in Ivanhoe (1820) with a penetrating aperçu: "Magnificence there was, with some rude attempt at taste; but of comfort there was little, and, being unknown, it was unmissed." Unmissed – and unnecessary? If you spend most of your days in the saddle or standing around, whether as a medieval knight or a modern polo player (see Jilly Cooper), you develop superb core stability and rock-solid buttocks. Maintaining a ramrod-straight back is both effortless and desirable, and that's the principal behind modern saddle-style office chairs. In an equestrian society, high chairbacks are largely for show, a sort of priapic peacock's tail.

Upholstery, interior decoration and the science of ergonomics came of age in the 18th century. New furniture types, properly padded so as to remain unlumpy, yet light enough to be moved around and into intimate groupings, catered to a relatively informal "leisure" society in which women played a more prominent role. Houses tended to have smaller rooms, each with a specialised function that required appropriate furnishings. The new siège courant (movable or "fly" chair) contrasted with the static, wall-bound siège meublant. They ranged from the chaise longue and cabriole to the reading and lolling chair. Slanted, broader backs and curved arms enabled the sitter to be more comfortable and mobile enough for conversation and flirting. Sitting with legs crossed became a male fashion. English cabinetmakers such as Chippendale pioneered the use of mahogany, a hardwood imported from Jamaica that was strong and resistant to woodworm, but extremely light and stable even when cut very thinly. Orchestrating all the newfangled fixtures and fittings was the task of the new breed of interior designer, Daniel Marot, Jean-François Blondel, William Kent and Robert Adam.

Until the 18th century, the word "comfort" had usually referred to spiritual succour and consolation, or to something medicinal. But now it started to take on its prime modern meaning of general physical well-being. In 1770, Horace Walpole wrote to say that, arriving unexpectedly at a friend's house, the housekeeper "has given me a good fire and some excellent coffee and bread and butter, and I am as comfortable as possible". Comfort was crucial even in Walpole's pioneering Gothic-style house at Strawberry Hill, as he explained in the visitor's guide: "In truth, I did not mean to make my house so Gothic as to exclude convenience, and modern refinements in luxury." Refinement meant "French gaiety", and the house only had a single piece of furniture that might have been from before 1600 – a wooden chair from Glastonbury Abbey. The wooden-backed "gothic" chairs that were specially made to Walpole's own design had anachronistic padded seats, but these were anyway outnumbered by state-of-the-art settees and fauteuils.

Nineteenth century gothicists were surprisingly tolerant of upholstered furniture which, thanks to the industrial revolution, was now being supplied to the middle classes (upholstery with iron springs was introduced in around 1825). Sir Walter Scott commissioned gothic-style furniture for his house at Abbotsford, and visitors must have feared the worst when they saw the serried ranks of stark wooden chairs lined up against the wall in the entrance hall. But Scott's antiquarianism was selective, and in the reception rooms and library the chairs were conventionally upholstered. Pugin copied the Glastonbury chair, but his clients demanded comfort, and the upright chairs for the Houses of Commons and Lords are almost obscenely well padded. William Morris & Co didn't just make simple wooden chairs with rush seats inspired by traditional rural furniture: the famous Morris chair, with its adjustable upholstered back, was made for sensual slumbers, and dreams of Avalon.

Henri Matisse, the greatest modern painter of textile-filled interiors, epitomised this ethos in his Notes on Painting (1908): "What I dream of is an art of balance, or purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter, an art which could be for every mental worker, for the businessman as well as the man of letters, for example, a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue". It was an odd thing for Matisse to say because armchairs and upholstery had been conspicuous by their near total absence in his paintings. When his sitters sit, they perch awkwardly or hieratically on simple Sussex-style and slat-backed chairs. Matisse must have been trying to disarm critics, and shake off his reputation as the bourgeois-bating leader of the Fauves. His statement applies much better to the art of his intimiste contemporaries, Vuillard and Bonnard, who specialised in pictures of women basking in opulently-upholstered interiors, preparing for the return of their businessman spouses.

The first sofas appear in Matisse's art in around 1910, but this was a bit of a false start, not least because in 1912-13 he spent time in Morocco where (as in most of the non-western world) people sat, knelt and squatted on the floor. Matisse's first bona fide "good armchair" painting arrives in around 1916, when a womb-like crapaud upholstered in pink fabric cocoons a slumbering female model in a green dressing gown. During the 1920s, Matisse's art does, to a greater extent, enter a comfort zone, but his interiors are brashly exotic, and upholstery doesn't often get the upper hand. His topless odalisques are just as likely to stretch out on cushions and rugs as they are to lie on day-beds, and when they do sit, their backs tend to remain severely vertical. Many of his models' poses are ones that most westerners would find uncomfortable. There's probably more yoga than "French gaiety" here.

Matisse has never been forgiven for his "good armchair" mission statement, because its validation of soporific home comforts smacks of bourgeois complacency, rooted in male ownership of property, possessions and women (his biographer Hilary Spurling claims that it arose from his "intimate acquaintance with violence and destruction, a sense of human misery sharpened by years of humiliation, rejection and exposure"). The myth of "home sweet home" was one of the Victorians' greatest creations, but it had already come under gentle fire in George and Weedon Grossmith's serialised novel The Diary of a Nobody (1892), where the house-proud, home-loving George Pooter falls asleep in his chintz-covered armchair, and where Padge hogs the best chair. Home comforts were to become one of the principal targets for the post-war avant-gardes. For the monkish Gerrit Rietveld, designer of the ruthlessly angular Red Blue Chair (1918-23) and member of the De Stijl movement, spiritual comfort was more important than physical. Central to these artists' reforming agenda was their rejection of sophisticated, soporific furniture that turned the sitter into a slothful couch potato: the most extreme manifestation of this was and still is the entirely chairless, white-walled art gallery.

Avant-garde suspicion of domestic bliss is one of the pervasive themes of the Barbican's The Surreal House, a sprawling smorgasbord of modern art, film and architecture that seeks to expose and revel in the dark and unhomely sides of home life. The exhibition includes plenty of quasi-crime-scenes in which furniture and architecture play a leading role – Rachel Whiteread's sepulchral Black Bath; Claude Cahun's traumatic tight-squeeze, Self-Portrait (in a Cupboard); René Magritte's painting of a cupboard containing a "dress" on a hanger made out of a buxom woman's skin; Louise Bourgeois's reclining female nude with her head encased in a house, Femme-Maison; Francis Bacon's convulsive bed-scenes (included in a section called "Panic Space"). More elaborate is Giacometti's bronze tableau, Surrealist Table. Each leg of the asymmetrical table is in a different period design, which makes it seem both historically and physically unstable. Perched on the table top is a heavily draped and partially veiled female bust and a cast of a left hand, both of which suggest a mind- and time-bending séance or satanic ritual. Giacometti has not provided a chair (or a pedestal), for neither is needed if the human spirit is to be set free.

Salvador Dalí made the classic "anti-good armchair" statements when he turned to furniture design in the 1930s. He created a red upholstered sofa based on Mae West's lips for the English collector Edward James (Brighton Museum), and a stool whose back consists of a pair of predatory arms. Dalí insisted that a chair "can be used to sit on, but on condition that one sits on it uncomfortably". Here, the discomfort arises from the sitter's being, as it were, sexually assaulted by the chair and by being forced to think about sado-masochistic sex. A chair also had to express the spirit of the age and cause the "proud, ornamental, intimidating and quantified spectre of a period to spring forth instantly". It was usually vast public buildings such as Gothic cathedrals that were said to express the spirit of their age, but Dalí wanted to bring the unsettling sublimities associated with colossal symbolic structures into the home.

The Barbican exhibition includes photographs of Dalí's lubricous Dream of Venus pavilion (1939), and his lugubrious beach-scene painting The Dream (1937), in which a biomorphic beanbag head is painfully propped up by wooden crutches driven into the sand. Coloured a viral seaweed green, this is a stranded merman on a splayed bed of nails. For Dalí, crutches supported individuals or classes that were on their last legs, such as the European aristocracy. The Dream measures 50 x 77cms: the abiding paradox is that almost all surrealist paintings are "cabinet" pictures – small, easel paintings that fit snugly into any bourgeois sitting-room.

The abstract expressionist painter Willem de Kooning, famous for his hyperactive, ectoplasmic paintings of naked, seated women, had Matisse in his sights when he said: "Art never seems to make me peaceful or pure. . . some painters, including myself, do not care what chair they are sitting on. It does not even have to be a comfortable one. They are too nervous to find out where they ought to sit. They do not want to 'sit in style.'" Ed Kienholz's dingy tableau of a 1930s interior, The Wait (1964-5), suggests that to "sit in style" is living death: an old lady sits regally in a throne-like wooden chair, but now transformed into a clothed skeleton. On the wall behind her is a 19th-century photograph of a man we presume to be her husband. She's a working-class Queen Victoria, endlessly mourning and yearning. Kienholz's tableau must have been inspired by Warhol's Electric Chair (1963), but it implies that any form of sedentary activity is bad for you.

The Surreal House omits authentic modern furniture, possibly because quite a lot has been exhibited at the Barbican recently – there have been shows of the modernist architects Le Corbusier and Aalto, who designed chairs of varying degrees of comfort, and they've just had Ron Arad: Restless. This post-punk British chair designer caters for those who like to sit dangerously. Arad's Bad Tempered Chair resembles a cluster of inflated air-bags. "I can't stay still in one place for too long," he says defiantly. But where avant-garde permanent revolution ends and novelty-seeking consumerism begins is a moot point.

The architectural elements found in The Surreal House are equally uncosy – a mixture of womblike prisons and vertiginous mazes. The best example here is André Masson's Piranesian painting The Labyrinth (1938), inspired by the Cretan legend of the Minotaur, the bull-headed man who resides at the centre of King Minos's labyrinth. The surrealists understood the labyrinth as an image of the human mind at whose centre resides the Minotaur, symbol of irrational impulses. In Masson's painting, the labyrinth is incorporated within the Minotaur's own mutilated body, which is a juddering architectural ruin made from skin, brick and stone. The Minotaur perches on a barren rocky ledge, and his body is partly flayed to reveal a labyrinth within, with the main entrance through his left hand (his right arm is missing). Masson had been badly injured during the first world war, and this creature is both monster and heroic survivor, one who has been made and unmade by endless violence and dynamism. What better place for it, and for the exhibition, than in the brutalist labyrinth that is the Barbican Centre?

Horace Walpole and Strawberry Hill is at the V&A until 4 July; The Surreal House is at the Barbican until 12 September. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


From Matisse in London to Cage Mix in Gateshead, find out what's happening in art up and down the country

May 20 2010

Picasso masterpieces stolen in Paris

Paintings by Picasso, Matisse, Braque, Modigliani and Leger stolen from Paris Museum of Modern Art

Five paintings worth €500m (£430m) – including masterpieces by Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse – have been stolen from a Paris museum, French police said today.

A police spokesman said works by Picasso, Matisse, George Braque, Amedeo Modigliani and Fernand Léger were reported missing early this morning from the Paris Museum of Modern Art.

The pictures are: Le Pigeon aux Petits Pois by Picasso; La Pastorale by Matisse; L'Olivier Près de l'Estaque by Braque; La Femme a l'Eventail by Modigliani, and Nature Morte aux Chandeliers by Léger.

The burglary was discovered just before 7am. A window had been broken and the padlock of a grille giving access to the museum was smashed. CCTV footage showed a person climbing in through a window.

Police and investigators have cordoned off the museum, which is in the 16th arrondisement, across the river Seine from the Eiffel Tower.

Le Monde reported that the paintings were so well-known that it would be difficult to sell them on the open market. Previous thefts have involved paintings being stolen to order on behalf of private collectors.

A member of staff at the museum said questions about the theft would only be answered by the office of the Paris mayor, Bertrand Delanoe.

The theft is being investigated by the Brigade de Répression du Banditisme, France's elite police armed robbery unit.

Last December, thieves stole a pastel by Edgar Degas worth €800,000 from an exhibition in Marseille. The work, Les Choristes (The Chorus), was discovered to be missing from the Musée Cantini by a security guard when he opened up. The work, on loan from the Musée d'Orsay in Paris for the exhibition, had been stolen overnight. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

January 12 2010

Lost Klimt to go on sale

Masterpiece saved from Nazis in 1938 to sell alongside key works by Cézanne and Giacometti. See gallery here

A rare and luminously beautiful landscape by Gustav Klimt that was crated up by its owners during the Nazi annexation of Austria in 1938 and then more or less disappeared for decades is to be auctioned in London, Sotheby's announced today.

The painting – which represents a key turning point for the artist – is being sold in what the auction house says is one of the most eye-catching sales of impressionist and modern art it has ever held. As well as the Klimt, conservatively valued at £15m-£18m, there is a quintessential Cézanne still life estimated at £10m-£15m and a similarly valued Giacometti life-size sculpture. It will be the first London sale of its type to include a trio of £10m-plus masterpieces.

All three were today displayed at the auction house's London headquarters; but it was the gorgeousness of the Klimt that was turning heads.

"It is absolutely wonderful," said Sotheby's specialist Patrick Legant. "It's a dream in a way to be so privileged to handle a painting like this."

But it is the story it tells – of Klimt and Vienna as well as the tragic story of its owners – that makes the painting so special. "In one painting you get some of the history of the 20th century," said Legant.

Klimt painted Church in Cassone – Landscape with Cypresses while he was on holiday in Italy with his lover and muse Emilie Klöge in 1913. The picture postcard village on the edge of Lake Garda, with its dominating church and ramrod cypress trees, clearly caught the artist's eye, but the nearest point he could paint it from was too far away – so he used a telescope.

The painting represents a key moment in Klimt's artistic journey, the point where he began embracing the modernist influences that were swirling, ever louder, around Europe. So while you can see the influence of the impressionists and Monet – just look at the reflections in the water – the new influences also loom large, ­people such as his friend Egon Schiele and the Cubists.

Legant said: "When you think of all the earlier Klimt landscapes you have the beautiful meadows, lots of flowers, all very playful. This picture is one of the first that shows a much more modern style – it's very geometrical and architectural, and that's something you wouldn't have found in his earlier pictures. This painting reflects the change in approach to art, an absolutely new way of approaching landscapes."

It was owned by one of Klimt's most important patrons, the Austro-Hungarian steel magnate Viktor Zuckerkandl and his wife Paula. After they died childless in 1927 it passed into the hands of Zuckerkandl's sister Amelie Redlich, where it occupied pride of place in the family's grand Vienna home.

Everything changed with the Anschluss in 1938. Redlich had arranged for her paintings to be stored by a shipping company, even paying what was an enormous bribe of 2,000 Reichsmarks for them to be kept safe and away from the Nazis.

In 1941 the story takes a depressingly predictable turn: Redlich and her daughter Mathilde were deported by the Nazis to Lodz in Poland. They were never heard of again.

Redlich may have succeeded in keeping the art from the Gestapo but the overall goal failed: when her son-in-law went looking for the paintings in 1947 the crates were empty. No one knows what happened and that, for the Klimt, was pretty much that until 1962 when it suddenly appeared at an exhibition in Austria labelled 'from a private collection'.

It comes to auction after a deal was brokered by Sotheby's between the painting's unnamed owners – who bought it in good faith – and the Redlich family's surviving heir and son of Mathilde, Georges Jorisch, a retired Montreal camera shop manager, now 81.

He was lucky enough to get out of Vienna aged 10. An amicable restitution deal has been struck in which the ­proceeds from the sale are split.

The Klimt, the Cézanne and the Giacometti will be sold at Sotheby's on 3 February along with works by artists including Henri Matisse, René Magritte and Joan Míro.

Sotheby's impressionist and modern art vice-chairman, Helena Newman, said the success of its New York November sale – it realised $182m when the upper estimate had been $163m – had encouraged sellers that the big buyers were still out there.

The top end of the market has also seen a new buoyancy because of the new billionaires on the block – the Chinese.

A few years ago they were mainly buying Chinese contemporary art; now Chinese collectors are competing with Russians, Americans and British buyers for the very best examples of European impressionist and modern art, Newman said.

The Giacometti sculpture of a thin walking man (L'Homme qui marche I) has the distinction of being the only lifetime cast of the subject ever to come to auction and could easily realise a record price for the artist. That it has come to market is partly down to the banking crisis – it was part of the collection of the collapsed Dresdner Bank and is being sold by new owners Commerzbank, with proceeds going to charities.

The Cézanne, Pichet et fruits sur une table, is regarded as a particularly fine example of the artist's work, so quintessential that it was used as the cover for John Rewald's authoritative biography of the artist. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

December 21 2009

For art, nothing compares to the noughties

Bold artistic revolutions, stunning new architecture ... Only one problem: it's not the first decade of the 21st century I'm talking about, but a century ago

Say what you like about the first decade of this new century, in art it has been epochal. Never did the accident of a change in dates resonate so thrillingly with a new movement in art. The signs of rebirth are everywhere. In Barcelona, Gaudí is creating those buildings of his that resemble sculptures dreamed up by an intoxicated prophet. In Vienna, young Egon Schiele is adding his genius to that of Gustav Klimt. The Italians are up to something and so are the Russians. But above all, it's in Paris that Picasso and Matisse have made the achievements of the last decades of the 19th century appear gentle. Only yesterday, the art world was arguing over the validity of impressionism. Now we are confronted by images that belong to, well, to a new century. As we toast the 1900s, a thought occurs: what will artists be doing a century from now? What unimaginable revolutions will take place in the first decade of the 21st century?

A critic who wondered this, in the closing days of 1909, and then stepped into HG Wells's Time Machine and hurtled forward to our own time, would be in for some disappointments. Art in the first decade of the 20th century revolutionised itself so completely that it was a different thing, in 1909, from what it had been in 1900. Cubism was under way. Futurism was in the works. Fauvism was already established. Picasso had painted Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. As Tony Soprano might say, those guys were in at the beginning of something; what do we got?

The time traveller from 1909 surveying art in 2009 would not be completely crushed. There would be things to admire – a powerful installation here, a brilliant painting there, a lot of interesting films. From Douglas Gordon to Richard Wright, there are some terrific artists at work.

But in comparison with the 1900s, this has been a conservative decade. Most artists are making use of ideas established in the 1960s. The pop, minimal and conceptual movements that originate in that decade still fundamentally shape the look of art. Just as if Picasso's Demoiselles were a homage to Manet's Olympia. As if Matisse were basically a disciple of Monet. We're still living in the last century. Our revolution has not yet taken place.

The time traveller would go home to 1909, puzzled and a little saddened. Time does not always move forward, he would try to tell Picasso among the streamers and shrieks on New Year's Eve. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2009 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

November 24 2009

How 20th-century art shed its inhibitions

Matisse, Picasso and the perfume of hedonism surrounding Montmartre finally opened up sex in art from the furtive, neurotic business of the previous century

Something happened to artists at the dawn of the 20th century. They started to have sex. If you look at a nude by Matisse, and the painting in my head is his Blue Nude (Souvinir de Biskra) (1907), and compare it with a late Victorian painting such as JW Waterhouse's Hylas and the Nymphs (1896), one of the things that strikes you is surely how much healthier, abundant, and fulfilled Matisse is, sexually. His Blue Nude is a fully, confidently carnal painting. By contrast, the Waterhouse is a perverse fantasy, a lubricious idyll, neurotic, bizarre, solitary.

There's no way around it: many 19th-century paintings reek of masturbation. They are not lacking in sensuality, but it is of a deferred, fantastical, almost proudly warped kind, typified by Waterhouse. It's only among the avant garde that love becomes real - in Gauguin's painting Nevermore, for instance.

One liberating influence on the avant garde in the years leading up to 1900 was the novelist Émile Zola. A school friend of Cézanne who moved in impressionist circles in Paris, this rawly realistic novelist was above all famous in his time for the sexual frankness of his fictions. In his art novel, The Masterpiece, sex in the studio is pretty much taken for granted. And in the 1880s and 90s, artists settled in Montmartre where studio and brothel, models and prostitutes were apparently on a continuum.

The new, rampant hedonism that developed in Montmartre in the years preceding 1900 finally blossoms in the Blue Nude. It is what makes Matisse and Picasso the artists they are. And the inspirations. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2009 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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