16 March 2019

Caravaggio and Giorgione, lost and found

Judith beheading Holofernes (c1607) was accidentally found in a manky Toul­ouse attic in 2014. Burglars had broke into the house, but they left the painting, believing it worthless! It remained a secret for another two years!! But since then, Judith and Holofernes has been analysed by experts at the Centre de recherche et de restauration des musées de France at the Louvre. Most of them concluded that it most likely created by Caravaggio (1571-1610).

The painting depicted the biblical story of Judith, the young widow in Biblical town of Bethulia who put an end to the Assyrian siege on her city by seducing and beheading General Holofernes.

Judith beheading Holofernes, c1607 
By ? Caravaggio, 

In 2016 the French government placed an export ban on the painting to allow time for the Louvre to consider whether it should be bought. The estim­at­ed price of €100m represented 15 years of the Louvre’s acquisition budget, and the museum already had three exceptional Caravaggios. The museum decided not to buy it and when the ban ended, the painting was available to travel. The Louvre decision meant the painting can be auctioned in late June 2019 in Toulouse. There are 68 known paintings by Caravaggio, including this one, only four of which are in private hands. So a museum would be the most likely buyer in June.

In the meantime, Judith and Holofernes is being displayed at Mayfair’s Colnaghi Gallery this week. Eric Turquin, a Paris-based expert in the Old Masters, is in London now with the painting, to make the case for it being a genuine Caravaggio.

Since Caravaggio was my favourite artist in the ENTIRE universe, I don’t understand why he was so unfashionable from 1650-1950. But apparently his paintings were worth very little in those 3 centuries. Note the last Caravaggio auction in 1971 when Christie’s offered Martha and Mary Mag­dalene (found in South America). The head of the Nat­ional Gallery did not believe it was a Caravaggio, so it failed to sell. Soon after it was bought privately for the Detroit Institute of Arts.

As there is no reserve price on Judith and Holofernes, please just wrap it up and send it to me. I don't have the US $115-170 million estimated value, but I will love the painting tenderly for the rest of my life.


Now a work from another artist, found in a different country and painted in another century. Read about Giorgione's life in Lives of the Most Excel­l­ent Painters, Sculptors and Architects written by the It­al­ian art hist­orian Giorgio Vasari (1511-74). The painter came from the small town of Castel­franco Veneto, 40 km inland from Venice. He probably served his apprentice­ship in Venice under the beautiful Giovanni Bellini; there he settled and rose to prominence as a mas­ter. Giorgione in turn influenced the even more beautiful Titian. But was Giorgione Titian's master? It is possible that they were both pupils of Giovanni Bellini, and lived in Bell­ini’s house. They worked together on the Fondaco dei Tedeschi frescoes and Titian finished some paintings of Giorgione after his death.

His skill was recognised early. In 1500, at 23, he was chosen to paint portraits of the Doge and other dig­nitaries. In 1504, he was commissioned to paint an altar­piece in the Cast­el­franco cathedral. In 1507, The Council of Ten commissioned a picture for the Hall of the Audience in the Doge's Palace.

In 1507-8 he and others were employed to fresco the exterior of the newly rebuilt Fondaco dei Tedeschi-German Merchants' Hall at Venice, having already done the exterior frescoes of other Venetian pal­aces.

Leonardo da Vinci met Giorgione when the old master's visited Venice in 1500 and found the young man to be charming, a great lover and a mus­ician. Giorgione expressed the grace of contempor­ary Venetian existence in his art, Leonardo said.

Sadly Giorgione died of the raging plague in Oct 1510, only in his mid 30s. Fortunately he had already had a great influence on his foll­owers in the Ven­et­ian school and remained one of the greats of the Renaissance era.

Now a chance discovery in a Sydney library of a 500-year-old sketch has impressed art historians. The red-chalk draw­ing by Giorg­ione was found at the University of Sydney Library, on the last page of a 1497 edition of Dante Alig­hieri’s Div­ine Comedy. The sketch has an ­accompanying hand-written inscrip­tion in black ink and dated 1510: “On the 17th Sept, Giorgione of Castelfranco, a very excellent art­ist, died of the plague in Venice at the age of 36 and he rests in peace.

Melbourne Uni Prof Jaynie Anderson, author of  the book Gior­g­ione: The Painter of Poetic Brevity, estimated its worth to be in the mil­l­ions. And, she said, the Sydney discovery transforms our un­der­stand­ing of ­Giorgione’s life and his relation to other artists. [Both claims may have been overstated]. In 1510, at the time of Giorgione’s death, the book had likely been the art­ist’s property. It contained a Virgin Mary and child, with the emphasis on the Christ child. “The Virgin’s face is blank. It is very abstract, little more than a doodle, but all the more beautiful for that.”

Giorgione sketch, The Madonna and Child. 
University of Sydney

The 1497 copy of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy
gold-tooled inboard binding.
University of Sydney’s Rare Books and Special Collections.

Prof Anderson said that the c1500 sketch was related to a group of paint­ings attributed to Giorgione: Holy Family and Adoration of the Sh­ep­herds in the National ­Gallery of Art in Washington, and the London Nat­ional Gall­ery’s Adoration of the Magi. These paint­ings showed similar Vir­gin and child groupings, as analysed in the British art jour­nal Burl­ington Magazine in March 2019.

Were Venetian paintings of the early 1500s without literary reference? No. Sydney Uni­versity’s discovery suggested that the Venetian artist read Dante’s early C14th verses in the Tuscan dialect AND that his sketch was a direct response to the narrative poem.
How did the 1497 Dante edition arrive an Australian university? Apparently the University’s first vice-chancellor Charles Nicholson began collecting rare books in the 1850s. His collection of antiq­uities formed the basis of the university’s Nicholson ­Museum. My main references were published in The Australian Newspaper, 16th Feb 2019 and 23rd Feb 2019. And the Sydney University Newsletter 25th Feb 2019.

12 March 2019

Lord Horatio Nelson, William Wilberforce and slavery in the Caribbean

Horatio Nelson (1758–1805)’s first long sea-voyage as an adolescent boy was to the Jamaican sugar colonies of the West Indies in 1771-2. He served in the region as a Naval officer during the War of American Indep­end­ence (1775–83). This was at the very time million of Africans were being transported to European colonies as slaves.

Nelson had developed a close affinity with the planters in the Caribbean, befriending local colonists. He became a close friend of Simon Taylor, a Jamaican slave owner, and in 1787 married his wife Fanny Nisbet, daughter of a wealthy slave owner. And they all firmly believed that the Britain's booming economy rel­ied heavily on the Atlantic slave trade.

Portrait of Nelson, 1797 
by L.F Abbott 
75 x 62 cm, National Portrait Gallery

Who was Will­iam Wilber­force (1759–1833)? He studied at Cambridge University creating a lasting friendship with future prime minist­er, William Pitt the Younger. In 1780, Wilberforce became M.P for Hull, later representing Yorkshire. In the 1780s Wil­b­erforce and his allies argued for an end to slave-trading on the basis that it was an immoral blotch on the reputat­ion of a proud, Christian nation. 

Slave holders, on the other hand, patriot­ically maintained that their trade was utterly vital to Britain’s imperial econ­omy. And the connection between the Navy and the colonies was very strong. Import duties collected on British colonial produce helped fund the Treasury whose primary objective was defence of the realm. The country was divided.

So how do modern histor­ians know Lord Nelson’s true beliefs? Let­t­ers he wrote onboard HMS Vict­ory reveal­ed his posit­ion, showing his vehement opposition to Wilber­force ’s camp­aign for the abolition of the slave trade and his sympathy with the slave-owning elite. To help his friend Simon Tay­lor, Nelson wrote he would launch his voice against the “damn­able and cursed doctrine of Wilber­force and his hypocritical allies”. Afua Hirsch says Nelson used his position to "perpetuate the tyran­ny, ser­ial rape and ex­ploitation org­anised by West Indian planters, some of whom he counted among his closest friends".

Wilberforce, the Anglican Bishop of London and their religious allies had to work for decades to end Britain’s offic­ial in­volve­ment in the transatlantic slave trade. His nation­wide camp­aign helped bring an end first to the trade between Africa via Brit­ain and the Caribbean in 1807, and then to slavery itself in the 1830s.

Nelson was widely celebrated for victory in the 1798 Battle of the Nile, off Egypt's Mediterranean coast. And he became even more famous as the heroic victor of the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar. He lost his life at the height of the fight­ing, against the rival combined fleets of Napoleonic France and Spain, aboard his flag­ship HMS Victory. The dead Admiral was soon elevated to the status of an al­most god-like imperial, patriotic hero. But though extremely capab­le in command of a fleet, he had been in other ways a flawed human being, limited by his own experiences and friend­ships. Thus Christer Pet­ley showed how Nelson, the British Navy and Trafalgar were all linked to the big­ger British political struggle over slavery.

Thanks to Lord Nelson, the British Navy soon enjoyed almost complete control of the seas. After the British formally abolished the slave trade in 1807, Nelson’s succ­essors took freeing of the slaves ser­iously.

  Slaves working the sugar cane, early C19th 

The hundreds of USA statues that still stand, often in southern states, have always been the subject of trauma for many African Americans. The mem­or­ials are rightly seen as glorifying slavery and segregation, and perhaps energising white supremacist groups. While the USA argues about whether to tear down monuments to the support­ers of slavery, Britain has trouble in confronting its ugly past.

The USA is moving on from its slavery and segregationist past. But have the British at least put the nation’s monuments in their historical context? Yes, Nelson’s column does include the figure of a black sailor, cast in bronze in the bas-relief. He was probably one of the thous­ands of slaves promised freedom if they fought for the British mil­itary, only to be later left destitute and homeless, in London. The black slaves whose brutalis­ation helped make Britain a global power ..largely remain invisible.

Lord Nelson’s supp­ort­ers have moved to defend him. They argue that he was the man who twice defeated Napoleon at sea, and, in so doing, confirmed Britain’s unparalleled naval supremacy. Now Afua Hirsch says that Britain should look more carefully at its past, to understand itself better today. The Trafalgar Square statue should be protected since Nelson was truly one of the nation’s greatest maritime heroes. But a full picture is required; historically accurate plaques need to be added.

Battle of Trafalgar, c1807 
by JMW Turner
171 x 239 cm, Tate

In the British sugar colonies in the Carib­b­ean in the late C18th, it was the transatlantic slave trade that drove the thriving plantat­ion econ­om­ies and made huge profits that flowed back into the wider British economy. Could British colonial­ism continue to thrive without the trans-Atlantic slave trade?

In the battle over slavery, Nelson clearly symp­ath­ised with the sugar traders’, naval leaders’ and slavers’ pol­itical outlook. As he became more exper­ienced, he increasingly despised Wilber­force and staunchly opposed the British abolitionist campaign. Brit­ain’s best known naval hero, he might have used his seat in the House of Lords and his hugely influential position to perp­etuate slavery in the British Caribbean. If he had lived long enough!

Nelson's Column 
Trafalgar Square, London

For new research, about the Royal Navy and the C18th British Atlantic Empire, read Christer Petley’s book The Royal Navy, the British Atlantic Empire and the Abolition of the Slave Trade, 2016. And for Napoleon's role in making slavery legal again in the French colonies, read the BBC article. The Emperor's efforts to restore slavery meant that campaigning for the 1806 Act in Britain would help to undermine Napoleon's plans for the Caribbean. 


09 March 2019

The most famous artists' colony in Paris - La Ruche

In art, lit­erature and music, Paris had long been the home of the avant-garde and by 1900, the city was still dominant. The ambitious 1900 Intern­ational Exhibition only reinforced Paris’ importance. Some of Paris' most noted structures were built for the 1900 Fair, including Gare de Lyon, Pont Alexandre III, Grand Palais and the Petit Palais. The Paris Metro began operating to coincide with the Fair, and Gare d'Orsay/now Musée d'Orsay, opened in May 1900.

Eventually the hub of artistic creativity moved across Paris from Mont­martre (18th arrond) ..to Montparnasse. Pablo Picasso, for example, was irritated by an influx of tourists who were crowding the cafes his neighbourhood. So he moved out of his Montmartre studio, and moved across the Seine to Montparnasse on the Left Bank.

Many of the newly arrived artists lived in a rotunda called La Ruche, an art­is­ts’ colony in Montparnasse (15th arrond.) that was born from the gener­osity of the famous and wealthy sculp­tor Alfred Bouch­er (1850-1934).

circular La Ruche, 

Paris' arrondissements
Montparnasse in the south
(press to expand)

When the Universal Exhibition of 1900 ended, Boucher bought a sub­stantial block of land in Danzig Passage and a wine pavilion de­s­igned by Gustave Eiffel. He resurrect­ed the circular metal struct­ure over 3 floors and decorated it with bricks. Soon other arch­it­ec­t­ural el­e­m­ents came from the Universal Exhibition.

Then other workshops were erected next to the rotunda, in the gardens. Inside, La Ruche had 140 bedroom-cells and light-filled work­shops. A large salon that served as an exhibition space for the artists opened in 1905. Ruche des Arts theatre was erected in the central garden.

Sculptors and painters arrived from across Europe. Rents were low, and even then, Boucher was patient when an artist could not pay. Some were French eg Fernand Léger; most were migrants from Eastern Europe eg Ossip Zadkine, Marc Chagall, Jacques Lipchitz, Pinchus Kremegne.

In 1908, the year Cubism began, Fernand Léger moved into La Ruche, and there he soon found himself in the centre of avant-garde art cir­cles. Léger soon got to know the artists Robert Delaunay, Marc Chagall and Chaim Sou­t­ine; Jacques Lipchitz and Henri Laurens; and the poets Guil­laume Apollinaire and Max Jac­ob.

As a Lithuanian scul­ptor, Jacques Lipchitz (1891-1973) was fasc­in­ated by the possib­il­ity of presenting an object from many view­points. He moved to Paris in 1909 to study at the École des Beaux-Arts where he was soon impressed by Cubism. In 1920 Lipchitz held his first solo exhibition at Rosenberg's Galerie L'Effort Moderne.

Ossip Zadkine
working in his La Ruche studio

In 1909, Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920) was in Paris, renting a studio in Mont­parnasse. Paul Guillaume was an ambitious young art dealer who took an interest in his work and introduced him to sculptor Constantin Brâncuși. Modigliani's great sculptures were exhibited in the Salon d'Automne of 1912. He visited La Ruche reg­ularly and painted a series of friends’ portraits: Chaim Soutine, Moïse Kisling, Pablo Picasso, Diego Rivera, Juan Gris, Max Jacob and Jean Cocteau.

Marc Chagall from Belarus moved to Paris in 1910. He lived on coffee and poetry read­ings from his equally imp­o­v­erished neigh­bours. And he painted all night. In the days, he took any jobs to survive. Like the other penn­il­ess painters, sculptors, writers, poets and composers from Eastern Europe, Chagall thrived in the creative at­mos­phere and cheap rent of La Ruche. Living with­out running water, in un­heated studios, he sold his works for a few francs just to buy food. Most of Chagall’s neighbours at La Ruche were Jewish, often fleeing the pogroms of Central and Eastern Europe. So no matter how tough their lives were, at least they could keep homesick­ness at bay by socialising in Yiddish.

In time Chagall came to feel that Cubism lacked poetry and colour. He light­en­ed his palette and made his work more express­ive, harm­on­ious, unif­ied. Self Portrait with Seven Fingers 1913, still show­ing clear cubist influences, was more fan­t­asy and less portrait. Painted at La Ruche with its bare floorboards, Chagall painted a Russian scene with an improb­ab­le Eiffel Tower through the window.

Lithuanian Michel Kikoine (1892-1968) moved to Paris in 1911 and studied at l'Ecole Nat­ionale Superieure des Beaux Arts. He moved into La Ruche, where he met the other mem­bers of the School of Paris. Kikoine’s discovery of the French landscape allowed him to achieve a new personal style, a synthesis between Russian landscape trad­it­ion and exp­r­essionism.

From 1914-9, Kikoine joined the French army as a volunteer. After the war ended, he visited southern Fr­an­ce, fell in love with its light and painted many landscapes. Kikoine was soon exh­ib­iting at Salon d'automne.

Lithuanian Pinchas Kremegne (1890-1981) was a friend of both Sout­ine and Kikoine. After studying sculpture at the Vilna Art School, he left for Paris in 1912. He got off the train at the Gare de l'Est with 3 rubles to his name and no French! On­ce settled in La Ruche, he wrote to his good friend Chaim Soutine, inviting him to Paris.

In 1913, Chaim Soutine followed his friends Pinchus Kremegne and Michel Kikoine, emigrating from Belarus to Paris where they all lived at La Ruche. Soutine studied at the École des Beaux-Arts where he developed a highly personal painting technique. 

A La Ruche bedroom-studio, 

Artist Sonia Delaunay (1885–1979) was also Ukrainian, Jewish and a Yiddish speak­er, but she had one great advantage. Her wealthy fam­ily in Russia sent her money and food parcels every month, while the other young artists lived in dire poverty. The highlight of the men’s week was when Sonia Delaunay arrived at La Ruche with Russian herring and pickled cucumbers.

Diego Rivera studied art at the Academy of San Carlos in Mexico City. Then he was sponsored to study in Europe by the governor of the State of Veracruz. Rivera initially went to study in Madrid in 1907 and from there went to Paris. In La Ruche, his friend Amedeo Modigliani painted his port­rait in 1914. His circle of close friends included gallery owner Léopold Zborowski.

La Ruche was preserved and is still being used.

Read Shocking Paris: Soutine, Chagall and the Outsiders of Montparnasse, by Stanley Meisler, 2015

05 March 2019

Anna Ticho's house museum and art exhibition in Jerusalem

I have always liked the idea of an artist’s work being shown in the family home that the artist once lived in. Consider, for example, Rembrandt’s home in Amsterdam, Durer’s home in Nuremberg or Ruben’s home in Antwerp. The idea of a house-museum seems more authentic than a multi-artist, multi-era gallery built decades after the artist’s death.

Anna Ticho (1894-1980) was born in Moravia, now Czech Rep­ublic. Anna moved with her parents to Vienna at 15, and studied draw­ing at an art school directed by a Czech artist. She was in the right place at the right time! Pre-WW1 Vienna was still the glittering capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and was the beating heart of the art world. Ticho loved contemporary art­ists such as Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka, from the avant-garde Sec­es­s­ionist group. And she could visit galleries like the Albertina as often as she wanted, to see paintings by German Renaissance artist Albrecht Durer and Flemish Renaissance artist Pieter Bruegel. She was exposed to both the traditional, classical art of Europe and to C20th excitement.

Three years later, in 1912, she was travelling to Palestine to be with first cousin opthal­mologist Dr Albert Ticho. Anna married Albert just be­fore war broke out, and moved to Damas­cus with her husband where he served as an Austrian Army doctor and she as his assistant. Dr Ticho was discharged after war ended.

The Tichos managed to find their way back to Palestine a year or so after the end of the war and in 1924 they acquired the building that now houses Anna Ticho’s works. This large house, originally built in 1864 by a prominent Ottoman family, was and is surrounded by gard­ens. The Jerusalem house had to be comfortable and elegant because they hosted local and British government officials, artists, writers, academics and intellectuals. The Tichos were always active in Jerusal­em’s social and cultural life, including involvement in the Bezalel Art School. 

Ticho House and garden

Ticho House galleries

Ticho House museum collection

Besides assisting her husband in his medical duties, Ticho found time to travel around the country, to capture some of the country’s scenery. This was interest­ing since the Israeli land­scape could not be more physic­ally and cult­ur­ally different from Brno’s and Vienna’s. So it took her a while to adapt to the very diff­erent natural light & colours of the Levant.

I am assuming she connected to her new home in a biblically hist­orical context and not via religious commands. The Israel Museum noted that Ticho depicted Jerusalem as “a dead and desolate city, a far cry from the ‘navel of the world’, holy to three religions.”

They lived far away from the world’s major art centres, but Ticho did take other cultural influences on board. And they mixed with every travelling artist arriving in British Pal­estine. Her works were first shown at the historic exhibition of local artists at David’s Tower in the Old City of Jerusalem in the early 1920s.

Pride of place was given in her new home to drawings she had brought from Vienna’s young and talented artists: Klimt, Schiele and Kokoschka. They converted the lower storey into an eye clinic. Anna was busy running her husband’s medical practice and running the home, so there didn’t seem to be as much time for art as she would have liked.

Eventually her drawings of figures and Jerusalem landscape were done from nature, using the familiar hills, rocks and olive trees as source material. Perhaps the barren Jerusalem landscape encouraged Ticho to turn to sketching and water colours, not oils. The stony Judean Hills, treeless and human-free, lent themselves to her austere sketches.

Despite living in the Levant, Anna made several successful trips back to Europe and also exhibited in the USA. Her atten­t­ion to detail was central in Ticho’s best known works. Old City of Jerusalem, a graphite drawing from 1934, was also very precise and detailed creation.

Only later did Ticho focus on solitude and eternity, depicting olive trees, houses and aging people. She drew the maze of rooftops of the houses of the Old City stretching to the horizon above their opaque win­dows, creating a delicate interplay between stones and windows interwoven with domed roofs. She moved to earthy tones.

Ticho, Old Jerusalem
Etching, 13 x 15 cm

Ticho, Portrait of a Bearded Man
Watercolour, 61x47cm

In the 1940s and 1950s, the influence on Ticho of the avant-garde time in Vienna emerged. Schiele in particular influenced the way she worked on her line drawings. In this era she fav­oured a naturalistic approach, employing shading and flowing lines, and leaving areas of the page untouched, but as an integral part of the composition.

Her beloved husband’s death was in 1960. Afterwards, Anna continued to live and work in the same house until her own death in 1980. Toward the end of her own life, Anna bequeathed the house, the library, her art collection and her husband's extensive Judaica collection to the City of Jerusalem for use as a public art gallery.

And it’s not just Ticho’s own work on display. Today part of the Israel Museum, it also houses temporary exhibitions by other artists. "A Room of Her Own", for example, was an ex­hibition of women in portraiture from the C19th on. And the Israel Museum wanted ex­hib­­itions that covered a range of media, including painting, photo­gr­aphy and video to explore issues of living spaces and women in art.

The exhibition “Lifescape: The Work of Anna Ticho” currently fills most of the gallery’s ground floor and will be on dis­play until mid March 2019. Curated by Timna Seligman, the exhibition chronicles Ticho’s experiences and cultural bagg­age, in Brno, in Vienna and in Jerusalem. It is her story, but it reflects on the much wider story of the Jewish people, immigration, and the creation of the state of Israel within her lifetime.

Read the book “Lifescape: The Work of Anna Ticho” by Timna Seligman.