The Art of Collecting: Questioning Status and Practices

In this workshop, held on Thursday 13 June, Courtauld students Agathe Jacquemet and Amélie Timmermans set out to explore why and how people and organizations collect art. The afternoon began with a short video of three different collectors discussing why they collect, what defines them as a collector, and how they purchase and develop their collections. Following the video, Jeffrey Boloten, Co-Founder and Managing Director of ArtInsight Ltd, introduced the workshop’s speakers, who represented both private and public collections.

The first half of the afternoon was devoted to private collections and featured Philip Hook from Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern Department and art advisor Alex Heath, who is Chairman and Managing Director of International Art Consultants Ltd. Hook’s lecture, titled Why Collectors Collect, presented a pie chart of the various motives for developing private collections: spiritual enlightenment, investments, status, and aesthetic/intellectual pleasure. Overall, Hook promoted the virtues of collecting for spiritual enlightenment and intellectual pleasure, concluding with, ‘You need to see your art in order to stay alive’. Heath’s lecture, titled Advising Collectors in their Collections, approached private collections from the opposite angle, examining the methods and factors essential to advising a broad range of collectors. Having little background knowledge on economic and financial theories, I found Heath’s treatment of art as a good to be consumed and his discussion of the importance of wealth management in building private collections to be particularly interesting.

The second half of the workshop had a very different tone, focusing on building public collections, particularly the Art Fund’s, discussed by Head of Policy and Strategy Sally Wrampling, and the Courtauld Gallery’s, discussed by the Head of the Gallery Ernst Vegelin. Wrampling presented several of the Art Fund’s joint purchases from the past few years and explained the process of helping other institutions acquire works with Art Fund support. She stressed the importance of the support of Art Fund members and donors to the success of the Fund over the years. Vegelin’s lecture highlighted the importance of three of the Courtauld’s own private collectors: Samuel Courtauld, Lord Lee of Fareham, and Sir Robert Witt. It was particularly relevant in light of the current exhibition at the Gallery, Collecting Gauguin: Samuel Courtauld in the ’20s, which showcases the benefits of Samuel Courtauld’s foresight in building his own collection. According to Vegelin, ninety-five percent of the Courtauld’s collection is composed of gifts, making it a prime example of the fruits of meticulous private collectors. It also made it a fitting topic to end the workshop with, as it illustrates the transformation of private collections into public ones.

The Art of Collecting provided an impressive range of speakers and topics, highlighting the difficulties with and complexity of developing and managing both private and public collections and opening up further debate on the changing function and status of collecting art in the twenty-first century.

Light, Colour and Veils

Some conferences, such as last month’s Beyond the Western Mediterranean, set out to break new ground, but some are held just to celebrate and inspire. This was the mood for the day-long event at The Courtauld in honour of retiring professor Paul Hills. The duly prophetic Peter Mack from the Warburg set the tone for the day by explaining how Paul, with his deep pleasure in paintings, uses them as tools with which to think. Getting intense enjoyment out of a work of art is something I feel is a skill in itself. However, it seems almost selfish to indulge in if you can’t pass anything from the experience to others without pretence or arrogance, two words that could never apply to Professor Hills.

Highlights of the day’s papers included Jane Bridgeman’s explanation of the different sort of female head-coverings in Renaissance Italy: mantles, veils and wimples. It was stimulating to be reminded that the beautiful costumes of the Madonna that the Christ Child tugs at in so many medieval paintings are in essence a symbolic yoke of the repressed female. Beverly Louise Brown’s reassessment of Titian’s Jacopo Pesaro presented by Pope Alexander VI to St Peter was particularly lucid and revealing. Usually considered as a clumsy piece of juvenilia where the young artist could not even get St Peter’s mantle the right colour, Dr. Brown showed how Titian was working in a tradition of dressing St Peter in red papal robes, and the saint’s somewhat stilted appearance may have been an allusion to his statue in the Vatican of which pilgrims would kiss the foot. Paul Smith’s characteristically packed paper on colour theory formed an excellent closing to the conference.

What made the day special was the presence of actual art and artists: something Professor Hills surely appreciated. The print room had been prepared with a selection of appropriate master drawings, serving to bring people together at the lunch break and prompt rich discussion at this often awkward stage of a Saturday conference when many disappear up the Strand in search of calorific sustenance. Films were also presented, in person by Nicky Hamlyn and in absentia by Shirazeh Houshiary, which prompted thoughts on the materiality of the veil, as well as the noisiness of the 16mm projector (a topic for another conference). Christopher Le Brun, president of the Royal Academy, spoke openly about his own paintings: how by veiling the canvas in paint he unveiled his own persona to the world at large. It was a reminder that the creation of the work of art could be an uncomfortable process, much more fraught than the art historians’ task of picking it apart at their leisure.

I work with so many broken bits of English Gothic art, sad shadows of great works through poor drawings, all but demolished Abbey ruins. However this inspirational conference reminded me I want to see them as an art historian, and yearn to pass on at least a small fraction of the pleasure which they give me, to show that they are examples of beautiful and profound music in a noisy world.

Patterns of Dissent: Contemporaneity in South Asian Art–Subodh Gupta & The Routes of Success

Subodh Gupta speaking at The Courtauld. Photo by Ashitha Nagesh.

Subodh Gupta speaking at The Courtauld. Photo by Ashitha Nagesh.

Being familiar with Subodh Gupta’s large-scale sculptural installations, it was surprising to hear him speak at The Courtauld on 21 May– for his particularly modest, humble manner of approaching his own artworks and practice was somewhat unexpected in light of his ambitious pieces. One thing the artist and his work clearly have in common, however, is that they are immensely powerful. His latest installation at Hauser & Wirth Savile Row, What does the vessel contain, that the river does not (2012) is a huge Keralan fishing ship, hand-sewn in the traditional way and filled with the everyday Indian domestic objects that Gupta is perhaps best recognised for, steel kitchenware, amongst other pieces of furniture, broken or whole. This miscellany collected within a symbol of travel and trade seems a fitting culmination of the fourteen years of work that Gupta discussed at the seminar, for his oeuvre is inherently tied up in his personal experiences.

It was interesting to hear the anecdotes that accompany some of his most well-known pieces, as they are linked to his life – whether they were events that had taken place, conversations he had had, or simply his own thought processes – as Gupta told us, “My journey is my art.” The importance of his discovery of Duchamp was particularly touching, and one that makes so much sense when considering his sculpture – the way he elevates the quotidian to something aesthetically beautiful is quintessentially Duchampian. For example, speaking about his works Across Seven Seas and Everything is Inside (both 2004) he spoke about how he used to travel to Europe via the Gulf, and on his return journey would see Indians who were working in the Middle East with large, tightly and carefully wrapped bundles. He asked people what they had packed in there, expecting them to contain fragile and precious items; however, they usually only held gifts for the workers’ families back home. He found these bundles, as commonplace as they turned out to be, so beautiful that he created the two sculptures based on them. Aam Aadmi (2009), a collection of incredibly realistic painted bronze mangoes in a wooden crate, is similar treatment of the everyday – and as “aam aadmi” (literally translating from Hindi as “mango people”) is a colloquial term used by politicians to refer to the “common people”, it becomes a celebration not only of everyday objects but of the general masses.

Gupta then went on to talk about his early years, the beginning of his artistic career in art school in Patna, how he initially wanted to become an actor, as well as his experience of working in the Khoj workshop in 1997 – a liberating environment where the artists could work free from gallery influence for the first time. Needless to say, it was fascinating to hear the experiences that preceded such an incredible body of work.

Medieval Work in Progress: Dr Robert Mills on Medieval Art and the Question of the Animal

Unicorn being slain from the Rochester Bestiary (London, British Library, Royal MS F xiii) folio 10v

Unicorn being slain from the Rochester Bestiary (London, British Library, Royal MS F xiii) folio 10v

Although given a rather moderate-sounding title, as soon as Dr Mills started speaking about the bestialisation of the human in the context of medieval torture and martyrdom images, the seminar on the 22nd of May, “Medieval Art and the Question of the Animal,” immediately became much more complex than initially expected (and for those of us with darker tastes, much more interesting too). Mills began by addressing theories of “Speciesism” and considerations of how violence is represented from the perspective of the animal, and deconstructed these ideas by considering what actually constituted “animal perspective” in the Middle Ages.

In this context, Mills looked closely at how animals functioned in a symbolic manner in the late medieval period, and how this informed the pedagogical functions of bestiaries, such as the Rochester Bestiary (BL MS Royal 12 F xiii) and another in the British Library, MS Harley 3244. This was but a springboard, however, for Mills’ exploration of animality within the category of the human. Drawing upon Aristotle’s claims that man is both beyond, yet also within the animal, and that “man is by nature a political animal,” he established that the distinction between “human” and “animal” is essentially porous – the foundation of his study of both animal and human slaughter in manuscripts. There were some beautiful examples of this – particularly in Leviticus 1 of the Bible Moralisée (ÖNB Vienna 2554, on folio 27r). On this folio was a richly illuminated, deep vermillion rendering of the flaying of a cow, with the corresponding moralisation equally graphically depicting the skinning alive of St Bartholomew. Here, the flaying of the cow was so vividly conflated with human martyrdom, and the torture of both cow and saint were represented almost identically. Similarly in another Bible Moralisée (Naples, MS Français 9561), the orientation of the humans and the animals undergoing torture was exactly the same, as well as the nature of the torture and the torment on their faces – an interesting revelation, considering the common perception of medieval attitudes towards animal rights. The martyrs are conspicuously dehumanised, heightening the effect of the torture, whilst the animals are simultaneously humanised. The porousness of the distinction is no clearer than here.

What I found most interesting, though, was Dr Mills’ idea of medieval books themselves literally representing the word-made-flesh – that the bloody, torturous image of the cow being flayed in Vienna 2554 vividly recalls the production of the parchment that the illumination is painted on; medieval parchment, also called vellum, was itself made from cow or calf skin. The parchment in this context becomes performative, and is an active component of the cow’s torture; “the violence on the page,” Dr Mills explained, “serves as an uncanny reminder of the violence behind the production of the page.”