Strange Beauty: Masters of the German Renaissance (National Gallery)

StrangeBeautyIn the nineteenth century, the National Gallery’s Keeper, Charles Eastlake, refused a Cranach for the nation, stating that ‘it does not please me’. Indeed, for much of this period, as Strange Beauty shows, insofar as German art was studied in England it was used as a kind of art historical phrenology for the German national character. Only three major collectors had anything approaching serious German collections: Carl Krüger, George Salting and Prince Albert. These would, as we learn, go on to form the nucleus of the National Gallery’s German holdings.

Strange Beauty therefore partially explores the strange story of the National Gallery’s acquisitions policy. It’s one of their annual collections-based exhibitions and, in this context, the critical re-evaluation of its own history is a much-needed reminder that each item in the collection has a provenance, and a story, all of its own.

Rooms 2 and 3 are densely and beautifully hung, conveying something of the treasure trove quality of the original private collections of German art. Displayed alongside the oil paintings familiar to the National Gallery are miniatures, medallions and works on paper, a visual treat that evokes an exciting sense of discovery in the visitor and importantly, introduces media otherwise not seen in the permanent collections.

But, when you get to Rooms 4 and 5, and the display of Holbein’s The Ambassadors and Christina of Denmark and Cranach’s Venus and Cupid, this all falls away. Rather than pursuing apparently fruitful comparisons with nineteenth-century artists such as Ford Madox Brown, who (its label tells us) considered Hans Baldung Grien’s Portrait of a Man (bought 1854) to be so detailed it was ‘mapped, rather than painted’, it asks largely pointless questions such as ‘Should art be beautiful?’ Two German visitors next to me seemed quite confused by this. ‘It’s only the English who don’t like Cranach,’ one said to the other.

Though, as works of art, these paintings can stand on their own, the failure of the framing narrative at Room 4, coupled with the shortage of major loans makes it look a lot like the (free) permanent collection’s own Room 4, currently being decanted for the upcoming Veronese show.

A short introduction explaining the concept behind collections-based exhibitions, detailed study and re-evaluation of the permanent collection, might have been all that was needed. The whole final room is given over to inviting audience participation, a gimmick which is not quite successful enough to hide our suspicions that they simply ran out of paintings. When I saw the show there was a merry little visitor game beginning, with the hashtag #connedoutof7quid. Cynical, perhaps, and, I thought, broadly unjustified, but the exhibition certainly did seem to peter out. That’s something a show that ends with The Ambassadors should never do.

Kirsten Tambling is an MA student at the Courtauld

Strange Beauty: Masters of the German Renaissance is at the National Gallery until 11th May 2014.

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.