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Surrealism à la Courbet

Nicholas Penny: Balthus, 24 May 2001

Balthus: Catalogue raisonné of the Complete Works 
by Jean Clair and Virginie Monnier.
Abrams, 576 pp., £140, January 2000, 0 8109 6394 9
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by Nicholas Fox Weber.
Weidenfeld, 650 pp., £30, May 2000, 0 297 64323 1
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... Catalogue raisonné shows the original and final appearances of both this painting and The Street. Nicholas Fox Weber, who does much to reconstruct the intellectual circles in which Balthus moved at this date, offers a psychoanalytic interpretation of The Window. Balthus here ‘empowered himself to push his mother through the very sort of opening’ that had ...


Nicholas Penny, 9 October 1986

Pictures and Punishment: Art and Criminal Prosecution during the Florentine Renaissance 
by Samuel Edgerton.
Cornell, 243 pp., $39.50, March 1985, 0 8014 1705 8
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Images of Man and Death 
by Philippe Ariès, translated by Janet Lloyd.
Harvard, 271 pp., £19.95, October 1985, 0 674 44410 8
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Fingerprints of the Artists: European Terra-Cotta Sculpture from the Arthur M. Sackler Collections 
by Charles Avery and Alastair Laing.
Harvard, 298 pp., £127.50, September 1981, 0 674 30203 6
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... In 1909 there appeared a small book by Montgomery Carmichael modestly entitled Francia’s Masterpiece and dedicated to reconstructing the content, purpose and original setting of a single Renaissance altarpiece. It provided what is still the best account of the treatment of the Immaculate Conception in old Italian art. Carmichael deplored the limited outlook of the scholars of his day who were uninterested in the religious nature of the art they catalogued, and expressed his outrage at their complicity in the removal of ‘church pictures’ from ‘living use over altars and shrines to the chill fastnesses of meaningless museums and art galleries’ on the pretext of danger from the candles lit before them ...

Best of British

Nicholas Penny, 2 December 1993

by John McEwen and John Haddington.
Canongate, 96 pp., £20, November 1993, 0 08 624324 1
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Henry Moore: An Interpretation 
by Peter Fuller, edited by Anthony O’Hear.
Methuen, 98 pp., £16, September 1993, 9780413676207
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... Henry Moore was attracted by the idea of monumentality. He tried hard, but with limited success, to find ways of incorporating his sculpture into modern buildings. He also had the attractive idea of locating some of his statues in remote settings, following the example of his friend the late Sir William Keswick, who placed four of Moore’s sculptures, as well as one by Rodin and one by Epstein, in the wild landscape of the estate he owned in south-west Scotland ...


Nicholas Penny, 19 November 1981

Moments of Vision 
by Kenneth Clark.
Murray, 191 pp., £9.50, October 1981, 0 7195 3860 2
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... Something, as Clark himself has acknowledged, is wrong with Civilisation: with the television series and the book which made him a household name. It is not that it contains a number of gross oversimplifications, of which the most astonishing is the observation that Leonardo thought of women ‘solely as reproductive mechanisms’. Nor is it that there is also an occasional failure of the historical imagination: the women on the Romanesque font of Winchester Cathedral certainly do look ugly and nasty to us, but this is not evidence that ‘women were thought of as squat, bad-tempered viragos ...

Lost in the Woods

Nicholas Penny: Victorian fairy painting, 1 January 1998

Victorian Fairy Painting 
edited by Jane Martineau.
Merrell, 200 pp., £25, November 1997, 1 85894 043 5
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... The exhibition of Victorian Fairy Painting, which can be seen in the Sackler Galleries at the Royal Academy until 8 February (after which it will travel, first to Iowa, then to Toronto), may sound like safe family entertainment designed to appease the Friends and Academicians dismayed by Sensation in the rooms below. It is in fact an original and valuable exhibition devoted to a curious and often daring development in British painting in the 1840s and to a taste which survived well into this century in Arthur Rackham’s book illustrations, with their tangled roots and wrinkled goblins, and in the misty lakes and moonlit forests which were the essential settings for so many pantomimes and ballets ...

It Didn’t Dry in Winter

Nicholas Penny, 10 November 1994

Wealth and the Demand for Art in Italy 1300-1600 
by Richard Goldthwaite.
Johns Hopkins, 266 pp., £25, July 1993, 0 8018 4612 9
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... During the 18th century it was considered an edifying entertainment to trace the stuff of which the finery in the smartest London shops was composed to its distant origins: whalebone from the Arctic Sea, for example, or muslin from India. This exercise encouraged wonder at the abundance and variety of nature as well as at the enterprise of traders and the ingenuity of manufacturers, but little awareness of labour exploited, or lives destroyed ...


Nicholas Penny, 3 November 1983

Constable: The Painter and his Landscape 
by Michael Rosenthal.
Yale, 255 pp., £15.95, April 1983, 0 300 03014 2
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Constable’s England 
by Graham Reynolds.
Weidenfeld, 184 pp., £12.95, September 1983, 0 297 78359 9
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... When vegetable gardens were more commonly cultivated and poison was less frequently employed, and rabbits and mice were more of a menace to middle-class households than they are today, the classic picture books were published that encouraged children to love these creatures which their parents endeavoured to exterminate (or today, breed to kill). Sympathy repressed in the daily business of managing pantry, garden and farm was safely released in the bedtime fiction: but there must always have been awkward moments, such as the one I vividly remember when my mother endeavoured to allay my distress at discovering a crate of rabbits on its way to a laboratory by distinguishing between ordinary rabbits and ‘bunny rabbits ...

The Ashtray

Nicholas Penny, 4 June 1981

The Study and Criticism of Italian Sculpture 
by John Pope-Hennessy.
Princeton, 270 pp., £25.10, March 1981, 0 691 03967 4
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... Late one evening, leaving a dinner party at the American Embassy, I ran into David Carritt, who told me he had come across a circular bronze relief of the Virgin and Child in use as an ashtray.’ The narrator is Sir John Pope-Hennessy and his nocturnal encounter was with one of the most hawk-eyed art-dealers in Europe. ‘ “Was it double-sided?” I asked him ...


Nicholas Penny, 2 April 1981

Bernini and the Unity of the Visual Arts 
by Irving Lavin.
Oxford, 255 pp., £45, October 1980, 0 19 520184 1
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... Bernini’s sculpture of Daphne turning into a laurel tree at the touch of Apollo – completed for Cardinal Borghese’s villa on the Pincio in 1625 – has always excited wonder for the way such lightly-balanced and elaborate figures, such thin leaves, such fine, fluttering drapery and light, flying hair, were ever extracted from the marble block ...


Nicholas Penny: At the races, 6 February 2003

... Sometimes, walking in the woods on a Saturday afternoon, my mother and I came across the local racecourse. She would put the dog on its lead and I would approach the white rails where the horses – with their mad eyes, soft telescopic nostrils, bulging veins and bony legs – were being restrained in front of the nooses stretched across the track by tense, hunched dwarfs in brilliant silks who abused each other with words I had never heard before ...

Late Picasso

Nicholas Penny, 20 November 1986

Je suis le Cahier: The Sketchbooks of Picasso 
edited by Arnold Glimcher and Marc Glimcher.
Thames and Hudson, 349 pp., £36, September 1986, 0 500 23461 2
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The Musèe Picasso, Paris: Catalogue of the Collections. Paintings, Papiers Collés, Picture Reliefs, Sculptures, Ceramics 
by Marie-Laure Besnard-Bernadac, Michéle Richet and Hélène Seckel.
Thames and Hudson, 315 pp., £25, October 1986, 0 500 23461 2
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Degas: The Complete Etchings, Lithographs and Monotypes 
by Jean Adhémar and Françoise Cachin.
Thames and Hudson, 290 pp., £25, October 1986, 0 500 09114 5
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... In three of the Royal Academy’s exhibition rooms, the Pace Gallery of New York (presumably a commercial organisation but revealing nothing about itself) has displayed in perspex boxes some of the 175 sketchbooks which Picasso had hoarded, and which were unstudied, and in many cases entirely unknown, when he died. We admire brisk notes made of Paris nightlife at the turn of the century, and then our attention is arrested by six drawings which include no topical reference at all ...

As if standing before Julius

Nicholas Penny, 7 April 1994

Only Connect: Art and the Spectator in the Italian Renaissance 
by John Shearman.
Princeton, 281 pp., £35, October 1992, 0 691 09972 3
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... What is Venus, or rather the nude woman, doing in Velásquez’s Rokeby Venus in the National Gallery? Looking at her face in a mirror held for her by Cupid. Or so it seems to me; also to every visitor to the Gallery whose opinion I have sought, and to the mid-17th-century compiler of the inventory of paintings belonging to the picture’s first owner, Don Gaspar Méndez de Haro y Guzmán ...


Nicholas Penny: Getting Rid of the Curators, 4 May 1989

... An ace caff with quite a good museum attached’. Some of the stuff there is quite sexy too, the advertisements for the V & A suggested. ‘We have to learn to be more popular without trivialising,’ says the Director. With whom? Certainly not foreign visitors, who found the advertisements very bizarre. Some may suppose that they were designed to captivate the man who enjoys the pin-up in his tabloid paper over a cuppa or a pint in a smoky café or pub, but he might have found the glib parody of Surrealism bewildering – the Indian fertility goddess blended with the model’s busty profile, the varnished nails on the ivory nude ...

Lurching up to bed with the champion of Cubism

Nicholas Penny: Douglas Cooper, 20 January 2000

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: Picasso, Provence and Douglas Cooper 
by John Richardson.
Cape, 320 pp., £20, November 1999, 0 224 05056 7
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... John Richardson is one of those gossips who knows – or at least knows about – everyone. For example (on page 118, to be precise), Marie-Laure (1), Maurice Bischoffsheim (2), the Comtesse de Chevigné (3), the Duchesse de Guermantes (4), the Marquis de Sade (5), Jean Cocteau (6), the Vicomte de Noailles (7), an anonymous gym instructor (8), Igor Markevitch (9), Diaghilev (10), Nijinsky (11), Maurice Gendron (12): I was the daughter of 2, an immensely rich Belgian banker, and the granddaughter of 3, who was said to be the model for 4, and was also – would you believe it? – the great-great-granddaughter of 5 ...

Paintings about Painting

Nicholas Penny, 4 August 1983

The Art of Describing 
by Svetlana Alpers.
Murray, 273 pp., £25, May 1983, 0 7195 4063 1
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... The world of art is an enchanting deception,’ Hazlitt confided as he conducted his readers into the new picture gallery at Dulwich and straight to the ‘Cuyp next the door’. ‘You may lay your finger on the canvas; but miles of dewy vapour and sunshine are between you and the objects you survey.’ To think of doing this is to realise that more than ‘deception’ is involved ...

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