30 March 2015

Forecasting GE2015

It isn’t necessary to go into the detail of this chart from the Economist to see how the two main parties’ market share of the UK electorate has declined since 1945:

This has meant that forecasting the outcome of UK general elections has become more difficult although the tools for doing so have become more powerful. Various academic political scientists have constructed models making use of polling, census and past election data to forecast voting at constituency level and then the number of seats each party might win. On 27 March the forecasters met in London and shared their current estimates as to how the 650 UK parliamentary seats might be distributed, as tweeted the following day by Matthew Goodwin:

At first sight, there is quite a large spread in these figures but the chart below might put it into context. The number of Conservative (blue) and Labour (red) seats for the last five general elections is shown and then the forecasts (and spread thereof) taken from three sources. I have chosen electionforecast.co.uk because it is the UK partner for FiveThirtyEight (the Editor-in-Chief of FiveThirtyEight is Nate Silver, author of The Signal and the Noise). The other two appear to me to be the most credible as they are attempting to address the number of seats for all the parties and are avoiding obvious outliers like the SNP with only nine seats. As in 2010, a hung parliament looks likely and there is currently much discussion of various coalition-type arrangements and combinations.

Outside the UK (and quite possibly inside), not everyone may be aware that the four “nations” of the United Kingdom are disparate in terms of the Westminster parliamentary seats they have currently (there were more Scottish seats before the Scottish Parliament was established):

(England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland; Conservative, Labour Liberal Democrat, Others includes the Speaker). 

The Conservatives are almost confined to England and Wales and, if they are to form a single-party majority at Westminster, that is where they have to secure the seats to do so. If the Scottish Nationalists (SNP) do as well as is expected (see the second chart above) they will have about 2/3 of the Scottish seats and Labour will be in a similar situation. The next chart shows the relationship in England and Wales for the last five general elections between the votes cast for Conservatives and Labour and the seats the parties obtained, both expressed as percentages.

The first-past-the-post voting system tends to reward parties in that as their share of the vote increases they gain disproportionately more seats (otherwise the dotted grey line would apply). However Labour does even better than the Conservatives (the thin red line through their recent election results as opposed to the thin blue one) because of the distribution of the electorate across constituencies.

As long as the two main parties have similar low 30% voting support in polls, it suggests that Labour will be the largest party in E&W although probably not achieving an overall Westminster majority. Because the five Sinn Fein MPs do not attend Westminster, the theoretical minimum for an overall majority is 323. Labour would also have support on from the remaining Scottish Labour MPs, on many issues from the SNP, and, as the largest party, on many issues the LibDems.

If the Conservatives break through to the upper 30% level – this would require squeezing UKIP, there are only hard-core LibDems left to squeeze – leaving Labour behind, they become the largest party, and as such may turn again to the LibDems for support. Whether they would get more seats together than Labour and SNP combined is difficult to say and best left to FiveThirtyEight & Co. 

My hunch is that the LibDems will do better in their established areas than the national polling would suggest, and also that Labour will do better in Scotland than some of the forecasts are indicating.

27 March 2015

Julie Bertuccelli’s ‘School of Babel’

It’s surprising how many French films are set in or around school – in 2013, for example, we had Jeune et Jolie, Something in the Air, and In the House. Longer ago, Nicholas Philibert’s 2002 documentary Être et Avoir was set in a primary school in remote central France and in 2009 Laurent Cantet directed a near-documentary, The Class (Entre les Murs), set during an academic year in a secondary school in the 20th arrondissement of Paris. The class’s teacher was played by François Bégaudeau, co-writer of the screenplay based on his semi-autobiographical novel. His 13 and 14 year-olds, who came from various ethnic groups, were difficult or challenging, depending on how you look at it.

Julie Bertuccelli’s documentary, School of Babel (La cour de Babel, which would translate literally as The School Courtyard of Babel), is in some ways a companion piece to The Class. This school is in Paris’s 10th arrondissement and with slightly younger pupils who have recently arrived in France and been placed in a reception class (classe d’acceuil). They will not be allowed to join normal classes until their French is adequate. The 25 or so children come from almost as many different countries. Part of the film’s charm is the way they get to know and appreciate each other despite differences in race, religion, background and circumstances. They benefit enormously from their experienced teacher, Mme Cervoni, who gently helps them correct their inexact French - conveyed by deliberately mangled English subtitles - and who patiently explains their progress to parents or guardians.

At the end of the year Mme Cervoni tells her class that she is off to the French education ministry to become an inspector. This is an implicit reminder that the film would almost certainly not have been made without official support. Perhaps not surprisingly, there is very little material in it which could be deployed by critics of France’s educational system.

Undoubtedly some of the children in the reception class are very able and will soon start to do well in France; others appeared to have problems which could be longer-lasting. Lucy Wadham’s article, Rigorous to a fault, about what’s wrong with France’s schools, in April 2015’s Prospect magazine, is written from the point of view of a parent in France and in the light of the January Paris terrorist attacks. The three jihadist perpetrators were all products of l’Education Nationale. She regards France as having an over-rigid approach to education, one which is optimised to identify and develop an elite. She points out that:
Despite what Hollande says about the Republic recognising all children as equal, there is a chronic problem of educational inequality in France and it often follows ethnic lines. In its Survey of Adult Skills, the OECD found that France's education system, while it produces an impressive intellectual elite, leaves a large proportion of its adult population barely able to read: 21.6 per cent of those surveyed in France scored the lowest level of literacy, compared to 15.5 per cent across 24 other countries. In a culture that puts such emphasis on academic achievement, the stigma of failure is, of course, that much greater. The OECD's final report said of France: "The scores for French people [in literacy and numeracy] vary considerably according to training levels and social background, and this is to a far greater degree than the average across participating countries. The differences in literacy standards between individuals born in France and those who were born abroad are much greater than the average across participating countries."
Perhaps Mme Cervoni really is as exceptional as she seems.

23 March 2015

It’s the David Miliband wagon again

Just my conjecture of course, but could it have been that it seemed a good idea last Monday. On the Wednesday (18 March) Osborne’s Budget - bribing taxpayers with borrowed money - was bound to go down well and Ed Miliband’s response to go down badly; the YouGov opinion poll to be conducted on 19-20 March was certain to show that the Conservatives had opened up a significant lead over Labour; then on 22 March the poll results could lead on the front page, the Sunday Times magazine having been given over to a cover feature trailed all week: Celebrity big brother How David Miliband conquered New York. Anonymous Labour MPs and shadow cabinet members would provide quotes which evinced a bad attack of the heebie-jeebies, and the ditch Ed bandwagon would be shown to be rolling.

Only it didn’t quite work out like that. The poll showed a two point Labour lead and accordingly was relegated to page 16, leaving Iain Day’s David Milband article, THE OTHER MILIBAND Yo bro, I’m the talk of the town, somewhat high and dry in the magazine, as was the companion puff piece, No 1 Miliband still wants No 10, on page 8 of the main paper. Never mind, it still left some grist for the mill of this blog which has been following the periodic revivals of media interest in David Miliband since last August (and December and January).

So what was different about this one? There was certainly stock material about their Marxist dad, which brother got the first in PPE, and how upset their mum was and how the two younger Mrs Milibands had fallen out when Ed stymied David’s bid for the Labour leadership. But Day’s article seemed to have some new material from New York sources in and around the International Rescue Organization (IRC) where David now works as its president and CEO, at a salary of £300,000 ($450,000 presumably). As always, these things are best taken with a pinch of salt, for instance, early on we are told:
Miliband, astonishingly, has become the toast of the Manhattan elite.
and three sentences later:
… they have become minor celebrities among über-rich New Yorkers.
Not quite the same thing, surely? Anyway, towards the end there is a health warning:
David Miliband refused to be interviewed for this article.
Indeed, so we have:
According to some of his closest confidantes … 
… says one director of the IRC. 
Almost all of the IRC directors I spoke to … 
… a number of the charity’s directors confirmed to me … 
… says one IRC director … (five times)
and bizarrely:
Sir Patrick Stewart, the Star Trek and X-Men actor, is one of Miliband’s closest confidantes in New York, according to IRC sources …
Just how many directors are there? According to the relevant IRC webpage, 28, but the layout is unclear and I could have miscounted. There are also about 75 overseers (some may be directors as well) including, as the article explains, such eminences as Henry Kissinger, Madeleine Albright and Liv Ullman. Some of the overseers and directors are named as sources and their comments should interest anyone who wants to know how Miliband got the job and how he is operating and raising funds through his “relentless charm offensive around New York’s high society”. But this blog has been more interested in whether Miliband would “do a Boris” and return to Westminster politics. There are three passages in the article I thought worth noting:
"He wants to be prime minister," says one director of the IRC. "The typical term for the boss o this organisation is 10 years. He made a commitment to stay for seven, which takes him to 2020, but with, effectively, a break option at five. I don't think it's a coincidence that the dates align with the next election. He does not want to run against his brother. But if his brother gets chucked out I don't think he is at all averse to being the white knight."
Should destiny come calling, Miliband has kept his designer kitchen cabinet of trusted advisers close to him. Madlin Sadler has long been the right hand of David Miliband, serving as his special adviser at the Foreign Office and as his agent in that fateful 2010 Labour leadership contest. The daughter of Labour MP Barry Sheerman, Sadler ditched a well-paid role with the law firm Mishcon de Reya to join her old boss in NewYork. Ravi Gurumurthy, a strategy expert who helped Miliband form British foreign-office policy, has also been hired. Gurumurthy is the brother of the Channel 4 newsreader Krishnan. Then there's Ollie Money, his Westminster public-relations handler, who is now the IRC's communications director. 
“David has a vision and a mission, Maddie [Sadler] just wants to get to Downing Street and to get there fast," says one IRC director. "When he brought her in, he called her his chief of staff, which was a big mistake. She's super-smart, young, really brassy, just killer. He needed that because he didn't have any experience managing big organisations, and there are 6,000 people in this organisation, spread all over the world. She just ripped the shit out of the place. There was a pretty strong reaction to her, but not to David. Being the great politician that he is, he made it good when it went too far."
The IRC insists that Miliband's contract is not limited to just seven years. Yet a number of the charity's directors confirmed to me that Miliband made a commitment to the board to stay for a minimum period after they raised concerns about him being tempted to return home. Should the opportunity emerge to take the helm of Labour, Miliband would be a greyer, wiser, very electable 54 years old in 2020. He would be even better connected internationally. Unlike almost any other politician in Britain, Europe or the US, he would have experience of running something before attempting to lead the country. 
"We have our eyes wide open to the possibility that David could disappear," says one IRC director. "If Labour get trounced and they're looking for a new leader, and it doesn't look like he was the one who threw his brother out, would he consider it? Yes, I suppose. I still think he’d prefer that they threw in someone who would be cannon fodder for a period of time. Then, when there's a problem, David is the white knight. If David could write the script, that's what it looks like."
Day shared the by-line of the story in the main paper with Tim Shipman, who, to judge from this extract, had spent some of Saturday on the phone to his Labour contacts:
Labour MPs who supported David Miliband last night questioned whether he has a realistic chance of returning to replace his brother suggesting that rising stars such as Chuka Umunna, Tristram Hunt, Liz Kendall or even Dan Jarvis are better placed to carry the Blairite standard. A frontbencher who voted for David said: "He should have won the leadership and I think we'd be in better shape if he had. But the modernising wing of the party has moved on. "David's still young but he's part of a different political generation. We need to look forward, not back. There are a lot of talented people like Chuka, Tristram, Liz and even Dan Jarvis now coming through. David's had his time." Another prominent MP said: "If the public rejects one Miliband, the idea that they are going to race to embrace the other is fanciful." A spokesman for Miliband said: "David wants Ed to be prime minister. End of story."
“ … even Dan Jarvis” – an estimable character I always think, and well-equipped to “go on manoeuvres” as the Tories put it. Shipman’s view of politicians in general was revealed in a The Times Red Box email on 22 March while commenting on a Tory candidate currently in a spot of bother:
I am struck, not for the first time, that too many people engaged in frontline British politics believe they are living and working in House of Cards, with its labyrinthine Machiavellian scheming, when in fact they are straight out of The Thick of It, the ultimate modern incarnation of tragedy as farce. Politics attracts the talented and tormented, idealists and ideologues, the principled and the perverse. Most strikingly, it attracts more than its fair share of risk takers, gamblers, and fantasists; the kind of people who live their lives in a divinely ordained parallel universe of their own creation. Vetting can only show what skeletons candidates have in their cupboards. It cannot show the delusions in their own heads.
Interestingly on Monday 23 March, in the Sun (stablemate of the Sunday Times and The Times), Trevor Kavanagh, its veteran political journalist, has authored an opinion piece, Arrogant David is wrong to assume job’s his next time round. So, at least for the moment, the Miliband wagon is not just stalled, one of its wheels has come off. Disappointing for anyone at IRC who was hoping for a new CEO, perhaps one of those:
… long-standing staff members [who] did not take kindly to memos [from Gurumurthy] asking about their financial targets and questioning various projects in terms of cost benefit analyses and return on investment.

16 March 2015

Sargent at the NPG

I missed the Sargent exhibition at the Tate in 1998 (in Washington and Boston the following year), which I regretted, having been impressed in 1979 by the London National Portrait Gallery’s John Singer Sargent and the Edwardian Age (which went on to Detroit). So I was looking forward to Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends, again at the National Portrait Gallery, and I was not disappointed.

Sargent (1856-1925) certainly was the leading portrait painter of the Edwardian age (circa 1900-1910), much sought after to produce impressive portraits of the top “1%” at a time when the disparity between the wealthiest and the poorest was as great as it is today. But Sargent also painted portraits of his friends, often men and women who were of distinction in the artistic world and who he could portray in a less mannered style of his own choosing. Ideally I would post all the pictures in this exhibition, the ones which follow are those I found particularly striking.

The NPG show is chronological, starting with the artist’s early years spent in Paris (1874-85), initially as a pupil of Carolus-Duran (1879, below left). Sargent’s first exhibit at the Royal Academy was Dr Pozzi at Home (1881, below right), the founder of modern French gynaecology, looking just as Central Casting would have offered for the part.

Sargent, although never married, obviously enjoyed female company and revealing depth of character in the women who sat for him. As soon as you see them, you want to know more about them, for example the Italian Renaissance intellectual, Vernon Lee (1881, below left) and the habituée of Parisian artistic and political circles, Madame Allouard-Jouan (c1882, below right):

Particularly impressive is the double portrait of the children of one of Sargent’s earliest patrons, Edouard Pailleron, Portraits de M.E.P. … et de Mlle E.P. (1881, below); the brushwork of the detail in Marie-Louise’s costume is fascinating.

The next section of the exhibition, Broadway (Worcestershire, England not New York), covers the years 1885-89 and various paintings Sargent made in southern England. There was a community of artists and writers at Broadway where one Tate Britain’s most popular works, Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (below) was painted in 1885-86, the subjects being the daughters of Sargent’s artist friend, Frederick Barnard.

The following section is the largest and covers the years Sargent was dividing his time between Boston and New York (1888-1912) and London (1889-1913). There are only five pictures to cover the former, one of interest being Edwin Booth (1890, below left) - he was an actor, like his brother John Wilkes Booth, Lincoln’s assassin, and distantly related to Cherie Booth, wife of former Prime Minister, Tony Blair. In the London selection, W. Graham Robertson (1894, below right) has elements of the society “swagger” portraits for which Sargent was celebrated.

Again, some strong female portraiture: Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth (1889, below left) and Mrs George Batten Singing (1897, below right):

The exhibition ends with Europe (1899-1914) with paintings Sargent made on painting holidays with friends, many in Italy. The poster above is of The Fountain, Villa Torlonia, Frascati, Italy (1907) with Wilfrid and Jane de Glehn. The same couple are in the watercolour, Sketching on the Giudecca, Venice (c1904, below top) while other friends are captured on holiday in the Alps in Group with Parasols (c 1904/5, below lower):

Within a few years the cataclysm of World War 1 would engulf Europe. Nothing could be further from the paintings at the end of this exhibition than the massive work recently on show at the Imperial War Museum which Sargent would undertake in 1918, Gassed. Within a few years of his death Sargent’s reputation was in decline, undermined by Roger Fry on the grounds of its having been overtaken by modernism in much the same way as his successor as the UK’s leading society portrait painter, William Orpen, was done for by John Rothenstein. Sargent and Orpen had much in common artistically, in particular a facility to produce portraiture that was pleasing to its subject while being more revealing of character than the sitter would realise. An ability that must have been very irksome to fellow artists who lacked it.

Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends ends on 25 May.


Christopher Snowdon (@cjsnowdon) tweeted this last week. The opening lines of AJP Taylor's English History (1914-1945) seem to sum up the world that people in the privileged position of Sargent and his friends lost at the outbreak of WW1:

15 March 2015

Saul Dibb's 'Suite Française'

Films based on novels often disappoint those who read first and view second. So I should say that I haven’t read Suite Française, based on Irène Némirovsky’s unfinished sequence of novels and published in an English translation in 2006, but the film was disappointing enough in its own right.

Even now, after so many other traumas since 1945, from Dien Bien Phu to Charlie Hebdo, the years of the Nazi Occupation remain a raw memory in France. Not surprisingly, French films and TV dramatizations set during those dark years tend towards providing comforting myths of heroic resistance rather than portrayals of acquiescence, not always sullen. The few conversations touching on the Occupation that I’ve had with French people of my own generation (the one with parents who were young adults during the war) underline just how difficult a subject it remains. In her review of Suite Française in The Times, Kate Muir, an admirer of the book, concluded:
If I were the French, I’d get the rights back to Némirovsky’s work, and make a sophisticated movie in my own language.
Well nigh impossible, I suspect – that is securing the sophistication, not the rights which are in fact already with TF1, more or less France’s BBC1/ITV equivalent. According to IMDb, Suite Française is a UK/France/Canada production, was mostly filmed in Belgium and the director and much of the crew came from the UK. But while nuanced enough to avoid “Nazis all bad, French all good”, it still offers the “Germans mostly bad and even the odd good one flawed, French mostly good and even the odd bad one rising above themselves” mythical formulation beloved of French TV. I

It is obvious from the outset that this is going to be a film with a simple narrative – occupied France, young handsome German officer, young attractive French woman whose husband is away at the war - so just how is this going to end badly? And, as a drama, it unfolds well if not pacily; Matthias Schoenaerts as Leutnant Bruno von Falk and Michelle Williams as Lucile Angellier perform soundly in their parts. Kristin Scott Thomas provides a particularly stiff and icy mother-in-law foil to Lucile and Bruno, who has been billeted chez Angellier. (Why Scott Thomas should have complained on BBC1’s The Marr Show recently about a lack of parts for actresses of her age, I can’t understand – she turns up in posts here every six months). The film looks good but still conveys the horribleness of war and the tragedy of Occupation, despite its implausible conclusion. Belgium provides a convincing substitute for France and the interiors, bourgeois ou paysan, match anyone’s expectations of French Country Style. Whether the Wermacht equipment was strictly 1940 issue, I wouldn’t like to say, but I was a little puzzled by the exact period of the film, if not the location.

A little history for anyone interested. France and the UK declared war on Germany in September 1939; Germany invaded France (and the Benelux countries) in May 1940. The French government soon departed for Bordeaux and a partly evacuated Paris fell on 14 June 1940 (not 1941, as Kate Muir seems to think). France signed an armistice on 22 June and was then divided, as indicated in the map below, into Occupied and “Free” Zones, the latter being administered from Vichy in the centre of France.

So the film Suite Française is set in the summer of 1940 during and after the invasion and surrender of France. Note, however, that the deportation of the country’s Jewish population did not start until 1942, the year Némirovsky died in Auschwitz, and something which Scott Thomas fans should be aware of from Sarah’s Key (2010). At the start of Suite Française, its setting is given as “Bussy, Central France”, though some reviewers place the town east of Paris. Given the extended presence of the Wehrmacht (von Falk’s unit is replaced at the end of the film), Bussy would have been in the Occupied Zone, as was Burgundy where Némirovsky spent the period from 1940 to 1942 when she started writing her novel sequence. In reality, the French police and civil service were the main agents for the rounding up and deportation of the Jews in France, working with the Gestapo rather than the Wehrmacht.

This film will be released in France in a couple of months. I can’t imagine that its content will prove that controversial, but the language convention used might. As produced, the cast speak English instead of French and any German being spoken is subtitled in English. It is straightforward enough for German to be subtitled in French instead, but French characters speaking English and being subtitled in French … or will they have to be dubbed?  At least, Suite Française won’t present TF1 with the problems it had with Marcel Ophuls’ unsparing anti-mythical 1969 documentary about the Occupation, Le Chagrin et La Pitié.

The Reichsmarschall at the Channel
If my comments seems unsympathetic to the French, they aren't meant to be. The only sensible perspective from Britain, saved from the Nazis by 20 miles (33 km) of sea, has to be one of “There but for the grace of God …”. The Nazis’ intention - quite by coincidence a chillingly obvious reminder of it appears in the post before this one – was to invade the United Kingdom and subjugate its citizens to the will of the Third Reich just like the rest of Europe. To imagine that, if that had happened, the British would have behaved better than anyone else is an illusion, but at least we were spared a myth.

11 March 2015

Also Observed in Amsterdam

Previous posts here have been about the Amsterdam Rijksmuseum’s current exhibition, Late Rembrandt, Rembrandt’s House and the Van Gogh Museum. This post covers a few other bits and pieces that might be helpful or of interest.

There is much to see at the Rijksmuseum outside the exhibition including a large selection of works on the second floor by painters of the Dutch Golden Age (1600-1700). Rembrandt’s The Night Watch (see below) and Vermeer’s The Milkmaid are probably the two most famous. Memorable by way of contrast with the exhibition was the early Rembrandt Self Portrait (1628, below left) and I couldn’t help but like Franz Hals’ Portrait of a couple (1622, below right):

The first floor of the Rijksmuseum covers the later periods of 1700-1800 and 1800-1900. There is a very large canvas of the Battle of Waterloo (1824) by Jan Willem Pieneman. It will be interesting to see if in the UK the Dutch contribution to Napoleon’s defeat gets due credit this year, the 200th anniversary of the battle. There were some 19th century pictures, new to me, from The Hague School, Jacob Maris’ The Arrival of the Boats (1884, below top), reminiscent of the Newlyn painters, and from the Amsterdam Impressionists, works by George Hendrick Breitner including The Bridge over the Singel at the Paleisstraat, Amsterdam (1896-98, below lower):

More as might be expected were a fine Monet landscape, La Corniche near Monaco (1884, below left) and an 1887 van Gogh Self Portrait. It was surprising to learn that the British artist Frank Brangwyn (1867-1956) had donated 270 etchings and lithographs to the Rijksmuseum in 1927 (“at the height of his fame” but who “fell into oblivion soon after his death”) – perhaps he thought they should be near Rembrandt’s – one on display was The Bridge of Sighs, Venice (1911, below right):

The relatively small third floor of the Rijksmuseum has some 20th century material, two works by Mondrian, some art nouveau and De Stijl furniture, and, from 1940, a grim item, the Nazi chess set (below). This was probably a gift from Heinrich Himmler to the leader of the Dutch National Socialists. The ceramic pieces are weapons and the border lists Nazi expansion starting: 1939 SCHACH-MATT (checkmate) 1940 POLEN DENEMARK NORWEGEN HOLLAND BELGIEN FRANKREICH ending ominously with ENGLAND U / W presumably unterwegs (on its way), although Operation Sea Lion was postponed indefinitely on 17 September 1940 (quite by coincidence relevant to the next post on this blog).

General Notes

This is, as I have said before, not a travel blog but here are some thoughts for anyone art-minded who may be going to Amsterdam. Even at the end of February, the museums and galleries were busy – I was told it gets worse from now on. So if you want to see The Night Watch like this:

and not like this:

get there early – staying at a hotel nearby and walking to the Museumplein is a good idea. The Rijksmuseum is open every day of the year, but only open for tickets from 09:00 to 16:30. It makes sense to buy tickets online beforehand. The Van Gogh Museum is open longer and has some late nights but has 1.5 million visitors a year, an average of over 4000 a day, so again advance ticketing is advisable – otherwise Sunflowers may look like this:

Once inside, things are easy for an English-speaker – everything is captioned in Dutch and English, the de facto second language of the Netherlands. Walking in Amsterdam is easy – as long as it isn’t raining - but be aware that on the streets, bridges and canal-sides there is a pecking order: trams first, then cyclists and cars, then finally pedestrians, who consequently need to keep their eyes open in all directions. But on foot they are the best-placed to enjoy the unique cityscape of Amsterdam!

UPDATE 17 MAY 2015

Parts one and two of an interesting article about some architectural aspects of the new Rijksmuseum.

10 March 2015

The Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

I remember years ago reading a holiday brochure which was urging travellers to visit Arles in southern France, one of its attractions being a Van Gogh museum. Well certainly Arles was the setting for some of Vincent van Gogh’s most famous paintings, eg The Yellow House (1888 above), but there’s no Van Gogh museum there, nor is there ever likely to be, unless Amsterdam’s Museumplein, along with the rest of northern Europe, is threatened by an ice sheet. In the meantime, thanks to van Gogh’s descendants, the world’s largest collection of his works remains in the country of the painter’s birth at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, very near the Reijksmuseum. Anyone visiting the city should take the opportunity, if they can, to see the originals of some of the most famous images in art, like The Bedroom/Bedroom in Arles (1888, below – there are other versions in Paris and Chicago).

On the Museum’s ground floor there is an introduction to van Gogh (1853-90), mainly in the form of a series of self-portraits, concentrating on the ten years up to his death, the dominant period of his artistic life. (Below right: Self Portrait with Grey Felt Hat, 1887; below left: a portrait by his Australian friend, John Peter Russell, Vincent van Gogh, 1886) A display case shows a palette that van Gogh used and some of his tubes of paint. These had come into use in the 1840s, and were being filled with the new pigments developed by chemists in the 19th century (but see below). Renoir said that “Without tubes of paint, there would be no Cézanne, no Monet, no Pissarro, and no Impressionism” and, one can assume, no van Gogh.

On the first floor the visitor’s initial encounter is with work from van Gogh’s early years as an artist in Brussels and Holland, sombre landscapes and studies of peasant life. Probably the best-known is The Potato Eaters (1885 below):

But in March 1886 Vincent moved to live with his brother Theo in Paris. Tuition and encountering Impressionism had a transformative effect on his art. Among the artists he met was Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, whose Young woman at a table (Poudre de riz, 1887, below left) was owned by Theo and eventually passed to the Museum. Vincent painted his lover, a café owner, in a similar style – In the café Agostina Sagatori in Le Tambourin (1887, below right):

Van Gogh put on an exhibition of his Japanese woodcuts in Le Tambourin. These had become available in the 1870s and were admired by contemporary artists. Not only were some of his works - Bridge in the rain (1887, below left) directly after Hiroshige, but others like Fishing Boats on the Beach at Saintes-Maries (1888, below right) reveal the indirect influence of Japanese art.

In the spring of 1888, and sponsored by Theo, van Gogh left Paris for Arles where he would work frenetically, attempt to set up an artists’ colony in the Yellow House, and be joined later in the year by Gaugin. Works from this time are on the Museum’s second floor, for example, The Harvest (1888, below left) and Gaugin’s Chair (1888, below right):

And one version of probably his most famous work, Sunflowers:

There are two series of van Gogh Sunflowers. The first is of four pictures all made in Paris, the second is of four painted in Arles in 1888 with three more “Repetitions” made in 1889. Last year the Van Gogh Museum’s Repetition was exhibited in London alongside the National Gallery’s 1888 version (below left). The NG’s Vincent’s Chair (1888, below right) is shown for comparison with Gaugin’s Chair and The Bedroom, both above.

Both in the National Gallery, London
There are good grounds for thinking that the colours we see in these paintings are not the ones van Gogh was intending. For various reasons, the pigments have changed their appearance. Below is one suggestion as to how the appearance of the National Gallery Sunflowers may have changed. This is obviously a subject for experts and probably a contentious one, but Alex Daish’s paper, from which the figure below is taken, is an informative initial introduction and contains other examples. Not surprisingly, the Museum is undertaking research ion the subject (REVIGO - REassessing VIncent van Gogh).

The recently redeveloped third floor of the Museum covers the period 1889-90. By the end of 1888, Van Gogh’s health had deteriorated and he would spend much of 1889 in the asylum at Saint-Remy. In 1890 he left the south and took up residence in the village of Auvers-sur-Oise where he would produce two of his most famous paintings, both in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris: The Church at Auvers (1890) and a portrait of the local doctor who was supervising him, Portrait of Dr Gachet (1890, 2nd version):

Both in the Musée d'Orsay, Paris
Vincent van Gogh died in July 1890 after shooting himself in the chest. Theo died in 1881 and is buried at Auvers next to Vincent. The third floor of the Museum also has a selection of his considerable correspondence, much of it with Theo, and conducted in French. Vincent had revealed a preference for French language and culture in Still Life with Bible 1886 (below left) with its copy of Zola’s La Joie de Vivre. In one letter, he told his sister Willemina not to study in Holland. The Van Gogh Museum collection includes works by many other artists and on the third floor they are used, not as before to explain influences on van Gogh, but instead as examples of his posthumous influence on later artists, for example Vlaminck’s The Seine at Nanterre (1907, below right) which the Museum purchased in 2008.

At the end was a temporary loan from the UK Arts Council of a picture I’d last seen in 2013, Francis Bacon’s Study for Portrait of Van Gogh VI (1957, below right), alongside a reproduction of the van Gogh self-depiction, The Painter on the Road to Tarascon (1888, below left), destroyed, like one of the four 1888 Arlesian Sunflowers, by fire in WW2.

In September 2015 a new entrance to the Van Gogh Museum from the Museumplein, designed by Kisho Kurokawa & Associates, will open. The exhibition Munch:Van Gogh, exploring parallels between the two artists, will transfer from the Munch Museum in Oslo later that month.


Since my post the March issue of Apollo, an international art magazine published in the UK, has appeared with the Van Gogh Museum as its cover story. The editorial by Thomas Marks is on the theme of the single-artist museum (he likes Leighton House) and he says that after visiting the Van Gogh Museum recently he “left with the glow of a pilgrim”. His accompanying article, Versions of Vincent, describes the Museum with a much more informed eye than mine and reports his interview with the Museum’s director, Axel Rüger.

In the last few days there has also been coverage in the mainstream media of the problem of deterioration of some of the pigments use by van Gogh (see above). The Mail Online Science and Tech provided more details than most and gave links to the recent Belgian chemical research.

5 March 2015

Rembrandt’s House, Amsterdam

In 1639 Rembrandt, probably at the peak of his earnings as Holland’s leading artist, bought a fine house in Amsterdam’s Sint Anthonisbreestraat using what would nowadays be regarded as a very high loan-to-value mortgage, at the time several different loans. In 1658,in difficult financial circumstances, he had to move to rented accommodation and the house was sold, many of his possessions having been auctioned in 1656. It is now the Rembrandt House Museum (Het Rembrandthuis), and aims, in so far as these things are possible, to give visitors some feel for the artist’s life there. So there is a period kitchen in the style of the UK’s National Trust, a selection of pigments Mr Turner would have recognised and a recreation of the collection of curiosities which had to go under the hammer (below). When I visited there was a fascinating demonstration of how drypoint etchings, one of Rembrandt’s fortes, are pulled.

In parallel with Late Rembrandt at the Rijksmuseum (previous post), the Rembrandthuis is running an exhibition in its modern extension to the original house, Rembrandt’s Late Pupils – Studying under a Genius, looking at works by some of his students between 1650 and 1669, the year of his death. There was some very helpful commentary on ‘Rembrandt’s Final Twenty Years’ which I think is worth reproducing in full:
During his late period, Rembrandt’s pupils witnessed remarkable developments in his art: increasing concentration in his compositions, the evocation of deep inner emotion and powerfully expressive brushwork. Rembrandt looked mainly to earlier Italian art for inspiration, above all to Venetian masters like Titian and Palma Vecchio. He ran counter to the artistic fashion of the day, which favoured the classicizing Flemish style of Peter Paul Rubens, Anthony van Dyck and their followers. Important commissions for new buildings such as the new Town Hall in Amsterdam and Huis ten Bosch in The Hague went to artists who followed this fashion, with clear outlines, smooth modelling, light tones, strong colours and restrained Baroque dynamism. Rembrandt’s last twenty years were beset with personal problems. 
His financial difficulties began around 1650. When he sold his portrait of his deceased wife Saskia to Jan Six in 1652, he had a pupil make a free copy of it. His bankruptcy in 1656 forced him to leave his large house in Breestraat for smaller rented quarters on Rozengracht in 1658. In 1663 he lost his beloved partner, Hendrickje Stoffels, and five years later his only son, Titus, whom he had trained as an artist.
This is the copy, Portrait of Saskia in Profile (c1652 below left), captioned as by “Anonymous Rembrandt pupil” but possibly Abraham van Dijck, with the original Saskia von Uylenburgh in Profile (c1640, below right) now in Kassel:

In an article for the Financial Times in October 2014, just before the National Gallery version of Late Rembrandt opened, Bendor Grosvenor , editor of arthistorynews.com, addressed the tricky question of Rembrandt attribution, “… the weird world of Rembrandt scholarship. In the first half of the 20th century, Rembrandt was believed to have painted some 600-650 works. But from the 1970s onwards that number shrank rapidly to around 250.” Since then some works which had been rejected have been readmitted to the accepted oeuvre. Grosvenor takes a fairly liberal view on attribution, one of his arguments being:
Finally, we might ask who are all these mysterious, supremely talented “followers of Rembrandt”? Who are the artists able to paint works as fascinating as “The Man with the Golden Helmet” in Rembrandt’s studio, but who have left no trace of any independent practice? I doubt many exist – they are a spectre of modern Rembrandt scholarship.
Not everyone agrees with Grosvenor’s line (anyone who is interested should read the FT article and then the debate between him and the blogger grumpyarthistorian). I would have thought that if “followers of Rembrandt” exist, they might well be found among these Late Pupils though probably not in this show.

Among the works I liked were two portraits by Jacobus Lebeck, Portrait of a Young Man in a Hat (1654, below left) and Portrait of a Man (c1658, below right), the former from the National Trust at Polesdon Lacey:

Nicolaes Maes Young Woman at a Window (c1654, below left), a genre scene on the same theme Rembrandt’s Girl at a Window (1651, below right):

and also a Rembrandt, Portrait of a Man with Arms Akimbo (1658 below left). Seated Old Man with a Stick (1665-8, below right) is by Gottfried Kneller (1646-1723). He was born in Lübeck, apprenticed to (but no admirer of) Rembrandt in 1662 and after a spell in Italy, became a successful painter in England, known to us as Sir Godfrey Kneller!

Rembrandt’s Late Pupils – Studying under a Genius is a very informative complement to Late Rembrandt and well worth visiting. Both exhibitions end on 17 May.

2 March 2015

Late Rembrandt at the Rijksmuseum

I missed this winter’s Rembrandt: The Late Works at the National Gallery in London, but what better excuse could there be for a trip to Amsterdam where the same exhibition is continuing at the Rijksmuseum as Late Rembrandt. This is almost certainly the most significant exhibition I will ever post about on this blog, and, as such, readers would probably benefit far more from articles about the NG show by Simon Schama (“jaw-dropping”) or Martin Gayford (“the supreme painter of the inner life”). However, even the best critics seem to have been overwhelmed by The Late Works, so here’s my tuppenceworth.

Titus at his Desk, 1655 (left) Titus in Monk’s Habit, 1660 (right)
This is, it seems, the first exhibition ever to address “late” Rembrandt. The painter’s dates are 1606-1669, the earliest exhibit is dated “about 1648–55” but there are few before 1652, so most are from the painter’s mid-40s until his death at 63. Life had gone well for Rembrandt until early middle age. For a time he had been one of the most successful painters in Holland in the period known as its Golden Age. He had bought a splendid family house in Amsterdam (see below) with borrowed money when he was 33, but three years later his wife, Saskia, died. During perennial financial difficulties he would eventually lose the house. Three of Saskia’s four children would die, only his son, Titus (above), reaching adulthood; Hendrickje Stoffels (probably below), his housekeeper who became his mistress and mother of his daughter, would die in 1663; Titus died the year before his father.

A Woman bathing in a Stream, 1654 
This painting was in the unfashionable less finely finished style which Rembrandt had adopted after 1650. His The Conspiracy of the Batavians under Claudius Civilis (c1661–62, below top) was possibly rejected on these grounds after having been commissioned for the Amsterdam town hall, although at the same time he continued to produce more conventional works like The Sampling Officials of the Amsterdam Drapers’ Guild (1662, known as The Syndics, below lower).

There are far too many magnificent pictures in Late Rembrandt for them all to be reported here. Just a few that I was struck by include the Portrait of Jan Six (c1654, below left) and the Portrait of an Elderly Man (1667, below right) – old chaps are easy for me to identify with of course:

And who could not be moved by poor Lucretia (1664, below left and 1666, below right):

Similarly, The Apostle Batholomew (1657, below left and 1661, below right):

Among the portraits, Portrait of a Lady with an Ostrich-Feather Fan (c1656–58, below), was, like The Syndics, more conventional but no less impressive:

As with the Rubens show currently at the Royal Academy in London, the Late Rembrandt curators have avoided chronology and organised around abstract nouns, eg Intimacy, Contemplation, Emulation and so on. This means that the six significant Rembrandt Self Portraits here are separated after an introductory trio; they are: SP 1659, SP as the Apostle Paul 1661, SP as Zeuxis 1662, SP with Two Circles 1665-9 (also in the poster above), SP at the Age of 63 1669, SP 1669 (clockwise from top left):

One of the last images of Rembrandt is the print of Self Portrait, drawing on an Etching Plate (1658, below left) one of many etchings and drawings featured in Late Rembrandt, too many to describe here. Another is The Conspiracy of the Batavians under Claudius Civilis (c1661, below right) which reveals the full extent of the painting of the same name above before it was cut down in size after rejection.

Anyone seeing the Amsterdam version of Late Rembrandt/Rembrandt: The Late Works, an exhibition which is truly deserving of the term "unmissable", will have the opportunity to view some of his other major works elsewhere in the Rijksmuseum and to visit his house and financial millstone, now a museum, Het Rembrandthuis.

Late Rembrandt continues until 17 May.

Subsequent posts are about the Rembrandt House Museum and some other things seen in the Rijksmuseum and elsewhere in Amsterdam. There is also a post about the Van Gogh Museum.