Monthly Archives: April 2017


Francis Bacon’s Three Studies of Lucian Freud fetched a record $142.4 million at auction. That was nearly double what Christie’s had projected, highlighting the unpredictability of art appreciation. Art isn’t science, but that doesn’t stop psychologists from trying to get inside viewers’ minds. What makes us like a few splotches of color?

First, we must identify those splotches as art. Researchers found that telling people to imagine themselves a year in the future (a tactic meant to induce abstract thinking) increased the chances that they’d say unconventional pieces such as Warhol’s Brillo Boxes qualify as art [1]. The way art is described also sways enjoyment. When subjects received an ambiguous explanation of an abstract piece (that is, an explanation including several statements, only about half of which fit the work), they liked the piece better than they did when they received an explanation that either mostly fit or mostly didn’t. Ambiguity apparently enhances intrigue [2]. Backstory matters, too: when people learned that an artist was eccentric—he mangled his ear, or carried stones on his head—they liked his work more. Unless, that is, the work was conventional or the artist’s quirks were described as inauthentic (as the researchers suggested of Lady Gaga’s antic

The viewer’s own torment is another story, however: Subtly priming someone to consider his or her mortality diminishes appreciation for abstract paintings, at least among those with a strong “personal need for structure.” But the effect is reduced when people are given the artwork’s title—provided, at least, that the title is clearly descriptive. So a name like Number 12 doesn’t do much, but knowing that a Jackson Pollock painting is called Guardians of the Secret seems to help viewers overcome their own angst and attribute some meaning to the mess before them [4].

Seeing a piece of art over and over can also increase our affinity for it. But this effect applies only to art that critics have deemed “good.” Repeated exposure to two works by the Pre-Raphaelite painter Sir John Everett Millais enhanced subjects’ appreciation, while repeated exposure to the kitschy cottage-porn of Thomas Kinkade wore on them [5]. Here’s one thing that doesn’t seem to matter, however: which way is up. When subjects were shown 40 modern artworks in four different orientations and asked which orientation they preferred, their responses aligned with the artist’s intention less than half the time [6].

Finally, casual viewers with high taste-bud density don’t enjoy disturbing or provocative art as much as others do [7]. You knew all along that art appreciation was a matter of taste—you just didn’t know how literally.

The kinkiest art export

Exhibition of the Week

Kate Davis
Step into this Old Town gallery for a stimulating encounter with some original and powerful feminist video art, which includes a hymn to breastfeeding illuminated by a montage of medieval and Renaissance paintings.
 Stills Gallery, Edinburgh, until 8 October.

Also showing

Raphael: The Drawings
There’s just a month left to see the best exhibition of the year so far, a pitch-perfect selection of Raphael’s drawings that makes you fall in love with this sensitive genius who died, too young, in 1520.
 Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, until 3 September.

Daughters of Penelope
Christine Borland and Linder are among the artists making guest appearances in this celebration of women as weavers. There’s a nice cafe too if you need a break from the fringe.
 At Dovecot Studios, Edinburgh, until 20 January.

Michael Sailstorfer
Cars transformed into wood-burning stoves and a relentless popcorn cooker are among this sculptor’s uneasy meditations on nature and machines.
 Jupiter Artland , Edinburgh, until 1 October.

Portraying a Nation: Germany 1919-33
The formal photographs of August Sander and the grotesque imagination of Otto Dix make for a powerful combination in a terrifying portrait of 1920s Germany, a democracy on the edge of disaster.
 Tate Liverpool, until 15 October.

Masterpiece of the week

 The Madonna of the Meadow, circa 1500, by Giovanni Bellini. Photograph: National Gallery

The baby Christ looks almost dead as he slumbers, anticipating his destiny on the cross. Mary prays rather than cuddling or playing with her child as was soon to become common in 16th-century paintings. This sombre vision is set within one of the most haunting landscapes in art. A white-cowled farmworker sways enigmatically in the field in front of a walled village whose buildings are blank against the blue yet brooding sky. A sinister bird perches on a branch. Everywhere you look, a bleak anxiety infects nature. Who says Munch invented expressionism?
 National Gallery, London.

Image of the week

 Europe’s kinkiest art export … one of the subversive drawings by Touko Laaksonen, who worked under the name Tom of Finland. Read all about it here. Photograph: Tom of Finland Foundation

What we learned this week


Edinburgh international festival has burst into life with a series of prismatic projections

The city’s art festival, meanwhile, offers follies, broken statues and a surprise star

Yorkshire has been awarded £750,000 to spend on a sculpture exhibition

Art galleries are the new battlegrounds for political protest

Hypnotic video installations are the stars of the Edinburgh art festival

Our obsession with Instagram #foodporn is changing the way we eat

The winner of most upsetting Halloween costume in art: Donald Trump

Making art can help people to live with mental health issues

Igor Golomstock, the historian who exposed how totalitarians use art, has died

Ralph Steadman’s new illustrations fight for pandas, bees and chimpanzees

Photographer Justine Varga won the Olive Cotton award by not using a camera

The new Matisse exhibition is ruined by useless bric-a-brac

Tom of Finland invented a legendary gay aesthetic in his spare time

Get involved

Our A-Z of Readers’ Art series continues – please submit your artworks on the theme of U Is for Underwater.

uncovered heartbreak in their grandfather’s envelope designs

Then Brenda Fitch was two, her paternal grandfather sent her a letter with a prediction. “I know,” he wrote, “that your dear Dada and Mamma are keeping a book of envelopes for you, and I have no doubt when you reach the age of 21 you will consider them interesting.”

Frederick Tolhurst, Brenda’s grandfather, was an amateur artist and the envelopes that he was referring to were illustrated by him with colourful, child-friendly designs. And he was correct: later in her life, Brenda would indeed find them fascinating. But it wasn’t until she was 74 that she discovered the heartbreaking truth behind her grandfather’s hobby.

Frederick died when Brenda was four; but as she and her younger sister, Sandra Britton, grew up, they were aware of the family collection of envelopes addressed to their father, Reginald, and his sister, Vera. “The thing we never thought about,” says Brenda, “was why he had sent them so many letters.”

Reginald died in 1984, aged 79, but Vera lived to be 104. “When she was 100, she told me the most extraordinary thing out of the blue,” Brenda says. “She was in a nursing home in Tunbridge Wells. One day, while talking about what we should do with her things after her death, she suddenly said: ‘My mother left us when I was seven.’ She could still remember the day her mother went; she remembered standing on the doorstep crying, and watching her mother walk off down the road carrying a suitcase. It was obviously still very painful all these years on.”

All Brenda, who lives in Warwickshire, and Sandra, in Cheltenham, knew about their grandmother, Edith, was that she had died before they were born. “We didn’t know there was anything unusual in our family story,” says Brenda. They decided to do some detective work to find out about Edith and Frederick’s marriage – and the tale they unravelled centred on a love affair that tore the family apart

Frederick Tolhurst and Edith Nash, were married in 1905, and seemingly lived happily for several years in Stockwell, south London. Reginald was born the following year, and Vera in 1908. But a few years later, when Reginald was nine and Vera seven, Edith had an affair with a man called Samuel Sharpe, and later decided to follow him to Uruguay, where he was working. “In those days, divorce was an utter disgrace, and the story made it into the newspapers,” says Brenda..

One account of what happened, in the People’s Journal in 1919, after Edith boarded a ship to South America earlier that year, quotes a letter from Samuel to Frederick that read: “I intend neither to ask nor expect forgiveness from you for what I’ve done.” Samuel and Edith seem to have been very much in love; in the press clipping, Edith is reported to have said she was leaving because Samuel “was the only man who discovered that she had a soul”. She bore her husband no ill feeling, and was going because this was the only way to secure her future happiness.

Frederick, according to the newspaper report, pleaded with Edith to return, but she was adamant she was leaving. Edith sailed on 26 September 1919.

Being a lone father was a lot more difficult 100 years ago. “There was no expectation that a man on his own could work and care for his children, the way there would be today,” says Brenda. Instead, the children were sent to live with relations: Reginald to Bournemouth, and Vera to Hornchurch, Essex. “It must have been terrible for them,” says Sandra. “They were all separated from one another. It must have been incredibly tough.”

Frederick visited the children whenever he could: but mostly they kept in touch by post. And on envelopes he posted on a regular basis to his children were colourful and imaginative illustrations featuring ducks, children, a doll’s house, flowers, cars and a London bus. “It must have been exciting to receive such interesting-looking envelopes,” says Sandra.

 Vera and Reginald Tolhurst.

Many of the letters themselves have not survived; but the envelopes, she says, convey a sense of the kind of man her grandfather was. “He obviously cared about his children a great deal, and missed them very much. I get the impression he was a bit of a workaholic, and perhaps that’s why Edith ended up in the relationship with Samuel. He worked as a printer, so he was perhaps a friend of Frederick’s before he became Edith’s lover.”

Frederick continued to write to Reginald and Vera throughout their childhood; and when Brenda’s arrival in 1938 marked the start of a new generation, he decided to continue the tradition. The letter in which he made the prediction about her interest in them was written on 28 May 1940, a few months into the second world war; its envelope features bomber planes and parachutes in a leaden sky, and what look like the barrels of guns on the ground below. “Not a happy-looking envelope,” he writes in the letter, “but in days to come, you will hear of people talking about the war at times, and they will mention those things on the envelope.”

 A decorated envelope sent to Reginald Tolhurst.

Some of Frederick’s envelopes can now be seen in an exhibition called Writing Home, at the newly opened Postal Museum in London. Emma Harper, the museum’s exhibitions officer, says they are a wonderful example of art mail. “Picture postcards only became popular in Edwardian times, and Frederick Tolhurst was continuing that tradition,” she says. “The images are very eclectic and extremely well thought out – it’s clear that he thought long and hard about what his children would be interested in. Together, they represent a kind of social history of the mid-20th century, from the jazz age, which is referenced in an illustration of a cropped-haired flapper driving a convertible, to the guns and planes of the second world war.

“These days we communicate by emails and texts, but these envelopes show how the mail was a social tool. And it’s also extremely creative.”

Art Adviser His Gilded Touch

Claim to Fame Mr. Van Hagen is a dashing, shaggy-haired art adviser and curator known for his gilded touch and a roaming exhibition called “What’s Up,” which showcases 50 young contemporary artists. It helps that handling Picassos is in his blood. His mother is Susanne Van Hagen, the well-heeled art connoisseur. “I have been in the arts since I was a little kid,” he said, recounting visits to Sotheby’s and Christie’s by age 6. Together they operate LVH Art, a mother-and-son art advisory that places expensive works in even more expensive homes.

Big Break After years of playing behind-the-scenes matchmaker for artists and collectors, Mr. Van Hagen decided to curate his first “What’s Up” show last year. “I wanted to know what’s up today,” he said. “What are the artists my friends should be looking at now?” The show was a hit: 85 percent of the works sold.

Latest Project The first stateside “What’s Up” was staged in May in New York to coincide with Frieze New York, held in a three-story building in the Chelsea gallery district. To create “a dialogue” between young and more establishment artists, he paired John Chamberlain sculptures with those of Ernesto Burgos. “I’m not as well known in New York,” he said. “So it was important to have the right space in a prime location.”

Next Thing He hopes to take “What’s Up” to Los Angeles, Buenos Aires and Hong Kong. “I don’t believe in the gallery model,” he said. “Things are changing so quickly and people are getting bored of going to one gallery after another.” Instead, he wants to try his hand at virtual exhibitions. “Today it’s very tricky to buy art online, and I don’t think it’s working as it should,” he said. “A dream of mine would be to become the go-to guy in that space.”

Like Mother, Like Son Working with his mother comes with advantages and disadvantages. “My mother loves young people and has more energy than I do,” he said. “At art fairs, she gets along with all of my friends, and I get along with all of hers. Although, of course, sometimes it can be irritating when your mother wants to go out later than you at a party. I’m like, ‘Mom, it’s time to go home.’”