"Artspeak": Part I

Saturday, October 21, 2017

The first part of an occasional guide, both informative and irreverent, to the art world’s usage and abusage of the English language, originally written by us in 1991 but still surprisingly relevant.

“Mint condition”:
A picture that has only been lightly cleaned in the past, if at all, with no re-touching and often never been varnished. This is obviously very desirable. The phrase “Hasn’t been touched” is sometimes used simply to explain why a picture looks uncared-for. The French expression “dans son jus” graphically describes a painting existing happily beneath a superficial covering of dirt and grime.

“A Decorative Picture”:
Although most important Impressionist works are “decorative”, this phrase crops up more often in relation to a picture of doubtful artistic merit that might go nicely with your curtains.

“Impasto”:
The heavy or thick application of paint which shows the marks of the brush or palette knife. This might be flattened out by generations of over-enthusiastic cleaning ladies, or by the painting having been badly re-lined some years ago. Most dealers will only introduce this word into the conversation if they are confident the painting has not been re-lined.

“Re-lining”:
Mounting a painting with its original canvas on a new canvas for extra support. As a general guide, most pre-1840 paintings on canvas will have been relined; most post 1950 paintings should not have been. Don’t be afraid to ask why a picture was re-lined. It could be for any of the following reasons: the paint might have started to lift from the canvas; cracks in the paint might have shown signs of widening and becoming unsightly; there might have been a tiny tear in the canvas; somebody might have put a size 12 boot through the middle of it.

“It’s totally private”:
Also known as “fresh to the market” and “had it in my home for years”. This is normally only a dealer-to-dealer line, although it is sometimes used to reassure a collector that a painting has not been knocking about the trade. It can mean the vendor bought the picture from a little old lady whose father got it from the artist. It could however mean the dealer was told this story by said little old lady who was actually a bit smarter than he thought since she bought it at Sotheby’s six months ago. Or it could mean he bought it from an old lady and just likes to exaggerate a bit. Or it could mean he’s a liar. If so you should find another dealer.