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Cultural clampdown in Egypt and Ellsworth Kelly remembered

31 December 2015

Our round-up of art news stories from the Christmas period.

Egypt: Cultural Clampdown? | Worrying signs from Cairo, where – as the New York Times reports – Egypt’s military government is clamping down on freedom of speech and the right to cultural expression. In the past few days, says the NYT, the authorities have closed down the Egyptian capital’s world renowned Townhouse Gallery and raided the offices of Merit, an independent publishing company. The raids come just weeks before the fifth anniversary of the popular uprising that saw an end to the regime of superannuated dictator Hosni Mubarak.

Court Overturns Jail Sentence for Tunisian Artists | In Tunisia, however, 2015 has ended with a victory for the artistic community. Following domestic and international uproar over the arrest of three artists – Ala Eddine Slim, Fakhri El-Ghezal and Atef Maatallah – on drugs charges earlier this month, a Tunisian court of appeals has overturned the prison sentences with which they were served.

Temporary Export Bar for Pontormo’s Portrait of a Young Man in a Red Cap | The UK Culture Ministry has placed a temporary export bar on a painting by Pontormo that has been on loan to the National Gallery since 2008, after the owner sold it without notice to a foreign buyer. Portrait of a Young Man in a Red Cap had been thought lost until this work was discovered in a private collection and reattributed nearly eight years ago. If the funds to match the buyer’s purchase price in excess of £30 million cannot be raised by the end of April, it is likely that the masterpiece will leave British shores. Neither seller nor buyer have been named.

Police Uncover Art Theft Network at Fiumicino Airport | An extraordinary plan for an art heist at  Rome’s Fiumicino Airport has been foiled by Italian police, reports the Daily Telegraph. According to an official statement, members of the airport’s cleaning staff and ground crew had colluded to steal works belonging to ‘an important art gallery in Rome’ while in transit. The would-be thieves had apparently hauled the paintings to a hidden spot in the airport buildings, acting on the pretence of taking them to oversize baggage collection points.

Bouncer Unearths Possible Roman Ruins in Wales | Intriguing news from Merthyr Tydfil, South Wales, where a nightclub bouncer cum amateur archaeologist may just have made a discovery that sheds an entirely new light on the Roman presence in Britain. Anthony Thomas, 45, has found a series of crop marks that experts believe may well date back to the Roman occupation of the area, suggesting evidence of a fort on the site. ‘I always used to joke saying I’m not going to stop [searching] until I’ve found a Roman villa’, Mr Thomas told the BBC, ‘Now I might have only gone and done it’.

Replica of Palmyra Arch to be Erected in London and New York | Elsewhere, however, 2015 has been a worrying year for the archaeological legacy of the Roman Empire. With sites threatened by militant groups and looters in the Middle East and in Libya, many suggestions have been batted back and forth as to how best to protect threatened ruins. Now, New York and London are to erect replicas of the sole surviving arch of Palmyra’s Temple of Bel, which was reduced to rubble by ISIS in August. The reconstructed arches, which are to be unveiled for World Heritage Week in Times Square and Trafalgar Square respectively, are based on research by the Institute for Digital Archaeology, using the world’s largest 3D printer. We can only hope such reconstruction efforts are not the only way the memory of these treasures will survive.

York Assesses Flood Damage to Cultural Institutions | Severe floods have forced cultural institutions across the North of England to close their doors until the weather offers respite. In York, the York Castle Museum, the Yorkshire Museum and the York Art Gallery have all reopened after temporary closures, but the Jorvik Viking Centre – one of the city’s key tourist attractions – remains off limits after its galleries were submerged under around 50cm of water.

Documents Reveal True Extent of Burrell Gallery’s Decay | Water damage is not confined to England, however. A report in The Herald claims that decay at Glasgow’s Burrell Gallery is so significant that its operating body, Glasgow Life, has declared the building ‘not fit for purpose’. Documents released after a Freedom of Information request show that the the £66 million rescue package for the gallery is facing a £15 million shortfall.

Has Art Lost its Capacity for Outrage? | Meanwhile, at The Guardian, Jonathan Jones is asking where art’s sense of rebelliousness has gone. According to the contrarian critic, art in 2015 has been characterised by seriousness and good intentions – a ‘morose porridge of pious intellectual cliches’. Will you join him in his call to ‘reinject the decadence’?

Ellsworth Kelly Remembered | There have been many tributes to the great American painter Ellsworth Kelly since his death on 27 December. At the Wall Street Journal, Peter Plagens remembers the ‘unmitigated joy’ of Kelly’s work, while The Guardian’s Adrian Searle describes him as one of ‘the great colourists’. See here to read Kelly’s 2013 interview with our own Louise Nicholson.

Art news daily returns on 4 January. Happy New Year to all our readers!