Sunday, 14 July 2013

Bernini: Sculpting in Clay

C.D. Dickerson et al Bernini: Sculpting in Clay Yale University Press 2012

This is  a superb scholarly study with excellent illustrations and fascinating technical details of Bernini's surviving clay studies. It's one of the best art history books I've read recently, but shame on all involved for publishing it half-finished.

Bernini is the giant of Baroque art, a talented draughtsman and painter, but a genius sculptor and architect. His greatest sculptures are grand dramatic marbles like the great Ecstasy of St Theresa, but he also produced small-scale clay models for many of his commissions, like three dimensional sketches. Bernini ran a busy studio and his assistants learned his techniques. Given the sketchy nature of the clay models, they present particular problems of attribution that are addressed in this book.

Like many of the best art books today this book was written to accompany an exhibition, which was organised by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and traveled to the Kimbell in Fort Worth. The show intended to bring together almost all of Bernini's surviving clay sculptures, but many are in the Hermitage and unfortunately were prevented from travelling because of the current Russian prohibition on loans to the US. These sculptures are particularly fragile, but I'm convinced that there was sufficient scholarly justification for mounting this exhibition to allow comparison of the work as a whole, supported by this serious scholarly catalogue. But there's no justification for showing it at more than one venue, and no justification for going ahead with half an exhibition. A more responsible museum would have postponed the exhibition until the sculptures could all be brought together, but the commercial juggernaut that is the modern museum over-rode scholarly and ethical considerations. 

The book remains an impressive achievement, with solid introductory chapters setting out the background and explaining connoisseurial challenges, and catalogue entries justifying individual attributions. The problem is that this is an exhibition catalogue and not a proper catalogue raisonne, because it fails to discuss rejected attributions. A catalogue that fails to consider marginal cases and explain why they are not autograph is only half a catalogue, and the harm done by this omission rises in proportion to the greatness of the book as a whole. It's hard to imagine that a publisher will commission another study of Bernini's bozzetti for a generation, which means that we must accept the diktat of the authorial team about the inauthenticity of the sculptures they don't deign to discuss.

This is an awkward half-way between an exhibition catalogue and a catalogue raisonne. These days the best exhibition catalogues are superb, but the rise of exhibition catalogue publishing seems to be squeezing traditional monographs. In this case it's detrimental to scholarship - I wonder the extent to which exhibition budgets and deadlines militated against proper consideration of rejected attributions. The book is a tremendous achievement and I commend it to you. I just wish they'd finished it properly.

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