Monday 24 March 2014

A new Titian drawing?

Image of New Titian drawing discovered
Picture: National Gallery of Scotland
This drawing has been reported by the Herald and Scotsman newspapers as a newly discovered Titian. It was bought by the National Gallery of Scotland in 2007 as 'Attributed to Jacopo Bassano' for £30k (£25k hammer price against an upper estimate of £20k). It has only just become news, seven years after its purchase, because the National Gallery has included it in a new exhibition with an upgraded internal attribution to Titian. It had previously been exhibited in the US with a more tentative attribution, but with a catalogue entry that explained the case for Titian. It's notable that the reports of the new attribution don't cite any sources for the upgrade. Although a number of experts were consulted at the time of the purchase, and the drawing has been widely seen since, there don't seem to have been any new endorsements. All that has changed is that the gallery is now expressing its  long-held internal view more forcefully.

Attribution of Titian drawings is especially tricky because there are so very few secure works. He was a prolific painter, but he developed his compositions on the canvas, often making major changes as he went along, which are now visible in x-rays. His drawing style is not especially distinctive and many attributions have been debated between different Venetian artists. 

Titian drawings are controversial because different scholars have fundamentally different conceptions of Titian as a draughtsman, with some restricting the corpus severely and others allowing many more into the canon. As an opposite case, take Parmigianino, a prolific and brilliant draughtsman with a quite distinctive style. With Parmigianino attributions, the primary consideration is quality - is this good enough for Parmigianino? With Titian, there is a prior question about the kind of draughtsman you think he was.

Philosophers and political theorists use the term 'essentially contested concept' for ideas that mean very different things in different theoretical contexts.* The term 'democracy', for example, means something different to a liberal and to a Stalinist. You can't engage in a neutral debate about the true and proper meaning of democracy using data or logical argument, because each tradition has a distinctive but coherent understanding of the term. There's something analogous with Titian's drawings. You can't attribute just on the basis of formal analysis, because the argument is partly about what kind of draughtsman Titian was. This problem isn't unique to Titian, but it hasn't received much attention in debates about connoisseurship.

For all the controversy about 'neinsagers' who dispute the attributions of others, it's striking that people haven't rushed forward to dispute this highly controversial attribution. I think the problem in the art world is that there aren't enough neinsagers. The incentives are all skewed towards new attributions - not just financial, but the sheer excitement of new discovery. Many will inevitably be challenged over time and eventually fall away, with much less fanfare than the original attribution. But for many artists, there is a single recognised expert who arbitrates attribution, or at most a small handful of scholars. We are beholden not only to their connoisseurial eye, but also to their possibly flawed or at least contestable conception of the artist they're arbitrating. Neinsagers don't make many friends, and they are vulnerable to the charge of being less expert than the 'YAY-sayers', or of being merely miserable party-poopers. And professionals are understandably wary of treading on each other's toes. New attributions are often treated as settled once the accepted experts have opined. There ought to be more critical scrutiny.

I don't claim any expertise in Titian drawings, but I'm certainly sceptical. Quality alone doesn't prove the case, but from reproduction I think better anonymous Venetian drawings have been sold recently for similar prices. That said, I have no criticism of the National Gallery of Scotland. I think it was a fine acquisition at a reasonable price, and good but anonymous or uncertain drawings are often better value for money, even if they don't make good headlines. It's exactly the kind of drawing they should be buying. I think the full attribution to Titian is ambitious, but full credit to them for having the courage of their convictions and making such a bold claim. But it is disappointing that it only becomes a story when a big name (& potentially big price tag) is attached to it.

* W.B. Gallie 'Essentially Contested Concepts' Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society Vol 56 (1956) pp. 167-198. I'm simplifying Gallie's argument a bit to emphasise the relevant point for my argument.

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