Monday, 20 October 2014

Connoisseurship: notes from a debate

Picture: Wikipedia
Yesterday I was on a panel at the Battle of Ideas discussing connoisseurship with Leonardo scholar Martin Kemp, Tate curator Martin Myrone and Sarah Wilson of the Courtauld, ably chaired by Angus Kennedy. The format was conversational, so I didn't present a full 'position statement', but the debate helped clarify my thinking on the topic so I offer the comments below as an elaboration and development of my remarks. Inevitably it's rather overshadowed by the recent debate at the Mellon Centre with Bendor Grosvenor and Martin Myrone (and Martin was also on the panel discussion yesterday). Broadly I agree with Bendor Grosvenor, but my focus is a bit different and I'm sure he would disagree with some of my remarks. I'm going to follow up with another post about attribution, but I'd like first to try to broaden the discussion. Bendor's talk at the Mellon Centre explicitly talked about issues like assessment of condition, but most of his examples were about attribution. My contribution is an elaboration on some of those wider themes rather than a critique.
The debate about connoisseurship has become so tangled that some would prefer to avoid the term entirely. I think that's too defensive, and I will defend connoisseurship from its detractors. But I think the concept's usefulness has been blunted by excessive identification with attribution, which is an essential part of connoisseurship but not its entirety. I come to the debate as an amateur, which brings certain advantages. I can sidestep discussion of what people 'ought' to be doing in their dayjobs and focus on connoisseurship as something that we all have the potential to engage in at some level, even if very few of us will ever identify the artist behind an anonymous painting or engage in debate about rightful attribution. Kenneth Clark put it rather well when he said:
"We must believe that the frieze of the Parthenon, the West portal at Chartres and the ceiling of the Sistine are great works of art long before we have any idea how great they are: in fact we shall never know how great they are, but only that each time we see them we come a little closer to understanding." 
For me that is the nub of connoisseurship.
When we visit a great art gallery we take it on trust that we're being presented with pictures that are the best of their type, works that carry the assessment of history, which have been assigned to artists and schools and judged and ranked. I might be courting unnecessary controversy by adding the incendiary notion of 'the canon' to that of connoisseurship, but in practice assessment of relative quality is relatively settled. No one argues that Marco d'Oggiono is greater than Leonardo da Vinci, or that Francesco Granacci is greater than Michelangelo. Connoisseurship is above all the process by which we access that body of cultural knowledge and understanding, and appreciate quality and excellence. 

Great works of art embody the individual genius of their creators, and are a window on their creative spirit. It really matters if a picture is by Rembrandt or from his school, and the rare and special knack that some people develop for attributing paintings is a vital part of connoisseurship. But connoisseurship is more than that mysterious process of recognising authorship, and we can appreciate unattributed works of art. Medieval art, for example, is almost all anonymous. And we can recognise wide disparities of quality among anonymous pictures from Rembrandt's school. Even those of us who think the Man with a Golden Helmet isn't by Rembrandt recognise it as a stupendously good picture. Museums need to be able credibly to identify authorship, but they also need to be able to identify quality and help us to understand how works of art fit into our cultural heritage - the who, when and where but also the vital question of 'how good?'.
There is no accounting for taste, but we can account for quality. Some people prefer the classicism of Poussin, others prefer the more sensual art of Rubens. You might prefer Rubens to Poussin, but no one would claim that Abraham van Diepenbeck was a greater artist than Rubens. The differences can be described, but really to appreciate the difference requires some immersion in art, a process of looking and evaluating. Analogously, you can criticise Dan Brown but that criticism won't necessarily be understood by a neophyte novel reader who was gripped by the story. But as one reads more novels one gets more of a feel for quality, and books that seemed brilliant start to seem first unsatisfactory and ultimately infuriatingly bad. As with Dan Brown, so with Jack Vettriano. It doesn't mean that we read only Shakespeare or look only at Raphael; we can still enjoy the charms of 'lesser' masters, but the more we look and read the better we get a feel for what makes some things better than others.
A more technical aspect of connoisseurship is the need to understand condition. Museums rarely mention condition, and when they do it's often to praise an unusually well preserved picture rather than confess that another is a wreck. Even in museums' own publications, condition is rarely discussed adequately. And it can be difficult to assess. The Rembrandt Research Project probably studied the Rembrandt Self Portrait at the Norton Simon Museum more closely than anyone had studied it before, discussing it with curators who knew it intimately. They concluded that it was a well-preserved picture not by Rembrandt. But in a later re-assessment, they determined that it was in fact an authentic Rembrandt that has been ruinously damaged and over-painted. And even where to me the condition is obviously severely compromised, some people insist the contrary. The Sistine Chapel is the best and most tragic example. As it was being desecrated in a disastrous restoration many leading art historians insisted we were recovering Michelangelo's original work as it was meant to be seen. This isn't the place to rehearse those controversies, but it's a vital part of connoisseurship and museums should do more to make technical reports easily available to those who want to learn more.

A lot of this might seem like motherhood and apple pie, so you might be wondering why we're bothering to articulate these points and debate this topic. But connoisseurship has been under assault for at least a generation. Criticism is rarely overt, but in many contexts connoisseurship is dying of neglect. Some art history departments teach too much about context and too little from physical objects, but my more personal concern is about the museums that are failing in their connoisseurial responsibilities. 

On a recent trip to Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery they had lots of secondary works hanging in their galleries, but two of their greatest masterpieces (Subleyras and Rubens) were in storage and a third (by Petrus Christus) was displayed so badly as to be invisible. They have failed to appreciate the relative quality of the pictures in their care, even where they know fine well who painted them. Instead of displaying their best pictures to the public, they consult visitors about what they'd like to be displayed. But the public doesn't have expert knowledge. It is the responsibility of the museum to to make those decisions, and be able to justify them. 

The Bowes Museum recently lent one of its greatest pictures, a small painting by Goya, to an exhibition in Paris. It should have required a very strong reason to lend out a picture so vital to their collection, but it went to a 'for profit' exhibition in Paris that was full of pictures that patently weren't by Goya (but were labelled as his), and which had no loans from the Prado or even from the Louvre, which was just around the corner. That again is a connoisseurial failure, a failure to assess the worthiness of a proposed exhibition that was mounted for profit, was badly displayed, inadequately guarded and utterly implausible in its asserted attributions. The Bowes loan was the only work of the first rank in the entire exhibition, and its curators lent authority to a dubious undertaking.
At the Ashmolean one of the world's great collections of Greek vases is displayed without any reference to authorship. There is academic controversy about whether authorship is meaningful for Greek vases, but the fact that many are signed should give us pause before we abandon the notion. And the naming conventions ('Antimenes Painter', etc) were first developed by an Oxford professor based on his knowledge of the Ashmolean's collection. But none of this information is provided; no attributions are given on the labels and no further information is available in the galleries. In contrast, the Ashmolean does a superb job of presenting its Renaissance bronzes, providing folders in the galleries with detailed information. It really invites close looking and provides information to help understand the objects better, the first steps towards developing connoisseurial knowledge. 

These examples show a more acute crisis of connoisseurship than is generally recognised. It's not just about whether museums can reliably attribute pictures in their care. It's a broader question about their understanding of their collections and their relationship with their audience. We are encouraged to take selfies in front of masterpieces rather than invited to slow down and contemplate them. Some people think it's snobbish to value a particular way of looking, but I think it obvious that looking closely is more valuable. Offering people the chance to appropriate cultural icons by taking selfies is cheating them, giving an ersatz experience of greatness rather than bringing people into the process of understanding that Kenneth Clark describes. Connoisseurship isn't a skill that is suddenly bestowed once a certain level of knowledge is attained; it's an open conversation that we should all be invited to join. And it certainly isn't something that should be left only to professionals, whichever branch of art history they work in.
Connoisseurship is more often disdained rather than criticised. Close engagement with works of art is neglected by some university art history courses without anyone actually arguing against its value. Some curators focus on social history and audience engagement rather than close study and understanding of their collections, but they don't openly disparage connoisseurship. However, there are some direct criticisms that should be addressed. I think two criticisms of connoisseurship can be dealt with easily. A third criticism is more substantive, and needs closer attention.
First, it's often said that connoisseurship is tainted by corruption because it is so closely associated with the art market. This is simply a rhetorical fallacy. Even if all connoisseurs could be shown to act from utterly venal motives, it would not prove them wrong. Of course we should be suspicious when some one asserts that the picture they just bought is a lost Leonardo; the owner has a huge financial stake. But having a financial stake doesn't disprove the attribution or discredit the concept of connoisseurship. We should argue cases on their merit, not on the basis of the background of our debating partners. For what it's worth, I think the question of corruption is overplayed, and part of the reason for the significant role of the art trade in connoisseurship is that some academics and curators have moved so far from connoisseurial concerns.
Second, Martin Myrone has argued that connoisseurship is a trivial skill that doesn't require its own term. But no one is a fully formed connoisseur. There is always scope to learn and to hone the eye. If you think learning to appreciate artistic quality and identify the hand of art's creative geniuses is important then it's hard to see the skills of connoisseurship as trivial, even if you believe they're easily learned. A related question is whether the term 'connoisseurship' describes a sufficiently distinct group of activities to warrant an independent term. In my view it must. The visual analysis and appreciation of artistic quality implied by 'connoisseurship'   
The third criticism is that connoisseurship, and especially attribution, is simply too ineffable to be defended. Expertise seems self-referential and determinations of authenticity can be hard to justify. There is some truth to that claim, though it can be answered. I'll conclude on connoisseurship with a second post devoted to attributionism.


  1. "There is no accounting for taste, but we can account for quality."

    Indeed but in a previous post you bizarrely refer to Giovanni Battista Moroni as "a good second-rate regional artist." As a judgement of your (IMO distinctly wayward) personal taste I suppose that's a valid assertion. But as a judgement of Moroni's quality as an artist it's clearly nonsense. If you've seen the RA show, and I'm sure you have by now, it's very evident what a unique and superlative artist he is. He really does trailblaze the naturalism that was to be so revolutionary in the hands of the Carracci and Caravaggio in the following decades.

    You define connoisseurship in this article as above all the ability "to identify quality and excellence" in an artist. And yet you've fallen at the first hurdle with Moroni. Care to offer an explanation?

    1. It sounds like you think I'm a bad connoisseur! You may be right; that's a judgment I must leave to others.

      I saw the Moroni show yesterday, and loved it. I'll explain my views further when I review it. But on the general question, we can account for quality but it's not wholly independent from the vagaries of taste. I recently posted an image of a work by a follower of Rembrandt that I'm confident most people would agree is pretty bad, a poor pastiche of the master's broad late style. But just a few generations ago it was lauded as a major Rembrandt. I might be making a similar error with Moroni, although I certainly don't mean to disdain him. I just wouldn't put him on a par with Titian, or even Lorenzo Lotto.

      I think reasonable people can disagree about Moroni's exact rank (though such debates are rather arid). But I think we can all agree the NG's 'Tailor' is a masterpiece, and I think we could all identify a handful of particularly excellent pictures and a handful of weaker works from that exhibition that would largely overlap.