Sunday, 8 May 2016

Who will review the reviewers? Thoughts on Giorgione

In the Age of Giorgione Royal Academy London to 5 June

The word 'Age' is a warning sign in exhibition titles. It means 'we couldn't borrow the things we wanted, so we've blurred the edges a bit'. Blurring boundaries can be interesting and context is good, but it feels like they just gave up on this show when they couldn't get the big loans. They've stretched poor Giorgione to breaking point with mad attributions. The catalogue lacks conviction, just listing the views of other art historians next to the appalling grainy reproductions. And the display is filled out with a jumble of mostly early sixteenth century Venetian pictures of often questionable relevance.

It makes me yearn for Brian Sewell, who would have skewered it. 

Instead we have Laura Cumming in the Observer describing it as "something close to a miracle", and claiming that it includes a dozen Giorgiones. Two separate reviews in the Telegraph by Louisa Buck and Mark Hudson claim it includes seven out of 'ten or so' authentic Giorgiones. The New York Times's former art correspondent got in trouble for plagiarising Wikipedia. These critics don't even google. The FT is maddest of the lot, illustrating its review with one of the most implausible Giorgiones, claiming that the old dullard Cariani is the star of the show and describing the most mendacious curation as 'honest'. Even the smart reviewers have been too polite. A splendid, smart piece by Charles Hope casts a sceptical eye on the definition of this most enigmatic artist. Hope's essay is subtle; he isn't criticising connoisseurship, but implying preference for caution in face of uncertainty. I favour his epistemic stance, but he failed to give the show the kicking it so richly deserves.

Before I kick, I must urge you to see this show. There are some exceptional pictures here, and it does provide some valuable comparisons. It's worth travelling a long way just to see the Terris Portrait, top, which is one of the only secure Giorgiones on display. I've seen it at its home in San Diego, but it looks much better here, flanked by two Dürer portraits painted in Venice at the same time. It's a fantastic painting that's hard to appreciate in reproductions, with a monumental presence far disproportionate to its size. Confronting this picture in the first room really shows why Giorgione was so highly esteemed. 

I saw the Glasgow Christ and the Adulteress as more Titian-like than I'd previously appreciated; the current consensus for Titian now seems right to me. The wispy adulteress falling into the picture from the right looks especially Giorgionesque. But the dynamism, the gestures and the integration of figures is all Titian. It's worn and cut down, and even harder to appreciate on a tiny scale, but the composition is remarkably sophisticated. The catalogue describes it simply as diagonal, but it's more complex than that. There's nothing like it in Giorgione, who was more about mood than drama.

Another picture that I reassessed was the Cornbury Park Altarpiece by Bellini, which was one of my favourite pictures in my home town museum. Seeing it in a different context helped me appreciate better its weaknesses, and I absolutely disagree with the catalogue's assertion that, "the quality of the painting is so high that the contribution of the workshop, should it exist, is almost impossible to detect". On the contrary, different styles are readily recongnisable. The saints' heads are exceptionally Dürer-esque, the donor Memling-like and the Madonna and Child very typical of Bellini's workshop, and not of the highest quality. 

I like two Sebastianos that I'd never seen before, Birth of Adonis and Death of Adonis from La Spezia. The technique is unusual; they seem to have been painted quickly and broadly, which in this case seems not to be the result of bad restoration. The catalogue speculates that they may have been cassone panels, but they seem intended to be seen from below. Perhaps they once formed part of a frieze, hung high where that marvelous sky would have looked magnificent, but finely painted detail would be invisible. 

Consideration of condition must be at the heart of this show, and it's central to forming a view of Giorgione. A lot of the pictures are severely abraded, and some seem much repainted. Only a handful appear well-preserved, including a wonderful Lorenzo Lotto from the Louvre and a Virgin and Child with St Catherine and Saint John the Baptist only 'attributed' to Sebastiano del Piombo, but which seems quite right to me. The Venetian use of thin glazes renders them vulnerable to harsh cleaning, and maybe the soft contours appeared dirty to some early owners. But I wonder if there isn't also a selection bias here. The more badly they are scrubbed, the more they look like they might once have been by Giorgione. Some of these ghostly relics are now impossible to assess.

The connoisseurial potential of the show—trying to discern Giorgione's hand from others who painted in his style—is undermined by the sheer raving lunacy of the attributions. Giorgione is a controversial artist, and many pictures have been attributed to him over the years. But there are controversial pictures, and there are outright impossibilities. I'm not even convinced that all the pictures 'attributed to Giorgione' here are even Venetian, or of the right period. Two stood out as especially outrageous. 

A picture tentatively identified as David Between Saul and Jonathan is singled out for criticism in Charles Hope's essay. The attribution was originally made in a certificate bought and paid for by a previous owner. The modern equivalent of the 'certificate of authenticity' is the exhibition catalogue. It won't shift the view that this isn't by Giorgione, but inclusion at the RA lends it undeserved legitimacy. Maybe some one will buy it because they think it might be right, like the silly new 'Leonardos' that turn up from time to time, sometimes selling for high prices. It's evidently not Giorgione, and the prevarication of the catalogue entry makes it clear the curators don't think so either.

The second shocking misattribution is the Virgin and Child in a Landscape from the Hermitage, which is one of the only pictures given fully to Giorgione. It isn't. And I don't believe the curators think it is, either. It seems to have been substantially repainted at a later date, but there is nothing here to indicate it was ever by Giorgione. The Hermitage insisted that their Madonna Litta was given in full to Leonardo in the recent London exhibition, although few believe it is. I suspect this was another stipulation by the dogmatic anti-intellectuals there. But why on earth did the RA agree? The picture is trivial, and unnecessary to the show. The Hermitage gains, because they can cite another source seeming to endorse another of their extravagant claims. But the RA just looks meek and corrupt.

It's not the only picture whose inclusion in the show is perplexing. Cariani is a very different artist from Giorgione, and a rather repetitive painter. Yet there are six of them here. And some of the Sebastianos and Titians were oddly selected, some brought across continents when there are better examples five minutes down the road at the National Gallery. 

This is an obviously problematic show. I don't know the politics of the RA, but it seemed they themselves don't really believe in it. They have skimped on the catalogue, eschewed all commentary on the wall labels and avoided expression of opinion. I don't know where responsibility lies, whether with the powers-that-be at the RA or the curators who arranged this exhibition. But having seen the show, I am quite certain which critics deserve censure. 



  1. Sadly I won't get to London, so I may shuffle off without ever having seen the Terris Portrait, but even in reproduction its power and quality are remarkable.

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  3. Thanks for this review of the exhibition. I was not able to get there but am going through the catalog. I did read some of the exhibition reviews and put up a couple of posts this April and May on my blog, Giorgione et al... Here is a link to my response to the Hope critique.

    Sorry for the lateness of this comment. You can find my interpretations of the Tempest and others at MyGiorgione.

    Frank DeStefano

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