Monday, 27 October 2014

Moroni, and other exhibitions in London

Picture: Guardian
Giovanni Battista Moroni Royal Academy London to 25 January 2015

A couple of pictures by Moroni are well known and well loved, especially the great Tailor in London's National Gallery (detail above). But he is still one of the less widely known sixteenth century Italian artists, partly because he worked outside the main artistic hubs like Venice and Rome. Vasari never made it that far north, so he was omitted from the classic Lives of the Artists, and his masterpieces are private portraits of middling sorts, craftsmen and minor nobles. He was rediscovered in England in the nineteenth century, where his portraits were enthusiastically and prolifically acquired by the National Gallery. 

This superbly curated exhibition is an excellent overview of his artistic development, and of his artistic strengths and weaknesses. It's one of the most surprising, worthwhile and enjoyable exhibitions I've seen in ages. I'm immensely grateful to the curators and to the RA for standing against the current and putting on such a fine traditional exhibition. It's a straightforward chronological display with excellent wall text that explains his artistic development without talking to us like five year olds. The short catalogue has a full account of his life and critical reception, followed by brief entries for each exhibit. A small gripe is that I'd like to have seen fuller catalogue entries with provenance set out for each picture rather than occasionally mentioned in the narrative. And I always yearn for more information about condition, although for once I thought many of these pictures particularly finely preserved. I wonder if there's anything in Moroni's technique that caused them to survive so well. Nevertheless, a few pictures were somewhat abraded and the exhibition could have explained better the difference in appearance. 

The scale feels just right; enough to give a full view of Moroni's output without wearing us down. There are some terrific masterpieces here and Moroni's best pictures are up there with the stars. But he was not an inventive artist, and I fear a larger show might have been wearying. It's quite astonishing just how similar his pictures are. Some of the earlier portraits have somewhat archaic ledges with inscriptions, which he wisely abandoned. But the later ones still follow a narrow range of types, such as the ladies sitting in Dantesca chairs against a grey background, pictured below. I didn't like these portraits; they seem somehow uncanny to me. The catalogue describes the pose as 'successful', but I can see Eastlake's point when he said the Lucia Albani Avogadro (right) was too 'unpleasant' for the NG, which still bought it later. At first sight I thought the anatomy of the legs was off, but on closer inspection I think it just seems that way because of the shape of the chair. I still find them a bit unnerving, with crisp contours against soft grey background and high vanishing point. 
The more modest bust-length portraits often appealed to me more, like the splendid Lutheran Canon from Rotterdam and Carthusian Friar from Frankfurt. Some of the larger portraits seemed excessively repetitive, like these two men set against almost identical reversed architectural backdrops, which he repeated with variations again and again. 
But in the final room we see the culmination of Moroni's steady development, in a sequence of terrific portraits including the NG's Tailor, the Giovanni Gerolamo Albani (below) from a private collection, which I'd never encountered before, and the Elderly Man Seated with a Book from Bergamo. These strikingly naturalistic portraits against neutral backgrounds seem more powerfully alive than many of the more conventional portraits of the period. I thought the publicity for the exhibition rather de trop, emphasising Moroni as precursor to Caravaggio and Manet rather than appreciating him in his own terms. In this last room I can see what they mean about anticipating the future, although the exhibition is more measured than the PR department. I thought the catalogue put it particularly well when it said, "Moroni's ability to imbue his subjects with [...] a convincing sense of individualism" means that "the portraits seem, nowadays, to be as much psychological depictions as they are representations of reality", speculating that the apparent psychological insight might be as much our projection as Moroni's genius. 
The exhibition includes a selection of Moroni's religious paintings, but he was a forgettable religious artist. It's not that the works are bad, but they're derivative and have none of the thrill of his portraits. The landscape background to the early Gentleman in Contemplation of the Baptism of Christ misunderstands aerial perspective, jumping suddenly in tone. Landscape plays little part in his later work. And the comparison of his Trinity with Lorenzo Lotto's version that he adapted is most unfavourable to Moroni, but it should be remembered that it's a relatively early work. The late portraits are the main event. But there is an unfortunate desire to see exhibitions as an opportunity to rediscover lost masters rather than appreciate artists in their own terms. I came away with a better understanding of Moroni, but not a substantially new understanding. That is in no sense a failing of the show. Moroni was a fine artist who produced a handful of consummate masterpieces, but here we see him warts and all, as it should be. His furs are more anaemic than Titian's, his satins and velvets less spectacular than Veronese's, which are fresh in my mind from the NG's recent exhibition. His religious paintings are so-so and his powers of invention limited. But he left us a sequence of powerful and magnificent portraits that create an unforgettable impression. This exquisite show is a real treat.

The Idle Woman liked it too.

I've signed up as a 'friend' of the Royal Academy because I know I'll want to see both this and the forthcoming Rubens exhibition more than once, and I was interested to see the Kiefer show too. How right the NG was to call its scheme 'membership' rather than 'friendship'. I'm rather repulsed by the cloying marketing. "Welcome. You are now our Friend", says the welcome pack, introducing postcards from the collection with the line "Meet your Friends". Ugh. Thank you Royal Academy, but I really just want to save money on repeat admissions. Much as I admire Copley, I don't presume to call him my 'friend'.

I've also recently visited Late Turner: Painting Set Free (Tate Britain to 25 January) and Constable: The making of a master (V&A to 11 January). I wasn't inspired by either, perhaps because I've been to so very many Turner and Constable exhibitions. I preferred the recent Turner and the Sea at the National Maritime Museum, which had better loans from US collections that I know less well than the Tate's own encyclopaedic Turner collection. The chance to see some of the great late watercolours is worthwhile, especially the splendid Blue Rigi, but otherwise the best things are drawn from Tate Britain's own walls. This show also rekindled my dislike for Turner's Claude-inspired landscapes, which seem to me pale and frivolous reductions of Claude's classic originals. 

The Constable show includes some of the old masters that inspired the man, including some that he copied directly. It's interesting to see two of his Ruisdael copies alongside the originals. Both seem quite faithful, but you can see how much the Philadelphia Ruisdael has deteriorated since Constable copied it. It's one of the John G. Johnson pictures, many of which were harshly cleaned after he left them to Philadelphia. Other juxtapositions fell flat; Constable's immature and feeble nocturne pales before Rubens's. They seemed to be trying hard to say something new about an artist who has been extensively exhibited already. Some nice pictures, but it didn't cohere as an exhibition.

And my Royal Academy friendship got me free entry to Anselm Kiefer, which I was interested to see. I'm cautious about reviewing modern art because so much of it is just alien to my sensitivities, and I realise that blinds me to relative worth. I still thought I might like Kiefer, but I just found it bombastic and pretentious. That might well be more a reflection on me than on him. 

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Frame Appeal

Venetian frame 1
Picture: The Frame Blog
I don't usually write about funding appeals because most receive plenty of publicity without my adding to it, and I know how often we're all asked for money. This one is especially worthy, but too small to catch the attention of the mass media. The National Gallery is seeking £27,000 for an antique frame for a Titian, shown above. You can give via this link, and read more about why it matters on The Frame Blog. It's a relatively small amount of money that will make a really positive difference - more bang for your buck than any other appeal I've seen!

Museums can spend tens of millions on new acquisitions and new buildings, but then struggle to find relatively small sums that make a huge difference to the way we see pictures. The National Gallery has quite rightly paid a lot of attention to framing. Its director has written a short book about frames, and there's an online feature about the reframing of its Leonardo (or mostly his studio) here. The frame they want to buy is a superb work of art in its own right, and it will set off the Titian (& studio) beautifully. 

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.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Battle of Ideas

Battle of Ideas 2014 banner

I've just had a fantastic day of debate at the Battle of Ideas, a conference in London organised by the Institute of Ideas that promotes intelligent debate on a wide range of issues. In the morning I was on a panel discussing connoisseurship with Martin Myrone of Tate Britain, the great Leonardo scholar Martin Kemp and Professor Sarah Wilson of the Courtauld Institute. Thinking about my presentation and discussing with such an esteemed panel has really helped me refine my thinking on the topic, and I'll post my thoughts later in the week.

In the afternoon I went to a debate about children in museums. I have firm views on that topic that were in line with the admirable presentation from Tiffany Jenkins and Ivan Hewett, but I was impressed by Maurice Davies's counter-arguments. I disagree utterly with Maurice Davies, a stalwart of the Museums Association, on almost everything, but I enjoy his forceful and thoughtful arguments. Debates about museums are highly politicised and polarised, which means positions can ossify into slogans unless they're refreshed through debate. Maurice is uncompromising in putting forward views that are quite the opposite of mine and of course quite wrong headed, but he is always interesting and he never stops thinking. When I was introduced he said that he expected me to be about 80 years old, which is the sort of comment only I would find flattering. But I'm aged only in spirit. He is no longer at the Museums Association, but you can find him on Twitter, @mauricewdavies

The Battle of Ideas has cracked the secret of panel debates: provide preliminary readings, give short sharp introductions and then open out the debate. I relish the interaction, not the lengthy statement of position. Just after arriving at university my tutor told me that lectures were socialist, because they involved getting lots of people in a big room and shouting at them. His understanding of socialism is questionable, but I do share the sentiment, and I never went to lectures. They're such an inefficient way of conveying information. I learned in the library and the pub. The point of bringing people together is to have a debate, not a talk from the floor with a few timid questions and answers. And the Battle of Ideas was brimful with stimulating ideas today.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Late Rembrandt: reviews, crowds and reciprocal loans

Picture: Metropolitan Museum of Art
Reviews of the late Rembrandt show have been entertaining, if not always enlightening. "Rembrandt the Rotter" says the Daily Mail, telling us that his personal life was 'a mess'. The Daily Mail is a remarkable newspaper, nasty and vitriolic and without a shred of interest in being correct. It's known for the dominant role of its subeditors, who change things as they please without troubling themselves to check facts. They claim the Portrait of a Man with Arms Akimbo is coming up for auction (it's for sale at Frieze Masters) and repeat all kinds of speculative gossip about Rembrandt as fact. 

The Financial Times is the greatest newspaper in the world, but their review - by Simon Schama no less - is almost as bad. Schama talks about a self portrait in the show on loan from the Met dating two years after the Frick's of 1658. But that portrait, from the Altman bequest (pictured above), isn't in the show. There are other self portraits, including one from the National Gallery in Washington, but none dates from two years after the Frick's. Did Schama actually see the show before writing the review? He describes the layout carefully, almost as if protesting too much. I don't see how anyone who had seen the show could have made the error about the Met's self portrait. 

Schama says the Family from Braunschweig isn't in the exhibition, but it's actually a family portrait that's in the Braunschweig museum, not a portrait of a family from there. And it is in fact in the Amsterdam leg of the exhibition. He says the Claudius Civilis was 'mistakenly' hung at eye level, but there is no way that it could have been hung at the 'right' height in the NG's galleries. And I have actually seen it hung high at a special exhibition in Stockholm, and whilst you get some sense of the impact it would have had, you miss out on seeing Rembrandt's bravura handling of paint. I prefer it this way. And Schama laments the absence of Jeremias de Decker from the Hermitage, oddly describing it as 'the greatest of the late portraits'. That is an extraordinary view of a perfectly good but relatively minor late portrait. The obvious omission is rather Jan Six, the keystone portrait that inaugurates his late style and whose absence is especially noteworthy given that its loan to the exhibition was refused at the eleventh hour.

I've been a few times now. My first visit was late afternoon on Thursday when it was buzzing without being overwhelming. Friday evening's late opening is usually the quietest time, but it was absolutely heaving, as was Saturday morning. It's a radically different experience. You can see the prints and drawings, but the paintings can scarcely be appreciated when you have to shuffle along to see them a patch at a time. I know it's a familiar lament to be made about every blockbuster, but it shouldn't be forgotten. It's all very well the critics enthusing about the show they've seen, but most people get rather a different experience. 
Picture: National Gallery
A final gripe. To secure the loan of Jacob Blessing from Kassel, the NG has lent them Belshazzar's Feast (above). Instead of loans being agreed collegially on the basis of the exhibition's value, they are subject to undignified horse trading. It's bad enough that so many pictures are subject to the stresses and risks of travel for the exhibition itself; the risks are now doubled up with quid pro quo loans. Visitors to the NG who aren't paying through the nose for the overcrowded Rembrandt show not only lose the chance to see the NG's best late Rembrandts, they also miss out on a major earlier work. And Velazquez's Rokeby Venus is out at the same time - another cornerstone work that, with Belshazzar's Feast, ought never to be lent. 

As a minor compensation, the Dutch galleries are now showing a number of pictures usually in store, including some Frans Hals and a number of Rembrandt school works. I really like the Rembrandt gallery where the Trip portraits usually hang; the context of weaker pictures from Rembrandt's school and by his followers is welcome. Although I don't think the Old Man in an Armchair is by Rembrandt, it's a good picture that deserves to be shown more often. Best of all, there's a rediscovered Wtewael on loan, strengthening the relatively weak showing of Northern mannerism at the NG. 

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Rembrandt: The late works

Rembrandt: The late works National Gallery London to 18 January

This is an assemblage of supreme masterpieces, but it somehow doesn't quite cohere as an exhibition. I think the curators deliberately tried to avoid the attribution controversies that have dominated Rembrandt scholarship for decades. I'm particularly interested in those controversies, but I can see why they want to step back and focus on his greatest, undoubted achievements. The paintings here are all securely Rembrandts (although I'm not sure about this drawing). But the problem is that it's so overwhelming. It's ridiculous that 'pilgrimage pictures' that I've traveled hundreds of miles to see are here in merely supporting roles. It means that phenomenal pictures are stuck in corners, and it's just impossible fully to appreciate all that's on show. 
File:Rembrandt lucretia.jpg
One pilgrimage picture is this Lucretia (above). I made a special trip to Minneapolis just to see that painting, and Poussin's Germanicus. It's a wonderful museum with lots else that I enjoyed seeing, but those two were the justification for a special trip, which the Telegraph reviewer thought a secondary painting! That is, to be blunt, a crazy view. But it illustrates the danger of overwhelming the visitor with masterpieces. I was really looking forward to a direct comparison with the Washington version, also in the show, which is another outstanding picture that I've seen many times. The Rembrandt Corpus speculates that the Washington version may be a variant by Aert de Gelder (vol V, p. 269), which I find wildly unlikely. But it's hard to compare them because the exhibition has weirdly hung them as far apart as possible, in the second room and the final room. Such a wasted opportunity! 

It's interesting to see familiar pictures in new surroundings. When I first saw the Washington Lucretia I thought it was bigger than I'd expected. Here it looks just right again, shown against large figure paintings rather than portraits. The impasto is flatter than I'd remembered too, which might also be because the average condition at the Washington National Gallery isn't great (so many ruined when they were scrubbed up for the American art market). The final room where it hangs includes the Kassel Jacob Blessing and the Louvre's Bathsheba. It's literally too much to absorb after seeing so many other great pictures; you just have to leave some for another time. It's not a large exhibition, but the  greatness of the pictures is disproportionately draining (in a good way).

At the last minute the NG announced the loan of The Conspiracy of the Batavians under Claudius Civilis, implausibly implying that it was being negotiated for years but only finally released just before opening. I suspect the real reason is it was as a replacement for the great Portrait of Jan Six, which was withdrawn at the last minute for mysterious reasons. It seems to have played havoc with the display. The Claudius Civilis is well presented in the second room, but the room of portraits is now dreadfully crowded and badly displayed. Four portraits are crammed cheek-by-jowel along one wall, with another hung awkwardly between the door and the corner of the adjacent wall, its image reflected on the glass of Catrina Hooghsaet. The Trip/Geer portraits from the NG are on another wall, but they look much better in their usual location upstairs in daylight and with space around them.

You really need space to walk around Rembrandt portraits. You can see why most clearly with the Syndics of the Drapers' Guild (top). It's meant to be seen from below, which corrects for the immense hanging tablecloth that's so spectacularly painted. But it's also meant to be read from either side. Try standing first to the left, and then to the right. In each position it looks like you're standing exactly where it's meant to be seen, with the figures oriented towards you and looking at you. It's a terrific illusionistic feat. The Trip/Geer portraits create the same effect, although it's harder to appreciate in this cramped room. And you get it in the Washington Self Portrait, but not in all of his portraits. In the case of the Syndics I'm sure he carefully considered exactly how it would be seen, but wonder how much he was thinking about the precise position that his other pictures would be hung, or if he just enjoyed experimenting with different effects. It's a shame that you can't appreciate it properly in the densely hung room of the exhibition.

The artificial light in the Sainsbury Wing basement is never satisfactory, but it's effects are sometimes overstated. Seeing pictures you know well in a different light is also revealing, though I'd always prefer daylight where possible. However, a few pictures in this show suffer especially from bad lighting. The Washington Self Portrait - one of his very greatest - is affected by excessive glare that makes the impasto seem too prominent, the most pronounced example of a common problem with pictures that have high impasto. It ought to be possible to soften the effect by adjusting its spotlight. And the big equestrian portrait is hard to see against the glare of a spotlight in a space that's too tight. 

The catalogue is a collection of essays that aren't especially novel, without individual entries for exhibits. The checklist at the back is hard to use, and it's hard to tell immediately which illustrations are actually in the show. We're constantly being told how long it takes to organise an exhibition like this (this one was over five years or nearly a decade, depending on the telling). It ought to have been time to write something amazing. Other museums manage it. The Met, the Prado and the Städel have all produced exemplary catalogues recently. But the NG's succession of flimsy and unsatisfactory exhibition catalogues is in stark contrast to the standards of excellence set both by its peers and by its own series of catalogues of their permanent collection. Many NG curators are esteemed scholars with excellent records of research and publication, but they seem to feel a need to dumb down for their own exhibitions.
Picture: National Gallery
An example of the problem is the discussion of the Portrait of Frederik Rihel on Horseback (above), the NG's own equestrian portrait that's been undergoing conservation for years. It's long been considered at least in large part a studio production. Josua Bruyn, former head of the Rembrandt Research Project, even identified the hand of the 'Master of the Rihel Horse', a putative studio hand. It is now listed in the catalogue as wholly Rembrandt, with just a few offhand remarks about attribution ("Although the painting of the horse has on occasion been dismissed as the work of another hand, the sketchiness of the form may be Rembrandt's deliberate attempt to divert attention to Rihel's face and splendid costume", p. 124). Bruyn's extreme parsimony in Rembrandt connoisseurship has been widely rejected, but to dismiss well founded and well argued claims as 'dismissal' and not even refer to his article in a footnote is too glib.

To rub the point in the breathtakingly brilliant The Return of the Prodigal Son in the Hermitage is illustrated in the catalogue as Rembrandt and Workshop. It's a very large picture that almost certainly did involve some degree of workshop participation, but it's still conventionally listed as simply Rembrandt. By implication (but only by implication) the NG is trying to assert a very special autograph status for its large Rihel portrait. I understand that they don't want this to be yet another exhibition about attribution controversies, but it seems like they want to have their cake and eat it, by avoiding the controversy but still advancing controversial new assertions about attribution. Their views gain attention and credibility by association with a major exhibition, but that doesn't excuse the responsibility to establish new and controversial claims.

There are many supreme masterpieces in this show, and I can see why the critics have gushed with praise. But critical engagement with an exhibition requires more than enthusing over the genius of an artist who is universally recognised as one of the very greatest. Elements of the display and cataloguing don't serve the artist well.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Reviewing Late Rembrandt

Picture: Guardian
"Rembrandt is so high in the ranking of great artists that our amassed reverence has sunk like syrup into the brown and gold surface of his paintings", begins Jonathan Jones's review of the National Gallery's Late Rembrandt show. It's one of the worst lines I've read in an exhibition review, but I sympathise with Jones's plight. Rembrandt is an artist who packs a real emotional punch that's rare in the visual arts. Seeing his late masterpieces in Kassel and Braunschweig (Brunswick, but sounds so much better in German) were memorably emotional moments for me. The problem that Jones unwittingly illustrates is that it's so hard to convey that power credibly, without sounding a bit ridiculous.

There are other artists I admire enormously who don't have anything like the same emotional appeal. I feel the difference, but I struggle to articulate it. Maybe it needs a poet rather than an art historian. I tend to fall back on more neutral descriptive tropes that seem inadequate to Rembrandt's genius. Maybe I should stop fearing my own absurdity and reach for the syrup. 

Apropos of poetry and art history, I recently read a wonderful book of poems based on pictures at the National Gallery written by a poet who is also an art historian. I don't read much poetry, but I enjoyed Lynn Roberts's A Brush with Poetry immensely. Perhaps she will be able to do a better job of conveying Rembrandt's magic.

Rembrandt takes a giant leap backwards

Picture: National Gallery of Art
This is a weak picture that crudely imitates Rembrandt's late style. But in the early twentieth century it was one of the celebrated Rembrandts in the collection of Rodolphe Kann, who was a sensitive connoisseur with a sensational collection. It was sold by Duveen to the Widener Collection, and was exhibited by the National Gallery in Washington as a Rembrandt until at least the 1960s. What did they see in it? It's an odd failure of connoisseurship. People whose sense of quality was normally acute lost their critical faculties when confronted with any dark, broadly painted Dutch portrait. 

More recent connoisseurs have pruned the canon, restoring Rembrandt's oeuvre to a smaller and more consistent core. Rembrandt's style evolved and he had talented students and followers imitating his work closely, so there is unlikely ever to be consensus. Works at the edges will continue to be debated, and views will likely shift to and fro. But the radical pruning was necessary and brave. It was necessary because our appreciation of Rembrandt's genius was blunted by the admission of so many bad pictures to his oeuvre. And it was brave because new attributions are much more popular than de-attributions. No one likes to be told that the picture they've loved as a Rembrandt isn't any such thing. And reputations are made with new discoveries, not by righting others' mistakes. There is a connoisseurial bias towards big name attribution that takes courage to resist. 

The process of redefining Rembrandt was of course contested. The work of the Rembrandt Research Project has been especially controversial, and I doubt anyone would now defend their initial approach, which downgraded some unquestionably excellent and authentic pictures. I'll return to the RRP when I review the imminently forthcoming final volume of their Rembrandt Corpus in a future post, but there were plenty of other connoisseurs re-defining Rembrandt at the same time. The famous Man with a Golden Helmet was downgraded to Rembrandt school by the museum that owned it, and plenty of other scholars were undermining traditional optimistic attributions. But the pendulum seems to be swinging again. The final version of the Rembrandt Corpus under the leadership of Ernst van der Wetering adds dozens of new Rembrandts (or rather gives them back to Rembrandt), many of which will continue to be contested. 

I'm excited by the debate (I'm geeky like that). I think the arguments have been fascinating and productive, even if the conclusions are necessarily open-ended. I love the Rembrandt Corpus, despite sharing the consensus view that many of its early conclusions were bonkers. And I think the slimmed-down version of Rembrandt's oeuvre is more plausible than the earlier bloated catalogues of variable pictures. Connoisseurship is an ongoing process of re-assessment, not a magical insight into who painted what. Our sense of quality changes, as well as our sense of authorship. Pictures now seen as bad were once valued as masterpieces. The process of re-defining Rembrandt has been productive and I think we now have a clearer view of the master. But it's not a final view, and I look forward to the debate over van der Wetering's re-attributions.

My views on this are almost exactly the opposite of those recently expressed by Bendor Grosvenor in the FT and on his blog. I disagree with him on specific attributions, but I disagree more fundamentally on his reasoning. He starts by turning history on its head. Where most think that Rembrandt scholarship went awry when early twentieth century connoisseurs started attributing every dark Dutch daub to Rembrandt, he thinks the revisionists were the ones at fault, needlessly questioning authentic pictures. But a glance at some of those old catalogues shows that too much was accepted too readily. The RRP undoubtedly went to far in its scepticism, but it was going in the right direction.  

The worst argument Bendor makes is that Van Dyck painted more pictures in a shorter life than are attributed to Rembrandt, implying that there must be more Rembrandts out there. We have no idea how much time Rembrandt spent goofing off, wandering the countryside with his sketchbooks, or hanky-panky with the maid. We don't know how much he procrastinated, or how much time he spent teaching, or even how many pictures have been lost. And above all we have to judge how much of the master must be present before a studio picture can be called autograph - how much do those same-y English Van Dyck portraits have to be by the man himself for them to be called Van Dyck? Two connoisseurs could agree about the division of labour but still disagree about the label ('Van Dyck' or 'Van Dyck and studio' or 'studio'?). This kind of reasoning is no basis at all for expanding an artist's corpus. And it is question begging; what about the tiny oeuvre of some of Rembrandt's pupils? It's as much an argument for expanding their oeuvre as it is for expanding Rembrandt's. Of course he could have painted more, but we can only establish what he painted by examining pictures, not by speculating about how productive he might have been. 
Image of Rembrandt takes a giant leap
Picture: Metropolitan Museum of Art
A specific picture that Bendor thinks is by Rembrandt is the so-called Auctioneer in the Met (above). He is wrong to say that it was downgraded simply because of x-rays. It was downgraded because of visual weaknesses that are not solely the result of its poor condition and are quite evident without x-rays. The Met's own catalogue notes that the x-ray discoveries 'merely underscore what is obvious from an examination of the painting's surface, namely that the work is an impressive but superficial adaptation of Rembrandt's mature style" (Liedtke Dutch Paintings p. 762). The Art and Autoradiography catalogue that disputed its attribution to Rembrandt in 1982 itself went beyond analysis of the x-rays, noting features of brushstrokes and use of paletteknife that create technical effects rather than define form. Met curator Walter Liedtke elsewhere describes it as "facile in conception as well as technique":
"The young man's sleeve and cuff, for example, are painterly passages brushed out with little thought for texture, modelling, anatomy (where is the elbow?), or for the complexities of light, and this approach corresponds with that found in other areas: the flat effect of hair framing the face, with an opaque stroke below the hat , and the face abruptly divided into light and dark, all of which, if compared with the Aristotle, looks like a schematic reproduction (like a photocopy), a simplification of a Rembrandt idea." (Walter Liedtke 'Some Paintings not by Rembrandt in the Metropolitan Museum' in Görel Cavalli-Björkman (ed) Rembrandt and His Pupils Nationalmuseum Stockholm 1993, p. 124)
I agree. 

On Art History News Bendor rather cheekily criticises the NG and Met for not changing their attributions on the basis of Wetering's judgment, suggesting they believe that "they know more about Rembrandt than van der Wetering". Museums employ curators to make informed judgments about presentation, including attribution, based on scholarly assessments but not deferring mindlessly to the biggest celebrity expert on a given artist. It should not be suggested that their decision to take a different view is a slight on the reputation of van der Wetering. The National Gallery of Art in Washington even decided to go against some of the views expressed by the (very eminent) scholar who wrote the catalogue of their collection of fifteenth century Italian paintings. For what it's worth, I think the Met and NG are right and van der Wetering is wrong in the cases that Bendor cites. But my bigger objection is to the presumption of deference to authority. Bendor starts with a bias towards expanding the corpus, then implies that we should defer to an expert who is expanding the corpus. The reasoning is spurious, and the consequence militates against healthy debate. 

Of course the pictures are the main thing. Does it matter if Rembrandt painted the Man with a Golden Helmet? Yes, I think it does. We want to know something of the creative mind behind the picture, and we want to understand Rembrandt through the pictures he actually painted. But attribution isn't everything. It's a wonderful picture, whoever it's by. The point I'd like to argue most forcefully is that we should be more tolerant of uncertainty. We should of course be respectful of expertise; van der Wetering's view is worth more than mine. But as an amateur Rembrandt enthusiast I have my own view of the man, and I've made my own judgments about many of the controversial attributions. I'll happily argue the toss without expecting to be taken seriously. Thinking about Rembrandt attributions focuses my thoughts around quality and technique and shapes my view of the man. It's just not the case that half a century of idiots have lost sight of the true Rembrandt, and by deferring to van der Wetering and Bendor Grosvenor we'll get him back. It's an ongoing dialogue. Bendor taking the opposite view from me on certain attributions is all part of a welcome debate. But to my mind his comments about attributions at the NG and the Met give too much weight to the authority of a single expert, whereas we should rather welcome informed dissent. In my view it is a brave and wise decision to leave these pictures unattributed rather than display them under a famous name.

13/10: Bendor Grosvenor responds:
Not for the first time, you have misinterpreted what I have said. I don't know why. Perhaps its necessary in order to justify a 'Grumpy' approach. Which is a shame, as it often gets in the way of the more acute and well put observations you make. But in this case you were – if you’ll forgive the mixed metaphors – both tilting at windmills and shooting the messenger. That said, I’m glad you've amended your earlier version of this post.

As to the remaining points, unfortunately you infer far too much of what I might believe from an article in the Financial Times which, by necessity, is word limited, and which is directed at a more general audience. In fact, if you listen to the podcast of the same piece, which is not subjected to a sub-editor's scissors, you will note that I do not, as you say, "turn history on its head" when it comes to the number of genuine Rembrandts that might exist. I make it clear that there were many dud Rembrandts in the 600 or so catalogued by the likes of Bredius et al, and that much weeding out had to be done. My point that the revisionism had, by the early '90s, gone too far in the opposite direction is now a pretty widely held view. So actually you and I agree on this. 

You further misinterpret me by devoting a whole paragraph to my single line comparison, meant only to convey to the general reader an idea of how productive or not 17th Century artists were, on Van Dyck's output. Only a fool would think that one can establish attribution by any other method than, 'examining pictures', as you put it. Surely you know that I would not suggest any other method, not least because I have something of a track record of proving authorship by ‘examining pictures'.

On the ‘Auctioneer' and 'Man with a Golden Helmet', it is the case that X-ray evidence was a significant, and probably major factor in their downgrading. You cite criticisms of the picture made some time after the period I was discussing. As to the specifics, what you see as visual weaknesses in the ‘Auctioneer' strike other viewers, such as Ernst van de Wetering, and for what it’s worth myself, as lively and impressive passages. So there we must agree to disagree. As to other criticisms of the picture (the visual impact of which, despite what you might say, really is affected quite significantly by its condition), these seem to me to focus too much on searching for weaknesses in small areas, rather than an appreciation of the whole. 'Where is the elbow', Walter Liedtke asks? Evidently, under the baggy cloak.

Yes, on AHN, I do 'rather cheekily' criticise the Met and the National Gallery for not changing their attributions. It seems odd to me that van de Wetering's view is good enough for many museums and national institutions (just earlier this year for the National Trust, for example) but not for the Met or the NG. Not even to upgrade to ‘Attributed to’, or ‘Possibly By’, or ‘It has been suggested’. No, they remain firm on ‘Follower of’. In fact, for almost every other artist, museums do indeed defer to the view of whoever happens to be the pre-eminent scholar of the day, especially if they are writing a catalogue raisonné on the scale of the 'Corpus'. But not it seems for Rembrandt. 

And that is my broader point of course - that Rembrandt scholarship/connoisseurship has become so bafflingly disputed that nobody is really sure what a Rembrandt looks like any more. You say you object to this 'deference to authority' - but take your statement to its logical conclusion, and it means that you object to any sense of expertise at all. It is not 'spurious reasoning' to believe that a highly regarded individual who has spent literally decades studying the work of one artist, Rembrandt, more closely than anyone ever before, might know more about that artist than generalist curators, no matter how talented and scholarly those curators are (which I do not doubt) and to, on balance, seek to trust the opinion of that individual, in this case Ernst van de Wetering, more on what is and is not a Rembrandt. 

You say that it 'does matter' if Rembrandt painted a certain work, but go on to say that 'attribution isn't everything'. Perhaps this is where you and I disagree the most. I think knowing who painted what is the first essential building block of all art history. I also think it is possible to try and establish authorship in the majority of cases. So where you say we should be 'more tolerant of uncertainty', I say no, let's not, because in a way that represents giving up. I believe we should always try and find out who painted what, first because we can, and second because when the average gallery visitor goes to admire a painting, they like to look at the label and know the basics; subject matter, artist, date. Everything else follows from that basic information. I say that the first responsibility of a gallery is to try and provide visitors with these answers. 

Finally, let me tell you what really ‘militates against healthy debate’ in these matters. It is not, as you say, me writing a post on Art History News, or swinging a lamp on the history of Rembrandt connoisseurship for the benefit of Financial Times readers, or for that matter introducing many of my readers to your website. Rather it is, to pick two very recent examples which, for the sake of discretion I cannot be more specific about (but which you can surely recognise), one major international art gallery not letting me film in front of a painting because they don’t want to discuss its attribution publicly, and another major international art gallery attempting to prevent me from illustrating a piece with one of their paintings, because they disagreed with what I and others had to say about the attribution. You say such institutions are being ‘brave’ to leave pictures unattributed. I say they are refusing to engage with wider scholarship, to say nothing of protecting their own reputations.