The Samson and Delilah ink sketch – cutting Rubens to the quick
Today, in a sale of old master drawings (and on an estimate of £1.5m -£2.5m), Christie’s is offering large claims for the artistic and historical significance of a small (roughly 16cms square and shown here at Fig. 1) pen and brown ink drawing:
“This is the only known preparatory drawing for Rubens’s Samson and Delilah in the National Gallery, London (inv. NG 6461), and it was followed by a modello oil sketch now in the Cincinnati Art Museum (inv. 1972.459). Commissioned by Nicolaas Rockox (1560-1640), who was Rubens’s most important early patron, this powerful composition dates from shortly after the artist’s return to Antwerp from Italy, where he had been from 1600 until 1608, and provides a valuable insight into his developing style and preparatory processes.”
This account is conventional but, nonetheless, contentious. No hint is given that the relationships between these three linked works are highly problematic or that all three have suffered cuts or thinning. The authorship of this group has been contested for over two decades. On February 19 2004 the Daily Telegraph published a letter from ArtWatch on the painting’s problems (“Is the National Gallery’s Samson and Delilah another copy?) We have published two special issues of the Artwatch UK Journal mounting challenges (Figs. 2 and 3) and have written a number of articles on the subject for the Art Review. The principal challenges to the attribution came from two artist/scholars, initially, Euphrosyne Doxiadis, whose findings (made with fellow artist Steven Harvey and Siân Hopkinson) were compiled in a report (see this website) that was submitted to the National Gallery in 1992 and later covered in the Times and the Independent. In 1997 researches by Kasia Pisarek, prompted two articles by the Sunday Times’ art critic, Waldemar Januszczak (“A Rubens or a costly copy?” and “National’s £40m Rubens could be fake”). In the latter article, the then director of the National Gallery, Neil MacGregor, conceded that the evidence “is respectable, and the scholar raises some serious questions that I cannot easily answer”. Those questions have never been answered. In October 1997 the National Gallery issued a press release in which it was said that:
“Debates of this sort require patient consideration of different sorts of evidence. The best format is for this evidence to be presented at some length for public discussion – and the National Gallery will be arranging such a lecture and debate over the next few months.”
A debate that has yet to take place
Within a few days the commitment was dropped when the press release was re-issued and the debate never took place. To this day there remains an enormous accumulation of problems with the National Gallery’s “Rubens” Samson and Delilah and, therefore, with its two closely associated works – the ink drawing and the oil sketch. All three works, which are dated to 1609-10, have unusual and anomalous features – and all appeared only in the 20th century. The modello arrived last without name or history in 1966 and was upgraded by Christie’s to Rubens even though it is painted on a soft wood and not the oak which Rubens invariably used.
Ludwig Burchard’s cunning plan?
Behind the successful 20th century elevation of this trio, is the fact that both the drawing and the large finished painting in the National Gallery were attributed to Rubens barely two years apart by the same man, Ludwig Burchard. Burchard was a great authority on Rubens who, notoriously, was unable to publish his life-long Great Work on the Artist for fear of having to de-attribute very many paintings for which he had supplied unwarranted certificates of authenticity. In the ArtWatch UK Journal No. 21(Spring 2006) Kasia Pisarek, whose PhD Dissertation was on Rubens and Connoisseurship, identified over sixty Burchard Rubens attributions that had subsequently been demoted in the Corpus Rubenianum itself.
Dr Pisarek felt that the year of launch for the picture now in the National Gallery might be signicant. As she put it:
“That year 1929 was not free of strange coincidences. By a bizarre stroke of luck, the painting re-emerged 48 years after its disposal by the Prince of Liechtenstein in Paris in 1881 (not 1880, as is commonly said), the exact same year as the deaths of the Prince Johannes II, the previous owner of the painting, and of his picture adviser Wilhelm von Bode, the then General Director of the Berlin Museums. The former died in February 1929, the latter a month later, in March.
Moreover, we know that the Prince himself had weeded out a considerable number of pictures, Samson and Delilah included. He also financed many research projects, and the collection was accessible to scholars. The art historian Wilhelm von Bode published (in 1896) the first comprehensive and illustrated book on the Liechtenstein collection, so he could have been aware of the Samson and Delilah’s disposal. Why didn’t he identify the picture as the long lost Rubens if he was also a Rubens expert and had even co-signed certificates of authenticity with Ludwig Burchard?
In 1927 the drawing was bought from a private collector by a scholar of drawings and prints, I.Q. van Regteren Altena, for 26 guilders as a Van Dyck (whose initials it still bears). It was promptly upgraded to Rubens by Burchard, who then cited it as such in his 1930 certificate of authenticity for the Honthorst on offer by a Berlin dealer that is now in the National Gallery as an entirely autograph Rubens.
A precursor or a successor – or both?
It is claimed that Rubens’ characteristic stylistic development through stages of work is evident in the three works’ sequence, when the essential motif remains remarkably constant throughout. In fact, the modello (see Figs. 5 and 7) is so like the finished work that one supporter of the attribution, the former senior curator of the National Gallery, David Jaffe, has suggested that this oil sketch might be a ricordo – a record of the finished painting[!] However, if the presently accepted 1, 2 and 3 sequence of drawing, oil sketch, finished painting were to become 1, 3 and 2, it would make nonsense of the National Gallery’s technical reports which stated that the finished picture’s uncharacteristic thin, swift and little-revised paint work – paint work which today remains preternaturally fresh and unblemished (see Figs. 10 and 11) – was a product of the fact that Rubens had made such an unusually complete and resolved oil sketch that he had been able to paint the larger panel (which, the gallery claims, itself resembles a large sketch) out of his head and at a stroke and without any need for his customary revisions. Then again, the ricordo suggestion constitutes, perhaps, a kind of insurance policy, a way of covering against the possible outcomes of an eventual debate and presentation of evidence? If so, the sequence 1, 2, 3 and 2 again, would make a kind of institutional sense? This might indeed constitute a veritable “belt and braces” insurance: given that the gallery has admitted that its large finished panel is so very swift and sure-footed in its execution (or uncharacteristically sloppy and out-of-character to its critics), that it is itself but an over-blown sketch, the formulation 1, 2/4, 3/2 and 2 might serve perfectly to cover all eventualities.
The evidence of our eyes
The Samson and Delilah ink sketch, as a drawing, lacks the customary force, focus and eloquence of design seen in Rubens’ initial compositional ideas (- see Figs. 8b, 9a and 16). This supposed preliminary study has a curiously finished, pictorial air. Iconographically it has a pronounced “portmanteau” quality, showing, for example, Delilah’s draped right leg as seen in the secure Rubens oil sketch of 1609-10, The Taking of Samson in Chicago, while her draped left leg is as seen in the insecure National Gallery picture. Most disturbingly (to this draughtsman, at least) is that fact that when looking at the drawing in the flesh it is impossible to read an order or purpose to which its many and various components might have been made or to locate the essential, determining compositional and figural point at which Rubens always and brilliantly drove (see Figs. 8b and 16).
A ruled ink border surrounds and compositionally confines the ink and wash drawing (Fig. 1). When seen in reproduction, this border gives an impression that Rubens designed a format from the outset precisely in order to achieve an effect that is the single most problematic feature of the finished painting – the fact that the toes on Samson’s right foot were cropped at the edge of the painting. The border, like the drawing, is drawn in brown ink but clearly, as Christie’s describes, it can be seen by eye to comprise later framing lines. However, while this usage is seen to be common in the collection where the drawing has lived since 1927 – and while the border lines themselves can be seen to pass over a number of tiny losses on the edges of the sheet – the particular placement of the border is disquieting because the sheet on which the drawing was made has been trimmed at either the outside edges of the border or even within the border lines themselves. Why and when was this done? While some of the ink lines of the drawing can be seen by eye to run into the ruled borders, we cannot calculate where they might have terminated because of the severity of the sheet’s cropping. For whatever reason, this is now an artificially constrained and possibly edited image.
Flouting historical evidence
While the toes on Samson’s right foot are cropped at the edge of the National Gallery painting (Fig. 12), both of the contemporary copies that were made of the original Rubens painting show the foot, as painted by Rubens, to have been both whole and set well within the right-hand edge of the painting (see Figs. 4, 5 and 6). It is hard to see on what grounds this testimony might be disregarded: the first copy, an engraving (see Fig. 14), was made in c 1613 and very possibly under Rubens’ instruction. The second was a painting in oil commissioned by Rockox to show off his collection of paintings in the grand salon of his home (see Figs. 6 and 13). Is it conceivable that he – and Rubens, who was still alive – would have permitted a man famous for the accuracy of his records, to make a gratuitous, out-of-character “improvement” to the Rubens painting that occupied pride of place above the mantelpiece? Because of the inked box and the trimmed sheet it is not possible to determine whether the drawing’s author might originally have drawn the foot whole.
The panel support of the modello, as reproduced in the catalogue (see Fig. 7), is seen to have been cropped on its vertical edges since being sold to the Cincinnati Art Museum by the removal of two strips of wood, thereby conferring a clear crop onto Samson’s foot and bringing it into accord with the foot seen in both the National Gallery picture and the ink drawing. At one point the Cincinnati Museum claimed that the oil sketch’s panel was made of oak. When the picture was loaned to the National Gallery we asked if the panel was oak or softwood. It was not possible to say, we were told, because the back of the frame was enclosed and the gallery was not permitted to remove it. The museum today ducks the issue by saying that its painting is “on panel”.
The National Gallery’s picture was doctored at some undisclosed point by planing rather than cutting. The gallery restored the picture after purchasing it and reported that the panel had been planed down to a thickness of 2-3mm and set into a sheet of block-board. We knew for technical reasons that that was most unlikely: block-board is held together by its outer veneer layers and cutting one of them away would have had catastrophic structural consequences. When pressed, the gallery acknowledged that the planed-down panel had in fact been glued onto, and not set into, a larger sheet of block-board, with its edges being concealed by a bevelled putty. The restorer, David Bomford (now of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston), said in his report, that the planing had taken place at some point in the early twentieth, or possibly during the late 19th century. That, too struck us as improbable: could there be no record of the back of a panel bought for a world record price (£2.5m) for a Rubens? Had the gallery not made a record of condition when the picture was loaned to it before the sale at Christie’s? We asked Neil MacGregor, if the gallery had any record of the back – and he said not. We asked if we might see picture’s conservation dossiers and there found Burchard’s 1930 certificate of authenticity, which described the panel as being intact and in excellent health.
At Christie’s we asked, and were kindly permitted, to examine the back of the drawing which is said to bear other drawings. A little (unintelligible) drawing is present but most of the surface bears the remains of a second sheet of paper to which the ink sketch had once been pasted. Effectively, the drawing’s verso is invisible – just as is the back of the National Gallery’s picture, any evidence on which has ceased to exist.
As for the contention – made against the evidence of the contemporary copies – that Rubens deliberately cropped Samson’s toes at every stage of the work, we know that he was very attentive to his toes. When drawing one of Michelangelo’s ignudi in the Sistine Chapel, he ran out of room on the paper for the toes on one of the feet and then drew them separately elsewhere on the sheet. On his return from Italy, and virtually simultaneously with working on the Samson and Delilah, Rubens made the magnificent Michelangelesque study of a nude man kneeling shown at Fig. 17. On that sheet, the right foot was truncated by the edge of the paper and, again, Rubens redrew the whole lower leg so as to include the foot and toes.
What kind of artist was Rubens?
The National Gallery has admitted that its painting is not typical of Rubens’s oeuvre, which fact it attempts to explain by claiming that immediately after his return to Antwerp from a long stay in Italy, Rubens was working “experimentally”. Unfortunately, it so happens that at the date of the Samson and Delilah’s execution, Rubens was also working on the very large altarpiece The Raising of the Cross (see Fig. 10). No one has ever suggested that that great work occupied a position in some experimental mode. To the bizarre and unsupported suggestion that Rubens, on his return from Italy, simultaneously worked experimentally and not-experimentally within the same brief period, Christie’s lend support with a contention that:
“The exact date of Samson and Delilah is unclear, partly because Rubens experimented with two very different approaches to the same subject in these post-Italian years.”
The truth is that attempts to keep this Burchard-initiated show on the road require that everything today be considered part of a moveable feast. It is neither a satisfactory situation nor a tenable position. Attribution is a difficult and taxing activity at the best of times and there is no shame in admitting error – and least of all with Rubens. As we put it in the 2006 Spring Journal:
“The upgrading of copies or studio works to autograph status frequently flouts the most elementary visual and methodological safeguards. Identification of the autograph hand of a master requires a ‘good eye’, sound method, and a recognition that comparisons are of the essence, that like should be compared with like. Procedural fastidiousness and visual acuity are nowhere more essential than with Rubens, who not only ran a large studio of highly talented assistant/followers but who famously placed a very high premium on studio works that had been modified or finished off by his own hand. When wishing to claim unreserved autograph status for a ‘Rubens’, it would seem imperative that some plausible connection between the aspirant and an unquestionably secure work be established. With the National Gallery’s Samson and Delilah, exemption is claimed on grounds that this work was special product of a peculiar moment in the artist’s career. Unfortunately for the attribution – and the picture’s supporters – this special ‘moment’ coincides precisely with a work of bedrock security – The Raising of the Cross of 1609-1610.
An artist’s designs and motifs are easily replicated – and with Rubens, were often intended to be so ‘in house’. Pronounced similarities of subject matter or motif, therefore, are no guarantors of authenticity.
What is most distinctive to a master and impossible to replicate – even by close associates within his own studio – is what is termed his touch, his individual, characteristic manner and speed of execution. Artistic mastery lies in some particular combination of technical fluency and commanding thought. The quality of an artist’s thoughts and his authorial ‘fingerprints’ are certainly made manifest in and through material – it cannot be otherwise – but only in material as handled, not in terms of its intrinsic, chemically analysable composition. A flat-footed analysis of the material components of pictures can no more corroborate authorship than they can validate a restoration. There are no material tests for authenticity…”
16.00, 10-07-14. The editor of Jackdaw, David Lee, writes to point out that, R W P de Vries, the person who sold the Samson and Delilah ink sketch produces this note, when Googled:
“Reinier Willem Petrus de Vries Jr. (Amsterdam , March 3, 1874 – Hilversum , 27 May 1953 ) was a Dutch artist. He was a painter , illustrator , book cover designer , and made ??etchings and woodcuts .
He was a student at the State Normal School in Amsterdam, obtained his MO drawing. From 1913 to 1935 he was a teacher at a secondary school in Hilversum.”
The Jackdaw’s distinguished editor reflects: “An artist and secondary school teacher who flogs drawings. Not exactly what you’d expect…” No, indeed, but precisely the kind of thing about which we have learned not to expect to be given information.
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Ghosts in the Lecture Room: Connoisseurship and the Making, Appraising, Replicating and Undoing of Art’s Images
On the 3rd of May, the Mellon Centre hosted a lively conference on the divisive subject of art connoisseurship – “The Educated Eye?”, now available on Webinar (http://new.livestream.com/accounts/7709097/connoisseurshipnow). Yesterday, a three-day congress opened at the Hague on “Authentication in Art” (7-9 May) carrying the subtitle “What happens when the painting you are buying, selling, investigating, exhibiting, insuring – Turns Out to be a Fake or a (Re)Discovery…” A small ground-breaking exhibition with bearing on the two conferences (“Diverse Maniere: Piranesi, Fantasy and Excess” – see below and Figs. 1 and 2) is running at the Soane Museum until May 31st.
Curating the Future
The question mark in the Mellon Centre’s conference title, reflects persisting antipathies to connoisseurship, which practice/discipline/pose nonetheless shows signs of rehabilitation. The conference proved admirably even-handed “ideologically” but somewhat constricted in its composition and terms of engagement.
The first speaker, Dr Stephen Deuchar, a former director of Tate Britain who has followed a former chairman of the Tate’s board (David Verey) into the Art Fund’s management, might be taken to represent the official modernist/progressivist museum world establishment. In his paper, “Connoisseurship Now: Some Thoughts”, Dr Deuchar disclosed that the Art Fund no longer confines itself to helping museums buy great works of art that might otherwise be lost to the nation, and now, for example, has contributed “generously” towards something involving the conceptualist Martin Creed (who turns lights on and off), even though no object will be acquired. Gifting this munificence to the Tate required Deuchar (and, perhaps, his chairman?) to step aside from the trustees’ deliberations.
There were two problems with Deuchar’s position. First, in espousing a Connoisseurship of The New-and-the-Forthcoming, the curator effectively operates blind in bandit territory. As the National Gallery’s director, Nicholas Penny, has pointed out, it takes time to evaluate new art, we cannot yet know how it will compare with other art that will shortly follow, or with other yet-to-be-seen contemporary art. Second, his position is old hat and inadvisable: in the 1960s and the 1970s critics championed contemporary art not on quality but on the degree to which it “challenged” existing art practices. So-called “New Activities” were heavily promoted by such critics and curators as Richard Cork and Sir Nicholas Serota of the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, the Whitechapel Gallery and, for the last twenty-six years, the Tate. With the dismantling of quality as the principal criterion of judgement, and with the aid of the state-funded, respectability-conferring Arts Council, new activities soon became official activities, leaving most fine art practices and practitioners marginalised. Few noticed that “fine art” had cut itself off from related design and craft activities, and from its own history, to become a cosseted licensed playground where rules were the property of “artists” who played by no rules.
Culturally determinist Marxist art historians (like John Berger and, for a while, Peter Fuller), had gone further; had become more mystical and taken to praising art that they judged to have “anticipated the future”. Insofar as art might ever be said to do such a thing, it could only be seen to have done so in retrospect. When asked to comment on the significance of the French Revolution, the connoisseur of history, Mao Tse Tung, replied, “It’s too soon to say”.
The New Art History
The Mellon conference pitted (trade) chalk against (museum) cheese with Dr Bendor Grosvenor of the Philip Mould gallery and Dr Martin Myrone, a Tate curator and champion of the New Art History which pursues the socially signifcant in favour of the aesthetically desirable (“The Limit of Connoisseurship”). In the course of his conceptually suave paper, “Why Connoisseurship Matters”, Dr Grosvenor made two startling disclosures. First, having just seen Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, he now appreciates that the critics he had held to be “myopic” – were right all along: Michelangelo’s work has indeed been ruined. Second, that he stands behind restorers to prevent them from destroying glazes on Van Dyck paintings. (See Figs. 12a to 15.)
Dr Myrone declared allegiance to the New Art History where the social has routed the aesthetic. The resulting knock-about reminded this observer of days on the New Left in the late 1960s when Kim Howells, a rebellious Hornsey College of Art student (but later a New Labour government junior minister), wanted all potentially saleable object-based art to be outlawed – unlike the “democratising” mass medium of TV in which he was dabbling. When we asked Howells how he regarded Goya’s Horrors of War etchings, he replied that, although in sympathy with the works’ politics, the fact that they were printed on paper, “which is a capitalist commodity”, meant that they, too, would have to go. Dr Howells later grew up artistically and, as a visiting minister to the Tate, left a rude comment on a Turner Prize exhibition. Soon after, he lost his place in government.
Parts and Wholes
The afternoon session paired Spike Bucklow, the Hamilton Kerr Institute’s Senior Research Scientist (“Connoisseurship, technical knowledge and conservation”), and the British Museum’s head of prints and drawings, Hugo Chapman (“Dodging the label connoisseur from Christie’s to the British Museum”). Mr Chapman told how, when working in trade (Christie’s), he had been advised to describe himself as “an expert” rather than a connoisseur. It seems that the public can more easily forgive mistakes made by the former. Chapman told a story about a librarian who once hid a key drawing from an artist’s box when showing it to a scholar, and then, when duly reviewing the scholar’s book, professed himself astonished that no mention had been made of the said drawing.
The Hamilton Kerr conservator opted to address small things because “fragments are easier than wholes”, while the embarrassed-connoisseur attempted (more sensibly) to make artistic sense of the whole effects of drawings, and to understand, thereby, how they were executed. Dr Bucklow first showed how eloquently cracks on paintings can testify to a picture’s age, medium, underlying support, country of origin and so on. Having thus demonstrated an evidently usefully diagnostic tool (a kind of Connoisseurship of Cracks), he dismantled his own edifice by demonstrating how the vagaries of individual works’ histories and compositions so complicate the system as to render it effectively useless.
Mr Chapman, while conceding the very great difficulties of making sensible identifications of authorship in drawings, described how he tried to establish Michelangelo’s authorship of a drawing by considering its overall relationships and effects. In a nod towards Myrone’s position, he conceded that because many works in collections are ephemera, it would be futile to attempt to establish authorship of every piece of paper, even though such works often have great social significance and interest.
In the final paper (“New Connoisseurship, Old Europe, and the Future of Art history”), Professor Liz Prettejohn, head of York University’s Department of Art History, made a spirited attempt to retain a still-vital discipline that might be free of the more toxic ingredients of past connoisseurship practices. Prof. Prettejohn’s credentials in this respect were well established by a demonstration of her undergraduate response to a formal analysis test set by an old-style connoisseur professor. Prettejohn showed a Rembrandt etching about which students who had been reared exclusively on the study of modern art had been able to volunteer only that it was “old” and “probably Victorian”.
A Missing Link
This constructive, even illuminating, conference had two constricting deficiencies. First, connoisseurship’s purpose was largely confined to determining authorship, with, Dr Grosvenor’s startling asides apart, no consideration given to the urgent need to appraise restorers’ often radically transforming changes – an unforgivable lapse given that unsound attributions can always be corrected, while bad restorations are forever. Second, no artists contributed to this conference. While all speakers addressed the problem of producing an Educated Eye, none seemed aware that nothing educates the eye faster than producing or copying art. With artists, critical faculties were developed in academies and art schools by doing rather than by reading about or simply looking at. Listening to conscientious people grappling with the difficulties of connoisseurship while seemingly indifferent to or ignorant of art practices and blasé about restoration injuries, left an impression of a profession viewing fundamental problems through the wrong end of a telescope.
It is no accident that artists have initiated most of the great picture-cleaning controversies. Those who create art best identify injuries to it. The present state might easily be corrected: it would take small resources to have student scholars make brief drawn copies of the works they study, thereby appreciating art’s vital mind/eye/hand connections. Appreciation and discrimination may be of the theoretical essence in connoisseurship, but taken alone, without knowledge of and engagement with art’s practices, they leave practitioners susceptible to the traditional charge of being pretentious poseurs.
Drawn to Distinguish
Hugo Chapman’s sound quest to grasp the logic of the whole triggered theoretical and practical thoughts. Drawing provides the best route into questions of connoisseurship, being the most private, direct and likely entirely autograph form of image-making. If trainee art historians were required to make different types of drawing, even for brief periods, it would be incalculably helpful in establishing connections between historical artefacts and their original purpose.
Students might, for example, practice drawing as Rodin did with his famous late quick figure studies – never taking their eyes off the model while enclosing a complete figure with a swift continuous contour. Rodin did so, he explained, to fix in his memory the unique total effect of the body – its gestalt – and to test his own grasp of the miracles he had observed. The means required for drawing are miniscule: an American newspaper illustrator who illustrated first night performances of plays concealed a small pad and a very short pencil in a jacket pocket so that he could make discretely drawn notes of the actors to use later to prepare his finished illustrations.
By helping to fix images in the mind, drawing is the very opposite of taking photographs, which practice can evade thought and appraisal. Rodin once reproached himself for having failed to appreciate that the most important part of a head lay not in any of its individual features but in the manner in which they were all fused into a whole. In perverse contrast, the decision to restore the entire cycle of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes was made not on any analysis of the whole and its internal relationships but on the basis of brief chemical tests made on a single lunette (the sections of wall above the arched windows in the Chapel) that happened to be within the reach of restorers who were working on minor frescoes. Misplaced faith in the validity of those “scientific” tests (of an insufficiently tested cleaning agent – it was later discovered to have etched the surfaces of stone, producing corrugations that scattered light, rather than to have cleaned them) permitted the Vatican’s curators and restorers to launch a cleaning programme on the entire fresco scheme with uniform and pre-determined applications of a single, ferocious stone-cleaning material (a soda, ammonia and detergent cocktail) even though, to those with eyes to see, the lunettes had played a subdued and subordinate role to the ceiling proper in Michelangelo’s grand scheme. (See Figs. 4 to 9.)
There is a another way
By all accounts, the finest, least controversial, most sensitive picture restorer working in Britain in the 20th century was the German émigré, Dr. Johannes Hell. His method was utterly respectful of the whole and overall effects of pictures. Dr Hell had trained first as a fine artist and then taken a doctorate on Rembrandt’s drawings. He deplored restorers’ practice of cutting “windows” through (assumed) dirt and varnish until bright colours and light tones are exposed (as at Fig. 7). He worked overall on the entire surface of a picture with the mildest solvents so that no optically and conceptually deranging relationships could emerge. His slow method was made slower by frequently “resting” a picture to give it time to air out, so that no corrosive solvents might accumulate within the paint layers. With Hell’s method in mind, it can be painful to consider the haste in which today’s restorers procede with their swabs, acetone, scalpels and “windows” when in pursuit of more authentic and original paint underneath a picture’s surface.
Connoisseurship in action
We take a degree of pride in the fact that the (proper) exercising of connoisseurship has been alive and flourishing within this organisation for over two decades. From its inception in 1992, Artwatch has deployed aesthetic discrimination and visual analysis in demonstrations of injuries made during “conservation treatments”. Specifically and in terms of methodology, we have done so by the correlation of photographic records of the pre and post-restoration states of works. (This website was custom-made to carry directly corresponding images side by side or in continuous vertical sequences so as to facilitate the most directly revealing visual comparisons.) In the Witt Library, we see photographic records that do not just assist the making of attributions but that also record the progressive debilitation of paintings over successive restorations. We notice that the difference between an authentic work and a close copy can be far smaller than that between an authentic work seen before and after a bad restoration. Dr Grosvenor really did not need to wait until he could join the scrum in the Sistine Chapel to appreciate that Michelangelo’s work has been ruined – he needed only to study the countless pre and post-restoration photographic records that we have carried on this site and had described earlier at length in the 1993 (James Beck and Michael Daley) book “Art Restoration ~ The Culture, the Business and the Scandal”.
The nature of evidence
Defenders of restorations often say that they cannot be judged on photographic evidence. In other regards, art dealers have great faith in the veracity of photographs – they will bid online on the strength of a single photograph. Bernard Berenson preferred to examine Michelangelo’s ceiling by looking at large photographs in books rather than by eye when craning his neck in the chapel. We should be clear on two points: there are no good grounds for disregarding photographic proofs of restoration injuries; the kind of evaluative test that Prof. Prettejohn’s old style connoisseur teacher devised for undergraduates might just as profitably be applied to analysing the differences between pre and post-restoration conditions. (See “An Old Style Connoisseur Test for Undergraduate Art Historians:” opposite.)
For all the social alertness of the New Art Historians, little comment has been made on the major organisational and “ideological” changes within the museum world over the last half century or so. In our view, the failure of scholars and curators to heed artists’ complaints stems from the fact that they have allowed themselves to become dependent on the technical expertise of the very many restorers who have become institutionally embedded throughout the museum world. It is now restorers not painters who pontificate on the making of paintings. It is they who insist that photographic records of their own “treatments” may not be held up and used in evidence against their actions.
Speaking generally, as an organisation, we are bemused by a profession that uses photographs for all manner of curatorial, scholarly and critical ends except for the indentification of restoration injuries. Scholars now routinely revise their own professional scholarly accounts in order to bring them into line with restorers’ latest, often radical, transformations. In the published accounts of restorers and curators alike, nothing ever counts as an injury – every change is presented with drum rolls as a “discovery”. Whole steamships, Vermeer necklaces and sheep can go missing without an art historical murmur or any ruffling of connoisseurs’ feathers. Even in terms of attributions, Artwatch has been pro-active on the connoisseurship front.
The misappliance of science and early calls for the the return of connoisseurship
While protesting since the early 1990s against the cult of “scientific” conservation and its disparagement of “subjective” aesthetic judgements, we have throughout commended a return to proper and rigorous applications of connoisseurship. In the October 1994 Art Review article “How to Make a Michelangelo”, we suggested that “The fact that our scholars and technical experts flit quite so promiscuously through time and space might suggest uncertainty of connoisseurship and ability to ‘read’ paintings”. Three years later, in connection with another National Gallery attribution, we wrote: “In recent years the art of connoisseurship has become entangled with the scientific analysis of paintings. Problems of attribution, once resolved by the educated ‘eyes’ of individuals, are increasingly seen as the property of interdisciplinary teams of curators, restorers and scientists who enjoy the technical, financial and professional support afforded by large museums. But how sound are the new proceedures – and how reliable are the published accounts given of them?” (Art Review, July/August 1997, “Is this really a Rubens?”).
In truth, it might fairly be said that the campaigning essence of Artwatch has been a constant assertion of the primary value of visual connoisseurship – see also, “Is Michelangelo’s Entombment in the National Gallery by Michelangelo?” by James Beck in the Gazette des Beaux Arts, CXXXVIII, 1996. We have devoted two entire ArtWatch UK journals to critiques, successively formulated and advanced by the painter/scholars Euphrosyne Doxiadis and Dr Kasia Pisarek, of the National Gallery’s Rubens “Samson and Delilah” attribution. The title of the last book (2006) by ArtWatch’s founder, the late Prof. James Beck, was “From Duccio to Raphael: Connoisseurship in Crisis”. It received few reviews – and no mention at the Mellon Centre conference.
A connoisseur of Ephemera
No mention was made, either, of a remarkable new work of scholarship published last year by the British Library and the Oak Knoll Press in the USA – Michael Twyman’s “A history of chromolithography ~ printed colour for all” – which we first encountered in the Institute of Conservation’s Chantry Library, Oxford. The ingenious lengths to which printers went in the pre-photographic era to replicate any image, and all things in the world, in reliable colour on multiple, co-ordinated slabs of stone is truly astonishing to behold (see Fig. 3). It is impossible to exaggerate either the illuminating usefulness of this major, beautifully produced book, or the sheer delightfulness of its immense pictorial riches. For those who might feel that a major tome on a history of a printing method might make for dull or excessively technical reading, we would urge, “think again”: here are to be found ephemera (printed bills, advertising cards and the likes) alongside early pioneering hand-drawn attempts faithfully to produce such elusive epically heroic fine art subjects as paintings by Turner and Michelangelo. The faithfulfulness of the attempts to replicate the values of the most hallowed artists summoned applications of great sensibility and powers of aesthetic discrimination. Here, the connoisseur, the scholar, the social historian, the technical historian and the lover of fine drawing and colouring might all feast together, in awe at the dedication, the talent, the artistic insight found in an unsung publishing trade.
We were delighted, for example, to find so full an account of the production of Robert Carrick’s 30 x 44 inches 1852 chromolithographic copy of Turner’s “ Rockets and Blue Lights…” made in no fewer than fourteen colour separations (see Fig. 9). That faithfully made, expensive and then state of the art record (“the only perfect reproduction of a picture ever issued” – as it was claimed to have been in 1900) testifies indisputably to the destruction of the principal boat in the painting on which we have commented a number of times, most recently on the obtuse (or brazen) presentation of this wrecked picture as a jewel in Turner’s crown – see “From Veronese to Turner, Celebrating Restoration-Wrecked Pictures”.
Even more importantly, there is also reproduced, in its entirety, a massive 1,027 x 470 mm (40 by 27 inches) faithful cartography-like, on-the-flat, full colour image of 1852-53, that simultaneously depicts the entire curving geometries of Michelangelo’s combined ceiling and upper walls decorations (see Figs. 4 to 8). We had never before seen this work in its entirety. It reproduces every single figure (there are over three hundred) and architectural motif Michelangelo depicted. Most preciously of all, this encyclopaedic record testifies to the hierarchy of values within which Michelangelo situated his images.
By capturing the tonal and chromatic logic of the whole, not the fragment, of Michelangelo’s murals, this hand-drawn lithograph corroborates precisely the written testimony of the painter Charles Heath Wilson who examined the ceiling on a special scaffold in the 19th century. All parts of this great pictorial ensemble were not equal in their treatment. The “outer” section (as here seen at Figs. 4 and 5) was the semi-circular sections of painting made around the windows on the upper walls (the lunettes). They were the darkest passages of painting. They contained in their illusionistic recesses (see Fig. 7) depictions of the ancestors of Christ. This dark band of human figures set Michelangelo’s work apart from the wall paintings below – as did his great escalation of scale in his figures. Far from being an arbitrary but precisely situated zone of dirt, as the Vatican authorities preposterously and against all scholarly records claimed, this dark zone served aesthetically and symbolically as a kind of visual plinth for the even more monumental figures and the Divine Events depicted above on the ceiling. The next row comprised an architectural screen against which Michelangelo’s stupendous giant prophets and sibyls were set and relieved in the brilliant cinematic, shadows-casting light we have previously described. Above them, set in the sky glimpsed through illusionistic apertures in ceiling’s architectural scheme are the biblical scenes and the depictions of God Himself – Whose restoration injuries we have also chronicled. Today, by the miracles of our technology, we can see and move around the entire, now restoration-ruined surfaces of the Sistine Chapel, but the Vatican will not release a TV film made in the 1960s of the pre-restored state. Recent technical advances have carried us into a world where it is possible to produce perfect facsimiles not only of images but of three-dimensional objects and, even architectural spaces and forms.
The small exhibition currently showing at the Soane Museum shows three-dimensional realisations of graphic inventions of Piranesi by the foundation Factum Arte. A full size replica made by the foundation of Tutankhamun’s tomb in Egypt was unveiled this week. It was reported by Peter Aspden in the Financial Times “Fit for a king: Tutankhamun’s replica burial chamber”(see Fig.). Such technical capacities for replication raise issues that we will explore in coming posts. This fertile new territory is one for which scholars and connoisseurs will be ill-prepared to assess for as long as they ignore the mistreatment of unique and historic art objects by technicians who transform them into synthetic, polished replications of their (assumed) original autograph states. This website launched in 2010 with a discussion on authenticity in art and music (“The New Relativisms and the Death of ‘Authenticity'”). It did so in response to a restorer’s imposition (in new but deceivingly aged and cracked paint) of a piece of computer-generated “virtual reality” onto Holbein’s The Ambassadors. Connoisseurship is more urgently needed today than ever.
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How the Metropolitan Museum of Art gets hold of the world’s most precious and vulnerable treasures
An exhibition of stained glass that has been removed from “England’s historic Canterbury Cathedral” has arrived at the Metropolitan Museum, New York, after being shown at the Getty Museum in California. The show (“Radiant Light: Stained Glass from Canterbury Cathedral at the Cloisters”) is comprised of six whole windows from the clerestory of the cathedral’s choir, east transepts, and Trinity Chapel. These single monumental seated figures anticipate in their grandeur and gravity the prophets depicted by Michelangelo on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. They are the only surviving parts of an original cycle of eighty-six ancestors of Christ, once one of the most comprehensive stained-glass cycles known in art history. (See Figs. 1 – 5.)
The Met boasts that this exhibition of “Masterpieces of Romanesque art…represents the first time they have left the cathedral precincts since their creation in 1178-80”. Who, then, gave permission for the loan of such fragile, precious and architecturally integral material?
The New York Times says of the exhibition that it “Seemed to have been beamed down from on high”, when it undoubtedly had been flown and vibrated down from on high in an aeroplane. The museum world repeatedly offers assurances that modern air transport is perfectly safe for moving treasures around, even though, as the world now well appreciates, aeroplanes do sometimes crash or disappear. Aside from in-flight hazards, works of art get taken by roads to and from airports where they disappear from curatorial view and supervision into high-security cargo depots, sometimes being injured by forklift trucks, and the like, in the process.
The bureaucrats of “Glasgow Life” who administer Glasgow’s museums recently argued (successfully) in Scotland’s Parliament that, as Sir William Burrell had permitted loans from his bequeathed collection within Britain, and as the most dangerous part of lending works is dismantling them in one place and reassembling them in another, overturning his prohibition on foreign travels would be no more dangerous than moving works within Britain. The bureaucrats were similarly successful in overturning Burrell’s prohibition on lending certain categories of fragile works at all, within or outside Britain, such as glass, tapestries and pastels, by arguing that advances in modern packaging skills meant that even the most fragile work could now safely be moved subject to prior conservation examinations.
With the Burrell Collection we know precisely who will carry responsibility for any future travel injuries or losses but with the Canterbury treasures, who at the Cathedral (or in the Church) would take responsibility were these windows to be harmed or lost during their trans-Atlantic travels?
Were these windows insured for their travels, and, if so, what price was put on them?
Has the Church received any payment for this loan, and, if so, how much?
Were the six windows which travelled from London to California and from California to New York flown in separate aeroplanes – as were the three (of ten) gilded panels from Ghiberti’s Florence Baptistery doors (dubbed “The Gates of Paradise” by Michelangelo) when they were sent from Florence to Atlanta; from Atlanta to Chicago; from Chicago to the Metropolitan Museum, New York; from New York to Seattle; and, finally, from Seattle back to Florence? (See Figs. 6 and 7.)
The Metropolitan Museum seems to be a common destination point on many of the most ambitious and hazardous inter-continental tours of art (it will receive the current Tate show of Matisse’s monumental, previously too-fragile to loan, cut-out paper works). In the case of the Burrell Collection even before the Scottish Parliament had heard all the evidence arrangements for an international tour of works were in motion. On 10 September 2013, Joan McAlpine, SNP, the Chair (“Convener”) of the scrutinising Parliamentary committee, disclosed in The Scotsman that “Sir Angus Grossart was giving some hints [the day before, during evidence to the committee’s first session] of the kind of people he’s been speaking to in terms of a world tour…I know they’re talking to the Met in New York, and from the point of view of the people at Glasgow Life, that’s an opportunity to enhance the reputation of the collection, the city and Scotland.”
Crucially, Grossart’s moves were not being made under the aegis of the Burrell Trustees, who are charged with protecting the collection according to the terms of Burrell’s fabulously generous bequest (the 8,000 bequeathed works still constitute the largest gift ever made to a city), but by “Glasgow Renaissance”, an interceding body set up by Glasgow Life expressly to “oversee the Burrell Collection’s immediate future”, advise on the refurbishment of the leaking building which has suffered decades of neglect, and to facilitate the fund-raising, profile-heightening international tour of key works. Sir Angus Grossart, a member of Glasgow Life’s board of directors is the appointed chair of Burrell Renaissance.
In January 2013 it was reported (Herald Scotland) that the first, six months-long stop of the tour would be at the British Museum, whose director, Neil MacGregor, had been co-opted by Glasgow Life to serve on Burrell Renaissance (– as had been his fellow Glaswegian, Lord Kerr, the deputy chairman of Scottish Power). Grossart claimed in evidence given to the Scottish Parliament’s Burrell committee that no conflict of interest existed because no other venue in London had been thought appropriate to receive Burrell works – which is to say, not the Victoria and Albert Museum; not the Royal Academy; nor even the Hayward Gallery where an exhibition “Treasures from the Burrell Collection” was mounted in 1975.
When we appeared for ArtWatch UK as one of only two opposing witnesses before the Scottish Parliamentary committee (the other being Jeremy Warren of the Wallace Collection), we pointed out that the Metropolitan Museum’s present director, Thomas Campbell, had said of a major exhibition he had organised, “No one but the Met could have pulled off the exhibition of Renaissance tapestries we had a few years ago…We bribed and cajoled and twisted the arms of institutions around the world – well, we didn’t bribe of course – but politically it was very complicated negotiating the loan of these objects, which came from the British Royal Collection, the Louvre, the Hermitage, the Vatican and were just all absolute masterpieces.” (“Museum: Behind the Scenes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art”, Danny Danziger, 2007, p.40.)
It will now be greatly less complicated for Burrell’s fragile glass, tapestries, lace and pastels to be sent to the Metropolitan Museum – or anywhere else. Where Jeremy Warren of the Wallace Collection had testified “It is disingenuous to suggest that when one moves a 500-year-old tapestry from one country to another – perhaps taking it across the Atlantic – one is not shortening its life”, Councillor Archie Graham, Glasgow Council’s deputy Leader and the chairperson of Glasgow Life, thrilled at the prospect of “unlock[ing] the potential of this outstanding collection” and of being able thereby to “realise the full benefits of his gift.”
We were not surprised to read Jackie Wullschlager’s report in the Financial Times (“Scottish independence”, 5/6 April 2014) that within months of overturning Burrell’s terms of bequest, a themed exhibition of works from within the collection (“Bellini to Boudin: Five Centuries of Painting in the Burrell Collection”) should open with all of Degas’s “glorious, delicate, light-sensitive” pastels shown in their entirety for the first time in a gallery in which water was dripping from the still unfixed roof “the day before” the show opened – that is to say, opened while on the watch of co-opted art world big-wig guarantors, the likes of Sir Angus Grossart and Mr Neil MacGregor.
We did not, however, expect, when opposing the attempt to harvest the benefits of a collection bequeathed to the city of Glasgow, so soon to see the Church of England recklessly playing the same value-harvesting game with an irreplaceable part of the fabric of a cathedral and of our national heritage.
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Betraying Burrell – Shame on Glasgow
It would seem that the arts (along with sport) have been “nationalised”, or more precisely, municipalised, in Glasgow. Both spheres have been brought under the control of a hybrid entity known as “Glasgow Life” which is both a company and a charity with the formal title “Culture and Sport Glasgow”. The directors and trustees of Glasgow Life are appointed by the Council. Glasgow City Council manages the Burrell Collection and the City’s other museums through this body. In the case of the Burrell Collection, Glasgow Life has established an intermediary overseeing body known as “Burrell Renaissance”, the chair of which is a member of Glasgow Life’s own, Council-appointed board of directors. Glasgow City Council is promoting a private bill in the Scottish Parliament to remove the prohibition on foreign loans that was stipulated by Sir William Burrell when he gifted his entire collection (of some 8,000 works) to the city of Glasgow in a will of 1944 and in a later Memorandum of Agreement.
When we were invited to give evidence to a hearing on the bill in the Scottish Parliament on 19 September we attempted to speak to the curators of the Burrell Collection at the museum itself on 18 September. Contact had to be made through Glasgow Life. After inquiries by that body on the nature of our interest, arrangement was made to meet two Glasgow Life officers (in the event three) at the Burrell Collection with no museum curators present. We had hoped to establish the logic of the development whereby a chronically leaking roof – which requires urgent, immediate action (see right) – had grown into a proposed redevelopment of the museum that would cost £45m and that would require not only that the museum be closed to the public for four years between 2016 and 2020 but that works from the collection would go on foreign tours in hope of raising the profile of the collection and generating “revenue-raising opportunities”.
The private Bill presently before the Scottish Parliament seeks expressly to “remove these restrictions [imposed by Sir William] permanently so that items can be lent and borrowed more freely”. It was explained to us that the purpose of increasing borrowing into the Burrell was to enable curators to put on special exhibitions that would set the Collection’s works into a wider and more scholarly context. However, this proposed move towards what is by now a near universal museum practice is itself problematic because it threatens to disrupt the present unique and very special character of the Collection as bequeathed and as has survived since the museum was opened in 1983 (see below).
The hearings on 19 September were filmed and have been placed in full on YouTube. In the first hearing, the Chair of the Burrell Trustees, Sir Peter Hutchison, and the legal agent of the Trustees, Mr Robert Taylor, presented a case for overturning Burrell’s overseas loans prohibition on a variety of grounds that taken together would cede to Glasgow Life permission to conduct the borrowing and lending policies of the Burrell Collection without hindrance. Both witnesses expressed confidence that a proposed new lending code that has been agreed between Glasgow Life and the Burrell trustees offers sufficient safeguards to “mitigate” (but note, not eliminate) the enduring risks of foreign travel. It was alarming when Sir Peter indicated that while, presently and in compliance with Burrell’s repeatedly asserted wishes and conditions, it is the case that entire categories of vulnerable objects (such as tapestries and pastels) are specifically excluded from permission to travel even within the UK, let alone abroad, in the future (were the Bill to be approved), consideration of what might be loaned both in the UK and abroad would be made not by categories of artefacts but on a “case by case”, object by object basis. This would be done under the provisions of the new lending code which is designed to “harmonise” the collection and to “treat [it] as a single entity”. The justification offered for this radical overturning of previously respected conditions is that within what are recognised as highly vulnerable categories a range of conditions exists in which individual works can vary from great fragility to robust good health. We challenged that notion strongly during the second session and note that in the first session, the Committee’s Convener, Joan McAlpine, pointed out that when the Committee’s members visited the Burrell they had been advised by a textiles conservator how and why textiles are so peculiarly unsuited to the risks of travel.
To our fears that the bill effectively seeks to give carte blanche to those in Glasgow Life who will administer the collection, it can be added that it is not altogether clear where accountability might lie. The relationship between the curators at the Burrell museum and the administrators of Glasgow Life is ambiguous and seems unhealthily lop-sided. Sir Peter offers assurances that, on a successful passage of the Bill, he would expect all parties to work harmoniously together and that if displeased the trustees “could make our views quite clear”. Expectations and expressions of displeasure comprise no guarantees. What became clear under close interrogation by the Committee’s members is that Glasgow Life (which as mentioned is the cultural arm of Glasgow City Council – which body is directly promoting the private bill to overturn Burrell’s prohibition on foreign loans) will have the final say and even the right if challenged to have issues determined on the judgement of such “experts” as it might commission. It seemed unfortunate and not reassuring when Sir Peter likened the future role of the Trustees to that of a long-stop cricket fielder rather than a wicket-keeper. (An awful lot of runs can be conceded without balls crossing the boundary – and besides, in modern cricketing practice, the long-stop position is almost obsolete because wicket keepers are expected to stop all balls that comes along.) Sir Peter accepted that Glasgow and not his trustees should have the final say on the fatalistic grounds that “they already perform that function”. It was not made clear why a Parliamentary bill had been thought necessary at all when, as Selby Whittingham of Donor Watch has subsequently submitted to the inquiry:
“There is no need to enact bills to allow for loosening of conditions. This can be done through the courts, as in the case of the Barnes Collection and by application to the principle of cy-pres. If it can’t be done in the Burrell case, one may ask if the case for changing the restrictions is really a good one.”
Certainly the essential claim that Burrell’s restrictions on foreign loans can now be dropped because of increased safety has not been substantiated. Even Sir Peter, a former insurance man himself, recognised that risks remain and are inescapable. Under these circumstances, as he put it, the Trustees have a duty to assess and “mitigate risks as far as possible”. This seems a defeatist position. As we have pointed out, in a world where technical improvements in aircraft safety are offset by great increases of volume and velocities in museum world art swaps, a need to mitigate risks would arise only if Burrell’s many times expressed prohibition were to be overturned. That need not happen. It should not happen. The Trustees’ lawyer, Mr Taylor launched a technical sophistry in the Committee hearings by suggesting that lending to the Louvre today was little different from lending within Britain. This was presumably on a belief that travelling under the English Channel by rail is no riskier than travelling by road within the UK. He had perhaps failed to recall that the tunnel has already suffered a number of very serious fires – including one in 1996 when many heavy goods vehicles were destroyed.
The record of accidents, as the National Gallery’s director, Nicholas Penny, has offered to demonstrate to the Committee, hardly indicates a new, risk-free universe. In 1987 a cross channel ferry, The Herald of Free Enterprise, collapsed and sank in shallow waters, under calm conditions, with a loss of 191 lives and 47 heavy goods vehicles. Three years earlier the Herald’s sister ship, The Spirit of Free Enterprise, had carried two lorries bearing 267 Turners for an exhibition at the Louvre. In 2000, as Dr Whittingham discovered, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston found its Turner oil painting “Slavers throwing overboard the dead and dying” to be damaged and extremely unstable on return from a loan to the Tate Gallery. Despite the picture having been glazed and sealed according to modern “best practices” against changes in relative humidity, it had “reacted significantly” to the voyage and had lost flakes of paint. It was established that the injury had occurred on the homebound journey. As a Tate spokeswoman acknowledged:
“It arrived here safely where it was examined thoroughly. Its condition was stable”. Incredibly, she added, as if in some exculpation, “Turner’s paintings are notorious for becoming unstable”. Indeed they are – and no gallery knows this better than the Tate. In 1980 the Observer reported that many Turner paintings were too fragile to travel – that barely 100 out of the 279 paintings were fit to “risk being shaken, bumped or dropped in travelling”. As the Tate’s head of conservation, Viscount Dunluce, put it: “Paintings are not designed to travel but to go on a wall. If you send them about in lorries, trains, ships or planes it is bound to have a deleterious effect on them”.
Against Sir Peter Hutchison’s belief that were Burrell alive today he might be happy to “trust his own trustees” to overturn his prohibition on foreign loans, must be set the fact that when two Burrell pictures were sent against his wishes and without his knowledge to Switzerland in 1953, Burrell himself reminded Glasgow Corporation that:
“The Memorandum of Agreement with the Corporation only gives permission to lend items from the collection to any public gallery in Great Britain. That stipulation was made to safeguard the items from damage. Had I known in time it would not have been allowed. It mustn’t occur again.”
That accidents still occur in the air as well as on sea, was the principal force of our own testimony. But all questions of risks aside, the proposed changes do not constitute a well-considered appraisal or culturally desirable end. The impact of the already planned increases of borrowing and lending on the character and the aesthetic appeal of the collection as presently constituted and displayed would likely prove detrimental. That is to say, as Glasgow life explained matters to us, the intention of increased borrowing within the museum (for which borrowing must follow the inevitable quid pro quo of increased lending) is to enable curators to make “more sense” of the works that are held in the collection. This seems an aesthetically and culturally unfortunate form of professional special-pleading. The desire of curators to engage in practices that are becoming near universal within the museum world (but with consequently diminishing results in an international scramble to lay hands on the finite number of plum works) misses or ignores the very traits of the Burrell Collection that are uniquely distinctive and attractive.
What is so remarkable and special about the Burrell collection is that although very large as a private collection, at over 8,000 objects, by its catholic nature it comprises in miniature an easily accessible and digestible cultural “over-view” that is otherwise only available in the grandest “encyclopedic museums”. It should be more widely appreciated (and acknowledged) that nowhere else is it possible to move so effortlessly and rewardingly between great and beautiful artefacts drawn from so many of the world’s great cultures without risking the physical and mental fatigue that so easily sets in when moving through the vast halls and din of traipsing tourist parties of a British Museum, Louvre or Metropolitan Museum. At the Burrell museum, for all its current technical deficiencies and its aesthetically over-asserted means of construction, the building nonetheless has a kind of grace and ease of navigation that is immensely conducive to aesthetic contemplation and enjoyment. The contents of the beautiful classically housed Freer Gallery in Washington afford a similarly high aesthetic payload, but do so on a much narrower palette of art and cultures. The Burrell offers the chance to enjoy, compare and evaluate disparate cultures through a collection of works of remarkably high quality (as is here indicated right without any captions – and without reference to whole treasuries of works in the collection such as tapestries, stained glass, silver and furniture) that is uniquely accessible. This collection should properly and attentively be cherished for what it is and for what it offers and facilitates. It should not be exposed to disruption, adulteration and very greatly increased risks to the works themselves for the sake of turning it, at inordinate costs, into something more common place and altogether less enchanting and special.
At the James Beck Memorial Lecture in London on September 30th (see details opposite), the Frank Mason Prize is to be awarded to Nicholas Tinari for his role in opposing the changes made at the Barnes Foundation. (To see his submission to the Scottish Parliament, and those of Donor Watch, ArtWatch UK and others, click here.) In response, Mr Tinari will discuss in brief the lessons for those presently seeking a comparably radical overturning of the terms of governance of the Burrell Collection. Under sharp questioning from the Committee members, led by the Convenor, Joan McAlpine, at the Scottish Parliament on 19 September, Sir Peter Hutchison showed signs of anxiety that money raised by a world tour of works from the Burrell Collection could fall short of that being committed to fund not just repairs to the roof but a greatly more ambitious development of the Burrell’s building. If that were to be the case, could Glasgow City Council be relied upon to pick up a likely deficit of some £40m?
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Review: Stone-washed Renoirs and the Shock of the Undone
We knew at a glance that something was amiss. On June 16th, a newspaper photograph trailed an imminent auction sale of Renoir’s “Baigneuse” of 1888. Even on the evidence of that single de-saturated newsprint reproduction (right, Fig. 1) it seemed clear that the privately owned masterpiece had gone through the picture restoration wash cycle a time (or two) too often. A comparison of Christie’s pre-sale zoom-able online photograph with historic photographs of the painting further suggested that picture conservation’s would-be beauticians had been at work with swab and solvent: Renoir’s bather had been left (Fig. 2) a paler sugar-smooth pictorially and plastically enfeebled version of her original self. (For the picture’s appearance and condition in 1944, see Figs. 7 and 9.)
Just as museum curators who organise splashy temporary exhibitions rarely broadcast the “conservation” injuries borne by works loaned from sister institutions, so auction houses, which of necessity must act primarily as agents for owners, can seem no less reticent on this fraught subject. In practice, we find that in of both of these art spheres, the “now” is often implicitly presented as the “originally-was” and “always-has-been”, thereby thwarting what would be the greatest inducement to halt needless adulterations of unique historically-rooted artefacts: a full public disclosure of “conservation” treatments and frank art-critical discussion of their material and artistic consequences. By coincidence, recent museum and saleroom activities have brought to London a slew of little-seen examples of Renoir’s oeuvre. As cases in point of Renoir’s vulnerability, we examine here treatments of his “Baigneuse” of 1888 and the Washington National Gallery’s “The Dancer” of 1874.
Renoir’s “Baigneuse” was given star billing (on a £12/18m estimate) at Christie’s June 20th Impressionist/Modern sale, for the catalogue of which it provided the cover illustration (Fig. 2). While much was made in the eight pages long catalogue entry of an impeccable and unbroken provenance through ten successive owners, not a word was said about any restorations of the painting, and although many early photographs are identified in the picture’s literature, none is reproduced. It is disclosed that this Renoir is to be included in the forthcoming “catalogue critique” of the artist’s work being prepared by the Wildenstein Institute from the Archives of François Daulte, Durand-Ruel, Venturi, Vollard and Wildenstein. (Perhaps the present condition of the picture will be discussed in that publication?)
On the night of the sale, an announcement that the picture had been withdrawn drew gasps of surprise. Artinfo reported that the vendor had accepted a private offer from an unidentified buyer for an undisclosed sum somewhere within the estimate. Trade and press eyebrows have been raised at such secretive, pre-auction sales and the withdrawal was the more confounding because expectations of a big auction house “event” had been raised by extensive (and quite stunningly fetching) pre-sale press coverage with photographs of the painting enlivened by the seemingly routine inclusion of beautiful young female staff members.
With modern paintings, the starting point for any appraisal should be the earliest known photograph. Old photographs are historic records. Historic records should never be ignored. Old photographs of pictures assembled in homes or exhibition galleries are especially precious and instructive. The photograph of Renoir’s 1905 exhibition at the Grafton Gallery (Fig. 3) testifies not only to the then generally more vivacious relative values within individual works but to the striking variety of pictorial effects and painterly means deployed within Renoir’s oeuvre.
With regard to the photographic testimony of the original appearances of individual pictures, consider first the large, near-central painting in the 1905 Grafton Gallery photograph – Renoir’s “The Dancer”. This picture, now at the National Gallery, Washington, is 138 years old but was then only 31 years old and unrestored. Then, the background was disposed in distinct but linked quadrants (top-left; top-right; bottom right; bottom left). These were not so much naturalistic renderings of an actual space as subservient pictorial devices spotlighting the central bow-tight figure of a child trainee who, through balletic discipline and artistry, had assumed a commanding Velazquez-worthy sideways-on viewer-confronting presence.
To that expressive end Renoir had welded the dramatically contra-directional lower legs into unity by a pronounced dark shadow in the vertical triangular space they bounded. That shadow sprang also from the heel of the (right) weight-supporting foot backwards and upwards in space, thereby throwing the bottom edges of the trailed skirts into relief. This dark zone in the lower-right counterbalanced another in the upper-left, which had in turn emphasised and thrown into relief the front edge of the costume, withdrawing only to leave a lighter, again relieving, tone at the dancer’s dark hair. The progressive loss through restorations of those artful dispositions (as seen in Figs. 4 & 5) and the picture’s general descent towards an inchoate, arbitrary pictorial froth that increasingly resembles the underlying condition seen today in its own infra-red imaging (see Fig. 6), is heart-breaking. Renoir had here been a sculptor before he became a sculptor, playing off forms that asserted his picture plane with others that ran sharply away from or towards it (rather as Michelangelo had famously done in his crucifixion of Haman). Degas, who spoke of Renoir’s “sharpness of tones”, had chided himself for constructing his own drawings of standing dancers from the head down instead of from the feet up. Renoir had here given a masterclass in how to project a standing figure upwards from the floor. These things artists know and appreciate.
Compendious photographic evidence suggests that restorers (frequently working myopically through head-mounted magnifying eyepieces) have consistently confounded dirt or discoloured varnish with the shiftingly elusive dark grounds used by artists to set off light-toned figures. As seen in our post of June 1st, Klimt’s portrait of Serena Lederer (which was acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in 1980) has suffered in just such a manner. In the same post we saw also how Renoir’s deployment of a dark background zone in the upper left quadrant of background and a secondary but counter-balancing dark zone in the lower right quadrant of his “Dance in the City” had also been undone by successive restorers.
By courtesy of the 1905 photograph of the dancer we can now see that by 1944 the picture’s decisive tonal orchestration had already been subverted (see Fig. 3 and caption at Fig. 6). By the time of the picture’s appearance at the 2012 Frick show of Renoir’s full-length portraits (which was reviewed in our post of June 1st), the original dark tones in the lower right quadrant had effectively disappeared, leaving two odd arbitrarily truncated dark attachments to the right heel (Fig. 5). Cumulatively, this painting has suffered needless artistic vandalism of which no one speaks. The fact that graphite underdrawing is now visible on the painting has been mentioned but without any hint of alarm or censure.
With Renoir’s “Baigneuse” of 1888, the earliest photograph in our own records (- donations to ArtWatch of old photographs or postcards are always most gratefully received) is that published in 1944 when the painting was 56 years old, as seen here in greyscale at Fig. 7 (left) and at Fig. 9. Six years later, by 1950, the painting had been radically transformed, as seen at Fig. 7 (right, in greyscale) and Fig. 8 (left, in colour). The differences that emerged between 1944 and 1950 were compounded by further changes between the picture’s 1950 state (seen in colour at Fig. 8, left) and its 2012 state (seen in colour at Fig. 8, right). However many times and by whomever this painting might have been “restored”, it is clear that the resulting interventions have profoundly altered its constructional and pictorial rationales. The total extent of the alterations that occurred between 1944 and 2012 are examined right in greyscale details in Figs. 11-18. The differences between the 1950 and 2012 states are examined in colour details at Figs. 19, 20 and 21.
By 1888 Renoir had visited Algiers and Italy, come to admire Cezanne as well as Delacroix, discovered Italian painting and read Cennino Cennini’s Treatise on Painting. He had just completed an intense series of classically inspired, Ingresque female nudes, culminating in that declared trial for decorative painting, the Philadelphia Museum’s great “Bathers” of 1887, by which date he held the nude to be one of the most “essential forms of art”.
Compared with Fantin-Latour’s palpable but fluidly allegorical figure at Fig. 10, Renoir’s “Baigneuse” has, in its 1944 state, a markedly more stolid, out-of-Courbet corporeality. For all its spirited brushwork and sparkling colour, plastically, it constitutes an essay in composure, stability and parallelism. The torso seemingly rests on its own base of compressed and spreading buttocks and thighs. The thighs, knees and lower legs are held together in a manner more primly archaic (Egyptian) than classical. Movement is confined to the bather’s right hand which dries the left side of the waist. This action has enlivening consequences. The upper torso is pulled round by the right arm and the head is turned leftwards and downwards as if to contemplate the drying action of the towel. The left arm is required to be held aloft to free the left side of the figure, and, flexing at the elbow as the left hand draws across the face, it first echoes the thighs but then curls gracefully, weightlessly away in space.
What, then, explains the differences between the picture’s previous and its present condition? In such cases it is always possible to play the “Sistine Chapel Ceiling Restoration Defence” and claim that in 1944 the then 56 years old picture was very dirty and that the removal of this dirt has liberated the forms and the colours of the painting to a hitherto unsuspected degree. But the pattern of relationships that is visible, even under dirt, should not change character during a cleaning. Rather, it should emerge enhanced, with the lights lighter and the darks darker – and all individual values holding their previous positions. This has not happened – the picture has got progressively lighter with successive cleanings instead of returning to its previously cleaned state. If it really had been left by Renoir in today’s state, how could the previous but now lost artistically constructive values ever have arisen? If left untouched for the next 56 years, would anyone expect the painting to return to its 1944 appearance with the stripes on the towel and the shading of the fingers regaining strength? Would a general shading and enhancement of forms once more helpfully tuck the left hand behind the head? How might dirt have drawn more clearly and repositioned the left shoulder? How might it have more emphatically shaded the right, distant side of the face?
If we consider the difference between the 1950 and 2012 colour plates (shown at Figs. 8, 19, 20 & 21), what might account for the loss of orange coloured modelling in the left cheek, and of individual brushstrokes depicting the hair? Is it possible to claim on the evidence of these photographs that there has been a build-up of dirt on the picture over the last 62 years?
When examining the bather’s face in close-up today, as shown at Fig. 21, can we have any confidence that the paint presently surviving in that section is just as it was when left by Renoir in 1888? What kind of brush or paint might he have used that would have resulted in the present fragmentary, seemingly abraded, scattering of orange paint that lies over the blue background between the hand, the face and the shoulder?
In the next post we examine the conservation fate of more than a score of Renoirs that have been loaned from the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts to the Royal Academy. We shall see how Sterling Clark learned the hard way not to trust art experts on matters of condition in paintings when, having been assured that Domenico Ghirlandaio’s “Portrait of a Lady” had never been repainted, he bought it, only to discover, very shortly afterwards, a postcard of the painting showing it in an earlier and quite different state.
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