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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L. O. L. It’s Peeping Tom Time at the National Gallery!
A little over a decade ago we were requested to move away from Titian’s “Bacchus and Ariadne” by a member of the National Gallery’s education department who was about to give a talk. Her narrative thrust on this great canvas (which had been glued by restorers on to a sheet of “Sundeala” board) proved more sociological than artistic or art historical. It had a villain – the original patron – who, the audience learned, had been a rich dirty old man who supplied extravagantly expensive pigments for an ostentatiously sexy depiction of a victim – an abused mythical woman – who would provide literary cover for his private delectation within his own apartment.
If the Gallery had then hit a low with such travestying philistine cant, we now find that in its drive to increase visitor numbers and extend social constituencies, it has jettisoned the very distinction between Art and Life. Pictures acquired at immense expense in the name of the Public Good are no longer treated as self-sufficient imaginatively crafted works that merit reciprocally reflective attention from the viewer but as pretexts for real-life events of a titillating, humanly exploitative and degrading nature.
Thus, in the bureaucratised stew that is the Cultural Olympiad’s London 2012 Festival, the National Gallery has permitted Titian’s great poesies to serve as springboards to three “edgy” artists. In 2001, in a drawing for Jackdaw (see Fig. 4), we had already marked one of this triumverate, Mark Wallinger, as a clown ripe for elevation to the National Gallery Pantheon, and today, with few honourable exceptions, the newspaper art critics have duly fawned over his efforts:
We are so cast only if we choose to play the chump-role that is offered as a legitimately “performative” (to use Sir Nicholas Serota’s term-of-the-moment) contribution to art. We do not have to do so. We do not have to be complicit with museum educators’ perverse cultural de-constructions. Rather, we might ask them why they do not consider this particular use of real people – women hired-in for the duration – to be a form of “sexploitation”. We might also ask them, as public educators, to explain the connection that they believe Wallinger’s stunt has with Ovid’s stories and Titian’s depictions of them. Even if Wallinger cannot see that Acteon was the very opposite of a voyeur – a man who had had the great misfortune accidentally to intrude upon a bathing goddess – might we not ask why no one at the National Gallery felt able to disabuse him.
Our examination of the fate of more than twenty Clark Art Institute Renoirs now showing at the Royal Academy will follow in the next post.
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Shedding archival records at the Tate and the Victoria and Albert Museum
A disturbing account in the Guardian of abuses of archival records within the museum world (“Tate’s national photographic archive ‘rescued from a skip’ after internal tipoff”, 24 February 2012 ) disclosed how the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, received a call from a Tate employee who said “you might like the curatorial photo archive because we’re about to throw it on to a skip” (- or, in American usage, throw it into a dumpster). Shocking as this report was, it came as no surprise to us because in recent years the Tate has shown a notoriously cavalier way with its artistic holdings and its archival material (see right). More surprising was the Guardian’s revelation that an archive of black and white photographs of almost every item held at the Victoria and Albert Museum and grouped by subject, had also been dumped by the curator in charge.
This dual elimination of black and white photographs echoes the destruction of old black and white television programmes that routinely took place at the BBC until 1978. A further destruction of archival property within British cultural bodies in recent years included that of newspaper collections held by the British Library. Sometimes a justification offered for archival vandalism is that essential “content” has been preserved by transfer to other media. The speciousness of such claims and the frequent destructiveness of such practices were searingly established in Nicholson Baker’s 2001 book “Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper”.
Following our reported comments in the Guardian article, we received a note of sympathy and an invitation to read the “Florence Declaration” from the director of the Photographic Library of the Kunsthistorisches Institut Florenz (the Max-Plank Institut), Costanza Caraffa. We are indebted: it seems that there is a wider threat to photo archives. The Florence Declaration is a call for the integration within photo archives and libraries of photographs in both analogue format and digital format. Their dual preservation is rightly taken as being essential to preserve the photographic heritage for future studies.
The Florence institute’s own photo library was founded in 1897 and today comprises more than 600,000 photographs of Italian art from late antiquity to the modern era. Like many photo libraries, the institute has recently engaged in transferring photographic images to the new digital media to aid electronic cataloguing and greater accessibility. There can be no quarrel with such exercises, but, paradoxically, by virtue of the editorial decisions that are inherent in any major transfer of material to new systems of storage and dissemination, the Institute has become the more conscious of the unique and irreplaceable nature of its general physical historic compilation; of the value of its illuminating bequeathed collections-within-the-collection; and, of the unique testimonial potency of its individual “hard copy” historic photographs. (Needless to say, this combination of visual acuity and heightened sense of patrimonial responsibility is one with which ArtWatch is in great sympathy.)
For our own rather specialised primary purposes the value of photographs lies not so much in their individual intrinsic qualities, as in their relationships to other, earlier or later photographs. The accumulated sequences of images (of paintings, drawings, prints, architecture, sculpture, metalwork, illuminated manuscripts, stained glass, wall paintings and textiles) held in the Courtauld Institute’s Witt and Conway photo libraries, and the photographs of paintings held in the National Gallery’s curatorial and conservation dossiers, greatly facilitate the identification and demonstration of injuries to works of art through restoration “treatments” (see right, Fig. 4).
The great value of photographic collections is, however, multifarious not singular. For some researchers, the self-same images might assist in making specific attributions of authorship, or in establishing chronological relationships within an oeuvre or period. For others still, the images can inform more general scholarly, thematic, historical, artistic or even sociological studies. In truth, all such focussed collections facilitate and trigger infinite lines of inquiry and speculation – and their benefits can neither be quantified nor anticipated in advance. Digitalised versions of photo collections – immensely useful as they are – cannot replicate or replace the ultimate benefits of “hands-on” studies of hard copy photographs, each of which is a physically and historically unique record made at a certain time, in a particular way, of a certain object, under a particular lighting condition. The ability to compare, juxtapose and read such various, culturally-expressive living historical records, in real space and real light, one against another, freely and without the physical and visual fatigue that attends a prolonged relationship with a fixed electronic screen (see right), is a methodological luxury and necessity. A photograph is a thing; a digital version is a virtual simulacrum of a thing. Although it is technically possible to track every manipulation of a digital photograph’s raw data, in practice, a photograph-as-object is more trustworthy, carries its traits and its history about its person, as it were. A most moving evocation of the multiplicity of uses within hard-copy photo collections – and of their great vulnerability in a philistine, cost-cutting world – was brilliantly captured by Stephen Poliakoff in his 1999 award-winning television drama, “Shooting the Past”.
We have long suspected that the inescapably destructive impulse of restorers constantly to undo and redo the material fabric and the artistic character of works of art through restoration/conservation “treatments” is a manifestation of a wider, history-hating cultural pathology; a narcissistic and hubristic desire of succeeding generations to remake history in their own image rather than to learn from it. The evidently assumed similar right of curators to undo and discard the historic record itself – even when held it is held in public trust by supposedly dedicated, culturally and fiscally privileged institutions like the Tate and the Victorian and Albert Museum – and even though that record possesses the power to hold to account as well as to illuminate, is a dangerous new, hitherto unimaginable, cultural low.
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Sir’s not always right
Sir Simon Jenkins says a Tate Gallery restorer’s repainting of one third of John Martin’s flood-damaged “The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum” (from a Photoshop composite of an old photograph and another version of Martin’s painting) is brilliant. He says that the ruins of Pompeii itself, having been largely destroyed when bombed by the RAF “as part of its casual assault on European civilisation” should now be reconstructed according to our idea of how they might have been originally. He says that we should no longer fret about making mistakes when reconstructing the past because “seeking to re-interpet, even reconstruct, some works of the past no longer need attract jeers of ‘Disneyfication’, and that too is preferable to terminal decay.” Given that Sir Simon is chairman of the National Trust, these sentiments are alarming as well as wrong-headed: the past, or what remains of it, is not ours to remake on modern prejudices and fancies – and with an eye on the tourist trade. There have been signs enough that the commercial exploitation of history and its surviving artefacts is gaining the upperhand over an appropriate respect for the integrity and authenticity of what has survived – not to mention evidence of a declining recognition of our own cultural limitations in these matters.
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Leonardo, Poussin, Turner: Three Developments in London and Krakow
There have been extremely dramatic developments this week in connection with two of our campaigns. On 13 December 2010 we supported an appeal (see Fig. 2) from scholars and conservators in Poland who opposed the lending of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Lady with an Ermine” to a forthcoming blockbuster exhibition at the National Gallery in November 2010 to February 2012. (We published a photograph of a National Galley painting that was recently dropped and smashed when being taken down from a special exhibition at the National Gallery – see Fig. 3. Today, the Observer reports the vandalism of a Poussin painting yesterday at the National Gallery – see Fig. 4. The Poussin was attacked at the gallery in 1978. The National Gallery, we understand, is presently considering reducing the number of its warders.) That appeal from Poland and our support for it, was reported in the Observer of 12 December 2010. We were subsequently attacked in personal and organisational terms by Count Adam Zamoyski, the board chairman of the Czartoryski Museum, which owns the Leonardo. To those attacks (and almost identical ones made by the Guardian’s art critic Jonathan Jones) we responded in a post of 29 December 2010.
On Thursday this week (14 July 2011) it was reported that, “in order to improve the functioning of the Foundation of the Czartoryski Princes and to assure the correct collaboration with the National Museum in Krakow,” Prince Adam Karol Czartoryski, heir to the collections of the world-renowned Czartoryski Museum, has approved the dismissal of the enterprise’s entire management board, including its chairman, Count Adam Zamoyski.
Last Monday (11 July 2011) we reported the electrifying disclosures contained in Sandy Nairne’s forthcoming book on the recovery of two stolen Turners (“Art Theft and the Case of the Stolen Turners”). Today, the Independent on Sunday examines the deal by the Tate and the insurers of its stolen Turners that was brokered by the then Labour Government’s Paymaster General, Geoffrey Robinson (“The stolen Turners, the Serbian underworld, and a £24m insurance job”). As the paper’s Matthew Bell writes, the deal was one “in which the Tate received a £24m payout but then kept most of the money” when the paintings were recovered, in order to help the funding of Tate Modern.
It is further reported that the insurer, Robert Hiscox, describes that payout (a “£22 million bonanza” according to Geoffrey Robinson) as having been a “good deal for the country, but a terrible deal for us”. Admitting that he had acted out of his love of art and a wish to help the Tate, Mr Hiscox (quite sensationally) claims that at the time the help was given, “We knew who had the paintings”. Can that be the case?
Mr Hiscox has explained that although this knowledge had been gained, the insurers had believed that the paintings “would be in a rotten condition by now” when, in fact, as a Tate press release of 20 December 2002 (“Tate’s stolen Turners are recovered”) put it, both paintings were “in good condition” when recovered.
In his forthcoming book Sandy Nairne claims or implies that Geoffrey Robinson had been in error to contend that the two Turners were known to been stolen by “a group of particularly nasty Serbs”, and to have “misleadingly (indeed mistakenly)” stated that the insurance money had been needed for building Tate Modern. This would seem to be another very finely nuanced grey zone because, on Nairne’s own forthcoming account, the Tate (on the initiative of its Director of Finance and Adminstration, Alex Beard) had sought to unlock the “dormant” stolen Turners’ insurance £24m payout, precisely so as to “enable building projects to proceed in connection with Tate Modern and the galleries at Tate Millbank.”
As the Independent on Sunday reports, Mr Nairne publishes a press statement drafted in November 2000 when one of the paintings had already been recovered. It read:
“There has been much speculation over the years about the whereabouts of the two paintings by J. M. W. Turner stolen in Frankfurt in 1994. And like the authorities in Germany, the Tate has always been interested in serious information which might lead to their recovery. But currently there is no new information, nor are there any current discussions being conducted. Of course I remain hopeful that one day the paintings might return to the Tate. – Nicholas Serota, Tate Director.”
Matthew Bell writes “Sir Nicholas’s office denies that he had misled journalists, adding that the draft statement was never released to the press.” The Tate director’s office explained that:“At the time this statement was drafted the recovery was at a critical stage, which is why the wording in this draft was deliberately obscure”; and added, “As with all press statements it would have been reviewed and revised in response to specific questions received from a Journalist.”
A spokesman for Mr Nairne is reported to have said yesterday:
“After eight years of not being able to talk about the operation to recover the Turners, Sandy just really wanted to get it off his chest.”
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Questions and Grey Answers on the Tate Gallery’s recovered Turners
In a doomed attempt to persuade us that, if properly looked at, black can be white at the Tate Gallery, Sandy Nairne has performed a considerable public service. His forthcoming book “Art Theft and the Case of the Stolen Turners” (which we review in the September/October Jackdaw magazine) will prove an important, landmark work. Ironically, had the Tate’s long-serving director, Nicholas Serota, not passed over his loyal deputy, Nairne, when appointing the first head of Tate Modern, the book would not have been written and we would not have gained so electrifying a glimpse into the workings of the Tate’s controversial management culture. In Nairne’s remarkably frank and informative account of his own central, eight years-long role in the recovery of the Tate Turner paintings which had been stolen in 1994 from a German museum (on the day when they had been dispatched without a Tate courier – see Figs. 2 & 5), we learn, for example, of “Nick” [Serota's] confession that most of the Tate’s “positive” press stories are not real news but what he himself admits to be “merely promotional material”. On their recovery, the theft of the Turners was seen as an ill wind that might serve some institutional good – and not just because Tate had managed to possess both the works themselves and most of their insurance money.
We see how, in hope of achieving for once a Genuinely-Real-Good-News-Story on the recovered Turners, attempt was made to thwart journalists who might spoil the party by pressing questions about the “recovery operation” which had already generated open scepticism and suspicion. It was felt that the museum’s press/public relations offices might need reinforcement to cope with a forthcoming barrage of criticisms and, “On Nick’s advice”, a formidable press consultant, Erica Bolton, was hired. She and the Tate’s press team groomed the gallery’s executive top brass (see Fig. 5) on how to answer or deflect journalistic probing by providing specimen questions and optimal, easily remembered answers.
We learn that the requisite answer to the first of eight dangerous questions (“How much has this operation cost Tate?”) was thought to be:
“The combined costs over eight and a half years including insurance, travel, legal fees and investigative expensive expenses [sic] accounts amounts to just over three and a half million pounds. Tate took on the additional costs for the investigation when it acquired the title of the two works in 1998. ”
This cost breakdown has already met with fresh expressions of journalistic incredulity in recent interviews Mr Nairne has given in connection with his pending book. On June 26th in the Sunday Times’ Magazine (“Curator of the Lost Art”), the paper’s art critic, Waldermar Januszczak, published the following exchange with Nairne on the large sums of Tate insurance monies that had been demanded by the criminals holding the stolen Turners and which had been given to their German lawyer by the Tate, expressly, to hand over to them in full (- the lawyer being remunerated separately by the Tate for his go-between services):
“This money was not a ransom, insists Sandy. It was ‘a fee for information leading to the recovery of the picture’. Sandy is extra careful to spell this out to me. Did you get that Waldemar? ‘A fee for information.’ Not a ransom. Well yes, I get it. But I don’t buy it. It’s legal. But it’s a grey area, right? ‘No. It’s grey as you go into it, but you have to find a way out of it that becomes clear’.”
Januszczak’s account failed to convince Dr Selby Whittingham of The Independent Turner Society. In a letter to the Sunday Times (“Recovery of stolen Turners was mishandled”, July 3rd) he wrote:
“In his account of the theft and recovery of two Turners, Waldemar Januszczak misses the key issues, dodged no doubt by Sandy Nairne, the author of a book about them. The pictures should never have been lent to Frankfurt in the first place in contravention of Turner’s wish for them to be part of a permanent display in London. When lent, more consideration should have been given by the Tate to the security issues, and the insurance money paid out for them to the Tate should have been used for Turneresque purposes, as the Charity Commission originally opined, subsequently changing its mind after confidential exchanges between itself and the Tate. These remain secret in disregard of the requirement that justice should be seen to be done, and the fact that the Turner bequest is the property of the public and not the Tate or the National Gallery.”
In an interview Nairne gave to Martin Bailey (“My life as an undercover negotiator”, The Art Newspaper, July/August, 2011), the reporter proved more outspoken than the Sunday Times’ art critic, saying, of a Tate press release carrying the Tate director’s outright denial that one of the two pictures had been recovered (when it had been recovered and was being concealed not only from the public and the press but even from most of the Tate’s trustees – see Fig. 2), that “This was simply untrue”. The untruth was, as it was intended to be, highly effective and it killed off a threatened Sunday newspaper article – which the Tate thought likely to have been informed by a senior Scotland Yard officer. With this throttling of a story, Nairne’s “fears about further investigative pieces, with imputations about ‘Serbian criminals’, receded”.
To the anticipated question 2 (“Did you pay a ransom or a reward?”) a flat one-word denial – “No” – was advised. This, too, was untrue. Nairne (fairly) acknowledges that:
“Following the recovery of the Turner paintings, Michael Daley of ArtWatch, and some members of the Turner Society, felt that questions went unanswered when the two paintings were put back on display on 7 January 2003. In the background was a potential lack of trust in the governance and management of the Tate, although the specific question was whether it had pursued the paintings in the right way. Was active pursuit even the right course of action? This writer and the Tate, contends that there was an institutional as well as a moral duty to use all means available to get the paintings back – but questions about methods and means were inevitable.”
Well, questions do indeed become inevitable in museum cultures where officers feel morally licenced to use “all means available”. Nairne, again fairly, acknowledges the anxieties of others such as Vernon Rapley, the Head of the Art and Antiques Squad until 2010, who explained:
“As a police officer I have a very clear view – if you offer a reward for the return with no questions asked, effectively you are available for a buy-back of the commodity, and you will fuel further crime.”
Nairne cites our own letter to the Daily Telegraph on 12 November 2005, which read:
“You reported (November 5th) that, in the BBC programme Underworld Art Deal, the man who supervised the Tate’s recovery of its two stolen Turners, Sandy Nairne (now director of the National Portrait Gallery), admits: ‘We knew in all the different stages of the investigation that a reward would be necessary, that a reward would be involved, that a reward initially offered by the insurers might need to be enhanced. I think that was clear from very early on.’ Not clear to the Tate’s Board of trustees, it would seem. In January we asked the present chairman, Paul Myners, to say ‘by what means, if any,’ Tate trustees had been assured that ‘no part of the £3.5 million payments might fall into the pockets of the thieves’. In reply, he wrote: ‘You will appreciate that details around the recovery operation have to remain confidential. However I can confirm that the Tate did not pay a ransom or a reward.’ The leap from the £180,000 for ‘intelligence’ originally offered by the insurers to the now reported £3.3 million reward to underworld figures is indeed a worthy subject for investigation. How shaming it is to the arts that such an investigation is carried out by a television company.”
When we had put directly to the Tate’s chairman Paul (now Lord) Myners (see Figs. 3 & 4) the discrepancy between his own and Nairne’s comments on the very large reward paid to criminals holding the Turners, he responded through the Tate’s “Head of Legal”, Jacqueline Hill, in a letter of 10 May 2006 which comprised yet another set of questions and answers, the questions being repetitions of mine to Myners. Thus, in answer to my question to the Tate’s chairman:
“You have continued to insist – even after Sandy Nairne’s disclosure that a reward had been paid – that no reward had been paid. You say that you do so on your own ‘reading of the [Tate’s Court] file.’ Perhaps you and I have been reading different files. I cannot, on the material I have read, imagine what might have caused you to draw such a conclusion. On what grounds do you discount the testimony of Mr Nairne, who headed Tate’s recovery operations from start to finish?”
there came dissembling pedantry, evasion and repetitious assertion from the Tate’s Head of Legal:
“Mr Nairne gave an interview for a television programme, he did not give a ‘testimony’. We consider that his words have been taken out of context. As stated above, the DM10m payment was neither a ransom nor a reward.”
To my question to the chairman:
“Are you not aware that the Court File makes clear that all parties privy to the payments, understood that a special dedicated account was set up into which DM10m was to be deposited by the Tate, precisely in advance payment for the (hoped for) ‘hand over’ of the paintings?”
the Tate’s Head of Legal countered:
“The Court File makes clear that Tate’s actions were sanction [sic] by the relevant British and German authorities and the Tate acted as it was entitled to do.”
To our question:
“Are you not aware that Mr Liebrucks [the lawyer acting for the criminals holding the paintings] was expressly given to understand that he was to be playing no part in a law enforcement operation – that, to the contrary: 1) he had been given immunity from prosecution by the German police authorities; 2) that he need make and did make no disclosure of the thieves’ identity, and, 3) that as Mr Nairne disclosed in his April 2000 affidavit to the High Court, the police authorities themselves were endeavouring along with the Tate’s officers to ‘establish a degree of trust’ with Liebrucks and his (claimed) clients?”
the Tate’s Head of Legal replied:
“Mr Myners is aware of this. The information is in the Court files.”
The criminals were never caught despite their eminently traceable links to the lawyer who received their money. If this might seem like negligence of the part of the Frankfurt police, it should be said that Nairne reveals that the Frankfurt police had been kept in the dark about the money/paintings transfers by the German prosecutors with the knowledge and support of the British police authorities:
“Keeping the final stage confidential remained paramount. The Prosecutor’s Office was prepared to keep the Frankfurt police away from the detailed arrangements, while Scotland Yard officers remained involved as advisers.”
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