Good Science; Over-Reaching Science; Over-Promoted Science.
On February 10th the Daily Telegraph published a letter from a professor of chemistry at University College London (Robin J. H. Clark) questioning the relationship between art and science in general terms and with regard to a supposed Chagall painting featured on a recent BBC Fake or Fortune television programme. Prof. Clark expressed particular concern over art world failures to heed the testimony of available scientific techniques.
In the late 1980s the UCL chemistry department had developed a non-invasive technique (“Raman microscopy”) for identifying both natural and synthetic pigments within paintings. Because the latter have known dates of invention, their presence in a picture can establish the earliest date at which it could have been produced. This technique is said by Prof. Clark to have been known to Sotheby’s by 1992. The Chagall painting, he pointed out, could have been exposed as a fake at any point in the last 20 years. He further reported that the painting was exposed as a forgery in his UCL laboratory in July last year in the presence of its owners and the presenters of Fake or Fortune:
“I am disappointed that neither of the presenters of Fake or Fortune made this clear. The conclusion that the painting is a forgery is based on our spectroscopic results, which showed that at least two of the key pigments had not been synthesized until the late Thirties, putting the earliest date for the painting at 1938, long after the supposed date of 1909-10.”
Because of the unequivocal nature of those technical findings, Prof. Clark (rightly) observed that the Chagall Committee in Paris, to which the painting was sent, had no option but to confirm the forgery. He also asked how art historians might be encouraged to read science journals so as be informed about “significant developments in science as applied to arts”. In part, his question is fair and urgent. The art market’s notorious governing trade dictum is caveat emptor (buyer beware) – while auctioneers and dealers may take every pain to verify their claims, it is ultimately for buyers to satisfy themselves that attributions and conditions are as described. Auctioneers can only submit works to (possibly disqualifying) technical analysis with owners’ permission. Dealers who buy at auctions almost invariably have works restored but are not required, when selling works on, to disclose which if any tests may have been run.
Support on the extent to which scientific (and also historical and visual) evidence is ignored or manipulated in the interests of “boosting financial rewards in attributing paintings to particular masters” was given in an Observer interview on February 23rd (“Revelealed: the art experts who pass fakes as authentic”) by Professor Martin Kemp, a Leonardo specialist. In the same report by Dalya Alberge, a leading independent scientist, Nicholas Eastaugh of Art Access and Research, described the present climate as being both without standards and “totally unregulated. It’s a Wild West.”
However, much as we sympathised with Prof. Clark’s impatience with some art world practices, we could not endorse his call for a blanket acceptance of all scientific methods presently being applied to works of art. As we put it in a letter to the Daily Telegraph (published 12 February):
“Professor Robin Clark (letters February 10) calls for developments in science to be applied to art. If sound science is underused by the art trade, more questionable ‘scientific studies’ have been used for many years to offer assurances that picture-cleaners’ solvents have been a safe method of stripping varnishes and repaint from old pictures.
As the current issue of the journal of the International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works makes clear, the understanding in the art and museum world since the Sixties of how solvents work has been seriously flawed scientifically. Because important intermolecular interactions have been ignored, the theoretical model used cannot predict, as assumed, the actions of solvents on the underlying paints.”
History teaches that the many cumulative “scientific” defences of restorations have best been treated with scepticism. In 1977 Kenneth Clark admitted founding the National Gallery’s conservation science department precisely to bamboozle critics and dupe the public. In later years the Gallery pioneered a new mongrel discipline known as Technical Art History in which curators, conservators and conservation scientists pool expertises so as to arrive at some seemingly “scientifically underpinned” consensus on aesthetic decisions. In reality curators were glossing authority already-ceded to restorers. As the National Gallery restorer Helmut Ruhemann wrote in 1968: “Although the art historians in charge of pictures are officially responsible for the policies regarding cleaning, they naturally form their ideas in the first place from what they are told by their restorers.”
In its guides to conservation the National Gallery presently claims that while its restorations are carried out for aesthetic rather than conservation purposes, and while each restorer imposes a personal aesthetic taste on pictures, it considers all aesthetically various outcomes to be equally valid so long as they have been carried out “safely”. The contention that the (claimed) safety of cleaning methods can underwrite conflicting aesthetic outcomes is a non sequitur. Besides which, no claims have proved more unreliable than those of cleaning solvents’ safety.
The crucial and sometimes wilfully over-looked cultural truth is that there are no properly scientific means of comprehending art’s variously created aesthetic values and relationships. When reiterating this point in our post of 7 February 2014 (“From the Horse’s Mouth ~ Seventy years of worthless ‘science’ and reassurances on the safety of picture cleaning solvents”) we were able to disclose the most recent and most damning evidence of the un-soundness of past scientific endorsements of picture-cleaning solvents.
Notwithstanding these spectacular technical reverses, this month the press has been chocked with uncritical “Good News” accounts of scientific advances in the arts. Most newspapers and the BBC carried claims that scientists had “digitally reconstructed” the original appearance of a Renoir painting in which a former pink background had faded. By coincidence, this claimed miraculous virtual recovery had also been made by “a technique known as Surface-Enhanced Raman Spectroscopy (SERS)” carried out at the Art Institute of Chicago.
The BBC reported that “Northwestern University chemist Prof Richard Van Duyne pioneered SERS. He said the Renoir demonstrated why the Raman technique was fast becoming an invaluable tool for studying artworks: ‘You get tremendous information about the origins of the painting, the techniques of the artist, an understanding of the fading mechanism, and the ability to restore the painting.’” Note that speculative hypotheses are now being presented as sound platforms for restorations. In the art world it is frequently the dogs that don’t bark that matter most. Note that this wonder technique which addresses changes resulting from natural causes would seem to have no powers or potential with regard to the more common and much more seriously deleterious man-made changes made by restorers. Given that both types of injury are easily evident by eye to anyone lifing a picture out of its frame (see Figs. 2 and 3), the silence of “science” on the latter injuries can only seem self-compromising .
In a letter to the Times (February 17) we protested:
“The claim that scientists have recreated the original appearance of a Renoir painting (‘Laser technique shows masterpiece as Renoir intended’, Feb 14) is unfounded. All elements of a picture undergo natural changes over time. To these, further unnatural changes are added by restorers and their invasive paint-penetrating solvents. Compensating for a single faded pigment does not constitute a recovery of a picture’s original appearance. Rather, it offers a further falsification: a single artificially simulated ingredient within a remaining, generally altered and debilitated surviving whole.”
Our letter was accompanied by one from a Professor of Allergy and Clinical Immunology at Imperial College London, making a far-fetched claim that the fact that a synthetic red dye used in paintings had also helped in the discovery of an important white blood cell constituted an unusual “bridging [of] fine art and science”.
While Raman microscopy could certainly disprove the claimed date of the fake Chagall, it seriously misleads the public to present speculative and hypothetical digitally manipulated reconstructions as if literal recoveries of original conditions. On February 22nd the Economist reported an account of another digital re-mastering of real paintings delivered at this year’s meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The Economist too saw a bridging of the divide between art and science, which it likens to a resolution of the science/art schism of which the chemist and novelist C. P. Snow complained in his famous 1959 lecture “The Two Cultures”. The report also reveals, however, that what was presented as a recovery of the murals’ original conditions was in fact a double hypothetical reconstruction. Not only had Rothko’s colours faded, so too had those of the contemporary photographs of his murals that were to serve as the basis for a digital re-mastering of the actual paintings. Despite the methodologically dubious procedure of digitally re-mastering actual paintings on the back of digitally re-mastered photographs, there was customary breathless admiration for this latest claimed technical miracle:
“In the case of the Holyoke Centre’s Rothkos […e]ach had faded differently, depending on its original colours and how much sunlight it had seen. And various parts of individual paintings had faded at different rates, too. But modern technology allows optical illusions to be finely crafted indeed. The paintings are continuously observed by a high-resolution camera. Its images are compared, pixel by pixel, with the idealised versions provided by the restored photographs. A computer then works out, moment by moment, what mixture of light to shine back to make the faded originals match the vibrant reconstructions—with no messy repainting necessary. For now, the paintings remain under wraps while the museum at which they are stored is renovated. One day soon, though, they will be on display in all their illusory glory.”
There was no discussion of the consequences of viewers’ bodies blocking the projected “correcting” coloured lights. What we are witnessing in this heavily promoted technical bonanza is not a genuinely increased understanding of art by courtesy of scientific advances. If the attempt to increase public understanding of the degree to which even quite modern paintings have suffered alterations since their executions was a real ambition of museum staffs and conservation scientists, it would be imperative for them to discuss (and demonstrate) the largest single source of alterations and adulterations: “restoration” treatments. In the absence of such an agenda, what we see unfolding is a cultually diversionary Big Push by certain professional groups into new and uncontroversial employment pastures where the potential pickings and funding opportunities are immense – there is scarcely an old picture in existence where some pigments have not faded. This virtual remastering show is one that could run and run. But who might fund and who might execute research into all those paintings that suffered far more grievously from the chemical coshes of restorers?
The real problem in the arts is not an insufficiency of technical or scientific assistance. It is deeper and more fundamental. Its root lies within institutional withdrawals from exercising properly critical considerations. The non-appliance of due critical practices is long-standing. There were uncritical responses in the late 1990s when (as we reported in our first post) the National Gallery used a computer-manipulated photograph of an actual skull as the basis for a hypothetical virtual reconstruction of missing parts in Holbein’s “The Ambassadors” which led to the redrawing of Holbein’s skull in defiance (or ignorance) of the perspectival systems of the artist’s times. More recently, the Tate repainted large lost parts of a flood-damaged work on the basis of early colour photographs in the course of a “restoration”. In our uncritical, increasingly “virtual” cultural universe it is more urgent than ever that museum curators should return to acting primarily on sound scholarly appraisals and aesthetically informed insights, and that they should not further devolve their responsibilities to technicians who may or may not be properly alert to matters aesthetic and artistic.
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Could the Louvre’s “Virgin and St. Anne” provide the proof that the (London) National Gallery’s “Virgin of the Rocks” is not by Leonardo da Vinci?
When the National Gallery’s restored “Virgin of the Rocks” was pronounced an entirely autograph Leonardo we were left reeling with incredulity. Picture restorers rarely decline opportunities to claim “discoveries” but could they really be claiming an ability to make a picture an autograph Leonardo simply by thinning its varnish? During the media frenzy of the National Gallery’s £1.5bn Leonardo blockbuster, its chief restorer, Larry Keith, was asked if a distinctive Leonardo brushstroke had emerged. “No”, he said, proof of authenticity lay in the picture’s internal relationships. Given that those relationships differ markedly from the ones present in the Louvre’s unquestionably autograph “Virgin of the Rocks”, what accounted for the discrepancies? The then curator, Luke Syson, replied that Leonardo’s style had, in the London copy, become abstracted, less naturalistic and more “metaphysical”. This seemed fanciful: had not all of Leonardo’s pictures carried a beguiling air of the metaphysical – and had this quality not derived from the artist’s preternaturally intense engagement with natural phenomena and the mysterious powers which operate through them? Had a new corroborating body of drawn studies emerged? The Gallery admits that not only is there no identifiable Leonardo brushwork but that the picture itself is “manifestly uneven in finish and execution” and that there has been “a good deal of agreement that Leonardo himself painted little or none of it”. When we asked if any securely autograph Leonardo paintings shared these newly claimed characteristics, Syson said that they were also found in the “Last Supper”, when only 20% of that large, fragmented, degraded, many-times restored, de-restored and re-restored mural survives – and when its recent restorers “discovered” that it had originally been choc-full of tiny naturalistic details (curtain hooks, slices of lemon, reflections on glassware, tablecloth patterns and so forth). Above all, the National Gallery’s latest upgrade flew in the face of – and seemingly sought to circumnavigate – a landmark 1996 article by a geologist (and now art historian), Ann Pizzorusso, who has shown that while the rock configurations in the Louvre version were entirely consistent with precise formations found in nature and in Leonardo’s own studies, those seen in the London version were found in neither. (See Pizzorusso, “Leonardo’s Geology: The Authenticity of the Virgin of the Rocks”, The MIT Press, Vol. 29, No. 3, and “Leonardo’s Geology: The Authenticity of the Virgin of the Rocks”, in Leonardo Magazine, Vol. 29. No. 3, 1996, pp. 197-200.) Here, Pizzorusso presents further elegant demonstrations of the London picture’s non-autograph status that are manifest in the (recently restored) late Leonardo masterpiece, “The Virgin and Child with St Anne”.
Ann Pizzorusso writes:
London’s National Gallery recently announced that its version of the “Virgin of the Rocks”, previously attributed to various artists who worked in Milan, was now, after being cleaned, solely the work of Leonardo da Vinci. The National Gallery supports its claims by stating that the work represents a change in style and that the geology in the picture is rendered in a more abstract, monumental style (see Appendix A).
While art historians have long discounted the National Gallery’s version as one by Leonardo, the Gallery has now discounted centuries of scholarship with their new interpretation and subsequent attribution of the painting to Leonardo. What is most ironic and troubling about the National Gallery’s position is that there are reams of contractual documents which still exist today documenting a 25 years long lawsuit concerning the two versions of the painting and which show, unequivocally, that Leonardo did not paint the version in the National Gallery. Prof. Charles Hope, a former director of the Warburg Institute, London, and an expert in notarial Latin states that there is no doubt that Leonardo painted the first version and not the second (New York Review, 9 February 2012).
While we may be able to forgive the National Gallery for not being up on notarial Latin, there is no excuse for their proposal that Leonardo changed his style. In the decades in which I have studied Leonardo from all aspects (we must remember, Leonardo did not consider himself primarily a painter) one thing stands out in all his works—a fidelity to nature and a lifelong effort to depict natural objects as realistically as possible.
The father of Leonardo studies, Carlo Pedretti, in his book analyzing Leonardo’s nature drawings, “Leonardo da Vinci Nature Studies from the Royal Library at Windsor Castle” (with a forward written by Kenneth Clark, a former director of the National Gallery in London), devotes the entire volume to discussing Leonardo’s preoccupation with natural objects and his fanaticism in attempting to depict them as realistically as possible. This passion was imparted to his students, Francesco Melzi, Cesare da Sesto, Giovanni Boltraffio and Marco d’Oggiono. So much so that a drawing of a Tree (RL 12417), long thought to be by Leonardo, was later attributed to Cesare da Sesto and a view of Amboise (RL 12727) to Francesco Melzi. In analyzing the works of Leonardo’s students one can see that they have followed Leonardo’s technique and depicted natural objects as realistically as possible. They had obviously heard quite a bit of ranting by Leonardo about “Botticelli’s bad landscapes” (see Appendix B).
Another reason why Leonardo’s approach is reflected in his art is that he was born in the transitional era of the late Middle Ages, an age still filled with superstition and fear, especially about such things as mountains, natural catastrophes and death. He grew up leading the way into the Renaissance, faced all these fears, and debunked them. He travelled extensively in the Alps outside of Milan taking note of nature and geology. He noted landslides and torrential flooding with its associated damage (see Figs. 3 & 4), he dissected corpses to provide the most accurate depiction of human anatomy we have ever had until relatively recent times. His work as engineer, geologist, botanist and astronomer cannot be disconnected from his work as an artist (see Figs. 8 & 9). To understand Leonardo, one must understand him completely. And to understand him completely is not difficult. He has written everything down. He was faithful to nature. If one applies just that one rule to Leonardo da Vinci, looking at his work from a scientific standpoint, the answer is crystal clear: fidelity to nature is a Leonardo trademark that can be used to determine the authenticity of his work.
Now that we have seen that the National Gallery has preferred not to acknowledge the work of many esteemed Leonardo scholars, maybe looking at the recently cleaned “Virgin and Child with St. Anne” in the Louvre will change its mind (see Figs. 1, 7, 10, 11, 14, 17, & 21). The “Virgin and Child with St. Anne”, dated to about 1510, came later than the National Gallery version of the “Virgin of the Rocks”. We do not know how much later, as the National Gallery has now dated the initiation of its version of the “Virgin of the Rocks” as 1491/2-9 and its completion to 1506-08. Professor Hope, in his review of the notarial documents regarding the lawsuit states that the National Gallery version of the “Virgin of the Rocks” could not have been painted before 1508.
If we use the 17 year time period (1491-1508) which the National Gallery cites for its “Virgin of the Rocks”, it would mean Leonardo was painting the “Last Supper” (1492-7/8), completing the Burlington Cartoon (1499-1500 or 1506-08) and the “Virgin of the Rocks” at the same time. On page 96 of Kenneth Clark’s book entitled “Leonardo da Vinci” he indicates that Leonardo was exceptionally busy. Apart from the first “Virgin of the Rocks” his time was taken up with work for the court. He was the court limner and also painted two portraits of the Duke’s mistresses Cecilia Gallerani and Lucrezia Crivelli. With these portraits, we would be up to five major works in progress by Leonardo if we include the National Gallery’s “Virgin of the Rocks”.
This being said, all of these works being done at nearly the same time gives us the perfect opportunity to appraise, determine and evaluate the stylistic traits of the artist at that period of his career. In looking at the Burlington Cartoon and the “Virgin and St. Anne”, both are rich with geologic detail and accuracy. Leonardo has risen to new heights in his portrayal of landscape elements. His talent and passion are vividly displayed in the Burlington Cartoon and he reaches a level of sophistication, subtlety and accuracy in rendering the geology in the “Virgin and St. Anne” which had never been seen before (see Appendix C).
The St. Anne is a geologic tour-de-force. In fact, Leonardo experimented extensively on developing paints and a technique for depicting the pebbles of agate, chalcedony and marble at the feet of the Virgin and St. Anne (see in particular, Figs. 1 & 21). Leonardo writes in his notebooks about his efforts and how satisfied he was to have developed an approach to rendering the pebbles in such a realistic fashion. In fact the entire painting is one geologic treat after another. He had spent years in the Alps so he knew the landscape and geology exactly. With his newly developed technique for painting marbleized pebbles he was delighted (- see Appendix D).
Using a date of 1510 for the “Virgin and St. Anne” and a date of 1483-86 for the “Virgin of the Rocks”, both in the Louvre, we have proof that Leonardo did not change his style, and that, if anything, he became more fanatical in his quest for geologic accuracy, developing new paints and techniques for natural depiction and driving his students to deliver the most accurate depiction of nature in their own works.
So we must ask the question “How and why could Leonardo have changed his style to produce a work so lacking in geological and botanical accuracy as the ‘Virgin of the Rocks’ in the National Gallery in London?” There is no evidence Leonardo changed his style and now, with the recently cleaned “Virgin and St. Anne”, we have that proof. We also know that his students were inculcated with his passion for accurate depiction of natural objects so we must also exclude his students as authors of the National Gallery work.
It would be best for the National Gallery to reopen the case for the attribution of the work to Leonardo. Hundreds of years of scholarship by Leonardo critics as well as the words and the works by Leonardo himself should not be discounted. The National Gallery does a disservice to those who have worked so hard to come up with incontrovertible evidence regarding the attribution of this work and most of all the National Gallery does a disservice to Leonardo himself.
The National Gallery’s claimed shift within Leonardo’s oeuvre
“We know that Leonardo’s painting technique gave priority to the figures. The Virgin is designed first, as she is in so many of his drawings, and the landscape seems to flow from her. Since Leonardo saw the painter’s acts of creation as analogous to God’s, his generation of the landscape in the Virgin of the Rocks and the absolute, unalterable perfection of the Madonna at the center could be understood as precisely connected with the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. But the appearance of the Virgin and her companions, and of the plants and rocks, are different, in the two versions: the theological meaning of his stylistic choices has shifted slightly. In the Louvre picture Leonardo relies on entirely naturalistic tactics to give the picture its spiritual flavor: the sinless beauty of the Virgin becomes the same kind of truth as the natural beauty of the irises nearby. But in the London Virgin of the Rocks, the Virgin and Christ are supernatural, the world around rendered notably less naturalistically, the rocks are straightened to become great columns; the flowers appear to be ideal composites of the leaves and petals of real plants. Tackling the theme for a second time, Leonardo chose to show the viewer not just a vision of the Virgin Mary, but Gods’ perfect ideas for everything around her. What we are shown here is an ideal world made before the physical creation of our own imperfect cosmos, before the need for humankind’s salvation.”
The National Gallery catalogue, “Leonardo da Vinci, Painter at the Court of Milan”, page 174.
Leonardo on Botticelli’s bad landscapes
“He is not universal who does not love equally all the elements in painting, as when one who does not like landscapes holds them to be a subject for cursory and straightforward investigation-just as our Botticelli said such study was of no use because by merely throwing a sponge soaked in a variety of colours at a wall there would be left on the wall a stain in which could be seen a beautiful landscape.”
Leonardo da Vinci, from: “Treatise on Painting”, the chapter on Criteria and Judgments, the subsection “How a painter is not worthy of praise unless he is universal”.
“Saint Anne–that delicate place, where the wind passes like the hand of some fine etcher over the surface, and the untorn shells are lying thick upon the sand, and the tops of the rocks, to which the waves never rise, are green with grass, grown fine as hair. It is the landscape, not of dreams or of fancy, but of places far withdrawn, and hours selected from a thousand with a miracle of finesse. Through Leonardo’s strange veil of sight things reach him so; in no ordinary night or day, but as in faint light of eclipse, or in some brief interval of falling rain at daybreak, or through deep water.”
Walter Horatio Pater, “The Renaissance, Studies in Art and Poetry”, The Echo Library 2006, page 54.
“The movement of the fifteenth century was twofold; partly the Renaissance, partly also the coming of what is called the ‘modern spirit’, with its realism, its appeal to experience. It comprehended a return to antiquity, and a return to nature. Raphael represents the return to antiquity, and Leonardo the return to nature. In this return to nature, he was seeking to satisfy a boundless curiosity by her perpetual surprises, a microscopic sense of finish by her finesse, or delicacy of operation, that subtilitas naturae which Bacon notices. So we find him often in intimate relations with men of science – with Fra Luca Paccioli the mathematician, and the anatomist Marc Antonio della Torre. His observations and experiments fill thirteen volumes of manuscript; and those who can judge describe him as anticipating long before, by rapid intuition, the later ideas of science. He explained the obscure light of the un-illuminated part of the moon, knew that the sea had once covered the mountains which contain shells, and of the gathering of the equatorial waters above the polar.
“Notebooks and sheets of about 1508 contain a number of notes on ‘mistioni’ (mixtures), a plastic material of his own invention with which he aimed at imitating the colour and design of semi-precious stones. He describes his production process and how, once the objects were thus produced, he spent much time finishing them with his own hand to a smooth and glossy surface…At the same time he was much taken by anatomical studies, so that when he described the production process of his ‘mistioni’ he came to specify the effect that was to be achieved: ‘…then you will dress it with peels of various colours, which will look like the mesentery of an animal’.
“In 1502, Francesco Malatesta wrote Isabella d’Este that Leonardo had looked at many of the Medici gems and objets d’art made of stone. Leonardo praised ‘the one of amythyst or jasper as Leonardo baptized it, because of the admirable variety of its colours’”.
Carlo Pedretti, Leonardo, A study in Chronology and Style, London, 1974, pages 132-137.
For an in-depth comparison of the two versions of the Virgin of the Rocks see:
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