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Problems with “La Bella Principessa” – Part II: Authentication Crisis

In Part I we discussed the look of the so-called “La Bella Principessa” drawing and showed that while it bears no comparison with Leonardo’s female portrait type, it sits comfortably among 20th century fakes (see Fig. 1). Here, we consider the singular campaign to have this work accepted as a Leonardo.

“LA BELLA PRINCIPESSA” AND THE (DECOROUS) COMPANY SHE BEST KEEPS

Above, Fig. 1: “La Bella Principessa” (centre) among 20th century fakes. For the drawing’s striking mismatch with secure Leonardo works – and with other bona fide associated works of the period – see Problems with “La Bella Principessa” – Part I: The Look.

A SINGULAR CAMPAIGN OF ATTRIBUTION

The nine years long campaign to have the drawing “La Bella Principessa” accepted as an autograph Leonardo da Vinci is faltering even before our series of examinations is completed. The leading proponent, Professor Martin Kemp, is said in the May 2016 Art Newspaper (Vincent Noce’s “La Bella Principessa: Still an Enigma”) to have his “reputation on the line” in the wake of our posts and an article “How reliable are today’s attributions in art? The case of ‘La Bella Principessa’ examined”, that was published in the Polish scholarly journal Artibus et Historiae, no. 71, 2015 (“La Bella Principessa – Arguments against the Attribution to Leonardo”) by Dr. Kasia Pisarek, an independent art historian (and ArtWatch member). In delayed response to our January 2014 suggestion that the disputed drawing’s author might have been the painter/restorer Gianinno Marchig (see Art’s Toxic Assets – Part II), Kemp now alleges on his blog that we are making “scurrilous and unsupported” attempts to “divert the argument into claiming that Jeanne Marchig lied profusely”. (This is not the first such slur from that quarter. When Professor Kemp reviewed the James Beck/Michael Daley book Art Restoration: The Culture, the Business and the Scandal in 1994 he made similarly unfounded charges which we rebutted immediately – see below.)

Notwithstanding the attribution campaign’s public belligerence, Professor Kemp informs us that aside from one forthcoming conference paper (on which, see below) he has now made his case as fully as he cares to do, and that while he would prefer to be right rather than wrong, the attribution is no big deal for him either way, unlike for those who are, he says, “involved financially”. He does not “live or die” by this attribution and is now working on other things including a number of books. That may be just as well. His position on “La Bella Principessa” is untenable in terms of the work’s artistic properties and emerging circumstances. Moreover, as will be seen, the methodological model for attributions that Kemp has been (hubristically) offering to all in connection with a number of Leonardo upgrades that he has supported is conceptually flawed.

Pace Kemp’s charge of evasion, it would be evasive not to consider Marchig’s role when appraising a drawing reportedly bought by a Panamean, Jersey-based company nine years ago at a requested discount for $19,000 but which now, as a claimed Leonardo, lives in a Swiss vault and is said to be insured for $150 million. We should all consider the circumstances and nature of this particular work and the assiduous, sometimes muscular campaign to upgrade it. The old masters market is fragile. The accelerating expanionism of recent years cannot be sustained. The market cannot afford to take in too many too-hopefully upgraded Leonardos, Michelangelos, Rubens’s, Van Dycks, Caravaggios and so forth. Aside from the resulting adulteration of scholarship, markets, as we all now appreciate, lose confidence and crash when too high a proportion of toxic assets is thought to have been bundled in among the bona fide.

PROMOTING THE DRAWING THAT CAME FROM NOWHERE

What is now presented as Leonardo’s “La Bella Principessa” of c. 1496 was sold anonymously at Christie’s, New York, in 1998 for $22,850 as a work without provenance. Twelve years later, Jeanne Marchig, the widow of the artist/restorer Giannino Marchig who had worked as a restorer for Bernard Berenson (who, Kenneth Clark said, sat on a pinnacle of corruption), identified herself as the vendor. She did so not in the disinterested cause of scholarship but to claim damages after sensational but unfounded and misleading media reports that fingerprint evidence had shown the drawing to be a Leonardo.

As we reported, aside from the widow’s hearsay claims concerning the ownership of the drawing by the painter/restorer, the drawing otherwise possesses not a shred of recorded history in its supposed five centuries. On the widow’s account (as variously reported by Kemp, by the drawing’s owner, Peter Silverman, and by a journalist selected by Silverman to promote the attribution, Simon Hewitt), Marchig, an unsuccessful artist who had grown rich and acquired a collection of valuable historic works, had declined to say even to his wife when or from whom he had acquired the framed drawing which he is said to have kept in a portfolio.

Jeanne Marchig dangled the possibility that he might have acquired it from Berenson, with whom he had grown close and for whom he had hidden paintings, photographs and documents during the war. Had he done so that would hardly dispel doubts and suspicions but even that possible lifeline to a past now seems unlikely: the drawing’s present owner and Kemp vainly trawled Berenson’s archives at I Tatti for any sign or mention of the drawing. The trail of this supposed Leonardo begins and ends with the Marchigs. Marchig, if his widow is reliable, said nowt and simply had. By coincidence, the widow was born in Warsaw where a book is housed that was later said (unpersuasively for reasons given by Dr Pisarek) to have contained the vellum sheet on which the drawing was made. Professor Kemp thinks the late Jeanne Marchig “a person of great credibility”. The journalist Simon Hewitt reported in the Huffington Post that:

“Jeanne Marchig was born Janina Paszkowska in Warsaw, into a family of doctors and lawyers. She was an only child: her father died in an accident before she was born. Her mother Elzbieta Chrostowska, an amateur wood-carver, took her to Sweden in 1939, where she grew up and married, became Janina Hama. The marriage didn’t last. She met the artist Giannino Marchig on a train between Stockholm and Florence, where he worked as a picture restorer. Berenson and Wildenstein were his top clients. Although a youthful exponent of racy nudes, Giannino was no lady’s man. He lived at home with his mother on the banks of the Arno. He was over 50. Jeanne was an art student. Their age-difference ran into decades. They married. People talked. Talked, too, about Giannino’s wealth. What had he done during the war? Helped hide Berenson’s collection from the Nazis, among other things. Did Berenson give him the Bianca portrait? Jeanne Marchig didn’t know. Or wasn’t saying. They moved to Switzerland. She morphed from a flirtatious livewire into a coquettish Miss Marple of unfluffy shrewdness. Giannino died in 1983. Jeanne published a sumptuous catalogue of her husband’s career and religiously kept the box of pastels he had used to restore the Leonardo.”

PROFESSOR KEMP’S EYE

Above, Fig. 2: The eye of “La Bella Principessa”, top left, and above left (with a superimposed diagram). Top right, an eye drawn by Leonardo (reversed). Above right, an eye featured on a sheet of eyes drawn and reproduced as aids to students and artists in a famous drawing course published in the late 1860s – and later used by the young Picasso.

THE NUB OF CONNOISSEURSHIP DISPUTES IN THE VISUAL ARTS

Martin Kemp and I have recently discussed the eye in “La Bella Principessa” (top left) vis-à-vis the eye by Leonardo (top right) and I am grateful to him for this.
He believes that both eyes are drawn by Leonardo. I (a left-handed draughtsman) hold that the “La Bella Principessa” eye, with its pronounced, almost Cubist, angular and planar construction cannot conceivably have been drawn by Leonardo. There is simply nothing like it in Leonardo’s oeuvre. It is a construct of an alien, more modern kind. Kemp now admits that the unnaturally thick and angular lower lid is problematic but writes: “With the exception of the angularity of the lower lid, which is in an area of some damage, it is consistent (above all the amazingly delicate lashes) with the attached [the eye by Leonardo, top right]. Leonardo’s works of art are not anatomical demonstrations. It’s easy to find ‘anatomical erors’. I find the seizing on such things is to divert the arguments into issues of a peripheral nature in the face of evidence of a non-arbitrary kind.” This is a helpfully clarifying statement, but the suggestion that the eye might have been repaired is new.

In the 2010 Martin Kemp and Pascal Cotte book Leonardo da Vinci “La Bella Principessa” The Profile Portrait of a Milanese Woman, there is no indication given in Cotte’s map (Fig. 3) of repairs to “La bella Principessa” that the eye had been damaged, and Kemp, when comparing the eye with that of Leonardo’s Windsor Castle drawing Portrait of a Woman in Profile (Fig. 5), wrote of it “Even Boltraffio could not achieve this. The structure of the eyelids, the delicate flicks to create the lashes, and the translucent iris of the eye are extremely close on both portraits…” Pascal Cotte goes further, claiming a “distinct and identical logic” with the eye in Leonardo’s portrait of Cecilia Gallerani (The Lady with an Ermine, Fig. 4). Making no reference to injuries or repairs, Cotte specifically points in his diagram (Fig. 4) to the “The juxtaposition of the edge of the lower eyelid with the bottom of the iris”. Speaking generally of the analysed physical evidence of the drawing, Cotte adds “There have been some diplomatic retouchings over the years, but this has not affected the expression and physiognomy of the face to a significant degree or seriously affected the overall impact of the portrait.”

THE PRIMACY OF VISUAL EVIDENCE IN THE VISUAL ARTS

What Kemp sees as a peripheral issue that lacks “non-arbitrary” evidential value, I take to be of the essence in the evaluation and critical appraisal of (visual) works of art. In traditional connoisseurship – an area which Kemp frequently disparages on quasi-scientific professional and leftist political grounds – the test is not to identify similarities (which exist in abundance between authentic works, copies and forgeries) but to discern differences, to discriminate between products of the authentic autograph hand and closely related but variant artefacts.

Of course, Leonardo did not draw every eye as an anatomical demonstration, but nor did he ever draw an eye in ignorance of that crucial feature’s anatomical construction. The eyeball, being an orb, determines the shape and forms of the surrounding soft protective tissue of the lids. Leonardo’s eyes and lids are constructed with curves, not straight lines. With the four images above at Fig. 2, a connoisseur’s ‘eye’ should recognise that even when constructing an eye with straight and not curved lines (as in the lower right demonstration drawing) it is possible to render the visible part of the eyeball conceptually if not literally spherical. That schematic drawing displays greater sculptural and anatomical acuity than does the more laboured and “finished” “La Bella Principessa”. It recognises and describes with three (faint) straight lines, what Leonardo depicts with curves: the line(s) of collision between the bulging soft flesh of the lower eyelid (when the eye is open) and the more taught flesh that is stretched over the cheekbone. In the infrared image at Fig. 6 we can see with crystal clarity how Leonardo saw the structure of the lower eyelid and how he set out this structure in preliminary drawing form. While Leonardo gave fluent anatomically-informed account of eyes, Marchig was insecure in his treatment (see Art’s Toxic Assets – Part II). Had Leonardo complied – against everything else in his output – with an irresistible court demand for a strictly profile treatment of a female subject’s head and torso, as Kemp claims in defence of La Bella Principessa, he would have had the wit and the judgement to render the eye, too, in strict profile. “La Bella Principessa’s” eye – which is smaller – is not drawn in accord with that strict out-of-perspective formal convention. Rather, it strays into looking both outwards and downwards, imparting an insecure, wary, not proud air.

MAPPING THE “RESTORATIONS” OF “LA BELLA PRINCIPESSA”

Above, Fig. 3: The colour coded map that is said to show areas of restoration in “La Bella Principessa”, as published on page 133 of the 2010 Kemp/Cotte book Leonardo da Vinci “La bella Principessa” The Profile Portrait of a Milanese Woman. It is striking how discretely localised are the areas of “restoration”, and how fortuitously the corresponding areas of injury had fallen in the least important parts of the image.

CONFOUNDING THE SIMILAR AND THE DISSIMILAR

Above, Fig. 4: Top, the (true) right eye of The Lady with an Ermine. Above, the eye of “La Bella Principessa”. In this diagram Pascal Cotte, a brilliant engineer, sees confirmation of a common author – even at his arrowed point 2 where Leonardo’s curved demarcation between the eyeball and the lower lid is set against the form-denying straight demarcations in “La Bella Principessa”.

Above, Fig. 5: Left, the eye of Leonardo’s Windsor Castle Portrait of a Woman in Profile (reversed). Right, the smaller, more angular and more sunken eye of “La Bella Principessa”.

A common fault of copyists, pastiche-makers and forgers is to get details correct while missing the larger unified relationships which, collectively, they should constitute. The author of “La Bella Principessa” not only misses the cohering sense of the eye as a ball but even misconstrues the form and anatomical function of particular details. This error testifies to forgery rather than pastiche. We will be showing “La Bella Principessa” to be a “portmanteau work” composed from features drawn from a number of bona fide Leonardos. It can hardly seem a coincidence that the most disqualifying error of drawing in “La Bella Principessa” – the lower eyelid – occurs at the very point where damage is found in the (“prototype”) work which it is most closely said to resemble. At this point the drawing’s author has clearly been required to invent rather than copy or paraphrase. Indeed, in “La Bella Principessa’s” eye we find a progressive falling off of anatomical and artistic credibility from top to bottom: most plausible in “La Bella Principessa” is the somewhat simplifying paraphrase of the upper eyelid. Less plausible is the treatment of the more complex and elusive eyeball and iris. Least plausible of all is the fabricated lower eyelid. Martin Kemp’s claim that by drawing attention to such incompatibility we seek to divert the arguments “into issues of a peripheral nature in the face of evidence of a non-arbitrary kind” is not only unfounded – much material is in train on this attribution – it betrays a technically philistine misapprehension of sound scholarly method. Let us be clear: art, not the devil, lies in artistic detail and these details testify to authorship. We have the clearest possible understanding of how much Leonardo knew and how well he gave expression/record to what he knew/saw. It is for those who would count “La Bella Principessa” as a Leonardo to explain the disparity between its eye and that below at Figs. 7 & 8, which, on Kemp’s account, were both made at the same date.

SPOT THE ODD ONE OUT

Above, Figs. 6, 7 & 8: Top, the eye of “La Bella Principessa”; Centre, the (true) left eye of Leonardo’s La Belle Ferronnière, as seen in an infrared reflectogram by E. Lambert for C2RMF as published in Leonardo’s Technical Practice, Paris, 2014; Above, the (true) left eye of Leonardo’s La Belle Ferronnière, as seen in Pietro Marani’s Leonardo da Vinci – The Complete Paintings, New York, 2000. It is, for reasons given here, inconceivable that both of these eyes could have been produced by Leonardo at the same time – c. 1496.

There is another sense in which Kemp’s espousal of “La Bella Principessa” exposes his art historical method. By drawing attention to “La Bella Principessa’s” many points of direct correspondence with the Windsor Castle profile portrait in terms of overall effects, pentimenti, anatomical details and so forth, the scholar strains credulity. The Windsor Castle portrait is clearly of a mature woman. It was made some 15 years earlier than the supposed portrait of Bianca Sforza who died when a child of fourteen. The Windsor drawing is made in another (and single) medium – silverpoint – in which Leonardo was effortlessly, supremely fluent. “La Bella Principessa”, however, was made in an unprecedented combination of materials on a never or extremely rarely encountered-in-Leonardo support. How likely, then, is it that Leonardo would produce an elaborately finished drawing in an un-encountered mix of graphic and pictorial media and of a type nowhere else encountered in his oeuvre, of a young girl who, on Kemp’s account, was drawn either directly from life or from some other unknown record of her appearance, in commemoration after her death, some fifteen years later, that would, when reversed, produce a near perfect coincidence of proportions, features and, even, pentimenti?

It would, of course, be entirely unremarkable for a forger or pastiche-maker to engineer a similar reversed coincidence of features and traits with a bona fide Leonardo work. A canny forger who happened to be a restorer of old masters – including Leonardo, as was the case with Marchig – would well appreciate the need for evidence of one or two reassuring “campaigns of restoration” in a supposed work of five centuries of age. Marchig’s widow has reportedly claimed that he had indeed conducted restorations on the front of the drawing and on the back of the oak panel to which it was – unprecedentedly and, it is now claimed, irreversibly – glued. Kemp has not discussed, as far as we know, technical evidence that has been discussed by another Leonardo scholar – Cristina Geddo – that the back of the vellum is not blank as it would surely have been had it ever faced the the elaborately illuminated frontispiece of a major book as Kemp claims. For Dr Geddo, it is reassuring that the back of “La Bella Principessa’s” vellum support bears “superimposed numbers…like others written in pen, such as a very pale inscription visible along the upper border of the sheet and the little winged dragon – at least this is what it seems – in the lower left corner. This feature, too, counts in favour of an attribution to Leonardo, who, even though he has never to our knowledge used a parchment support in his work, was in the habit of re-using the paper on which he wrote or drew.” Of course, forgers too re-use old material.

THE AiA: AN OPEN FORUM; A PROFESSIONAL TALKING SHOP; OR, A CONSERVATION-FRIENDLY CLOSED SHOP?

Nothing can bring greater benefit to the art world than free, frank discussions and debate. The annual three-day Hague Congress is organised by a body that addresses the subject of authenticity in art and is titled AUTHENTICATION IN ART. This year’s AiA congress (11-13 May) specifically addresses the voguish museum world hybrid discipline known as Technical Art History, the misapplied and anti-aesthetic scientism of which we have criticised since its earliest days (see, for example, the first post on this site The New Relativisms and the Death of “Authenticity”). Attendees at this year’s AiA congress comprise “art collectors, collection managers, directors of museums and galleries, art dealers, appraisers, connoisseurs, advisors, auctioneers, insurers, investors, lawyers, authors of catalogues raisonnés, restorers, conservators, material scientists and art historians.” This particular critic of Technical Art History will not be speaking even though our proposal for a paper was encouragingly received by a congress organiser who wrote:

“Dear Michael, Thank you. Very valuable to the whole set up of AiA 2016. Get back to you in the coming weeks.”

The proposal had opened:

“Technical Art History is presented as a multi-discipline, international museum-standard professional synthesis that eliminates error and delivers enlightenment when, in truth, it testifies to little more than the ascendency in museums of technicians over curator/connoisseurs. This putsch began with the creation of in-house museum restoration departments where staff restorers could no longer be sacked. The National Gallery in London claims pioneering authorship of the new hybrid discipline and it perfectly reflects the new pecking order.”

We were subsequently “dis-invited” through a form notification to unsuccessful applicants. Among this year’s speakers will be Professor Kemp, a member of the AiA’s advisory board, and Pascal Cotte, of Lumière Technology. Cotte was, as mentioned, co-author with Kemp of the 2010 and 2012 English and Italian editions of a book of advocacy, La Bella Principessa – The Story of the New Masterpiece by Leonardo da Vinci. (Kemp has been critical of Cotte’s recent, go-it-alone book Lumière on the Mona Lisa – Hidden Portraits.) A working group was set up to organise this year’s congress. It is comprised entirely of conservators or conservation scientists. Curators and connoisseurs are not represented. One member of this advisory group was David Bomford, who is presently the Chair of Conservation and Head of European Art at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Formerly, as a senior restorer, Bomford was the architect of the National Gallery’s presently stated cleaning philosophy – which we had discussed in some detail in our proposed congress paper (“…The false assurances of Clark’s aesthetics/science sleight of hand haunt and deform the National Gallery. Its official conservation guide declares restorations to rest on individual restorer’s own aesthetic inclinations…”)

PROFESSOR KEMP’S ART HISTORICAL METHOD

In his 2014 AiA congress paper (“It Doesn’t Look Like Leonardo”) Kemp discussed two other Leonardo upgrading attributions with which he is associated. Namely, the two versions of the Madonna of the Yarnwinder (one of which was restored badly, Kemp once complained, by Marchig) and the massively restored wreck of a panel painting, the Salvator Mundi. His paper’s abstract ran:

“The state of methods and protocols used in attribution is a professional disgrace. Different kinds of evidence documentation, provenance, surrounding circumstances of contexts of varied kinds, scientific analysis, and judgement by eye are used and ignored opportunistically in ways that suit each advocate (who too frequently has undeclared interests). Scientific evidence is particularly abused in this respect. The status of different kinds of evidence is generally not acknowledged, particularly with respect to falsifiability… I will attempt to bring some systematic awareness into this area, which is a necessary first step in establishing some rational protocols. The case studies will be drawn from Leonardo.”

On reading this abstract with its scattergun slurs “opportunistically”, “disgrace” and “undeclared interests”, we laughed out loud. Partly because of the grandiose title – “The 2014 Hague Congress Authentication in Art – What happens when the painting you are buying, selling, investigating, exhibiting, insuring – Turns Out to be a Fake or a (Re)Discovery…” – chosen at a time when Kemp and others had failed to achieve a consensus of support for the drawing he had portentously dubbed “La Bella Principessa”. But also because, as mentioned, two decades earlier we had experienced Kemp’s invective and sneering distaste for traditional connoisseurs whom he sees as “a self-proclaimed (and often class-based) elite whose skills are insulated from systematic scrutiny”.

In his review of the James Beck/Michael Daley book Art Restoration – The Culture, the Business and the Scandal”, the authors – much as with Kemp’s peers today – were found professionally wanting and morally deficient: “…Their problem is that they seem unwilling to acknowledge the status of different kinds of evidence…The slanting of arguments, manipulation of quotations, and rigging of visual evidence may be effective journalism but it is poor history…” A more focussed barb was aimed at artists’ evaluations of conservation treatments: “Stalking throughout their book… is a very particular notion of ‘Art’ and its creators. ‘An Artist’ (ie What Beck and Daley understand as an artist in today’s terms) is adduced as the most important arbiter of the criteria for the treatment of our historical heritage. I am unclear about the identity of this archetypal beast.” Unclear indeed.

Kemp’s professional aversion to the views and judgements of artists is presented as a token of “higher”, more philosophically sophisticated notions of scholarly method and a scientist’s preference for non-judgemental, non-subjective “evidence” within it.

CRITICAL SILENCES

While some are cowed by Professor Kemp’s trademark abusive critical put-downs, others, like the blogger and art “sleeper” hunter, Bendor Grosvenor (21 April), openly admire them. We called Kemp’s bluff in a letter to the THES (2 May 1994):

“…he alleges… a misuse of historical and material evidence. Professor Kemp’s notions of misuse would seem to be singular: he complains, for example, that Professor James Beck and I accepted Charles Heath Wilson’s clear and detailed testimony that Michelangelo had extensively revised his frescoes with glue painting, ‘with unquestioning approval’. This is presented as proof of our ‘lack of discrimination’. But Wilson saw what he saw and said what he said… Does Kemp have any grounds for rejecting Wilson’s record?… Kemp is silent on this evidence. Why? The photographic evidence we supply of restoration-induced injuries is impugned by Kemp as ‘rigged’. It is nothing of the sort – most of it was provided by the restoration authorities themselves… Does Kemp wish to defend that restoration? Is he in possession of any photographs which tell a different story?”

No grounds for rejecting Wilson were offered in reply. No contra-testifying un-rigged photographs were ever produced.
For a fuller account of the spurious charges raised by art conservators and Kemp to Art Restoration, see “Why are picture restorers allergic to appraisal?”, Jackdaw, May/June 2016.

THE 2016 AUTHENTICATION-IN-ART CONGRESS AND ‘DISORDERLY’ SCHOLARSHIP

In this year’s AiA congress paper Kemp returns to his 2014 AiA congress attack on the shortcomings and abuses he perceives in the methodologies and behaviour of all other scholars in the field, albeit in muted form. Today his abstract reads:

“A speech on Technical Art History and the way he [Kemp] implements the research on Leonardo’s La Bella Principessa: the varieties of evidence and arguments, and how reactions to the attribution shed light on the disorderly nature of current methods”.

A clue to where he might be going can be found on his blogsite where he has published a “reworked” version of his 2014 paper that excludes his earlier linking remarks on other Leonardo attributions he supports – “Science and Judgement by Eye in the Historical Identification of Works of Art”.

The methodological schema Kemp outlines and censoriously offers to others seems little more than an overly complicated regurgitation of the tendentious, the self-evident and the true-by-definition. It leans heavily on and misapplies Karl Popper’s famously illuminating discussion of scientific knowledge and methods. Kemp seems to crave an aesthetic equivalent of the decisive Popperian test of scientific “falsifiability”. This is a vain, misdirected quest. Because of the profound differences between appraisal of works of art and the technical analysis of their constituent materials, Kemp is forever complicating and caveating his proposed model method. He compiles tables of hierarchies that are organised into polarising dualities. He is constantly extricating himself from fogs of his own making:

“In this and the following table, I am using the terms ‘scientific’ and ‘art historical’ in a conventional way without intending to signal that they can be isolated in the actual practice of attribution – and certainly not to suggest that the application of scientific analysis necessarily delivers more certainty than art historical evidence. In the actual practice of art history, its isolation from scientific analysis is all too common.”

Which? What? To help orientate us, Kemp devises a table of criteria that are more traditionally “art historical” with the “the most malleable [being] at the top.” But nothing ever comes to rest. Here, “I have added standard kinds of evidence relating to provenance and documentation that are highly constructive.” If baffled by the usage “constructive”, the reader must back-track to an earlier explanation that “The kinds of evidence and explanation that can be subject to various degrees of falsification can be grouped under two headings: constructive and permissive.” Thus, “By constructive I mean those that add positively and accumulatively to the case being made for a specific attribution. By permissive I am signalling those that present no obstacle to the attribution being made, i. e. they offer a nil obstat.”

JUDGEMENT BY EYE

When Picasso was asked what he thought of the philosophical discipline aesthetics, he replied: “Aesthetics is to the artist what ornithology is to birds.” In Kemp, everything is dunked in pseudo-philosophical terminology. Take the simple clear self-explanatory notion “judgement by eye” which he offers in preference to snobby, elitist, class-based etc “connoisseurship”:

“As we have seen, judgement by eye plays a key role in key scientific techniques. Although the most constructive of the kinds of art historical evidence, documentation and provenance, do not rely upon judgement by eye, it is common that this kind of evidence is not available or is less conclusive than we would wish. In many cases judgement by eye necessarily provides the actual starting point, before other kinds of investigation are undertaken. This is often the situation when a previously unknown or unrecognised work first emerges with specific claims attached to it. Let us try to formulate some propositions about judgement by eye in a somewhat Popperian manner”

Why, apart from intellectual snobbery, in a “Popperian” manner? Well, they help Kemp to conclude with the twin observations that “Judgement by eye is malleable in the light of multiple interests”, and “Judgement by eye is falsifiable only by factors outside of itself.” Kemp’s Popperian edifice is, as it were, a perniciously misleading red herring. In truth judgements by eye cannot be equated with falsifiable scientific propositions, they are a different beast – they are critical appraisals. As such they are gambits in a discussion. They can be countered by demonstrably superior, more percipient and persuasive judgements that accord better with the material circumstances and visual facts of a given work of art. Because Kemp sets the hard and “irrefutable facts” of material analysis (many of which, he acknowledges, require judgement by eye) against what he deems the “subjective”, “relative” and “malleable” act of appraisal of the (despised) connoisseur, he misrepresents what is indispensable to proper appraisals of art. Connoisseurship (the term should not frighten or repel us) cannot sensibly be treated as a natural science – properly, rigorously conducted it is an open, competitive adversarial system that is full of checks and balances wherein anything that is proposed may examined, challenged and deposed. Art world abuses certainly exist but they flourish best when legitimate criticisms and demonstrations are blocked and disqualified and critics are ruled out of court. Kemp, who despises the “class-based” connoisseur, does not respond well to criticism and prefers abuse and denigration to straightforward and healthy critical engagement. That is his loss, but also, he being a talented man, it is that of scholarship itself.

AN INTELLECTUALLY OPEN CONFERENCE

When ArtWatch UK, The Center for Art Law, and the London School of Economics Law Department, organised a conference on connoisseurship in London last December (“Art, Law and Crises of Connoisseurship”), one of the papers, “How reliable are today’s attributions in art? The case of ‘La Bella Principessa’ examined”, by Kasia Pisarek, presented a number of the interlocking art historical, aesthetic and technical criticisms she had recently published in the above mentioned Polish scholarly journal Artibus et Historiae.

Because this paper was a strong and detailed rejection of the attribution, we invited Martin Kemp to give a paper. He declined. We then invited Nicholas Turner, an independent scholar and drawings expert who had championed the “La Bella Principessa” drawing before Prof. Kemp. He, also, declined to speak. To represent the restoration-pro-active, attribution-making school of art dealers, we invited Philip Mould. Mr Mould, too, declined to speak. Shortly before the conference, Kemp, Silverman and a Polish art historian, Kasia Wozniak, all lobbied for the “balancing” inclusion in our conference proceedings of the journalist Simon Hewitt who is writing a book with the owner of La Bella Principessa, Peter Silverman – who tells us that the book is on “various aspects of the art market, sometimes highlighted by others’ and my own discoveries”. Hewitt attended the conference and, from the floor, launched an assault on Pisarek’s case – but did so, we later learned, on the borrowed authority of Kemp who had “prepped” him for the occasion on objections he had framed in response to Pisarek’s Artibus et Historiae article. Kemp later submitted his lengthy response to Artibus et Historiae for publication but it was turned down. This article has now been posted on the AiA Congress website. Perhaps, in the interests of scholarly balance, the AiA congress will now also post the article by Dr Pisarek which Professor Kemp aims to rebut? Perhaps the Congress might also consider posting our own initially valuable-to-proceedings but later rejected paper on Technical Art History?

Michael Daley, 3 May 2016

COMING SOON: The Salvator Mundi, Giannino Marchig, Left-handedness and “La Bella Principessa”


Restoration criticism should be banned: official

An art historian has mentioned the restoration of the Sistine Chapel and professional restorers are furious. Art restorers, it seems, cannot cope with criticism and would like certain discussions of restorations to be proscribed.

A reviewer of a book on the condition of works of art, protests that its author became “enmeshed” in the debates over the controversial cleaning of the Sistine Chapel, thereby committing “error” in an otherwise “thoroughly accurate and levelly argued book”.

Why should a discussion of the greatest art restoration controversy of modern times – and a discussion that was made precisely when writing of the importance of condition in works of art – trigger defensive and totalitarian impulses, as if some Index Librorum Prohibitorum on restoration controversies has been breached? The review of Paul Taylor’s book Condition – The Ageing of Art appeared in the March 2016 ICON NEWS, the magazine of the Institute of Conservation. The reviewer, Dr Clare Finn, ACR, is a member of the Institute of Conservation. She runs a firm, Clare Finn & Co Ltd, which is described on its online home page as being “a well-known and highly respected firm of painting restorers and conservators”. Dr Finn is not alone among restorers in seeking such a prohibition on this topic.

As we discussed in the recent conference on connoisseurship and law, another of the art restoration trade’s many Sistine Chapel injury-deniers, Will Shank, reviewed Paul Taylor’s book in the December 2015 Art Newspaper. Shank, who is said to work “privately in collections care in from his base in Barcelona” is the co-chair of the US initiative Rescue Public Murals. He also complained of Taylor’s discussion of the Sistine Chapel restoration controversy. He, too, did so despite finding Taylor’s research thorough and his presentation “for the most part unbiased.” What gave offence was the scholar’s “choice to light a fire under a long dead controversy.” Shank gratefully acknowledges that the Sistine Chapel restoration controversy brought the term art restoration into the consciousness of the “lay public”. Writing thusly from within the cosy confines of the art conservation priest-craft, Shank had the brass to complain that it failed to do so “in a positive way”.

For well over half a century, picture restorers (who used to be dubbed Picture Rats) have sought to present their trade as academically respectable with ethical, rigorously conducted and reported procedures. (Shank obtained a Certificate in Paintings Conservation from Harvard University Art Museums in 1983 after taking a Master of Arts in Art History in 1981 at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, following a Bachelor of Science, 1973 in languages and linguistics at Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.). Picture restorers should recognise that in properly rigorous intellectual disciplines, no topics are proscribed; that all are fair game for scrutiny and discussion; and, that there are no heresies. Shank and Finn will be aware that although the Vatican has yet to publish a technical report on its still-controversial restoration of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes, it abolished its list of banned books in 1966.

Michael Daley, 5 April 2016


Bring on the Clowns (- or, “Italy Loses It”)

Italy has decided to play international museum world catch-up at precisely the wrong moment and with a panicked, plagarising zeal that bodes ill for art lovers and that country’s own cultural well-being.

MR JAMES BRADBURNE LANDS A NEW JOB AND SEMAPHORE’S “CHANGES AHEAD”

Above, James Bradburne in front of “St Mark Preaching in Alexandria” at the Brera, Milan.

We had hoped against hope that the reports were not true. We could not believe that a deranged Italy had engaged in a mass cull of museum directors in hope of a making another of its periodic surges away from itself and into the future.

It was true, of course, and we should not have averted our eyes and stuffed our ears. In a chilling report carried in the travel section of this weekend’s Finanacial Times, Claire Wrathall (“Shaking up Milan’s Pinacoteca di Brera”) anatomises a cultural spasm-in-the-making:

“In January 2015 an advertisement placed by the Italian Ministry of Culture appeared in the Economist seeking directors-general for 20 of Italy’s leading museums…(Existing incumbents had to apply for their own jobs; only one, Anna Coliva of the Galleria Borghese in Rome, was rehired.) As the culture minister, Dario Francheschini, put it, ‘Italian museums should be dynamic. A country with 4,000 museums should see that as a formidable economic resource.'”

Mr Bradburne, a British-Canadian architect and museum expert has landed the directorship of the Brera in Milan (the Pinacotecca di Brera), with, as Ms Wrathall reports, the fatuous governmental brief “to turn one of the world’s greatest collections of Renaissance masterpieces (not to mention works by 20th-century Italian artists such as Modigliani, Morandi and Severini)” into “an outstanding museum.” Since when was the Brera not an outstanding museum? Since when have museums in Italy not been a formidable economic force? Italy can hardly be chasing even more tourists? If Brits are the cat’s pyjamas as curators, how come our own museums are filling up with Germans? (Could this be an EU conspiracy to simulate dynamism in a moribund entity by artificially increasing the velocity of trans-national exchanges?)

POSSIBLE USES FOR MR JAMES BRADBURNE

It seems that Mr Bradburne’s reputation at the Palazzo Strozzi awakened the culture minister to “the need to shake up the nation’s moribund museums”. So, how do you shake a museum blessed with great art and enjoying an ideal natural lighting in which to view paintings? Official Answer: as Mr Bradburne puts it, “When I got here I was shocked by the dull flat approach to lighting which strove to recreate the sort of northern light the artist would have worked in.”

In other words, to shake things up, you obliterate the best and most sympathetic lighting imaginable – the very light in which the work was made. And then you replace it with what? In Mr Bradburne’s own words, you swap old orthodoxy with today’s fashion, “That is an old orthodoxy; the prevailing fashion nowadays is to put things in the spotlight. We speak with light and colour now.” Note the brazen and presumptuous sleight of hand: it is we, the adminstrators, not the art, who now speak. And, “we” may now play pseudo-theatrical games with all the inappropriate and intrusive vulgarity and gusto of interior designers on the loose in a boutique: “By making the walls darker you can make more contrast”.

THE PONG OF ART

As well as changing the light, Bradburne plans to add smells. Oh yes! That’s right, he will add “the smells of the plants that give colours to paints”. Bradburne does not explain how the smells of mineral or insect-derived pigments will be introduced into the galleries or how if the smell of all the pigments in a painting could be captured it would be possible for the vistor to tell them apart. Bradburne does freely admit to one problem: even if he were to succeed in reproducing all the smells, “the difficulty is the scents diffuse very quickly”.
More gimmicks are in train. Labels are to be written not by museum curators but by (non-Italian?) novelists like Julian Barnes, Sarah Dunnant, Ali Smith and Orhan Pamuk.

A MUSEOLOGICAL CURATE’S EGG

Above (top), one of the Bradburne-Refurbished galleries; above, “The Dead Christ and Three Mourners” (1474) by Andrea Mantegna.

A LITTLE CHEER

It has to be said that there are two cheering prospects. Although the glass wall will remain through which visitors can watch restorers nibbling away at the once-gloriously little-touched works (- I well recall being shown round the gallery by Pietro Marani, when Leonardo’s “Last Supper” was part-way through its debilitating restoration and repainting, and he proudly pointed out how well his Cima altarpiece then looked against its counterpart in the National Gallery, London), Bradborne will, at least, be eschewing the Blockbuster Game. That, he well and aptly describes as “cannibalising our collections”. Presently, he notes, “People come and never see the permanent collection”.

Further, one of the most gratuitously offensive pieces of contrived theatrical staging that predates his reign in the museum is to go. That is to say, “the most complained-about display in the museum” – Mantegna’s “Dead Christ”.

Followers of this site will recall Michel Favre-Felix’s shocking post of 13 March 2014 (“Mantegna’s Dead Christ : They Know Not What They Do”): “…the Dead Christ is now housed in a special crypt-like dark room, stripped of His historic frame and visually isolated by spot-lighting, as if now embedded into a monolithic black wall – and at a height of only 67 cm from the ground. This presentation is intended to be permanent and the film-maker, humility notwithstanding, declares ‘This will last: I will fight for it’.” Good riddance to that.

Michael Daley, 2 April 2016


ArtWatch and the Death of the Independent

On 26 March 2016 the printed Independent newspapers died. As Michael Daley reports, it was a poignant moment for those like himself who were in at the Great Project’s beginning in 1986 and had experienced the rush of excitement as the new newspaper’s pioneering innovations rapidly achieved commercial success and professional acclaim.

The paths of the Independent and ArtWatch were cross-linked for over two decades. The Independent was launched in 1986 as a newspaper in which much had been rethought and with firm editorial convictions that there should be no “freebies” (copy produced in exchange for free holidays or such) and no sacred cows – least of all with the royal family. At that date, twenty years after the heroic rescue operations that followed the flooding of Florence, one of the most sacrosanct received wisdoms was that art restoration was a safe and miraculous means of rejuvenating old works of art. I had left the Financial Times to work as the Independent’s principal illustrator shortly before the launch.

Above, the first issue of the Independent which was published on 7 October 1986.

A CRITICAL REVERSAL

Today, criticisms of even the grandest restorations are commonplace and no longer prompt ridicule and abuse. To the contrary, it is now restorations that attract ridicule. (See “And the World’s Worst Restoration is…”) In the brain-stretching BBC2 television quiz show Only Connect, a recent winning answer was: “They are all paintings that have been ruined by restorers”. Strictly speaking as the host, Victoria Coren, advised (on legal advice no doubt ), the correct answer was: “They are all paintings that have been controversially restored”. Controversially for sure – all had been condemned on this site: the Monkey-faced Christ; the Louvre’s botched Veronese nose jobs; the reconfigured-little that survived the last restoration of Leonardo’s Last Supper (see below); and the “Disney-fied” repainting of an ancient Chinese mural. The Guardian now asks readers to submit photographs of the worst restorations they have witnessed: “Restoration disasters around the world: share your pictures and stories”. Auctioneers and dealers place premiums on little- or never-restored works, not vice versa. No one would dream of producing a television or radio series called “Your Hundred Best Restorations”. No one (“sleeper” hunters aside) would celebrate a many-times restored painting. How we got to this stage is a long story. The Independent’s contribution to it was crucial, honourable and is worthy of greater recognition.

NINE MEN, ONE WOMAN, AN EXECUTIVE CHAIR AND NO PROPRIETOR

On 7 October 1988, Campaign magazine observed and reported on the Independent’s workings and progress at the time of its second anniversary, by which date it had exceeded its initial target of 375,000 sales.

Above, from left to right: Jonathan Fenby, Home Editor; Chris McKane, Picture Editor; Charles Burgess, Sports Editor; Sarah Hogg, Business and City Editor; Peter Jenkins, Political Columnist; Andreas Whittam Smith, Editor; Stephen Glover, Foreign Editor; Alexander Chancellor, Magazine Editor; John Torode, Leader Writer; Tom Sutcliffe, Arts Editor. (Not present, Michael Crozier, Art Editor.)

Below, Campaign’s photographer followed Andreas Whittam Smith’s day, showing here (top) a meeting with the leader writers, Roger Berthoud and John Torode; (centre), the principal illustrator, Michael Daley, at work; and, (bottom) with the home desk editor, Jonathan Fenby.

THE LOOK OF THE PAPER

The smart and distinctive look of the Independent contributed greatly to its initial success. Much as everyone in the city and business had felt impelled to sport the pink Financial Times, so everyone in advertising, design, architecture, photography and the visual arts seemed to have taken to the Independent. The newspaper – the first to exploit digital typesetting – was printed on good white paper that had little “show-through” from adjoining pages. By editorial requirement, its photography and graphics were distinctive and of high professional quality.

INNOVATIVE CONTENT

A journalistically novel and distinctive development on the paper had been a decision to expand and elevate the non-news, “features” sections, giving each a dedicated, professionally expert editor. In consequence I worked for sections as diverse as Law, Health, Food, Books, Gardening, Music, Wine, Architecture and so forth. For a fine art-trained illustrator, working with top calibre journalists (and an art editor who gave drawings due space and air) was a privileging and highly stimulating situation. The paper’s famous high-mindedness and unashamedly high-brow arts coverage, left one free to reference anything (including past art) that might best help illustrate pieces that ranged from, say, written evocations of the tastes and smells of food; cultural anxieties over decadence felt as the end of the century approached; and, acrimonious disputes of custody that sometimes arose when lesbian couples broke up after having had children by complicated paternity arrangements. Thus, by way of example, seven images:

Above, seven drawings for the Independent, by Michael Daley.

THE GRAPHIC TECHNIQUE

If the conceptual challenges on the Independent were exhilarating, deadline pressures meant that there was rarely more than 24 hours from inception to delivery of a drawing. The ink drawing technique (which I had developed during the previous four years on the Financial Times and the Times’ educational supplements), aimed to exploit as much as possible the easy extremes of graphic art with solid blacks (quickly brushed) and pure whites (paper left bare). Between those polar graphic opposites, slow-to-realise shading was judiciously deployed with cross-hatched lines and stippled dots. To speed output, all preliminary drawing was made in pencil on the finished sheet and then directly inked over so that the sketching stage could be completely erased. I had come to recognise that a drawing for reproduction in a newspaper is not a thing-in-its-own-right but a piece of page furniture that must live variously with the “grey” of closely set print texts, the assertive blacks of headlines, and, the graphically strident clamour of advertisements.

RECOGNITION

The novelty of the Independent’s employment of an illustrator who had trained principally in sculpture and etching swiftly resulted in a press award and commissions from book publishers and advertising agencies. The sweetest and most surprising outcome was earning the respect as an illustrator of established practising fine artists. One of the most generous was Peter Blake, who sent a kind note of thanks and respect with a book of illustrations he had made for Michael Horovitz’s poem of celebration, love and homage to Frances Horovitz. Blake had surmised (correctly) that I, like he, was an admirer of Maxfield Parrish. Such recognition almost immediately took on an art political significance in an entirely unanticipated way.

THE SISTINE CHAPEL RESTORATION DISPUTE

Within a month of receiving Peter Blake’s gift, the Sunday Times Magazine published an article on the restoration of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes. It told of condemnation from artists and an art historian, Professor James Beck of Columbia University, New York. Against them, the art historical establishment claimed momentous restoration “discoveries” and “revelations” that were said to require nothing less than a rewriting of five centuries of art history. The profound changes that all parties conceded had been achieved by repeatedly brushed-on and washed-off applications of a ferocious solvent gel that had left Michelangelo’s painting a pale and deformed reflection of its former self (see below). Beck was being likened to the man who refused to look through Galileo’s telescope for his refusal to acknowledge as a miraculous “recovery” a hitherto unsuspected and nowhere-recorded “New Michelangelo”. “We didn’t need one”, Beck had retorted, “There was nothing wrong with the old”.

To this working artist, the photographic evidence of the pre- and post-cleaned sections made it clear that the proposed art historical edifice being offered in post hoc defence of a demonstrably bungled restoration threatened a compounding falsification of history itself. Suspicion arose that because so many art historians had authorised or endorsed the restoration on which so much institutional capital and foreign sponsorship monies had been invested, none could break ranks. Further, it seemed to have been especially galling to art historians that their endorsements had been rejected on visual evidence cited by artists. (One scholar/supporter of the restoration, Professor Martin Kemp, would later complain in the Times Higher Educational Supplement: “I am unclear about the identity of this archetypal beast. Is ‘an artist’ to be identified with Andy Warhol or one of his fellow practitioners who protested during the cleaning of the Sistine ceiling?”)

COPYING OTHER ARTISTS’ WORK

It so happened that having switched to illustration from art school teaching and fine art practice in 1982, working long hours, six or seven days a week left little time for travel or even museum attendance. Partly in substitution, I had kept touch with art through books and, as an illustrator, took every opportunity to incorporate work by artists I admired. These ranged from classical Greek sculpture, through Michelangelo, to certain favourite modern artists like Gustav Klimt, the painter/sculptor Max Klinger and Picasso (on our homage to Klimt and Klinger, see “At the end of another century” above).

Above: (top) a detail of a copy of a Klimt portrait of Judith made by Michael Daley for the Independent in illustration of a Health article. Below it is a comparison of a section of the Klimt painting, as seen before (left) and after restoration(s). (For sight of the wholesale destruction of this modern artist’s work at the hand of restorers, see “The Elephant in Klimt’s Room” and “Now let’s murder Klimt”.)

APPRECIATING OTHER ARTISTS’ WORKS AND THE RELEVANCE OF COPYING TO APPRAISING RESTORATIONS

To copy the work of another artist it is necessary to look closely and attentively at it. You cannot draw what you have not analysed and understood. Indeed, drawings produced after the works of others are tests of understanding even more than of skill. Spending a working life both copying the various uses of shading made by other artists, and applying one’s own marks to paper so as to create plastically coherent and expressive tonal relationships, sharpens the eye and confers an ability to detect injuries to original tonal relationships in the works of others. This should not be considered surprising or remarkable: those who organise and dispose marks on surfaces, are perfectly placed to recognise the obverse – which is to say, the adulteration or deconstruction of artistically purposive values during so-called restorations.

Pace sneering art historians, to artists’ art practice trained eyes, spotting such injuries is as easy as it is for accountants to spot errors of arithmetic. That many art historians fail to recognise injuries to the works of the artists they study, might indeed suggest (as others have recently claimed) that something very wrong has been going on in art history education. And yet, at the end of the 1980s, when artists and rare visually discerning scholars challenged officially-sanctioned and endorsed restorations, it was they, not the visually-limited, who met with abuse. When I introduced myself to James Beck, prior to writing the 1990 Independent on Sunday article discussed below, he had been reviled in scholarly print by his peers – not least by a sister professor who served the Vatican as its art historical adviser/spokesman on the Sistine Chapel restoration. When I asked him if it might be helpful for an artist to make visual demonstrations of the injuries to Michelangelo’s work, he replied that it would be the most important thing to do, because “only artists understand these matters”. (Beck’s sister was a painter and he had studied fine art before switching to art history.)

Above, A detail shown in greyscale and in colour of a section of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, as seen before (left) and after cleaning in the 1980s.

THE VALUE OF DIRECT PHOTO-COMPARISONS

To identify restoration injuries it is helpful to place photographs of small sections of a restored work directly side-by-side (as in the Klimt Judith above, where the relative weakening of the spirals at the bottom, for example, should be apparent to the most untutored eye). The above detail of the Sistine Chapel ceiling was reproduced in the December 1988 Sunday Times article. It was immediately clear to me that the cleaning had weakened and in some places altogether erased bona fide features of shading and specific details like veins on the giant symbolic oak leaves. I asked the Independent’s arts editor if I might write a short article explaining why Prof. James Beck was right and the art historical establishment was wrong. On the face of it, this was a perfect Independent “questioning-of-authority” story. Unfortunately, the request could not be granted because the paper’s then art critic had recently visited the restorers’ scaffold in the chapel and had judged the restoration… a success. His art critical authority could not be challenged by a working artist with clear “standing” within the paper. Fortunately, when the Independent on Sunday was launched in 1990, its arts editor, Michael Church, commissioned a piece showing the damaging consequences of the restoration. Many criticisms of the restoration had previously been reported in the press but no one before had been given space in a national newspaper to set out evidence of injury. That article proved to be a game-changer.

Above, top, the Independent on Sunday magazine of 25 March 1990 which carried (above) photographs showing restoration injuries in Michael Daley’s “Michelangelo: found or lost”

ESTABLISHMENT INTIMIDATION OF THE PRESS

Newspapers are complex entities comprised of many distinct departments that speak to particular constituencies. Dedicated arts journalists must swim in the art world and negotiate with its players and institutions. For them, breaking the “rules of engagement” can incur ostracism and worse. Those who play by the rules can be rewarded with exclusive stories and material. They might receive invitations to accompany globe-trotting museum directors on blockbuster shows. They might be invited to become embedded within a conservation department so as to counter anticipated criticisms. News journalists are less constrained. They are licensed to get and follow stories; to look for bodies; to follow money; to report mishaps and so forth.

When the Independent on Sunday article on the Sistine Chapel restoration was published the news editor on the daily Independent was intrigued by the magnitude of the controversy and he commissioned the above pair of articles. Despite such strong editorial support the articles nearly failed to see the light of day. Even though I had professional “standing”, the paper’s arts correspondent, David Lister, was taken aback by the high-level hostility and abuse levelled at me and Professor Beck. He became fearful of challenging key and venerable sections of the art establishment. How could the two of us be right and all of them wrong, he asked? It was a fair and sensible question: newspapers can never afford to back losers and must always invite responses from those under attack.

By way of reassurance, I showed the catalogues to the 1969 Olivetti-sponsored Frescoes from Florence travelling exhibition to London and New York. This exhibition consisted of murals that had been detached (on grounds of conservation) from buildings in Italy and then mounted on panels as stand-alone works of art that might be flown around the world – much as restored medieval glass from cathedrals is being despatched today. Both catalogues groaned under the weight of luminaries included in the exhibition’s “Committees of Honour”. At the time the show had been a sensation on two continents but I was able to show a recent Burlington Magazine editorial which condemned the detachment of frescoes from buildings as a barbarous and now discredited practice that had injured the paintings and buildings alike, and left many frescoes mouldering like rolled-up like rugs in church and chapel basements.

The procedural obstacle was cleared and both articles were published. The sky did not fall in and although squeals were heard, thereafter, the paper had confidence and trust in my judgements and accounts, enabling me to write further on the Sistine Chapel debacle and restorations at the National Gallery – including a review (below) of a book extolling the Sistine Chapel restoration that was written by the Sunday Times’ art critic, Waldemar Januszczak.

PROFESSOR BECK GETS SUED

In 1991, after surviving years of abuse over the Sistine Chapel controversy, Beck was hit with a criminal action in the Italian courts over reported criticisms he had made in Lucca Cathedral on the restoration of a marble tomb by the early Renaissance sculptor Jacopo della Quercia. The restorer (in fact, the head of a restoration company) had not sued the Italian newspapers that had reported Beck’s (oral) criticisms. Instead, he sued the scholar alone for aggravated criminal slander – a charge that carried a possible three years jail sentence – and for damages of 60 million Lire. By not suing those who had transmitted the criticisms (and therefore had, allegedly, harmed his reputation), the restorer ensured that Beck could receive no support from the newspapers and their lawyers and would have to bear all the risks alone. As the world authority on this early Renaissance sculptor, he felt compelled to do so. Although the trial’s ramifications might have been horrendous for scholarship generally, he received no public expressions of support from his peers. When I asked the editor of the Burlington Magazine why this was the case, she replied “Because he is going to lose”. The public needed to be alerted to the case. Once again, the Independent came through. On 8 November 1991, David Lister reported the imminent trial:

Below, part of David Lister’s 8 November 1991 article.

Below, a book Beck had produced on the Lucca Cathedral monument

THE TRIAL AND THE PROFESSIONAL SILENCE

Like the editor of the Burlington Magazine, the judge at Beck’s trial in Florence knew that he was going to lose. Indeed, he declared an intention to find him guilty to the prosecuting lawyer, as they left the court together discussing the case at lunchtime after the trial’s first morning session. “Eh, but I shall find him guilty” he said. Fortunately, he was overheard by an off-duty policeman who was working as an intern for Beck’s lawyer. When challenged, the judge refused to recuse himself but eventually he disappeared and Beck, under a new judge, was soon acquitted.

REPORTING THE TRIAL OUTCOME

At the time we were able by courtesy once more of the Independent (22 November 1991) to raise a cheer for Beck and for the blow he had struck for the free expression of scholarly judgements on matters of artistic welfare and integrity. But this had been an extremely close call and, while contemplating a possible jail sentence, Beck decided that a dedicated international organisation was needed to speak for the interests of the world’s great and insufficiently protected works of art. A year later ArtWatch International was founded in New York.

On the day of publication of the Independent’s 22 November article, Grant McIntyre, an editor at the venerable and (then) still independent publishing house John Murray, telephoned to ask if there might be a book on the trial and on matters of restoration. There was and, following its initial publication in 1993, it ran to many subsequent editions (see below).

THE BOOK’S RECEPTION

The book soon faced a formidable hurdle: it was to be reviewed in the New York Review of Books by a formidable Renaissance scholar, Professor Charles Hope, a supporter of the Sistine Chapel restoration. In the event, Prof. Hope was persuaded by the art historical and technical proofs of injury we had amassed. Moreover, he held that Beck had performed an admirable and brave service to scholars and scholarship alike. He also pointed that while many scholars of his acquaintance had initially supported the restoration enthusiastically, many had recently fallen silent on the subject.

After the trial turmoil and the creation of ArtWatch International, I continued to draw the art I loved and to criticise restorations in the Independent.

DENIAL AT THE VATICAN

After the horrors on the ceiling, we later witnessed the injuries to Michelangelo’s Last Judgement. There are still institutionally ensconced scholars and administrators who are in denial on the injuries at the Sistine Chapel and insist against all evidence – such as is found in the contemporary painted copy of the “Last Judgement” by Marcelo Venusti shown above – that Michelangelo had painted in today’s vapid tones and hues. In part this New Pallor is not only the product of the last restoration but also of the quarter of a century since in which the interactions of tourism-induced airborne pollution and chemical residues of the cleaning have been devouring the fresco surfaces. So great has been the debilitation that, in addition to a new air-conditioning system, thousands of colour-enhancing LED lights have been installed on the ceiling.

THE INDEPENDENT AND A CHANGED CRITICAL CLIMATE

The Independent gave fair and generous voice to previously unheard criticisms. By doing so it made an invaluable contribution to artistic health – not only directly but indirectly by opening up the rich, hitherto unexamined field to the rest of the press. The Times, the Sunday Telegraph, the Daily Telegraph, the Guardian and the Observer and others all saw the importance of the subject and recognised that “news” is that which somebody, somewhere, would prefer not to see published. The importance of newspapers in this regard cannot be exaggerated – our colleagues in the United States and France cannot believe that newspapers can be so challenging to entrenched authorities in the arts. The vigour of the British press can also be seen by comparison with our broadcast media which remains perpetually asleep on the job, treating the visual arts as little more than a gifted succession of diverting, institution-promoting “Good News” stories.

ARTS BROADCASTING PAP

When the Beck/Daley art restoration book was published in 1993 a number of independent television companies rightly saw the potential for a televisual “public affairs” type of treatment. All of these proceded well until they reached the top of their commissioning chains. Once, the head of music and arts at the BBC went so far as to offer a whole arts programme, reassuring us that although the BBC and the National Gallery were commercial partners “that shouldn’t create a problem”. But it did: the almost-commissioned independent meticulously even-handed examination of the pros and cons of picture restoration was swiftly killed off. In its place the BBC permitted the National Gallery to make its own effective tele-promotional “selfie” (with gallery staff using left-in-place BBC cameras) of its mangled, falsifying restoration of Holbein’s The Ambassadors. On 29 January 2000 the Independent carried a letter from ArtWatch UK entitled “‘Virtual reality’ art”:

“…When the National Gallery recently restored Holbein’s The Ambassadors, the famous anamorphic skull in the foreground was repainted to a new design not according to the laws of perspective by which it had been produced but after a computer generated distortion of a photograph of a real skull. This Bizarre imposition of ‘virtual reality’ into an old master painting is defended by the gallery on the grounds that ‘modern imaging techniques’ offer more ‘scope for exploring possible reconstructions’ than do the 16th century perspectival conventions by which the artist’s original image had been generated. The difference between the original and the new parts has been concealed from the general public by the restorer’s attempt to integrate the handiwork of his own ‘tentative reconstruction’ with surrounding old paint by painting fake lines of cracking to match the old, actual, cracks.”

It is a tragedy that the lights should have gone out on a newspaper that had caused justifable discomfort in so many art world recesses. As described above, it is a measure of the success of the campaigning that first gained exposure in the Independent that we now enjoy a quite different and healthily expanded art critical universe. We thank the Independent for good times past and wish it all good fortune in its new streamlined format with global outreach at The Independent.

Below (top): The last Independent coverage of ArtWatch UK by Dalya Alberge on 14 March 2012. (On the restoration of Leonardo’s Last Supper, see: A different Leonardo and, The Law of Diminishing Returns ); below (bottom) the last editions of the Independent on Sunday and the Independent.

Michael Daley, 30 March 2016


Opera, Authenticity and Madness

The director of the Royal Opera House, Kasper Holten, has written to ticket holders for the forthcoming Lucia di Lammermoor to say that because of “sexual acts portrayed on stage, and other scenes that… feature violence”, the House will “discuss suitable arrangements” for anyone likely to be upset. On the evidence of the House’s website, many are more than upset.

Above, top, a Royal Opera House email photograph promoting “Lucia di Lammermoor 7 April-19 May”

Above, Joan Sutherland as Lucia in the Covent Garden Opera Company production of Lucia di Lammermoor © Royal Opera House, 1959. (For observations on Sutherland’s artistry and standing vis a vis today’s performers, see Jacques Franck’s comments below at CODA. For Sutherland performing Lucia’s “Mad scene”, see this video. )

On March 14th we received an email from Kasper Holten, the The Royal Opera House’s director of opera. At first glance it looked like a customary ROH sexed-up advertising puff for an under-selling opera. In fact, the glam blonde-in-a-tub (see above) came in advance warning that the opera house would allow ticket holders to pull out:

“I am writing to you as our records show you have booked tickets for The Royal Opera’s new production of Lucia di Lammermoor, staged by one of the UK’s most acclaimed directors, Katie Mitchell.
Katie and her team have set the production around the time of the opera’s creation in the 19th century, and they use this as a platform to explore deeply all the aspects of human relationships in the story – sexual, emotional, physical and psychological. As Katie observes of the famous ending, ‘after all if on your wedding night you took a sharp implement and tried to kill a very strong man, and it went horribly wrong… We’re going to see all of that’.
The rehearsals have had a terrific start with a strong sense of excitement coming from the rehearsal room. But as they have progressed it has also become clear to us that the team’s approach will lead to scenes that feature sexual acts portrayed on stage, and other scenes that – as you might expect from the story of Lucia – feature violence. As a result, we have recently updated our website with a message about this. As you have already booked, we wanted to draw your attention to it. If there are any members of your party who you feel may be upset by such scenes then please email us at onlinebooking@roh.org.uk and we will, of course, discuss suitable arrangements.”

The Daily Telegraph revealed (17 March – “Royal Opera House customers demand money back over new risqué production”) that the ROH reported forty cancellations by March 15th and now advises that children should not be brought to the performance. On 15 March the Times predicted “Another fright night at the opera” and the next day carried a letter from ArtWatch UK calling for more respectful treatments of great dramatic and musical art (see below). The Evening Standard (“Outraged opera fans cancel bookings after sex and violence warning”, 18 March) reported our protest over an attempt to rewrite history and turn historical works into crusading politically progressive instruments, and noted that 100 responses had been made to the ROH’s unprecedented emailed warning. The warning provided links to a ROH interview with the director of Lucia di Lammermoor, Katie Mitchell and to a YouTube discussion in which she takes part. NB – Both of these items carry viewers’ comments. The banner heading to the video reads:

“Watch: Katie Mitchell on Lucia di Lammermoor ‘My focus is 100% on the female characters’
The director on her feminist take on Donizetti, and an innovative split-stage design.”

It is never good for artistic productions to be given over to politicised axe-grinders or sensation-seekers. Here, the express purpose of the split-staging is political and didactic – an indulged subterfuge under which alien additions enjoy a deforming and subverting parity with the opera’s authentic material. When Mitchell was asked in Warwick Thomson’s ROH magazine interview if this is “going to be ‘a feminist Lucia’?” her answer had two parts, one being the assertion of a political credo, the other a programme for its theatrical implementation: “If feminism is a political movement about equality then, yes, you could say that this interpretation will favour a feminist viewpoint”, and, “I want to find ideas that support the movement of the drama, but fill in the gaps in the female narrative in a dynamic way.” What gaps?

On Mitchell’s account, such alleged gaps are not confined to this opera but are present also throughout 19th century operas where the number of women who die is seen as being unacceptably high and “a cultural problem that we’ve inherited”. The director displays a sense of aggrievement that is personal as much as professional: “if it were matched by the equivalent number of dead and mentally disturbed men, I’d be happy as Larry. But it isn’t. So we have to be a bit more rigorous now about how we think about it and how we represent those 19th-century heroines. We can’t just glamourize them, or leave them unexamined. Just because there are beautiful sounds, they can’t be immune to scrutiny.”

By “scrutiny” Mitchell means artistic reformulation. The sheer ambition of pending licensed revisionism is breath-taking: a century’s worth of fabulous cultural achievements are deemed in need of ideological purification. We should be clear, this is not re-interpretation of Donizetti’s great work, but reconstruction on a nakedly and narrowly specialised political agenda. It might fairly be protested that if Mitchell wishes women to be cast in different, non-19th century lights she should consider writing her own operas or directing those written today by other women. There is certainly no shortage of role models in our culture that might find operatic realisation. The portrayal of women in the highly acclaimed television series “Happy Valley” is a currently prominent case in point. (Moreover, it happens to be one that helpfully includes a highly climactic operatic moment in which the forty-something police officer heroine tasers an aggressing male criminal in his genital area.)

Mitchell’s interview was published on 7 October 2015, long before rehearsals began. In a more culturally confident and artistically respectful milieu, she might have been gently advised that there are no artistic gaps in Donizetti’s opera; that, dramatically, Lucia needs to remain who she gloriously is and who Donizetti created. Instead, Mitchell has been allowed to proceed presumptuously through the opera righting shortcomings of her own reckoning, such as:

“The male characters in Lucia di Lammermoor are on stage a lot, their psychologies are well drawn, they’re complex and thrilling and interesting. My beef with the piece is that there just isn’t that same degree of attention and thoughtfulness in the drawing of the female characters. There are scenes that seem to be missing. So my production will try to fill in some of the gaps in the central character’s story. It will balance things out.”

To make physical space for her bolted-on countervailing constructions of meaning, Mitchell plans “to create a split-stage, in which there will be lots of different simultaneous environments. In the first scene, the main action, the sung action, will show Normanno [the captain of the castle guard] describing the search for the lovers – but we will also see Lucia and her maid sneaking into her brother’s bedroom to try on men’s clothes in order to disguise herself. She’s in a threatening situation, and she mustn’t be recognized going to meet her beloved Edgardo, whom her brother hates; she doesn’t just waft down in her normal clothing. I want to show scenes like that, which raise the IQ and agency of Lucia. Those are the sort of gaps I mean.”

The interviewer, instead of asking what might be meant by raising IQ and agency, supplies more rope, asking if there are other gaps. He discovers there are perceived gaps-that-constitute-missing-scenes everywhere, including at the opera’s heart and ending:

“We need to understand why Lucia goes mad. There’s a missing scene, rather like in Hamlet, where we don’t see how Ophelia goes mad. It’s the same with Lucia: we see her sane, then insane. We’ll fill that gap here as well. After all, if on your wedding night you took a sharp implement and tried to kill a very strong man, and it went horribly wrong – not like in the movies, where a knife just pops in and out, but it’s a complete bloody mess – it’s enough to unsettle anyone. We’re going to see all of that.”

It would seem that in this feminist’s politicised artistic universe, nothing can be taken as read or implicit. Even at the risk of being thought risible, everything must be acted out and underscored in full-frontal fashion: the lovers must be shown in sexual congress; the groom must not simply be taken to be dead, he must be shown to a die a horrible slow death in which he is first smothered and then, on staging a Lazarus-like recovery [- message to Arturo from the Amphitheatre: “Lie down you silly bugger, you’re supposed to be dead!”], is variously knifed and battered. Battered with a fossil. Why a fossil? Because by recasting the heroine from an emotionally fragile teenage innocent caught between a rock and a hard place, to a feisty forty-something woman in the mid 19th- rather than the 17th-century, the director can portray her as of a breed of unmarried women who “often found other ways to channel their energies. It was a period of brilliant female artists – just think of the Brontës or George Eliot. Or of other women who were fossil-hunters, or scientists.” It is sometimes difficult to decide whether perversity has trumped obtuseness or vice versa.

Mitchell’s claim that her changes and additions are intended to assist Donizetti is self-disabling: “All the choices we’re making will support the story and hopefully nudge it into more of a thriller genre”. How does pushing a work of 19th century high operatic tragedy – and that was set by its author in 17th century Scotland – towards a 20th-century literary genre assist? And what assistance is rendered by dressing the mixed choir in men’s clothing to illustrate “male domination” in support of the director’s own avowed beef about the dominance of the opera’s men, and her counter-determination to focus “100% on the female characters”? The ROH management must be hoping that few in the audience will recall Alfred Hitchcock’s description of the slow and difficult demise of one of his characters who was murdered by having his head placed into a gas oven, and then, on regaining consciousness and sitting up, by being beaten about the head by a couple of hapless would-be murderers with a succession of increasingly heavy kitchen implements.

Much as the ROH management’s indulgence of Mitchell’s programme in the production of a work that has not been seen at Covent Garden for a decade might be regretted, it not a purely local culpability. Women are having their way with dead male composers throughout the world – and in the unlikeliest places. In her production of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde at last year’s Bayreuth Festival, Katharina Wagner reworked her great grandfather’s sublime work in such fashion that Isolde’s (unacceptably) transcendent “Liebestod” was followed not by her suicide but by her being dragged off by an out-of-role vengeful and impatient King Marke.

There are frequent laments over the ‘greying’ of classical music audiences. This can seem hypocritical. It is not helpful to attempts to introduce other generations if producers are allowed to turn the grandest, most beautiful operas into sensationally, provocatively schlocky x-rated ersatz horror movies. To give a personal example: a friend who had bought three tickets for himself, his wife and their twelve-years old daughter has cancelled what would have been the daughter’s first visit to the opera. I started taking my elder daughter to the ROH when she was about that age and had become captivated by opera after viewing a televised performance of Monteverdi’s ‘The Return of Ulysses’. The present policy of encouraging ever-more disturbingly naturalistic sexual and violent enactments is as institutionally short-sighted as it tasteless and offensive. There are more youngsters who might be brought into opera-going than people craving voyeuristic sensationalism. Most crave movingly performed, beautifully sung stories, not debasing simulations of “dogging” and violence.
On what counts as beautiful singing, and perceived shortcomings in performances today, see CODA below.

Michael Daley, 18 March 2016

CODA

Our colleague, the painter and Leonardo scholar, Jacques Franck responds from Paris:

“I knew Sutherland indirectly through two friends in London in the early sixties: Alan Freeman, an Australian BBC producer, and Cornell Senekal, a South African top male model who knew Richard Bonynge very well. At the time Joan was already complaining about many singers lacking the proper technique … What would she say if she were alive today? That ROH stage director is confusing Bel canto romantic operas of the early 19th century and expressionist operas 80 years later, like Berg’s Lulu or even later like Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mzentsk. The musical aesthetic she’s trying to introduce into Lucia di Lammermoor is entirely anachronistic and has never existed in Donizetti’s mind and music – how can the ROH accept that??

“It’s a devilish situation. I’m regularly fighting with a politically correct musical critic from Le Figaro who hates singers of extremely skilled vocal technique like Sutherland because, he says, it hinders their dramatic expression. I always retort that opera singing is based on vocal qualities first and that no proper dramatic interpretation can exist unless you have a well educated voice and a lot of musical feeling. I also add that all these awful women he favours so much with horrible worn wobbly voices producing false notes and who can’t vocalize easily if at all (notably in Mozart and all the Bel canto repertoire) yet are, on his judgment, genius actresses, should stop singing and devote themselves to acting. That would spare the public’s ears and leave room to those who have real talent… Diana Damrau is to me the absolute anti-Sutherland: the voice is colourless and, in my opinion, she shows – or is allowed to show – no musical intelligence or feeling. I just don’t understand her success. I know all the coloratura soprano parts in her repertoire, like the Queen of night (Mozart, Zaüberflöte), Violetta (a real horror – compare her with any average good soprano like Ghiorghiu), Rigoletto’s Gilda (her best, but still with a jerky singing line), Constanza (Mozart, Seraglio) with inappropriate vocalizing in both of Constanza’s major arias (notably the very tricky “Martern aller Arten”, one of the most difficult in Western operatic music). Try and find it sung by Teresa Stitch-Randall in the sixties: you’ll see the extent to which vocal art has decayed since then. Please feel free to use my comments about the Glorious Joan in your post, one of the few leading dramatic coloraturas of the 20th C, just next to Callas. They were sisters in art, ‘la Divina’ and ‘la Stupenda’. Sutherland was a marvelous Alcina, have you heard her in that opera?

“I just heard a magnificent American tenor on the radio, Frank Lopardo, singing Don Ottavio’s great aria from Don Giovanni – simply fantastic with the proper style. Thanks Heavens some good ones still exist – but I feel sad to see the degree to which insanity has perverted art nowadays including opera singing. Remembering Sutherland’s performance in Lucia as if it was yesterday, I just cannot think that the ROH would break with its own glorious past days and stage now the very mockery of what once was a planetary, sensational, operatic event…”

On seeing a draft of this post, Jacques Franck wrote:

“Mike, Thanks. I’m happy with this quote because it expresses all I’ve been longing to say publicly about the awful decadence that has occurred in operatic art for about twenty years. None of the great singers of the (still) recent past would accept what’s going on nowadays. I mean people whose shows and recitals I’ve attended with my wife, that is Callas, Sutherland, Schwarzkopf, Norma Procter, Mado Robin, Régine Crespin, Rita Gorr, Monserrat Caballé, Mirella Freni, Marilyn Horne, Gundula Janowitz, Dame Janet Baker, Jessye Norman, Margaret Price, Frederica von Stade, Tito Gobbi, Giuseppe di Stefano, Carlo Bergonzi, Dietrich Fischer-Diskau, Hermann Prey, José Van Dam, etc., etc. And I feel sure that those ones of the younger generation like Angela Ghiorghiu, Renée Fleming, Jonas Kaufmann, etc. don’t think otherwise but accept the situation because it’s hopeless and there isn’t much they can do about it.”

It might be added that Franck is especially well qualified to speak on such technical music matters: on our pointing out a video link to a live performance by Joan Sutherland of the final scene of Lucia di Lammermoor (instructions above), he responded:

“Not only have I had Sutherland’s mad scene in my collection of favourite records since the early sixties, but don’t forget what I told you in confidence one day. I was born with a totally anomalous/exceptional coloratura soprano voice revealed at the age of 13. It lasted as such until it partially broke at the age of 20 and then extended towards the deepest lower notes. During that period the voice would cover the range of 4 octaves up to a counter-counter F which is 7 notes higher than the highest note in Mozart’s famous second aria of the Queen of the night! Just imagine that I was able to sing anything in the written coloratura repertoire of Western opera. In fact my voice was 9 notes above Sutherland’s highest one and very close to that of Mado Robin, whose voice was like mine the highest ever heard. Listen to her Lakmé online in which she emits a counter A. However, when the voice broke off, it was left with a shortly extended baritone in the lower register while keeping an enormous high “soprano counter tenor” in the upper one. Which means I could still sing Lucia and all the Bellini/Verdi/Mozart coloratura parts without difficulty although the voice had to be re-educated and trained. At the time, since it was impossible for a male singer to make a career with such a voice, I used it as a means to learn all about the art of singing just for my personal information and pleasure. Imitating the art of Callas, Sutherland, Schwarzkopf and the like was part of my lessons. It lasted until the age of 44 when my larynx developed an ulcer (due to causes strange to singing) that kept bleeding each time I would sing: my doctor asked me to stop singing. My last “exercise” was the famous aria “Son vergin vezzosa” from Bellini’s “I Puritani” which I sung a major fourth above the original score, terminating with an enormous, rich counter A as a conclusion of a most thrilling and instructive experience. Every time I listen to Sutherland, not only I do understand what she actually does technically and the high level of her art, but I live it from inside. Now you can understand fully how much, like you, I suffer from what’s going on at the ROH and elsewhere in the operatic world to date.”


How Illissos (and Mr MacGregor) flew close to the Sun

In the new Art Newspaper it is reported that the free-standing Parthenon sculpture, Illissos, was flown by a “circuitous” route when loaned by the British Museum to the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. It did so, it has been acknowledged by the Hermitage’s director, Mikhail Piotrovsky, to avoid possible Greek seizure through the E.U. courts.

The Hermitage Museum director, Mikhail Piotrovsky, and the British Museum’s (then) director, Neil MacGregor, at the press opening of the loaned Parthenon sculpture Illissos in St Petersburg in December 2014.

As the Art Newspaper reports:

‘Mikhail Piotrovsky, the director of the Hermitage, tells us that to forestall any attempt to intercept the sculpture, it was flown from London to St Petersburg “circuitously”. He says: “It could not be transported through Europe, because Greece believe that it belongs to them and they could have attempted to seize it at some airport en route, and according to the laws of the European Union, this would have been legitimate.” The exact route it took is a mystery, however. Did it travel via the Arctic or over North Africa? Piotrovsky declines to say, and a spokeswoman for the British Museum will only say: “When flying any loan overseas, the British Museum chooses the most direct route possible. This was true for the loan of Ilissos to the Hermitage.”’

Previously, in a letter to the Times and in our Spring 2015 Journal (- see below), we attacked the fact of the profoundly politically provocative, insensitive and physically dangerous loan that was conducted in such secrecy that neither the UK Goverment nor any of its cultural agencies were informed of the loan. But we had not disclosed that the sculpture was, in truth, flown in two stages via a Middle-Eastern state, thereby subjecting the sculpture to additional risks and to four take-offs and four landings in addition to transportation by the usual lorries and fork-lift trucks.

“Where should the Elgin Marbles be housed?” – ArtWatch UK Letter to The Times, 9 December 2014:

“Sir, On balance, the case for the British Museum retaining the Elgin Marbles stands (reports, Dec 5 & 6), but it has been gravely weakened by the irresponsible and gratuitously provocative loan of one of the works to the Hermitage Museum.

The case for continuing to hold the Elgin Marbles in Bloomsbury after two centuries has rested in part on the physical safety of the collection and on permitting the illuminating artistic pre-eminence of the sculptures themselves to be best appreciated in the context of a multi-cultural, international ‘encyclopaedic’ museum.

That the present venture has exposed what is arguably the world’s supreme depiction of a nude male figure to serious and needless risks is confirmed by the museum’s defence of its own great secrecy. As you report, its registrar boasted that ‘museums are good at mitigating risk’; that the loan needed undisclosed insurance; and that, if intercepted by thieves, ‘they would be unable to sell it’.

Reducing risk is not the same as eliminating or declining to incur it. Positively embracing risk by placing the sculpture on a lorry, a passenger aircraft (months after another was brought down by Russian-armed separatists in Eastern Europe) and another lorry, on each leg of the journey, can only be seen as a failure of imagination and a dereliction of duty on the part of the museum’s trustees.”

ArtWatch UK Journal No. 29

In the introduction to Journal 29, (“Museums, Means and Menaces”) we noted that museums had once provided havens for art and solace to visitors; that they had been cherished for their distinctive historically-given holdings and that their staffs were (appropriately) answerable to trustees. Today, we complained, museums serve as platforms for conservators to strut their invasive stuff and as springboards for directors wishing to play impresario, broadcaster or global ambassador. Collections that constituted institutional raisons d’être, are now swappable, disrupt-able value-harvesting feasts. Trustees are reduced to helpmeet enablers of directorial “visions”. No longer content to hold, display and study, museums crave growth, action, crowds and corporately branded income-generation. For works of art, actions spell danger as directors compete to beg, bribe and cajole so as to borrow and swap great art for transient but lucrative “dream” compilations. Today, even architecturally integral medieval glass and gilded bronze Renaissance door panels get shuttled around the international museum loans circus (- see Chartres’ Flying Windows).

We had supported the British Museum’s retention of the so-called Elgin Marbles for over a decade, in print and in public debates in New York, Athens and Brussels (- see Journals 19, 20, 25 and 26).

We complained that the loan had breached a two-centuries long honouring of the original terms of purchase which had required that the Parthenon carvings collection be kept intact within the museum and that this state be regarded as inviolable. We had learned that the British Museum’s (supine) trustees, having already conferred an effective vote of confidence in Putin’s Russia just months after that country had annexed the Crimea, and Russian-armed separatists in eastern Ukraine had destroyed a Malaysian Airlines Boeing with a loss of 298 lives, including around 100 children (see Journal 29 cover above), were reportedly considering a further three loans to other “suitable” museums. This declared intention gave the lie to suggestions that the loan to St Petersburg had been an exceptional case made in celebration of the Hermitage Museum’s 250th anniversary. Given that a key consideration in ArtWatch UK’s support of the museum’s retention of the Parthenon carvings had been their relative safety in the museum, the undiscussed action and reversal of policy meant that it had become impossible for us to maintain that support. Now, in the light of Mikhail Piotrovksy’s disclosure, it is surely time for the Trustees of the British Museum to cease sheltering behind the unfounded statements of its spokespeople and disclose the route by which a manoeuvre to evade the possible processes of European law was made. The Trustees might also make clear whether the provocative Parthenon loans policy initiated by the previous director is to be maintained under the new director.

Michael Daley, 9 March 2016


Iconoclasts, Replicators and Nostalgists

Orielensis Selby Whittingham on the agitation to remove Cecil Rhodes’ statue at Oriel College, Oxford. Painter/restorer Barbara Bibb on The Day Before the Fire. University College London Professor, and Geographer of Culture, David Lowenthal ~ The Past is a Foreign Country – Revisited

The arguments over the Cecil Rhodes’ statue at Oriel College, Oxford, have filled countless newspaper columns for weeks, the conservative press and nearly all its readers (along with the university’s chancellor, vice-chancellor, two other colleges and many students, if not a small majority against in an Oxford Union debate) in favour of it staying, the Guardian supporting the condemnation of Rhodes and Oriel College sitting on the fence, but leaning towards capitulation to the protesters.

TWO CONSIDERATIONS ARE PARAMOUNT

1. The statue is part of a Grade II* building. As such it cannot be removed without authorisation. The grading of the building may be questionable, but, being what it is, permission to remove would be deplorable.

2. The building (and so statue) was built with money from Rhodes. Though that does not constitute any legally binding requirement to keep either, it would morally be wrong (not “costless” as Orielensis Geoffrey Bindman QC says) to dishonour the donor, while keeping the money and building, not least when Oriel has lauded the latter (its annual Record, 2011, 2014) and indeed Rhodes.

Photo: Carl Court/Getty Images, as in “Rhodes, race and the abuses of history”, Standpoint.

OTHER CONSIDERATIONS MERELY CONFUSE THE ISSUE

1. Freestanding statues erected to honour dictators etc. are regularly removed or destroyed. But this is a statue of a donor attached to a building for which he paid, like that of William of Wykeham at New College, Oxford. The removal of which other similar statues do people justify?

2. Rhodes was a mixture of good and bad according to some authorities. The protesters see him as wholly bad. Nelson Mandela and others have taken a more balanced view. The protesters have not given detailed counter-arguments. They are not so much interested in the statue or Rhodes as using these as a handle to get better African recognition at Oxford. Maybe there should be an Oxford Institute of African Studies (with a statue of whom? Mugabe is one candidate of Matthew Parris, but that is a separate issue).*

3. Prof. David Lowenthal argues that “the past is a foreign country” and one should not judge Rhodes by the standards of today. The Guardian replies that it roundly condemned Rhodes at the time of his death.

4. Matthew Parris says he is a great admirer of Rhodes and supports the retention of the statue, but only if a statue of the African king whom Rhodes is said to have swindled is erected in the college. Apart from a conventional lifesize one not being visually equivalent and not readily accommodated in any of the quads (maybe a bust in some corner of one or indoors would be practical), this is a weak concession ignoring the two key points listed above if acted on as a quid pro quo. It is back to the indefensibly weak and unprincipled response of the college so far.

Selby Whittingham (Oriel College 1960-64: Secretary-General, Donor Watch). 2 March 2016.

(* It could study, inter alia, Journal of a Residency in Ashantee, dedicated 1824 to George IV, by the son-in-law of Turner, Joseph Dupuis, viewable with Dupuis’ illustrations of Africans, in whom he took an interest, online via Google! One might also more constructively support the campaign of the late Bernie Grant MP for the return of the Benin bronzes – Benin came into the Ashantee story.)

The Day Before the Fire by Miranda France, 2015, pub. Chatto and Windus (part of The Penguin Random Group of publishers).

A stately home on the outskirts of London is razed to the ground by fire, and a band of young conservators are tasked with the job of restoring it. They wish to carry out this work as sympathetically as possible; leaving the passage of time and accident still to be read upon close inspection of the surfaces. But the formidable owner, Lady Marchant, has other ideas: her plans are that the house should be returned to its condition the day before the fire, and she is seemingly unconstrained by any limitation of funds from her Insurers.

The young protagonist, Ros, who is to restore the 18th century wallpaper, says that her aim “is to tell the true story and not let people be tricked”; and “that restoration should always be visible to those who want to see it”; both “there and not there”. A great deal of immaculate, in-depth research has been carried out by the author, and a lively interaction ensues between Lady Marchant, her son Sebastion and Ros and Co. We are also privy to the inner workings of a team of accomplished restorers, their methods and machinations vis a vis the sometimes impossible demands of their clients.

Our interest is also drawn to the dilapidations and missing pieces of Ros’s own life. How much should be revealed and how much left to time to heal.This is also a rattlingly good tale of young Londoners, who are often constrained by lack of money, yet trying to hang on to their principles in the ceaseless scramble of London life.

Barbara Bibb, 2 March 2016.

Cover image: Herman Posthumus, Landscape with Roman Ruins, 1536.
(With an inscription from Ovid’s Metamorphoses:
“Oh, most voracious Time, and you, envious Age, you destroy everything.”)

“Everything distinguishable about the past is here…A book that you will enjoy if you know that the past attracts you, or if you think that you are immune to its power or its spell”.
~ Peter Laslett, Washington Post

“It is as if he had summoned together all the most fascinating people you can think of…fascinating-daft-and/or-odd as well as fascinating-wise-or-perceptive, and invited them all to tell us what they think about the mysterious relationships between the past and present. The result is a fantastic treasure house.”
~ Colin Welch, The Spectator


Problems with “La Bella Principessa”~ Part I: The Look

The world famous drawing that was dubbed “La Bella Principessa” by Professor Martin Kemp is insured for $150 million and lives in a “secure vault in Zurich”. It is not a portrait of Bianca Sforza by Leonardo da Vinci, as has been claimed, but a twentieth century forged or pastiche Leonardo.

WHITHER “LA BELLA PRINCIPESSA”

In 1998 the now so-called “La Bella Principessa” appeared from nowhere at Christie’s, New York. A hybrid work made in mixed media that were never employed by Leonardo (three chalks, ink, “liquid colour”), on a support that was never used by Leonardo (vellum), and portraying a woman in a manner that is nowhere encountered in Leonardo, it was presented as “German School, early 19th century” and “the property of a lady”. It went for $22,850 to a New York dealer who sold it nine years later on a requested discount of 10 per cent for $19,000 to an art collector, Peter Silverman, who said he was buying on behalf of another (unidentified) collector whom he later described as one of “the richest men in Europe”. Thus, at that date, it was not known who owned the drawing or by whom it had been consigned to Christie’s and it remained entirely without provenance. In its nine years long life, no one – not even its new owner(s) – had taken it to be by Leonardo.

In a 2012 book (Lost Princess ~ One man’s quest to authenticate an unknown portrait by Leonardo da Vinci), Silverman claimed a successful upgrading to Leonardo and described how he had gained the support of distinguished scholars including Professor Martin Kemp who had formulated an elaborate hypothetical history in which the drawing was said to be a Leonardo portrait made either from a living subject in celebration of her wedding or in commemoration after her death in 1496.

Nonetheless, the drawing failed to gain a consensus of scholarly support and is rejected in centres like New York, London and Vienna. Carmen Bambach, the Metropolitan Museum’s Renaissance drawings authority dismissed “La Bella” on the grounds that “It does not look like a Leonardo”. Thomas Hoving, a former Metropolitan Museum director, held it to look “too sweet” to be Leonardo. ARTnews reported that the Albertina Museum’s director, Klaus Albrecht Schröder, had noted “No one is convinced it is a Leonardo”. In the Burlington Magazine Professor David Ekserdjian suspected it to be “counterfeit”.

THE LOOK OF “LA BELLA” AND THE COMPANY SHE BEST KEEPS

In matters of attribution the most important consideration is the look of a work. Many things can be appraised simultaneously but, conceptually, the “look” of a work might be broken down into two aspects: an initial at-a-glance response to a work’s effects and appraisal of its internal values and relationships; and, a comparison of the effects, relationships and values with those of bona fide productions of the attributed artist, or with those of the artist’s students, associates or followers. It can also be useful to compare the looks of works with those of copyists and known forgers. It might fairly be said that in connoisseurship, as in the evaluation of restorations, visual comparisons are of the essence. (In ArtWatch we take pride in the extent to which we seek out all possible comparative visual material and regret that some institutions still hinder our efforts in this regard.)

Above, Fig. 1. If we put aside questions of attribution and simply look at the group above, we find works of remarkably similar figural motifs and formats that clearly relate to and derive from a most distinctive type of 15th century Italian profile female portrait. These similar-looking works are similarly sized, being, respectively from left to right:

A Young Woman, 14 and 1/4 x 10 inches;
“La Bella Principessa”, 13 x 9 and 3/4 inches; and,
A Young Woman, 18 x 12 1/2 inches (here shown mirrored).

All show young women depicted in the strict early Renaissance profile convention made in emulation of antique relief portraits on coins and medals. Although very widely encountered (see Fig. 4), Leonardo side-stepped the type in order to intensify plastic and expressive values with sculpturally-purposive shading and axial shifts in the bodies and gazes of his portraits (see Fig. 6). The portrayals above are strikingly similar in their head/torso relationships; in their absences of background; in their highly elaborated coiffures which offset ‘sartorially’ skimped and unconvincing simplifications of costume; in their sparse or wholly absent depictions of jewellery; and, even, in their almost identically cropped motifs. Collectively they might be taken as a suite of variations on a simple theme. We take all three to be twentieth century Italian artefacts. At least two of them are linked to Bernard Berenson and the two on which reports have been published have unusual and problematic supports.

As mentioned below, the Detroit picture is painted on top of photographic paper. It is suspected that it might have been a photograph of the Frick sculpture to which the painting was initially related. The “La Bella Principessa” is drawn, exceptionally for Leonardo, on a sheet of vellum which appears to have been removed from a book and it is, most unusually, glued to an oak panel. The panel itself is a curiosity: although a number of “butterfly keys” have been inserted into its back, as if to restrain splitting, there is no evidence of splits in the panel and, if there were, the present four such keys in such a small panel might be considered restoration “over-kill”. If the panel had split while the vellum was glued to it, the drawing would have split with the panel. The fact that the vellum has been “copiously glued” to a (possibly pre-restored) oak panel makes it impossible to examine the back of the drawing which is said by one of its proponents, (Cristina Geddo, an expert in Leonardo’s students and Milanese “Leonardesques”) to bear “superimposed numbers…a written inscription…[and a] little winged dragon – at least that is what it seems.” For Geddo, this unexamined content is reassuring: “This feature, too, counts in favour of an attribution to Leonardo, who, even though he never to our knowledge used a parchment support in his work, was in the habit of re-using the paper on which he drew.”

(In reading the compendious literature on this proposed attribution, we have sometimes wondered what might be allowed by its supporters to count as evidence against the attribution.)

CONSIDER THE HISTORIES

The portrait on the left, A Young Woman, was bought in 1936 by the Detroit Institute of Arts as by Leonardo da Vinci or Andrea del Verrocchio. The institute’s director, W. D. Valentiner, made this attribution on the strength of clear correspondences with the curls in the hair of Leonardo’s painting Ginevra de’ Benci (see Fig. 6) in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, and with those found in the above-mentioned marble sculpture in the Frick Museum, A Young Woman, given to Andrea del Verrocchio. (Valentiner had made a study of Leonardo’s work in Verrocchio’s workshop.) In 1991 Piero Adorno, specifically identified the Detroit picture as Verrocchio’s lost portrait of Lucrezia Donati. Notwithstanding seeming correspondences with secure works, this picture is now relegated to “An Imitator of Verrochio” – and this is an extremely charitable formulation. In Virtue and Beauty, 2001, David Alan Brown described it as “a probable forgery by its anachronistic materials and unorthodox construction”. “Probable” [!] because: “after a recent technical examination, the picture turns out to have been painted on photographic paper applied to a wood panel that was repaired before it was readied for painting. And at least one of the pigments employed – zinc white – is modern…” Valentiner judged one of two Leonardo studio works of the Madonna with a Yarnwinder to be “more beautiful than the Mona Lisa”.

The portrait on the right, A Young Woman, was attributed to Piero Pollaiuolo by Berenson in 1945. While this figure is perhaps the most attractive of the above three, with its nicely constructed counterbalancing of the thrusts in the neck/head and torso, and its credibly proportioned arm, the work itself has, so far as we can ascertain, sunk without trace. In truth, this female profile portrait type has been assailed by forgeries. Alison Wright notes in her 2005 book The Pollaiuolo Brothers, that “Complications for the historian lie both in the fact that the subjects of most female portraits are no longer identifiable and that, because of their exceptional decorative and historical appeal, such portraits were highly sought after by later nineteenth- and early twentieth-century collectors, encouraging a market for copies, fakes and over-ambitious attributions.”

The portrait in the centre (“La Bella Principessa”) has been precisely attributed by Kemp to Leonardo as a book illustration portrait of Bianca Sforza of 1495-96.

DISTINGUISHING BETWEEN THE LOOKS OF THEN OF NOW

Above, Fig. 2. In My dear BB (an incalculably valuable new resource edited and annotated by Robert Cumming), we learn that in November 1930 Kenneth Clark’s wife, Jane, wrote to Berenson: “K has seen Lord Lee’s two new pictures…The Botticelli Madonna and Child you probably know too. K thinks the latter may be genuine about 1485 or rather part of it may be, but it is not a pretty picture…” A footnote discloses that Lee had bought The Madonna of the Veil, a tempera painting on panel in 1930 from an Italian dealer for a then huge sum of $25,000 (Fig. 3). It was widely accepted by scholars as autograph Botticelli and published by the Medici Society as a “superb composition of the greatest of all Florentine painters”. Clark, doubting the attribution on sight, objected that it had “something of the silent cinema star about it” – and he likened the Madonna to Jean Harlow (Fig. 3). Lee donated the picture to the Courtauld Institute Gallery in 1947. In June 2010 Juliet Chippendale (a National Gallery curatorial intern working in association with the Courtauld Institute MA course) disclosed that scientific examination had identified pigments not known before the 18th and 19th centuries and worm holes that had been produced by a drill. It is now designated a work of the forger Umberto Giunti (1886-1970), who taught at the Institute of Fine Art in Siena and forged fresco fragments.

ART HISTORICAL SILENCES

Four months later Clark wrote to Berenson: “Just in case Lee has sent you a photograph of his new Botticelli may I ask you to forget anything Jane may have reported me as having said of it. It is one of those pictures about which it is best to be silent: in fact I am coming to believe it is best for me to be silent about every picture. Did I tell you that my Leonardo book was a mare’s nest. The man had sent photographs of two drawings from the middle of the Codice Atlantico. They must have been early copies done with some fraudulent motive – perhaps the book really did belong to Leonardo – he certainly had read it – & some pupil thought to enhance its value.”

Above Fig. 3. The young Kenneth Clark (then twenty-seven years old) displayed an admirable “eye” by spotting a fraud on sight some eighty years ahead of the pack. Is it better for a connoisseur to see but not speak than it is not to see at all? Undoubtedly, it is. Would Clark have enjoyed his meteoric rise had he humiliated the mighty and exposed the big-time fraudsters of his day? (That question might be taken as self-answering.) If Clark bided his time on Berenson, eventually he delivered an unforgiving former-insider’s repudiation in 1977 by chronicling how Berenson had “sat on a pinnacle of corruption [and] for almost forty years after 1900… [done] practically nothing except authenticate pictures”

PRETTY – AND NOT SO PRETTY – WOMEN

Above, Fig. 4. In the middle and bottom rows we see three bona fide works of the female profile type – respectively:

Portrait of Bianca Maria Sforza, c. 1493, by Ambrogio de Predis, The National Gallery of Art, Washington;
Domenico Ghirlandaio’s 1488-1490 Giovanna degli Albizzi Tornabuoni, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid; and,
a portrait of Beatrice d’Este tentatively attributed by Kemp to Ambrogio da Predis.

The differences between this trio and the works in the top row are pronounced and eloquent. The secure works are highly individuated and immensely richer in their effects. Collectively, they do not constitute an inadvertent suite. Individually, they are greatly more various compositionally. Collectively, they are markedly richer in jewellery and ostentatiously sumptuous costumes. The distinctive physiognomies of their subjects derive from living persons, not from other art or photographs of other art. Flattery and loving attention are channelled more into the costume and bling than into the facial features. In every respect the opposite is the case in the top row where prettiness has been held at a premium with an eye on the modern photographically-informed market.

LEONARDO BREAKS THE MOULD

Above, Fig. 5: As mentioned, “La Bella Principessa” and her two companions are of a piece, and of a type never followed by Leonardo whose female portraits (see below) pioneered an unprecedentedly complex and sophisticated evocation of real, sculpturally palpable women in tangible spaces or landscapes. To include the figurally impoverished and stylistically anachronistic “La Bella Principessa” in Leonardo’s oeuvre would disjunct his revolutionary arc of insights and innovations in portraiture. Such inescapably disruptive consequences have been ceded tacitly by Kemp, “La Bella Principessa’s” principle defender – some say advocate. In “La Bella Principessa ~ The Story of the New Masterpiece by Leonardo da Vinci” (Kemp’s 2010 book jointly written with Pascal Cotte of Lumiere Technology and including chapters by the drawings scholar Nicholas Turner and the recently discredited fingerpints expert Peter Paul Biro), Kemp converts an intractable problem into an asset by begging the essential question. That is, he underwrites “La Bella’s” credibility on an assertion that “Any important new work, to establish itself, must significantly affect the totality of Leonardo’s surviving legacy over the longer term.” Without question, the de-stabilising inclusion of “La Bella Principessa” would produce knock-on effects, but arguing backwards from that predictable disturbance to some endorsement of its source is patently unsound methodologically – the inclusion of any atypical work, whether bona fide or forged, into an oeuvre would affect its “legacy”.

LEONARDO’S ACCOMPLISHMENTS

Above, top, Fig. 6: Left, Andrea del Verrocchio’s Lady with a Bunch of Flowers of c. 1475; and (right) Leonardo’s (hypothetically extended) Ginevra de’ Benci of c. 1474-1478.

Above, Fig. 7: Left, Leonardo’s The Lady With an Ermine of about 1489-90; centre, Leonardo’s La Belle Ferronnière of about 1495-96; right, Leonardo’s Mona Lisa (La Giaconda) of about 1503-06 onwards.

In the group above we see extraordinary development in Leonardo’s portraits of women over the last quarter of the fifteenth century as he strove to incorporate the entirety of sculptural, plastic, figural knowledge, and to surpass it by making it dance to an artistically purposive tune liberated from the happenstance, arbitrary lights of nature on which sculpture then necessarily depended. Some have attributed the Bargello sculpture, the Lady with a Bunch of Flowers, to Leonardo on the grounds that its subject was Ginevra de’ Benci, the subject of Leonardo’s painting. Others have seen Leonardo’s authorship of it in the beauty of the hands. In Leonardo da Vinci and the Art of Sculpture, 2010, Gary M. Radke holds that the two works show differences that emerged in the mid-1470s between the two artists. Against this, it has been suggested that the painting might originally have borne a closer relationship to the sculpture with a possible inclusion of hands in a fuller length treatment. A study of hands by Leonardo was incorporated in a hypothetical and digitally realised extension of the painting by David Alan Brown (Virtue and Beauty, 2001, p. 143). Frank Zollner sees the painting as marking the point (1478-1480) at which Leonardo broke away from “the profile view traditionally employed in Florence for portraits of women” in favour of the three-quarters view in order to impart “a pyschological dimension to his sitter – something that would become the hallmark of Renaissance portraiture”. Which is all to say that Leonardo had broken away from the profile convention some sixteen to eighteen years before, on Kemp’s hypothesis, he made a solitary and exceptional “return” to it.

Speaking of the reconstruction of Leonardo’s Ginevra de’ Benci painting, Brown writes:

“Ginevra’s portrait, the lower part of which was cut down after suffering some damage, may have included hands. A drawing of hands by Leonardo at Windsor Castle, assuming it is a preliminary study, aids in reconstructing the original format of the picture. As reconstructed, Leonardo’s portrait may be seen to have broken with the long-standing Florentine convention of portraying women in bust-length profile. In seeking an alternative to the static profile, Leonardo, like Botticelli, seems to have turned to Verrocchio’s Lady with a Bunch of Flowers in the Bargello, Florence. Because of the sitter’s beautiful hands which mark an advance over the earlier head-and-shoulders type of sculpted bust, the marble has even been attributed to Leonardo. But the highly innovative conception of the half-length portrait bust is surely Verrocchio’s achievement. What young Leonardo did was to was to translate this sculptural protype into a pictorial context, placing his sitter into a watery landscape shrouded in a bluish haze…”

A CASE CONSPICUOUSLY NOT MADE

For the owner and the art historical proponents of “La Bella Principessa”, the very chronology of Leonardo’s female portraits constitutes an obstacle. Given Leonardo’s famous eschewal of strict profile depictions of women, the onus is on those who would include “La Bella Principessa” (- albeit as a solitary and exceptional stylistic regression that was undertaken without ever attracting attention or comment) to make a double case.
First, they must show how and where “La Bella Principessa” might plausibly have fitted within the trajectory of Leonardo’s accepted works. Second, they must demonstrate by comparative visual means that “La Bella Principessa” is the artistic equal of the chronologically adjacent works within the oeuvre. Kemp has proposed the precise date of 1495-96 for the execution of “La Bella Principessa” but, conspicuously, has not presented direct, side-by-side visual comparisons with Leonardo’s paintings. Instead of comparing “La Bella Principessa” of 1495-6 directly with Leonardo’s La Belle Ferronnière of about 1495-6, Kemp writes:

“If the subject of Leonardo’s drawing is Bianca, it is likely to date from 1495-6. In style, it seems at first sight to belong with his earlier works rather than to the period of the Last Supper. However, Leonardo was a master of adapting style to subject. Just as his handwriting took on an earlier cast when he needed to adopt a formal script, so his drawing style could have reverted to a meticulous formality, appropriate for a precious set-piece portrait on vellum of a Sforza princess.”

“If”? “Could have”? “At first sight”? The pro-attribution literature is bedecked with daisy-chains of such tendentious and weasel words and terms. With which earlier works is “La Bella Pricipessa” deemed to be artistically comparable or compatible? With the Ginevra de’ Benci of c. 1474-1478? With The Lady With an Ermine of about 1489-90? Never mind the red herrings of handwriting and the giant, near-obliterated historical figures of the Last Supper, what of the relationship with Leonardo’s (supposedly) absolutely contemporaneous La Belle Ferronnière of 1495-96? (On this last we volunteer a pair of comparisons below.)

Above, Top, Fig. 8: Leonardo’s La Belle Ferronnière, left, and the “La Bella Principessa”.
Above, Fig. 9: Details of Leonardo’s La Belle Ferronnière, left, and the “La Bella Principessa”.

Kemp insists: “The Lady in profile [“La Bella Principessa”] is an important addition to Leonardo’s canon. It shows him utilizing a medium that has not previously been observed in his oeuvre…It testifies to his spectacular explosion and development of novel media, tackling each commission as a fresh technical challenge. It enriches our insights into his role at the Milanese court, most notably in his depiction of the Sforza ‘ladies’ – whether family members or mistresses. Above all, it is a work of extraordinary beauty.”

Even if we were to assume that for some reason Leonardo had opted to “revert” in 1496 to a type he had never employed, what might explain a pronounced indifference in “La Bella Principessa” to the detailed depiction of the “stuffs” of costume with which the artist was simultaneously engaged in La Belle Ferronnière? Given that Leonardo clearly appreciated and celebrated the fact that courtly costume required sleeves to be made as independent garments held decorously in place by ribbon bows so as to permit undergarments to peep through; and, given that Leonardo lovingly depicted not only the varying thicknesses of the costume materials but every individual twist in the threads of the elaborately embroidered band in La Belle Ferronnière, how could he possibly – when working for same ducal master, at the same time – have been so negligent and indifferent in the execution of “La Bella Principessa’s” costume? Kemp acknowledges and offers excuse for the distinct poverty of the costume: “It may be that the restraint of her costume and lack of celebratory jewellery indicates that the portrait was destined for a memorial rather than a matrimonial volume.” In so-saying, he jumps out of one frying pan into another.

If “La Bella Principessa” was made after Bianca Sforza’s death, from whence did the likeness derive? One reason why Kemp settled on Bianca as the preferred candidate subject for “La Bella Principessa” was that while (disqualifying) likenesses of the other Sforza princesses existed, none survives for her – she is an image-free figure. Kemp offers no indication of a possible means for Leonardo’s (hypothesised) post-death conjuring of Bianca’s supposed likeness other than to claim that “Leonardo has evoked the sitter’s living presence with an uncanny sense of vitality.” This again begs the crucial question and fails to consider any alternative explanations for the image’s qualities. (We will be showing how the profile of “La Bella Principessa” could well have been a “portmanteau” composite image assembled from one particular work of Leonardo’s and from that of another, unrelated painter.)

The most strikingly “Leonardesque” feature on the costume of “La Bella Principessa” – the knot patterning around the (implausible) triangular slash in the outer garment – is a source of further concern and constitutes evidence of forgery. First, the motif on which much effort will have been expended, is brutally cropped along the bottom edge of the sheet, as if by a careless designer laying a photograph into a book. Why would any Renaissance artist, let alone Leonardo, design a complicated feature so as to “run it off the page”? Further, the illusion of form (created by lights and shades) in the patterning is feeble in the extreme for Leonardo – as when compared with his treament of relief seen in the above embroidered passage in La Belle Ferronnière, for example. Leonardo probably better understood than any artist in history the vital connection between a thing made and a thing depicted. He took bodies and organs apart to understand their construction and he sought to create mental models that would make the otherwise terrifyingly arbitrary and capricious forces of nature graspable if not checkable. Most seriously of all, as our colleague Kasia Pisarek has noted and reported, while the patterning present on “La Bella Principessa” matches none found in any work of Leonardo’s, it more closely matches that found in a carved marble bust by Gian Cristoforo Romano in the Louvre – see La Bella Principessa – Arguments against the Attribution to Leonardo”, Kasia Pisarek, artibus et historiae, no. 71, 2015. (To receive a pdf of Dr Pisarek’s article please write to: news.artwatchuk@gmail.com )

Michael Daley, 24 February 2012.

In Parts II and III we examine: the provenance of “La Bella Principessa” and the work’s problematic emergence from within the circle of Bernard Berenson; the claim by the forger Shaun Greenhalgh to have produced “La Bella Principessa” in Britain in the 1970s; the spurious “left-handed-ness” of “La Bella Principessa” and the low quality of, and the means by which the drawing was made…


Sandle at Flowers Gallery, Kingsland Road

For those interested in connections between drawing and sculpture; sculpture and thought; fine art and politics, the present showing of Michael Sandle R. A. at the Flowers Gallery, Kingsland Road is not to be missed – but hurry: it closes on the 20th.

All of the photographs above are: © Michael Sandle, courtesy of Flowers Gallery, London and New York.

The works are, respectively from the top:

Michael Sandle: Study for Mickey Mouse Machine Gun Monument (detail), c. 1972, Ink and gouache on paper, 56 x 76 cm – 22 1/4 x 30 in.(AFG 51585)

Michael Sandle sculpture on exhibition in the ground floor gallery at Flowers East. (The drawings are shown in a first floor gallery.)

Michael Sandle: Submarine under construction, 1976, Etching, 69 x 87 cm – 27 1/8 x 34 1/4 in A/P. (FG 10192)

Michael Sandle: Der Minister fuer Propaganda, 1981, Bronze, 125 x 35 x 40 cm – 49 1/4 x 14 x 15 3/4 in.(AFG 48739)

Michael Sandle: Study for Mickey Mouse Machine Gun Monument, c. 1972, Ink and gouache on paper, 56 x 76 cm – 22 1/4 x 30 in.(AFG 51585)

Michael Sandle: Battleship, 2014, Ink and wash, 95 x 145 cm – 37 3/8 x 57 1/8 in, Framed: 103 x 153 cm.(AFG 52744)

Michael Sandle: Mickey Mouse Head with Spikes, 1980, Bronze, 40 x 42 x 40 cm – 15 3/4 x 16 1/2 x 15 3/4 in, Edition of 8. (AFG 53566)

Michael Sandle: Unmoglicher Hund (Impossible Dog), 1981, Bronze, 14 x 40 x 30 cm – 5 3/4 x 15 3/4 x 12 in, Edition 1 of 8 (1/8). (AFG 50162)

As can be seen in the photographs above, Sandle’s work speaks powerfully and eloquently for itself but, in this show, it is also assisted by a quite exceptionally thoughtful well lit display. As it happens, the particular group of photographs of Sandle’s work selected here reflects in small degree the especial interests of this author, a working draughtsman who was reared in sculpture. Graphically speaking, Sandle is brilliant. He was Slade-trained at a time when such counted. His etched depiction of a u-boat in its concrete lair in war-time Normandy may be his graphic masterpiece. His sculptures range from the monumental to medium/small phenomenally “compressed” and bristling potent artefacts, as seen especially in his politically pointed subversions of a Disney icon. For Sandle, Mickey Mouse stands primarily as a metaphor for what he sees as the “obscenely lightweight” aspects of our culture. But political ends and intentions aside, Sandle’s selection of Disney is one that has clearly nourished and armed a politically and culturally affronted artist. Inadvertently or no, Sandle, pays obeisance to the man who, arguably, has done more than anyone in the face of a modernist, reductionist, fractured twentieth century to maintain/prolong/extend the great western collective academic studio productions of sculpturally coherent, spatially situated, humanly-resonant and engaging figures. Walt Disney achieved his near universal appeal not because of his politics but through his rigorously applied hierarchical, academically purposive studio systems and craft traditions. The traditional, academic terms “master” and “student” found living contemporary equivalents in Disney’s “originators” and “in-betweeners”. Mickey Mouse and other Disney Icons are not one-off graphic images – and some may feel that such is their artistic potency that they dwarf such parasitical one-trick fine artists as Warhol and Koons. Mickey Mouse makes such a plumply rich satirical target because his creators conjured by art and artifice a living versatile, perpetually changing, culturally reflective creature. He has moods; can feel patriotism (see below). He endures and can feed even those who would mock and reject his presence.

While Sandle might wish to subvert or invert the ideological ends of the western classical tradition of monuments made to honour, celebrate and immortalise wartime sacrifices and heroism, his repeated borrowing of the stepped plinth betrays a recognition of and dependency on the sheer force and eloquence of that classical tradition. The sculptures and monuments erected by the New English sculptors after the First World War remain a thousand times more enriching than the piously liberal and “inclusive” inanity and narcissism that constitutes the state-approved public sculpture of our time. Sandle has wisely cast himself apart from such and avoided the trap of his times. If his unapologetic membership of an artistic “awkward squad” has cost him certain public commissions that he might have merited and would otherwise admirably have fulfilled, it has also innocculated him from a prevalent sculptural vacuity. Sandle does not play with materials. His strengths are complex and deep-rooted. His obsessive iconographic predelections channel more than artistic ambivalence and political anger. Having long possessed the wit to harness plinths to new purposes Sandle should, of course, in a sane and fair contemporary art world, have been a prime candidate for occupancy in Trafalgar Square. His oeuvre betrays a devotee’s admiration of and nostalgia for the great archetypal artistic sculptural monuments of our recent past – how might Lutyens ever be thought obsolete? Sandle has fabricated and occupied a Lutyens-shaped universe as surely as he would disavow any Kiplingesque impulse. Succour is obtained and relevance derived from engagement with bona fide monumental sculptural forces as encountered not in the tedious affectation of modernist architecture but in the primary source: in the real maritime architecture and sculpture of warships and their sea-borne gun emplacements. We suggested a few years back that Denys Lasdun, for all his talk of Hawksmoor and Palladio, betrayed a secret and illicit sculptural indebtedness to his first-hand knowledge and sight of the reinforced concrete structures of the German seaboard defence structures in Normandy; in the concrete ziggurats of gun emplacements and in the raked projections of u-boat pens and their bomb-proof reinforced lids (see below). Talent will out and hungry sculpturally alert architects and sculptors must take nourishment from wherever it is readily and rewardingly to hand – and do so regardless of any ideological taint or cultural associations. If Sandle seems to bite the hand of traditions on which he draws and feasts, we all benefit from his singular cultural “dynamic” – and, for a few more days, may do so in an exceptionally congenial and sympathetic venue.

Michael Daley, 16/17 February 2016

(The works below are: top, U-Boot-Boxen, by Theo Ortner; centre, a corner of the National Theatre by Sir Denys Lasdun, as published in “Modernism’s Secret Passion?”, the ArtWatch UK Journal No. 24, Summer 2008; and, bottom, Mickey Mouse from the cover of Disney During World War II, 2014, by John Baxter.)


Chartres’ Flying Windows

chartres-flying-windows

18 February 2016

By Florence Hallett

When in 2014, six stained glass windows were removed from Canterbury cathedral to star in an exhibition at the Getty Museum, California and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, it seemed that the Rubicon had been crossed. As the Met boasted in its exhibition publicity, this was the first time that the windows had left the cathedral precincts in their 850-year history; now, they were not only to be removed, but removed far away and subjected to the extreme risk of air transportation.

In the past, various circumstances have led to the temporary removal of stained glass, with routine cleaning and maintenance the most common cause, followed by war and conflict. During the Reformation and the English Civil War and more recently during the Second World War, glass was, on occasion, removed and stored to protect it from danger.

This is of course, fundamentally different to removing glass in order to put it on display in museums thousands of miles away and thousands of miles apart. The glass at Canterbury, made by men alive at the time of Thomas Becket’s death in 1170, had seemed as immovable as the cathedral itself, a building old enough to have more in common with the rivers and hills than the relative transience of bricks and mortar. It is fair to say that the very fact of their transatlantic tour has changed the character of these windows irrevocably.

Art up in the air

Some 20 months ago, as the Canterbury glass touched down in New York from the Getty in California, we asked how in the middle of the one of the worst years in aviation history the Met could be confident of the safety of air transportation [How the Metropolitan Museum of Art gets hold of the world’s most precious and vulnerable treasures]. As we begin 2016 fresh with the news of recent air disasters, aeroplanes have not seemed more dangerous in decades – indeed, on February 15th this year, the Art Newspaper reported that American Airlines and seven others are being sued over damage to a Lucio Fontana sculpture when it was flown from Paris to the Armory Show in New York last year.

And yet, preparations are underway for another cargo of stained glass to take to the skies, as windows removed as part of the controversial, wholesale restoration of Chartres cathedral form the centrepiece of an exhibition originally scheduled for 2016, but currently postponed, to be hosted by an as yet undisclosed US museum.

As at Canterbury, the removal of the Chartres glass for restoration has been taken as a convenient opportunity to send it overseas. Where we speculated as to whether the Church had received any payment for the loan of the Canterbury windows (a question to which we still do not have a definitive answer), in the case of Chartres, just such a transaction is known to have taken place.

A fund-raising quid pro quo

While the cost of the controversial repainting of the cathedral’s interior has been met by the French state and donors including Crédit Agricole, Caisse Val de France et Fondation, and MMA assurances, the restoration of the cathedral’s famous glass has been funded in part by the American Friends of Chartres (AFC), an organisation that works “to raise awareness in the United States of Chartres Cathedral and its unique history, sculpture, stained glass, and architecture and their conservation needs”.

Based in Washington, the AFC has ambitious plans to fund the restoration of the cathedral’s windows and sculptures. In 2013 it announced on its own site, and via the crowdfunding website razoo.com, that in return for funding the restoration of the Bakers’ Window (two lancets and a rose in the nave), the 13th-century glass would travel to a US museum. Indeed, the still extant webpage makes explicit the nature of the exchange, proclaiming:

“American Friends of Chartres INVITES YOU to Restore and Bring to the United States a 13th-Century Stained Glass Window for Museum Exhibit

WELCOME TO AMERICAN FRIENDS OF CHARTRES’ UNPRECENTED [sic] PROJECT: THE RESTORATION OF A MEDIEVAL STAINED GLASS WINDOW FOR EXHIBIT IN AMERICA.

In appealing to members of the public to donate to the project, the AFC invokes American efforts to save Chartres from destruction during World War Two, treating the fundraising project as the corollary of the cathedral’s status as “a wonderful testimony to the friendship between the French and American people. The French people honor every year the memory of the Americans who contributed to saving the cathedral from destruction at the end of WWII.” But why, if the AFC is so concerned for the welfare of the cathedral, must the glass be removed from the building, and subjected to a transatlantic tour?

Speaking to French Morning in 2014 about the plans to exhibit the windows in the US, Dominique Lallement, the president of the AFC said: “The lancet windows measure more than 6 meters in height, which means there will have to be a structure built similar to the cathedral to accommodate them.” Given the success of the Canterbury exhibition, which represented a huge coup for the Met, already notorious for its ability to secure rare loans from reluctant lenders, the Chartres exhibition is likely to be equally high-profile, on a scale indicated by the planned construction of a special display area within some as yet un-chosen or unannounced venue.

A “scandalous desecration of a cultural holy place”

Perhaps the significance and sensitivity of the deal were indicated by the official reaction to architecture critic Martin Filler’s heartfelt but thoughtful attack on the repainting of the cathedral interior. In his blog on the New York Review of Books website, Filler expressed shock at the “scandalous desecration of a cultural holy place”, and accused the French government of breaching the international rules of conservation established in the 1964 Charter of Venice.

As Filler’s article spread around the internet, those in charge of the restoration were notable for their silence. Patrice Calvel, the architect who oversaw the project prior to his retirement over three years ago was high-handed in his dismissal of Filler, saying that he had never heard of him. He had previously refused to respond to a highly critical report in Le Figaro, telling the Guardian that its author Adrien Goetz “has no competence in this matter.”

From the horse’s mouth…

Less reticent than the architects and restorers, however, was Caroline Berthod-Bonnet, who at the time was head of fundraising at Chartres, but has since left the role. Speaking to the Guardian in response to Filler’s blog she asked: “What will be the effect on our sister organisation in the United States, which is raising money to restore stained glass windows to be displayed in the US?”

By highlighting the link between the restoration project as a whole and the loan of the glass to the US, Berthod-Bonnet’s comment cut to the heart of the matter, but without providing any plausible justification for so rash and ill-advised an operation. In fact, the only extended defence of the repainting project has come from Professors Madeline H. Caviness and Jeffrey F. Hamburger, American academics and members of the AFC’s advisory panel, the organisation masterminding the loan of the glass to the US. Responding to Martin Filler via the New York Review of Books website, they adopted a tone of weary condescension, describing Filler as “well-meaning but also misinformed”, conjuring up a picture of a hopelessly deluded aesthete, clinging to a romantic but impossible vision of glorious decay.

Revelations beyond restorations and recreations

Professor Hamburger has been a loyal supporter of the Chartres restorers, writing a second defence of the project for Apollo last April, in which he argued that “The restoration of the false masonry proved more of a revelation than a restoration, let alone a recreation”. Either naive or a wilfully blinkered interpretation of the flimsy evidence produced in support of the work, Hamburger’s statement ignores the complexities of the material evidence that exists while also dismissing out of hand the ethical, philosophical and aesthetic problems this project presents.

Hamburger and Caviness are keen to put distance between the deal struck in relation to the windows and the restoration project overall, but the relationship between glass and masonry is so thoroughly entwined, on every level, that they are not entirely convincing. Stained glass is such an intrinsic and essential aspect of any Gothic building, as exemplified at Chartres, that common sense dictates that any programme of cleaning and restoration must take into consideration both elements.

Accordingly, the rationale put forward by Hamburger and Caviness in support of the restoration hangs on the relationship between glass and masonry, and they insist that: “Combined with the restoration of the windows, the restoration of the original color scheme in fact enhances the perception of color in the windows.” In both intellectual and practical terms, the projects to repaint the masonry and to clean the windows are mutually and irrevocably dependent.

Such interdependency seems also to extend to the fundraising projects relating to Chartres. In their response to Martin Filler, Hamburger and Caviness emphasised that the AFC “raises funds only for the restoration of the windows” but fail to explain the function of this arbitrary divide. Dominique Lallement, president of the AFC, told us: “To the best of my knowledge, no donor to American Friends of Chartres is supporting other aspects of the restoration”. But records of donations made to the cathedral’s funding organisations over the past five or six years suggest that there has been overlap between the funding of different aspects of the restoration. In addition, there seems to have been professional overlaps among key players.

The Revelation Brokers

Both the president of the AFC, and its former vice-president, the late Pierre Louis-Roederer, are listed as donors to Chartres Sanctuaire du Monde (CSM), AFC’s sister organisation. In addition, the president of CSM, Servane de Layre-Mathéus is an honorary member of the Board of Trustees at the AFC, a position which affords no voting rights. Today, CSM raises money for the restoration, principally, of stained-glass windows but has also funded work on the organ, the steps to the high altar and the liturgical furniture in the choir and has a more general role in co-ordinating fundraising efforts made on behalf of the cathedral.

While recent fundraising efforts have focused on the restoration of the glass, in the lifetime of the current programme of works its scope has been broader. Indeed, CSM newsletters of March 2008 and February 2009 explain that in addition to financing the restoration of stained-glass windows, it contributed the full cost of a trial restoration of the Chapel of the Apostles (the axis chapel). This trial, completed in 2009, involved the application of a latex peel to reveal “the traces of old polychrome decorations” beneath layers of dirt. The 2008 newsletter anticipates that “The experience gained from these important preliminary works should enable the Monuments Historiques division of the Ministry of Culture to undertake the far more ambitious program of restoration of the vaulting of the nave.”

Asked to what extent donors to AFC are also involved in funding other areas of the project, Dominique Lallement said: “our fundraising activities are totally separate, as well as the use of our funds. To the best of my knowledge, CSM is also working only on the restoration of the stained-glass windows. CSM finances a percentage of the restoration costs of certain windows, and AFC finances other windows. Thus, for our first project, AFC financed 50% of the restoration costs of the 5 lancets of the South Portal, and the French Government financed the other 50%. For our second project, AFC finances 100% of the restoration costs of Bay 140, the Bakers’ Window.” While both CSM and AFC now confine their activities to the glass, CSM’s funding of a trial that informed the restoration overall, seen in light of the close working relationship between the two organisations, and the crossover of personnel, surely undermines the rather curious attempts to separate the work on the windows from the project as a whole.

Just as the French restorers have failed to respond to criticisms regarding the treatment of the cathedral’s walls, AFC have adopted a similar approach when it comes to sharing information on the cleaning and restoration of the windows. When we asked AFC to supply us with high-resolution files of their photographs showing the removal of the Bakers’ Window in Bay 140, Craig Kuehl of the AFC replied: “Before we provide the photos, we’d like to see your draft article, especially the references to the photos. Otherwise we can’t give the authorization.”

As advisors to the AFC, Hamburger and Caviness’s defence of the restoration programme clearly cannot be separated from the AFC’s prestigious and lucrative coup to bring the glass to the USA. The anxiety expressed above by chief Chartres fundraiser Catherine Berthod-Bonnet, seems astute in hindsight, having anticipated the wider consequences that such negative publicity could bring to the entire project – a project that, in truth, extended far beyond the cathedral itself and into an intended commercial deal with an American museum.

A petition demanding an immediate halt to the restoration work was started in the autumn by American student Stefan Evans and has attracted such high-profile signatories as Professor Sophie Guillouet, an art historian at the University of Rouen.

Watchdogs that Don’t Bite

The petition argues that the 1964 Charter of Venice – a document setting out internationally agreed principles for the care and restoration of ancient buildings – has been breached, and makes particular reference to articles 3 and 6. Article 3 stipulates that “The intention of conserving and restoring monuments is to safeguard them no less as works of art than as historical evidence”, a guideline that would seem to have been compromised at Chartres not just because distinctions between building phases have been muddied, but also because evidence of 800 years of aging has been removed.

Article 6 states that: “The conservation of a monument implies preserving a setting which is not out of scale. Wherever the traditional setting exists, it must be kept. No new construction, demolition or modification which would alter the relations of mass and colour must be allowed.” Critics argue that current interventions alter the relation of mass and colour fundamentally, and indeed, it could be argued that this is outcome is in fact the primary objective of the project.

In addition, article 11 appears to address the specific actions taken at Chartres, and emphasises the importance of seeking expert opinions beyond that of the person in charge of the project: “The valid contributions of all periods to the building of a monument must be respected, since unity of style is not the aim of a restoration. When a building includes the superimposed work of different periods, the revealing of the underlying state can only be justified in exceptional circumstances and when what is removed is of little interest and the material which is brought to light is of great historical, archaeological or aesthetic value, and its state of preservation good enough to justify the action. Evaluation of the importance of the elements involved and the decision as to what may be destroyed cannot rest solely on the individual in charge of the work.”

Given the concerns about the Chartres project raised by experts from around the world, the onus would seem to be on ICOMOS to investigate allegations of such a serious breach or breaches of the very charter that serves as the foundations for the organisation’s existence. But as the charter makes clear that each country is responsible “for applying the plan within the framework of its own culture and traditions” there is little prospect of any meaningful intervention from ICOMOS.

The plight of Chartres is further highlighted by the case of a member of the public who petitioned the European Parliament in 2013, demanding an immediate stop to the restoration at Chartres. A document issued on 31 January 2014, states “The European Union’s competence in the field of cultural heritage is limited.” Despite co-funding the restoration of Chartres, “the Commission cannot interfere in the way national cultural heritage is protected.” The petitioner, an Italian named Marta Mariani, was told that responsibility for the project lies with the French government and the regional prefecture. As neither international outrage nor a petition have so far elicited anything more than disdain from the French authorities, it is clear that no institution has either the teeth or the will to act.

STOP PRESS: At 17.33 today, in answer to an email of 14 February, Florence Hallett was notified by the American Friends of Chartres that:

“The exhibit of Bay 140 which had been envisaged will not take place because of cost reasons. And, to answer your question, of course all the proper authorizations from the French Ministry of Culture and other authorities had been secured by the DRAC-Centre Val de Loire, which had been nominated by the Ministry of Culture to execute the project. All the arrangements for the exhibit of Bay 140 would have been contractually arranged between the DRAC on behalf of the French authorities and the cultural institution that would have exhibited the window. American Friends of Chartres would not have been part of these contractual arrangements.”

Florence Hallett is architecture and monuments correspondent at AWUK and visual arts editor at theartsdesk.com

Comments may be left at: artwatch.uk@gmail.com

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Above, Fig. 1: Top, part of the Belle Verrière window at Chartres Cathedral.
Above, Fig. 2a and 2b: Part of Belle Verrière window, as seen before cleaning (left) and after cleaning (right).

CAN YOU SPOT THE DIFFERENCE ABOVE?

The ‘after-cleaning’ photograph on the right is taken from the website of the “American Friends of Chartres”. It is said of the cleaned state of the window:
“Meanwhile, here is a look at the newly restored Belle Verrière window with the Blue Halo Virgin which is perhaps the most famous stained glass at Chartres. The startlingly bright colors, including the famous Chartres blue, just pop out at you.”
19 February: Although this ‘after-restoration’ image is of low resolution the comparison of pre- and post-restoration states is highly disturbing and we accordingly requested a high quality photograph of the Bakers’ window which, on restoration, was to be dispatched to an American museum. The American Friends of Chartres have declined to send one. Instead, they have in effect erected a Catch 22 obstacle, saying: “Show us what you’ll be saying in your article and photo-captions and we will then decide whether or not to supply them”. As Mr Kuehl presumably appreciated, we cannot possibly comply with such an irrational and perverse requirement – we can only comment on that which we can see. We therefore draw attention to the cautionary disparity between the Belle Verrière window before its treatment and afterwards on the available, already published photographs. In our organisational experience, reluctance on the part of restorers to supply high quality directly comparable before- and after-treatment photographs is almost invariably an indication that damage has occurred during treatment. There is much talk of ethics in conservation practice. If such is to have substance it is imperative that records of all of the various states of works be freely available to interested parties – how else might errors be detected and injurious procedures halted?

WHAT CAN BE SEEN TODAY?

Certainly, on the evidence of the comparative photographs shown at Figs. 2a and 2b, there would appear to have been substantial losses of colour on the Belle Verrière window during its “restoration”. The claims on the American Friends of Chartres website that the colours are startlingly bright and that the colours now pop out are both vulgar and imprecise. Why should the colours of the glass at Chartres startle anyone? Why should colours that previously were both individually strong and collectively harmonious (as seen at Figs. 1 and 2a) have ceased to be so as a result of a restoration? With regard to the reliability of photographic evidence in these matters, we refer the reader/viewer to an earlier, and grotesquely bungled restoration, that of Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel.
Above, Fig. 3: Top, a section of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes, as seen before restoration (left) and after restoration (right). Above, a section of the Belle Verrière windows at Chartres Cathedral, as seen before restoration (left) and after restoration (right).
We see at the top a small section of Michelangelo’s ceiling (as it was first published in 1988) with the pre-restoration state on the left and the post restoration state on the right. We recognised instantly on the evidence of this single photo-comparison that Michelangelo’s painting had been damaged by the removal of painting (chiefly black) with which he had strengthened shadows and modelling and, even, added details (such as veins on the oak leaves). At the time, the restorers and their art historical advisers all insisted that the removed paint had not been paint, that, rather, it had been arbitrary accumulations of soot and discoloured varnish that had built up over the centuries to produce…precisely the features which Michelangelo’s contemporaries had copied in engravings and drawings. We commented then on the preposterousness of that claim – which we have demonstrated many time since on this site. The comparison of the glass at Chartres, as seen before and after after restoration above, and at Figs. 2a and 2b, most disturbingly suggests similarly adverse restoration consequences. If the American Friends of Chartres will not permit proper visual appraisal of the consequences of a restoration funded by themselves through US tax-exempt donations, the French authorities should feel honour-bound to do so. [NB in the original version of this post we mislabelled the glass at Figs. 1 and 2 as being part of the Bakers’ window. Michael Daley, 19 February.]
Above, Fig. 4: An American Airlines plane. See left for an account of damage to a Lucio Fontana sculpture when it was flown from Paris to the Armory Show in New York last year.
Above, Fig. 5: Chartres Cathedral
Above, Fig. 6: View looking west showing the painted masonry against the uncleaned masonry.
Above, Fig. 7: Detail showing the repainted masonry.
Above, Fig. 8: View looking SE showing painted and unpainted areas adjacent to each other.
Above, Figs. 9 and 10: Views of west end before restoration and painting.
Above, Fig. 11: View of west end after restoration and the painting of fictive masonry.
Above, Fig. 12: The west door before treatment.
Above, Figs. 13 and 14: A detail of the west door before (top) and after (above) treatment.


Connoisseurship in Action and in Peril

“WHEN THE FIRST catalogue of the Ashmolean Museum’s Sculpture collection (in three volumes) was undertaken more than twenty-five years ago, the present author decided to exclude works made before 1540…”

“…The decision was partly determined by the quantity of the material but also in recognition of the special attention that the finest of the small bronzes given and bequeathed by Charles Drury Fortnum deserved. It is indeed because of these that the Ashmolean’s sculpture collection is the most important in the United Kingdom after that of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London…”

Above and below: The ‘Fortnum Venus’, attributed to Francesco Francia or his circle. c. 1500-05. Bronze, 26.1 cm. high. (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford).

Above, detail of St Jerome, by Cosimo Tura. c.1470. Panel, 101 by 57.2 cm. (National Gallery, London).

“The first of Jeremy Warren’s three volumes under review here includes these very figures. One of them is the
exquisite Venus associated with the Bolognese painter and goldsmith Francesco Francia (cat. No.20). It is one of the earliest responses in the Renaissance to the antique female nude, and perhaps belonged to a narrative group for, as her drapery falls, her hand is cupped as if to receive the apple from Paris…”

“…In conclusion it should be noted that the cataloguing of the permanent collection is not now often considered an essential part of the curator’s job. Any museum director who is chiefly an impresario is inevitably attentive to fashionable ideas and taste, whereas the cataloguer of a permanent collection is bound to give his or her attention to neglected artists, and to works by artists in which they are not initially interested, but which beg the question as to why the appealed to their predecessors – collectors, scholars and curators long deceased. This provides an antidote not only to the narrow outlook of the popular exhibition machine, but to that of academic institutions where scholars, having achieved promotion by imitating their seniors, are obliged to compete in appealing to the young consumers upon
whose favour the prosperity of the institution depends.”

~ NICHOLAS PENNY: “Sculpture in the Ashmolean”, Burlington Magazine, January 2016. A review of Catalogue: Medieval and Renaissance Sculpture. A Catalogue of the Collection in the Ashmolean Museum, by JEREMY WARREN, 3 vols., continuously paginated, 1188 pp. incl. numerous col. + b. & w. ills. (Ashmolean Publications, Oxford, 2014, £395.)

“FIVE NEW YEAR BLOCKBUSTERS

“It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day… what new art exhibitions will make you feel good? Read our list of the top five shows opening this season to get inspired.

“Discover the enduring impact of Botticelli and Delacroix on the art world and prepare to be star struck at exhibitions celebrating 100 years of British Vogue and the incredible beauty of our Solar System.

“Need a second opinion? Watch art historian Jacky Klein’s guide to the season’s unmissable art exhibitions.”

~ THE ART FUND, a mailing, 8 December 2016.

PERMANENT EVOLUTION – A JOB FOR LIFE

“Museums have become places where we take part in social as well as learning activity. It is easy to be cynical about
the impact of the café, restaurant or shop spaces on the culture and character of museums, but such facilities have made museums less daunting, more welcoming and more open to general visitors. However, such [democratization] needs to go deeper than the provision of opportunities to purchase or to consume.”

NICHOLAS SEROTA, the director (- since 1988) of the Tate, at the Leeum Samsung Museum of Art in Seoul.

HOW ART HISTORIANS CAN BE FOOLED BY CONDITION

“One of the most influential books in the twentieth-century art history was Erwin Panofsky’s Studies in Iconology. In this seminal work, the very latest German approaches and method were presented to an Anglo-Saxon audience for the first time. One of the dazzlingly learned chapters was devoted to the figure of Cupid wearing a blindfold, and Panofsky showed how this theme could be traced back to the writings of the medieval moralists. For thinkers of this Christian stamp, lovers were metaphorically blind, since they were ‘without judgement or discrimination and guided by mere passion’. But later, in the Renaissance, ‘moralists and and humanists with Platonizing leanings’ contrasted the figure of the blindfold Cupid with another kind of…”

~ PAUL TAYLOR. Introduction, CONDITION The Ageing of Art, Paul Holberton Publishing, 2016. ISBN 978 1 907372 79 7

Illustration: Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, The Composer Luigi Cherubini with the Muse of Lyric Poetry, 1842, detail.

“…Although Bode was extremely learned in many branches of art history and had his information always ready – he had little need of written notes and photographs – he was no scholar in the true sense. He was more fond of action than reflection, and was far from having a just and objective mind. Moreover, the distracting practice of uninterrupted daily work hindered a comprehensive synthesis of realization. The deepest motive of the scholar, namely, disinterested love of truth, could not function productively in a nature always resolutely aiming for effectiveness and visible results. Bode was utterly unphilosophical, he considered no affair from more than one side. He saw black or white, good or bad, advantageous or inimical; he knew no intermediary steps. To forsee obstacles, to fear, to guard against them was not his way. Consequently he became angry as soon as he encountered opposition. He made more mistakes by acting than by failing to act. He was a hunter, not an angler.”

~ Max J. FriedländerReminiscences and Reflections, Edited from the literary remains and with a foreword by
Rudolf M. Heilbrunn, 1969, New York.

“…Anyway, getting back to the book that was sent to me, its title was rather grand and pompous: La bella Principessa – the beautiful princess. Or, as I knew her, ‘Bossy Sally from the Co-op’. I’m a bit unsure of how to talk of this because the book was written by an eminent Oxford professor and must have been quite an effort. I don’t want to ruffle any feathers or cause problems but I nearly swallowed my tongue on reading its supposed value – £150 million! It would be crazy for a public body to pay such a sum. So I feel the need to say something about it.

“The drawing is thought by some to be a work by Leonardo da Vinci, but it does divide opinion and it wasn’t included in the National Gallery’s Leonardo show of 2011, a show which I thought was really well done except for it being staged ‘underground’ in the Sainsbury Wing basement…

“I drew this picture in 1978…It was done on vellum, quite a large piece to find unfolded and without crease lines. I did it on vellum because at that time I couldn’t make old paper yet…The first thing I had to do was sand off the writing with 600-grit wet and dry paper. That done, it looked too new for anything old to look right on it, so I turned it over and did the drawing on the other side. That is why the drawing is done on the hair side of the vellum instead of the much-preferred ‘flesh side’. The texture of the sanding should still seen on its reverse.

“As I said, the face is of 1970s vintage, and I think that shows in the drawing…The drawings of Leonardo and Holbein especially have always impressed me with their fineness of line and detail, and in my view they must have been done under some magnification…The vellum is mounted on an oak board…before drawing on it, the vellum was stuck to the backboard with cabinet maker’s pearl glue, so it needed to be under a weighted press for a while to allow the glue to go off without ‘cockling’ the vellum. ‘Cockling’ is the effect you see on paper when you try to paint a watercolour without soaking and stretching the paper first. On vellum the dampness looks like blisters or a cockle bed on the shore. It’s caused by the water content of the glue, so the thing needs to be under a heavy press to dry it flat.

“After a bit of experimentation, and just to prove a point to myself, I lightly traced the drawing I’d invented onto the vellum (I’m sure the graphite can still be detected) and started to draw the image in hard black chalk – carbon black in gum arabic – using a pair of jeweller’s magnifying glasses. It took some time to get used to working like that, and I had to go to back to practising on papper for a while so as not to bugger things up…

“It was done in just three colours – black white and red – all earth pigments based in gum arabic, with the carbon black mostly gone over with oak gall ink. To be a bit Leonardo-like or even Holbein-like – they were both left-handers – I put in a left-hander’s slant to it…The Leonardo book [“La Bella Principessa ~ The Story of the New Masterpiece by Leonardo da Vinci”, By Martin Kemp and Pascal Cotte, with contributions by Claudio Strinati, Nicholas Turner and Peter Paul Biro] seems to put great store by the apparent leftyness of the drawing, but it can be shown up very easily. With the face on the vellum facing left, just turn the drawing clockwise to face her skyward, and hatch strokes from profile outwards in the normal manner…Incidentally, the book points out a palm print on the neck area, just the spot a right-hander doing an impersonation of a left-hander might rest their hand whilst doing the background hatching.

“Although I am no Oxford professor, I could list umpteen reasons for not thinking this drawing to be by leonardo…
The book mentions several holes on one margin as evidence that it has been bound into a volume, and also mentions some later ‘restoration’. I did not do these things, and don’t know who did, or where it went on its later travels. Looking closely at the picture in the book, it looks to have had the left margin peeled back an inch or so and has been restuck, not very well, especially at the bottom left. Could this be from when the left margin was pierced and roughly re-cut by someone else?

“I sold it for less than the effort that went into it to a dealer in Harrogate in late 1978 – not as a fake, or by ever claiming it was something it wasn’t. I can’t really say any more on it. At least it may now be known for what it is.”

~ SHAUN GREENHALGH – A Forger’s Tale, Published by ZCZ Editions in 2015

In the past it was customary for scholars to advance claims of attribution for particular works of art in scholarly journals and then wait to see how peers and colleagues responded to their evidence and arguments. Increasingly, we are seeing co-ordinated promotional campaigns of advocacy by players and owners who eschew venues of debate and sometimes denigrate sceptics and opponents. We invited two of the leading advocates of “La Bella Principessa’s” Leonardo’s authorship – Martin Kemp and Nicholas Turner – to speak at our recent conference on connoisseurship. Both declined. Neither our post of January 2014 (“Art’s Toxic Assets and a Crisis of Connoisseurship ~ Part II: Paper – sometimes photographic – Fakes and the Demise of the Educated Eye”) nor our colleague Kasia Pisarek’s article “La Bella Principessa: Arguments against the attribution to Leonardo” that was published in the June 2015 issue of the scholarly journal artibus et historiae have been challenged in print.
(For a pdf copy of Kasia Pisarek’s article, please write to: news.artwatchuk@gmail.com. For our conference, see Art, Law and Crises of Connoisseurship and Recap of Art, Law and Crisis of Connoisseurship Conference.)

The da Vinci Detective: Art Historian Martin Kemp on Rediscovering Leonardo’s Tragic Portrait of a Renaissance Princess – an ARTINFO Interview by Andrew M. Goldstein, 17 October 2011. Extracts:

…[Andrew Goldstein] “They weren’t the only ones to differ on the attribution of the painting, and when you first announced that you believed it to be a Leonardo, a lot of people disagreed. One museum director even told the Telegraph’s Richard Dorment, anonymously, that it was a “screaming 20th century fake, and not even close to Leonardo himself.” Has there been any reversal since then?

[Martin Kemp] “I don’t know who this anonymous person was, but we carbon-dated the parchment and that eliminates it from being a screaming modern forgery. If it were a forgery, it used things that we’ve only recently discovered about Leonardo’s technique in the last 20, 30 years. The fact that it was owned by Giannino Marchig takes it outside the period when it could be a forgery, knowing what we know now, so that’s not an option. The ultra-violet turns up retouching, and it’s very clear it has been heavily restored, but most objects 500 years old, including the “Salvator Mundi”, which is the new picture being shown in the National Gallery.

[…] “One thing that critics of your ‘Principessa’ attribution tend to bring up is the involvement in your research of Peter Paul Biro, a fingerprint expert whose credibility was questioned. What is your opinion of him?

“Well, Biro I knew of as someone who’d specialized in fingerprints and paintings, so we asked him to look at the fingerprint that is in the upper left side of the ‘Bella Principessa.’ I had data on finger prints and finger marks in other Leonardo paintings, and he said one of these matched – not astoundingly, because it’s just the tip of a finger, and one doesn’t rely on fingerprints on vellum. It wouldn’t convict anybody in a court of law. You need more than that. So he did a limited job here, and we didn’t depend too much on that evidence. The press liked it, of course because it was cops and robbers stuff.

“I would not now probably say much about it at all, because on reflection I don’t think we have an adequate reference bank of Leonardo fingerprints. I’ve talked to fingerprint specialists, and they typically require a full set of reference prints. We don’t have that for Leonardo. My sense is – and this is Pascal’s sense, too – that it’s probably premature, given what we know about Leonardo’s fingerprints, to come up with matches at all. But the job Biro did was perfectly straightforward. There were no grounds for dishonesty. Peter Paul Biro is suing the New Yorker*, but I can’t comment at all upon the court case because that’s about things that I know nothing about, so it’d be totally improper. But he did work for us, which I now, let’s say, place less reliance on, simply because, on reflection, I think the fingerprint evidence is rather slippery.

“Because of the work you have done to bring the ‘Principessa’ into the fold of acknowledged Leonardos, some say you have crossed from the realm of scholarship to something more like advocacy. How do you explain your passion for the portrait?

“I would say that one of the differences between being a historian of art and being a scientist, as I was trained, is that you’re dealing with objects that are deliberately communicating with something other than just our intellect. So, for me, it’s not a dry process. You begin with the feeling it’s special, and if it stands up to the research, you end with the feeling that it’s special, and I make no apology for that. I’ve been critized as acting as an advocate for it, but if I’m writing, as I am in ‘Christ to Coke’, about the ‘Mona Lisa’, I’m an advocate for that too, because it’s a miraculous picture. Also, when I’m writing about the Coke bottle, I’m not an advocate for Coke as a drink. I hate it. But it’s one of the all-time great
bits of product design and I’m happy to say that.”

“*THE MARK OF A MASTERPIECE” by David Grann, The New Yorker, 12 July 2010 ~ Extracts:

[1] “But he [Martin Kemp] also relies on a more primal force. ‘The initial thing is just that immediate reaction, as when we’re recognizing the face of a friend in a crowd,’ he explains. ‘You can go on later and say “I recognize her face because the eyebrows are like this, and that is the right colour of her hair,” but, in effect, we don’t do it like that. It’s
the totality of the thing. It feels instantaneous.'”

[2] “Moreover, according to [the curator of Drawings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Carmen] Bambach, there was a more profound problem: after studying an image of the drawing [La Bella Principessa] – the same costume, the same features, the same strokes that Kemp examined – she had her own strong intuition. ‘It does not look like a Leonardo’, she said.”

[3] “When such a schism emerges among the most respected connoisseurs, a painting is often cast into purgatory. But in January, 2009, Kemp turned to a Canadian forensic art expert named Peter Paul Biro who, during the past several years has pioneered a radical new approach to authenticating pictures. He does not merely try to detect the artist’s invisible hand; he scours a painting for the artist’s fingerprints, impressed in the paint on the canvas. Treating each painting as a crime scene, in which an artist has left behind traces of evidence, Biro has tried to render objective what has historically been subjective. In the process he has shaken the priesthood of connoisseurship, raising questions about the nature of art, about the commodification of aesthetic beauty, about the very legitimacy of the art world.Biro’s research seems to confirm what many people have long suspected: that the system of authenticating art works can be arbitrary and, at times, a fraud.”

[4] “Biro asserted that he had uncovered the painting’s ‘forensic provenance,’ telling a reporter, ‘The science of fingerprint identification is a true science. There are no gray areas.’ Having developed what he advertised as a ‘rigorous methodology’ that followed ‘accepted police standards,’ he began to devote part of the family business to authenticating works of art with fingerprints—or, as he liked to say, to ‘placing an artist at the scene of the creation of a work.'”

[5] “But the International Foundation for Art Research, a nonprofit organization that is the primary authenticator of Pollock’s works, balked, saying that Biro’s method was not yet ‘universally’ accepted.

[6] “In 2009, Biro and Nicholas Eastaugh, a scientist known for his expertise on pigments, formed a company, Art Access and Research, which analyzes and authenticates paintings. Biro is its director of forensic studies. Clients include museums, private galleries, corporations, dealers, and major auction houses such as Sotheby’s. Biro was also enlisted by the Pigmentum Project, which is affiliated with Oxford University.”

[7] “Biro told me that the divide between connoisseurs and scientists was finally eroding. The best demonstration of this change, he added, was the fact that he had been commissioned to examine ‘La Bella Principessa’ and, possibly, help make one of the greatest discoveries in the history of art.”

[8] “After he first revealed his findings, last October, a prominent dealer estimated that the drawing [‘La Bella Principessa’] could be worth a hundred and fifty million dollars. (The unnamed ‘lady’ who had sold it at Christie’s for less than twenty-two thousand dollars came forward and identified herself as Jeanne Marchig, a Swedish animal-rights activist. Citing, among other things, the fingerprint evidence, she sued the auction house for ‘negligence’ and ‘breach of warranty’ for failing to attribute the drawing correctly.)”

[9] “Ellen Landau, the art historian, said that she was ‘absolutely convinced’ that the paintings were by Pollock. Biro was sent a photograph of a fingerprint impressed on the front of one picture. He identified six characteristics that corresponded with the fingerprint on the paint can in Pollock’s studio—strong evidence that the work was by Pollock. But, as more and more connoisseurs weighed in, they noticed patterns that seemed at odds with Pollock’s style. Meanwhile, in sixteen of twenty art works submitted for analysis, forensic scientists discovered pigments that were not patented until after Pollock’s death, in 1956. At a symposium three years ago, Pollock experts all but ruled out the pictures. Ronald D. Spencer, a lawyer who represents the Pollock-Krasner Foundation, told me, ‘Biro can find all the fingerprints he wants. But, in terms of the marketplace, the Matter paintings are done. They are finished.'”

[10] “Reporters work, in many ways, like authenticators. We encounter people, form intuitions about them, and then attempt to verify these impressions. I began to review Biro’s story; I spoke again with people I had already interviewed, and tracked down other associates. A woman who had once known him well told me, ‘Look deeper into his past. Look at his family business.’ As I probed further, I discovered an underpainting that I had never imagined.”

[11] “During the eighties and early nineties, more than a dozen civil lawsuits had been filed against Peter Paul Biro, his brother, his father, or their art businesses. Many of them stemmed from unpaid creditors. An owner of a picture-frame company alleged that the Biros had issued checks that bounced and had operated ‘under the cover’ of defunct companies ‘with the clear aim of confusing their creditors.’ (The matter was settled out of court.) As I sifted through the files, I found other cases that raised fundamental questions about Peter Paul Biro’s work as a restorer and an art dealer.

[12] “Biro refused, multiple times, to divulge where he had obtained either of the paintings. According to the Wises, Biro insisted that the person who sold him the paintings was in Europe, and that it was impossible to contact him.

[13] “Sand sought proof of a financial transaction—a check or a credit-card payment—between Biro and Pap. Biro, however, said that he had obtained them in exchange for two musical instruments: a Steinway piano and a cello.

[14] “Sand was incredulous: ‘Is Mr. Pap a music dealer or is he an art dealer?’ After Biro could not recall where he had originally purchased the cello, Sand suddenly asked him, ‘You ever been convicted of a criminal offense, sir?’

‘No.’

‘You are certain of that?’

‘Yes,’ Biro said.”

[15] “Throughout the trial, the Biros and their attorneys maintained that the two paintings sold to the Wises were authentic, but to make their case they presented an art expert who was not a specialist on Roberts, or even on Canadian art. On September 3, 1986, the court found in favor of the Wises, and ordered Peter Paul and Geza Biro to pay them the seventeen thousand dollars they had spent on the pictures, as well as interest.”

[16] “Lawsuits had piled up against Peter Paul Biro and his family business. In two instances, there were allegations that art works had vanished under mysterious circumstances while in the care of Peter Paul. In one of the cases, Serge Joyal, who is now a senator in Canada, told me that he left a nineteenth-century drawing with the Biros to be restored. Before he could pick it up, Peter Paul notified him that it had been stolen from his car and that there was no insurance. Biro, however, never filed a police report, and Joyal says that Biro pleaded with him to wait before going to the authorities. During their conversations, Joyal says, Peter Paul acted evasive and suspicious, and Joyal became convinced that Biro was lying about the theft. As Joyal put it, ‘There was something fishy.’ Though Peter Paul said that there was nothing ‘suspect’ about his behavior, and that he should not be held liable, the court awarded Joyal seven thousand dollars, plus interest.”

[17] “Within Montreal’s small art world, there were whispers about Peter Paul Biro and his father. But the lawsuits appear to have attracted virtually no public attention. In 1993, Peter Paul Biro filed for bankruptcy, and he never paid many of the judgments against him, including what he owed the Wises and Joyal. Lipsz’s lawyer said of Biro, ‘He oiled his way out of that whole thing. . . . He got away scot-free.'”

[18] “Biro was part of an effort to launch a venture named Provenance, which would provide, as he put it, the ‘clever strategy’ necessary to sell ‘orphaned’ paintings for tens of millions of dollars. According to a business prospectus, marked confidential, Provenance would acquire art works that had been forensically validated by Biro and several colleagues, and sell them in a gallery in New York City. The company chose a thumbprint for a logo.”

[19] “Provenance was cleverly tapping into the public’s desire to crack open the art world, offering the tantalizing dream that anyone could find a Pollock or a Leonardo or a Turner languishing in a basement or a thrift shop. The company combined the forensic triumphalism of ‘C.S.I.’ with the lottery ethos of ‘Antiques Roadshow.’ (An associate producer at ‘Roadshow’ had already sent Biro an e-mail about possibly doing a segment on the Parkers’ ‘unbelievable discovery.’)

[20] “Biro previously had been suspected of creating an investment scheme around a seemingly precious object, with the promise that it would eventually reap huge profits. In the late nineteen-nineties, he persuaded a Canadian financial adviser, Richard Lafferty, who is now dead, to invest in a venture to authenticate and sell a work purportedly by Raphael’s disciple Perino del Vaga. Three of Lafferty’s colleagues confirm the story, as do letters, memorandums, and other documents.”

[21] “By the fall of 2005, Ken Parker had begun to look into the people behind Provenance. It turned out that Tod Volpe, in the nineties, had defrauded his art clients, including Jack Nicholson, of nearly two million dollars, and had served two years in prison. Parker discovered that one of Volpe’s principal partners in Provenance was also an ex-con, who had done time for tax evasion and for running a drug-smuggling operation in the United States. (Volpe told me, ‘We all have skeletons in our past.’) Parker confronted Biro, who, in a subsequent e-mail, told Parker that he had ‘severed all communication with Volpe.’”

[22] “And only months after rescinding his request for money he asked the Parkers to fund another new project: a privately endowed department for him and a colleague at Oxford University. ‘Naturally it is 100% tax deductible,’ Biro wrote, in an e-mail. ‘Those who support the foundation of a bold and new department for us at Oxford will have their name on a plaque or have the department named after them such as “The Ken Parker Department for Forensic Art History.” Sounds cool?'”

[23] “When a forgery is exposed, people in the art world generally have the same reaction: how could anyone have ever been fooled by something so obviously phony, so artless? Few connoisseurs still think that Han van Meegeren’s paintings look at all like Vermeers, or even have any artistic value. Forgers usually succeed not because they are so talented but, rather, because they provide, at a moment in time, exactly what others desperately want to see. Conjurers as much as copyists, they fulfill a wish or a fantasy. And so the inconsistencies—crooked signatures, uncharacteristic brushstrokes—are ignored or explained away. “

[24] “In the case of ‘La Bella Principessa,’ Biro did not handle the drawing, and was sent multispectral images from another laboratory, which he then developed and enhanced. Martin Kemp, the Leonardo scholar, told me, ‘In terms of what Biro did for us, I have absolutely no problems with any potential ethical issues.’ He emphasized that his opinion of the drawing did not depend on the fingerprint evidence: ‘I’m entirely confident that it is by Leonardo.'”

[25] “A final verdict on whether ‘La Bella Principessa’ is genuine may not be reached for years, but more and more connoisseurs have voiced doubts. Skeptics express surprise that there is no apparent historical record for the drawing, given that Leonardo was one of Italy’s most famous painters during the Renaissance. They note that vellum lasts for centuries, and that it would be easy for a forger to obtain old sheets. Many of the critics share the view of the Met’s Carmen Bambach: it just doesn’t look like a Leonardo. ARTnews, which has reported on Wertheim’s findings, recently interviewed Klaus Albrecht Schröder, the director of the Albertina Museum, in Vienna. ‘No one is convinced it is a Leonardo,’ he said. David Ekserdjian, an expert on sixteenth-century Italian drawings, wrote in The Burlington Magazine that he ‘strongly suspects’ it is a ‘counterfeit.’ Other art critics have suggested that Kemp has succumbed to a fantasy.

[26] “Whereas Biro had once spoken of the absolute objectivity and infallibility of fingerprint analysis, he now sounded more like a connoisseur than like a scientist. ‘I’m trying to define, for example, what is the point that something becomes a matter of interpretation,’ he said. ‘In other words, where is that line? O.K., on the one hand, fingerprint practitioners state that fingerprint identification is a science. I’m more toward the other side, where I’m convinced by my own personal experience that it is very much like connoisseurship, because of . . . things I see they don’t.’”

[27] “I asked him whether he might have been wrong in suggesting that Leonardo had ever touched ‘La Bella Principessa.’ He looked up at the sky and said, ‘It’s possible. Yes.’”

In July 2011 ADWEEK reported that Biro had sued The New Yorker and David Grann for $2 million on twenty-four charges of false and malicious defamation – Forensic Art Expert Peter Paul Biro Sues New Yorker for Deformation. The action failed on every count (see “Art Authenticator Loses Defamation Suit Against The New Yorker).

CODA: Faking A Picasso and a Provenance

In June last year, we and Martin Kemp were asked (separately) by the Daily Mail to comment on a claimed Picasso painting that supposedly had been found by an artist among his late mother’s belongings in an old suitcase in the loft – “Is this a long-lost Picasso? Painting that bears a strong resemblance to Cubist’s work is discovered rolled up in a battered suitcase that hasn’t been touched in 50 years” – the Mail reported:

“…Last month, a 1955 Picasso painting – Les Femmes d’Alger – broke auction records when it sold at Christie’s for a staggering £115 million.

“Art expert Michael Daley told MailOnline his first instinct was that the painting was not a Picasso. ‘The colours and all of that are right but I think there is too much incidental detail and not enough decisive interest or exploration. This is
all sharp edges and brown tones and what-have-you, but it doesn’t have the driving sense of Picasso getting at something, getting at a figure trying to see something about it. This is more decorative. It can be no more than an instinctive first impression, but to me it doesn’t look like a Picasso Cubist painting from that period.’

“Martin Kemp, emeritus professor of art history at Oxford University, was also skeptical. Prof Kemp said: ‘It’s pretty close to Picasso’s portrait of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, the dealer whom he painted in 1910 and is in the Art Institute of Chicago. This looks to be a relatively competent but not excellent near copy of it – the signature is very dodgy. Without doing a full art historical analysis – and I’m not a Picasso expert – I would say someone has made a variant of the Picasso portrait. Also the signature with the rounded S’s doesn’t seem to correspond to Picasso’s way of signing and thirdly the canvas doesn’t look quite right for Picasso of that period.
But I hope for the sake of the owner that I’m wrong.'”

On 6 July 2015 The Scotsman disclosed that the discovered ‘Picasso’ was a fake (“Picasso painting in Fife attic ‘a hoax’”). The faker, Dominic Currie, reportedly described his purported-Picasso (which had been about to be inspected by Christie’s) as “a piece of performance art [made] in order to raise awareness of the struggling artists in Scotland.” The fake is now being offered for sale on the website of a picture restoration business.

Michael Daley. 10 December 2016.

12 December 2016. Postscript: “Bode gave an opinion on art works from many fields, on Netherlandish painting of the seventeenth century, on Italian sculpture, Persian rugs, majolica, German wood sculpture, and many other things. His writings were for him always a means to an end, and were frequently controversial and advocatory. Almost always he judged correctly, and at the time he expressed them, his communications were of significance and infinitely enriched knowledge in many fields. But the tragic fate of the ‘connoisseur’ lies in the fact that yesterday’s new, strikingly accurate definitions are today’s common properties and banalities, that only the mistakes linger in the memory under the name of the originator.”

~ Max J. Friedländer on Wilhelm Bode – Reminiscences and Reflections.


The Sixth James Beck Memorial Lecture

On 30 November 2015, Professor Elizabeth Simpson of the Bard Graduate Center, New York, will deliver the sixth annual ArtWatch International James Beck Memorial Lecture in London ~ “KING MIDAS’S FURNITURE: A TALE OF ARCHAEOLOGICAL CONSERVATION”. The 2015 winner of the Frank Mason Prize will be announced.

In “KING MIDAS’S FURNITURE: A TALE OF ARCHAEOLOGICAL CONSERVATION”, Prof. Simpson discusses the remarkable but problematic excavation of the huge “Midas Mound” (Tumulus MM) at Gordion, Turkey, by the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in 1957. The Phrygian royal tumulus burial contained a wealth of grave goods, including a rare collection of carved and inlaid wooden furniture dating to the 8th century B.C. The lecture details the excavation and initial conservation of the wood, along with subsequent efforts to rescue and reconstruct these spectacular pieces by the Gordion Furniture Project’s team of conservators, archaeologists, and scientists. Issues of display and storage continue up to the present, with the recent renovation of the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, Ankara, where the wooden furniture is kept.

The Gordion wooden objects comprise a large collection of furniture and other finds from Tumulus MM, Tumulus P, Tumulus W, and the city mound at Gordion. An introduction to the project can be found at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gordion_Furniture_and_Wooden_Artifacts.

Above, an inlaid table, Tumulus MM, Gordion, at the time of excavation in 1957 (top); in drawn reconstruction by Elizabeth Simpson (centre); in full restoration (above).

The lecture will be given at the Society of Antiquaries of London, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London, W1J 0BE – all inquiries to: artwatch.uk@gmail.com – at 6 p.m. for 6.15 on Monday, 30 November 2015.

Admission is free but entry is by ticket only. For tickets, please write to “James Beck Memorial Lecture Tickets” at: artwatch.uk@gmail.com

For full details and programme of the ArtWatch UK/Center for Art Law/LSE Law December 1st conference “Art, Law and Crises of Connoisseurship”, click here. To buy conference tickets, click here.


Art, Law and Crises of Connoisseurship

Connoisseurship may be defined as expertise in art in the very narrowest of senses; surprisingly, however, it is also a definition in which many different disciplines intersect.

In the public realms of law and the art world, a ‘connoisseur’ must be recognized as being an expert, as being capable of giving credible testimony regarding the subject, and as remaining actively engaged with the world in which attributions and authentications are made. This public recognition takes years of work and is hard-won.

Yet, does this public recognition of expertise signify accuracy or truth in the claims that a connoisseur makes about art? This one-day conference investigates the always-interrelated and often mutually-troubled processes by which connoisseurship is constructed in the fields of art and law, and the ways in which these different fields come together in determining the scope and clarity of the connoisseur’s ‘eye’.

“Art, Law and Crises of Connoisseurship”

A conference organized by ArtWatch UK, the Center for Art Law (USA) and the LSE Cultural Heritage Law (UK), to be held at: The Society of Antiquaries of London, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1J 0BE – all inquiries to: artwatch.uk@gmail.com.

1 December 2015 from 08:30 to 19:30 (GMT)

London, United Kingdom

For full conference programme, see below.

Admission is by ticket only.

For ticket prices and to purchase tickets (exclusively through Eventbrite ), please click on: Art, Law and Crises of Connoisseurship

PROGRAMME

8.30 – 9.00: Registration

PART I: The Making of Art and the Power of Its Testimonies

9.00-25: Welcome and Keynote Paper: Michael Daley, “Like/Unlike; Interests/Disinterest”

Michael Daley (UK), Director, ArtWatch UK, an artist who trained for twelve years (with post-graduate studies at the Royal Academy Schools) and taught in art schools for fifteen years before practicing as an illustrator (principally with the Financial Times, the Times Supplements, the Independent and, presently, Standpoint magazine), will suggest that the principles of sound connoisseurship in making attributions and appraising restorations are implicit in fine art training and practice, and will discuss the trial in Italy of Professor James Beck on a charge of aggravated criminal slander brought in Italy by a restorer against the scholar but not against the newspapers which had carried his reported comments.

9.25-9.40: Euphrosyne Doxiadis, “Perception, Hype and the Rubens Police.”

Euphrosyne Doxiadis (Greece), a painter/scholar whose 1996 book The Mysterious Fayum Portraits: Faces from Ancient Egypt won the won the Prix Bordin, the Prix d’ ouvrage by the Académie des Beaux-Arts, Institut de France, and, the 1997 “Prize of the Athens Academy”, will challenge the Rubens attribution given to the National Gallery’s oil on panel Samson and Delilah in the 28th year of her researches. Astonished at her first sighting of this painting in the National Gallery, the author will discuss both its manifest artistic disqualifications and the edifice of support that surrounds an attribution first made in 1930 by a leading Rubens scholar who today is notorious for his many excessively-generous certificates of authenticity.

9.40-9.55: Jacques Franck, “Why the Mona Lisa would not survive modern day conservation treatment.”

Jacques Franck (FR), an art historian and a painter trained in Old Master techniques, is the Permanent Consulting Expert to The Armand Hammer Center for Leonardo Studies at The University of California, Los Angeles, with its European headquarters at the Centro Studi Leonardo da Vinci e il Rinascimento, Università degli Studi di Urbino, and an editorial consultant to Achademia Leonardi Vinci. He was a curator/exhibitor in the Uffizi’s exhibition La mente di Leonardo (2006) and will draw on experiences as an adviser to the Louvre’s restorations of Leonardo’s St Anne and Belle Ferronnière, and his current PhD investigations on Leonardo’s sfumato technique at the École Pratique des Hautes Études in Paris, to demonstrate the threats presently facing the Mona Lisa in a museum conservation system that he considers inadequate to preserve the masterpiece in the event of it being cleaned at the Louvre.

9.55-10.10: Ann Pizzorusso, “Leonardo’s Geology: The Authenticity of the Virgin of the Rocks”

Ann Pizzorusso (US) is a professional geologist and a Renaissance scholar whose work focuses on Leonardo da Vinci as a geologist. She has written numerous scholarly articles on Leonardo and his students, and the artists who preceded and followed him, analyzing the use of geology in their works. Her landmark article, “Leonardo’s Geology: The Authenticity of The Virgin of the Rocks” compared the two versions of the paintings. Demonstrating geology as a diagnostic tool – which was in fact Leonardo’s trademark – she will attribute only one of the two versions to Leonardo. Her new, four gold medals-winning book, Tweeting Da Vinci, discusses how the geology of Italy has influenced its art, literature, religion, medicine.

10.10-10.30: Discussion/Questions: – Irina Tarsis, Center for Art Law, Moderator

10.30-11.00: COFFEE

11.00-11:15: Segolene Bergeon-Langle, “Can science deliver its promises to art?”

Segolene Bergeon-Langle (FR), France’s Honorary General Curator of Heritage, is both a scientist and an art historian. A former Head of Painting Conservation in the Louvre and the French National Museums, and a former Chair of the ICCROM Council (Rome), she is presently a member of the Louvre’s preservation and conservation committee. She will discuss various restoration cases showing how scientific analysis can fail properly to understand painters’ techniques and the deterioration of paint layers when questions are inadequately framed or when the interpretation of scientific reports is inadequate. Such difficulties can be overcome when connoisseurs themselves ask for scientific analysis to clarify some problem they have encountered, or when they can examine technical reports together with their scientific partners so as to avoid otherwise possible misinterpretations.

11.15-11.30: Michel Favre-Felix, “Overlooked Witnesses: The Testimony of Copies”

Michel Favre-Felix (FR) is a painter, the president of ARIPA (association for the respect of the integrity of artistic heritage), the director of the review Nuances, and the 2009 recipient of the ArtWatch International Frank Mason Prize, will present two restoration cases, studied from the French Museums’ scientific files, illustrating how restorations fail by not heeding the testimony of historical copies. He will stress the importance of disciplined arguments and of expert guidance from art historians, in a critical approach, rather than as the endorsement of “discoveries” claimed during restorations by restorers. His cases will demonstrate how successive restorations can impose fresh and compounding misrepresentations on art when supposedly correcting previous errors.

11.30-11.45: Kasia Pisarek, “How reliable are today’s attributions in art? The case of “La Bella Principessa” examined.”

Kasia Pisarek (Poland/UK), an independent art historian and research specialist on attributions, took an MA at the Sorbonne and a PhD at the University of Warsaw. Her doctoral dissertation “Rubens and Connoisseurship ~ On the problems of attribution and rediscovery”, identified many recently fallen Rubens attributions. She will set out a number of interlocking aesthetic, art historical and technical arguments against the recently claimed attribution to Leonardo of the drawing “La Bella Principessa”, which work appeared anonymously and without provenance in New York in 1998. Her findings were published in the June 2015 Artibus et Historiae.

11.45-12.15: Discussion/Questions: Irina Tarsis, Center for Art Law, Moderator

12.15-1.15: LUNCH

Part II: Righting the Record – Diverse Experts as Authority

1.15-1.20: Introduction: Tatiana Flessas, Cultural Heritage Law, LSE Law, Moderator

1.20-1.35: Brian Allen — “Throwing the baby out with the bathwater – the Demise of Connoisseurship since the 1980s.”

Brian Allen (UK) is a former Director of Studies at the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art and is now Chairman of the London Old Master dealers Hazlitt Ltd. He will speak about the gradual demise of connoisseurship in academic art history (especially in the UK) over the past three decades and will consider the effect of this on the study of art history and the art market. Up to the early 1980s few questioned the importance for young art historians of acquiring the skills to determine authorship but as the discipline of art history evolved from its amateur roots in Britain so too did a determination to adopt the theoretical principles of other areas of study. Only now are we witnessing the consequences of this change of emphasis.

1.35-1.50: Peter Cannon-Brookes, “Reconciling Connoisseurship with Different Means of Production of Works of Art”

Peter Cannon-Brookes (UK) turned from natural sciences to art history and has been active as a museum curator with strong interests in conservation and security. Connoisseurship has been undermined by the decay of museum-based pre-Modern Movement scholarship leading to the growing corruption of reference collections and of connoisseurship enhanced by the detailed study of them. Can the systems of stylistic analysis evolved from the 1940s and social anthropology be reconciled with the actual processes of production of works of art throughout the ages? The business models adopted by Raphael, El Greco and Rubens are by no means exceptional, and the evident disdain of Rodin for those prepared to pay high prices for indifferent drawing-room marble versions of his compositions, encourage re-evaluation of connoisseurship as an essential tool.

1.50-2.05: Charles Hope, “Demotion and promotion: the asymmetrical aspect of connoisseurship”

Charles Hope (UK) is a former Director of the Warburg Institute and will discuss the tension that exists between connoisseurship as a type of expertise acquired by long experience and as an activity based on the use of historical evidence and reasoned argument. Will claim that, in practice, these two aspects are often in contradiction to one another, and that many connoisseurs have been unable or unwilling to provide clear arguments about how they have reached their opinions. Too often, judgements about authorship are decided by appeals to authority, and almost by vote, rather than by evidence.

2.05-2.20: Martin Eidelberg, “Fact vs. Interpretation: the Art Historian at Work”

Martin Eidelberg (US), professor emeritus of art history at Rutgers University, will discuss the reliability and fallibility of provenance and scientific analysis of pictures in determining the authenticity of paintings. Using case histories that he has gathered from his research in preparing a catalogue raisonné of the paintings of Jean Antoine Watteau (1684-1721), he will consider whether such supposedly factual data is reliable, or whether it is subjective and open to the interpretation of scholars.

2.20-2.40: Discussion/Questions: Tatiana Flessas, Cultural Heritage Law, LSE Law, Moderator

2.40-2.55: Robin Simon, “Owzat! The great cricket fakes operation”

Robin Simon (UK) is Editor of The British Art Journal and Honorary Professor of English, UCL. Recent books include Hogarth, France and British Art and (with Martin Postle) Richard Wilson and the Transformation of European Landscape Painting. He will report his discovery (in 1983) that many of the paintings depicting cricket in the MCC collection at Lord’s were fakes, most of them made by one person between 1918 and 1948 but purporting to date from the 16th century to the 20th. They had been presented to MCC by Sir Jeremiah Colman (of the mustard family) who acquired them from a variety of agents and dealers. It is quite a tale and turns, among other things, upon an ingenious manipulation of provenance.

2.55-3.10: Anne Laure Bandle, “Sleepers at auction: Boon or bane?”

Anne Laure Bandle (CH) is guest lecturer at the LSE, director of the Art Law Foundation, and a trainee lawyer at the law firm Froriep in Geneva. She wrote a PhD in law on the misattribution of art at auction and more specifically on the sale of sleepers. She will discuss the creation of sleepers at auction by means of different cases, and focus on the attribution process of auction houses and their liability when selling a sleeper.

3.10-3.25: Elizabeth Simpson, “Connoisseurship: Its Use, Disuse, and Misuse in the Study of Ancient Art”

Elizabeth Simpson (USA) is a professor at the Bard Graduate Center in New York, NY; a consulting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia, PA; and director of the project to study and conserve the collection of wooden objects excavated from the royal tumulus burials at Gordion, Turkey.She will address the use and misuse of connoisseurship in the study of ancient art, the scholarly and methodological divides between archaeology and art history, and the current trend away from connoisseurship in the study of ancient art and artifacts. She will also show how connoisseurship is used to fabricate narratives for looted objects in order to validate unprovenienced works in private and museum collections.

3.25-3.45: Round table discussion: Tatiana Flessas, Cultural Heritage Law, LSE Law, Moderator

3.45-4.15: TEA

Part III: Wishful Thinking, Scientific Evidence and Legal Precedent

4.15-4.20: Intro by Session Moderator, Charles Hope.

4:20-4.35: Irina Tarsis, “Reputation is no Substitute to Due Diligence: Lessons from the closure of the Knoedler Gallery (1857-2011) ”

Irina Tarsis (USA), is an art historian and an attorney based in Brooklyn, NY. Founder and Director of Center for Art Law, Ms. Tarsis is an author of multiple articles on the subject of restitution, provenance research, book history and copyright issues. With degrees in International Business, Art History and Law, in her practice Ms. Tarsis focuses on ownership disputes surrounding tangible and intangible property. She will discuss the history of the Knoedler Gallery that closed after more than 160 years in business having sold a cache of misattributed forgeries. Short of a dozen lawsuits were brought against the principles and staff of the Gallery for selling works attributed to the blue chip artists. Ms. Tarsis will discuss the responsibilities of dealers, collectors and art advisors to their clients and the scholarship when handling art in business transactions.

4:35-4.50: Nicholas Eastaugh, “The Challenge of Science: Does ‘Fine Art Forensics’ Really Exist?”

Dr Nicholas Eastaugh (UK), Founder/Director, Art Analysis and Research Ltd., London, originally trained as a physicist before going on to study conservation and art history at the Courtauld Institute of Art, London, where he completed a PhD in scientific analysis and documentary research of historical pigments in 1988. Since 1989 he has been a consultant in the scientific and art technological study of paint and paintings. A frequent lecturer, he is also a Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Oxford. In 1999 he co-founded the Pigmentum Project, an interdisciplinary research group developing comprehensive high-quality documentary and analytical data on historical pigments and other artists’ materials. This led to the publication of The Pigment Compendium in 2004, which quickly became a standard reference text in the field. In 2008 he identified the first of the forgeries to be recognised as by Wolfgang Beltracchi, the now infamous ‘Red Painting with Horses’.

4.50-5.05: Megan Noh, “Trends in Authentication Disputes”

Megan E. Noh (USA) is the Associate General Counsel of Bonhams, one of the world’s largest international auction houses. Based in the New York office, Ms. Noh practices in a global hub for art transactions, and is uniquely poised to observe the numerous transactions conducted by Bonhams which require its specialists’ assistance with the authentication process, as well as the growing body of caselaw and legislative efforts emerging from this key jurisdiction. Ms. Noh’s presentation will cover trends in authentication disputes, including the cessation of artists’ foundations and authentication boards to issue opinions confirming attribution, as well as increased litigation and reliance of parties on scientific evidence and testimony. She will also elucidate the position of auction houses as a liaisons or “middlemen” in this process, facilitating the flow of information as between collectors (sellers and buyers) and third party authenticators.

5.25-50: Final Discussion/Questions: Charles Hope, Moderator.

5.50-5.55: Closing Remarks: Irina Tarsis, Center for Art Law.

6.00-7.30: RECEPTION


Brian Sewell – Still Stinging in Death

The death on September 19th of the famously acerbic art critic Brian Sewell was generally marked by fair, balanced and sometimes touching obituary notices. For one of his critical victims, Susan Loppert, a signatory to the infamous 1994 “Gang of 35” letter calling for Sewell’s dismissal as the Evening Standard art critic, this seems to have been taken as a personal affront.

The now legendary Evening Standard letter of 5 January 1994 from thirty-five self-appointed contemporary art establishment worthies began pompously – “As members of the art world – writers, critics, artists, art historians, curators, dealers – we take the greatest exception to Brian Sewell’s writing in your newspaper…”, proceeded viciously – “His virulent homophobia and misogyny are deeply offensive, particularly the remarks made in the review of the exhibition Writing on the Wall”, and ended with pomposity, viciousness and self-pity: “We believe that the capital deserves better than Sewell’s dire mix of sexual and class hypocrisy, intellectual posturing and artistic prejudice”. This public attempt to silence a maverick critical voice was entirely self-defeating. As demonstrated below, it generated an explosion of support, catapulting the then 63 year-old art critic into a national prominence that would run for two decades.

This happy unintended outcome was, however, the exception to other manoeuvres in a bid to rig press coverage of deeply unpopular experimental art practices. A post hoc rationale for advancing against the press was given by the Tate’s director, Nicholas Serota in the 2000 Dimbleby Lecture with this plaint: “For in spite of much greater public interest in all aspects of visual culture, including design and architecture, the challenge posed by contemporary art has not evaporated. We have only to recall the headlines for last year’s Turner Prize. ‘Eminence without merit’ (The Sunday Telegraph). ‘Tate trendies blow a raspberry’ (Eastern Daily Press), and my favourite, ‘For 1,000 years art has been one of our great civilising forces. Today, pickled sheep and soiled bed threaten to make barbarians of us all’ (The Daily Mail). Are these papers speaking the minds of their readers?” Well, yes, of course they were, that is one of the things that sensible newspapers do. And that was why the articulation of such dissent posed a political threat to the contemporary art establishment’s ambitions.

COVERT MANIPULATION OF THE PRESS

The bid to unseat Sewell occurred when the Tate Gallery had become the greatest promoter of experimental art and was working closely with contemporary art dealers. In 1991 one such dealer, Jay Jopling, served on a secret Tate committee. When the editor of the art magazine Jackdaw, David Lee, later asked the Tate for the members of this shadowy committee, that gallery replied curtly that it could not say because no minutes had been taken. But why a secret committee in a publicly-funded registered charity? All businesses and institutions angle for favourable press coverage – that is why they employ large press departments. What additional purpose or purposes were best served secretly? Were there other secret committees at the Tate? Only two press accounts of this shadowy committee exist, and from these we learn that its express purpose was to plant stories to generate press coverage of, and foster interest in, what was widely reviled avant-garde art. Both insights stem from interviews with Jay Jopling when he was about to open the new White Cube gallery in Hoxton Square. The first, on 20 September 2002, was by Rose Aidin in The Guardian:

“Following a brief flirtation with film-production, Jopling started working with artists such as Damien Hirst and Marc Quinn, putting on warehouse-style shows from his Brixton home. When Nicholas Serota formed a think-tank upon his appointment to the Tate in 1991 [NB Serota had been appointed in 1988 – now some twenty-seven years ago!], Jopling was asked to join it. ‘I was very flattered to be included in this meeting to discuss how we got the newspapers to take contemporary art more seriously,’ he recalls. ‘Yet it seemed to me that if the tabloid press was only interested in ridiculing contemporary art, then get them to ridicule it properly, so that people actually take notice.
‘So we got the Daily Star to take a bag of chips to one of Damien’s fish in formaldehyde pieces which was then on show at the Serpentine and photograph it as the most expensive fish and chips in the world. Stunts like that forced people to know about the art and if they know about it, then that encouraged them to go and see it, and then they were forced to take a view. It certainly was a way of getting art into the public arena.'”

In another interview, “Thinking outside the square”, in the Financial Times on 21-22 September 2002, Lynn MacRitchie reported:

“Jopling recalls a ‘dark period’ when he was among a group summoned by Nick Serota to what was then simply the Tate to discuss how to get press coverage for contemporary art. At that time Jopling and his soon-to-be-star Damien Hirst, who proved a tabloid natural, were happy to go along with whatever the papers wanted – posing with a bag of chips next to the shark for the headline ‘The World’s Most Expensive Fish Supper’ was just one stunt. While Jopling concedes that the tabloids’ insistence on making ‘characters’ out of the artists went further than he had expected, the tactics, however dubious, worked – the British public, notoriously indifferent to contemporary art, was hooked…”

At the other end of the press, Tate-friendly art critics set about persuading their broadsheet newspaper editors that publishing comment articles and news page reports mocking avant garde art made their papers look down-market and “tabloid”. Both ploys worked: serious commentary articles questioning Tate policies were killed in the quality press, while in the tabloid press earlier “You call this art?” stories morphed into colourful tales of endearingly whacky new art world celebs “having a larf” at The Establishment. In no time at all, the one-time rebels were the establishment and they, like their dealers, made killings. Sometimes, the Tate’s secret manipulations of the press involved suppressing stories rather than planting them.

“DANGLED DOSH, UNDERWORLD CONNECTIONS… AND NO ARRESTS”

Above, Tate players, Sandy Nairne, left, Nicholas Serota, centre, and Stephen Deuchar, right, announcing the recovery of two stolen Tate Turners at a press conference in December 2002.

When the Tate lost two Turner paintings to thieves after loaning them to an insecure German museum in 1994, it later obtained permission from the High Court to buy them back from Serbian gangsters for a ransom of more than £3 million. Secrecy at the Tate went into overdrive when in 1998 Serota set up a so-called “Operation Cobalt”. The gangsters feared a police recovery action might be in operation. Although this was not the case (on the gangsters’ insistence the police had been “stood down” and the banknotes were unmarked), as a precaution, they released the paintings one at a time. When the first Turner was brought back secretly to London, the man who had negotiated the dangerous transfer of cash, Sandy Nairne, a signatory to the 1994 Sewell-Must-Go letter and the then director of the National Portrait Gallery, wanted to release the news. The Tate’s director, Nicholas Serota, refused on the grounds that by holding back until both pictures were recovered it would be possible to achieve a spectacular publicity coup. Hitherto, Serota said, most of the Tate’s “positive” press coverage had not been real news but, in his words, “merely promotional material”. Nairne recalled (in Art Theft, his 2012 book on the affair) that when stories began appearing in the British press “Nick [Serota] questioned me as to whether I was doing enough to ‘control’ those working for us and preventing anyone from speaking to the press…It then emerged that someone had talked to the senior crime writer on the Mail on Sunday [a sister paper to the Evening Standard]. He had heard that one painting was back in London, and he was keen to find some corroboration for this notion – something I wanted no one to know…” A high-powered press consultant, Erica Bolton, was hired on Serota’s advice and she prepared a dissimulating press statement in Serota’s name:

November 2000 Turner Paintings
There has been much speculation over the years about the whereabouts of two paintings by J. M. W. Turner stolen in Frankfurt in 1994. And like the authorities in Germany, Tate has always been interested in any serious information which might lead to their recovery. But currently there is no new information, nor are any current discussions being conducted. Of course I remain hopeful that one day the paintings might return to the Tate.
Nicholas Serota, Tate Director“.

Nairne did not say whether or not the Tate had denied outright to the Mail on Sunday that one of the paintings had already been returned but, in any event, the dreaded article did not appear. As Nairne put it, the paper “did not publish and my fears about further investigative pieces, with imputations about ‘Serbian criminals’ receded.” The identity of the criminals had been disclosed in a 2001 book, The Unconventional Minister, by the former Treasury minister (the Paymaster-General) Geoffrey Robinson, who had bullied Lloyds’ insurance underwriters into allowing the Tate to buy back the rights for the paintings, should they be recovered, for only a small fraction of the £22 million insurance payout the gallery had earlier collected. After the final part of the ransom was paid and the second Turner painting was returned, no arrests were made. (For more on this saga, see Michael Daley, “Ransom or Reward? Part III”, the Jackdaw, January/February 2012, and our posts Questions and Grey Answers on the Tate Gallery’s recovered Turners, and Dicing with Art and Earning Approval.)

THE ELEVATION OF BRIAN

The mask penetrated a little: Brian Sewell in a photo-portrait by Graham Turner for an interview (“The mouse that roared”) in the Guardian, 19 November 1994.

On 7 January 1994 the blow-back against the Gang of Thirty-five’s letter began on the Evening Standard letters page.

The Education Secretary, John Patten, wrote:

“I have read with dismay the letter signed by a number of the great and the good in the art world (5 January) attacking Brian Sewell. He shouldn’t be dismayed, but rather cheered…It’s not the whiff of censorship, nor the heavy scent of political correctness which pervades their letter, which concerns me, but its extraordinarily inward-looking nature. In other words, the attitude that cultural life is only for the self-styled cultured, a narrow group alternately puffing and then gently ‘criticising in context’ each other’s work…Their letter marks the barrenness and imploding nature of so much contemporary British intellectual and artistic life, with a few notable exceptions.”

Michael Daley wrote:

“Bravo, Brian. There have been signs for some time that members of our illiberal, modernist, visual arts establishment are becoming unnerved by their own self-constructed isolation. But for one critic, with one review, to derange and bag no fewer than 35 mewling, whining, Arts Council apparatchiks and awards recipients is a splendid achievement.
Long may Mr Sewell (and his Spectator comrade-at-arms Giles Auty) speak for the thinking public and the majority of practising artists. Please give him all the space he needs – the job is urgent. And overdue.”

Vaughan Allen wrote:

“What a laughable reflection on contemporary metropolitan culture was the whingeing letter by its self-appointed spokespeople (Letters, 5 January). And how arrogant to open with ‘As members of the art world’ as though this entitled them to some kind of privileged treatment. Since the sad death of Peter Fuller, Brian Sewell has emerged as one of the few critics consistently to resist the hijacking of the arts by politically correct trendies and mindless charlatans. His denunciation of the pretentious rubbish regularly paraded as art by London’s curators, dealers and critics is a welcome breath of fresh air. Without it Londoners risk suffocation by endless phoney art propaganda and pseudo-intellectual pyscho-babble beloved by a media desperate to foster any artistic fad no matter how imbecilic. Reading down the list [see below] one cannot but help notice the number of indignant signatories who constitute the capital’s incestuous and self-perpetuating art-scene maffia. No wonder they resent Mr Sewell for exposing their specious, life-diminshing but fashionable cultural values. For it is the public’s very acceptance of these warped criteria that they depend on to guarantee their inflated incomes and even more inflated reputations.”

On 14 November 1994, James Beck wrote:

“I read with relish Brian Sewell’s extraordinary ‘Down with bilge, gush and greed’ piece (10 November), nodding my head in agreement after every paragraph. There is no doubt that such views, effectively and brilliantly articulated, are annoying to the art world’s establishment, which has been running a marathon of naked emperors for decades.
Art criticism, and, I would add, official art history, is at the same low ebb, and they feed on and support each other with the aid of colossal sponsorship from international business and foundations, many of them America-based, with limitless funds.
Only with the constant and intelligent criticism by people like Brian Sewell can we hope to open honest debate on the issues that count.”

THAT WAS THEN, THIS IS NOW:

Looking back, two decades on, what effect did that affair have? And, more personally, how is Sewell now regarded on his departure? The television campaigner Mary Whitehouse suffered decades of vilification until the feminist writer Germaine Greer conceded that she had had a point all along when campaigning against gratuitous televised depictions of (male) violence against women. So Sewell was lucky to have his vindication arrive so fast. But on his death it would seem that, for the signatories of the Sewell-Must-Go letter, time brings no reprieve. Even in his grave, the still-righteous letter-writing collective casts him as wrong, vile and repellent, and themselves as both morally vindicated and art-politically triumphant. The generally balanced and charitable tone of the obituary notices pushed one of the original letter’s signatories (- in fact, we now learn, its author), Susan Loppert, into public rebuttal mode. Protesting against Jonathan Jones’ 21 September article “Brian Sewell was Mr Punch to modern art’s Judy”, Ms Loppert took affronted sisterly umbrage on behalf of Judy in a letter to the Guardian:

“As the author of the ‘naive’ letter by ‘art world types’ published by the Evening Standard in 1994 objecting to Brian Sewell’s attitude to contemporary art, I’d like to clarify why the letter was written. Sewell was an art historian whose main area of expertise was old master paintings. He was hostile to and ignorant about contemporary art, yet at the Standard he wrote lengthy reviews giving vent to his splenetic old fogeyism, virulent homophobia (surprising given his own homosexuality) and misogyny. The review that prompted our protest was a 3,000-word diatribe inveighing against a small exhibition at what is Tate Britain of work by female artists, selected by female curators, the catalogue with contributions from female writers. Sewell dismissed it all as ‘a show defiled by feminist claptrap’, in particular a ‘frightful’ female nude by Vanessa Bell that was so ‘ugly and incompetent, it could hardly be the favourite of even a purblind lesbian’.
The letter did not demand that Sewell be fired, as was erroneously claimed at the time. Stewart Steven, editor of the Standard, had told me that Sewell had been hired to be offensive without being libellous, that his work was deliberately targeted at the lowest common denominator: ‘Essex Man – the strap-hanger on the Ongar Line’. Since we recognised that ‘very occasionally, [Sewell] says something perceptive on subjects where he has some expertise’, we felt that the paper should have two art critics: one for art dating from the early 1900s with its dreaded abstraction, and Sewell for what he called ‘traditional’ art.
The 35 signatories included Bridget Riley, Rachel Whiteread, Sir Eduardo Paolozzi, Michael Craig-Martin, Marina Warner, Richard Shone, Christopher Frayling, George Melly, Angela Flowers and John Golding. Perhaps Jonathan Jones was right to say we were naive, but he’s wrong if he thinks ‘Sewell really scared [us]’. What we objected to was his deliberate cruelty and viciousness, and that he was, in the words of your obituary (21 September), ‘puffed up’; like his invented Edwardian voice – and like so many works of art – he was a fake. In the end though, as Jones notes, none of Sewell’s flailing at windmills stopped the inevitable triumph of modern art. Is Sewell turning in his bile-filled grave?”

Note the unreconstructed presumption: “We felt that the paper should have…” We, another respondent, and Ms Loppert herself, replied in letters to the Guardian (3 October) – see “Brian Sewell spoke timely truth to power”. Our letter reads:

“Susan Loppert’s defence of the notorious gang of 35’s attempt to unseat Brian Sewell at the Evening Standard is as disingenuous as her present attack on him is tasteless. Tasteless, too, for her to crow ‘none of Sewell’s flailing at windmills stopped the inevitable triumph of contemporary art. Is Sewell turning in his bile-filled grave?’.
Inevitable triumph? The triumph of all contemporary art – or of just the Tate/Arts Council-sanctioned varieties? In truth, much of the strongest support for Sewell came from contemporary artists of non-state-approved persuasions. I recall this well, having been one of the first to defend Sewell in the Standard: ‘There have been signs for some time that members of our illiberal, modernist, visual art establishment are becoming unnerved by their own self-constructed isolation. But for one critic, with one review, to derange and bag no fewer than 35 mewling, whining, Arts Council apparatchiks and awards recipients is a splendid achievement.
Long may Mr Sewell (and his Spectator comrade-at-arms Giles Auty) speak for the thinking public and for the majority of practising artists. Please give him all the space he needs – the job is urgent. And overdue.’
And so there were but, as it happened, the illiberal gangs did win out, modernism has triumphed and Serota has been anointed (Mugabe-like) Tate director-for-life. But goodness, how close it was then and how deliciously rattled they were – and still are, if Ms Loppert is any indication.”

I should not, perhaps, have mentioned Auty in 1994. He too was attacked at the Spectator by partisans of the Tate and a trendy gallery (see below). Some months later, and again in the Spectator, another of the thirty-five signatories, Richard Shone, then a deputy editor of the Burlington Magazine, attacked every single non-trendy writer on art, including Auty in his own paper – he was branded “didactic”. John McEwen of the Sunday Telegraph was dubbed “world-weary” and so forth. Shone, just like Loppert, demanded a different kind of press and called for a “shake-up of the way fine arts are treated in the press” – even as he admitted that there were “wider individual sympathies for [Sewell] among 20th-century artists than he is given credit for”.

A PAINTER AND A PAINTER/CRITIC IN DEFENCE OF SEWELL:

TAKING OUT A CRITIC ~ THE 35 SIGNATORIES:

Kathy Adler, Don Anderson, Paul Bailey, Michael Craig-Martin,
Graham Crowely, Joanna Drew, Angela Flowers, Matthew Flowers,
Pofessor Christopher Frayling, Rene Gimpel, John Golding, Francis Graham-Dixon,
Susan Hiller, John Hoole, John Hoyland, Sarah Kent,
Nicholas Logsdail, Susan Loppert, Professor Norbert Lynton, George Melly,
Sandy Nairne, Janet Nathan, Prue O’Day, Maureen Paley,
Sir Eduardo Paolozzi, Deanna Petherbridge, Bridget Riley, Michele Roberts,
Bryan Robertson, Karsten Schubert, Richard Shone, Nikos Stangos,
Marina Warner, Natalie Wheen, Rachel Whiteread.

THE WIDE-RANGING CONSPIRACY TO UNSEAT DISSIDENT VOICES

Richard Shone’s assault on politically unacceptable writers prompted a further brace of letters to the Spectator (28 May 1994):

“Out Shone”

“It is heartening to see how jumpy and ratty members of our illiberal, modernist visual arts establishment (for example, Richard Shone, Arts, 21 May, Anthony Everitt, Guardian 16 May, Richard Dorment, Daily Telegraph 14 May) are becoming. Having seized all outlets from the Tate Gallery to the Royal Academy, the Arts Council to the art schools, the Late Show to Time Out and the Burlington Magazine, today’s mandarins seem to be recognising that their grip is precarious. The outside world will not be bullied into believing that commonplace materials (like brick, chocolate and dead animals) can, by fiat or alchemy, be converted into bona fide works of art. Rare, professionally dissenting voices (such as your art critic Giles Auty and the Evening Standard’s Brian Sewell) are increasingly seen, therefore, as menaces who must be removed. Fortunately, the present establishment campaign to this end is proving spectacularly counter-productive. The Gang of Thirty-five’s notorious call for Sewell’s sacking led to an embarrassing avalanche of support for his writing. Mr Shone’s linked attacks on your art critic and on ‘visually illiterate’ art editors is similarly inept: Auty’s authority and influence as a critic is underwritten precisely by his long and first-hand familiarity as a painter with the mechanics and the grammar of the art. There are visual illiterates at large but, mercifully, they rarely find space in The Spectator.
What really sinks Shone’s case, of course, is its self-contradictoriness and hypocrisy. After pious calls for disinterested criticism in general and for a plurality of voices, he ends with the prescriptive demand that critics present exclusively ‘enthusiastic account[s] written with warmth for the subject’ – no cut, no thrust, no scepticism, just remorseless sycophantic, promotional gush.
That such should come from a deputy editor of the Burlington Magazine says much of the health of our arts establishment and of the arrogance of its members. But it also betrays a fatal weakness: if, nearly a century on, modernism truly remained a vigorous, healthy and life-enhancing force, it would hardly require the present ugly, repressive machinations being made on its behalf, would it?”

Michael Daley

“Possibly the long article written by Richard Shone about the current state of art criticism needs placing in a wider context. Mr Shone was one of the signatories to a recent letter to the editor of the Evening Standard calling for the sacking of their art critic Brian Sewell. My own editor has recently received letters from two employees of another of the signatories, Karsten Schubert [the dealer], calling for my removal from this paper. The grounds are that I am not sympathetic to the sort of art that Mr Shone and his kind find quite wonderful, as exemplified by the current exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery ‘Some Went Mad, Some Ran Away’, for which Mr Shone has written a eulogistic catalogue essay. The fact that I think this last is composed largely of hot air, however elegantly written, will not be causing me to write to the editor of the Burlington Magazine, of which Mr Shone is deputy editor, calling for the latter’s instant dismissal. The fact that I do not do so may reflect differences in my character as well as writing from those of Mr Shone. I do not feel any need to defend myself against any of Mr Shone’s charges except one, being content to let 428 articles I have written for this journal on a wide variety of artistic topics, including the old Masters, make my case.
Mr Shone hints that critics grow increasingly unsympathetic to the sillier excesses of the avant-garde as they grow older. This is not my case at all; if anything I have mellowed. The logical conclusion to this argument is that only an unintelligent teenager could write rewardingly about unintelligent teenage art. In spite of Mr Shone’s boyish appearance, I would be alarmed to believe he thinks anything so silly.”

Giles Auty

Richard Shone and I have never met, and I know as little of him as he of me. Had his biographical notes in ‘The Art of Criticism’ suggested that I have reached the sad end of a once-promising career, none could disagree, but he preferred mischievous distortion for the sake of irony, omitted much of substance from my early years, and betrayed a museum’s privacy – fine and fair behaviour for the deputy editor of a scholarly magazine. He mocks my contribution to televised advertisement, but it seemed to me a more honest means of putting jam on my gingerbread than the ekphrastic bilge written for dealers’ catalogues by most other critics (and is far less well paid). He praises Richard Dorment as an exemplar to the errant – Dorment, who in praising Damien Hirst, described himself as a ‘thrill junkie’. This is, alas, a level of critical insight and language quite beyond me.”

Brian Sewell

“PEOPLE LIKE US”

At the end of the Second World War, patricians like Maynard Keynes and Kenneth Clark, recognising that the future in Britain would be socialist, turned a modest highly cost-effective little organisation CEMA (- the 1940 Committee for Encouragement of Music and the Arts) that had taken art and performances around the country during the war to improve morale, into what became today’s sinister instrument of state control for the arts – The Arts Council. With tax on earnings peaking at over 90%, the logic then was impeccable: future art patronage could come only from the state, no longer from rich individuals. This being so, as Clark put it, “people like us had better be sure to get in there to run it”. At first, the Council busied itself with good and useful works – Clark himself had generously supported fine artists like Henry Moore, Graham Sutherland, and John Piper out of his own pocket. But a fateful step was taken in the 1970s when a worthy Northern adult education academic, Roy Shaw, was appointed Secretary General of the Arts Council. Shaw took the disastrous “managerial” view that the Council’s chief function was to create a secure and proper “career structure” for professional arts administrators. This resulted in an explosion of professionally pro-active but artistically-impoverished middlemen – see below. Because the Council was entirely state funded and precisely because its managers lacked the cultural confidence or judgement of a Clark or Keynes, the Council set its face against appraising art and artists in terms of quality. Instead, it took its role, simplistically and perversely, to consist of aiding that which was unlikely ever to find commercial or private funding. Thus, those who made wilfully unintelligible works, or transparently political and provocative ones or, above all, disembodied, “conceptual” and inherently un-saleable works, were ipso facto favoured over those working in any traditional medium and genre. In a blink, the Council switched from assisting and disseminating quality, to being an ideologically coercive enforcer of its own no longer-artistic socio/cultural purposes.

For all of its new professional clout and financial muscle, the Council’s widely mocked and disparaged bias in favour of pretentious novelty and socio-cultural provocations carried clear political dangers. The Council could not afford to become a public laughing stock for the art it was propagating if its own future was to remain politically secure. In addition to warping and constricting the varieties of “acceptable” art, the Council thus itself acquired a vested partisan interest in restricting the range of art-critical discourse. To impart a spurious respectability on its favoured recipients, the Council established a nation-wide chain of galleries in which the right sort of artists could be exhibited and written about by the right sort of art critics. It became possible for someone like Nicholas Serota to leave university and pass swiftly up the food chain of Arts Council funded venture and galleries – namely, becoming chairman of the new Young Friends of the Tate in 1969, a regional Arts Council officer in 1970 and then, respectively, director of MoMA (“Modern Art Oxford is extremely grateful to Arts Council England”) in 1973, the Whitechapel Gallery in 1976, and, since 1988, the Tate Gallery as was, Tate and Tate Modern today, picking up a Knighthood in 1999 and being made a Companion of Honour in 2013.

BUT WHAT IF?

If Serota has led a charmed professional life within the Arts Council family, it has also been one dogged by controversy – as over the notorious buy-back of the two ransomed Turners described above. He obtained funding from the National Art Collection Fund for purchasing the work of a serving trustee by submitting false information. In 2006 he was ruled to have broken Charity Law with many other such purchases of trustees’ work. In 1999 opposition to his rule at the Tate led to the founding of a dedicated group of opponents, The Stuckists. Many figurative artists have called for him to be sacked. He has generated a school of satirical novels. See Ruth Dudley Edwards’ Killing the Emperors – which author has held Serota to have “used his power as head of the Tate galleries to promote talentless self-publicists and to encourage the proliferation of the ugly and the pointless”. Alex Pankhurst’s Art and the Revolutionary Human Fruit Machine chronicles the collisions between modern art’s titans and small town sceptics.

The 1994 letter seeking to remove Sewell was produced at a time when the art critical running was being made by a small group of critics who were entirely immune to the appeals of state-sponsored avant-gardism. In addition to Sewell in the Evening Standard, the painter/critic Giles Auty was writing in the politically influential Spectator. The then recently deceased Peter Fuller, having migrated from both the far left and avant-garde art had been made art critic of the Daily Telegraph in 1989 and from 1987 had been the founder/editor of the heavy-weight, pro-figuration glossy magazine Modern Painters. The Art Review had been transformed since 1992 by David Lee, a vigorous champion of figurative art and artists and a relentless critic of Serota and the Arts Council. Between 1992 and 2001, when the Art Review was acquired by a new owner who wished “to get on board with Saatchi”, Lee had more than tripled the circulation and rallied many supporters. Not wishing to join the then ascendant Charles Saatchi band waggon, Lee left to found his own modestly-produced, proprietor-free, success d’estime – the still-thriving magazine Jackdaw. (He will be writing on Sewell, his great personal generosity, and other matters in its next issue.) At that time, Nicholas Serota was only six years into his reign and had yet to perfect his chillingly autocratic rule at the Tate and its proliferating satellites. However, in the event, the combined and interlocking institutional forces against the small dissident band did prove insuperable. In addition to Fuller’s death at a tragically young age in a car accident in 1990, Auty was to emigrate to Australia. It is remarkable today that notwithstanding the immense institutional power of the modernist establishment and contrary to its barrages of propagandistic hype, public disdain for “cutting edge” art forms remains firm and resolute. That this is so is demonstrated on the rare occasions when its strength is put to some objective test.

In 2003 Sir Roy Strong, a former director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, and ArtWatch UK’s director Michael Daley, took part in a live BBC Radio 4 “Straw Poll” programme debate against a minor Arts Council regional apparatchik and the Saatchi-friendly (but short-lived) editor who succeeded David Lee at the Art Review. The motion under debate was “Is contemporary British Art more about money than art?” and it was supported by Strong and Daley. Each speaker was invited to make a short opening statement. Daley’s was:

Contemporary British Art is more about money than art because much of it is not about art, as such, at all. Its leading figures prosper by playing anti-art games, by flouting artistic norms, intellectual standards and even common notions of human decency.
In Britain today, an arts administrative caste, through the Arts Council and its interlocking client organisations, has rigged the contemporary art market and subverted art practices by displacing aesthetic criteria with social or political ones. Officially-approved artists now swim in a sea of subsidies, free of any need to demonstrate individual artistic skills, original thought, or sensitivity. Ideas can be begged, borrowed, stolen or supplied directly by dealers. The execution of these appropriated “ideas” is frequently farmed out to unsung technicians.
There is, of course, a glaring logical problem with the present system: if such things as an unmade bed, an enlarged toy, or a collection of navel-fluff can now count as art, then anything and everything can be art – and if everything is art, nothing is.
Two years ago, a single sheet of stained lavatory paper was presented by a Young British Artist as a self-portrait and sold at auction for £1,500. That is a lot of money for not very much art.

The debate – which was lively – was held before an invited audience at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. It was drawn from “Friends” of both the Ashmolean and the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford. When a vote was taken among the invited studio audience, the motion was narrowly defeated. The next day, the sequel programme on Radio 4 consisting of listeners’ comments on the live debate was broadcast. At the end of it a poll of the programme’s listeners was announced. Radio 4 listeners are acknowledged to be comprised of the most educated and culturally/politically sophisticated variety in the UK. With that much larger and geographically dispersed audience, the motion was carried by 86% to 14%. The slur that opponents of the contemporary art establishment were benighted “strap-hangers” on the London underground had fallen at the first objective hurdle.

“WITHIN A FAIRLY SMALL WORLD…”

Private Eye carried the cartoon above over the exposé below:

On 24 June 2014 Sir Christopher Frayling (right) and Sir James Dyson (left) at the opening of Frayling Building – aka a renamed old block – at the Royal College or Art. (See: “The RCA Renames Kensington Common Room Block Honouring Former Rector Frayling”.)

On 22 December 1994 Professor Christopher Frayling, a signatory of the Stop Sewell Campaign, rose in the Evening Standard to defend the competence and the probity of the Arts Council’s visual arts panel (which he had chaired) against an attack from Brian Sewell. To the charge that the Arts Council was rewarding its own administrators, Frayling played a bureaucratic hand familiar to us – brushing off charges while confirming the evidence on which they rested:

“The Visual Arts Panel is criticised for being populated with ‘nobodies’. In fact it consists of an excellent committed group of well-respected artists, curators, historians and arts administrators and is chaired by Sir Richard Rogers. He [Sewell] implies that members of the Visual Arts panel have sometimes been direct beneficiaries of grants awarded by the Arts Council.
There are two basic misunderstandings here: first, the Arts Council, in general gives grants to institutions not to individuals (and it is up to the institutions to decide how they then distribute the funds); where it does give grants to individuals there are several formal mechanisms to ensure that those who have a direct or indirect interest take no part whatsoever in any decisions that might affect them. To take one of Sewell’s examples, the award to the Prudential for the Prudential Awards for the Arts. Anyone who has visited that gallery and seen its stunning transformation will not cavil at this acknowledgement. It is invevitable, if the Council seeks advice from the very best sources within a fairly small world, that some of those sources will sometimes also be recipients of public money.”

Yes, indeed, they sometimes are – and it came as no surprise to us for this particular overlap within the exceedingly small world of publicly-funded arts merry-go-rounds to be confirmed. In 1981-82 we had encountered precisely the same pattern of explanation/justification/apologia from another of the Sewell letter signatories, Joana Drew, the head of visual arts at the Arts Council. Where Frayling accused Sewell in 1994 of having produced “an article full of factual errors”, in 1982 Joanna Drew had claimed that my accounts of Arts Council subsidies (published on the letters page of the magazine Art Monthly) contained “inaccuracies of detail”. This routine bureaucratic ploy had been parodied in the advice given to a Government minister by a mandarin civil servant in the television programme “Yes, Minister” (- “Accuse them of inaccuracies of detail, Minister. We’ll find them – there are bound to be some”). My researches in art funding had come about by accident.

In the late 1970s Joanna Drew asked the painter R. B. Kitaj to commend artists to receive Arts Council grants. He had been taken by my work and wrote a generous letter of commendation to the Arts Council and so, in some hope, I applied for the first (and last) time for an Arts Council grant. Despite submitting the invited letter of commendation from Kitaj, my application was unsuccessful. The letter of rejection identified the recipients and I noticed that the awards in what was a national scheme had been swamped with abstractionists, performance artists, conceptualists and such. The Arts Council threw a press lunch so that journalists (and unsuccessful applicants) might meet the winning artists. At this lunch, with a few like-minded artist friends, I staged a small protest. After Ms Drew’s speech to the press, we handed out (silently) a sheet of paper with a list of questions concerning the manifest artistic biases of the awards scheme. We were attacked the next day in a newspaper by an art critic who defended the Council against the disruptive “nobodies”. Had he spoken to any of us at the time he would have appreciated that he had written a glowing piece appreciation of one of the protesting artists for a catalogue to his recent one-man show at the Marlborough gallery. Having made our point and registered our protest that had seemed the end of the matter. I carried on teaching part time in two London art schools and continued to read Art Monthly.

A few years later a regional Arts Council officer on the Greater London Arts Association complained in Art Monthly of “underfunding”. Having noticed that all subsequent awards winners were of the same limited artistic persuasions as those encountered earlier, I sent this short letter to the magazine:

“Given that the GLAA has now noticed that there are indeed 18,000 practising artists in London (AM 43), would it not be helpful if they stopped giving their grants to the same twenty?”

It took the Council four months to reply. In the July/August 1981 issue of Art Monthly, the (unrepentant) officer claimed that my chide of repeated funding was “inaccurate” and that “A more justifiable criticism of GLAA’s grant aid might well be that we spread our butter too thinly. We certainly do not spread jam on one corner of the slice”. Reeling with incredulity I went off and bought copies of past annual reports, and began collating the accounts of the various awards schemes, the findings of which I reported in a letter in the next Art Monthly.

JAM FOR THE FEW

Far from it being the case that only two artists had ever received more than one GLAA award, as had been claimed, I had identified no fewer than 13 artists who had received two or more awards in the previous three years alone. Four had received two awards in the same year and one had received two awards in each of the previous two years. Taking the longer period from 1973-4 to the (then) present, I found that eighty-three artists had received two or more awards, thirty-five had received three or more awards, twenty-four had received four or more, eight had received five or more, four had received six or more, one had received seven, and one – who had been successful in 1978-79, the year in which I applied – had received nine awards. Many of this lucky band had received awards when they themselves, their spouses, their partners or their colleagues were judging the schemes: “Michael Kenny is also a member of a rather more select group of artists, namely those who have, while serving as judges on awards schemes, themselves received awards – a feat achieved by Kenny [then six awards in total] in 1976-77 and by Michael Craig-Martin [a signatory to the Stop Sewell letter] and Tess Jaray in 1975-76.” It was common for artist x to make an award to artist y who, on becoming a judge, made an award to artist x. The correspondence of discovery ran for months (when the bemused editor, Peter Townsend, removed the bails, he noted that the exchanges had run to 582 column inches). To every denial from Council officers I presented fresh and further corroborating evidence. I was able to show, for example, that in the previous year, of twenty recipients, three-quarters were receiving their second, third, fourth, fifth or sixth awards. This game of “pass-the-parcel” was not an easy system for outsiders to enter. When wrongly charging me with inaccuracies, Joanna Drew made errors of her own. On scandals connected with the composition of the judging panels, she said that only five people had served as judges twice and one three times. I showed that nine had served twice, seven three times, four four times, two six times. One had served seven times and one had – at that moment – already served eight consecutive times.

Establishing the prevailing patterns of patronage within awards schemes from the Council’s own records was tedious but easy. I was taken to task in Art Monthly by a correspondent who claimed that I’d missed all “the fat cats” but who declined to identify them and proposed to carry out no research of his own. There were other dimensions to the culturally deadening and warping ideological biases of the Council (see below). One was the extent to which even private galleries and public commissions were being brought into ideological line by the wheeze of “matching funding” schemes. Shortly after finishing the researches I was offered an exhibition by a private gallery in London but it came with strings: I should apply to the Arts Council for support for a travelling exhibition (around Arts Council-sponsored regional galleries) at the end of which the show would be brought to a concluding exhibition at the London gallery, all framing and promotion costs having been met by the Council.

Having stumbled into the grossly mismanaged system of awards for artists it would have been temptingly easy to take the MacGuffin for the plot but in the March 1982 Art Monthly we put the grubby dispensations in their proper institutional and ideological contexts. First, we explained, a sense of proportion was needed: “The awards schemes have engendered hostility out of all proportion to their actual cash values. Council spends, for example, more on the pension scheme for its own central staff (£205,138 in 79-80) than it gives as awards to all visual artists combined.” It spent over twice as much on central staff travel and subsistence allowances as on all painters, sculptors and print-makers combined. The sum spent on all public art throughout the land was barely half that spent by the Council on its own “publicity and entertainment”. A massive switch of resources from artists to administrators had taken place. In the previous four years grants to artists had been halved while those to administrators had tripled. Self-interest was manifest as in all bureaucracies but even this trait did not constitute the root of the Council’s cultural perniciousness.

THE POISON OF STATE SUBSIDISED ARTS

This root, we explained, lay in a fatal ambiguity in the Council’s role as the most powerful artistic patron in the country:

“In its least contentious (and earliest) guise the Council was simply a purveyor of subsidy to the arts: the means by which a culturally responsible society augments the inadequacies or stringencies of private means to support its artistic life. But increasingly, and more and more explicitly, the Council has taken on the role not simply of almoner but of cultural commissariat […so as] to seize outright the possibility of actual intervention in cultural life. It has come to portray itself as a force for initiation and perpetration of artistic trends, for bestowing artistic accreditation, for explicitly political and and sociological direction of artistic activity.”

Bad as the situation seemed back then, worse was to come. The model I examined proved to be but a maquette for what would follow as state and Lottery monies poured in. What was started as an aid to art and artists at a time of national penury morphed into an instrument of control, direction, manipulation and subjugation during times of unimagined plenty. For two decades or more Brian Sewell wrestled with the consequences and legacies this cultural leviathan (as he did also with the Tate and others). It is not really difficult to see why so many felt that he had to be stopped at any price, is it?

Michael Daley, 6 October 2015

POSTSCRIPTS…

1) On the above-mentioned anxiety felt by the trendy establishment at the scale of opposition to its beliefs and actions, we note that in 2005 the critic Richard Cork confessed: “Even so, we would be foolish to imagine that the battle has been completely won. I still meet people who say they love Tate Modern’s spectacular building, along with the views it provides. But then they declare that the art inside is rubbish…and they think I am mad to find anything of interest on display in there. Deep-seated suspicions continue to fester. I remember the Tate director’s striking lack of elation a few months after the gallery opened. ‘Many young people are interested in the visual arts’, said Sir Nicholas Serota, ‘but I’m conscious that a huge part of the public remains sceptical about modern art. Whether it’s people in positions of power, or the many letters I receive that complain about < lack of standards > in the art displayed at Bankside, a lot of people clearly find it difficult to live in the present.'” (- “People ask: ‘But is it art?’ Yes, actually, it is ~ Richard Cork springs to the defence of modern works”, The Times, 2 March 2005.)

What an extraordinary conceit/delusion it is to maintain that unless one likes and admires the kind of works that people like Serota and Cork promote, one is not living in the present. Has this man been in charge of a national institution for twenty-seven years, while harbouring the belief that most people in the country are living, zombie-like, outside of their own time?


Heritage Industry Abuses

We should be clear: the preservation of historical heritage has long since ceased to be considered a desirable end in itself. Today it constitutes a means for growing audiences and maximising revenues – as most notoriously is the case with the National Trust. Worse, as Florence Hallett reports below, it now also provides cover for concocting phoney histories to generate (chump) tourism.

“Exceptionally high levels of satisfaction”

The National Trust’s own heritage portfolio is proving a nice little earner. The trust employs over 7,000 permanent staff and a further 4,000 seasonal staff (in addition to more than 60,000 voluntary staff) at a total cost this year of £194 million. Its Director-General, Dame Helen Ghosh, would seem to earn between £220,000 and £229,000, with a further 97 staff members earning between £199,000 and £60,000. In surveys, the staff members express exceptionally high levels of satisfaction (97%). Growing visitor numbers and income is clearly a high priority for these administrators.

Above, Dame Helen Ghosh, who worked as a civil servant for 33 years – as photographed by Jeremy Young for the 24 February 2013 Sunday Times article “A wind turbine is a thing of beauty”.

Although National Trust visitor numbers are presently at a record high (21.3 million last year over 19.2 millions in 2013) the trust has expressed alarm because in surveys “visitor enjoyment scores” dropped by 2% last year to 60% – which figure is below the Trust’s own target of 68%. On 12 September the Daily Telegraph reported that the trust’s 4.2 million members – another record high – are said to be “getting tired of the most popular attractions and it [the trust] has to do more to make them interesting” (“The National Trust’s treasures are losing their lustre”). However, it may be the case that the members are aghast and dismayed by the National Trust’s self-declared “Disneyfication” policies under which properties can be held to contain “too much historic stuff” and to provide too few opportunities for “interactive” participation by all age groups.

(See: Sir’s not always right; Applying recreated authenticity to historic buildings in the name of their conservation; and, Bags and Abuses of National Trust.)

A Cultural Fraud at Chester – Florence Hallett, ArtWatch UK’s architecture and monuments editor, reports:

Plans to attach bogus gates to one of Chester’s most well-known historic monuments were realised temporarily last week, during an extraordinary spectacle commemorating the Queen’s 62-year reign. In an event that saw giant effigies of Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth II paraded through the historic Eastgate last Wednesday, commentary, and an especially composed poem were provided by husband-and-wife town criers, David and Julie Mitchell. A spokesperson from Cheshire West & Chester Council had said that the ceremony would involve recreating “gates at Eastgate with interlocking shields. As part of the pageantry, they will knock on the shields and be let in.” In the event, The Chester Standard reported that local businessman Gordon Vickers, the brains behind the campaign to attach gates to the historic structure permanently, arranged for Roman soldiers to hold up wooden gates, which the queens passed through.

Above and below, three photographs of the so-called Chester Parade from a group shown on photosnack.

So far, planning permission has not been sought for the controversial plan to attach iron gates permanently to the Eastgate, which Vickers claims could attract millions of visitors to the city. In January he told The Chester Standard, “This could rival the changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace in London if it’s done in the right manner.” The Chester Archaeological Society has described the plans as “anachronistic” and a “historical pastiche”. Nevertheless, Historic England has expressed support for the plan, and this latest revival of the scheme suggests that planning permission may be sought some time soon.

STOP PRESS – 18 September 2015

On ArtWatch UK’s objections to the increasing traffiking of works of art, see “Works of art — handle with care”, the Financial Times and “Whatever happened to ‘Do Not Touch’?”


Fake or Fortune II

Here’s a curious thing: this evening BBC Television re-showed an epsode of Fake or Fortune in which a fake Chagall was exposed. During the course of the programme and afterwards a post we had published on the programme the first time round (“Good Science, Over-reaching science, Over-promoted Science”, 24 February 2014) received an unexpected spike of visits.

Our post had begun:

“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.”

It is not clear why the BBC chose to re-run this controversial programme.

(For that original post, see: Good Science; Over-Reaching Science; Over-Promoted Science.)

Fig. 1: Above, top, Marc Chagall’s “Reclining Nude 1911?” which is said to have been the source for the fake Chagall, “Nude 1909-1910?” (above), as reproduced together in the Sunday Telegraph (2 February 2014).

Michael Daley. 9 August 2015


THE ELEPHANT IN KLIMT’S ROOM

In a recent post (“Now Let’s Murder Klimt”, 5 June), we let photographs speak for themselves on the widespread debilitation of Klimt’s paintings at the hands of picture restorers. Here, we discuss the precision – and the consistency – with which the surviving photographic record of his oeuvre testifies to a progressive and irreversible deconstruction of the artist’s original statements.

“I can paint and I can draw…Whoever wants to know something about me – as an artist, which is the only thing remarkable – should look at my paintings and try to find out through them what I am and what I want.”

~ Gustav Klimt, as quoted by Serge Sabarsky in his introduction to the “Gustav Klimt” exhibition he had selected at the Isetan Museum of Art, Tokyo, 1981. (See Fig. 1 below.)

“After his death, his plea not to be made the subject of biographical inquiries was ignored: ‘I am convinced that I am not particularly interesting as a person…if anyone wants to find out about me – as an artist, the only capacity in which I am of any note – they should look carefully at my paintings and try to learn from them what I am and what I have tried to achieve.’ Increasing interest in his work over the years has made his many-sided personality a subject of unremitting interest. Artist or upright citizen, bohemian or middle-class bore, sex-obsessed tyrant or sympathetic son and brother? Fantasy was given free reign….”

~ Susanna Partsch Gustav Klimt Painter of Women, Munich, Berlin, London New York, 2008

Above, Figs. 1, 2 and 3: Susanna Partsch’s book and (Fig 3) the detail of Klimt’s 1907-08 Danae as published in Emil Pirchan’s 1956 Gustav Klimt, Bergland Verlag Wien.
The above and all succeeding multiple photo-compilations were assembled by Gareth Hawker, who drew our attention to Sickert’s letter below.
Above, Figs. 4 and 5: a detail of a large detailed illustration in the 2007 book Gustav Klimt, edited by Alfred Weidinger.

The illustration shown above in colour and in greyscale (Figs. 4 and 5) appears on p. 190 of the 2007 book Gustav Klimt and faces a sub-part by Susanna Partsch of a section headed “On Flowers in Bloom and Radiant Women”. Given that this photograph was likely taken in preparation for the book (see below), the question arises: What accounts for the differences between this image and that used on the cover of Susanna Partsch’s own book the following year? Were they both derived from the same photograph but with the image on the book cover having been digitally manipulated by a designer to heighten the saturation of colours so as to increase graphic force and “attractiveness”? Or, is the image in the slightly earlier book made from a somewhat later photograph? If, when comparing individual photographic reproductions, such problems arise from insufficient knowledge of their origins and handling, what can be seen as clear as day when surveying the Klimt literature is that the earliest photographs and the most recent depict works in profoundly different states. If presently we cannot for logistical reasons hunt down the pedigree, the history and the reproductive variations of every Klimt image-in-public-circulation, we can with confidence flag-up some of the glaring discrepancies of testimony that are encountered in the photo-records of the artist’s individual works. These discrepancies urgently need to be addressed.

WHY PHOTOGRAPHS ALONE MUST NOW SPEAK FOR KLIMT, NOT HIS PAINTINGS – NOR HIS SCHOLARS

Unfortunately, it is no longer possible to let Klimt’s paintings speak for themselves. In barely more than a century, his works, like those of many other modern artists, have been traduced by restorers (see Taking Renoir, Sterling and Francine Clark to the Cleaners). The Klimt literature is rich in photographs showing his paintings when new and unspoiled but scholars seem persuaded that today’s photographs offer the best record of his work even though early photographs make it easy to identify subsequent restoration injuries – and even though nothing could be simpler or more to the point for art critical purposes than comparing old and recent photographs [Endnote 1]. This apparent aversion to the historic visual record is perplexing in two respects.

First, in all contexts other than art restoration there is grateful acceptance of photographic testimony by scholars. Attributions are made on the evidence of photographs. Art dealer/sleuths hunting attribution upgrades buy works on the strength of online photographs [2]. Paradoxically, as today’s scholars effectively turn a collective blind eye to restoration injuries, restorers are seeking permission to declare their errors on a “without-liability” basis [3].

Second, by not noticing – or sometimes seemingly flaunting – patently injured works, Klimt scholars betray the artist and sell the public short. The detail carried as a book cover illustration at Figs. 1 and 2 is of a horrendously mutilated painting that no longer functions as Klimt had intended. In a world where art mattered for what it is, not for what might be said about it and its backstory, scrubbing paintings to the point where under-drawing emerges would properly count as a crime against art, if not in law, and the restorers, owners, curators, sponsors and trustees responsible for dimishing and adulterating its content would be censured, not celebrated.

WHAT COUNTS AS INJURY?

Consider Danae’s right eye. In 1956 (as at Fig. 3) if one had drawn a line of cross-section through the brow and the eye down to the cheek it would have passed through distinct tonal values which varied to a chiefly anatomical, partly expressive purpose. The eyebrow was depicted by a mid-tone (not by the present mess of preparatory lines). Immediately below the eyebrow, the brow was given a light tone. Then came the tones of the upper eyelid, passing from dark to light before reaching the line of eyelashes. Below the eyelashes, the form of the lower lid, where the bulge of the eye re-entered its socket was dark. This dark was separated from the tones of the cheek by a strip of light toned flesh. By its relationship to a light source, this tonal sequence explained the forms of the brow, eye, cheek. Today the upper and lower lids are undifferentiated, with both reduced to the same flattening tone, whereas the eyelashes – which no longer attach to discernable edges of eyelids – have been hardened into a series of sharp parallel strokes to the point where the eyelids now seem stitched together. Where formerly the sleeping woman had drawn a white sheet partially across her face with a claw-like, scrunching hand, that piece of stretched sheet is no longer designed drapery but an incoherent jumble of lines and colours (Figs. 1 and 2). The accenting highlights on the fingernails have been dulled and the light on nail of the little finger has disappeared – as has the much broader tonal distinction between Danae’s right breast and her chest. The narrow dark tones articulating the interiors of the lips have disappeared…

…A PAINTER’S VIEW OF RESTORERS:

“Sir,-‘Il faut laisser mourir un tableau de sa belle mort.’ The English equivalent is only ‘Let a picture die a natural death.’ There remains always the recommendation, ‘Thou shalt do no murder.’
A curator should wipe, but he must not flay. Galleries should be dry, but not too dry. They should be warm, but not hot. On Friday, Dec. 18, the rain was being captured in pails as it dripped from the skylights of the National Gallery. Perhaps money had better be reserved for the integrity of ‘the fabric’.
The attackers of the painters’ position as meddlers with the job of the restorers are in the right. There should not be such meddlers, because there should be no restorers. Voila le mot lâche.”

~ Walter Richard Sickert, Letter, Daily Telegraph, 31 December 1936

SOME FURTHER CASES OF KLIMT ABUSE…

To help identify Klimt’s original purposes in today’s hyper-active conservation world it is essential to study the photographic record of his works, as with, for example, the unfinished 1917-18 Portrait Head of a Lady below.

The detail at Fig. 6 (top) is from the work as published in Werner Hofmann’s 1972 Gustav Klimt.
The detail at Fig. 7 (middle), is from the work as published in the catalogue to the above-mentioned “Gustav Klimt” exhibition at the Isetan Museum of Art, Tokyo.
The detail at Fig. 8 (above) shows the work as published in the 2012 book Gustav Klimt ~ The Complete Paintings.

READING PHOTOGRAPHIC IMAGES

Do the startling differences seen above not speak of injury to the painting? If such (apparent) changes in paintings were illusory products of the vagaries of photo-reproductions, reproductions would come and go in their narratives, leaning a bit this way one minute; a bit the other way the next. Some changes certainly are of that order (and particularly so in terms of colour fluctuations) but others are simply too great to be reproductive variations. Moreover, the wider photo-record contains recurrent patterns of change and these are seen to run across the histories of individual works and entire oeuvres alike. Patterns are always significant and eloquent. In the particular recurring pictorial pattern of concern here, paintings become lighter, brighter, thinner and flatter with successive restorations. (See Figs. 9 and 10, and Figs. 17 and 18 for non-Klimt, single-restoration examples.) A rigorous examination of patterns provides a helpfully focussing diagnostic method. If paint losses are not occurring, why should the net effect of picture cleanings be to compress relationships and minimise values rather than to widen and enrich them?

With this particular unfinished Klimt painting, the most dramatic change occurred prior to 1981 and yet, after over a third of a century and very many more photographic reproductions, no subsequent image has resembled its pre-1981 predecessor – those recorded differences have proved permanent and irreversible. Notwithstanding the promise of one restorer in the US to “make your paintings look as good as new – or better”, no restoration can recover what has been lost. In aggregate, art restoration is a one-way street that runs away from authenticity, original conditions, and artists’ express intentions.

Shortly before the abruptly changed state of the painting seen at Figs. 7 and 8 was published, the picture had been sent from Linz to Tokyo. Loaned works are often “restored”, “put in order” and made to “look their best”. “Putting in order” often includes “lining” or gluing an additional new and reinforcing canvas to the back of the painting. The bond between the two canvases is usually achieved with glues or waxes and hot irons in a notoriously hazardous procedure that was condemned by restorers themselves in the 1970s. Supposedly ameliorative or “preventive” procedures often produce disastrous material and aesthetic changes with first-time restorations. Scholars rarely nowadays discuss such consequences and seem not to notice, even, when paint is removed from the most vulnerable and exposed parts of the picture surface leaving rows of white dots along lines of canvas weave. Such can clearly be seen to run across mid-tone and dark passages alike at Fig. 8. Restorers euphemise such losses as “abrasions” when what most “abrades” paint is solvent-loaded swabs.

THE DEVIL IS IN THE DETAILS AS WELL AS IN THE PATTERNS

The inner corner of the eye on the left of Klimt’s painting (Fig. 6) was formerly marked by two short vertical dark accents. As seen in Figs. 7 and 8, by 1981 those marks had been reduced to a single patch of lighter tone. No photograph or reproductive variation could produce such an alteration. The lips too became lighter and less clearly drawn and modelled. Presumably, good photographic records survive of all treatments to this late unfinished but important work in which Klimt’s working transition from drawing to paint on canvas can be studied? With the losses of a comparable magnitude seen on the Renoir below (Figs. 9 and 10), there can be no question about the veracity of the photographic record.

PROPER RECORD KEEPING, FULL DISCLOSURE

Above, Figs. 9 and 10: A detail of Renoir’s Umbrellas before cleaning (top) and after cleaning at the National Gallery.

The two photographs above were made at and by the National Gallery immediately before and immediately after cleaning. The evidence of injury is manifest and our claims on it have never been contested. But again, so far as we know, no Renoir scholar has ever addressed these losses. With this painting we know when, by whom and with what materials the damages were made: the National Gallery has given us full access to its picture treatment records and those disclose that prior to this restoration the only cracks present in the painting occurred along the line of a horizontal central stretcher bar against which the canvas vibrated during its regular travels to and from Dublin. The extensive cracking that emerged on the face was entirely attributable to the conservation “treatment”.

FRIGHTENING SCHOLARS OFF

If scholars are reluctant to discuss restoration damage for fear of upsetting owners (public or private), it is less understandable that they should defer to the professional claims of restorers. When picture restorers insist that the testimony of photographs is not to be trusted they betray professional hypocrisy. Restorers make great use of photography for their own promotional purposes – as when (routinely) claiming some restoration “discovery” or “recovery”. They also use old photographs of works to guide their own repainting of losses incurred during a cleaning. On these occasions no health warning against an inherent unreliability of photography is ever issued.

Restorers have now enjoyed criticism-free positions for so long in museums that they lay unchallenged claims to special technical expertises and powers of divination on the authority of which they feel entitled to determine how works of art should “be presented”. They freely admit that they restore works differently from one another and, yet, contend that all of their various improvisations on art are co-equally legitimate, providing only that they are “safely” executed. They do not explain how various impositions of “interpretive alteration”, might all somehow be artistically and historically tenable. It is time curators called their bluff.

COMPARING OLD PHOTOGRAPHS WITH RECENT, MORE RECENT, AND MORE RECENT STILL…

Occasionally scholars do discuss old photographs and do accept the veracity of their testimony. In the above-mentioned 2007 book Gustav Klimt, the catalogue of works includes an entry on Klimt’s Portrait of Margaret Stonborough-Wittgenstein. It carries a 1905 photograph of the painting next to a recent photograph (see Figs. 11 and 12). The author notes that this early photograph shows that “Klimt later reworked the background”. Acknowledgment is given that “Klimt made no alterations to the figure itself”. This being the case, why then is there no discussion of the subsequent restoration changes to the figure? Above all, why is there is no word on the subsequent incremental washing away of the figure’s (recorded) original values that is shown below throughout the sequences of photographs at Figs. 13 to 16 and Figs. 23 to 25?

As with Renoir, there is more interest in the feminism and the sociology of the time than in today’s state of the work of art itself: “This lively, intelligent lady who was described by her sister as being amazingly active, with an exceptional mind and rejecting any form of convention, could not recognize herself in Klimt’s portrait. Here, she is shown removed from reality, captured in ornamentation, frozen.” Again, as in Renoir studies, the scholar is attentive to frocks, noting that Klimt “depicted the young lady with great virtuosity in a velvet moiré dress and silk scarf. The pleats of her dress are shown in sophisticated nuances of grey which give an impression of the structure of the fabric.” Then follows a plaint that “The billowing lengths of material clothing the figure make it impossible to recognize any corporeality beneath them”, seemingly not noticing that a century earlier there had been a markedly greater sense of interior corporeality.

LOOK AT THE RECORD

Above, Figs. 11 and 12: The joint illustrations to the entry in the 2007 book Gustav Klimt, Prestel Verlag (Munich, Berlin, London, New York), on Klimt’s 1905 oil on canvas Portrait of Margaret Stonborough-Wittgenstein, as shown in colour and, here, converted into greyscale.

With the colour reproduction at Fig. 11 converted to the greyscale version at Fig. 12, the extent of the losses in the painting of the dress as seen in 1905 and in c. 2007 is manifest: the darks in 1905 were darker and the lights were lighter. Within this greater tonal range Klimt had disposed his forces to masterly and vivacious effect. The picture’s strongest contrasts at the head were better balanced by the escalation of contrasts towards the bottom of the dress, the treatment of which, truly, was a painterly tour de force.

GOING, GOING, GOING, GOING…

Below: the sequence of same-size, all greyscale, photographs charts the progressive debilitation of values and diminution of pictorial vivacity that has occurred in this painting within a century. One can only shudder at the prospect of another hundred years of conservation treatments in which the corporeal is converted to the ethereal. We can see for example how much the progressive lightening of the background and floor has robbed the figure of its former “relieving” support. Has no one asked why the strategically dynamic pool of darkness in the bottom left hand corner has been removed when it was present in the photographs of 1905, 1911 and 1956?

Above, Figs. 13, 14, 15 and 16: Klimt’s Portrait of Margaret Stonborough-Wittgenstein, as seen respectively in:
1905, when exhibited (unfinished) at the Kunstlerbund Exhibition, as shown in the 2007 Gustav Klimt, Alfred Weidinger (Ed.);
1956, as published in Emil Pirchan’s Gustav Klimt, Bergland Verlag Wien;
2000-01, as in the catalogue Klimt’s Women, Tobias G. Natter and Gerbert Frodl (Eds.), for an exhibition at the Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna;
2012, Klimt ~ The Complete Paintings, Tobias G. Natter (Ed.), Taschen, Cologne.

BEARING, GRACE, DIGNITY – AND THEIR UNDOING

The glimpse below of Klimt’s portrait on the walls of the International Art Exhibition in Rome, 1911 (Fig. 20), evokes the stately dignified presence and bearing of a Van Dyck – in which great artist it can also be seen that a single cleaning can have remorseless brightening, flattening, space-suppressing consequences. (For the cleaning consequences for Lady Lucy’s face and hair, see Ghosts in the Lecture Room: Connoisseurship and the Making, Appraising, Replicating and Undoing of Art’s Images.)

Above, Figs, 17 and 18: Van Dyck’s portrait Lucy Percy, Countess of Carlisle. Fig. 17 (top) is as reproduced in the Tate Gallery’s 1992 catalogue to the 1992-1993 exhibition organised by Andrew Wilton, “The Swagger Portrait”. Fig. 18 (above), is from the catalogue to the Tate Gallery’s 2009 exhibition, “Van Dyck in Britain”.
Above (top) Fig. 19: Two recently published states of Van Dyck’s portrait Lucy Percy, Countess of Carlisle. Above, Fig. 20, a detail of a view of the Klimt Room at the International Art Exhibition in Rome, 1911; showing on the walls Klimt’s Jurisprudence and his then finished Portrait of Margaret Stonborough-Wittgenstein. From the catalogue of the exhibition, 1911.

ANYTHING BUT ART AND ITS CONDITION

We mention scholars’ neglect of condition in favour current obsessions with the sociological and with feminist correctitude, but it sometimes seems there is imperviousness, even, to the self-validating clout of sheer artistry. One after another offers “grounds” for the dissatisfaction felt by Margaret Stonborough-Wittgenstein and her family with the portrait. Thus, Susanna Partsch, in her Klimt ~ Life and Work of 1989, notes: “Margarethe Stonborough-Wittgenstein is known to have possessed a good measure of self confidence, but Klimt saw her differently, He applied ‘his’ view of woman to her, and had to accept that the result did not please her.” It may not have pleased her, but affront today at a male artist’s (perceived) imposition of ‘his’ view of woman onto the subject is a politicised indulgence. How the subject might have preferred to see herself may be a matter of some interest, but more so for a novelist or a social historian, perhaps, than for a historian of art who has at hand the artist’s material artefacts that were intended to carry all necessary information and thereby avoid need for speculation.

Besides which, it is quite possible that the source of dissatisfaction was something altogether smaller (and less mentionable). Perhaps the subject and her family did not welcome a too-heavy evocation of down in the shading over the upper lip as it turned from the viewer (see Figs. 27, 28 and 29)? A hint of such had been present in the more frontal 1899 portrait of Serena Lederer. The reported feelings of the subject herself aside, the drawing in this portrait was brilliant. Even at this historical distance – and notwithstanding restoration vicissitudes – this portrait stands remarkably fresh, sympathetic and respectful. We see and sense intelligence, brightness and alertness to the world. She is depicted not lustfully but with grace, self possession and dignity. If the opulent, massively High Fashion Statement skirt on her dress is put aside and consideration given to the upper half of the figure, its sculptural presence is quite astonishingly accomplished and attractive (see Figs. 23, 24 and 25) – albeit in bas relief, so to speak, so as to relate more comfortably to the emphatically flattened and decorated background. In its drawing, this upper figure recalls – and could live in the company of – Holbein’s portrait of the young Anne Cresacre (Fig. 22) and even the more luxuriantly plastic (now) Raphael portrait of a young woman in profile at Fig. 21. Of how many 20th century portraits might such parity be entertained?

In truth, the sense of the body within the costume is subtly but superbly evoked. The massive tulip-shaped skirt certainly conceals the legs – but then who bought and wore this dress? Was the subject making no statement of her own? Did she not dress heself? Partsch observes that the “bearing and facial expression make her seem cooly aloof with an air of expectancy, but also far removed from reality.” But removed from which or whose reality? Should Klimt have set her in an oppulent domestic interior? Did this very rich, culturally privileged and intellectually aspirational young person never betray a degree of aloofness? Was she quite without social expectations and sense of entitlement? On what grounds does one scholar after another complain of the in-corporeality of the body underneath the costume? Partsch once more: “Again the human figure takes up almost the entire picture. The principles which Klimt had developed since the painting of Sonja Knips have been sustained. Again the figure is veiled in a long dress, revealing only head, shoulders and hands. This time it is a dress of white moiré velvet that negates the corporeality of the human figure, and again the dress reaches right down to the ground and is cut off by the frame in the vicinity of the feet.” And how is it that so many avid connoisseurs of the corporeal should miss the fact that, in Klimt, this very feature is diminished every time his works go into the conservators’ wash?

Above, (top) Fig. 21: A Young Woman in Profile, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, presently Raphael but formerly Mino da Fiesole and “sixteenth century Florentine”;
Above, Fig. 22, Holbein’s 1527 drawing of Anne Cresacre (reversed).
Above, Figs. 23, 24 and 25: Details of Figs. 14, 15 and 16 – and so, from no later than: 1956; 2000-01, and, 20012 respectively.

BELOW: IT’S A WASHOUT – IS IT NOT?

Above and below, Figs. 26, 27, 28 and 29: Details of Figs. 14, 15 and 16 – and so, again, from no later than: 1956; 2000-01, and, 20012 respectively.

WHAT MORE CAN BE SAID?

The sequence of three states of the head shown above and below shows why commenting appropriately on the qualities of the portrait made by Klimt in 1905 can no longer be done solely on the basis of the painting as it is encountered today. Klimt’s last intended word has departed involuntarily. What is left is an impersonation of the now lost original and superior state. We should not appraise or speak of the present work without reference to the testimony of its photographic history. For such reasons it is a matter of urgency that the full photographic record of Klimt’s work be assembled and made available to all scholars and art lovers. If we were talk about the portrait today on the selection of three reproductions above, to which image should greatest credence be given: the most recent, the earliest, or the one in the middle? It is not really a difficult question to answer – is it? Graphically-speaking, the three images resemble successive states of an etching – but here with the states running in reverse with less material to hand, not more, at each stage.

If we analyse the changes to the original in detail, we can see for example that the mouth/nose relationship has been mangled by restorers. Assuming that no injury had occurred before the first recorded state (when the painting was no more than fifty years old), we can see among many losses and alterations that the design of the nostril aperture was altered from its original sharply turned upper contour to a blander formulation. Such differences are immensely significant in terms of expression. The greatest student of the pinched, translucent, breathing nostril in women was Rubens. Klimt was very good at and attentive to nostrils. He was also good at mouths. Both are products of astonishingly complex anatomical forces (see Fig. 34 for an entirely unrestored graphic attempt by the author to grapple with just such plastic complexities). Here we see that by 2000/01 the mouth had met with an accident. Both the upper and the lower lip had been garbled in restoration. The loss of definition in the relationship between the lower lip and its surrounding surfaces has resulted in a most unfortunate appearance of an emerging ‘Hapsburg Lip’, the product not of some physical deformity but of an anatomically illiterate restorer who reconstituted beautifully nuanced tonal modelling as a crass, plastically misread linear simplification. More recently, attempt has been to mitigate the previous errors but the general washing-away process continued. Such rapid undoing and redoing of botched restorations is a growing phenomenon, even at the highest levels of the “museum community” (see Fig. 40).

Above, Fig. 30. Note: we are straining below at the edge of enlargements of details of the record as published. Imagine how much more eloquently horrific this comparative investigative exercise would be if we were able to work from high quality copies of the original photographs.
Above, Figs. 31, 32 and 33: Details from no later than: 1956; 2000-01, and, 20012 respectively.
Above, Fig. 34: a detail of a caricature drawn by the author for the Independent on Sunday.
Below, Fig. 35: a detail of a paraphrase of Klimt’s Judith II (Salome) made by the author in an illustration for the Independent, 3 June 1992. Note the similarity of the arched nostril apperture and upturned nose with that seen in the painting of Margaret Stonborough-Wittgenstein until 1956. It has been claimed, however, that the model for both of Klimt’s Judith paintings was Adele Bloch-Bauer – see Susanna Partsch, Gustav Klimt ~ Painter of Women, p. 78. Even as a young woman, Bloch-Bauer did have markedly heavier eyelids – perhaps Klimt was fusing features from different models when composing invented characters?
Above, Fig. 36: A detail of Klimt’s Judith II (Salome) of 1909, as published in 1956 (left) and in Angelica Bäumer’s 1985 Gustav Klimt ~ Women.
Above and below, Figs. 37, 38 and 39: The ear from Michelangelo’s Erythraean Sibyl on the Sistine Chapel Ceiling, before and after cleaning. Those responsible for the losses in the Sistine Chapel claimed in response to criticisms that the disappeared material had not been Michelangelo’s own finishing adjustment but arbitrary accumulations of centuries old dirt, soot and restorers’ glues. Klimt’s restorers are luckier: the losses have yet to be acknowledged.
Morelli famously held that attributions lay in the details of figures – ear lobes, finger tips and such. Which of Margaret Stonborough-Wittgenstein’s ears might best now be taken as carrying the fingerprint of Klimt – the earliest, or the most recent?
Above, Fig. 40: The Week’s summary of Dalya Alberge’s June 13th 2010 Observer article “Louvre masterpiece by Veronese ‘mutilated’ by botched nose jobs”.

AN UPDATE: THE FINE ART OF SELLING KLIMT

Fig. 41: “Two employees of Sotheby’s auction house pose by a portrait of Gertrud Loew (Gertha Felsovanyi) by Austrian artist Gustav Klimt painted in 1902” ~ The Daily Telegraph 19 June 2015.

On June 5th we examined the photographic record of Klimt’s 1902 painting of a young Jewish woman (Gertrud Loew) that had been restored to the heirs of her family (Now Let’s Murder Klimt). Despite its manifestly degraded condition (see below), the portrait sold at Sotheby’s on June 23rd for £24.8m (on a £12-£18m estimate). The July/August Art Newspaper attributes the high price not to the picture’s condition – which it does not discuss – but to the history and poignancy of its backstory which Sotheby’s held to have “added to its value” (“The Lure Of A Backstory”, The Art Newspaper, Section 2, p.12). Restoring works to families whose forbears were robbed and murdered is an indisputable good. Questions of ownership, however, like questions of attribution, are less urgent than questions of condition. Whatever their gravity, ownership or attribution disputes might always be resolved at some future point. With restorations, injuries are irreversible and cumulatively compounding. Nothing might now return Gertrud Loew to the beautifully nuanced condition in which she was bequeathed to posterity by Klimt.

Above, Figs. 42, 43 and 44: (Top) Holbein’s portait of the fifteen years old Henry Howard. (Centre) Klimt’s 1902 portrait of Gertrud Loew, as seen before 1956, and (above), as seen today.

Note, among many alterations, how the definition of the eyebrows and the shading around the eyes have been debilitated. Note, too, how changes to the line of parting in the lips have altered the subject’s expression; how an eyebrow has been cocked; how the eyes are now open wider. Note how the loss of shading at the sides of the nose makes the present nose larger than its original self. Note how credibly and well this portrait once lived in the company of Holbein’s full-on portrait of the young Henry Howard and ask if this picture might not have had the mother-of-all ‘cosmeticising’ restorations? Perhaps it’s backstory is richer than Sotheby’s and the Art Newspaper have appreciated?

Michael Daley, 25 July 2015

ENDNOTES:

1) In the massive, ambitious and welcome 2007 book Gustav Klimt, the editor writes: “It was a major concern of ours to see, as far as possible, all Klimt’s paintings in the original, and to take new photographs of all them.” With so many recent photographs of Klimt’s works the authors’ were perfectly placed to make comparative studies with the earliest photographs. As seen above, one such a photographic comparison was made with a portrait to show the differences before and after its completion. So why not show some, if not all, of the earliest visual records against their most recent counterparts? In the catalogue, another photo-comparison is made with with Klimt’s portrait of his niece Helene – but this is with a portrait by Fernand Khnopff, and not with the picture’s own earlier recorded self. This was a terrible lost opportunity: as shown below, there are such great differences between the Helenes seen in 1956 and in 2007 as to suggest the existence of two versions of the portrait. There are dramatic differences of design in the dress. In 1956 the lightest part of the hair was at the crown and the back of the head. The hair got progressively darker as it ran down and as it approached the girl’s face, which it emphatically framed. That logic has been reversed. The darkest part is now at the crown and the hair lightens as it approaches the face.

Above, (top) Fig. 45: Klimt’s portait of his niece Helene in 1956.
Above (centre) Fig. 46, showing the niece as seen in 2007.
Above, Fig. 47: The juxtaposition of photographs of Klimt’s and Khnopff’s portraits made in the 2007 Gustav Klimt catalogue.
Below, figs. 48 and 49: Further comparisons of Helene’s drapery.

Does the treatment of the drapery now present (above, right) on this privately owned work on loan to the Kunstmuseum, Berne, seem worthy or typical of Klimt in 1898?

2) In a recent BBC “Fake or Fortune” television programme the resident art sleuths faced the challenge of proving that three small Lowry paintings (all of which which carried labels and numbers on the back from the reputable gallery that had sold them) were authentic Lowrys even though the present owner had no paperwork showing right of ownership. What proved to be the programme’s MacGuffin was the presence in the paintings (revealed by technical analysis) of the wrong kind of white paint – zinc not lead. To surmount this hurdle the sleuths examined old photographs of Lowry at work in his studio. A bit of digital enhancement of one showed a whole boxful of the ‘wrong white’ in use. The question still to be resolved still was whether these labelled, numbered paintings really were Lowry paintings. Another old photograph of Lowry’s studio was found to show the three presently ‘homeless’ paintings. When a small image of one of the paintings was digitally enhanced and superimposed over a photograph of the painting today, it proved a perfect match, “brush stroke by brush stroke”. This accumulation of photo-evidence was taken to be so clinching that it trumped both the potentially lethal absence of any paperwork and the scientifically established presence of a ‘wrong’ pigment. When the Big Four Lowry experts were duly assembled to examine the three paintings (away from the cameras) they emerged after a couple of hours to give the trio of paintings the thumbs up. And so, it was photo-evidence that carried the day, not science, not documents. Things might, however, have been very different had the Lowrys been restored to the point where their brushmarks no longer coincided with those recorded in the artist’s studio.

3) At the 2011 ICOM conference in Lisbon, two conservators complained in a joint paper (“To Err is Human: Understanding and Sharing Mistakes in Conservation Practice”) that because a belief exists that it is unacceptable for conservators to damage objects, members of the conservation fraternity are hampered in their desire to make a “collective acknowledgement and sharing of mistakes”. The experience of other fields, such as medicine and aviation, it was explained, demonstates the value of admitting and sharing errors so as to “reduce the risks of their occurrence”. This proposal/demand will be discussed in the Autumn issue of the ArtWatch UK Journal by Michel Favre-Felix, the president of ARIPA (association for the respect of the integrity of artistic heritage).


A Broadside at Bankside

Time was, when to get into art school, nothing was required other than a collection of drawings that demonstrated to the educated eyes of the art school’s teachers clear talent in the visual art fields. It is impossible to explain to those who cannot see it for themselves why this was such a good and sensible means of selection.

It so happens that at the moment there is an exhibition – “Drawn Together” – of works in a variety of graphic and pictorial media produced by a body of people who love to draw and who see drawing itself as a sufficient vehicle for artistic realisations. These artists are all members of the Society of Graphic Fine Art and their works are on display, free of charge, until Sunday, July 5, at the Bankside Gallery on the South Bank, hard by Tate Modern (for full details, see below, bottom). Many visitors to the Bankside Gallery, having wandered in after a visit to the Tate’s adjacent cavern of Official State Art Emptiness, express delight and surprise at the richness, variety and manifestly engaged – and therefore engaging – quality of the art on display. The society was founded in 1919 and aims expressly today, as then, to promote fine drawing skills.

We invited the society’s president, Jackie Devereux, to comment on a few of the works by artists who have parked their easels on what some might take to be hostile and culturally alien terrain. She has kindly done so and writes:

The Society of Graphic Fine Art exhibition ‘Drawn Together’ runs at the Bankside Gallery, London, until 5 July 2015

When I took over as President in February 2014, I felt the time was right for the SGFA to be launched into the heart of London, and where better than at Bankside Gallery, within a nib’s width of Tate Modern. Effectively, I wanted to put drawing in its rightful place – firmly on the map in the creative heart of the capital and on the doorstep of Tate Modern, the home of Abstract and Conceptual Art.

Proudly displaying our very distinctive LOGO on the Bankside Gallery facade, I walked in, and although I had been present at the handing-in and hanging of the show the day before, on passing through the main entrance just before the exhibition officially opened to the public, I was transported into another world – a world of contemporary creativity and exquisite craftsmanship. I was just left standing by the impression of a wonderfully diverse, strong and at the same time uncompromising display of newly created work by Members of the Society.

Our in-house exhibition designer and member, Stuart Stanley, has created a visual journey by cleverly juxtaposing traditional with modern, colour with monochrome, strength with delicacy, captivating the spectator.

Coming out now after too many years of having been relegated to the shadows of conceptual and abstract art, drawing is increasingly claiming its rightful place where it should be, at the very core of the creative process. To put on an exhibition such as this, with over seventy professional artists displaying over 200 individual new works, and ‘making it work’ visually, has been no mean task. I knew from the outset that the quality would be there, I also knew that there would be an amazing range of ideas, subject matter, size and media, each displaying exceptional skills in the craft of drawing. I should have liked to mention everyone, but I have been asked to comment on the following selection which I think gives a fair indication of the variety and skill on show. All of these works will ultimately be displayed on our Society website – www.sgfa.org.uk, and more new work will be exhibited in our annual Open Exhibition in October at the Menier Gallery in Southwark. So, in alphabetical order:

Bob Ballard sketches from life directly onto etching plates, and for this show has produced coloured etchings as though ‘in conversation’ with his sitters. It seems almost impossible not to be pulled into the mysterious lives beyond the powerfully drawn lines. I am drawn back to them, each time feeling I am getting to know his people, and one forgets they are just lines on a flat surface!

Above (top): Bob Ballard, Study of Head 1 29.5 x 26 cms
Above: Bob Ballard, Study of Head 2 29.5 x 26 cms

David Brooke has a very distinctive style, and for this exhibition he has produced highly resolved coloured pencil drawings which can be visited and re-visited and yet always be discovering something new.

David Brooke, Fiddler on a Pig, Coloured Pencil Drawing. Size, including frame: 17 X 17 inches (43 X 43 cms).

My own works (Jackie Devereux) – Venice under re-construction and Windswept, are part of an adventure I am having with ink line & wash, creating 3D works on cut and torn paper – some of these works occasionally break out of their frames – like me, not wanting to be restrained by convention.

Above (top): Jackie Devereux, Venice under Re-construction, b & w, 52 cms square.
Above: Jackie Devereux, Windswept, 52 cms square.

Pat Harvey has had a lifetime love affair with Paris – indeed France in general – and will sketch there whenever possible, and recently has produced a new series of works in watercolour which transcend merely recording a scene, but which embrace ‘la vie en france’. Having lived there myself for many years, I am transported back through her images and her mature use of colour and tone.

Above (top): Pat Harvey, Ca, c’est Paris!
Above: Pat Harvey, Cafe ‘Le Royal Pereire’, Paris.

Vincent Matthews’ works always transmit his feeling for quiet, wide open spaces, and these masterly minimalist aquatints with breathtaking compositions say it all with very little – Vincent is completely at one with his environment.

Above (top): Vincent Matthews, Dungeness Chimney, 49.5 x 53.5 cms.
Above: Vincent Matthews, River Rother – Rye, 49.5 x 53.5 cms.

Myrtle Pizzey and her incredible linocuts speak with every line. Her work is sometimes far taller than herself, and the technical prowess to achieve such beautifully crafted hand pulled prints is nothing short of amazing.

Above: Myrtle Pizzey, Jim’s Rhyne 97 x 77 cms.
See also, above (below the SGFA logo): Myrtle Pizzey, Willows by the Sheppey, 77 x 97 cms.

Susan Poole, through her passion for sketching wherever she travels, creates etchings and wood block prints from these sketches with a great deal of skill and feeling. Her Black Rhino woodcut comes alive in a way that could so easily be lost without the studied understanding of her subjects – gained only through looking and recording in great depth.

Above: SusanPoole, Black Rhino, wood engraving.

Clive Riggs and his amazing mezzotint Toad – I can almost feel the flesh! Clive’s study of two hares ‘Offspring’ was chosen for the image on the invitation for this exhibition and his work always displays amazing skill not only in portraying the chosen subjects, but in his use of this classic but rarely seen engraving technique.

Above: Clive Riggs, Toad, 33 x 37 cms.
See also, above (below Myrtle Pizzey’s, Willows by the Sheppey), Offspring – a detail of a pair of hares, up to no good, perhaps, in the moonlight, by Clive Riggs.

Annie Ridd always portrays her subject matter blending strength with delicacy usually life size, and I am always drawn in to find what I know is there and yet cannot immediately see! I never want to find insects in my own undies, but in Annie’s unique works they are exquisitely portrayed.

Above: A drawing by Annie Ridd.

Claire Sparkes and her ‘Point Guard’ graphite and watercolour larger than life drawing demands multiple visits to take in the depth of thought and work that has gone into its creation. ‘Chapeau’ Claire, you’ve done it again!

Above: Claire Sparkes, Adams Point Guard, 164 x 111 cms.

Will Taylor has produced as always, some beautiful etchings, but it is ‘Spectat’ the amazing cat with the ‘big stare’ that I can’t take my eyes off! Perched dead centre on the plate – the uncompromising attitude and composition is fabulous.

Above: Will Taylor, Nemo Spectat, 59 x 48 cms.

Evident throughout this entire exhibition – as, in fact, in all exhibitions the SGFA puts on, is the passion for drawing – drawing with anything, drawing on anything, drawing made anywhere and any time, and, drawing that demonstrates that the strength and power of the work we as a Society create is uncompromised by market forces, and is unstinting on quality and application. We move with the times and yet uphold traditional values. As we head towards our Centenary in 2019, we continue to challenge ourselves, our own ideas, and perhaps, the productions of the others.

Jackie Devereux PSGFA President, Society of Graphic Fine Art
3 July 2015

Below: The SGFA show Drawn Together at the Bankside Gallery, 48 Hopton Street, London, SE1 9JH, 020 7928 7531.

Does the art trade turn a blind eye to church thefts?

While attention is currently focused on the epic destruction of ancient sites in the Middle East, with looted artefacts regularly surfacing on the European art market and, as previously reported by Einav Zamir, in European museums, a police investigation has revealed that the systematic plundering of churches in England and Wales has gone largely unnoticed for up to ten years.

FLORENCE HALLETT REPORTS:

Treasures ranging from masonry to tapestry to stained glass have been taken from isolated churches, often in the notably rural counties of Devon and Herefordshire, feeding a trade in ecclesiastical objects facilitated by art dealers’ failure to carry out due diligence.

Speaking to ArtWatch UK ahead of television appearances this week, the head of Operation Icarus, Det Insp Martyn Barnes of West Mercia police said that investigations had lead them to art dealers and collectors across the south of England. He said that while he believes most collectors would have bought items in good faith, the dealers involved were not doing enough to ensure that objects were on the market legitimately. He said: “Our general consensus is that their records are woefully inadequate. They say they comply with the law and they probably do – just – but do they turn a blind eye? I would say, yes they do.”

Police have already returned some high profile losses, including the misericords from St Cuthbert’s, Holme Lacy, in Herefordshire and painted panels violently removed from the 15th century rood screen at Holy Trinity Church, Torbryan, in Devon. Some 45 objects are yet to be returned, however, and officers from Operation Icarus will appear on BBC One’s The One Show on Tuesday, and the Crimewatch Roadshow later on this week in an attempt to reunite churches with objects they may not yet be aware they have lost.

Florence Hallett, 8 June 2015. (florence_hallett@yahoo.co.uk; @FlorenceHallett)


Now let’s murder Klimt

We have seen that works of art are under physical threat and that proper contemplation of them is becoming impossible through commercial exploitation and lax administration. (We will return shortly to the especially alarming case of the British Museum.) Aside from institutional mismanagement, all the while the stock of art is being debilitated in the name of its conservation.

It goes without saying that it is easier to destroy art than to create it. Gothic churches can be razed in an afternoon (and without explosives). With restoration injuries it is easy to recognise them but impossible to reverse them. Restoration is a one-way street: every little hurts; the harm that restorers can do individually and do do cumulatively can never be undone.

It was long ago contended that every picture restoration is a partial destruction, but every restoration is also a falsification. When destructive subtractions of material are completed, the restorer’s own painted additions begin. Restorers do not make the soundest judges of their own performance. Their accounts claim lots of different things simultaneously. First, that their additions (somehow) help to recover lost original conditions. Second, that their additions/ “recoveries” are made with removable synthetic materials so that the next restorer can easily impose his or her own interpretation of the lost original state. Worse, not only is there an expectation that each generation of restorers will have a different estimation of lost original states, within generations one restorer will have a different understanding from another. At the National Gallery (London) relativity has been written into the institution’s “philosophy” of restoration practice. It does not matter, the gallery claims, if restorers do their own things when attempting to recover authentic original states, so long as each version is realised “safely”.

Use your eyes – everything is in the looking

The proof of picture restoration’s pudding is not in self-protective philosophising or proclaimed professional “ethics”. It is in the looking – pictures are made by hand, brain and eye to be looked at, not to be bombarded by solvents, swabs, scalpels, heat-inducing imaging techniques, hot irons, adhesives, synthetic materials and such. In this regard, every day brings a new alarm.

Yesterday, the Daily Telegraph and many other media outlets reported that a painting made in 1902 of a young Jewish woman (Gertrud Loew) by Gustav Klimt has been “restored” to her family. Such cases are heartening and just, but so often the accompanying photographs of returned works are, as here, disturbingly unlike early photographic records. The image shown above of this returned painting is from a printed paper copy of the Daily Telegraph. Newsprint photography is never of the highest quality but, with all allowances made, the strikingly washed-out appearance of the painting is evident also in the higher quality online reproductions, as below where all images are shown in greyscale to facilitate fair visual comparisons. What can be seen in all of these comparisons is a progressive and debilitating loss of values in the painting’s design, drawing, modelling and spatial ‘envelope’. Such sequences invariably run chronologically from darker, richer, sharper and better-modelled depictions, to lighter, brighter, flatter, more abstract, less plastic, less life-like arrangements. If dirt alone had been removed, the opposite effect would be obtained: all values would be more intense; all relationships would be more vivacious in their effects.

Above, these details show the painting as successively recorded a) before 1956 (top), when it was at most 54 years old and probably never previously restored; b) as before 1986 (centre); and, above c) as it is today (albeit, here, in an over-enlarged detail).

Above, top, a detail of the painting as before 1956; above, the detail as seen today. In this comparison we see, for example, that the contour of the subject’s left arm was more clearly drawn and shaded before 1956; that the shaded modelling around the eyes was more emphatic before 1956 than it is today; that the costume had two distinct parts – a darker over-garment and a lighter undergarment; and, that the tone of the flesh at the neck and above the undergarment was appreciably darker before 1956.

Above, a detail of Klimt’s 1910 picture The Black Feathered Hat shown (top) before 1956; as seen on a Dover postcard (centre); and (above), as seen today.

The Black Feathered Hat, as used on a CD cover of music accompanying an exhibition at the Neue Galerie, New York.

Below, a detail of Klimt’s Danae of 1907-08.

Above (top) Danae before 1956 and (above), as seen today. Note in particular the radically altered (and weakened) relationships at the crucially intense and psychologically-charged face/sheet/hand/breast configuration.

Below, the figure Poetry from Klimt’s 1901-02 Beethoven Freeze, before 1956 (top) and today (bottom).

Below, finally: SPOT THE DIFFERENCES – AND WEEP

Michael Daley, 5 June 2015.


Whatever happened to “Do not touch”?

Works of art are under physical threat as never before and proper contemplation of them is being made impossible. Aside from the absolute nihilistic depredations of Isil, within the West itself it is now feared that the long-chronicled growth of mass-tourism and its associated delinquent behavioral patterns – is about to create cultural gridlock in Europe.

SPECIES OF ABUSE

Something has to give. As things stand in the visual arts, the pressures for endless year-on-year growth in visitor numbers are irresistible even though the deleterious consequences are already manifest. While theatre, concert hall and cinema venues are designed (and behaviour therein is regulated) so as to permit all present to see, hear and think their own thoughts in companionable collectivity, in galleries and museums there are no such constraints on numbers or behaviour. In the remorseless drive to increase the “through-put” of paying visitors, people are packed and jostled into over-heating galleries in conditions that deny time and space for contemplation. The magnitude of this deterioration is shaming. The effects are exacerbated by restricted hours of paying-public access in order to provide privileged evening viewing to, for example, the clients of corporations which sponsor exhibitions or restorations – which organisations find the accruing good will to be a cost-effective form of self-promotion (see “Leaving your mark” below). The unfolding arithmetic of crush is terrifying.

In 2012 the annual number of international tourists passed one billion for the first time. In Britain what the Arts Council terms “The UK arts and culture industry”, generated £12.4billion in 2011. The Museums Association reports that in 2013 visits at the National Gallery were 14% higher than in the previous year and were 20% higher at the British Museum. Such rates of increase are unsustainable but for administering directors and trustees this “rising footfall” is taken to testify to the “enduring success” of museums. China is now the world’s largest contributor to this growth with its tourists spending over $100 billion in 2012. According to World Tourism Organization statistics, the Chinese are projected to take some 100 million overseas trips a year by 2020 – a twenty-five per cent increase on present levels. The Wall Street Journal reports that with the U.S. dollar about twenty-five per cent stronger against the euro than this time last year, bookings at the Louvre and the Sistine Chapel are sixty per cent higher this year than last (Europe Braces for a Summer Travel Crush, WSJ, 28 May).

The threat to the Sistine Chapel frescoes

With regard to the Sistine Chapel, the prospect is truly horrendous: we have already had confirmation of how the present visitor numbers are exacerbating the partial destruction of the frescoes that was begun in 1980 by the multi-million dollars Nippon TV-sponsored cleaning (see Michelangelo’s disintegrating frescoes).

Above, top: The Sistine Chapel ceiling during cleaning showing (at the bottom, below the scaffolding) the last surviving section of Michelangelo’s original two-stages painting.

Above, the stripped-down, first-stage ceiling, as experienced in the chapel today.

Systemic overcrowding in museums

Above, top: The Mona Lisa at the Louvre.

Above, centre: Rembrandt’s The Night Watch at the Rijksmuseum.

Above: The temporary exhibition “Late Rembrandt” at the Rijksmuseum. The Grumpy Art Historian described the over-crowding at this blockbuster as “the worst I can recall” and reported that the museum’s director, Wim Pijbes, had responded to criticisms by saying that “if you want a contemplative experience you should buy your own Rembrandt”.

“Roll up! Roll up!”

Above, top: A poster on the London Underground showing Turner’s (restorations-wrecked) painting Rockets and Blue Lights in the promotional campaign that accompanied the launch of the National Maritime Museum’s exhibition “Turner and the Sea”. For an account of that and other advertising campaigns, see “From Veronese to Turner, Celebrating Restoration-Wrecked Pictures“.

Above: One of “many plugs for the Rijksmuseum’s ‘Late Rembrandt’ exhibition” spotted at Amsterdam airport on May 14th by the art history blogger Bendor Grosvenor.

“Eyes down!”

Above, top: Otherwise engaged teenagers at the Rijksmuseum.

Above: McClachlan’s masterly take in Private Eye on other otherwise engaged victims of the near-universal mobile phone addiction.

Taking Possession of the Past

Above, top: Morgan Schweitzer’s illustration for the Ellen Gamerman, Inti Landauro and Liam MoloneyWall Street Journal article “Europe Braces for a Summer Travel Crush”.

Above, and above centre: Images from bing’s feature “Properly Posing with Statues

Leaving your mark

Above: A (French) visitor at the National Gallery who, following reductions in warding staff, had time to deface two Poussin paintings with spray-paints on 16 July 2011. See “Dicing with Art and Earning Approval”.

Above: In 1999 the National Gallery allowed the Yves Saint Lauren fashion house to shoot a display of art-inspired clothing at the unveiling of the gallery’s Room 22, the £1m refurbishment of which had been met by the French fashion house. Not long afterwards we encountered a wall stripped of paintings and bearing massive water stains caused by rain which had overwhelmed the new guttering. We indicated the extent of water damage with white paint in the spring 1999 ArtWatch UK newsletter. The hastily removed paintings had included Le Valentin’s Four Ages of Man and Philippe de Champaigne’s The Vision of St Joseph.

Assaults on sculpture

Above: the Huffington Post reported in August last year that an American tourist broke a finger off a statue at the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo in Firenze, Italy. A security guard monitoring the exhibit had intervened immediately but, apparently, a moment too late.

One 3 June 2015, THE LOCAL reported that “Vandals in Florence have broken a finger off Pio Fedi’s famous statue of the Rape of Polyxena, Italian media has reported [See below]. It’s only the latest act of vandalism by careless visitors to the city.”

Florence’s mayor Dario Nardella is said to have called for harsher punishments for vandals.
“Damaging art is one of the most horrific and cowardly acts possible. I hope that the vandal who damaged the Rape of Polyxena yesterday in the Loggia dei Lanzi will be brought to justice soon,” Nardella wrote on Tuesday.
“Whoever strikes culture strikes at the heart of history and the identity of a community. I will be promoting harsher punishments for crimes against artistic heritage in parliament, as with environmental crimes, with imprisonment of up to 15 years and double the limitation periods.”

Above: On May 4th artnet reported that in Cremona, Italy, the Statue of the Two Hercules (circa 1700 and now, with its central coat of arms, effectively a symbol of the city itself) had been damaged as: “The scourge of the selfie has struck again: over the weekend, a pair of tourists accidentally broke an Italian sculpture while taking a photo with it, knocking off a portion of the statue’s crown, which shattered on the ground.” For other instance of selfie-takers’ damage, see Selfie-Taker Smashes Priceless Historic Italian Statue of Hercules

“Ding Minhao was here”

Above: The International Business Times has reported that a 3,500-year-old Egyptian carving in the Temple of Luxor had been defaced by a Chinese teenager with the words “Ding Minhao was here”. The paper also reported that China’s Vice Premier Wang Yang had earlier contended the country’s reputation overseas was being tarnished by the “uncivilized behavior” of some Chinese tourists. Wang made the remarks about the nation’s tourists during a teleconference held by the State Council, China’s cabinet, stressing that tourists need to be on good behavior when traveling abroad, according to the state-owned Xinhua News Agency.

Wang was reportedly referring to the poor manners and low “quality and breeding” of some Chinese tourists, saying they have harmed China’s international image, People’s Daily reported. “They speak loudly in public, carve characters on tourist attractions, cross the road when the traffic lights are still red, spit anywhere and [carry out] some other uncivilized behavior. It damages the image of the Chinese people and has a very bad impact.” In the wake of Wang’s words, the identity of the Luxor vandal emerged on Chinese social media. In an interview with Nanjing newspaper Modern Express on Saturday, the parents apologetically said it was the lack of education and supervision that led to their son’s mischievous behavior.
“We have taken him sightseeing since he was little, and we often saw such graffiti. But we didn’t realize we should have told him this is wrong,” the boy’s mother said in the interview, adding that she hopes China’s relentless Internet users stop tracking down her son, who had “cried all night.” The boy’s father said the boy had realized his mistake, and hopes that the public will give his young son a chance to fix his mistake and move on.

Nothing is sacred or inviolable

Above: Sadly necessary security measures in a Cotswold church.

Michael Daley, 1 June 2015

Grumpy Art Historian draws our attention to a further deliquency encountered among Chinese tourists: “Nature Vandalism”. In a Shanghai Daily report, (City’s parks tormented by ‘nature vandals’), it is said that:

“SHANGHAI Chenshan Botanical Garden is enhancing park patrols and adding volunteer monitors to address a growing problem of nature vandalism. Among recent incidents are Chinese characters carved onto the giant leaves of aloe and American century plants. The garden isn’t the only park in Shanghai suffering from public abuse. Other popular sites report problems arising from people who don’t seem to respect the native environment”.

Below: A yucca plant at Shanghai Chenshan Botanical Garden is covered in Chinese characters carved by vandals.


And the World’s Worst Restoration is…

WHICH COUNTRY, might you think, has produced the World’s Worst Restoration – Spain? Italy? The UK? India? France? China? Egypt? The United States? Consider the evidence.

THE EVIDENCE IS ABUNDANT and the answer is “All of the above”. There are more contenders than there are countries. No country and no professional stratum is free of recurrent restoration injuries. This evidence can only suggest that injuries are intrinsic to the practice of restoration. Manifestly, no restorers anywhere can “treat” a Renoir – or a Veronese – without injury (see below). Restoration error is the by-product of a singular un-regulated sphere where the distinct languages of art, aesthetics, technology and “science” are conflated in support of presumptuous would-be improvements to the works of others. The official response to demonstrations of error is not engagement but intensification of promotional hype. This dynamic must be reversed and the necessity of criticism ceded.
In response to the latest “restoration” blunder (on the classical heritage in Turkey) we revisit our accumulating chamber of horrors and invite nominations to news.artwatchuk@gmail.com for the title of The World’s Worst Restoration.

Contender No. 1: Turkey

The BBC reports that Turkey’s culture ministry is investigating claims that valuable Roman mosaics have been badly damaged during botched restorations at an archaeological museum:

“Authorities are looking into the claims of a local craftsman who raised concerns over the condition of at least 10 mosaics at the Hatay Archaeology Museum, the Hurriyet Daily News website reports. Mehmet Daskapan first spoke out in an interview with a local paper in February, but the news was only picked up by mainstream Turkish media on Monday. ‘Valuable pieces from the Roman period have been ruined,’ Mr Daskapan told the Antakya Gazetesi website at the time. ‘They have become caricatures of their former selves. Some are in an especially poor condition and have lost their originality and value.'”

Above, Figs 1 and 2: Before restoration (left) and after (right) photographs by Mr Daskapan testify to devastating iconographic, pictorial and plastic injuries during supposed “conservation” treatments of mosaics held in the Hatay Archaeological Museum in Turkey.

The Guardian reports that (as so often in these disputes) the restorers deny error and allege that the testimony of before and after photographs has been rigged by the press. However, a culture ministry official has confirmed that “erroneous practices” caused injury by adding pieces of mosaic. As always, the restorers further allege that today’s damage had been done by previous (French) restorers in the 1930s who added material which has now been removed because past practices have now been outlawed. The culture official confirmed that today’s restorers at the centre of controversy have had years of experience “including the restoration of the renowned mosaics at Zeugma Museum in south-east Turkey”. Notwithstanding this assurance, all restorations have been halted and investigation is underway. A spokesman from the opposition Nationalist Movement party (MHP) called the restored work a “massacre of history” and blamed the Islamic-rooted ruling AKP for a “bureaucratic scandal”. The BBC reports that the allegedly shoddy restoration “has been compared to an incident in Spain in 2012…[when an] attempted restoration rendered the image of Christ unrecognisable and became a global laughing stock.”

Above, Figs. 3, 4 and 5: The above STR/EPA photographs all testify to simultaneous enfeeblement and vulgarisation.

This below is not a “restoration” or a “conservation”, it is precisely what Mr Daskapan has claimed it to be: the travestying and rendering inauthentic of an ancient classical image.

Above, Figs. 6 and 7: Details of Fig. 1 showing the subject before (top) and after “treatment” (above). (Photos: Tamer Yazar/AP)

When horrendous things are done to art in the name of its “conservation” people struggle – vainly – to divine a possible motivating rationale. In the face of inexplicable actions, truly awful restoration abuses frequently provoke/generate humour. In Turkey, The Hurriyet Daily News reports that the botched restoration has indeed become a matter of humour: “Perhaps, the restoration’s target was to liken him to Erdoğan [President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – see Fig. 7b below],” joked famous cartoonist Selçuk Erdem, from the weekly magazine Penguen.” The Huffington Post fleshes out the joke with the photo sequence below. Doing so in Turkey might carry a risk. As the The Hurriyet Daily News adds, two other cartoonists at Penguen, Bahadır Baruter and Özer Aydoğan, were jailed for 11 months in March over a satirical piece on free speech in which they were convicted of including a hidden gesture that was considered to be “insulting” to the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Contender No. 2: Spain

When a granny in Spain, Cecilia Giménez, indulged in a bit of do-it-yourself restoration in her local church, Santuario de Misericordia, in Borja, north-eastern Spain, the whole world fell about laughing. Ms Giménez’s unauthorised restoration of “Ecce Homo – Behold the Man” caused the work to be dubbed “Ecce Mono – Behold the Monkey”. The church threatened to sue and restoration experts from around the world converged to advise on how or whether the damage might be undone. This prompted thousands to petition for the wreck to be left untouched for all to see for all time. The publicity greatly boosted tourism and the church levied a charge on visitors. The “restorer” then sued in protection of her intellectual property rights. (See The “World’s worst restoration” and the Death of Authenticity and The Battle of Borja: Cecilia Giménez, Restoration Monkeys, Paediatricians, Titian and Great Women Conservators.)

Above, top, Fig. 8: This shows the head of Christ before (left and centre) and after (right) restoration.

Above, Fig. 9: One of many spoofs carried on Upi.com was this of the late TV painting instructor Bob Ross.

Above, Fig. 10: A satirical news blog (pocho.com) saw a resemblance between Cecilia Giménez’s monkey-faced Christ and a newly discovered species of monkey…The Church has left the desecration of a sacred image in place.

Contender No. 3: Egypt

As shown here recently (A bodge too far: “Conservation’s” catalogue of blunders), whenever ineptitude strikes, those responsible – curators, conservators, trustees, art bureaucrats – run for cover, slinging blame to every other quarter. When news of a bungled repair to the beard of Tutankamun’s death mask in Cairo’s Egyptian Museum leaked out, three conservators, speaking anonymously, gave three different accounts of the injury, but all agreed that orders had come down for the repair to be made quickly. The Daily Telegraph reported that while some said the beard had been broken off by cleaners, other said that it had simply come loose. The Guardian’s account went as follows:

“Did bungling curators snap off Tut’s beard last year, and if so was it stuck back on with with the wrong kind of glue?
These are the allegations levelled at the Egyptian Museum, the gloomy, under-funded palace in central Cairo where Tutankhamun’s bling is housed. Employees claim the beard was dislodged in late 2014 during routine maintenance of the showcase in which Tut’s mask is kept…The director of the museum, Mahmoud el-Halwagy, and the head of its conservation department, Elham Abdelrahman, strenuously denied the claims yesterday. Halwagy says the beard never fell off and nothing has happened to it since he was appointed director in October.”

Although this gaffe caught the western world’s imagination (because of intense abiding interest in ancient Egyptian culture), the incident was of relatively trivial significance: neither the beard nor the head were damaged. When it emerged that “a few little conservation things had to be done” to Assyrian carvings from the Nimrud Palace after the British Museum had irresponsibly flown them to China, the international press looked the other way.

Contender No. 4: The United Kingdom

One of the greatest all-time serial offenders as pioneer in technically advanced but artistically destructive “total cleaning” techniqes has been the National Gallery, London. For an account of the falsifying art historical consequences of such aggressively intrusive restorations, see The National Gallery’s £1.5 billion Leonardo Restoration.

Above, Figs. 11 and 12: A detail of the National Gallery’s Titian Bacchus and Ariadne, shown (top) before restoration by Arthur Lucas in 1967-69, and (above) after restoration. Notwithstanding such dreadful injuries throughout the painting, the restoration was hailed a triumph and the restorer took to boasting to painting students at the Slade School of Art, London University, (where he taught painting techniques) that there was “more of me than Titian in that sky”. One of Lucas’s “advanced” technical wheezes (which was concealed from the trustees and the public) was to iron the canvas painting onto a double laminate (‘Sundeala’) board of compressed-paper. Such boards were used on many of the gallery’s largest paintings and have now become unstable.

Above, Fig. 13: Titian’s Portrait of a Man (detail) at the National Gallery, before being restored by Arthur Lucas (left) and after restoration (right). As part of his preparation for repainting the subject’s head, Lucas hired a bearded student at the Slade School of Art to model for certain “preparatory” studies that he wished to make of hair and beards.

Above, top, Fig. 14: A detail from the National Gallery’s Renoir The Umbrellas before cleaning in 1954.

Above, Fig. 15: The detail from the National Gallery’s Renoir The Umbrellas after cleaning in 1954, showing pronounced solvent-induced paint losses and new cracking when the picture was barely seventy years old.

The Courtauld Gallery, London

That Renoir is exceptionally vulnerable to solvent-cleaning can also be seen in this example below from Courtauld Gallery, London.

Above, Figs. 16 and 17: A detail of Renoir’s La Loge, as seen (top) in 1938, and as seen in the Courtauld Gallery’s 2008 exhibition catalogue “Renoir at the Theatre – Looking at La Loge“.

Contender No. 5: China

On 23 October 2013 the Daily Telegraph reported the outcome of a Chinese Government-approved, £100,000 restoration during which a Qing dynasty temple fresco was entirely obliterated by luridly colourised repainting. This crime against art and historical patrimony only came to light when a student posted comparative photographs online. In the resulting furore, a government official from the city responsible for the temple described the restoration as “an unauthorised project”. Wang Jinyu, an expert on fresco restoration from the Dunhuang Academy, had said the intervention could not be called “restoration, or [even] destructive restoration” because “[It is] the destruction of cultural relics since the original relics no longer exist”. It was noted that the case had echoes of a headline-grabbing incident when an elderly parishioner performed “a disastrous restoration” on a 19th century fresco of Christ in the Spanish town of Borja (- as shown above at Figs. 6, 7 and 8 ). One Chinese website user echoed charges made against the restored Sistine Chapel frescoes of Michelangelo: “They have turned a classic painting into graffiti. It looks like something out of Disneyland, doesn’t it?”

Above, Figs. 18 and 19: The devastating falsification/obliteration of ancient temple murals in China.

See Qing dynasty fresco ruined in botched restoration which makes work look like garish cartoon; and China sackings over ruined ancient Buddhist frescos; and, A restoration project that turned a Qing dynasty fresco into a series of “sloppily drawn” modern paintings has drawn outrage in China; and Assaults on History: Dishing Donors; a Vatican Wobble; and, Reigniting an Old Battle of Hearts, Minds, Interests and Evidence.

Contender No. 6: Austria

Below, Fig. 20: A detail of Gustav Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze (the figure Poetry), as seen before 1956 (left) and today (right), as featured on the cover of the Spring 2008 issue of the ArtWatch UK Journal.

Contender No. 7: France (principally, and Spain)

Picture restorers inflict two kinds of injury by first removing material that is integral to paintings and then by adding their own repainting so as to bring works up to what they consider to be acceptable degrees of finish and artistry. When paintings suffer this double combination of subtractions and (“corrective”) additions, the impositions frequently betray gross artistic and anatomical ignorance. This deficiency is found not just among jobbing restorers at the bottom of the art trade, but in even the most technically advanced, scientifically supported, and institutionally prestigious institutions such as the Prado and the Louvre, as we explored in the Journal No 26, shown below. (See also: A spectacular restoration own-goal: undoing, re-doing and (on the quiet) re-re-doing a Veronese masterpiece at the Louvre Museum, and From Veronese to Turner, Celebrating Restoration-Wrecked Pictures.)

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Above, Figs. 21, 22, 23 and 24. These illustrations show, respectively, from the top down:
1) The ArtWatch UK Journal No. 26 with before and after restoration details of Titian’s Empress Isabella at the Prado and Veronese’s Pilgrims at Emmaüs at the Louvre;
2) A face from Veronese’s Pilgrims at Emmaüs, as seen before the first of two restorations in five years;
3) The same face from Veronese’s Pilgrims at Emmaüs after the first restoration (that is, after the first stripping down and subsequent repainting);
4) Press coverage (in The Week) of the controversy over the two botched repaintings of the Veronese face that had been monitored and disclosed by Michel Favre-Felix, the painter and president of the Association Internationale pour le Respect de l’Intégrité du Patrimoine Artistique (ARIPA). Favre-Felix’s discoveries had been laid out here on 29 December 2010.

…meanwhile, in London:

An implicit acknowledgement by restorers of certain professional insecurities in this area was made in the above 2010 book on different “approaches to” the retouching of cleaned paintings. This publication was a by-product of three one-day workshops organised by two restoration groups, the Icon Paintings Group and the British Association of Paintings Conservator-Restorers (BAPCR). The organisers were taken aback by the demand for the events which “exceeded our expectations. The lecture theatres were packed…” It was explained in the book’s Foreword that the subject of the three events emerged because, athough it could have been:

“…consolidation – or structural work…the general consensus in the brainstorming sessions was that retouching (or inpainting for those across the pond) was the topic for which there was a burning desire to expand knowledge, exchange ideas and gain more practice. There was a need for a practical kind of conference, dealing with the actual techniques involved in the conservation of paintings. With retouching, every conservator-restorer tends to harbour preferences for materials and practices based on experience, types of artworks as well as what is available to hand. This series of events was envisioned as a showcase for the knowledge and skill of individuals in a welcoming and supportive environment that would provide an opportunity to learn by listening and looking (in the morning lecture series) and by doing (in the afternoon practice sessions)…”

The conscientiousness of the participants is not in question and the enthusiasm brought to the task is touching. What is alarming is the sense that emerges of the absence of any artistic and anatomical expertise and guidance. The preponderance of activity addressed the acquistion of technical skills not of artistic comprehension. Some indication of the sense in which conservator-restorer speaking unto conservator-restorer is tantamount to the artistically blind speaking to the artistically blind is found on p.127 in one of the case histories (the conservation-restoration of a painting at the Rijksmuseum):

“…shortly after purchase [in 1976] the picture was cleaned to remove some discoloured varnish layer(s) [- the presence of which material is the most frequent pretext for restorations] and some clearly visible retouches. At the time of the restoration under discussion here, the only known record of how the painting looked before the cleaning was a black and white photograph taken at the Rijksmuseum. It was during that initial cleaning that the restorer [not Arthur Lucas] removed the clouds from the sky exposing blue underpaint. Though he claimed to be removing only over-paints, a shocked curator stopped the restoration and the picture remained in storage until 1995 when it was decided to examine and subsequently restore the picture for an exhibition planned for 1997…since the restorer who had cleaned the painting died in the late 1980s and left no account of the cleaning it can never really be known what had been removed or how…”

On the absence of artistic expertise among conservator-restorers, see Review: Who Cleaned the Queen’s Windows and the Lady’s Pearls?

Contender No. 8: Italy ~ The Vatican

The most controversial restoration in modern times has been that of Michelangelo’s frescoes for the Sistine Chapel, a subject on which we have published many times. In addition to the restoration injuries, the fame of the restored frescoes has drawn (paying) crowds to the chapel of such magnitude as to imperil the physical fabric of the frescoes. For a summary listing of our previous coverage on all aspects of that continuing debacle, see Michelangelo’s disintegrating frescoes.

Above, Figs. 25 and 26: Details of Michelangelo’s Cumaean Sibyl on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, as seen before restoration (top), and after restoration (above). The explanation for the otherwise inexplicably profound changes that occurred during this cleaning, is that Michelangelo had finished off and elaborated his frescoes (when dry) with painting consisting of pigments bound in animal glue or size. With this painting Michelangelo adjusted and enriched his colours while, at the same time, greatly increasing their dramatic lighting and shading. (The revolutionary nature of this theatrical lighting is explored in this post: Coming to Life: Frankenweenie – A Black and White Michelangelo for Our Times.) However, on the authority of technical analysis of the glue-paint, the Vatican treated all of this surface painting by Michelangelo as if it were dirt and soot and washed it off. In this comparative detail above, the loss of shading on the bag and around it is immense.

Above, Figs. 27 and 28: The head of Michelangelo’s Erythraean Sibyl on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, before restoration (top) when showing Michelangelo’s systematic and consistent modelling of forms via a transition from light to dark from the top of the head to the neck and shoulder, as it had survived from 1512 until 1980; and (above), after the restoration in which all of Michelangelo’s supplementary painting had been removed.

Contender No. 9: Italy ~ Milan

If any Renaissance mural might be thought to rival the importance of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling it would be Leonardo’s Last Supper in Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan. Unfortunately this great work has suffered badly from its experimental technique and subsequently from multiple restorations over the years. It was thought, by Bernard Berenson among others, to have received the best-possible, final and definitive act of rescue in a two-part restoration of 1947-49 and 1952-54. (See The Perpetual Restoration of Leonardo’s ‘Last Supper’ – Part 1: The Law of Diminishing Returns and The Perpetual Restoration of Leonardo’s Last Supper, Part 2: A traumatic production of “a different Leonardo”.)

Just twenty-one years later in 1975 a former student of the previous restorer reported falling fragments of paint. Two years later another (and $8m Olivetti-sponsored) restoration began with the express intention of undoing every trace of all previous restorations. In entirely predictable consequence, vast areas of bare, pictorially disfiguring wall were exposed. To return a semblance of iconographic coherence and legibility to the by-then devastated sacred images, the restorer colourised all of the exposed wall (which constituted most of the mural), not in any semblance of Leonardo’s original pictorial method, but flatly, “abstractly” with water-colours that took their values from the local colours (but not the forms) of adjacent areas. This technique, therefore, imposed an entirely alien and ahistorical modernist sensibility on the remains of a once-supreme Renaissance evocation of real figures, in action, in real spaces. The operation thereby constituted an artistic misrepresentation and a cultural falsification: once-living theatre was effectively pulled onto a decorated backdrop. Aside from the conceptual unaptness of the enterprise, the restorer made errors – or took liberties – within her own terms of operation. (See below.) This was not a restoration and nor was it a recovery. Moreover, as an imposition of a markedly 20th-century sensibility and mindset, it will “date” rapidly and therefore licence those who will next wish to intervene on a world renowned work.

Above, Figs. 29, 30 and 31: The central section of the Last Supper is here shown (top) before the last restoration; during restoration (middle); and (above) after restoration and repainting. One error made at the repainting stage was to the central figure – Christ. Leaving aside what happened to His Face, the restorer decided against all historical testimony (see below) that Leonardo had painted the drapery of Christ’s right arm so that it came to rest on the table cloth among the food and crockery. When our challenge to the decision was reported in the press, Professor Pietro Marani, the Leonardo expert who directed the Last Supper restoration, sarcastically downplayed the criticism – “A small piece of drapery. Oh, my God.” (See Have art restorers ruined Leonardo’s masterpiece?). It might have seemed a small error to the director of the restoration, but it has left drapery in place that Leonardo had not painted. How seriously, then, should we take assurances about the high “ethical” standards of today’s restorers?

Above, Figs. 32, 33, 34 and 35: Details showing (top) the restored [sic] drapery of Christ’s right arm and, below it, two copies of the original arm, as painted by Leonardo’s associates Andrea Solario and Giampietrino (whose copy is shown above in colour and in greyscale).

Contender No. 10: The United States ~ The Clark Institute

The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, has high scholarly aspirations and was generously founded on Sterling Clark’s passionate and well informed love of art. In his will of 1946 Clark expressly prohibited any restoration of his own to-be bequeathed pictures:

“It having been my object in making said collection to acquire only works of the best quality of the artists represented, which were not damaged or distorted by the works of restorers, it is my wish and desire and I request that the said trustees…permanently maintain in said gallery all works of art bequeathed hereunder in the condition in which they shall be at my death without any so-called restoration, cleaning or other work thereon, except in the case of damage from unforeseen causes, and that none of them be sold, exchanged or otherwise disposed of…”

Sterling Clark’s greatest love was for Renoir – he owned thirty-eight of his paintings, including the once magnificent A Box at the Theater (At the Concert) shown in two details below. Sterling died first in 1956 and his widow Francine died in 1960. Within three years of her death, pictures from the collection were being “restored” and (some) sold in breach of the terms of their generous bequest. The consequences were as horrendous as the deeds treacherous.

Above, Fig. 36: A detail (top) of the Clark’s Renoir A Box at the Theater (At the Concert), as seen as recently as in the Clark’s 1996/7 exhibition catalogue “A Passion for Renoir: Sterling and Francine Clark Collection, 1916-1951″,

Above, Fig. 37: A Box at the Theater (At the Concert), as seen in the 2008 Courtauld Gallery catalogue “Renoir at the Theatre” exhibition. In all likelihood, the (typically disastrous) Renoir cleaning will have been carried out in so-called preparation for travel to and from the London Exhibition – and in all probability, this would have been the first time the picture had been cleaned and “restored”. (For more information on the systematic institutional abuse of the Clarks’ bequest, see Taking Renoir, Sterling and Francine Clark to the Cleaners.)

On Francine Clark’s death the first of what were to be two radical and utterly deranging restorations of Turner’s Rockets and Blue Lights (Close at Hand) to Warn Steamboats of Shoal Water was under way at the hands of a then leading restorer, William Suhr (below, Fig. 38) after which only traces of the nearer steamboat survived.

Above, Fig. 39: Turner’s Rockets and Blue Lights… after its 2003 restoration by David Bull during which the last traces of the nearer steamboat were removed.

For every restoration there is an apologia. With this picture’s second restoration in forty years (which restoration, once again, preceded a loan across the Atlantic) the story went like this: The painting had been falling apart; and, besides, seventy-five per cent of it consisted of earlier restorers’ repaint which had been applied to “disguise the evidence of some unknown earlier trauma”. Only by removing most of the present paint, could “a full understanding of what lay beneath” be achieved. After the removal – on the authority of the Clark Institute’s trustees – all parties responsible proclaimed a “resurrection” which had created “effectively a new picture”.

Brass cheek does not come bolder than that. This was indeed a new picture, no longer a Turner, more a Suhr-Bull. For one thing, one of the picture’s two original storm distressed coal-burning steamboats had disappeared under the waves with its former belching smoke converted nicely into a white water funnel. When our criticisms (initiated by the painter Edmund Rucinski) were first aired, a feeble, soon-abandoned, claim was made to the effect that the disappeared steamboat had been a 19th century restorer’s addition – another brazen defiance of reality given that the picture’s original title refered to boats, not boat, in distress. The evidence of there having indeed been an original second boat was overwhelming (see below) but there was no apology. Instead, the entire museum establishment, as if in complete solidarity with the Clark Institute (which lends loads of paintings), bigged-up the official line that this was somehow-still-a-Turner by proclaiming that the manifestly wrecked work had now become an especially desirable Turner.

At the time of the UK trip, the Tate Gallery issued a press release claiming that the picture comprised “one of the stars of the show…[having] recently undergone major conservation”. Credulous British art critics lapped up and regurgitated the claims. And they did so once again when this “Turner” returned to the UK for a Tate Liverpool show where Cy Twombly’s solipsistic scribbles and dribbles were flatteringly permed with works by Turner and Monet, no doubt helping the former’s reputation more than Turner’s or Monet’s. We repeated the criticisms to no discernable effect. In 2014 an extraordinary publicity barrage accompanied the launch of the National Maritime Museum’s “Turner & The Sea” blockbuster. It centred on a single painting – yes, the now notorious Rockets and Blue Lights. The decision to celebrate that particular wrecked and critically challenged work had passed beyond the brazen. As Maurice Davies observed in the spring 2014 issue of Turner Society News:

“The most unnecessary loan is Rockets and Blue Lights… The catalogue talks diplomatically of ‘alterations to some areas of the painted surface.’ It is in fact so horribly damaged that there’s little value in seeing it in the flesh. ArtWatch talks of the picture as an example of ‘the bizarre and perverse phenomenon of promoting demonstrably wrecked paintings in special loan exhibitions.’ It would have been quite enough to include a small illustration in the catalogue and move swiftly on.”

By this point the museum establishment had, in truth, passed beyond all reason. The wreck was not just billed as a star of the show, it was flaunted in every advertisement, publication cover, billboard and online marketing venue – see From Veronese to Turner, Celebrating Restoration-Wrecked Pictures. The message to critics seemed Clinton-esque: “We do it, because we can”.

For the record: Proofs that Turner really had painted two Steamboats

Above, (top) Fig. 40: Detail of an 1852 (14 stages) chromolithographic copy by Robert Carrick of Turner’s 1840 oil painting Rockets and Blue Lights (Close at Hand) to Warn Steamboats of Shoal Water. Note particularly the detailed depiction of the distressed steamboat and crew members on the right.

Above, (centre) Fig. 41: The steamboat as recorded in a photograph of 1896 (shown by courtesy of Christie’s).

Above, Fig. 41: Turner’s Rockets and Blue Lights… (detail) after its 2003 restoration by David Bull when the last traces of the nearer steamboat had been removed and the painting was fast approaching the appearance of a 20th-century abstract painting.

Contender No. 11: Location unknown

We knew at a glance that something was amiss. On 16 June 2012, a newspaper photograph trailed an imminent auction sale of Renoir’s Baigneuse of 1888. Even on the evidence of a single de-saturated newsprint reproduction it seemed clear that the privately owned masterpiece had gone through the picture restoration wash cycle a time (or two) too often.

Renoir’s Baigneuse had been given star billing (on a £12/18m estimate) at Christie’s June 20th Impressionist/Modern sale. 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 were identified in the picture’s literature, none was reproduced. It was disclosed that the Renoir was to be included in a 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.

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. We wondered whether the present condition of the picture might have contributed to the withdrawal. Without any knowledge of by whom the picture is owned, or by whom and how often it might have been restored, we are content to leave the photo-evidence of condition to speak, as it properly should, for itself. The three then and now pairs of photographic details below (Figs. 42-47) are drawn respectively from Michel Drucker’s 1944 “Renoir” and the 2012 Christie’s “Impressionist/Modern” sale catalogue cover.

Michael Daley – 8 May 2015.


Bags and Abuses of National Trust – Florence Hallett reports:

Our recent report on St Bride’s, Fleet Street, highlighted the way that the Heritage Lottery Fund favours boosting visitor numbers over preserving architectural treasures.

Indeed the Heritage Lottery Fund, which is advised by historic buildings experts at English Heritage (now Historic England), is quite candid about its commitment to swelling visitor numbers by engaging new audiences, an aim that apparently trumps any interest it might have in preserving historic fabric.

Key to securing new audiences, it seems, is the provision of facilities designed to maximise the entertainment value of the visitor experience. If this all sounds a bit Disney, it is worth noting that less than a year ago, in an interview for the Guardian, chief executive Simon Thurley told Will Self that English Heritage was in the business of providing “entertainment” and a “holiday experience”. In 2011, ArtWatch UK reported on Thurley’s enthusiastic response to a highly speculative reconstruction at Stirling Castle.

While Historic England and the HLF are in a position to exert unparalleled influence on the treatment of historic buildings, the hijacking of cultural and historical assets as lucrative entertainments is a practice that extends beyond their sweep. In Chester, a city replete with history, plans to add folding iron gates to the Eastgate, a structure that according to Chester Archaeological Society was “specifically designed not to have gates” have been proposed exclusively because of their potential appeal for tourists. The opening and closing of these bogus gates each day by Roman and Commonwealth soldiers is, we are told, intended to provide a “tourist spectacular”, predicted (surely optimistically) to bring “millions” to the city (on which more to follow).

Chester’s Eastgate St, looking towards the Eastgate. Louise Rayner, 1924, watercolour

Pretendy Roman soldiers for Chesterfield next?

More Pretendy Soldiers for Chesterfield, some with not-pretendy glasses

Such fatuous interventions are not just confined to the built environment, and art dealer Bendor Grosvenor has recently locked horns with the National Trust, whose Director General, Dame Helen Ghosh told the Daily Mail that there were plans to simplify the exhibits at some properties, saying: “We make people work fantastically hard – we could make them work much less hard.” Writing on his blog arthistorynews.com, Grosvenor revealed that in a seemingly contradictory step, beanbags have been introduced at Ickworth Hall, Suffolk, so that visitors can better enjoy the paintings in the library.

While Bendor Grosvenor is right to be appalled by the Trust’s activities, he should not be surprised. Of all the cultural organisations in this country, the National Trust has been an enthusiastic pioneer of interventions that patronise visitors on grounds of inclusivity, and in 2011 ArtWatch UK expressed concern about the relaxed attitude taken by its (then) chairman, Sir Simon Jenkins, to interpreting the past. The present NT chairman is Tim Parker, a former Treasury economist – and a serial CEO. He is presently also chairman of Samsonite.

There are countless examples of the National Trust treating the past as a narrative to be bowdlerised in order to enhance the visitor experience. Its stage-management of the past extends to having a Visitor Experience Director, quoted as saying: “If you charge for the feelings customers have because of engaging you, then you are in the experience business” , a phrase, bizarrely, that manages to be meaningless and alarming in equal measure. In the interests of creating a “more immersive visitor experience” audio installations, produced by a company called Blackbox-AV, have been introduced in a number of Trust properties, with the sound of a dog barking at Little Moreton Hall, Cheshire, elucidating the idea that: “actual people once lived in this amazing building”. No less ludicrous is the bogus “soundscape” in a drawing room at Tyntesfield House, Somerset, where snippets of conversations and the chink of glasses “recreate the atmosphere of some good old fashioned get-togethers”.

Tyntesfield House

While such interventions make persuasive claims for accessibility based on soaring visitor numbers, they actually implant quite a different set of assumptions, cultivating the toxic idea that art and culture are beyond the grasp of most people, unless heavily mediated. Visitors cannot be allowed to look and draw their own conclusions, deciding if and when they wish to read more or research something further, but must be drip-fed carefully selected tidbits of easily-digested, if phoney, information.

The National Trust’s now well-advanced mission to baby the nation serves to crystallise how worrying a trend this is overall. Attempts to dismantle historic interiors suggest, at the very least, a misdirected embarrassment about the startling inequalities that have existed in this country, and at worst, an attempt to misconstrue the past driven by a paternalistic, class-obsessed ideology. More broadly, the insistence that historic buildings and works of art need endless simplistic and historically suspect interpretation not only threatens their individual integrity; by denying them the right to speak for themselves, cultural objects are easily marginalised as irrelevant and elitist which in an era of financial crisis, is nothing short of a death sentence.

FLORENCE HALLETT (florence_hallett@yahoo.co.uk; @FlorenceHallett), 13 April 2015.


The Conservation Laundering of Illicit Antiquities

the-conservation-laundering-of-illicit-antiquities

29 March 2015

by Einav Zamir

Marion True, former curator of antiquities at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles [Fig. 2], once hailed as the “heroic warrior against plunder,” [Endnote 1] was indicted in 2005 for violations against Italy’s cultural patrimony laws.[2] True became the first American curator to face such charges [3] — not coincidentally, it was also the first time that a source country had the means, financially and politically, to investigate and prosecute violations of their cultural patrimony laws [4]. The Swiss police and Italian Carabinieri’s raid on Giacomo Medici’s warehouse in Geneva a decade earlier [5] exposed an elaborate system, designed to avoid suspicion from authorities [6]. The subsequent investigation threw a spotlight onto the dubious activities of museum curators.

Conversely, restorers are rarely expected to account for their participation in concealing the evidence of clandestine excavation. Articles and books that focus on conservation’s role in the illicit trade of artifacts often take a very sympathetic stance — according to these accounts, conservators are unwilling participants, forced to comply with faulty acquisitions policies and overly aggressive museum personnel.

In many cases, this is certainly true. When the Getty’s Conservation Institute was asked to examine the infamous Aphrodite of Morgantina [Fig.3] before the Getty finalized its purchase, the staff observed that the object had been broken into three sections and speculated whether this was done by looters. They also noticed fresh dirt in some of its crevices, and Luis Monreal, the director of the institute, subsequently advised John Walsh, the Getty’s director, and Harold Williams, CEO of the Getty Trust, not to acquire the statue [7]. Nevertheless, no one alerted the authorities. Instead, the object was cleaned and restored, effectively removing the physical proof of its origin. Clearly, protesting to the museum board was not enough.

Of course, this issue is hardly cut-and-dry. According to Conservation Skills: Judgement, Method, and Decision Making by Chris Caple, there are two reactions a conservator might have when presented with a potentially looted object. He or she may choose to conserve it, thereby ensuring that information about the object, though devoid of archaeological context, becomes available to the public [8]. In an interview for the New York Times, Timothy Potts stressed, “If [the ancient art] goes on view with other like objects, then scholars get to see it and study it; the public gets to come; the claimant, if there is one, gets to know where it is and file a claim.” [9] Whether this information is enough to ensure an object’s return to a source country is questionable, however. It took over twenty years for the Getty to return the Aphrodite of Morgantina, and that was only after the raid on Giacomo Medici’s warehouse and increasing demands from the Italian government and numerous media outlets.

If a conservator turns away a looted object, however, he or she may be dooming it to obscurity, thereby diminishing the possibility that it will ever be returned. According to Jason Felch, author of Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World’s Richest Museum, “Lots of museum folks are unhappy because of the so-called orphan issue, and pressure is mounting.” [10] This pressure is likely felt both by museum curators and their colleagues in conservation. According to Caple, if a conservator refuses to work on an artifact, he or she denies it any “respectability.” He notes that it is difficult to deny an object in need of care, and that “refusal to treat one object will do little to suppress the trade in stolen or looted art.” Caple concludes by stating that “often the conservator’s suspicions may only be aroused during the conservation process,” [11] thus giving the conservator an out. Yet, if a curator suspects that an object has been looted, even after that object has made its way into the collection, he or she is expected to alert the authorities. Conservators are not held to the same standard. In a recent interview, Oscar White Muscarella, archaeologist and outspoken opponent of the antiquities trade, stated, “If someone is asked to conserve an object, and then he is asked to report on it, he doesn’t have to discuss that it’s a plundered object in his technical report — it’s a given that if it’s not from an excavation, it’s plundered.” He later added, “Conservators are as honest or dishonest as any other craftsman, but they contend that they’re scientists, and therefore, not dishonest.” [12]

Even the ethical codes of the American Institute for Conservation (AIC) and the International Institute for Conservation (IIC) do not strictly prohibit the conservation of stolen objects. Article II of the AIC “Code of Ethics” states that “all actions of the conservation professional must be governed by an informed respect for the cultural property, its unique character and significance, and the people or person who created it.” [13] However, their “Guidelines for Practice” stipulate that a member need only be “cognizant of laws and regulations that may have a bearing on professional activity,” [14] and it is merely recommended, not mandated, that “conservation professionals report suspected violations of applicable laws to the proper authorities.” [15] Similarly, one of the IIC’s primary goals as outlined in its “Memorandum of Association” is to “maintain standards in the practice of conservation and to combat any influences which would tend to lower such standards.” [16] Taking part in the laundering of illicit objects could be considered a blow to such principles. Yet, their mission to “take any action conducive to the bettering of the condition of Historic and Artistic Works,” [17] coupled with a rather vague definition of “standards of practice,” leaves a wide gap for interpretation. One might reasonably infer that “any action” includes the preservation of looted antiquities in order to safeguard their physical condition.

Jeanette Greenfield, author of The Return of Cultural Treasures, believes that “the purity of purpose of the conservators is to restore, protect and preserve objects…. Their work is a necessary singular task regardless of the method of acquisition. That is a separate legal matter for which the museums should be answerable.” [18] However, the conservator, as Professor Ricardo J. Elia of Boston University points out, should realize that his or her obligation is not to the object in its physical form, but to its overall integrity as a record of cultural history. [19] Because of this factor, loss of context outweighs any perceived gain in performing restorative work. “No self-respecting professional should have anything to do with the antiquities market,” he argues. “You are either with the looters or against them.” [20] There are a growing number of conservators who seem to agree with this sentiment. Catherine Sease advocated in 1997 for a more stringent code of ethics among conservators. In particular, she believed that grassroots efforts, including the refusal to work on objects of dubious origin, have the potential to change future endeavors of both museums and the dealers who supply them. [21] More recently, at the Appraisers Association of America’s annual conference in 2011, James McAndrew, a forensic specialist, delivered a keynote address entitled “A Decade of Transition in the Trade of Art and Antiquities,” in which he discussed the issues surrounding the conservation of looted art. [22] However, the question remains whether refusal to work on such objects is enough. Museum professionals, regardless of their rank, should also consider making their objections more public. From a purely practical standpoint, one must realize that many conservators will find it difficult if not impossible to do either. According to Elizabeth Simpson, an archaeologist and professor who has also been a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “those employed as conservators by museums and private collectors are likely to lose their jobs if they don’t toe the line.” [23] Several conservators who were contacted about this article declined to comment on the issue, supporting Simpson’s contention.

While it is clear that Marion True participated in the acquisition of looted artifacts, many believe that she became a scapegoat for an issue affecting several major institutions. Violations of the 1970 UNESCO convention were, and still are, widespread. As Felch states in his book, “True, at once the greatest sinner and the greatest champion of reform, has been made to pay for the crimes of American museums.” [24] Curators are held responsible for what has become a collaborative offense — anyone who has knowledge or suspicion of illegal activities, regardless of their intentions, should be expected to take action. According to Felch, the only way to ensure future adherence to ethical codes is by promoting “vigilance and education of the museum-going public about these issues. Museums will stop buying loot if and only if they feel the practice is culturally unacceptable in the public’s eyes.”[25] It would seem that the solution, much like the problem itself, needs to be collaborative.

ENDNOTES

1 Stanley Meisler, “Art & Avarice: In the Cutthroat Art Trade, Museums and Collectors Battle Newly Protective Governments Over Stolen Treasures.” Los Angeles Times Magazine, 12 Nov. 1989: 8.
2 Sharon Waxman, Loot: The Battle over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World (New York: Times Books, Henry Holt and Company, 2008), 305.
3 Italy v. Marion True and Robert E. Hecht, Tribunal of Rome. 13 Oct. 2010. IFAR: Art Law & Cultural Property Database. 30 Feb. 2012. .
4 Peter Watson, and Cecilia Todeschini, The Medici Conspiracy: The Illicit Journey of Looted Antiquities, from Italy’s Tomb Raiders to the World’s Greatest Museums (New York: BBS Public Affairs, 2006), 28.
5 Neil Brodie, “Uncovering the Antiquities Market,” in The Oxford Handbook of Public Archaeology, edited by Robin Skeates, Carol McDavid, and John Carman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 247.
6 Tom Bazley, Crimes of the Art World (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2010), 129.
7 Ralph Frammolino, “A Goddess Goes Home.” Smithsonian Magazine Nov. 2011: 43.
8 Chris Caple, Conservation Skills: Judgement, Method, and Decision Making (New York: Routledge, 2000), 194.
9 Hugh Eakin, “U.S. Museum Guidelines Defend Ties to Collectors.” New York Times. 28 Feb. 2006. .
10 Jason Felch, “Getty Policy.” Message to Einav Zamir. 19 Apr. 2012. E-mail.
11 Caple, 194.
12 Oscar White Muscarella, Telephone conversation with Einav Zamir. 25 Jul. 2012.
13 American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, AIC Code of Ethics And Guidelines For Practice (Washington, D.C., 1994).
14 Ibid.
15 Ibid.
16 International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, Memorandum of Association (London, 1992). Originally signed in 1950, amended in 1959 and 1992.
17 Ibid.
18 Jeanette Greenfield, email to Einav Zamir. 7 Aug. 2012.
19 Ricardo J. Elia, “Comment on “Irreconcilable Differences?”: Scholars for Sale.” Papers from the Institute of Archaeology 18 (2007): 17.
20 Ibid., 18.
21 Catherine Sease, “Conservation and the Antiquities Trade.” Journal of the American Institute of Conservation 36.1 (1997): 56.
22 Appraisers Association of America, “2011 National Conference.” Accessed 25 July 2013. .
23 Elizabeth Simpson, email to Einav Zamir. 6 Aug. 2012.
24 Felch and Frammolino, 312.
25 Felch, “Getty Policy.”

Einav Zamir is a doctoral student in Art History at the University of Texas at Austin and a former director of ArtWatch International, New York.

Comments may be left at: artwatch.uk@gmail.com

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Above, Fig. 1: Looters’ pits at the archaeological site of Isin, Iraq.
Above, Fig. 2: The Getty Museum, unlike institutions such as the Met or the British Museum, is a fairly new establishment. Confronted by an enormous endowment that needed to be spent within a limited amount of time, they aggressively acquired antiquities throughout the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s. Dubious collecting practices led to both a criminal trial against Marion True, then curator of the Getty Museum’s Classical Art department, and negotiations for the restitution of forty ancient objects to Italy and Greece. Since then, the Getty has adopted a new acquisitions policy with far greater restrictions than the policies of many other comparable institutions.
Above, Fig. 3: The so-called “Aphrodite of Morgantina” from the fifth century BCE, was acquired by the Getty Museum despite its dubious origins for the sake of expanding the collection. The Museum purchased the goddess in 1988 for eighteen million dollars from Robin Symes, a former antiquities dealer who spent seven months in prison in 2005 for involvement in Medici’s illicit operations. It remained on display at the Getty Villa until 2010, returning to Italy in May of 2011. It is now on view at the Museo Archeologico Museo in Aidone, Sicily.
Above, Fig. 4: The Euphronios krater presents one of the most infamous cases of the trade in looted antiquities. It was removed from an Etruscan tomb near Cerveteri in 1971 and sold to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1972 by Robert E. Hecht, who claimed to have purchased it from a Lebanese art dealer. After incriminating evidence turned up describing the circumstances of the sale of the krater, Italy demanded the return of the vase, and the Met entered into negotiations with the Italian government. The Met returned the Euphronios krater to Italy in 2008..
LOOTERS, THEIR CLIENTS AND THEIR MARKETS:
“Aggressive collecting curators were more than a little larcenous. To land something great, they were perfectly willing to deal with shady characters. Though they wouldn’t, they could tell you every smugglers’ ploy ever concocted. In extra-legal matters they could be sophisticated, but they were often naive about the subtleties of bargaining…An intact red-figured Greek vase [the Euphronios krater – at Fig. 4] of the early sixth century B. C. could only have been found in Etruscan territory in Italy, by illegal excavators…”
– Thomas Hoving, Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, (1967-77), in Making the Mummies Dance, N.Y. 1993, pp. 309 and 69.
“A RARE Greek Sculpture worth up to £2m was smuggled into Britain after being looted from a UNESCO world heritage site in Libya, a court heard yesterday.” ~ The Daily Telegraph 28 March 2015.
Above, Figs. 6 and 7: The Spring 2015 issue and contents of the ArtWatch UK members’ journal. On travel risks, see Introduction. For membership details, please contect Helen Hulson, Membership Secretary, at hahulson@googlemail.com
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