Within a couple of years of our warnings on the art world’s accumulating toxic assets of upgraded Old Master attributions, that sphere has been rocked by a spate of discovered/alleged old master forgeries that have recently deceived and embarrassed leading experts and major institutions alike.
In the midst of this turmoil, a Raphael-esque painting of insecure provenance (which is to say, of none before 1841), that relates to no known Raphael work, that is said to be good in parts and perhaps to have been a fragment of a lost unknown painting by Raphael, was launched to the world in the Guardian on October 3rd as a provisional “discovery” (“Raphael ‘copy’ once valued at £20 may be a £20m original”) to be shown on 5 October in a new three-part BBC4 series, “Britain’s Lost Masterpieces” [see Figs. 1a and 1b below]. The programmes were co-presented by an art historian, Jacky Klein, and a fast rising young player in the Old Masters attributions field, Bendor Grosvenor. Formerly of the Philip Mould Gallery and the BBC “Fake or Fortune” series, Grosvenor doubles as an art market commentator on a blog site, “Art History News” and, occasionally, for the Financial Times.
In the 8/9 October Weekend FT (“An eye for the real thing”) Dr Grosvenor held that the recently exposed failures of judgement constituted a scandal that threatens “to undermine the art world’s long established system of deducing authenticity”. He suggested that this danger stemmed from too great a reliance on the judgements of “independent, usually academic” experts who have published works on the artists they appraise, and from insufficient heed being paid to those (by implication like himself) who have not studied art history or published on artists but who, nonetheless, possess a “good eye”.
This recommendation was advanced even as Grosvenor admitted that he, along with France’s National Centre for Research and Restoration at the Louvre; a leading Louvre curator; numerous Frans Hals scholars; the Burlington Magazine; Christies (on scholarly advice); the Weiss gallery; and, Sotheby’s (at first), had been deceived by a recently exposed fake Frans Hals [Fig. 2, above], and, that he had come within a whisker of being deceived by a Gentileschi fake that snared the Guardian art critic and blogger, Jonathan Jones, and the National Gallery which had accepted the work as authentic when it was offered on loan (“Was the National Gallery scammed with a fake Old Master painting?”).
Where we held in the April 2006 ArtWatch UK Journal [Fig. 3, above] that too many in the art world were disregarding Mark Twain’s admonition to “buy land because they are not making it anymore” when buying upgraded school works as autograph masterpieces, Bendor Grosvenor often declares a state of rude good health in the old masters market. Because so many old masters have already been taken off the market and into museums, and because, by definition, old master paintings are no longer being produced, market growth increasingly depends on the discovery of “sleepers” – which is to say, of suspected hitherto unrecognised major works whose true identities will emerge during dealers’ un-monitored, sometimes radical stripping-down, repairing and retouching of paintings. (More recently we published a post that indicated means by which restorations might slide towards outright fakery in cases which, coincidentally, involved earlier “Frans Hals” paintings. See “A restorer’s aim – The fine line between retouching and forgery”.) On 13 August 2014 we called in a letter to The Times for a statutory requirement for vendors to disclose all that is known on a work’s provenance and conservation history [see Fig. 4, below]
On the BBC4 series “Britain’s Lost Masterpieces” Bendor Grosvenor got very excited at the prospect of a distinctly Raphael-esque painting in Haddo House in Scotland being an autograph Raphael [Fig. 1a]. BBC coverage of the visual arts rarely airs dissenting voices and this programme was constructed with many narrative layers all of which sang the same encouraging tune: Although this work has little provenance we should be assured by the fact that it had been bought in the early 19th century as an autograph Raphael by the 4th Earl of Aberdeen, George Hamilton-Gordon (1784-1860), who, in his early years and travels, was an impassioned devotee of the classical arts of Greece and Italy, and who somehow managed, despite being “flat broke”, to acquire a fine collection through a “shrewd nose for bargains”. Particular assurance was seen in the fact that the picture had been exhibited as a Raphael at the British Institution in 1841. However, an old hand-written label attached to one of two oak bars that reinforced the back of the poplar panel says, in English, “The Virgin Mary, Raffael or after Raffael” [see Fig. 1b]. As that is the only documentation (other than an indecipherable fragment of a wax seal) on the back of an assumed 600 years old panel, it would seem likely that the label was present when the painting was exhibited in 1841 as a Raphael. If it had not been present in 1841, why would its owner have added such a weakening document to his own painting?
The question of the label’s origin is the more perplexing because, as we now learn from Dr Grosvenor, the canny Scottish Fourth Earl of Aberdeen, George Hamilton-Gordon, had not bought the painting while on his early travels in Italy because he had not bought it all. Rather, he had inherited it more than a generation later from his brother, Robert Gordon, when he died in 1847 (by choking on a fish bone). The provenance thus descends entirely from Robert Gordon who was born in 1791 and would not likely have bought the painting (from whomever – for no one knows) much before 1810. Although Robert Gordon was the owner when the picture was exhibited at the British Institution, there are no family inventories listing the painting before 1867 and none thereafter lists it as a Raphael. In two entries it is priced at £80 and later at £20. On both occasions it was listed as a copy. In the television programme, the co-presenters describe seeing their perceived challenge as being to reverse a hypothecated “increasing scepticism” with which the painting was viewed after George Gordon’s death in 1860. But what if the Raphael attribution had always been appreciated within the family as being uncertain? Or, might not a contrary reading have been considered of the possibility that it only became politic for independent scholars to dissent on a claimed Raphael attribution after the death of the fourth earl who had been an extremely powerful and well-connected political figure – and one with with a sarcastic turn to boot?
Against the fragmentary picture’s distinctly weak provenance, it was claimed (- but not demonstrated) that a close fit existed with secure Raphael Madonnas. The belief that this work might be an autograph Raphael received high level scholarly and (implicit) institutional endorsement as Bendor Grosvenor is filmed ascending the grand stairs of the National Gallery’s Sainsbury Wing in the company of the Gallery’s former director, Sir Nicholas Penny. The camera catches the pair passing the monumental carved Roman Letters “RAPHAEL” [see Fig. 5, below] and jumps in a nanosecond to a painting in the Gallery’s substantial Raphael holdings – but not to one its finest, instead to the least secure, most recent, so-called Madonna of the Pinks that had been attributed to Raphael in 1992 by Nicholas Penny when a curator at the Gallery, and that was later bought by the Gallery for nearly £35millon after a public appeal. Towards the end of the film [Fig. 6, below] Nicholas Penny places the putative Grosvenor-Raphael, somewhere between “probably by Raphael” and “by Raphael” and suggests that with a little “more time and courage” he might well go the whole hog.
Above, (top – and running clockwise), Figure 5: Bendor Grosvenor passes the monumental carved “RAPHAEL” in the National Gallery’s Sainsbury Wing; the National Gallery’s (disputed) Raphael Madonna of the Pinks; the Bendor Grosvenor-proposed Haddo House Raphael Madonna, before restoration; and, the National Gallery’s Madonna of the Pinks, as presently framed. Above, Fig. 6: Jacky Klein, Bendor Grosvenor and Nicholas Penny seen examining the Haddo House Madonna in the 5 October BBC4 “Britian’s Lost Masterpieces” programme.
Although a caveat was offered in the programme (and reported in the Guardian) with an admission that there had not been the time and money to run all appropriate tests, Grosvenor nonetheless claimed that all the evidence seemed to point in the right direction. As if to dispel any doubts, the television programme (which was produced by Tern TV and commissioned by Mark Bell, Head of Arts Commissioning, BBC, under the Executive Producer for the BBC, Emma Cahusac) carried a strong implicit message that the Grosvenor-proposed Raphael is as sound as the National Gallery’s Penny-attributed Raphael Madonna of the Pinks. We would counter that, with both pictures, such assurances were misleading and that the principal evidence on the strength of these attributions is found in the look of the pictures, which testify in different ways[ see Fig. 5] against Raphael’s authorship, as will be shown in Part IV.
We would add two points here. First, that Dr Grosvenor seems unaware of the extent to which the Madonna of the Pinks had been rejected as by Raphael in the 19th century and more recently by scholars including Professor James Beck, the founder of ArtWatch International who devoted three chapters of his last (2006) book, From Duccio to Raphael – Connoisseurship in Crisis, to problems with the present attribution [see Fig. 7, below]. Although Nicholas Penny is a highly respected Renaissance specialist, and his Raphael attribution had been fittingly proposed in a long, thorough scholarly article in the Burlington Magazine (“Raphael’s Madonna dei garofani” Rediscovered, 134, 1992) that had impressed Professor James Beck, the attribution itself received only majority approval from a group of specialist scholars assembled at the National Gallery. Contrary to initial Gallery press claims, there had been no firm consensus of scholarly opinion – a fifth of the invited scholars dissented from the attribution when questioned directly by Beck.
At the time, we pointed out that the then majority for support had reversed over a century’s scholarly consensus of judgement. The Penny-Raphael had been rejected as early as 1854 by Gustav Friedrich Waagen as “the small picture in the Camuccini collection which I do not consider to be original. The tone of the flesh has something insipid and heavy. The Treatment makes me suspect a Netherlandish hand.” Professor Martin Kemp rejected the Penny-Raphael Madonna on the grounds of her most disconcerting and uncharacteristic teeth-baring opened mouth: “In reality, for any Renaissance woman to be portrayed showing her teeth, American-style, is unthinkable”. (Leonardo, Oxford/New York, 2005, p. 242.)
There were structural problems with the picture, as well as stylistic incongruities. In the 2003 ArtWatch UK Journal 29, we drew attention to the disturbing fact that the National Gallery’s Madonna of the Pinks Raphael – like the Gallery’s (challenged) Rubens Samson and Delilah painting – had lost vital physical and documentary evidence. With both paintings the original, evidence-bearing back is missing, as is also the case in the drawing that has been dubbed “La Bella Principessa” and given to Leonardo da Vinci by Martin Kemp, even after it emerged that the supposedly 500 years old work had been sold anonymously and without a shred of provenance by the widow of a restorer who was the work’s first known and sole owner. That atypical drawing on an atypical medium has been (unusually) glued down onto an oak panel, thereby preventing an appraisal of drawings known to be present on its reverse.
The Samson and Delilah panel painting had been planed down to wafer thinness and glued onto a modern sheet of blockboard in an operation of which no record exists. The back of the Madonna of the Pinks was “polished”, coated and given three wax seals in the 19th century when in the hands of its first known owners, the notorious Camuccini family
of artists, copyists, restorers, art dealers and art smugglers. We cited much else that was problematic about the Madonna of the Pinks:
“It possesses, for example, an irregular border of unpainted wood that is ‘unusual’ for Raphael. The picture’s unusually highly-wrought finish, ‘jewel-like, as Dr Ekserdjian and associates put it; made up of ‘tiny, almost invisible brushstrokes’, as the National Gallery puts it, is said to have been the result of the work’s especial execution for the close contemplation of a nun…Even if this fanciful explanation for the unusual brushwork were to be accepted, it would not also explain the picture’s atypical colour scheme [which] Dr Penny suggests, may reflect ‘a particular moment of indebtedness by Raphael to Leonardo…’ ”
We complained that “Dr Penny’s case seems to rest on the belief that the outcome of technical analysis carried out at the National Gallery somehow displaces or neutralises all accumulations of otherwise awkward evidence…A manifest weakness of Dr Penny’s case is that no technical analysis or even photographic comparison is offered on any of the picture’s forty or so rival contenders…” It was later learned that scientific analysis had identified the wood of this most unusual artefact as being, not poplar, as might have been expected, or even a fruit wood, as is the case with one large Raphael panel, but yew – a wood nowhere encountered in Raphael or, so far as we know, in any Italian Renaissance painting. As will be seen in Part IV, the proposed Grosvenor-Raphael bears many handicaps.
Michael Daley, 20 October 2016
Our seventh annual James Beck Memorial Lecture and reception to commemorate Professor Beck’s scholarly career at Columbia University and his founding of ArtWatch International (in 1992), will be held this year at the Art Students League in New York on Thursday, 22 September.
The speaker is the art and architecture historian and founder of the Monuments Conservancy in New York, Dr. Donald Martin Reynolds, for whom “every monument carries a history”.
His Lecture title is:
“For Our Freedom and Yours”: The Art and Life of Andrew Pitynski, Portrait of an American Master.
The lecture and reception will be held between 6-8 pm at:
The Art Students League, 215 W. 57th St., New York, NY 10019
Dr Reynolds came to New York in 1959 and worked as a copywriter for J Walter Thompson. There, he began his lifelong passionate involvement with public sculpture, on seeing such monuments as the Firefighters Memorial at W. 100th St. and Riverside Drive.
In 1965, Dr Reynolds’ switched careers by enrolling in the School of General Studies at Columbia University as a Ford Foundation Fellow, earning a B.A. in 1968 and an M.A. in art history in 1969. He was awarded the Ph.D. in 1975 for his dissertation on the sculpture of Hiram Powers and he taught at the university from 1970 to 2003.
He was curator of New York City parks from 1986 to 1988, where he oversaw the more than 1,500 public monuments, statues and plaques in 1,000 parks. Most of them “celebrate events or mark people’s accomplishments,” he says. But when events fade or benefactors die, “they are forgotten, and so are their principles,” he says. To help stem this erosion, he founded The Monuments Conservancy, an organization devoted to “making people aware of our public monuments and what they stand for.”
In 1991 he founded the annual Samuel Dorsky Symposium on Public Monuments in honour of the great historian of Baroque art and architecture, Rudolf Wittkower.
Among Dr Reynolds’ many books and publications are: The Architecture of New York City: Histories and Views of Important Structures, Sites, and Symbols, 1984 and 1997; Monuments & Masterpieces, 1988 and 1997; Masters of American Sculpture: The Figurative Tradition from the American Renaissance to the Millennium, 1994; Remove Not the Ancient Landmark: Public Monuments and Moral Values, 1996; and, most recently, Pitynski, 2015. In 1977 His PhD dissertation Hiram Powers and His Ideal Sculpture (“The Unveiled Soul”) was declared an “Outstanding Dissertation in the Fine Arts” by the Garland Press.
Professor Hellmut Wohl has said of Dr Reynolds’ 2015 book on the art and life of Andrew Pitynski:
“I can’t think of any artist on whom an author has lavished such exhaustive and justly deserved admiration and documentation. He manages to bring together a synthesis of biography, history, politics, religion, es
London’s architectural heritage is being devoured as a consequence of planning laxity in the face of Britain’s thriving economy and uncontrolled net inward migration (which, on official figures, is presently running at a rate in excess of three million people per decade).
That cities are living entities not museums is, as developers frequently claim, perfectly true – and migration brings benefits as well as pressures – but all that is new and lucrative is not necessarily of net social and cultural benefit. Today, every walk in the city reveals a fresh hole in the familiar and an ominous sprouting of cranes. As the Observer reports, some 400 skyscrapers are planned and 60% of Londoners oppose them. Initially clustered in the City of London, they now march westwards as planning authorities repeatedly prove toothless or supine with excesses granted in exchange for tiny “civic gains” or promised “modifications”. Every skyscraper serves immediately as precedent for a further neighbouring blight. (See also “A clear strategy on tall buildings is the only way to control developers”.)
A hideous 25-storey tower of 54 luxury flats in Somers Town that incenses heritage bodies and threatens to eclipse Nash and Burton terraces in Regent’s Park gained Camden Council planning approval by earmarking a portion of profits to a new primary school and other social purposes. The developer is none other than Camden Council itself. Further west, an approved private scheme to build forty-two townhouses and apartments in Kensington requires the destruction of the Art Deco cinema frequented by Alfred Hichcock. The (private) developers promise a seven-screen cinema amidst their housing project and to work hand in glove with the authorities “to the very highest standards”.
Cinema plus Design Museum
As the Evening Standard reports the new cinema-for-old scheme with a housing bonanza on top has triggered an imaginative and popular counter-proposal. A group, “Friends of the Kensington Odeon”, has marshalled support from 30,000 residents and a number of “philanthropic billionaires”. It propose a mixed arts centre (“The Hitchcock Odeon”) that would generate a “cultural hub” when joined nearby in November by The Design Museum. This scheme is backed by such distinguished actors as Sir Ian Mckellen, Dame Kristin Scott-Thomas, Sir john Hurt, Benedict Cumberbatch and David Suchet, and, “wholeheartedly” by Hitchcock’s daughter Patricia Hitchcock O’Connell.
Film-maker plus House
Hitchcock’s residency in Kensington was at 153 Cromwell Road. The recent history of that house testifies to a certain enduring commercial rapacity, as one of its present culturally distinguished residents, Selby Whittingham, outlines below. In 1975 Dr Whittingham, a student of medieval art and a devotee of both Watteau and Turner (two of the more restoration-vulnerable painters) founded a campaign for the creation of a proper and fitting Turner Gallery to house Turner’s great bequest. The campaign enjoyed much support – including that of Henry Moore, Hugh Casson, Kenneth Clark, and John Betjeman – and its committee meetings were held at 153 Cromwell Road until ended by dissensions that have left the realisation of a Turner Gallery unfinished business.
Selby Whittingham writes:
HITCHCOCK HOUSE AND OTHER DRAMAS
A recent proposal has been made, supported by cinematic celebrities, that the Odeon Kensington should become a new arts centre, The Hitchcock Odeon. The name was presumably prompted by the occupancy of the Kensington house where I have lived since 1970 by Alfred Hitchcock during the 1930s following his marriage at the Brompton Oratory, in token of which his daughter (Patricia Hitchcock O’Connell) unveiled a blue plaque on the centenary of his birth in August 1999.
The Kensington Odeon was where I saw my first film, Scott of the Antarctic. I had come with my mother 70 years ago to live at 1 Scarsdale Villas, the previous tenant of which was Lady Benson, whose husband, Sir Frank, had toured the country with his company of actors selected mainly for their ability to play cricket. They had inspired my mother with a love of Shakespeare, which she transmitted to me. Lady Benson’s drama school was where John Gielgud received his first training as an actor. After her death the studio at the back reverted to being that of an artist called Maclaren, a loner of rather sinister appearance. It had been built for an illustrator, Leslie Brooke, ancestor of the onetime Culture Minister, Peter Brooke. Maclaren left and his place was taken by Flanders and Swann, attempts to commemorate whom with a blue plaque have so far been thwarted.
In the 1930s many London cinemas were part of the Gaumont British empire controlled by the Ostrers. The presiding genius was Isidore Ostrer, for whom my mother-in-law worked for 30 years. One of his daughters married James Mason and another is my wife’s lively godmother. The history of the family and its eccentricities has been chronicled by Isidore’s nephew, Mark Ostrer, who has improved his portrait by Picasso, he says, by partially repainting it. In the 1970s he lived in Earls Court in a mews house, where he hid under the floorboards (where they remained when he sold it) giant tins of baked beans in preparation for World War III.
In the 1930s many London cinemas were part of the Gaumont British empire controlled by the Ostrers. The presiding genius was Isidore Ostrer, for whom my mother-in-law worked for 30 years. One of his daughters married James Mason and another is my wife’s lively godmother. The history of the family and its eccentricities has been chronicled by Isidore’s nephew, Mark Ostrer, who has improved his portrait by Picasso, he says, by partially repainting it. In the 1970s he lived in Earls Court in a mews house, where he hid under the floorboards (where they remained when he sold it) giant tins of baked beans in preparation for World War III.
That may not have broken out yet, but since 1983 at Hitchcock’s former home there have been intermittent skirmishes between the leaseholders which have enraged them and successive managing agents. In 1970 the superior lease was owned by a benevolent lady living nearby in Cornwall Gardens. She now decided to sell it. The purchaser was an outfit called Stateplan Ltd, of which the directors were Simon Longe and Richard Weston, who thought that they could make money by splitting up the two maisonettes (the top one having been Hitchcock’s) and two flats into a series of studio flats, the leases for the unexpired term being sold to the occupants and newcomers.
Longe started a series of enterprises which, like Stateplan, failed, and Weston, who practised as a solicitor at Taunton, was struck off the roll in 1991 and fined a few years ago for pretending to be a qualified solicitor. These geniuses helped provoke a new Thirty Years War. Weston drew up our lease whereby we would pay service charges in proportion to the relative values of the flats, there then being still only four, which of course changed after new ones were created, making nine in total. But in the leases he subsequently drew up for the new ones he took no account of that, with the result that we were at loggerheads with other owners almost from the start.
The inconsistency, and the consequent overcharging of ourselves, was quickly pointed out by our solicitors, Loxdales, also of Cromwell Road. A century ago they had acted for Sir Thomas Beecham, whose American father-in-law lived in South Kensington, in his dispute with his father, who had upset him by banishing his wife, Thomas’s mother, to a mental asylum. The father had as his lawyers my great-grandfather and grandfather. As a teenager I photographed his first wife in the garden of Clopton Manor, from where she claimed several of Shakespeare’s most famous scenes took their origin, a claim treated with contempt by a Shakespearian professor who called on me at Hitchcock House, which I had earlier named Turner House (I had founded the Old Turner Society there in 1975), in pursuit of his wife’s claim to be related to J.M.W.Turner, just as Lady Beecham claimed a family relationship to Shakespeare.
Mr Longe had promised to put the whole house in good repair before he started levying service charges. This did not happen. After the bedlam of the conversion of the other flats there suddenly collapsed the ceiling over the impressive staircase, up which luminaries such as G.B.Shaw and Michael Redgrave, whose rehearsals at Stratford I once witnessed, trod as Hitchcock worked on films such as The Lady Vanishes and Thirty-Nine Steps. Great chunks of plaster landed outside our flat door, through which I had passed minutes before. An even more impressive staircase in Belgravia was centre stage in a film by Graham Greene and Carol Reed in which my cousin Bobby Henrey, its boy star, imagined (or was it real?) he saw, as he leant over the banisters, a murder committed. (His mother wrote a book about the making of the film and more recently Bobby has published his own account). There have been no murders on our staircase, real or imagined – so far.
Next a water tank in the roof burst flooding many flats including ours. Repeated inundations afflicted the half-landing room which formed part of our “flat”, the lessors refusing to repair its roof, on to which all sorts of rubbish mysteriously landed making the flooding worse. Eventually we sold it to other leaseholders for a modest £12,500 on condition that our percentage of the service charges, which after 15 years of stalling had been reduced, should be further reduced. They reneged on the agreement to do that. They adapted the room to make a self-contained pied-à-terre which now must be worth at least ten times what they paid for it. Yet they felt indignant at having to pay the agreed increase in service charges, enforced only 10 years later after we took the matter to a tribunal, or indeed any service charges at all on it.
They named the studio Flat 2B (ours being 2). When we pointed out that it constituted a tenth flat, but was not listed among the flats paying service charges, all signs indicating 2B disappeared. At the tribunal it was still claimed that it was still just a spare room, though the council had at last got round to acknowledging its existence and had registered it as liable for Council Tax! We had drawn the council’s attention to its existence earlier, but it had done nothing and now said that it was too late to prosecute the owners. The Royal Borough moved in a similarly stately way over Leighton House, only accepting it long after all the contents from Lord Leighton’s time had been sold.
Troubles continued over the years and some disgruntled leaseholders sold their flats. At the top of the house remained the panelled room which the Hitchcocks had as their living room, decked out for them by Heal’s, while the bedrooms were on the floor below. On hearing that the panelling was being sold by its departing owner, Sandra Shevey, biographer and interviewer of Hitchcock and organiser of Hitchcock Walks, complained to the council, which again declined to do anything. Yet the house, if anywhere, should be Hitchcock’s London shrine. The dramatic spirit which invests it, and which has suspended our hopes of justice for so long, indicates that his ghost lives on in the crucible of his first triumphs.
Selby Whittingham, 30 August 2016
This week Yale University Press published Art History and Emergency, a book of essays assessing art history’s role and responsibilities in what has been described as today’s “humanities crisis”. It explores how artists, art historians and related professionals respond to pressures and demonstrate worth.
It considers how it might be possible to think deeply about art objects and images without losing the intellectual intensity of the best works being studied. (We are tempted to hold that a clear distinction should always be drawn between making and appraising art. Fuseli held it desirable to maintain such a division even within the production of art when he advised artists to conceive with fire but to execute with phlegm.)
The content and timing of Art History and Emergency must coincide embarrassingly for its publisher with the profound collapse of scholarly confidence triggered by a radical restructuring of Yale University Press’s own art historical programme. There is also irony in the fact that this particular examination of the “humanities crisis” is published in the “Clark Studies in the Visual Arts” series. ArtWatchers will be familiar with the Clark Institute’s own contribution to that crisis through mistreatment of paintings and breaches of its founder’s terms of bequest. (See “Taking Renoir, Sterling and Francine Clark to the Cleaners” and “From Veronese to Turner, Celebrating Restoration-Wrecked Pictures”.)
Art is perpetually vulnerable to wrong-headed, impetuous and destructive administrative impulses. Its traditions are slow to build but all too easy to dismantle – an architect in revolutionary France devised a way of destroying Gothic churches in an afternoon. When Sterling Clark’s widow died the Institute’s staff rushed to “restore” paintings against Clark’s explicit terms and despite the fact that he had carefully bought un-restored works in excellent condition. Paintings are not the only victims of administrators wishing to make their mark.
A LETTER OF MASS PROTEST BY SCHOLARS
On 8 July a letter signed by more than 290 scholars from 77 universities, and 30 museums and institutions in 9 countries, was sent to Peter Salovey, the President of Yale University; Susan Gibbons, the Librarian and Deputy Provost for libraries and scholarly communications, Yale University; and John Donatich, the Director of Yale University Press. The letter had been framed by two scholars, Professor Andrew Saint and Professor Jules Lubbock, in protest against what has been widely taken to be:
“[A] grave threat to the future of excellence in publishing books on art, architecture and design in Britain, the United States and around the world.”
This threat is seen to come from a “restructuring” of the Yale University Press (London)’s art books under the Managing Director, Heather McCallum, whose actions are supported by the (interlocking) directors and trustees.
Over the past forty years this university press is widely regarded as having built an unparalleled record for first-class, good-looking and scholarly books on the visual arts. This much-admired tradition was established by John Nicoll in the early 1970s and has continued under two outstanding editors, Gillian Malpass and Sally Salvesen, whose experience, scholarship and eye for design earned international acclaim, the gratitude of many eminent authors, and many awards.
Malpass and Salvesen are being sacked to make way for an editorial director (on whom, see below). This restructuring – for which no financial requirement or other necessity has been demonstrated – has caught the art world unawares. No one had been consulted in London – not even The Paul Mellon Centre in London whose generous financial support, together with that of The Yale Centre for British Art, lies behind much of this outstanding publishing. Although the top-down restructuring operation was hatched in secrecy and executed by fiat, its intended means and underlying rationale had peeped out two years ago.
A BAD IDEA IN THE MAKING
In the absence of consultation and transparent policy-making, institutional players put the spotlight on their own standing and tastes. At a conference in Berlin in 2014, Francis Bennett, the deputy chairman of Yale University Press, issued a “Positioning statement” that was both portentous and alarming. (It is to be found in full here.) Mr Bennett’s c.v. seemed to have run into the sand when, after a mixed career in publishing (“My first managing directorship [was] an unhappy time at WH Allen, but I learned to run a company”), he became an electronic publisher and set up a company, Book Data, that was sold in 2002.
Today, as deputy chairman of Yale University Press, Mr Bennet’s views and his declared “vision for the future of academic publishing (2020)” merit close examination. He prides himself on a commitment to professionalism and “a questioning of orthodoxies” when his own views betray prevalent patterns of banal management-speak and received wisdom. He fixates on “trends which will force change on university presses” when Yale University Press is anything but a run of the mill university press. He sees university education as “becoming a global trading commodity, aka the knowledge economy”.
In other generations such over-heating and simplistic techno-Futurist visions might well have been taken as disqualifications for a leading role in venerable and high-minded cultural institutions. Mr Bennett thrills that “Communication is instant” and that “Market expectations are immediate”, seemingly without awareness that current trends are never irreversible escalators to the future and that the chief distinguishing traits of markets are volatility and unpredictability. As for the supposedly irresistible force of techno-determinism, far from knocking out hard-copy books, e-book tablet sales have already levelled off. Television did not kill off cinema or radio. The world, for the imaginative and the enterprising, remains full of niches and opportunities, and books remain phenomenally attractive and enduringly user-friendly artefacts.
BRAVE NEW ACADEMIC WORLD AND THE DEMISE OF PEER REVIEW
Mr Bennett betrays a strikingly short term view of the future and confidently predicts that within four years we will occupy “A new academic publishing world” in which the printed book with a high price and a small market will have vanished. Peer review will also have gone on grounds of being too slow. To survive at all, university presses must now accept that their “traditional methods must change”. Under the Bennett Prescription, change means becoming “brands” that support the “extended reach of their owners”. One word is absent in Bennett’s programme. It is scholarship.
On the internal evidence of this particular positioning statement it might seem that the lacuna is the product of a personal aversion as much as a reflection of institutional policy. The deputy chairman of Yale University Press came from an academically distinguished family. His father was a Cambridge don. His mother was an author of biographies. An aunt was principal of St Hilda’s Oxford. One uncle was a don and then a civil servant; another was a don and then the Astronomer Royal. This Bennett confesses that he “couldn’t compete, so became a publisher.” Also absent is the term “charitable mission” which notion is central to Yale University purposes and is stated like this:
“Yale is committed to improving the world today and for future generations through outstanding research and scholarship, education, preservation, and practice. Yale educates aspiring leaders worldwide who serve all sectors of society. We carry out this mission through the free exchange of ideas in an ethical, interdependent, and diverse community of faculty, staff, students, and alumni.”
For Mr Bennett the future is pre-ordained and it’s anticipated imminent impositions are relished in business-speak:
“The academic publishing process must respond by creating a new model. The present system is too slow at experimenting and adopting new models – and will be left behind if it doesn’t change.”
Left behind what? The publishing world is various and serves many purposes well and simultaneously. What law says that academic publishing must travel in tandem with cut-throat commercial publishing where economies can be made through skilful mass-marketing? Why must great, richly-endowed and tax-favoured universities cease to give succour to scholars?
YALE UNIVERSITY’S MISSION
Yale University Press happens to have its own mission. Its purpose is to play a key role in the university’s core mission of “improving the world today and for future generations through outstanding research and scholarship, education, preservation, and practice” and, specifically, to do so by publishing “books and other materials that further scholarly investigation, advance interdisciplinary inquiry, stimulate public debate, educate both within and outside the classroom, and enhance cultural life.”
AN EGREGIOUS REPLY
How, then, did this month’s appeal from Professors Lubbock and Saint and their many scholarly associates go down when sent to Salovey, Gibbons and Donatich? The reply came only from John Donatich, who is both the Director of Yale University Press and the Chairman of the Board of Trustees, Yale University Press London, and Heather McCallum, the Managing Editor of Yale University Press London.
John Donatich’s appointment in 2003 was highly welcomed. He arrived as the departing publisher and vice president of Basic Books, having previously served at HarperCollins from 1992-1996 and before that from 1989-1992 as the director of national accounts for the Putnam Publishing Group. All was auspicious in that now long ago-seeming world. Anthony Kronman, the dean of Yale Law School and the chair of the search committee, said of him: “John has a scholar’s taste, an editor’s eye and bookseller’s experience and judgment,” and, “He possesses just the combination of qualities we sought when we began our search and he brings to the Press great vitality, high idealism and a profound love of books.” Mr Donatich responded graciously and fittingly:
“I am thrilled to be joining this prestigious press and invited to help shape its future. Yale University Press commands a unique and leading position among university presses. I can’t imagine a better place for scholars and intellectuals to publish books.”
Quite so – but today Donatich’s and McCallum’s (seemingly “lawyered”) joint reply to the anxious scholars insults their intelligence. It describes their anxieties as products of (a mass) confusion. It contends that, on the one hand, they have nothing to fear, and that on the other, they can do nothing to reverse the done deal. In a torrent of blather about seeking to help YUPL to “flourish and lead in the years ahead” by a reorganisation that “is by no means confined to the Art department [because] it is part of a company-wide initiative” the pair insist that the restructuring “was thoroughly researched and discussed at great length” and, besides, that “it has the full support of the YUPL Trustees, Yale University Press and Yale University leadership”. On the nature and purpose of the restructuring, we find echo of Bennett: “However, in the context of the ever-changing publishing arena, maintaining these standards requires a fundamental reappraisal of YUPL’s entire operation”.
Logic escapes the twin authors who insist that the restructuring has been discussed at great length while justifying their own secrecy about it and its consequences: “As we hope you will appreciate, a complex company-wide restructure of this magnitude is a confidential process and it would not be appropriate for us to enter into discussions about individual members of staff.” At the same time there is a brass-faced insistence that “We have fully apprised both the Yale Centre for British Art and the Paul Mellon Centre about the reorganisation of YUPL and have regularly informed them about the changes of personnel that have followed…”
The facts must speak for themselves. Two principal and outstanding editors at Yale University Press (London), Gillian Malpass and Sally Salvesen – who have established the very qualities at issue – are to be replaced by an Editorial Director for Art and Architecture, Mark Eastment, under whose direction “we will develop exciting and innovative books which lead agendas…” When asked last year what he most enjoyed about his job as director of publishing at the V&A, Mr Eastment replied “the challenge of balancing the financial expectations of the museum, by generating as much revenue as possible (all our end-year profits are given back to the museum) along with the academic wishes of curators.”
It would thus seem that proven and acclaimed excellence is being put at risk on an opaque, non-discussable promise of changes being made within some vaguely perceived “ever-changing” and economically-menacing publishing arena. On such an inadequate prospectus, scholars have very clear cause for alarm. To indicate the potential loss we now face under an apparently panicked and insecure Yale Administration, we cite an earlier demonstration that serious scholarship is a collective, slow-running cumulative process. (See Art’s Toxic Assets and a Crisis of Connoisseurship ~ Part II: Paper (sometimes photographic) Fakes and the Demise of the Educated Eye.)
HOW SCHOLARSHIP WORKS
In her magnificent 2005 Yale University Press monograph The Pollaiuolo Brothers – The Arts of Florence and Rome, Alison Wright describes a particularly vexing “market for copies, fakes and over-ambitious attributions” but gives gratitude for the fact that she need not re-invent a particular wheel by sifting it all afresh. Instead, she cites Professor Hellmut Wohl’s 1980 New York University monograph The Paintings of Domenico Veneziano – A Study in Florentine Art of the Early Renaissance in which he had, as Dr Wright acknowledges, “listed the myriad attributions under which surviving Florentine female profiles have passed…” Writing a full generation on, she gives specific thanks that “Wohl’s study absolves me from a repetition of this unrewarding task.” Prof. Wohl had taught art history at Yale University before his Professorship at Boston University and he had studied Domenico for three decades. Dr Wright is Reader in the History of Art at University College, London. Such books as theirs are bricks in civilisation’s walls. They should be cherished, not implicitly slighted – and other scholars should not be denied the opportunity to produce such books through a major university’s press.
The President of Yale University, Peter Salovey, may prove wise not to have attached his own name to so egregious and unsatisfactory a reply as that sent by two of his officers to an esteemed body of appropriately anxious scholars. Evidence is everywhere to be seen that Yale University Press have created a self-fulfilling prophesy without the crisis that might have triggered it.
Michael Daley ~ 28 July 2016
We have received two communications on “La Bella Principessa”, which drawing some take to be by Leonardo da Vinci. One came from the work’s owner, the other from a disinterested scholar in confirmation that the work could not, for reasons of arithmetic and plain physical facts, have been made by Leonardo for inclusion in a book.
Above, Fig. 1: The full vellum sheet of the proposed Leonardo drawing “La Bella Principessa”.
THE DRAWING’S CLAIMED ORIGIN
This drawing was presented anonymously to the world in 1998 without authorial ascription and without an atom of provenance. When claims of autograph Leonardo authorship were made after barely a decade, it became necessary to fill a five-hundred years long void of records in order to dispel suspicions of forgery or pastiche. In 2010 Professor Martin Kemp bundled together what he held to be a “barrage of evidence – stylistic, historical or technical” that somehow provided collectively what no individual parts constituted: proof that Leonardo da Vinci was the author of what he (Kemp) dubbed “La Bella Principessa”. Thus, a collection of not-evidence was vested with quasi-evidential force on a circular, question-begging appeal to the claimed authority of a “sustained, collective sense that the portrait ‘belongs’ to Leonardo and contributes something new to the Leonardo we currently know.”
Although some scholars (chiefly Italian) were persuaded by the claims, for the consensual majority who did not see Leonardo’s hand in the drawing, Kemp’s methodological ju-ju gained no traction. His claims were advanced in a portmanteau book of collective advocacy, La Bella Principessa – The Story of the New Masterpiece by Leonardo da Vinci, which he co-wrote with Pascal Cotte of Lumiere Technology (the firm hired by the drawing’s owner, Peter Silverman, to conduct technical research) and which carried highly supportive contributions by Peter Paul Biro, Eva Schwan, Claudio Strinati and Nicholas Turner; London, 2010 (– see pp. 187-88).
THE THREE STITCH HOLES
During Pascal Cotte’s technical analysis of the drawing it was noticed that three holes are present on the left-hand edge. Cotte took these to “prove that it originally came from a book or a manuscript” (- Kemp/Cotte 2010, p. 113). Working with Mr Cotte, Prof. Kemp proposed that the hypothetical book might well have been a collection of celebratory poems of Bianca Sforza who had died in childhood and that “La Bella Principessa” had been made as an illustration to such a book.
Above, Fig. 2: “La Bella Principessa” with Pascal Cotte’s indicated locations of the three supposed stitch holes.
Kemp’s elaborate hypothetical advocacy constituted a daisy-chain of improbabilities. This is a drawing made in the manner of a distinctive (and invariably painted) profile portrait type that is nowhere encountered in recorded Leonardos – and, indeed, this is the very type which Leonardo famously subverted with his own revolutionary plastically dynamic figural innovations. Within the rigorous constraints of the strict profile type, this drawing’s supposedly high-born subject is bereft of the customary/requisite opulence in clothing and jewellery. The eccentric iconography was made on an atypical support – vellum. It was drawn, Kemp holds, either directly from the subject in celebration of her wedding, or, as a commemorative portrayal after her death and thus made either in recollection or from some other depiction. No explanation was offered for how this single image might have resulted from two radically different circumstances of execution.
THE CLAIMED CORRESPONDENCE BETWEEN THE “LA BELLA PRINCIPESSA” DRAWING AND THE WARSAW SFORZIAD
On a suggestion from Professor David Wright, Kemp proposed that this from-life or post-death portrait had been made to be incorporated within a large, heavy book of the mid-1490s that is now housed in Poland, the so-called Warsaw Sforziad. In the wake of a great deal of (Kemp and Silverman-activated) archival research which found no mention of any work resembling “La Bella Principessa”, it can be seen that without this claimed Warsaw connection, the drawing would remain what it was on its 1998 debut: a stylistically untypical and unprecedented work without any history – the inclusion of which within Leonardo’s oeuvre would, in Prof. Kemp’s own advocacy, “contribute something new to the Leonardo we currently know” and “reveal a previously unknown dimension to the way in which he fulfilled his duties at the court of Duke Ludovico Sforza”. (Kemp/Cotte, 2010, p. 188.) Without history, that is to say, other than the time it is now said to have been in the possession of the restorer/painter Giannino Marchig, the late husband of the anonymous vendor in 1998.
It has been claimed many times that a ‘match’ exists between the drawing’s holes and the book’s stitches but, aside from the small format photo-diagram at Fig. 3, this has never been demonstrated or independently corroborated. Similarly, it has been said that carbon dating tests established that the vellum sheet on which the drawing was made is of an age securely consistent with a drawing being made by Leonardo in the mid-1490s. This claim is seriously misleading, as is shown below.
THE TESTIMONY OF HOLES
Before Prof. Wright’s suggestion, in 2010 Pascal Cotte regarded the three holes on the drawing’s left-hand edge as evidence that might identify incorporation within a specific book:
“It would be interesting to use the evidence of the nature and placement of these needle holes to look for other surviving quires from the same codex, which, with other physical clues, might shed further light on the provenance and original commission.”
(Kemp/Cotte, 2010, page 113.)
Cotte’s hope was reasonable but such testimony can cut both ways. Establishing a relationship between the drawing and a particular book requires an exact correspondence between the drawing’s holes and a book’s stitches. Two separate claims were made of a discovered fit with the Warsaw Sforziad, first by the drawing’s owner, Peter Silverman, and then jointly by Martin Kemp and Pascal Cotte. Both occasions were filmed by National Geographic but only the second was broadcast. In it, Kemp expressed himself as being 80% confident. The presently claimed location of the drawing is at the front of the Sforziad. Clearly, the credibility of what is now a 200 million euro-insured drawing that is stored in the Geneva Free Port depends greatly on confidence being maintained in this claimed connection.
Above, Fig. 3: A facsimile of “La Bella Principessa” inserted into the Warsaw Sforziad with five arrows marking the
book’s stitches and three circles in which matches are claimed, but are not evident, between the drawing’s holes and
the book’s outer and central stitches. (The stitch marked by the right-hand arrow is shown in close-up below at Fig. 5.)
As previously shown, our colleague in ArtWatch, Dr Kasia Pisarek, has catalogued very many discrepancies between the drawing and the book, the most problematic being that the former has only three stitch holes, when the latter was bound with five stitches. To cope with this material/arithmetical incompatibility, Kemp and Cotte conjured two hypotheses.
The first was that the book had originally been bound with only three stitches and that at some undated point the drawing had been removed during a rebinding in which two extra stitches were added to the book. That (unsupported) contention was technically implausible: the book is too large and heavy to be supported by just three stitches – and
both of its sister volumes in London and Paris were bound with five stitches.
The second, and now preferred, hypothesis is that the book was indeed originally bound with five stitches and that, as
a part of this book, the drawing originally possessed the requisite five stitch holes, two of which had subsequently been cut off from the sheet. We demonstrated the impossibility of that claim in an earlier post. (To recap briefly: as Cotte had acknowledged in 2010, stitch holes are always made in a straight line along the crease in a group of folded sheets. Given that a central and two outer stitch holes are all present on the “La Bella Principessa” sheet, any original intermediary stitch holes would necessarily be found in alignment with the present three holes on the sheet as it is today.)
In addition to the absence of the two requisite stitch holes, the sheet itself is a mismatch in terms of colour, texture and size with the sheets in the book. Kasia Pisarek now adds a further mismatch:
“The follicles in the ‘La Bella Principessa’ vellum are tightly spaced, while those in the Sforziad vellum are widely spaced. This can be seen on the Polona website, where you can zoom in until you can see the follicles as dots. I remember seeing some pages where the dots were more apparent and they were definitely widely spaced.”
WHAT LIES BENEATH?
Yet another unaddressed difficulty concerns the back of the drawing. One of the earliest proponents of a Leonardo ascription, Dr Cristina Geddo, has described the presence on the reverse of the drawing of random lettering and an image of a dragon. Kemp and Cotte seem not to have offered an explanation for this content (which, presumably, was revealed by Cotte’s penetrative photography) even though they now claim that the back of the drawing would have faced the book’s beautiful and elaborately painted, symbolically-charged frontispiece. What conceivable iconographic function might such a melange have served in that strategic context of so important and precious a book? Dr Geddo has called for the vellum drawing to be removed from its (most unusual) oak panel support but the owner has declined to do so on grounds of safety. Some of the lettering is visible in an X-ray photograph published in the 2010 and 2012 English and Italian editions of the Kemp/Cotte joint book.
FIVE HOLES GOOD, THREE HOLES BAD
As we reported previously, with regard to the Three Holes v. Five Stitches conundrum, the problems for supporters of “La Bella Principessa” have now become insurmountable: Pisarek established on her second examination of the Warsaw Sforziad in the Polish National Library that while the drawing bears only three holes, the book itself was not only bound with five stitches but that each of those stitches passed through two holes that were two or three millimetres apart (see Figs. 6, 7 and 8 below). At a stroke, the previously claimed ‘fit’ between the drawing and the book is demolished: the drawing possesses only three single stitch holes when it should have five pairs of holes making ten in total. Even if it were to be conceded that two inner stitches might once have been present, today’s three single holes should be three pairs of holes, making six holes in total, not three.
AN OWNER’S RESPONSE
When we sent our previous “La Bella Principessa” post with the newly disqualifying physical/technical evidence to the drawing’s owner, Peter Silverman, (13 June), he dismissed the bearers of the information by alleging lack of expertise: “I leave the attribution question to serious and highly qualified experts!!!” In support of his professional slur, Silverman copied-in two messages to us. The first had been sent to him, at his request, by a costume expert, Elisabetta Gnigera. The second Silverman had sent to Jean Penicaut, the CEO of Lumiere Technology. It was evidently written in haste and heat:
I am sorry but we, as owners of the BP, are not to be told how and with whom to talk! I understand your frustration in dealing with Artwatch and Franck but i feel that Pisareks statement must not and cannot be left unchallenged! I therefore request you to rebut each and every point in this latest statement-most importantly of all i would like to see the INDISPUTABLE proof of the binding holes, in a first and separate email to me! Unfortunaley Martin has made statements which can be perverted by anyone in bad faith-equivocal statements quoted in the first part of the enclosed article!!
“I would like Elisabetta to comment on the costume questions.
And i would like YOU to extensively quote from the lab results of La Veneria*, which is very helpful to our cause! [*This is a reference the conservation laboratory “La Venaria Reale” which has conducted analysis of the drawing.]
“We cannot afford to lose the high ground’ in this battle-no matter the bad faith of our ennemy.
“To avoid your corresponding with them please send the rebuttal to me. I INSIST THAT THIS IS AN ABSOLUTE NECESSITY!!
“PS-the good news is that there is a very serious party interested in acquiring a share in the BP(highly confidential) and July 1 will be a decisive day!!!”
It would seem after more than a month that Lumiere Technology has not provided the owner with indisputable evidence of a connection between the drawing and the Warsaw book that would counter Pisarek’s account. On 14 June we replied to Mr Silverman:
“Speaking of clarification and your requests, I note the various requests from the ‘owners of the BP’ to your associates
to read our current post, and your talk of a prospective part-sale of the BP. Can I take it that the potential buyer of whom you speak has been similarly advised?
“Also, perhaps you might say how you will respond if Jean Penicaut advises you, as we would predict, that he can find
no ‘INDISPUTABLE proof of the binding holes’ that might enable you – or he on your behalf – ‘to rebut each and every point in this latest statement [in the then current AWUK post]’”?
Concerning the La Venaria Reale laboratory reports, we asked Mr Silverman on 15 June:
“On your technical ‘proofs-of-authenticity’ and our possible viewing of your Swiss-vaulted, soon-to-be part-sold drawing, might we not deal with both by: a) your sending to us all reports and data that have been made available to you; and, b) your bringing the drawing to either Paris or London so that we might arrange a group viewing by sceptics and rejecters?”
After more than a month we have received no technical reports on “La Bella Principessa”. Lumiere Technology’s
apparent silence on the conflicting number of stitch holes seems remiss. In our experience it is valuable to see the reports themselves because evidence can sometimes be interpreted and presented in ways that might mislead. For example, it has been claimed (technically-speaking correctly) that carbon dating has established a 95.4% probability
that “La Bella Principessa” had been made at some point between 1440 and 1650. On that particular technical examination and very wide range of possible ages, Pascal Cotte (2010, p. 110) has claimed a number of things in a single sentence:
“This dating confirms that the portrait could well have been made in Leonardo’s lifetime, supporting Martin Kemp’s proposed date in the mid-1490s and virtually eliminating the possibility that it is a 19th century pastiche.”
This was all quite misleading. A confirmed “could well have” remains a “could have” and does not become a confirming “was”. A “virtually eliminated possibility” remains a possibility. Taken as a whole and properly appraised, the data itself cannot reasonably be said to support Kemp’s claimed date and authorship – in fact, it does the opposite.
Cotte’s claims rest on what is only a loose and very wide overall estimation of probability. While it is true to say there is a 95.4% chance that the sheet appeared at some point between 1440 and 1650, there is not a 95.4% probability that it appeared before the mid-1490s when the Sforziad was made. Even on that loose, overall range of possibilities, it would be more accurate to say that because we know (today) that the Warsaw book was made in the 1490s (and had known in 2010 that the proposed subject of “La Bella Principessa”, Bianca Sforza, had died in 1496), it is three times more likely that the “La Bella Principessa” sheet post-dated rather than predated the book. What has not been acknowledged is that within the overall figure, the probabilities had been greatly more precisely quantified.
It was said in the report, for example, that there was a 68.2% probability that the sheet was made between 1470 and 1650 and that, within this period (see Fig. 4 below), there was only a 27.2% probability that the drawing was made between 1470 and 1530 – and this was compared against the appreciably greater probability (41.0%) that the sheet was made some time between 1550 and 1650 – which would place the sheet altogether much later than Leonardo who died in 1519. Properly read, with a proposed date for the drawing set in the mid-1490s, the data shows that there was only a 13.6% probability that the “La Bella Principessa” sheet existed when the book was made. When the general 95.4% probability of an origin anywhere between 1470 and 1650 and the 13.6% probability of an origin between 1470 and 1495 are expressed as racing odds, it is seven times more likely that the sheet was made after the book than before it. And the odds of seven to one against pertain to the vellum sheet itself, not to the possible dates of execution for the drawing. Even if this sheet had once been present in that book, such a dating would indicate only the age of the material, not the date of the drawing’s execution. On this last, we should recall that Eric Hebborn advised in his The Art Forger’s Handbook that a prime source of old materials for forged drawings is obtained from blank end papers in books. Thieves cut valuable illuminated pages from books. Forgers crave blank pages but will make use of a blank side by gluing its reverse firmly to some impenetrable material.
Above, Fig. 4: The carbon dating report on the “La Bella Principessa” sheet (as published by Kemp/Cotte, 2010, p. 110).
FOR THE RECORD
Where Mr Silverman declines to make reports available to us, and Pascal Cotte fails to demonstrate a fit between the drawing’s three stitch holes and the book’s ten stitch holes, we now present further visual proofs and documentary confirmation of the previously claimed mismatch to demonstrate precisely why “La Bella Principessa” could never have been part of the Warsaw Sforziad.
On 23 June 2016 Barbara Dzierzanowska, the Head of Department of Old Prints BN at the National Library of Poland, wrote to Kasia Pisarek:
I would like to inform you that yesterday we entered the Treasury and re-examined the Sforziad, which has confirmed that the binding stitches are double and there are 10 holes.
PHOTOGRAPHICALLY-RECORDED AND ELECTRONICALLY TRANSMITTED PROOF OF THE DOUBLE STITCHING OF THE WARSAW SFORZIAD
That the stitching of the Sforziad was made through double holes can be seen by eye on the book itself, as shown below at Fig. 5.
Above, Fig. 5: A stitch made through two holes, as seen on the numbered page 1 of the Warsaw Sforziad. In this photograph, the top stitch and the two flanking holes are shown but some of the other holes can also be seen on stitches below it. This stitch/holes configuration would have been evident when (as described above) a full-size facsimile of “La Bella Principessa” was inserted into the Sforziad at precisely this point. This evidence is also available online: our image was taken from the detailed record of the entire book that is carried on this site: Polona – La Sforziada.
ESTABLISHING THE TRUE DIMENSIONS
When Kasia Pisarek inspected the book for the second time, she asked that the dimensions of the pages and the relative positions of the stitch holes be marked along the edge of a piece of paper. This was done by the library’s books’ conservator in her presence and that of the chief librarian. Intervals between the stitch holes were marked in pencil along the two sides of the strip of paper and these are shown here at Figs. 6 and 7. When we marked off those measurements onto a separate sheet of paper, to prepare the diagram at Fig. 8, and then measured them on our sheet with a ruler, they were all exactly as given by Pisarek. We can be sure, therefore, that the dimensions and ratios between the stitch holes as shown below at Fig. 8 have been accurately established and physically transported to ArtWatch UK – and at practically zero-cost by means of sharp pencils and two pieces of paper.
Above, Figs. 6 (top) and 7: The strip of paper on which the book’s page size and stitch holes were recorded, as described above.
The conservator explained to Pisarek that the present positions of the stitch holes were those of the original construction of the book and that, therefore, there was no possibility that the book had once been bound with only three stitches. She made diagrams on the strip showing (at Fig. 7) different ways of executing stitching with double holes.
THE DIMENSIONS OF THE INTERVALS BETWEEN THE STITCHES IN THE BOOK – A NOTE FROM KASIA PISAREK:
1) According to Kemp and Cotte, the dimensions of the vellum pages of the Sforziad vary from 33.0 to 33.4 cm in height, while the drawing is 33 cm high.
2) I have carefully checked the dimensions with the Librarian in March 2016. All the pages are at least 33.4 cm high and more, up to 33.7 cm. The size of 33 cm would be far too small for the book.
3) The 5 holes in the book are in fact all double holes. Each of the 5 holes is two small holes, between which a string passes. The distance between the two small holes is about 3 mm. The double holes were never mentioned by Kemp or Cotte.
4) According to the conservator who was present at the time of my last visit, this is the binding that follows the original binding as there is no damage of any kind. So in total there were as many as 10 small holes, not 3 single ones as in the drawing.
5) I measured the distances between the 3 holes that Kemp and Cotte measured in La Bella Principessa. The measurements were taken from the middle of the double holes.
6) The distance between the bottom hole and the middle hole is 11.35 cm in the Sforziad, while in the drawing it is 11.06 cm.
7) The distance between the middle hole and the top hole is 11.7 cm in the Sforziad, while in the drawing it is 11.44 cm.
THE MISMATCHED HOLES AND STITCHES
Above Fig. 8: We took the dimensions of the Sforziad’s page and stitch holes from the strip of paper marked by the Polish National Library’s books’ conservator (as shown at Figs. 6 and 7) and drew them in black, as above, and marked “WS”. We then drew in red the “La Bella Principessa” sheet (here marked “LBP”) and its stitch holes as given above by Pisarek.
As can be seen above, it is impossible to align the drawing’s single stitch holes with their claimed counterparts in the book. If the drawing’s centre hole is aligned with the centre of the two central holes in the book (as shown on the left here), its other two holes fall short of their claimed counterparts.
If the LBP drawing’s upper hole is aligned with the centre of book’s two upper holes, its central and lower holes fall progressively further short of their claimed counterparts on the book.
In short, there is no fit or match between the book and the drawing – and which drawing in all probability post-dated the book, for reasons indicated above.
Those who would continue to give this drawing to Leonardo must now find some other means of filling a five centuries absence of provenance and of squaring intractable technical circles. We will examine next the supposed left-handed execution of “La Bella Principessa”.
Michael Daley, 21 July 2016
“What is the difference between a fake and an expertly restored genuine but damaged painting?”
SUSAN GRUNDY writes:
What is the difference between a fake and an expertly restored genuine but damaged painting? The line that differentiates between the two is extremely fine and, as such, the skilled restorer is sometimes also the skilled forger, as was the case with the twentieth-century Dutch artist Han van Meegeren.
Frans Hals and Van Meegeren’s first forgeries
Fig. 1. Attributed to Han van Meegeren The Laughing Cavalier, pastiche after Frans Hals (updated c.1923). Oil on panel, 36 cm in diameter. Whereabouts unknown.
Fig. 2. Attributed to Han van Meegeren The Satisfied Smoker, in the style of Frans Hals (updated c.1923). Oil on panel, 57 x 49 cm. Groninger Museum, Groningen.
The Dutch artist Han van Meegeren (1889–1947) is best known for his fake Vermeers, at least one of which ended up in Nazi hands. However, his first (almost successful) known forgeries were actually restorations. He and Theo van Wijngaarden (1874–1952), his partner at the time, scoured around for low-valued works, genuine only in their antiquity. In 1923 they managed to scout out two panels, in the style of Frans Hals (1580–1666), that were “murky and badly damaged” (Wynne 2007 – see Endnote 1). The outline of a composition existed, in this case portraits, and the spirit of the times was already evident in the technical application, that is, in the way epochal followers of Frans Hals handled materials. Han had just to clean and stabilize the paintings, and then to extensively remodel them. Was this repainting or overpainting, or even “‘inpainting,’ ‘loss integration,’ ‘loss compensation,’ or ‘retouching’” (- Hill Stoner & Rushfield – see endnote 2)? The answer is semantically determined by the aims of the practitioner, not by the response of the viewer.
Nevertheless, what Han and Theo did next was to cross the line. Han tried to mask the extensive freshness of his paintwork by using lavender oil, at Theo’s suggestion, and Theo explained away any suspicious objections of critics with the phrase “recent restoration” (Wynne 2007). Theo organized for the panels to be shown to Cornelis Hofstede de Groot (1863–1930), a former “deputy-director of the Mauritshuis and a critic instrumental in defining the oeuvre of both Rembrandt and Vermeer”, and had them presented to him as a recently restored possible autograph Frans Hals (Wynne 2007.) In this way Han van Meegeren and Theo van Wijngaarden became criminals.
Blending and integration
In order to raise a blended surface retouchers will sometimes add faked painted craquelure. High levels of retouching are demanded, even today, with the aim for restored works to be as fully integrated as possible, that is, original areas merging visually with filled and retouched areas. Such practices facilitate the ease with which cavalier restorers can cross that fine line from restoration to forgery, making it much easier to slip forgeries into an artist’s canon. Furthermore, as Han and Theo were both restorers, they knew the value of having panels in less than optimal condition, which they then fixed, adding to the veneer of originality as was the case with one of the Frans Hals copies, The Laughing Cavalier (updated c.1923 – Wynne 2007, Fig. 1). Indeed, throughout his career Han was careful to bash his works about a bit, and then “restore” them again, in order to sustain the authenticity of age.
Forgery and the connoisseur
Han van Meegeren was not only a practical artist, but it would appear also a studious connoisseur. He knew his Old Masters. “His long years studying the Golden Age and his passion as an apprentice for imitating the work of the masters gave him an understanding of Hals’s rapid brushstrokes, his dramatic shading and the characteristic silvery sheen of his work, so different from the golden glow of a Rembrandt” (Wynne 2007). Han was no mere imitator, however. He took a discarded copy by an unknown artist, and by careful restoration methods and creative additions, he turned it into an autograph “Frans Hals”. De Groot took the bait. He wrote a certificate for the van Meegeren The Laughing Cavalier, categorically attributing the work to Frans Hals, and the panel sold to the auction house Frederik Muller for the equivalent of £120,000 in today’s money (Wynne 2007). This is evidently substantially more than it would have realized sold honestly as the heavily restored copy it was. The second panel, The Satisfied Smoker (updated c.1923, Fig. 2), de Groot bought directly from van Wijngaarden as a Frans Hals and added it to his own collection (Lopez 2009 – endnote 3).
However, it did not end all in the bag for Han and Theo because even before the cheque was cashed another art historian and connoisseur Abraham Bredius (1855–1946) stepped in and denounced The Laughing Cavalier as a fake. De Groot fought him on the issue, claiming that evidence of modern materials found on the painting, which was subsequently studied by a panel of experts, were only the result of the recent restoration. The team found artificial ultramarine, cobalt blue and zinc white, in the “extensive recent repainting” (Wynne 2007). It is not clear if these pigments were found only in infill sites, or also over more authentic pigments. Indeed, by definition, the presence of these pigments on areas of loss would not constitute immediate grounds for denouncing a work fake, even today. De Groot went on to defend his authentication of this work in print, publishing an article “Echt of Onecht [Genuine or Forgery]” in 1925 (Wynne 2007).
De Groot never accepted that Han van Meegeren’s The Laughing Cavalier was a forgery. In fact De Groot never even knew the forger was Han van Meegeren, as he died in 1930 long before van Meegeren was outed. De Groot bought The Laughing Cavalier from Frederik Muller (Wynne 2007) and his collection thereafter was bequeathed to the Groninger museum in 1930. The Satisfied Smoker in the style of Frans Hals, but now attributed to Han van Meegeren, remains in that museum. The other work on panel, The Laughing Cavalier, is whereabouts unknown.
These events, although historical, highlight the role of restoration not only in authenticating artworks, but also in (re)creating them.
Susan Grundy, 1 July 2016
Susan Grundy is an independent art historian and collector. She is currently exploring the concept of Old Master collecting, restoration and authentication as a type of Performance. Her Doctoral (2009) and Masters (2005) research concentrated on Art and Optics, in the new field of quantitative, scientific and technical art history, and she has subsequently published extensively on issues of authenticity in art.
1 Wynne, F. 2007. I was Vermeer: the forger who swindled the Nazis. London, Bloomsbury: pp 74-77.
2 Hill Stoner, J. and Rushfield, R. (eds). 2012. The conservation of easel paintings. London and New York, NY, Routledge: p. 607.
3 Lopez, J. 2009. The man who made Vermeers: unvarnishing the legend of master forger Han van Meegeren. Boston & New York. Marina: p. 9.
[Coming next: Bye-bye Bella Principessa]
In June 2015 Kasia Pisarek, an independent scholar (and a member of ArtWatch UK) published an article, “La Bella Principessa – Arguments against the Attribution to Leonardo”, in the Polish scholarly journal Artibus et Historiae.
In her article Dr Pisarek presented a number of interlocking historical, aesthetic and technical criticisms of the attribution to Leonardo of the drawing “La Bella Principessa”, as it has been made and advanced by Professor Martin Kemp. In response, Prof. Kemp produced an article (“Leonardo da Vinci La Bella Principessa: Errors, Misconceptions, and Allegations of Forgery”) which challenges Dr Pisarek’s account on grounds of what he claims and alleges to be: “mistakes, misconceptions and a series of false allegations”.
A TACTICAL RETREAT?
In his response Kemp says “I do not run an authentication service, but research items of special interest regardless of ownership.” More recently ( May 16) Kemp announced on his website that “After speaking at the Art in Authentication Congress in The Hague, I confirm that I am withdrawing the [unpaid – Ed.] ‘advice service’ I have been providing.”
A SIDEWAYS SWIPE
Kemp discloses that in responding to Pisarek’s article he also sought by “extension” to counter other un-identified challenges to his Leonardo attribution. When this multi-targeted professional defence was submitted to Artibus et Historiae, it was rejected, as Kemp acknowledges, and as the Art Newspaper reports (“La Bella Principessa: Still an Enigma”, Features, May 2016), because of its resemblance to “an errata list”. The article was subsequently carried on the Authentication in Art website to accompany a paper given by Kemp at the AiA’s May 2016 Congress. This non-profit organisation, on which Kemp serves as an advisor, was founded in 2012 at The Hague. On May 8th we made a formal request to the AiA for Kasia Pisarek’s Artibus et Historiae article also to be posted so that the congress speakers and attendees might see both of what Dr Pisarek’s compilation of evidence consisted and of what Prof. Kemp complained. We have yet to receive a reply. For Kasia Pisarek’s Artibus et Historiae article, “La Bella Principessa – Arguments against the Attribution to Leonardo” click here. For Martin Kemp’s response to it, see: “Leonardo da Vinci La Bella Principessa: Errors, Misconceptions, and Allegations of Forgery”.
A CONFERENCE AMBUSH
In December 2015 Kasia Pisarek delivered a paper based on her Artibus essay at the ArtWatch UK/LSE Law Department/Center for Art Law conference “Art, Law and Crises of Connoisseurship”. At this conference, an arts journalist, Simon Hewitt, delivered an attack from the floor on her article. He did so as a proxy for Kemp, by whom he had been briefed, and for the collector/dealer owner of “La Bella Principessa”, Peter Silverman, with whom he is co-writing a book on what Silverman describes to us as “various aspects of the art market, sometimes highlighted by others’ and my own discoveries”. A research assistant of Kemp’s, Kasia Wozniak, who had spent four years attempting to show that “La Bella Principessa” had once been part of a late 15th century book known as the Warsaw Sforziad, had also written to us in denigration of Pisarek’s article which we had forwarded to her at her request.
Earlier, both Professor Kemp, who had declined an invitation to speak at this conference, and Mr Silverman, had suggested that we invite Hewitt to speak at the conference. Silverman expressly requested that this be done so that Hewitt might “present his discoveries as a counterweight to Ms. Pisarek”. We carry Pisarek’s full reply to Kemp’s listed objections below but comment first on a crucial new aspect of this disputed attribution that has emerged in Kemp’s response to Pisarek.
NO HISTORY. NO PROVENANCE. WRONG HOLES. NO FIT.
Above, Fig. 1: A facsimile of the “La Bella Principessa” drawing being inserted into the Warsaw Sforziad (but showing only the relationship of the top of the facsimile to the top of the book and not the accompanying relationship of the facsimile and book at the bottom). Photo by courtesy of Lumiere Technology.
For many reasons, it is essential to Prof. Kemp’s Leonardo ascription that it be accepted that “La Bella Principessa” had originally been incorporated within the Warsaw Sforziad now held in the National Library, Poland. It has not been so accepted because, contrary to press releases claims and media coverage thereafter, nothing material or documentary has established such a relationship. No record of any connection between the drawing and the book has been found despite extensive searches by researchers such as Kasia Wozniak. Moreover, despite extensive searches of Berenson’s archives by Kemp and Silverman, no record of the supposed 15th century drawing in any context predates its only-recently acknowledged ownership by the late painter/restorer Giannino Marchig. This pictorially and graphically mongrel work remains without a history and, prior to September 2011, without any claim – even by its only known previous owner – that it might have been a work by Leonardo da Vinci.
Martin Kemp has challenged Kasia Pisarek’s measurements between the stitches in the book’s binding. He and Pascal Cotte (of Lumiere Technology) claim that three stitch holes are present on the left hand edge of the “La Bella Principessa” sheet and that these match three of the book’s five stitches. No confirming visual evidence has been produced in support of this claim. In addition to fresh evidence on dimensions provided below by Pisarek, it might be noted that the Kemp/Cotte claims of a match have been variously and only rarely unequivocally phrased. All emphases below are added:
“The stitch holes in the vellum of the portrait match those in the book” – “The Original Source of the New Leonardo Portrait Discovered”, a Martin Kemp press release, 27 September 2011.
“Three of the stitch marks, the ones that we can still see on the edge of the ‘Bella Principessa’, match as well as they conceivably could” – Martin Kemp, Artinfo interview, “The Da Vinci Detective: Art Historian Martin Kemp on Rediscovering Leonardo’s Tragic Portrait of a Renaissance Princess”, by Andrew M. Goldstein, 11 October 2011;
“During our studies at the National Library, we inserted a facsimile of the portrait into the relevant opening of the book where the size matched very closely” – Martin Kemp, item 14, “Leonardo da Vinci La Bella Principessa: Errors, Misconceptions, and Allegations of Forgery”, on the Authentication in Art website. See Fig.1, above;
“The current stitching of the volume involves five holes, whereas there are only three holes now visible along the left margin of the ‘La Bella Principessa’. However, these three holes correspond very closely to the corresponding ones in the book.” – Martin Kemp and Pascal Cotte, “La Bella Principessa and the Warsaw Sforziad”, Lumiere Technology website, September 2011.
FAILING TO GET THE MEASURE OF HOLES
With linear measurements a near-miss is as good as a mile. If a hole is two millimetres adrift of a stitch there is no match. Claiming “correspondences” and “close” matches between the three holes and the five stitches is problematic enough, but, as Kasia Pisarek has now re-confirmed, the three holes in the “La Bella Principessa” drawing do not correspond with three of the book’s five stitches. Moreover, Kemp’s imprecision came with a perplexing multiple caveat: “In measuring the distances between the holes and matching these distances in the book and the portrait we allowed for four potential sources of error” – Kemp/Cotte, item 13, “La Bella Principessa and the Warsaw Sforziad”, Lumiere Technology website.
If incorporating an allowance for one potential source of error would necessarily be weakening to the force of a claimed match, how might allowances have been made for four different sources of error? How were the different “potentials-for-error” calibrated and weighted one against the three others? With accounts of this attribution, too many features remain in flux. For example, explanations offered for the disparity between the drawing’s three stitch holes and the book’s five stitches have shifted. In 2011 Kemp/Cotte wrote:
“The second task was to see if the holes in the portrait and the stitching pattern in the book corresponds. There is an obvious difference. The current stitching of the volume involves five holes, whereas there are only three holes now visible along the left margin of “La Bella Principessa”. However, these three holes correspond very closely to the corresponding ones in the book…The different number of stitching holes may result from the untidy way the left margin of the portrait has been cut, or from two intermediate stitches being added when the book was later rebound in standard Zamoysky livery. The former explanation is more likely.” (Emphases added.)
The suggestion that the book might possibly have been bound originally with only three stitches seems to have been abandoned altogether. Martin Kemp now accepts in his response to Kasia Pisarek that the book always had five stitches but claims as a countering fact against this recognition that: “The irregularity and extensive damage along the left margin explains why two of the five stitch holes are no longer clearly discernible.”
NOT AN EXPLANATION
The posited stitch holes cannot be said to be “no longer discernible” because there is no evidence that they were ever present. Prof. Kemp here begs a question on which this attribution turns. The roughly cut edge cannot be taken to have explained these absences. What Kemp offers, in truth, is (an implausible) hypothesis that ignores the technical exigencies of book binding and the dimensional realities of the “La Bella Principessa” sheet. When books are being made, the stitches are inserted along the line of a fold made collectively to the small number of sheets that form one of the book’s sections or “quires”. In the case of the Warsaw Sforziad, Pascal Cotte established (by taking and combining 70 precisely-focussed macro-photographs) that each quire was composed of four sheets (folios) which, when folded and stitched, comprised sixteen numbered pages. The book binder’s craft requires that the stitching occurs precisely along the crease line of the folded sheets. This careful alignment is necessary if the pages are not to cockle and for the book to open easily.
The three holes on “La Bella Principessa” have been taken to relate (- more or less, but never exactly) to the book’s central and two outer stitches. Had the “La Bella Principessa” sheet been incorporated in the Warsaw Sforziad when it was made in the late 1490s, the two inner stitch holes would be expected to be present on the sheet, even as it is today, and notwithstanding its roughly cut left-hand edge.
At Fig. 2 below, we see the white arrows and circles with which Pascal Cotte identified what are said to be “La Bella Principessa’s” three stitch holes. On the image on the left, we have drawn in red the alignment of the present three holes and have indicated with arrows where the two hypothesized additional stitching holes would be expected to be located. Both holes would fall within the present sheet despite its roughly cut left-hand edge. In the image on the right of Fig. 2 we again indicate (in black) the alignment of the present three holes, but show in red how the alignment would be disrupted had the two hypothesized additional stitch holes been situated to the left of the present sheet, as Prof. Kemp now claims in “explanation” for their absence from the sheet itself. Such a positioning would have resulted in a zigzag, not a row, of stitch holes. It is impossible to envisage how four sheets of vellum might have been folded so as to produce a neatly zigzagging crease.
Aside from the above problem, any lingering hope that this “La Bella Principessa” sheet might once have formed part of the Warsaw Sforziad will have to be abandoned in the light of Kasia Pisarek’s latest findings described below on her second examination of the Warsaw Sforziad.
Above, Figs. 2 and 3. In Fig. 2 (top) we see, in the left and right images, the white arrows and circles with which Pascal Cotte located the “three holes showing that the image was once part of a codex or manuscript”. Given that the book (the Warsaw Sforziad) from which this sheet is said to have been cut was originally bound with five stitches, had the “La Bella Principessa” sheet once formed part of that book, it would today have five stitch holes, not the present three. In Figs. 2 and 3, we indicate with arrows (in red and then in black) where the missing two stitch holes would, for the reasons given above, be expected to have been located.
THE DOUBLE ‘DISCOVERY’ OF THE SUPPOSED POSITION OF LA BELLA PRINCIPESSA IN THE WARSAW SFORZIAD
When Andrew Goldstein asked Martin Kemp in an Artinfo interview in October 2011 what, on seeing the drawing, had convinced him it might be a Leonardo, he replied:
“So the initial connoisseur’s reaction merely tells you that something is worth looking at, but at any point one wrong thing can throw that all away — a later pigment, a bit of something that might come up about its history to indicate it was forged at some point, and so on. I was trained as a scientist, and if you have a scientific theory, you only need have one bit of the experiment that says, ‘this is not right,’ and the whole thing collapses. You always have to be looking for that one thing that is going to demolish the whole expectation that’s being set up.”
Kemp has given other grounds for caution when making attributions. On first encountering “La Bella Principessa”, he told Silverman, “I immediately saw it was in a different league from the others. But I was still very, very cautious. I didn’t want to jump at it because once you start believing you can summon up all the evidence you need.” (Peter Silverman, Leonardo’s Lost Princess: One Man’s Quest to Authenticate an Unknown Portrait by Leonardo da Vinci, 2012, p. 74.) Kemp had become a believer in the Leonardo attribution by 28 September 2011 when he issued a press release “The Original Source of the New Leonardo Portrait Discovered”. He added, “This (press release attached without the pics) should more or less settle the arguments – though probably not knowing the myopia of the art world.”
In 2011, after Kemp and Cotte had inserted their facsimile “La Bella Principessa” into the book, Kemp expressed himself 80 per cent confident of the drawing’s Leonardo attribution in a National Geographic film of the occasion. However, this was not the first time that a claimed “fit” between the facsimile and the book had been made and filmed by National Geographic. Peter Silverman describes in his book how, in December 2010, he had established a match in a different part of the book:
“We began by measuring the page size to see if it corresponded to “La Bella Principessa” and were gratified to see that it did, within a millimeter or two (a minute fraction of an inch)… Martin [Kemp] had surmised that the drawing would have been placed either at the very beginning or the very end of the book, but after careful examination we could find no trace of a cut page in either place. ‘May we turn each page?’ I asked. It was not a simple request. The book was nearly two hundred pages, and it would be a bit laborious for her [Anna Zawisza, the head of manuscripts] since utmost care had to be used so as not to damage the precious work in any way…It was apparent that the three pinholes where the binding had been sewn, noted earlier by Martin, which we had hoped would be a key to matching, would not be relevant, since the book had been rebound using five sutures…We slowly continued to turn each page, but there was no sign of a missing page…I had begun to abandon hope and to mentally prepare myself to return empty-handed. But then Zawisza turned page 161. There was a momentary beat of silence, and then she and I let out muffled cries. There, before our incredulous eyes, was what seemed to be the missing link, the element we longed to find: a remnant of a cut and extracted page of vellum that was the same darkish yellow as “La Bella Principessa”. We could barely contain our emotions. We measured the undulation of the remnant, and it corresponded exactly. Kathy [Silverman’s wife] and Kasia [Wozniak, art historian] came round to see for themselves, while David [Murdoch, National Geographic producer] filmed the historic moment. Even the armed guard was caught up in the excitement. Zawisza, who had carefully studied the book on past occasions, murmured how unhappy she was that she’d never noticed the missing page, now so glaringly obvious from the protruding remnant…”
That filmed historic moment was eclipsed by the moment in which Kemp and Cotte discovered a (preferred) location for the drawing at the front of the book. On her second examination of the Warsaw Sforziad, Dr Pisarek has learned that each of the five stitches in the book’s binding resulted in two holes, through which a string was passed. Thus, now that it is accepted that the book was originally bound with five stitches, each of which generated two holes, and that the “La Bella Principessa” sheet possesses only three of the necessary ten holes – and three where there should be six – there is no physical match between the drawing and the book, just as there is no documentary record of a Leonardo drawing having been bound within the book. Those who continue to see the hand of Leonardo in the drawing itself must now find an alternative history and another princess to accompany and bolster it.
Michael Daley 24 May 2016
Kasia Pisarek: A reply to Martin Kemp’s essay “Leonardo da Vinci La Bella Principessa. Errors, Misconceptions and Allegations of Forgery”
Professor Kemp has written an essay in response to my article “La Bella Principessa; Arguments against the Attribution to Leonardo”, Artibus et Historiae, No. 71, XXXVI, June 2015, pp. 61– 89.
In his essay, Prof. Kemp lists what he deems a series of errors and misconceptions in the Artibus article, but says he does not wish to address the issues of attribution I raised.
The purpose of his article is, however, an attempt to counter or undermine my findings.
I will answer his points in the order and with the numbered headings used by Kemp in his text.
[Martin Kemp] “1) Bibliographical”
[Kasia Pisarek] Martin Kemp says that most of my material is quoted from the internet and that I make only one reference to his book in my footnote 50.
This is incorrect. I make extensive reference to his book on the opening page and further references in footnotes 54, 57, 59 and 64. I have examined it as thoroughly as would be expected of any researcher. I also referred to many other books and articles which were accessed from libraries and not from the internet. These were:
M. Kemp and P. Cotte, The Story of the New Masterpiece by Leonardo da Vinci: La Bella Principessa, London, 2010; M. Kemp, Leonardo (rev. ed.), Oxford, 2004; P. Silverman, Leonardo’s Lost Princess: One Man’s Quest to Authenticate an Unknown Portrait by Leonardo Da Vinci, New Jersey, 2012; C. Geddo, ‘A “Pastel” by Leonardo da Vinci: His Newly Discovered Portrait of a Young Woman in Profile’, Artes, 2008–2009, pp. 67–87; C. C. Bambach, ‘Leonardo’s Notes on Pastel Drawing’, Mitteilungen des Kunsthistorischen Institutes in Florenz, vol. 52, 2008, no. 2/3 (Le tecniche del disegno rinascimentale: dai materiali allo stile. Atti del convegno internazionale, Firenze, 22–23 settembre 2008, ed. By M. Faietti, L. Melli, A. Nova), pp. 177–204; M. Gregori, ‘A Note on Leonardo’, Paragone, LXI, 2009, no. 723, pp. 3–4; D. Ekserdjian, ‘Leonardo da Vinci: “La Bella Principessa” – The Profile Portrait of a Milanese Woman’ (book review), Burlington Magazine, vol. 152, 2010, no. 1287, June (Attributions, copies, fakes), pp. 420–421; P. C. Marani, ‘Deux nouveaux Léonard?’, Dossier de l’art, 2012, no. 195, avril, pp. 58–63. Giannino Marchig, 1897–1983: paintings and drawings, exh. cat. London, 1988; Giannino Marchig, 1897–1983, exh. cat., Geneva, 1985; Giannino Marchig: 1897–1983: dipinti, disegni, incisioni, exh. cat. Florence, Gabinetto disegni e stampe degli Uffizi, 12 March – 5 June 1994 (Italian ed.); J. Cartwright (Mrs Henry Ady), Beatrice d’Este, Duchess of Milan, 1475–1497. A Study of the Renaissance, London, 1910; B. Horodyski, ‘Miniaturzysta Sforzów’, Biuletyn Historii Sztuki, 16, 1954, pp. 195–213; E. McGrath, ‘Ludovico il Moro and His Moors’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, vol. 65, 2002, pp. 67–94; L. Syson with L. Keith, Leonardo da Vinci, Painter at the Court of Milan, exh. cat. National Gallery, London, 2011; Dizionario delle origini, invenzioni e scoperte nelle arti, nelle scienze…, Milan, 1831; B. Berenson, The Drawings of the Florentine Painters, vol. III, Chicago, 1938; Leonardo da Vinci, Master Draftsman, ed. by C. C. Bambach, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2003; Z. Zygulski Jr, ‘Ze studiów nad Dama z gronostajem. Styl ubioru i wezly Leonarda’, in: Swiatla Stambulu, Warsaw, 1999 (first published in Biuletyn Historii Sztuki, vol. 31, 1969, no. 1, pp. 3–40).
The 2012 Italian version of Kemp/Cotte’s 2010 book is a translation from the English with the addition of the Sforziad hypothesis. The latter had already been published on the Lumiere Technology website and I discussed it at length.
Gnignera’s text was in Italian so I used Prof. Zygulski’s extensive knowledge of historic costume in general and coazzone in particular. The Monza catalogue (2015) was not published when I submitted my paper. The 2014 exhibition catalogue from the Galleria Nazionale in Urbino was also unavailable. To my knowledge these later publications have not yielded any conclusive evidence.
Prof. Kemp said that I have not addressed any of ‘the scientific evidence in the two books related to the lower layers of the image, the pentimenti or the condition and retouching in various media’ and goes on to say ‘contrary to Pisarek’s assertions, the interventions of restorers are documented in both books’. The latter sentence must refer to my ‘it is also strange that he did not consider that the drawing might have been retouched and repainted at a later time’ (p.79). Prof. Kemp has taken this out of context. I said that he did not mention the restorations in that particular passage of his book Leonardo (p. 210).
I not only analysed his art historical arguments in my text, but also the technical evidence presented by Cotte – which is to say:
– The trois crayons, pen and ink and bodycolour technique on vellum (unprecedented for Leonardo);
– The X-rays (inconclusive, in Cotte’s own words “did not yield significant new findings”, p. 154)
– The Carbon-14 dating of the vellum (wide-ranging 1440-1650, not constituting proof in itself as anyone could draw at any time on a blank folio removed from a manuscript)
– The quality of the vellum (rough; drawing on the hair-side; does not match the Sforziad’s smooth and well-prepared support; Birago’s illumination on the skin-side)
– The left-hand hatching (dry, timid and mechanical; on the outside of the contour of the profile, unlike in all Leonardo’s female portraits)
– The presence of three stitch holes (the Warsaw National Library Sforziad has five holes)
– The ‘knife marks’ when the folio was cut off (unnecessary, if the folio has been removed during rebinding).
– The retouchings of a later restorer (Marchig’s)
– The fingerprint evidence (no longer valid)
– The pentimenti, in the same place as in Leonardo’s Windsor portrait (a negative point, as La Bella Principessa could be based on that drawing).
At this point I would like to discuss some more scientific evidence:
On page 109:
“The support is probably the fine-grained skin of a calf”.
To the contrary, the images show an irregular grainy surface with visible follicles. Both Geddo and Turner described the support as “rough animal hide” and the surface of the vellum as being “pitted”.
“The portrait was drawn on the smooth ‘hair’ side”.
To the contrary, the hair-side has follicles so it is the rough side, not the smooth side.
Contrary to Prof. Kemp’s claim that I ignored Geddo’s contributions, I quoted her (p. 76), and she said exactly the opposite: “Besides the presence of the follicles, the rough unworked surface of the hide and its darkened, somewhat yellowish colour show that the portrait was made on the outer surface of the skin (formerly furcovered) and not on the inner one covering the flesh, which was aesthetically the superior of the two and commonly used as a support for written documents”.
I quoted extensively from Geddo’s article “A ‘Pastel’ by Leonardo da Vinci: His Newly Discovered Portrait of a Young Woman in Profile”, in Artes, 2008–2009, pp. 67–87, on my pages 62, 76 and 88.
On page 114:
The discovered “small area of pen marks along the left edge of the support” described by Cotte as Leonardo’s “pen trials”. This would surely have no place in a drawing destined for a luxury book presented as a gift to the Sforzas.
On page 154:
A problem with the X-rays:
‘Because white chalk (calcite or calcium carbonate) does not absorb X-rays to any great extent, the luminous zones of the sitter’s face ought to have appeared grey in the X-ray. On the contrary, however, they appear very white here, indicating the presence of a significant amount of dense material in the chalks area – which seems to contradict all the physical evidence considered so far.’
Cotte attributes this anomaly to the technician supposedly over-exposing the plate. This confirms his own observation that X-rays “are vulnerable to diverse interpretation”.
[MK] “2) PROVENANCE”
[KP] I did not say that the Marchigs were involved in forgery of any description. What I did say was that Giannino was familiar with Leonardo’s technique as a restorer and a “Leonardesque painter”. He was able to make such a drawing if he had wanted to, but clearly he had not tried to sell La Bella Principessa as a work by Leonardo.
Prof. Kemp does not explain, however, why the drawing had no provenance prior to Marchig’s ownership, and, as Michael Daley has recently pointed out, Professor Kemp and the drawing’s owner, Peter Silverman jointly trawled Berenson’s archive in hope of finding some pre-Marchig record but found none.
[MK] “3) The assertion that there is an ‘almost total absence of close comparisons with unimpeachable works by Leonardo.’”
[KP] The offending phrase above was written not by me but by David Ekserdjian in “Leonardo da Vinci: ‘La Bella Principessa’ – The Profile Portrait of a Milanese Woman”, The Burlington Magazine, vol. 152, 2010, no. 1287, June (Attributions, copies, fakes), pp. 420–421.
I used the same Leonardo comparisons as Prof. Kemp, but where he saw striking similarities, I saw possible imitation.
As to Cecilia Gallerani, although the structure of the eye looks comparable, it is round, soft and alive in Leonardo’s portrait, and dry, linear and lifeless in La Bella Principessa. The iris is drawn as a flat disc and the eyelid is marked with clear cut lines, unlike in nature.
Cotte states on p. 177: “Leonardo, for example, consistently made the bottom of the eye’s iris coincide exactly with the edge of the lower eyelid”.
This is not always the case. In Portrait of a Woman in Windsor or in La Belle Ferroniere the iris does not touch the lower eyelid, while in some works by Leonardo’s followers it does.
[MK] “4) The lack of records of Leonardo making the drawing”
[KP] Prof. Kemp wrote that all Leonardo’s known works are “unrecorded in his writings”. Leonardo does in fact mention two Madonnas in a sheet of sketches (Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe degi Uffizi, Florence, 446 E) inscribed: “…1478, I began the two Virgin Marys”, possibly referring to the Benois Madonna in St. Petersburg. He also mentions in a note his sculpture of the Sforza Horse (Ms. C, fol. 15v; R 720; B 44; V 53). And in an undated letter (about 1491-95), he writes together with De Predis about being underpaid for the Virgin of the Rocks.
The 16th century record in the Zamoyski collections Kemp refers to applies only to the Sforziad, not to the drawing, which was unrecorded there.
[MK] “5) ‘The entirely unusual for Leonardo medium of vellum commonly found in manuscripts led Prof. Kemp and his colleagues, including David Wright, Emeritus Professor of Art History at the University of South Florida, to search fifteenth-century codices for an excised illumination.’”
[KP] Prof. Kemp writes that “the author’s narrative of an extensive search is imaginary.”
But Dalya Alberge wrote in her article, “Is this portrait a lost Leonardo?” in The Guardian, on 27 September 2011:
“Earlier this year, he [Prof. Kemp] embarked on what he describes as a ‘needle-in-a-haystack’ search for a 15th-century volume with a missing sheet. […] Against the odds, Kemp tracked the volume down, to Poland’s National Library in Warsaw.”
[MK] “6) Forging a Leonardo?”
[KP] To be clear, I only said that the drawing could be a compilation of Leonardo’s works and other sources such as a bust by Cristoforo Romano.
[MK] “7) Pisarek’s reliance on Julia Cartwright”
Cartwright’s work is the only one specifically on Bianca Giovanna Sforza I could find in the English language. As there are no other secure portraits of Bianca Giovanna, the Principessa hypothesis is not supported by any evidence either.
Cartwright’s identification of The Musician as the portrait of Galeazzo Sanseverino, Bianca’s husband, looks convincing. The companion portrait in the Ambrosiana could then be showing his wife Bianca, but she looks very different to La Bella Principessa. Also Professor Carlo Pedretti in his Leonardo: The Portrait, 1999, called the Ambrosiana portrait (p. 23) “a probable portrait of Bianca Giovanna, the illegitimate daughter of Francesco Sforza.”
[MK] “8) Bianca Maria Sforza and earlier scholarship”
Even if the identification and dating of the portrait ‘pre-dates the research into the Sforziad’, as stated by Prof. Kemp, there is still the problem of the dating and the too ‘archaic’ style of the drawing.
Kemp does not explain why Vezzosi and Turner identified La Bella Principessa as Bianca Maria Sforza, even if she looks so different to her other known likenesses.
[MK] “9) Cutting out the portrait from the Sforziad in Warsaw”
[KP] There is no evidence that the folio was in the Sforziad and was removed during rebinding. But if it were so, there would be no need to cut out the folio, only to remove it as a complete sheet. A complete sheet (two folios) is indeed missing in the book, which would eliminate the need for excision.
If the folio had been removed during rebinding for its beauty or high value by the Zamoyskis, it would have been recorded in their collections, but there are no such records. Kasia Wozniak’s research has not found any evidence to this effect.
Her hypothesis that the drawing went to the Czartoryski collections in Pulawy where it was identified as by Leonardo is also so far unsubstantiated. There were no such records in the Czartoryski collections. The late Director of the Czartoryski Museum, Prof. Zygulski Jn. never mentioned the existence of a Leonardo drawing in their collections.
The Bona Sforza drawing listed in the 1815 inventory of the Temple of Sybil in Pulawy and mentioned by Wozniak as the possibly misidentified Bianca Giovanna Sforza, refers to a miniature watercolour on vellum illustrated in D. Dec and J. Walek’s, Czasy! Ludzie! Ich dziela. Teatr obrazów ksieznej Izabeli, listed as no. 99. ‘Polish, 16th century’.
There is no connection between my article in Artibus and the interests of the National Library in Warsaw.
[MK] “10) The foliation and inserted paper pages”
[KP] Prof. Kemp himself used the word ‘codex’ to describe the Sforziad in his book Leonardo: Revised edition, 2011, p. 256:
“this tender and refined formal portrait in ink and coloured chalks on vellum has been cut from a codex (a book), namely the copy of the Sforziada in Warsaw produced for Galeazzo Sanseverino.”
The three folios missing in the Warsaw Sforziad were originally left blank as in the other copies of the book in Paris or London.
Geddo described the drawing’s “apparent crudeness in the preparation of the parchment” and “the rough unworked surface of the hide” (A Pastel by Leonardo da Vinci… reprinted in P. Silverman, Leonardo’s Lost Princess, pp. 219-220). This is not true of the Sforziad’s parchment.
I have seen the Sforziad on two occasions. Once in the summer 2012 and more recently in March 2016; the parchment is finely grained and of high quality, as expected in a luxury book for the Sforzas.
My illustrations Fig. 7, 10 and 11 indeed show paper pages. Because they look so similar it is easy to mistake the paper pages for the vellum ones. My Fig. 6 and Fig. 8 are vellum and they look very similar in colour and texture.
Kemp states that I inaccurately said that his “reconstruction of the insertion of the drawing in the Warsaw Sforziad looks unrealistic, as it is facing a printed page”. He wrote that “The reconstruction shows that the portrait would have faced a blank page”. This is incorrect. His “Fig. 12 – ‘Hypothetical Reconstruction of La Bella Principessa as folio 6r” in the online article “La Bella Principessa and the Warsaw Sforziad” does face a printed page.
[MK] “11) Iconography”
[KP] According to Kemp, Horodyski’s pioneering research on the Sforziad I support ‘has been superseded in the light of more detailed knowledge of Sforza court iconography and analyses by later scholars, including Wright’.
Horodyski suggested Gian Galeazzo Sforza and his offspring, such as Bona Sforza, the later owner of the book in Warsaw as the recipient of the Sforziad.
But according to D.R.E. Wright in his article on the Lumiere Technology website (which has now been removed), M. L. Evans and E. McGrath, the Warsaw Sforziad was destined for Galeazzo Sanseverino, Bianca’s husband.
So why is Galeazzo Severino’s profile absent on the Warsaw frontispiece by Birago, where Ludovico’s is in London and Gian Galeazzo’s in Paris, the recipients of the other Sforziads?
Moreover, Galeazzo Sanseverino was not part of the Sforza dynasty and Bianca was illegitimate. All the copies of the Sforziad on vellum were dedicated to members of the Sforza family.
Horodyski’s reading of the symbolic content of the Birago frontispiece more logically pointed to the death of Gian Galeazzo: the lack of the recipient’s profile as emblem, the missing figure of Gian Galeazzo in the boat with Ludovico il Moro, the tears in the handkerchief, the sarcophagus, the broken shield with the initials GZ, the crest with one half with arms of Milan and the other of Aragon for Gian Galeazzo.
After my defence of Horodyski’s interpretation, an Italian scholar Carla Glori published online her very detailed new iconographic study of the illumination: ‘The Illumination by Birago in the Sforziad incunabulum in Warsaw: in defence of Horodyski’s thesis and a new hypothesis’. I am quoting her extensively below.
She said: “The incunabula with the illuminations now in London and Florence were the property of Ludovico il Moro, given the recurrence of the central upper figure of a moor, and the presence of the ensign of the Duke of Bari with his devices called “la scopetta” (the little broom) and “I due fanali” (the two beacons). The Paris and Warsaw incunabula were the property of Duke Gian Galeazzo Sforza and his family, because they are reproducing the devices of Gian Galeazzo himself and of his father, Galeazzo Maria.”
The sieve, which was said to be the emblem of Galeazzo Sanseverino, was Gian Galeazzo’s personal device (created by his father) called “il buratto” (a sieve held by two hands) with the motto TAL A TI QUAL A MI, as illustrated by the “Cassone dei tre Duchi”, Sforza Castle, Milan, 1479-1494.
Glori also added that the sieve device (“il buratto”) is duplicated in symmetrical position in the central area of the Warsaw illumination.
She concluded that “the Warsaw illumination was dedicated to the memory of the deceased Gian Galeazzo Sforza and his family, and that it was certainly dated after his death (1494)”.
Her argument against the Sanseverino coat of arms or imprese supposedly identified in the Birago’s illumination includes:
– The missing Aragonese “A” in the device of the “three intertwined rings with diamonds” appearing on the Warsaw illumination
– The missing Sanseverino NOSTRO È IL MESTIERE motto
– The fact that the hybrid coat of arms of the Warsaw illumination does not correspond to the coat of arms of the Sanseverino dynasty; it should be silver/white not gold/yellow. “Every armorial certifies that the field (“campo”) of the Sanseverino coat of arms was “SILVER” (white), while the field (“campo”) of the coat of arms in the illumination of Warsaw is “GOLD” (yellow)”. “According to Horodyski’s logical and symbolical interpretation, the emblem is an artistic fusion of the traditional emblem of the city of Milan with the yellow and red lines of the Aragona coat of arms.”
– The reference of the initials “GZ” (appearing in the ducal documents and iconography, also on the ‘Cassone dei Tre Duchi’) to the memory of the deceased dukes Galeazzo Maria and Gian Galeazzo, not Galeazzo Sanseverino.
– The absence of any reference to Galeazzo Sanseverino and his biography such as the tournament lance of the famous jouster, while the ducal arms on the “Cassone dei Tre Duchi” are present: the round shield, the quiver with arrows and the sword. The depicted starry armour on the left is not the typical armour of a jouster. It is empty as Gian Galeazzo is dead, and it is almost identical to the one worn by him in the Paris illumination.
– The presence of a body of heraldic devices celebrating the Visconti-Sforza dynasty and referable in particular to Galeazzo Maria Sforza and his son Gian Galeazzo such as the greyhound/the tree/the divine hand (Francesco Sforza); the “capitergium” device (a bandage with a knot) dedicated to Gian Galeazzo Visconti, the first Duke of Milan, celebrating the Visconti dynasty; the rising waves (“onde montanti”); the three intertwined rings with diamonds (“i tre anelli intrecciati con diamante), by Muzio Attendolo, the founder of the Sforza dynasty: it was probably given to him in 1409 by the Marquis of Ferrara Niccolò II d’Este after the conquest of Reggio Emilia. They are not emblems of Bianca Giovanna as was advanced, but of members of the Sforza family in general.
According to Glori, “we have no evidence that the incunabulum now in Warsaw was confiscated in Milan during the French invasion. In 1517 Antonio de Beatis saw some precious incunabula in the Royal Library of Blois, but he did not cite the Sforziad as being amongst them in his autograph manuscript XF28 of the National Library in Naples. It is plausible that the incunabulum now in Warsaw was a wedding gift to Bona Sforza from her mother Isabella; I propose also the hypothesis that she received the gift from her aunt Caterina Sforza, probably when she left Milan with Isabella after the downfall of Ludovico il Moro.”
[MK] “12) Betrothal and Marriage”
[KP] Although the word ‘betrothal’ might have been more appropriate than ‘marriage’ in the case of Bianca Sforza, others also wrote that her ‘wedding’ (or nuptials) took place in 1490 or late 1489.
Julia Cartwright in her Italian Gardens of the Renaissance and Other Studies, 1914, (reprint 2013) wrote p. 174: “On the 10th of January, 1490, the wedding [of Bianca and Galeazzo] was solemnised in due splendour in the Castello of Milan (…)”.
Edward McCurdy in The Mind of Leonardo da Vinci, New York, 2013, wrote “Bianca Sforza, a natural daughter of Ludovic who in 1489, while still a child, was married to the famous captain Galeazzo di Sanseverino.” p. 301.
Wikipedia entry for Galeazzo Sanseverino also says “He was married to Bianca, illegitimate daughter of Ludovico Sforza, in 1489.”
[MK] “13) The Technique”
[KP] It was Prof. Kemp himself who said that Leonardo never worked on vellum in his book The story of the new masterpiece… p. 35: “There are no other known works by Leonardo on vellum, but there is previously neglected evidence of his interest in making coloured images on prepared animal skin.”
Turner also wrote in his online Statement concerning the portrait on vellum by Leonardo, p.3: ‘Also apparently unprecedented [for Leonardo] is the use of vellum or parchment as a support for the new portrait.’
Geddo also wrote: “The use of parchment was until now unknown in the work of Leonardo (…)”, in P. Silverman, Leonardo’s… p. 226.
In reference to Jean Perréal and dry colouring, the quotation in full is as follows: “Piglia da Gian de Paris il modo di colorire a secco e’l modo del sale bianco e del fare le carte impastate, sole e in molti doppi, e la sua casetta de’colori”.
The translation for carte impastate as ‘paste-board’ is not anachronistic, as it was used as early as 1760 in Joseph Baretti’s, A dictionary of the English and Italian languages, Vol. 1: “Cartone [composto di piu carte impastate insieme] paste-board.”
I have only inspected the vellum of the Sforziad in Warsaw, not the vellum of the drawing, but both Geddo and Turner have described it as ‘rough animal hide’. This is most certainly not what you will find in the Sforziad in Warsaw.
[MK] “14) Dimensions”
[KP] According to Kemp and Cotte, the dimensions of the vellum pages of the Sforziad vary from 33.0 to 33.4 cm in height, while the drawing is 33 cm high.
I have carefully checked the dimensions with the Librarian in March 2016. All the pages are at least 33.4 cm high and more, up to 33.7 cm. The size of 33 cm would be far too small for the book.
The 5 holes in the book are in fact all double holes. Each of the 5 holes is two small holes, between which a string passes. The distance between the two small holes is about 3 mm. The double holes were never mentioned by Kemp or Cotte.
According to the conservator who was present at the time of my last visit, this is the binding that follows the original binding as there is no damage of any kind. So in total there were as many as 10 small holes, not 3 single ones as in the drawing.
I measured the distances between the 3 holes that Kemp and Cotte measured in La Bella Principessa. The measurements were taken from the middle of the double holes.
The distance between the bottom hole and the middle hole is 11.35 cm in the Sforziad, while in the drawing it is 11.06 cm.
The distance between the middle hole and the top hole is 11.7 cm in the Sforziad, while in the drawing it is 11.44 cm.
[MK] “15) The profile and the cartoon portrait of Isabella d’Este”
Above, Fig. 4: A comparison of La Bella Principessa with Leonardo da Vinci’s, Portrait of Isabella d’Este, c. 1499–1500, Paris, Musée du Louvre.
[KP] The portrait of Isabella d’Este shows the face in profile but the body in three-quarters, unlike La Bella Principessa. The former is also unfinished, rendered softly with the sfumato effect, fluid in execution, while the shading is on the inside of the profile.
La Bella Principessa is shown in full profile, highly finished, rigid and linear, while the shading is on the outside of the profile.
The similarities between the two profiles are only superficial.
The use of the word ‘repaint’ was an incorrect translation of the French word ‘repentir’, which means pentimento. I would like to mention that I have a good enough grasp of drawing techniques as I also trained as a copyist of Old Masters and an art restorer.
[MK] “16) Left-handedness”
[KP] I disagree that “the left-handed execution cannot undermine the attribution”, as it indicates the intention to imitate Leonardo. None of his collaborators or followers were left-handed, so the drawing is either by him or by an imitator/forger.
[MK] “17) The costume”
Above, Fig. 5: Comparisons of La Bella Principessa with Leonardo da Vinci’s, Head of a Woman, c. 1488–1490, National Gallery, Parma (left); Leonardo’s Portrait of a Woman in Profile, c. 1489–1490, Windsor Royal Collection (right); and, Gian Cristoforo Romano’s sculpture, Bust of Beatrice d’Este, c. 1491, Paris, Musée du Louvre (top).
[KP] The simplified and flatly rendered dress as well as the coazzone hairstyle do indeed show similarities with the sculpted busts by Gian Cristoforo Romano (Bust of Beatrice d’Este) and Francesco Laurana. But this could be a negative point, as the drawing could be based on one of these busts.
Incidentally, the opening in Laurana’s sculptures differs from that in La Bella Principessa. In the former it is a wide horizontal cut facilitating the movement of the arm, while in the drawing it is a triangular hole which doesn’t seem to play such a role.
Above, Fig. 6: Gian Cristoforo Romano, Bust of Beatrice d’Este, c. 1491, Paris, Musée du Louvre.
Above, Fig. 7: A comparison of the knots on La Bella Principessa’s dress and Gian Cristoforo Romano’s Bust of Beatrice d’Este, c. 1491.
[MK] “18) The fingerprint”
[KP] The fingerprint evidence which was originally published in the book as “strongly supportive of Leonardo’s authorship” is now considered invalid.
It was not possible to compare the palm imprint to Leonardo’s other examples, and it was described as perhaps unintentional as it is single and isolated, unlike in the execution of Cecilia Gallerani, where many imprints were found where the blending of hues had taken place.
[MK] “19) On Method”
[KP] The “accumulative build-up of different types of evidence” against the attribution to Leonardo is strong, but, as mentioned above, my main arguments were not addressed by Prof. Kemp.
Why is the shading on the outside of the profile? What is the significance of the hand writing on the reverse of the drawing and why was it not investigated? Why is the profile of La Bella Principessa so similar to that in the sculptural Bust of Beatrice d’Este by Cristoforo Romano? Why is the knot on the dress similar to the one on the bust and unlike other Leonardo’s knots? Why are the proportions of the face flawed? Why the vellum of the drawing was described as ‘rough animal hide’ and could it be part of the luxury book of the Sforziad? Why Marchig’s friend the famous Renaissance expert Bernard Berenson had not attributed the drawing to Leonardo? Why there is no known provenance prior to Marchig’s in the 1950s?
In the field of attributions the level of inconsistencies and contradictions always undermine any evidence in favour of a proposed attribution.
[MK] “20) The damaging allegation in the opening to Pisarek’s article that the owner was to set up ‘non-profit-making foundation for multi-disciplinary Classical and Renaissance studies near Florence, to be headed by Professor Martin Kemp’.”
[KP] I made no such allegation. This was a quotation from an article by Simon Hewitt who supports the attribution to Leonardo. This information was published in an Antiques Trade Gazette article by Simon Hewitt in 2009. The article can be found here.
In my article I also wrote: “Prof. Kemp and his colleagues are no doubt genuinely convinced of the authenticity of the drawing, as well as highly enthusiastic about the rediscovery.” This shows that I in no way question Prof. Kemp’s integrity on this matter, only the methodology and the results of the proposed attribution.
Kasia Pisarek, 24 May 2016
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 against us 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. In recent years Kemp has cast his denunciations more widely and generally against his fellow scholars. (See below.)
Notwithstanding the “La Bella Principessa” campaigners’ belligerence towards doubters, and Professor Kemp’s own publicly bullish support for the attribution, his position on “La Bella Principessa” is untenable in terms of the work’s artistic properties and its emerging circumstances – as indeed is the methodological model for attributions that he hubristically offers to fellow scholars in connection with the Leonardo upgrades that he supports (see below).
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.
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”
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
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.
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.
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
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 email@example.com 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
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.”
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
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.
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.
“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
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”.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org )
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…
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.)
“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. Friedländer – Reminiscences 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: email@example.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:
 “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.'”
 “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.”
 “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.”
 “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.'”
 “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.
 “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.”
 “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.”
 “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.)”
 “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.'”
 “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.”
 “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.
 “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.
 “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.
 “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?’
‘You are certain of that?’
‘Yes,’ Biro said.”
 “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.”
 “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.”
 “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.'”
 “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.”
 “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.’)
 “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.”
 “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.’”
 “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?'”
 “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. “
 “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.'”
 “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.
 “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.’”
 “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.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org – 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: email@example.com
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: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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):
“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?”
“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.”
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.”
“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
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?
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.
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
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.)
Michael Daley. 9 August 2015
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
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 . 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 .
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.
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
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
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?
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.)
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?
BELOW: IT’S A WASHOUT – IS IT NOT?
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).
AN UPDATE: THE FINE ART OF SELLING KLIMT
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.
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
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.
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).