Author Archives: jamieedwards756

Research Seminar #3: Krzysztof Fijalkowski (Norwich University of the Arts): Cubomania: Collage, destruction and desire

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DEPARTMENT OF ART HISTORY, FILM AND VISUAL STUDIES RESEARCH SEMINAR SERIES 2014 – 15

Thursday 13th November 2015, 5:15pm

Barber Photograph Room

Krzysztof Fijalkowski (Norwich University of the Arts)

Cubomania: Collage, destruction and desire

Cubomania

Collage practices based around the recuperation and juxtaposition of found printed images have long been a staple of the critical and curatorial reception of Surrealism. This seminar, however, considers just one, so far virtually undocumented instance of Surrealist collage, cubomania, developed under siege conditions in wartime Bucharest by the poet Gherasim Luca and pursued by him for some five decades. The simple procedure of cutting photographs or reproductions into regular squares so as to re-assemble them into grids adopts a deceptively modest format, but Luca’s accompanying theoretical framework sees the results as miniature testing-grounds for some surprisingly challenging ideas, harnessing the tensions between erotic desire and violent revolutionary consciousness that might eventually be applied to a transformation of the world itself.

Enquiries to Jamie Edwards: jle756@bham.ac.uk

Research Seminar No.2: Sandy Heslop, ‘Of shepherds and sheep: the fortunes of pastoral metaphor in Christian imagery c. 1100′

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Department of Art History, Film and Visual Studies Research Seminar Series 2014 – 15

Thursday October 23rd, 5:15, Barber Photograph Room

Sandy Heslop (University of East Anglia)

Of shepherds and sheep: the fortunes of pastoral metaphor in Christian imagery c. 1100

Pastoral

All welcome. Refreshments served!

Enquiries to Jamie Edwards at jle756@bham.ac.uk

Laughing with Mary Beard. And a (not so) Laughing Cavalier.

Beard. And the Colosseum.

Beard. And the Colosseum.

Last night I went to hear Prof. Mary Beard–esteemed Cambridge don, TV presenter and keen blogger–deliver a lecture at the Cheltenham Literature Festival on the topic of laughter in ancient Rome, which is also the subject of Beard’s latest book: Laughter in Ancient Rome. On Joking, Tickling and Cracking Up.

The lecture, as we’d expect, was brilliant. Mary exhibited a masterful, and often playful, combination of overwhelming intelligence and an endearing ability to deal with complex ideas in an accessible way, without coming across as at all patronising. (As a non-Classicist, I followed the whole thing and didn’t feel inadequate at any point.) The talk essentially asked: what did Romans laugh at? when did they laugh? and what does this tell us about society, politics, and power relations in ancient Rome?

Bust of Commodus as Hercules, 2ndC AD, Capitoline Museum

Bust of Commodus as Hercules, 2ndC AD, Capitoline Museum

For instance, let us consider–as we did with Mary–the story related by the Roman historian and politician Cassius Dio in his enormous eighty-volume history of Rome from the the 3rd century CE. The story takes us back to the Colosseum in the year 192 CE. Dio is sat in the front row (where the important people sat, with women and slaves packed in at the back, 100ft above the Colosseum’s arena floor) watching (squinting if you’re a woman or slave) the emperor Commodus parading himself about in an elaborate display of Imperial might that dragged on for 14 whole days; on one day, Commodus slew 100 bears, on another he participated in scripted gladiatorial combat, etc. Word had got out before this spectacle that Commodus had intended to masquerade as Hercules (as he was apparently prone to doing–see the above bust of Commodus-as-Hercules from the Capitoline museum) and fire deadly arrows into the assembled crowd, and this provides the backdrop to the episode that caused Dio’s laughter. In Dio’s words:

[The emperor] killed an ostrich, cut off its head, and came over to where we were sitting, holding up the head… and the bloody sword. He said absolutely nothing, but with a grin he shook his own head, making it clear that he would do the same to us. And in fact many would have been put to death on the spot by the sword for laughing at [the emperor]… if I had not myself taken some laurel leaves from my garland and chewed on them, and persuaded the others [to do the same]… so that, by continually moving our mouths, we might hide the fact that we were laughing.

So it’s basically an ancient instance of biting your lip. And it’s interestIng, as Mary explained, because it gives us a sense that we are experiencing Roman life, and laughter, at first hand, and it provokes the modern scholar to address what it is in this episode that Dio found funny, what the episode tells us about the relationships between emperor and his subjects in ancient Rome, and gets us to think about the social function of laughter: Is Dio’s laughter an act of insubordination, a mocking of, via the medium of laughter, the pumped-up pretensions of the emperor; or is it (what we’d call these days) nervous laughter? And, for that matter, what kinds of problems, methodological and empirical, does such a question pose for the modern historian?

All this was dead interesting. But what struck me was the resonance that all this has with my own work on Pieter Bruegel. I was lucky enough to get to chat to Mary afterwards, and I mentioned how her interest in laughter in the ancient world mirrored by interest in laughter in the 16th century in the Netherlands, and, in particular, the question of whether people laughed at Bruegel’s pictures of peasants or not, which, as I’ve said before, has been the subject of great controversy since the 1970s. Did people really laugh at Bruegel’s representations of the rural poor? And was this laughter, if there ever was any, condescending? Or was it democratising–a Rebelaisian carnivalesque form of laughter that acts a social leveller (according to Bakhtin’s classic study)? And, what’s more, what evidence is there that can support our view either way? Can we ever really know what people laughed at in their lounges and dining rooms in the 1550s and ’60s (just like can we ever know what Dio found funny sitting in front of an ostrich-head-wielding Commodus in the Colosseum in 192?)?

Bruegel, Peasant Wedding, c.1568, Kunsthistorisches, Vienna

Bruegel, Peasant Wedding, c.1568, Kunsthistorisches, Vienna

This is where the (not) Laughing Cavalier comes in. We all know Frans Hals’s picture of a Cavalier because the sitter is laughing; its fame rests, by and large, on the fact that the sitter is a jolly chap, enjoying a giggle at this or that. But, as Mary pointed out (and perhaps this is in the literature on Hals already, but I am no expert), the portrait of the cavalier only earned its title of “Laughing Cavalier” about a century ago. Before then, the picture was notable (if written descriptions of it are anything to go by) because of the curly moustache that the sitter is sporting. In other words, modern sensibilities find that the portrait shows a laughing man, whereas this was lost on, or else wasn’t considered to be the most striking aspect of the picture for, earlier viewers. This was one of Mary’s chief points. That although the sound of laughter, and for that matter the rendering of that sound in print–”hahahae” in Terence’s 161 BCE Eunuch–is remarkably universal, what rouses that laughter is not universal, and has changed over the course of history as  sensibilities and cultural conventions likewise adapt.

Frans Hals, "Laughing" Cavalier, 1624, Wallace Collection, London

Frans Hals, “Laughing” Cavalier, 1624, Wallace Collection, London

This is all germane to my work and is certainly food for thought. Can we ever reconstruct what Bruegel’s audience found funny? Did people really laugh at peasants? Peasants in art, for that matter? On the face of it Bruegel’s Peasant Wedding Feast isn’t funny, but is this a bit like Hals’s Cavalier, which is to say that do we struggle to see what was funny in Bruegel’s picture because we are no longer socially predisposed to find the poor intrinsically funny? Is it the case that mockery of the poor is nowadays considered taboo, morally reprehensible, and that this is quite different to the situation in the 16th century, which scarcely batted an eyelid at serfdom?

Finally, in case you’re wondering, are Roman jokes from Antiquity funny? Did we indeed laugh along with Mary? Well, none of the jokes related by Mary in her lecture roused genuinely raucous laughter (indeed this was part of her point about the socio-historical contingency of laughter, and not a criticism) but one of them, which only came out during the brief Q&A at the end of the lecture, was a gem, and, what’s more, is a joke told by a woman (women otherwise frequently being the butt of jokes rather than the teller of jokes!). It’s preserved in Macrobius’s Saturnalia and the comic is Julia, daughter of the emperor Augustus, who was, on all accounts, infamously promiscuous. The joke goes:

When those who knew of [Julia's] disgraceful behaviour were amazed how her sons looked like her husband Agrippa even though she gave her body to any Tom, Dick, or Harry to enjoy, she said, “I never take on a passenger unless the ship’s hold is full.”

Simply, hilarious. Surely as funny now as it must’ve been in Antiquity! As for why it’s funny? Perhaps Mary’s book sheds light . . .

Jamie Edwards

Probing Leonardo.

Leonardo's portrait of Cecilia Gallerani with an ermine, Czartoryski Museum, Cracow

Leonardo’s portrait of Cecilia Gallerani with an ermine, Czartoryski Museum, Cracow

Yesterday, we had a Leonardo being cleaned. Today, it’s a Leonardo painting being photographed, with a mega good camera.

Pascal Cotte, of Paris’s Lumiere Technology, has spent 3 years subjecting Leonardo’s hugely famous portrait of Cecilia Gallerani with an Ermine to a technique called the Layer Amplification Method (LAM), and has apparently discovered that poor old Cecilia once LACKED her posh, furry companion.

LAM works by firing a series of powerful lights at paintings, and a computer then registers the differences in the amounts of light that is reflected, thus revealing insights into what paintings look like beneath their uppermost layer. It is this procedure that has yielded the discovery that Leonardo’s portrait once showed Cecilia without the ermine, then showed her with a regular ermine, and then, finally, with the steroid-pumped ermine we see in the picture today.

Leonardo Ermine

The portrait, which is dated to about 1490, shows Cecilia Gallerani, the mistress of Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan and Leonardo’s chief Milanese maecenas. It has always been thought that the portrait was originally conceived with the ermine, as a signifier of Cecilia’s love for Ludovico, who was supposedly nicknamed “the white ermine”. That explanation still stands. But the real significance of all this is that it sheds light on Leonardo’s practices who, clearly, continued to play around with ideas even once a painting was well underway, as well as the specific circumstances surrounding the execution of the portrait. Why did Leonardo add an ermine to what otherwise seems to have been a finished portrait of Cecilia? Perhaps Cecilia requested it herself. Or Ludovico. So he added one. Thus portrait version #2. But then the portrait underwent another change, with the ermine becoming curiously bulky and sporting lion’s paws. Thus portrait version #3, the final one. Why modify the ermine? Perhaps this bit’s Leonardo’s invention, who, rather than choosing to represent Ludovico with a scrawny ermine (version #2), tried to flatter the Duke by envisioning him in the guise of a bodybuilding ermine. All interesting stuff . . .

 

Jamie Edwards

 

 

Cleaning Leonardo.

Leonardo's 1481 Adoration (pre-restoration). Image credit: http://www.opificiodellepietredure.it

Leonardo’s 1481 Adoration (pre-restoration). Image credit: http://www.opificiodellepietredure.it

As if the promise of a brilliantly restored Ghent Altarpiece wasn’t enough, then we can also now look forward to seeing Leonardo’s remarkable Adoration of the Magi of 1481 (above) looking a lot less, well, murky.

Leonardo was commissioned to produce the Adoration by monks from Florence’s San Donato a Scopeto. Leonardo abandoned the work, however, when he left Florence for Milan in 1481. In his stead, Filippino Lippi was asked produce an Adoration of the Magi, which he delivered in 1496. Both works–Leonardo’s incomplete and Lippi’s complete Adorations–are housed inside the Uffizi.

Leonardo conference. Image credit: http://www.opificiodellepietredure.it

Leonardo conference. Image credit: http://www.opificiodellepietredure.it

In the early 2000s, the idea was mooted that Leonardo’s unfinished painting might benefit from restorations, and these restorations are now underway, being done by Florence’s Opficio delle Pietre Dure, which is one of the foremost institutions for the conservation of pictures in all the world. Recently they put on a conference (of sorts–typically Italian in its rusticity, as you can see above!) to show some of what they’ve managed to achieve. The restorations aren’t complete, but even in its partial state, what they have achieved looks pretty damn good.

For a start, we can make out more of Leonardo’s unusual and daring composition, which now appears sharper, less cloudy and has more depth to it than we’d hitherto realised. Clusters of figures are now more legible, ditto trees, the battle in the background, and, in particular, the odd arches and staircase etc. In addition, we can also now make out that the sky was executed in a pale blue wash. One of the features of Leonardo’s picture that has been consistently noted up to now is how murky it is and unusually limited in its colour. Turns out, of course, that the overwhelmingly browny-yellowish colour that made the whole thing look so dull is misleading, deriving from centuries’ worth of dirt and varnish accumulations rather than Leonardo’s original intentions. Here’s a selection of pictures:

Adoration (restorations underway). Image credit: http://www.opificiodellepietredure.it

Adoration (restorations underway). Image credit: http://www.opificiodellepietredure.it

Horses (pre-restorations). Image credit: http://www.opificiodellepietredure.it

Horses (pre-restorations). Image credit: http://www.opificiodellepietredure.it

Horses (restored). Image credit: http://www.opificiodellepietredure.it

Horses (restored). Image credit: http://www.opificiodellepietredure.it

Background arches and staircase (pre-restorations). Image credit: http://www.opificiodellepietredure.it

Background arches and staircase (pre-restorations). Image credit: http://www.opificiodellepietredure.it

Background arches and staircase (restored). Image credit: http://www.opificiodellepietredure.it

Background arches and staircase (restored). Image credit: http://www.opificiodellepietredure.it

Restored area flanking the Virgin and Child. Image credit: http://www.opificiodellepietredure.it

Restored area flanking the Virgin and Child. Image credit: http://www.opificiodellepietredure.it

I think we’d all agree that they’ve done a sterling job so far, and we can look forward to seeing the finished product. In the meantime, find out a bit more about the cleaning and see more images here.

Jamie Edwards

 

Department of Art History, Film and Visual Studies Research Seminar Series 2014 – 15

 

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Department of Art History, Film and Visual Studies Research Seminar Series 2014 – 15

Barber Photograph Room, The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, The University of Birmingham

Thursdays 5.15pm

Refreshments served

 

 

AUTUMN TERM

 

Thursday 9 October

Tamar Garb (University College London)

Photo Albums and Fancy Dress: Encounters with the African Archive

(Note the venue for this seminar is: Strathcona Lecture Theatre 1)

 

Thursday 23 October

Sandy Heslop (University of East Anglia)

Of shepherds and sheep: the fortunes of pastoral metaphor in Christian imagery c. 1100

 

Thursday 13 November

Krzysztof Fijalkowski (Norwich University of the Arts)

Cubomania: Collage, destruction and desire

 

Thursday 27 November

Lucy Reynolds (University of Arts London, Central Saint Martins)

A collective response: Feminism, film, performance and Greenham Common

 

Thursday 11 December

Jamie Edwards (University of Birmingham)

Piety, Peasants, Proverbs, and other Peculiar Pictures: Making sense of Pieter Bruegel’s paintings

 

 

SPRING TERM (titles of papers t.b.c.)

Thursday 22 January

Anna Gruetzner-Robins (University of Reading)

 

Thursday 29 January (t.b.c.)

Rosalie van Gulick (Utrecht University; Barber Institute)

 

Thursday 5 February

Richard Taws (University College London)

 

Thursday 26 February

Imogen Wiltshire (University of Birmingham)

 

Thursday 12 March

Gaby Neher (University of Nottingham)

 

Thursday 26 March

Abigail Harrison Moore (University of Leeds)

 

Enquiries Autum term: Jamie Edwards at JLE756@bham.ac.uk

Enquiries Spring term: Imogen Wiltshire at IXW713@bham.ac.uk

Welcoming Professor Tamar Garb – The Department of Art History, Film and Visual Studies Research Seminar Series 2014 – 15

We are pleased to announce that the Department of Art History, Film and Visual Studies will be welcoming Professor Tamar Garb to kick-off this year’s Research Seminar Series on Thursday 9 October. Currently Durning Lawrence Professor in the History of Art at University College London, and recently elected a Fellow of the British Academy, we are thrilled to be hosting Tamar, who will be delivering a lecture about her recent research on African studio portraits:

 

Photo Albums and Fancy Dress: Encounters with the African Archive

 

Weinberg, Nelson Mandela

 Prof. Tamar Garb

Durning Lawrence Professor in the History of Art, University College London

Fellow of the British Academy

Thursday October 9th 2014, 5:15pm, Strathcona Lecture Theatre 1

This lecture will look at the artifice and stageyness of African studio portraits via the project ‘Black Photo Album’ by Santu Mofokeng, the performed veracity of Samuel Fosso’s disguised self representations, and the ubiquity of a specific image of the young Nelson Mandela, widely regardedas ‘traditional’ and authentic. Throughout photographic portraiture is considered as a medium that mobilises the artifice of the studio, fancy dress and costume in the production of photogenic and fitting subjects.

All welcome!

Please also note that the full schedule for the Department’s Research Seminar series will be made available soon.

Please forward enquiries to Jamie Edwards: jle756@bham.ac.uk

Are computers sending art historians straight to the dole queue? Not likely . . .

Dole queue

‘Computer scientists have used the latest image processing techniques to analyse hundreds of works of art and unearth previously unconsidered sources of inspiration between artists’, reported Matthew Sparkes in yesterday’s Telegraph. The article was reporting on a paper put together by a bunch of computer scientists from the Computer Science department at Rutgers, State Uni. of New Jersey, and is available online here.

The gist of the article is this: the identification of similarities between works of art has long been the prerogative of art historians, but now computers, which are becoming ever more sophisticated, are ready to take their place, being capable of identifying instances of formal similarities between given works of art that have hitherto elided the experts.

‘One important task for art historians is to find influences and connections between artists’ say, quite rightly, Babak Saleh, Kanako Abe, Ravneet Singh Arora, and Ahmed Elgammal — the paper’s authors. We’re off to a good start.

But things quickly go awry . . .

‘It must be mentioned that determining influence is always a subjective decision. We will not know if an artist was ever truly inspired by a work unless he or she has said so.’ This is mad as far as I’m concerned. Michelangelo never declares that his conception of God from the Sistine Ceiling was inspired by Ghiberti’s similar airborne God from the Gates of Paradise, but on the basis of formal and circumstantial evidence, which is to say it looks a damn lot like it and Michelangelo will have seen Ghiberti’s sculptures daily in his youth, I think we can say that it’s probably the case. But this isn’t my real issue with the paper; the article does after all acknowledge that instances of artistic influence proposed by art historians are usually demonstrably right, even if there is no “proof”. For example, we might not know FOR CERTAIN that Francis Bacon ever saw Diego Velázquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent X (do we? Raphael’s Julius II makes for just as neat a comparison?), but since the former’s picture of a seated, grand, albeit tormented, bloke really does look like the latter’s Papal portrait, then there most likely IS a relationship. Hence the comparison has found its way into the mainstream literature on Bacon.

Velzquez, Innocent X

Bacon, after Velzquez, Innocent X

My problem instead is with some of the previously undiscovered, but for my money far-fetched, relationships between works of art that the computers have apparently managed to unearth, as well as some of the frankly flippant, if not wholly misguided, claims the authors make along the way. (An important caveat here: the authors do admit that ‘We are not asserting truths but instead suggesting a possible path towards a difficult task of measuring influence.’) Let’s look at some of them.

‘Although the meaning of a painting is unique to each artist and is completely subjective, it can somewhat be measured by the symbols and objects in the painting.’ Art historians will nowadays wince at those words, and Roland Barthes will probably have had chickens . . .

‘The earliest style is the Renaissance period with artists like Titian and Michelangelo during the 14th to 17th century.’ Notwithstanding the arbitrariness of the period style classifications that the article leans on more generally (Renaissance, Romanticism, Baroque, Pop, Abstract Contemporary, American Modernism, Post-Impressionism…etc.), this statement is a bit worrying… Pedantry, perhaps, but Michelangelo and Titian weren’t about in the 14th century or the 17th, and if we’re being picky, traditional narratives of art history don’t usually include 17th-century art under the rubric of the Renaissance.

And the most major problem, I think, is this clanger:

‘Paintings do not necessarily have to look alike, but if they do, or have reoccurring objects (high-level semantics), then they might be considered similar.’

My issue here is that they’re effectively saying that even if pictures don’t look alike to the eye, computers, with all their mathematical wizardry and algorithms, can nevertheless spot relationships that otherwise defy human perception. Problem here, of course, is that people make artworks, not computers, and so if two artworks by two artists don’t look alike to the eye, then it is really doubtful whether there ever was a meaningful relationship between them. Common sense, which computers don’t possess, dictates as much.

See: Frédéric Bazille’s Studio 9 Rue de la Condamine (1870) and Norman Rockwell’s Shuffleton’s Barber Shop (1950). The computers threw this up as a match, and ‘After browsing through many publications and websites, we concluded, to the best of our knowledge, that this comparison has not been made by an art historian before.’ The authors’ faith in the technology is thus vindicated. But, hang on, there’s probably a very good reason why art historians have never spotted a relationship between Bazille’s Studio and Rockwell’s Barber Shop, which is that they simply don’t look sufficiently alike to warrant the positing of anything more than a coincidental relationship between them. Which is precisely what the next sentence says: ”The painting might not look similar at the first glance, however, a closer look reveals striking similarity in composition and subject matter, that is detected by our automated methodology . . . [emph. mine]’ I don’t buy it. And what the authors neglect to mention is what we, that is to say art historians, call iconographic conventions. Bazille’s picture belongs to a rich tradition for showing artists working in their studios, and perhaps Rockwell did, either knowingly or inadvertently, look to that that tradition for his Barber Shop. That’s a sound art historical judgement. But it doesn’t mean that Rockwell was influenced by Bazille. The authors also fail to mention whether there is any inkling whatsoever that Rockwell knew Bazille’s work(s)? These are the kinds of questions art historians ask, whereas computers, it seems, do not. Or perhaps can’t ask?

Bazille and Rockwell

Similarly, the paper heralds the similarity between Georges Braque’s Man with a Violin and Pablo Picasso’s Spanish Still Life as a “discovery”. Nah, not really. Braque and Picasso were immediate contemporaries, they knew one another(!!) and were pioneers of a movement retroactively called Cubism. A perusal of any monograph on cubism will generate Braque’s and Picasso’s names alongside one another and show ample similarities between their art. So, not a discovery after all. . .

Picasso and Braque

If you read the paper, you’ll quickly find that there’s loads of technical jargon, equations and mind-boggling graphs which apparently bestow scientific robustness on the findings:

Classme

Long equation

Erm…. I’m struggling. The tables and charts don’t exactly shed any more light, either:

Diagram

And what on earth is this?

Mingboggling

. . . answers on a postcard, please.

I can’t help but think that all this is a case of all fur coat and no knickers, and that the jargon simply conceals the fact that the computer’s supposed discoveries don’t stand up to the scrutiny of art historians. It’s nonsence masquerading as scientific art history. I really don’t think, for example, that Bazille’s and Rockwell’s pictures look sufficiently alike to warrant the claim that there IS a relationship. And this is where art historians differ from computers: art historians, or else, the good ones, weigh-up their proposals against a balance of probabilities, and posit relationships between artists and their works only where there is a demonstrable formal relationship that is meaningful, and, moreover, can be substantiated by consideration of the likelihood that X artist had seen Y’s Picture. That’s what art historians do, and, on the basis of this article, are capable of doing infinitely better than a machine.

Suffice it to say that I don’t think we can expect to see queues of bereft-looking art historians at the Job Centre any time soon . . .

Jamie Edwards

“Spectacular discoveries”: The Ghent Altarpiece makes the news (… again!)

Ghent Altarpiece, St. Bavo's Ghent

Ghent Altarpiece, St. Bavo’s Ghent

Readers might remember that the famous Ghent Altarpiece by Hubert and Jan van Eyck was recently in the news. It last hit the headlines in April because of the ongoing puzzle over the whereabouts of the Just Judges panel, which was nicked from St. Bavo’s in Ghent in 1934 and has threatened to show up a several times in recent years; to no avail, unfortunately. You can read about all of that, plus a bit about the altarpiece’s tumultuous history more generally, on my previous post here.

For now at least, the Just Judges puzzle remains still a puzzle, and the altarpiece’s most recent foray into the public eye is in fact nothing to do with the Judges saga. The altarpiece is instead in the news this time for much more positive, if not exciting, reasons.

Restorers at work (image credit: kikirpa.be)

Restorers at work (image credit: kikirpa.be)

Since 2012, the Ghent Altarpiece has been in restoration. The work is being done at the Museum voor Schone Kunsten in Ghent, where visitors can apparently watch conservators at work on panels from the altarpiece through a glazed wall looking into a specially designed room where the restorers are at work (or so Christina Currie told me recently, who is from from the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage at Brussels (KIK-IRPA), the organisation responsible for overseeing the treatment). The total restoration of the polyptych has been split into 3 phases:

- Phase 1, underway now and due for completion this October, focuses on the outside shutters

- Phase 2, due to start on completion of phase 1, deals with the upper interior panels (the row commencing with Adam and finishing with Eve)

And…

- Phase 3, scheduled to start in April 2016 and complete the following October, deals with the bottom interior panels, so the Mystic Lamb, the Knights, Hermits and Pilgrims (and presumably they WON’T be doing anything with the Just Judges, which is a replica painted by Jef Van der Veken in 1945 to fill the gap left by the theft of the original)

Phase 1: outside shutters

Phase 1: outside shutters

Phase 2: Upper interior panels

Phase 2: upper interior panels

Phase 3: lower interior panels

Phase 3: lower interior panels

The cost of all this is pretty eye-watering: €1,260,433.20 (I wonder what the .20 is for?). So what do you get for that sort of money? Well, they’re examining and repairing the panels themselves, to allow for unconstrained contraction and expansion of the wood, thus preventing further cracking (i.e. panels have presumably been cradled at some point, which has lessened the “give” of the wood and caused fractures). They’re also removing those familiar yellowed and cracked varnish layers, which should make the whole thing look just that bit more brilliant. And finally, since they’re removing the varnishes anyway, they’re also examining the paint layers themselves, to establish if there are overpaints and restorations that ought to be removed, and whether any new restorations are required to damaged parts. All the while, the observations the restorers make will doubtless enrich our understanding of the van Eycks’ methods, and most probably shed light on the whole “what’s by Hubert and what’s by Jan?” problem.

And things are already getting very interesting indeed. During Phase 1, conservators have realised that much of the outside shutters actually feature extensive overpaints. And following 3D Hirox microscope and MA-XRF analyses (whatever they are), it was realised that the paint layers beneath the overpaints are, surprisingly, in good condition (I say surprisingly because overpaints usually hide nasty stuff). Consequently the decision was made to REMOVE pretty much an entire layer of paint from the surface of the outside shutters in a bid to reveal the van Eycks’ original paintwork. A CODART release (CODART is an international network for curators of Netherlandish art) tells us that this work is ongoing, and that centimeter by centimeter a steady hand(!!), wielding a scalpel (agh! – rather you than me), is removing the overpaint that obscures the van Eycks’ superior work.

And the results are impressive. The 2 images below from the Joos Vijd panel show sections where the overpaints have been removed, thus revealing the subtler, more nuanced brushwork that has hitherto been obscured:

Comparison of Vijd's hands: the hand on the far right has had overpaints removed, revealing subtler modelling (image credit: kikirpa.be)

Comparison of Vijd’s hands: the hand on the far right has had overpaints removed, revealing subtler modelling (image credit: kikirpa.be)

Patches of overpaint removed from Vijd's robe (image credit: kikirpa.be)

Patches of overpaint removed from Vijd’s robe (image credit: kikirpa.be)

Other discoveries include a cobweb in the corner of the panel showing Elisabeth Borluut, the wife of Vijd, the altarpiece’s patron; a finding of demonstrable iconographic significance, says the CODART release.

This is all pretty exciting stuff.

But the findings also also beg an obvious question: why were the overpaints done in the first place, if the paint beneath is in such good nick? Who in their right mind would paint over the van Eycks’ brushwork if there was no real cause to do so? From what I gather—and I am by no means especially knowledgable about this—the overpaints are OLD; they certainly have, or had, craqueleur consistent with 15th- or 16th-century paint, and they had, after all, gone undetected by the great connoisseurs of the 20th century (Panofsky, Friedländer and so on never, as far as I know, doubted very much that what they were looking at was the original paintwork–there is a great irony here that much of the scholarship on the altarpiece has been obsessed with discerning Jan’s hand from Hubert’s, whereas it seems, on the outside shutters at least, that up to now we’ve been looking at neither!). When I first heard about the overpaint (again, via Christina Currie), I’d presumed they had been done to conceal fire damage, inflicted on the work in the 16th century–a plausible story, I’d thought. But that can’t be the case, since the paint underneath is superior to the overpaints and well preserved. So it’s all a bit strange. I daresay answers will be forthcoming when the restorations are complete in 2017 and the panels are reunited—less the Just Judges, unless by some miracle it turns up just in time—inside St. Bavo’s, doubtless to great fanfare and accompanied by myriad publications! Watch this space…

 

Jamie Edwards

Connoisseurship Now? Continued.

Anon. The Connoisseur, 1830, lithograph and watercolour, Yale Center for British Art

Anon. The Connoisseur, 1830, lithograph and watercolour, Yale Center for British Art

Regular readers might remember that I recently went off to the Paul Mellon Centre to attend a conference devoted to the subject of connoisseurship and its future directions, or lack thereof, perhaps–you can read my thoughts on that here.

Anyway, the Paul Mellon Centre has made the day’s proceedings available online. You can watch all the papers here.

(Thank you also to Bendor Grosvenor for re-blogging my post about the conference on his own blog, which really is worth a read!)

Jamie Edwards

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