Author Archives: jamieedwards756

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

UoB crest

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

“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

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

Ain’t no party like a Bauhaus party . . .!

Bauhaus

Students from the Art History department and the Barber Association have organised a summer soirée for everyone in the department to celebrate the end of the year, the end of exams(!), and to see off our finalists with a bang!

It takes place on Monday 9 June from 7-10pm in the Barber.

The theme is Bauhaus, and fancy-dress is welcome, encouraged, even – time to don your thinking caps, perhaps take cue from the above photograph of Oskar Schlemmer’s  Bauhaus costumes from the 1920s! Otherwise, dress in metallics.

Tickets cost £18, with a reduced ticket price of £15 for Barber Association members. The event will include:

- Drinks on arrival

- Light buffet

- Photographer

- Live music

…and last but not least…

- A photo booth  (for flaunting all those ace Bauhaus-esque outfits!)

You will be allowed to bring some alcohol with you, as long as it is not spirits or red wine. So feel free to bring along some white wine or fizz to celebrate another year’s hard work!

Tickets can be purchased from the Barber reception or from your year reps. Plus ones are more than welcome. The Facebook event can be found here.

 

 

“I’d rather gouge out my eyes with a rusty penknife than call myself a connoisseur . . . ” Connoisseurship Now?

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

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

I’m writing (but not posting) this on the train back up to Brum from London. I’ve been at the Paul Mellon Centre for the Study of British Art, where I’d never been before and is really rather lovely, and which today (Friday 2nd May) hosted a one-day conference dedicated to a discussion of the future of connoisseurship and its (uneasy) place in modern art historical scholarship: An Educated Eye: Connoisseurship Now. And I must say, it was a thoroughly enjoyable, thought-provoking, and at times slightly strange, conference.

The big question is: does connoisseurship have a future? For the uninitiated reader, the question perhaps reads like an odd one. Isn’t art history all about who painted/sculpted/drew what and when did they do it? And aren’t art historians precisely the sorts of people who are qualified to pontificate on precisely those sorts of things? Art historians can spot their Rembrandts from their Rubens from miles off with their “Educated Eyes”, can’t they? For that matter, aren’t art historians and connoisseurs the same thing anyway? Once upon a time, perhaps the answer would have been “YES” on all these counts; the early days of art history in the 19th and early 20th centuries are marked by a noticeable desire to point out that “X painted Y in Z”, qualified along the way with statements like “We know this because that’s exactly how X did eyes, fingernails, hairdos…, ears,… especially in his “middle period”…” etc. (we’re in the realm of Morelli, here).

Morelli's artists' ears

Morelli’s artists’ ears

But it’s not quite that straightforward. For as long as connoisseurs have existed, they’ve been satirised by artists and derided as phonies (in Bruegel’s famous drawing of the Artist and Connoisseur, Bruegel has the connoisseur wearing glasses, which was probably intended as a dig at the connoisseur’s claims of possessing innately  “educated eyes”).  In other words, the label connoisseur always seems to have carried some pejorative associations. And things then got really tricky for connoisseurs in about the 1970s/80s with the emergence of so-called “New Art History”: so that’s stuff like social art history and feminist art history, with which art history undergraduates become intimately familiar from the get-go at Brum and pretty much every other art history department in the UK . The practitioners of new art histories professed a severe disinterest in the fact that “X painted Y in Z”, and “we know this because X always painted his eyes like that”, which it deemed myopic and trivial. New wave art historians instead sought to instill intellectual rigor into the discipline of art history and to analyse artworks with a view to revealing more profound, erudite insights about artworks in their social, political, religious . . . cultural . . . . etc. contexts.

Bruegel, Artist and Connoisseur, c.1565, pen and ink on paper, Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna

Bruegel, Artist and Connoisseur, c.1565, pen and ink on paper, Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna

As a consequence, the art world, encompassing the academy, galleries/museums, the art market, and the connoisseurs (which up to then had kind of straddled all those realms) was drawn into a polemic: proper art history ain’t about who did what when, said the new generation of scholars, whereas the art market and museums remained—remain in fact—steadfastly keen on precisely those sorts of things. Let’s not beat around the bush, a picture is worth a LOT more if it’s demonstrably a “Rembrandt” instead of a “Dirk, the painter from up the road”, and the gallery visitor is, I guess, more satisfied to learn that Rembrandt painted this image of himself in 1669, rather than “unknown self portrait of a 17th-century Dutch artist, date unknown”.

This conference was about making sense of those debates, casting an eye over what’s happened during the intervening years since the emergence of new art history, and to cast a prophetic eye into the future and ask what room there is for connoisseurship in art world going forward. And the answer was surprisingly comforting: there is still cause to be concerned with who made what and when, and that this is in fact a prerequisite for embarking on, say, a social art historical investigation into the work of a given artist. As Liz Prettejohn lucidly described, how are you supposed to know what social context to situate a work of art in if you don’t know/care about when/where the artwork was made, which, often, entails considerations of a connoisseurial kind. However, connoisseurship as an autonomous art is no longer viable, not least of all because it’s unsustainable, which is to say that if we cling on to practicing  connoisseurship in the traditional sense, what do we do once we’ve figured out the who made what and when for every work of art there is? We’d have, in other words, nothing left to do.

Everyone in the room seemed to agree here. There was a general consensus that we probably should all care about things like attribution, dates, provenance and so forth, if, for nothing else, for the sake of conscientious history and the preservation of our heritage, and because it provides the bare materials, if you like, for art historical research. There was pretty much agreement, as well, that perhaps connoisseurship should be re-introduced to university curricula–or else, something that is the same in gist but goes under a different name given the dodgy associations of connoisseur (although nobody in the room could come up with a suitable alternative!). As was pointed out on more than one occasion, connoisseurship, but in particular the vital skills of visual analysis and description, are no longer inculcated in university art history degree programs and far too many art historians consequently spend too much of their time NOT looking, or perhaps don’t know how to look, at the objects of their study. Visual discernment has gone out the window, and new art history has come in through the front door (and is refusing to leave the hallway). (PLUG ALERT: I don’t think the last statement holds true in the case of the Art History department at Birmingham. We’re blessed to be based in the Barber Institute, whose stellar collection is at our disposal, and so visual analysis is actually at the very heart of what we do here!)

But what was MOST revealing during the conference are the lingering antagonisms that have persisted from 1980s and continue to divide, say, the art dealer from the art historian.

It’s an antagonism that is brought into sharp focus when we contrast Martin Myrone’s opinions (who is curator of pre-1800’s art at the Tate) with those expressed by Bendor Grosvenor (the chap from the BBC’s Fake or Fortune… but who is also a serious scholar and the author of a very good blog), who represented the art-dealer-cum-unabashed-connoisseur at the conference. Grosvenor is all about the eureka moment that comes from when one is presented, as a connoisseur, with a picture that has languished in some dusty museum rack for decades but is “obviously” a lost van Dyck (= a hitherto undiscovered masterpiece worth squillions). Grosvenor was upfront about it: he needs connoisseurship in his line of work as a dealer because collectors want names. But he was also astounded by how few art historians actually practice connoisseurship and have no clue about how to look at pictures – “it’s like having a fully-trained doctor who is unable to make a diagnosis”, he said. For his money, good old fashioned visual analysis is a prerequisite to proper art historical research, and I think I agree with him here. For his part, Myrone said “so what?” to connoisseurship. In these difficult financial times, should museums/galleries really expend their time, effort and money on all-things connoisseurial? Does it really matter whether a landscape can be proved to be by Gainsborough or not (he had a dig at Bendor’s Fake or Fortune here)? Laying aside the matter of commercial value which is indelibly linked to authorship, a landscape’s a landscape, surely, and can be studied and enjoyed as such?

One of these two drawings, both in the BM, is by Michelangelo . . .

One of these two drawings, both in the BM, is by Michelangelo . . .

In all, pretty interesting stuff. The connoisseur problem is clearly still alive. Hugo Chapman, who is curator of old master drawings at the British Museum, avoids the label connoisseur, beginning his talk with the words quoted in the title to this post: “I’d rather gouge out my eyes with a rusty penknife than call myself a connoisseur . . . ”. Chapman explained that it isn’t necessarily what connoisseurship is that makes him anxious (Chapman, after all, does connoisseurship at work – how else did he decide which of the two drawings in the BM of an Ideal Female Head is by Michelangelo?) it’s more what the word means, or is perceived to mean: snooty, posh bloke who, just by looking, knows instantly what something is, who it’s by etc., and isn’t very much interested in anything else. In sum, then, perhaps connoisseurship is still important and relevant to us all, scholars, curators and dealers alike, but the word has too much baggage. Perhaps, then, we need to stop and have a re-think  as to what connoisseurship is, what it entails, how we do it and for what purposes, and, for that matter, what we call it. And perhaps we really do need to re-consider how or if it’s taught in universities.

 

Jamie

 

Curating Art History Colloquium – Programme

UoB crest

 

There’s still time to buy tickets for this year’s Departmental Colloquium. Tickets can be purchased from the online shop. Students from the Department of Art History, Film and Visual Studies can confirm their attendance by emailing Faith Trend directly at: FCT357@bham.ac.uk.

The programme has now been finalised and is available below. With a truly international billing–our keynote is coming all the way from Australia–, besides speakers from closer to home, the colloquium promises to be a fascinating exploration into the worlds of museum curating and academic art history, and we hope to see lots of you there!

 

Curating Art History: Dialogues between museum professionals and academics

7th and 8th May 2014

 The Barber Institute of Fine Art, The University of Birmingham 

 

PROGRAMME

 

DAY 1 (7th May)

14:00 – 14:45 Registration and refreshments (Barber Institute Foyer)

14:45 – 15:00 Welcome and Introduction (Barber Lecture Theatre)

Erin Shakespeare (UoB); Nicola Kalinsky (The Barber Institute)

 

PANEL 1: ETHNOGRAPHY AND CURATING NATIVE ART (Barber Lecture Theatre)

Respondent: Nicola Kalinsky

15:00 – 15:50 KEYNOTE: The Hang and Art History

Catherine De Lorenzo (University of New South Wales, Australia)

15:50 – 16:10 Contemporary Native Perspectives: Dialogue and Exchange in Artistic Practices and Curatorial Methodologies

Helen Shaw (University of York)

16:10 – 16:30 t.b.c.

Bryony Onciul (University of Exeter)

16:30 – 17:00 Response and Questions

 

19:00 – 21:00 Conference dinner (venue to be confirmed)

 

DAY 2 (8th May)

9:30 – 10:00 Registration (second day attendees) (Barber Institute Foyer)

 

PANEL 2: KNOWLEDGE EXCHANGE AND DEVELOPMENT (Barber Lecture Theatre)

Respondent: Clare Mullet (UoB)

10:00 – 10:20 Art detective: creating collection knowledge through public engagement

Andy Ellis (Public Catalogue Foundation)

10:20 – 10:40 Cross-talking in Engage Journal 

Karen Raney (University of East London)

10:40 – 11:00 Response and Questions

 

11:00 – 11:30 Coffee break (Barber Institute Foyer)

 

PANEL 3: EXHIBITIONS THAT CHALLENGE CURATORIAL PRACTICE AND ART HISTORY (Barber Lecture Theatre)

Respondent: Richard Woodfield (Journal of Art Historiography; UoB)

11:30 – 11:50 Post-humanist Desire: Visualising Cyborgs and the Hybridised Body

Ming Turner (National Cheng Kung University, Taiwan)

11:50 – 12:10 [Re]Exhibiting Impermanent Art

Vera Carmo (University of Maia, ISMAI, Portugal)

12:10 – 12:30 Between a Rock Drill and a Hard Place: Researching and Curating Sir Jacob Epstein (1880-1959)

Elin Morgan (UoB; The New Art Gallery Walsall)

12:30 – 13:00 Response and Questions

 

13:00 – 14:30 Lunch (Barber Institute Foyer)

Time to look at the Faith and Fortune exhibition in preparation for the afternoon’s paper (Coin Gallery, Barber Institute)

 

14:30 – 15:00 Exhibiting coins as economic artefacts: Faith and Fortune: visualising the divine on Byzantine and early Islamic coinage (Barber Lecture Theatre)

Chairs: Jamie Edwards and Faith Trend (UoB)

Rebecca Darley (The Warburg Institute) and Daniel Reynolds (UoB)

 

15:00 – 16:00 Roundtable AHRC Iconoclasms Network (Barber Lecture Theatre)

A cross-disciplinary debate and Art Under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm at Tate Britain

Chair: Lauren Dudley (UoB)

Richard Clay, Henry Chapman, Leslie Brubaker (UoB); Stacy Boldrick (The Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh); Simon Cane (Birmingham Museums Trust)

16:00 Closing Remarks

Jutta Vinzent (UoB)

 

16:30 – 17:30 Drinks reception (Barber Institute Foyer)

 

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