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).
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.
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?
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.