The case for old-fashioned connoisseurship

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The stifling of expert opinions is like having fully trained doctors who can’t make a diagnosis, says the art historian Bendor Grosvenor

Spot the difference: the painting (left), an untitled 1956 work said to be by Mark Rothko, sold to Domenico de Sole for $8.3m, and had allegedly been examined by experts. It was later uncovered as a fake. The painting (right), No. 9 (Dark over Light Earth/Violet and Yellow in Rose), 1954, is a genuine work by Rothko

Suddenly, connoisseurship seems to matter again. It always mattered to me personally, as someone who earns a living sniffing out misattributed pictures. But now interest is growing on a wider level and, amazingly, even among academic art historians. I’m asked to speak about it often, most recently at a conference at the Paul Mellon Centre in London. The pendulum is at last swinging away from the “authorship doesn’t matter” brigade.

There are a number of reasons for this reassessment, but the most important is that people (the museum-going, art-aware public) really do want to know who painted what, no matter how many times art historians tell them it’s irrelevant. By some distance, the highest-rated art programme on the BBC (with up to 6m viewers) is “Fake or Fortune?”. It sounds like a game show, but in fact it’s all about finding attributions for lost pictures, usually based on connoisseurship.

Needless to say, some art historians are cynical about such a cheesily named programme. They resent the idea that somebody outside the closed ranks of academics and curators is able to attribute paintings.

But happily this sniffy elite is being left behind. The explosion of online collections means that access to art has now been democratised in an unprecedented way. The public no longer have to accept a curator’s view of what they should be looking at, and can explore (in the UK at least) the staggering 80% of our national collection which is not on display via the website of the Public Catalogue Foundation (PCF), Your Paintings. And because one in five of the works on Your Paintings either has no attribution or an uncertain one, there is a growing interest in finding out more about these “unknown” works.

The latest website created by the PCF, called Art Detective, invites both the public and a network of enthusiastic experts to help identify these art historical orphans. It’s the world’s first professionally created art historical crowd-sourcing project, and it seems to work. To pick a recent example, user Toby Betteridge recently identified an unattributed picture in the National Museum of the Navy as being a study by Arthur David McCormick for a larger picture, Valve Testing, 1919, in the Imperial War Museum. Art Detective is modern connoisseurship in action.

Yet perhaps we must count ourselves lucky that connoisseurship is still practised at all. Professor Liz Prettejohn of York University spoke recently (at that Mellon conference) of the growing “crisis” in art history over connoisseurship’s decline. Her analysis is that “new art history’s” quest for contextualisation and its eschewal of connoisseurship has gone too far, and that we may even have thrown the baby out with the bathwater (the cliché is mine). Of ten highly qualified candidates for an art history post at York, Professor Prettejohn told us, only two could recognise a well-known etching by Rembrandt. Most couldn’t even place it in the right century. That’s scary.

In fact, “crisis” may not go far enough. I’m continually amazed by how few art historians are able to recognise the artist of a particular painting, and how they blindly rely on the connoisseurship of previous generations, as if it is infallible. I’m surprised that one can look at the online collection of a major British museum and see a painting demonstrably by, say, George Romney called simply “Circle of Romney”. I’m puzzled too that many museums seem still to revel in the safe catch-all of “English School”, and show no curiosity at all about the artist. It’s like living in a world where doctors are all fully trained and can write diligent papers on diseases, but can’t make a diagnosis.

That’s why I believe that the basic lack of connoisseurial skills we are faced with in art history is weakening the foundations of the discipline. I may be selfishly delighted when major US museums accidentally de-accession works by Van Dyck or Rubens (it happens more often than you might think), but for the public’s trust in an institution it is a disaster. It upsets me to open a handsomely printed monograph only to find basic errors of attribution, and thus see our understanding of that artist’s oeuvre set back for a generation. I despair at seeing a picture over-cleaned through a conservator’s basic misunderstanding of how an artist worked, and the removal of an original glaze in the belief that it is either dirt or over-paint (the Sistine Chapel is the most depressing example of this). Such calamities are what happens when those involved in art history, be they students, teachers or curators, spend their days looking at illustrations in a book, and writing impenetrable and impossible to prove theories on social context.

Art historians and museums are in danger of becoming detached from two of the fundamental purposes of their job—to help preserve our heritage, and to accurately inform the public about the works of art they’re looking at. If, as an institution, you refuse to closely study the object you are charged with preserving, here is what happens: you’ll end up with many of your best pictures in storage; you’ll display pictures without any form of explanatory label; you’ll sack leading specialists on individual artists, leaving a vacuum in the study of that field of art; and you’ll put on misguidedly political exhibitions nobody goes to see. You also won’t pay your curators enough.

We need to stop being so anxious about the term connoisseurship. It need have nothing to do with class, taste, or gender, and it shouldn’t matter much whether it’s practised by someone in the art trade. At its basic level, it is simply about closely observing objects until you can recognise certain features about them. Its basic process can help us learn so much more than simply who painted what when. But if we don’t get that right first, then everything else art historians do, from contextualising to interpretation, falls apart. That’s why connoisseurship matters so much.

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