There's no doubt that a debate is developing about the role, and indeed nature, of connoisseurship in the 21st century. That's hardly surprising with the current Close Examination: Fakes, Mistakes and Discoveries show at the National Gallery, not to mention pleas for a return to "good old-fashioned connoisseurship" from some quarters. I'm told that the head of Artwatch, Michael Daly, used the phrase when introducing the recent James Beck memorial lecture; see also Tom Flynn's comments about forensic art history on his blog.
Mention of 'forensic art history' brings me to an interesting phenomenon in popular culture, namely different kinds of police procedurals in which varying methodologies are used. I think I'm justified in referring to these since recent cases in art history like the cold case of Caravaggio's remains and Leonardo's thumbprint, are being spoken of in the language of the T.V. police procedural. The American T.V. series C.S.I. is the obvious reference point here with its painstaking accumulation of concrete evidence and scientific accuracy when measuring skulls or reassembling bodily remains. Though intriguing, the parallel with art history doesn't entirely work because we don't have the complete physical data of renaissance and early modern subjects like Leonardo and Caravaggio to draw on. Martin Kemp makes this point in his book on the Bella Principessa: it's not really a forensic investigation since we can't actually take Leonardo's fingerprints. Detecting the artist's fingerprints on vellum at a remove of 500 years or more doesn't make it a forensic exercise.
Still, it's instructive to pursue the analogy between connoisseurship and crime detection. I suppose the art history equivalent of the C.S.I. laboratory is something like the Science Department at the National Gallery, headed by Ashok Roy, a chemist by training rather than an art historian. In an illuminating article by Paul Levy, Roy makes it clear that arguing that the infamous Madonna of the Pinks is by Raphael, depends on scientific know-how, not "good old-fashioned connoisseurship." This is rapidly becoming a rallying call to those who are fearful of the supplanting of traditional connoisseurship by the instrumentality of science. My own view is that science plays its part in attribution issues, conservation of paintings and curatorial practices in general; but it doesn't follow that it cannot coexist with traditional approaches, or that it should take their place, which seems to be a prevailing view of the U.K. magnifici.
Edgar Wind suspected as much in his essay on connoisseurship in Art and Anarchy, the book based on the Reith lectures he gave in 1963. Wind's essay is actually a critique of connoisseurship, which he saw as too reliant on the spontaneous, the sketchy and the unlaboured parts of a painting. At the same time, Wind urged art historians not to completely junk traditional methods, by which he meant Giovanni Morelli's seminal approach to connoisseurship. For the uninformed, Morelli is the father of traditional connoisseurship; it all starts with his innovative combination of medicine, psychology and aesthetics.
"As most men who speak or write have verbal habits and use their favourite words and phrases involuntarily and sometimes even most inappropriately, so almost any painter has his own peculiarities which escape from him without him being aware of them…Anyone, therefore, who wants to study a painter closely must know how to discover these material trifles and attend to them with care: a student of calligraphy would call them flourishes."
Morelli (quoted in Wind)
This is the key point. Morelli believes that telltale signs betray an artist in their spontaneous phase; and a good connoisseur should attune him or herself to spot these. Writing in the century of Freud, Wind had no hesitation in pointing out that it wasn't odd that personality could be found where personal effort was the weakest: the little off-hand gestures or signs betray more about our character than any formulated and carefully prepared process. It's not surprising, as Wind points out, that the great connoisseur of renaissance art, Bernard Berenson –above- took Morelli's method into the sphere of "psychological aesthetics", his idea that it is possible to empathize with tactile values in a painting.
In the language of the police procedural these 'flourishes' would be called 'signatures', and the process by which the artist is identified, a kind of profiling. Like a criminal leaving clues, the painter wants to us to identify him, a kind of Freudian slip, manifest in the individualized physiognomic details like ears, toes, fingers, particularly conspicuous in the "spontaneous" part of the artistic process. This has to be subconscious, not pre-meditated; in criminology, the signature could be a pattern of words, a stammer, or even a lack of one, something that ultimately gives the perpetrator away. This is taking us further away from C.S.I art history and closer to another top police show, Criminal Minds. Unlike the C.S.I. franchise, Criminal Minds does not concentrate on physical evidence but detects sociopaths through an elaborate method of psychological and sociological profiling. The team compiles and manages an archive of perpetrators who are identifiable by specific signatures. One of the team, Dr Spencer Reid, has an IQ of 187, an eidetic memory and can read 20,000 words a minute; he is a walking computer databank whose contents are often tapped in order to establish whether the criminal pattern is entirely new or derivative. There are parallels with connoisseurs who must consult their art history memory in order to match a real or recorded artwork to the work they see before their eyes. The same problem arises: is it authentic or a fake; is it a new serial killer or a copycat? Unlike Dr Reid, I'm no genius, nor do I have an eidetic memory, but I have memorized a lot of images which I call on when considering attribution. If the target image doesn't match or approximate to what my art history software is telling me is a Leonardo or a Raphael, then I'm inclined to reject it. Is that counter-intuitive? Well yes, and that's the point. Tom Flynn also underlines this when he says that for him 'La Bella Principessa' doesn't have the 'look' of a Leonardo, despite the fact that hard science has been used to prove attribution. I felt the same way when I saw the NG's Pinks Madonna; it didn't have the look of a Raphael, and guess what- it still doesn't! Not that it makes any difference, but I think the NG got the wrong profile here.
I sense that signature based connoisseurship is in retreat on the evidence of recent exhibition catalogues and articles, not to mention the fact that the rationale for the Close Examinations show is to celebrate the work of scientific detection in the museum, not connoisseurship per se. Perhaps curators are being dissuaded from using the morphological, the detection of a signature because it is deemed too unscientific or intuitive. This dwindling of the intuitive in authentication owes much to the establishment of scientific testing in curatorial departments, now a sine qua non of museum practice and policy. Today, you couldn't imagine the art historical detection process without it. Using my TV crime analogy again, we seem to be in the realm of CSI not Criminal Minds: meticulous examination of material evidence, microscopic data and forensics rather than profiling by the use of the signature aided by the art history archive. Wind seems to have anticipated the widening gulf between science-based art history and the more traditional Morelli – pictured below-inspired type of connoisseurship.
"It is a curious and memorable fact that the Romantic cult of the spasm, while driving the arts into a state of crisis, has yielded for the historical study of painting a valid method of analysis. The technique of whittling down a picture almost to its vanishing point for the purpose of obtaining a pure physiognomic cipher has given a firm basis to the connoisseurship of painting, and it would be foolish to think we could do without it. No laboratory test, however helpful, can entirely replace the morphological tests of Morelli: in the end the 'hand' must be recognized by its graphic character, in whatever stratum of pigment it may appear. Hence, the opinion usually voiced by art historians that Morellian analysis may be going out of fashion is as chimerical a fault as to suppose that paleography might become outmoded in the study of manuscripts."
I wonder if the kind of rapprochement between science and traditional connoisseurship that Wind supports has disappeared completely. Reading Martin Kemp's and Pascal Cotte's book on Leonardo's controversial "La Bella Principessa", I find the deployment of stylistic analysis, e.g. comparisons between the drawing and others in Da Vinci's circle next to full-on multi-spectral analysis, digital tabulation, and fingerprint analysis. Not that Kemp is using the Morellian method; that was a swept away by the realization that old masters had workshops or schools who tried to imitate their 'signatures.' It's the Criminal Minds dilemma again: it's one thing to find a signature, but what if it's the imitation of it, a superimposition of a fake signature over a real one. I can't help thinking of underdrawings in this regard. How will this aspect of the artistic process evolve in connoisseurship debates in the 21st century?
Like Tom, I don't have any agenda on the Leonardo drawing, but it does make me wonder about the state of connoisseurship today, and more importantly, its place in an authentication process that is becoming increasingly dependent on scientific testing. The history of connoisseurship in the U.K. and its gradual displacement by science needs to be explored further. For example, I learnt from Levy's article that the Oxford scientist Teddy Hall who "exposed the Piltdown Man fraud in 1953, and in 1988 dated the Turin Shroud," was partly responsible for the setting up of the NG science department. Kenneth Clark- above- who became director of the NG in 1934, may have brought this pro-science view from Oxford, though it didn't stop him from using his eye in the traditional way, sometimes with mortifying results. This set of panels, now attributed to the minor Veneto master Andrea Previtali, were acquired by the NG as Giorgiones in 1937 Read Nicholas Penny's fascinating description of the back story of these paintings, labeled 'Giorgione' by Clark in a "moment of unforgiveable weakness." In this case, neither traditional connoisseurship nor scientific examination played any part in the attribution. Clark "fell in love with the paintings and began to dream about them." We don't do connoisseurship like this anymore, (do we?), but I still think that the subjective and intuitive has a role in evaluation, so long as it is tempered by science. Conversely, I think scientific examination needs to be curbed too; otherwise we end up with a 'Madonna of the Fakes' situation, and the serious implications of that affair. Ideally, what we need is a hybrid of CSI and Criminal Minds, a blueprint for a new kind of connoisseurship where scientific method and traditional connoisseurship interact rather than push each other out. Kemp and Cotte's project just might provide that model; we shall have to see if others follow suit.
Martin Kemp and Pascal Cotte, La Bella Principessa: The Story of the New Masterpiece by Leonardo da Vinci, London, 2010.
Paul Levy, 'Discovering Art's Authenticity' Wall Street Journal, 25/6/10.
Nicholas Penny, The Sixteenth-Century Italian Paintings, Vol. 1, NG catalogue, London, 2004, 291-9.
Edgar Wind, 'Critique of Connoisseurship' in Art and Anarchy, London, 1963, 32-51.