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I spent hours, days, weeks studying the frescoes of little-known Renaissance master Baldassare Peruzzi, my nose pressed up against his paintings to figure out what makes them tick. But show me an unknown fresco that someone thinks is by Peruzzi -- but that someone else is sure isn't -- and ask me to cut the Gordian knot, and I'd guess my chances of getting it dead right at about 50-50. The expert winds up tied with Lady Luck. Recent events seem to show that other experts face about the same odds. Earlier this month, art history hit the news when a team of scholars announced that the famous Polish Rider in New York's Frick Collection was by Rembrandt -- as most of us had assumed until 1984, when another scholar, from an earlier incarnation of the same Dutch team, had decided it probably wasn't. And then there's the disappearing van Gogh. Over the last few months, a handful of connoisseurs have declared that one of van Gogh's Sunflowers, accepted as authentic by all the experts -- and auctioned for about $50-million to Tokyo's Yasuda Fire and Marine Insurance Company in 1987 -- was a copy, painted a few years after his death. In the world of Canadian art, although the stakes may be lower, attribution is an equally live issue. Even for much-studied icons like Paul Peel, Cornelius Krieghoff and Tom Thomson, there are continuing debates about whether paintings are originals, the artists' own copies, followers' imitations or plain forgeries. There's lots at stake here. Money most prominently, of course: A work declared to be by a great master can sell for 10, 20, even 100 times more than the same work if experts decide it's by a minor follower, let alone a fake. And prestige: Museums, collectors, even nations all want to own works by famous artists, and will fight hard to keep big names attached to their masterpieces. And artistic survival: works by recognized geniuses get lots of attention, loving care and wall space; take away their illustrious birthright, and they disappear into art-history limbo, sometimes even into storage. So what's an art lover -- or dealer, collector, curator -- to do? The answer: be wary of experts bearing attributions. There are many cases where the experts just can't tell who did what -- and most of the time we shouldn't care too much about the name on an art work's label, anyway. Take the case of the Michelangelo sculpture of Cupid in New York. In the fall of 1995, a prominent art historian strolling by a French embassy building on Manhattan's Fifth Avenue spotted a sculpture through the grille work that, she said, "reminded me forcefully in its every detail of the earliest work of Michelangelo." When she trumpeted her discovery in The New York Times a few months later, half her colleagues agreed that a lost Michelangelo had been found. The other half said she was way off. The scholar who brought the sculpture to public attention (it had been noted by earlier researchers, but without fanfare) was Kathleen Weil-Garris Brandt, a professor at New York University's Institute of Fine Arts, a celebrated bastion of art-historical expertise just up the street from where the work was discovered. And she enlisted an impressive array of experts to back her in asserting that the little sculpture, long used as a
garden ornament, was by Michelangelo. But other senior art historians came out against Brandt and her supporters. Leo Steinberg, an eminent scholar from the University of Pennsylvania who is against the Michelangelo attribution, told Art News magazine that "incoherence prevails, along with a sweetish allure . . . foreign to the 20-year-old [Michelangelo]," and that he does not "recognize the young sculptor's hand or mind in the statue's presumable gait." The late Sydney Freedberg, once chief curator emeritus of the National Gallery in Washington and grand old man of Renaissance art history, countered that "the patterning of the hair has an animation and rhythmic complexity that indicates a first-rate mind and hand at work." Another scholarly doubter argued that "the form of the buttocks is just not articulated at all"; a supporter insisted that "the fanny looks pretty well finished." It turns out that a mass of conflicting art-historical opinion is the only evidence at hand to solve the case -- and that it may therefore be unsolvable. As is the case more often than anyone is willing to let on. "I think somebody who has spent a lifetime working on an artist has a real knowledge of how that artist handles paint," said Catherine Johnston, curator of European and American art at the National Gallery in Ottawa. But the problem is that the public -with plenty of help from the professionals -- has taken that common-sense notion and blown it out of all proportion. In our love of experts of all sorts, we seem to have dreamt up a kind of art-historical magician, able to tell great masters at a single glance. Of course, not even the rankest amateur is likely to confuse a Leonardo with a Picasso. Indeed, with a drop of knowledge and practice, almost anyone can make the same kind of distinctions between more closely associated artists -- between two Renaissance artists such as Leonardo and Raphael, say, or Impressionists Renoir and Monet. And then the experts kick in, able reliably (more or less) to tell a Raphael from a work by his teacher Perugino, or by one of his many obscure followers -- the way parents can tell apart identical twins that to everyone else look alike. But if you don't trust the parents, you can always ask the twins themselves who's who. Works of art, however, are famously mute, and if the experts are more than willing to talk for them, their ventriloquism isn't always convincing. It isn't only that some of the evidence looks an awful lot like impressionistic, thinly disguised opinion. Some of the basic premises of connoisseurship (the technical name for, as one authority defines it, "the determination of the authorship, date or place of origin of an art object on the basis of close examination") seem just as dubious. A favourite way to tell a master's work from a follower's, for instance, is on the basis of quality. Ernst van de Wettering, the most vocal member of the Rembrandt Research Project, the team funded by the Dutch government to sort out what the master did and did not paint before his death in 1669, insisted in a documentary that "it's not just a myth or an agreement among the cultured world that Rembrandt is big and the others not. It's true; it's confirmed every time you really go into the work." But some doubters have pointed out that it's hardly surprising to find this opinion confirmed if you have decided beforehand to count only your favourite pictures as being by the master. The National Gallery's Johnston, like many scholars whose favourite masterpieces are in danger of being assigned to minor artists, conceded in a recent interview that "artists do have off days, or perhaps the commission is not so important, so they don't spend as much time with it, or they're not inspired by the subject."
Given the doubts aroused by many of the more traditional attributional arguments that rely on the subjective judgments of connoisseurs, it's not surprising that experts have called on a battery of scientific tests -- X-radiography, dendrochronology, infrared reflectography, autoradiography, spectroscopy, paint-sample analysis -- to help sort out the muddle. And sometimes they do the trick. If chemical analysis of a paint sample from a 17th-century work shows substances that weren't invented until 200 years later, or if study suggests that the work was painted on wood from a tree only recently cut down, it's certain to be a fake. But sometimes the scientific evidence isn't quite so clear cut, so that even when science has spoken, the art experts can choose not to listen. "Science sharpens the eye," Van de Wettering has said -- but the sharp-eyed connoisseur always has the final word. Curators at the National Gallery in Ottawa, whose famous 1629 Tribute Money has been demoted at the hands of the Rembrandt Research Project, have had experience of what they feel is the team's imperfect use of scientific evidence. Said Johnston, "Part of [the Rembrandt Research Project's] argument for dismissing our work is argued scientifically, but what they say can be disproved. Theirs is a subjective opinion, and I wish they'd just come out and say it." But subjective opinions don't carry the weight of hard science, and don't have the finality that experts would like. It may be that the real achievements of connoisseurship (most attributions, after all, are evidently correct and widely accepted) have led scholars to hope for, and even to claim, an across-the-board certainty that the trained eye alone just cannot achieve. There are complex cases on the margins of art history that are probably simply unresolvable. It may in principle be impossible to tell, just by looking, a master's failures from his talented followers' successes. Martin Kemp, a leading Leonardo scholar and head of art history at Oxford University, sees that as a perfectly healthy situation. "I was trained as a scientist . . . and at certain points, as a scientist you had to say, 'My hunch is as follows -- this is my hypothesis -- but I actually have no evidence and I have no way of setting up any procedure which I can see at this moment which is going to deliver that evidence.' This isn't maybe the most comfortable position to be in, but I think it's an honest one." But John O'Brian, an art historian at the University of British Columbia who was trained at Harvard's Fogg Museum, once a haven for connoisseurs of the old school, thinks that scholars still deeply tangled in the coils of attribution may not be willing to accept that discomfort. "It's like the doctor working on a diagnosis. How many specialists in hearts, when you come in with a heart problem, are willing to say 'I just can't figure out what it is.' " And there's lots pushing art experts to come up with definitive pronouncements. Money, for one thing. After the Rembrandt Research Project questioned the authorship of the Portrait of a Man with a Beard in the Thyssen Collection, it sold for just $800,000 (U.S.) -- perhaps less than a quarter of what it might fetch with Rembrandt's name still attached. If the Yasuda Sunflowers was to come on the market today, it would be unlikely to fetch anything like the millions paid before doubt was cast upon its bloodlines. Reputable auction houses give a guarantee when they sell a work, and in some cases may have to make a refund if their attribution can be disproved -- so they steer away from questionable pieces without a name firmly attached. The art market can
function effectively only with certainties that art history may not always be able to provide. But there's more fuelling the desire for final attributions than just lots and lots of money. Even when there's no question of selling a work, much pride and prestige is at stake in who painted it. At Canada's National Gallery, Johnston said they were "very pleased" when an Italian expert, after spending about an hour looking at one of their Renaissance paintings, decided that the work, long thought to be from the workshop of Italian painter Andrea del Sarto, could be said to be by the master himself; the wall label now proudly proclaims the new attribution, without mention of former doubts. But when a favourite picture long admired as a Rembrandt was demoted by the Rembrandt Research Project, Johnston and her colleagues were not as quick to change their minds, or the name on the label. "It still says Rembrandt, but then it has a paragraph below that explains that it has been questioned by the Rembrandt team," she said. "Everybody wants their picture to be by the master himself." As Christopher Brown, chief curator of the National Gallery in London, has said, "there is a sense in which your limb is being chopped off when a major picture by Rembrandt is disattributed." And institutional pride can actually affect what art the public gets to see. Johnston explained that "one does review what's hanging, and questionable attributions and works that aren't in good condition are the ones that go to storage." She told how Myron Laskin, her predecessor at the National Gallery, "went carefully through works that had been exhibited before, and tended to relegate to storage things that he didn't have much faith in, and that included a work that had been considered a selfportrait by Rembrandt." UBC's O'Brian has problems with this kind of thinking -- thinking that even seems to equate hard-to-attribute paintings and works in bad condition. "If it was hanging before with a particular attribution, why should a change in the attribution change the kind of response that one can have to it?" he asked. Conversely, he said a big name can give a work "status and interest which justifies its being there, even if it's not a particularly interesting work. Take away that name, then all you have is an unnamed painting by an unnamed artist that isn't particularly compelling, so into the vault it goes." The biggest problem with connoisseurship may simply be the vast energy it eats up. Every curator complains of museum visitors who study the name plate closely but barely glance at the work it's stuck to. In North America at least, connoisseurship no longer has the iron grip it used to have on accademic art history -- "it had become a fairly airless discipline, hermetically sealed around issues of names, dates, authorship," recalled O'Brian of his training in the early eighties. But figuring out who painted what -- probably not the most interesting question to ask about works of art -- is still a major preoccupation, especially in Europe, and in museums around the world. It may be true that, as Oxford's Kemp pointed out, "few historians can do without connoisseurship . . . because if we don't know what was painted when, by whom, then we're in rather poor shape." But all by itself, just knowing who painted something is pretty clearly a waste of time; you need to be able say something interesting about the connection between what the picture looks like and the name attached to it -- and too few connoisseurs even think of going that extra step.
Perhaps the desire to attach big names to wonderful works of art is inevitable. As Hayden Maginnis, a McMaster University art historian who has written on the history of connoisseurship, pointed out, our obsessive fascination with celebrity extends even to long-dead artists. "The idea of the Hero," he explained, "is still deeply embedded in the civilization of the West, even though it may be fading out of academic art history." Van de Wettering has admitted that behind his hunt for Rembrandt attributions "is the hope that you can follow the tracks of genius. It's a very natural thing. . . . If there is the chance to understand this man, I want it to be as clear and as clean and as welldefined as possible." Svetlana Alpers, a senior art historian and Rembrandt scholar, is famous for innovative thinking far removed from connoisseurial debates. But even she does not dismiss an interest in the hand and mind of the maker (although she is quite willing to doubt the ability of attributional connoisseurship reliably to give us information about either). "In a post-Foucault age, where the notion of the author -- or of the painter -- is in question, I still think that a major interest in a work of art is in human making. . . . Human inventiveness in the making and producing of something is something to be valued, and something to have huge sympathy with." If only we could tell who made what . . .
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