03 Jul, 2010

The real deal

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

Close Examination reveals that curators are as besotted by the myth of undiscovered masterpieces as the rest of us

Surely poor old Walter Sickert gets enough bad press as it is. He appears as a sinister accessory to serial murder in Alan Moore’s comic strip about Jack the Ripper, From Hell, and the crime writer Patricia Cornwell went a few steps further by purchasing his works in an attempt to link him to the Whitechapel killings. Now the National Gallery has fingered him for a crime nearly as heinous: attempting to deceive its curators.

In the 1920s, Sickert made the gallery a generous gift. It was a small oil sketch portrait by Delacroix of a moustachioed character he said was a French social campaigner. In fact (as wall texts in the National’s free summer exhibition explain) this cannot possibly be a Delacroix; the style is completely wrong. What it looks like – what it may actually be – is a portrait painted by Sickert himself.

Why would he do it? Presumably for the fun of tricking the gallery and fictionalising the historical record. In the years when Sickert painted his fake Delacroix, the study of art was becoming more scientific thanever. Scholars were assiduously identifying the styles and personalities of individual old masters and expunging misattributions by the truckload. The corpus of paintings by Leonardo da Vinci shrank drastically as wishful thinking was eradicated. But even so, as this new exhibition gleefully demonstrates, the new experts could make mistakes too – not least when one of the leading British artists of the day deliberately misled them.

Close Examination: Fakes, Mistakes and Discoveries is a seriously entertaining show. At times it is like being inside a labyrinth of fictions devised by Borges or Calvino, as the props of reassurance fall away and fact becomes fable. The fakes exposed in the first room are stunning works of art in their own right. Would you be able to tell by looking that the National’s so-called Madonna of the Veil is a modern forgery rather than the Renaissance picture it claims to be? It is crammed with convincing detail, including the kind of diaphanous silk garment you see in real Renaissance paintings by the likes of Botticelli. When it was bought by the National Gallery in the 1920s, some critics said the Madonna’s face looked suspiciously like a film star’s – but you could have fooled me. A nearby painting, supposedly of a Renaissance prince and his children looking out of a window, is a lot easier to laugh off – it is hideous, and I can’t understand how it ever fooled anyone. A Venetian scene in the same room, purportedly an 18th-century view, looks grimly Victorian.

The reason the National Gallery can now reveal these oddities of its collection as the fakes they are (although the Venetian case is not yet settled) lies in the advance of scientific techniques for examining paintings. Close Examination is necessarily loaded with text – a problem it solves by presenting everything within an almost constructivist graphic design printed on to the walls. And not only do you want to read every word, but you find yourself relishing terms such as dendrochronology, Raman microscopy and energy dispersive X-ray spectrometry.

Yet the really clever thing about the exhibition is that it does not celebrate scientific certainty in some crassly positivist way. The trouble with dendrochronology – the method of dating wooden panels – is that we newspapers and news sources tend to report it with a kind of hushed awe, part of a naive belief that scientific techniques can solve every mystery about art. The beauty of this exhibition is that it leads you away from such crude thinking. It enriches, rather than reduces, your awe at the enigma of great art. It is ultimately an exhibition about history, and about the tangled histories of paintings as objects: do we really think they survive the centuries unscarred?

Perhaps the most fascinating exhibits concern the Venetian artist Giorgione. This gifted painter, who was apparently influenced by Leonardo, and who created a handful of masterpieces in the early 1500s before dying painfully young, is one of the most mythified of all artists. Fascination with his style and his story led 19th- and early 20th-century scholars to behave like besotted fans. In the 1930s, a set of small pictures were bought for a then-huge sum by the National Gallery, in the belief that they were by Giorgione. It was rapidly realised they were not. More troubling still is the case of the gallery’s authentic yet heavily restored Giorgione landscape, The Sunset (1506-10). You can see in a contemporary magazine report displayed here what a battered, fragmentary object it was when it was rediscovered in 1933. Restorations have turned it into a lovely, and coherent, picture – but the coherence is partly fictional: a detail of a knight fighting a dragon seems to have been added by a restorer. Close Examination makes you realise how much of the grace of old paintings is the work of their conservers.

If we learn anything from this exhibition, it should be to expect less perfection in galleries. Fakes and forgeries and misleading repaints look so nice: clean, bright, complete. History, though, is a lot messier. There is one very telling case here. The Virgin and Child Before a Firescreen by a follower of the Flemish painter Robert Campin was painted in about 1440. The panel the gallery owns is actually a fragment, whose damaged rectangle was enhanced in the 19th century by the addition of two painted strips that continue the scene on the top and the right side. National Gallery restorers have deliberately stressed the slightly different tones of the original part of the painting and its later mending: but why not remove the later strips completely? This late medieval fragment would still look miraculous. It would only need a little bit more imagination and sympathy by the onlooker. Would that be too much to ask?

Rating: 4/5

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