More optimism. Bordering on Loonery.
August 6 2012
Picture: Daily Mail
I know it's August and, Olympics aside, there's not much news about - but this latest art 'discovery' really pushes the limits of credulity. How did it ever get taken seriously? Why are the media so easy to fool on art 'discoveries'? Above is a work claimed by its owner, Fiona McLaren, as a Leonardo - and not just any Leonardo. It is supposed to be Francis I's last commission from the artist, and shows not the Virgin and Child with St John the Baptist, as you and I might think, but Mary Magdalene with Jesus' son. The Daily Mail has the story:
The striking portrait, which shows woman embracing a young child, was nearly assigned to the rubbish tip on several occasions, but facing financial difficulties Ms McLaren, 59, from Scotland decided to take the painting to an expert for a valuation.
Auctioneer Harry Robertson, the director of Sotheby's in Scotland, gasped when he saw the art 23ins by 28ins work which had hung on a landing and in a bedroom in London for decades, before being transferred to Scotland when Ms McLaren and her mother moved into a farmhouse. 'I showed it to him [Mr Robertson] and he was staggered, speechless save for a sigh of exclamation,' said Ms McLaren, according to The People.
Mr Robertson took the work to London for further testing by specialists on old masters and next year the painting will be closely inspected by experts at the Hamilton Kerr Institute at the University of Cambridge, where it should be dated conclusively. [...]
Other experts have stated that the painting is at the very least from the da Vinci school. Professor Carlo Pedretti from the University of California said he thought it was by a Leonardo da Vinci pupil of a later generation, possibly the 16th century.
Ms McLaren said her father used to call the painting 'Madonna and Child with John the Baptist, but having spent a decade researching the history of the work, the nurse believes the painting is actually not the Virgin Mary with baby Jesus, but Mary Magdalene and her son. She thinks the true meaning of the artwork may have been disguised for centuries because such a work would have been considered heretic by the Roman Catholic Church. The Pope decreed the Virgin Mary should be illustrated in blue whereas Mary Magdalene had to be shown in red attire, as depicted in this painting.
Regular readers will know we've seen quite a few art history fantasies over the last few months. This, though, is the most fantastical of them all. The 'evidence' that this is by Leonardo goes as follows:
Indications of a da Vinci: 1. A similarity between the boy and child in his famous piece Madonna of the Rocks, 2. A distinctive 'v' shape in the middle of the woman's hairline reminiscent of that shown in the last supper, 3. The fleur-de-lys is often said to be a hidden emblem of the secretive Priory of Sion, 4. The area by the woman's shoulder is unfinished, common in da Vinci works, 5. A tracing of the figure in the Last Supper matches exactly the outline of the woman in this painting, 6. The baby's second toe is longer than the big toe - another classic da Vinci feature.
Yes, that classic Leonardo technique, the one we all looked out for in the recent National Gallery exhibition: the crap drawing of the toes. This mad story has made The Scotsman and The People, as well as The Daily Mail. A book will also be published, by a reputable publisher, Mainstream, which is part of the Random House group. The book will be available in hardback, paperback and e-book, suggesting the publisher thinks big things of their potential blockbuster. On their website, they describe the book thus:
Da Vinci’s Last Commission by Fiona McLaren is one of the most astonishing detective stories in the history of art. It is also a tale of the courage and tenacity of a woman who challenged the international art establishment, orthodox history and the Church in her quest for the truth.
There's even talk of a newspaper serialisation. How the hell did a respectable publisher fall for this barrel of palpable nonsense? And why are they publishing the book before the Hamilton Kerr have even begun their tests?
Now you might say, 'calm down Bendor - isn't this all harmless fun?' But actually, it isn't. The occassional fantasies are I suppose inevitable. But as readers, you and I deserve better of our newspapers and publishing houses than to read utter nonsense presented as 'news' or 'the most astonishing art detective story in the history of art', by clueless journalists and publishers who can't be bothered to pick up the phone and ask a real expert about the painting in question. (And even when they do ask an expert, then not understand what the expert is saying, as in this case with Carlo Pedretti, who said 'it's by a 16th C follower' - which means it isn't by Leonardo.)
We're now getting to the point where anyone can cobble together a few nutty facts, leap to conclusions, and make an outlandish claim that garners the world's media attention. Last month we had the Caravaggio hoo-ha. Before that we had the 'Bronte Sisters' portrait 'discovery', in which an auctioneer's error-strewn press release made it into The Daily Telegraph verbatim. Soon, newspaper readers and book buyers will see another 'art discovery', and think, 'oh another fantasy'. Genuine art historical discoveries will be like the boy who cried wolf; nobody will believe them anymore.