More on the Degas
September 17 2012
We had a 20% audience share last night for the first episode of 'Fake or Fortune?', with 3.8m viewers. The grand fromages at the BBC are pleased with the figures, which are high for an arts programme. We hope to do better next Sunday, when we're back at our usual 7pm slot. If you saw it, thanks for tuning in. Next week's programme should be even better, with not one but three paintings up for inspection.
The critical feedback so far has been encouraging, with the Telegraph being very kind:
It’s hard to imagine a more artfully crafted – if you’ll pardon the pun – piece of Sunday night factual telly than the return of Fake or Fortune?
Meanwhile, over on Twitter the programme has its very own troll, and a famous one too. The critic and arts presenter Waldemar Januszczak (of whose programmes and writing I'm a great fan) really doesn't like the show. He dismissed the Degas as 'dodgy' and a wrong 'un before he'd even seen the evidence in the programme, on the basis of a short clip on the news. That's an impressive display of connoisseurship, don't you think? One might have thought there'd be a certain solidarity among arts TV makers, especially those that share commissioning editors...
Still, the main thing for me was that we were able to showcase some quite complicated art historical investigations to the broadest possible audience. Normally, terms like 'connoisseurship', 'provenance research' and 'pigment analysis' are banished to BBC2, BBC4 or even the radio. Sadly, there was quite a lot of research we weren't able to squeeze in. Untangling the provenance of the two versions of Blue Dancer was highly complicated, and made our brains hurt. But a saving grace was that the sizes were listed, and of course matched up.
Another unbroadcast but key part of the research we presented to the Degas catalogue compilers focused on our theory that Patrick Rice's picture was a study for the one in Hamburg. The alleged weaknesses in Patrick's picture are all forgiveable if one accepts that it was no more than a preparatory effort for the finished picture in Hamburg. Patrick's picture had to be judged not against the many famous, finished Degas' we are familiar with from books and museums, but against his sketches and studies, which are far less known, and hardly ever reproduced (in some cases only in poor black and white photos in the catalogie raisonne). And the best proof that Patrick's picture was indeed a study came in the discovery of two important pentimenti, or changes, in the painting. The first was that Degas had changed the position of the right hand double bass head - it was originally substantially further to the right. He had also painted the dress of the dancer before he then moved the double bass head over to the left. Such movements rule out any suggestion that Patrick's picture was a straightforward copy of the one in Hamburg.
A few Tweeters, including Waldemar, are still convinced that the picture is a fake. Let us consider, then, the probability that we are dealing with a faker. If so, we have to have a pre-war faker who was able not only to pre-empt pigment analysis techniques not yet invented, but, even more specifically, to find and use the unusual pigments that Degas favoured. How did this faker, before 1945, know how to do this? How did they have access to the Goupil stock books to find the missing provenance of another version of the Hamburg picture, and get the right size? Why did they bother to introduce pentimenti? Not even Han van Meegeren, the famous forger of Vermeer, went to such lengths.
Finally, some readers have suggested, in light of our debates here at AHN on connoisseurship, that the scientific tests and documentary research we carried out on the picture mean that the judgement of connoisseurs, who had previously rejected the picture, are redundant, and thus is connoisseurship itself. I would argue instead that our programme merely highlighted what happens when connoisseurship goes wrong. As I've said before, there are good connoisseurs and bad connoisseurs - but the latter does not mean we should condemn the practice of connoisseurship itself. If a doctor misdiagnoses you, do you question medical science itself, or do you get a second opinion?
And in any case, scientific testing and provenance research must all form part of any connoisseurial analysis these days, if necessary. For what it's worth, I was at first very sceptical of the picture, but then my expertise in Degas is very limited indeed. I run out of steam after about 1830. It was only after looking away from the image I had in my mind of Degas' work - that is, the well-known museum, book, and poster examples - and started to focus on his lesser known (and frankly lesser) works such as studies and sketches, that I began to see comparisons that could be made. The most valuable aspect of the whole exercise, for me, was endless close looking at as many Degas' as I could find. I mean real, get the binoculars out and look like a nutter close looking. For it is the art of close looking, so rarely taught and encouraged among art historians these days, that any aspiring connoisseur needs to learn. If it means getting told off for leaning over ropes in galleries, so be it. But, armchair connoisseurs please note, it's more useful than making judgements from the telly.
Update: an interesting response from a reader, posted above.