Degas programme - whither connoisseurship?
September 18 2012
Picture: Patrick Rice
A reader writes to ask what happened to all the connoisseurship in the Degas programme?
It was all thoroughly engaging, but I was left with just one criticism that left me rather restless/confused afterwards that egged me on to write this.
After closely following your recent impassioned arguments in favour of the importance of connoisseurship, I was really excited and expecting to see the reliable truffle dogs Dr Grosvenor and Mr Mould dramatically searching out comparable sketches/drawings, pointing fingers at several close comparisons in high-res images and taking us on journeys to several museums to set the new picture alongside the most stylistically comparable works to spot convincing similarities. And yet I was dismayed to see practically none of that. To me this was a unique opportunity for you to do so, the item in question being a preparatory drawing this time round: an example of the most intimate psychological evidence that we have of Degas’ mind, not influenced by the intended receiver’s expectations of high technicality, refinement or clarity, and therefore more readily digestible by a connoisseur. These episodes are your opportunity to demonstrate to the entire world how to look as an art historian, and not only like an art historian, and to begin the destruction of obstacles like notions of sorcery and elitism that continue to circle and suffocate this extremely crucial subject.
Like the majority of your audience, I can claim no familiarity with Degas. In fact my steam shamefully runs out even earlier than yours – ca1770! I am thoroughly convinced that your painting’s provenance is what you claim, and yes the physicality of it (i.e., the pigments, support, and so on) certainly seems legit. But can these things, however complete, be independently used to attribute a work? (I already know your answer to that!!) Christie’s and an unnamed respectable expert rejected the picture on the grounds of the dancer’s ‘trivialised’ physiognomy (probably not even realising it’s a sketch) and on the sloshy signature, and some might agree that Connoisseurship failed them there, but then why didn’t you or Dr Cullen et al use your connoisseurship to convince the general public? (perhaps Dr Cullen accompanied by some other respected Degas authorities should have featured in more scenes to present their comparative work and have a court-like debate)…
In short, my personal view is that on this occasion the team seems to have given up on connoisseurship, it being allowed it to perish under the more factual hand of scientific analysis and book-keeping. The vast majority of the 3.8 million people that viewed your show were left with the impression that where connoisseurship cannot ‘seem to work’, science and inventories step in to go the length – to the layman, this will seem to happen for each case, especially with artists like Mondrian. When in fact the only times when Connoisseurship does not ‘seem to work’ is whenever the consulted authority is weakly informed. Works of art that remain on a ‘knife’s edge’, best left ‘attributed’ or worse ‘ascribed’, can only indicate the incompetence of an expert to sufficiently support a connoisseurial hunch, which may be in favour or in opposition of an attribution. Controversial, given the amount of works still left in the balance today by some of the world’s foremost, but definitely true.
Interesting points raised here, and yes, it would have been good to delve more into the connoisseurship side of the argument. As I indicated in my post below, I couldn't help but be a little sceptical of the picture at first, despite all the provenance research, because I couldn't satisfy myself on a connoisseurial basis that it was 'right'. But I soon realised that I was basing my view of Degas' work on the wrong assumptions (and ignorance), and the more I looked at his sketches and lesser known works the more comfortable I became with Patrick's picture. Then all the other arguments fitted neartly into place.
The trouble is, though, how do you explain all this to a BBC1 audience* in such a way as to hold the attention of 3.8m people for an hour? Regular readers will have seen the difficulties I've had on this site trying to explain how connoisseurship works, and why it matters. So imagine how hard it is to actually film the process, and not only do that, but make it look exciting too. Because actually watching connoisseurship in action - someone looking at a painting - can be pretty dull. And in this programme it was felt that the research and technical analysis helped make a good claim for the picture, and that it was worth focusing on those aspects and explaining them in as much depth as we could to the audience in the time available. Of course, I don't favour making attributions based exclusively on one type of evidence over the other.
Those hungering for a little more connoisseurship will I hope be satisfied with the next two programmes. In focusing on Turner and Van Dyck we discuss connoisseurship more fully. The last programme, on Van Dyck, sees the concept explained in considerable detail.
Update - a reader writes:
I think most viewers will understand the Fake or Fortune programme's pitch (from the title alone perhaps?) so I would not worry about demands for greater depth, detailed comparisons etc. That's what your and other 'blogs' can direct us to. The show is entertaining and informative - it adds to our knowledge about the ways of the art business, the difference between value and cost - incidentally, do you ever get to stride along a Parisian boulevard or up one of the grand staircases in some foreign museum? Or do you pop round to the Witt or other library, or is everything just emailed to your desk where you are chained?
Yes, in the next two programmes I'm allowed out of the gallery (even as far as Kent).