'Giorgione' at the RA (ctd.)
April 26 2016
Picture: San Diego Museum of Art
I greatly enjoyed the Royal Academy's new exhibition, 'In the Age of Giorgione'. The catalogue is excellent, and is largely free from modern art history speak. Instead, we get for each picture an overview of what evidence there is for an attribution, and how opinions have changed over the centuries. All of which is useful for an exhibition centred around Giorgione, for whom we have only a handful of securely attributed pictures. (One of these is an exquisite portrait of a man from San Diego Museum of Art, above). It's a shame that in the exhibition itself, the thorny question of who painted what is almost completely unaddressed in the wall text and labels, so that the casual visitor comes away thinking pictures are far more certainly attributed than is really the case. In many cases, wall labels simply state artist and title.
There's a fascinating review of the exhibition in the London Review of Books by the art historian Charles Hope, which is well worth reading. Hope (and I hope he doesn't mind me saying this) is known amongst some parts of the art trade as 'Charles Nope', such is his (alleged) tendency to doubt attributions. I think it's fair to say that in general he prefers to look for certainty of attribution in documentary sources, and in the uncertain world of Giorgione attributions this approach is essential. I think also that in the Giorgione exhibition his scepticism over many of the attributions is well founded. He writes:
Although the term connoisseurship normally carries associations with discernment and a certain rigour in aesthetic judgment, when applied to the study of Giorgione these qualities have been and remain conspicuously lacking. Optimistic guesswork would better describe the process.
Hope's central charge against the world of Giorgione scholarship - that many Giorgione attributions are only arrived at because we can't think of an alternative name:
None of the other six pictures in the exhibition accepted as by Giorgione looks like his secure works, and the only significant reason for attributing them to him is that no one can agree on an alternative candidate. As almost all the experts are convinced, on the basis of no evidence at all, that, apart from Titian and Sebastiano (who soon left for Rome), there were no other painters of real talent working in this general idiom in North Italy in the years around 1510, it is not surprising that Giorgione and the young Titian are now each commonly credited with unrealistically vast numbers of paintings in a remarkable variety of styles.
I am far from an expert in early Italian Renaissance art, but I do agree with Hope about the wide variety of works we now call early Titian. Although we are told in the literature that Titian, when young, was a talented mimic of other artistic styles, I still found it hard to entirely believe everything presented to us in the RA show as early Titian. And I agree particularly with this point of Hope's:
In the case of Titian this is well illustrated by a couple of large pictures on the two end walls of the third room. One, Jacopo Presented to St Peter, is said to be c.1508-11, the other, Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery [below], c.1511, yet in style and technique they look utterly different. The attribution of the second of them is justified by a comparison with some frescoes in Padua that Titian painted in 1511, with which it does have something in common – but many artists could have seen those frescoes. In the previous room there is a painting from the Uffizi said to be by Giorgione, The Trial of Moses, which was first attributed to him in 1795, when nothing was known of his style, and which resembles none of his secure pictures. However, the figures are very similar, and in one case virtually identical, to those in another set of frescoes in Padua dating from after Giorgione’s death. One would have thought that, by the logic used for the Titian attribution, the Uffizi picture ought to be by the painter of the frescoes it resembles. But this possibility is seldom even discussed.
As I've remarked before on AHN, there has been an art historical tendency over the last century or so to take pictures away from Giorgione's oeuvre and give them to early Titian. For what it's worth, the Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery was the one picture not attributed to Giorgione in the exhibition that I came away wondering if it might indeed be by him. It is, as another art historian said to me, too poetic and lyrically drawn to be early Titian, and sculptural enough to be by Giorgione. These are subjective notions I know, but I also thought the handling was different from early Titian, and close to those few examples of Giorgione that we can confident of. (Another consideration in all these questions, of course, is that of condition, and it's clear from the literature that not enough consideration has been given to condition issues when assessing attributions - often, a 'badly drawn hand' can just be a knackered one).
And just to confuse matters even further, I thought that the 'Giustiniani Portrait' of a young man (above), which (regular readers will remember) was to be made the subject of a debate as whether it was by Titian or Giorgione, was more likely to be by Titian, even though it is labelled in the exhibition without caveat as being by Giorgione (and despite one of the show's curators, Per Rumberg, also believing it to be by Titian).
Anyway, it's all good attributional fun, and the RA is to be applauded, in these connoisseurship-phobic days, in putting the exhibition on.
Update - a reader writes:
[...] you gave a very judicious response to Charles Hope's LRB piece on the RA's Giorgione show. Charles [...] is a formidable archival and analytical art historian. There is no one who knows more about the documents relating to Titian. And he deserves to be one of your heroes of art history, for saving the Warburg Institute and Library from the misguided machinations of the University of London a few years ago. He wrote a brilliant account of that whole sorry saga, in the LRB about two years ago.
This is quite true - saving the Warburg was a heroic act, and so Charles Hope is formally declared an art history hero.