What is a 'nein-sager'?

January 24 2012

Readers may be interested in this view of connoisseurship from the art historian Max Friedlander (1867-1958), who divided connoisseurs into those who held an open mind on making attributions, whom he called the 'yes' men, and  those who as a rule rejected them, the 'no' men (or, in German, 'nein-sagers'):

As the 'No' man imagines that he stands above the 'Yes' man - and probably also to others to seem to stand higher - critics will always feel the impulse to attack genuine works in order to win the applause of the maliciously minded. The 'Yes' men have done more harm, but have also been of greater usefulness, than the rigorous 'no' men, who deserve no confidence if they never have proved their worth as 'Yes' men.

Only about half of Friedlander's attributions have stood the test of time (largely because he was a generalist, not a specialist, and felt able to attribute pictures to a whole range of artists) - but his basic analysis of the impulses of a connoisseur remains, sometimes, worryingly sound. 

Update - I found in Brian Sewell's autobiography an important anecdote about Friedlander: he himself admitted that only his attributions before 1933 should be taken seriously, for after that he often gave optimistic attributions to Jewish families trying to raise funds by selling art, or to Nazis who demanded certificates of him.

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