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The Exhibition Follies

1.

The history of art is not the same thing as the history of taste, but the two may be conceived as existing in an elegant helical arrangement, intertwined with a third history—the history of perception itself. For it is demonstrable that the majority of the information that passes within our field of vision remains unanalyzed and unattended to, until we acquire a motive to attend to some part of it. We may scan the trees for signs of a high wind, feel glad when they turn green and sorry when they lose their leaves, without ever stopping to examine the shape of a leaf or fruit, without ever inquiring into their common or scientific names. We may live in a city built in the grandest Beaux-Arts style, without ever pausing to look at the carved details of the façades, the allusive stonework we see every day. We expect no profit from such squandering of the attention.

Then one day things change. We need to learn the names of the trees. Our curiosity is piqued, and we want to know the sources of the style that surrounds us. We pull away a hardboard partition, and find an ornate fireplace concealed. Or, as happened the other day in England, a complete tiled interior, whose existence had been utterly forgotten, is brought to light in an old railway restaurant. We wonder: Why was all that covered up? The answer is: because our parents or our grandparents hated it with a venom. But why are we free to adore it? Because it no longer oppresses us, because it is now rare and not ubiquitous, because ornament is no longer a crime…for any number of reasons, but because of history, in short.

And now we live as if in a differ-ent city, where the trees have their names and their distinguishing leaves, and their contrasting colors and their habits at leaf-fall, and where we find, on the façades of the newly interesting houses, the carved names of architects and sculptors long since forgotten. And all this ornament, which once seemed such an irrelevance, begins to speak to us more clearly, but we are aware that it was always there, always speaking, however little we cared to listen.

For years we were in the habit of visiting the galleries, and searching out the works of the artists who appealed to us, without ever asking, or thinking it important to ask, how it was that this particular painting made its way into our daily lives. Then for some reason things change, and we find ourselves glancing at the accession numbers and the brief indications of provenance. Suddenly we lose the illusion that the only thing that counts, when we look at a picture, is our instinctive, unlearned response. We are not beings born out of time, gazing at objects of art sub specie aeternitatis. The fact that this gallery exists, and that this picture is in it, and that we have thought it worth our while to pay these visits—all such facts have their place in the history of taste.

Not every such fact is a gem. The historian of taste may gleefully discover that, for instance, there was a time when English courtiers trimmed their hats with fresh carrot leaves. But such a discovery, or an accumulation of such discoveries, does not by itself make the history of taste particularly exciting. We need the other filaments in the helix, crossing and recrossing.

It is the year 2000. A man opens a parcel and has to sit down to catch his breath, for inside the parcel is a drawing by Michelangelo. It is the year 1750. The same event takes place, creating a similar surprise. But this time the same perception (“This is a Michelangelo”) has quite a different meaning. For how can a man in 1750 know what a drawing by this master looks like? What reproductions are available to him, and what do these reproductions themselves look like? If his knowledge of the artist comes from direct acquaintance with the drawings, how has he managed to examine them? Who does he have to be, to be able to say, “This is a study for that particular Sibyl”? One of a handful? One of a class?

If I want to improve my knowledge of the Old Masters, various routes are open to me today. I can study photographic reproductions. I can visit local and national museums, churches and public monuments. I can loiter in commercial galleries and auction rooms. And I can angle for invitations to private collections, and join the queue for blockbuster exhibitions. Each of these institutions has a history, and each of these histories has its limits.

The photographing of works of art, for instance, began very soon after the invention of photography itself around 1835. Alinari went into the photographic business in 1852 and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London began a photographic service in 1855. But the inclusion of photographs in works of art history comes rather later, not really until the 1880s, by which time the technology for the cheap reproduction of photographs was well developed. The first edition of J.A. Crowe and G.B. Cavalcaselle’s History of Painting in Italy, dated 1864, is illustrated with reproductions of line drawings of the works of art it discusses, as is another handbook by Lady Eastlake, a decade later, and these line drawings in turn derive in part from certain editions of Kugler’s Handbuch, an influential guide to the history of European art.

Of course the many people who relied on such publications in the second half of the nineteenth century did not have to suppose that a fresco by Giotto would closely resemble a line drawing, any more than an axonometric drawing resembles the work of architecture it analyzes. They had the line drawings in books as an aide-mémoire, but at the same time they were able to drop in on Alinari’s shop, and the other photographic dealers, and purchase individual plates for their albums and their files, or to frame and hang on their walls. But it does not follow that they immediately perceived a photographic reproduction as being superior to an engraving or other record of a work of art. Indeed it seems some had initial misgivings about the deceptiveness of photography. But it was in this period that Giovanni Morelli built up his foto-teca, his archive upon which his systematic connoisseurship was largely based. Cavalcaselle, his predecessor, had relied on his own drawings. From the twentieth century comes a remark attributed to Berenson’s great rival, Roberto Longhi: art history is a game, and the winner is the one with the most photographs.

The dissemination of images of art through photography had a profound effect not only on the spread of the possible knowledge of the available art, but also on the spread of judgment. If a painting existed in different versions, for instance, here was an obvious way of assessing their rival merits. For better or worse, a judgment might be made about the shape of an artist’s total oeuvre. One was not necessarily obliged to have traipsed around every single church, to have studied every single altarpiece and every drawing in every collection and committed it to memory. One could study paintings which had disappeared from view because they had been destroyed or had faded, been stolen or had entered some secretive collection. The lost Tintoretto that turned up last year in the Jesuit Center at Wernersville, Pennsylvania, was well known to scholarship, and was a subject of debate, even if its whereabouts had been unknown for seventy years.1

Between the situation that has obtained since around the 1960s, when cheaply produced scholarly compilations of an artist’s entire work have been available at street-kiosk prices, and, say, the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century, when many works of European art were on the move, it is hard to make a comparison. To take an example at random: I have a copy of A Treatise on Painting by Leonardo da Vinci, translated and edited by John Francis Rigaud, and published in London in 1802. This has all the appearance of a scholarly work, and comes with a catalog of Leonardo’s drawings and paintings, both those known to exist and those reputed to have once existed. But the text is illustrated by copperplates that bear no relation at all to Leonardo’s art. And the preface leads us to believe that Leonardo’s anatomical drawings were “so slight as to be not fit for publication without further assistance.”

Technically speaking, that judgment was not wrong: such drawings needed assistance from the engraver, they needed a kind of clarification before they would come across on the page (given the then state of the art of reproduction). But that was not the point being made. Rigaud’s edition, however, is of interest if one is concerned with what people did not know, as much as what they did know, about Leonardo’s art. The history of the taste for Leonardo is bound up, in this period, with the history of the knowledge of his works. Leonardo then is very different from Leonardo today.

To some temperaments, this discovery that we, the viewers of art, are not beings born out of time is exceedingly unwelcome: one craves certainty, and one would simply like to know who the great artists are, and where are their masterpieces. But the historian of taste seems to take delight in undermining these certainties in art. When Francis Haskell, who died last January,2 and Nicholas Penny compiled their catalog of classical sculptures in Taste and the Antique (1981), what interested them was not the value and character of the ninety-odd sculptures as understood today, but the exalted esteem in which they were once held, and the meanings that were once attached to them.

When they looked at the Spinario in Rome, the bronze of the boy taking the thorn out of his foot, they were interested in the various titles that have been attached to the piece over the years: Absalom, Corydon, Il Fedele, Cneius Martius, Pastorello, Pickthorne, Priapus, Jeune Vainqueur à la course. They were interested in the careers of such statues as exemplary works of art, famous throughout Europe both as objects of pilgrimage and as images disseminated through copies and versions. What they disposed of in a few sentences in each case was the question: What are these once famous statues now believed to be? Long ago, these works had formed the canon of great (therefore classical) art. Whether they had retained their popularity and esteem, like the Laocoön, or lost it, like the Capitoline Antinous, was not important: all that mattered was the veneration they had once enjoyed.

Francis Haskell was not, however, so thoroughgoing a relativist as to believe that a masterpiece was only a masterpiece in relation to the age that viewed it as such. What he believed was that the reverses in fortune enjoyed by works of visual art had been so violent as to force one to wonder why: Why should these reversals be so much more violent in the case of the visual arts than in that of music or literature? And if the past has given artists such a bumpy ride, will the future do the same? As he asked in Rediscoveries in Art (1976): “Will a future generation be unmoved by Piero della Francesca or Vermeer?”

  1. 1

    Now in the Reading Public Museum. See Franco Mormando, “Tintoretto’s Recently Rediscovered ‘Raising of Lazarus,”’ Burlington Magazine, October 2000.

  2. 2

    See the obituary in these pages by Charles Hope, The New York Review, February 24, 2000.

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