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The Exhibition Follies


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?”

The answer must be that, in principle, any reverse is possible (even if some reverses are less likely than others). Haskell goes on to say that it cannot be assumed that

once a painter has been recovered from oblivion he cannot, as it were, be lost again. In the middle years of the nineteenth century Ruskin spoke for wide sections of public opinion when he claimed that Orcagna was one of the three greatest of all Italian artists: even allowing for the superb qualities of the varying artists who made up the composite figure known by Ruskin under that name, most art lovers would now find the claim somewhat excessive.3

And, surely, it is not only the individual such as Orcagna who can resume a back seat in public esteem. It is possible for a whole class of work to lose its glamour. The market tells us that Old Master paintings are in general not as prized as Impressionists, and among the Old Masters it would seem that gold-ground paintings, which are by now exceedingly rare in the auction rooms, have lost their devotees. The Quattrocento, which was a kind of sacred period of endeavor for those who flocked to Florence in the nineteenth century, grad-ually lost some of its panache in the twentieth, and it would not be surprising if the Renaissance itself fell to pieces, as an idea, in the twenty-first.

To a temperament that cannot bear such uncertainties, much of Haskell’s work will not appeal. For it thrives on them. It is a history that does not stop when the paint is dry on the canvas, or the altarpiece delivered and installed. Rather, that is the point at which, for Haskell, the story tends to begin. The opening paragraph of the the beautiful essay “Giorgione’s Concert champêtre and its Admirers” (in Past and Present in Art and Taste) might be taken as a general guide to what to expect in Haskell’s essays:

Art historians generally concern themselves with the processes of creation. Who painted such and such a picture? When was it painted? What does it represent? What does its style tell us about the influences on the artist? Sometimes they venture into wider fields. How important for the painter were the political, the social or the religious circumstances of the time? What about the patron who commissioned the picture? Did his specific instructions or his generalised tastes play their part in the shaping of the picture as we now see it? All these and many other questions are ones that are rightly asked—and sometimes answered—by virtually everyone who writes about the history of art. But once the picture is completed the historian usually loses interest. What it may have meant to the man who ordered and paid for it, or to the artist’s contemporaries and successors, to the critics and historians of the time or later—all this tends to be neglected, except in a few cases where the influence of a painting has been so overwhelming on later artists that it too must be thought of as playing an essential part in the process of artistic creation.4

The earlier questions in this list are of the kind which Haskell asked in the book which made his reputation, Patrons and Painters,5 which looked at the conditions under which art was produced in Baroque Rome and Venice. But the latter considerations attracted Haskell, and in the same volume, under the title “A Martyr of Attributionism: Morris Moore and the Louvre Apollo and Marsyas,” he offered a classic account of the fortuna critica of a painting which the Louvre now exhibits as a Perugino. The story could come from Henry James, an author for whom Haskell obviously felta strong affinity, since he quoted him always to good effect.

A man buys a painting that he believes to be by Raphael, and sets about convincing the greatest experts in Eu-rope of the correctness of his claim. Among those experts is a conservator at the Louvre who, though he has growing doubts that the painting is by Raphael, recognizes its fine quality, and believes that the important thing is for the Louvre to acquire the painting, under whatever name. Since the owner has been driven half mad by his obsession (an obsession which by now has sent him both to prison and to exile), he will not sell to anyone who does not go along with his attribution. For the Louvre conservator, it is worthwhile to deceive his own employers, his own government (which is to put up the funds), and the crazy owner, in order to acquire the exceptional work of art.

The point of the story is to illustrate the various processes by which, in the nineteenth century, the newly established art or science of attribution-ism worked. Photographic evidence is sought in confirmation (for the first time, as far as Haskell was aware) and two of the experts mentioned above, Cavalcaselle and Morelli, have their say. One cannot help feeling, however, that the gusto with which the story is told reveals the historian’s deepest motive: he tells the story because it is, when all’s said and done, a very good yarn.


The satisfaction that Haskell felt in choosing the subject of the history of Old Master exhibitions for what he said would be, and what, alas, was, his last book derived in part from his pleasure at being able to know when a thing began. Such exhibitions, which were among the sources I listed above as being available to me, if I wanted to improve my knowledge of paintings, have a rather shorter history than you might expect. Haskell dates the first modern blockbuster to 1898, to the Rembrandt exhibition in Amsterdam, “with 124 paintings (insured for the the vast sum of å£4 million sterling) and 350 drawings, which were admired by 43,000 people over a period of just less than two months—enough to make a substantial profit.” At that time, one is stunned to read, only fourteen of Rembrandt’s works remained in Holland, whereas it was estimated that around fifty genuine Rembrandts, and many more spurious ones, had gone to the US.

The occasion was to mark the inauguration of Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands, rather than the usual pretext for a blockbuster, a centenary of the artist. It is interesting that such centenaries might be celebrated—but without any display of the artist’s work. Dürer’s death was commemorated in Nuremberg in 1628, 1728, and 1828, and on the last occasion a bronze statue was erected to his memory—the first free-standing statue, Haskell tells us, ever erected to an artist. At Dürer’s graveside, “tubas burst into sound at precisely six in the morning, followed by processions, sermons and speeches—all fervently patriotic in tone.” But the visual displays were by contemporary artists, not by the master. The same was true of the ceremonies in Antwerp marking the Rubens anniversary in 1840:

To the accompaniment of firing cannon, ringing church bells and the playing of bands, the inhabitants of the town—who resented researches claiming that their most famous citizen might have been born in Germany—dressed in national costume and walked in procession through streets decorated with festoons, flags and ribbons, past triumphal arches and chariots, surmounted by effigies of Rubens, Van Dyck and Jordaens, to attend high mass in the cathedral.

Such occasions were as much to do with patriotism as with art. One is reminded of the Shakespeare jubilee celebrations in Stratford on Avon in 1769, which had their reverberations throughout Europe. Organized by David Garrick, the program included an oratorio, a cantata, an ode to Shakespeare written by and performed by Garrick, music, dancing, and (although heavy rain prevented them) a pageant and fireworks display. Much ridiculed at the time, the event has been mocked since for not including any performances of Shakespeare’s own work. But that is to misunderstand the nature of homage itself, as then understood. To honor the Bard, one does something that is not-Bard. To honor Dürer, one puts up a statue. To honor Rubens, one celebrates high mass.

Around the 1850s, Haskell tells us, the practice began of marking the deaths of contemporary painters with retrospective exhibitions, but it was not until 1875 that the attempt was made to combine the traditional centenary homage to a great artist with an exhibition of his work. The place was Florence. The occasion was the fourth centenary of the birth of Michelangelo:

…The successive openings of the exhibitions were spectacular events, graced by the presence of royalty, the lavish decorations of streets and palaces, the historical costumes that adorned the representatives of the city corporations, a series of concerts and recitals (all notable for their utterly inappropriate music), non-stop banquets, and interminable lectures and speeches (which prompted an exhausted French delegate to complain that he felt just like one of Michelangelo’s Captives)—everything, in fact, except for the learned art-historical conference, that would now be considered obligatory to accompany a major exhibition. In the Casa Buonarotti, the relatively few original drawings by the master that remained in Florence were put on display; in the archives were to be seen large numbers of important documents concerning his life and times, but it was in the Accademia that the principle exhibition was held.

And in that principal exhibition there was apparently only one original work by Michelangelo: the David.6 What the visitors saw was a collection of plaster casts from all over Europe, taken from what were then considered to be the Master’s works, along with copies and photographs of paintings and drawings. Even with its limitations, Haskell estimates that “the exhibition must have offered one of the greatest opportunities there has ever been to gain a convincing and comprehensive panorama of the work of Michelangelo, his followers, his imitators and his forgers.”

Two years later, Antwerp mounted another Rubens celebration, for which, however, they found that they could borrow only twenty original drawings. As Haskell somewhat tartly puts it, “No one had yet seriously proposed that altarpieces might be removed from churches and join masterpieces from major museums in consignments transported across frontiers in order to hang for a few weeks in some location temporarily hired for the purpose.” Instead the organizers decided to exhibit engravings of as many works as possible, choosing in most cases the earliest version of each picture. Many of the engravers had been chosen and supervised by Rubens himself, which gave an extra justification to such an approach. It was possible thus to study almost all of Rubens’s paintings, and to examine the numerous variations on the same subject—nineteen versions of the Crucifixion, for instance.

It would, I think,” says Haskell, “be unusual for an exhibition today to lay such stress on this aspect of an artist’s achievement, for the respect—or, at any rate, the lip-service—that now has to be paid to scholarship requires the organizers to concentrate above all on attributions, on chronology and on more recondite issues of iconography….”Once again, that tart, disenchanted tone of voice. Haskell was exercised by the current mania for art exhibitions, which he felt had frequently become “the continuation of politics by other means.”

Détente, “a new spirit of friendship between our two countries,” “a return to the community of free nations,” “wide-ranging cultural agreements”—what shivers these phrases send down the backs of those concerned about the preservation of treasures entrusted to the world’s museums, and with what nostalgia one looks back to the time, only a few years ago, when improving international relationships were signaled by table-tennis matches rather than by art exhibitions held under the patronage of heads of state. The death of Franco and the arrival on the scene of Gorbachev have probably been responsible for more great pictures being on the move than at any time since the end of the Napoleonic wars, or at any rate since the heyday of Mussolini’s cultural diplomacy.

This comes from an article published in these pages in 1990, on the occasion of a Titian “centenary” exhibition (the assumption was that Titian had been born in 1490) in Venice.7 Haskell was outraged that the National Gallery in Washington had lent Bellini’s recently restored Feast of the Gods to this exhibition, to which it was, he thought, almost wholly irrelevant. With uncharacteristic vehemence he attacked not only the individual decision to lend, but also the whole trend that it represented. Museums were being forced into an ever greater reliance on blockbuster exhibitions. The works of art were being put at risk, and actually being damaged, in the course of their travels around the globe. The curating of permanent collections was suffering. Museums were being shamed into cleaning paintings so that they would look well alongside other similarly cleaned works. The exhibitions themselves were the product of a compromise between the demands of politics and prestige on the one hand, and scholarly interest on the other. The very success of the burgeoning trade in exhibition catalogs had a deleterious effect on other forms of scholarly publication.

Haskell’s case, Nicholas Penny tells us in his introduction to this book, was given no public rebuttal, although his article was greeted with widespread dismay and its author was accused of elitism and hypocrisy (since Haskell himself had been involved in the organization of exhibitions). But the case put by Haskell was not, and is not in this book, that all temporary exhibitions should be banned. Rather it was that the lending of works of art for “diplomatic” or “political” reasons should be reined in: works should not be loaned simply in the hope of buttering up a government or institution into facilitating some mouthwatering exchange. Scholarship should not be used as a fig leaf for prestige projects. Museums should not be bullied or cajoled into making important loans on a false prospectus.

The polemic went unanswered, according to Penny, since to do so “would only have brought to public notice the near accidents of recent years and might have prompted public statements from other senior figures.” No doubt it also went unanswered because, in important respects, it is unanswerable. It is true that the great public art disasters of recent years have involved vandalism in the permanent collections, and the effects of flood and earthquake, rather than the sort of catastrophe Haskell foresaw when he wrote that “one day a major accident will occur and the current priorities of some of the world’s greatest museums will be exposed as grossly irresponsible.” But the safety record of the blockbuster shows seems to me to be rather like the safety record of the Concorde before the recent Paris crash: a single incident can make an awful difference to the statistics.

Although the Old Master exhibition has its prehistory in Italy and the Low Countries, it begins, in the form in which we would recognize, in England in the second decade of the nineteenth century. It had to be ushered in, diplomatically, as an idea, because it was felt in influential quarters that to pay attention in this way to Old Masters was to slight or neglect the interests of living painters. This enmity between the perceived interest of the living artist and the cult of the Old Masters had a habit of recurring, as Haskell showed long ago in his essay “The Two Temptations.” When the National Gallery in London was thinking of acquiring a collection of early Italian paintings in 1847, the Art-Journal attacked the scheme: “We do not need antiquities and curiosities of the early Italian painters: they would only infect our school with a retrograding mania of disfiguring Art, and returning to the decrepit littleness of a period warped and tortured by monkish legends and prejudices.”8

Haskell never says that we do not need Old Master exhibitions, only that there has always been an interplay between real and apparent need. This book, the last he finished, is not quite his last, since Penny tells us of a future collection of essays. Still, there is here occasion for intense pleasure and regret: all that learning cut short, and that passionate advocacy quelled.

  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.

  3. 3

    Rediscoveries in Art: Some Aspects of Taste, Fashion, and Collecting in England and France (London: Phaidon, 1976), p. 98.

  4. 4

    Past and Present in Art and Taste (Yale University Press, 1987), p. 41.

  5. 5

    Yale University Press, 1963: currently in the fourth printing of the second edition, 1981.

  6. 6

    This is odd, since the Accademia also housed the Saint Matthew. The four Slaves, however, which had been used to adorn a grotto in the Boboli Gardens, did not reach the Accademia until 1908. The David had been taken there from its original location in the Piazza della Signoria in 1873, the same year in which the Brutus, the Bacchus, and the Pitti Madonna entered the Bargello.

  7. 7

    Titian and the Perils of International Exhibition,” The New York Review, August 16, 1990, p. 9.

  8. 8

    Rediscoveries in Art, p. 53

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