«In speaking about connoisseurship one cannot help stumbling over the word connoisseur. Although English experts on art have been eminently skilful in ...»
REITH LECTURES 1960: Art and Anarchy
Lecture 3: Critique of Connoisseurship
TRANSMISSION: 27 November 1960 - Home Service
In speaking about connoisseurship one cannot help stumbling over the word
connoisseur. Although English experts on art have been eminently skilful in ascribing
old drawings and paintings to the right masters, the English language has not
produced a native word for that kind of skill. The connoisseur is still what he was in
the eighteenth century, a character set apart by virtue of certain refinements of taste for which a French word seemed the right designation.
To form an idea of an eighteenth-century connoisseur, it would be dangerous to entrust oneself unreservedly to Hogarth. Hogarth disliked anything French, also anything that sounded French. Moreover, he was engaged in a private war with a group of gentlemen whom he called ‘dealers in dark pictures’, which was his own way of fighting the perennial battle of the moderns against the ancients. Nevertheless, Hogarth knew what he hated, and intelligent satire is always enlightening. I shall therefore quote from a vivid but nasty letter which he published in a daily newspaper over the signature ‘Britophil’. In it he described how an innocent Englishman was bamboozled into paying a large sum for a ‘dark’ painting which he did not particularly like. His tempter persuaded him to commit this folly by addressing him in
a superior way:
‘Sir, (he said), I find that you are no connoisseur; the picture, I assure you, is in Alesso Baldminetto’s second and best manner, boldly painted, and truly sublime…’ - Then, spitting in an obscure place, and rubbing it with a dirty handkerchief, [the quack] takes a skip t’other end of the room, and screams out in raptures, ‘There’s an amazing touch! A man should have this picture a twelvemonth in his collection before he can discover half its beauties!’ Hogarth had a genius for catching essentials; and almost all the essentials of eighteenth-century connoisseurship are present in this little travesty. The first essential is to attach a painter’s name to an anonymous picture, to make what is called ‘an attribution’; and Alesso Baidminetto is a fair deviation from Alesso Baldovinetti, who had the good fortune to exist. The second essential is to be precise about it; hence we are told that the picture belongs to Baidminetto’s second period. The next essential is to point to an obscure detail in the painting and blow it up into something important; and the final and perhaps the most significant touch is to make a gesture which suggests that no reasons can be given for the judgment passed by the connoisseur, because it is all a matter of perception, and hence ineffable.
Since the days of Hogarth, attention to the authenticity of ancient paintings has greatly increased, and, the connoisseur’s importance has correspondingly grown, not only for museums, collectors, and the trade, but also in the more
pursuits of academic art history, where he has become an indispensable and vigilant critic. Let anyone propose an ambitious theory about Leonardo da Vinci, for example, and the connoisseur will inquire whether the drawings on which the theory rests are really by Leonardo’s hand. It is not unusual for the prettiest intellectual structures to come tumbling down as soon as the magic rod of connoisseurship begins to tap the foundations. Of the importance of the connoisseur to our understanding of the art of the past there can therefore not be the slightest doubt. But what has he to do with Art and Anarchy today?
He would have nothing to do with it at all, if he still performed only the sort of hocuspocus that disgusted Hogarth; but those days are more or less over. Connoisseurship of painting has become a solid craft, and, like every other craft, it has its philosophy.
As a craftsman the modern connoisseur knows how to feel the pulse of a picture, to distinguish the genuine from the counterfeit; he has a sense of authenticity. As a philosopher (that is to say, as an aesthetician) he regards those traits which reveal authenticity as the most important parts of a painting. I shall try here to discuss both aspects of his work, the technique as well as the underlying aesthetic.
The technique of connoisseurship was rationalized in the nineteenth century by a clear-headed amateur, who did his work so exceedingly well that it passed almost imperceptibly into the work of his professional successors. I mean the great Italian innovator Giovanni Morelli, to whom I shall devote much of this talk. Himself a connoisseur of exceptionally wide experience and outstanding ability, he detested the grandiloquent verbiage which always renders the study of art unnecessarily suspect.
He was determined to show that there is nothing mysterious about making an attribution; that like any other skill, it requires a certain gift, and regular exercise; the that it rests neither on irrational nor on super-rational powers but on a clear understanding of the particular characteristics by which the author of a painting can be recognized in his work. For this purpose he worked out a well-defined method, for which he claimed that it transformed attributions from inspired guesses into verifiable propositions. Decried as charlatanism when it was first published, but soon adopted by Frizzoni, Berenson, Friedländer and others, and now in use in all the schools of art history, Morelli’s method rests on a meticulous technique of visual dissociation—an extreme case of the kind of detachment which makes our perception of art a strictly marginal experience.
We may then find that what looks at first like the professional eccentricity of a specialized method is actually a refined, precise, and therefore valuable statement of a far profounder eccentricity in which many of us share. In other words, I make bold to suggest that in certain of our habitual ways of approaching art we are something like unconscious Morellians; or to put it more precisely, that the Morellian method has carried some of our artistic prejudices to their logical conclusion. We can recognize ourselves in it as in a sharp caricature which overdraws our features and thereby makes them unmistakable. If Hogarth thought of the connoisseur as a marginal figure in the artistic life of his day, and a sort of nuisance which might be eliminated with profit, I would venture to say that the connoisseur’s way of looking at art has become for us ingrained, because art itself has moved to the margin. Let us then examine three questions, to see if these reflections have any truth: first, what kind of a man Morelli was; secondly, exactly what his method is; and, thirdly, what bearing it has on our current ways of responding to art.
Morelli was a native of Verona, where he was born in 1816 by choice a citizen of Bergamo, to which he left a small and exquisite collections paintings.
Trained as a physician and an expert in comparative anatomy, he held for a short time a post in the University of Munich, but he never practised medicine. His life became absorbed in two avocations, politics and art. As a young man he moved in the circle of Bettina von Arnim, he befriended also the poet Rückert, and frequented the studio of the painter Genelli, for whom he even posed frightful thought-as Prometheus; but from 1848 to 1871 his ruling passion was that of an Italian patriot, fighting for the liberation and unification of Italy. It was only late in life, when he had acquired the dignity of Senator of the Kingdom of Italy, that he found the leisure to publish his disturbing discoveries in the field of Italian art. Perhaps in order to secure for them an unprejudiced hearing, and to satisfy a certain romantic taste he had for ironic makebelieve, he published them under a bizarre pseudonym and in a foreign language.
He pretended that his books were written by a Russian, Ivan Lermolieff (a Russianized anagram of Morelli), and translated into German by a writer who called himself Johannes Schwarze (which again means Giovanni Morelli). In a lively and lucid German prose, with no trace of Teutonic obscurity in it but many touches of Slavic wit, his Russian double plays the part of a bewildered but determined young sightseer. On a visit to Florence he encounters an anti-clerical Italian patriot who introduces him to what Berenson was to call the 'rudiments' of connoisseurship. ‘As I was leaving the Palazzo Pitti one afternoon’ our Russian writes, ‘I found myself descending the stair in the company of an elderly gentleman, apparently an Italian of the better class... '. In that casual tone the revolutionary chapter on 'Principles and Method' opens.
Morelli had tactical reasons, beyond the mere fun of it, for placing his arguments in a fictitious setting. The use of dialogue made it possible for him to contrast his own plain Socratic statements with the inflated language of his opponents. On an imaginary visit to the Dresden Gallery the presumed Lermolieff becomes involved in polite conversation with an opinionated German blue-stocking of noble birth, Elise von Blasewitz, in the presence of her father. The lady is frightfully lettered, quotes Vasari and Mengs as readily as the Schlegels, but when Lermolieff tries to explain to her why 'The Reading Magdalen' is not a painting by Corregio, her literary reminiscences interpose themselves between the picture and her gold rimmed spectacles. In the end she dismisses his views as 'Russian nihilism'. It is as if Morelli had foreseen the insidious kind of attack to which his new method would be exposed.
As late as 1919-that is, twenty-eight years after Morelli's death-a well-known critic, Max Friedlander, could still refer to him as a sort of charlatan, although he added a few significant reservations. In the first place he did not question Morelli's results; he questioned only the way in which Morelli claimed to have reached them. The disputed point thus appeared to be the Morellian method, but even that is saying too much, since Friedlander did not deny that the method was useful; he employed it himself.
What he meant to deny was the possibility of obtaining by that method the spectacular results that Morelli had obtained. In Friedlander's opinion, Morelli's attributions were produced by intuition, while Morelli claimed that he had produced them by science, and apparently that made him a charlatan.
Undoubtedly, the new attributions were spectacular. To give just one example, the 'Sleeping Venus' by Giorgione is today such a familiar picture that we might imagine it to have been known always as a great work by Giorgione; but until Morelli had taken a good look at that painting it was catalogued in the Dresden Gallery as the copy of a lost Titian by Sassoferrato. That sounded so learned that it satisfied everyone; and no doubt it would have pleased Hogarth. In the Dresden Gallery alone, forty-six paintings were renamed because of Morelli's discoveries, and in other museums the upheaval was on a comparable scale. Morelli's friend, Sir Henry Layard, did not exaggerate when he wrote that Morelli had caused a revolution.
And now a word about the Morellian method. Like other revolutionary devices, it is simple and disconcerting. Morelli explained that to recognize the hand of a master in a given painting it is necessary to arrest, even to reverse, the normal aesthetic reaction. In looking at a picture our first impulse is to surrender to a general
impression and then concentrate on particular effects which are artistically important:
composition, proportion, colour, expression, gesture. None of these, Morelli says, will reveal with certainty the hand of a particular painter because they are studio devices which painters learn from each other. It may be true, for example, that Raphael grouped some of his figures in the shape of a pyramid, but pyramidal composition became a commonplace of the school of Raphael, so that its presence does not assure us of the hand of the master. Raphael's figures often express devotion by raising their eyes in a sentimental way, but Raphael had learned that trick from Perugino, and so any painter of his own school could have learned it from him. When we see a painting of a youthful head ascribed to Leonardo da Vinci, we inadvertently concentrate on the smile which is regarded as characteristic of Leonardo's figures, but we must not forget that innumerable imitators and copyists have concentrated on that smile before, with the result that it is rarely absent from their paintings. What is more, since expression and composition are artistically significant features, the restorer will try to preserve them. It is in them that the hand of the master is first obliterated by being reinforced;
and, of course, they also attract the forger.
Morelli drew the only possible inference from these observations. To identify the hand of the master, and distinguish it from the hand of a copyist, we must pay attention to small idiosyncrasies which seem inessential, subordinate features which look so irrelevant that they would not engage the attention of any imitator, restorer, or forger: the shape of a finger-nail or the lobe of an ear. As these are inexpressive parts of a figure, the artist himself, no les3 than his imitator, is likely to relax in their execution; they are the places where he lets himself go, and for that reason they reveal him unmistakably. This is the core of Morelli's argument: an artist's personal instinct for form will appear at its purest in the least significant parts of his work because they are the least laboured.
To some of Morelli’s critics it has seemed odd ‘that personality should be found where personal effort is weakest’. But on this point modern psychology would certainly support Morelli: our inadvertent little expressions reveal our character far more than any formal expression that we may carefully prepare. Morelli put his case
As most men who speak or write have verbal habits and use their favourite words or phrases involuntarily and sometimes even most inappropriately, so almost every painter has his own peculiarities which escape him without his being aware of them…Anyone, therefore, who wants to study a painter closely, must know how to discover these material trifles and attend to them with care: a student of calligraphy would call them flourishes.