«In speaking about connoisseurship one cannot help stumbling over the word connoisseur. Although English experts on art have been eminently skilful in ...»
Morelli’s books look different from those of any other writer on art; they are sprinkled with illustrations of fingers and ears, careful records of the characteristic trifles by which an artist gives himself away, as a criminal might be spotted by a fingerprint.
Since any art gallery studied by Morelli begins to resemble a rogues’ gallery, we must not be too severe in our judgment of those who at first regarded Morelli’s tests with consternation: they do offend against the idealistic spirit in which we like to approach great works of art. Morelli seems to invite us to recognize a great artist not by the power with which he moves us, or by the importance of what he has to say, but by the nervous twitch and the slight stammer which in him are just a little different from the quirks of his imitators. But let us not lose sight of Morelli’s purpose: it is the hand of the master that he wants to discover, and as long as that remains our well-defined aim we must not recoil from the unflattering tests by which one hand is distinguised from another. Morelli himself put it more picturesquely: ‘Whoever finds my method too materialistic and unworthy of a lofty mind, let him leave the heavy ballast of my work untouched, and soar to higher spheres in the balloon of fancy’.
However, behind the Morellian method lies a particular and very deep feeling about art. It is not just the assignment of a name that interests the connoisseur o painting; it is the authentic touch which he seeks to feel and for which the name is merely an index. For Morelli, the spirit of an artist resides in his hand; and if another hand is superimposed on his work, I it means that the spirit has been obscured, and we must search in the ruin for the few, fragments in which the artist’s original perception may have remained intact. On these true relics the eye must seize for its instruction. At first glance, Morelli’s concentrated study of the lobe of an ear might seem like Wöfflin’s curious concern for a nostril, to which I referred in my last talk. Wölffiin, however, uses the small detail as a unit of measure — what an architect would call a module—for building up the larger structure, whereas Morelli’s eye rests on the small fragment as the trace of a ‘lost original’. An intensely romantic view of art is implied by this method. Whether intentionally or not, Moreffi leaves one with the perplexing impression that a great work of art must be as tough as it is fragile. While the slightest fading or retouching or over- cleaning of a detail seems to throw the whole picture out of balance, yet through the distortion by coarse restorers and by clumsy copyists the aura of the ‘lost original’ remains so potent that concentration on a genuine fragment is sufficient to evoke it. We must remember that Morelli was born in 1816, and that his cult of the fragment as the true signature of the artist is a well-known Romantic heresy.
Distrust of the Finished Work Quite apart from questions of preservation, the Romantic in Morelli distrusted the finished work and its conventions. Whatever smacked of academic rule or aesthetic commonplace he dismissed as deceptive, hackneyed, and unrewarding, and withdrew from it to those intimate, private, and minute perceptions which he felt to be the only safeguard of pure sensibility. Clear-sighted about the logic of his method, he came to regard the study of drawings as more fundamental than that of paintings. The spontaneous sketch retained in its freshness what the labours of execution tended to stale. To this day, much of our approach to art is under the spell of this particular Morellian preference. We do not feel that we have fully entered into the spirit of a painting until we have traced it back to those bold notations in which the master’s hand vibrates and flickers. Intently we listen for the inspired stammer which preceded the grammatical sentence. The finished masterpiece is dead, but the inchoate sketch helps us to revive it.
It is here that the peculiar sensibility of the connoisseur, which guides him in making an attribution, merges with a far more universal foible of the imagination in which most of us share,-connoisseurs or not. In looking at paintings, we are all caught up in the pursuit of freshness. We are under the spell of spontaneous brushwork and cherish the instantaneous sensation with which it strikes the eye. How often have we not heard admirers of Constable repeat the insufferable cliché that only his bold sketches reveal his force as an artist, whereas the meticulous labour he bestowed on his finished paintings was a deplorable aberration, for which he paid dearly by loss of spontaneity. The richness of texture in a finished Constable is, indeed, less spontaneous than the first excited draft, but it is a maturer and mellower image, which must be seen with a less nervous eye, and observed at a range sufficiently close not to let the eye skip over the detailed nuances.
And how afraid we all are to let Hogarth’s paintings exercise our eye as he wanted it to be exercised: he meant ‘to lead the eye a wanton kind of chase’, as he called it, but we are much too impatient to pursue the calculated intricacies of his finished designs.
Instead we gloat on the superbly sketched ‘Shrimp Girl’ or on the unfinished ‘Country Dance’ and regret that, not all his paintings were left as sketchy, and hence as fresh as these two.
Because the instantaneous sensation means more to us than the sustained imaginative pursuit, we fall into that typically Romantic predicament which Wordsworth described as ‘a degrading thirst after outrageous stimulation’. Hence we put a premium on the inchoate work of art, arrested at its inception for the sake of spontaneity: On the production of art this prejudice has a debilitating effect: it encourages a striving for the immediate, a peculiar sophistry of production by which each work, no matter how laboured, hopes to give the impression of being freshly improvised. Never has the capriccio in art, the effective arrangement of striking irregularities, held quite the commanding position it holds today. According to Ortega y Gasset, all the extravagances of modern art become comprehensible if they are interpreted as attempts to be youthful. If we consider the youth of our artistic octogenarians, the attempt has been remarkably successful. Nevertheless, there is weakness in an art which refuses to ripen.
Morelli’s Constructive Technique It is obvious that the impulses which I have here described lie far deeper than the Morellian method, which is nothing but a refined, well-circumscribed, and remarkably early symptom of them. The technique itself has worked wonders in our discernment of art, and it would be foolish to think we could do without it. Ever since Morelli published his books, all serious connoisseurs have been Morellians, whether passionate Morellians like Berenson, or irritable and reluctant Morellians like Friedländer. Moreover, since questions of authenticity enter into every phase of the study of art, it is inevitable that a Morellian is concealed in every art-historian who has mastered the elements of his discipline. It would be absurd to suppose that Raphael’s art could be sensibly discussed without a knowledge of the criteria by which it can be decided, or at least debated, whether a drawing is by Raphael or not. It seems to me therefore a groundless fear that connoisseur- ship may be going out of fashion. One might as well fear that palaeography might become unfashionable in the study of manuscripts.
We must, however, distinguish clearly between a valid technique which should be applied to the study of art, and the personal outlook on art in general by which the great masters of that technique were inspired and sustained. The weakness of the connoisseur’s relation to painting is that he inclines to sacrifice almost everything to freshness. His test is pure sensibility, a feeling for the authentic touch, and so he cultivates the spontaneous fragment, which turns all art into intimate chamber art. He cherishes the condensed, unadulterated sensation, from which the force of the original vision sprang; but he tends to be impatient of the external devices by which the vision is expanded and developed. Connoisseurs, it seems to me, are over-anxious not to let the artistic experience run its full course, but to arrest it at the highest point of spontaneity.
It is true that Berenson was not satisfied with pure connoisseur- ship and played with the psychological aesthetics of the eighteen- seventies, from which he took his ideas of empathy and tactile values, but it is fortunate that his achievement does not rest on these shaky props. No one would seriously maintain that his view of art was formed on the optical theories of Robert Vischer. It was shaped by Morelli.
A False Philosophy It has repeatedly happened in the history of scholarship that a technique has outlasted the philosophy which prompted it. The differential calculus is still in use, but its users are not expected to accept the metaphysics of either Leibniz or Newton. In modern linguistics the old phonetic laws have retained their value, although few linguists, I am told, believe in their automatic action. No doubt, in psycho-analysis likewise, certain techniques introduced by Freud and Jung will remain effective long after Freud’s or Jung’s conceptions of the psyche have acquired a quaint archaic flavour.
Freshness is important in works of art, and we should be grateful for a technique which pursues it. Nevertheless, ‘freshness is all’ is a false philosophy, and the view of art which it entails is lopsided. Undoubtedly, ‘all that a man does is physiognomical of him’, and a rapid sketch may reveal an artist’s physiognomy more perfectly than the finished artifact; but if we allow a diagnostic preoccupation to tinge the whole of our artistic sensibility, we may end by deploring any patient skill in painting as an