March 2014

The price of everything . . .


There is a TV show here in the U.K. called ‘Fake or Fortune’. Art experts are presented with a painting that has mouldered in an attic for years and are asked to decide whether it is a ‘genuine’ Cezanne or Titian or Gainsborough or what not, or a ‘fake’. I’ve used the inverted commas here advisedly. The final hoped-for scene shows the tearful owner being told that, yes, it is genuine, and they are now a millionaire. Here are the rather smug-looking experts and presenter working towards creating that happy ending.


A recent episode, however, did not go to plan. A painting declared to be a ‘genuine’ (that word again) work by Constable has proved to be no such thing. To the unconfined joy of many of us, the presenters now have considerable quantities of egg on their faces.

Sadly for them, the ‘experts’ that proved them wrong were not authorities on great art, but yachtsmen. They pointed out that the type of yacht seen in the picture was not introduced until the 1930s.   Dan Houston, editor of Classic Boat magazine, made this very sensible observation:

  “I don’t think that Constable was blessed with exceptional foresight. It seemed as if the BBC was intent on proving this was a Constable, regardless of the facts,” he said.
 
 He was right. This outcome wasn’t in the ‘feel-good’ script at all.

The programme does reflect a number of regrettable aspects of the contemporary view of art; in particular, that it’s all about money and celebrity. Of all the areas of great art than can be studied – content, style, historical context – the one that wins every time is attribution, and it’s the aspect that least interests me. For the most part, I’m not that bothered about who painted what – it’s what’s in the picture that is the most interesting aspect.
 
  That’s not to say I don’t recognise the individual contribution of artists such as Giotto, or Titian, or Constable, in moving painting forward.  Geniuses, all of them. But in the early art that interests me most, attribution  is less of a concern; many great projects, such as the Monastery of San Marco in Florence, were actually painted by a workshop team - in this case, Fra Angelico Inc.  This doesn’t prevent art experts agonising over who did what even there. Does it matter? Artists then were craftsmen, not prima donnas.

  When Veronese was criticised for his version of the Last Supper by the Inquisition in 1572, this was his response:

     'We painters use the same license as poets and madmen . . . .. I paint my pictures with all the considerations which are natural to my intelligence, and according as my intelligence understands them.'

  Let me make myself clear – good for Veronese. I want painters to be eccentric, individualistic, insistent on doing their own thing and to Hell with the expectations of the commissioner of the painting.  As a children’s writer, I have spent years writing stuff to commission, to satisfy the requirements of one publisher or another, and when the occasional chance comes along to write something entirely original I revel in it.  The problem in art is that issues of quality and originality now seem to take second place to who the painter was, and attribution is all about what may be achieved at auction. Those experts must have thought that the supposed Constable was a good painting, good enough to have been painted by him. It wasn’t by him, and so it’s not worth anything – back to the attic with it.

  A few years ago I had a conversation with a fine arts lecturer, who had done his training in Florence and was passionate about Renaissance painting. He had just been told that all his fine arts courses were to be dropped except one.

  A qualification to enable students to work in the auctioneering of art.

                                                                                                                                                                                     . . . the value of nothing.  

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