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Archive for the ‘portrait’ Category

Not Van Gogh at the National Gallery of Victoria: Autograph, Allograph, Again

Posted by gninja on August 3, 2007


(No longer part of the Van Gogh oeuvre. Head of a Man at the National Gallery of Victoria, in Australia.)

The NGV announced today that they would accept the findings of the Van Gogh Museum in the Netherlands and no longer ascribe Head of a Man to Vincent Van Gogh.

I do find it amusing that the newspaper went with the headline, “NGV’s ‘Van Gogh’ a Fake”, as if the artist, a contemporary of Van Gogh, had been a forger intent on deceiving audiences and buyers. Of course, we have no idea whether such was the case. We certainly have no confession from a 19th century Robert Thwaites, so it isn’t exactly fair play to call Head of a Man a ‘fake.’

Regardless, the article brought me back to thinking about Nelson Goodman (as I had been doing in my previous post) and, in general, art history’s relationship to attribution and forgeries. Possibly needless to say, art historians have always been fixated on attribution, whether such-and-such an artist created such-and-such a work. If nothing else, it lent (lends?) the discipline the scientific appearance it strove to attain from its institutionalized beginning in 1870s Germany. As, most notably, with Morelli and others, art historians collected data and ‘evidence’, compiling lists of traits and styles so as to categorize the history of the world’s art into neat and tidy schools and periods.

So, of course, in this Linnaean system getting it ‘right’ and being able to pin works to individuals and specific dates was vital to the establishment of an accepted and credible discipline.

By the 1970s and 1980s, when art history was going through a lot of changes (very energizing to the field), this kind of connoisseurship and even antiquarianism came into question. Or, at the very least, art historians no longer took for granted the importance of a work’s originality and endeavored to locate the reasons for, in a word, caring.

Nelson Goodman’s book Languages of Art tackled the question of the allograph and the autograph, which led to a series of debates on the differing values (monetary and otherwise) of an original and a forgery which cannot be told apart by the naked eye. Goodman argues that, even if we cannot tell the difference between the two, the knowledge that one is a forgery and one is an original produces an aesthetic difference which then alters our perception of the works.

I love the response of Thomas Kulka to this argument, in his article, “The Artistic and Aesthetic Status of Forgeries” (Leonardo, 1982). He calls Goodman a snob. Heh. However, beyond that, Kulka makes the insightful point that works may be judged on the basis of art-historical value and aesthetic value. While the former judges a piece of art based on its production during a precise moment in time and its effect on later history (and relationship to prior history) the latter bases its judgment purely on the aesthetic quality of the work. So, while the original and forgery may have equal aesthetic values, their art-historical values are vastly different. This argument is clear enough and by no means hard to arrive at. For my part, I think it’s a pretty good case: some works are good because of their artistic value, and other works are good because they extended beyond their frames and contemporary contexts to affect people and history.

Yet Kulka met with criticism. Goodman didn’t respond too well (Leonardo, 1982), nor did Jacques Mandelbrojt (Leonardo, 1983). Their responses insisted on the importance of authenticity, which must be discerned in the aesthetic quality of the piece.

It’s an old guard view because at risk in this argument is the reputation of the field and its foundation in the sciences. Art historians, by and large, cannot stand being told that there is no way to ‘prove’ their arguments. So they have to revert to science and scientific method. It’s all silly and has a rather immature attachment to historical positivism.


Returning to the NGV and their not-Van-Gogh. I’m happy that they’re still going to display the painting– it’s a confident move that declares the directors are not exclusively concerned with headlining names but also with the works themselves. But, as with my final statement in my post about Robert Thwaites, the work itself now gains currency and importance just from the debates its sparked regarding forgeries, originals, and attribution. All of which should be included somehow in the presentation of the piece. Let the audience know what they’re viewing, the recent debates about it, and push them to form their own opinions about the significance of authenticity. That’d make for a great exhibition.

Posted in art, exhibitions, exhibits, galleries, museums, portrait, semiotics | 1 Comment »

Rudolf Stingel and Having to Be There: Participation

Posted by gninja on July 26, 2007


At the Whitney right now is an exhibition of works by Rudolf Stingel. (I have to admit–and I’m chalking this up to my being a medievalist–I’d never heard of Stingel before. But apparently, he [an import to the NY art scene from Italy] made a hit debut in 1991 with a great big orange carpet, and has been, as far as I can gather, a darling to the critics ever since.)

You can find reviews of his current Whitney exhibition here and here. In short, it’s the best exhibition I’ve been to in a long, long while. It epitomized for me why I go to a museum because it gave me what cannot be replicated elsewhere or in any other format.

From the Whitney website:

Employing such materials as rubber, carpet, painted aluminum, Styrofoam, and paint, Rudolf Stingel’s work questions and disrupts the viewer’s understanding and experience of an art object. Although Stingel’s work does not always involve paint on canvas, it continually reflects upon some of the fundamental questions concerning painting today, including authenticity, hierarchy, meaning, and context. While Stingel, who was shown in the 2006 Whitney Biennial, has created major installations for the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago and numerous other institutions, this is his first solo museum exhibition in the United States, surveying his career to date and including a new site-specific work.

Despite how much I was enamored of this show–and the experience of experiencing it– it has some shortcomings that are not so much a product of the exhibition as the result of its seductions.

The show includes several large rooms, each one devoted to between one and three works. But because of the relationship between the works and the gallery space, each room has the feeling of an installation, or I might even venture, a performance. The first room (pictured above) elicited some variation on “ooh” and “ah” from every person entering the room. It’s simply a large room with walls covered from floor to ceiling in aluminum foil panels, illuminated by a massive, somewhat low-hung chandelier glowing with soft warm light. Like entering the Tin Man’s ballroom. Unfortunately, I had approached from the stairwell, but I can imagine the effect of entering the room unaware of what would be in there would have been all the more exciting had I taken the elevator. Very theatrical.

I soon learned that the aluminum foil was actually a medium on which the museum-goers were invited to draw, place stickers and buttons or whatever else they had on hand. Some of the panels were transports from the same exhibition at the MCA, thus retaining a local flavor outside of its locale. It was a bit strange to see some shout-outs to Chicago in a museum in NY.

Clearly, this DIY aspect of the show went down well with the critics, though I thought it was the weakest part of the exhibition. Aside from the obvious criticism–that the invitation for musuem-goers to participate is gimicky– it detracted from what would otherwise have been an overwhelming experience of dislocation. Not only was the opulent and sumptuous effect of the room unexpected in the context of the Whitney museum, but it was also achieved through the use of an everyday item (aluminum foil) juxtaposed with a luxuriant lighting piece (the chandelier). The marks made by visitors, while fun, lessened the extravagant impression created by the use of these two strikingly different materials.

At the same time, Profiling, the other current exhibition at the Whitney which I discussed in a previous post reveals the shortcomings of the use of audience participation in Stingel’s show. Whereas the pieces in Profiling required the participation of museum-goers in order to communicate a very pointed and topical message (the simultaneous allurement and threat of omnipresent surveillance), the participation requested in Stingel’s exhibition lacked any sort of direction or, to be blunt about it, point. It seemed more an appeal to the increasing self-absorption of us these days, due to which it’s presumed we lack the attention span for anything not directly related to us. And rightly so. For chrissakes, each of the three headlining exhibitions at the Whitney now allow some form of participation (the Summer of Love one includes a kind of carpeted love cave in which people are allowed to cavort; picture the adult version of waiting in line for a carnival moon walk / bouncy castle, and you’ve got the right idea).

In any case, sometimes participation works and sometimes it doesn’t. In the case of Stingel’s aluminum walls, I’d say it merely amounts to a questioning of the author of a work of art.  Something which is neither new nor underdiscussed (if you’ve got access to JSTOR, just search in the art history journals for collaborative art or audience participation and art, and you’ll see what I mean).

Posted in art, exhibitions, exhibits, galleries, graffiti, museums, new york, photography, portrait | 1 Comment »

Portraiture: Part 2 of 2

Posted by gninja on July 11, 2006

Although, prior to thinking of specific examples, I had wanted to write a post about medieval portraiture, it was the set of images I found in a British Library manuscript that compelled me to do so. In Yates Thompson 48 are five royal portraits contained within illuminated initials. The manuscript, created between 1451 and 1480, contains royal statutes from Edward III to Henry VI and, accordingly, their portraits as well as those of the kings who reigned between their tenures. I think the best way to approach these portraits is not singly, but rather, as an emsemble:

Edward III

As we would expect, since the statutes are listed chronologically and according to the monarch who isssued them, the first portrait in this manuscript (shown above) is of Edward III, who reigned from 1327 to 1377.


Richard II (reign 1377-99).


Henry IV (reign 1399-1413).


Henry V (reign 1413-1422)


Henry VI (reign 1422-1461)


In displaying these images sequentially, without interrupting with discussion the flow of images, I hope to have made clear their uniformity. Despite small differences in facial hair, there are few attributes distinguishing the portraits from one another. Indeed the following description could apply to all five images: we see, within an historiated initial of blue, green, red, and gold a male figure in royal garb of red, blue, and white. He stands on a checked ground of green and black, while holding the traditional regal symbols of orb and scepter in left and right hand, respectively. The figure also stands beneath a baldachin, and wears a crucifixed crown atop his head.

Notice that, in describing these figures, I have focused on color and caparison, with little regard for the visage or anatomy of the inidividuals depicted. Frankly, there’s little to say when it comes to their faces and bodies, and it’s clear that the accessories, garb, and setting were of more importance to the artist.

The question that comes to mind when looking at these, then, is quite simple: what is the purpose in creating nearly uniform images of these five kings?

Without even knowing the historical context in which these images were created, it’s possible to infer that one purpose was to endorse a very specific model of kingship. Five kings, each one marked by the actions he supoprted through the written statutes that follow his portrait, yet each one portrayed almost identically to those who preceded him. So, as far as working context-lessly goes, I could argue that the portraits somehow serve to align a group of monarchs, asserting visually continuity among them.

And, indeed, once we become familiar with the political situation in England during the time of this manuscript’s creation, the reason for the uniformity of these portraits becomes evident. According to the curators of the British Library, MS Yates Thompson 48 was produced sometime between 1451 (the year of the most recent statutes included in the manuscript) and 1480. During the first twenty years of this time span, Henry VI reigned, although this reign was interrupted once and eventually terminated by Edward IV. The twice-over deposition was a product of the War of the Roses, between the Houses of Lancaster and York, with all the kings portrayed in the manuscript at hand belonging to the House of Lancaster.

To be honest, I have a hard time believing that this sumptuous collection of statues issued by the Lancastrians would have been produced while a York king occupied the throne. On the other hand, there would have been justification to create the manuscript while a Lancastrian whose legitimacy was disputed did. To be specific, these portraits implicitly advocate the right of this contested king to his position as monarch by aligning him visually with the four preceding kings.

An objection to such an argument might be that, because of the medium–i.e. expensive, unique manuscript that would not enjoy a wide circulation–such a declaration of legitimacy would not be particularly efficacious. And I would have to agree. On the other hand, such legitimacy claims are frequently advanced in manuscripts like this one, indicating to me that they were perceived to be of use in this regard.

And, as an unintentional bonus, I stumbled upon a manuscript that explicitly endorses the validity of Edward IV (i.e. the king who deposed Henry VI). And by explicitly, I mean:

The folio above shows the genealogy of Edward IV (tracing him back to a monarch whose legitimacy was not disputed). And, as we might expect, all male members depicted are rendered identically.

My intention, in discussing portraiture in this manner, is to demonstrate how, unlike our current notion of what comprises a portrait of an individual, the portrait could have a very diffrent purpose. Not to mark the unique characteristics of the subject, but rather to identify the subject by features that unite him with or differentiate him from a specific millieu. The portrait, in this sense, may be seen as a composite of both values and associations embodied by the individual and the collective.

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Portraiture: Part 1 of 2

Posted by gninja on July 4, 2006


In the previous post, I discussed a form of social-power statement made through controlling images of others. But what about representations of the self? Control is an important aspect of portraiture, although the manner in which it is gained can differ from the methods used in declaring power through the depiction of others. However, before addressing specific examples (which will be the subject of part two) there are various caveats to make regarding medieval portraiture.

The very term, “portraiture” is not the most accurate term to use when referring to medieval likenesses of actual individuals (as opposed to fictional or biblical characters). We immediately have to surrender our contemporary definition of portraiture, with its emphasis on the individual. Medieval notions of the body were very different from our own. It is not that people living during the Middle Ages were indistiguishable drones, encouraged to suppress all hints of individuality in appearance. Rather, the body was a site for intense conflict. It was the earthly form in which the soul was incarnated, the vessel connecting the soul with the terrestrial. As such, it was also the conduit through which the soul could be corrupted. Portraits, or likenesses, then, could potentially be traces of the intrinsically flawed body. In other words, nothing could be gained from representing the body as it is seen in this world, when it could be viewed as evidence of the individual’s failings.

Instead, representing the self meant something different: it meant making visually manifest the status and deeds of the individual in order to elevate the reputation of the person depicted, or to endorse a specific manner of living, ruling, or being ruled. So, when we think of medieval portraiture, we absolutely must relinquish our conception of the portrait as the detailed and naturalistic representation of one’s physiognomy. The worst you can do, when looking at medieval art, is make the assumption that the artists were too unskilled to render “realistic” images. They were not. A glance at a decent illuminated manuscript or the scuptured facade of a cathedral should easily disuade you of that notion.

(A good reference: Thomas Dale, “The Individual, the Resurrected Body, and Romanesque Portraiture: The Tomb of Rudolf von Schwaben in Merseburg,” Speculum 77 [2002], 707-743.)
Why use the term portraiture, then? For convenience and in order to call into question our contemporary notion of what constitutes a portrait. Concerning convenience, “portrait” implies the likeness of a specific individual who is or was at some point living. But rather than assume, as we currently do, that the likeness reflects the outward appearance of the individual, or even his unique character, I’d like to make known the medieval conception of the portrait. That is, the almost corporally-negligent representation of an individual through accessories, accoutrements, and appurtenances of status and accomplishment. Indeed, the depiction of the body was so unimportant to the success of a portrait that such likenesses often fell into “types,” such as young, old, Solomonic, chaste, etc.

A last thing before Part 2. Because imagery of the individual was not as pervasive in medieval society as it is today (think of how many snapshots of yourself you’ve seen over the course of your life), each image held a lot more (and a lot more permanent) weight in the mind of the viewer. So the royally sanctioned image of the king seen on a coin wouldn’t have many other images of the king against which to compete.

Gold Noble Hnery VI, 1422-27

Unlike Queen Elizabeth II, whose official images are off-set by numerous informal (well, as informal as a queen can be seen) shots.



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