A quirkily designed title, worthy of the front cover of a thriller, promises an intriguingly interesting exhibition worthy of the title.
The first room, entitled ‘Deception and Deceit’, constitutes the initial chapter of this seemingly mysterious event, one based primarily on science. This gallery describes how today’s art history detectives, that is, the scientists, are now able to ascertain the age and origin of a painting by examination of its physical features.
Techniques leading to the deciphering of a painting’s age include the analysis of pigments (the elements in paint which provides colour), the discovery of which can be tracked down to a particular point in time. For instance, a study of the chemical composition of Francesco Guardi’s ‘Venice: Entrance to the Cannaregio’, showed the presence of cobalt blue, a synthetic pigment not invented until 1804. Since Guardi died in 1739, it is fairly safe to say this cannot have been painted by him.
The question which kept coming to mind whilst walking through these absorbing investigations of origin, age, ownership and attribution – was, well does it really matter?
Naturally it may do so for archiving purposes, for study and research, however, does it really change the existential worth and beauty of a painting, if for years people habitually thought of it as a masterpiece? It made me wonder whether the commoditization of art has reached the point where the ‘label’ matters more than the intrinsic work itself, a little like the world of ‘haute couture’ where a morseau of ripped cheap fabric can be worth thousands to the fashionista so long as it carries the de rigeur emblem of ‘must have’ D&G.
As long as a painting reflects the period in which it was created, why should attribution have such a weighty impact on the interest which museums and collectors have in a given piece?
I have my own ideas about that, which may not entirely follow the establishment line, and so part of me does want to stand up for those anonymous young painters - aspirants, working away in the workshop of great masters, whose precocious talents will never be fully recognized, if at all, nor given appropriate study, nor even mention in art world literature.
The ‘Madonna with the Iris’, attributed to Albrecht Dürer, is now believed to have been painted by multiple artists employed at his workshop. Scientific investigation of the colours used, prove it was painted over a number of years - affirming again the hidden and unknown talent of those individuals painting, paradoxically, alongside, yet in the penumbra of Albrecht Dürer.
Fans of Botticelli will be disappointed to hear that he in fact created one painting less than has been thought, as ‘Madonna of the Veil’ is now attributed to Umberto Giunti, a painter infamous for his talent in generating forgeries of Italian Renaissance works. Do Botticelli’s admirers, like it any the less for that? Has the work lost any of its beauty, elegance, symmetry and economic value in the market place, now that it is a Giunti? Sadly, the answer is yes.
The Science of Painting is a different exhibition, one more concerned with the present that the history which is on display. In one way it de-romanticises ideas and convictions which have become emblems of a given time; but on the other hand it addresses the inescapable curiosity of science from which few disciplines are able to hide.
For those who seldom visit galleries, or for whom boredom has been the traditional Pavlovian response when confronted with the idea of visiting a museum, this is certainly a good exhibition to break that mental mould. The medical-sounding terminology employed, such as reflectography, dendrochronology, infrared and analyses of all kinds, represent a refreshing alternative to the traditional study of art history, and as such should generate an incentivized interest from a hitherto reticent audience.
Close Examination: Fakes Mistakes and Discoveries until September 12. Admission free, open daily 10am-6pm (Friday until 9pm) www.nationalgallery.org.uk