The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Art For Art's Sake

Yesterday popped into the National Gallery to catch the Fakes, Mistakes & Discoveries exhibition. Very interesting stuff. Forgeries – or copies – of paintings that no longer exist. Copies made by the original artist, where the only differences are that the x-ray reveals that one painting has working-out pencil sketches underneath the oil, and one hasn’t. Paintings which were modified by dealers to make their subject matter more fashionable and commercial. Paintings misattributed, and paintings made in the studios of famous artists but not by the artists themselves, or only in collaboration.

All very interesting, and it gives each painting another story to tell, as their origins are shrouded in often mystery but they have been subject to detective work, as connoisseurs study the paintwork, the subject matter and the historical context, comparing with other works, while the boffins scrape away at the paint for anachronistic or time-specific or region-specific materials and zap each canvas with x-rays to reveal what’s hidden under the paint.

There’s also the restorations which have been... creative. We Doctor Who fans like to moan about how sometimes the versions of the episodes on the DVDs aren’t quite the same as the episodes that were broadcast on the telly (largely because the episodes on the DVDs look better). But imagine the situation where art dealer Vitale Block met with Theodore Dumler who he had hired to restore the damaged painting Il Tramanto...

Block: Theo, a word.

Dumler: Yes, boss. How do you like the finished painting? Good as new, eh?

Block: Yes, that’s what I wanted to speak to you about. I hired you to fill in all the mountain bits on the right that had been damaged by the ravages of time.

Dumler: Yep, I remember, had to buy a job lot of grey paint. Very grey things, mountains.

Block: Yes. And I remember specifically asking you to make sure you followed the intentions of the original artist, Giorgione.

Dumler: You certainly did. Why, is there a problem?

Block: You could say that. You see, if you look very carefully here, you’ve painted Saint George killing a dragon.

Dumler: Yes.

Block: In a painting called Il Tramanto. ‘The Sunset’.

Dumler: Yes.

Block: Not a painting called ‘Saint George Killing A Dragon’.

Dumler: I’m not entirely sure what you’re getting at.

Block: What I’m getting at is this. If Giorgione had intended for the painting to include Saint George killing a dragon, he might have mentioned it in the title. He might also have made Saint George more central to the image, rather than tucking him away on the far-right next to some grey mountains.

Dumler: You think so?

Block: I do think so.

Dumler: Because, you see, I think that was probably what Giorgione intended. And that if he had had the materials available to him at the time that we have now, he would definitely have included Saint George killing a dragon. Look. I did it just how he would have done, I drew a preliminary cartoon and everything -

Block: I’m sorry, but I will not have cartoon-generated imagery in my painting! I asked you to restore the painting, not to include random knights hacking away at mythical lizards.

Dumler: But who is to say that there the painting didn’t originally feature Saint George killing a dragon?

Block: I’m the guy paying your bloody wages, so it’s for me to say. Giorgione did not paint dragons. He painted bloody sunsets and bloody mountains.

Dumler: You don’t think he would have been painting away at the mountain, do-de-do, do-de-do, and thought, I’m bored of just doing grey rocks, I know, I’ll stick in a bit of action.

Block: No.

Dumler: Only my feeling is that when he got to that section of the painting, he would have probably wanted to joosh it up a bit.

Block: Joosh it up?

Dumler: Yes.

Block: Is that an authentic word for this mid-twentieth century conversation we’re having?

Dumler: Authentic-ish.

Block: I’m not even sure that’s how you spell it. Joosh.

Dumler: Well, mate, if we’re going to get all pedantic about authenticity, can I point out that this sketch contains a number of conspicuous similarities to the Monty Python Michelangelo Sketch?

Block: No it doesn’t. It is an entirely original piece of work.

Dumler: Entirely original my arse.