Everybody wants a Rembrandt

Nicholas Penny

  • The Rare Art Traditions by Joseph Alsop
    Thames and Hudson, 691 pp, £30.00, November 1982, ISBN 0 500 23359 4

‘Schnabel is the latest American wunderkind, half-Courbet, half-apeman,’ announced Waldemar Januszczak in the Guardian of 29 December 1982.

At the Venice Biennale he impressed with his anger. At the Kassel Documenta he impressed with his absence, for somehow the organisers had deliberately chosen to overlook him. In a half-hearted show he emerged as a whole-hearted omission. Schnabel also has the distinction of being the first young American artist to be given a one-man exhibition at the Tate (for this we should thank Charles Saatchi who as collector and éminence grise emerged this year wielding as much power in art as he does in politics). The Tate show was not a success. But later in the year I was finally convinced of Schnabel’s importance by his powerful contribution to the excellent Zeitgeist exhibition in Berlin. He could well be the new Jackson Pollock.

The emphasis is on Schnabel’s personality (‘angry’ – but what about?), his image (‘half-Courbet, half-apeman’), his career (he was ‘deliberately’ overlooked), and on the big money backing him. There is the conversion (‘I was finally convinced’) and the tip (‘he could well be’). So remember the name, Schnabel, ‘the new Jackson Pollock’. Elsewhere in the same article Januszczak explained how ‘gloriously liberating’ he found the ‘scratch and sniff pictures’ of Philip Guston which ‘smelled of stale vodka and cigarettes, old spunk and dirty sheets’. Other artists were praised for shamelessly cocking their legs (De Chirico!) or for ‘drooling over fleshy naked women’ with a ‘quite shocking lack of abandon’ (Lucian Freud). This leaves us grateful that the critic makes no attempt to describe what he admires in Schnabel’s pictures. But it is important to note that he makes no attempt. You can’t promote a star in showbiz or sport without some discussion of his or her gifts or skills, nor will the promotion succeed unless a real public is impressed, but a ‘new Jackson Pollock’ can be manufactured very easily.

Joseph Alsop in The Rare Art Traditions reports a conversation with a modern plutocrat who had just paid a ‘huge sum for an alleged Rembrandt’. Asked why he paid so much, he reeled off figures: the high number of Rembrandts in public collections, and the very few left in private hands. Then he added: ‘But everybody, just everybody, still wants a Rembrandt. So where has this one got to go, do you think?’ ‘Whereupon,’ we are told, ‘he jerked his thumb skyward.’ Less wealthy and more imaginative investors must look elsewhere. Schnabel might be a good idea. Collect Schnabel and you can also fancy yourself in the vanguard of taste and you might even find yourself, like Mr Saatchi, described as wielding ‘power’ in the art world.

If a cross between Courbet and apeman is not to your taste what about a neglected Old Master? Alsop notes the way that American 19th-century landscape painters have been ‘rather clamorously discovered’ in recent years, and the convenient invention of a brand name ‘Luminism’. In these discoveries, or rather rediscoveries, art historians are likely to work closely with dealers – both need new ‘fields’. However, the process is not quite as cynical as the promotion of ‘new Jackson Pollocks’: it originates usually with genuine historical curiosity and a commendable rejection of received ideas and doctrinaire taste. What is striking today, however, is the low standard of critical discussion and the absence of genuine attempts at appraisal. The ‘superprice’ of $2,500,000 paid recently for Frederic Church’s Icebergs, a prime example of ‘Luminism’, when it was put up for auction by the Manchester convalescent home where it had long hung unadmired, seems to be enough to convince people of the picture’s superlative merits.

For less than twice this sum the Getty Museum a few years ago acquired a good-quality Hellenistic bronze statue of a boy from ‘Artemis’, the international ‘art investment fund’. The statue had been netted in the Adriatic by Italian fishermen, was then ‘murkily sold abroad’, went to Latin America and then to Munich. There were rumours that it made an appearance in London, but that none of the privileged few who were invited to see its comic baggy velvet suit unzipped could afford it or even thought very highly of it. It remains to be seen whether or not the Getty Museum will manage to persuade the rest of the world as well as themselves that it is an original creation by Lysippus.

In any case, the Getty Museum has so far avoided anything like the farce – or, as Alsop calls it, the ‘sad story’ – of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and its ‘Raphael’. Having acquired the ‘Raphael’ from a dealer in Genoa for $600,000 the Museum neglected to declare it properly at customs. There was a fine to pay, set at the market value of the picture. The legality of the picture’s export from Italy was raised. Meanwhile, the attribution to Raphael made by John Shearman, the prominent Raphael scholar who was then at the Courtauld Institute, was widely challenged, sometimes in very strong terms. And then the picture had to be returned to Italy. It must have seemed as if the Museum of Fine Arts had been copped for stealing paste jewellery.

The story is not actually as simple as it seems. No one has suggested that Shearman’s opinion was venal. I believe (Alsop apparently does not) that it might be correct. But I would also have been inclined to respect Sydney Freedberg of Harvard when he declared that the painting was by Raphael’s obscure contemporary Sinibaldo Ibi. Alsop, however, writes that Freedberg made this attribution because, as he ‘demurely explained’, he ‘wanted to help’ – ‘pointing out that the market value of an Ibi, and therefore the proper customs fine, could hardly be more than $2,000’. Alsop’s source for this is given in a note as a ‘personal communication’. How will Harvard, and the customs officials, react?

The creation of avant-garde heroes in recent decades in the United States is being subjected to severe, if also often naive examination by left-wing critics who, now that urinals, Coke-tins and bricks are enshrined in museums, have at last begun to recognise that there is nothing revolutionary about ‘shameless’ art (even if the critic is ‘gloriously liberated’ by it) or ‘angry’ art (which doesn’t anger Mr Saatchi). Alsop is concerned with the other phenomena I have mentioned: the art investor jerking his thumb skywards, the super-price for Icebergs, the desperate pursuit of ancient treasures and great names, the interdependence of historical scholarship and collecting, and the frequent dishonesty and indeed crime which are entailed. His book, however, is not so much a guide to today’s ‘art world’ as an investigation of its historical origins and parallels in other civilisations.

The value of art in recent centuries has always been determined with some reference to the category and usually the name that an art historian gives it. Thus the comment of the Times salesroom correspondent (when Lot 2422 at the Mentmore Sale turned out to be a Fragonard) that prices today are ‘dictated’ by ‘art history rather than aesthetics’ is correctly described by Alsop as ‘innocent establishment twaddle’ (he might have added, in view of the priorities of present journalism, ‘and hypocritical piety’). Taste – I take it that ‘taste’ is what the Times means here by ‘aesthetics’ – and art history have always been inseparable factors conditioning prices. What has happened recently is that taste has become inarticulate, and art criticism pusillanimous.

What strikes Alsop most about the situation today seems to be the way the status of art has been transformed, all over the world, so that there is now less and less art of any quality being produced anywhere to be used. Even the more isolated South American Indians are making baskets to be hung on walls. And, of course, the art of the past which was made to be used is used no more. Alsop illustrates the ironies as strikingly as he can. He describes a visit to a plump dealer in smuggled tribal art who purred smoothly over the elegance of a cannibals’ war club, and he meditates at length on the demand for Sung dynasty spitoons and Meissen bedpans.

In his discussion of the altered environment of religious art Alsop gives us a previously unpublished quatrain by Dorothy Parker on a picture given by William Randolph Hearst to his mistress:

Upon my honour, I saw a Madonna
Hanging within a niche
Above the door of the private whore
Of the world’s worst son of a bitch.

I’m not sure that this is so inappropriate (whores have often had devotional paintings). It would be more out of place in a museum. He also tells the poignant story of a statue from the temple of Angkor Watt which had been adopted as a cult statue in a village shrine and covered with radiator paint – when taken to the Pnom Penh Museum the statue could not be cleaned because the villagers persisted in coming to pray before it.

Thus it is that collecting, to use Alsop’s cumbersome terminology, converts or tries to convert ‘art for use plus beauty’ into ‘art as an end in itself’. We all know what Alsop means, but although the function of a village Buddha, or a 15th-century Madonna, is lost, a different magic is added, and a different use served, admittedly often only at an unconscious level. Alsop, when tracing the origins of art-collecting, correctly distinguishes it from the accumulation of heirlooms, trophies and religious relics, and this may be why he does not remark that objects in museums (far more than in private collections) often serve to remind us of the age, continuity and hence importance of our civilisation, enable us to imagine that we have transcended the savagery but assimilated the piety and power of earlier ages, and can make contact with the superior imaginations and higher ideals of our ancestors. Something of the sort. But if Alsop has little to say about the ideological implications of museums, this is not surprising since most museum directors are unaware of them as well.

Alsop has assembled much interesting evidence for the production for the market of ready-made devotional art in the Renaissance but correctly notes that only in 17th-century Europe were secular pictures produced for collectors (that is, for dealers to supply to collectors) in really large numbers – at least in the Low Countries. Only when Old Master paintings had been severed by collectors from their original purpose – family portraits taken from the family and altarpieces from the altar – did living masters begin to produce pictures without any practical use.

Alsop notes briefly the connection between this development and the increasing number of major artists with relatively narrow specialisations in subject-matter and a clearly recognisable individual manner, such as is accepted as normal today when there is very little art patronage but a great deal of art-collecting and almost all artists ‘do their own thing’ – for dealers. It is shocking but salutary to think of the relation between a ‘personal style’ in art and the idea of ‘trademark art’, as Alsop proposes. The specialised practice of modern artists (‘He does scratch and sniff pictures’; ‘Isn’t he the one who paints white canvases?’) has its origin with Dutch still-life, genre and landscape painters (‘He’s the one who liked lemons and glass’; ‘Wasn’t he the one who painted cows’). But cabinet pictures, even if they had no ‘use’, were designed to be a part of daily life – domestic ornaments. The ‘new Jackson Pollock’ is working for the Museum of Modern Art, even if he is collected by a private individual.

Alsop is anxious to shake us out of any tendency to assume that our present museum culture – the culmination of five centuries of art-collecting in the West – is a normal state of affairs, and, as this point about ‘trademark art’ demonstrates, his study of collecting is a far more significant enterprise than might at first be supposed. The signing and the forging of works of art, the idea of remembering the names of great masters, and hence the very idea of art history, the self-conscious pursuit of originality in art – these are all topics which, Alsop rightly insists, cannot be explored without reference to art-collecting.

Much of his book consists of an outstandingly thorough investigation of the growth of art-collecting and its ‘linked phenomena’ in the Hellenistic kingdoms, ancient Rome, China and Renaissance Italy (with briefer sections on Japanese and Islamic equivalents). The evidence has been assembled with the help of assistants (acknowledged with refreshing generosity and candour), but the many valuable conjectures, the implications imaginatively detected in the dry facts and the tremendous ambition which made the undertaking possible are Alsop’s. The book is at times irritatingly, but also often engagingly, and sometimes valuably, personal. As a corrective to the tendency to consider that 15th-century Florentine art patrons possessed exceptional discrimination, for instance, Alsop points out that in some societies the ‘best suppliers’ are obvious to the upper class, as was the case in his youth when ‘everyone’ knew the best brand of everything from marmalade to shoes.

There are some problems of organisation in the book, chiefly caused by an apparent reluctance to leave out any interesting fact or anecdote. I don’t know that many readers will appreciate being detained by two pages on the collecting habits of bowerbirds, but I am glad Alsop did not omit the quatrain by Dorothy Parker, and recorded the rumour that the fortune which Albert Barnes employed on building up his great collection of French pictures was derived from the adoption of Argyrol as the ‘standard anti-venereal preventative of the French army’.

It may be deplorable, but most art lovers, including those who don’t collect, share something of the collector’s passion, and looking at objects is possessive and consuming (in an active and passive sense) as reading and listening are not. Alsop ends his book with the story of the dying Cardinal Mazarin, naked below his fur-trimmed dressing-gown, hobbling through his gallery, crying out with pain at the thought of leaving his pictures. Art-collecting is characteristic of aged – or at least self-consciously ‘mature’ – civilisations, curious as to their past, eager to honour ‘old masters’, but it also involves the keen attachment to objects, the fascination with labelling, and the innocent, or at least uncalculating, extravagance and greed of early childhood – today, alas, increasingly confused with the perversities of ‘Late Capitalism’.