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The National Gallery and Masaccio

Masaccio was the first truly Renaissance artist who, in his short lifetime of 26 years of which perhaps only five were as an independent master, managed to revolutionize Western painting.

He was born in 1401 and in honor of his 600th anniversary, a few relatively modest events are being planned for his birthplace of San Giovanni Valdarno, which does not possess a single work by their local hero. London’s National Gallery has scheduled a far more ambitious event. The Gallery owns the enthroned Madonna and Child which originated as the central section of the altarpiece for the Carmine Church in Pisa. This painting, really a large fragment of the whole, is well documented as having been executed for the chapel of a wealthy notary, Giuliano di Colino degli Scarsi, during the calendar year 1426. It forms one of the very few fixed points in the short career of the master and the entire Renaissance, for that matter.

The altarpiece was a highly complex structure composed of a predella, the broad and rather large central panel including four standing saints, smaller ones set into pilasters (?), half-length saints, and other representations at the uppermost zone. In the later 16th Century Masaccio’s polyptych was removed from the chapel, which was located on the tramezzo and which was demolished. At some point, presumably shortly thereafter, altarpiece was cut up. In the process the four side saints, two on either side of the enthroned Madonna, including the patron saint of the donor and that of his father (Colino=Niccolò), were separated and have disappeared. Other losses include smaller sections, and possibly a strip at the bottom of the Madonna panel which, in turn, was very severely cleaned in the more distant past. In other words what is left of the original painting is highly fragmentary. To be sure, theoretical reconstructions have been offered from time to time by art scholars, but none have received the full support of their colleagues. One of the complicating factors is that the design of the pala was still in the late Gothic style and was created not by Masaccio but by a Sienese carpenter.

In addition to the marvelous Madonna, which was purchased by the National Gallery in 1916, other smaller panels known to have formed part of the altarpiece are found in public collections in Los Angeles, Berlin, Pisa and Naples. The National Gallery has announced that all of the known parts, eleven including their own, will be brought together for an exhibition in London from September 12 to November 11. As a parenthesis, I cannot hide my puzzlement that the National Gallery does not keep it open until Masaccio’s actual birthday on December 21st. Perhaps it doesn’t fit into the Gallery’s plans for the Christmas show.

On its face, the proposal to bring together these sections seems reasonable enough. But upon reflection serious doubts are raised concerning the use of the world’s artistic heritage by this newsworthy exhibition.

The goal seems to be to bring the “masterpiece back to life” [Daily Telegraph, 12 July 2001], that is to “attempt to reconstruct” the polyptych. According to the Gallery itself, however, what will be presented probably amounts to “only a third of the original work.” So if the goal is as stated – and what else could it possibly be? – it is a flawed one. Besides, one of the fundamental issues for any reconstruction of the altarpiece is the very nature and appearance of the frame and how the different extant sections relate to it and to one another. The frame, however, has totally disappeared without any meaningful clues as to its original appearance. In other words the very objective of the exhibition is really an impossibility to start with, and the promised conferences of art historians cannot change the situation.

Perhaps the hidden agenda may instead involve public relations, which has become part of the museum’s modus operandi anyway. By showing how clever they are in bringing these rare objects together, the National Gallery apparently can expect to accrue valuable publicity. This objective is hardly unique to the National Gallery, but it is exceptionally adept at this kind of activity, more so than the Met or the Washington National Gallery. And, of course, the thought that these works will be brought together from far-flung places is pleasant enough. The handful of specialists who might be interested and understand the nuances of the situation should be contented. After all, I recall a difficult winter day in Berlin when I went to specifically to see the seven sections of the Masaccio altarpiece there, several of which are actually autograph, that is, by the master himself: the others are by his workshop.

Still, shipping works around the world should give one pause. It can be dangerous for at least three reasons: (1) there is always the possibility of an accident, either from a plane crash, a boat sinking, truck accidents, dropping, or the like, and not even Dr. Neil McGregor, the National’s skillful Director, with all his power, could prevent such an occurrence; (2) the changes in the natural or acquired environments of delicate works of art inevitably involves some risk, all the more so in the case of paintings on prepared wood panels. This despite all of the preparations and special containers with constant humidity. How this condition compares with the location in their “homes” in Berlin and Naples is quite another matter. Besides according to reliable reports from scientific institutes, the shipment of art works, no matter how carefully executed, is damaging: it is merely a question of how much damage occurs; (3) very often in exhibitions such as this one, special treatment for the paintings is required to help them sustain the trip, treatments which often include unnecessary and frequently misleading restorations.

If I have lined up some of the negatives for the presentation of the exhibition, perhaps we might try to present positives: (1) you could hope to bring more people to the National Gallery to view and appreciate art than might otherwise have come. Of course, while specialists are very keen on Masaccio, the rest of the population probably does not even recognize his name, or retains but a faint memory from an Art Appreciation course in college. It will not be a door buster, and cannot be expected to provide the opportunity to sell a lot of catalogues at the book shop, or generate much needed cash for the Gallery. (2) By bringing these parts together, Masaccio specialists may be aided in their ongoing efforts to determine the authorship of the various parts, separating the hand of the master from that of his workshop, a fairly esoteric activity which could also be done without shipping the objects. (3) There is a publicity value in showing the Museum to be active on an international scale, and thus an institution to admire and support financially.

A very simple, inexpensive, and secure alternative to the National Gallery’s initiative for Masaccio is readily available, and ArtWatch International has urged the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the Berlin Museum, and the National Museums in Pisa and Naples to consider it. They should send high-quality scale facsimiles of their treasures and keep the originals in their proper and safe place. The goals of a pseudo-reconstruction and comparison between the works can be obtained just the same. One is quite able to study and reconstruct to one’s heart’s content without any danger to the rare originals, especially, I must single out, the Adoration of the Magi in Berlin, a tiny masterpiece in quite good condition which ranks with the best pictures of the Fifteenth Century, and the Crucifixion in Naples, another gem, although it has undergone considerable modern restorations. Nevertheless it is a work of the most rare beauty. And if, Heaven forbid, an accident should occur, the reproductions would be lost and could be easily replaced, but the originals would still be there in Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz Gemäldegalerie and in the Capodimonte, where they belong. The fact is that Dr. McGregor himself has stated that it took two years to persuade the other institutions to lend their works. Sometimes even governments get involved in the persuasion efforts or alternatively a borrowing institution coaxes the potential lender by promises of sending them a prestigious work in the future.

To return to the larger issue of the treatment of our treasures, I suggest that the Crucifixion exhibition is basically one which is motivated by efforts to gain prestige for the institution and consequently to reap rewards. This condition is similar to more ambitious blockbuster exhibitions which are held in large and small museums alike with some regularity all over the world and which involve the sending of objects hither and yon. At its core, the problem presents a dilemma. The commercialization of the museum in the West with its explosive museum stores selling every conceivable object, hiring vast fund raising and press relations staffs, and using all of the sophisticated tricks of advanced public relations to make their point involves an obvious rationalization: these are wonderful institutions of culture, they offer wide public access to works of art and a certain amount of instruction on how to understand the art, and they are the objective of “cultural” tourism. They are in constant need of funds to carry out their good work.

So what is really wrong with selling Matisse ties or Michelangelo mouse pads, where the poor little critters get stuck forever on a glue mat showing God creating Adam. It’s fun, it’s practical, it helps the institution. Why fuss? So what if the Metropolitan Museum has fifteen Museum shops, located from California and Texas to Florida? They contribute to the needs of the Museum and even provide work for artisans and middlemen. And if they have fifteen, why not twenty? And what is to stop the Louvre from doing the same, and the Uffizi, and the Prado? And what is wrong with the restoration, unnecessary in the view of Italy’s new Under-secretary of Fine Arts (and my own), of Michelangelo’s Moses, shown on-line, where you can play Moses games? What is wrong with having restaurants all over the Museum of Modern Art, or renting out the main hall of the Metropolitan or the Uffizi for a fashion show or a wedding reception? For many, there is nothing wrong; in fact, it is a pretty good thing, for in this way the institutions become self-sufficient and do not need government support. The issue is a lingering one and requires long and careful debate. It should become one of the crucial issues which the culture will have to face full-front in the coming years.

On Traveling Exhibitions

The business of exhibitions puts masterpieces at risk.

In recent months a controversy has re-erupted in the press and among art experts in Italy which is gradually spilling onto the international scene. Its impact upon the habits of displaying art treasures cannot be underestimated. The influential, skillful and politically adept Soprintendente of Fine Arts of Florence, Dr. Antonio Paolucci, the man who recently supervised the widely acclaimed restorations in Assisi after an earthquake rocked the basilica there, has been organizing a mammoth exhibition of Italian Renaissance art to be sent from Italy to Japan. Others shows of a similar nature have quietly been sent to Asia over the past few years, without much outcry. This one is far more encompassing in terms of the fame of the objects as well as their sheer number, in the hundreds, which will be wrapped, crated and shipped in temperature-controlled containers. Paolucci, whose impeccable curriculum vitae includes a stint as Italy’s Minister of Culture in a previous government, has been publicly attacked for his plan.

Serious objections have been raised about the dangers of shipping rare art works – Titians, Leonardos, and Michelangelos – even from Paolucci’s own usually solid ranks (e.g., the Soprintendente of the Veneto, Filippa Aliberti Gaudioso), as well as from art historians, including Professors Carlo Bertelli (who was formerly a soprintendente) and Alessandro Parronchi, the dean of Italian scholars, not to mention restoration specialist Professor Francesco Guerrieri of the University of Florence. The attacks this time have not come from art rights groups who have long ago pointed out the dangers, quite specifically when the Barnes Collection was sent around the world, but the art establishment itself, including the respected editor of London’s Burlington Magazine, Dr. Caroline Elam. Has there been a sea of change?

Blockbuster exhibitions have been a cornerstone of museum operations, at least for the past generation, being regarded as central postate in annual programming almost everywhere. These art spectaculars, looked upon with relish by the institutions’ fundraisers, the curators who participate in the planning and the structuring of the shows, the art restorers who get the objects in shape for display, not to mention socialites and firstnighters, publishers, and the press, have never before faced such a serious challenge to their legitimacy.

Positive aspects of blockbusters, and there are some, can be readily enumerated. Increased revenue which normally is expected to result from a successful blockbuster is nothing to sneeze at, planting the possibility in the minds of the cynically inclined that such is the main motivation. To be precise, increased entrance fees are not the only source of the infusion of money from the big shows. Catalogue sales, which can run into the tens of thousands of copies and even more when external sales are calculated, can produce decent revenue. Specialized products sold in the ubiquitous museum shops constitute yet another element that benefits from blockbusters, bringing the balance sheet further into the black. As a spin-off as well, the museum bars and restaurants are busier than usual when the postate are open. And, one should not forget that with the expanded attendance annual membership figures climb, and, after all, every little bit helps.

The tourism, and with it the political quotient, obviously comes into play, which is specifically the case with Paolucci’s Japanese show, an event that could not be contemplated without governmental support. The explicit intention is to demonstrate the grandeur of the Italian tradition by placing on the circuit Michelangelos, Raphaels, Titians, and Donatellos, among others. Presumably the display would add stimulus for increased tourism in Italy, just as Sensation has done so for Brooklyn, if not for all of New York. From it, we can anticipate that the waiting time in front of Florence’s Uffizi Gallery and Michelangelo’s David at the Academia will lengthen beyond the current two or three hours. Peddlers may very well benefit too by selling more postcards and knickknacks to the well-disciplined but bored tourists waiting their turn for enlightenment. The major cities with great collections, like New York, Washington, London, Paris, Madrid and St. Petersburg, have very deep ties with museums, arguably the principal tourist attraction in these cities, and all that they signify for the hotels, restaurants and shops. Art is big business and a gigantic attraction. If the blockbuster is sensational enough, everyone seems to benefit, that is, except the art works.

Less direct but equally sought after benefits of blockbusters include the publicity which inevitably can be counted on from the media. Is there a journalist who does not love an exhibition of the Young Picasso, Rembrandt, Caravaggio, or Ingres Portraits, Egyptian Gold, a Real or Fake Michelangelo Cupid, or Hans Holbein’s Ambassadors? These postate are even advertised in the mass media and in the metro to get the highest attendance possible. Together with more money and increased attendance, good will is banked for the future at the Metropolitan, London’s and Washington’s National Galleries. An analogy made be drawn with fundraising for public television which must be regarded as self-advertising that is transmitted with frustrating frequency. Over the past few years, the corporate sponsors are being rewarded with mini-ads for their largess. Are similar compromises also necessary in the function of museums?

Together with the public relations value and the effects of expanded tourism, museum rhetoric is quick to proclaim the value of spectacular shows upon scholarship, which is regarded as a sacred cow. Scholars and specialists are able to see, compare and contrast to their hearts content, works by a given artist, school or region all at the same time. They do not have to go to dozens of far-flung museums, remote churches, obscure private collections, and dingy drawing cabinets. They can see all the objects together. To confront versions and contemporary works in a single space seems to be a unique and incomparable opportunity, and can result, the line continues, in scholarly insights and discoveries. Many, and in some cases most, of the objects of a given category or by a selected artist can be seen, one by one, until the eyes get bleary.

I cannot resist commenting that for me seeing two hundred Cezannes, or two hundred works by anybody else, makes my head spin, and in the end I get very little out of the experience except a slight case of nausea. These monstrous piling-ups are effectively less informative than a carefully and thoughtfully selected, much smaller exhibition in which a curator uses his critical skills and makes judgments based upon a studied but personal view of a given artist or school. Some sort of informed selection has been offered by the specialist, and not left to an uninformed helter-skelter viewing. In this instance, there seems no doubt that more is less, anyway. Of course a disciplined viewer might decide to go to the blockbuster eight or ten times, and look at a small number of objects each visit, but perhaps that is asking too much. Ironically, the way in which the blockbusters present an artist’s oeuvre was never even available to the creating artists themselves, for works disappeared from the studio through sales and commissions.

And there is a practical spin-off of the transport of artworks as well. The museum staffs get numerous free trips to the great cities of the world, for the purpose of scouting around during the early stages of the process while in the later one, they supervise and often accompany the travel of the art objects from their institutions. And one could hardly expect them to travel economy or to stay in second-class hotels.

Specialized studies, inevitably accompanied by weighty and usually unreadable catalogues, are claimed to be, and with a certain justification, the most prestigious art scholarship of the moment. This scholarly component, sub-vented by willing sponsors – international oil companies, cigarette manufacturers, local and national banks – gives increased legitimacy to the blockbuster and make wonderful gifts to their clients.

What is not taken properly into account is that very soon if not already with a modicum of effort, technology will be available to create high quality, exact-scale facsimiles. By substituting such computer-generated images, the questioning of the viability of shipping precious art works around the world indiscriminately will be mooted. If my assessment is correct, we may finally be witnessing the beginning of the end for blockbusters as we have known them, and the concomitant risks to the art objects will be radically reduced.

Another incontrovertible benefit will accrue. No longer will the normal permanent exhibits of museums be disrupted by the removal of ‘stars’ from their collections. Nor will the famous works be pulled out of churches and museums. After all, who wants to go to Rome’s Borghese and not see Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love (despite its recent harsh overcleaning) or Milan’s Brera and not see Mantegna’s Dead Christ? Leave the objects in their original homes or in their acquired ones, should be the rule.

A further advantage of using facsimiles, which need not be glossy, is that they can, ironically, be more accurate than the originals as they have come down to us. We know paintings have been cut down over the centuries, they have been damaged by natural disasters, and they have been severely modified by repainting and overcleanings. Reconstructions can be offered in exhibitions which aim to give the appearance of the original, and even several alternative interpretations can be presented at the same time. Furthermore, facsimile images can be updated and corrected by the computers that generate them in the first place as our knowledge expands. Of course the specialist will always need to view the objects in their current state, but that eventuality involves merely moving a few people, without threat to the safety of the art.

The facsimile alternative should turn out to be a bonanza in terms the usual goal of blockbusters for completeness. There are always works which, for one reason or another, cannot be shipped, including frescoes (except when detached), paintings and sculptures in collections with rules against loans, not to mention bulky monuments. These can all be supplied with relative ease, low cost, and considerable accuracy. The goal of what might be termed completeness is something of a pipe dream, anyway. To have all the works of a Matisse, even from a limited period, is an impossibility, if one takes into account the works that an artist himself may have destroyed, and those that have been lost or have otherwise disappeared. All the more difficult is the re-creation of total oeuvres of artists from the more distant past.

The claim on the part of museum executives is that expanded public attendance, which is a sought-after goal of blockbusters, is automatically desirable. The argument is double-edged, however, for more may not really be the merrier. That the Sistine Chapel, following its widely publicized restoration, draws double the number of persons it did before 1980 does not make visiting the chapel a sensitive aesthetic experience. The spectacle atmosphere, as with blockbusters, means that the viewer sees the back of heads instead of the Old Testament scenes and Michelangelo’s heroic Prophets and Sibyls, in an atmosphere where the noise level is crushing.

Yet ‘the more the better’ is a fixation among museum directors. Pile them in, get the mass public in the vicinity of an art work, and by an alchemical process they will be informed and enriched. Oddly enough, we do not use this argument for a concert of a Bach cantata, which needs musical sophistication and a certain amount of musical education. By merely attending a prestigious exhibition, does the uninformed viewer really benefit? Perhaps a few might be motivated to see more, but this could be more effectively accomplished by other means. After all, the permanent collections of the Louvre, the Met, the National Gallery, and the Prado are so impressive that there is no need to import other objects to get people inclined toward the appreciation of art.

Finally, the obvious danger to the objects from travel and changing environments is spoken of openly. Even if the transport and packaging skills are improving, there is no doubt that works get shaken up when in transport just as we human beings do, on those bumpy roads to and from the airport, and even by jolting movements in the plane. Beyond that, the ever-present possibility of a mistake or an accident cannot be denied, planes crash and ships still sink.

On a less material level, further questions surrounding the blockbuster can be raised. Is the circus atmosphere and the Disneyland overtones which surround them desirable? Is art served by being made into a spectacle? These issues open vast areas for cultural discourse concerning the treatment of art in a modern society which are best left for independent consideration on their own. Suffice to say that for many, art is the repository of spiritual and ethical values. It requires a commensurate treatment.