Through the Optical Glass of Artistic Expertise
Artistic expertise and authentication have recently become a matter of great relevance in the world art-istic community and in art marketing practices, the subject of heated debate initiated by art experts, dealers, collectors and critics, and also the majority of art consumers - namely, the general public at large, whose opinion, however dilettante in its nature, cannot be ignored.
The arguments have reached an extreme level, both verbally and in the press, as the question of whether museum artistic expertise is admissible and necessary to cater for dealers, private galleries, individual collectors and auction houses. Some think such a task ought to be carried out by independent experts and/or scientific research centres which possess the most advanced technical devices, and are licensed to authorize the authentication of works of art.
Which approach is right? The question is very difficult to answer, and all - even if contradictory - points of view must be considered. Nevertheless museum specialists themselves, whose activities sometimes provoke heated discussion, prefer to keep silent. They are not to be blamed: museum specialists are first and foremost employees immersed in their everyday tasks of maintaining collections, overseeing, arranging and cataloguing exhibitions, coordinating educational and public outreach programmes, researching problems relevant to their collections, and writing essays, articles and monographs. The challenges of time and daily work often prevent them from engaging in other topics.
Such a diversity of jobs and interests and, more importantly, a long-term and first-hand association with real pieces of art make for great versatility in the museum expert's experience, training and practical knowledge. Considering that, the need for museum workers to participate in artistic expertise can hardly be questioned. It should also be noted that the museum expert is usually knowledgeable of, and has an "eye" for more than one particular painter, but rather of a whole artistic trend, movement or period - a standard factor in museum practice. Their competence has proved to be in high demand, given that many legalized private collections and art dealers' galleries, deluged with all kind of works, now often have to deal with names and works which previously had only been part of museum collections. Under such circumstances the ability to authenticate the hand and manner of a painter whose studies and sketches had to be subject to prolonged examination becomes priceless.
Thus, it is entirely understandable that the museum expert is regarded as an authority in matters of artistic expertise. Nevertheless, some still think it inappropriate for a museum to be involved com
mercially in such matters as artistic expertise and authentication: Why burden museum experts with additional responsibility, distracting them from their immediate duties, and make museum practice, complex enough already, even more complicated? To respond to all such questions, the undoubtedly positive results that the activity of the Tretyakov Gallery Scientific Expertise Department brings about needs to be better understood.
The department has been in existence for over ten years now. Before it was set up, the technological research supporting artistic expertise was carried out by the Tretyakov Gallery Photographic Service. There was equipment for ultra-violet analysis, microscopes, devices for photographing the facture of the paint layer in specially-altered light and X-rays. Despite the modesty of such technical means, such a past basis meant a great deal for the development of an adequately- equipped and professionally-manned Scientific Expertise Department. Moreover, along with accumulation of personal experience competent photographic, X-ray and technical description databases had been created to lay the foundation for the now-accepted method of comparative analysis of in-coming paintings against the museum reference samples.
Team work and appraisal have become one of the key factors of the Tretyakov Gallery's expertise activities, as well as a complex use of different techniques and technologies in research on the same painting. The sufficiency of any individual expert's opinion, no matter how authoritative and professional that expert or his arguments might be, was ruled out in principle. The Tretyakov Gallery workers' long-established practice of making decisions only at meetings of the Gallery Council proved viable.
It was back in the 1970s that Russian museums started "revision" campaigns to achieve a 100% certainty on the authenticity of their collections. The enormous painstaking research resulted in discovering works for which the name of the painter, or dating, needed authentication. At first, the mission seemed almost impossible - but a joint team of art historians and technicians managed to make it possible; they were to become the core of the Scientific Expertise Department in the future. The work started with the revival of the Belorussian Museum of Fine Arts that rose - literally - from the ashes of war thanks to its director Yelena Aladova. The museum collections needed very careful examination, since post-war acquisitions to replace its pre-war collections (completely destroyed by the Nazis) were often made in haste, with little opportunity to study them properly at that stage. The technological research initiated by Alado- va became a revelation in museum practice, and the catalogue of 18th-20th century paintings published soon after the research was completed presented revised data on the works of many famous masters.
The Tretyakov Gallery specialists assisted in technologically-supported artistic expertise with the Tropinin Museum collections: the originals from the brush of the master were separated from his replicas of often-repeated motifs and later copies by Vasily Tropinin himself.
Collaboration of the Tretyakov Gallery, the Grabar Centre of Art Research and Restoration and the Russian Museum of St. Petersburg in the organization of various exhibitions brought about other exiting results. Thus, the huge, two-volume catalogue of the grandiose Vasily Perov project (the exhibition took place in 1984) included vast expertise research into the Tretyakov Gallery's collection of the artist, as well as his works in Russian regional museums and those of the republics of the Soviet Union. However sad it may have been for the museum experts, quite a number of paintings and sketches proved not to belong to the hand of Perov. The results of the authentication led to a great deal of argument; the overall outcome, however, was positive, since the collections concerned (not to mention Perov's reputation) were rid of explicit fakes and works by other painters wrongly attributed to the master. A similar situation awaited the organisers of the jubilee Orest Kiprensky exhibition in 1988. The recent "Captured by Beauty" exhibition in Moscow also demonstrated the advantages of team work between museum technicians and curators, well-experienced in such jobs, at the stage of selecting canvases from private collections. The selection team not only managed to avoid mistakes in attribution, of the kind that had happened on some previous projects, but also to introduce a number of valuable pieces of Russian academic and salon art to the artistic community.
The Expertise Department has undoubtedly contributed a lot to the Gallery's acquisition scheme. Nowadays, no important decision of purchasing a work of art for the museum collections is made without meeting the two essential requirements: a serious sponsor and a comprehensive authentication expertise. Thus, a lucky co-incidence of both factors has enabled the Gallery to enhance its collections with a number of really outstanding works featuring 19th century art. Among them there is the large-size canvas "Playing Dice” by Genrikh Semiradsky, acquired in 2002, and a rare piece belonging to the brush of Ivan Kramskoy's daughter, Sophia Yunker-Kramskaya, "The Sleeping Woman", purchased in 2000.
The new authentication technologies deserve special mention in connection with the Tretyakov Gallery Complete Catalogue project that was started some years ago. Seven academic volumes of the catalogue devoted to different periods of Russian art have already been published, each of them containing dozens of updated names, dates and other data. For instance, the 18th Century Painting volume updates painters' names for 22 canvases with changes, surprisingly, occurring in some very well-known cases, such as the works of Pietro Rotari and Anton Losenko. Now, with the approaching conclusion of the project, and work on the closing volume of late 19th century Russian painting, the museum's experts are still making discoveries even in what had seemed thoroughly- investigated areas: one of the most difficult artists to decipher, mystical and controversial as he was, turns out to be Leonid Solomatkin, a very unpredictable master.
The only instrument museum experts have had to find answers to the riddles they faced were, for a long time, blurred black-and-white X-ray pictures. As a result, many erroneous assumptions, wrong hypotheses and, consequently, theories have been repeatedly mentioned in different monographs. These would have multiplied, creating further errors, had experts not come to possess a great range of technological innovations, now widely used by the Tretyakov Gallery Scientific Expertise Department.
At its start, the department relied on home-made know-how and methods developed by their colleagues in other museums which had begun such processes of artistic expertise earlier. Thanks to the outstanding artistic technician-expert Milda Vikturina, whose knowledge of the subject enabled a number of museums, such as Moscow's History Museum and Pushkin Fine Arts Museum, to open scientific expertise units, the Tretyakov Gallery department, where Vikturina worked for many years, has acquired a leading position. The Grabar Centre of Art Research and Restoration also played a role in the creation of the department's reference sample database: it handed over some valuable equipment and a number of X-ray pictures of some originals to assist the Tretyakov Gallery's unit. As far as home know-how was concerned, the splendid names of such connoisseurs of art as Igor Grabar and Alexei Rybnikov should be mentioned along with others whose contribution to Russian artistic expertise is universally acknowledged.
Igor Grabar, the renowned painter and art historian, was the Tretyakov Gallery's director from 1919 until 1949.
Alexei Rybnikov, the Tretyakov Gallery's chief restorer and brilliant theoretician, the author of the fundamental "The Fac- ture of Classical Painting" and "The Oil Painting Technique", played an important role in the Gallery collections' evacuation campaign following the German invasion in 1941. They were extremely knowledgeable men, excellent at reading the style and manner of both numerous masters of the past and of their contemporaries. They knew how to carry out research that would combine practical know-how with theoretical knowledge.
The traditions of artistic expertise that they set were followed by the gifted restorers who started to work in the Tretyakov Gallery in the 1950s, among them Alexei Kovalev, head of the restoration workshop. Having become a brilliant connoisseur of the old masters, he turned to the restoration of avant-garde paintings, including the canvases and panels of Marc Chagall. He was actually a bridge between the past and the present of the department. It is true that restoration and authentication of works of art have much in common because the approach in both cases is the same. This explains why the acknowledged professionalism of the Tretyakov Gallery restorers became a stepping stone towards the creation of a viable artistic expertise unit.
The other essential element of a successful authentication service was the creation of a good reference sample collection, something which turned out to be rather difficult at first because of the imperfection of the available technology and lack of experience; however, after starting the reference data base in the 1980s, the department is now operating with 150,000 X-ray photographs and about 130,000 samples of the surface facture fragments taken from different paintings.
X-ray black-and-white pictures of paintings are a world in themselves, a world containing information that is extremely valuable for scientific research. Sometimes these pictures can surprise the researcher and fill his heart either with joy, or disappointment; sometimes, they may also bring their own humorous effect.
There are painters who used the same canvas two or three or more times, putting one layer of paint on another: sometimes this can be explained by the artist's individuality, sometimes by a scarcity of means and materials. As a result, a canvas which viewers see as a peaceful landscape turns out, under X-ray, to be an expressive portrait of a nude painted on the underlayer. In other cases, an X-ray picture reveals that an artist who had been known as an ardent supporter of a contemporary regime used portraits of political leaders as a ground for an absolutely non-political view of Paris, a genre scene at a variety show or a genteel bouquet of daisies.
The reconstruction of the Tretyakov Gallery in the early 1990s created better conditions for the fulfilment of this task: the department moved to a separate office on Lavrushinsky Pereulok. There was enough room for several laboratories, temporary storage for paintings undergoing expertise, as well as the archives of X-ray photos, offices for individual research workers and a room for preliminary examination of paintings and expert consultations - all of which encouraged high-technology and high-quality work. All those were the result of great efforts on the part of Yury Korolev, the Gallery's director at the time.
Recent advances in high-technology optical and electronic equipment have opened up new vistas for museum expertise. The basic comparative method adopted at the Tretyakov Gallery, updated through the use of more sophisticated devices, has advanced; the traditional analysis of the manner and stylistic qualit-ies of works of art has been enhanced. Now the process includes binocular examination of paint layers (there are five binocular microscopes, all of them the latest models, complete with digital cameras and monitors available at the department); ultra-violet and infra-red spectral analyses (the latter reveals the basic drawing under paint layers, discovers secret signatures, and helps to decipher inscriptions on canvases and drawings); and comparison of X-ray photos, X-ray fluorescent chemical analysis of the dead colouring and colourants that enables researchers to study the surface of any painting all over and not only its edge samples. Those are only a few of the techniques involved.
Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to assume that technical examination can substitute for the thoughtful eye of an art expert: technical details rather broaden the researcher's vision and perfect his tools. Depending on the nature of the painting under study and the purpose of the research undertaken, either technical data or stylistic analysis may take priority. But the final decision is never made without considering the results of all the methods applied, for all approaches may be productive.
In addition, the essential distinction between the method used at the Tretyakov Gallery and the majority of other artistic expertise models consists in the assumption that a lively personal discussion of the matter (when the opinions, knowledge and experience of different sorts of experts are pooled together) seems more fruitful than any step-by-step solution of the problem with each of them involved, but separately. Depending on how complicated the problem is the meeting sessions may be postponed until a later date to allow the experts involved to take time and find new arguments to support their judgment. Sometimes it takes the researcher a year or so to bring his colleagues round to his point of view. At times, the matter becomes too controversial for the task-group to reach agreement or find a solution. There have been cases when such working groups have reconvened after several years of individual research to announce new results. A happy guess may even dawn upon a researcher obsessed with the task in his or her dreams - such things have happened.
Every discovery relies primarily on the researcher's intuition, a factor that happens to be truer than ever when the subject in question is art and artistic creation, fields in which mystery and fantasy are interwoven with the professional skill and the assured rhythm of the artist's hand. The practice of artistic expertise is based primarily on the comparison of the work under study with the same painter's originals, driven by a close-contact experience which can only be afforded by unchecked access to the museum's exhibition rooms, and the possibility to make technical tests of the exhibition's samples. Thus, museum work allows for such a quality of artistic expertise that is, objectively, unimaginable even for any technically-advanced and well-equipped research centre, regardless of the highly-qualified specialists it may be able to invite for co-operation.
On the other hand, to limit the museum expertise to servicing the Gallery's collection exclusively would undoubtedly impoverish the practical experience for museum experts who, first and foremost, enhance their knowledge of their subject when carrying out such authentication research for external clients. Thus, a wider collection of reference material has helped to verify some details in the course of work on the catalogues and exhibitions mentioned above, and the exterior expertise work - sometimes thought to be an extra burden for the museum - turns out to actually contribute to its pure science, an example of a mutually advantageous cooperation between museums and art dealers.
The annual conferences on the problems of artistic expertise sponsored jointly by the Tretyakov Gallery and the Magnum- Ars Corporation have become just one extremely significant demonstration of such cooperation. The company not only financially supports the events, but also encourages their workers to take part in the conferences and in the preparation of the occasional catalogues and other literature. Last year saw the tenth such conference, convening researchers from Moscow and St. Petersburg, Riga and Kiev. Every such meeting introduces the latest discoveries in the field, as well as new experimental technologies, and familiarizes the audience with studies of very different cultures, from Ancient Egyptian civilization to the latest tendencies of the 20th century. The conferences usually conclude with a discussion of the most acute problems, and the publication of a complete volume of conference papers representing the leading specialists from museums, galleries, research and restoration centres of the former Soviet Union - a factor which is especially valuable and encouraging at a time when such cultural ties are so difficult to maintain.
Some of these conference presentations sound as exciting as any detective story. The mystery of the artist's talent becomes marvellous, including the intricate forms of creative imagination which will never allow the researcher to say, "I know everything. I can explain everything.’’
It is no secret that avant-garde art is full of riddles. Some of them have been solved, and are well-known; others circulate only in the pages of scientific journals, or are known from professional spoken folklore. One such case dates back five years: the Department was working on the authentication of a landscape with what seemed to be the signature of Alexei Yavlensky, a work that looked typical of the artist's painterly style. But because the painter spent most of his life outside Russia, his works are rare in Russian museums, allowing for no possibility to make a representative reference database to compare the landscape concerned to his other paintings. Fortunately, the working group of three researchers had a chance to go to Munich and Murnau where Yavlensky, as is widely known, developed his artistic manner and vision. They were able to see his paintings in the local museums. The Russians asked the advice of their German colleagues, took pictures for the Expertise Department reference database, and compared the landscape to others by Yavlensky, similar works hanging on the walls of the museum. However, they still hesitated to make their final judgment, feeling that some factor remained lacking.
At last, when the trip was coming to its end, the "missing link" was found. They were driving along a Bavarian motorway, passing hills, woods and villages when one member of the group cried: "Stop the car!
I see it!" In front of their eyes there opened a view that in every detail looked like the landscape under study - the only difference being a degree of conventionality that made it a little different, transforming the actual view into a composition of colourful blurs. The fast movement of the car had created the trick concerned: it repeated the effect of the blurred vision with almost the same degree of conventionality. Nothing else would have detected the similarity but the trained eye of an expert.
Thus, the Tretyakov Gallery, along with thousands of photographs of surface facture, infra-red spectrum analysis pictures of the initial drawings and enlarged fragments of paint layers, added to its scientific expertise archives the photographs of a view in the vicinity of the village of Murnau where a close-knit artistic community, including Vasily Kandinsky, Gabriele Munter, Marianna Verevkina and Alexei Yavlensky, had lived in the1900s.
Of course, such stories do not happen every day. But every day in the life of the department is full of exciting and fruitful work, because the works of art studied here are originals - and even a very modest study reveals its merits in its own way, following the design of its creator, complete with the warmth of his skilful hand.
Oil on panel. 21.4 by 35 cm
State Tretyakov Gallery
Oil on panel. 21.4 by 35 cm
State Tretyakov Gallery
Oil on canvas. 88.5 by 141.5 cm
State Tretyakov Gallery
Oil on cardbard. 42.5 by 55 cm