Close Examination: Fakes, Mistakes and Discoveries

London, The National Gallery, 30 June – 12 September

Reviewed by David Maskill

This exhibition, currently showing at London’s National Gallery, is one of the highlights of the summer season. As art institutions struggle with the effects of the recession, blockbusters that rely on extensive and costly loans and on the attendant crowds to pay for them have been in decline in recent times. If this exhibition is anything to go by, this may not be such a bad thing. Drawn mostly from the National Gallery’s own collection, the curators have selected forty works and explore their material histories to tell fascinating tales of deception, curatorial blunders and rediscoveries of long lost masterpieces. This is a show that needs the visitor to take time and to look closely at the works on display – an experience that the blockbuster rarely allows. On both occasions that this reviewer visited the exhibition (entry is free), it was possible to have the space to look carefully without being jostled or caught up by a conveyor belt movement of automatons. (One could compare this experience with the unfortunately crowded Masterpieces from the Uffizi Gallery: Italian Renaissance Drawings that recently closed at the British Museum. Despite, or perhaps because it was a paying show with all the attendant publicity, it was overrun and virtually impossible to get close enough to see anything properly. It may be a better experience in Florence, but I doubt it.)

Fakes, Mistakes and Discoveries is organized around a series of themes. ‘Fakes’ considers works that have been unveiled as outright forgeries such as Madonna of the Veil from the Courtauld collection, formerly thought to be a masterpiece by Botticelli, but now attributed to the skillful forger Umberto Giunti and dated to the 1920s. In this section are also works that while not originally intended to deceive, have fallen prey to unscrupulous dealers, later ‘restorers’ and gullible connoisseurs.

‘Mistakes’ tackles the potentially embarrassing territory of works that have proved not quite what they were thought to be at the time of acquisition. All gallery collections contain such ‘mistakes’ (more than many are willing to admit publically), and galleries take a risk when they expose their own ‘duds’ in this way. Most prefer to consign them to the storeroom. But here, there are no apologies or mea culpae. Instead, we are treated to the very latest discoveries of the conservation department. When terms like dendrochronology and infrared reflectograms are used in an exhibition, I usually run a mile. Here, however, the photographs of x-rays and all the scientific paraphernalia of the conservator’s laboratory are actually legible and compelling.

In ‘Discoveries’, the conservator’s art is put to the task of uncovering the original state of works in the gallery’s collection. Almost all Old Master paintings have been altered in some way since their original creation. Some alterations are subtle, but sometimes they are so dramatic that they completely change the appearance and meaning of the work. As art historians we need to know about these changes if we are to interpret the work correctly. Using some impressive technical wizardry, we are shown how selected works looked before later hands got to work on them to make them more appealing to the prevailing taste.

As this brief overview implies, this exhibition has resulted from the close collaboration of the National Gallery’s curators, conservators and educators. To an extent, this is true of all exhibitions, but here their individual talents have been combined to great effect. The visitor, specialist and non-specialist alike, is taken on a series of journeys beneath the surface of the panel or canvas where secrets, conundrums and discoveries abound.

There is an excellent on-line resource with links to scholarly case studies of works in the exhibition that is well worth a visit and there is a small but instructive and affordable hard copy publication. Bravo National Gallery!

© David Maskill 2010