Opinion – David R. Marshall

Thoughts on the NGV’s Latest Acquisition

Francesco FRANCIA, Virgin and Child with the young Saint John in a garden of roses (c. 1515) see full caption below.

It was announced last week that the National Gallery of Victoria has acquired a new work: a late, and very Raphaelesque work, by Francesco Francia and his sons, Virgin and Child with the young Saint John in a garden of roses (c. 1515). We hope to hear more about this on the MAN website in due course, but here it may be worth noting the shabby treatment of the announcement in the Sunday Age. Over a picture of the director with the new painting was the heading ‘Gallery fights ‘moribund’ tag’. This turns out to be the complaint, here voiced by the journalist responsible for the item, Gabriella Coslovich, that the NGV does not have enough contemporary art. The editors of The Age have seen fit to give Coslovich a full page spread on this theme regularly, perhaps seeing in it an attempt to generate ‘controversy’ along the model of the Murdoch Press or local newspapers. The NGV, of course, does display a lot of contemporary art and has a lot of contemporary art exhibitions, which can be addressed on their merits. The context of this article, however, makes it clear that this is in fact a thinly disguised attack on ‘old art’. The implication is that the time and money the NGV has devoted to European old master paintings is better spent on contemporary art. Apologists and promoters of contemporary art in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have traditionally been totalitarian rather than pluralist. Over the years they have modified their position to be pluralist with regard to modes of contemporary art, but not with regard to contemporary versus non-contemporary art, if this item is anything to go by. Moreover, the opinion expressed here is very old hat: it is an archaic echo of the rants of early twentieth-century Melbourne artists who complained that their only public art institution did not give them a fair go. Artists have always bleated thus, sometimes with justification, but it seems unreasonable today given that there are innumerable public outlets for contemporary art in Melbourne, but only one dealing with the old stuff. But that is, of course, the point: the complaint about the NGV not showing contemporary art is the consequence of the desire of artists to be associated with it because of its perceived status as a repository of certified masterpieces from the past. Artists always want to hang in the same building that hangs Rembrandt and Tiepolo. Or, indeed, Francia. You can’t have it both ways.

To move on from this unedifying piece of journalism, it may be worth raising here an issue of greater interest. The NGV aspires to be a great art museum, and because of these aspirations it feels the need to fill the gaps, and so it needs a Titian, a Caravaggio, and a Raphael. But these are not to be had, and if they are available they are out of the NGV’s financial reach by a factor of ten. So we get Paris Bordone, Ribera, and Francia. But there are problems with this thinking, which is driven partly by emulation and partly by Art History 101. The great galleries of Europe were formed when art historical thinking gave primacy to ‘schools’ of painting – Tuscan, Roman, Venetian – which gradually became overlaid with the primacy of periods – Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo. The connection between Titian and Paris Bordone is, implicitly, ‘the Venetian School of painting’; between Caravaggio and Ribera the Roman-Neapolitan school of the early seventeenth century (‘a big Baroque picture’); and between Raphael and Francia is ‘the High Renaissance’. In teaching art history you can get this to work after a fashion; talk about Raphael and show them Francia, talk about Caravaggio and show them Ribera; talk about Titian and show them Paris Bordone. But in practice Art History 101 is no longer preoccupied with Schools or Periods, but with Great Innovators. You get a student interested in Raphael by explaining how he created, or synthesised, the academic process of picture making using a range of drawing types. You get them interested in Caravaggio by explaining how he created one of the two main currents of Baroque art by marrying the direct realistic painting tradition of Milanese still life painters with the grand tradition of Roman religious painting. The art-historical narrative is embodied in the achievements of the individual, not the generality of school or period. On a popular level this quickly collapses into populist biography, so that for the general public the only artists that exist are Caravaggio (sex and murder), and Van Gogh (madness and suicide), because of their lurid biographies. So Francia is not going to cut the mustard on this level with the uninformed, and it needs to be read as Raphael to fit the narratives of Art History 101. Clearly Francia, Ribera, and Paris Bordone need their own narratives, and so does Art History 101 locally. Local art historians and gallery directors are trapped by the canons they have inherited, canons that are heavily biased towards the local collections of those art historians who created the discipline. That said, the art-historical role played by Raphael will always be more important than that of Francia, and Ribera never sent out the shock waves that Caravaggio did. But it ought to be possible to reformulate one’s histories around what is there, and to present to the public Francia as Francia, Ribera as Ribera, and Paris Bordone as Paris Bordone. But if you do this it changes the acquisition game. What matters becomes not what school a work belongs to, not what it is a substitute for, but what it actually is. Instantly, issues of quality, expressiveness, and, yes, biographical interest of the artist come to the fore. And just as instantly lack of quality becomes unforgiveable. It no longer matters whether a work is the best available fit for Titian or Caravaggio or Raphael; but whether it is qualitatively on a par with them, within its own terms of reference. And it is all about terms of reference: there are undoubtedly hierarchies of quality where old master paintings are concerned, but these are hierarchies within manners; for painters are at the top of their game, the hierarchies between them are hierarchies of interpretation, not of quality in any meaningful sense. This is what contemporary artists have been arguing for a century or two: that Anselm Kiefer is as good as Rembrandt, but within different terms of reference. Put simply, all that matters is whether the Francia, the Ribera, the Paris Bordone, are good paintings (or, since we are dealing with an aspirational gallery, great paintings). But this means the gap-filling logic with which we began has become redundant. It may result in good acquisitions, but it may just as easily result in bad ones. Better to privilege quality over art history, and let art history follow. This is usually cheaper, too: there are plenty of really good paintings, great works within their own terms of reference, which are a lot cheaper than those that can be fitted to a simplified Art History 101 canon. To be sure, it is easier to argue in committee ‘this works fills a gap in the collection and allows it to approach more closely a comprehensive history of art’ than to say: ‘trust me, it’s a great picture and I love it’. But that is how private collections are built.

There is also a role for art historians here. The idea of a ‘local’ art history may appear parochial, but it might encourage art historians to do something they seem to have given up on: weaving a narrative around a set of works. That a particular selection of works is historically arbitrary is beside the point; it is a matter of drawing out the set of non-arbitrary relationships that this arbitrary selection provides. After all, being parochial is never seen to be a problem when it comes to researching local collections, even when the intellectual interest of these collections is negligible, even when the works within them are not. Collections have unproblematically provided material for many a curatorship thesis, yet the works themselves are considered merely as acquisitions, not as artifacts that speak to us. So rather than seeking to retell old narratives, galleries should focus on the intrinsic interest of their acquisitions, and art historians should take up the challenge of constructing new narratives from this material. In this way works of art, from another time and another country, can become ‘ours’, and by extension the public’s. But this only works if the pictures are good. No-one wants to waste time weaving narratives around dud pictures; life is too short.

© David R. Marshall 2011

Francesco FRANCIA, Italian (c. 1450)–1517; Giacomo FRANCIA, Italian (c. 1486)–1557; Giulio FRANCIA, Italian 1487–1545. Virgin and Child with the young Saint John in a garden of roses (c. 1515). Oil on wood panel. 115.4 x 93.5 cm. From the collection of a London Art Dealer