With my dual love of art and CSI, I was excited about Close Examination: Fakes, Mistakes and Discoveries. The National Gallery has devoted the whole of the Sainsbury Wing’s basement exhibition space to an exploration of art forgeries, new discoveries and artistic mysteries, inviting the viewer to engage with the controversy surrounding some of our most beautiful works of art. Divided into six rooms and subject matters – deception and deceit, transformations and modifications, mistakes, secrets and conundrums, being Botticelli and redemption and recovery – Close Examination promises to educate and enthral.
The majority of the works on display date from the Renaissance, when artists employed workshops of apprentices and paintings were frequently team efforts. However, it was interesting to find a Courbet amongst the older works, or at least a work which was previously attributed to Courbet. “Self Portrait” was originally thought to have been a smaller version of the artist’s “L’Homme à la Ceinture de Cuir”, but thorough analysis of the materials used and the design of the date stamp places the work as having been produced after 1880, and therefore after the artist’s death.
Somehow, however, the exhibition doesn’t quite manage to move past the mass appeal of art world scandal to the complex scientific and restoration processes behind the stories, or indeed sufficiently into the stories themselves. For instance, one of the better known works on display is “Woman at a Window”, a simple Renaissance portrait of a woman with neither elaborate clothing nor a detailed background. She is blonde and not particularly attractive, with a suspicious gaze and protruding breasts. It has been suggested that she was a courtesan, but her creator remains unknown. The curator explains that she was altered during the Victorian era to cater to the tastes of the day, which preferred a charming brunette to a brassy blonde, a softer face and less provocative clothing. And so the lady changed, and she didn’t re-emerge until 1978 when investigations into the work, previously attributed to both Palma Vecchio and Lorenzo Lotto, proved it to be something quite different.
This story tells us an awful lot about changing tastes within art, the skill with which artists could make alterations to paintings and the quality of our modern investigatory techniques. Nonetheless, there are questions that remain unanswered. How exactly did the researchers discover the painting underneath? What made them investigate in the first place? Why did the Victorian public prefer brunettes to blondes? Was she altered for sale or due to the preferences of her owner? Where was she on display? Were similar alterations made to other paintings?
Bizarrely, much of this information is available on the National Gallery’s website for the exhibition, which suggests that it was considered to only be of interest to a limited audience. It would have been wonderful to have taken the painting alterations as a starting point for a discussion of both the context of the changes and the methods used to make the discovery, although perhaps this is more suited to a book than an exhibition. Nonetheless, Close Examination remains an interesting show, and it is fascinating to think, in an age where we believe ourselves to know so much, that artists long dead are still managing to fox us.
-- Alex Field
All images courtesy The National Gallery
Images: Sandro Botticelli, Venus and Mars, about 1485, © National Gallery, London; Follower of Sandro Botticelli, An Allegory, probably about 1490-1550, © National Gallery, London