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Home | 2016 | October

The Man in Black: an expert writes

Posted by Thersites on UTC 2016-10-26 10:44. Updated on UTC 2016-10-28

Here it is again, for your delectation:

Jacopo Pontormo, A young man in black, c. 1530

Whilst we are waiting for the great and the good of institutionalised culture in Britain to decide whether to spend £30 million to 'save' an incompetently executed painting 'for the nation' we have had time to look at the 'expert submission' (PDF) presented to the committee responsible for the decision. The export ban expired last Monday, 24 October, so they had better come up with something soon – after all, they have been pondering the subject for a year.

We were initially cheered by the expert's remarks on the poor quality of the execution of the painting, but then depressed when it became clear that all these many defects were being taken to be remarkable features which contributed to the painting's value.

The head was too small, the perspective wrong, the painting of the head was so cursory that the pencil sketching can still be seen underneath. In this we find our impression confirmed that the painting was a quick, cheapo knock-off for someone with no taste and no money. We are not surprised that the artist didn't sign it. The expert, however, swoons before all this shoddy beauty:

Executed over bold free-hand underdrawing, now visible in places, it is a bravura effort, conveying character and ideals through composition, posture, and paint handling. The brushwork is fairly thin, but applied with swooping, energetic motion. The sitter is arranged for maximum effect, his arms describing a circular motion, at ease but poised. The grey of his puffy sleeves contrasts with the black of his jerkin to strike a balance between the sophisticatedly suave and the martially virile. His posture accentuates further the tapering shoulders and proportionally small head. The strong accent of red provided by the cap emphasises the alertness written across his face. All this is subtly enhanced by the low point of view.

There must be some mistake: is this the same painting we have before us? Yes, it looks like it – black jerkin, small head, little red cap.

Let's just dip our toe into this paragraph: the 'bold [a bit too bold if you can still see it] free-hand [no ruler or compass] underdrawing'; the 'swooping energetic motion' [taken with the above, evidence of an artist wanting to get the job done ASAP, so that he could move on to better-paid work]; 'his arms describing a circular motion' [how can they possibly do that?]; 'a balance between the sophisticatedly suave and the martially virile' [wot?]; 'the tapering shoulders and proportionally small head' [a good thing?].

This hyperventilating paragraph of bilge was taken over verbatim in the committee's report (PDF), clear evidence that the members of the committee and the three 'independent assessors' have no analytical skills at all – or perhaps just didn't want to apply them in this case, so much do they yearn for the delectable frisson of blowing £30 million of taxpayers' money.

In a sane world such shoddy work would bring the value of the painting down to the low hundreds, perhaps even tens of pounds; in the expensive world of institutional art it gets us to £30 million.

We have also seen that the value of a painting in this lunatic world depends not on whether it is any good as a painting, but who painted it, who the sitter is and what story can be attached to it. To this end, six words from Vasari's Lives of the Artists are sufficient sand on which to build. Interestingly, this reference is cited as a source but not quoted. Here is the relevant section:

Another picture similar to that described above he painted for Carlo Neroni, but only with the Battle of the Martyrs and the Angel baptizing them ; and then the portrait of Carlo himself. He also executed a portrait, at the time of the siege of Florence, of Francesco Guardi in the habit of a soldier, which was a very beautiful work ;

——

Un altro quadro simile al sopra detto fece a Carlo Neroni, ma con la battaglia de’ martiri sola e l’Angelo che gli battezza, et appresso il ritratto di esso Carlo. Ritrasse similmente nel tempo dell’assedio di Fiorenza Francesco Guardi in abito di soldato, che fu opera bellissima,

Our expert reworks this:

The Young Man in a Red Cap is virtually certain to be identical to a picture mentioned by Vasari in his Vita of Pontormo (1568) as depicting the young patrician and citizen Carlo Neroni, painted by Pontormo ‘at the time of the siege of Florence.’

Vasari does not write that the painting was done at the time of the siege, simply that a portrait of Carlo Neroni was done by Pontormo. Unusually, Vasari makes no comment on the quality of the portrait, his few words are sufficient. A proper historian would be uncomfortable with the circular logic of the conclusion that Pontormo did a portrait of Carlo Neroni and therefore this is a portrait of Carlo Neroni and therefore this is a portrait by Pontormo. For art historians apparently such circularity is their daily bread. Nor should we really be surprised in the logic-free zone in which we currently find ourselves at the use of 'identical to' when 'one and the same as' is really meant, or the striking oxymoron of 'virtually certain'.

All this, despite the previous attributions, which even the committee notes in some puzzlement:

They considered the unusual history of this painting which had only been rediscovered, reattributed and published by Francis Russell as a Pontormo in 2008. The painting had been attributed to Alessandro Allori, when it was sold to the Earl of Caledon in 1825. However, the committee noted the words ‘Portrait frate Bronzino’ on the bookplate of probably the same Earl, which is glued to the back of the panel, so there has also been an early attribution to Bronzino.

Fortunately, the man from Christie's sorted that out for them (kerching!). Never mind, onwards and upwards. Let's try and get some narrative going here. The misreading allows our expert to give us several boilerplate paragraphs about the history of the war and to come to the astonishing conclusion that the painting is a remarkable record of indomitable Florentine resistance to the aggressor.

There is also much pointless fantasising over the piece of paper that the sitter is inserting or removing from his jerkin.

The letter that the sitter holds in his right hand is inscribed Domi[...], likely for Domino or Domina[e], i.e. ‘to Don’ or ‘to Donna...’ He is holding it close to his breast, apparently sliding it under his jerkin, which would indicate that it is of personal nature, and thus quite possibly another reference to the marital alliance proposed first by Carol Plazzotta as the specific context for the portrait’s commission.

We non-art-historian simpletons can only scratch our befuddled pates and ask ourselves: why would a painter depict someone holding / withdrawing / secreting a completely incomprehensible document displaying four characters? How does that add anything to the portrait? This painting is not only shoddy, it is incompetent.

Despite the many embarrassing defects of Pontormo's 'Man in Black', the cultural fraternity believes that the painting is worth 30 million of the pounds that have been extracted from the tax-paying citizens of the United Kingdom under threat of force. One day the citizenry may rise up and sweep these cultural parasites from power.

Update 28.10.2016

In 1989 the J. Paul Getty Museum bought this painting for a record price at the time (Christie's again):

Jacopo Pontormo, Portrait of a Halberdier, c.1530

Jacopo Pontormo (1494-1557), Portrait of a Halberdier, c.1530. Image: J. Paul Getty Museum, online

We might reasonably assume that this is the 'very beautiful' portrait of 'Francesco Guardi in the habit of a soldier' mentioned by Vasari, in which case it would also be reasonable to assume that the very similar painting of the 'Man in Black' was also by Pontormo. Both paintings display ridiculous disproportions in head, waist and hands – well, in everything, actually. Do we need to go there? The extra detail and more careful working in the 'Halberdier' portrait lead us to conclude that Guardi paid Pontormo more than Neroni did.

The recycling of the pose? 'Business is business', the motto for painters down the ages. I suspect that Pontormo did the 'Halberdier' first. When he came to do the 'Man in Black' he needed to find something for the halberd-free right hand to do, hence the otherwise pointless document.

On the grubby but delightful subject of money we have to note in this case that not only does more of it get you a more complex portrait (avoiding the word 'better'), but a spectacularly large amount spent on buying a painting gets you the fitting write up:

Standing before a fortress wall, this well-dressed foot soldier holds a combination spear and battle-ax called a halberd. His direct stare and swaggering pose are strikingly poignant, given the smooth unlined face and slim body that betray him as no more than a teenager. As a portraitist, Jacopo Pontormo was renowned for his subtle, complex psychological studies; here he conveyed the naive arrogance and vulnerability of youth. Court painter to Duke Cosimo de' Medici, Pontormo pioneered the Mannerist style in Florence, initiating a new, sophisticated type of portraiture in which elegance and aristocratic reserve play key roles. The sitter's identity has been much discussed. The Florentine painter Giorgio Vasari noted that during the siege of Florence in about 1528 Pontormo painted a "most beautiful work," a portrait of young nobleman Francesco Guardi as a soldier. Francesco's birthdate of 1514 would make him about the age of Pontormo's teenage sitter. Based on a Florentine inventory, Cosimo de' Medici himself has also been suggested as the painting's subject.

You don't think that the National Gallery wants the 'Man in Black' just to stop the Getty acquiring it to go alongside their 'Halberdier', do you?