The Met's Copy Center

John Haber
in New York City

Goya in the Metropolitan Museum

Rembrandt/Not Rembrandt

What's wrong with this picture?

Two provocatively dressed women sit coyly at a balcony window. Like their uncertain smile, the railing forms a barrier, helping to raise the tall painting above one's eyes. It also signals a connection, drawing viewers to the painted surface. Both passersby and the women are oglers, as if the squalid fashion of an imagined Spanish street were the darker side of a museum visit.

A mysterious man stands above each woman, his outline enclosing her ambivalent display. The caped figures, as flatly drawn as the women are lush, could be lovers, pimps, or protectors. A genuine Rembrandt self-portrait, really (Frick Collection, photo by Richard di Liberto, New York, c. 1658)Together, the four majas, or dandies, make a lopsided X. The multiple oppositions keep one's eye ricocheting across the surface almost like the rapid brushwork. Recognizing oneself in this painting could be dangerous.

The painting is the Met's most famous Goya. What's wrong is that Francisco de Goya may never have gone near it. It appears to copy another canvas, one that can be more firmly traced to the Spanish artist. Up close its surface is all surface. Someone laid on paint with a loaded palette knife, whereas Goya, like so much of Spain an important influence on the Romantic style and later Edouard Manet, typically built up form, surface, and shadow together.

In the certified original, the men turn their back on the viewer, who then has a harder time deciding how to take the apparent flirting. Shadows envelop the women's eyes, creating subtle smiles and a fully realized space found nowhere in the copy, whether Goya executed it himself or not. The one in the Met is clever, even haunting; the other is a genuine shock.

The original reproduction

Now what's wrong with this picture? The two versions hang side by side, and detailed wall labels explain the uncertainties. The show includes every work in the Met ever attributed to Goya, from great portraits to extensive selections from two important series on paper. It also borrows that original of the majas.

Just a maze of corridors away, the Met similarly gathers its holdings of Rembrandt and his followers. No one should miss seeing how experts look at art.

Yet plenty is indeed wrong. The giveaway is the very entrance to the Rembrandt show—a huge facsimile signature. The Met promises a fresh look at two famous artists and their circles. It instead offers a hymn to the ineffability of the masterpiece. Especially for Francisco de Goya, a heady lesson in art history turns into a heavy portion of baloney.

Start with the Goyas. Ironically for a show about originality, visitors are all but herded through to gift-shop reproductions. As if to move the line along, prints and drawings pack too closely together, along walls far too long to permit much intimate experience. The unique creativity of the artist, it would seem, depends on relegating ordinary people to the status of an assembly line.

One famous series depicts the follies of the Spanish rich and poor with a bitter verve that could seem eerily relevant on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Yet a barrier keeps them at a distance, like a maja's tantalizing balcony rail. Meanwhile paintings hang far apart, almost in disarray. A proud portrait of one of the artist's friends begs for close comparison to imitators. The contrasting oils fall in opposite corners.

Except for the majas at the very end, the curators show precious little uncertainty about their judgments. They just point us to the right stuff and crow. I have never seen words such as "masterful" so often in a single afternoon. These wall labels highlight not the specificity of one artist's point of view and influence, but simply his quality.

Every medium is accorded the same aura of high art. Whether oils for the Spanish royalty or prints reproduced for a wider audience, no matter. I welcomed the Met's humility faced with the question of who copied Goya's majas. I could not help thinking, however, that the curators reserved judgment this once because they were the ones with the copy.

Not not Rembrandt

In all fairness, Rembrandt's curators present the intelligence and openness that I missed over in the Met's older wing. Well-spaced rooms display each phase of the artist's career. One sees the continuity from the theatrical bent of early scenes to the inner drama of later portraits. One also sees the rapid growth and slow decline of Rembrandt's fortunes, including in the number of his students. Rooms devoted first to drawings and then to prints provide mental respite and new lessons.

The show makes every effort to explain the processes of painting and print making, from the point of view of both maker and historian. Labels reproduce X rays, along with other looks beneath a painting's surface. Cabinets hold and clearly explain the tools of art.

One sees Rembrandt's varied means for creating the illusion of contrasting light against a human face. One sees prints that are at once etching, engraving, and drypoint. Thankfully, I was more confused than ever about what distinguishes Rembrandt's style in an age of Rembrandt.

My uncertainty extended to the personalities of his students, among them some of the best painters of the Baroque. The show never glibly equates works under Rembrandt's influence with fakery. Even as dull a painter as Ferdinand Bol gets respect here. I bet he has never been called "loopy" before, but the adjective gives his freehand curves a nice touch of zaniness. From time to time, Bol may even earn the compliment.

Wall labels freely acknowledge disputes between the Met and the Dutch committee that is slowly eating away at attributions to the master. Some even parade arguments at the Met itself. And none of this takes away from the flagship collection of Dutch painting in America.

I was glad to join quite a mob, happily—and vocally—forming its own opinions. I have never seen people so excited about a workhorse like Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer. You know, even chopped down by maybe a fifth from the proportions it had a few hundred years ago, it looked very good indeed. And the Met shows what it might once have looked like, too.

So who cares?

If I had seen only the Rembrandts, I could well have gone home satisfied. Unfortunately, I had begun with the Goyas a week before. They now made me painfully aware of Rembrandt's huge, phoney signature. I saw that both shows do too little to explain what is at stake. What is this "authenticity", and what is this genius that stamps it? Why should anyone care whether any of this is authentic? Why, one can hardly tell by looking!

I am hardly the first to ask. What a famous critic once called the "jargon of authenticity" is under fire from all sides. Politicians complain that genius will excuse anything, no matter how offensive to their chances for reelection. Artists wonder why the nitpicking over names and dates should matter. Surely, they say, great art simply communicates with the emotions.

Theorists of art have been even harsher. Over half a century ago, Walter Benjamin called for the demise of artistic genius. That aura of individual initiative might sustain Horatio Alger or wealthy art collectors. In an "age of mechanical reproduction," however, photography and film, he predicted, can liberate the masses from decaying institutions.

More recently, Rosalind Krauss has called the "originality of the avant-garde" a myth. The myth is far from the actual play of modern art with multiple casts, cutouts, and found objects. It is a myth that feminists might suspect sustains Jackson Pollock's drip stick or penis more than a woman artist's dutiful struggle for acceptance.

History and the connoisseur

No wonder Andy Warhol later called his studio the Factory, and by Warhol's last decade it was one. Even looking back as far as Goya's prints or Rembrandt's busy workshop, one should see a process of constant transformation in art rather than solo achievement. A new art history is long overdue, and no art historian's recitation of physical data alone can achieve it.

However, even that new history will depend, I believe, on fine distinctions. The art historian may never outgrow the old-fashioned role of connoisseur, much like another impassioned collector or Goya prints, the Met's William M. Ivins. The notion of the individual in art serves more than corporate collectors and art advisors. It gives deserving attention to the concreteness of lived experience. Too often, a numbing mass spectacle cannot.

Good art trains audiences to look. The facts that distinguish individual artists also help to generate shifting but precise memories in the trained mind. They also situate those images in their particular time and place—in at least one instance, between Europe and the New World. Those images are essential, whether one sees art as inspiration or as critique.

Unfortunately, the Met's insistence on genius is just as much an evasion, quite as much as the contrary—a reduction of Rembrandt's self-image to the accidents of vision or pathology. The dirty details of art also extend to its engagement with its time. The creative act will mean different things in different circumstances; and so, therefore, will art—or mass culture, for that matter. Note that Benjamin too posits a rigid distinction between high art and reproducible forms, if only to elevate the latter. Yet there is nothing simple about the masterpiece, because there is no such thing as simply an imitation.

Does that seem strange or puzzling? Consider a question both shows overlook: exactly what was the significance of copying for Rembrandt and Goya? Was it really the same for each artist and his workshop?

A short history of originality

In the Renaissance, originality was actually associated with imitation. A great artist was said to be a copyist—of the ancients, of nature, of ideal form. Does that dream play fast and loose with resemblances? That only goes to show how much the idea of a copy would change. It took time for artists to outgrow their own ideology. Realism had still to evolve, along conversely with the demand for a painterly style.

The artist had a workshop, of course, much like a medieval craftsman. Apprentices might start by preparing the ground for a painting. Perhaps they would come to fill in some background trees and carry out less-valued commissions on their own.

Rembrandt did not invent the idea of artistic genius, but he might almost be said to have patented it. Students, in much closer to the modern sense, were now a valued source of income. A popular artist, like Rembrandt during his early success, attracted them easily. Through them, his influence extended to still other artists. Indeed, it colors much of what we now consider the greatness of the Dutch Baroque.

A studio now had to turn out works quickly for the market. As a result, students learned by emulating the master's style and participating in his production. Just a country away, Peter Paul Rubens could be said to have practically managed a factory. Unlike Warhol's, however, his product took its worth from one man's skillful hand. One starts to see phoney signatures on paintings, often starting within the artist's lifetime.

Rembrandt was exceptional in encouraging students eventually to develop their own style. Since they came fully into their own only after setting up their own shop, one can well understand the fascinating puzzles of apprentice works.

Finally, Rembrandt's fortunes changed in ways inconceivable only decades before. His style became less dependent on the demands of the market, which started to abandon him in any case. In his late self-portrait in the Frick, he sits in poverty yet in the posture of a king on his throne. He is the monarch of all he surveys, and what he surveys is within him.

Portraits in this show exhibit the same combination of pride and fatigue. It informs the gesture of a women, holding a flower as she bends toward a pendant portrait of her husband. This warmth, dignity, and near despair are especially moving in another late self-portrait. Genius begins to have artistic necessities all its own.

Rembrandt the postmodern

Rembrandt, then, defines the very issues these shows will explore. Without him, an art historian might still be piecing together the profiles of separate masters. Instead, all that hard work goes into distinguishing imitators. With new attributions to his near contemporary, Jan Vermeer, who almost sure did not even bother to build a workshop, the conceptions change, too.

With Goya over 150 years later, the terms must change once again. An artist can develop alone. Now the artist resembles a factory all by himself, with a huge potential audience. And now the imitations are more than sincere flattery: they are outright fakes.

Rembrandt had used so many printing tools so that each work would stay unique. Many went through multiple states, as the artist made changes subsequent to printing. He obtained a larger number of saleable works that way, but always distinct ones. Goya, in contrast, used and confronted media in which the only "original" is the plate from which prints were made.

The Met starts with Goya's copies of Diego Velázquez, the greatest Spanish painter and a near contemporary of Rembrandt. Goya saw himself almost as much a kindred spirit as an emulator. He admired the older artist's success with royalty, discerning criticism of the nobility, and intense sympathy with the poor. These copies take plenty of liberties to exaggerate those traits and flaunt his independence from Spanish art's broader traditions.

One fascination of the Met's show is watching Goya's increasing embitterment. In his portraits, friends in the elite start to hold their own, but his faith in the people died well before it was shattered by war. The bitterness appears in a turn from colorful oils to forms closely derived from caricature. In contrast to the supposed muteness of fine art, each image is now accompanied by a scathing title, like a newspaper cartoon or headline.

The scathing series on paper thus reflects another changing feature of original genius, the fine artist's ambivalent use of forms designed for mass reproduction. Now fine art is tainted with the threat of forgery in more ways than Rembrandt could ever have imagined.

The changing significance of creativity matters. It can help bring Rembrandt's self-portraits or Goya's The Disasters of War alive. It takes one into the minds of the artists and the fullness of their culture. It connects history to the puzzles of contemporary art and individual hopes today.

The Met is avoiding the issues or dealing in rearguard maneuvers, most probably both. And it has reasons. It wants great art, especially its the Met's Dutch paintings, to look universal enough to take any comer and reach any living room. Soaring attendance and poster sales alike depend on it. Yet it will not answer popular critics who still think modern art is a fake.

The twin shows come at a bad time, just when one has to deal with museums as big business, growing institutions, and personal empires. As the GOP trashes the arts (and its funding), they may have to be just to survive, much less to take time out to reflect on art today.

These shows pull off quite a feat. They fill the institution cheaply, drawing almost entirely on its own holdings. An old master does wonders for the bottom line, not to mention for my own tenuous mental well-being. The shows, but particularly the Goyas, are dispiriting all the same.

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jhaber@haberarts.com

"Goya in the Metropolitan Museum" ran at The Metropolitan Museum of Art through December 31, 1995, "Rembrandt/Not Rembrandt" through January 7, 1996. A related article looks at a family's portraits by Francisco de Goya in the collections of the Met and others.

 

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