To become a Rembrandt scholar you need to pass out top of a prestigious course in art history. They are the crème della crème; but they are gravely mistaken about Rembrandt and resist correction no matter what the evidence for revision. This article is designed to convince you they need to be replaced. They will not renew themselves.
They have in fact stood Rembrandt on his head. Reversing his significance of perhaps the world’s most perceptive observer. They seek to persuade us that he worked largely from imagination. I believe that I have demonstrated this to be a fundamental mistake, yet they will not budge. As a simple example see my “Isaac Refusing to Bless Esau” on YouTube. I expect you will agree with me that Rembrandt was at his best as an observer.
Esau and Isaac
This disagreement as to whether Rembrandt relied on observation or invention is a fundamental error, which invalidates large areas of recent scholarship. An error from which Rembrandt scholarship is suffering and has suffer since 1922 at when this important drawing was dismissed – important because it shows us Rembrandt’s strengths and weaknesses. Because I accept the weakness I can believe in over 2,000 drawings by Rembrandt but the scholars’ refusal leads them to accept only 500! His position as a culture hero has fallen proportionately in my life time.
I find it very easy to win the observation argument, so I well understand why the scholars refuse to debate the point in public. Choosing instead to undermine my examples in their private world of scholarly publications so they can continue with their folly undisturbed. I have described the scholarship of Rembrandt drawings as “an unmitigated disgrace” for the following reasons:-
1. My paradigm changing discovery of Rembrandt’s Use of Models and Mirrors in 1974 has been neglected. These findings were published in the Burlington under that title in Feb.1977 (two eminent art historians, Prof. Sir Ernst Gombrich and Dr J. Montagu were thanked for their help in presenting my findings in that article). A similar article was published in Rembrandthuiskroniek vol.1 1978. In both I believe I proved, beyond reasonable doubt, that Rembrandt used groups of live models for himself and his students to work from. This idea is anyway corroborated by contemporaries of Rembrandt; what was all that theatrical wardrobe for if not to produce his groups? (an extensive wardrobe and props is seen in the inventory of his belongings taken in 1656.)
2.Recent Rembrandt scholarship has neglected the historical record, indeed reversed the known facts.
3. Over a period of 90 years they have apparently unanimously accepted this reversal, neglecting an abundance of evidence that should have warned them off. They do this in order to maintain their mistaken ideas of Rembrandt’s development as a draughtsman and his relationship with the school production; they have substituted theoretical iconography where practical observation explains the school works better. These sins have suffocated the educational atmosphere of art history. The Rembrandt catastrophe could not have happen without unquestioning acceptance of the professor’s dictate.
4. The scholars refuse to discuss and continue with the destruction of Rembrandt in the face of overwhelming evidence of their folly – or worse.
5. As a sculptor of 60 years experience, I find their judgments often outrageous.
I have discovered a number of truths missed by art history which have been vehemently resisted by both artists and art historians. I regard them as important because they explain how some important advances in perception were made. I explain the resistance by the fact that recent generations in both disciplines obviously regard them as cheating: they are the use of mirrors by painters and life-casts by sculptors.
Photography has been used by painters since its invention but this also is regarded as a bit of a cheat. Nonetheless, most of us would agree that we understand the movement of a galloping horse better since photographs fixed the movements for us. Degas also used photography to fix the space in compositions of friends who, for convenience, probably posed for the work one at a time. Before photography Velasquez used a mirror for the same purpose in his masterpiece “Las Meninas”. This work is not only a personal masterpiece but is often regarded as the “epitome of painting”. The evidence for this discovery is overwhelming; the fall of light, the reversal of the image, quite apart from the fact that Velasquez at the age of 56 achieved this entirely untypical masterpiece more swiftly than ever before.
Should not todays painters know of this useful technique? Do we scoff at Galileo because he used a telescope or Pasteur because he used a microscope? Why do we allow science to use technology but not artists?
In fact most of my discoveries demonstrate that many important advances in art were the result of the use of technology: The naturalism which developed in classical Greece between 500 BC and 450 BC was based on life-casting. It broke the traditional Kouroi mould that had lasted nearly 3000 years. Brunelleschi invented scientific perspective by the use of a burnished silver mirror. Velasquez advanced the depiction of space by the use of a much larger mirror and Vermeer captured light by the use of two mirrors. Technology advanced art as it did science. What is the problem?
Like many artists of my generation I believe in the training of observation. This is usually achieved by a combination of practice and a number of tricks to bypass the overwhelming habit of the human brain to abstract and categorize the information that comes to us through our senses. Those of us who had the benefit of a traditional training in art learned to catch the patches of coloured light that came our way and meditate upon them before the brain substituted a word for sensations. Cezanne described his activity accurately when he advised artists to pay attention to their sensations. Traditional artists are interested in milking the whole meaning from their sensations where average perception is content with the minimum necessary for everyday life. Life becomes richer through such art. With the modern view, which has turned its back on observation, life becomes less rich.
We need to recognize that technology has often advanced perception both in science and art. If only to regain the lost confidence that the “miracles” invented by art history have squashed.
What are the advantages of life-casting? I believe I have proved conclusively that The Bronzes of Riace are based on life-casting. Many besides myself regard them as the best of their kind ever made. They are supermen cast from an athlete around 2m in height. They have been individualized but might well have both originated from the same plaster mould. I do not believe that the heads were cast from life. They were clearly made by two different sculptors, who, there is good reason to believe, were assistants of Pheidias.
The reasons for my admiration are not just the truly amazing anatomical detail of muscles, bones and even veins but their sculptural presence owes a lot to the fact that these are put together with a sense of form (as Plato defined it) which derive from their archaic ancestors. The craftsmanship is beyond compare.
There is only one point at which the original cast has hardly been touched: the soles of the feet and it is here that the proof lies. I have only seen photographs so I cannot say whether there are any trace of the equivalent of fingerprints on the toes. This would be icing on the cake if they did exist. Normally one would not expect a cast to transmit so fine a detail, though there are instances of this.
The proof is simple:- the soles of their feet are formed entirely naturalistically and undoubtedly support the weight of the figure above because the feet are spread and squashed by his weight: note they cannot have been observed in that position as they are firmly on the ground. The soles of course will never be seen by the public so why model them so carefully. Obviously they were not modeled they were cast. Furthermore, a cast taken from a clay standing sculpture would have no soles, at most a strap or pin to fix the sculpture to a base. I know of three examples of naturalistic soles: The Riace pair, The Apollo of Piombino and the Apollo of Pireus, how many more are needed to convince the scholars that life casting was prevalent in ancient Greece?
We are told that Lysippus and his brother produced 1500 sculptures understood to be mainly in bronze and mainly life-size. Allowing for exaggeration this is an incredible production by any other means.
That the life-casts were worked over there can be no doubt. There would be many more wrinkles at the joints in an untouched life-cast. Most critics would agree with Spivey (New Statesman) that they have been enhanced in other ways as well. Wax is a wonderfully malleable material. It occurs naturally in many forms most of which can be mixed together or with oils or resins to vary the consistency from boot polish to something so hard and brittle that it shatters when dropped. Normally sculptors like wax that is elastic and has a melting point such that it becomes soft when held in the hand. Usually it becomes liquid at temperatures that do not burn but are uncomfortably hot.
One of the huge advantages of wax is that it can be poured or painted into a wet plaster mould and will not bond with it. The thickness of the wax deposited in the mould depends on the time it spends in the mould and the temperature. The flexibility of warm wax also allows more than one casting from a simple two piece mould.
In Hellenistic times founders favoured a thickness of about 3mm. as they do today. Earlier bronzes tended to be thicker as the techniques were less advanced so the risk of miscasts were greater. Most of the faults in excavated bronzes are the result of joints and mends that have come apart with time, not the result of corrosion. A perfect bronze cast is the exception not the rule. Ancient methods of correcting casting faults were very time consuming.
When I say I believe that The Discobolos was life-cast I do not mean that some model stood in that position while a plaster cast was made. I believe that a simple standing pose can be maintained with the help of props for the two hours needed. I demonstrate the process in the 2nd edition of my book “Sculpture, the Art and the Practice”. I used plaster to simulate ancient techniques, where a modern practitioner would probably prefer more flexible rubbers particularly for the chest. The process of arranging the pose in action would be done by cutting up the resulting wax and reassembling it as desired.
I think the early versions of the Discobolos though transformed into stone, clearly demonstrate that this was the method. It would be interesting to examine the inside of the Dancing Satyr to see if this method could be confirmed. When dealing with the Hellenistic period there was so much copying of copies that we should only expect to find such evidence in the first prototype. Another example could be the two Runners from Villa Papiri. There may be methods of investigating the thickness and roughness of the interior without the expense of removing the core.
A final argument for the hollow wax method would be to ask whether it would be possible to make an armature sufficiently strong to support the weight of clay for the The Kyme Runner balanced on the toes of one foot. He is 154cm high, reproduced p 27 of the Power and Pathos catalogue.
The sculptures at Olympia is the moment at which I would guess this process was first used judging by the change of style. The Critios Boy is another turning point that looks as if it is carved with the use of a fixed life reference but I do not know if there is any other way of dating it but by style. There seems to be some controversy about the dating of the two Bronzes of Riace: some see them as straddling the severe/classical divide. I see their point but the obvious fact that they must have been made for a single monument overrides the change in style for me. It is an example of two individuals responding differently to the life-casting technique. Figure B being more “advanced” than A. I presume the varying speed of assimilation of of the new idea of contraposto accounts for the changes in style in the Parthenon itself. While we have to rely on style for dating purposes these arguments will remain circular.
What would happen if we came to accept that the great Greek achievement in sculpture from the severe/classical period onwards was based on life casting. Would there be a mass break-down among artists, art historians, and archaeologists? This question is prompted by a splendid new exhibition of Hellenistic bronzes at the Strozzi Palace in Florence.
Pliny told us over 2000 years ago that Lysistratos, the brother of Lysippus invented (or rather perfected the art of casting faces from life and then correcting the distortion that inevitably results from the weight of plaster on the soft flesh of the face). I published an article a mere 13 years ago, that pushed the use of bodily life-casting back to the time of Pheidias because I had found evidence in The Bronzes of Riace that proved, beyond all reasonable doubt, that they were modelled over a wax life-cast. The evidence is in the soles of their feet which are formed entirely naturalistically and undoubtedly support the weight of the figure above because the feet are spread and squashed by his weight: note they cannot have been observed in that position as they are firmly on the ground. The soles of course will never be seen by the public. Furthermore, a cast taken from a clay standing model would have no soles, at most a strap or pin to fix the sculpture to a base.
This show is bristling with more evidence as most of the exhibits are life-size, sometimes very large life-size as in the Riace pair. But would one not choose a heroic scale for heroes? There is one proof identical to that of the Riace pair in the Piombino Apollo, which is obviously cast from a child. This pseudo archaic work was immediately questioned by the curator, Jean Letronne when it entered the Louvre in 1834. Ten years later when under restoration a proof in the form of a lead tablet emerged from its interior showing that that it was made by two sculptors of Rhodes. The poor restorer was accused of faking the tablet, there was a private rumpus at the Louvre and the evidence was buried in the archives until 2010 when it was rediscovered and the tablet judged genuine and dated c.330 BC. This sculpture has the same tell-tale soles as the Riace pair, who also get a big spread in the catalogue though not of the Hellenistic period. Yet none of the many experts who contribute to the sumptuous and otherwise highly informative catalogue mention this fact which is obviously central to the way we perceive these works. My article in the Oxford Journal of Archaeology was received in complete silence.
Surely the time has come to recognize the facts and make the necessary adjustments to the history of art. This largest collection of bronzes from the Hellenistic period ever put together, gives an opportunity to appreciate the wonderful workmanship and to hazard that step towards the truth of their production.
Life-casting is clearly a highly emotive subject. My claim to have discovered something that others have missed is based on nearly sixty years of working bronze and wax as a sculptor. I doubt whether any archaeologist could claim the same.
It is the centenary year of the publication of Heindrich Wolfflin’s “The Principles of Art History” often described as epoch-making. It is worth trying to assess to what extent it is responsible for the most devastating decline in artistic standards ever recorded. I would suggest – to a very great extent. I would be interested to know what others feel. Read more
By 1915 revolutions in art were well underway starting with the Impressionists, then more violently with the Post Impressionists and the Fauves. By 1915 Cubism had come and nearly gone. So Wolfflin was not the leader but he was the leader of the critics trying to catch up with revolutionaries.
In his Preface he writes “The Principles arose from the need of establishing on a firmer basis the classifications of art history – not the judgment of value – there is no question of that here”. Nonetheless, his choice of examples and the way he writes about them cannot hide from us the fact that he was no connoisseur himself.
His first example: Durer’s preparatory drawing for Eve, I would probably place as number one among the worst drawings genuinely attributed to an old master. The pose is in itself feeble and expresses nothing of her desire. But it is in the limbs that qualifies his drawing as first in my category. There are no bones in either arm. The one that dangles the apple is particularly disgusting, a mere string of sausages. The leg that bears weight passes muster, no more; from the knee done the other leg looks like the work of a diligent beginner. Yet Wolfflin seems carried away by the beauty of it all. “each single line seems to know that it is beautiful and combines beautifully with its mates.” How could anyone take such a critic seriously? Yet the book is in it’s 6th edition and is ‘a must’ for all students of art history.
Durer’s horrid drawing is compared with one of Rembrandt’ most appealing, individualized, female nudes – Wolfflin writes “Durer is based on tactile, Rembrandt on visual values.” I have made a homage to the Rembrandt in sculpture. I would not dream of such a homage to the Durer, I would be left with a cripple.
Many complain of the loss of connoisseurship while others despise the very idea of it. Surely “The Principles” have delivered the death blow to the whole idea of discerning quality in art. Yet to artists of the past, quality of observation is all that truly matters. Instead of comparing works of art with the phenomena they represent, critics since Wolfflin look at lines as if they have a more important, aesthetic quality in themselves, that they alone can discern.
By 1922 Otto Benesch had embarked upon his devastation of Rembrandt’s drawings, claiming that he could date Rembrandt’s drawings by style “to within a year or two, three at most”! If drawings failed to comply with his pigeon-holes they are discarded. This destructive policy continues under Benesch’s followers at an accelerated rate today. We are left with less than 50% of Rembrandt’s drawings. We have left the fate of Rembrandt, the world’s foremost observer of humankind, in incompetent hands. Are our critics of modern art any better? No wonder the Art World is in turmoil.
tel 0039-0577-948312 fax –399
to The Greek & Roman Dept.
The British Museum
cc. Sir Neil MacGregor
Nov 14th 2014
I was shocked to see that the ear lobes of Hadrian (room 70) had been ‘restored’. I made an analysis of how this portrait was copied into marble which was published in Apollo Magazine Aug. 1972. Since then I developed the idea of the two traditions of European form making: the Greek and the Roman, the latter of which relies on three dimensional geometry such as I demonstrated in the Apollo article. This is elaborated again in my book “Sculpture, the Art and the Practice” (Collins sold 7000 copies). The second edition is still in print in which I report on my discoveries in Greece, prompted by The Riace Bronzes, (now published by Verrocchio Arts). Furthermore, the Roman tradition, which is little understood by art historians, is central to my ebook on Rembrandt, found at www.nigelkonstam.com
It is disappointing that there is so little exchange between the historians and the practitioners of art that these publications have escaped the notice of your staff. They have repaired the chips in both of Hadrian’s ears which constitutes the clearest demonstration of my thesis: that three dimensional geometry was used and loved by the Romans and many great artists since (Rembrandt owned 30 Roman portraits and filled two books with drawings of them).
May I hope that the masking of an intrinsic and important detail of the manufacture of the original will be removed as soon as possible.
Nigel Konstam, sculptor
ps I enclose a brochure on The Museum of Artists’ Secrets, now known as The Research Centre for the True History of Art. I would be very pleased to show you round.