The first thing to be said about this exhibition at The Palazzo Strozzi (till June 6th, after to go to the Louvre) is that it is not to be missed. It contains many masterpieces of sculptural observation from the richest ground: The Florentine Renaissance.
The exhibition sets out to show how much that springtime owed to Roman and French influence. A worthy aim, and it gets nearly halfway to the truth. The loan of the tiny, ivory “Timbal Madonna” (1260-70) from the Louvre allows us to compare the very human exchange between the French mother and child with the more symbolic treatment of the subject from Giovanni Pisano a generation later. It also allows us to understand how immediate was the flow of this new spirit into the hearts of Italian artists and patrons.
For those of us who believe that The “Duccio” Window was entirely the product of the stained-glass team from northern Europe who were then working in Assisi and from whom it was in fact commissioned (1288); it is quite clear that those masters were so far ahead of their Italian contemporaries at depicting the three dimensional world on a two dimensional surface that it took the Italians over 100 years to catch up. (This advanced knowledge from northern Europe is not discussed in the exhibition.)
The imports from Rome are also understated. Roman three dimensional geometry had a very strong influence on the vision of such masters as Desiderio da Settignano, Mino da Fiesole, and Rosselino, all well represented here; yet the three examples of Roman portraiture in the show look more towards Greece than to Rome and therefore fail entirely to make the looked for connection.
My main gripe against the scholars is my usual one of their strong bias in favour of classical references. They pay too much attention to the half remembered poses from antiquity and not enough to the intense and prolonged observation that is the driving force of the figurative arts at their best. The sequence of brilliant individualized portraits in this exhibition must surely leave us in no doubt that the observation of life was the chief motor for the “springtime”. The hunger for antique example found in both Ghiberti’s and Brunelleschi’s entries for the competition for the Baptistery doors, and well demonstrated in the catalogue was surely but a needed stepping-stone towards greater realism.
The catalogue (good value at 39€) is well-informed on this hunger for the example of antiquity among artists and patrons of the period but weak in the acknowledgement of direct observation from life, which must surely be at the root of these artists’ sustained enthusiasm.
For those artists who still worship the gods of observation Luca della Robbia’s Cantoria is a shrine for annual pilgrimage. They will be disappointed to find that this masterpiece is not represented by so much as a cast or photograph in the catalogue. In fact Luca, is represented by a string of mainly sentimental products of his terracotta workshop. To add injury to insult his two bronze putti (we must now learn to call them “spiritelli”) have been re-attributed to Donatello! contrary to the judgment of Pope Henessey and the word of Vasari. Indeed, it is hard to find a trace of Donatello’s treatment of this, his favorite subject, in either of them. Is it at all likely that having set up this comparison of the work of the two great masters that the confrontation would have been fudged by placing the putti of “Donatello” on the cantoria of Luca?
Re-attribution has become an art historical game that should be questioned with the utmost severity on every occasion. Modern connoisseurship has lost sight of the artist’s habitual patterns of thought which we used to call “form” and which are a much better guide to authorship than the minutiae of chisel marks, particularly in a case like this where the bronze is most likely to have been worked by artisans. (The re-attribution of Donatello’s Uzzano to Settignano seems to me equally misguided.)
Which brings me to my final gripe about the conception of the exhibition:- Verrocchio, who by any measure must have had the greatest influence on posterity: the summertime of the Renaissance, (also the strongest proponent of observation) is all but excluded, being only 25 at the terminal date of 1460. He is represented by one pedestrian portrait re-attributed to him but more likely by Rosselino. Let us hope the organizers are saving Verrocchio and his wonderful school for a second great exhibition.
In spite of these gripes, this is a feast not to be missed.
I finally received the answer to my letter to the Getty. (see below) It did not surprise me. I have been receiving such refusal from art historians to discuss since I made my Rembrandt discoveries in 1974. The first was from Christopher White, who was then in charge of Rembrandt’s drawings at the British Museum. (He had written a good book on the etchings.) He did not commit himself in writing but after sitting on my first article for over a month he told his colleague, who had assisted me in composing the article, “that it would be very important if Konstam could prove it.” To a scientific mind it was proven then; as far as is possible to prove anything of this nature.
The Burlington Magazine refused my article until E.H.Gombrich called a governors’ meeting at which it was suggested that he should help me re-write it, which he did. The article was then accepted by Benedict Nicholson the editor, who wrote “I find it of the greatest possible interest and so I am sure will Rembrandt scholars, who must now get down to revising the corpus of drawings.” The appalling revision that has taken place since then has been in the opposite direction to that I proposed.
Pieter Schatborn (recently of the Rijksmuseum) who master-minded the Getty show, translated my second artictle into Dutch. It was printed in Rembrandthuiskroniek (1978) but he has taken no notice of its contents since. I spent an evening with him in his flat taking him through the contents of the book on Rembrandt that I was preparing. He was unable to produce any counter arguments.
My agents informed me that Phaidon had accepted my book “with the whole editorial board behind me” knowing how controversial it was. They only awaited a reader’s report. When it came it was so damning Phaidon dropped the project and ran. On first reading I was shaken myself but on looking into the report I realized it was nothing more than a cunningly concocted swindle. Thirty years later I am still looking for a brave enough publisher.
After a perfectly reasonable exchange of letters with Martin Royalton Kisch, who had succeeded White at the British Museum, he gave me a hefty thumbs down in his catalogue of Rembrandt Drawings (having entirely ‘misread’ my analysis of two drawings of Rembrandt’s first mistress). I countered with three newspapers (The Save Rembrandt Campaigner) and a showing at St Martin’s in the Fields, to try to get my viewpoint heard at the time of the theoretical debate 1991 “Rembrandt and his Workshop”.
The National Gallery (London) actually took the microphone from me (on the orders of Christopher Brown, then keeper of Dutch paintings there) because I asked to show three slides which would have put an end to their novel and destructive viewpoint. The educated public having suffered from the teachings of The Rembrandt Research Project (RRP) since 1969, can probably no longer remember the greater Rembrandt. (The RRP and their followers in the departments of drawings have reduced the accepted Rembrandt works by over 50% because of their misguided ideals in art.)
When I asked The National Gallery for space to present an alternative view at that time I got an almost identical letter as that from the Getty. The BBC has refused to take any further interest after they discovered how my view of Rembrandt upsets the establishment. My view happens to be in complete accord with the known opinion of Rembrandt’s contemporaries. Other publishers and broadcasters have followed suit. For further interest I have scanned similar letters from the RRP and from E.Havercamp Begermann (Yale).
I gave a talk at Harvard in 1978, which fell on deaf ears. I thought the many doctoral students there would go back to their books and see the sense of my view. Alas, many of that large audience will have been teaching the standard guff on Rembrandt ever since. The guff is absurdly complicated, Rembrandt is easy to understand if you get the fundamentals right. Rembrandt was the great sign-post for artists saying observe, observe , observe “anything else was worthless in his eyes”.
This controversy between Rembrandt the observer and Rembrandt the inventor, has been successfully swept under the rug since 1974. Though I have had a few successes at the Wallace Collection and recently The National Gallery where Rembrandt’s “The Adoration of the Shepherds” rejected by RRP has now been replaced as a Rembrandt, where it belongs. (see YouTube for Konstam saying yes it is, and the National Gallery saying no, it isnt.)
It is difficult to escape thinking that art historians perhaps resent the intrusion of an artist into their private kingdom. Art History belongs to artists and the public at large, we need to get it straight. Look at what has happened to painting since the down-grading of Rembrandt. This is our culture in headlong decay!
I have made several similarly important discoveries in the field of art history and archaeology which have been similarly neglected. Best known is the role of life-casting in ancient Greek sculpture, which featured in the film Athens II as well as the Oxford Journal of Archaeology. The full story can be found in the second edition of my book Sculpture, the Art and the Practice.
Copy of Reddit Article
The brain of Man has undergone a transformation since we painted the caves. “In the beginning was the word” the invention of speech was the beginning of that transformation. Speech, number, geometry and mechanics are the chief abstract categories that rule and blinker our perception of the world. They are so useful that they have all but obliterated the rich variety of messages that our animal senses bring us.
It was the chief task of the visual arts to re-examine and extend the interface between the abstract quality of our mindset and the rich variety of the world out there. Traditional artists working from nature and humans soon become aware of how inadequate are our mental images. We know we are burdened with a brain that wants to reduce the world to abstractions. The process of observation brings our abstracting mindset to confront the actual. Each search for understanding
developed by an artist becomes in itself “form”.
The word ‘form’ is generally used to mean three dimensional shape. In art it has another set of meanings. It is also used to mean that which is formalized, or form in the sense of “sonnet form”: a mould into which any number of ideas or feelings can be poured. It can mean manners in the sense of “good form”; manner in the sense of the “Classical manner” which is derived from classical Greek sculpture. It has a structural meaning in the coordination of parts to make a meaningful whole. “Form” can be used to describe a number of conceptual schemes, it is not just meat.
In fact the recognition of form was the chief aim of an education in art. Form is an amalgam of all these ideas and has come to mean that emphasis that comes about from an artist’s interpretation of nature: the aspects the artist particularly wants us to see as important.
Traditional art attempts “to hold a mirror up to nature”. Since the invention of photography this activity has become less rewarding because the camera does this so well. But there is another aspect to the best traditional art which we could describe as the mental digestion of nature; art can be the interface between our habitually abstracting mind and the richness of nature. Art stretches the mind to comprehend more. Around 1904 Art became more conscious of form but recently unconscious.
An art rooted in tradition has the huge advantage of being able to strikes chords in the mind and evoke emotion because of it’s relation to a depth of human experience, recorded and evolving through history. It is our cultural inheritance. The evolution of art is an important part of our appreciation of the visible. As we moved away from the hunter-gatherer, where awareness was all important, we have come to rely on art to keep our senses alive. Without observed art we lose touch with the wealth of what is out there in the world; we receive it less fully, we become less human.
Music and poetry have forms also. In a recent review, a poet was praised for her “impressive formal range… an England rooted in Nature of Chaucer, Shakespeare,Wordsworth and John Clare.” Though I have no ear for poetry I understand what this means because it is similar to visual form, and refers to that cultural inheritance as above.
For instance, in my own experience my love of Rembrandt’s drawings was considerably deepened by visiting a show of Giacometti’s drawings. Giacometti had consciously or unconsciously used space clues similar to Rembrandt’s, his primary focus is on space. Rembrandt, like most draughtsmen, mainly focuses on the solid figures but it is the space between the figures that makes them so meaningful. In my view it is crucial to understand this aspect of Rembrandt’s form. The scholars’ study of style (the mere marks he made) has led the “experts” very far from the Rembrandt recorded by his contemporaries; he has been much diminished by recent scholarship and his philosophy: the primary importance of original observation, has been turned upside down.
Two main lines of development in the form of western art can be seen. That derived from the Greek sculpture is easily recognised in the lay figure which was present in every academic studio. It is epitomized by the work of Raphael but was generally used during the Italian Renaissance and in academic art since.
The Roman is derived from the survey techniques that Roman sculptors used for transferring their work into the permanent medium of stone. It is based on solid geometry as a pattern to compare with nature. The Roman needs to be distinguished from the Greek because it operates with a different syntax. The Roman is more analytical and therefore better adapted to sharpening observation. Each artist gives the tradition a nudge in the direction of their own personal philosophy. Rembrandt used Roman form when he observed; and Greek on those rare occasions when he had to invent: his flying angels for example.
I have made a short film to explain the high points in the development of form with appropriate images (URL). I regard Rembrandt as the greatest humanist draftsman because he realized that the space between two people expresses as much or more than their individual gestures or facial expressions. He developed the Roman form to incorporate space as well as solid.
My rediscovery that Rembrandt deployed groups of live models so as to find the maximum expression and then drew observing the space with the same attention as the solid bodies is contrary to the modern belief among art historians. They refuse to abandon their mistaken belief that imagination is superior to observation in art. Imagination as commonly understood means drawing out of ones head, often no more than construction by formula. Rembrandt understood that the intimate, meaningful space between two figures cannot be constructed, it is too subtle. It has to be observed. This is the secret of his psychological and dramatic gift.
The teaching of form goes through periods of development and decay. Sadly ours is a period of such decay that many young artists have missed ‘form’ in this special sense in their artistic education. They are deprived of that sense of brotherhood with former artists that sustains and supports a living tradition. As a consequence we are losing contact with nature and with the great tradition of seeing as exemplified by recent Rembrandt scholarship. Art matters!
Note. The word form was crucial to artistic discussion before Wolfflin moved the goal posts with his book “The Principles of Art Hisrtory”(1915). He had no conception of the artistic use of the word form.
I am so pleased to have found this website, so full of mavericks like myself. I am a sculptor, nearly 80 years old. I would like to tell you my experience. I may be one of the last generation to receive a training in the observation of form: that illusive abstraction that can help us to understand what is going on out there in the world.
To see form was the whole point of our education and had been for the previous three millennia. Novelty as such, was not part of our ambition; we hoped to give the world new vision, or at least a new emphasis, by adjusting the tradition in some significant way. I looked to Brancusi and Giacometti as examples in this. Through Giacometti I came to see Rembrandt more clearly. This concept of working within a tradition seems to have been lost.
I was a part of the majority of my fellow students in regarding Rembrandt as the one great master who spoke to us directly: the master of form that expressed the movement of the human spirit in the physical world more clearly than any other. He was also number one on the charts of market-value. How radically things have changed since then. (He no longer appears among the top 30 in the charts.)
Art History was taught by the same bright artists who taught in the studios. We saw art as the interface between nature (the model who stood there all day) and the inadequate abstract quality of our own minds grappling to understand nature. The study of art history seemed to confirm that the high points of civilization were those that came to a new understanding of the visible world. We saw the progress towards that understanding as slow and intermittent. There were long periods of decay interrupted by short bursts of brilliant artistic activity such as the Italian Renaissance. The best periods seemed to go hand in hand with a break-through in scientific thought.
The perspective I gained from my education at Camberwell Art School has lasted a life time. I see myself as adding my own small morsel to the sum total of human understanding of the world. My enthusiasm has not waned but my perspective has divided me from the main-stream of art today.
It seems to me that the ‘art promotion machine’ has multiplied in size and power, due to the recent technological advance of colour television and printing, to a point where the artists themselves are no longer in charge. The machine has taken over! Tom Wolfe complained of the same critic-led art in “The Painted Word”. We have recently seen how over €21 million was paid for a painting whose informal design would hardly have raised an admiring eyebrow if seen on a rug 30 years ago. Art is about values, what will future generations think of ours? Our visual culture has sunk to a level unimaginable, since “The Painted Word”. We need a revolution in the way art is run and art history is taught. Art historians desperately need 80% input from artists.
The art promotion machine is largely manned by those trained in art history, they are aided and abetted by dealers, ad-men and critics. The machine makes a great deal of money, in which only a tiny fraction of working artists take a small share. Over the last decade “The Jackdaw” magazine has been exposing truly amazing abuses in the way public art money is handed out in the UK.
The machine has sold us the idea of the avant-guard. We are invited to view it as the evolutionary “cutting edge” in art. But evolution normally relies on chaotic variety which is then selected by the forces of nature for survival or not. The variety exists in art today but the machine has taken upon itself the selection process and jealously guards the power that it gives. Artists or the public do not get a look in. Most will look at the art that has been promoted over the last 50 years with little enthusiasm. There exists an alternative to establishment art but you will not find it in the media or museums of modern art. The machine will not allow the competition that real evolution requires. The machine rules!
With the help of Sir Ernst Gombrich I published my discovery of Rembrandt’s use of mirrors (Burlington Magazine Feb.1977). If heeded that discovery would simplify Rembrandt studies by demolishing most of the Rembrandt scholarship of the last 100 years. It would make a huge difference to his standing today. Modern scholars believe in only 500 drawings by Rembrandt, Otto Benesch’s Catalogue of 1957 published nearly 1400, I believe there are over 2,000 drawings by Rembrandt extant. This is backed by evidence that would be accepted in scientific circles but it is neglected or refuted by art scholarship. You will find my many criticisms on the internet. Please comment if you visit.
Further examples of the errors of art history are outlined below. For a fuller education come to my Research Centre for the True History of Art at Casole d’Elsa, near Siena, Italy. Courses are offered at The Verrocchio Arts Centre.
The following videos by Nigel Konstam came be found at
1. Nigel speaks to the BBC about his Rembrandt discovery in 1976
2. The two versions of “The Adoration of the Shepherds”, are both by Rembrandt
3. An obvious fake praised by Rembrandt scholars
4. Many brilliant Rembrandt drawings falsely attributed to Ferdinand Bol
5. A Canonical Rembrandt drawing of his mistress recently de-attributed
6. Verrocchio’s sense of structure
7. Vermeer’s method with 2 mirror + the camera obscura (3 parts)
8. Brunelleschi’s method of arriving at a scientific perspective
In preparation -
Life Casting and Bronze casting in ancient Greece
The two traditions of form in Europe
I have scored a palpable hit recently: I am happy to report that the authorities at The National Gallery (London) have returned their painting of “The Adoration of the Shepherds” to it’s rightful place among the Rembrandts. If you visit the two sites on YouTube dealing with that painting you will find a lady from the National Gallery explaining why their picture is not a Rembrandt and myself (Nigel Konstam) explaining why it must be a Rembrandt.
The bad judgment of art experts is notorious. Their distaste for the work of Van Gogh or Cezanne meant that neither could hope to live by their art. Todays museums of modern art will prove a permanent memorial to the folly of the “experts”. Yet it is not only judgment of contemporary art where they fail; today’s experts on Rembrandt have done equal disservice to art. Their view that he drew from an “inner vision” is at odds with all previous judgments and flatly contradicts the opinion of those who actually knew Rembrandt. Rembrandt and his students drew and painted from tableaux vivant arranged in his studio.
My article – Rembrandt’s Use of Models and Mirrors (Burlington Feb 1977) proved, beyond reasonable doubt, that this was so. I have continued to add to that evidence on www.saveRembrandt.org.uk on YouTube and in my still unpublished book “A New Key to Rembrandt”. The new key is the proof that groups of models were present because Rembrandt also drew their reflections, not once but many times. The reflections were probably seen in a mirror of polished metal as glass of the necessary size came later. The style of the drawings made from reflections is easily recognizable and the subject matter is reversed and seen from a new view-point (unlike print images). This undermines the scholarship of the last 100 years, which has built a fantasy development/dating for Rembrandt’s drawings based on the palpably false assumption that the drawings are derived from imagination. Since my article today’s experts have continued to reduce Rembrandt’s corpus of drawings to 500 where Benesch in 1954 believed in about 1500. They are prepared to de-attribute drawings because they do not fall into their misguided style/date pigeon-holes.
I am pleased to note that The National Gallery (London) has bowed to common sense and reinstated their version of Rembrandt’s painting “The Adoration of the Shepherds” perhaps as a result of my demonstration on YouTube. The painting had been scorned by the Rembrandt Research Project. The fact that the experts in the drawings have not done the same in the 35 years since my article rather points to bad faith as well as bad judgment.
Surprisingly it is necessary to learn to observe. Observation is a specialized activity and each of us has a mind that more easily absorbs either visual or language based experience. I, for instance, could not tell you the names of streets that I pass every day because I find my way visually, the street names are irrelevant to me. If one is going to become a specialist in art it is important to start with the right “visual” mental make-up.
The present system of selecting art historians seems more concerned with their auditory ability: to learn languages, rather than to observe art. This selection process means students spend their time reading the literature rather than quizzing the works of art. Art History desperately needs practical revision; embroidering on the literature inevitably leads to the accumulation of myth.
The selection of students is a fundamental mistake that has led us into the present morass: the blind leading the “visual” astray. As George Orwell wisely noted “He who controls the present controls the past.” Rembrandt is being changed beyond recognition by those who control Art History today. It is very rare for an artist to get published in an Art History Journal; rarer still for an artist’s findings to be assimilated by the professionals, we are poles apart. It is only in the last 50 years that art historians have been allowed to dictate the direction of art; it has been a disaster.
The saveRembrandt web site proves, beyond reasonable doubt, that Rembrandt worked by observation and not by his ability to invent. This is a fundamental aspect of his artistic make-up. In the case of “The Adoration of the Shepherds” we have two paintings, which replicate on a grand scale, what I have been saying about Rembrandt’s practice in drawings since 1974. It would need an astronomer’s mathematics to work out the odds of such a thing happening by any other means than the use of a mirror. I can only guess it must be many millions to one, against. The reversal of a new point of view of a very complex visual array, can be achieved naturally with an angled mirror. To do it by calculation, as the RRP suggests in this case, is virtually impossible. They do not seem to appreciate just how much of that complexity is seen from a new point of view and reversed. This being so, it is clearly absurd to go on training young minds to see Rembrandt according to the ideas of the Rembrandt establishment, which deny Rembrandt’s reliance on observation and indeed would have us believe that he taught his students to invent! This is a reversal of all documentary evidence as well as the evidence manifest in his works. It must not be allowed to continue.
There are a simple explanations for Rembrandt’s variability. I have tried to make Rembrandt scholars see this since 1977 through publications, lectures and this web site. Yet, I have not succeeded in attracting a single art historian to my courses; they are hermetically sealed from criticism. Artists accept my version of Rembrandt but alas, are too preoccupied with their own work to take the necessary action.
As I grew up I had a clear idea about ‘good’ drawing based on the Italian masters, Leonardo and Raphael. A drawing should be made with swinging lines and the shadows neatly hatched, preferably done in brown ink. I guess many laymen have the same idea. I had been at art school for over a year before I came to realized that there were more exacting requirements for quality in drawing. As a sculptor I saw that Holbein made a clearer and more exact description of the three dimensions of his subject. Next I perceived that Rembrandt conveyed psychological or dramatic relationships much more powerfully than the Renaissance masters.
Rembrandt became my guru. He seemed to have a much more casual approach. He left behind him an enormous output of drawings many of which did him little or no credit but his method is so personal and advanced for his time there was no need to sign them. In fact he very seldom signed anything unless it was for an autograph album. One might interpret this as carelessness or an amazing lack of self criticism. I prefer to believe that he wanted people to know exactly where he was coming from; his strengths and weaknesses and how and why he arrived at his new conception of drawing. He was obsessed with the truth.
Rembrandt saw that to convey psychological relationships the space relationships between the players was the all important factor. Unlike the Renaissance masters he paid little attention to facial expression and made only one anatomical drawing (from an existing display in the anatomy school: the skeletons of a horse and rider).There were of course, two commissioned painted portrait groups of anatomy lessons but clearly Rembrandt did not see the relevance of studying anatomy for his dramatic purposes. The Renaissance masters were following the Greek example and art academies have followed their example. We now know that the Greek perfection of anatomy was based on life-casting not on study. In fact the flexing of muscles rarely conveys psychological relationships.
Rembrandt made a very close study of Roman portraiture (he filled two books with studies of the 30 Roman portraits he owned, unfortunately these studies have been lost.) I explain the great significance of these for Rembrandt in my “Syntax”DVD.
A fundamental characteristic of Rembrandt’s practice, which the experts refuse to even contemplate, is his refusal to invent. This is immediately obvious when we examine his drawings of flying angels where of course there could be no model, so he was forced to invent. The crude tubular result makes one wonder whether he was not deliberately making fun of this Renaissance technique. I use the example of Isaac and Esau in my DVD to demonstrate the huge difference we must expect from Rembrandt when he has no model before him. Rembrandt believed whole heartedly in observation, “ anything else was worthless in his eyes” “he would not attempt a single brush-stroke without a living model before his eyes” so say Rembrandt’s contemporaries and they say it over and over again. This is contrary to modern doctrine and therefore unthinkable for the experts. Their mind set is based on Picasso, they want to enrole Rembrandt under the same banner.
Rembrandt is an explorer, the experts are too closely enmeshed in the market-place to understand that he is not a banal producer of art-objects that need to be consistent. Explorers often find themselves in blind alleys. Rembrandt leaves us a full record of his failures as well as his successes. It is this openness that we artists find so endearing. It is horrifying to see it being hidden from view by those in charge. His failures teach us as much, or more about his massive creativity as do his successes.
The tragedy of modern Rembrandt scholarship is based on several other misconceptions. The most disastrous is the hubris that made Benesch, believe he could date a Rembrandt drawing to within one or two years, three at maximum! His followers behave as if they believe the same. If a drawing does not fit their proscribed scheme it is handed on to a student, often one with no proven skill in draughtsmanship. I politely disproved this stylistic approach with an article in The Burlington (Feb. 1977) which demonstrated how Rembrandt’s style varies hugely depending not on the date but on the source of inspiration: whether it was direct from life, or a reflection in a mirror, or from construction, (construction often misleadingly known as imagination). The article has had no effect. Since 1977 the destruction of Rembrandt has accelerated. By now over half his life’s work in drawing and painting have been dismissed by the experts. So instead of the outstanding genius we are left with a Rembrandt that many of his students could better.
Another laughable misapprehension is that Rembrandt drew his Biblical subjects from “an inner vision” (Benesch) rather than groups of models in his studio, which is again proven in my article. All the documents of his life bear witness to this same fact. Some of these misconceptions have been embedded in scholarship for 100 years during which time many real masterpieces of his have been cast aside.
Rembrandt scholarship is hopelessly out of touch. It must be started over again with entirely new criteria and new eyes. Rembrandt is as crucial a turning point in the history of art as Galileo is in science. Both turned away from received wisdom and observed nature anew. To misunderstand Rembrandt so profoundly is to misunderstand the nature of art since Rembrandt.
We have the date of 1915 for the publication of Heindrich Wolfflin’s ground-breaking book “The Principles of Art History”. My essay is an inquiry into who is most responsible for the consequences of the ground on which Art was founded, breaking-up – the artist or the critic?
Picasso is a convenient hook on which to hang the artists’ smock but in truth we need to acknowledge that Rodin was the first to take major liberties with the unwritten rules of western art. Rules by which marks made on a two dimensional surface can be read as solid masses existing in three dimensional space. Rodin’s early drawings leave us in no doubt that he fully understood those rules, yet in later life he went on to take liberties with the rules of drawing as he did with the classical rules of good manners in sculpture. (His sculpture has rules of it’s own.) Many artists in Paris followed Rodin’s example but Picasso went further than anyone else in search of freedom.
Looking at Picasso’s Blue Period drawing we can again say that he fully understood the rules. Indeed he operated with amazing skill within those rules. I am looking at a dry point dated 1905 “The Washing” in which a Saltimbank mother is engaged in washing her child, watched by the father. The cat rubs himself against the father’s back with a movement around his body that is more than convincing, it is utterly cat-like. Yet the cattiness must have been the result of many separate observations rather than the prolonged view from a fixed viewpoint we would normally associate with this quality of drawing. The embrace of the mother and child is another instance of the same quality, drawn from a mixture of memories and observation. The achievement takes ones breath away.
Dry-point is a technique requiring a firm hand to scratch the surface of a plate of copper or zinc with a steel point. It has the advantage over etching that if necessary one can take as long as one likes preparing the design on the plate. With etching the surface is covered with a thin film of wax on to which one can scribe from a preliminary drawing but the wax is easily damaged so corrections have to be done with the etching needle through the wax. Whereas with dry point one could temporarily cover the naked copper with a layer of guache and go on drawing and correcting until one is satisfied. Then scribe through to the copper, leaving the impression of dazzling, first-time, virtuosity.
I doubt whether history will ever know whether Picasso used a similar method for this work. What is certain is that he never again produced such a complete masterpiece under the old rules. There are isolated passages in his later work that remind us of his brilliance but never again the continuous modeling of solid and space displayed here.
Picasso and Braque went on to invent Cubism in which the third dimension is taboo. Cubism argues that a drawing or painting takes place on a two dimensional surface and should stick on that surface, not break through to the third dimension as tradition suggests. (Cubism is an extreme version of the then current “Functionalism” in architecture.) Picasso quickly out grew this constricting dogma but it left a stain on his art. From then on there were flashes of brilliance mixed with an entertaining richness of invention, handling and sexy subject matter but sadly not the old ambition to give form to the complex wonders of the visible.
Picasso was brought up in an artistic family. He absorbed the rules of art instinctively, so much so that he may have had no idea they existed. I myself had an art training as an adult and therefore, maybe have more consciousness of the unwritten rules. Indeed I have made an attempt to codify the rules in my DVD on “Syntax”. I believe I have defined the key role Rembrandt played in the development of syntax in art since his time. Picasso had boundless enthusiasm for the adventurous quality of Rembrandt’s drawings, which I share.
After his initial seriousness Picasso became more and more playful as he himself recognized “I wanted to become a painter but I became Picasso”. His art is entertaining, inventive and very conscious of the debt he owed to the past. As an educator I find some of his sculptures useful and witty in making a point. Picasso had every right to behave as he did but I regret the huge influence he has exercised on the course of art for the last century.
We all enjoy play; all salute the idea of liberty but if we offered complete freedom from the rules to chess players not one of them would be interested. Chess is a game that requires intuition, foresight, flexibility and inventiveness but take away the rules and it becomes a game for infants. Sadly art has become a far less serious game since Picasso.
Where does Wolfflin come into this picture? He wrote a very earnest book. He had had an art school education which may have impressed his art historical colleagues but his book horrified me when I first read it around 1975. He did not seem to have the least appreciation of the will to explore that is the driving force behind most serious art. He and his followers gave a strong push to the 20thC band-wagon which had gone off the rails. His influence on art criticism is as big as Picasso’s on art. As a result connoisseurship has evaporated.
Wolfflin focuses his attention on superficial style without appreciating the depth of serious exploration that prompts the marks artists leave behind on the canvas or paper in the process of giving form to the particular experience. Any practitioner could have told the experts that surface style changes largely according to what tools or materials are being used. To associate changes of style only with the development of the artist (as in recent Rembrandt scholarship) is a mistake that could only have been embraced by a mafia of heedless dilettante.
I have been offering advice to Rembrandt scholars since 1974 when I made the definitive discovery, that yes, Rembrandt used models to act out his Biblical scenes before he drew from them. This rediscovery happens to match with what his contemporaries had told use; “he would not attempt a single brush stroke without a living model before his eyes”(Houbraken). His student Samuel Hougstratten advised “take one or two of your fellow students and act out the scene, some of the greatest masters did the same”.
But the experts continue with their absurd study of style, summarily dismissing what does not match their misguided expectations. By now they have so disfigured the image of Rembrandt that he is quite unrecognizable to those who knew him of old. They have de-attributed over half his paintings and drawings.
How is it possible that modern trumpeters are valued more highly than Rembrandt, the artist who has done more to educate our senses to the expression of human feeling than any other? We are a culture in headlong decline.
We have come to value the recognizably new because we have lost touch with the qualities that make art valuable. Art historians generally seem to value the products of the imagination above observation. They do not seem to realize that what we see has necessarily to be interpreted by the imagination using previous experience as a guide. Traditional art creates vibrations in the soul by quoting echoes from the past. Absolute newness precludes this deep communication. I blame Wolfflin and his critic followers, a lot more than Picasso. They have seized the reins of power that guide establishment art and subconsciously perverted it to something they feel capable of commenting on (see “The Painted Word” by Tom Wolfe). Recent Rembrandt scholarship is a disgrace that Art History should never, ever be allowed to forget. Art History does not self-regulate, on the contrary it blocks criticism from within and without.
By definition an expert has a specialized knowledge in a limited area, normally they share their expertise with colleagues. The danger is that should new evidence upset the assumptions of that area of expertise the team of colleagues will unite against it. How can a single outsider succeed in questioning a team as large as Rembrandt scholarship, many with honourable positions in academia and privileged access to learned magazines? He is a lamb to the slaughter.
I dreamt that my case was so strong, so easy for the layman to understand, so much in everyone’s financial interest (only the experts would lose face), so well supported by the documents (note 1), and supported by many esteemed names within the field of Art History (note 2) that I could not fail. But in the 38 years since I made my discoveries (published Burlington Feb 1977) I have failed to make any positive impact, save the recent return of Rembrandt’s Adoration of the Shepherds to it’s rightful position in the National Gallery. So far I have earned no more than £30 (from The Burlington) from my discoveries.
The watch-dog of the media seems to be a very sleepy watch-dog in the area of art. My book “The New Key to Rembrandt” was first accepted by Phaidon Press (with the whole editorial board behind me) and then rejected after a truly heinous report (grossly unjustified) from an expert. Nearly 30 other publishers followed Phaidon.
I am lucky. I have spent my time in the most pleasant “wilderness” of Tuscany, pursuing my interests in sculpture, teaching and art history. My work has been honoured with a permanent museum here which includes 14 other noteworthy discoveries in art history. They also have been similarly neglected.
Can civilization survive such successful sabotage from within? It is dangerous to trust experts in art because there is too much money and prestige attached to their decisions and too little practical experience behind their supposed expertise.
1. there are few contemporary documents telling us about Rembrandt but all support my discoveries by statements such as “He would not attempt a single brush-stroke without a living model before his eyes.” “He had a wonderful talent for reproducing concrete subjects” The inventory taken of his possessions at the time of his bankruptcy also testifies to a man who created a visual feast for himself and his students to work from. His house and furniture, are reproduced time and again in his and in his students’ works. All support my evidence.
2.Prof. Sir Ernst Gombrich was immediately active in my support. He invited a sub-editor of The Burlington Magazine round to visit my exhibition at Imperial College’s Consort Gallery, they agreed that I should resubmit my article, which had previously been rejected. It was submitted again and again rejected. Gombrich called a governors meeting in which it was agreed that he should help me rewrite the article. We did that with the further help of Dr. J Montagu, and on the third submission Benedict Nicholson wrote “ I find the evidence you have accumulated of the greatest possible interest, and so I am sure will Rembrandt scholars, who must now get down to revising the corpus of drawings.” (For the first article I had received the help of Andrew Wilton of The British Museum print-room. He reported to me that his colleague, the Rembrandt expert, Christopher White had said “ it would be very important if he could prove it”. That article was well beyond reasonable doubt. I have since added “The Adoration of the Shepherds” on YouTube, which puts the odds against it in astronomical proportions.)
Meanwhile as the result of the exhibition I got warm letters from the head of the department of prints and drawings at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Dr. M.Kauffman “ you certainly make a pretty good case for the Rembrandts”. Prof. M.Podro from Essex wrote “I am a great admirer of your whole project…your evidence is of immense importance and critical finesse”.
Of my first exhibition Max Wykes Joyce wrote “Certainly the exhibition is a seminal one that should not be lightly dismissed”(International Herald Tribune) and Prof.Bryan Cole in “Icon” of Imperial College “Not only do these reconstructions (many of which compel assent) cast doubt on received wisdom as far as the dates are concerned: they also imply that a view of Rembrandt’s imagination in construction as depending only on the inner eye becomes very difficult to sustain. I find myself totally convinced by Mr. Konstam’s arguments here. His feeling for the materials of the artist’s work is very strong and it would be a pity for scholarship not to profit from his imaginative researches.”
After my lecture at the Slade, Prof. Sir Lawrence Gowing wrote “I find your division between imaginative and objective much more satisfactory and comprehensible than anything before.” Sir John Pope Henessy invited me to a most cordial conversation in his study at the British Museum. We discussed the relationship between Masaccio and Donatello. I think we were in complete agreement that Donatello must have made maquettes for Masaccio in the Brancacci Chapel. (I had made a maquette to demonstrate a near perfect mirror image there. A mirror image is quite different to a print or cartoon reversal.)
When he opened my second exhibition at Imperial College Gombrich said “Konstam has prepared a great feast for art historians at which he invites them to eat their own words” That exhibition unwisely included a number of my new discoveries of artists use of mirrors: Velasquez, Vermeer and Poussin were among them. The iron curtain fell, no reviews, no letters, no sales.