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Attribution Exhibitions: The Allure of Detective Mysteries

A detail from a wall panel in Metropolitan Museum’s past exhibition about the discovery of Michelangelo’s first painting, “The Torment of Saint Anthony”

There seems to be a new vogue in museum exhibitions—the who-dunnit show. It’s fun for the public to participate in the discovery of a (possibly) new work by a master and it’s fun for curators to exercise their scholarly muscle in a crowd-pleasing way—by revealing the detective work that enabled them to find riches hiding in plain sight. For example, part of Metropolitan Museum curator Keith Christiansen‘s work in authenticating an early Michelangelo painting now owned by the Kimbell Art Museum involved the close comparisons of cross-hatching between the maybe-Michelangelo and known Michelangelos, as shown above.

One side-effect of museums’ efforts to cut costs may be a proliferation of this subset of the “dossier exhibition”—the attribution exhibition. If museums must curtail sprawling (and expensive) blockbusters, they’re going to need a hook to attract visitors to smaller shows. The romance of important scholarly ah-ha moments could be one such lure.

I’ve already written about three such shows—the Metropolitan Museum’s two Michelangelo focus exhibitions (The Torment of Saint Anthony and The Young Archer) and the reattributed-to-Velázquez portrait from the Met’s own collection.

Yesterday, both the Wall Street Journal and NPR weighed in on the reattribution boom. The WSJ’s Eric Gibson compares unfavorably the documentation supporting the ambitious attribution in the Met’s “Young Archer” show to that in the High Museum’s Leonardo da Vinci: Hand of the Genius (to Feb. 21). One of the highlights of the latter is a silver relief by Verrocchio, “The Beheading of St. John the Baptist.” The High’s guest curator Gary Radke believes that two figures in the relief (far left and second-from-right, below) came from the hand of Leonardo, who had been in Verrocchio’s workshop.

Andrea del Verrocchio and Leonardo da Vinci?, “Beheading of St. John the Baptist,” from the altar of the baptistery with scenes from the life of St. John the Baptist, 1477-1483, Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence
Photo: Antonio Quattrone

In Are They or Aren’t They?, Gibson writes:

The shows open a window onto an aspect of museums the public rarely sees–the world of fathoming authorship and making judgments….The [High] museum has gone to great lengths to make its case. It has produced a substantial scholarly catalog to accompany the show, and has installed extensive explanatory wall texts next to the relief that invite the viewer to participate in this voyage of discovery by looking closely at the sculpture and coming to their own conclusions. This is a model presentation.

The Met’s “Young Archer” presentation, according to Gibson (and also according to me) “needs to do a better job of explaining its reasons” for assigning that unremarkable marble sculpture to Michelangelo’s oeuvre.

In Drawing Distinctions Between Rembrandt, His Pupils, NPR’s Susan Stamberg gives air time to Lee Hendrix, the Getty Museum’s curator for its Drawings by Rembrandt and His Pupils: Telling the Difference (to Feb. 28). Lee tells Susan:

Over and over again, one of the telltale signs of the student is that they are more ‘finished,’ in conventional terms, than Rembrandt’s drawings.

And in her introductory comments, Stamberg demonstrates the challenge of attracting the general public to low-key, scholarly shows:

I don’t know about you, but I walk right past sketches when I’m at a museum. I head for the color: the oils, the big things.

If the Getty’s Rembrandt drawings show didn’t have its newsworthy hook, chances are that NPR would have walked right past it, focusing on “the big things.”

an ArtsJournal blog