Thursday, July 10, 2014

NOVA: “Mystery of a Masterpiece” and Secrets of the Dead: “The Mona Lisa Mystery” (PBS, c. 2012)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night KPBS showed two programs dealing with works of art allegedly created by Leonardo da Vinci: a NOVA episode called “Anatomy of a Masterpiece” and a Secrets of the Dead episode about the so-called “Isleworth” version of the Mona Lisa. “Anatomy of a Masterpiece” dealt with a profile portrait of a young woman that first came to light at the Christie auction house in New York in 1995, done with chalk on vellum (itself an unusual technique because special binders had to be added to the chalk to get it to stick to the vellum — “vellum” means a surface created from an animal skin treated to be suitable for writing, drawing or painting on — which the researchers suggested itself lent credibility to the idea that Leonardo created this work because he was always experimenting with new techniques and in particular with new combinations of bases, binders and pigments in his paints — that’s what happens when you end up with an artist who’s also a scientific genius) and originally attributed to an anonymous 19th century German. Peter Silverman, a French collector (despite his Anglo-Jewish name), tried to buy the work in 1995, was outbid but did acquire it in 2002 when a gallery owner put it up for sale for $22,000. He conceived the idea that it might have been a previously unknown work by Leonardo (who by the way was illegitimate and had no legal last name; “da Vinci” was added later and simply indicated the town he was from) and ran it through a battery of tests as well as critiques from art historians, including Martin Kemp (a Renaissance expert who became more or less convinced the work was by Leonardo) and David Ekserdjian (even more convinced the painting isn’t a Leonardo). Silverman had the vellum tested with radiocarbon-14 dating (since it was once part of a living animal that technique can be used) and it came back within the right age range to be a medium for a Renaissance artist. Then he got in touch with the gnome-like Pascal Kotte, who has invented a multiplex camera that can not only take a picture of a painting with uncommonly good resolution (to the point where details of the workmanship invisible to the naked eye can be seen in the photos) but can also separate it, prism-like, into its various color bands to see how the original artist blended the pigments and what details were added in what colors. The hour-long show was interesting, and not only made a convincing (if not iron-clad) case for the work being an authentic Leonardo but traced who the subject was (Bianca Maria Sforza, illegitimate daughter of the Duke of Milan when Leonardo was living and working there) and offered an explanation for why the work never appeared in any catalogues of art by Leonardo (or anyone else): it was supposedly intended as an illustration for a vellum-paper ceremonial book on the occasion of Bianca’s wedding and there are cut marks and indentations that arguably indicate where it was bound in the original book and thereby, at least so the case goes, prove its authenticity. So far the work has acquired enough of a reputation that Silverman turned down an offer of $80 million for it, and as I noted above the case for it as a Leonardo is persuasive but not definitive; judging from what I saw of it on the show, it simply doesn’t look all that interesting as an artwork, and frankly if Leonardo did do it, it was probably something he tossed off in his spare time as a way of making a few scudi and keeping in the good graces of a powerful and well-heeled patron like the Duke of Milan.

In some ways the Secrets of the Dead program was more interesting in that it was at least dealing with a work — the Mona Lisa — long identified with Leonardo, and it tapped into one of the most intriguing art mysteries of all time, one mentioned by art historian Lawrence Jeppson in his book The Fabulous Frauds: in 1911 the real (or at least the acknowledged) Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre, ostensibly by a maintenance man named Vincenzo Peruggia who said, when he was caught two years later, that he was motivated by the desire to return this fabled art treasure to Leonardo’s (and Peruggia’s) native Italy instead of allowing it to remain in the supposedly hostile climate of France. According to Jeppson — in a part of the story that did not make it into the TV show — the painting was really stolen by a gang of art forgers who had specialized in doing copies of famous masterpieces, selling them under the table to private collectors and claiming that they had stolen the originals and those were what they were offering for sale. While for lesser-known artworks they could get away merely with saying they’d stolen the originals, for something as well known as the Mona Lisa they realized they would actually have to steal it — so they did so, in the meantime creating six copies of the famous painting (made on wood panels they cut from an authentic Renaissance bed — Leonardo painted the Mona Lisa now in the Louvre not on canvas but on wood, and one of the odd parts of this show is that though Leonardo wrote a treatise on painting on canvas in one of his books all his known full-dress paintings are on wood) and selling them sub rosa to collectors, each of whom thought he was getting the stolen original. Jeppson told this story and also mentioned the other Mona Lisas that are known to exist, including at least one in a major museum (the Prado in Madrid), and suggested that Leonardo painted two versions personally, while his art students did a third one under his direction (which would, of course, be indistinguishable forensically from an authentic Leonardo). Some of the experts from the “Mystery of a Masterpiece” show, including Martin Kemp and Pascal Kotte, were interviewed on this show as well, which told the story of at least one other Mona Lisa, which turned up in 1905 and was purchased by British art dealer Henry Blaker from a man who said he picked it up while on a grand tour of Italy.

This differs from the Louvre version in that Lisa del Giocondo’s image looks considerably younger and the background is not only different but unfinished. It is also painted on canvas instead of wood, and lacks the “lead white” backing Leonardo always used when he painted on wood — a white primer whose lead base makes it impossible for Pascal Kotte or anyone else to use X-rays to penetrate the painting and divide it into layers for analysis. The producers of the program make a good case that the Isleworth version is the one Leonardo actually created on commission from Lisa’s husband, Florentine merchant Francesco del Giocondo, but he never considered it finished and therefore never handed it over to Francesco or got paid for it — and the Louvre version he created later, in his last years living in the Loire Valley in France (which was a new one on me; being unfamiliar with Leonardo’s biography I had had no idea he had ever been out of Italy, let alone that he had died on foreign soil!), when he was experimenting with an elaborate system of layering oil paints on top of each other and creating works like his final painting, a portrait of John the Baptist (for which Leonardo’s long-term protégé and boyfriend was apparently the model), in the same style as the Louvre Mona Lisa. These two programs taken together were fascinating, not only in the issues they raise about the “authenticity” of a work and the difficulty of attributing old paintings based on the modern assumption that the artist of record applies every atom of paint personally (Leonardo, like Rembrandt, had a whole studio full of talented artists working for him, and he often would be responsible for the overall design of a portrait but leave it to his assistants to fill in the background details) but also for the fetish that surrounds certain artists, Leonardo being particularly legendary because he was a polymath who made major contributions to the science of his time as well as the art (indeed, the show quotes one entry in a Leonardo notebook to the effect that he was bored by painting and did it mainly to earn the money so he could do the scientific experiments that really excited him), and the whole idea of “value” that decrees that a work of art is worth $22,000 when its provenance is unknown and soars to $120 million simply because it can plausibly be assigned to a “name” artist and given a compelling backstory.