How and why taste changes
While an artist’s popularity can wax and wane, there are very few genuine rediscoveries
By David Ekserdjian. Focus, Issue 244, March 2013
Published online: 14 March 2013
Maybe we should blame the film “Lust for Life”, 1956, in which Kirk Douglas strutted his stuff as Vincent Van Gogh. What is certain is the fact that the conventional idea of the artist as an unappreciated genius starving in a garret, whose merits will only be recognised when it is far too late for him to reap any earthly benefit, is ominously well entrenched. What is more, this heart-warming scenario of posthumous glory also has a flip side. It requires that any artists who have the misfortune to be admired in their own day had better make the most of it, since they will inevitably fall from favour in the fullness of time. According to the 2012 Sunday Times Rich List, whose accuracy it would be foolhardy to question, Damien Hirst (number 360, £215m) and Anish Kapoor (number 908, £80m) are doing quite nicely, thank you. So, does this mean that we should be musing on the posthumous obloquy they are bound to suffer?
The simple answer is no. The long view suggests that while some artists inevitably go up and down in the rankings, especially when it comes to the second best, there are exceptionally few genuine rediscoveries of slumbering giants. It is true that whole historical periods and regional schools can suffer blanket dismissal, but the pecking order within them tends to stay the same. These two related states of affairs are particularly strikingly apparent when it comes to the Italian Renaissance, whose recording angel was Giorgio Vasari. In his Lives of the Artists, which was first published in 1550 and then again in a vastly expanded and considerably revised second edition in 1568, there is an absolute—if to us totally alien—sense of artistic progress leading up to the supreme genius of Michelangelo, which means that the likes of Giotto in the 14th century or Donatello in the 15th century cannot hope to compete with him. Yet the hierarchy within each historical period remains entirely familiar, with Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, and Correggio at the top of the 16th-century tree. Of these, Correggio is arguably the most interesting, because he was far more admired between the later 16th century and the 19th century than he is now, and as a rule vied with Raphael for the title of the greatest painter who ever lived. It is undeniably true that he is altogether less of a household name today, but nevertheless remains an absolutely towering presence in any consideration of the Renaissance. Even Piero della Francesca, whose star has risen in the last century or so, was well regarded by the Victorians, and indeed by Vasari.
It would be a gross exaggeration in the opposite direction to claim nothing ever changes, but—when it comes to the Old Masters—the major shifts in taste are actually a consequence of the gradual abandonment of a hitherto unbending artistic hierarchy based on the concept of more and less elevated genres. The consequence is that we do not grade pictures on the basis of whether they are of religious or mythological subjects as opposed to scenes of everyday life or still-life. That is what has allowed artists such as Giacomo Ceruti and Luis Meléndez to come into their glory in recent times.
The former remains less well known internationally than he deserves to be, above all because so few of his works are in public collections outside Italy. In 1987, a spectacular monographic exhibition of his work was held in Brescia, which assembled a coincidental 87 works by him, of which a paltry half dozen were from foreign museums. Almost all of them, including a solitary Portrait of a Priest, around 1724-34, in the National Gallery in London, which was masquerading as a Piazzetta, were presumed to be by other artists when they were acquired. The dignity and poignancy of Ceruti’s representations of peasants, not to mention the startling immediacy of his still-lifes, need no special pleading today, and his qualities were acknowledged in his own time by patrons of the stature of Marshal Johann Matthias Schulenburg, but then suffered an almost total eclipse. Conversely, in the case of Meléndez, the comparative availability of paintings and their arrival in a number of important museums on both sides of the Atlantic has secured his fame beyond the confines of his native Spain.
The writer is the professor of history of art and film at the University of Leicester
To read more from the special report on past masters in our March issue, pick up a copy on newsstands or subscribe to our digital or print editions.
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