CFP: The Expert’s Eye – Method, Limitations, and the Practice of Art History (Museo Arqueológico Nacional, Madrid, 24-25 Oct 2024)

The work of the art historian revolves around the art object, and the need to tailor one’s methodology to that object gives the discipline its variety and richness. Yet paradoxically, to stress that art works are the centre of art history feels almost transgressive at a time when basic questions of identification and dating are increasingly deemphasized in training new generations of scholars and curators. Perhaps as a result, recent years have seen a proliferation of news about masterpieces that have gone unnoticed until some expert (typically from the art market rather than the university or the museum) has recognized the hand of a leading artist. Among Old Master paintings, it is common knowledge that Caravaggio final canvas, an Ecce Homo, almost left Spain after having been confused with a lesser work. The numerous Rembrandts that have emerged in recent years, as well as the complex case of Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi or the dubious Goyas that regularly appear, seem to confirm a decline in traditional expertise.

The new Art History, by contrast, has shown itself perfectly capable of conducting research without having to study or even look at the art object. Without discrediting the results, which are sometimes more characteristic of departments of History or Anthropology, the ease with which art-historical fact is blurred can be surprising. Over the last fifty years, the notable decrease in studies that examine the most fundamental problems of dating and authorship has raised questions about the usefulness of prevailing methodologies, leading to extreme cases in which a trained or expert eye is considered unnecessary, or at least insufficient, to deal with objects lacking documentary or other external proof of origin, creator, or date. By contrast, having an educated eye implies knowing the difference between a Roman bust from the first century AD and a modern copy, between discovering the hand of Leonardo and detecting an excellent falsification. Not all reattributed works will be first rate, but by returning anonymous or misidentified objects held in the depths of the world’s museums and collections to their rightful place, the astute art historian helps reconstruct the story of their creators.

In light of these trends, this conference aims to interrogate and challenge the abandonment of visual, material, and historical expertise among art historians.

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