Saturday, July 10, 2010

Scientific Art Authentication

A while ago, a allegedly Leonardo da Vinci drawing surfaced. It looked beautiful and if it was indeed done by Leonardo, then it was a sensational discovery and a happiest addition to the world art gallery. Its authorship was, however, disputed. But not long, a fingerprint was discovered on the drawing which matched a fingerprint on a proven Leonardo drawing. Case settled. Or did it?

Three days ago, I opened my new New Yorker magazine and was drawn to a long article:
The Mark of a Masterpiece - The man who keeps finding famous fingerprints on uncelebrated works of art by David Grann.

The beginning of the article related how the work was proven to be a Leonardo's work and briefed readers the process it was employed. Then, I saw the reproduction of the drawing. It was an excellent reproduction, much better then the ones I saw on newspaper before and online (another argument for keeping printing). I admired the drawing greatly and savored its beauty. However, I was suddenly disturbed by something I saw - though the draftsmanship was undeniably superb, something was off. The single braid of the figure, a beautiful young woman, had a strange spatial relationship to her shoulder and neck. Instead of in the middle of the neck, it was on the same plane as her left shoulder. It looked strangely out of place. I showed it to a writer friend of mine, and he said that it looked like two works pieced together. Anyway, this put serious doubts in my mind regarding the authorship of this still beautiful drawing.

Reading on, I realized that David Grann had doubts of his own and he proceeded to tell us his doubts and told us stories how the scientific authenticator, Peter Paul Biro, was suspected of planting fingerprints on other paintings he had authenticated.

It's not conclusive but enough doubts raised.

It was a fascinating article and reads like a detective novel.

But, the main argument I want to make here is not on the authenticity of the work - that should be left to Leonardo specialists who had or will have the opportunity to examinate it closely.

Instead, I want to comment on relying on science to determine an artwork's authorship and its value.

Instead of appreciating beauty, the scientific authenticator treated the art creation as a subject and whenever the authorship is established, the value of the work, market value, not artistic value too. This process is both precise and chilly. Even silly.

Granted, artists themselves are brandings and sometimes I am guilty of judging an artwork by its authorship too. But I have been trying to judge by what I see, how it pleases me. I am not shy of criticizing certain works by my favorite artists if I don't like, and will not hesitate to praise some better efforts by some artists I don't care for in general. Artists are not machines and they cannot create consistently masterpieces. Every work would be evaluated and assessed individually. This is not to say that a grade B Leonardo shouldn't be valued higher than a grade B second or third rate modern day artist. A Leonardo is a Leonardo which carries a special weight of history.

Scientific findings can help us to determine measurable facts, but not to determine values. And then there is pseudoscience. Neither genuine nor pseudoscience is a good judge on artistic achievements.

It is hard thing to be both subjective and objective in evaluating the artistic value of an artwork but it is also necessary. Do we need a scientist tell us what to worship? I don't.

Since I used this particular drawing as the starting point of my argument, I include the image of the drawing and several videos related to the process below:

La Bella Principessa - Attributed to Leonardo da Vinci (Italian, 1452-1519)