Q: What do Caravaggio, Brett Whiteley and Led Zeppelin have in common?

13 04 2016

Yes, it’s time to clean out the attic. Never know what might be hiding up there. Like, say, a Caravaggio or two.

A leaky roof for most of us = ouchy plumbing bills. But for happy home owners in Marseilles, the leaky roof translated to good times. 100+ Euros of good times, to be precise. What looks to be a stunning, hitherto unknown, masterpiece by the Baroque Italian painter, Caravaggio, was propping up the rafters in a hidden space in their roof.

Whoo-hoo to them.

What interests me, though, is that experts are split on whether or not it’s a signature piece by the Italian master. Here’s the thing – Flemish artist Louis Finson lived in Naples at the same time as Caravaggio, where he became one of the first ‘Caravaggisti’. The ‘Caravaggisti’ followed Caravaggio’s style. Closely. As in, very closely. As in, to learn his technique, they copied his paintings. Down to the exact brushstrokes.

One thing I have not seen referred to in all the news reports is this: a painting by Louis Finson from the Collezione Intesa Sanpaolo… Judith Beheading Holofernes The painting was featured in an 2013 exhibition in Naples entitled, ‘Judith beheading Holofernes: Louis Finson’s interpretation of Caravaggio.’

I recalled the Finson painting and its similarity with the newly revealed Caravaggio as soon as I started browsing the papers this morning. ‘Similarity’ is an understatement. As for the Naples exhibition title: ‘Finson’s interpretation of Caravaggio’? Well, I think to describe it as an ‘interpretation’ is fairly generous. Play ‘spot the difference’ with the two. It’s fun!

No doubt if I made the connection over my morning Weetbix, it has already been discussed ad infinitum in Baroque academic circles. But what fascinates me is that the connection hasn’t been spoken of in general commentary, other than the fact that there are eminent experts who believe the newly revealed painting is not by Caravaggio, but is another example of a copy painted by Finson.

It does seem odd that it has not been mentioned – given that the acknowledged Finson has been touted as a copy of an original Caravaggio that was lost and now, presumably, has been found. I would have thought the existence of the Finson copy would reinforce the authenticity of the Caravaggio. But I’ll leave those arguments up to the Baroque experts. Not my field by a long shot.

The only reason I can think of that the Finson copy hasn’t been mentioned in general discussions of the new find is that it is thought that it would muddy the waters. You see, this is heading into a very grey and murky place. Elsewhere I’ve played with the idea of fakes vs forgeries. And at the moment, right in our backyard, we have a brouhaha of our very own going on, featuring Peter Gant and conservator Aman Siddique and a very unfortunate series of paintings attributed to Australian painter Brett Whiteley.

I won’t go into the details here. But Defense barrister, Trevor Wraight QC, rightly observed in court that it is not illegal to copy a work of art. And he would be correct. In fact, it is also fair to state that there is a long and very well-established tradition of artists copying other artists’ work, not necessarily as a means of deceiving purchasers. See: Louis Finson above. It only gets messy/illegal/wrong when people who know that a work of art is one thing attempt to sell it as something else and gain a financial benefit through that sale. Knowingly selling something that is misattributed to make a profit is very, very naughty. But what if you do so unwittingly?

It looks like we’ll need to rely on the consensus of experts to determine whether or not the newly discovered painting is, or is not, by Caravaggio. When it comes down to it, expertise and connoisseurship are not science; they are opinion-based. S0 you can be guaranteed it will be a majority ruling, not complete consensus.

As I say, it’s all very, very murky.

But in a world that is still fixated on concepts of ‘originality’ and ‘authenticity’, huge sums of money are placed at risk when a work of art’s authenticity is challenged. This is true even when such concepts are, for many contemporary artists, archaic, arcane and redundant to their practice.

But the stakes are very high. Just ask Robert Plant and Jimmy Page.

PS: Completely irrelevant aside here, but when did Jimmy Page start channeling Karl Lagerfeld?