On Art And Connoisseurship

On my previous antiquing trip to Brandywine Valley, I picked up the book “On Art And Connoisseurship” by Max J. Friedländer, a paperback version published in 1960. It is one of the most enjoyable books that I have read on the subject.

Is Connoisseurship a natural talent which cannot be taught? Is it true that you either have aesthetic eyes or you don’t? Friedländer did not deny a layman’s potential to gain connoisseurship although he gave no clue how to hone up the astute eyes; but he started with fundamental blocks: philosophical habits that apply to arts regardless of styles or age. If one’s capability to comprehend arts is limited to his own time, education and aesthetic tastes and perhaps his keenness, there also exists a universal sets of principles that bring objectivity and logic to the perception and analysis of art. The book, written by one of the most distinguished scholar in Northern European painting, reads still resonating in the age when iPhone is used by artists for art making.

The set of principles or fundamental blocks in observing and appreciating art do not exclude or disparage any media or style. The means of communicating and expressing by artists have remained essentially the same through centuries even though artworks look dramatically different today from that of Jan Van Eyck. We perceive what artists have seen, as far as we are able to do so, yet the boundary between appearance and imagination blurs as the objective interests in things waned in art. Form, colors, tonality and light have remained the main faculty that artists – from Titian to Murakami – can maneuver to create visions different from common sights . Here I was struck by his unassuming yet witty opinion on naturalism: “Two forces produce dynamic tension in the work of the formative arts: consciously, a never satisfied impulse to get to close grips with nature; and , subconsciously, a fear to come too close to her. Yet a conscious endeavor to purity, elevate and beautify nature leads to ‘mannerism’.” This resonates what Wolf Kahn once dictated– that  as soon as an artist has mastered a style, he should give it up. Any further attempts to perfect perfection is bordering mannerism.

If the first part is intended for laymen, the author directed his intellectual power to pragmatic problems such as authorship, forgeries, and restorations, thus addressing issues familiar within the professional fields. Throughout his analytical and precise writing, he proposed a rational approach of art appreciation and connoisseurship and even more logical methodology in art critics, authorship and preservation. Although the text occasionally becomes terse or obscure due to the difficulty in translating his writing into English, he enhanced his stance with references of different art and artists. In doing so, he did not intend to provide a guiding interpretation of artistic values, which in his own words may “degenerate into empty word-play”; instead these examples make a strong and coherent illustration of his points.

I have been struck by some of his statements (which may sound opinionated to some), and keep reading them back and forth to call for my own inner intuition. They lead to me to rethink my own perception of things and habits of appreciating arts. I would like to quote a few here to end this article.

– The individual is more picturesque than the typical:  the human spirit, with its fondness for order, seeks refuge with rules and regulations.

– Two forces produce dynamic tensions in the work of the formative artist: consciously, a never satisfied impulse to get to close grips with nature; and , subconsciously, a fear to come too close to her. When that fear penetrates from subconsciousness into consciousness, an unfortunate situation arises.

– Masters who keenly observed that which is individual, but were unable to free themselves from that which is conceptually typical, pushed forward to caricature, to the ideal of that which is mis-shapen.

– The stronger the illusion of reality conveyed by a picture, the more insistently does the latter demand a frame … a frame which, in color as well as plastically, will stand out against the picture surface in clear contrast.

– on “Historical accuracy”: But entirely apart from the fact that accuracy of portraiture and costume is not to be achieved, it is not even desirable: for it lessens the sense of sublimeness through which alone the rendering of historically important happenings is justified.

– Nudity is timeless, because every cloaking of it assigns to the figure its place to time; nudity is primary and perfect. God made the body, man the garment.


About Hui

Wang Hui lived from 1632 – 1717 and followed in the footprints of his great grandfathers, grandfather, father and uncles and learned painting at a very early age. He was later taught by two contemporary masters, Zhang Ke and Wang Shimin, who taught him to work in the tradition of copying famous Chinese paintings. This is most likely the reason why critics claim that his work is conservative and reflects the Yuan and Song traditions. One critic claimed that “his landscape paintings reflect his nostalgic attachment to classical Chinese aesthetics. Along with the other Wangs, Wang Hui helped to perpetuate the tradition of copying the ancient masters rather than creating original work.


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