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histoires d'œils

13 june 2022

Histoires d'œils, stories of eyes, but œils isn't the plural of œil; that would be yeux. Philippe Costamagna starts by explaining his title. His "eyes" are not the physical eyes in your head, but people who have the "eye" needed to assess, place, and attribute a work of art. Costamagna is himself an "eye," and his book is partly a personal essay. It is also a history of the development and characteristics of "eyes" since the early days of art history – which, he notes, aren't that long ago.

"Nombre des œils les plus remarquables ne sont pas issus d'un milieu social privilégié" (ch. 2, loc. 186), says Costamagna: several of the most notable "eyes" did not come from privileged backgrounds. Costamagna himself did, and he is not shy about describing it. His family included prominent physicians; he grew up alongside the art they collected; his great-grandfather counted Renoir as a patient, and owned paintings by the master. Costamagna reviews his own education, which he presents as a series of marvelous opportunities that matched his own passions and talents.

He then moves to a history of art history. The field did not exist at all till the biographies curated by Giorgio Vasari in the 16th century, and was barely acknowledged by more general Enlightenment thinkers as late as the 18th. But with Romanticism everything changed. To describe one's transport in the face of the sublime, à la Stendhal and his famous "syndrome," became a major genre of historical writing, perfected and professionalized by John Ruskin.

Following Ruskin, Giovanni Morelli (1816-91) pioneered the scholarly discipline of art attribution. Morelli dismantled paintings (in his imagination) into constituent elements, particularly those of the human form. How did this artist paint hair, how did that one paint fingers? Costamagna says that it is now fashionable to deride Morelli's approach, part mechanical and part intuitionist. But Costamagna's own great discovery, in 2005 – a long-ignored Crucifixion by Bronzino – was made, he admits, along Morelli lines: he and his colleague Carlo Falciani suddenly realized that this Christ's toenails could not have been painted by anyone but Bronzino.

Costamagna surveys the subsequent development of the subspeciality of connoisseurship, through the careers of three great œils: Bernard Berenson (1865-1959), Roberto Longhi (1890-1970), and Federico Zeri (1921-98). Connoisseurship reached its height in these three men, Costamagna argues, and he is one of its epigones: still capable of discoveries but increasingly one of the last old-school practitioners at this juncture of knowledge and flair.

The body of Histoires d'œils tells anecdotes of such discoveries, some by Costamagna and some by other notables. Some are right out of Maupassant: the Strasbourg cab-driver who discovers he is the natural son of a rich art collector, entitled to split their father's collection with his two "legitimate" sisters, who naturally grab all the good stuff. Among the items left him, the son asks the local museum curator about an ugly old picture of an angel, which the local guy refers to his contacts at the Louvre – and which turns out to be apprentice-work by the young Raphael. Costamagna was not involved in that discovery, but he tells it with brio.

Histoires d'œils also contains a great deal of thought-provoking reflection about creativity, erudition, affect, epistemology, talent vs. training, and what kind of a way is art history to be spending your life.

There are far more themes in Histoires d'œils than I can even list in a review that is already getting long. But two stood out for me, a convergence of Costamanga's fascinating insights and, I guess, my own amateurish predilections. One is Costamanga's survey of how connoisseurship and "eye" function in different genres and art forms.

Costamagna's own specialty is attributing Italian Renaissance paintings to their painters. Painting is, or has become, the archetypal art, and attribution of paintings seems a model for other fields. But in reality, painting is just one form among many, its centrality somewhat accidental. Painters themselves may not have much of a "eye" at all. "Sa tâche relève simplement du génie créateur" (ch. 11, loc. 3018): their endeavor depends solely on their productive genius.

But photographers are the other way around. To recognize a composition in real life, to frame and capture it, to select, from multiple versions of the "same" image, the best one for reproduction – technique is far less central to photography than is the quality of "eye" that the photographer shares with the attributionist.

Along the same lines, Costamagna suggests, film directors, video artists, and graphic designers must possess more of an "eye" in proportion to their other creative abilities than a painter does. He makes these suggestions in just a couple of pages. For all I know, many a graphic artist might rebut them. But posing the "eye" as a distinct talent – one which, in attribution, is pared down and isolated – Costamagna poses a debatable argument about creativity and aesthetics, and a fascinating one.

I was also struck by Costamagna's sense of the implications of his calling for how one views art and creators in general. Much of his book is about the knack of associating an artwork with a single name: "On est devant l'œuvre. Paf, on a la révélation du nom de son auteur" (ch. 11, loc. 3074). You're in front of an artwork. Bang, the name of its creator suddenly comes to you. That sounds like a magic trick; Costamagna admits that at times, it's also like a game. But it seems like a very basic, eternal connection.

Historically, of course, not so. The evolution of Western art has been toward identification of creation with individual, unmistakable genius; away from a sense that the work itself was more vital than its maker.

Après la guerre de 14, il n'y a plus d'école, tout au mieux des tendances; le talent est plus singulier, plus imprévisible. (ch. 11, loc. 2985)

After the first world war, there are no more schools of art. At best there are trends. A talent is more unique, more unpredictable.
And well before the first world war, early modernity and later Romanticism had forged the sense of individual genius that would have been alien even to high-medieval painters like Giotto, whom we now think of as well within the individual-genius tradition. In a sense, we have read back the modernist emphasis on unique styles into the work of earlier and earlier masters, till we reach a horizon where they're all anonymous and there's no point. But the works of those early masters were often collaborative, corporate, or simply unidentified, because so much less was invested in individual artistic identity.

Fixing a name to a Renaissance artwork, Romantic an undertaking though it may be, is both intellectually pyrotechnic and financially lucrative. (So lucrative that Costamagna stresses the importance for the true œil of both being and seeming strictly disinterested.) Fixing a big name to an artwork can be stratospherically lucrative. A few years ago, somebody paid $450,000,000 for Salvator Mundi, a painting attributed to Leonardo, but of such faint intrinsic interest that you might roll your eyes if you saw it hanging in an antique-mall booth. To use Cynthia Hahn's term, the reliquary effect of the association between an object and a specific named creator is so powerful that it becomes an aesthetic in its own right.

Costamagna speaks most highly of a collector named Aso Tavitian, whose New York apartment is filled with paintings by museum-worthy masters (Rubens, Van Dyck, Watteau, etc.) "Aso," says Costamagna, "est le seul collectionneur de peinture que je connaisse à pouvoir acheter des tableaux anonymes parce qu'ils l'intriguent" (ch. 8, loc. 2363): Aso is the only collector of paintings that I know who will buy anonymous pictures because they intrigue him. One of the high points of this book comes when Tavitian shows Costamagna an extremely striking Head of a Young Woman. Braced for a quiz, Costamagna admits "Je ne trouve pas l'époque et encore moins le lieu": I don't even have a sense of the period, let alone where it was painted.

Personne ne sait qui l'a peint, m'a-t-il dit. Pour moi, c'est le numéro 295.

Nobody knows who painted it, he said. For me, it's number 295.

Costamagna, Philippe. Histoires d'œils. Paris: Grasset, 2016. Kindle Edition