Friday, July 9, 2010

Senegalese slave trader: Should he stay or should he go?

The portrait, left, of the 18th century Senegalese Muslim aristocrat, Ayuba Suleiman Diallo (1701–1773), by the British painter William Hoare, was recently sold at auction in the UK. Its export has been stopped while the National Portrait Gallery tries to raise the necessary £550,000 to keep it in the UK. The Heritage Lottery Fund and the Art Fund have already provided grants, but £100,000 is still needed if it is not to leave the country.

Should it stay?

Diallo, also known as Job ben Solomon, was from a family of aristocratic Muslim clerics who traded on the west coast of Africa in the early 18th century (that's a Qur'an around his neck). He was also a slave trader. In 1730, while conducting family business, he was himself mistaken for a slave and shipped to America, where he was bought by a Maryland plantation owner and set to work in the tobacco fields. After his escape and subsequent recapture and imprisonment, he was finally recognised by a British lawyer who sponsored his passage to England where he was welcomed by aristocratic British society.

This immediately brings to mind the case of Omai, the Tahitian who also fascinated British society after being brought to England by Captain Cook in 1774 and whose portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds (right) was sold at Sotheby's in November 2001 for £10.3 million.

While unquestionably a compelling image, Hoare's half-length portrait of Diallo has none of the dramatic swagger of Reynolds's full-length portrait of Omai, which has the Tahitian swathed in billowing drapery and wearing a turban, strolling through an extensive English landscape like a tattooed Roman orator. It's not a fair comparison, but while the Reynolds image combined great painterly qualities, art historical importance and an intriguing subject, the image of Diallo is altogether more problematic.

Recent discussions of the painting have focused on Diallo's victim status as a slave, despite the fact that he was himself, first and foremost, a slave trader. Indeed on his return to Africa, Diallo resumed his privileged lifestyle, which included keeping his own domestic slaves.

His obvious 'Otherness' notwithstanding, Diallo was embraced by British aristocrats who identified with his aristocratic bearing and sophistication. Should the National Portrait Gallery be seeking to raise public money for an image of a slave trader whose passage into polite society was secured first and foremost by his privileged background?

One would have to conclude that it is.

Diallo's predicament, if one can call it that — his misfortune at being mistaken for a slave — has a particular resonance in this increasingly globalised world where the currents of late capitalism are rendering growing numbers of people immiserated and powerless.

We in 'the West' are all, in our way, beneficiaries of the many contemporary versions of slavery taking place in developing nations where bonded labour, child labour, and forced labour are used to produce the commodities we take for granted. To say nothing of sex-trafficking, which is arguably one of the worst blights on humanity and to which we all but turn a blind eye.

For these reasons alone, the portrait of Diallo is more thought-provoking than one may at first realise and for that reason ought to be saved for the nation. In 1772, a year before Diallo died (presumably peacefully in his comfortable West African home), a black slave composed a poem which was published in the New London Gazette. Even today, it stands as an eloquent reminder of how conveniently compromised are our attitudes to slavery and other forms of oppression:

Is not all oppression vile?
When you attempt your freedom to defend,
Is reason yours, and partially your friend?
Be not deceiv'd — for reason pleads for all
Who by invasion and oppression fall.
I live a slave, and am inslav'd by those
Who yet pretend with reason to oppose
All schemes oppressive, and the gods invoke
to Curse with thunders the invaders yoke.
O mighty God! let conscience seize the mind
Of inconsistent men, who wish to find
A partial god to vindicate their cause,
And plead their freedom, while they break its laws.

(Quoted in Albert Boime, The Art of Exclusion: Representing Blacks in the Nineteenth Century, Thames & Hudson, 1990, pp29-30)

Anti-slavery website

National Portrait Gallery Appeal

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

La Bella Principessa’s cheerleaders have been in touch

I’ve just been sent one of those rude comments that bloggers like me tend to attract from time to time. As usual, it comes from someone called ‘Anonymous’, which indicates that whoever has an axe to grind, they’d prefer not to be identified as the one grinding it.

This most recent communication concerns my comments (here) about the so-called ‘La Bella Principessa’ – an unprovenanced drawing on vellum (above) which some people, including the renowned Leonardo scholar Martin Kemp, are convinced is an autograph work by Leonardo.

I happen to disagree with him, not on forensic grounds, but because, like Carmen Bambach, curator of drawings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, I just don’t think it looks like a Leonardo. That’s not an art historical opinion. It’s just an instinctive response.

But it doesn’t matter what I think. I’m not writing in The New Yorker as David Grann just has in a piece of investigative journalism about a shady Hungarian-born Canadian art restorer that seems to cast the whole La Bella Principessa affair as yet another typical art world scam (The Mark of a Masterpiece: The Man who keeps finding famous fingerprints on uncelebrated works of art – New Yorker, 12 July, 2010).

I don’t normally publish rude anonymous blog comments, but I make an exception in this case as the correspondent seems strangely emotionally invested in the whole rum affair, which is itself revealing:

Dear Mr. Flynn, I really think that your comments are so stupid, and that is better (sic) if you go back to school to study art starting from the contemporary might understand something I hope...
Speaking on the Bella Principessa you are not a specialist on Leonardo, and you are not a in title (sic) to judge if the piece is good or not....did you seen it? (sic) Did you kept it in your hands?? (sic) Did you had a look (sic) at the carbon test results and all other analisis?? (sic) Or you are just saying stupid things for attract attention of people on your blog....why you don't proof (sic) that is NOT by Leonardo...come on, tell me something more of what you know...proof that is not a Leonardo and let's talk later....

Well, it’s true, I am not a Leonardo specialist, but the available evidence would suggest that such expertise is not quite as reliable as many assume. It’s also true that I did not kept it in my hands, but David Grann’s New Yorker piece offers more than a suggestion that one or two of those who have kept it in their hands might not be as disinterested as they pretend. Granted, I did not had a look at the carbon test results, or any other analysis for that matter. But again, given the circumstances in which these seem to have been carried out, what value do they have? Very little, it seems. Moreover, once art goes down the road of fingerprint-dusting, DNA analysis, and multi-spectral imaging cameras as the most reliable means of establishing authorship, we’re doomed. It’s not as if these are being marshalled in the cause of art history. Rather it’s the whiff of money at the end of the rainbow.

I cannot prove that La Bella Principessa is not by Leonardo and nor do I have any incentive to do so…unlike those seeking to prove that it is. But I stand by my earlier comments. This is not an autograph work by Leonardo.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

National Gallery in Dublin affirms authenticity of its Caravaggio

The National Gallery in Dublin has reaffirmed that its version of Caravaggio's The Taking of Christ is the original, documented work of 1602 and that the version stolen from a museum in Odessa in 2008 and recently recovered by police in Berlin is one of several copies of the Dublin work.

Update, 5 July 2010:
And now it seems German prosecutors have conceded that the painting they recovered is not the original autograph work by Caravaggio, but a copy of significantly less value (which is not the same as a fake or forgery). It will be interesting to hear how this news is received by the Museum in Odessa, from which the painting was stolen.

More Artknows posts on this:
Caravaggio copy snatched from Odessa (5 August 2008)

Now you see it, now you don't: 'Caravaggio copy may still be missing (9 December 2008)

Organised crime? Odessa Caravaggio copy recovered in Berlin (29 June 2010)