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October 11, 2003

Goltzius and Authorship

Friedrich --

Your posting here about authorship and the Bible got me thinking about authorship and other kinds of works too.

As you know, there's little that peeves me as much as the determined hero-worshipping that seems so strong a part of the modernist/romantic ethos -- all that titanic-genius, lone-creator crap.

(Responsible-adult break: of course there's a range here, with some artists working more on their own and some less. Nod, nod. Genuflect, genuflect. Now back to our previously-scheduled rant.)

A little reality, please. We all depend on inherited forms and techniques, as well as on the work of others; we all need a culture within which to operate; we all count on and learn from friends, family, spouses, teachers, audiences, partners, associates, etc. Nobody comes up with everything.

Still, lots of people cling to the idea of the loner-hero artist. I find this bizarre, although I suppose I should find it interesting instead; romantic and modernist ideas seem have a kind of cobra-like, hypnotic power. Even so, you'd think that by now people would be comfortable with the idea that not all artworks are the product of a single individual. An extreme example: the temples at Angkor Wat, built by thousands of hands over many centuries.

Here's a more familiar example: the movies. There they are, the products of cultures, companies, teams and individuals -- yet still many people want to assign them to one name. In fact, one of the reasons it took the self-serious set so long to accept movies as an artform was because of the question, Well, if they're art, who's the artist?

But it's this kind of messiness that often gives artforms like the movies their strength. To pick a classy example: "The Letter." To an acting fan, it's one of Bette Davis' strongest vehicles. To a literature fan, it's a solid adaptation of Somerset Maugham. To an auteurist film buff, it's one of the director William Wyler's best movies. Down-and-dirty, nuts-and-bolts types might want to remind us that without the producers, Hal Wallis and Jack Warner, "The Letter" never woulda happened. And surely there are a few people for whom the movie is really a Max Steiner thing, or a Herbert Marshall picture ...

Who's the real creator of "The Letter"? It's a hard question to answer if we're allowed to volunteer only one name -- yet there the movie is. It got made, it exists, and it's there to be experienced and enjoyed. Why argue with that? I once asked a film critic, "So why do we film nuts call 'The Letter' a William Wyler film?" She gave a shrug and said, "It's a convenience."

Look further into the facts than your college art-history course took you, and you discover that these kinds of complications crop up regularly, even in the domain of what's thought of as the more solitary arts -- the painting-type visual arts, say.

The Wife and I recently spent a happy hour at the Metropolitan Museum going through a show of prints, drawings and paintings by a Dutch artist from circa 1600, Hendrick Goltzius. Fab stuff -- mannerist yet clear-headed, and with tons of bite. Goltzius' work is like Durer's but inhabits its own hallucinatory corner of the room, where it hangs out with other freakishly wonderful creatures such as botanical illustrations. It's a strange and virtuosic body of work even in a material sense: Oil paintings on copper! Little silverpoint portraits! Chalk-and-watercolor nature studies! Ink drawings deliberately made to look like prints! A hyper-detailed drawing seven feet by five feet large! It's writhe-y and lumpy in that northern-Euro way, but it's full of gusto, and (especially in the oil paintings) crystalline and sexy too ...

An amazing body of work -- and from an artist I knew nothing about. Don't let this get around, but I don't think I'd even heard of Goltzius prior to this show despite my perfectly-OK art-history background.

I learned that Goltzius was the son of a glass painter; that he showed early artistic talent; and that he became an engraver's apprentice. Eventually he set up on his own and became celebrated as the foremost Dutch artist. After his death, his reputation waned as the painters of Holland's Golden Age moved to the front of the stage; he's been rediscovered only in the last 50 years.

During much of his career, he was translating other people's designs and drawings into prints -- that was his business. He essentially learned how to be an artist that way; so much for the argument that copying kills creativity. He got hooked on the Mannerist style and became known for achieving 3-D, painting-like effects with his prints. As the boss of a print house, he became successful, and as his prints circulated they helped spread the Mannerist style over all of Europe.

In his early 30s, exhausted from running the business (which must have resembled an ad agency or a video-production house), Goltzius took a break to travel to Italy. It wasn't until he was in his 40s that he turned for the first time to oil painting. The Met had a room of his work in oil -- big things, and more relaxed than you'd anticipate. They're precise yet luxurious, and with such smooth-and-creamy surfaces they might have been printed out on God's very own Epson inkjet.

But back to this posting's topic: authorship. Who really made these works? To what extent can they be said to be "by Goltzius"? The answer isn't always obvious.

Some examples.

Here's an oil painting Goltzius did, a Danae from 1603. The Greeks deserve credit for the subject matter, and according to the show's curator Goltzius' composition came via Venuses by Titian and Veronese.

Here's one of Goltzius' most famous images: The Wedding of Cupid and Psyche, from 1587. Heckuva composition. But Goltzius didn't come up with it. In fact, Goltzius' contribution consisted of engraving the image from a drawing by the Flemish artist Bartholomeus Spranger.

Here's Phaeton, from a series called The Four Disgracers, made in 1588. Another amazing image. But "Phaeton," like the other images in the series, was a collaboration between Goltzius and the painter Cornelisz van Haarlem, and was made from Cornelisz's design -- Cornelisz himself was working variations on previous treatments of the subject matter. Where does the subject matter come from in the first place? Neither Goltzius nor Cornelisz came up with that. And the hands of how many of Goltzius' employees were involved in physically producing the engravings?

What a magnificent Farnese Hercules, eh? While on his trip through Italy, it occurred to the entrepreneurial Goltzius to create a series of engravings of famous statues -- he had commercial plans for this. Should he work from drawings others had already used? That was the standard thing to do. But, nah: No same-ol', same-ol' for Goltzius. He wanted fresh drawings to make his prints from. So he hired a local artist to help him complete this stack of drawings. The upshot? Prints (produced by Goltzius and his assistants) of statues other artists had made, based on drawings he collaborated on with another artist.

Still, we say -- and the Met Museum feels entitled to say -- that all the above images are "by Goltzius."

And, sure, why not -- at least as long as we realize that we're availing ourselves of a convenience. The Renaissance artist was doing anything but creating out of himself. He was working from a catalog of standard poses and postures, as well as a catalog of subject matter (mythology, the Bible). He also was selecting from a standard set of genres -- still life, history painting, portraits, mythology, etc. (A not-terrible movie that shows a bit of what the Renaissance-painting biz was like is "Artemesia.")

The last thing a Renaissance artist was doing was making it all up. (Coming up with it all is probably the last thing anyone wanted or expected an artist to do.) Instead, artists did what most artists through most of history and in most cultures have done, which is to accept what the culture had generated and was passing along, to master it to the best of their abilities, to add their own two cents to the mixture, and to then pass it along too.

Goltzius, who was evidently a born collaborator, is certainly a remarkable case for a painter-type artist. (And -- boring, reasonable-person break here -- I'm not about to deny artists the credit they deserve.) Yet his case helps make the point that the idea many of us have of artists working alone, wrestling with the muse, hoping against hope that the critics, profs and patrons will appreciate their work before they die ... Well, in many cases, it's pretty silly. Pretty darned silly. And perhaps in most cases.

Goltzius: Businessman, copier, employer, entrepreneur, engraver, draftsman, painter, collaborator. And quite possibly a great artist, though I leave such judgments for others to haggle over. But just try to separate out the "great artist" from the other roles he played. Just try, in fact, to discern his exact role in the creation of the images above.

The exhibition has closed at the Met, but re-opens at the Toledo Museum of Art in Toledo, Ohio, where it runs from October 18, 2003 through January 4, 2004.

The Met's webpage for the show (where I found the images in this posting) is here.

What's your hunch about why so many art fans are devoted to viewing their favorite artists more as gods than as people? Is it just that people need (and will have) their gods, their heroes, and their stars? I suppose I should be more benignly amused by this than I am ...



posted by Michael at October 11, 2003


Michael, you are certainly correct about artists' dependence upon tradition and the silliness of the cult of the autuer. But there seem to be exceptional objects, made the more remarkable by the truth of your general comment. One is in the Met: Carpaccio's Meditation on the Passion. Do you know it? After looking at a few hundrred madonne, this picture leaps out; it's one of my favorites. How does such a thing occur?

Posted by: Thomas Drew on October 11, 2003 08:28 PM

Obviously there is a human cognitive tendency to attribute the credit for collective efforts to the single guy or gal at the top of the pyramid. Reading your posting, two similar examples come to mind, Rubens and Napoleon.

Rubens, a rough contemporary of Goltzius, is another guy who seems to lack easy and fixed boundaries. He was an inveterate copier all through his life of other people's drawings, paintings and sculpture. He collected other people's drawings to use as the starting points of compositions of his own. (He even reworked other people's drawings so that he liked the results better, a practice that one outraged art historian has termed vandalism...try to parse that one.) After soaking up Renaissance and Mannerist imagery in Italy like a sponge, he returned to Antwerp and immediately gathered an army of assistants to start cranking out superhuman volumes of painting. (Rubens' studio is responsible for about 10 times as much square feet of painting as the next largest studios, those of Raphael and Tinteretto.) He kept a series of engravers around to make reproductive prints of his major paintings, had assistants copy his paintings at the appropriate scale, then he would go over them in oil to give them the proper brio, in the process often creating essentially new compositions. In other words, Rubens was as much a social organism as a single brilliant genius (although, of course, he was that, too, as shown by some of his drawings from nature that have virtually no antecedents.)

Napoleon is often credited as a revolutionary of war, although he benefitted from new concepts put forward in theoretical writings by French military men throughout the 18th century. He also inherited an innovative military machine that came out of the ad hoc experiments of the Jacobin revolutionaries. Now, he utilized what he inherited brilliantly (although with more predictability than some of his more easily impressed contemporaries realized, which eventually bit him in the rear end when his enemies "caught up" with the ideas Napoleon had inherited.) But the idea that Napoleon "won" his battles solely by the application of his (admittedly formidable) brain is silly.

The point I'm getting around to, I guess, is that such social organisms as Rubens' studio and Napoleon's army are quite common in our world, and most of them are fairly inert. Fairly or otherwise, our innate human 'folk psychology' attributes the difference to the guy at the top.

P.S. What do you mean you never heard of Goltzius? Don't you remember I ran his print of the back of the Farnese Hercules as a Pic of the Day back in January?

P.P.S. While you're making a good point about Goltzius' collaborative bent, he is responsible, single-handedly, for some terrific portrait drawings and compositions he developed himself. I mention this in case people have the foolish notion that he couldn't draw or something--he was a virtuouso draftsman, in fact.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on October 11, 2003 08:34 PM

Thomas -- To my shame I don't remember spending much time with the Carpaccio. Thanks for calling my attention to it - I'm enjoying checking it out on the web, and will be sure to check it out at the Met next time I'm there.

FvB -- Fab stories about Rubens and Napoleon, thanks. What a titan Rubens was. Good lord, some people really do have volcano-like energy. I was listening to some Louis Armstrong from the late 1930s today and was feeling similarly amazed -- where's it come from? And, oh, that Farnese Hercules. Aha. Middle-aged Alzheimer's hits again. Now, where'd I put my keys? ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 12, 2003 12:13 AM

FYI, y'all: FvB's posting about Goltzius (much pitheir than mine) is here. Check it out.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 12, 2003 12:15 AM

What's your hunch about why so many art fans are devoted to viewing their favorite artists more as gods than as people?

Possibly because since the late-18th century, so many artists have tried to portray themselves more as gods than as people: Beethoven, Goethe, Byron, most of the British Romantics, Goya, and so forth.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on October 12, 2003 09:17 AM

Considering that making art was a huge industry in the 16th and 17th century low countries, I reckon most painters had helpers and re-used familiair designs and themes all the time. Only a tiny fraction of what was made has survived until today.

The Goltzius' Hercules is used in most Dutch schoolbooks on art history, to illustrate either the revival of classic themes in art orthe various techniques used for reproduction.

I've seen many of his graphical works in the Rijksmuseum Prentenkabinet, but still didn't know he had painted as well.

Posted by: ijsbrand on October 12, 2003 10:08 AM

As regards copying killing creativity, learning from examples, etc., it's not just the visual arts that used to be more comfortable with that.

For a long time, witing composition was taught by actually having students copy out, word for word, acknowledged masterpeices of style.

I'd imagine the benefit of that is greater when you are writing with paper and pencil, which forces you to slow down enough to think about wording.

Posted by: alexis on October 12, 2003 11:01 AM

Poetry is often cited as the exception to the rule of collaboration. Not exactly. The Elizabethans used to try to improve on each other's poems constantly, with excellent results. One of Ben Jonson's most famous lyrics, "Drink to me only with thine eyes," is a translation, reputedly pretty close, from a Greek poem by Philostratus. There are 20th century instances of this kind of thing; The Waste Land ought to be at least half-credited to Ezra Pound. And poets who had no collaborators or editors, like Emily Dickinson, suffered for their lack.

Posted by: Aaron Haspel on October 12, 2003 02:15 PM

Terrific post, and I'm glad alexis and Aaron specifically commented on the literary arts in this context.

Many of the poets I know, especially but not exclusively formalists, have memorized thousands of lines by other people. (I'm just a piker—I have maybe a hundred poems by heart.) There used to be many poems explicitly written "in the style of so-and-so," and I still hear it said that you don't really know a poet's work until you can write a recognizable parody.

Aaron, you're too hard on the English Romantics. With the possible exception of Shelley (or Coleridge writing about Wordsworth), they didn't take that solitary genius stuff seriously.They were immensely social, and talked about technique more than they did about inspiration. Byron, in particular, wrote a good deal of verse making fun of the very idea. It was the hangers-on, people like Landor, who spread it thick.

BTW, concerning copying, Auden wrote that he didn't really know whether he liked a poem by someone else until he'd copied it out longhand, but coudn't judge his own until it was typed.

Posted by: Michael Snider on October 12, 2003 04:38 PM

Aargh. Walter Savage Landor was not, of course, a "hanger-on." I meant Leigh Hunt.

Posted by: Michael Snider on October 12, 2003 05:53 PM

The sharpest thing Art school can do is rid you of lone artist notions. Copying poses from other books? Sure! Tag-teaming on drawings? why not. Collabrative sessions? Fine. Paying a friend to do all the busy patternwork in your art cause you don't have the time? Just peachy


Posted by: JLeavitt5 on October 12, 2003 06:08 PM

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