Art Disputes: Conflict and competition across the ages

Edward Payne, Aarhus University
Bernadette Petti, The Bowes Museum

Disputes on all levels – public and private, professional and personal – structure the history of art, practically, intellectually and critically. Horace’s celebrated pairing of painting with poetry was preceded by Simonides’ declaration that painting is mute poetry, while poetry is spoken painting. The battle between the sister arts exploded in the Renaissance and early modern periods, extending beyond the duality of words and images, rhetoric and the visual arts, to encompass other forms of paragone. Painting and poetry, painting and sculpture, sight and touch, colour and line, ancients and moderns, idealism and naturalism, realism and Romanticism: all provoked heated debate.

But art disputes involve more than the crafted objects and theoretical issues of the past. They also concern people, their lives and livelihoods, reputations and professions. Disagreements mark and define the art world today. Arguments over interpretations and attributions, valuations and questions of ownership, continue to prompt conversation and controversy. This session will examine selected histories and case studies of disputes across the art world, with topics ranging from clay and funerary sculpture, to landscape painting, photography and art criticism.


Triumph of the Underdog: From Bernini’s clay modelli to the paragone of materials
Fiona Sit (University of Leeds)

The disposition for drawing polemical comparisonspainting and sculpture, disegno and colore, theory and practicemarks the intense rivalry among artists in the 16th century. The idea of the paragone is entrenched in the social mentality that it ramifies beyond the comparison of the sister arts to the sculptural field, distinguishing between ‘noble’ and ‘base’ materials. Clay, therefore, was often demoted to the mere use of preliminary models, and terracottas never seem to have achieved the level of importance comparable to works in stone and metal.

This paper engages with these ideas of the paragone of sculptural media, which became problematised by Bernini’s clay modelli when the sculptures began to be collected for their aesthetic cachet in the 17th century. It is precisely the reappraisal of modelli and the manner in which they were displayed that demonstrates the uncertainties prevailing in society on the interpretation of the absolute hierarchical system of materials and the valuation of sculptures in general. This calls for a shift away from the exclusive competition among artists to art disputes that critics, patrons and even the wider community outside the artistic setting provoked and were actively embroiled in. The appreciation for modelli reveals the contingency of the paragone, which is not only a culturally established idea but also a territory- and temporally specific idea across the Italian peninsula, and brings to the surface its connection with a series of other questions, from philosophical thought on material transformation to the economics of the region.

‘A Sensitive Man… At Fair Prices’: Marbriers and funerary monuments in 19th-century Paris
Kaylee P. Alexander (Duke University)

In 1836, Honoré Daumier included a marbrier (stone-cutter) in his series of 100 images of Robert Macaires. Referring to him sarcastically as ‘a sensitive man… at fair prices’, Daumier captured the mounting reputation of marbriers as tactless swindlers who preyed on the grieving to make a quick sale. Following Napoleon’s cemetery reforms of 1804, burial in France had become dramatically more individualised than ever before, which unquestionably drove up the demand for funerary monuments, and the marbriers who produced them. Subsequently, the marbrier would become subject to criticism for his perceived role in the commercialisation of the cemetery. Architectural treatises, as well as popular media, lambasted the marbrier as a self-interested mass producer who failed to produce distinctive works representing the individuality of the deceased. In this paper I argue, however, that these funerary monuments were, in fact, highly customisable and, consequently, individual. As such, these monuments represented more broadly the sensibilities, concerns and tastes of Parisians than did tombs designed by architects. The present study of the marbriers’ reputation reveals a number of conflicts, from 19th-century disputes over who was qualified to produce funerary monuments, to contemporary considerations of what is to be studied or even preserved within the cemetery. While both reputation and regulation have been responsible for the disproportionate attention that architect-designed tombs have received over those designed and executed by marbriers, this paper ventures beyond the canon of French funerary monuments towards a clearer understanding of commemorative practices in the 19th century as they affected the larger population of Paris.

Who’s Afraid of Raphael? Nicola Consoni at Frogmore
Stefano Cracolici (Durham University)

When Prince Albert died, on 14 December 1861, Queen Victoria’s only wish was to follow him soon. His death was unexpected, and no prior arrangements had been made for his interment, although as early as 1843, he and the Queen had decided that they would be buried together in a purpose-built mausoleum. Victoria shared with Albert his passion for Raphael, and entrusted the interior decoration to Nicola Consoni, then known as the ‘modern Raphael’, who was commissioned to produce three large canvases, two with copies of Raphael’s Vatican tapestries. Ludwig Grüner, Albert’s artistic advisor, was to oversee the project following the model of Raphael’s Chigi Chapel in Rome. An aura of mystery surrounded the Queen’s project. The plan was kept secret, and for fear of criticism, it was decided that nothing should be published about the design. What was so secret about the project? Was it the Romanesque design of the exterior, so against Pugin’s Gothic principles? Or was it the Raphaelesque interior so distinctively Roman and so Catholic in its outlook? This paper will inflect the topic of the session by focusing on the tension between competing styles and the artistic, political and even religious controversies that Frogmore Mausoleum was able to stir up in Victorian England – a monument that was meant to be public and became a private space devoted to the cult of Raphael.

The Appropriation of the Image: The battle over Caspar David Friedrich’s Tetschen Altarpiece
Sander Oosterom (Cornell University)

When the German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich first showed his Tetschen Altarpiece (also: Cross in the Mountains) to a select number of friends and connoisseurs in December 1808, he could not have predicted that the work would almost instantly turn him into one of Germany’s most famous living artists. The immediate occasion for this relative success was not so much the painting itself as the scandal it caused among certain artistic and intellectual circles. Only a month after the work’s first showing, the influential art critic Basilius von Ramdohr published a long and devastating article in which he criticised the artist for disregarding the academic standards of landscape painting, thereby inherently launching a battle between classicists and the artist’s Romantic followers, the so-called Ramdohrstreit, which forms the subject of this paper. Although often rightly portrayed as a conflict over genius and authority, artistic freedom and academicism in the arts, I will attempt to demonstrate that its implications run much deeper than is usually acknowledged. With the aim of establishing both its historical and present significance, I will depart from Ramdohr’s review to show that the confrontation between critic and artist, classicism and Romanticism is explicitly framed within an overarching concern for the power of the image. By reframing the conflict in these terms, a close parallel between historical and more recent interpretations of the Tetschen Altarpiece opens up, ultimately allowing me to conclude by rewriting the Ramdohrstreit as a conflict that is not merely of historical interest, but one that is still active under a different guise in Friedrich scholarship today.

Photographic Self-Portraits as Comments on the Paragone Debate
Zsuzsanna Szegedy-Maszák (Budapest History Museum)

In the 19th century, photography as a new medium not only radically modernised the ways in which we see and depict, it also transformed what we perceive as the function of art. Debates concerning the primacy of certain aspects or forms of art, such as line over colour or the primacy of painting over sculpture, had permeated centuries of art theoretical texts, and for some theorists and practitioners, photography served as a legitimation of centuries-old classical hierarchies. In this paper, I focus on a case study of the Hungarian painter-turned-photographer Miklós Barabás, who in his essay written in defence of photography in 1863 relied on, among other texts, Charles Alphonse du Fresnoy’s classical treatise De arte graphica. As illustrations of Barabás’ theoretical writings on photography, I will examine two of his collaborative photographic self-portraits. The first one centres around a genre-like scene depicting Barabás and his student using a compass, which, as a tool of mathematical precision, suggests the importance of line and perspective. The other is one of his most perplexing photographic compositions. It depicts him leaning on his camera, i.e. the tool of his art, set within the distinctly recognisable foliage of his garden, but with a painted background showing a lavish aristocratic estate. Here Barabás presents a visual argument for the deceptive capability of photography, a function of art which in many instances he expressed in his theoretical texts and which is at the core of the paragone debate.

Peter Fuller: The aesthetic dimension vs the ‘mega-visual tradition’
James A. Brown (Bath Spa University)

In his editorial for the first issue of the magazine he founded in 1988, Modern Painters, the English art critic Peter Fuller lamented the rise of the ‘mega-visual tradition’, typified by work that ‘pilfered from commercial media’ and, as such, represented a turn away from expression. For Fuller, as for many others before him, there was an integrity and authenticity to art criticism that separated it from the effects and function of the art market. Fuller’s body of criticism can be read as a reaction against a shifting cultural landscape that saw culture become just another category of commercial product.

Although in many ways a deeply conservative critic, Fuller’s position developed through a succession of encounters with Marxism. His position formed under the influence of John Berger, but he became disillusioned by the inability of this form of Marxism to address the spirit, and found a more humanist Marxism in Herbert Marcuse’s The Aesthetic Dimension. Fuller fused Marcuse’s Marxism with a pre-modern sensibility rooted in Ruskin and, through his own writing, sought to correct what he saw as the failure of modernist criticism (and criticism after modernism) to recognise the inherent human (and spiritual) content of artworks.

This paper argues that, in positioning himself in conflict with established perspectives on contemporary British art, Fuller was an important (if much maligned) voice in British art criticism, drawing attention to continuing traditions in British painting and sculpture that would otherwise have been overlooked.






70 Cowcross Street
London EC1M 6EJ

+44(0)20 7490 3211