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Master Pieces: The Curator’s Game by Thomas Hoving

May 19, 2009

This book is for anyone who loved those “I Spy” books when they were kids (or, for that matter, still love them…). It evolved from a game played by the former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art during coffee breaks where curators would bring snap shots of small clips of paintings from their department (a hand, a dog, a flower) and compete to identify the paintings and artist (based on a short verbal clue). The painting on the cover is very easy but the other paintings in the book get harder and harder… The book is split into several sections: Flowers, Still Life, Danger, Glass, Eyes, Hands, even Bottoms (it’s hard to tell the difference after a while between a Rembrandt bare butt and a Ingres…) etc.

The game was popular because instant recognition of an artist’s hand is an essential skill for any curator. As described in Malcolm Gladwell’s book, “blink”, the greatest experts in many fields have perfected the art of “thin-slicing”  – filtering through a multitude of variables in a matter of seconds to recognize those few that actually matter and draw an almost instinctual conclusion. While this instinct can often prove invaluable, for instance, when a curator is assessing whether an “ancient” Greek statue is authentic (as the Getty Museum scandal is described in the first chapter of Gladwell’s book), it can also lead experts astray by getting them to focus on only a few data points and ignore the rest. Like I was reading in the book about the Vermeer forger, Han van Meegeren, this “experts instinct” is what led M. Jean Decoen, a Brussels art expert and restorer, to claim that the Vermeer forgeries were real Vermeers even after van Meegeren’s trial, and Dr. Abraham Bredius to praise one of the forgeries as the finest Vermeer he had ever seen. Van Meegeren’s forged documents, authentically reproduced crackulature on the surface of the painting and use of the same colors as Vermeer were so convincing that the two experts could not bring themselves to believe the paintings were fake. So, just in case you get faced with a fake Vermeer, you better start practicing…

The Curator's Game-09-05-19_1Answers after the jump…#21: Frida Kahlo (of course, this was an easy one… in the “eyes” section), Self Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, 1940.

#116: Gustave Courbet, Sleep, 1866. (in the “glass” section)

I would highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to get to know their art a little better (well, Western art anyway) and if you miss those “I Spy” books like I do it is really fun. 

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