23 APRIL 1994, Page 35

Who cares who done it?

Nigel Spivey

A VICTIM OF ANONYMITY by Neil MacGregor Thames & Hudson, £6.95, pp. 48 his is a slim volume, but its argument is stout. And although its subject is remorse- lessly recondite, it must also count as a populist manifesto. As befits the director of a National Gallery part-endowed by a great

Saints Peter and Dorothy, by The Master of the Saint Bartholemew Altarpeice on oak (Courtesy of the National Gallery) supermarket chain, and here published by a press committed to its founder's ideals of making art 'accessible', this book argues for names as the essence of celebrity. Art, says Neil MacGregor, is devoutly enfranchised. Spudulike or Haagen-Dazs brand a prod- uct as undeniably as a creative signature. Without the name, we are lost for the right response. Presumably remembering the gaunt portrayal of the artist by Kirk Dou- glas in Lust for Life, MacGregor confesses: `A Van Gogh label alerts me to an anguish I ought to be able to discern and share.' Hence the title of this minor broadside. If only 'The Master of the Saint Bartholomew Altarpiece' were known to us — instead of languishing in the generic anonymity of 15th-century Cologne — we should be cele- brating him as one of the great names, to be ranked with Darer, Michelangelo and Botticelli.

Regarding the works of this 'Master' who can be traced, it seems, to the Nether- lands — one might judge very little about his personality. Kind to animals, probably; fascinated by deformities; bound up by the usual mediaeval pieties. But this is not even precious little. And the assertion that, had he a name, this painter would rank with Botticelli, is not compulsive: the fact is that Botticelli's pulchritudes are astonishingly close to modern canons of beauty, whilst the same cannot be said for the fish-faced creations of the Saint Bartholomew Master. Yet to a coterie of specialists, the artist is known, as are the legion `anonymities' who painted ancient Greek vases, and even the authors of those blank Cycladic figurines from the third millenni- um BC. If names do not exist, we will invent them. What does it really matter, then?

Neil MacGregor alludes wistfully to Freud's imaginative attempt to put Leonar- do da Vinci on the psychoanalyst's couch; but not to the Musee d'Orsay, where efforts have been made to subordinate `names' to the social production of art. It is doubtless inappropriate for the head of an institution committed to displaying the exemplary fruits of artistic 'genius' to share the French deconstructionist view that artists are nothing, whilst their works are sacred. But it is odd that, even in this little monograph, no reference is made to the considerable worries that critics harbour about taxonomies of art based upon names. Some art historians would see the work of the Saint Bartholomew Master as positively liberated by the absence of a personality cult. At last, they would say, we can view his pictures without prejudice; we can put them in the context of their times. The detection game of attributing unsigned works is irrelevant; what counts is the prevailing world view, the economic pressures, the factors of patronage and control.

But this, as I say, is a populist book. The punters want drama: agony, ecstasy, lopped-off ears, delirium in a crow-field. At the Musee d'Orsay, you see their unhappy faces: when shall we be told that Renoir painted with his penis, that Gauguin deserted stockbroking and domes- ticity for his art? Not names, but personali- ties, are power, and a power from which, as Neil MacGregor rightly divines, we would rather not be released.