The Old Masters opened up in New Haven with an American cast, 2010
I wonder how much interaction there was between this amazing group. I also wonder how much opposition they faced, given they were at the forefront of the avant-garde, especially French modernism.
"The Old Masters" is the name of a play that was first performed at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre in June 2004, then at the Comedy Theatre London from July 2004. It was written by Simon Gray and directed by Harold Pinter. The play opened in Bernard Berenson's gardens, Villa I Tatti near Florence, one summer night in 1937. Berenson, the famous art critic, was increasingly anxious about the state of his finances. His wife, Mary, was in poor health while he continued to have an affair with his secretary.
Joseph Duveen's assistant Fowles arrived to deliver a copy of a painting, and to tell Berenson that Duveen would like him to reconsider his attribution of a painting, The Adoration of the Shepherds. Berenson had already declared it to be by Titian, but Duveen wanted him to change his mind and attribute it to Giorgione. Duveen was keen to sell the painting to the American art collector, Mellon, who specifically wanted a Giorgione. Other art critics had already decided it was a Giorgione, but Berenson, whose reputation was pre-eminent, refused to change his mind. Fowles left.
Berenson examining a painting
Duveen on a cruise to the USA with wife and daughter
Later that evening Duveen arrived, unannounced, to convince Berenson to change his mind in person. From there, the intense nature of their long and largely satisfying working relationship unfolded. The timing in 1937 was not coincidental. They were two Jewish intellectuals with anti-Semitic chaos gathering around them, particularly worrying with the rising power of Mussolini and fascism.
I hadn’t read or seen the play, so my class here in Melbourne had to rely on one of our art history students who had seen the play in Britain. She said the play tackled the confusing world of the art market, raising questions of taste, provenance, financial values, the honesty or otherwise of private interests in the marketplace, and the historically documented relationship between Duveen and Berenson. At the end of the play, the student was still not sure what was most important - professional connoisseurship, popular taste (which changes from generation to generation) or realistic financial valuations.
The play is of special interest to American audiences as Duveen truly did help wealthy Americans (eg Mellon, Rockefeller, Frick, Huntington, Morgan and Kress) to amass great collections of Renaissance, early modern & modern art. Simon Gray’s The Old Masters opened in New Haven Connecticut in 2010 and will move onto Broadway this year.