Forged: Why Fakes are the Great Art of Our Age, Jonathon Keats, Oxford University Press, 2013.
“No authentic modern masterpiece is as provocative as a great forgery. Forgers are the foremost artists.”
Jonathon Keats is a journalist who has written for a variety of art journals in the States, and his book has been written not for an academic audience, but for a wider readership. The book’s structure is interesting: an essay on the art of the forger; a middle section comprised of six sections, each dealing with a specific forger and theme; and an epilogue which roams far beyond art into the realms of politics, law, science and philosophical issues. This makes the book somewhat incoherent, and at times it reads like a cross between a newspaper feature and a blog post. The opening and closing essays might appeal to readers interested in the history of art fakes and how forgeries and forgers fit into the wider cultural situation, while the middle chapters serve as useful introductions to master forgers. Keats's main claim that fakes are the great art of our times isn’t really developed as an argument at all, just a convenient peg to hang a number of written, but suggestive explorations upon. The nearest thing to a conventional account of art forgery is Keats’s first chapter, an interesting potted history of the fake from Hadrian's Roman copies of Greek sculpture to Van Meegeren’s fabrication of “Vermeers” which allows Keats to pursue a number of themes which provide a useful taxonomy of forgery, though there is no systematic presentation of this and the reader may find themselves lost in the welter of ideas and insights.
An important strand running through this opening section is the question of how forgeries are appreciated, the psychological engagement with the fake which is as equally central as the material process by which the object is counterfeited. Many of the landmarks here will be familiar to readers well read in in the genres of art crime and the history of forgery: Michelangelo’s modern Cupid that mimicked an ancient marble; Andrea dal Sarto copy of Raphael’s Portrait of Leo X; and perhaps the most audacious, and blasphemous forgery of all, St Luke’s painting of the Virgin and Christ, faithfully copied by many artists. Here is where counterfeiting and religion converge which reminds us of the role of faith and belief in the culture of forgery. This is what Keats calls “pious fraud”, but he also examines how the sacred fake crossed over into humanism, which in the renaissance bolstered the cult of the artistic genius who brought psychology, craftsmanship and attribution into art history. Vasari was of course the first real connoisseur, and to read his Lives of renaissance painters to observe the scaffold of modern art connoisseurship being constructed before our eyes. Keats also charts the legislative implications of fakery from Durer’s complaint towards Marcantonio Raimondi to the Hogarth Act which gave that artist the kind of protection and rights sought by Durer two centuries ago. Though art fraud is disciplined and contained to some extent by legislative and institutional frameworks, Keats reminds us that the forger can destabilise these as in the case of Van Meegeren’s fooling of the Rembrandt scholar Bredius which had grave implications for connoisseurship and scholarship in the Netherlands. Here, the forger becomes trickster or prankster like Eric Hebborn or Tom Keating whose fakery subverted authority and turned (art) history into farce and theatre, which attracted the public. In this sense the faker has a ameliorative influence on the sclerotic body of art history, though this may simply be a side effect because we must never forget that the main motivation for forgers is monetary gain or vengeance on a profession that they perceive- rightly or wrongly- to have slighted them.
“Art must take up the forger’s means without the forger’s goals, to work on the far side of legitimacy without the limitations of making a point or a buck.”
Keats is possibly right in his main claim since forgers and counterfeiters do provoke extreme reactions while the old masters elicit respectful admiration, but his second claim about forged art as the great art of our age? This will attract some scepticism especially as many forgers turn out to be frustrated artists lacking the power and vision of many true artists, let alone the talent of a Rembrandt or a Titian. If however the terms of the forgery debate are broadened, as Keats does in his closing section, than maybe the second half of his statement can be entertained. Forgers and counterfeit art are barometers of certain trends in our society. For example, forgers may suggest anxieties about our modern, or should that be postmodern condition, in which claims for truth evaporate in the atmosphere of pluralism. Some might object to this reading because it turns forgery into a critique of the moral relativism that underwrites our age. By widening the terms of the forgery debate however, Keats does break new ground and invites speculation on the nature of forgery in an age of mass media and information overload. What do we make of pranksters like Franco and Eva Mattes who “forged” a copy of the Vatican’s official web site “with some slight modifications” including the Pope advocating soft drugs, pop music, and invitations for sins to be absolved by e.mail. This simulacrum of the Vatican web site ceased to exist when the Papal organization wondered why they were getting less hits. Hacking could be considered an art form du jour. After all, questions of attribution relate to web sites as well as works of art; that word “official” on the titles of web sites is proof of that. Interestingly, both these artists, Franco and Eva Mattes insisted on calling their art “attribution-art” rather than “appropriation-art” which Keats believes aligns them with old school forgers like Hebborn and Keating who were also anonymous, until they became celebrities, another mark of our superficial age. Appropriation-artists (Duchamp and Warhol) literally “traded on borrowed status” since they retained the essence of originals like the Mona Lisa, but replicated it using the method of mechanical reproduction. Legitimate artists like Warhol with their appropriation of past art, come close to forgery, but they never attempt to deceive for financial gain unless you claim modern art is some kind of elaborate con in itself which is to open up old debates about the legitimacy of modern and contemporary art.
“The modern Western response to forgery is anxiety. The mood of modern Western Art is anxious.”
One of the main themes that appear in this book is how art forgeries reflect our uneasiness about our times. Keats claims that forgery reflects cultural anxiety. The roots of this appeared in the age of Romanticism in the early nineteenth-century, when questions about originality made artists reflect more on their relationship with the past. More than a century later the literary critic Harold Bloom coined the term, “anxiety of influence,” to describe the psychological conditions of creativity of writers who turned to notable predecessors as models. Bloom himself wasn’t exactly saying anything new as T.S. Eliot in his famous essay “Tradition and the individual Talent” worried about the burden of literary ancestors on modern poets. This “anxiety of influence” has impacted on all kinds of cultural production, from attribution of paintings in museums to problems of conscious or unconscious student plagiarism.
Though art dealers and art historians would never admit that the fake does have a certain cachet, it achieves a truth value by being false. Consider for example this 19th century imitation of a Madonna by the minor renaissance artists, Francia. This painting appeared in a recent exhibition at the London National Gallery who own it, in the context of a display of forged, problematic and dubious works of art. The fact that the National Gallery decided to stage this exhibition is significant in itself since it was admitting that these imitations had certain legitimacy within the history of the gallery. They were still forgeries, fabricated non-autograph works of art, but they belonged to the history of art and were part of the gallery’s story, hence they could not be disavowed or expunged from the gallery’s historical record. The acceptance of forgeries into the museum may simply be down to “time healing” which allows us to retrospectively view the object with some sympathy; or it may mask more profound issues such as our problematic relationship with fakes which in the case of the museum is managed by what could be called semi-appropriation, an acceptance of both its validity and falsity, which surely reflects the way we deal with truth in our ambivalent age. Whether this line of thought is accepted or declined, what is beyond doubt is that Keats’s book opens up the topic of forgery to fresh and provocative interpretations.
Six Portraits of Forgers, each framed by a Theme.
Lothar Malskat BELIEF
Malskat may not be a name known to many, but he earned his place in the pantheon of forgers for his part in perpetrating a deceit upon the people of Lübeck Lübeck.Against a backdrop of carpet bombing, urban damage and religious miracle, Malskat emerged. Hired by the restorer Dietrich Fey, Malskat was employed on the task of restoring wall paintings in the Lübeck church of St Mary, the Marienkirche. Inspecting the damage wrought by Churchill's bombing campaign, Malskat and Fey pronounced the paintings completely obliterated. Yet only three years later in the presence of the West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, the Gothic saints and Virgin were miraculously to be seen thanks to some creative restoration by Fey and Malskat. For reasons of nationalism, civic pride, ego, and of course money, Malskat and Fey elected to fabricate what had been lost and pass it off as the original damaged art brought to life by the restorer's brush. As with so many of these forgery collaborations the deception was unmasked when Malskat went to the authorities dissatisfied with the meagre pay he was receiving compared to his mentor. As Keats states, the revelation was psychologically damaging because the German people had seen the re-appearance of the medieval saints as a miracle in the face of their war-time suffering. Revealing the deception resulted in the "theft of a miracle." This is an example of what Keats calls "pious fraud", divine deceptions traceable back to the first religious painter St Luke who counterfeited the appearance of the divine. The Lübeck story was not yet complete however. After the forged paintings were covered up and forgotten, the pastel images saw the light again after an air raid in 1942 which caused a fire that removed the coat of whitewash. Forgery was vindicated through divine intervention since the paintings are favourably mentioned in travel books despite the fact they are modern creations.
Alceo Dossena- AUTHENTICITY
Dossena was a sculptor from Cremona who proved to be one of the most versatile of modern forgers. Proficient at producing sculpture that looked like it came from the age of Phidias as well as renaissance work modelled on artists like Giovanni Pisano and Simone Martini, Dossena was able to sneak his art into leading museums, especially in America. His exposure was similar to Malskat: resentment at his poor wages compared to the dealers who made millions by exploiting his talents. Angry at this Dossena confessed which resulted in some embarrassment for the curators and museums that had approved and bought his work under more illustrious names. Without a mentor, Dossena studied the old masters by trying to emulate their style, not by reading about them like other scholarly forgers on this list. He said that he "assimilated" the old masters. Supplied with photographs from his accomplice Fasoli, Dossena worked from them which inevitably led to mistakes that were detected. Keats uses the story of Dossena to explore the concept of authenticity, which is what governs the minds of experts; can it have meant anything to Dossena at all? A subsidiary topic is the aesthetics of forgery. Notwithstanding that the object is tainted by its status as a forgery, is it possible to still like it, to regard it as an object of beauty? Without excusing his duplicity, as far as this author is concerned Dossena's sculpture has much merit and deserves to be in museums, though under his own name of course!
Han van Meegeren- AUTHORITY
Van Meegeren is almost as famous as the artist he made a career out of forging- Vermeer. I found this chapter the least interesting. I've probably read too many books on him, such as the by Lopez which heavily influences this chapter. Read my review here. The idea of forgery as an act of revenge on the experts begins with Van Meegeren. Unwilling to capitulate to prevailing avant-gardist trends, a staunch anti-modernist, and opposed to artists such as Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg who sought to take nature out of the painting, VM found himself hopelessly out of step and unable to pursue a career, This was bad enough, but he had to endure the contempt of the art establishment who dismissed his work as old fashioned. Van Meegeren therefore decided to wage war on the Dutch art establishment fooling such authorities as Alfred Bredius who validated one of the forger's works as a genuine Vermeer. Though VN's initial motivations might be sympathised with, his revenge and mockery of the authorities was inseparable from greed and financial profiteering. Worse, VM had dubious connections with National Socialism which haven't yet been satisfactorily unravelled. His impact has been great and his ghost continues to haunt the world of Dutch art history.
Eric Hebborn- HISTORY
Hebborn can be regarded as the Til Eulenspiegel of forgers; a trickster who distorted the art history record. Well, that's the claim of Keats who produces his most interesting chapter in this account of the recalcitrant and difficult artist who had many enemies, which probably led to his untimely death at the hands of an unknown assailant with a hammer in Rome. On his way up, Hebborn enjoyed the ear of eminent scholars like Anthony Blunt and Ellis Waterhouse, not to mention the London art market, all of whom he fooled with his fakes for many years. As Keats reminds us here, if there is one thing that master forgers like Hebborn highlight, it is the flaws in connoisseurship and the assumptions that they operate under. Like Van Meegeren, Hebborn identified the reasoning of connoisseurs and art scholars when campaigning against them. Thus to give one example, in forging a preparatory sketch for Corot's Portrait of Louis Robert, Hebborn reasoned that the Colnaghi dupe would know the portrait in the Louvre and a sketch at Harvard both of which would have a "family resemblance" to Hebborn's faked drawing. Hebborn also convinced himself that his forgery was the real thing by Corot in order to make his pitch to the dealer more convincing. In his autobiography Drawn to Trouble Hebborn declared that he'd "sabotaged the historical record" by placing modern drawings into many museums. Just one more example. This drawing in the Met is said to be by Jan Brueghel, but it was previously owned by Hebborn, who stated that it was one of his forgeries. Despite the fact the Met is satisfied this is an autograph drawing by Brueghel, there will always be doubt about it, and no amount of scholarship, connoisseurship, or museum re/de attributions can change that. This is an example of what I called above semi-appropriation. But there is a wider issue her; doubt remains about Hebborn's claims overall. What as Keats says, if Hebborn's greatest achievement was to "fake his own fakery?" What if Hebborn was faking his own sabotaging of the historical record?
Elmyr de Hory- IDENTITY
In addition to forging old masters, many fabricators are skilled at creating entirely new identities as part of their ruse. The man known as Elmyr de Hory had many aliases. He could have been the son of a Jewish bourgeois who entered the Budapest Academy of Art. This individual would later claim to to have known Picasso, Leger, and the artists known collectively as the "School of Paris." Whoever he was, he successfully managed to forge paintings by artists like Dufy, Modigliani and move through the United States spreading his illicit cargo. Impeccably well groomed, to use one of his aliases, "Baron Hertzog" cultivated wealthy patrons and managed to convince museums that his forgeries of Braque, Matisse and other modern masters were the real thing. For example, the Fogg bought drawings thought to be by Matisse, and only retrospectively have they been identified as non-autograph. A trained curator or connoisseur of drawings should be alert to every nuance of an artist's style, and the same is true for spotting the style and artistic proclivities of forgers. Though de Hory captured something of Matisse's line, it always looked the same. How can the forger retrieve the complexity of a famous artist's style in their illegal experiments is one of their most pressing problems they face. Graphic detections aside, perhaps the most bizarre episode in this case is the role of his biographer Clifford Irving who appeared in an Orson Welles's film, "F is for Fake" in which the director described him as "the author of "Fake" - de Hory's biography- who was himself a faker, and the author of a fake to end all fakes- Irving perpetrated a literary hoax, the Autobiography of Howard Hughes. Finally, Welles himself was a master-faker whose hoax "The War of the Worlds" has passed into legend. To be a forger is to walk through a hall of mirrors.
Tom Keating- CULTURE
Tom Keating was a lovable rogue who became a celebrity on a television series, "Tom Keating on Painters” on the BBC in which the forger demonstrated how you could create your own Constables and Turners in your kitchen. Hugely popular with the public because of his down-to-earth attitude- and lack of art jargon (he called his fabrications "Sexton Blakes, cockney rhyming slang for fake), Keating fought the class war through his forgery. Denied formal schooling due to poverty, Keating clawed his way up by painting works in the style of the American genre artist Krieghoff before graduating to impressionist artists like Sisley and Renoir which he dropped into art fairs. Culture is the unifying thread here, and Keating uses it to compare the socialist artist with the patrician Kenneth Clark whose landmark series Civilization was broadcast several years before Keating's kitchen sink master classes. This isn't an entirely fair comparison as Clark brought art history to a mass audience, though there is no doubt that his aristocratic disdain rubbed some people up the wrong way. It was another autobiography, Keating's The Fake's Progress that spilled the beans about his forgery. Keating ended up in court pleading that he'd intended no deception but had simply wanted the "spirits of the old masters" to speak through his art, so that he could continue their struggles against a corrupt art market. This obviously cut no ice with the law, but when Keating became terminally ill, the prosecutor dropped the case.
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