When is a fake not a fake?

18 01 2013

Sounds like a philosophical conundrum along the lines of “when a tree falls in a distant forest etc”, doesn’t it? But the answer is quite straight-forward. Context –  I was having a conversation with a very well-connected art-world friend yesterday, and we were bemoaning the misuse of terminology when people refer to questionable works of art.

It’s really simple.

‘Forgery’: a work of art made to deceive.

‘Fake’: a work of art which has been identified as misattributed (credited to the wrong artist), but not in a way that was deliberately intended to deceive.

So the terminology is very simple to grasp.


Wolfgang Beltracchi with the forged Heinrich Campendonk painting sold at auction in 2006 for $3.6 million. (Image via Vanity Fair: http://www.vanityfair.com)

Example of a forgery: the paintings made by German forger Wolfgang Beltracchi in the manner of modern masters including Léger and Ernst. He fabricated two bogus collections – the ‘Knops’ and ‘Jägers’ – to give his forgeries a provenance and managed to dupe many prominent experts and collectors including comedian and writer, Steve Martin. Beltracchi was sentenced to six years in prison in October 2011 for forging fourteen paintings worth $45 million (the whole messy saga is documented in an extensive article in Vanity Fair, which you can find… here.)

No question at all that the paintings Beltracchi made – and it’s suspected that he may have made many thousands that have yet to be (and most likely will never be) detected – were forgeries.


Gerard Vaughan, former Director of the NGV, with the Gallery’s fake Van Gogh painting. (Image via http://www.theage.com.au)

Example of a fake: I’m always pulling this one out as an example, but it’s so clear-cut it’s hard to resist. The National Gallery of Victoria’s painting-formally-known-as-Van-Gogh. It had been in the NGV collection as a work by the Dutch master since 1940, but in 2007, the Van Gogh Museum questioned its attribution, and declared it to have been made by hands other than Van Gogh’s. It was determined that it was made by one of his contemporaries, but that there was no intention to deceive by the misattribution. It was simply a case of mistaken identity. 

Sounds easy, right? Sadly, as is often the case in the art world, there are so many – certainly more than fifty! – shades of grey. Ponder the following:

  • The Picasso print I have seen that is an original. No doubt. But at some point in its history, some turkey has decided it needed a signature and edition number to make it more marketable (for that, read ‘more valuable’). So the print, which was issued without a signature or edition number, is, and remains authentic. But the pencil signature and edition number? Forged. What does that mean for the authenticity of the work of art as a whole? 
  • The lovely little unsigned ink drawing that passed through Leonard Joel’s weekly auction room while I was running the art department that may (or may not) have been an original Charles Blackman. But in the absence of any supporting evidence, and given the vendor’s unwillingness to spend any time or money researching further, we had to give it the very wishy-washy, but safe, attribution ‘Australian School’. The drawing sold. Then reappeared a year and a half later. With the initials ‘C.B.’ inscribed on it in pencil. So we have what may – may – have been an original artwork, with a signature that was forged. What do you do with something like thImageat?
  • What about the very common practice of restoring or repairing a work of art, or completing an unfinished work? How much is too much when it comes to ‘fixing’ an existing work of art? Rumours abound in the Australian art world about frequent and startlingly audacious ‘reworkings’ of paintings by some of the country’s best-known artists. But this practice is nothing new. Dealer Joseph Duveen, who was one of the grand-daddies of the modern art market, was notorious for ‘touching up’ the Old Master paintings he sold to his American clients. He did so to ‘prettify’ them and make them more appealing to late nineteenth and early twentieth-century sensibilities. Witness the image here – Sebastiano Mainardi’s Portrait of a lady. On the right is the original image as crafted by Mainardi. The image on the left shows the painting as it appeared when sold to Andrew Mellon. Original/authentic or not?

I could go on ad infinitum. But I shan’t. I’ve bored you enough already. Suffice it to say it is a very, very fraught area.





To save, or not to save? Major Melbourne work by Keith Haring at risk. Again.

21 02 2011

In today’s Age, Thomas Dixon, who now chairs the Victorian Public Art Committee of the National Trust, and was the Chief Conservator at the NGV until his retirement in 2006, writes an impassioned plea for the preservation of the fast-deteriorating mural painted by American street artist, Keith Haring, located on the building that used to house Collingwood TAFE (pictured at left). It’s an imposing work of art, made all the more significant by the fact that Haring, who was out painting the subway stations and laneways of Manhattan when Banksy was but a glint in his (or her?) mother’s eye, died tragically early and a great bulk of his major work was exposed to the elements and has since disappeared or been damaged beyond repair. In terms of his corpus, the TAFE mural, which he painted during a visit to Melbourne in 1984, is very important indeed. In the British magazine, The Art Newspaper, it was described as ‘the last in the world painted entirely by his hand’.

Elsewhere I’ve pondered the question of preserving and documenting street art, including the debate for and against intervention in the case of Keith Haring’s mural (here, and here). In summary, it comes down to deciding whether or not the integrity and preservation of the art object (the mural) should outweigh the value we place on defending the artist’s intention. Haring painted the mural outdoors, exposed to the elements, and did so because its impermanence/transience and eventual deterioration was an important part of the work itself. If the work is preserved or repainted, the argument goes, it undermines the artist’s message. Anyways, after a heated debate in the mid 1990s, it was decided that the best path was to treat the mural in order to halt any further deterioration. According to Dixon, the periodic maintenance that was required to extend the artwork’s life was not undertaken, resulting in further damage. It’s estimated that it will cost about $25,000 to stabilise the work, with about $1,000 annually to maintain its condition. A pittance, Mr. Baillieu, surely? How about making this your first order of business as Victoria’s new Arts Minister?

Politicians aside, fear not! Direct from its salvation of Egypt from the clutches of dictatorship, the social media revolution has joined the fight! Yes – there is a Facebook page, Save the Keith Haring Mural’ with 5,334 members. Join the fight now!

As an aside, everyone seems to forget the (admittedly far more modest) Angel that Haring painted on the wall of Geelong Grammar’s Toorak campus. It was originally on the external wall of one of the Victorian-era school buildings, but after the redevelopment of the site the mural was enclosed in a central classroom in the Early Learning Centre (kindergarten, for the uninitiated). Thank the heavens on high that whoever was overseeing the renovations took it upon themselves to ensure the mural survived the extensive remodelling of the building. It is now preserved under a sheet of perspex, and is loved by teachers and children alike; a benevolent and gentle presence in a space filled by little people… and, yes, another in my long line of terrible phone photos, showing said angel, and some contributions from the kinder kids – reflections on the angel in their midst.

The room is known as ‘The Angel Room’. Not ‘Keith Haring’s Angel Room’, or ‘The Haring Room’. Just ‘The Angel Room’. It may be far removed from the artist’s vision, but in this context the artwork has assumed a new life and relevance to the people who live with it every day. It will endure in the minds of hundreds of little people, who grow into bigger people – many of who most probably don’t even know who painted the angel, or why it’s there. Which probably doesn’t really matter, one way or another. The Angel really has assumed a life of its own. When I’m feeling particularly sentimental, to me this seems to be a very good argument in favour of preserving works of art like this one.

I could be very wrong, but I like to think that Keith Haring would have approved.

(images: Keith Haring ‘Angel’, by me; Keith Haring, ‘Collingwood TAFE mural’, via ‘Save the Keith Haring Mural’ Facebook page)

In the eye of the beholder: the “art or porn?” debate rears its troublesome head. Again.

6 01 2011

Despite my best intentions to stay clear of the blogosphere during what’s proving to be a blissfully peaceful summer break, I couldn’t resist this one. The arbiters of all that is decent in Sin City are at it again. First it was Bill Henson, now it’s Del Kathryn Barton. What, to me, looks like a perfectly innocuous photograph of the artist’s son with his torso be-speckled with clusters of adhesive boggle-eyes (pictured at left) has been withdrawn from a charity exhibition to benefit the Sydney Children’s Hospital. According to an article published today by Robert Nelson in The Age online, it was determined that the artwork breached the hospital’s ‘visual protocols’ which are very strict when it comes to all things child-related.

There’s no point in rehashing the arguments against this type of censorship, most of which have been expressed eloquently and effectively in print by many people including Nelson and Tamara Winikoff of NAVA (not to mention David Marr in his exceptional essay, The Henson Case, published in book form by Text Publishing). The best way to understand the fuss is to bear in mind one of the most common themes artists have been grappling with in the post- (or post-post-) modern era: that a response to an artwork is inevitably informed by the viewer’s own life experience and personal history. No two people will react in the same way, or take away the same message from a single work of art. It’s all in the eye of the beholder. As someone who has studied art history, I look at Barton’s photograph and see iconographic references, whether intentional on the artist’s part or not – the gentle contrapposto stance speaking of a figure at rest, and the classic ‘fig-leaf’ pose as used to great effect in Jean-Baptiste Greuze’s 18th century painting (below right) to convey modesty and awareness of the viewer’s gaze.

A work of art is a mirror – you see yourself and your own perceptions in reflection. I like to think that’s why Barton included a bubble in her photo – I find myself peering into its reflective surface to see whether I can see myself, or perhaps it’s captured a glimpse of the artist herself, as in the wall-mounted mirror in Jan van Eyck’s Marriage of the Arnolfini. But that’s just my reading. The parent of a boy the same age would see something quite different. As would a person who had been molested as a child. It goes without saying that a pedophile would also respond to this image in a manner that is thankfully foreign to the great majority of us. But it’s impossible to eliminate all images from circulation that might titillate a person with such incomprehensible sexual urges. Depressingly, the most pervasive message communicated to society at large from all this fuss is that a child’s body is a shameful thing, even where it’s the sexualisation of the child’s innocence via the adult gaze that causes all the harm.

Let’s return to the Greuze painting, though. Unlike Barton’s photograph, the exposed breast and the symbolic use of a ‘broken water jug’ tells us that this was an allegorical painting with very strong sexual overtones. This visual language would have been understood by most, if not all, 18th century viewers. But you may not have thought about it if I hadn’t elaborated. See how it’s done? All in eye of the beholder.

What caused me to pen a response to this was inspired by a visit to the National Gallery of Victoria yesterday. Hanging from the gallery’s façade are two ginormous banners promoting the Gustave Moreau exhibition currently on show (at left – apologies – yet another in my series of embarrassingly bad iPhone photos). Both feature near-naked female figures, not to mention a very young child without any clothing – the child is an infant – many years younger than Barton’s son in the controversial photograph.

Why are the Moreau images deemed acceptable for public consumption? Is it because they’re paintings, and old ones at that? Perhaps it’s because the child has wings and so is clearly an angel/putto. Are naked women OK provided they’re above a certain age? But what of the marked lack of hair down below on the female figure on the right? Could that mean she’s pre-pubescent? What if we found out that the models used by Moreau were teen prostitutes (they weren’t, necessarily, but permit me to mess with your mind here)? Would that change the way you viewed the female forms displayed here? Would you feel differently about these images if you thought they depicted children in their early teens? And what of the salacious invitation to be “seduced by the femmes fatales, heroines, queens, goddesses & temptresses of Gustave Moreau”?

These images have been cleansed by the purifying effect of history. But consider the public response if they had been painted recently, and in a photo-realist style? Or how about if the image on the left was produced as a photograph with live models and used as a Windsor Smith shoe advertisement? Imagine the uproar.

Last but not least, what makes the following image OK (relatively speaking… Anne Geddes… urgh)? At what age do we start to become squeamish about a child or young person with a dearth of clothing?

That’s enough thinking for me. Back to the blissfully bucolic summer break.

Happy 2011 to you all.

(images: photograph by Del Kathryn Barton via The Age; photograph: ‘Twins’ by Anne Geddes)

Breaking News: John Brack’s ‘The Bar’ headed for the NGV – for reals this time.

19 03 2009



In exciting news for Melbournian art-lovers, it seems that the glowering cumulonimbus cloud that is the economic crisis may have a sterling silver lining.

We have been suffering a case of severely bruised pride since 2006, when cultural crusader David Walsh pipped NGV director Gerard Vaughan at the post, acquiring John Brack’s seminal painting, ‘The Bar‘ for the record price of $3,120,000 at auction.

In ‘The Bar‘, Brack’s reinterpreted Edouard Manet’s ‘A Bar at the Folies-Bergère‘ and constructed a typically bleak picture of 1950s Australian culture. It is a companion piece to one of the NGV’s best-loved and most iconic Australian paintings, ‘Collins Street, 5 p.m.‘ Needless to say, when ‘The Bar‘ came onto the market, the NGV wanted it. Badly. But so did Walsh who, I have always suspected, saw the acquisition of the painting as a mighty fine way of rustling up publicity for his monumental private gallery, MONA (Museum of Old and New Art). It is hard to see how the painting fits into Walsh’s premise for his collection, which is organised around the twin themes of sex and death. That said, the drinkers at the bar do look somewhat cadaverous.

Notwithstanding Walsh’s reasons for acquiring the painting, to add insult to injury since the sale the painting has been taunting us; hanging at the NGV, side-by-side with its sister piece. Walsh graciously loaned the painting to the gallery while he finished building his cultural ark across Bass Strait. Its display in Australia’s most prominent public gallery can’t have hurt the painting’s lustre (or its provenance). I imagine it would have saved Walsh a bit in insurance costs over the last couple of years, too. But, I’m clearly just a bit bitter and cynical. Walsh is using his vast wealth to construct a major collection of international and Australian art that will be open to the public – what is there not to love in that? It’s just that he TOOK OUR PAINTING FROM US!

I digress. The good news is that we’re getting to keep it… really, truly. Walsh has sold/is selling ‘The Bar‘ to the NGV! (**golf clap**). The implication from the report I just heard on ABC radio was that it was a decision predicated by financial factors. Given the reportedly legendary scale of Walsh’s online gambling operation  this sounds unlikely. 

Who cares? ‘The Bar‘ is ours. And, Gerard Vaughan? The first round’s on you.

Image:  ‘Australian Art Sales Digest’