Fakes, Mistakes and Discoveries, National Gallery

Vivid Colors: Paintbrushes

Prompted by a slightly disappointing visit to the National Gallery’s free exhibition Fakes, Mistakes and Discoveries I was thinking about how non-original artworks are viewed in relation to ‘real’ art.

First I’ll explain the problems with the exhibition itself then I’ll move on to my own conclusions on the value of provenance:

A crucial part of any look at non-original art is the ability to identify it as such. This identification usually takes the form of scientific processes and technical procedures (plus a dash of scholarly knowledge) and is fascinating and complex. Sadly in this exhibition it only exists as brief explanations in a booklet. It would have been far more helpful – not to mention engaging – to have the procedures shown step by step in cabinets or via video in the room. Moving from room to room new ideas were presented one by one (a good thing because it’s a complex subject) but they weren’t explored in any real depth. Perhaps you need to attend the sporadic lectures for a more detailed perspective on the different aspects of problematic art but it’s not something that comes through the exhibition when you just turn up with an hour or two to spare and have a wander round as a lot of people will.

The thing which prompted me to think about non-original art and its worth was that there was an overarching impression that the National Gallery places great importance in correct attribution but no attempt to explicitly state why. This background assumption that authorship is vital is something which contributes to the famous name = high price mentality that sees mediocre Picassos go for millions at auction. I would have been really interested to see a section in the exhibition devoted to this value versus quality dichotomy that critics or art (especially those of contemporary art) like to set up.

For my two cents I do think that the artist name is important because art itself functions within a wider narrative. It encompasses politics, economics, philosophy – society in general – and the artist has his or her place within that narrative, reacting for their own reasons and with their own original responses. Authorship therefore matters, but it shouldn’t be confused with quality. Something can be bad art but have extra value because of it’s place within an artist’s output. I spent ten thousand words (my entire undergraduate dissertation!) explaining why a painting by Picasso  was universally slated but still important.

But then where does that leave us with fakes and forgeries? I instinctively think that authorship matters. A copy – no matter how perfect – is somehow inferior. I think this is because of the definition of art I mentioned in a previous entry. Intention is all important. The forger didn’t intend to set out a unique response to the world to sit within a narrative, they set out to duplicate a sentiment or an idea. It might still be beautiful or thought provoking and it might even be incredibly helpful (for example where the original has been lost) but the knowledge of the forgery takes something away*.

If you’ve been to the National Gallery’s exhibition (or the recent V&A fakes exhibition) or even if you just fancy weighing in with an opinion it would be great to hear from you!

*As an interesting aside, there are times when the forgery crosses a line and becomes art in itself – Han van Meegeren spent years forging a Vermeer to basically make a point about the worthlessness of art critics. In an interesting twist Van Meegeren later sold a ‘Vermeer’ to Hermann Goring and was arrested for being a Nazi collaborator which prompted him to reveal the forgery. This meant the charges were altered from plundering cultural heritage and collaborating with Nazis to straighforward old forgery.

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