Blinded by a fear of fakes
The art world is riddled with forgeries, terrorising experts with the threat of lost reputation and corroding our appreciation of beauty
oguardian.co.uk, Friday 21 August 2009 15.20 BST
Last month I visited an art museum in an Italian seaside town. The museum was modern and well-organised, and its treasures, from a private collection of Renaissance art, should have been just to my taste. I won’t name the museum or the town, though, because of what I’m about to say. The pride of the collection is a self-portrait by a famous Florentine artist done, unusually, on terracotta. Now I happen to know about an 18th-century forger who made “self-portraits” by Florentine masters, on terracotta, just like this. Suddenly I saw fakes everywhere. I just wanted to hit the beach. I’d fallen prey to a kind of madness – a paranoia that wrecks art. But what would I have lost, really, if I’d been taken in by a forgery or two?
The fear of fakes does far more harm than forgery itself. This terror that comes with the pride of thinking you know something about art corrodes pleasure, cripples the imagination, blinds you to what might be beautiful. Art is riddled with forgeries, misattributions and dodgy restorations. It is also bedevilled with “experts” who stake their reputations on never being fooled – when in reality everyone gets fooled. The kind of scholarship that does not add to the excitement of art, but instead makes people terrified that what they are seeing might be inauthentic, is arrogant and destructive.
Experts on the Mexican surrealist Frida Kahlo who have denounced a “lost archive” of her life and work seem to me to exemplify this poisonous attitude. They accuse a book soon to be published by Princeton Architectural Press of being stuffed with fakes and forgeries – but admit they haven’t examined the archive it is based on. “If I had to jump on a plane every time somebody made a fake painting”, said one of the sceptics, “I’d never get any work done.”
Even the famous early 20th-century fake-hunter Bernard Berenson might have quailed at this pomposity. Berenson created the modern delusion of exact connoisseurship and transformed the canon of western art by establishing precise criteria of style, separating the “real” works of Renaissance artists from old fakes and misattributions. But Berenson and critics like him turned art history into a pseudoscience. One 19th-century Italian “expert” scrutinised earlobes and other physical clues in paintings – the similarity to Victorian criminological gobbledegook is no coincidence. It was pseudoscience. So is the entire edifice of modern art history when it lays claim to objective truth about who painted exactly what and when.
Today’s art experts marshal techniques such as infrared photography to make their knowledge seem all the more scientific. This makes it harder than ever to question the voice from above. But when writing and thinking about art gets reduced to a lofty denunciation of fakes and the tedious analysis of provenance that is art scholarship’s meat and drink it just fills ordinary visitors to museums with fear and insecurity. Do I actually know enough to look at this painting, you might ask yourself in front of a Rembrandt? Am I qualified to see it? The general answer implied by modern art history from Berenson to his spectroscopically equipped modern successors is a chilly “No”.
The consolation is that secretly the fake-busters are going mad. An academic once told me he’d been called to an antiques shop to examine a drawing by the artist he specialises in. He judged it a fake and suspected he’d been deliberately set up by one of his rivals who hoped to catch him out. What a world. It seems like a scene from a strange Nabokovian novel.
Has Princeton Architectural Press been caught in a trap? Or are the scholars who denounce a Kahlo archive they have never examined the true fakes? Personally I’d rather be fooled be a few fakes than reduce the glory and passion of art to such pedantry. I honestly believe that many people who spend their lives studying art in depth – and pride themselves on never being taken in by fakes fooled – find it all less rewarding than the visitor to Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper whose only background reading is Dan Brown.