Monday 27 July 2009

Spot the pigeon

When I was researching my thesis at the Auckland Art Gallery library, some of the most interesting material I found was correspondence between AAG director Peter Tomory and British art historian Ellis Waterhouse, at the time (the mid 1950s-mid 1960s) director of the Barber Institute of Fine Arts in Birmingham.

The two were obviously good friends as well as professional colleagues, and it was always interesting to compare what Tomory said about the Gallery's collection in reports to the Council and interviews, compared to what he wrote to Waterhouse. Waterhouse was also part of an international network of art historians Tomory called upon to assist with attributing works, sending letters and photos flying round the world for a good old connoisseurial appreciation.

I got reminiscing about these letters when I saw this Guardian article last week, about an exhibition of fakes and copies from the collection that the National Gallery, London, will be holding next June. Director Nicholas Penny is taking a charmingly pragmatic approach to the matter:
"The history of mistakes encourages extreme caution and extreme humility," he said.

"I wish we had more fakes [in the collection]. You only get good at spotting them by seeing them."

The article also notes that intentional forgeries often look 'right' to contemporary eyes, but within decades start to look very strange. The same point is made in one of my favourite essays from last year, a review by Peter Schjeldahl of two books on the forger Han van Meegeren. He concludes:

The spectre of forgery chills the receptiveness—the will to believe—without which the experience of art cannot occur. Faith in authorship matters. We read the qualities of a work as the forthright decisions of a particular mind, wanting to let it commandeer our own minds, and we are disappointed when it doesn’t. If we are disappointed enough, when the named artist is familiar, we get suspicious. But we can never be certain in every case that someone—a veiled mind—isn’t playing us for suckers. Art lovers are people who brave that possible chagrin.

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