Basking

Paul Seabright

  • The Forger’s Art edited by Denis Dutton
    California, 276 pp, £18.00, June 1984, ISBN 0 520 04341 3
  • Of Mind and Other Matters by Nelson Goodman
    Harvard, 210 pp, £14.90, April 1984, ISBN 0 674 63125 0
  • Fact, Fiction and Forecast by Nelson Goodman
    Harvard, 131 pp, £4.20, April 1984, ISBN 0 674 29071 2
  • But is it art? by B.R. Tilghman
    Blackwell, 193 pp, £15.00, August 1984, ISBN 0 631 13663 0

One evening last September, millions of viewers watched three young men forge a Modigliani sculpture live on Italian television. Three things distinguished the programme from other forgers’ At Homes, such as the BBC’s regular visits to the studio of Tom Keating (a sale of whose work had raised £274,000 at Christie’s that very day). The men were undergoing a public trial of their claim to be the sculptors of one of the three heads found underwater in the Fosso Reale in Leghorn in July, and declared by a hallelujah chorus of critics to be among ‘the crowning achievements of Modigliani’s oeuvre’. Unlike Keating, the three had had no training in artistic technique. And their method of producing Modigliani forgeries – including the one that had been described by Cesare Brandi, one of Italy’s most prestigious critics, as having ‘an interior light, like a veilleuse’ – was to lean on an old paving slab with a Black and Decker drill. ‘Though they do not yet have the characteristic, marvellously elongated and consumptive shapes,’ Brandi continued, ‘here in these stones we see their annunciation, their presence.’

The performance on television, backed by photographs of the men holding the head before it was first dropped in the canal, convinced nearly everyone. (An exception was Mario Spagnol, who had maintained from the start that the heads were fakes, and commented wryly that the one produced on television was the finest of the four.) The sight of Brandi and so many other members of the critical establishment wiping the omelette from their eyebrows was pantomime entertainment at its finest. Whatever lessons the joke may have had for our attitude towards critics in general, some of the protagonists in this particular episode had unmistakably been asking for it. Vera Durbe, curator of the Museum of Modern Art in Leghorn, who had originally organised the dragging of the canal, had gushed that ‘you don’t have to be an expert to see that these works in front of us are masterpieces. I am absolutely sure that they are all by Modi, they are so beautiful’ – which is a slim argument even from an art critic. And Enzo Carli, a Livornese sculptor, in declaring that ‘a fake would not have these qualities; it would be more finished, more studied. These stones have a soul,’ was laying banana skins with a Walter Raleighesque flourish along his own path.

Not everyone had been taken in. Ambrogio Ceroni, the leading authority on Modigliani, was always sceptical. Federico Zeri had described the works as ‘horrors’. The sculptor’s daughter Jeanne declared that the heads were not by her father (in a bizarre twist to the story, she was killed falling downstairs shortly afterwards, a fact which did not escape morbid comment in the Italian press). Nor did the televised dénouement entirely turn the tables. Discretion was not the better part of Vera, who held her ground and complained of a conspiracy. The most straightforward of those unmoved was Professor Giulio Argan, who maintained that the heads were probably genuine, but even so were no more than the artist’s juvenilia, deservedly jettisoned by him, and not worthy of the fuss either way.

Perhaps he is right. Some critics have overreached themselves, but what of it? It happens all the time in all areas of expertise, and no more shows the hollowness of expert knowledge than a few bent or incompetent coppers show the dispensability of the police. Others find such episodes fascinating, thinking they challenge our whole framework of aesthetic understanding. In between, those who deal in art works are daily aware that forgery is very big business indeed, in terms of volume as well as revenue. The number of fake Modiglianis alone in private American collections is (of course) only to be guessed at – but figures upward of three thousand have not been thought ridiculous. Economics, then, as well as sociology, are much illuminated by forgery scandals – but do they reveal anything about aesthetics?

Philosophers of art have gnawed on this one for many years, with little success. The Forger’s Art is both product and symptom of this unsatisfactory state of affairs. The editor has wisely focused the book on a specific case – namely, the Vermeer forgeries of the 1930s and early 1940s by Han van Meegeren. It is useful to be reminded in the process how forgery actually works. Critics who trip themselves up are not just a side-show but a part of the institution itself: van Meegeren, like many competent forgers, would study the academic output of leading critics in order to tailor his paintings to exactly what they were expecting to find in undiscovered Vermeers. Again, too many critics have adopted in practice (though never, of course, in theory) what Nelson Goodman once labelled the Tingle-Immersion theory, which treats art as the thinking man’s jacuzzi, and supposes that the way to settle the historical question of origin is by a sophisticated process of basking. The van Meegeren case also illustrates how stylistic clues invisible to one generation may become clumsily obvious to the next: even Christ and the Disciples at Emmaus, his best painting, would not now fool any competent critic, while some of the later output is an embarrassment. The reason is not just wisdom after the event. The Vermeer corpus is much better known and analysed now than it was in the Thirties – and critics evaluating the later forgeries were hindered by their previous acceptance of some van Mee-gerens among the oeuvre. Certain features of style (geometricisation, for example) now appear to us characteristic of the Thirties and inappropriate to Vermeer; critics then, for whom the style was as much a way of looking at the world as of looking at paintings, would not have seen the discrepancy (but might have had a keener eye for some forgeries that fool us now). Once a chain of forgeries had been accepted the way was open to many more: ‘we all slid downwards – from the Emmaus, from Isaac to the Footwashing,’ the critic Hoogendijk said.

Van Meegeren painted ten successful Vermeer forgeries in all, which might have remained undiscovered for much longer had one of them not found its way into Hermann Goering’s private collection. At the end of the war van Meegeren (who was traced as having dealt him the picture) was charged with collaboration, and to save himself confessed to the lesser crime of forgery. The trial took place in a courtroom lined with what had till then been considered some of Holland’s finest national treasures, and proved that, then as now, forgery makes splendid theatre. Van Meegeren, in poor health, received the minimum one-year sentence, but died within two months.

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