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Who says?
Can we trust the experts on good and bad in art?

Report of the lecture given by David Phillips on September 28th 2011

David Phillips was a curator of art in Nottingham Castle Museum from 1968 to 1982. He then became a lecturer in museum studies at Manchester University from 1982 to 1998 since when he has been a freelance lecturer following up his interests in art, its forgery and psychology. He has worked on many exhibitions, one selected for the Arts Council in 1986 was entitled: "Don't trust the label: an exhibition of fakes, imitations and the real thing."

The first question David asked us was 'Could we trust the experts on the Antique Road Show?' He then introduced us to slides of the familiar Jasper Ware by Wedgewood. Included in the first slide was the Wedgewood Stamp which should authenticate the maker but it is also copied and therefore cannot be relied upon. David had through his profession handled Jasper Ware in the Nottingham Castle Museum and from this he developed an awareness of what was original and what was copied. Slides showed how an authentic piece of Jasper Ware was subtle and delicate in the use of the applied white clay on the blue background giving a three dimensional effect whereas even a good copy appeared rather flat and hard lined in comparison.

There are many examples of art connoisseurs recognising the work of an artist which is also disputed by others. Thomas Hoving, who became the Director of the New York Metropolitan Museum at a relatively young age, was such an individual . He was a very confident expert who would authenticate artists based on his 'eye', self belief and personal knowledge of the artist. He authenticated a Velasquez painting ' Juan de Pareja' which he bought for the museum from Christies, but several of his buys have since been discredited. He was also rather 'maverick' in his buying as he would sell valuable art in order to obtain something he was determined he must have, sometimes when the piece was likely to have been wrested illicitly. Another example of his self confidence was when he disputed that the famous Florentine painting (c1472), in London's National Gallery, attributed to Paulo Uccello, 'St. George and the Dragon' was genuine. His evidence was based on looks and prior knowledge of the artist, although most other connoisseurs do believe it to be authentic.

Authentication of art works is much more complex than is generally thought. One example has involved the art historian Professor Martin Kemp of Oxford University. He is a leading expert on Leonardo da Vinci. He believes that a chalk drawing of a young woman dressed in the typical dress of a 15th/16th century Italian woman, which had been attributed to the 19th Century German Nazarene School, is by Leonardo. He provides evidence such as the way that the hatching is drawn being typical of Leonardo's style and that of a left hander. He has even renamed it 'La Bella Principessa'. As David stated " They just don't know".

Vincent Van Gogh is a case in point. His brother Theo inherited the majority of his paintings but sadly died very shortly after Vincent. Very little was properly catalogued and the paintings were then inherited by Theo's wife, Jo Bonger. Jo dispersed them again with little information on their destinations. It therefore becomes unclear which are the real Van Goghs and which are fakes. Vincent is known to have made more than one study of the same subject . For example the 'Sunflowers', when one is shown several with distinct stylistic differences, one begins to assume that some may not be original. It is known that Dr. Gachet, who supported Vincent in his final years, and his son, were both amateur artists. Some experts believe that some paintings, allegedly from Vincent's final years, may have been painted by the Gachets. It is interesting to note that the 'Sunflowers' in London's National Gallery and the one in the Van Gogh Gallery in Amsterdam are both generally thought to be genuine.

The famous biographer of artists, Giorgio Vasari, tells of Michelangelo in his early years who as an artist used the work of other artists as models for his own work adapting them to suit his purpose, examples were Durer and Martin Schongauer:-

"When a copper engraving reached Florence, Michelangelo made a pen drawing and then painted it. To counterfeit some strange forms of devils he bought fish with curiously coloured scales and showed such ability that he won much credit and reputation. ....He did this to obtain the originals in exchange for the copies, as he wanted the former and sought to surpass them, thereby acquiring a good name."

Jackson Pollock the American action painter has often been 'favoured' by forgers. A few years ago some small panels were discovered and thought to be Jackson Pollock's work. Evidence proved them to be fakes as the paint used was acrylic and not in use at the time Pollock was painting. There are now people who use finger printing techniques to authenticate works of art. This technique has been used to authenticate works thought to be by Pollock. Interestingly if an art work is forged in France and the forger is known they can be prosecuted, but not in other countries.

Another artist who has been copied is Andy Warhol. However an American called Joe Simon-Whelan was given screen prints by Warhol called 'The Red Self Portrait'. He is currently still in legal contention with the Andy Warhol Foundation and its Art Authentication Board who have denied authenticity, despite knowing it to be genuine, being signed, dated and dedicated by Warhol. The New York Review of Books in April 2011 gives full details on the case, which is worth reading.

Another piece of research into authenticity, which is being carried out, is that of 'The Polish Rider' based in the Frick Museum, New York and attributed to Rembrandt. It is thought to be untypical of his work as there is only one other work with a horse to be given this level of prominence. Much research has taken place over a considerable amount of time. The difficulty being that Rembrandt had a large number of students and apprentices working with, and for, him. This makes it difficult to attribute the painting completely to Rembrandt plus it also makes it difficult to credit the yet unknown artist who may have contributed significantly. David judged such in depth research in order to authenticate to have an 80% chance of being correct, but this type of research is rare.

We need to think about what is good art and David's lecture gave us the opportunity to consider both what we like and what can be considered ground breaking art. We need to see what artists are trying to achieve by looking at them across their development. The Dutch artist Piet Mondrian and the Spanish artist Picasso are examples of artists who experimented and developed over time from the figurative to the abstract, to follow their paths assists our understanding of what they were trying to achieve.

Finally we considered critics and the concern by people over their judgements. David gave the example of the recent Saatchi Sculpture competition won by a French born student from the Slade School of Art, Eugenie Scrase. Her sculptures are a form of 'Objets trouves'. However a feeling in the room appeared to be 'Why?' over her success. There is a concern that the current focus on celebrity could interfere with genuine breadth of knowledge and foresight in groups of selected critics.

This summary of a truly excellent lecture, which both informed and challenged one's perceptions, can only provide a brief outline to those members unable to attend. It remains in the mind and helps one become a more informed and critical observer of art.

Liz Trickett

September 2011

Our Guest Speaker for September 2011, David Phillips