Inside Out – essays by an art journalist. Essay 5: deception.

The fifth essay from the new .ART blog series, written by our art world spy is on deception in the arts, and deception as an art. Here ideas of information value, provenance and art identification are presented in a way that prompts us to reflect on a cornerstone concept of the art world – authenticity.

Optical illusion and other art techniques

Since art was born, it tends to deceive human feelings and to pass off one thing for another: a surface for volume, or marble for flesh.

This was how the pictorial arts were improved: towards better deception and more intricate illusion. All antique painting strove to be life-like first of all, which made the panting’s meaning and plot redundant. Their paintings did not reach us, but there are legends about birds flying down to peck grapes painted by Zeuxis, viewers asking a painter to pull aside the painted curtain to see a picture behind it, and donkeys going hee-haw at sight of painted jenny-asses. The last example is actually believable, for it resembles the mechanism of pornography, also intended to deceive our best feelings.

Gradually the idea that art is nothing but an optical illusion gave way to the understanding that art is a more complex and comprehensive deception. Visual illusions proper differentiated into a separate genre honestly called trompe d’oeil (‘cheat the eye’). They can either be quite naïve or almost mathematically sophisticated like Mauritz Escher’s ornaments. But classical painting took another path; its works, however perfect, are images sincerely created – and inevitably affected by the artist’s vision and presented in a manner depending on his skill, technique, and temperament.

People see things differently, after all. Even when artists are in one camp and profess the same style, they will inevitably go separate ways. In this sense, artists are very much like all of us. Since 1907, Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque worked together to develop a style that Louis Vauxcelles nicknamed ‘Cubism’. Their works were quite similar at times, but then their painting manners changed decisively, and a late Picasso cannot be confused with a late Braque. And until now many are sure that Cubism was invented by Picasso, while Vauxcelles spoke of Braque.

Mauritz Escher

Why we perceive art differently

In his Essay on Man, Ernst Cassirer cites the example of four artists who painted the same landscape and showed the Tivoli Gardens from four different angles. But he says nothing of how those four images would be perceived by viewers. Should this be factored in, the number of interpretations would have to be squared.

Firstly, colour perception varies; colour-blind people are denied pilot licenses – but not the right to interpret art. But this is just a trick of vision, tricks of intelligence and education are far more important. Visitors to museums and even art lovers include more educated and less educated people. Some know more about painting in general, a specific artist or even a certain work by him. They try to guess what the author meant and to read meanings into it that may not be apparent to others.

And here we already deal with another side of deception, not necessarily envisaged by the artist at all. For example, one interpreter of the Portrait of an Unknown Woman by Kramskoi will turn the heroine from a heavenly creature into a street girl. Another will see her as a noble lady, quite worthy of being printed on a box of chocolates. The picture itself will remain the same in either case.

This is true of virtually all works of classical art. The Birth of Venus by Botticelli can also be perceived as a chocolate box scene, albeit an Italian one. The guide will tell you its mythological plot, mention zephyrs and nymphs, and review its composition. Then you will read the story of Simonetta Vespucci, the most beautiful Florentine who posed for Botticelli and many of his contemporary artists, the Christian world’s first top model. Since then you will no longer look at that painting with ignorant eyes as you first did – which you ought to regret perhaps.

The more a man knows about a work of art, the more he will see in it, but even more things will be lost on him forever. And if ‘properly’ prepared, he will easily see even something that’s not actually in the picture.

Does it follow that if some information is incorrect, he will see the picture in the wrong way? No, not that much. This is as personal a view of the artist’s work as personal is an artist’s view of the landscape in Cassirer’s example. But to change or prepare one’s perception is possible, which underlies the common opinion that masters can program their own reputation and that the domination of modern art is the result of critics’, art dealers’ and artists’ conspiracy designed to jack up the works’ prices.

Here a professional compact is presented as outright fraud. ‘Look, here’s the Black Square by Malevich – it’s no art at all, my son will draw better.  It’s just smart dealers’ collusion; if I had the same acquaintances and opportunities, my works would cost as much.’ That is highly debatable. If things are so simple, draw your own black square and try to bribe the artistic mafia! But this common attitude does make sense. The creation of anybody’s reputation, even our own, includes deception whose proportions we may not realise. But this also applies to physicians’, financiers’ and politicians’ reputations.

Of course, there is also direct fraud in art. Especially when it comes to sales. And it’s not just about the price. We know too well how the artist’s name affects the perception of his work. One and the same picture is differently priced if painted by Rubens himself or simply by one of the artists who worked at his ‘painting factory’. The news of a work by an unknown artist at a provincial museum’s repository re-attributed to a master’s brush mean only one thing: that everyone will treat a previously ignored picture quite differently.

Portrait of an Unknown Woman by Kramskoi

Art fraud and art of fraud

The history of fakes confirms this. A recent fraud, where a work by Marinus Koekkoek was converted into a Shishkin with just a few strokes to make it cost a million dollars instead of sixty thousand, is nowhere near as elegant as the major artistic scams of the 20th century.

We know several painters of exceptional talent who manufactured precious antiques. In the early 20th century there was much talk about the sculptor Alceo Dossena who supplied the biggest collections and museums with antique, Renaissance and mediaeval sculptures. He made things in great ancient masters’  style, striving to reach their level, to be finally mistaken for them. He received no recognition of his own, and his self-exposure was all the more disappointing as his guilt was quite limited. His things were sold as antiques by art dealers who kept the artist himself on a starvation diet.

Another classical example is Han van Meegeren, a Dutch painter of genius who created five Vermeers and two Pieters de Hooch. He was almost anecdotally denounced. Van Meegeren was tried for having sold one of his Vermeers into Hermann Göring’s collection. To avoid the worse evil of being accused of collaboration with the Nazis, he preferred to confess to falsification instead.

To my mind, this exposure was a horrible occurrence in the history of arts. Confidence in respectable experts and in the expert appraisal institution as such was undermined, and the worst thing is that art history was deprived of several nearly genuine Vermeers. Exploded fraud killed art. In the heat of denouncement no one asked what would be better to have: several works painted in Vermeer’s style (especially as they do not compromise the artist’s mastership but were recognised as masterpieces by experts in Vermeer) or several works by a notorious modern artist of scandalous repute. Van Meegeren should have said that Vermeer’s spirit was leading his brush.

Incidentally, after dying in prison the artist gave his last surprise in 2009, when a chemical analysis of one of his ‘fakes’, The Procuress, showed that it was probably an original. Instead of a work by Han van Meegeren, we got a 1622 work by Dirck van Baburen.

I think his lesson was learned by John Drewe, who was tried for selling forged works by modern artists. Eight instances were proven, and authenticity of sixty objects was questioned, but he is generally considered to have circulated two hundred fakes. His assistant John Myatt, an arts teacher, could imitate any fashionable artist’s painting manner. Drewe did a lot to enrich the art of fraud. Generous ‘contributions’ let him into the archives of the Tate Gallery and Victoria & Albert Museum, where he worked painstakingly to correct history and to add information about some freshly-painted works by Modigliani or Monet. He would go beyond forging sale certificates to create decent provenances for his works and to supply them with papers like clandestine agents. In 1999 he was imprisoned for six years and then caught cheating again and given a new sentence, but the paintings he produced are still out there somewhere.

Art born of deception always revenges exposure. This is attested to by a well-known phrase by Picasso: ‘Art is a lie that enables us to realise the truth’.

Han van Meegeren

Also published on Medium.