“If [a fake] hangs on the wall long enough, it becomes real.” Those words, spoken by a distinguished art forger, are from the documentary F for Fake, but that only makes the words more potent.
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This forger, Elmyr de Hory, and his journalist profiler, Clifford Irving, claim that there are fakes by Elmyr—fake Matisses, fake Modiglianis—all certified as genuine by panels of experts and now hanging in the finest museums in the world.
We all know the story very well. Van Gogh sold only one painting for money while he was still alive. Now he is the art superstar. At the time of his death in 1890, he was an unknown entity to the rest of the world. By a few years after the end of World War I, the market was starving for new Van Goghs. All of his greatest works were already in important hands, and there was a rush for his paintings on the art market. A young dancer named Otto Wacker saw this as an opportunity.
In Solar Dance: Van Gogh, Forgery, and the Eclipse of Certainty, Modris Eksteins takes us through a spectacular trial, as Wacker and his faked paintings were dragged in front of a German court to account for themselves. It’s the captivating story of a changing world, of authenticity versus forgery, of money versus art, and the established order of experts and gallery owners and museum directors versus “the little guy.”
Here Eksteins answers a few questions about the way Van Gogh posthumously moves through our world.
You write in the beginning that Van Gogh hasn't just become an important painter, but now he's something of a celebrity—we seem to be endlessly fascinated about who he was as a person. There was that recent book that speculated that he was murdered rather than committed suicide, and there are articles aplenty trying to diagnose his disorder posthumously. What specifically about Van Gogh do you think inspires such a fascination, and why in general do you think we have such an appetite to understand the person as well as the artist?
Van Gogh and his fate clearly touch an extremely sensitive nerve in us. It is our context, as much as his, that is crucial here. And I suggest that it is our own culture of doubt that helps explain our fascination.
Van Gogh’s popularity has grown steadily since the late 19th century, but there have been three great waves of adulation, each coming after a world war of the 20th century and the difficult questions these conflicts—World War I, World War II and the Cold War—posed. Van Gogh’s life, with its social and moral quandaries, exemplifies our personal perplexities and anxieties. And yet, despite his own existential uncertainty, and tragic end, he produced an art of inestimable vibrancy. He was the failure who succeeded, the underdog who won. Every detail of such a story is bound to excite.
Van Gogh was easy to forge, as you write, because he left such a scattered paper trail. You could insert your own painting into his oeuvre. And yet the artwork seems so very distinctive, so eccentric almost, that to a layperson it would seem quite difficult to forge. How good were the forgeries you write about in your book? Some you said were a little obviously fake, but how good were the others?
How “good” were they? Good enough to persuade the experts initially. Good enough to keep some owners battling until recently for the reauthentication of their picture. The documentary film by Michael and Monica de Jong, [about the painting] F614 and [called] Me, My Brother and My Father's Van Gogh, describes one such effort.
Moreover, Van Gogh himself declared that some of his work was decidedly inferior. That said, for many, authenticity, like beauty or, indeed, history, is in the eye of the beholder. Chester Dale, the wealthy American collector, would say that his Van Gogh would remain authentic as long as he, Chester Dale, was alive. The concept of authenticity has, like so much of our language and definition, become fraught with difficulty. In late 1932, for example, the assertion surfaced that Van Gogh had “faked himself” because he had been untrue to his own moral and aesthetic upbringing. And in a letter to his brother, Theo, he himself said that his work was of necessity a lie, in that it conflicted with prevailing standards and approaches.
In the documentary F for Fake, an art forger says that without experts, and without an out-of-control art market, there would be no forgery. It's these expert decisions that certify the Van Goghs as real, although many of them, as you point out, have ulterior motives. In F for Fake the experts are mostly shown to be buffoons, without any real idea how to certify a painting. What do you think of the experts who were involved in certifying these Van Goghs? Were they skilled at their jobs, just falling short with a charming huckster?
In the longer term, if I may play devil’s advocate, many purported experts, especially in the human sciences, are simply buffoons. Good play-acting is what qualifies them as experts.
What is especially striking in the case I describe in my book is how the accused fraudster, Otto Wacker, remained far more consistent in his accounting than the so-called experts, and by the end of his trial he had garnered considerable sympathy whereas the fickle flip-flopping experts had forfeited all respect.
To me this trial is broadly symptomatic of the fate of the Weimar Republic confronted as it was by that other fraud artist, Adolf Hitler. In the wider arena of German society and politics in the Weimar years, the existing authorities made fools of themselves while Hitler remained remarkably consistent in his assertions and demands. Not surprisingly Otto Wacker joined the Nazi Party.
In the city where I am currently residing, there is a large Van Gogh exhibit going on. There are large banners advertising it across the town, and a special Van Gogh gift shop with Starry Night on an endless selection of materials from magnets to coffee mugs. If the forgeries and rise of Van Gogh as an artist after this death revealed something to you about that particular early 20th-century culture, what do you think our appreciation of Van Gogh as a coffee-mug artist says about our contemporary culture?
I think Walter Benjamin had something very important to say in that famous essay of his where he bemoaned the loss of “aura” that mechanical reproduction brings. Whether it be Beethoven’s 9th or Mozart’s 40th or Van Gogh’s Starry Night, popularization and commercialization have undermined the essential integrity of these works of art—their particular situation in time and place and their uniqueness. We have appropriated these works for our own, often mundane, purposes, and in our cut-and-paste e-culture of today such exploitation is more tempting and convenient than ever.
Yet, there is no point in regretting such a development. The loss of definition, fixity and certainty accompanying this process makes the world a more colorful, effervescent and maybe even safer place. Certainty breeds contempt; doubt brings humility. In a showdown between the two, I will always vote for doubt.
Jessa Crispin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Bookslut.