10 November 2013

Ways of Seeing (Aspect-Blindness Edition)

"What do we see when we look at a painting? Decisions. Stroke by stroke, the painter did something rather than something else, a sequence of choices that add up to a general effect. If you’re like me — and, yes, I count myself a middling connoisseur — you register the effect and then investigate how it was achieved; walking the cat back, as they say in espionage. As a trick, ask yourself, of details in a painting, something like, 'Why would I have done that in that way?' The aim is to enter into the mind, and the heart, of the creator. Attaining it entails trust, like that of a child attending a fairy tale."

From Peter Schjeldahl's recent post at the New Yorker blog, written in response to Blake Gopnik's NYT essay, "In Praise of Art Forgeries," which itself was prompted by the presently unfolding saga of the Ab-Ex forgery ring.

The above passage is -- for me, anyway -- perhaps the best description I've yet read of the act of looking at a painting. The back-and-forth-and-back-again dance in which a viewer examines and traces the technical material details, attempts to mentally reconstruct the processes involved in its execution, noting the way elements x, y, and z coalesce, contrast, and cumulate in the overall gestalt.

And Schjeldahl also goes on to astutely describe about how this very same process or type of looking is also part of the sense of detecting when you might be looking at a forgery, of noting when something looks amiss. At another point, he argues:

"[A forgery is] not a 'work' at all but a pastiche whose one and only intention is to deceive. ...Fakes are contemporary portraits of past styles. No great talent is required, just a modicum of handiness and some art-critical acuity. A forger needn’t master the original artist’s skill, only the look of it."

He additionally cites early 20th-century art historian Max Friedländer's remark that "Forgeries must be served hot," using the historical example of Han van Meegeren as an illustration. For those unfamiliar with Van Meegeren, he was a Dutch artist famous for having passed off a handful of fake Vermeers during the 1920s-1930s. For example...

I first came across the case of Van Meegeren as an undergrad, and my immediate thought at seeing the top image above was something tot effect of: "Dude, that is so not a Vermeer." The claim at the time they were first put before the public was that the "newly discovered" works came from a previously-unseen phase of Vermeer's career -- a brief period when he (uncharacteristically) tried his hand with religious subject matter. That itself probably could've been debunked by anyone who'd done enough biographical/archival research. But the evidence in primarily in the look of the thing, and how many ways the look of the thing "howlingly" smacks of bullshit. The tight, close-angle composition and awkwardly cramped spatial relations? Wrong. The tonal palette as a whole? Wrong. The modeling of garments, of light and shadow, and etc.? Wrong, wrong, and wrong.

But the main tip-off for me at the time was rendering of the figures themselves -- especially the faces. At which point Schjeldahl's remarks about a "contemporary portraits of past styles" is fitting, because to me the faces didn't look like the types of faces that'd appear in a Vermeer, or from 17th-century Dutch painting in general. To me they looked very early 20th-c, sporting a type of craniofacial proportioning and gauntness and whatnot that seemed to be very artistically fashionable/common in painting of the between-the-wars era. Like faces one might find in the work of a Käthe Kollwitz or Ben Shahn imitator. It was the obvious epitome of someone trying to imitate the past, a past as viewed and filtered through the (then-)present; with the ten-present stylistic preferences subconsciously seeping into Van Meegeren's efforts, as it obviously did for anyone who was fooled by them at the time.*

Whereas I suppose the epitome of forgeries being "served hot" would probably be watching Elmyr de Hory dash off fake Picassos and Matisses in Orson Welles's F is for Fake.

At any rate, between the Knoedler/Freedman/Rosales forgery scandal and the story of the recently-discovered trove of modern art in Munich, I'm reminded that there's something I meant to post about earlier; a story from my own personal experience very much connected to the aforementioned topics. So I guess it's time I sat down and hammered it out for the sake of sharing. Preferably sooner than later. So perhaps in the next week or two, then.

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*  I say this as someone who's never had any big affinity for 17th-century Dutch painting, who's never studied it at any great length. But at the same time, I say this as someone who has lived in an era when photographic reproductions of art works are -- to put it flatly -- very, very common. Which probably wasn't so much the case in the earlier portion of the prior century. That, plus the fact that aren't that many Vermeers to go around in the first place,...

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