Jan 18, 2011

Mark Landis, an Art Forger Who Was Not In It for the Money

To trick the art world has been the primary motivation of nearly all of history’s known forgers.  The financial gains aside, forgers often seek to fool the art community as revenge for having dismissed their own, original creations.  And the art community, its scholars, collectors, curators, and salesmen, have proven themselves a forger’s best ally. 

The dream of the art historian is to find a lost masterpiece.  This ravenous hunger is a treasure hunt for grown-up intellectuals, with all the accompanying adrenaline and enthusiasm.  The phenomenon that plagues and pleasures the art community is collective wishful thinking.  The spark of hope that one is on the trail of a lost artwork produces a momentum such that contradictory clues may be ignored, and incongruous details overlooked.  Examined from another perspective, it is in no one’s interest to find a possible great discovery to be a fake. 

Before money enters into it, the only beneficiary in disproving the “discovery” is an abstract sense of truth.  Something that may or may not be real is determined not to be real.  But what if it is deemed an original?  Everyone benefits.  The owner of the object now possesses a great treasure, to keep or sell for huge profit.  The seller, be it an auction house, gallery owner, or other middle man, gains his commission.  The new buyer, be it a museum or private collector, gains a rare trophy.  Scholars are privvy to a new object to study, adding to their body of extant works and the knowledge amassed from them.  The media can report on a great story, that there are hidden treasures among us, there for anyone to find.  The collective wishful thinking of the art world unconsciously conspires to affirm the authenticity of newly-discovered works. 

This is particularly the case when a museum is handed a gift.  Museums rely on gifts to fill their walls—most of the Baroque art at London’s National Gallery, for instance, is owned by Sir Dennis Mahon, and the works are displayed on loan thanks to his beneficence.  The term “don’t look a gift horse in the mouth” takes on a new meaning.  It would shatter the delicate reliance museums have on donors and supporters if they were to look too closely and, heaven forbid, discover something wrong with the gift offered to you.

Most known art forgers have turned to forgery for psychological, rather than financial reasons.  The finances are inevitably secondary.  It is generally a sense that one’s own original art was rejected as poor by some member of the art community (be it a teacher, a school, a gallery, a critic).  The forger decides to “show up” the art world as a whole, projecting his sense that he has been wronged onto the collective art world.  Therefore a sort of passive-aggressive revenge is the primary motivator.  Such was the case for a gallery of famous forgers, from Shaun Greenhalgh to John Myatt, from Elmyr de Hory to Eric Hebborn.  Money comes later, when the forger (and almost inevitably an accomplice who goads the forger forward, as John Drewe did for John Myatt) realizes that in addition to revenge, he can pocket some money as well.

Such is the case with Mark Landis, aka Father Arthur Scott aka Steven Gardiner.  But the money did not enter into the equation for him, it seems.  He enjoyed being catered to by the art world, and knowing that he had fooled them, that his own works were being displayed and lauded as Impressionist originals.

By creating a work of your own which exhibits your artistic skill to such an extent that it is mistaken for the work of an acknowledged master, the revenge is two-fold.  First, it demonstrates that the forger’s ability level is comparable to that of the famous master whose work has been forged.  Second, it undermines the so-called “experts” who dismissed the forger’s original work in the first place.  Of course it undermines the experts privately—until the forgery is revealed, in which case even the capture of the forger can underscore the forger’s point and make him feel a victor.  For when the forger is caught and his forgeries come to light, the experts he was out to dupe are shown publically to have been fooled. 

Forgers rarely go to prison for long—a year or two is fairly standard.  Many become celebrities upon their release, like John Myatt whose life story is meant to be made into a film starring George Clooney.

Art forgery, even when you're caught, seems to pay.

Jan 16, 2011

The Secret History of Art is moving to ArtInfo

Dear Readers,
I'm pleased to announce that this blog will shortly be moving to a new host, the excellent daily art magazine ArtInfo (www.artinfo.com).  ArtInfo is the best source for news and features about the art world, with over a million monthly readers.

I have been asked to become a regular columnist, continuing The Secret History of Art as a regular feature on ArtInfo.  The blog will be expanded in its scope, and in the future I will cover not only art historical mysteries, as I have thus far, but also will include my articles and analysis on art crime, art travel adventures, and relevant book, film, and exhibition reviews.  Future visits will be redirected to The Secret History of Art on ArtInfo.

Thank you for reading and I hope that you will continue to do so in our new, larger venue.  Best wishes, NC

Jan 6, 2011

Ribera "Pieta"

Jusepe de Ribera

Ribera is perhaps the greatest and most under-studied painter in history.  His skill at coaxing emotion out of the darkness, the texture of his painted skins, are far beyond the abilities of Caravaggio, his major inspiration.  But for this Spaniard who spent most of his career in Naples, recognition is slow to come.  To a large extent this is due to the almost universal fear of the city of Naples.  Italians will not stay there after dark.  They go for the world’s best pizza and espresso, then high-tail it out of there before the sun sets.  It is chaotic, never cleaned up for tourists, full of pick-pockets and garbage, Antichrist to the Savior that is Florence.  Even for art historians, it presents a daunting task.  The archives are labyrinthine.  Entry is barred without nepotistic passwords.  But the treasures there are great, if you can survive the trials that bring you to them.  And there, in that mysterious beautiful junkyard, shine some of art’s brightest diamonds, many of them by Ribera.
Ribera spent his entire career in Naples.  Jusepe de Ribera (1591-1652) was the son of a shoemaker from Játiva.  So little is known about his early career, that he seems to have appeared out of nowhere in Parma in 1611.  A document from that year is the earliest extant contract, stating that Ribera was paid for a painting of Saint Martin Sharing His Cloak with a Beggar, for the church of Saint Prospero.  From 1613-1616, Ribera was in Rome, as he is listed as a member of the painter’s guild, the Academia di San Luca, in 1613.  In 1616, he made what would be a permanent move to Naples.  There he married Caterina Azzolino, a Sicilian painter’s daughter.  Ribera had a large, prosperous studio in the Spanish-ruled Kingdom of Naples, with both a Spanish and Italian client base.  His influence on Spanish art was through the importation of his works from Italy, and was also disseminated by his pupils, many of whom worked in Spain, including his most famous pupil, Luca Giordano, who painted at El Escorial.
This Pieta is signed and dated on the stone in the lower right corner of the canvas: “Jusepe de Ribera español 1633,” emphasizing his Spanish origins.  This was not only a matter of national pride, but it also made clear that he was one of the ruling nationals in Naples.  Paintings from this period show a lighter palette than Ribera’s earlier works, and illustrate a move away from the Caravaggesque and into a Caravaggio-influenced personal style that would become trademark Ribera.  The two most distinctive features of Ribera’s work are the phenomenally accurate and detailed male bodies, as we see here in the body of Christ, and a striking lighting arrangement that suggests the pallor of moonlight, rather than the sun or a candle or torchlight that was employed by Caravaggio and most of the Caravaggisti. 
It is particularly interesting (and helpful of the kind curators of this museum) that works by Caravaggio (Saint Catherine) and several of the Caravaggisti (those who emulated Caravaggio’s style) are on display in close proximity.  Compare Caravaggio’s own painting, particularly the way the scene is lit, to Mattia Preti’s A Concert and Valentin de Boulogne’s David with the Head of Goliath.  All have a spotlight effect, but the way that figures are portrayed and the drama of the emergence from shadow into light are different in each. 
Consider which you find most effective.  Most art historians consider Mattia Preti and Valentin de Boulogne as more derivative, less original artists than Caravaggio and Ribera; skilled artists but not geniuses.  But this comes down largely to personal preference.  In art, there is no such thing as an objective better and worse.  Such decisions are at the discretion of each individual viewer.  But it is worth noting the arguments made by critics and historians to back up their opinions.  Caravaggio launched what became an international trend in what is often called Tenebrist painting (from the Latin for “shadow”).  It is easy to see how his genius would be distinguished, when no one before him had painted anything like what he did, and hundreds of artists flocked to see his paintings and emulate their style.  Of those who did so, Ribera emerged to paint not just in the style of Caravaggio, but rather took the seed of inspiration planted by Caravaggio and created his own, instantly-identifiable art form which, in turn, served to inspire legions of his own followers.  Mattia Preti and Valentin de Boulogne, by contrast, led fruitful careers and are still much admired, but they neither established, nor perfected, a new trend or movement.
This painting belonged to the Marqués de Heredia, and is one of a number of versions of the Pieta, the moment after the dead Christ is taken off the cross, and his mother Mary is given a brief private moment to mourn her son, before he is whisked away for burial.  It is one of the most popular scenes for artists to depict, because it offers the chance to show off their skill not only in painting a complete, nearly-nude human body (that of the dead Christ), but also an emotion-filled face, that of the weeping Mary.  It is also considered one of the most difficult Biblical scenes to paint well, because most versions show the fully-grown Christ draped across the lap of his mother—a potentially awkward pose that risks making Mary look miniscule, if handled improperly.  The most famous Pieta is probably the marble sculpture by Michelangelo, which is on display in Saint Peter’s in Rome, which Ribera would certainly have seen.  In each version of the Pieta that Ribera painted, he used the same models for Mary, Christ, and Mary Magdalene, though the poses in each are slightly different.  Ribera has creatively chosen to avoid the whole problem of Christ’s corpse on Mary’s lap, by laying Christ out before Mary, rather than upon her.  For this reason, the scene is sometimes called a Lamentation rather than a Pieta.
To get a good sense of Ribera’s work, one must brave the untouristy atmosphere and fantastic pizza of Naples.  But this Pieta, displayed in the sunshine of the welcoming capital of Spain, makes Ribera’s work logistically accessible, and his genius easy to see.  Nowhere else is chiaroscuro, the dramatic play of light emerging from darkness, so brilliantly executed.  Shadows are the webbing with which Ribera weaves a beautiful cacophony of darkness.