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Escapist Blog


Escapist Blog

The news in the NYTimes and elsewhere is so near-uniformly bad that I have no urge to respond to it in a blog. And the Bad Guys in my book who carry much of the responsibility for the disasters--the NRA and the Gun  Lobby, the deniers of global warming, much of the Chinese government, most of Wall St. and the .01%ers (I could add, for longer-term damage, the unadmittedly racist Obama-haters and Be Tough On Immigrants advocates)--they all seem so close to being impregnable that solutions to the problems they cause appear to be far off. So I take the easy out, for now, and write an escapist blog about something entirely different: the art-forger.

No, it’s not my old friend Zhang Daqian again, although I could go on writing about him more or less forever. This time it’s a painter named Ken Perenyi, subject of an article on the front page of the Arts section of the NYTimes for July 19th. The article begins: “Madeira Beach, Fla. -- For nearly three decades Ken Perenyi made a small fortune forging works by popular 18th- and 19th-century artists like Martin Johnson Heade, Gilbert Stuart and Charles Bird King.” My first reaction to this (apart from the old professor’s “substitute ‘such as’ for that ‘like’ and put a comma after ‘Stuart,’” and “Who are Heade and King? Popular? Never heard of them”) was: If they know he’s a forger, why isn’t he in jail? It turns out that the F.B.I. has been “onto him” since 1998, but for some reason hasn’t charged him with crimes, and he’s now developed “a new business model,” selling his paintings openly as “reproductions” of these masters. And so forth--interesting, as are all revelations about authenticity and forgery in art. But I don’t mean today to pursue those issues into the really great cases of van Meegeren and Zhang Daqian, or why the would-be early Chinese landscape painting known as “Riverbank” has to be by Zhang--I’ve offered enough proof of that already to satisfy any open-minded person, and if the closed-minded aren’t responding to my presentations of new damning evidence, that’s their problem. (I still hope I live to see a real “break” in this story, comparable to the one that made the van Meegeren affair an international sensation--it should be, if anything, bigger, since Zhang was a much more interesting, versatile, prolific, and talented artistic personality than that Dutchman. But to go on:)

Instead, I want to raise again, and respond to, the question that revelations of this kind always arouse among artistically unsophisticated readers. It is: If you can’t tell the difference, why does it matter? Why pay tens or hundreds of thousands for a real Gilbert Stuart (or Winslow Homer or whoever) when you can have another indistinguishable from it for a small fraction of that price? Why should we pay so much for “authenticity”? Or, as the headline of the article on Perenyi reads, “Forgeries? Call ‘Em Faux Masterpieces.” Why not? And the answer or refutation to that, if not immediately obvious, is (I believe) in the long run compelling: Because after a while it won’t be the same painting, and you won’t like it any more. Spending time with the painting, seeing real works by the purported artist of yours, will more or less inevitably open your eyes to what’s wrong with yours as a work by that master, and those points of “wrongness” will stand out, take prominence over the once-positive impression of the whole, whenever you look at it. Also, part of the pleasure of owning a painting by a good artist is showing it to others and listening to their admiring comments about it.  If, instead, you hear embarrassed equivocations or outright expressions of disbelief in its authenticity, these can’t help coloring your own perception of the painting.  Some expert will look at it and pronounce it a forgery, and his or her words will come back whenever you look at it. You may say now that it will still be the same painting, and in a simple material sense it will be; but as it exists in your mind--which is where it really exists for you--it won’t be the same painting at all. I write this from experience, my own and those of others as I have watched and listened to them.

Another way out is to say: it’s just a matter of opinion; I have mine, you have yours, and that’s the end of the matter. But that’s like denying the possibility and value of judgments of quality. Somewhere I’ve written about a course in aesthetics I audited long ago given by the philosopher Abraham Kaplan, who spent some class sessions setting up criteria for defining “good” experiences in art: complete, disinterested, prepared-for, etc., vs. incomplete and otherwise “bad” experiences of it, and how these lead to better- or worse-founded judgments of it. And in the end he gave us this formulation: if enough of the best-qualified people, experiencing the work under the best conditions, judge it to be a masterpiece (or a failure), then we can only say: it is a masterpiece (or a failure). Asking for anything more is asking for a judgment from Heaven, and that we aren’t going to get. So, when enough of the best-qualified people declare that the “Supper At Emmaus” was painted by van Meegeren and not by Vermeer, then it was. I know all the objections to that argument--the commission charged with determining authenticity in would-be Rembrandts that couldn’t reach agreement on some of them, and so forth. But those cases are uncommon, and don’t last forever--usually  the really qualified people will reach near-agreement in the end, and objective criteria for analysis will support their judgments.

So, how in the end can we determine authenticity, firmly and finally, when expressed opinions by established authorities continue to differ? Some will answer: Never, so long as well-qualified people disagree over it. And we should remember that they may well have motivations other than real, disinterested conviction that push them to misstate their true beliefs. The disbelievers in “Riverbank” as a Zhang Daqian forgery want its age and authenticity to remain an open question, and they continue to insist--as an old and valued friend has done--that they still can believe somehow in its antiquity, against all the evidence.  And he has advised me not to write of this as an intellectually dishonest position or a cop-out, as in fact I believe it to be.  (For one, only one, of the visual proofs linking “Riverbank” to Zhang Daqian’s hand, contributed by one of my readers and pronounced by another to be “the final nail in the coffin” of “Riverbank,” look back to my blog for April 19th this year on this website. He juxtaposes a passage of tree foliage in an old, published painting by Zhang with a similar passage from “Riverbank,” revealing a correspondence or near-identity that is indeed damning. )

Why does it matter so much to me? My only response to that question is: Zhang was much better than Ken Perenyi, he was a major artist who did far more than paint forgeries, and he never found himself pushed by the F.B.I. or any international agency of art authentication into acknowledging his copious production of fakes. We have to do that for him, and for future art historians so that they won’t be deluded into allowing his works to distort their histories of early Chinese painting. And in the end, the non-antiquity of “Riverbank” will be established by a drastic reduction, if never total elimination, of doubters. That’s because we cannot, alas, get a judgment from Heaven on the matter--or an admission of guilt like Perenyi’s from my old friend Zhang as he enjoys his afterlife up there. (So, in the end, this blog turned out to be really another one about the inescapable Mr. Zhang.)

James Cahill, July 25th 2012

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