Not Van Gogh at the National Gallery of Victoria: Autograph, Allograph, Again
Posted by gninja on August 3, 2007
(No longer part of the Van Gogh oeuvre. Head of a Man at the National Gallery of Victoria, in Australia.)
The NGV announced today that they would accept the findings of the Van Gogh Museum in the Netherlands and no longer ascribe Head of a Man to Vincent Van Gogh.
I do find it amusing that the newspaper went with the headline, “NGV’s ‘Van Gogh’ a Fake”, as if the artist, a contemporary of Van Gogh, had been a forger intent on deceiving audiences and buyers. Of course, we have no idea whether such was the case. We certainly have no confession from a 19th century Robert Thwaites, so it isn’t exactly fair play to call Head of a Man a ‘fake.’
Regardless, the article brought me back to thinking about Nelson Goodman (as I had been doing in my previous post) and, in general, art history’s relationship to attribution and forgeries. Possibly needless to say, art historians have always been fixated on attribution, whether such-and-such an artist created such-and-such a work. If nothing else, it lent (lends?) the discipline the scientific appearance it strove to attain from its institutionalized beginning in 1870s Germany. As, most notably, with Morelli and others, art historians collected data and ‘evidence’, compiling lists of traits and styles so as to categorize the history of the world’s art into neat and tidy schools and periods.
So, of course, in this Linnaean system getting it ‘right’ and being able to pin works to individuals and specific dates was vital to the establishment of an accepted and credible discipline.
By the 1970s and 1980s, when art history was going through a lot of changes (very energizing to the field), this kind of connoisseurship and even antiquarianism came into question. Or, at the very least, art historians no longer took for granted the importance of a work’s originality and endeavored to locate the reasons for, in a word, caring.
Nelson Goodman’s book Languages of Art tackled the question of the allograph and the autograph, which led to a series of debates on the differing values (monetary and otherwise) of an original and a forgery which cannot be told apart by the naked eye. Goodman argues that, even if we cannot tell the difference between the two, the knowledge that one is a forgery and one is an original produces an aesthetic difference which then alters our perception of the works.
I love the response of Thomas Kulka to this argument, in his article, “The Artistic and Aesthetic Status of Forgeries” (Leonardo, 1982). He calls Goodman a snob. Heh. However, beyond that, Kulka makes the insightful point that works may be judged on the basis of art-historical value and aesthetic value. While the former judges a piece of art based on its production during a precise moment in time and its effect on later history (and relationship to prior history) the latter bases its judgment purely on the aesthetic quality of the work. So, while the original and forgery may have equal aesthetic values, their art-historical values are vastly different. This argument is clear enough and by no means hard to arrive at. For my part, I think it’s a pretty good case: some works are good because of their artistic value, and other works are good because they extended beyond their frames and contemporary contexts to affect people and history.
Yet Kulka met with criticism. Goodman didn’t respond too well (Leonardo, 1982), nor did Jacques Mandelbrojt (Leonardo, 1983). Their responses insisted on the importance of authenticity, which must be discerned in the aesthetic quality of the piece.
It’s an old guard view because at risk in this argument is the reputation of the field and its foundation in the sciences. Art historians, by and large, cannot stand being told that there is no way to ‘prove’ their arguments. So they have to revert to science and scientific method. It’s all silly and has a rather immature attachment to historical positivism.
Returning to the NGV and their not-Van-Gogh. I’m happy that they’re still going to display the painting– it’s a confident move that declares the directors are not exclusively concerned with headlining names but also with the works themselves. But, as with my final statement in my post about Robert Thwaites, the work itself now gains currency and importance just from the debates its sparked regarding forgeries, originals, and attribution. All of which should be included somehow in the presentation of the piece. Let the audience know what they’re viewing, the recent debates about it, and push them to form their own opinions about the significance of authenticity. That’d make for a great exhibition.