8 August 2007

A more interesting question

I find the ill-informed commentary about the NGV’s Van Gogh revelation extremely irritating. Crikey have kept it up by taking the tabloids’ lead and referring to the painting as a ‘fake.’ This is nonsense. The painting has been found to be mis-attributed. It is not fake. There is a difference.

The piece by Geoff Maslen is called ‘Melbourne's other big fake wasn't a Rembrandt’ and he tells us the actually very interesting story of how the NGV handled its last attribution crisis. He is quite right to point out that Patrick McCaughey and now Gerard Vaughan chose to spin the story differently.

In his characteristically flamboyant style, in 1984 Patrick McCaughey was showing newspaper and television reporters around a newly refurbished section of the gallery when he stopped before the gallery’s only self-portrait by Rembrandt and admitted it was not actually by Rembrandt and was probably done by someone else.

McCaughey assured everyone that the NGV still had two genuine Rembrandts: "Two indispensable masterpieces. The real things."

Yet he made the self-portrait still seem like a significant gallery asset, which it was.

Roughly a year ago, the NGV was in the headlines again over claims in the London Sunday Times that the gallery's only painting by Vincent van Gogh, then on loan to an Edinburgh exhibition, was not by him.

Last Friday, current director Dr Gerard Vaughan called the media in and announced that extensive testing by the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam had proved ‘Head of a Man’ to have been painted by someone else. It had been in the NGV collection since 1940 and labled as a Van Gogh since then.

There is no evidence that anyone ever attempted to pass it off as a work by van Gogh, except perhaps those who sold it. As he pointed out, Van Gogh had been largely ignored in his lifetime and only became famous long after his suicide. Although it might not be a forgery, Vaughan admitted the news made the picture almost worthless in money terms.

Maslen says:

“It is uncertain whether another crowd of sticky-beaks will turn up to marvel at it and ponder how simply changing the artist's name could drive its value down from $20 million to a few dollars.”

This is the almost dumbest thing he could have said. Imagine this: I hand you a pistol and say this is an old target pistol my grandfather gave me. What are your feelings after you learn this information? Imagine how different they would be if I handed you the same pistol and said this is the gun that John Wilkes Booth used to kill Abraham Lincoln. What are your feelings now? Are they changed? Of course they are. The context has changed and context alters meaning.

This also ignores one of the central reasons why the picture was so valuable as a Van Gogh. As a Van Gogh, it was unique (and now we know why). There simply wasn’t anything else around like it.

The horizontal format was not found elsewhere in his portraits, and various people speculated that it might have been cut down from a larger work. The colours were more in the earlier, earthy social-realist style he favoured, but the brush strokes are broader, the impression more like the later work. It is rare three-quarter profile and so on and so on.

We now know the decision on the attribution: these qualities were so rare (or unique) in Van Gogh, that it has come down on the other side of the ledger.

But where I think Vaughan slipped up, is in the obvious question to asked now. If Vincent didn’t paint it, then who did? When was it painted, if the previous date is not accurate? Is it indeed a ‘fake’, or is there some other fascinating reason why someone was making pictures like this in 1885?

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