The humiliation of Josiah Wedgwood, the revenge of art forgery, and the concession of contemporary art
Designprozesse, Fachhochschule Nordwestschweiz Hochschule für Gestaltung und Kunst, 21 March 2015
When Josiah Wedgewood died in 1795, he left a thriving business of a highly innovative craft combined with modern industrial production and creative marketing strategies. Nevertheless I believe that Wedgwood died with a not insignificant resentment, a resentment which would be even greater had he been able to observe the reception of his work the following couple of centuries.
Wedgwood, who was a contemporary with Immanuel Kant, was of an extremely inquisitive mind; during his entire career he never ceased to experiment with his art, on every level. He conducted systematical experiments with his clay, his firings, and his ovens, as well as with his glazes. He continuously improved his management, accounting systems, and invented radically new methods of marketing and communication, and, most importantly, he generously and incessantly linked his production to the art world of his time: researching in antique art as well as heavily supporting and employing contemporary artists for research and design. It was in this last aspect Wedgwood invested most of his efforts, that is in associating an artistic legitimacy to his wares, to induce into them a feeling, or a token, of an educated taste. This effort was not without reason. During the second half of the 18th century, antique vases was one of the most studied and most highly valued artefacts, and Wedgwood probably saw no reason why it shouldn’t be so for the modern vases as well. But despite its commercial success, its extremely supportive stance towards involving artists in the production, its choices of subject matters and agile sensitivity with regard to style and innovation, this project for artistic legitimacy was doomed to fail.
The famous Wedgwood has, through the magic of his sculpture, conjured up in the middle of England a new Etruria -- the name of the well known estate in Staffordshire, where the gentlemen Wedgwood and Bentley, by means of their excellent imitations of Antiquity in pastes and larger bodies, know how to get acclamation throughout the whole of Europe -- and from his still only factory, is now brought forth the most deceptive replicas of ancient magnificent vases, both in regard to the strength and quality of the material as excelling with regard to the formal beauty and in the choice of paintings and reliefs, superseding everything hitherto seen in terracotta, bisque, porcelain, glass molding, etcetera [...].1
Böttiger wrote his laudatory remarks on Wedgwood and Company’s production as a corrective to Winckelmann’s scornful judgement from 1764: “Our so beloved porcelain vessels have still not been refined by genuine artistry. Most porcelain is fashioned into ridiculous dolls, resulting in the spread of a childish taste,”2 which Böttiger saw contested, especially in Wedgwoods production, albeit muddled with concepts like “magic,” “conjuring up” as well as “deceptive replicas” and “imitations of the antique.”
Wedgwood’s alliances with the neo-classical art of his time nonwithstanding, the judgement of Winckelmann has proved to be the lasting judgement of the art world. Kaendler’s rococo figurines, the main objective of Winckelmann’s criticism, eventually pulled Wedgwood’s most well-researched and high-profiled antique replica, the Portland Vase, with them in the art critical elite’s condamnation of ceramics as such. This very same dismissal of ceramics en bloc is most recently repeated by Mario Perniola, writing in 1983 that
in art journals the advertisements of the galleries are not to be distinguished from the texts that discusses the luxury gods they sell. Conversely, the best camouflaged journals of the advertising industry publishes cultivated and unassailable texts, which precisely delivers a culturally heightened image of the consumer of commodity production, while the ware (for instance cars or ceramics) is seen in a marginal or accidental way. In this way you can perfectly well advertise for a faience bathroom in a philosophical journal [...].3
In such a way that not even a casual reader can oversee the strong dichotomy between art and “a philosophical journal” on the one hand, and design and “a faience bathroom” on the other. Do we need to add that the posthumous reputation of Böttiger was that of a parody of an art critic, and that any “Journal of Luxuries and Fashion” couldn’t be anything other than the epitome of artistic perversions seen from the point of view of the emerging concept of modern art.
II.According to Joseph Alsop, art is defined, and I believe rightly so, by eight epiphenomenons.4 Incidentally, design share with art all of those eight epiphenomenons: there are collectors of design, a history of design, a market for design, design museums, design forgery, re-evaluation of taste, antiquities (for instance bakelite telephones or Umbrian majolica), and super-prices. Still, it is evident that design is subsumed under an other discourse than art.
Something, then, must be different, the question remains: different in what? When the question is the relationship between art and design, we imply, consciously or not, that this relationship is asymmetric in such a way that art is more refined, more specialized, and more narrow than design. And in a certain perverse way, we assume that design desires or strives to be like art, if not actually be art. I will here try to test the opposite direction in the relationship: what if art desires or strives to be like design? This is not a new reversal. It was attempted by the constructivists, by the Arts & Crafts movement, and by Bauhaus. But they all failed in this regard. Art and design continued to be separate disciplines and discourses, and maybe even more so after these attempts. I will instead take another stance, within a more emotional framing on the conflict, in terms of humiliation and revenge, with which I believe it can be shown that the difference stems from a metaphysics of history, resulting in different conceptions of remembered name vs trademark, of origin versus periphery, necessity versus contingency, and of the concepts to create (creare ex nihilo) versus to forge (facere de materia).
One could, with Thierry Lenain,5 argue that art forgery, as we understand it today, commences in the West at the same time Edouard Manet caused the famous succès de scandale with his Luncheon in the Grass at the Salon des Réfuses. The following year, in 1865 at an exhibition in Musée Rétrospectif, a portrait bust of the late 15th-century Italian poet Girolamo Benivieni caused no less a sensation as a master-piece of Renaissance art.6 This bust was bought by Count de Nieuwekerke, the superintendent of the Louvre, for the Venus of Milo-comparable sum of 14,000 francs in May 1866. After the acquisition Nieuwekerke kept it in his private collection until January 1867, when it entered the collection of Renaissance sculpture in the Louvre. But rumours had already begun emanating from Florence that the Benivieni-bust was a modern work, made by an otherwise unknown Florentine sculptor Giovanni Bastianini, and soon a quarrel broke out between the French and Italian art worlds. The Frenchmen refused to accept the possibility that a contemporary Italian artist could be able produce a Renaissance master-piece of such an outstanding quality. The Italians, on their part, ridiculed the ignorance of the French art historians. But behind this quarrel was buried a more rooted emotional sentiment, where the since the Napoleonic war artistically humiliated Italians finally could laugh back with the help of their glorious Renaissance past. But, as the incidents with Courbet and Manet, and the rest of the Nineteenth-Century has shown, even though the battle was won by the Italian art critics, the war on the concept of art was definitely lost to Paris.
Since then, Giovanni Bastianini is included in the long list of art forgers, running as a shameful supplementary chronicle under the glorious history of the achievements and advancements of art. Technically speaking, Bastianini’s Benivieni-bust is a modern forgery; it is, as is indeed the bulk part of Bastianini’s production, an artificially aged sculpture purportedly depicting a Renaissance man. It is however questionable if it was produced to deceive, as the piece was commissioned by the art dealer Giovanni Freppa in 1864 for 300 francs. The Italian art collector Alessandro Foresi saw the bust, recognized it as a work by Bastianini and offered 500 francs for it. Freppa declined the offer, and instead sold it to the French collector Louis-Félix de Nolivos for 700 francs. It was at the de Nolivos sale that the price eventually sky-rocketed to the incredible 14,000 francs. Repeating a pattern for every piece of early Renaissance sculpture from the hands of Bastianini which during the mid-Nineteenth Century entered museums in Europe and the United States.
Rather than a forger in the modern sense, Bastianini was a craftsman, working in the traditional style in which he had been trained since his youth. The artificial ageing is not per se an evidence of forgery, as it often was an expressed wish from the commissioners to have their – typically – wives and daughters dressed in historicizing costumes and the sculpture artificially aged, so that they could be placed in the same company as the beauties of the past.7 More appropriately, the Bastianini case ought rather to be viewed as the clashing of two diametrically opposed visions of art. On the one hand the traditional Italian, where stylistic epochs like Antiquity, late Gothic, Renaissance, and the Baroque in reality doesn’t mean very much, but can be re-actualized or developed, like a photographic print, at any time, and even blended in any proportion with any other stylistic feature. What really mattered was the technical skill or artistic representation of the subject-matter. On the other hand we have the emerging concept of modern art, where subject-matter and technical skill is emphatically suppressed for instead to introduce concepts of progression – or even transgression –, innovation, and individual subjectivity as the parameters of artistic value.
As it was the latter concept of art which won, Bastianini’s fame declined correspondingly, for soon to disappear completely from any discussion of art outside the shameful annals of art forgery. With one exception. The South Kensington Museum bought as early as 1869 a female marble bust, the “Lucrezia Donati,” who had earlier been attributed to Mino da Fiesole, from Alessandro Foresi as a work by Giovanni Bastianini, but for a price equivalent to that commanded by genuine pieces from the Renaissance.8 The Victoria and Albert Museum has continued with this unique strategy since, which in its blending of the concepts of art and craft, has come to make any concept of forgery remarkably inconsequential and superfluous.
This general scheme of the sensational discoveries that later becomes exposed as modern forgeries for consequently to be despised as “a crime against art”9 is repeated continuously, with some significant variations, throughout the history of modern art. One of the most notable variations being Han van Meegeren’s hacking, or reverse engineering of the production process, his extensive research in the history and reception of Vermeer, and his technical invention of making the oil-medium resistant to the test of the nail. The combination of research, production, and marketing processes being strangely reminiscent of Wedgwood’s.
III.The first thing to remember is that before any art forger becomes and art forger, he is an artist.10 The one common feature all and every art forger share with each other is their losing out the art historical narrative. If not overt and aggressively anti-modernist, as for instance Van Meegeren, more defaitistic disagreeing over the artistic trends of their time, as for instance Eric Hebborn, Elmyr de Hory, or Wolfgang Beltracchi, or simply ignorant of the ideas of the avant-garde and modernism, as for instance Alceo Dossena or Tom Keating, they share this common aesthetic view, based on craft and skill rather than innovation and iconoclasm. When those artist did exhibit their own works, after they had been exposed as forgers, the critics are usually more than customary harsh in their judgment. When Alceo Dossena, a character very similar to Bastianini, had in 1929 an exposition immediately after his exposure as the forger behind a number of antique, medieval and renaissance sculptures, his work was savaged by the critics. Mark Jones, the editor of the sumptuous exhibition catalog Fake? from 1990, was not any milder in his judgment of Dossena’s legitimate works: ”This example, acquired from the exhibition in Berlin,” Jones writes, “shows why. Removed from dependence on the dealers who set him his subjects and exercised strict quality control, his work had markedly deteriorated. Of interest though is the deliberately inflicted damage, a hallmark of the faker’s trade, which Dossena must absentmindedly (or drunkenly) have inflicted on his work before remembering that this example was to reach the world as his own.”11
There was never any great interest in exhibiting Eric Hebborn’s legitimate works, which are made in a vaguely indeterminate modernist style, but after his confessions a couple of galleries exhibited some of his own works together with a strange type of artistic genre, labelled “decorative fakes.” The critics weren’t excited. Geraldine Normans wrote an review with the telling title “Old Master faker fails to show a style of his own,” concluding that the “show of drawings, most of them not made as fakes, underlines the fact that a picture faker does not have the time to develop his own style. Hebborn is a very good draughtsman but this group of his work looks miscellaneous and gives no clue to what makes him tick.”12
Though I am sceptical, to say the least, of this kind of self-confident judgments backed by conformity and hindsight, I have to admit that it is indeed difficult to muster any enthusiasm to the legitimate works of Han van Meegeren, Elmyr de Hory, Tom Keating, Wolfgang Beltracchi, or the legitimate works of the recent exposed forger of American Abstract Expressionists, Qian Pei-Shen.
Nevertheless, the artistic feat of the forgers, was never their legitimate works, it was precisely the aesthetic concepts and methods introduced while forging. I am thinking about concepts and methods like acting as a medium for someone beyond space-time, the hacking and the reverse engineering of constructing a work from the final result back to the original intention, a strong awareness of the epiphenomenons and mechanisms of the art world, from the question of the taste of their time, to the logic of economical transactions and convincing presentation, and I am thinking about the strong sense of operating with the contingency of the past instead of the avant-garde or the modernist sense of the necessity of the future. Aspects, which all have shown to be predominant in recent and contemporary practices.
Some obvious examples would be the reverse engineering of an Elaine Sturtevant, who not only copies the works she engages in, but rather tries to figure out the production process with everything it implies of technical and emotional reversibilities in which she once, inadvertedly, came to prove that the famous photograph of Duchamp’s Fountain in reality is a photo-collage; or an Eleanor Antin, who in a fascinating way explores the unknown landscapes of contingent pasts, for instance in her re-staging of a never realized movie with herself as the main character Florence Nightingale; or we could mention Hito Steyerl’s research based documentaries exploring the concepts of subjectivity, image-production, and memory.
But my argument does not limit itself to those “obvious examples,” my point is rather that virtually every artist today works along similar lines, and so with a certain necessity, as the concept of art increasingly has concessed to the concepts behind art forgery, which should be remembered, was installed by the modern concept of art as its invisible negation in 1864. And in so doing, it has surrendered to the conceptual framework of its former humiliatee, that is: craft, industrial production, and design.
IV.Coinciding with the collapse of the Soviet Union and a rapidly growing interest for works from the Russian avant-garde, it soon became obvious for everyone that forgeries of works from the Russian avant-garde are literary flooding the market. In 2009 an retrospective exhibition of the Russian painter Aleksandra Ekster at Château Museum in Tours, for instance, was put down before its scheduled closing when an expert on Russian art, Andrei Nakov, claimed that 190 of the in total 192 paintings in the show were forgeries. The curator of the Ekster retrospective – and the owner of 130 of the paintings – was another well-known expert, the Paris art dealer Jean Chauvelin. Chauvelin claimed that he had bought the paintings in Russia 30 years ago, but was not able to present any documentation or authentification with the obvious motivation, “the expert, that’s me.”13 In connection with the exhibition Jean Chauvelin published a catalogue raisonné of Aleksandra Ekster, which is with all likeliness mainly made up of recent products, supplemented with some works actually produced by Aleksandra Ekster. As if this wasn’t bad enough, Chauvelin, and a number of other more or less self-proclaimed experts, have forged an entire oeuvre of Russian artists. As there are a number of documented names of artists, who evidently worked with Malevich in Vitebsk, but of who no works remain. These names are convenient beholders, or trademarks, on to which one can attach any more or less arbitrary production. One such name is Anna Kagan, another Nina Kogan. Basically we know close to nothing of these two, and any information about their lives should be carefully checked from where this piece of informations stems, as the informations very well could have been made up to match the works attributed to them, which since the 1990s started to appear on the market. Of Nina Kogan some hundred works have been auctioned. They are almost certainly all modern products and seem to stem from two different and competing sources, as the two styles are utterly incompatible with each other. One branch of the trademark Nina Kogan features a strange, but very attractive and historically unique, combination of suprematism merged with Jewish mysticism, not without parallels with how Klezmer music was re-invented in New York during the same time. From who or from where this group of Kogan’s originates I don’t know, but most of them appeared on the market through Christie’s in London. The other group is even more bizarre. They are characterized with a eerie form of – excuse my phrasing – “designed” suprematism. They have obviously nothing in common with suprematism as we know it, but share some superficial properties with suprematism, arranged in a decorative pattern and thus deconstructing suprematism in a way not unlike fashion’s well-known deconstruction of Mondrian. All works from this group ultimately have their provenance from the above-mentioned Jean Chauvelin. The devilry in this is that in spite of their obvious status as fakes, they are not auctioned as such, and eventually they will, I believe, succeed in establishing the painterly oeuvre, not only of Anna Kagan or Nina Kogan, but of Aleksandra Ekster and suprematism as such.
But, as said, my errand here is beyond the question of good and evil, but about humiliation and revenge. Jean Chauvelin and his collaborators’s work is just the prototype of a new artistic author, not unlike a character like Charles Saatchi or Damien Hirst, or why not, a Olafur Eliasson or an Andy Warhol. This is a trademark, operating with and through all aspects of the market, from accounting, over production, to marketing, but now with the specific project to produce a past instead of a future.
From the case of Helene Beltracchi and her hilarious constructing of a ficticious art collection of her grandfather’s, to Jean Chauvelin’s much more demonical kidnapping of proper names, we see that the contemporary art forger is not necessarily an artist in the modernist sense, that is: a painter, but instead an artist in the contemporary sense, that is: a blend of a craftsman, curator, agent, or whatever function needed.14 Usually not impersonated in one and the same subject, but rather a collaborating group composed of the different competences needed to produce the desired ware, incidentally, in very much the same way as Josiah Wedgwood produced his wares, that is with a focus on skills, technical experimentation, marketing, co-operation, research based practices, and a keen and interested view on the history and theory of art. But now turned against art as the object to be “forged,” in the sense of forging art’s past as a contingent aspect and thus reconstructing the very concept of art.
My attempt here is to make plausible that art has concessed, and that Wedgewood, together with Kaendler, Maria Sibylla Merian, and innumerable other practitioners of the earlier “minor” arts – and with minor I understand feminine and childish genres, sensations and desire-machines, doll-houses and cars,15 miniaturizations and phantasmatic projects – are already in the process of getting their revenge. This reversal of values, from the successive movements from neo-classicism, over romanticism to modernism and their common philosophical and art historical legitimation, to a more coquettish, private, non-causal, and empirical conceptualization, was – I believe – brought about by the subversive activity of art forgery. It was art forgery that made possible the reverse engineerings of Elaine Sturtevant, the contingent pasts of Eleanor Antin, or the artistic research of Hito Steyerl in the late 20th and early 21st century, precisely because forgery was the modern obsession, defining the emerging concept of art negatively, while it always been an integral part of craft, design, and industrial production.
1) “Der berühmte Wedgwood hat durch die Magie seiner Plastik ein neues Etrurien -- so heißt, wie bekannt, der Landsitz in Staffordshire, wo die Herren Wedgwood und Bentley durch ihre vortreflichen Nachahmungen des Altherthums in Pasten und größeren Massen sich ganz Europa zinsbar zu machen wissen -- mitten in England hervorgezaubert, und liefert nun auch in seiner bis jetzt einzigen Manufactur, die täuschendsten Nachbildungen alter Prachtgefäße, die
sowohl in Rücksicht auf Festigkeit und Güte des Materials, als in Rücksicht auf Schönheit der Formen und auf die Wahl der Gemälde und Reliefs alles übertreffen, was bis jetzt in Terra cotta, oder Biskuit, in Porcellan, Glaßgüssen u. s. w. durch die mannichfaltigsten Versuche irgendwo hervorgebracht worden ist.” Karl August Böttiger: “Ueber die Prachtgefäße der Alten”. Journal des Luxus und der Moden, 7. Jg., Juni, 1792, pp. 281–310, p. 286.
2) Noch werden unsere so sehr gelibten Procellangefäße durch keine ächte Kunstarbeit veredelt. Das mehrste Procellan ist in lächerliche Puppen geformet, worduch der daraus erwachsende kindische Geschmack sich allenthalben verbreitet hat.” Journal des Luxus und der Moden. June 1792, p. 284. Quoted from Catriona MacLeod: "Sweetmeats for the Eye. Porcelain Miniatures in Classical Weimar". Evelyn K. Moore & Patricia Anne Simpson, edd.: The Enlightened Eye. Goethe and Visual Culture. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2007, p. 47. The original passage from Winckelmann reads: “Wie unendlich prächtiger müssen nicht solche Geschirre von Kennern des wahren Geschmaks geachtet werden, deren schöne Materie bisher noch durch keine ächte Kunstarbeit edler gemacht worden, so daß auf so kostbaren Arbeiten noch kein würdiges und belehrendes Denkbild eingepräget gesehen wird. Das mehreste Porcellan ist in lächerliche
Pupen geformet, wodurch der daraus erwachsene kindische Geschmak sich allenthalben ausgearbeitet hat.” Johann Joachim Winckelmann: Geschichte der Kunst des Altertums. Sämtliche Werke. ed. Joseph Eiselein. Donauöschingen: Im Verlage Deutscher Classiker 1825–1829. Vol. III. p. 121. Quoted from MacLeod: "Sweetmeats for the Eye”, p. 47.
3) Maria Perniola, La società dei simulacri, Bologna: Cappelli, 1983, pp. 131–154, here quoted from the Danish translation in: UNDR. Nyt Nordisk Forum nr. 56, Silkeborg, 1988, s. 82–83, my emphasis.
4) Joseph Alsop, The Rare Art Traditions. The History of Art Collecting and its Linked Phenomena wherever these have appeared, New York: Princeton UP (Bollingen Series. XXXV. 27), 1981.
5) Thierry Lenain, Art Forgery. The History of a Modern Obsession, London: Reaktion Books, 2011.
6) On Bastianini, see Anita F. Moskowitz, "The Case of Giovanni Bastianini. A Fair and Balanced View," Artibus et historiae vol. XXV, 50 (2004), pp. 157–185, Anita F. Moskowitz, "The Case of Giovanni Bastianini. II. A Hung Jury?," Artibus et historiae vol. XXVII, 54 (2006), pp. 201–217, and Jeremy Warren, "Forgery in Risorgimento Florence. Bastianini's 'Giovanni delle Bande Nere' in the Wallace Collection," The Burlington Magazine, vol. CXLVII, 1232, Italian Art, November 2005, pp. 729–741.
7) Anita F. Moskowitz, "The Case of Giovanni Bastianini", 165–166.
8) Mark Jones, ed., Fake? The Art of Deception, Berkeley, CA.: University of California Press, 1990, 197.
9) The memorable phrasing of Alfred Lessing, "What Is Wrong with a Forgery?," Journal of Aesthetics & Art Criticism, 23 (1964), 461–471.
10) Historically, almost every art forger we know of, is male. This is probably because the losing out took different shapes whether you were male or female. The female losers became copyists, whereas some of the male losers became forgers. But as Aviva Briefel suggests, this may change of which shift focus from forgery vs copying to a question humiliation and revenge. If we stick with the dichotomy between forgery and copy, the result is typically that the female copyist becomes incapable of performing the 'time-traveling' feats of the forger and resulting from the "extreme visibility of the female copyist bars her from the forger’s invisibility." Aviva Briefel, The Deceivers. Art Forgery and Identity in the Nineteenth Century, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006, 41.
11) Mark Jones, ed., Fake?, 198.
12) Geraldine Norman, "Old Master faker fails to show a style of his own," The Independent, Monday, 19 October 1992.
13) Konstantin Akinsha & Sylvia Hochfield, "The Faking of the Russian Avant-Garde," Art News, 108, 7, Summer 2009, pp. 94–105.
14) A noteworthy case of art forgery, not involving any forging, that is any production of a new piece, but rather a new attribution to an already existing painting, with the intention to deceive and involving monetary gain, is described by Joseph Alsop: "Returning to the letter already mentioned, it was written from Berlin on february 9, 1931, by Zatzenstein to Knoedler’s in New York, and it covers a whole series of fascinating problems having to do with the sales from the Hermitage. By far the most notable passage deals with a picture attributed by the Hermitage to
Van Dyck’s imitator, Adrien Hannemann, and considered a portrait of the Prince of Orange as a boy. Zatzenstein pointed out delicately that the picture had formerly been regarded as a genuine Van Dyck. With this introduction, he cheerily explained he had just paid 20.000 marks to two eminent art historians of the period, Drs. Gustav Glück in Vienna and Ludwig Burchard in Berlin, in order to get the portrait profitably into a Van Dyck again. Gustav Glück’s new attribution to Van Dyck duly appeared in the Klassiker der Kunst series. The desired decision to by the portrait then followed in America, and the portrait hung in The National Gallery with a Van Dyck attribution until just the other day. A member of the National Gallery staff, Arthur Wheelock, then showed that the portrait did not represent the Prince of Orange and also correctly returned the attribution to Adrien Hannemann. Joseph Alsop, The Rare Art Traditions, 153.
15) As can be seen from a number of exhibitions – albeit highly debated – has shown, to stick to Denmark, the exhibition of cars at Aros, the flower designer Tage Andersen at Statens Museum for Kunst, and haut couture, also at Statens Museum for Kunst.