by Adam Bernhaut
A Preliminary Investigation into a Synthetic Cubism (Colle’), oil on a canvas support painting, signed: B. P1914.
Many of us are familiar with the well-known BBC Arts program, ‘Fake or Fortune’ that investigates art objects submitted by the public for its competent team to present their findings in a most entertaining and informative manner. Their expertise is supported by eminent art historians’ opinions and backed by scientific analytical methods that are of paramount importance. These methods emerged in the nineteenth century thus enhancing investigations into artworks claiming to be from the Renaissance, Baroque, or other art periods. The BBC’s experts also educate the public on how to hunt for a ‘slipper’, a painting or an art object that ‘slipped’ through the fingers of the auction house system and is a real gem! Provenance is also a very important factor as it could verify a possible authentication. However, some critics challenge the BBC’s findings. When it comes to investigating the authenticity of art giants, like Rembrandt, it is harder to catalogue his oeuvre as it is complicated because it dates back to the Baroque era. At that time, large workshops employed many students and assistants, thus attempting to decide on authenticity is mostly inconclusive (Veritus).
Aspiring buyers see works of art as a source of material gain. By investigating the art market and the exorbitant prices paid at art auctions, it is clear that not only can owning art objects change the wealth of those less fortunate, but for art collectors who derive great joy from the ownership of artworks, being able to add a beautiful and valuable item to their portfolio is an added gain.
Art curators, an integral part of museums and exhibitions, are vital for educating the public in art appreciation by presenting it in a readily accessible form. Curating gives meaning to art history and by doing so, influences the material value of art in the subconscious mind of the visitor. Further, it stimulates the market and an interest in art. However, it can simultaneously give rise to market manipulation, where prices are inflated and not always in proportion to the “value” of a work of art.
When artworks hold an intrinsic value and become a traded commodity they give rise to art forgery. Greek vases were copied by Roman artists, but their works at that time were not perceived as valuable. In the sixteenth century, Marcantonio Raimondi copied Albrecht Durer’s engraving resulting in a court case and Raimondi was ordered to compensate Durer. The prevailing philosophy of the Renaissance for the copying of master’s works was a standard practice before achieving artistic competence and independence (Keats).
Appreciating artworks for their aesthetic value should not be concerned with the legality of their creation. Art forgeries create a state of anxiety in the minds of art lovers and they shock us upon realisation that our acquisition is a fake, however it is so because we are conditioned that only the legitimate artwork has a material value. However, ‘no authentic artwork’ can be as challenging to our understanding of art as a masterful forgery. Therefore, fakes could also be considered as ‘The Great Art of Our Age’ with the great forgers flaunting their talents, techniques and abilities to deceive the public until discovered. They vindicate themselves for talents that were previously not recognised. For that reason, the authentic works and forgeries are interrelated (Keats).
Art forgery successes were aided by the perception of the deceived, whose attitude in many instances made deceit possible, thus resulting in the forger’s longevity, albeit, mostly for only a limited length of time. ‘These art forgeries deceived the public, but once exposed, deceived no longer. ‘As the deceptions are successful, they become the window into the deceived minds and from this point of view are much more revealing than any original and genuine artwork or an honest imitation’ (AHIS20018). Although forgers caused concern over the authenticity of a work of art, art collectors still followed enthusiastically with their collecting fervor, which was aided by the peregrinations and portability of artifacts with merchants carrying the goods around the globe. Likewise, a flourishing trade was supported by travelling pilgrims (AHIS30022). Thus, forgery can be defined as ‘the creation of spurious works with the intention of deceiving or defrauding’ (AHIS20018).
The copying of artworks is a precursor to creating art forgeries. Ralph Mayer, a painter and art conservator, says that ‘a copy can become a fake when misrepresented about its authenticity and further becomes a forgery when it is circulated and sold as a genuine article by a deliberate deception’. Thus, fakes and forgeries are the ‘material evidence of deception and they exploit the human frailty and gullibility’. To be successful they need to be directed to the “informed”: the art collectors, scholars, dealers and museums (Jones).
Picasso described art forgeries as: ‘Good artists copy, great artists steal,’ a somewhat challenging statement, stemming from his overconfidence and status in the art world (Charney). Great art forgers fascinate the public, collectors and art dealers who can derive the same pleasure by looking at works of art from an aesthetic point of view without feeling deceived and without the snob effect of the original creation. There is an appreciation for the artist who employs his or her skills into copying an artist, and then places before us an object from any period of Western civilisation, such as the Renaissance, Baroque or from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Neill). Wolfgang Beltracchi says that ‘I always find it exciting to go to a big museum – even the MOMA – and to see a work of mine there’ (DVD). The forgers became nearly cult heroes behaving in a Bonnie and Clyde-like manner (ARTS/DW).
What drives artists to commit these unpalatable acts of forgery? There are several contributing factors and the accumulation of wealth, although not a primary reason, is a key motivator. Art forgers are not recognised as great artists. Therefore, they want to vindicate themselves and prove to the world that they are as good as the revered artists that they copy. For art forgers then, it is a form of revenge to satisfy their egos. Sigmund Freud agreed that the desire to be identified as a great achiever would drive the individual to commit an act of forgery (Freud).
Han van Meegeren (1899-1947) was an acclaimed art forger of the twentieth century. His megalomaniac personality had all the characteristics of an ambitious, egocentric, determined and capable artist. However, his attempt to aspire to greater heights as an artist never came to fruition. Having failed as an artist, his disappointment and consequent depression led him to art forgery. He dedicated time to studying the works of famous artists, whom he then copied. Once the recognition for his ‘genius’ was realised, van Meegeren confronted his critics and revealed that he was the true painter of the works, thus vindicating himself from those who doubted him (Charney).
Van Meegeren chose Johannes Vermeer, a seventeenth century Baroque artist as his model and produced his first forgery, The Supper at Emmaus. The painting was a huge success and was acclaimed by the leading art critic of the time, Abraham Bradius, as the ‘lost and, probably the best painting by the young Vermeer’ (Charney).
As a result of his enormous financial success, van Meegeren succumbed to his greed and continued with his criminal activity unnoticed. His painting, after another ‘lost’ Vermeer titled Christ with the Woman Taken in Adultery, was sold to a Nazi general, Hermann Goering. After World War II it was reported to the Dutch authorities that he had sold Vermeer’s painting, a national treasure, to an enemy of the state, thus attracting the death penalty. He declared his innocence by claiming that the painting was his own work and was given the task of painting in a courtroom setup, resulting in his sentence being reduced to one year in prison (Charney).
Another elite art forger was Wolfgang Beltracchi, whose career spanned over four decades during which he produced some 350 paintings. He could paint in any style and was ambidextrous. If the artist he was copying painted with his left hand, Beltracchi would paint with his left hand, always in accord with his subject (DVD).
Thus, forgeries are deeply embedded in art world culture. Artworks were copied from the time there was an anticipated financial, political, religious or state gain and an artist’s own ambitions. The victims of art forgeries were the informed—the opinionated art connoisseurs, art dealers, art collectors, museums and galleries. It can be argued that the term ‘forgery’ implies falsely, the absence of value (Neill).
While forgeries produced great works of art, they also introduced a degree of anxiety and uncertainty into the art world. Art forgery unveiled great works and contributed significantly to the understanding of art, its value and the psychology of the participants, the instigators and the victims alike. Today, with the availability of different scientific methods it is more difficult for art forgeries to succeed, although not impossible (Keats).
The ‘Fake or Fortune’ question for the Synthetic Cubism Collage, oil on canvas support painting, signed: “B. P1914,” (not varnished) will proceed systematically with parallel comparisons, but without an attempt of attribution or authentication. The obstacles are too numerous and insurmountable at this level of expertise, so the investigation will be purely academic.
Artworks can be classified as belonging to a certain period. The imitation of nature dominated the Renaissance and the periods that followed, until the twentieth century when the artists rejected the tradition of art creation by documenting events and copying nature. The new avant-garde movements marked the beginning of ‘abstract’ painting with the composition employing geometrical forms that later was modified into ‘near abstract’ (Barr), inviting the viewer into artist-viewer dialogue. Picasso’s painting, The Poet (1911) can be viewed as ‘near abstract’ as it includes some recognisable forms. Braque and Picasso, who were like ‘mountain-climbers roped together’ (Danchev) followed the style of their teacher, Paul Cezanne, an Impressionist, and that of George Seurat, a Neo-Impressionist. They practiced the ‘disintegration of natural objects’, ‘merging them with the background’ (Barr). They were joined by Juan Gris in 1910, and the three became the pioneers of Cubism. The first stage was Analytical Cubism that spanned from 1908 to 1912 and involved the ‘tearing apart…’ of …’natural forms’. 1913 to 1914 witnessed the Synthetic Cubism era involving the Braque and Picasso techniques of ‘imitation textures’ and collage’ (Colle’). This was carried out by pasting flimsy clippings of newspapers, fabrics, sand, paint thickeners and wall paper onto canvas (Barr), which was ‘surprisingly a tricky operation without buckling’ (Danchev).
The catalyst that brought them together was Daniel Henry Kahnweiler, a German national sent to Paris to gain experience in banking, but instead followed his passion for art and became a leading Paris art dealer. Kahnweiler’s operation was based on making contracts with struggling artists, providing for their living expenses and their art materials. In exchange, he would market the paintings and share the proceeds – a great and a fair arrangement. Kahnweiler literally lived with his avant-garde artists, Braque, Picasso, Gris, Derain and Vlaminck, ‘on a day-to-day, hour-to-hour basis as they should be free to get on with their work and not to be so concerned with selling’ (Kahnweiller).
Braque and Picasso constantly scrutinised each other’s works challenging, motivating and encouraging one another. This association led to the creation of the Cubist movement (Murray) which involved two stages. The first is described as the Analytical stage (1907-1912) where they displayed their rejection of the conceptual belief that artists should copy nature or employ the traditional techniques of incorporating a perspective to create a three-dimensional illusionistic impression. They strived to emphasise the two-dimensional format of paintings (Cubism) and were inspired by their teacher Paul Cezanne and African Art (Picasso) that influenced their style. The second stage, Synthetic Cubism (1912-1914), is pertinent to this analysis.
It should be noted that prior to Cubism, Braque was a master painter and decorator who used canvas materials and textures and the relationship between light and space, in a balanced way. On the other hand, Picasso disrupted the balance and harmony in his creations, while Juan Gris used a mixture of these techniques.
During the period of Synthetic Cubism, Braque and Picasso continuously used images of musical instruments, violin bows, pipes, scallop shells, jugs, chalice, and newspaper clippings. Picasso commented that; ‘neither he nor Braque could have done singlehandedly what they did between 1907 and 1914: It took teamwork, without which there would arguably have been no Cubism’ (Danchev).
A visual examination of the painting informs the viewer that it is a collage (Colle’) in the Cubist style (Barr).
The painting presents the Cubism format by the use of fragmented spaces and the geometry of African Art, as well as the depiction of musical instruments, a violin and bow, a pipe, chalice, musical sheets, newspaper clippings, fruit (after Cezanne) and a coffee table/pedestal, used by Cubists. The painting also includes a paper collage (Colle’) of which Braque was considered the master. The newspaper clippings in the investigated painting correspond to Braque’s method and were traced and dated back to 1914 via information received from the Berlin Newspapers Archives (Berlin), possibly confirming Braque’s hand in the researched painting.
A preliminary technical examination of the investigated painting using X-ray fluorescence analysis, (UoM) reveals that the elemental composition of pigments used was similar to that in household and marine paints used by Braque and Picasso for their canvases (Richardson). These were in line with Braque and Picasso’s painting palettes (Pavey). Grains of sand are also embedded in the painting, similar to those observed in the works of Braque and Picasso. These grains and paint thickeners were used for drying, similar to da Vinci who used powdered glass in his painting, Salvator Mundi, as a thickener or drying agent (da Vinci).
A study of French painting canvases revealed they were made of ‘hemp, linen or flax, and cotton’, not unlike Braque’s canvases and classified by their weight, listed as 220g/m2. Therefore, the weight of the painting can be further investigated as the canvas threads will be available for canvas weight evaluation (Vanderlip).
The painting being unvarnished confirms the Cubism artists’ strict criteria not to apply varnish, the practice of varnishing being described as ‘Crimes against the Cubists’ (Richardson).
David Bomford further confirms that the integrity of the painting’s surface ‘is much prized and disturbing it by varnishing or waxing will cause the dry and pale tonalities of the surface darkened and waxing will destroy the delicate opacity to become greasy and transparent’ (Bomford).
Braque painted in the Synthetic Cubism collage (Collé) style under the ‘strong influence’ of another Cubism giant and close friend, Juan Gris’, whose pedestal table image was used in the painting that forms this analysis (Cubism).
The painting bears the initial “B.” followed by “P1914.” It can be speculated that the letter “B.” in the painting’s signature, refers to “Braque” and the letter “P” may have a dual meaning, for “Picasso” or “Paris”. The date “1914” is the year when the official collaboration between Braque and Picasso ended without an explanation (Danchev). Although the painting was most likely executed in 1917, the painters didn’t elaborate on their somewhat abrupt decision to end their relationship. Braque may have wanted to achieve closure and document the seven years of their nearly daily visits to each other’s studios and their social outings, often in the company of their dealer Daniel Kahnweiller and, accordingly, dated this painting as “1914”.
In conclusion, the question of ‘Fake or Fortune’ for the Synthetic Cubism (Collé), oil on a canvas support painting, signed “B. P1914”, is a valuable exercise as it stimulates research into both fake and genuine articles and enriches our knowledge of art. However, the question still remains as to whether a consensus might ever be reached, one which could finally put this question to rest.
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