top of page

Art and Artifice

Amedeo Modigliani’s portrait of his friend, the painter Pierre-Edouard Baranowski, hangs in the de Young museum of San Francisco, but it hasn’t always done so. Last summer, while studying a course on art materials in the Bay Area, I visited the museum for a behind-the-scenes tour, courtesy of Head of Paintings Conservation of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Elise Effmann Clifford. After talking to us at length about pigments and x-rays, decay and preservation, she paused in front of the Baranowski to talk to us about her experience investigating its authenticity. While the focus of her talk was the various forensic methods used by conservators, two things stayed with me from standing there: the unsettling, blue-grey, pupil-less eyes of the painting’s subject - absorbing, but so unlike traditional portraits - and the fact that the department had a right to feel uneasy about the painting’s provenance, given that Modigliani is one of the most-forged artists of the 20th century.

Authenticity proves to be a slippery concept in the art world—I use the word both in the sense of being original and in the sense of being a faithful representation. For starters, it is not the case that artistic authenticity—the integrity of a subject’s representation—must equate to verisimilitude. The idea that the ‘point’ of art is to be lifelike was thoroughly out of vogue come the late 19th century, a time when new and radical artists felt it was imperative to break with the weighty, ponderous tradition that dictated that artistic precision was the most ‘true’ form of expression.

‘Tell Serret that I should be desperate if my figures were correct... tell him I mean: if one photographs a digger he certainly would not be digging then... tell him that my great longing is to learn to make these very incorrectnesses, remodellings, changes in reality, so that they may become, yes, lies if you like - but truer than the literal truth.’

Vincent Van Gogh's response to a remark made about his first major work, The Potato Eaters, in 1885: for him, as for others, art's mimetic qualities were exactly what the point was not. This attitude exemplified the beginning of a movement which art historian giant, Ernst Gombrich, identifies as a ‘negative reaction’—one against the kitsch qualities of art that aspired to be more lifelike than life. The avant-garde artists of the ‘new century’ of art inherited the Van Gogh attitude to mimesis: just compare William-Adolphe Bouguereau's Birth of Venus, all serenity and curves and milky white skin, to Pablo Picasso's angular, haunted-eyed women daubed in hues of brown and ochre in Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. To them, as to Van Gogh, the cloying still lifes and flawless women of previous centuries were about as inspirational as a vase of dead flowers. Paradoxically, they had coined a new kind of ‘authenticity’ in admitting that the artistic medium can never authentically be lifelike, in treating art like the representation it is and must be. 

It was with this fundamental shift in art as a background that the young Italian-in-Paris, the sculptor and painter Amedeo Modigliani, arrived on the scene. Viewed by some as the archetypal ‘tortured genius’ (well, perhaps he comes a close second behind Van Gogh), he was known in Paris as Modì, a pun on the French word maudit—‘cursed’. Handsome and arrogant, Modì came from a respectable bourgeois background, but lived an ‘authentically bohemian’ life of studio squalor and drink, women and corduroy suits, stumbling around the streets of Montparnasse, occasionally offering up his drawings to pay bar tabs, and so on. Perhaps his arrogance came from the surety of his talent—and he was talented. Refusing to belong to any of the 'isms' (surrealism, cubism, dadaism) so popular in Paris, his work was stubbornly unclassifiable. His favourite subjects were portraits or nudes, remarkable not for their physical resemblance to the painting's subject, but for their way of capturing, in a stylised way, something of their essence. 

Though he did have some minor success during his lifetime, any steps toward the widespread fame his work would eventually enjoy seemed almost deliberately undermined by Modigliani's refusal to sell to rich art patrons - he was ‘temperamentally incapable’ of handling them according to one friend - and his uncertain bouts of temper. ‘He's the local spoilt child,’ wrote the poet Beatrice Hastings, who knew him in Paris. But in 1920 when he died of tuberculosis, aged just 35, thousands attended his funeral: the one-time ‘drunken public nuisance’ had been transmuted overnight into the ‘Prince of the Bohemians. Sales of his work began to pick up immediately. Reputedly, there were eager dealers circling even at his funeral. ‘Evidently you've got to be dead before you are celebrated enough to sell well,’ former studio-mate Ossip Zadkine remarked dryly. 

Unfortunately enough, many now are tempted to see Modigliani's life - and death - as a typified narrative of the tragically ‘authentic’ life of the artist: the tortured genius who suffered from the twin demons of alcoholism and consumption, dying before his works met with widespread fame. He belonged to a legendary world that, with Montparnasse as its centre, was to turn out some of the greatest painters of the 20th century. It was also due to abruptly vanish just a few years later; the crowds of rich tourists hurrying to Paris for the increasingly famous avant-garde experience were in reality, in the words of Modì’s daughter Jeanne, ‘in search of an elusive Bohemia, which vanished as soon as they approached.’

It is tempting to see Modigliani's Paris recede only to be replaced with a much colder ‘commercial machine’, buying and dealing in paintings from artists who tried to stay away from the commercial during their lifetimes, monetising that elusive authenticity - but this would be an oversimplification. At the same time, though, it is true that as the art market became increasingly globalised, more and more wealthy amateur collectors took an interest in generalised collecting - and consequently prices began to soar. A single original sculpture by Modigliani could fetch millions in this new market - in fact, as much as €432 million (£358 million), as a recent sale has shown. The situation is particularly ironic given that any idealism or aspiration to authenticity with which artists like Modigliani set out to create their art, while not explicitly anti-commercial (artists have to eat, after all), is the quality which is now traded on—and that most collectors able to afford these prices would likely have avoided Modigliani like the plague when he was alive.

The history of subsequent Modigliani fakes is a rich and interesting field. Charles Douglas, another expatriate contemporary of Modì, observed: ‘[Modigliani] discovered nothing, for which reason his imitators are engaged on a barren task; he is worthwhile forging, but not following.’ This is something which forgers certainly seem to have taken to heart: the sheer number of Modigliani fakes and scandals occurring over the last century is almost absurd. Most recently, in July of this year, a Modigliani exhibit in the Palazzo Ducale in Genoa had to close after Italian prosecutors doubted the authenticity of a staggering 21 paintings, subsequently confiscating them. ‘To say that the catalogue raisonné situation of works by Modigliani is a mess is an understatement,’ lamented Kenneth Wayne, a Modigliani scholar, at a symposium on fakes, forgeries and stolen art. There are so many fakes of Modigliani that, as one journalist has noted, ‘there have even been fake fakes.’

Of course, Modigliani has not been the only target, though the market is notoriously saturated with forgeries bearing his name. Why this new plague of counterfeit art? The blame, Orson Welles expounds in his 1974 video essay F for Fake, should not be placed at the feet of the people who make forgeries - forgeries are an age-old phenomenon. ‘This is not the century of the hoax,’ he insists, ‘what's new are the experts.’ Welles sees the entirety of the art world as a huge confidence trick, and not one just played by the forgers: perhaps we could view it as more of a dichotomy of art experts and art forgers, of critics and swindlers - and perhaps we could go further in calling the former a subset of the latter. 

The image of a ‘master forger’ is glamorised, subsequently, because people attribute a whiff of fraudulence to the profession of ‘art expert’, and it seems that, in the public mentality, the prevailing idea exists that an expert opinion is just that: opinion. Say a leading Modigliani expert is shown a catalogue (a scenario proposed in F for Fake), and is asked if one of the portraits shown there is real or a counterfeit. The video essay points out how easily expert opinion can be swayed by phrasing the question either positively (suggesting the painting is real) or negatively (suggesting it is fake). ‘Of course, of course, a very fine portrait of Jeanne Hébuterne, I would recognise it at once,’ is just as readily an answer as ‘No of course, you can see from the lines here and here - Modigliani would never make such mistakes in his work.’ The stereotype here is not without basis: three sculptures found in the Medici canal in Livorno, Modigliani's hometown, were quickly proclaimed by experts as originals, though they were actually part of an elaborate practical joke. One of the pranksters, after having come forward, claimed to have played the joke to expose the critics, claiming that they were more led by market trends and confirmation bias than critical judgement - and proving this to be true at least to an extent. 

Popular culture also helps to endorse this: throughout the 20th century the hollowness of a declared "authenticity" in the art world appears frequently in films and TV shows: often comedic, their plots usually hinge on the discovery of a priceless artifact as a worthless fake. How to Steal a Million, a 1966 comedy starring Audrey Hepburn and Peter O'Toole, springs to mind as an example of this: Charles Bonnet, gentleman forger, has never sold his family's ‘priceless Cellini statuette of Venus’ because it is in fact a counterfeit sculpted by his own father. Since his family are known art collectors, it is never doubted that the statuette is an original, but upon agreeing to lend it to a museum for an exhibition, he is horrified to find out that they will run routine forensics on it to confirm its authenticity. After the tangled plot resolves in a happy ending, the old forger is shown briefly back at it again, trying to sell his ‘Van Gogh’ to an enthusiastic buyer. The success of plots such as this hinge on the fact that all the world loves to see the experts and the establishment made a fool of, because it is all too easy to show up this expertise as a sham - or more precisely, an exercise in educated guesswork, easily influenced (‘the emotional tail wags the rational dog,’ observed psychologist Jonathan Haidt). The art world appears, as Welles suggests, like one big counterfeit, and it is far more fun to lionise those who play the system.

Elmyr de Hory is the true star of F for Fake. Like Modigliani, he has painted Modiglianis - and Matisses, Van Duncans and Picassos besides. His forgeries are, he boasts to the camera, to be found all over the world in all of the best museums. During his active years in the late forties and fifties, he sold thousands of his works, all imitating the style of famous artists, to reputable galleries worldwide who accepted them without question (Van Duncan is reputed to have studied one of de Hory's counterfeits of his work and ‘swore he painted it himself).  

To call someone a ‘master forger’ might sound something of a contradiction, but anyone watching de Hory at work is tempted to use the phrase. As the documentary crew follows him around his palatial Ibizan villa, de Hory shows the camera how he would draw an 'original' Matisse with deft movements. Holding up the finished drawing, he chuckles and declares it an authentic Elmyr, before abruptly burning it on the fire. You cannot get away from it: Elmyr is an artist with an extraordinary analytical and creative gift - and, much like Modì, he knows it. But the sad irony about his artistry is that, although one of the most successful forgers of modern times, he has had absolutely no success when he tried to create paintings under his own name and was forced, dismally enough, to get by selling pictures of pink poodles to interior decorators. His predicament is that he's much better off (and in some strange way, perhaps better liked) as a master forger than as an original artist: his attitude to this predicament seems to be refusing to see a distinction between the two professions. At first glance, F for Fake seems to endorse his obliviousness to the dubious morality of his practice as an art forger. It glamorises his life and works as a show of forger-trumps-expert, and presents a playful, flippant message of ‘all art as deceit’ that downplays any rigorous ethical investigation of the subject. Welles goes as far as to declare fakery an— even, the—artistic medium, comparing de Hory's work with the necessary ‘deception’ played on an audience by a film-maker. He sets out to tell that all art is in fact a form of counterfeit, to show us that the boundary between misleading and "fake" is arbitrary, and, if you buy this explanation, perhaps de Hory’s inverted assertion that all counterfeiters are artists doesn’t seem so far-fetched. 

On a pragmatic level, the art world's response to such a dichotomy can be seen in an increased reliance on forensic methods. Several things had struck Elise Effmann Clifford as suspicious about the de Young Modigliani: pigments seemed out of place—Vermillion Red unusually present in the figure's face, two different pigments used for each eye—and there was an unknown thumbprint on the painting. Perhaps most worryingly, scans showed the presence of an underlying painting resembling Modigliani's work; maybe an earlier attempt that he painted over, but also a common situation in forged works, as it is infinitely easier to avoid suspicion by modifying an original to be 'complete' than it is to paint a counterfeit from scratch. 

No doubt Elise's suspicions were heightened given that Modigliani's work has classically been the target of fakes and forgers, something that she freely admits to. The painting was eventually proven to be, as far as forensics can determine, authentic, but the experience left Elise with a nagging question: did she begin her investigation under a biased premise? The incident led her to Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow, a book of pop psychology that draws a distinction between "fast" or intuitive thinking, and "slow" or deliberate thinking (in the book, called System 1 and System 2 respectively). Kahneman calls the intuitive System 1 "the secret author of many of the choices and judgements you make"—it is where we store our intuitive knowledge of the world. Kahneman would recognise the kind of situation described by de Hory as he shows a catalogue of Modiglianis to different experts as an example of affect heuristics: System 1 thinking. “[We have an] excessive confidence in what we believe we know," he observes—particularly in matters where we consider ourselves well-informed. Jumping to conclusions in this manner is "a matter of mental economy" performed automatically by our minds and useful in many areas of our daily lives—but also prone to tripping up so-called ‘experts’. Similarly to the experts examining the sculptures found in the Medici canal, Elise found her starting point for investigating the de Young's painting to be an example of basic confirmation bias, clearly influenced by her knowledge of the recent influx of Modigliani fakes. 

By helping to expose some of the false pretenses in art evaluation, perhaps art forgers have helped the art world to realise a more unbiased way of determining value, with scientific proof of authenticity now necessarily supplanting the reliance on often-fallible ‘expertise’. But this shift has thrown up some uncomfortable questions along the way: these paintings are definitely ‘authentic’ in one sense of the word, but does this mode of evaluating art suggest authenticity alone equals value? In his foreword to Authenticity in art: the scientific detection of forgery, Samuel A. Goudsmit notes that "today the value [of art] is primarily determined by its authenticity and not by its aesthetic merits" (nor, we could add, the skill of the person who painted it). But what actual value does this kind of authenticity possess? We have to ask the question ‘If the artistic value of de Hory's artwork rivals that of Modigliani's, why is there such a pronounced difference in their monetary value?’

The simple answer is because one is a ‘real’ Modigliani. However, it is absurd to assert that Modigliani's work comes with an intrinsic £35.8m price-tag. I am reminded of lyrics from Joanna Newsom’s Sapokanikan: 

“The text will not yield, nor x-ray reveal

With any fluorescence

Where the hand of the master begins and ends—”

And while it is true that x-ray can reveal cold, hard, accurate fact, what then? ‘Authenticity’ has drawn a careful square around itself, pointed inside the square and said ‘that's valuable.’ In his poem The Conundrum of the Workshops, Kipling has the devil whisper a refrain into the ears of artists: "It is pretty, but is it Art?”—the age-old anxiety of artists, and in some ways a paraphrase of Van Gogh’s dissatisfaction with realism. And though artists (and indeed, forgers) of the previous century would hope to answer "yes" to Kipling's question, modern art asks in return "is anything?"

‘Almost any story is a kind of lie’ declares Welles authoritatively in his opening F for Fake monologue. It is a very postmodern point of view, and modern art acknowledges it baldly in regarding art as a space for the notion of authenticity to be directly challenged. Warhol's ‘Campbell’s Soup Cans’ are in a sense a joke on this theme: soup cans, it seems to assert, are not art, but painting them can transfigure them into being such (but can it really? reads the subtext). This change flaunts a ‘negative reaction’ against the idea that there can be any form of authenticity - lies, if you like, but not of Van Gogh's kind; instead bald comments on the commercialization of value. It is no coincidence that the movement occurs at the same time as both the hyper-monetisation of the art market and many buyers’ indifferences as to the 'authentic' status of their purchases: one LA art dealer, for example, describes the phenomenon in the eighties of people being ‘more concerned about matching their carpet than they were about the authenticity of a painting’. All seems to endorse the view that ‘all art is counterfeit’ - and that we might as well acknowledge it.

Using ironically ‘inauthentic’ authenticity as a leitmotif is taken further by contemporary artists. One of ‘the most revered artists of his generation’ (according to the New York Times), Richard Prince, works mainly by copying, appropriating and photographing existing artworks, with a recent exhibition of his bearing the punny title The Art of Appropriation. The exhibition was comprised of Instagram photos from notable people printed on canvas. One of these artworks—a print of her own Instagram post—was subsequently sold to Ivanka Trump for a cool $36,000 USD, though Prince quickly asked for it back as a form of protest against her father getting into office. He returned the money, she did not return the artwork. He took to Twitter: ‘This is not my work. I did not make it. I deny. I denounce. This fake art,’ and ‘The money has been returned. SheNowOwnsAfake.’

In this, it is interesting to see the explicit importance of monetary transaction in validating an artwork, and Prince's assumption that to reject this value is to reject the artwork’s authenticity (if you’re prepared to take authenticity as narrowly defined by lineage). Of course, we could question whether the artwork was entirely Prince's to begin with: he came up with the concept of ‘appropriation as art’ binding this series of artworks together (not that it is an example of particularly original thinking), but the point is that he had no hand in creating the works save producing them on a physical canvas. Nothing about them is ‘original’. The paradox of Prince is that he wears his inauthenticity on his sleeve with exhibition titles like The Art of Appropriation, yet considers the act of publicly 'disowning' a painting equivalent to rendering it a fake. Poignantly enough, in reality he has little control over this aspect of his work: one article covering the story is ironically titled 'Richard Prince Disowns His Ivanka Trump Portrait, Possibly Increasing Its Value'. 

When he was taken to court in 1989, Tony Tetro - another of the ‘master forgers’ - insisted he never intended his Chagalls to be mistaken for the real thing. His clients - the ones who knew they were buying a Tetro - said they got a kick out of asking their guests which one was real out of a ‘Chagall-Chagall’ and a ‘Tetro-Chagall’ and laughing when they were unable to tell which was by whom. One step further than de Hory and perhaps more in line with Warhol, his legal defense presented his work as aN artistic comment on the treachery of images; ‘ceci n'est pas une Chagall.’

‘Truer than the literal truth’ was the aim with which avant-garde art aspired to better depict human experience - but what of art now, which makes no such assumption that it can realise any but a clinical, literal (and in the case of Prince, revocable) authenticity, and maybe not even that? It is not quite true to call cans of tomato soup and a forged Modigliani two sides of the same coin, but the one has certainly provoked the question that is displayed in the other. This is not to glamorise the avant-garde period as a lost time of ‘true' authenticity; to do that would be to to hanker after that lost bohemia like the other tourists. And is not the point that their authenticity, used as a touchstone for all this affectation and money and forgery, is imperfect at best? Modì, that old fraud, first came to Paris fresh from classical training in a Florence art school, in a neat suit, scoffing at corduroy. ‘Authentic’ how? He was original in one sense, yes, but he also ‘discovered nothing’, once even admitted that he was ‘ten years behind Picasso’ in his work. Modern art's self-referential ‘counterfeit’ qualities might be a lazy way of engaging with the art world's perennial anxiety surrounding what is genuine, but at the very least it points to an uncomfortable truth: dig down deep enough and you will find that authenticity, much like corduroy suits and other ideals, vanishes as soon as you approach it. 

HOPE SUTHERLAND reads Medieval English at Magdalen. She used to own a hamster named Dostoyevsky who brooded much and then died mysteriously.

Art by Hope Sutherland.


bottom of page