As an aspiring architecture student raised in Eastern Europe, drawing classes were inscribed into my teenagehood with the same strength as Taylor Swift’s “You belong to me”. I spent hours sketching, drawing and imitating others’ work to train my own gesture to a level of perfection observed in art pieces I would painstakingly copy during long Saturday nights. My first copy happened to be a “Girl with a pearl earring” by Johannes Vermeer from Delft. Destiny, you might say! Personally, never being able to reach the mastery required to set me on the fine art success path, I constrained this activity to solely educational and leisurely purposes. There are, however, those who committed their lives to the craft, and this is a short story about their place in the unforgiving world of art.
With 20 percent of the paintings in major art galleries worldwide being questioned on their authenticity and 50 percent of pieces available on the market suspected to be fake, art historians and forensic scientists have developed tools for validating a work of art. Beginning with establishing the history of the painting’s ownership from its current custody back to the moment when the original artist’s brush stroked the canvas for the last time; through visual and x-ray analysis questioning the style and consistency of painters’ techniques; ending with forensic scrutiny in detecting chemical substances present in the piece. Despite this meticulousness, most respected galleries worldwide, such as MoMA in New York or British National Gallery in London, continue to unravel more and more fakes in their collections. Sometimes, however, mistakes are made by the forgers, shining a light on yet another art mystery.
Most recently, the art world has held its breath when announced by the media as the ‘forger of the century’ Wolfgang Beltracchi from Germany had been captured together with his wife as an accomplice. He had not only created identical copies of original works but had genuinely immersed himself into the life of a deceased expressionist painter from the first half of the 20th century - Heinrich Campendonk, and channelled his unique style onto 50 new pieces. The mistake that ended his career turned out to be a microscopic amount of titanium white - the paint that simply did not yet exist at the time the painting was dated for. Was it a moment of laziness, or maybe simple negligence in a moment or rush? Nevertheless, I would like to contemplate for a moment those minuscule mistakes committed by art forgers, which highlight an interesting relationship we have with art today. Seconds before the discovery of titanium white, millions of us, art laics, admired and nodded our heads in approval to the unspeakable beauty of the piece. Specialists declared their compliments and treated it with the utmost respect and care as any other multi-million original Campendonk. In the moment of discovery, the bubble of admiration burst and the value of the painting diminished to solely evidence in an act of crime. The mastery of precise strokes didn't impress anymore but rather provoked contempt for the forger himself and, now worthless, frameless object.
Of course, we can argue that the act of copying in itself doesn’t require the level of creative genius some of the artists possess to establish their own style, hence doesn’t deserve much awe. That isn’t, however, my main point. Instead, I would like to highlight not the status of the painting as forged or original but rather our obsession with the idea of originality which has drawn a fine line between crime and a careful act of restoration.
In fact, we barely ever look at historical artefacts in their original state as pieces stored at the museums and galleries, (especially) paintings require high-level restoration and, in their fragile state, are almost entirely re-painted using the exact same medium and techniques as the artist him- or herself. The tag remains ‘original’. Naturally, the procedure is justified by the act of pure historical preservation of the piece but doesn’t it also shine some light on our preference towards perfection, authenticity, and maybe a level of disgust and critique towards decay and imperfection?