December 12, 2013

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Felicity Strong on "The Mythology of the Art Forger" in the Fall 2013 issue of ARCA's Journal of Art Crime

Felicity Strong uses the biographies of Han van Meegeren and Elmyr de Hory, amongst others, in her academic article on "The Mythology of the Art Forger" in the tenth issue of The Journal of Art Crime. From the abstract:
In the twentieth century, there has been the rise in the depiction of the art forger in non-fiction biographies and memoir. Distinct from scholarly research, these portrayals of individual art forgers have developed a common mythology, which weaves through each narrative. The art forger is mythicised as a hero; the failed artist protesting a corrupt art market dominated by greedy art dealers and scholars. In Australian culture, this mythology has its roots in the wider legend of hero criminal such as in the story of Ned Kelly and includes elements of the North American ‘trickster’ mythology. It also feeds into a broader anti-intellectualism and mistrust of the establishment, particularly in the depiction of art curators and connoisseurs. This mythology is evident in a number of biographies of notable forgers, such as Han van Meegeren and Elmyr de Hory, which intersect with the sub-genre of memoir, in the personal accounts of Tom Keating, Eric Hebborn and Ken Pereyni. These narratives fuel the ability of the forgers to construct their own public persona and feed into the wider mythology of the art forger.
Ms. Strong's article begins with:
“Art forgers are endowed with the same evil attractiveness as emanates from great criminals”. Thierry Lenain
Art historian Otto Kurz in his book, Fakes: a Handbook for Collectors and Students, summarizes the basis of the mythology of the art forger. He refers to the “often repeated story of the innocent forger, dished up every time one of the great forgers has been found out”. This mythology more or less follows the same narrative arc across each story: beginning with childhood struggle, such as Tom Keating, described as “born with every disadvantage except a loving mother, or Eric Hebborn, who described his maternal relationship, “as her favourite, my ears were those she liked to box the best, my bottom was the preferred target for an affectionate kick”. Most of the art forgers overcome their struggles through learning the tools of the art trade, working for restorers or conservators and slowly developing a common distain for the cultural elite and art market. Keating is characterized triumphing over adversity through his talents, as he “taught himself reading and achieved a much broader cultural than most of today’s A-level students and feather- bedded graduates”. The art forgers who began their career as failed artists rail against the agents of the market; dealers, gallery owners, critics and curators; whom they perceive as having wronged them. They begin to create forgeries, justifying their production on their perceived mistreatment by the cultural elite. This is evident in the case of Han van Meegeren, who trained as an artist and held a number of solo exhibitions before he began to forge old master painters. Some commentators claim it was series of poorly performing shows and negative reviews by Amsterdam’s arts community, which drove him to forge Vermeer. He allegedly refused the offer of critics, who approached van Meegeren for payment in return for positive appraisals of his shows, resulting in negative reviews. Jonathan Lopez dismisses the idea that he was pushed into forging, claiming that van Meegeren was creating forgeries well before this time, motivated purely by the money that more established artists could command.
Felicity Strong is a PhD candidate in her second year of research at the University of Melbourne, Australia. She has a Master of Art Curatorship and has worked in commercial galleries in Melbourne and London. Her PhD research is focused on discovering the extent to which perceptions of art forgery are influenced by depictions in cultural context, such as in literature, on screen and within an art museum environment.

Design for this issue and all issues of The Journal of Art Crime is the work of Urška Charney. Here's a link to ARCA's website on The Journal of Art Crime (includes Table of Contents for previous issues).


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