LETTER FROM THE LOWLANDS
by Abigail R. Esman 8/20/97
Van Gogh makes news, Appel cries "Fake!", Barbara Farber moves to Marseilles, more.
letter from the lowlands
by Abigail R. Esman
True Or False
One thing that appears abundantly clear, and not just in the Benelux, is the fact that you just can't trust the press -- and least of all, the art press. Earlier this summer, the Art Newspaper published a sensationalist report by Martin Bailey that questioned the authenticity of numerous works by Vincent van Gogh. The piece was picked up by the news wires and splashed across papers around the globe. As one art-world observer remarked, "The Art Newspaper sure knows how to get air time!"
But the story wasn't entirely accurate. One can't help but suspect that the Art Newspaper, widely respected status as "the" newspaper for the art world, is facing a financial pinch and as a consequence is resorting to tabloid journalism to boost its fortunes.
According to the Art Newspaper report, some 45 to 100 paintings and drawings presumed to be by the Dutch painter are fakes. This it argues on the basis of what Bailey calls "new evidence" published in the latest edition of Jan Hulsker's New Complete van Gogh, published in 1996, as well as on the claims of various van Gogh experts and enthusiasts. Well-researched and documented, his article traces the history of van Gogh forgery and examines the arguments surrounding several of the works.
No problem there. But according to Sjraar van Heugten, the curator of prints and drawings at Amsterdam's Van Gogh Museum, there is little new there, either; the Hulsker research is well known by now, as are the questions that have been raised by other van Gogh experts such as Liesbeth Heenk, Roland Dorn and Walter Feilchenfeldt.
Moreover, claims Van Heugten, the Art Newspaper's contention that the Portrait of Doctor Gachet at the Musee d'Orsay is also a fake is entirely unfounded; the work was included in the 1990 blockbuster van Gogh exhibition at the Van Gogh Museum, "and this," said Van Heugten, "demonstrates our confidence in the work." As for the questions raised by Ben Landais, a French journalist, and by Antonio de Robertis, an Italian van Gogh fan, Van Heugten is summarily dismissive: "These are van Gogh-lovers, not professional researchers," he told the Amsterdam daily, Het Parool.
Indeed, Landais' claim several months back that the Jardin d'Auvers -- a painting with a long history of controversy in France for other reasons -- was also a fake, has long since been discredited (though it nonetheless was probably largely to blame for the work been bought-in at a much publicized auction earlier this year at Etude Tajan, Paris). In either case, none of this latest uproar has affected the exhibition of van Gogh's early drawings currently on view at the Van Gogh Museum through Oct. 12.
But the real issues here are not so much the questions surrounding the van Goghs themselves as they are the questions regarding, first, authenticity and expertise, and second, fair reporting in the art press. The Dutch papers enthusiastically rebutted Bailey's Art Newspaper article -- yet failed to make the effort to talk with Bailey himself. Bailey, for his part, did not bother to speak with Van Heugten. And though Van Heugten argues that the findings Bailey reveals "are not new," they are surely new to most readers of the Art Newspaper -- which raises another issue. Why were these findings not reported in the general international press, the Dutch press, or the art press, back in 1996 -- when they were, in fact, new?
One Good Appel?
The questions concerning authenticity and expertise are something else again, however, echoed in another recent Lowlands scandal, which began in May when a furious Karel Appel ordered Christie's Amsterdam to withdraw six works from its June 4 sale. "Fakes!" he pronounced. Under question were two drawings, a gouache, a carpet, and three previously unknown stage sets. According to Appel, the works on paper are all badly made, amateurish versions of his own work; the stage sets were unknown because they were never made by him. And he did not design that carpet.
In rebuttal, Christie's argued that the owner of the works on paper had claimed to have acquired them from the late Willem Sandberg, the former director of Amsterdam's Stedelijk Museum who championed the CoBRA movement (of which Appel was a founding member). Further, the stage sets were said to have been painted for an Amsterdam cabaret theater built by Tom Manders, a friend of Appel, in 1953. Rudi Falkenhagen, an actor who worked at the theater, told the Amsterdam press in May that he not only recalls Appel painting the panels, but that the two hand prints on the image are Falkenhagen's own, made by him because Appel finished the painting shortly before he was to take the train to Paris and "didn't want to get his hands dirty." Moreover, a photograph recovered from Het Parool's archives by reporter Paul Arnoldussen shows Appel standing beside a similar group of panels being painted by Manders. In Appel's right hand is a paintbrush.
But the artist is unimpressed. He denies ever having given these drawings to Sandberg, and as for Frankenhagen's story, Appel told Arnoldussen that it is "simply untrue; there are many such tales." As Appel tells it, he was simply visiting Manders when the photographer showed up, and Manders coaxed him to pick up a paintbrush for the picture.
Believable? Maybe. But Christie's research into the carpet sheds doubt on Appel's claims: according to Arnoldussen, the auction house uncovered correspondence in the files of architect J.J.P. Oud, who commissioned the rug. That correspondence made "indisputably clear" that Appel himself made the design. So does that make one good Appel, and five bad? Six good? Six bad? Who's to judge?
While We're On The Subject....
Assuming that the Appel stage sets are indeed authentic, it would surely not be the first discovery of an "unknown" work by a Dutch artist, nor does it seem to have been the last. Two 17th century Rembrandt etchings have also recently been discovered during filming of Tussen Kunst en Kitsch (Between Art and Kitsch), Dutch TV's version of the BBC's popular Antiques Roadshow, in which ordinary folk bring assorted heirlooms, junk-shop buys and attic finds for appraisal by the experts. The Rembrandts join similar discoveries made on the show earlier this year, including an etching plate, also by Rembrandt -- discovered behind an old and unimportant painting -- and a cityscape by Willem Koekoek.
On The Contemporary Scene
Speaking of TV.... some 30 years after Nam June Paik first took a TV set and made art, former After Nature artist Peter Klashorst is taking art and making TV. On a new series of programs, Schilder met Peter (Paint with Peter), Klashorst will paint live on television for anyone who wants to watch. Perhaps this is a sign of a growing trend among artists whose proverbial 15 minutes have passed: some make Hollywood movies, others get TV shows. It's a living.
Meantime, the American Barbara Farber, whose eponymous Amsterdam gallery has been at the forefront of the Dutch art scene for the past 18 years, is closing shop and moving to Marseilles with her husband, media-master and PR agent Jules Farber. A New Yorker to the core despite living in the Netherlands for some 30-odd years (okay, she's really from Weehawken, New Jersey), Farber was one of the few dealers in Holland to show major international artists. In recent years she has focused on Latin American talent, exhibiting the glorious conundrums of St. Clair Cemin, the painterly bricollage of Fabian Marcaccio and the dusky, often mystical canvases of Julio Galán.
If the gallery was trendy (and it was, showing Baechler in 1985 and Lydia Dona in 1990 as well as the recent exhibitions by the above-named Latin-Americans when that became the Thing To Do, it was also one of the only places in Amsterdam where one felt one was getting something of the art world as it exists outside the Netherlands. (Paul Andriesse, Immaculate Conceptions World Art, and Gallery Art Affairs are the others.) Farber plans to open a new gallery in Marseilles, but we in Amsterdam will miss her.
Oddly enough, before opening her gallery, Farber designed a line of children's clothes in the Netherlands -- a fact that offers a convenient segue to what appears to be an increasingly common link being drawn between art and fashion. From the conflicts surrounding Georgio Armani's replication of works by Anish Kapoor for the designer's Paris showings to the celebrated auction of Princess Di's evening gowns, couture is increasingly encroaching on the spaces previously reserved for art. At the Groningen Museum, for instance, a series of exhibitions focusing on fashion design opened with an exhibition of dresses and jackets by Azzedine Alaia, John Galliano/Givenchy, Vivienne Westwood and Issey Miyake, among others. Curated by Mark Wilson and Jim Cook, the exhibition series is among the major highlights planned at the museum for the next four years, and will include solo shows by Alaia (Dec. 1997-Mar. 199 and others.
And in Belgium, Pierre Bogaers and Veerle Swenters, a shoemaker and his wife, have spent the past several years writing letters to artists soliciting -- shoes. The artists' own shoes. And indeed, sweat-stained, paint-dripped, mold-ridden, smelly, worn, weathered and broken, shoes have come in from as diverse an array of artists, among them (the late) Ed Kienholz, Georg Baselitz and Kenny Scharf. To date, the couple has collected some 700 such shoes.
Some are -- well, just shoes. But some artists, such as Kienholz, chose to be more artistic about it: Kienholz constructed a unique pair of shoes from parts of his own shoes and those belonging to his wife Nancy, with whom he collaborated on his work throughout most of his career. On the wish list for the future: shoes from Anselm Kiefer and Ger van Elk, and a museum of their own in which to keep them. (Are you listening, Imelda?) Meantime, the collection is being toured through other museums internationally. Happy hoofing.