Celebrating new platforms for debate

June 29, 2011

Claude Monet. Impression, soleil levant. Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris*

All we know of the truth is that the absolute truth, such as it is, is beyond our reach
Nicolaus Cusanus
De Docta Ignorantia

One of the greatest luxuries of working within certain media is a freedom from accountability, or impetus to respond to critics in any form of detail. Newspaper commentaries, documentaries, even blogs present a platform for individuals to express an opinion, but do not uniformly require a justification of the information presented. The BBC's Fake or Fortune episode about the alleged Monet owned by David Joel has created a fascinating debate. Initial responses to this program were emotive, as evidenced by UK TV reviewer Sam Wollaston:

And there is only one conclusion, that lovely David's Monet is a Monet, everyone agrees. Oh, except Guy Wildenstein. Who he? The judge of course. He is head of this Paris-based organisation called the Wildenstein Institute. Guess how he got that job; was it a) because he's the world's leading expert on Monet, or b) because of his surname and because Daddy had the job before him? Anyway, he gets to decide what is and what isn't a Monet, and – even more extraordinary – the auction houses, the art world as a whole, go along with it. There are asses wherever you look; it's one massive mass moon.

Reading Wollaston's reactionary piece, I resolved to present a calmer summary of the details in the episode, as well as a clip to those of us outside iPlayer range. Being far removed from the art world, my interest in attributions is not tied to commercial gain, but a fascination with evidential processes applied in a context where science is playing an increasing role in supporting the documentary and stylistic analyses performed by authentication experts.

The case presented by David Joel, Fiona Bruce, Philip Mould, Dr. Bendor Grosvenor and Professor John House in the episode was compelling. Whether it was conclusive is where the problem lies. In rejecting the evidence presented by Fake or Fortune, the Wildenstein Institute presented no significant countering evidence of their own.

The most important factor for analyses performed in any field is information (or data). As the international authority on Monet attributions, one would hope the Wildensteins would have come back with a thoroughly reasoned summation as to why the painting did not look right. Instead, the response offered of it being "a matter of connoisseurship" did little to advance their reputation, nor the perception of the art market being ruled by personalities rather than procedural integrity.

Enter Waldemar Januszczak, outspoken art critic and documentarian. In a letter to the Guardian, he comments:

What no one seems prepared to countenance is that the Wildenstein Institute is right. Having just made a series about Monet and the impressionists, I completely agree with their view that the picture featured in the programme was not painted by Monet. Plenty of fake Monets were already in circulation while Monet was alive. And, unfortunately, his unscrupulous dealer, Georges Petit, was perfectly capable of selling pretend Monets to visiting Egyptians. All this episode of Fake or Fortune actually proved is that the art world hasn't changed a bit.

Such comments, offered with such little clarifying detail do little to add to discussion other than cause frayed tempers. Saying  gallery owner Georges Petit was "perfectly capable" of selling fakes is a contentious statement. If Januszczak had uncovered anything of the sort, one would expect this evidence to be produced. 

Dr. Bendor Grosvenor, Philip Mould's chief researcher responded on his site, Art History News:

....let's imagine that the forger was good enough to paint a work that would convince a large number of Monet scholars, and was clever enough to source all the appropriate canvas supplier's marks on the back. And finally, let's imagine that Petit was then able, as one of Monet's main dealers and someone who knew the artist well, to sell this cunning fake as a 'Monet' while Monet was alive. That's pretty ingenious, don't you think? And probably a more expensive operation than just buying a real Monet.  

There's also a further problem with Waldemar's argument. If Petit was clever enough to do all that, why would he, as one of Paris' leading art dealers, then risk his reputation by illustrating the said fake Monet in Monet's obituary in Le Figaro newspaper (which he did on December 16th 1926)? Just for a laugh? 

Professor John House of the Courtauld Institute clarified in a letter to the Guardian:

As well as selling Bords de la Seine à Argenteuil to the Egyptian collector Mohamed Mahmoud Khalil, the Galerie Georges Petit supplied a photograph of it to the newspaper Le Figaro, which published it in its obituary of Monet (Figaro artistique, 16 December 1926). Waldemar Januszczak (Letters, 21 June) can imagine the gallery selling a questionable picture to an Egyptian; it is inconceivable to me that it would have supplied a photograph of a questionable picture to a leading Parisian publication for an obituary of the artist.

As the "expert" featured on the Fake or Fortune programme on 19 June, I have seen the picture many times over the past 39 years, and have never had the slightest doubt that it was painted by Monet. Coupled with this obituary and the newly established documentary evidence presented in the programme, the case for his authorship is overwhelming.

Stepping outside the ego-driven furnace for a moment, this intriguing debate is a landmark example of a cross-platform interaction between different professionals, and members of the public(which I represent in this instance). Dr. Grosvenor speaks on behalf the art market, and the professionals involved in authenticating a work for sale purposes. Professor House is an established expert, with a profound level of experience on Monet. Januszczak and Wollaston speak on behalf of the media sector.

Before his letter to the Guardian, Januszczak's initial reactions to the Fake or Fortune episode were posted on twitter:

Just watched Fake or Fortune - the Fiona Bruce vehicle - on i-player. I totally agree with the Wildenstein Institute. That is not a Monet.Mon Jun 20 19:23:22 via web

@bethanybull The painting looks wrong. Wrong angles, wrong perspective, wrong spatial awareness. It's not a Monet.Mon Jun 20 20:03:49 via web

Re: Fake or Fortune. I feel sorry for the Wildenstein Inst. not the old boy with the 'Monet'. Everyone believes him. No one believes them.Mon Jun 20 20:10:08 via web

Having interacted with Januszczak before, I resolved to get his attention. Referencing the work being done by Professor Martin Kemp (et al) to verify an alleged Leonardo depiction of Salvator Mundi, I sent this:

Making a doco does *not* make @JANUSZCZAK a Monet authenticity expert. Should Martin Kemp call Sister Wendy to verify Salvator Mundi?Mon Jun 27 07:15:30 via web

I was hoping he would respond with some details of unscrupulous deals, or evidence of flaws in the methodology applied by the experts looking at the work. Rather than respond to Dr. Grosvenor or Professor House, Januszczak chose the softer target - to respond to me:

@3pipenet Actually, filming 300 Monets in close-up hi-definition is excellent training. Better than writing a blog.Mon Jun 27 15:28:09 via Twitter for BlackBerry®

I am not sure whether Januszczak has read my article - I imagine not. I was careful not to offer any sort of opinion on whether the piece is a Monet. My main concern was that the Wildensteins did not seem to be very thorough, or feel that it was necessary to provide a sound rationale for dismissing the research presented by an array of reputable specialists. In fact, Januszczak seems to have made a better attempt at trying to fashion an explanation, with the tried and true art critic standard of it "looks wrong" with the words "angles" and "spatial" thrown in to complete a semblance of a statement.

That Januszczak has had the privilege of seeing any number of Monets up close perhaps makes him a better judge than most of us (particularly myself). However, this degree of experience most assuredly does not make him an expert to determine authenticity.

That such exposure is comparable in any way to the expertise of Professor House, or the fidelity of the images produced by the Lumiere System borders on the absurd. That he chose to belittle a blogger in the process is no great surprise. Januszczak insists he has no problem with bloggers, just "some bloggers" - perhaps those who demand a greater level of detail when querying the nature of his assertions?

An art critic like Januszczak most effectively plies his trade by being direct and outspoken, not by being meticulous, rational, or even kind. This perhaps explains why I was able to get his attention so quickly by behaving in a similar manner.

The true motivations for Januszczak's comments perhaps lie beyond defending the honour of the Wildenstein Institute, or providing a counterpoint analysis to that offered in Fake or Fortune...

'The Impressionists - 'can there really be anything left to say on the subject?' - SO MUCH! Watch my series.Sat Jun 18 12:54:09 via web

It has been an interesting debate - this is the nature of attribution investigations where large sums of money and prominent artists are involved. Such discussion is likely to flare up again shortly, with the spate of discoveries coming to light, including works allegedly by Leonardo and Caravaggio (more details about these will be reported here as data is made available).

Although Januszczak may not be fond of particular bloggers, that the majority of this discourse took place online is a fascinating development in the annals of art historical discourse. Decades ago, such bickering would have occurred in a closed journal, seen only by a chosen few. Today, with the miracle of the web, we have professionals, pundits and punters spiritedly debating a topic in real-time across great distances.

I am sure all parties can at least agree this is a good thing?

edit: evidently this is not a good thing. Since the above interaction and this post, Januszczak has since blocked me from the wisdom of his tweets.

Grosvenor, B. On the 'Monet'- Waldemar speaks. Art History News. June 21 2011.Accessed June 29 2011 link

Grosvenor, B. On the Monet - Waldemar writes. Art History News. June 24 2011. Accessed June 29 2011 link

House, J. Letters: Monet in the frame.  Guardian.co.uk. June 24 2011. Accessed June 29 2011 link

Januszczak, W. Letters: Right on the Monet. Guardian.co.uk. June 21 June 2011. Accessed June 29 2011 link

Wollaston, S. TV Review: Fake or Fortune; The Marriage Ref. June 19 2011. Guardian.co.uk. Accessed June 29 2011 link

*There is a great deal of variation in image reproductions, in print, online and on film.  Most images are not accompanied by colour and luminance calibration strips to enable checking, which also requires that displays(monitors, TVs etc) be correctly calibrated. This problem is exaggerated in impressionist works, with a large variation in colour levels observed. For more about colour variation in this painting, see this fascinating entry at webexhibits, which examines luminance levels and allows you to interactively adjust the colour levels.


Alberti's Window said...

I like that Januszczak mentioned that "that the art world hasn't changed a bit." Although Januszczak is mentioning that quote in relation to "pretend" works of art, one can also observe that the art world "hasn't changed a bit" in regards to debates that revolve around authenticity. I'm particularly reminded of one comment made in the early 19th century, which questioned the authenticity of the Elgin Marbles. Without even seeing the Greek statues, the well-known art critic Richard Payne Knight announced that the statues were not Greek, but Roman statues dating to the time of Hadrian. (It was pretty easy to dismiss Payne Knight's statement, since it could be proven that sculptures were "harvested" right off of the Parthenon! Knight's reputation, unfortunately, never recovered after he made this egregious error in judgment.)

All this being said, although the medium for debate has changed (today people engage and spark debate through Twitter and television shows!), the topics of debate haven't changed! We still care about authenticity.

David Packwood said...

The Twitter Wars!

It's a bit pathetic of WJ to attack bloggers.

I totally agree with you about how the web is making these attribution debates more transparent. As for Wildenstein,Monet, this is a trend towards connoisseurship by committee, which is open to abuse.

I wish I had time to join in the great debate more, but very busy.



Unknown said...

Great insights M. The Elgin Marbles are an ongoing controversy as well.

I wonder if we'll ever manage to shake off the 19th century mentality to art history, and the adversarial nature of this debate that relies more on intuition than evidence or detail. Judging by the conduct of some involved in this discussion, it's going to be a great challenge.

@David - I agree about the web as a great medium to promote transparency, and access to this debate. All the sites linked to above are not behind paywalls or in closed journals. Anyone that wants to comment, has been able to.

I definitely make no apologies for being a mere blogger. Januszczak can prove the quality of his research by producing evidence of his claims, and responding to the points raised by the experts.

For the record, I should clarify that I also enjoyed Sister Wendy Beckett's documentaries. The main difference between her and WJ being that despite seeing many works in person, the Sister never seems to have made a spectacle of herself by assuming she knows more than authenticity experts.

Kind Regards

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Kudos for you for entering the fray. I'm somewhat shocked that claims of "I know it when I see it" --and the subsequent outrage when questioned--still goes on. But then again, it's human nature, right?

Unknown said...

Cheers Vicky! It seems entering into the fray with a call for rational analysis and detail has earnt me the ire of Mr. Janusczak, despite my previous extensive promotion of his work here at 3PP.

No matter. An art critic that can't handle criticism is somewhat amusing.


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