22 November 2016
Last week the announcement of the discovery of an alleged previously unknown sketchbook by Vincent van Gogh made international news. Toronto Van Gogh specialist Bogomila Welsh-Ovcharov held a press conference in Paris along with her publisher to share the details of the discovery and to launch the publication of the accompanying book, “Vincent van Gogh: The Lost Arles Sketchbook.”
Shortly after the press conference the Van Gogh Museum issued a press release denouncing the 65 drawings in the sketchbook as fakes (or, in their more diplomatic phrasing, "imitations"). The Van Gogh Museum, which has examined the drawings on two previous occasions, cited a number of reasons why the works couldn't be considered genuine. The style of the drawings (which the Van Gogh Museum called "monotonous, clumsy, and spiritless") was questioned as well as the ink used, the provenance and errors in the subject matter.
In a follow-up press conference Ms. Welsh-Ovcharov and her publisher defended the authenticity of the sketchbook. In addition, Ms. Welsh-Ovcharov went on to specifically question the Van Gogh Museum's authority in matters of authentication:
“When I know something is a Van Gogh, I know it’s a Van Gogh. And when a museum tells me, and when a museum tells me that they have the priority and have, in some ways, a conflicting interest, and a vested interest, I think we’re opening up a real can of worms of where the authority lies in connoisseurship,”
The Sarah Palin-esque word salad nature of the statement aside, Ms. Welsh-Ovcharov has taken the extraordinary step of a well known and respected Van Gogh specialist challenging the role the Van Gogh Museum has played in authenticating art works since its inception.
The row between Ms. Welsh-Ovcharov and the Van Gogh Museum has received world-wide attention. Martin Bailey, a widely respected Van Gogh specialist, author and journalist, called the Van Gogh Museum's response "unprecedented". I would argue that Ms. Welsh-Ovcharov's follow-up was even more astonishing.
My Van Gogh website has been online now for more than twenty years. Over the course of those years I've received more than a hundred messages from people claiming to have a Van Gogh. This is question #1 in my Frequently Asked Questions section. Generally I refer the person to the Van Gogh Museum given that I have no authority with regards to authenticating an art work. I know that the Van Gogh Museum has received hundreds of similar queries. In very few instances has this resulted in an unknown work being authenticated. And rightfully so. Most of the images that people have sent me over the years have been laughable--more along the lines of so-called "starving artist" paintings. Occasionally a disgruntled writer would lash out at both me and the Van Gogh Museum. Always tiresome for everyone involved.
And that's why Ms. Welsh-Ovcharov's comments are so surprising. It's one thing for an unhinged owner of an unknown Van Gogh "treasure" to question the authority of the Van Gogh Museum. It's another for a well known Van Gogh specialist, who has benefited from the resources of the Van Gogh Museum's research department for decades, to do so.
Ms. Welsh-Ovcharov's comments are, at best, confused and, at worst, hypocritical. She says that the Van Gogh Museum has "a conflicting interest, and a vested interest" and yet there's no evidence to support this. In terms of authenticating a previously unknown Van Gogh art work the Van Gogh Museum neither benefits from or is harmed by the outcome of the decision. I would argue that the Van Gogh Museum is always happy when they're able to authenticate a new discovery. Which makes perfect sense because every new finding (Sunset at Montmajour, Le Blute-Fin Mill and a previously unknown letter discovered in 2004, to name just three examples) makes the world of Van Gogh scholarship a far more interesting place.
Which is why it's so shocking that Ms. Welsh-Ovcharov would suggest that the Van Gogh Museum has a vested interest when, in fact, it's she and her publisher who are so desperate to have the new sketchbook deemed unquestionably authentic. If there is a vested interest in this story, it's the interest of a publisher wanting to sell books.
In addition, Ms. Welsh-Ovcharov has suggested that the Van Gogh Museum's assessment of the sketchbook is invalid based on the fact that the research staff there have only examined high resolution images (which isn't true) and that the decision was made hastily. And yet here again the truth is exactly the opposite. The Van Gogh Museum's multiple examinations of the sketchbook drawings have been thorough and well reasoned. Yet Ms. Welsh-Ovcharov in her first press conference claimed to have an "OMG" ("Oh my God") moment upon seeing the sketchbook for the first time. After a single glance there was an immediate conviction that the drawings were authentic. In addition, Ms. Welsh-Ovcharov said that the only other Van Gogh authority to accept the drawings as genuine, Ronald Pickvance (more on Mr. Pickvance, in a moment) had a similar instantaneous reaction:
"He immediately got it. He looked at the drawings. He said: 'Oh, oh, Bogomila.… You’ve got to publish this! Get the book out before I die! Get the book out!'"
If a hasty decision was made in terms of deciding upon the authenticity of the drawings, it was made by Ms. Welsh-Ovcharov herself.
Ms. Welsh-Ovcharov has challenged the Van Gogh Museum, not only in terms of their assessment of the sketchbook, but much more surprisingly, of their role as the sole arbiter when it comes to authentication. Ms. Welsh-Ovcharov's publisher, Les Éditions du Seuil, has suggested that the Van Gogh Museum's "monopoly" (their word) should be questioned.
This invites any number of musings. First of all, if Ms. Welsh-Ovcharov really does believe that the Van Gogh Museum's role in terms of connoisseurship should be called into question, then why has she not spoken out in the past? She's been dealing with the Van Gogh Museum for decades and yet it's only now that she's challenged their standing. The obvious answer is, of course, that it's now in her own best interest to do so since the decision of the Van Gogh Museum has sidelined what she had hoped would be a triumphant announcement in the art world.
More to the point, what can Ms. Welsh-Ovcharov suggest as an alternative? A United Nations type tribunal of Van Gogh experts who would decide authenticity by consensus? Who would appoint the experts? How would authenticity be decided? Unanimously? By two-thirds majority? Would there be a rotating chairperson as is the case with the European Union? The whole scenario is a bureaucratic nightmare.
Or perhaps Ms. Welsh-Ovcharov is suggesting that the authority to authenticate a previously unknown Van Gogh art work should be completely decentralized. Both she and Mr. Pickvance have said, summarily, that the drawings in the sketchbook are genuine. If they feel that they have the authority to authenticate an art work on their own, then this means that anyone can authenticate an artwork. The outcome? Pandora's Box is opened and out comes the potential for corruption, bribery and a solid Van Gogh catalogue raisonné that falls into disarray.
The Van Gogh Museum has been the leading authority on authenticating (or not) art works for more than forty years. Their decisions over the years have been prudent and judicious. Any change to this scenario invites chaos.
Ms. Welsh-Ovcharov is correct in saying that any assessment of the sketchbook drawings shouldn't be done in haste. All the same, it's fair for any individual to come to their own opinions in terms of an art work's authenticity. This creates a forum for debate and the exchange of ideas. Which is perhaps the only good thing that's come out of the sketchbook dispute.
For me personally I find the style of the new drawings to be inconsistent with the genuine drawings from Van Gogh's Arles period. The creator of the drawings in question is clearly trying to emulate his style, but does so excessively. The cross-hatching and dotted backgrounds are frenzied and unruly. It's true that Van Gogh's draftsmanship was astonishing, but he brilliantly contrasted the most complicated ink stroke patterns with blank space--blank space found to be completely lacking in the new drawings. Every square inch of space is packed with visual bedlam. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe famously said "Less is more" and Van Gogh's Arles drawings reflect that sentiment beautifully. The new sketchbook drawings are a case of "More is more."
The reader can compare genuine Van Gogh Arles drawings with examples from the new sketchbook. Everyone can come to their own conclusions.
Genuine Van Gogh
The only other recognized Van Gogh authority who concurs with Ms. Welsh-Ovcharov's assessment of the sketchbook is Ronald Pickvance who writes the introduction in the accompanying book. Mr. Pickvance is a British Van Gogh specialist who has curated a number of exhibitions over the years and authored several Van Gogh-related books and catalogues. He is well known in the Van Gogh world and very well regarded.
I've never met Mr. Pickvance, but I did have the great pleasure of attending an exhibition that he curated in 2000. This very enjoyable exhibition, hosted by the Gianadda Foundation in Martigny, Switzerland, included a number of remarkable art works--many rarely seen on public display. I remember one of the exhibition's organizers telling me that Mr. Pickvance had tears in his eyes when he uncrated The Bridge at Trinquetaille, a painting that, at the time, hadn't been seen in public for nearly forty years.
I mention the Gianadda exhibition for a specific reason because it ties in with Mr. Pickvance's surprising endorsement of the so-called Arles sketchbook. Shortly after Mr. Pickvance's Van Gogh exhibition opened in Martigny a self-anointed Van Gogh "authority" named Benoit Landais told a Swiss magazine that six of the 85 art works on display were fakes. In short, he went through the exhibition and gave a thumbs up or thumbs down on the art works' authenticity based on his own personal whims and flights of fancy. One would hope that Mr. Landais' showmanship and desire for publicity would have been ignored, but his condemnation received some additional attention in the press. An ugly incident, it cast a shadow on an otherwise well received exhibition. There was speculation that private collectors would hear about the Landais fiasco and have second thoughts about loaning out their art works. Why should they if the authenticity of the works are publically called into question? Fortunately, years later, Mr. Landais has faded, mercifully, into obscurity and not one of the Van Gogh art works that he condemned in Martigny has ever been deemed a fake.
It's because of this incident that Mr. Pickvance's actions are puzzling. He himself has suffered the consequences of someone doing an "end run" around the Van Gogh Museum and taking it upon his own authority to declare whether a Van Gogh art work is genuine or not. The Benoit Landais incident shows the unpleasant consequences of stripping the Van Gogh Museum of its authority to authenticate art works and transferring it to individuals, no matter how qualified. As mentioned above, any alternative to this arrangement would lead to anarchy within the world of Van Gogh connoisseurship. Mr. Pickvance knows this better than anyone.
Like Ms. Welsh-Ovcharov, Mr. Pickvance has dismissed the Van Gogh Museum's rejection of the sketchbook drawings. His final declaration was that the drawings are genuine: “These are absolutely okay, from one to 65 . . . . End of song, end of story.” But, respectfully, the song isn't Mr. Pickvance's to sing; the story not his to tell. The song, and the story, continue.