by Jonathon Keats
Jonathon Keats, an American conceptual artist, biographies several major art forgers from the 20th century as he argues that their work is just as deserving as the authentic masterpieces they imitated of admiration. From Han van Meegeren, who went on trial for collaborating with the Nazis and painted an imitation Vermeer in court to prove his innocence, to Tom Keating, the artist who hid messages in his forgeries or used 20th century materials to prove connoisseurs could be easily fooled, Keats explores the careers of the men who tricked the art world with fake masterpieces. Keats follows his biographies with a study of contemporary art and the appropriation of forgers’ techniques and philosophies in modern works.
The book is divided into three sections. The first section, “The Art of Forgery”, discusses historical cases of forgery, and how attitudes have changed since the Renaissance, when Andrea del Sarto duplicated a Raphael to satisfy his Medici patron. The artist was praised for his ingenuity, as the recipient of the painting claimed, “I value it no less than if it were by the hand of Rafaello. Nay, even more, for it is something out of the course of nature that a man of excellence should imitate the manner of another so well, and should make a copy so like. It is enough that it should be known that Andrea’s genius was as valiant in double harness as in single.”
Obviously, attitudes had changed in the 20th century, and part two, “Six Modern Masters” contains the biographies of Lothar Malskat, Alceo Dossena, Han van Meegeren, Eric Hebborn, Elmyr de Hory, and Tom Keating. That all six of these men managed to create so many forgeries and fool so many people seems hardly credible, but as Barnum said, “There’s a sucker born every minute.”** I really enjoyed this section of the book; each chapter is long enough that you get a good sense of the personality and motivations of the con artist. When I finished, I wanted to run out and find longer biographies of these men; with the exception of Malskat, all the painters have English biographies, although I believe some of them are out of print.
The third part of the book, “Forging a New Art”, begins with the example of Andy Warhol reproducing the Mona Lisa using silk-screening as an example of appropriation, a subgenre of art that has grown in the 20th and 21st century as modern artists engage with and challenge the past. Keats then examines other examples of artists’ forger-like activities. J. S. G. Boggs paid for items and services with hand-drawn bills; the sellers knowingly accepted the fake bills in lieu of cash. Street artists use stencils to create easily-reproduced images and deface existing advertisements with provocative new messages. Although he doesn’t mention his own work with “thought experimentation,” Keats could have easily written some of his own projects into this final section.
I thought the biographies and art history were quite interesting, since forgers don’t get a lot of face time in classroom discussions. I did not find Keats’ arguments broadly applicable to all contemporary art. His conclusion seemed a bit rushed and ends with the following statement: "The time has come to dump the Mona Lisa and dismiss Leonardo the talented painter. Fearless artists must resurrect and reinvent Leonardo the renegade scientist." Whether the time has come or not for this, I cannot say, but I don’t think Keats argued it convincingly enough in Forged.
Note: The ARC that I received did not have any images in it; I assume (but haven’t yet had a chance to confirm) that the final copies do have at least some of the pictures mentioned printed inside. If they do not, the book could be frustrating for those unfamiliar with art history since the reader will have no idea what Keats is talking about whenever he mentions the name of a painting.
** I feel obligated the note that though this phrase is generally credited to P. T. Barnum, many of his friends and family disagreed with the attribution. It has alternatively been attributed to Mark Twain and Michael Cassius McDonald.
3.5 out of 5 stars
To read more about Forged, buy it or add it to your wishlist click here.
Peeking into the archives...today in:
2012: When the Wind Blows by Raymond Briggs
2011: Modern Ruins by Shaun O’Boyle
2010: News: Amazon Pulls All Macmillian Titles
2009: Poll for Book Blog Readers!