Rembrandtism

11.04.13

Can A Fake Be As Good As Real?

The Daily Pic, Met Monday Edition: A forger's Rembrandt may carry us back to the master's own day.

This is that rare thing – a Pic I haven’t seen in the flesh, because I couldn’t, because this “Rembrandt” has been declared an 18th-century British fake and therefore consigned to the vaults of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, which has owned and even loved it it since long before it was doubted. (Click on my image to see the piece in great detail.) In yesterday’s New York Times, I argued for the value of forgery, for reasons such as that a picture like this, which gave pleasure and insight as a Rembrandt until something like 1940, ought to still give the same kind of joy and knowledge – maybe even knowledge of Rembrandt’s art. (If it succeeded in fooling and pleasing people, it was because it had enough genuinely Rembrandtian features to work as a Rembrandt.) 

But today I want to voice a caveat. Works of art aren’t only about providing sensations and pleasures and insights to us, now, in the 21st century. They also function as historical documents, pointing back to past moments. As such, we want and need them to have an accurate connection to the past they represent, regardless of what they may do for modern art lovers. Thus, despite my doubts about connoisseurship, it could be that authentication and correct attribution are useful insofar as they create a kind of visual “chain of evidence” that certifies the link between a current object and the moment of its birth.

Then again … as I said, for a forgery to deceive at all, it has to preserve a great many features of a genuine object. So, in evidentiary terms, it may be best to think of a fake as being quite like a later, slightly corrupted edition of an ancient text whose earliest manuscripts no longer exist (which is the case with the vast majority of very old writings)  or even as a blurred photocopy of a lost document. If someone launched a new kind of fake-bomb that destroyed every original Rembrandt, the surviving forgeries would still give us a strong link to the art he made, and to the moment of its making. Maybe we need to stop thinking, as the market does, of works as either by a given artist or not. We may want to think in terms of a complex Venn diagram which maps a series of works as being more or less closely linked to a given moment of important art making – a diagram that would register Rembrandtism, rather than Rembrandt himself. And could it even be that a work by a follower, or even by a much later forger, gets closer to the core of the concept than a lame piece by the master himself?

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