In Praise of the Fake

If the best art excites our emotions, makes us question the world around us, and exhibits astonishing skill… what better than forgeries?

When the New Orleans Museum of Art received a donation from Mark A. Landis in 1987, the curators had no idea how lucky they were. While the watercolor bore the signature of Marie Laurencin, a minor French Cubist, Landis himself was the painter. Over the next several decades, often disguised as a priest, Landis gifted at least a hundred more fakes to some fifty American museums, boosting their holdings in names ranging from Paul Signac to Charles Courtney Curran to Pablo Picasso.

The New Orleans Museum was fortunate – though the curators may beg to differ – because Landis is now more noteworthy than Laurencin. To be sure, his watercolor isn't much to look at, faithful as it is to Laurencin's sentimentalism, but the con job he perpetrated is astonishing. As one of the foremost forgers of our time, Landis is one of the greatest artists.

To appreciate Landis as an important artist, and to recognize forgery as a vital art form, you have to set aside the antiquated notion of art as a precious bauble. Since the advent of Modernism in the mid-nineteenth century, serious artists have been battling that perception, struggling to make art subversive. Impressionism and Cubism presented radical challenges to how we visualize the world. Dada and Surrealism undermined our confidence in logic. Expressionism – both figurative and abstract – bombarded us with visions of existential crisis. Pop Art made a show trial of consumerism. These are oversimplifications of course, but they suggest a common cause shared by all modern art worthy of attention. The most significant artists provoke us to examine ourselves and our civilization.

Yet the provocation is seldom sufficient for most people to take notice, let alone to question their worldview. That's because even the fiercest work is tamed when it's presented as art. Edvard Munch's paintings won't actually pain you, nor will Marina Abramovic's performances (unless you happen to be one of her volunteers). Well-lit and air-conditioned, museums are safe havens. Expert wall texts provide comforting explanations. Any anxiety you feel is just a passing thrill, like the fear you experience watching a horror film.

And anyway, only a small minority of people visit museums and galleries in the first place. Generally patrons are well-educated, liberal, urban and affluent. Those may be good demographics for cultivating donors or clients, but art can hardly change the world if it reaches only an elite.

Forgeries have none of the limitations of legitimate art. They're anything but safe, and encountering them is anything but voluntary. When a forger perpetrates a fraud, he or she plays to our blind spots. And if the forger is caught, the ensuing scandal broadly exposes the false assumptions and flaws in our system that permitted the deception. In the aftermath of a great forgery, we see ourselves and our world more clearly.

Take the case of the Dutch painter Han van Meegeren, the most famous art forger of the 20th century. In the late 1930s, van Meegeren faked a painting by Johannes Vermeer that looked nothing like Vermeer's known pictures. It was a Biblical scene, showing Christ breaking bread at Emmaus, and it seemed to validate the longstanding claim of a leading Dutch scholar, Abraham Bredius, who believed that Vermeer had gone through a lost religious phase. Bredius eagerly authenticated the painting. (In The Burlington Magazine, the toniest art journal of the day, he even declared it to be "the masterpiece of Johannes Vermeer of Delft".) His endorsement was a license for van Meegeren to produce more in the same style, and World War II made the paintings ridiculously easy to sell since patriotic Dutchmen were desperate to keep their patrimony out of Hitler's collections.

Van Meegeren painted one too many. His version of Christ and the adulteress was acquired by Nazi Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, the Luftwaffe commander who'd recently leveled Rotterdam. After the war, van Meegeren was discovered to have been the seller, and charged with criminal disloyalty to Holland. He confessed to the far lesser crime of art forgery. His court case garnered worldwide media attention, featured in newsreels and magazine articles. "The knowledge and integrity of many experts... stood on trial," wrote Irving Wallace in The Saturday Evening Post. More broadly, the van Meegeren scandal encouraged people to question the mechanisms of authority – buttressed by the war – that protected his ghastly paintings from public scrutiny.

Maybe van Meegeren couldn't have done it today, but there are myriad other ways in which forgers manipulate everything we take for granted. Tweaking those beliefs, more than any technical skill, is the forger's métier. One of the last big cases of the 20th century played out on eBay in 1998, when a seller named Kenneth Walton brushed the initials RD52 on a colorful abstract painting he found in a junkshop, leading bidders to believe they were outsmarting him – and getting the deal of a lifetime – by buying a 1952 canvas by Richard Diebenkorn. With the help of a little shill bidding, the painting topped $135,000 before the FBI closed in. The scandal reverberated far beyond the art world, engaging audiences that had never even been online, let alone heard of Diebenkorn. Just three years after eBay was founded, Walton's con job revealed how ill-adapted human instincts are for negotiating the virtual marketplace.

While Walton had scarcely touched a paintbrush, he was a great artist because his scam made us examine our nascent relationship with the world wide web. Sure it was a crime – for which Walton was punished with a jail term – but art can't be judged by legal standards, let alone by an artist's character. (After all, Caravaggio was a murderer.) We can appreciate the con without condoning it.

And forgery is not necessarily a crime. Mark Landis has never been charged because he's always given away his fakes. He donates them to minor museums, often in memory of his parents. He declines to take a tax deduction. Sometimes he offers to pay for framing.

Most of his forgeries are mediocre. Many are painted directly atop printed photos of the original paintings, downloaded from the internet. Some have gaps where you can see pixelation, as curators have noticed long after he's gone. They've spread word about him, so he's taken up aliases. For a while, one of his favorites was Jesuit Father Arthur Scott.

Several newspapers have interviewed Landis, trying to ascertain why he'd selflessly pass off fakes. His responses are inconsistent and hardly convincing. (He told the Financial Times that he wanted to commemorate his parents but couldn't afford a suitable memorial, a touching story until you consider how many paintings he's donated under fictitious names.) What makes Landis's work so provocative is that it defies conventional thinking. Curators are duped over and over again because the conman's munificence disarms them. Evidently our materialist culture has a blind spot for generosity. His fakes are more subversive, and thus more artistically compelling, than the Signacs and Picassos he copies.

The great irony is that forgeries are more real than the real artworks they fake. They genuinely manipulate society rather than merely illustrating alternate points of view. There are no boundaries, no frames or explanatory texts. We are at once the forger's materials, subject, and audience.

Artists need not be taken aback by the fact that forgers are outperforming them. On the contrary, artists should take the subversiveness of forgery as inspiration. Artists have a natural advantage, since forgers are inclined to hide their ruses. (Their forgeries can only become great art if they're exposed.) Most forgers don't want to get caught. In contrast, artists can flaunt their subversions.

In 2011 the new media artists Julian Oliver and Danja Vasiliev built a simple device that allowed them to hijack the wi-fi signal in a library, and to remotely edit the content of news sites such as nytimes.com so that everyone in the room reading the New York Times on a wireless device would see modified headlines. Then they posted the blueprints online so that anybody with a soldering iron could manufacture the appliance.

Countless artworks comment on the unreliability of information in the digital age. Oliver and Vasiliev make the precariousness palpable. Any time you use public wi-fi, you have to wonder whether someone has installed their device in your vicinity. Your anxiety is real, and leads to honest questioning of everything you believe. All art should be so engaging.

Jonathon Keats is most recently the author of Forged: Why Fakes Are The Great Art Of Our Age (Oxford University Press).

Jonathon Keats is most recently the author of Forged: Why Fakes Are The Great Art Of Our Age (Oxford University Press).

MARK GERSON
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It's unfashionable to call someone a "genius" – but William Empson was one

Father than denying the contradictoriness of being human, Empson revelled in it, as The Face of Buddha reveals.

William Empson was a genius. Describing anyone in this way is distinctly unfashionable nowadays, because it suggests a level of achievement to which most of humanity cannot aspire. There is nothing you can do to acquire genius. Either you have it or, like the rest of us, you don’t – a state of affairs that cannot be remedied. The very idea smacks of elitism, one of the worst sins in the contemporary moral lexicon. But if talk of genius has come close to being banned in polite society, it is hard to know how else to describe Empson’s astonishing originality of mind.

One of the most influential 20th-century literary critics and the author of two seminal books on language, he was extremely receptive to new thinking and at the same time combative in defending his views. He was a poet of the first rank, whose spare and often cryptic verse was immediately understood and admired by Ludwig Wittgenstein. Incomparably more thoughtful than anything produced by the dull atheist prophets of our own day, his book Milton’s God (1961), in which he compares the Christian God to a commandant at Belsen, must be one of the fiercest assaults on monotheism ever published. And as a socialist who revered the British monarchy, he had a political outlook that was refreshingly non-standard.

Empson’s originality was not confined to his writing. He led a highly adventurous life. Expelled from his research fellowship and his name deleted from the records of his Cambridge college in 1929 when one of the porters found condoms in his rooms, he lost any prospect of a position in British academic life. For a time, he considered becoming a journalist or a civil servant. Instead his tutor I A Richards encouraged him to apply for posts in east Asia, and in 1931 he took up a position at a teacher training college in Japan. For some years he taught in China – mostly from memory, owing to a lack of books, and sleeping on a blackboard when his university was forced to move to Kunming during the Japanese siege of Beijing. By the late Thirties he was well known in London literary circles (written when he was only 22, his best-known book, Seven Types of Ambiguity, was published in 1930 and a collection of poems appeared in 1934) but just scraping a living from reviewing and a small private income. During the Second World War he worked at the BBC alongside George Orwell and Louis MacNeice.

He returned to China in 1947 to teach in Beijing, living through the stormy years just before and after Mao came to power and leaving only when the regime’s ideological demands became intolerably repressive. He continued his academic career, first at Kenyon College in Ohio, briefly at Gresham College in London, and finally at the University of Sheffield, where he was appointed head of the English department in 1953 and remained until his retirement in 1972, but always disdained academic jargon, writing in a light, glancing, conversational style.

Inordinately fond of drink and famously bohemian in appearance (T S Eliot, who admired his mind and enjoyed his company, commented on Empson’s scruffiness), he lived in a state of eccentric disorder that the poet Robert Lowell described as having “a weird, sordid nobility”. He was actively bisexual, marrying the South African-born sculptor Hetta Crouse, equally ­free-spirited, and with whom he enjoyed an open relationship that was sometimes turbulent yet never without affection. His later years were less eventful, though rarely free from controversy. In 1979 he was knighted, and awarded an honorary fellowship by the college that half a century earlier had struck his name from the books. He died in 1984.

The publishing history of this book is as extraordinary as the work itself. “The real story of The Face of the Buddha,” the cultural historian Rupert Arrowsmith writes in his richly learned introduction, “began in the ancient Japanese city of Nara, where, in the spring of 1932, the beauty of a particular set of Japanese sculptures struck Empson with revelatory force.” He was “bowled over” by three statues, including the Kudara Kannon, a 7th-century piece in the Horyuji temple representing the Bodhisattva of Mercy, which fascinated him because the left and right profiles of the statue seemed to have asymmetrical expressions: “The puzzlement and good humour of the face are all on the left, also the maternity and the rueful but amiable smile. The right is the divinity; a birdlike innocence and wakefulness; unchanging in irony, unresting in good works; not interested in humanity, or for that matter in itself . . . a wonderfully subtle and tender work.” Gripped by what the art historian Partha Mitter describes as a “magnificent obsession”, Empson travelled far and wide in the years that followed, visiting south-east Asia, China, Ceylon, Burma and India and ending up in the Ajanta caves, the fountainhead of Mahayana Buddhist art. First begun in Japan in 1932, The Face of the Buddha was written and repeatedly revised during these wanderings.

Empson made no copy of the manuscript and in a succession of mishaps it was lost for nearly 60 years. The story of its disappearance is resonant of the boozy Fitzrovia portrayed in Anthony Powell’s novels. On leaving for his foreign travels in 1947, Empson gave the manuscript to John Davenport, a family friend and literary critic, for safekeeping. The hard-drinking Davenport mislaid it and in 1952 told Empson he had left it in a taxi. Davenport’s memory was befuddled. He had in fact given the text to the Tamil poet and editor M J T Tambimuttu, who must have shelved it among the piles of books that filled the rat-infested flat vividly described in the memoirs of Julian Maclaren-Ross. When Tambimuttu retur­ned to Ceylon in 1949 he passed on Empson’s manuscript to Richard March, a fellow editor of Poetry London, which ­Tambimuttu had founded. March died soon afterwards and his papers mouldered in obscurity until 2003, when they were acquired by the British Museum. Two years later an enterprising curator at the museum, Jamie Anderson, spotted the manuscript and informed the author’s descendants of its rediscovery. Now Oxford University Press has brought out this beautifully illustrated volume, which will be of intense interest not only to devotees of Empson but to anyone interested in culture and religion.

Although a fragment of his analysis appeared in the article “Buddhas with double faces”, published in the Listener in 1936 and reprinted in the present volume, it is only now that we can fully appreciate Empson’s insight into Buddhist art. His deep interest in Buddhism was clear throughout his life. From the indispensable edition of his Complete Poems (Allen Lane, 2000) edited and annotated by his biographer John Haffenden, we learn that, while working in the Far Eastern department of the BBC, Empson wrote the outline of a ballet, The Elephant and the Birds, based on a story from Buddhist scriptures about Gautama in his incarnation as an elephant. His enduring fascination with the Buddha is evident in “The Fire Sermon”, a personal translation of the Buddha’s celebrated speech on the need to turn away from sensuous passions, which Empson used as the epigraph in successive editions of the collected poems. (A different translation is cited in the notes accompanying Eliot’s Waste Land, the longest section of which is also titled “The Fire Sermon”.)

Empson’s attitude to Buddhism, like the images of the Buddha that he so loved, was asymmetrical. He valued the Buddhist view as an alternative to the Western outlook, in which satisfying one’s desires by acting in the world was the principal or only goal in life. At the same time he thought that by asserting the unsatisfactoriness of existence as such – whether earthly or heavenly – Buddhism was more life-negating and, in this regard, even worse than Christianity, which he loathed. Yet he also believed Buddhism, in practice, had been more life-enhancing. Buddhism was a paradox: a seeming contradiction that contained a vital truth.

What Empson admired in Buddhist art was its ability to create an equilibrium from antagonistic human impulses. Writing here about Khmer art, he observes that cobras at Angkor are shown protecting the seated Buddha with their raised hoods. He goes on to speculate that the many-headed cobra is a metaphor for one of the Buddha’s canonical gestures – the raised hand with the palm forward, which means “do not fear”:

It has almost the same shape. To be sure, I have never had to do with a cobra, and perhaps after practical experience the paradox would seem an excessively monstrous one. But the high religions are devoted to contradictions of this sort . . . and the whole point of the snake is that the god has domesticated him as a protector.

It was this combination of opposite qual­ities that attracted Empson. “A good deal of the startling and compelling quality of the Far Eastern Buddha heads comes from combining things that seem incompatible,” he writes, “especially a complete repose or detachment with an active power to help the worshipper.” Art of this kind was not only beautiful, but also ethically valuable, because it was truer to human life. “The chief novelty of this Far Eastern Buddhist sculpture is the use of asymmetry to make the faces more human.”

Using 20th-century examples that illustrate such asymmetry, Empson elaborates in his Listener article:

It seems to be true that the marks of a person’s active experience tend to be stronger on the right, so that the left shows more of his inherent endowment or of the more passive experiences which have not involved the wilful use of facial muscles. All that is assumed here is that the muscles on the right generally respond more readily to the will and that the effects of old experiences pile up. The photograph of Mr Churchill will be enough to show that there is sometimes a contrast of this sort though it seems that in Baudelaire, who led a very different kind of life, the contrast was the other way round. In Mr Churchill the administrator is on the right, and on the left (by which of course I mean the left of the person or statue, which is on your right as you look) are the petulance, the romanticism, the gloomy moral strength and the range of imaginative power.

With such a prolific mind as Empson’s, it is risky to identify any ruling theme, but he returns repeatedly in his writings to the thought that the creativity of art and language comes from their irreducible open-endedness and susceptibility to conflicting interpretations. As he wrote in Seven Types of Ambiguity, “Good poetry is usually written from a background of conflict.” Rather than being an imperfection that must be overcome for the sake of clarity, ambiguity makes language inexhaustibly rich. In The Structure of Complex Words (1948) he showed how even the most straightforward-looking terms were “compacted with doctrines” that left their meaning equivocal. There was no ultimate simplicity concealed by the opacity of language. Thinking and speaking invoked deep structures of meaning which could be made more intelligible. But these structures could not be contained in any single body of ideas. Wittgenstein’s early ambition of reducing language to elem­entary propositions stating simple facts was impossible in principle. Inherently plural in meaning, words enabled different ways of seeing the world.

Empson’s message was not merely intellectual but, once again, ethical. “It may be,” he wrote in Complex Words, “that the human mind can recognise actually in­commensurable values, and that the chief human value is to stand up between them.” The image of the Buddha that he discovered in Nara embodied this incommensurability. Rather than trying to smooth out these clashing values into an oppressive ideal of perfection, as Christianity had done, the Buddhist image fused their conflicts into a paradoxical whole. Instead of erecting a hierarchy of better and worse attitudes in the manner of the “neo-Christians”, as Empson described the pious humanists of his day, the asymmetrical face of the Buddha showed how discordant emotions could be reconciled.

Whether Empson’s account of asymmetry can be anything like a universal theory is doubtful. In support of his theory he cited Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals to show that human emotions were expressed in similar ways in different cultures, and invoked speculation by contemporary psychologists on the contrasting functions of the right and left sides of the brain. But the scientific pretensions of Empson’s observations are less important than the spirit in which he made them. Entering into an initially alien form of art, he found a point of balance between values and emotions whose conflicts are humanly universal. Rather than denying the contradictoriness of the human mind and heart, he gloried in it.

It takes genius to grasp the ambiguities of art and language and to use them as Empson did. But if we can’t emulate his astonishing fertility of mind, we can learn from his insights. Both in his life and in his work he resisted the lure of harmony, which offers to mitigate conflicts of value at the price of simplifying and impoverishing the human world. Instead, Empson searched for value in the ambiguities of life. He found what he was looking for in the double faces of the Buddha described in this lost masterpiece.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer

The Face of Buddha by William Epson, edited by Rupert Arrowsmith with a preface by Partha Mitter, is published by Oxford University Press (224pp, £30)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain