Advertising is big in sports, as in most fields–getting noticed, exuding glam. But sometimes it seems counterproductive. As in the case of these immense and immensely expensive America’s Cup boats.
The Emirates boat is in the worst shape, larded with advertising from head to halyard, but both Emirates and Oracle are so visually muddled that the effect is almost like camouflage. The eye has trouble embracing them as whole objects.
“Sunset at Montmajour” certainly looks like the work of Vincent Van Gogh, but when in the early 20th Century it was dismissed as a fake, its owner stuck it in the attic. There it sat for the next sixty years. Now it’s out, and after two years of learned study it’s acclaimed as the genuine article. From 1888 yet, Van Gogh’s prime period. Now, all of a sudden, we’re terribly interested. Although now that its authenticity is established, the merits of the piece don’t seem to engage us as much as the speculation around how many tens of millions the work would fetch if it were put on the market.Naturally, authenticity is an important question. How artists think and develop is inferred from their work, so it matters that their work not be confused with that of imitators and forgers. But here we have a painting that’s been just what it is since it was painted in 1888. If it was engaging enough for someone to acquire, you’d think it would be nice enough to hang somewhere better than the attic. Even if it maybe wasn’t a Van Gogh. Or was the name and its associated glitz the only reason it was bought in the first place. And the name, together with the market value, the only reason we bother to look at it now.
Marketplace excitement is a common phenomenon. It’s merely ridiculous in the world of, for example, fashion accessories, where flash and display are the whole game, but actively destructive in the world of art. A painting is what it is, and has an inherent esthetic value, regardless of the money and status games that are played over and around it. It’s vital that even a second-rate Van Gogh, like this one, should be looked at for what it is: a particular landscape, a unique work of art, a thing to be considered and appreciated for itself, something apart from the displays of the foolish rich.
The estimable George Stubbs (1724-1806) made his reputation on his paintings of horses. Many of these feature what was known as a “rubbing-down house,” an interesting background detail common to the environment of upper-class horses. Except that in Stubb’s work the house is often a major feature, both in size and formal application. In “Baronet,” above, the house just kisses the horse’s nose. This has the effect of solidifying foreground, background, and horse into a flat, almost abstract picture plane. The house in “Eclipse,” together with the clouds behind it, performs the same function (and notice how he cuts very close to the house on the right, to prevent the eye from drifting off into the distance and getting stuck there, as in the study below). In “Otho” the house is a large, moody presence that casts an intense shadow even though it is untouched by the brilliant light that illuminates the horse.
These pieces are very actively composed. Stubbs wasn’t simply copying what was in front of him.
We learn, sometimes, in the most unexpected places—in this case, from the memoir of Eric Hebborn, a saucy and unapologetic forger of old master drawings.* His art education, in England in the ‘50s, was of the most academic sort, and his first job was in the workshop of an art restorer where “restoration” could mean anything from cleaning and touching up cracks to radical reworking to make a piece more saleable.
He makes an interesting argument: “Many old pictures are bad old pictures, some so bad it would be difficult to make them worse. Even good pictures may on occasion be improved by some deliberate alteration. An example could be the well known case of Joshua Reynolds’s portrait group showing the Payne sisters at the spinet accompanied by their mother. . . With the mother, the composition is overcrowded. Without her, it is spacious and charming.”
Hebborn, of course, is justifying his profession of fakery, but in this case he has a point. The mother is oddly jammed into the piece, which seems squashed in any case. At some point in the 19th Century she was painted out. To the left we have an early 20th Century copy of the altered work. I wouldn’t call it “spacious and charming,” but it’s certainly an improvement. Later the overpainting was removed, and Mom restored. So the question is, are we better off with a third-rate Reynolds in its original if clunky state, or with a marginally better painting?
*Drawn to Trouble: Confessions of a Master Forger Random House 1991