A few weeks ago, I watched a documentary on television about the “art” of forgery, specifically forgeries of great paintings. It was fascinating to see how expert forgers can sometimes produce fake works by great artists that can fool experts and unsuspecting art collectors.
It was also sad and disturbing to me, but not for the reasons you might suspect.
The documentary’s host showed how he could forge a water lilies painting by Monet. The idea is to claim you “found” the Monet painting in your grandmother’s attic, at a flea market or something, and pass it on to some just-ignorant-enough art collector for thousands of dollars.
To start, you need a canvas that is properly aged, one that was produced during Monet’s lifetime. You can’t just go buy a canvas off the rack, because expert art dealers can date the age of the canvas.
The forger showed one way how to avoid detection. He went to a flea market and for just a few dollars, bought a painting that was done in 1890 by some unknown amateur artist.
He took this painting back to his studio, applied chemical stripper and scraped off the paint with a putty knife. The canvas looked unused after it was properly washed and dried. The forger then painted onto the canvas a good forgery of one of Monet’s water lily paintings.
I bring this up not to give you ideas on how to get rich by faking great works of art. My focus is the original painting that was on the canvas, a painting that, except for the documentary, is now gone forever — destroyed to satisfy the dishonest practices of an art forger. Or in this case, simply to show us how it can be done.
The loss of the painting isn’t a great tragedy. It wasn’t very good. However, someone a century ago put a lot of effort into it. And that “someone” is the core of why this documentary disturbed me.
Except for a date, there was no signature on the painting. It is likely that no one alive today knows who painted it. The artist is also gone now. Whoever it is, they may be just a name in a census record, family tree or genealogy chart and not much more.
I doubt the painting was ever sold in a gallery or even privately. How it landed in a flea market is anyone’s guess. Perhaps someone cared just enough not to throw it out and thought they could get a buck or two for it — which they did.
This nameless artist got me thinking about the transitory nature of all the interests and cares we have in our lives on earth. He or she obviously saw something beautiful in the subject of their painting — it was a nature scene — and made a valiant effort to capture the sentiment on canvas. They tried to convey a feeling that ultimately came from inside them — and unaware of their art’s future fate. They didn’t even bother to sign their work. This fleeting glimpse of their reality, meant to be left behind, was doomed to obscurity and to be forgotten.
As I turned off the documentary, I realized this obscurity awaits all of us. We know nothing of this artist and probably never will. I know hardly anything about my own ancestors beyond a couple generations. My grandmother painted a bit. Her few efforts, now on 50 to 70 year-old canvases, are today scattered among her descendants. She did sign her work, but another generation or two hence, who is going to remember Golda Guymon?
Of course, a single painting or sculpture is nowhere near the sum of the soul or expression of a person. We may admire Monet’s paintings and have an idea of his passion, but that does not tell us much about Monet the man. Almost all of who he was, despite his prolific efforts, died with him and is gone forever.
Regardless of that finality, we are all the product of those who came before. Monet left enough evidence of his desires and soul that many of us are drawn to him, or at least to the expressions of such passion in his art. So much so that many are willing to destroy the evidence of the existence of others in an attempt to emulate his work for profit. Even if or when my grandmother’s paintings are lost or destroyed, I’m here and my children are here because she was here. The talent she tried to develop is evident in my children, and although such talent could have come from other ancestors, at least something of my grandmother is in them.
But whenever evidence of someone is destroyed, we are left to wonder where the influences that help shape our life and desires came from. That artist from 1890 was no doubt influenced by the evolving desires of all his or her progenitors in some way.
I guess ultimately that’s all that is left for each of us. Maybe we’re still a name in a family tree, but not much more than a mere influence in ways we will never perceive. Something we leave behind may end up in a documentary a century from now only to be destroyed, but it will still have influence.
It certainly did on me. The object is gone, but still some evidence remained to influence the future. It is also quite possible nothing of the future entered the mind of that artist a century ago. He or she simply needed to express to themselves, if to no one else, what they were discovering inside their own soul. Maybe that is all that really matters.
Hamilton is the creative director at Transcript Bulletin Publishing.