Oct 23, 2013

version #1

Wounds of Archive¹

Saleh Najafi

As we cannot eliminate language all at once, we should at least leave nothing undone that might contribute to its falling into dispute. To bore one hole after another in it, until what lurks behind it—be it something or nothing—begins to seep through; I cannot imagine a higher goal for a writer today.

Samuel Beckett, Disjecta2

Forgery As a Mode of Alternative Archiving

Forgers can be considered clandestine or illegal archivists who seek to penetrate furtively into the recesses of established archives and, consciously or unconsciously, change the paradigms of archiving. Forgers challenge the use-value and exchange-value of the archived materials and make accessible something forbidden. Nevertheless, not all forgers can be viewed as so-called radical (or counter-) archivists. Here I speak of forgers who do not just copy a pre-existing work but try to produce a new one ‘in the manner of’ some past artist,3 and who, although intentionally mislead art critics and art lovers, point to the otherwise unnoticed creativity of a forged artist. Such forgers create uncanny temporal coordinates. Past and present are intertwined and in this way a condensed duration is added; there arises a lost hope belonging to the creative spirit of an age come to an end and now resurrected for perhaps the last time.

Forgers, by nature, might prefer anonymity and therefore are rarely remembered. They are like skillful thieves who must live underground and are always behind masks of obscurity. They hopelessly look for times when posterity will take away the pain of being forgotten and resurrect the memory of their adventurous attempt to disrupt the order of archives. In this context, Han van Meegeren (1889-1947) is a significant exception. His story is viewed by many as the most dramatic confidence trick in the history of twentieth century art.4 He is the most notorious and celebrated forger of the last century. However, from the vantage point of the archive question, he is also the most notable figure for boring some unforgettable holes in the body of the archives of art criticism, for challenging the very idea of originality, renewing the discussion of aesthetic and art historical value of copies vis-à-vis originals, and therefore reposing the debate on the status of forgery in the age of technological reproducibility of artworks.5 Furthermore, he created some new originals which went beyond the dichotomy of copy-original. He acted as an impossible pupil, working in his late master’s workshop and practicing his own craft, while simultaneously working as this very master’s double, copying his style in order to disseminate his works, and finally as a third party in pursuit of profit. Van Meegeren’s forgeries are in no way direct copies. They are somehow new performances by Johannes Vermeer in the hope of discovering new dimensions in his own work. Van Meegern in fact copied a nonexistent work.

The important thing not to forget is that the forger differs from mere swindlers who obtain money by fraud. He is, rather, a person who actually forges things, i.e. shapes something by heating and hammering, like a smith. His work requires invention, creation, make-believe: “he turns values upside down. He doesn’t merely change good coin into bad; he’s an alchemist in reverse, offering base or even trash metal for gold. This is why Dante, in his Inferno, places forgers, imposters, perjurers and counterfeiters together with alchemists near the lowest circle of hell.”6 Van Meegeren produced his first forgery in 1923, a legitimate copy of Frans Hals’ Laughing Cavalier. This forged painting was authenticated by an expert and fetched a good price at auction, but was detected as forgery some months later. His involvement went undiscovered. From this experience he gained a certain prowess that helped him succeed in his first Vermeer forgery. This forgery was produced nine years later and was praised as a very fine Vermeer by the eminent art historian Professor Abraham Bredius. The same year he left the Netherlands and went with his wife to live in Southern France.

In 1945 van Meegeren disturbed the complacent tranquility of the art world and art critics by emerging out of anonymity and confessing that he was the artist responsible for eight paintings, six of which had been sold as legitimate Vermeers and two as de Hoochs. His Disciples at Emmaus received the very highest praise from Abraham Bredius, and hung in the Boymans Museum for seven years (1938-45).There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that this was not only one of Vermeer’s finest achievements but also one of the most beautiful works of art in the world. Van Meegeren replicated the styles and colors of artists so well that the best art critics and experts of the time regarded his products as genuine and sometimes exquisite. He created, so to speak, some excellent copie conforme or, put differently, some appealing works that Vermeer or de Hoochs could have created or produced had they lived longer. In other words, he put in extra time through unauthorized means—a sort of temporal excess—into the life of his chosen masters in order to give them opportunity to create new works in another time, and in this way he forged a temporal gap in the body of the archive of art history.

Van Meegeren also added new works to archives of the history of painting, by studying the formulae for seventeenth century prints and experimentation with ways to produce a pigment surface which had both the hardness of old paint and the crisscross of fine cracks or crackles on the painting’s surface. What he set himself to do was to “age the paint artificially”.7 He made his work hot in an oven for two hours and bent it over his knees to induce age craquelure. In sum, by artificially participating in the normal process of archive disintegration he managed to create new wounds and produce new interstices. One can say that he tried, in the words of Adorno’s Minima Moralia, to “fashion perspectives that displace and estrange the world.” He actually forged an inexistent past in the existing present—perspectives that reveal the world “to be, with its rifts and crevices, as indigent and distorted as it will appear one day in the messianic light”.8

Mis-Archiving, Or “A Mere Splash in the Sea”

Hanging in the Musee des Beaux-Arts in Belgium are works by some old masters, most notably perhaps, an extraordinary painting attributed to Pieter Bruegel the Elder. This work is doubly unique in the oeuvre of the great Flemish artist. Firstly, this is the only painting Bruegel dedicated to a popular mythical subject matter, the famous tragedy of Icarus, son of Daedalus. The story is well known: Icarus flew too close to the sun, which melted his wings hurtling him to the sea and death (an allegory for an artist who seeks exultantly for the truth of his age and then irremediably falls down). Thus Landscape with the Fall of Icarus is a revealing work for Bruegel enthusiasts, creating a new entrance into the world of the Flemish Renaissance artist. In this context, Bruegel figures as a special sort of archivist who struggles to inscribe a mythical legend in his own manner on the memory-pages of his age and after all challenges the idealized image of the Classical world fashioned by the Italian Renaissance masters. In Bruegel’s account, the death of Icarus takes place in spring when, in the words of William Carlos Williams, “the year was emerging in all its pageantry.” So the bitter irony of the death of Icarus is that his death goes unnoticed in the spring—“a mere splash in the sea.”9

Secondly, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus was a painting subjected to intensive scrutiny by art academics looking persistently for the real artist responsible for this masterpiece. In this sense, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus puts a disturbing question before the archivist. The painting was unidentified until it came to the Musee de Beaux-Arts in 1912. The problem was that, following technical examinations in 1996, the attribution of Fall of Icarus to Bruegel was regarded as very doubtful, and it is known as a good early copy by an unknown artist of Bruegel’s original, perhaps painted in the 1560s, by an early predecessor of van Meegeren. But how can we know with some certainty who this unknown copyist-forger was? What if there is no ‘original’ and what we have is a copy which refers to a nonexistent original, a masterful copy by a gifted pupil, an enthusiastic spectator who wondered what it would have looked like if the great master had made his mind up to produce a painting derived from the poetry of a Roman poet on a Greek legend? In the mind of our fictional copyist, if the master of genre painting had created a landscape in which an unreal event takes place, he would have depicted it as an uneventful sunset landscape; everyone continues his own way, albeit with a surplus element: the pictured shepherd looks into an empty sky. Afterwards, another inferior version appeared and made the experts more perplexed. It was obtained in 1953 by a David van Buuren for his private house, known today as the Van Buuren museum in Brussels. In this version, Icarus’ leg, as seen in the more famous version, appears in the water, but Daedalus is depicted as flying in the air as the shepherd gazes at him.

So we have two copyists. There are two forgeries, two versions of a perhaps lost original of whose existence we can never be certain. For these two copies are in oil, whereas Bruegel’s other paintings on canvas were in tempera. On this account we deal with an instance of some fortunate mis-archiving, a sort of wound, a contested point in Bruegel archives. The first copyist forged a new perspective to view the world of Bruegel as a Barthesian critic.10 Roland Barthes believed that the book is a world and “the critic experiences in relation to the book the same conditions governing discourse as the writer experiences in relation to the world.” Therefore, the copyist and for that matter the forger as critic works in no man’s land in between the world where the artist creates a ‘virtual’ original and his own copy as a possible actualization of that work. In the encounter with this extraordinary copy it is irrelevant, from a certain point of view, whether we look at an original or copy because the point is the affective experience of looking at a work that belongs to the discursive world of Bruegel. However, from what might be called an ‘economic-epistemological’ point of view the question of the originality of a work matters, although these two points are in a dialectical relation to each other because of the bearing they have on the awe caused by confronting a master’s original. Even thematically the choice of Icarus is significant. Icarus is a result of an affair between a noble inventor and a female slave. Icarus’s fate is at once the effect of two transgressions: a slave’s son who, heedless of his father’s warning to keep a middle course over the sea and avoid closeness with the sun, caused his fragile wings to melt and underwent his terminal fall. The other copyist, the author of the less known and underestimated version, responded in a way to the wound created by the first forger. In his frame, Daedalus himself appeared in the sky as the shepherd stares at him as if this spectacular event could never be reduced to a mere splash in the sea, quite unnoticed and ignored by the figures present in the picture. So, the second copyist might be said to try to repair the frame broken by one of the most interesting cases of mis-archiving in the art history.

Archiving Nonexistent Material

‘The Hals Mystery’ is a curious and thought-provoking essay by John Berger on a nonexistent painting of a nude by seventeenth century Dutch master Frans Hals.11 This essay was originally published in a small British journal New Society in December 1979. Berger considers Hals “the only painter whose work was profoundly prophetic of the photograph”, not because his paintings bear many resemblances to photographs, rather that they think like cameras. But in ‘The Hals Mystery’, Berger describes in detail a nude painting of the Dutch master as though it existed in reality. He guesses that it was painted sometime between 1645 and 1650, and claims that the year 1645 was a turning point in Hals’ career as a portrait painter: “He was in his sixties. Until then he had been much sought after and commissioned. From then onwards, until his death as a pauper twenty years later, his reputation steadily declined.” So the nonexistent work Berger chose to describe and analyze art historically and aesthetically was to be the last effort of the painter to recuperate his lost popularity. He had become a person without any means of support, who depended upon an aid from public welfare funds or charity. In his last years, Hals suffered from poverty and his final paintings depicted the governors of the Alms House in Haarlem in which he was obliged to live. Berger regards these paintings as “masterpieces of controlled plebeian anger.[…] He became the first painter to capture the spiritual poverty of the emergent capitalist class.”12

Berger tries to describe as closely as he can the large, horizontal canvas which Hals could have created to rid his destitution: ‘The reclining figure is a little less than life size’. According to Berger’s narration if this painting should ever find its way to a saleroom, ‘it would fetch—given that its subject matter is unique in Hals’ oeuvre—anything between two and six million dollars. One should bear in mind that, as from now, forgeries may be possible.’ Berger then begins to speculate about the identity of the model, i.e. the Hals’ mystery: she lies there naked on the bed, looking at the painter. Who is she? Hals’ mistress? The wife of a Haarlem burgher who commissioned the painting? A prostitute who begged Hals to do this painting of herself? Or one of the painter’s own daughters? Who knows? The point is that “part of the power of nakedness is that it seems to be unhistorical. Much of the century and much of the decade are taken off with the clothes. Nakedness seems to return us to nature.”13 By this act of detailed description Berger archives nonexistent, non-historical material in an extant historical archive and registers the wound of nature on the body of history. This mode of archiving can be justly called “redemptive”, because it is a way to redeem a revolutionary whose “careless working methods often led to the pigment cracking” and so created a mysterious field, a sort of gray zone, where nature (or chemistry) and history meet, collide and invoke each other. In Berger’s words, “Artists cannot change or make history. The most they can do is to strip it of pretenses.”14 Berger repeats the Beckettian gesture in relation to the archives: as we cannot eliminate the archive all at once, we should at least do our best to bore one hole after another in it or make open and deepen its wounds, until what lurks behind it—be it something or nothing— begins to seep through; this, again in Beckett’s terms, means that it is hoped that the time will come when existing archives are best used where they are most abused.

To return to Berger’s view of Hals as a forerunner of photography, one can interpret the fabulous nude by Hals in the light of Barthesian distinction between the photographic studium and punctum. While the first denotes the cultural, linguistic, and political interpretation of a photograph, a photograph’s punctum is that accident which, in Barthes’ terms “pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me), for punctum is also: sting, speck, cut, little hole—and also a cast of dice.”15 In this sense, the Hals nude can be regarded as a hole he could have bored in the potentially photographic world of his paintings. The nude is in a way excluded by culture and belongs to another time-rhythm. However, Barthes deepens his conceptualization of punctum and elaborates it beyond a “personally touching detail which establishes a direct relationship with the object or person within [a photograph]” referring to the real collective core of punctum, a sort of the wound of wound: “I now know that there exists another punctum (another stigmatum) than the ‘detail.’ This new punctum, which is no longer of form but of intensity, is Time, the lacerating emphasis of the noeme (that-has-been), its pure representation.” 16 The nudity as non-representable presence of Nature in the symbolic frame of Culture, as the nexus of social relationships determined by historical elements which in turn is the excess of personal links with the individual onlookers, bores a hole of Time of natural-history in the body of figurative paintings-photographs of Hals. So Berger excavates a so-called private repertoire of a great artist-archivist of the seventeenth century to discover a lost object, a deep wound, a smile of nature, a kind of grin of the Cheshire cat of the archive of an extraordinary oeuvre—a bright promise of happiness within the life of an artist just in the moment he entered a permanent decline in his success and fame. But, as the French poet Joe Bousquet put it, “My wound existed before me, I was born to embody it”.17 Every archive can be said to come into being to embody a wound, a Natural presence in the archives, or an event that is actualized and then waits for us, invites us in. Therefore an archive always has to apprehend the wound that it bears deep within its own body in its eternal truth as a pure event and let what lurks behind its body begin to seep through.

Now we can revive one of the recurrent figures with whom Walter Benjamin ponders the dialectic between reconstruction and recuperation, the figure of the collector, one who, being neither a miser nor a banker, resists the dispersion to which objects are prone and attempts to rescue them from their functional role in use and exchange value; a revolutionary archivist who struggles to salvage “the dead from the oblivion”18 to which the fascistic-totalizing mode of archiving in our world would consign them.

As all of aforementioned examples demonstrate, this process of preservation is also a form of destruction, for to redeem objects means to dig them loose from the historical strata in which they are embedded, purging them of the accreted cultural meanings with which they are encrusted. This new figure of archivist as collector-forger not only bores holes in the body of archives he committed himself to exhaust consistently, but also to find, or rather forge, there some nonexistent materials embodying the wounds that preexisted the archives themselves.

  1. In this article I use the word ‘wound’ in a roughly Deleuzian sense as formulated in 'The Logic of Sense'. In ‘Twenty-First Series of the Event’, Gilles Deleuze claims that doctrines come from wounds. He then refers to French poet, Joe Bousquet, who at the end of the First World War was paralyzed for the rest of his life. He, Deleuze writes, “apprehends the wound that he bears deep within his body in its eternal truth as a pure event”. Despite the crucial differences between Deleuze’s philosophy and Jacques Lacan’s theoretical framework, one can say that there is a common logic in their respective elaborations on the notions of wound and trauma: trauma is the Greek word for ‘wound’: an event in a person’s life which is intense and unable to be assimilated. The traumatic event creates a strange time structure that Freud called "Nachtraglichkeit", a situation in which the determining event of a neurosis can be understood only long after it has happened. This event lives deep within the subject as a wound which waits to be understood some day.
  2. Beckett, Samuel, 'Disjecta: Miscellaneous writings and a Dramatic Fragment', ed. Ruby Cohn, Grove Press, (New York 1984).
  3. One is tempted to compare the status of these kind of art forgers with that of historians of philosophy, described as such by Deleuze in his discussion of the enigmatic relationship between philosophy and repetition: “Rather than repeat what a philosopher says, the history of philosophy has to say what he must have taken for granted, what he didn’t say but is nonetheless present in what he did say” (See Deleuze, 'Negotiations.1972—1990', trans. Martin Joughin, Columbia University, (New York 1995), 136). The art forger who forges a non-existing work of art points in a way to something perhaps unknown which is nonetheless present in the forged artists’ actual works and, more importantly, recollects the way the latter’s products were made.
  4. See for example Edward Dolnick’s 2008 book 'The Forger’s Spell: A True Story of Vermeer, Nazis, and the Greatest Art Hoax of the Twenties Century'. Dolnick describes Meegeren as “the most successful art forger of the twentieth century.” He details the historical condition of occupied Holland where Meegeren created his forgeries and grew rich while his countrymen starved.
  5. On the vexing question of the artistic status of ‘good forgeries’ perhaps the best article is one written by Alfred Lessing and printed in 'Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism' (vol. 23, 1964). Lessing claims that from an aesthetic point of view, it makes no difference whether or not a painting is authentic. Ironically Meegeren himself declared at his controversial trial, “Yesterday this picture [of mine] was worth millions of guilders, and experts and art lovers would come from all over the world and pay money to see it. Today, it is worth nothing […]. But the picture has not changed. What has?” See ‘What is Wrong with a Forgery?’ in Warburton, Nigel ed., 'Philosophy Basic Writings', (New York 2005), 536-549.
  6. See Ormsby, Erik, ‘The Forger as Huckster: Two Books on Han van Meegeren’ 'The New York Sun', (August 2008).
  7. See Young, Matthew D., ‘A Survey of Art Forgeries’,Bachelor Thesis ,Wesleyan University, 2009. ‹http://wesscholar.wesleyan.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1276&context=etd_hon_theses›
  8. Adorno, Theodor, 'Minima Moralia, Reflections from Damaged Life', trans. E. F. N. Jephcott, Verso (London 1999), 247.
  9. Williams, William Carlos, 'Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems: collected poems 1950-1962', New Direction, (New York 1962).
  10. See Barthes, Roland, 'Criticism and Truth', trans, ed. K.P.Keuneman, Continuum, (London 2007), 58.
  11. Dyer, Geoff, ed., 'Selected Essays of John Berger', Bloomsburg Publishing, (London, 2001), 393— 398.
  12. See Bounds, Phillip, ‘Beyond Ways of Seeing: The Media Criticism of John Berger’, in 'Recharting Media Studies', Phillip Bounds and Mala Jagmohan, eds., Peter Lang (Bern 2008).
  13. Berger, John, ‘The Hals Mystery’, in 'Selected Essays of John Berger', ed. Geoff Dyer, Bloomsburg Publishing (London 2001), 393—398.
  14. ibid., 393—398.
  15. Barthes, Roland, 'Camera Lucida, Reflections on Photography', trans. Richard Howard, Hill and Wang, (New York 1982), 26—27.
  16. ibid., 96.
  17. See Deleuze, Gilles, 'The Logic of Sense', trans Mark Lester with Charles Stivale, Columbia University Press, (New York 1990), 148.
  18. In 1937 Walter Benjamin published an essay on a relatively insignificant German Social Democratic intellectual-turned-historian and collector of caricature and erotica. Benjamin called his essay ‘Eduard Fuchs: Collector and Historian’. For Benjamin, “the collector is at once bourgeois, fetishistic, and antiquarian, and also the historical materialist in the most literal manner” (See Steinerg, Michael P., ‘The Collector as Allegorist: Goods, Gods, and the Objects of History’ in 'Walter Benjamin and the Demands of History', ed. Steinberg, Cornell University Press ( Ithaca, 1996), 88). This essay reflects Benjamin’s unique attitude toward the past, focusing on “the special detail to be preserved for a projected future” (See Benjamin, Walter, ‘Eduard Fuchs: Collector and Historian’, in 'Essential Frankfurt School', ed., Andrew Arato and Eike Gebhardt, Continuum, (New York 1982), 225—252).

After Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Fall of Icarus, 62.5 x 89.7 cm, Panel, Brussels, Uccle, Van Buuren Museum.

After Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Fall of Icarus, 70.0x 111.5, Canvas, KMSKB_MRBAB, Brussels

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