Sunday, May 26, 2013

Fake Out: Original Reproductions


One thing leads to another on the Internet. That's as much as I'm going to say about how I found myself looking at an online catalogue of celebrity impersonators the other day.

I must admit that given a choice, watching a celebrity impersonator performance isn't high on my list
Source: Wikipedia Commons
of things to do.  The appeal of the cult of celebrity is lost on me, although I certainly respect and am sometimes in awe of individual accomplishments and performances. But given how off-putting celebrity culture is to me in the first place, the thrill of seeing someone imitate someone else grows stale after a few moments.  While imitation is a form of flattery, at its extreme it reveals to me an obsession with celebrity culture that I find disquieting.  Fake is fake, after all.

Except when fake becomes real.

Impersonators study nuances to mirror notable people and a few seemingly manage to capture their very essence. There's no doubt that successful impersonation requires highly specialized skills and talents. It has become an art form in its own right, and as such its very existence ought to leave us pondering the nature and value of art itself. 

Some observers of the insular world of art appreciation, such as Forged author Jonathon Keats, assert that it is the forgers and the imitators who are today's cutting edge artists. Keats posits that forgers are the "foremost artists of our age" because "....no authentic modern masterpiece is as provocative as a great forgery."  Seen within this mindset, forgeries successfully provoke reactions and challenge our assumptions about creativity, authenticity and how we assign value; they represent the very embodiment of concept art.  But others argue that those who deliberately create with the intent to deceive are morally bankrupt miners of Fool's Gold, which has no comparable and little intrinsic value.  Forgeries are thus dismissed as worthless and their creators are nothing more than unoriginal hacks.

In the fine art world, authenticating work is Serious Business. Con artists (in every sense of that descriptor) have caused very expensive headaches for experts and collectors the world over. I may not gravitate to celebrity impersonators but I've been fascinated by the art of modern day forgery perpetrated by the likes of Ken Perenyi (who disingenuously passed off for personal gain scores of paintings as master works, managing to escape detection until at last the statute of limitations ran out on his scams. He is now seeking fame and fortune with a book about his career), Mark Landis (who assumed various identities, including that of Jesuit priest, in order to donate his forgeries as master works to US art museums over a 20 year period. He, too, escaped prosecution, for no crime could be charged since compensation was never exchanged for the donations) and Wolfgang Beltracchi (at the center of the world's biggest art forgery case of the last century, Beltracchi's work consisted of "the unpainted pictures of famous artists." He and his wife are serving prison terms for 14 forgeries that netted the couple nearly $21 million).   These guys are a different kind of celebrity impersonator; they each have managed to dupe the world into thinking their art was made by someone else.

The existence of forgeries extend all the way back to none other than Michelangelo, who sculpted a sleeping cupid, buried it in acidic soil to age the piece, and sold it as an antique. Michelangelo ended up keeping his percentage of the sale because the owner was so impressed with his talents (not the usual way for these forgery tales to end).

I'm not the only one intrigued by forgeries in the art world. There has been a proliferation of articles and books on the subject in recent years. Beginning in 2014, an exhibit called Intent to Deceive will be making the rounds that features 20th century art forgeries and their creators by displaying their works, background materials, and expert explanations about how the latest technology is used to reveal fakery.  The exhibition hopes to generate discussion about whether uncovering a painting’s provenance makes it less of a work of art and how that changes our relationship with the work.

Smiling Girl would have left AW Mellon frowning.
No word as to whether Intent to Deceive will make it to Pittsburgh, but it would be fascinating since this city had its share of famous Gilded Age art collectors. Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick and his daughter Helen, and Andrew Mellon all famously amassed different art collections.

Mellon, who already owned Vermeer's "The Girl with the Red Hat" thought adding more works from that artist's scant volume of work would be a fine thing to do. Problem was, the two paintings he bought ("Smiling Girl" and "The Lace Maker") were fakes created by Han van Meegeren, a notorious forger whose later sale to Hermann Göring eventually led to his downfall. Mellon never realized he'd been taken and went on to donate the, uhm, three Vermeers to the National Gallery that he so generously founded. The fakes weren't discovered until the 1960s and were subsequently pulled from exhibit.

Henry Clay Frick managed to escape being tricked but his daughter and keeper of his legacy was not so lucky. In the early 1920s, Helen Frick purchased a set of statues which she placed at the foot of the central staircase in the Frick's New York City mansion. These figures of Carrara marble were reputed to be the work of 4th century Sienese painter Simone Martini and represented the Virgin Mary and an angel at the Annunciation. By 1928 the works had been exposed as the work of a living artist, Alceo Dossena, who claimed he was but a poor Roman marble mason who never directly copied works but who studied and learned to sculpt in the manner of the old masters. Dossena brought suit against two Italian art dealers whom he claimed duped him by commissioning pieces that they'd passed off to gullible collectors as original master works. Dossena claimed that he had not benefited financially from the sales of these pieces and was cleared of charges. Despite attempts to capitalize on his talent and notoriety, Dossena died in poverty and obscurity.

Today Dossena's works are regarded as curiosities evident of native talent, and some may still circulate in the art market as genuine. As for Helen Frick's Annunciation figures, they presumably had no appeal for her once their provenance had been determined, for she donated them to the University of Pittsburgh and her dealer never spoke publicly about them again. The Annunciation figures remain on Pitt's campus in the Henry Clay Frick Fine Arts Building, despite the fact that Helen Frick severed her ties with the university in the 1960s due to complicated management and personality disputes.




And then there's Andrew Carnegie. While his contemporaries and frenemies Frick and Mellon were buying up the art market, Carnegie was doing a different kind of collecting. From the beginning, Carnegie chose to use his wealth not to amass a great personal collection of expensive art but to acquire collections for the institutes he founded and endowed.  Carnegie’s classic rags-to-riches story instilled in him a deep belief in the value of and moral compulsion toward philanthropy. He chose to give back -- albeit on his own clearly defined terms -- to the classes from which he had emerged in the form of free and publicly accessible libraries and museums. His museum was kept open at then-unheard-of hours to accommodate the schedules of the working class, from 10 AM to 10 PM six days a week and from 2-6 PM on Sundays.  

What we now call the Carnegie Museum of Art began with a collection of plaster casts from classical Greek and Roman statuary.  That's right, Andrew Carnegie filled his museum with fakes and reproductions.

Some might see Carnegie's famous Scottish frugality behind the reasoning that copies were better than nothing for art students who couldn't afford to travel to see the originals, but that's too pat an explanation. He was a man of his times, and it was common in the late 19th century to acquire plaster cast collections as teaching tools to illustrate art history. Both amateur and art students were routinely taught drawing skills using casts as their inspiration. True, the casts are not perfect teaching tools since museum lighting can render the study of form and chiaroscuro difficult, but lines and shapes are still far better studied in this context than from photographs.

So in his defense, Carnegie wasn't trying to fool anyone into thinking his pieces were real. Since collecting plaster casts of famous statuary and architectural monuments was de rigueur for museums of this era, Carnegie was following prevailing trends. Museums in the United States were initially developed as a response to the awe-inspiring collections abroad, but money was in short supply to acquire substantial collections of original master works of art....and there were only so many original master works of art to go around!  Amassing plaster cast collections of master works, already a methodology in use in Europe, assured that even with limited funds an impressive and comprehensive classical collection could be developed.  

Such casts provided the only contact most Pittsburgh museum-goers would ever have with ancient sculpture and buildings, and Carnegie was determined that his museum would make such wondrous works accessible to even the most common of laborers. 
He made his purpose clear in this excerpt from an 1895 address entitled  "Presentation of the Carnegie Library to the People of Pittsburgh":
Already many casts of the world's masterpieces of sculpture are within its (the Museum's) walls. Ultimately, there will be gathered from all parts of the world casts of those objects which take highest rank. The Museum will thus be the means of bringing to the knowledge of the masses of the people who cannot travel many of the most interesting and instructive objects to be seen in the world; so that, while they pursue their tasks at home, they may yet enjoy some of the pleasures and benefits of travel abroad. If they cannot go to the objects which allure people abroad, we shall do our best to bring the rarest of those objects to them at home.

According to the Carnegie Museum of Art website, by 1907 the Institute had acquired 144 architectural casts, 69 plaster reproductions of sculpture, and 360 replicas in bronze. The collection was housed in a new extension that we know today as the imposing Hall of Architecture, designed by the leading Pittsburgh architectural firm of Alden and Harlow.




Like the production of any masterpiece, the reproduction of original works of art as plaster casts was a technical achievement involving artistry and skill. Piece molds were made of the original work, for it usually took multiple pieces to capture the entirety and showcase details. A separating agent was used so that the plaster would not stick to the original antiquities. The molds were enclosed in an outer casing, their interiors coated with separating agent, and wet plaster poured in to create the casts. This is a lost art, as today's casts are made with rubber and silicon that are easily peeled off the master.

Since most completed cast art is made up of multiple sections it is possible to see the network of casting lines on finished pieces. The porous plaster was soaked in linseed oil to increase durability and often tinted to match the original, then plaster-imitating-stone piece was erected on wooden scaffolding. The casts are hollow but they're not lightweight, and of course are true to the size of the original pieces.  Plaster is more delicate and higher maintenance than stone, and a cast court requires constant vigilance and conservation efforts.  A 2007 exhibit to celebrate the Carnegie's centennial included some of the cast molds displayed alongside the artifacts they produced.

Andrew Carnegie initially approached the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City in 1895 to request permission to produce casts from that facility's molds, but was rebuffed. He then made sure that his museum went to considerable lengths to develop casts for its specific needs, having new molds made directly from the buildings and objects instead of reusing molds produced elsewhere. In this way he was able to ensure that the work was unique and of the highest quality...plus he could thumb his nose at places like the Met that wouldn't share.

Not all of the Carnegie casts were original, however. Detailed catalogues were available from which museum directors could choose ready-made additions to their collections, especially sculptural fragments, and these books included advice to would-be buyers and curators about display lighting, wall color, and care instructions. The Carnegie Museum has examples of such catalogues in its collection.

The cast of the Porch of the Maidens from the Erechtheion on the north side of the Acropolis, which can be seen to the right in the photo below, was purchased for $25,000 in today's money from the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. 



Inspired by the power of the huge displays at the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago, Carnegie wanted his Pittsburgh collection to shock and awe its visitors. The dramatic scale and attention to detail is amazing.





Winged Victory of Samothrace
Venus de Milo





















Below are two of my favorite pieces. The first is the cast of a highly detailed carved wooden choir stall dating to 1509; the original is now housed at St-Denis in Paris. The frieze at the top portrays a woman lying in childbed carefully watching as her new babe is being bathed; the male figure is presumably a physician taking notes.The misericord at the bottom (which the devout would lean upon during prayers when fatigued) portrays some acrobatic cherubs.





The other piece I'm fondest of is a vaguely Voldemortesque sculpture on a corner of the elaborate gisant of the last duke of Britany, Francis II and his first wife. Francis was the protector of the House of Lancaster in exile and regarded one Henry Tudor as a most valuable pawn. As such he was a significant figure in what we now call the War of the Roses, and when I first began a lifelong fascination with that period in history I was tickled to learn that this reproduction of his elaborate tomb from Nantes Cathedral was in the Carnegie. His tomb was the first major piece of Renaissance art from Brittany and is considered a masterpiece of French sculpture.  The two-headed statue that I like best is one of the four cardinal virtues. This one represents Prudence, symbolized by an old man implying the wisdom of the past and forward-gazing woman contemplating the future. I've always loved that symbolism...prudent, indeed.





The Carnegie plaster cast collection is second only to London's Victoria and Albert Museum collection in size.  Pride of place is given to a plaster cast of the entire western facade of the French abbey church of St.-Gilles-du-Gard.  Carnegie was given special permission to make a cast of this impressive building after donating 2000 gold francs to the town of Gard, which at the time was suffering from the effects of a poor grape harvest. The Carnegie's St-Gilles facade was made of hundreds of individual casts shipped in countless crates by four steamers from Europe; these crates were then transported by train from New York City to Shadyside Station in Pittsburgh and assembled with the assistance of two French craftsmen.  St-Gilles remains the largest existing architectural plaster cast in the world.


The Carnegie Museum's Saint-Gilles-du-Gard west portal plaster cast is 58 feet high, 87 feet wide.

For comparison's sake, here is an image of the actual western portal of St-Gilles. The western portal was traditionally the point of arrival for pilgrims, who would enter and proceed through the church in an easterly direction (symbolizing a journey to the Holy Land) toward a reliquary shrine. 

Used with permissions as specified by Digital Imaging Project, Mary Ann Sullivan, Bluffton University

Gilles was a 7th century hermit priest from Greece who came to live in southern France and developed a reputation for humility and holiness. His sole companion was said to be a female deer whom he saved from the king's hunt. He founded a Benedictine abbey dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul, later named for him, and was buried in the crypt. The church was once one of the most important stops along a pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compestela and was also a stop-over for Crusaders on their way to the Holy Land.

The West Portal of St-Gilles was constructed in the 12th century and is the largest sculptural ensemble of Romanesque art in the Languedoc region. It is considered to be one of the most beautiful of all Romanesque structures, said to rival the comparable portals gracing Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres and Basilique Cathedral de St-Denis.  I have not been to Gard to see St-Gilles, but I have visited both of the aforementioned cathedrals and have an abiding love of Romanesque architecture.  The French Huguenots used St-Gilles for military purposes and left the church in ruins, and subsequent reconstruction attempts were only partially successful.  In keeping with the deliberate wholesale destruction of monarchical and religious imagery of the 16th century, much of the religious iconography of St-Gilles was defaced during the religious wars. The Carnegie plaster casts do not attempt to reconstruct and instead reflect the damage as it existed in the early 1900s when the casts were made .

The comparison photos below of the central tympanum which depicts the Second Coming and its frieze depicting the Washing of Peter's Feet (far left) at the Last Supper show the extent of the damage from this time period. Original building in top image, Carnegie cast below:

Used with permissions as specified by Digital Imaging Project, Mary Ann Sullivan, Bluffton University
 

This unknown apostle has the most complete head of any of the statues. Original on the left, plaster cast on the right.  You can see with what precision the cast captured details, even 100+ years ago.

Digital Imaging Project, Mary Ann Sullivan, Bluffton University




This portrayal of Saint Michael subduing a dragon was also left relatively unscathed, although you can see some erosion on the left side of the statue. Original below, plaster cast to right.

Digital Imaging Project, Mary Ann Sullivan, Bluffton University


I am always enchanted by the fanciful details on panels, molding, capitals, cornices, palmettes and columns.  I don't want to take up more space pic-spamming with comparison shots, so please check out the Bluffton University Digital Imaging Project for photos of some of these same images from St-Gilles to compare with the Carnegie casts below.  I like looking at the close-ups because they show details like the gradations in color on the tinted plaster. It is sometimes hard to remember that you are not looking at carved stone.





Atlantes





One of my favorite details is this roundel portraying a graceful deer. Although scholars have identified it as a stag being shot by a cenataur, I'd rather it represented the hind who was Saint Gilles' faithful and grateful companion.



The artisans even made casts of the doors.






I have always been taken with this portrayal of the eastern gate to the city of Jerusalem as portrayed in a frieze over the left door.  Of course it's way off scale for the guys hanging out on it, but nonetheless charming.





The Carnegie's adjacent Hall of Sculpture was originally designed to house the museum's collection of Egyptian, Near Eastern, Greek, and Roman sculpture reproductions and displayed a majority of those plaster casts on the ground floor.  It was modeled after the inner sanctuary of the Parthenon and constructed with white marble from the same Greek quarries that provided such stone for the Parthenon. Most of the cast court was subsequently moved to the Hall of Architecture where it now resides, and the space is today reserved for special events and exhibits such as the recent 2013 Art in Bloom installation.  It is a clasically pristine room.






 


Although plaster casts were once ubiquitous in collections, changes in taste and space restrictions resulted in a cultural shift toward preferring originals over reproductions.  Countless cast collections were thus destroyed or dispersed beginning in the 1920s, in what at its extreme became a modern orgy of art iconoclasm.  Even the Metropolitan Museum, whose exemplary collection inspired Carnegie, dispersed its architectural cast collection in 2005.  The Carnegie Museum remained conservative and held onto its collection, which is thus now unique in size, scope and significance. Careful curation assures that this collection represents a valuable record. The details so precisely captured in the architectural plaster casts will remain with us even when the ravages of time, pollution and poor quality restoration obscure such details in the original pieces in situ. The casts can continue to serve their educational purpose, for they provide true-to-life examples of scale and dimension that photographs simply can't convey.

Today it might be difficult for us to see through our modern eyes to perceive the importance of casts as teaching tools for both the general public and art professionals. We tend to visit museums exhibits and see objects as, well, objects, without pausing much to discern and appreciate the layers of meaning and historical context they represent. As a wee Sue I was inspired by the grandeur of the Hall of Architecture, and that awe in turn fueled my desire to learn and travel and fostered a fledgling appreciation of art and architecture on a grand and yet accessible scale.

That the Carnegie cast court exists at all today is a testimony to the prescience of the curators of yesterday, who retained these pieces in the face of popular convention because they recognized their value as a record of the classical tradition.  Art comes in many varieties and we dismiss one over the other to our own detriment. The cast courts serve as an inspiring reminder that even "fakes" are art worth viewing and admiring, not just as curiosities but as testimony to originality of intent and artisan skill within historical context.

Does all of this make me want out to watch an Elvis impersonator at work?   Mmm, no, probably not. But I'd not dismissively denigrate it as a low-brow art form, either.  Art appreciation is individual, and the true beauty of each work of art is revealed when we take the time to examine its many layers.
 ______________________________________

Further reading:
Almost Too Good
Art Forgery A 'Classic' Show in Oakland (Oct 12 1975)
Art on a Grand Scale
Carnegie Museum of Art website: Hall of Architecture
Old Masters in Plaster: The Carnegie Museum of Art lifts the fig leaf from its 100-year-old collection of plaster casts.
Pitt Fakes Given New Importance (December 1968)
Pittsburgh's Carnegie Museum Celebrates 100 years
Psuedo-Vermeers: A forger's masterpieces
Saint-Gilles-du-Gard 
Saint-Gilles-du-Gard: The monastic order under the patronage of this abbot flourishes, a possessed man is delivered from the devil
The Art of Impersonation: How Mirror Neurons in the Brain May Make it Easier
The Big Idea: Why Forgeries Are Great Art
The history of the Cast Courts
The West Portal of Saint-Gilles-du-Gard

Keats, Jonathon. Forged: Why Fakes are the Great Art of Our Age.Oxford University Press, USA. 2013.
Scholoetzer, Mattie. "Andrew Carnegie's Original Reproductions: The Hall of Architecture at 100."  Western Pennsylvania History. Fall 2007. 

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The Virago of Virgin Alley



Whilst researching Dog Jack, a bull terrier mascot of the Niagara Fire Company in Pittsburgh who subsequently served in the Union Army during the Civil War, I came across a fascinating historical vignette.

From the book Our firemen: the history of the Pittsburgh fire department, from the village period until the present time (1889), here is the story of one of the first documented women firefighters in the United States, Marina Betts, a volunteer with Pittsburgh's Niagara Company: 


Marina Betts was a virago, who lived on Shinbone alley, now Virgin alley, between the years 1820 and 1830. She professed a hearty contempt for public opinion, rather an unusual qualification for ladies who wish to go into society. But there was not much society in those days, and what there was gave Marina the cold shoulder. Although she was not on the cotillion lists of the time or invited to the church socials, she never missed a fire. She was about 5 feet 10 inches in height, and seemed to be of French- Indian extraction, having jet black hair, high cheek bones, and exceedingly dark complexion. She would take her place in the bucket line with alacrity, and besides devotion to the work in hand she manifested the ability of a recruiting sergeant. Woe to the dandy who passed, or stood as a mere spectator when, as Marina said; "Men folks should be working." He would get the contents of the next full bucket she caught as the alternative of getting into line, and many a man she pressed into the service by force of energy and a leather bucket well primed. Could Marina's spirit be materialized to-day, it would writhe at the sight of a "dude." She was more effective in securing workers than half a dozen captains, for those out of reach of her bucket would feel the weight of her tongue if she perceived any signs of skulking, and few cared to brave the ordeal of either. She afterwards settled down, married a farmer up the Allegheny river, and although she never had children of her own, reared several orphans, who to-day owe good positions in life and a virtuous and honest training to the heroine of the bucket brigade of over half a century ago, Marina Betts.
The term 'virago' is admittedly a loaded word, often used disparagingly to indicate a woman who violates social norms and thereby assaults tender sensibilities and expectations. While there's admittedly a whiff of that sort of judgmental attitude in the above piece, I prefer to think of this description of Marina in its positive connotation of a true female hero. And as one who has been known to 'writhe at the sight of a "dude"" myself upon occasion, I like Marina's style.

Until paid firefighting companies were organized in 1870, Pittsburgh's fire protection was on a volunteer basis. Every able-bodied male was legally required to lend a hand and every household was required to keep a leather fire bucket ready for emergencies. Fire engines were kept supplied by a bucket line of men (and Marina) who would pass water from the nearest source such as a well, stream, pond or even one of Pittsburgh's three rivers. Such organizations were crucial, because fires could devastate urban areas. Small wonder Marina writhed at the sight of shirkers of their firefighting duties.  Some years later, the Great Fire of 1845 destroyed downtown Pittsburgh, as shown in these paintings from the Carnegie Museum of Art by eyewitness artist William Coventry Wall.



William Coventry Wall, View of the Great Fire of Pittsburgh, 1845

William Coventry Wall, Pittsburgh after the Fire from Boyd's Hill, 1845

William Coventry Wall, Pittsburgh after the Great Fire, 1845

Try as I might, I cannot find any other information about Marina. Shinbone Alley where she lived probably abutted Virgin Alley, which was certainly named as such preceding and during the time she lived there (it is today known as Oliver Avenue). Although I've not found it specifically on the maps I've looked at, Marina Betts would have lived quite near to the Niagara Fire Company station located at Penn Avenue near Fifteenth Street. Virgin Alley was close enough for a virago to dash down to join the bucket brigade.

How did Virgin Alley get its unusual name? In 1754 the French settlers of this area dedicated a fort on the Feast of the Assumption, naming it Fort Duquesne to honor the governor-general of New France, Ange Duquesne de Menneville. It was the custom in Catholic countries to select a patron saint for important sites, someone whose protection would be assured through public dedication and veneration. Accordingly this new fort and its associated chapel were dedicated "de 1'Assomption de la Ste. Vierge a la Belle Rivière," that is, to the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin of the Beautiful River. A footpath used for funerals led from the chapel (original location unknown but somewhere near Fort Duquesne and what we know today as the Point) to a cemetery near the Native American burial ground in midtown. The path was called "L'Allee de la Vierge Marie" and the cemetery was also dedicated to "la Ste Vierge a la Belle Rivière,"  the Blessed Virgin of the Beautiful River. 

1957 painting by Charles Hargens portraying The Reverend Denys Baron celebrating the first Mass at Fort Duquesne on April 16, 1754.
 
When this area passed from French to British ownership, the established street names were altered accordingly. In the late 18th/early 19th century, the original Episcopal Trinity Church was built on lots bordering Virgin Alley, over the tumulus that had served as a Native American burial ground and cemetery for early French and English settlers and military personnel. That site encompassed some 4000 graves. Virgin Alley was renamed Oliver Avenue in 1904. Trinity Cathedral and its cemetery are active and well-maintained religious and historical sites to this day in downtown Pittsburgh.

The above quoted story is the sole primary source about Marina's life. It has been summarized, paraphrased and cited in any number of histories of firefighting, but nothing new has ever been added to her history. The book I found it in was written some 50 years after Marina supposedly volunteered with the Niagara Company. It can be considered an oral history, though a incomplete one -- we don't even know whether Betts was a married or maiden name.

The ultimate irony -- or insult, depending upon how you look at it -- is that the saga of firedog/Union soldier Dog Jack in the same source is longer and more detailed than the tale of Marina Betts.  Dog Jack has even had a movie made of his life (with much artistic license applied). The Virago of Virgin Alley surely deserves some kind of immortalization!