False Impressions – Thomas Hoving

Cover of "False Impressions"

Cover of False Impressions

There is something about the world of crime as it intersects with art that is just fascinating.  The cleverness – sometimes brilliance – applied to creating forgeries, cheek by jowl with sometimes massive stupidities that either reveal them or blind suckers who believe in them; the pervasiveness of copies through time and space; the age-old question of why a forgery is worth less than an original when experts can’t tell which is which (Mr. Hoving makes his opinion on this topic very clear).  In his long career in and around the art world, Hoving collected more stories than, it seems, any other six people combined, and happily among his many gifts was a gossipy, intelligent, conversational writing style which sets those stories down in some terrific pot-boilers of books.

My only regret about False Impressions is the sparseness of illustrations.  There are quite a few black-and-white photos inserted, of a few of the works of art discussed as well as people and events along the way, but there are so very many works examined which aren’t included, for some of which Goodsearch and Google come up lemons.  Ideally, of course, I would have loved to have seen all of the forgeries – and, where applicable, their originals.  There is one example of both side by side, challenging the reader to pick which was which, and yes, I did pick correctly, therefore finding it to be a great idea.  For the rest, I spent quite a bit of time combing the internet, with decidedly mixed results; some of the forgeries that were discovered have been relegated to storage deep in the bowels of the Met, and will never be seen again by the ordinary public.

On a very personal level, this book had an impact.  Hoving talks here, as in Making the Mummies Dance, about handling the old and beautiful and unique, and that inevitably rouses deep jealousy in me.  But he was well aware of the privilege and responsibility and honor of being able to do so, which keeps me from feeling full-blown hate-you envy; he never lost his admiration and adoration of art, never became jaded about the Monets and Vermeers and medieval altarpieces and ancient Greek statues, was as excited by the last wonderful piece he handled as he was by the first – which all is one of the reasons I love to read his books.

Another unexpected effect of reading False Impressions was a completely unforeseen closure for me.  I went to art school.  I did pretty well, and I loved it.  I loved painting, and drawing, and the atmosphere; I loved the smell of oil paint and turpentine in Building 3, and I loved my hands being covered in charcoal dust.  But, obviously, it came to nothing in the end, and that has never been easy for me.  I’ve explored the bitterness in past blog posts, kicking against Charles de Lint’s aversion to office work and Russell T. Davies’s chips, and I’ve never been entirely able to let the dream die: really, I can take classes at the local arts workshop and maybe in a few years … Well, Thomas Hoving went to art school, too (albeit a much ritzier and more society-career-oriented school than Paier College of Art).  He did well.  He enjoyed it.  But it didn’t take him long to realize that he would never make a career of painting.  And that’s where the breakthrough for me comes in.  He confronted the fact that he was a copyist.  He could produce an excellent copy of another’s work – one of the assets on his side when it came to detecting forgeries – but when it came to creating completely original work, he fell short.  Which is, in large part, his answer to “why isn’t a really good forgery as worthy as an original?”  There’s a spark of life missing in most forgeries, as the vitality that makes a masterpiece a masterpiece is flattened out with the need to control every speck of paint added or every crumb of marble removed.  The vitality, the independent life of a great work, was something that never caught in his own art.  He realized it; he accepted it; he moved on.

Reading this set off not just light bulbs over my head but great huge neon signs: that’s me.  I can copy all day long, and do it pretty well (or I could).  I can’t sit down and create something that will live forever, at least not with a brush or drawing pad.

And that’s okay.

Thank you, Mr. Hoving.  For everything.

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