Russian Avant-Garde at the Museum Ludwig: Original and Fake. Questions, Research, Explanations

Accompanying the exhibition, Original and Fake, that opened at the Museum Ludwig in Cologne on Friday 24 September 2020, is a bilingual catalogue (German and English) of the same name. It is made up of seven articles that would address this most serious of subjects – how to assess whether a work of art is original to a given artist or is a copy, perhaps called a fake if it would have the intention to deceive. Of 49 works belonging to the Ludwig collection, 18 works were submitted to Maria Kokkori (Greece) for analysis and commentary on the scientific investigations carried out in various laboratories in Germany and Switzerland, and 7 to Jilleen Nadolny (London). Of the 29 paintings selected, 14 were determined to be “formerly attributed to” or have a “disputed attribution”. With nearly half of the works examined now discredited, the Deputy Director of the Ludwig Museum, Rita Kersting, is reported to have said that new guidelines are needed so that museums can have more confidence in the authenticity of their collection. Discussing the results of the scientific findings in order to propose new standards should be the subject of the essays and, indeed, the Press Release on the museum’s website claims just this.

Instead, the thrust of most of the articles proposes a survey of events around accusations of fakes in the Russian Avant-Garde, both recent and historical. There is also a certain reliance on unreliable sources in the literature, for example the trust put in the book by Troels Andersen, The Leporskaya Archive, the incorrectness about so-called fakes of Malevich drawings which I personally witnessed in the studio of Leporskaya herself and in her presence. Such sources feed a growing myth about Russian Avant-Garde fakes which is unsupported by facts. Museum personnel especially have the obligation of being cautious in the dissemination of such easy words.

Then, however interesting her essay on artists’ use of the term “texture”, or faktura, one would expect that Maria Kokkori would have devoted her text to an in-depth description of her investigations into the paintings. What was her methodology? her procedures? her findings? and above all, the interpretation of her findings? Apparently her reports are available online, but these proved impossible to access. The only information given in the catalogue about the works she examined – and we are not told anything about the extents of the reports themselves nor their contents – are brief resumés in the Notes on the Examinations by Petra Mandt, restorer at the Museum. These comments are usually a single line to express Kokkori’s personal opinion as to the authenticity, or not, of the painting.

Then there is the question of pigments. For such a subject, the reader expects the level of expertise to be of impeccable accuracy, but trust fades when it is said that “titanium white was on the market in the West from 1925”, or one finds that the date for manganese blue (1942) was grabbed from Google despite the fact that recipes were published in 1874 in Riffault’s Practical Treatise on the Manufacture of Colours for Painting, or to insist on dates of Soviet production of the 1940s which are irrelevant since it is well known that, except during the War, most pigments were imported from France (Lefranc), England (Winsor and Newton), and many from Germany. The author(s) would thus seem to ignore what is common knowledge, while these erroneous dates are then used to discredit a painting. And as for titanium white, for example…

A pale off-white titanium pigment was being used in the porcelain industry from the 1790s, as described by the director of the Sevres Porcelain Manufactory, Brongniart, in his book of the 1840s; it was also in use in the royal factories in St. Petersburg, Berlin and Meissen at the same time. Titanium increased in its whiteness over the 19th century and has been found on the easel of Camille Pissarro of the 1890s mixed with other whites, notably white lead and zinc white; Cézanne (who died in 1906) also used such a compound white. Then in his book on pigments and art practice of 1928 (and published in German translation), the Russian painter, D. I. Kiplik, who taught at the Imperial Academy in St. Petersburg, wrote that he had been sent titanium white – now white in colour – from Norway in 1912, and by 1920 it was to be found in the art shops in Russia. This was an artist’s grade titanium white, but an industrial grade was being produced from the early years of the century, by the tons, to be used in the manufacture of porcelain sinks, basins, tiles etc., but artists could also have used this had they wished – Tatlin the sailor would have been a good example since it was also used to paint the hulls of ships as it repels barnacles. The presence of titanium white is not an open and closed question but one of interpretation by the scientist, and this is precisely what is lacking in the catalogue – reliable and well-informed interpretation.

So the question is – what are the standards to be used to determine if a work of art is genuine or fake? Here are the criteria drawn from the catalogue in Notes on the Examinations by Petra Mandt with Maria Kokkori for the 29 works noted –

• Pigments – The pigments most commonly found in Russian Avant-Garde paintings are given and confirmed, although particle size is sometimes used to challenge a given pigment which, although not said, implies the difference in the use of a hand-ground pigment or a tube paint. This is not otherwise discussed, and would depend on the individual artist and the date, so is left open. The presence of titanium white, manganese blue, and phthalocyanine blue are used to discredit a painting.

• Polyester – The presence of polyester found in the canvas of a painting is used to discredit a work, although no mention is made of its presence due to possible repairs or restoration.

• Carbon 14 dating – Not discussed, the use of carbon 14 to date 20th century paintings is fraught with controversy and is so far not a reliable method. But it is cited as the reason to discredit three paintings by Nikolai Suetin, which are otherwise said to appear to be genuine.

• Signature – Confusion about signatures gives rise to statements like “the work is probably not by …”. The word “probably” means “uncertainty”, which is inappropriate in these circumstances. The motto should be: When in doubt don’t pronounce.

• Historical documents, as in the acquisition of Malevich’s Supremus No. 38 from the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a gift to the American industrialist, Armand Hammer, provide unchallenged confirmation of authenticity. Provenance, however, is proof of ownership, not proof of the authenticity of a work of art, and many fine copies have excellent provenances.

• Stylistic and Technical Differences – Unfamiliar painting techniques are used to deny the authenticity of a painting while familiar techniques are used to confirm authenticity, showing that there is a gross lack of thorough knowledge about artists’ creative practice. This is the case for works by Liubov Popova, A. Vesnin, El Lissitzky, and others.

The criteria are therefore consistent as far as pigments go but are based on significant misinformation, and they are inconsistent as far as stylistic habit and techniques go for an artist’s work due to lack of knowledge.  Based on what is published in the catalogue, analytical art historical method is weak and uneven, which probably reveals a widespread situation. Unknown is the quality and rigour of the scientific methods used, and this needs investigation. Perhaps what this situation makes most visible is the general lack of protocols for proceeding with such a question – how do we know if a work of art is genuine or fake?

In order not to abandon this initiative undertaken by the Ludwig Museum, it may be appropriate that an international group of scientists, curators and art historians of impeccable knowledge, integrity and reputation be invited by the Ludwig Museum to assess what has been done and propose a next stage. The matter is too serious to be left where it is today, so many works in limbo and the art world frankly in a turmoil due to the results published by the Museum Ludwig. For desperately needed is more information, better facts, and informed interpretation before assertions or implications of original or fake can be levelled at the Russian Avant-Garde paintings in the Ludwig Museum – and elsewhere.

In addition, an extensive database on these issues is called for and must be easily available to all researchers. Until then, the judgements put forth in this catalogue are no more than preliminary working premises based on highly selective (and often biased) criteria, and for the most part are difficult to take seriously both in methodology and in their published conclusions. Generally speaking, they should not be considered definitive assessments about the works and their status, especially those considered to be “fakes”, because such conclusions are drawn from insufficient information and inadequate skills in the interpretation of both historical and scientific sources.

A striking thought arises – If the Ludwig Museum and, as they claim, other museums, were keen to participate in such an investigation, how did the Cologne museum find funding for such an undertaking? What institutions would have such issues at their heart?

In his Foreword, the Director of the Ludwig Museum, Yilmaz Dziewior, thanked especially the Russian Avant-Garde Research Project for their financial support, whose director, Konstantine Akinsha, contributed an historical article to the catalogue. Now this institute was founded and is funded by the Moscow President of Alfa Bank, Peter Aven, according to his own statements on the internet, and who has often come out in attacks on Russian Avant-Garde art “and all the fakes”. From the results of reports in the catalogue, then, Mr Aven seems to have achieved his goal for the moment. But there is much more work to do, much more research to be carried out, much more scholarship and scientific enquiry to be undertaken and published before the Russian Avant-Garde can be so easily slapped down. Especially since most of Mr Aven’s own collection comes from the same sources as many of the works here discredited. If the same criteria of analysis were applied to his works as to those in the Ludwig Museum, would they not be subject to the same fate? So are his works fakes, too, or are the works in the Ludwig Museum actually genuine after all?

Dr. Patricia Railing
President, InCoRM
4 October 2020

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