Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Fake or Fortune: Renoir (BBC-TV, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched an episode of an intriguing BBC-TV series called Fake or Fortune?, which I didn’t realize was already in its fourth season when this show was produced in 2015 (it originally aired in Britain in July 2015 and appears to have been produced by the BBC’s Northern Ireland service). The premise of the show is that a group of art experts examine a painting which has been attributed to a famous painter but not definitively admitted to the canon of his or her work, In this case the painting is a small oil work depicting the Seine River at the Parisian suburb of Aventeuil, where many of the Impressionists were living and working in the 1870’s when they started formulating the style that would revolutionize painting. Among them were Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Claude Monet (who coined the term “Impressionism” when he exhibited his 1874 painting “Impression — Sunrise”), who were apparently such good friends that they would go on painting expeditions together and paint the same landscape at the same time. The alleged Renoir was supposedly one of these, painted in 1874 alongside another work of the same scene by Monet, and Renoir is thought to have given the painting to Monet, along with several other works (including at least two portraits of Mrs. Monet which Renoir painted secretly while observing her at Monet’s home). Monet in turn gave it to Blanche Monet, who was both his stepdaughter (his wife’s daughter by a previous partner) and his daughter-in-law (she married Monet’s son, which was O.K. since, like Victor Frankenstein and Elizabeth Lavenza in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, they were not biologically related even though one could argue the relationship was psychologically incestuous). Blanche Monet in turn sold the painting to a French dealer, who sold it to an English dealer, who sold it to the Phillips family of Picton Castle, where it remained until Nicky Phillips — who despite the first name is actually a woman, and a painter herself (she was commissioned to add a portrait to the National Portrait Gallery at the royal palace once a nationwide contest determined the most prominent historical Briton who was missing from the collection) — decided to sell it. She ran into a pissing contest between two sets of Renoir experts, the Bernheim-Jeune Gallery (which once represented Renoir himself and is owned by the descendants of the people who ran it in Renoir’s time) and the Wildenstein Institute.

Both Bernheim-Jeune and Wildenstein have put out a catalogue raisonné of Renoir — a catalogue raisonné is to an artist what a bibliography is to a writer or a discography is to a musician, an attempt to list all the paintings and other artworks created by a single individual (including any on which he may have collaborated with someone else), including reproductions of the work where possible and an account of its history (its “provenance,” in Artspeak) and where it is now (or where it was last if it’s not known to survive). Only the Aventeuil scene is listed in the Bernheim-Jeune catalogue raisonné of Renoir but not in the Wildenstein — and without a definite attribution to Renoir from both houses Nancy Phillips can’t sell it for the money she needs to maintain Picton Castle as a public museum. The show would have been considerably more interesting if it had been less partisan — the experts on it, led by the show’s regular star, Bendor Grosvenor, are clearly determined to prove that it is a Renoir and get Wildenstein to accept it — they’re visibly disappointed when an inventory of Monet’s possessions at the time of his death doesn’t list it, and theorize that by then Monet had already passed it on to Blanche and therefore she was its owner — and they’re thrilled when X-ray and infrared examination of the back of the painting reveals a stamp on the original canvas dating it to the 1870’s. That was particularly important because Blanche Monet was herself a painter and could at least conceivably painted the picture and forged it as a “Renoir,” but the fact that it was on an authentic 1870’s canvas obviously argues against that. In the end Grosvenor and his experts assemble what they consider an unassailable case for the work as a Renoir — an unbroken chain of possession from Renoir to Monet to Blanche Monet through two dealers to the Phillips family — a date on the canvas itself and a paired Monet painting of the same scene — but the Wildenstein’s “Renoir committee” continues to reject the work on the basis that the provenance is weak, the painting is not signed by Renoir (which the pro-Renoir experts say is because Renoir considered it a preliminary sketch and never signed his sketches), and the painting simply isn’t very good. Charles came in about two-thirds of the way through the show and noted that it was just a higher-class version of an Antiques Roadshow episode (which certainly explains why KPBS showed it right after two Antiques Roadshow episodes! Obviously they thought it would appeal to the same audience), and I thought the most impressive voice of reason in the whole show belonged to the woman who was being interviewed when he came in, a white-haired doyenne of the British art world who’s considered the U.K.’s leading Renoir expert and said that in her opinion, it is a Renoir — just not a very good Renoir, and she said with the weight of her authority that just because Renoir was one of the greatest artists of all time and he left behind some absolute masterpieces, don’t think that he didn’t paint a lot of slapdash mediocrities as well!