Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Forgeries of Eric Hebborn and the Monkey Caves of Halong Bay

The other day we were in class and I was telling students that the four most reproduced paintings in the world are 1. “Starry Night” and 2. “Café Terrace at Night,” both by Vincent van Gogh.  3.  Gustav Klimt’s “The Kiss,” and 4. Monet’s “Poppy Field at Argenteuil.”  And I wanted to know if reproducing something taught us anything as artists and people?
  It was a pretty simple assignment, students were to choose a famous painting: Picasso’s “Le Reve,” or Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party,” or Munch’s “The Scream,” and copy it somehow using any means necessary… colored pencils, crayons, toothpicks, macaroni shells, clay, digital photography, etc.  Then the students were to display their art and explain what difficulties they faced in re-creating it.
  Of course, the whole assignment is to force students to reflect upon the nature of originality, to acknowledge different ways we copy others in society, but it’s also to begin a conversation on recognizing a masterpiece.  What makes something truly great?  Is it just because it’s famous or because no one else could ever do it?  Or is there more?
    In preparing for this assignment I was reading the amazing, “The Art Forger’s Handbook,” by master forgery, Eric Hebborn, a British man back in the 1990's who boasted how easily it was to copy famous painting and sketches and pass them off as originals, fooling some of the great art critics of his time and bilking buyers for millions.  The book caused a sensation, mostly for how brazen Hebborn was in admitting the depths of his criminal abilities.  Shortly after the book’s publication, Hebborn’s body was found lying in the streets of Rome, his skull crushed with blunt force.
 Later I was thinking about Hebborn and the idea of forgery, of copying someone’s life achievement and profiting from it, while sailing through Vietnam’s Halong Bay.  We had hired a boat to take us to the monoliths, deep into the mist, and then boarded a small row boat to one of the caves hidden in the limestone.  The villagers had passed this way for centuries never thinking these caves existed until one day, while hunting monkeys, a tribesman followed a screeching beast through a hole and discovered the magnificent elaborate series of tunnels inside.
Ah, the benefits of following the leader?  Sometimes as a father I feel I’ve done that too much, looked to my heroes too often, trying to raise little Magellans and Jacques Cousteaus and Apostle Pauls… the Reflective Traveler.  But what else is there?  What’s the masterpiece you hold most dear, the one you wish to live and copy and present to the world?  What else is there, but a stomp to the back of the head and a merciless fade to black.

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