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Lucian Freud denied this painting was his – so how could the BBC claim otherwise?

The Man in the Black Cravat, now by Lucian Freud. BBC

To be told that a painting was made by you, when you are certain it was not, must be disconcerting. For years, Lucian Freud denied that a portrait attributed to him was his. Now, five years after the painter’s death, his judgement has been finally overridden.

In what is the first time that an artist’s view on his own work has been vetoed, the BBC Fake Or Fortune’s team of “art sleuths” compiled the evidence and triumphantly delivered their verdict – together with a £300,000 price tag (comparatively low for a Freud, which typically sell for several million). It is fortunate perhaps that the painter is not still alive to witness their ruling.

The Man In The Black Cravat shows a youth with an off-centre jaw wearing a pinched expression and gazing emptily to his right. The claim is that it was made during the early 1940s when Freud was a student at Anglia College of Art.

The work certainly bears traits of the painterly experimentation of the times: the expressionistic angularity and distortion, the psychological intensity, the post-cubist flattening of space, the limited palette that could be seen in many painters’ works, including, but by no means limited to, Freud’s.

An artistic detective story

The story of the work is shrouded in intrigue – perfect fodder for an artistic detective series. It belonged to the painter Denis Wirth-Miller, a fellow student of Freud’s at Anglia with whom Freud had a long-running feud.

How Wirth-Miller acquired the painting is a mystery, but when he gave it to the current owner, Jon Turner, he demanded that Turner “sell it as publicly as possible” in order to “humiliate” Freud. For 20 years, Turner has been attempting to do so, but has faced a losing battle in the face of Freud’s insistent denials of authorship.

During this time, speculation mounted upon heated speculation: that Freud was denying authorship in order to make it impossible for Wirth-Miller to sell under his name; that Wirth-Miller was trying to taint Freud’s name by passing off a fake as his; that Freud simply did not want to be associated with work he considered the weak outcome of juvenile experimentation.

The BBC team – Fiona Bruce (of Antiques Roadshow fame), the dealer and Old Master expert Philip Mould, and fellow dealer and broadcaster Bendor Grosvenor – have followed up all these theories, and through the trusty combination of intuition, expert opinion, archival support and scientific evidence, converted speculation into the long-awaited “fact”: that it is indeed a genuine Freud. Thus we have our result, the team is happy, and their client happier still.

Cause for celebration?

But what exactly are we celebrating? And should we be celebrating at all?

Certainly there are huge positives to the kind of work that the BBC team do. Attribution – the assignation of authorship – uncovers the long neglected, and corrects falsely adulated masterpieces. It distinguishes the “fake” from the original – or as the title of the BBC series aptly puts it, the fake from the “fortune”. It thus has enormous personal value for private individuals, families and estates, as well as public value for the art market and the museum industry. Without attribution, there could be no market valuation.

Connoisseur: Giovanni Morelli by Franz von Lenbach.

And arguably there would be no art history either. As the founding fathers of connoisseurship (the study of attribution), Giovanni Morelli (1816-1891) and Bernard Berenson (1865-1959) made clear, without the facts deduced through connoisseurial methods (trained observation of visual clues, supported by documentary evidence), the discipline of art history is open to the contingencies of “subjective” taste. And even though connoisseurship has fallen steeply out of fashion, the principle of scientific rigour it upholds has been retained by the discipline ever since.

Mould and Grosvenor are avowed disciples of connoisseurship’s august tradition, modernising it through the integration of the latest technologies – infrared, laser spectroscopy, GC-MS – while bringing what has long been considered a stuffy occupation to a mass audience.

But other disciples might be distinctly troubled by the apparent lack of scientific precision in their detective work. For instance, when a human hair was found embedded in the “Freud” painting, and DNA testing couldn’t match it to the Freud family, this bit of contrary evidence was hurriedly sidelined. We were not shown any attempt to match it to the other strong contender for authorship: Wirth-Muller. Instead, the team promptly pursued other leads.

Making archives look exciting certainly deserves applause, and tapping into the current fascination with detective and forensic mysteries – the “Sherlock Holmes effect” – is certainly a strategic marketing device. But in the case of art, can such detective work go too far?

Pernicious Assumptions

It seems to me that this BBC team’s endeavours are predicated on a number of assumptions that are all too hastily passed over, and the ethics of which demand closer attention.

One is the assumption that the value of an artwork is determined by its authorship – an assumption that (as Berenson himself was only too aware) supports the complicity of the art market with the cult of the artist that has been a feature of the reception of art since the Renaissance, and given renewed, ironic fervour by artists such as Andy Warhol and Damien Hirst. With its canons and methodological preoccupations, the history of art has also unwittingly lent credence to this complicity, as we are reminded by the memorable opening lines of Ernst Gombrich’s The Story of Art: “There really is no such thing as art. There are only artists.”

But wasn’t the great breakthrough of modernist thought – in whose context Freud is painting – to undermine these very values? In the face of collective practices, the destruction of traditional aesthetic values, and the rise of intellectual movements such as psychoanalysis, existentialism, hermeneutics and structuralism, the very notions of authenticity, authorship, originality and truth were challenged. The cult of the artwork, as impersonal object or effect of meaning, displaced that of the maker.

Artist as commodity? Lucian Freud’s Reflections on the Self. PA

Freud himself implied his registration of this. Asked about his influences, he replied: “I think of great pictures, perhaps other than great artists”. The discipline of art history has also acknowledged the shift, critiquing the hallowed authority of the great canons, and updating the project indicated by the great 19th-century art historian Heinrich Wölfflin, to “write an art history without proper names”.

In the face of this, to uncritically or unironically uphold the value of attribution is arguably at once to regressively look back to the pre-modernist era, to pander to the demands of an ever expanding art market, and in this particular case, to undermine the ethics of modernism that informed the work of the very painter under consideration.

Another problematic assumption is that truth-telling is important; that history is the excavation of the truth, and that science is called upon to clear away the mythic obscurities shrouding an artwork – to show “how it really is”.

But who determines this tale? And why should it be the “experts” rather than the artists themselves who write this history? Artists have always constructed their own images and accompanying narratives. Are not these edited, sometimes fabulated, visions (which exceed hard and dry facts) an essential component of an oeuvre and its reception?

The paintings of Freud reveal an artist obsessed with control and precision. His denial of authorship of the portrait – whether corresponding to fact or not – may be taken as a symptom of this control. Is this not to be respected as a part of his art’s legacy? Instead, through the BBC investigation, his voice has been lost under the weight of the “professional expertise” of an industry that submits artworks to the objectification of the “professional gaze”.

So the real question is not whether this is a genuine Freud or not. Instead we should consider the conditions of posing such a question, the philosophical implications raised by such a query, and what these entail for the reception, valuation, and understanding of works of art in an era defined by the increasing commodification of art objects and mass circulation of images.

Works of art are more than the objects of a detective story – attending to this value is what the work of real intellectual inquiry must explore.

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