Impostor Syndome

Noemi Smolik on “Russian Avant-Garde at the Museum Ludwig: Original and Fake”

View of “Russian Avant-Garde at the Museum Ludwig: Original and Fake,” 2020–21. Two works attributed as Alexandra Exter’s Kostümentwurf “Herodes,” 1921 and 1917 respectively.

WHAT HAPPENS when a painting is unmasked as a forgery? The colors, the forms, and the brushwork remain the same, and yet, everything has changed. The spell of authenticity, related to what Walter Benjamin called an artwork’s “aura,” has broken. A taboo-shattering exhibition organized by Rita Kersting and Petra Mand at the Ludwig Museum in Cologne, titled “Russian Avant-Garde at the Museum Ludwig: Original and Fake” and on through February 7, seeks to pick up the pieces, provocatively pairing its works of questionable provenance alongside authentic loans in order to contextualize the challenges of collecting, selling, and curating work from the Russian avant-garde, whose market has been saturated with counterfeits from the start. By illuminating that history, the museum, along with a virtual symposium it held in early November, not only sheds light on the future of provenance research but prompts investigations into the profound contradictions at the very heart of aesthetic experience.

In “Original and Fake,” Lyubov Popova’s Painterly Architectonic, 1918—a collagelike Suprematist composition of faceted, overlapping planes—from the Thyssen-Bornemisza collection in Madrid, hung next to a nearly identical canvas owned by the German institution, the former distinguishable from the latter mostly by its thicker impasto and rougher, more painterly treatment of surface. While the Madrid painting has been properly authenticated, the attribution of the Ludwig painting remains debated. Even more dubious is the attribution of another Popova, found to contain a pigment that didn’t arrive on the market until after the artist’s untimely death by scarlet fever in 1924. In the case of an Olga Rozanova work, the material on which it is mounted contains synthetic fibers which, the label explains, did not exist during the artist’s lifetime. With this kind of painstaking rigor, the museum presents these paintings together with the findings of a yearslong investigation, throughout which it takes care to sidestep the word “forgery.” It is only a question of forgery, in the legal sense, when an intent to deceive can be proved.

View of “Russian Avant-Garde at the Museum Ludwig: Original and Fake,” 2020–21. Left: Two canvases attributed to Olga Rozanowa, 1913. Right: Two canvases attributed as Ljubow Popowa’s Painterly Architectonic, 1920 and 1918 respectively.

The chocolate magnate Peter Ludwig and his wife Irene began acquiring Russian art in the 1970s. Within twenty years, the Ludwigs had assembled an internationally renowned collection of six-hundred works, first made available to the museum on loan. After Irene’s death in 2010, ownership was transferred to the museum. The earliest attributional suspicions were aired in the ’80s, and only increased over the years. As a result, the director of the museum, Yilmaz Dziewior, initiated a thorough inquiry under the direction of the conservator, Petra Mandt, executed in three stages of analysis: provenance, style, and laboratory. The results were sobering: Of the forty-nine images under scrutiny, twenty-two proved to be of questionable attribution.

How could something like this happen? Was naivete really to blame for this development? In fact, for a long time, almost nothing was known about Russian avant-garde art. It wasn’t until 1960 that Life magazine ran a report by Alexander Marshack—titled “The Art of Russia…Nobody Sees”—that called attention to works purchased by institutons directly after the October Revolution in 1917 but which were now languishing in museum basements. Two years later, Camilla Gray published her book The Great Experiment: Russian Art 1863–1922, the first account of the Russian avant-garde, arousing curiosity about this mysterious art. Auction houses and galleries followed suit. As no open trade with the Soviet Union was possible at that time, most works made it to the West via illegal routes—in diplomats’ suitcases, in some cases—without documents proving their provenance or means to compare them to authentic examples still locked in museum depots. This brought all manner of forgers and frauds onto the scene.

Founded in Cologne in 1965, the now Zürich-based Galerie Gmurzynska quickly became a leading importer of the Russian avant-garde, and their exhibitions and catalogues have made more contributions to the field than perhaps any other institution. Recent claims made by the Ludwig Museum that the dealer may have sold unreliably attributed pieces—allegations rejected by gallerist Krystyna Gmurzynska, who has demanded in vain that the museum release all of its research to the public—not only suggest far-reaching implications for collections worldwide, but also pose delicate questions about the integrity of scholarship premised on inauthentic specimens—questions one would have liked the symposium to grapple with a little more. Of the one hundred canvases in the Ludwig collection, eighty-one derived from this gallery, thirty-nine of which were analyzed by the museum; the attribution of twelve paintings have already been cast into doubt. Galerie Gmurzynska, which stands behind their works, filed a lawsuit demanding that the museum publicize its research before the show’s opening. Their efforts were unsuccessful.

This work attributed as Mikhail Larionov's Rayonism Red and Blue (Beach) (detail), 1913, is one of several Russian avant-garde paintings in the Lugwig’s collection currently under forensic scrutiny.

The difficulty of disentangling the validity of attributions has also been demonstrated by the case of the Costakis Collection. George Costakis, a Greek, worked in Moscow for the Canadian embassy. As early as the 1940s, he began to collect artworks still held in private collections. When he left Moscow in 1977, he transferred a great part of the collection to the Tretjakov Galerie, housing the rest in the State Museum of Contemporary Art in Thessaloniki. His collection was regarded, beyond doubt, as sublime—until the discovery that there existed two paintings attributed to Rozanova that were almost indistinguishable from each other: one known as Green Stripe, 1917, in the Museum of Rostov, the other in the Costakis Collection. Which was the original, and which the copy? Even today, experts don’t agree, as Hubertus Gassner reported during the symposium. There are known instances where an original painting stored in a Russian museum’s basement was discreetly replaced with a copy, and the original was found later in the West. What role official agencies, especially the KGB, might have played in this messy proliferation of Russian art awaits further clarification.

Confidence in the trade of Russian art was definitively shaken in 2018, when twenty-four works from the hitherto unknown collection of Igor and Olga Toporowskij were exhibited in the Museum of Fine Art in Ghent. Aspersions on their authenticity were so overwhelming that they had to be uninstalled, and Catherine de Zegher, the museum’s director, lost her post. At the beginning of this year, the Toporowskijs were arrested by Belgian police for trafficking stolen goods, fraud, and money laundering.

During the symposium, Friederike Gräfin von Brühl, a lawyer who specializes in art forgeries, returned us to the question of what it means for a painting to be a fake. If it isn’t the art object and rather its “aura” that provokes our admiration, “Original and Fake” offers an acid test for contemporary notions of authenticity, exposing how tightly we still cling to authorship as a guarantor of value, and how quickly, and totally, it can become shadowed by doubt.

Translated from German by Diana Reese.

Noemi Smolik is a critic based in Bonn, Germany, and Prague, Czech Republic.

Correction and update [January 20, 2020]: Of the eighty-one paintings in the Museum Ludwig that derive from Galerie Gmurzynska, thirty-nine have been analyzed by the museum so far. The Ludwig has challenged the authenticity of twelve of these works, not three, as originally reported. Gallery Gmurzynska maintains the authenticity of the Ludwig painting attributed as Lyubov Popova’s Painterly Architectonic, citing “thorough technical analysis” which “states clearly that the pigments and the canvas are from the 1920s.”