Monday, January 5, 2009

Benjamin West and the Venetian Secret

Yesterday at 5.00 o’clock, our tiny exhibition entitled Benjamin West and the Venetian Secret reached the end of its run of nearly four months.

Closing a show is always a little sad, but with this one I feel it more keenly. Maybe this is because West attracted such a warm response from our visitors, or it is the first time I have made it onto the backside of a New Haven bus (above), or because the project was largely made possible by the generosity of an unusually public-spirited lender, Michael D. Eisner, of Disney fame, and therefore seemed to justify the occasional far-fetched show business fantasy.

Certainly in terms of column inches per object in the exhibition (eight only), our press coverage in the New York Times, the New York Review of Books (forthcoming), Modern Painters, and elsewhere, outstripped anything that I have previously encountered, including Love and Death.

I am sure that the reason for this was the subject matter: Everyone likes a juicy fraud, and lately of course, what with the fall-out from Mr. Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, it seems curiously germane. The baffling question remains, why on earth did West and the others fall for the Provises’ fraudulent business arrangement? These artists weren’t stupid, but there is no doubt that they were gullible.

The episode is a perfect illustration of the basic principle according to which fakes and forgeries generally succeed in duping people at the time they are concocted, but spectacularly fail to persuade later generations, precisely because they addressed a specific, overriding need or hunger.

In the case of West, there was such widespread belief in the existence of some missing recipe for Venetian painting of the High Renaissance, that none of the victims even for one second doubted its authenticity when at last the Provises presented it to them by private deomonstration.

The other reason I am a little sad is that it has been the best, easiest, and most stimulating partnership between three co-curators: Helen Cooper and Mark Aronson could not have been more enjoyable companions in this enterprise, but we are busily trying to concoct a reason to do something else together soon.

Helen sits on the White House Preservation Committee, and is not yet sure whether she will be called upon to continue in that role under President-elect Barack Obama. I hope she will. Mark has now crossed Chapel Street to join us here as Chief Conservator of Paintings, and has already made himself indispensible.

And now I must press on with Edwardian Opulence.

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