He appears to want to avoid my eyes. I can’t catch him straight-on, as though the sun is shining against him, as though I’m the interrogator who has arranged the room to his opponent’s disadvantage. Bad cop.
“Oh,” he says. “I think it will be a tragedy. Don’t you?”
The “art world” – what a phrase. We never talk about the “science world”, do we? It’s always “the scientific community”: breathless, post-War New Town seriousness. Art, by contrast, is held to live on another planet. Thus do words fashion our experience of, and belief about, “things”, things which otherwise we’d claim have an objective existence quite outside our own minds. But: In the beginning…, etc. The beginning and the end, if you ask me. And words are mind-things. So either there is only the mind-thing, or the “real” has to be described (that is: made into fiction) by mind-things. “You can’t handle the truth!” shouts Jack Nicholson in that awful film. But words can.
Well, the “art world” is holding its breath. According to Simon de Bruxelles’s story in Wednesday’s Times (which triggered this entire piece):
“Eighteen years after his death aged 62, Eric Hebborn is threatening to haunt the dealers and galleries he deceived for nearly 20 years with the sale of a stash of sketches and preliminary studies for works which are, in some cases, now hanging in art institutions around the world.”
I was intrigued at the thought of “fakes” being viewed, for decades, as “truth” (see word-thing paragraph for details): how can the beauty, and the worth, of a painting be affected by its author’s name? You don’t have to be an anti-authorial post-modernist horror to find something troubling about this (commonplace) assertion. So I looked Hebborn up.
Eric Hebborn, son of a child-beater from Brighton, sent to borstal for burning down his school – both these facts are open to query, by the way – spent two years in Rome after art school, where he met Anthony Blunt, not yet revealed to be acting the fake life of a real spy, who told him that some of his drawings looked like Poussins. This seems (my favourite verb) to have sparked the trajectory of Hebborn’s career, though Blunt’s fetish about Poussin suggests to my (earthy, un-arty, dirty) mind that the spy had an entirely different endpoint in view, when he praised young Eric’s paintings.
In London, Hebborn worked for an art restorer. Is a “restored” painting – a re-storied painting – still the “truth”? Or fake? The question must occur to restorers, so – coupled with Blunt’s Poussin remark – it’s not a narrative surprise that Hebborn and his lover eventually began “finding” sketches and drawings of Old Masters, and passing them off as the real thing. There was a lucrative market for fake, real things.
By 1978, an Old Master art dealership was forced to admit that it had sold several mis-attributed works. The timing is significant: while reading about Hebborn’s life, a parallel track of memory was digging up the novelist Patricia Highsmith.
To use the phrase “digging up” about Ms Highsmith is unfortunate, given the activities of her famous protagonist, Tom Ripley, who himself once dug up the corpse of a man he had murdered…
…a man murdered because he had uncovered (that image again) Tom’s role at the centre of a fake-art scam. Tom’s London gallery sold “rediscovered” works of a vanished artist. The paintings were produced by a devoted disciple of the (dead) artist, whose grief about faking a man (whose work) he worshipped drove him to bury Tom Ripley alive.
Ripley’s sexuality is an open question – one which irritated Highsmith (I wonder why) – but the homo-eroticism of his male fascinations cannot be denied (it lies at the heart of his first, er, outing, in The Talented Mr Ripley; I’ve been in love with this psychopath for decades). The real Hebborn was openly gay.
Ripley survived the attack on his life. Hebborn did not: he was clubbed to death in the streets of Rome in 1996. As far as I can discern, his death remains a mystery (another ripple, this time of Caravaggio.)
Art imitating truth, as it were. But Ripley Under Ground was published in 1970. Hebborn’s scamming became semi-public knowledge 8 years later. Is fiction – faking – more powerful than we had believed: can it predict life? Make “real” things happen?
What? Politics? In the same edition of the Times as the Hebborn piece is a story about a UKIP spokesman, who seems to have made up both his doctorate, and the university which bestowed it upon him. I don’t blame him (sorry, I know that I should), but he’s nicely emblematic of the UKIP narrative.
We need fictions, stories about ourselves, and not only because we need words to communicate. It’s not an accident, I think, that the French version of The Talented Mr Ripley is called Plein Soleil. Truth/sunlight can blind, and who wants to be blind? Well, those who will not see, for starters.
The interrogation of the first paragraphs, as I’m sure you guessed, was conducted between myself, and my reflection in the empty page on the computer screen, just before I wrote this story about a real man who was a fake. Truth/forgery, fact/fiction, sunlight/reflection: comedy/tragedy. You don’t get more political than that.