Art Replicants: Why Is The Dulwich Picture Gallery Full Of Fakery?


Following last week’s musings on intellectual property, the Dulwich Picture Gallery has recently announced that as part of its exhibition programme for 2015 it would temporarily replace one of its current collection with a replica, commissioned from a Chinese workshop specialising in churning out high quality (if they can be called that) fakes.

Apparently this is big business, with literally millions of duplicate paintings surging onto market each year. Though accusations of plagiarism and forgery are avoided by changing the scale of the duplicate, and that the intention is not to dupe (though I remain unconvinced that such a scale of production could ever be regulated such), it feels depressing that the presence of the artist – that magical phenomenon of staring his thoughts and ideas square in the face – is devalued, reduced to reference value only. I am reminded of the last time I was in the Rijksmuseum, where tourists looked at Vermeers through their iPads: recognising the content and author but not savouring the intimate brushwork, or the realness of it. There is no substitute for experiencing simultaneously in a painting both the split seconds of brush strokes and the wider historical life it has led.

This is a clever curatorial gimmick that raises pertinent questions about the way we value and view art, as a good exhibition should. It will certainly get bodies through the gallery doors, as good marketing should. It is commonly said that visitors look at an artwork for an average of five seconds only, and if any exhibition gets people to look at every inch of paint carefully and at length, then that gets my vote. And as an art historian of course I want to flatter my ego by spotting the fake: one of the key aspects of art historical expertise is being able to recognise the visual language unique to each painter, to be able to identify by brushwork alone. Which is how the wider public are put unfairly at a disadvantage. Certainly it’s a fun game (the gallery want to sell “I failed to spot the replica” t-shirts in the shop), but without intimate knowledge of its collections or the work in question, they have no chance of spotting a deviation to a painter’s language; they have nothing to go on. It is also depressing that works will be scrutinised with greater intensity than usual but in a negative light. Try to spot the fake and you will be casting doubt over every painting you see, finding faults and reasons why they just don’t cut it.

There is an argument to be made for bringing visual enjoyment and accessibility to everyone: to feel you can have your own painting of one perhaps you’ve seen in a museum or online, handcrafted with care, and that the artist’s vision and intellectual property receives new appreciation and audience. But what of the innumerable artists toiling to create duplicates of existing work? It is curiously anti-art, fostering no creativity or invention. I recently read ‘Portrait of a Man’ by Georges Perec, telling the story of an art forger who tries to create the ultimate fake: a new, ‘original’, Antonello da Messina portrait. The effort drives him mad; in being the best at his trade, he is paradoxically the worst of all artists, a non-artist. The exercise of replication is pointless, nihilistic, and a worrying business: unlike appropriation which creates new art, it creates non-art. Wearing my “I failed to spot” t-shirt (heaven forbid!), this debate however probably won’t be at the forefront of my mind, rather the shame at being a crap art historian.

(I’ll let you know if I spot the replica)