14 February 2021
In the introduction to these essays, I suggested that to understand art trans-culturally, it was essential to shift from a product- to a process-based theory. This shift changes a great deal about how we understand art.
What would your immediate response be if asked to define authenticity in the art world? If it relates to the authenticity of a particular art object, you would not be alone, indeed you would represent what is still probably the most commonly held view in the West and, because of recent western global hegemony, in a good deal of the rest of the art world as well. This includes a certain critic who offered on Amazon the only negative review of my recent book (The Art of Understanding Art, A New Perspective1) – if we discount eloquent silence, that is. He found my chapter on relative authenticity ‘…particularly offensive - as something is either authentic or it's not.’ He is, of course, quite right about ‘some thing’ but unfortunately he missed a main point of the whole book which was that a fully mature aesthetic culture moves beyond a focus on the products of art to the overall process, thus bringing into play a wider, more nuanced way of considering authenticity. Once aesthetic focus shifts from product to process, the role of art is to perceive and express meaning, and while the art object can be dealt with objectively, the meaning involved becomes subjective. The concept of authenticity takes on a wider application when individual interpretation allows that it can applied to every aspect of the process, and have subtly different, and evolving, meaning and many levels. This doesn’t obviate the binary choice as to whether an art object if genuine or fake, but it does expand the potential and increase the efficiency of art’s overriding role in evolving consciousness, with self-realization as its immediate goal.
In a fully mature aesthetic culture art is recognized as fundamental to civilization and one of our most efficient means of considering, manifesting, and storing collective understanding to be passed on to future generations. Without it, our evolution from primitive culture to civilization is unimaginable. Try to imagine civilization without the arts, without music, visual art, literature, theatre, dance, architecture, etc.
Until quite recently, the Eurocentric view has tended to see the process of art as being artistic vision expressed through acquired technique resulting in an end product in whatever art form. Only with the modern revolution did the West shift towards a process-based approach that began to fully include the multiple aspects, and evolving perception of the audience.
This shift to a governing, process-based approach to art was one of the essential planks of the trans-cultural theory of art I suggest to make sense of modern western art, from upturned urinals to Tracy’s bed, but also of the art of any other culture on an equal footing without the western hubris of recent centuries. Once applied, it turns our view of Chinese art, along with such misleading terms as ‘modern,’ ‘traditional,’ and ‘abstract’ upside down. By the underlying standards of what was recently achieved in the West, Chinese art has been ‘modern’ for millennia.
Once we make this shift to process-based aesthetics, we can deal with authenticity not only at the level of the physical work of art, but in the broader arena of meaning. Authenticity of an art object is essentially objective; authenticity of meaning is subjective, so we don’t need to agree with anyone else – there is no right or wrong, just different interpretations of meaning. With the shift to process aesthetics we are no longer arguing over whether an upturned urinal is or isn’t ‘art,’ we are asking ourselves to what extent our encounter with it enhances our perception, our overall understanding. A matter for discussion rather than argument.
‘Authenticity’ is a word. Words are devised by intellect as tools in pondering meaning. Whatever we can discuss about art is limited to the intellect and its languages, all of which are all essentially analogical or metaphorical. Our lexical, mathematical, and other intellectual languages are made up of symbols that stand for something real, they are not the things or ideas themselves. We should be aware of the limitations of both intellectual languages, and the intellect itself (the rational, reasoning faculties of mind) which, as a separate domain, is essentially limited. But we can overlook the authenticity of the word itself and focus on its more nuanced meaning in the overall process of dealing with meaning, which is by no means solely confined to the explicable (see The Riven Reality of Consciousness).
Returning to the art object, if we are not yet in a position to decide on whether it is genuine or fake, that reflects not upon the authenticity of the art object but on our authenticity of understanding about it – a hint at the more complex nature of authenticity in the overall process of art. In a fully mature aesthetic culture the process becomes:
Artistic vision → artistic techniques → art object → audience techniques → evolved consciousness.
This is set out here as a two-dimensional attempt to explain a multi-dimensional reality, and seems like a straight-forward, linear progression. But it is more complex than that since it involves an entire, and I propose, vital domain of knowing which is beyond the intellect (The Riven Reality of Consciousness). Enhanced consciousness becomes the ultimate goal and end-product of every participant on both sides of the work of art. The overriding goal of consciousness is to transcend the limitations of intellect, realize the full bandwidth of consciousness, and then integrate our two ways of knowing. Only in the integrated state can we envisage the fulfilment of the evolution of consciousness. The transformational, paradigm-shifting attainment of the transcendent perspective that, alone, can make complete sense of the intellectual way of knowing, is the Enlightenment experience.
Apart from the binary issue of the art object, authenticity in the various aspects of the process, is subjective and relative. We can start with the artist and the various levels of authenticity involved in creating art. Artistic vision is the capacity of the creative personality to see what the rest of us cannot, to see the phenomenal and psychological realms at a tangent to reality – and then have the confidence to believe that it actually matters and the commitment to express it. In any aesthetic communication, creative personality acts as aesthetic shaman, reaching into profound mystery in order to try to make its meaning at many different levels more accessible. In all our fields of endeavour for enhancing understanding, it is always only a small group of visionaries who access and interpret the depths of the mystery we seek to understand – the mystery of Meaning. The rest of us follow in awe. This is why a fully mature aesthetic culture grants artists and art gurus the sort of respect we once granted prophets and religious intermediaries, shamans effectively.
For the artist, authenticity of vision is important. The artist must not only truly see hidden meaning but have mastered the means to express it authentically, again both the authenticity of vision and expression are relative, but the more authentic, the more the depths of meaning will be plumbed by both artist and audience. If, as artist, you can’t authentically intrigue yourself, you’re less likely to intrigue anyone else. If an artist is merely repeating the vision of others, whether acknowledged or not, this will reduce visionary and expressive weight, since the artist then takes over the role of publisher, even if in part interpreter as well, rather than creator. The vision, at second hand, may retain some level of its originality but in the case of direct plagiarism, the expression of it does not.
The dizzying range of authenticity issues in artistic communication is summed up by the intriguing case of a short story written by Jorge Luis Borges entitled, Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote. The narrator claims acquaintance with a fictitious French poet (Pierre Menard) writing in the early twentieth century. The narrator recounts Menards attempt to rewrite Cervantes’ (1547-1616) book, word for word and line by line. He didn’t wish to copy out the original, however, barely recalling whether or not he had even read the whole work long ago, but he recalled a few chapters reasonably well. His plan rather, was to arrive at the identical text by writing them as if the original author had never done so. Quite a challenge, and responding to which, the imaginary author set about trying to recreate the original author’s experiences early in the seventeenth century. He learned Spanish, became immersed in Catholicism, and imagined fighting against the Moors or Turks while ignoring the precise events of Cervantes’ life and all subsequent history up until the time of his attempt. The story goes that Menard succeeded in producing a few pages exactly coinciding with the original. The imaginary narrator while acknowledging that the words are identical, argues that Menard’s are different in effect because he was writing at the beginning of the twentieth century and context would influence his response to the text.
This all took place for both the imaginary Menard and for Borges during the aesthetic upheavals of the first half of the twentieth century as existing western rules of art were being challenged and overthrown, so it is worth first noting the recognition by the latter that focus had shifted from the art object, the piece of literature in this case, to the process and thus included the audience. He pointedly raised the proposition that the same words conveyed a different meaning for the imaginary Menard because of his experience as audience in re-writing them.
Had Menard simply copied the original, word for word, that would simply make him a plagiarist, or publisher and change nothing of the authenticity of the original. But let’s take it a stage further and say that he did so but then presented it as an original work of art by him. Remember, the rules governing art were flying out the window when Borges wrote the story. It came after Duchamp had presented a mass-produced bit of plumbing as art, simply by claiming that it was – and history and a shift in our understanding of art have both proven him right. With that claim, and had Menard managed the entire work rather than just a few pages, the authenticity of the original would still be conveyed, but Menard’s claim that his rewrite was itself a creative response and therefore art, confuses the issue. But if that was an authentic claim, even by an imaginary author, it introduces yet another relative level of authenticity. Once that is accepted, then we have an amalgam of a plagiarized text being presented as an authentic work of art. If we take it to the next stage, and accept the premise of the short story that by immersing himself for years in the experiences of Cervantes, Menard had in fact, quite independently, come up with a few pages of the same text not by copying it, but by recreating exactly the same experiences that led to it. That would be analogous to two artists in different cultures coming up with precisely the same idea and identical expressions of it, which would, again, increase its relative authenticity. But let’s leap to the end of this progression of possibilities. What Menard implies is that audience participation in a twentieth century context is capable of transforming what might otherwise be seen as plagiarised lines into an authentic work of literary art. The boundaries of relative authenticity shimmer and shift, of course, being subjective, but the concept itself gains solidity.
There is a musical analogy that also blurs the concept of authenticity of art objects. Only a single movement of Mahler’s 10th Symphony was completed at his death, the rest was sensitively composed by Deryck Cooke (1919-1976), the Mahler expert who understood not only Mahler’s style, but the mind that created it. This enabled him to write what has become recognized as a relatively authentic work by Mahler. The musicologist Prof. Timothy Jones has similarly finished dozens of scraps of notation by Mozart.
These examples drawn from beyond the visual arts of my main focus help to illuminate the complex nature of authenticity in the arts, allowing for so many, relative interpretations. Each, of course, is entirely subjective. It is up to the individual to consider the multiple levels of meaning involved - which is how art should be approached if it catches our attention at all.
Shifting to the means of expression, the artist is also involved in authenticity. It is possible to ape the expressive achievements of others, of teachers or art-world stars past or present, but this becomes relatively less authentic as expression than a personally developed command of the means. The eccentric Chinese artist Shitao (1642–1702), made two famous statements. One was that he followed a ‘method of no method,’ meaning that regardless of the path he had taken to his mature state as an artist, by the time he had arrived he carried no baggage from past masters. Another way he expressed a similar notion was ‘The whiskers and eyebrows of the ancients cannot grow on my face...’
Art is a complex domain with an enormous range of potential meaning from the banal to the arcane, leading beyond to the ineffable, and, potentially to Enlightenment through realization of our other way of knowing, so there has always been a good deal of local misunderstanding arising out of it. As a general rule, however, once the dust of confusion has settled, consensus eventually tends to settle on those artists who best convince the art world of their authenticity both of perception and of expression. Left by the wayside, however much fifteen minutes of fame may have brought them a momentary taste for the limelight, will be those artists who failed to find the depth that comes from the broader range of authenticity.
The concept of authenticity also evolves as the audience, or the art form does. In Zhou dynasty China, in the first Millennium BCE, painting and calligraphy were not considered art forms – although writing was, along with archery and ritual. Today we gaze in awe at Zhou dynasty ritual bronzes with their astonishing perfection of casting techniques, form and symbolic surface decoration. To a modern audience they represent high level of art. At the time, however, the reason they were made to such high standards was not to create art, but to honour ritual. Ritual was the authentic art, the bronzes were not; they were the tools used by the artists to perform the art of ritual. But over time the process of audience refinement has shifted focus, allowing the bronzes as high art, the rituals they served as of interest only to academic study.
To a considerable extent, audience authenticity mirrors that of the artist. Surface detail manifest in the art object becomes the welcome mat at the doors to audience perception. From there the audience uses its own creative techniques in delving into the greater depths of meaning within. In Chinese culture, the goal of consciousness has traditionally been to ride all vehicles of self-refinement to Enlightenment, the fount of self-realization that alone provides ultimate, transcendent Authenticity. That is the beating heart of audience authenticity, whether we recognize it or not, but along the path relative authenticity increases as self-awareness is refined. One is authenticity of intention, for instance.
A good deal of intellectual fluff is created in the art world by those wishing to promote artists or ideas, or their own part in the process of art as collector, critic, curator, gallerist, etc. and the possible range of sincerity and authenticity is both broad and flexible. Imagine an artist, caught up in the misunderstanding that novelty arising out of the modern western revolution in the arts was its goal rather than one of its means of achieving a more profound aim. Focused on novelty, the artist decides that since no-one had ever cut off the front end of a Mack truck and mounted it as if it was bursting through a gallery wall, it would be a worthy artistic act. What are we to make of that? Recall that the old question of ‘is this art or not?’ no longer applies. Replaced by ‘does my involvement with this communicative effort enhance my understanding at all?’ the obvious answer would be that potentially, yes, it might, followed by the realization that one’s reaction to it today might also be significantly different than it might have been had you encountered it half a century ago. Perhaps we’d need to consider the reasons for producing this particular work of art – the fact that it is presented as art is quite sufficient for it to qualify for an aesthetic response, should we choose to engage with it. Do we understand it to be an authentic artistic gesture or a shallow attempt to capture audience attention through surface novelty? And there is no ‘correct’ answer to this, only our personal, subjective opinion. Confidence in our own opinion, of course, also carries its own level of authenticity and even if we found little in it to ponder further, it’s a Mack truck in an entirely unexpected place, and might authentically mean more to an aficionado of these shining behemoths than to a viewer who sees it just as the front of a truck. Context is important in art, both for artist and audience. The fact that anyone can look at the front end of a Mack truck on the highway doesn’t mean that it is necessarily not appropriate in an art gallery. There is no aesthetic impulse involved in elephant dung at the rear end of the creature itself, but by using it to paint with, Chris Ofili introduced it as part of his aesthetic.
Authenticity factors into the equation at every level: artistic vision, execution, physical work of art, and audience response. If that were to result in an aesthetic epiphany right there and then as the champagne circulated, the authenticity of the experience would become a factor, as it does equally of any lesser increment in understanding.
The authenticity of the physical work of art remains viable and will resolve an issue in a part of the overall process which is important and affects a range of issues. It will impact on respect for the art object which, in turn, will inevitably affect its commercial value and overall desirability as an object, and its efficacy as social grease and its meaning in art-history. But it is possible to convey some of the meaning regardless of the authenticity of the art object.
Had Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus been destroyed shortly after it was produced in the late fifteenth century and all that remained was a faithful, workshop copy produced very shortly after the original, but entirely by studio assistants, it would carry a significant degree of relative authenticity in terms of the meaning it carries even if Botticelli never laid a brush on it. The exact copy produced at about the same time and in the same studio with identical materials and tools might have been, at the time, barely distinguishable from the original - indeed with Renaissance production, we seldom know for sure whether an extant painting was entirely by the named artist. At that time art was as much a business proposition as an individually driven need and the romantic ideal of the starving artist toiling alone and ignored in a freezing garret in order to fulfil some perceived destiny was not mythologized until far more recently. As an aside, this is something recognized and responded to with great success by many modern artists from Warhol to Damien Hirst who switched the romantic garret into industrialized production, recycling the Renaissance.
Back to the Botticelli; if the original and the exact studio copy survived, there would obviously be a distinction at the level of the art object, but the copy would still convey some level of meaning. If the two were virtually indistinguishable, all that would be diminished in the studio copy would be subsequent respect and, therefore, commercial value. But if the original had been destroyed and all that remained was the studio copy respect for it would be greatly enhanced
To take it one stage further, let us imagine that the original was lost, but instead of a studio copy we had a surviving copy from many years later, also presumably close to the original but not even from Botticelli’s workshop. How would that rank? In the absence of the original, and any studio copy, it would still carry a significant level of meaning, connecting us to Botticelli’s original and carrying, therefore, some level of its meaning. Even if at second hand, we could still respond to aspects of Botticelli’s vision and artistic skills as reflected in the copy. Still not convinced? What about looking at a fine, full-colour illustration of the original in an art book. Clearly not the original as such, but it would successfully convey to the viewer a significant amount of its meaning. Nobody would dismiss the illustration of a work of art as being meaningless because it isn’t the original.
The point is that once you are liberated from the intellectual tyranny that demands either/or definitions in a domain where they are severely limiting and counter-productive, and recognize both process aesthetic and the role of the audience, the concept of authenticity is far more complex and intriguing.
Since I am making the claim that China has been dealing with fully mature aesthetics for at least a thousand years in painting, longer with calligraphy, and even longer still with music, we might sensibly seek sagacity in a sagely aesthetic tradition. In Chinese aesthetics the concept of zhen 真 varies by context. In the literary world it represents authenticity of perception, including the visionary capacity, and expression. It carries the concept that ideas and emotions expressed should be genuine. In human affairs, it means an engagement with what are seen as real problems arising out of social or political realities. In chan 禅(Japanese: zen) Buddhism it refers to real, or genuine, practice (zhenchan 真禅) deemed necessary to attain the transcendent, undifferentiated state of Buddha-nature (Enlightenment).2 But in both Buddhism and Daoism, and other non-god religious/philosophic systems, the concept of two ways of knowing, one of duality (intellectual) and one of non-duality (trans-intellectual), what is real and subject to definition in the first can mean something quite different in the second. In the full bandwidth of consciousness, having integrated our two ways of knowing, we recognize that whatever can be described is, like the intellect that describes it, both relative and essentially limited.
In Chinese aesthetics going back centuries, the literature includes several phrases accepting of relative authenticity. The term zhen jiu 真舊 (truly old), in ancient catalogues, implies that while a painting may not be genuine, it is still capable of carrying relevant meaning. James Cahill (1926-2014), the eminent expert on Chinese paintings, noted dryly that traditional Chinese ideas of authenticity were more complicated than modern Western ones.3 Another common phrase also relates to relative authenticity, zhenji 真跡 (authentic trace). 4 This implies that while the work itself is not by the claimed author, it carries authentic meaning. Some works, particularly calligraphic, were literally traced copies, and became highly valued as conveying the original meaning at many levels. A stage further saw high aesthetic value in rubbings taken from calligraphic exemplars carved into stone, often taken themselves from later, traced copies.
There are two versions (although one is missing a section) of one of the most famous of all Chinese paintings, an ancient handscroll entitled Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains, both bear the signature of Huang Gongwang (1269-1354) one of the most famous of Yuan dynasty artists. It also inspired many later versions, from direct copies to interpretations by many serious artists, some of whom signed their own names infusing an existing composition with independent expression through individual brushwork character. Some, however, did not; and some probably had their honest signatures removed to be replaced by spurious attempts to claim Huang’s authorship. All carry some degree of meaning and, therefore, relative authenticity as process. Of the two most famous versions, modern scholarship acknowledges as an early copy the one that the Qianlong emperor (r. 1736-1795, died 1799) considered the genuine version. For over two centuries there was general acceptance of his conclusion. The other version, now considered the genuine one, has also been highly valued even as a presumed early copy over the centuries as it was considered to carry a high level of relative authenticity. The copy is one of the most famous Chinese paintings in the world, widely illustrated, and proudly shown in the Imperial Collection to this day. A comparison of the two seems to me to confirm that the one once considered a copy must pre-date the one lauded by the Qianlong emperor, and is more likely to be the original.
Regardless of which is the authentic art object, in terms of meaning both are relatively authentic. To whatever extent the authenticity of the art object is in question, the response to one being based upon an assumption of authenticity, on an illusion, whichever is the copy, it carries a degree of relative authenticity. Even if the image was copied from the genuine version, there is relatively authentic meaning conveyed through the inner languages of the brushwork and use of ink. We might not consider the subject matter or form borrowed from the original to be as relatively authentic, but the meaning carried by them and the inner languages are. In the sense of relative authenticity I propose here, even without the important and documentary additions by the emperor, what is now considered the copy has a relative degree of authenticity in what is communicates.
One of the most important pieces of calligraphy in Chinese history, the Lanting Preface by Wang Xizhi, China’s most revered calligrapher, is another case in point. Written in 353 CE as a preface to a series of poems written at an elegant gathering, not only was its philosophical content and poetic expression masterly, the writing itself was utterly charismatic – even the artist himself couldn’t re-create it in later attempts to do so. This may have something to do with the fact that the elegant gathering involved a poetic drinking game designed specifically to drown inhibitions in alcohol, so Wang was likely very uninhibited by the time he wrote the original. The original was copied many times over the centuries until it disappeared, buried with a Tang Emperor according to legend. It was also engraved in stone over the centuries so that rubbings could be taken. All are valued to some extent as carrying the original message and calligraphic qualities.
Chinese artists frequently learned through a gradual process of absorption. Tracing old master paintings led to executing eye-ball copies, responding to the style of a master until it was fully understood and absorbed. Then, gradually, as vision and skills were honed, the artists would begin to infuse more and more individuality in arriving at a personal style. Because it was the message or the profound meaning that was paramount, painting became a disciplic tradition, as was the conveyance of Buddhist or Daoist philosophy, where disciples would listen intently to sages, gradually acquiring their meaning until they grasped transcendent understanding for themselves. Over the centuries many of the copied paintings from this tradition have survived, often where originals have not, and these also carry some level of meaning. Museums the world over have masterpieces of Chinese painting ‘attributed to’ or ‘in the style of’ earlier masters. In the West, until very recently, such works once revealed as copies would have been an embarrassment, consigned to storage; in the Chinese view, they continue to be revered despite a lack of objective authenticity.
This has allowed Chinese artists to produce serious paintings and calligraphic works that are either copies of or in the style of existing masterpieces and still be producing something of potentially high merit within the culture. The approach also, no doubt, reflects another aspect of maturity in art: that surface novelty is less important than inner languages and self-expression, even if through re-iterations of existing paintings.
Gradually we begin to see a western understanding of these ideas creeping in. The master forger Han Van Meegeren (1889-1947) fooled the art world for decades with his ability to channel the style of Vermeer and add his convincing copies to the accepted body of works by the master. Once the deception was revealed, museums removed them to storage. At that time, authenticity was entirely a binary issue for them, but more recently interest has begun to surface in the copies as art in their own right. They are masterpieces, mostly of works that were not copied as such, but invented by Van Meegeren who understood the artist’s style and techniques well enough to do so. Gradually they are emerging from storage to be considered in their own right. It doesn’t matter whether we are intrigued by them today as clever copies, and for their merits as such rather than for their channelling of Vermeer, the point is that, like Tracy’s bed, they are now being presented as art, they carry meaning as art, and they have the capacity to broaden our understanding of the entire process of art. They are, in that sense, also relatively authentic as process because of the creative input of Van Meegeren who tended to invent rather than copy.
Among the handscrolls in my collection is one that highlights some of the intriguing ways in which the audience can hone connoisseurship and broaden understanding, including a good deal of detective work essential to reading the clues to hidden meaning in what is also a contested art object. A link to the image can be found in the appendix to this essay so that it can be enjoyed in much the same way as the original when unrolled on my own painting table.
At the Water, Pine and Stone Retreat, February 2021
The subject is the flight from Guangzhou, which was being heavily bombarded by the Japanese in 1938, to sanctuary in nearby Macau. The battle for Guangzhou caused the exodus to Macau, recorded artistically in the handscroll by Guan Shanyue (關山月- 1912–2000) who was forced to flee his home to become, temporarily, an exile. Two very similar versions exist of his experience of the flight, the other he kept until his death and is now in the Guan Shanyue Art Museum in Shenzhen, China. It was published first by Ralph Croizier in 1988,5 and then again in 2002 (reproduced in the Appendix).
The present painting is of essentially the same composition and identical in style, although with some minor, but significant differences in detail. The museum version also appears to be in rather poorer condition.
One main difference is in the additional information added at the end of the story of the scroll re-told on the second version from the original inscription. Apart from significantly rewording his description of the events, the artist records that this is a second version of the handscroll painted for 馮建吳Feng Jianwu (1910-1989), who had admired the first, prompting Guan to respond with a second version starting in 1939 and inscribed to Feng in spring 1940. The additional inscription reads:
巳卯冬見知於建 吾先生因重寫一過 爲贈 (‘In the winter of the year simao  I benefited from the encouragement of Mr. Jianwu, so made a second copy for him as a present’), followed by 二十九年春山月眷識 (‘Spring of the 29th year [of the Republic - 1940].
It is followed by two seals of the artist, the first關山月 Guan Shanyue, the second 關山月題依記 Guan Shanyue tiyiji (‘Guan Shanyue inscribed and recorded accordingly’).
It retains its original mount, although somewhat weathered and worn from use although the painting is in excellent condition.
After acquiring it at a Butterfield and Butterfield auction in San Francisco on 7 November 1991 (lot 1219) I showed it to Guan Shanyue’s fellow Lingnan artist, Yang Shanshen (1913-2004). Lingnan is the ancient name for what today approximates to Guangdong province. He admired it and offered to write the title panel, which he did in October 1991. Yang was a prominent artist who had been influenced by Gao Jianfu (1879-1959), and Gao Qifeng (1889-1933). He was very familiar with Guan Shanyue’s works.
Subsequently able to piece together its earlier history, I was able to establish that it was acquired by Ching Kee Sun, (1888- after 1954), a prominent, and very wealthy Singaporean, comprador of the Asiatic Petroleum Company and a Justice of the Peace, after whom a road in Singapore is named – Kee Sun Avenue. It probably came into his possession in 1947 since the recipient, Feng Jianwu, is known to have visited Singapore in that year. At his death, it passed into the ownership of his family, who, much later consigned it for auction. The consignment by the descendants of Ching Kee Sun and his ownership was later confirmed by the auction house in an email from Dessa Goddard in response to my enquiries over a lengthy period, and after Guan Shanyue died.
‘I have, at long last, unearthed the provenance for this painting. I finally found the phone number of the client, and after about a week, received a return phone call. He has now allowed me to give you as the buyer the name of his father. He did not allow this before. He has no idea how his dad, who has passed away, got the painting, but there it is. The father’s name is Ching Kee Sun.’
I subsequently showed it to the leading expert on modern Chinese paintings, C. K. Cheung, head of the modern Chinese painting department at Sotheby’s, Hong Kong for many years. He was excited by it, and I agreed to let him re-offer it. It was prominently catalogued, as the cover lot at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, April 1993, lot 1055. That is when the trouble started.
Uncontested as authentic by all who had seen it up to that point, the artist confronted by the cover illustration contacted a Mr. Pang of Tsi Ku Chai, the well-known dealership in modern Chinese paintings with a branch in Hong Kong. Pang had received a written statement to him from the artist to say that he had not painted the work. Mr. Pang then passed this information on to Sotheby’s, phoning it first and following up with the written statement.
When Guan denied the second version as authentic, he was unaware of the provenance, or of the visit to Singapore of Feng Jianwu in 1947, and its acquisition by Ching Kee Sun – that was the result of subsequent investigation in the face of his denial.
All the experts who had examined it up to that point, had accepted it without a shadow of doubt, but with the artist denying it, Sotheby’s had no choice but reluctantly to withdraw it from the sale. Later, after Guan had died, it was shown to Wang Yannan and the modern painting expert Hu Yanyan of China Guardian auction house in Beijing. The latter also confirmed is authenticity and was keen to offer it with a high estimate, dismissing Guan’s widow’s continued denial of it as not being a problem since it was clearly authentic.
Only two possibilities suggest themselves for the denial. The first is that he actually did not do a second version, and all subsequent expertise has been wrong; the second that he did, but had some other reason for denying it. Guan Shanyue might have felt that the act of copying his own work might be an embarrassment that could impugn his artistic integrity. He might also have taken into consideration the fact that he owned the original, but not the second version and that its existence would devalue his own, quite apart from impact on his legacy.
The question of physical authenticity is wholly supported by all the usual criteria for judging such a painting, and contradicted only by one, but when the artist denies a work, it carries a good deal of weight. Quite apart from the many experienced experts who had accepted the authenticity of the second version, there are many other indications of its authenticity.
The additional information that it was presented to Feng Jianwu is one, as that is the sort of inscription an artists would add to a second version painted for someone, while being far less likely from a later faker. The additional information as to provenance also seems to contradict Guan Shanyue’s denial. It limits the period during which a faker could have painted it to between1940 and 1947. During that period, Guan would have been unlikely to attract the attention of fakers or, had he done so, encouraged a copy of a painting known to be owned by the artist. It is only much more recently that the value of his works has soared, creating incentive.
The two seals following the inscription are both his seals, and convincing. The first two echo the placing of seals on the first version of the painting, the third placed in the lower left corner, where the first painting has no seal, is a seal he did not use regularly, if at all, elsewhere. The ‘recorded’ character suggests that he refers to the additional information in the inscription on the version for Feng Jianwu. Today modern technology allows precise copying of original seals, as long as the precise dimensions of carved text are known, which, if copied from another impression of the same seal, would present no problem. But prior to 1947 such copies would probably have been carved by hand, and rarely survive close examination. A faker would be unlikely to add a seal that was not on the original, and particularly so complex a seal that would have presented problems in copying and gain very little for a faker.
There are some minor but significant changes in the second version, refining and arguably improving a number of aspects of the subject. This is exactly what one would expect of a serious artist when faced with the impulse to paint a second version – not only because it offers an opportunity for improvement, but an artist would have no need to faithfully copy his own original, all he need do is repeat the composition, technical proficiency, and meaning of the first. There would be no imperative to slavishly follow what he could simply redo as he saw fit. A copyist, on the other hand, would be inclined to follow the original closely; he would be constrained and that would be revealed not just in the copying process, but in the techniques involved as well. It is difficult to be spontaneous in inner languages, particularly of brushwork, ink-tones and texture, while one is copying something.
At the beginning, the group of high-rise buildings rising out of the smoke of the bombing, are better delineated than in the first version, with more windows and better-defined damage. He also changed two areas of white smoke in the first, to a cinnabar glow to make the incendiary devastation more evident. More biplanes were added to increase the drama as bombs rain down upon the crumbling city. The number of figures is reduced. The exact number was irrelevant to providing a sense of panic and flight, so the figures become a little larger in scale but fewer in number in some places where he was just dealing with ‘a crowd.’ Where specific groups were involved in specific tasks, however, he tended to stick to the original composition as he does towards the end where two men cross a plank bridge towards a group of three figures with a black dog, and beyond that, to a roof being repaired as two more figures depart from the scene with a water buffalo. With these their activities are more precise than just fleeing in panic, so it made more sense to repeat them as they were in the original.
Convincing evidence of authenticity also appears in the inscription. Instead of copying the original character by character, the natural inclination of a copyist, the artist has conveyed the same message but refined the way it is expressed. He has also ignored the original spacing and even some of the cursive versions of certain characters that appear in both texts. Yet the differences are all achieved with identical fluency and confidence. It seems clear from this that we are dealing with Guan Shanyue making no attempt to faithfully reproduce the original inscription, as a faker surely would. His only concerns would have been to tell the same story, and fill a similar space visually, the details of how he did that would be irrelevant to the originating artist but not to a copyist.
At one point in doing the detective work involved in assessing Guan’s rejection, I entertained the possibility that one of his students might have produced the second painting. But there are two pressing arguments against this. The first is that it would imply that the presentation to Feng was the real impetus for the second version, but that Guan did not want to paint it himself. The second, that if that is the case, Guan would have known about it and been complicit in the subterfuge, lending the original to be copied, and naming the recipient. It is perhaps remotely possible that a student copied it without Guan’s knowledge, but this simply makes the student a copyist like any other, in which case we might expect him to have copied it more precisely – nor does it resolve the issues of Feng’s involvement.
The unavoidable conclusion suggests that Guan did in fact paint a second version, and that his denial was intended to be misleading for whatever reason but based upon some agenda other than authenticity.
The authenticity of the physical work of art remains undecided, even if the only dissenting voice was that of the artist, and subsequently of his family, united in sticking to his story. But that doesn’t alter the fact that the painting is either genuine or not, it is simply a question awaiting a definitive answer.
At the level of artistic vision, regardless of who painted the second version, we can understand unequivocally that the first version was painted as an authentic response to experience, expressed with similar authenticity of intention and with the considerable acquired technical and expressive skills of the artist. Its meaning is, therefore, authentic at every level. We can then imagine how authentic any particular, subjective audience response might be, and we don’t need to define this. If the artist did, in fact, produce the second copy, it too is relatively authentic for all the same reasons, and while a copy of his own work might raise the issue of relative authenticity, that would be offset to some extent at least by the stated reason, the changes made, and the gift to Feng Jianwu. Were it a copy, whether by a student or anyone else, it would still carry significant weight in expressing the experience, and given the extraordinary similarities to Guan's style and confidence in every technical detail, the means involved in expressing the meaning. It would be, in that sense, relatively authentic as communication or as process rather than product.
Below is a scan of an illustration in the 2002 publication of the first version, currently in the Guan Shanyue Art Museum in Shenzhen.
At the Water, Pine and Stone Retreat.