For What It’s Worth…

Source: Pinterest

When I was a kid my friends and I had a board game called Masterpiece. The main thing I remember about it was that I was fascinated by the cards of various famous works of art—mostly Twentieth Century works like Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, Wood’s American Gothic, a Thomas Hart Benton, a Picasso. There might have been a few Renaissance paintings in there, or maybe the game makers thought it would be too ridiculous that, say, the Mona Lisa would ever be on the market even though I think it was supposed to be an educational game. And it was educational in a way. The idea was to bid on and win the various works of art. The winner was the one who collected the most valuable paintings and the amounts were completely random—in other words it was almost exactly like the real art world.
In each game one or two paintings would turn out to be a forgery. This made them completely worthless and if you were the sucker who’d bid on and won one chances were you lost. That was funny to me because I always thought, well, you’ve still got the painting, so why does it matter if it’s a forgery?
I was reminded of when I listened to a Studio 360 interview with director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck about his film Never Look Away, based on the life of the German painter Gerhard Richter, although the artist in the film is named Kurt Barnet. There’s a scene early in the film where the young Barnet is taken to the Nazi’s infamous exhibition of “degenerate art”, modern paintings and sculptures pulled from German museums and held up for mockery. Some of the works in that exhibition were sold, but most were destroyed. Talking about the scene in Never Look Away Donnersmark explained that many of the paintings and other works of art shown at that exhibition were painstakingly recreated. The recreations then had to be destroyed. The recreations were so perfect there was a risk, even though it was small, that the recreations would be mistaken for the originals. Donnersmark admits that it was hard and I get it: destroying the recreations was a tragic historical reenactment. And, really, were the recreations any less valuable than the originals?

Maybe they were.

Source: Ernst Barlach Haus

Ernst Barlach was a sculptor whose works were in the “degenerate art” exhibit. Born in 1870 he was struggling as a sculptor when World War I broke out. Believing the war would usher in a new artistic age he volunteered as an infantry soldier on the front but was discharged after just three months because of a heart condition. The experience would profoundly change him, though, and he became a pacifist. His highly stylized figures with protruding, but often closed, eyes reflect, I think, a deep sadness. Or maybe I’m just imposing what I know about Barlach onto his works.

If you like a painting or other work of art just because it speaks to you, without knowing anything about the artist, that’s okay, but the artist’s history, the context, the background can add value. The connection to an artist who lived and suffered, whose work came out of deep personal experience, can make the difference between a forgery and a masterpiece.


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  1. Rakkelle

    I wanted to see that movie, still haven’t seen it yet even though they took it out of the movie theaters. Something told me it’d be interesting and now that I have read your piece it’s now a must.

    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      The funny thing is I haven’t seen that movie either–I only just heard about it even though it first came out in 2017. Fortunately there are still ways to see it although my favorite way to see any movie is in the theater.

  2. Ann Koplow

    Your blog is worth a lot, Chris.

    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      To paraphrase Walt Whitman, there can be no great blogs without great readers, and thank you for adding value to this one.

  3. Bryce Warden

    I had that game! I’ve been fortunate to see several of the masterpieces in real life. It’s always a kick to see a famous painting, one you actually can recognize. The Mona Lisa was the most disappointing. My favorites that I have seen in real life are American Gothic (saw it in Chicago in 2002)and the Birth of Venus (Florence). I also share your affection for street art.

    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      Yes! It is a real kick to see a famous painting–I’m fascinated by the brushstrokes and also the sheer size of some works–which was why the Mona Lisa was disappointing to me. It was so small, and surrounded by tourists snapping pictures.
      One of my favorites is Gericault’s “Raft Of The Medusa”. It’s so freakin’ big.


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