29 November 2016
Van Gogh Museum's response to 'Vincent van Gogh: The Lost Arles Sketchbook': drawings not by Van Gogh and notebook unreliable.
Éditions du Seuil and professor emeritus Bogomila Welsh-Ovcharov, the publisher and author of Vincent van Gogh: The Lost Arles Sketchbook, have responded in both interviews and an official press release to our statement rejecting the attribution of an album of 65 drawings to Vincent van Gogh. We see no reason to change our minds, however. No response has been made to our comments and our fundamental questions.
Where do the pages of the sketchbook show parallels with Van Gogh's drawings, and where do they not? What is a matter of interpretation, and what are the hard facts? The book is mainly an ode to the found sketchbook, and for the justification of the new attribution, trust is placed in the intuitive knowledge of the expert. 'These [drawings] are absolutely O.K., from one to 65. End of song, end of story,' says Ronald Pickvance, the author of the foreword. This exemplifies an old and contestable stance on issues of authenticity, one which denies the importance of the large body of knowledge now accumulated through specialised studies of Van Gogh's drawings.
The controversy is not only about whether this particular sketchbook is or is not Van Gogh's work. It is also about the underlying, excessively easygoing attitude taken by Welsh-Ovcharov – and by Pickvance, who follows her example – to questions of authenticity. While we have no desire to carry on this specialised debate ad infinitum through the press, we have brought together all our comments and questions here in order to clarify our position. In our opinion, the drawings cannot be attributed to Van Gogh, a conclusion based on issues of discolouration and on the materials, technique, style, provenance and reliability of the notebook.
The maker of the sketchbook used three types of ink – mostly brown and occasionally black or red. Only the first type has been subjected to technical examination. A sepia shellac ink has been identified, but – contrary to what The Lost Arles Sketchbook suggests – this ink, which is easily recognisable to the naked eye, is not found in Van Gogh's work. Reference is made to Van Gogh's correspondence from 1881 and 1883, but this is misleading. Not only do those letters date from a different period, but the passages in question mention only sepia and not shellac. We do not know by what method the ink was examined; the report has not been made public.
The Lost Arles Sketchbook suggests that the brown ink has undergone discolouration (pp. 60 and 233), but that is incorrect. The greenish-blue paper can be shown not to have discoloured, and the same is true of the ink. Van Gogh was then working in black ink, not brown ink, and we take this opportunity to reiterate our opinion that the maker of these drawings, in opting to use brown sepia shellac ink, was influenced by the brown, discoloured present state of many of Van Gogh's pen drawings. The maker of the sketchbook was evidently unaware that Van Gogh had used black ink which had later discoloured, or else did not realise that drawings in a closed sketchbook do not discolour. Either explanation would be adequate, but the first one seems more plausible to us.
It is wrong to suggest that the found drawings can almost all be described as primarily reed pen drawings. As Welsh-Ovcharov rightly observes, the reed pen was Van Gogh's main drawing implement in the years 1888-1890. Yet the maker of the sketchbook used the reed pen only sparingly, if at all. The thickness of a single line is often variable, a fact that is inconsistent with the use of reed pen and suggests a very different main implement: the brush. That is also consistent with the use of sepia shellac ink, which dries quickly and is, in fact, unsuitable for reed pens for that reason.
The drawings from the sketchbook contain many topographical errors, which Welsh-Ovcharov passes over without comment. She now says in response to our observations that the 'sketchbook drawings confirm that the artist at times was more interested in the composition than in the actual architectural structure for his motifs', but what are we to make of this statement? It appears to be a way of avoiding discussion. We call on Professor Welsh-Ovcharov to study the topographical idiosyncrasies in the sketchbook drawings and report on the discrepancies between those drawings and Van Gogh's oeuvre.
The sketchbook in no way reflects Van Gogh's development as a draughtsman from the spring of 1888 to the spring of 1990. Stylistically, there is no difference between the sketchbook drawings with themes from Arles and those with subjects from Saint-Rémy. Given that Van Gogh evolved rapidly as a draughtsman in that time, this evidence suggests that he was not the maker. During that two-year period, he developed his highly distinctive stenographic style of drawing, which cannot be found anywhere in this album – unless that style is equated with the mere use of dashes, dots and hatchwork. For Van Gogh these techniques had a purpose, and no such purpose is apparent in the pages of the sketchbook. Its maker applied them in a chaotic fashion, not thinking about their role in conveying the illusion of reality. He or she lacked Van Gogh's precision, refinement, sense of chiaroscuro and ability to integrate a large range of drawing techniques into a compelling whole.
Order of the drawings
The order of the drawings in the sketchbook, as presented in The Lost Arles Sketchbook, is confusing. They were torn out of the album at some point and then presented in 'chronological' order in The Lost Arles Sketchbook, but without any explanation that this is Professor Welsh-Ovcharov's own reconstruction. Yet it should be possible to reconstruct the original place in the sketchbook of at least some drawings by examining the torn edges and the remnants in the album. We have older photographs of various pages, taken when they were still in the album, and those photos suggest that the order of the drawings was not at all chronological. It is important to reconstruct the original order, since that sheds light on the working method of the maker; this forms an indispensable part of any study like The Lost Arles Sketchbook.
Provenance and notebook
In our opinion the provenance supplied in the book is unreliable, as is the so-called notebook which supposedly shows that Van Gogh gave the sketchbook to Mr and Mrs Ginoux. The entire notebook is said to be reproduced in The Lost Arles Sketchbook, but at least one page has been left out. This page contains notes dated 19 June 1980, including a passage that is identical, almost word for word, with a page dated 10 June that is reproduced in the book.
To add to the confusion, The Lost Arles Sketchbook also includes a note dated 19 June, but this note differs from the notes on the page that is not published (see illustrations below). All these inconsistencies suggest that the notebook is an unreliable source, and we have therefore requested further research, for instance by a handwriting specialist and materials experts. Why are there two different notes with the same date, and why has one of them been left out? Professor Welsh-Ovcharov has responded that the owner of the notebook was a little careless with it, but we received the photographs of the missing page in 2012, not from the owner, but from his agent Franck Baille, with whom Welsh-Ovcharov claims to have discussed 'a wide range of issues related to the sketchbook' (p. 10).
In our opinion, the drawings in the sketchbook were not made by Van Gogh. There is a straightforward explanation for all of the album's topographical, stylistic, and technical idiosyncrasies: namely, that these are much later imitations of Van Gogh's drawings by someone inspired by reproductions of his work, who overlooked the fact that the drawings had originally been made in black ink and had faded to brown over time.
The publisher and author have now challenged us to a public debate between experts, and our experts – Teio Meedendorp (senior researcher), Louis van Tilborgh (senior researcher and professor of art history at the University of Amsterdam), Marije Vellekoop (art department head) and Nienke Bakker (curator of paintings), supported by their long-time collaborators in the field of materials research – have confidence in the outcome of such a debate. But considering that Vincent van Gogh: The Lost Arles Sketchbook raises more questions than it answers, we will need to have all the hard facts first. We therefore call on the publisher and the author to provide a clear and open response to all our comments, to all the issues in need of clarification and to the questions raised above. Until they have, we see no point in a scholarly debate and our contribution to the discussion ends here: we will no longer respond to further questions.
Passage from the note of 10 June 1890, published in The Lost Arles Sketchbook, p. 44
The same passage in the note of 19 June 1890, not published in The Lost Arles Sketchbook, in the possession of the Van Gogh Museum, received from the agent of the then owner
*Recto and verso of page with notes dated 19 June 1890, not published in _The Lost Arles Sketchbook_, in the possession of the Van Gogh Museum, received from the agent of the then owner. *
Page with notes dated 19 June, published in The Lost Arles Sketchbook with unknown date on p. 47 – but it is the verso of the notes dated 20 June.