Breaking van Gogh by James Ottar Grundvig

7/10

This book was written by an author that is seeking to prove that the Vincent van Gogh painting A Wheat Field with Cypresses that currently hangs in the Met is a forgery. To make his job all the harder, the Met refuses to allow the public to see the tests and documents they have on this subject.  So, Grundvig set himself a lofty goal, and while I’m still not entirely convinced by his efforts, most of my issues with the book had to do with the writing rather than the evidence presented.

First: the book is separated into four sections, but they aren’t in any order that makes sense. The first section is about the how the painting ended up in the Met, the second is about the creation of the painting and history about van Gogh, the third section is about the broken provenance, and the fourth is a summary. My question to the author would be: “WHY, sir, did you choose not to arrange these sections chronologically?!” The answer would probably have to do with the fact that he’s a journalist, not a historian.  Anyway: because the sections are not arranged chronologically, the narrative was chopped up, and information had to be repeated in ways that wouldn’t have occurred if the narrative was more linear.

There is a lot of speculation, especially since the Met refuses to comment on the possible forgery. That’s fine, except that it isn’t always well-supported speculation, and the evidence is sometimes contradictory. Again, repetition is the downfall; just because the same fact is repeated in a slightly different manner does not mean that it is additional support, it just means that you’ve repeated yourself.

There’s also this reoccuring implication that people are always logical, and that assumption hurts the case; sometimes people’s motivations for selling a painting or their opinions on artwork are not logical, but emotional. For example, on page 168 Grundvig makes an argument that essentially says that Mirbeau (a man who bought and sold van Goghs in his lifetime) couldn’t have possibly sold Wheat Field with Cypresses soon after buying it only because he held onto another painting (Irises) for thirteen years. Um, he could have done just that. There’s a multitude or reasons why he could do that, so the fact that he held onto one painting is not evidence that he never owned the other. Sure, it isn’t likely that he would sell the painting if he was such a fan, but humans aren’t always logical. These kinds of assumptions can be found throughout the book, and they make up the bulk of the argument.

Another issue is that people and places are introduced rapid-fire and (because the narrative isn’t chronological) you don’t hear about these people for hundreds of pages, in the meantime having forgotten who they are or why they are important. This is especially ironic when you take into account how important provenance is when deciding if the Met’s painting is a forgery.

The section on Vincent van Gogh’s life is the most interesting, and was my favorite. It was well-researched (as is most of the book, in Grundvig’s defense), but was also well-written and a delight to read. While everyone knows who van Gogh was, most people are not familiar with his humble life story, so that information was enlightening. Grundvig’s passion for the subject was also the most evident in the portion about the artist’s life which made it easier to read.

The summary section is also better organized than most of the rest of the book, and because of this is the most convincing section for Grundvig’s argument. It sums up his argument well, and made up for some of the insufficient explanations in the preceding sections.  In the end, the author makes a strong-ish case, so I’m curious to see what the Met will do in response… if they do anything.

Overall, the author is what brings this down; the subject itself is very interesting. If you are an art aficionado, definitely give it a read, but if you’re an art amateur like me, keep the internet handy so you can try and keep up with Grundvig as he bounces all over the place.

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