Impasto, the thick, almost sculptural, three-dimensional buildup of paint, is the hardest thing to forge. You’d think that Van Gogh, the artist most associated with gooey globs of oil paint that lean out of the canvas and try to hook your sweater as you pass, would be nearly unforgeable. But art forgers have long sought to ape his works (see the recent review in this magazine), and they tried it the old-fashioned way: by hand.
There is something intimidating, almost gruesome about heavy impasto. At least, when you get up close. From afar, the topographical texture, like a range of miniature mad mountains, does not reveal itself, the waves of pigment retracting into two dimensions. See this in Van Gogh’s Night Café, an almost sickly slobber of booger-like globules of paint, in rancid curry yellow and pigeon-blood red, that somehow manage to be beautiful, at a distance. Not a painting I’d hang in my dining room, wonderful though it may be.
Then consider the works of Robert Motherwell. His paint is not impasto, relatively smooth and flat, but what he paints imposes its presence and willfully disconcerts. I once wrote of that looking at his paintings feels like that moment when you first wake, still groggy, eyes as yet unopened, but you can feel that someone is in the room, leaning over you. This sensation is created by painting an intimidating mountain of black pushing itself forward to blot out a white ground. No wonder Motherwell called the work in question Disquieting Presence.
My writing about these works has added to their power. I’m anthropomorphizing them, bestowing upon inanimate paint the ability to move with intent. Of course it can’t. But the genius of the artist is to use ground up pigment on canvas to trick our minds into thinking it can. Impasto blurs the boundaries between painting and sculpture, much like Lucio Fontana’s Spatial Concept, his “paintings” that are in fact mounted canvas that has been pierced or slashed. These create wounds in the canvas, whereas impasto adds pustules, some of them nearly bubonic.
I’m a proud participant in the Ekphrasis Project of Dutch artist Joost de Jonge (profiled this very day in this magazine by Edgar Tijhuis). A painter in an abstract, impasto-heavy style reminiscent of a more colorful Philip Guston (who was, incidentally, the husband of my high school art teacher), he invites writers and poets to pen something inspired by one of his paintings, offering the painting as a gift in return. It’s a pretty sweet deal. But the painting he sent me creeps me out. In a good way, and demonstrating that it is an effective work of art. But I remain creeped nevertheless.
A picture is worth at least a hundred words, and I won’t try to describe it here (that would be the true meaning of ekphrasis, with its origins in the writing of the ancient Greek, Philostratus, who described paintings in an art gallery in Naples, trying to outdo the paintings with his poetic descriptions of them, demonstrating that writing is inherently superior to other art forms). Works of abstraction like de Jonge’s are like Rorschach tests. It’s a game to see what you see in them.
What I see immediately reminded me of Van Gogh, of Motherwell, but most of all of H. P. Lovecraft. WTF, you may be quietly thinking to yourself.
Lovecraft is the scariest writer I’ve ever read, and I am in good company with that sentiment. Writing in the first half of the 20th century, he was a very weird guy and a master of what we might call New England Gothic, with many of his baroquely-written stories taking place in the Dunwich Valley of backwoods, rural Massachusetts, where the sun don’t shine and all manner of prehistoric creepiness dwells. He’s best known for the Call of Cthulu, but the stories that get me every time, and I think are the best introductions to him, are “The Dunwich Horror” and “The Out of Space,” the latter being the creepiest short story I know of, and I’m a man who enjoys creepy short stories. How scary can an intangible waft of colored light that lands from outer space and lurks at the bottom of a well beside an old farmhouse actually be? Mm-hmm. Add this to two other Lovecraftian stories, “At the Mountains of Madness” and “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” and you have my immediate response to de Jonge’s painting. The former is the tale of Arctic explorers who manage to fly over an impossibly high prehistoric mountain range and see something out the plane window that is so horrifying that it drives them mad. The latter is about a weird population of shadowy people in a seaside New England fishing village who appear to be a Boschian hybrid of humans and fish…so horrifying that it drives anyone who sees them mad. You start to see the theme.
The two tadpole-like squiggles, in brown and green, dripping with frozen impasto, in de Jonge’s painting are, to me, Lovecraftian shadow horrors moving through the twilight-blue night, along a golden road. But what I see more than the abstract and interpretable forms of color, colors out of space, is the impasto, jutting out like thorns from the canvas.
As a specialist in art crime, with a recent book on forgery, I instinctively look at art and wonder a) if it might be a forgery and b) if not, how it might be forged. Call this an occupational hazard. Impasto is the hardest thing to forge, because of the random three-dimensionality of it. But these days, with three-dimensional scanners and printers, it too is game. Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum has a very expensive offer out to collectors and museums—you can buy identical replicas of the museum’s greatest hits, scanned and three-dimensionally printed, so that they are precise down to the shape of that thorny impasto. The result was not created by Van Gogh’s hand, and is made with new paint on a new support, but it replicates the original, down to the millimeter. What cannot be replicated is the soul that lives in a painting, if you believe in that sort of thing (which I think I do). Forgeries have soul, because they were created by an artist, even if he was mimicking the style of someone else. I knew de Jonge’s work was authentic because I felt the “vibe” of that soul, if you believe in that sort of thing (which I think I do).
So while it is authentic, well-executed, and induces all manner of Rorschachian, Lovecraftian associations, I’m not quite sure where I can hang it in my house, to avoid getting the willies each time I walk past. Well done, Mr. de Jonge, well done.