Glasgow provided a suitably grey and dismal day for my pilgrimage, making Kelvingrove’s warm red brick façade rise invitingly out of the rain-soaked pavement. After ascending the steps and passing through the heavy Victorian double doors, I was met by a weary gallery assistant, who, when asked, ‘could you tell me where I can find the new Rubens?’ replied, ‘just left through the door and on your right’, as if asked for the hundredth time that day. Sure enough,just-left-through-the-door-and-on-my-right, nestled behind a partition wall was perched the fresh-faced Villiers, staring out with perky smugness.
Waiting my turn for a closer inspection, I observed another visitor at the scene. Bent over at a right angle with hands clasped behind his back, an elderly chord-wearing gentleman was marvelling at the painting over spectacles caught on the bottom of his nose. Transfixed by the dabs and dashes of white oil articulating the ruff,he guffawed, tutted and shook his head in amazement. Sidling to the right, he paused by the large information board accompanying the painting on the daringly yellow wall. More expressions of amazement followed, as he absorbed the photographic reproductions, documentation of conservation and brief historiography of the painting. Meanwhile, I had edged my way into prime position, and was beginning to consider the image I had come for, at which point, sensing my presence, the man turned to me and chuckled, ‘they don’t make them like this anymore!’ before shuffling on.
In October of this year a BBC documentary gleefully revealed it had discovered an ‘original’ portrait by the Dutch master Rubens lurking in the halls of Pollock House, Glasgow. With the attribution confirmed by a shrewd nod from a senior Rijksmuseum curator, the painting – believed to be a mere copy until now – was promptly swept off to Kelvingrove Museum, a suitable upgrade for a painting that morphed from a thing of little note to a veritable masterpiece overnight.
Yet the upgrade from Pollock to Kelvingrove could only happen post-TLC, after a leading conservationist pampered the painting into its best authentic self. Layers of dirt and varnish were cleansed from its surface, and the ‘true’ brushwork of the presumed master himself was revealed as clumsy over-painting was exfoliated with cotton-swabs. The ‘before’ and ‘after’ shots this provided was telly gold, as the BBC producers were clearly well aware. Shots fading from ‘before’ to ‘after’ encouraged us to compare the dull, violated surface of the presumed copy, and marvel at the true, original and authentic painting liberated from beneath.
The reaction from the press, public and the painting’s new home of Kelvingrove to the big ‘discovery’ proves our unfaltering lust for the unique, singular ‘original’, and our obsession with the supposed ‘author’ and the value we attach to them. In turn, it proves our insecurities towards, and distrust of, the copy, which has only intensified as modes of reproduction have become more accessible and sophisticated in our right-click-copy-paste culture. The easier it is for us to replicate, imitate and duplicate, the more we exalt uniqueness and authenticity.
Section from essay illustrated with ten etchings taking as its focus the recently 'rediscovered' portrait of Georges Villiers by Rubens (Kelvingrove).