The Forgeries of Étienne Terrus & the Importance of Local Artists in France

A little over a month ago, news broke that a museum in Elne, a small town in the south of France near the Spanish border, had discovered that nearly 60% of its paintings were forgeries.  Many of these works had been attributed to a local nineteenth-century artist, Étienne Terrus (1857-1922).  Though the extremity of this revelation and its art market consequences cannot be ignored, this story caught my eye because I have been to a number of these local museums that proudly emphasize their local artist. The impulse to interpret this news as a tragedy of fraudulent goods and misspent funds misses the point entirely – the intangible consequences of losing Terrus as a local icon are more critical.

Terrus, like many nineteenth-century painters, went to Paris to study painting at the age of 17 and soon returned home to Elne where he remained, painting profusely, for the rest of his life.  Some short biographies on the painter suggest that his work had a strong influence André Derain and Henri Matisse, who visited the artist in Elne, as they began to paint in the Fauvist idiom. The Fauvist claim seems suspect to me—if they were attracted to Terrus’s style, it was likely partially a backhanded compliment of sorts. Fauvism, grounded in wild colors (fauve = “wild beast” in French) and a de-skilling of figural painting, would most likely have grown out of his LACK of skill or inspired experiments, rather than any unique contribution of the artist.

So the importance of Terrus comes down not to his “skill” or his actual paintings, but the fact of his locality. In The Pride of Place: Local Memories and Political Culture in Nineteenth-Century France, Stéphane Gerson has outlined how local cults of personality and celebrations of local history grew enormously during the nineteenth century.  In part, he writes, this was a particular turn of public relations by the current elites of any one town—by positing a certain group of ancestors as elites, they would claim for themselves a measure of glory by association, by being the group of people who had stepped into the places once held by those hallowed forefathers.  Though there could always be a tension between local pride and unified nationalism, enthusiasm for one’s home town or residence could be a way of expressing independence under an increasingly modern government.  Assuming an artist as part of a local tradition could mean positing creativity and discernment as a crucial component of local character.

The focus on sites of local art production, then and now, also rejects the notion that the provinces could only beget mediocrity relative to Parisian finesse.  In many cases, celebrating local artists, whether or not they had success in Paris, occurred because a local académie, or at least a few skilled teachers, existed to cultivate a local art scene—its teachers and students might then be more likely to be retained to produce local monuments, decorations, and other functional pieces of art.  These local teachers provided foundational instruction for pupils who might then choose to go on to Paris, get elite training for themselves, and then decide whether to toil after Salon success in the capital or return home as one of the most skilled artists available for commission.

To go one step further, local artists are often dismissed on the basis of quality, with scholars declaring their paintings to be less accomplished than artists working in Paris.  I’ve argued repeatedly in other contexts that assessing the quality of painting is not as useful as putting it into its immediate social and historical context, especially when it comes to regional artists.  In looking at Terrus’s paintings online, they seem to be quite pleasant landscapes that are clearly influenced by Impressionism—he understands how to use his brushstrokes to build up trees and buildings and pavement.  Instead of the building styles of northern France that characterize landscapes by the primary Impressionists, Terrus’s landscapes evidence the majestic stucco towers that populate cities and towns in that southwestern corner of France.  The landscapes include local character while still utilizing the Impressionist color palette and not turning to symbolist colors, like Van Gogh, or even the brighter Southern palette of a Cézanne or Bazille.  Other Terrus paintings show more experimentation with colors and lines, demonstrating how a wild beast, a fauve, might be found among these tame landscapes.  (Assuming, of course, that the paintings I found online were not the forgeries.)

His importance to Elne is now the contemporary consequence of those long-standing efforts across small towns in France to claim their local producers and elevate them to the status of legend.  Because Terrus fixated on his own lesser-known area of residence, his paintings preserve the changes of that town over time and demonstrate how an artist divorced from the Parisian establishment (defined contemporaneously or in retrospect) could adapt the trends of his era and re-present them for his friends and neighbors.  This would certainly be a point of pride for a smaller city without a storied artistic tradition of its own.  The timeline of the town’s efforts to build up its local museum, and in so doing unintentionally acquire a large number of forgeries, coincide with the increasing decentralization of art historical investigations.  In other words, where it was once expected that a scholar would study artists working in Paris, its become increasingly accepted that scholars might study a local artist with a local following in a small city a bit separate from the usual tourist endeavors.  It makes sense that building up a Terrus collection in a local museum would seem like a way to draw tourism because the infrastructure for local artists to be deemed interesting has considerably increased – yet so has the potential for bad actors, like the “experts” named in reports of this fraud, to take advantage of a small town’s desire to stand out.

Rotterdam Case Study - Interpreting Damaged Churches

Since I’ve worked in public history and education, I’ve spent more time analyzing how cultural sites present information to their visitors. I recently travelled to Belgium and the Netherlands, and their museums and historic sites offered numerous strategies and interpretive choices to consider. With so much history in Europe and so much deliberate attention paid to it, I was interested in how some of these museums and historic sites cope with complicated contingencies in choosing how to package and display the past.  In Rotterdam, a modern city in the southern part of the Netherlands, I saw compelling ways of merging past and present. 

Grote of Sint-Laurenskerk (Great, or St. Lawrence Church), Rotterdam.  (My photo)

Grote of Sint-Laurenskerk (Great, or St. Lawrence Church), Rotterdam.  (My photo)

A city that was devastated during World War II, Rotterdam is a unique instance of a European metropolis with no qualms about Modernist rebuilding, both architecturally and in terms of the city’s reputation. They had no choice. As a result, the city is full of buildings that are intriguing both inside and out, and public art appears at nearly every plaza or major intersection.  Unlike Le Havre, a French city that chose to rebuild their downtown as part of a uniform plan from one architect, Rotterdam embraced the potential diversity of 20th Century architectural styles, and it proves to be a visual feast.

However, while much of the city was rebuilt after World War II, some major structures, like the Grote of Sint-Laurenskerk (Great, or St. Lawrence Church) were heavily damaged, but worth saving. Indeed, the Sint-Laurenskerk is the only remaining part of the medieval city.  After it was so heavily damaged by bombing, a debate ensued about restoration versus replacement.  They viewed the symbolic value of the church as a reason to restore it—it could provide a reminder of how the Netherlands had survived the war.  Today, it is still very much a functioning church, open to visitors and tourists outside of religious events. In my experience, functioning churches are not often masters of interpretation. For a church like the Sint-Laurenskerk, how would it tell its history of restoration in addition to its history as a house of worship?

Like many historic sites in the Netherlands, Sint-Laurenskerk embraced technology in their interpretation.  They had a neat interactive computer that allowed visitors to explore images of the church over time.  How did the church look in situ from 1700 to 1800 to 1900?  How did the artists of the city choose to depict it?  Though a fairly simple concept, this interactive is successful.  I think tourists, especially those without a background in art and architectural history, often have trouble imagining how such extraordinary buildings could emerge and anchor a neighborhood over centuries. 

One chapel—my favorite part!—had fragments of architectural elements from the original church displayed in a large medal grid, allowing visitors to get up close to gargoyles and pieces of columns while also impressing upon visitors the extent of the church’s physical and spiritual damage. The scaffolding seemed to mimic the height of the gothic cathedral, suggesting the extraordinary circumstances that brought these pieces of sculpture closer to the ground. It was remarkable.

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Churches built in this cross plan tend to have small chapels lining the exterior walls that, at the time, were meant to honor specific saints or events or, more importantly, to engage donor support.  A rich community member might endow a private chapel and further support the church to show his or her religiosity.  Today, these niches are natural segments for exhibitions carried over multiple chapels or addressing a theme per niche.  And, more importantly, they capitalize on the original function of those spaces—private, individual contemplation—both to show visitors artifacts and to ask them to contemplate their significance as broken remnants of the structure that existed prior to World War II.  Beyond the exhibit of fragments, they had a “library” tribute to Desiderius Erasmus, a humanist thinker born in Rotterdam in 1466, and one chapel that used a comic book-style cartoon to tell the story of Antonius Hambroek, a missionary and Rotterdam native, who had been executed in Formosa in 1661. I think that the cartoon was meant to couch the story of Hambroek in the context of Dutch colonialism, rather than simply leaving the memorial below in place and uninterpreted.

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These interventions allow the church to function as both a historic site and an integral part of a living community.  They didn’t seem particularly expensive (indeed, the church charged a very modest 2 euro admission to tourists), but they created an outsized effect.  Churches do not have to be empty of interpretation, relying on the quality of the architecture and enclosed art to draw visitors.  They can embrace the community and the less straightforward parts of their history to present compelling and informative displays.

Expertise - What's in a name?

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This past Saturday, I co-presented a session on how local history organizations can use social media, specifically Twitter. This is a topic that I’ve written and presented on in the past, and it’s a topic that I feel very strongly about. Am I an expert in it? That depends. Most of my marketing training has been informal, either in the very literal “on-the-job” sense or from taking online courses. However, it’s taken me a long time to realize that being an expert isn’t necessarily about knowing the most about a particular subject.

I understand the goals of using social media and generally know how to read the metrics that each platform makes available, but that’s not the most important skill I bring to the table. I know what has worked for me in my past experience managing social media accounts for organizations, and I know what I wish I had done better. I know that a lot of being good at social media management is doing the work—being able to put in the time to build a rapport with your followers and giving those followers what they want while also divining ways to bring in new followers.

For an audience composed of representatives from local history organizations, I’m an expert because I know what that audience needs. They don’t need to know the specific metrics to watch or to hone the skills that a marketing professional would have practiced through formal education, not yet anyway. What they need is to be convinced that adopting social media management practices is worth their time and that the learning curve to basic posting and engaging isn’t too steep for them to start.

So when I focus on talking about Twitter, I talk about the unique engagement the platform can deliver. Yes, there might be a third as many people on Twitter as there are on Facebook, but that group of people engages with intensity and expertise—both traits that can work in an organization’s favor, if they’re careful. I focus on the immediacy of Twitter. Organizations desperate for a specific answer to a conservation question or eager to catch the eye of their local state representative for a capital funding campaign can simply just tweet at those people, and they may very well receive an answer to their question or a special visitor at their event.

Much has been written about “imposter syndrome,” especially for people who used to be in academia, and how the feeling that you’re not good enough to do something can affect your ability to do good in your field. I think that also applies when you’re thinking about building a business or selling your skills for a job interview.  You ask yourself, “am I really good enough, and do I really have enough experience, to do this particular task professionally? Can I really ask people to pay me for this work?” I think you have to find a way to make the answer yes, and I struggle less and less with those questions as I move further and further away from my time in academia. When I was walking out of the meeting on Saturday, a woman called me the “Twitter queen,” thanked me for my insight, and wished me a safe drive home. I’ll take it.

Too Little in Koons Tulips

The American artist Jeff Koons has offered a monumental sculpture to the city of Paris in honor of the victims of the 2015 terror attack at the Bataclan concert hall.  This made the news not because of his largesse, but because a number of artists and other cultural observers have made it known that they believe the sculpture should not be installed, that a more appropriate process of memorialization should be followed.  It’s easy to attack Koons for being too commercialized, both re: the imagery of his art and his capitalist capitalization on the gallery system, but I want to talk about a different question—is Bouquet of Tulips a good memorial?

Jeff Koons. Monumental sculpture offered by donation to the City of Paris in memory of the attacks of 2015 - 2016.   Paris, Place de Tokyo - installation in 2018.  Image via  Noirmontartproduction .

Jeff Koons. Monumental sculpture offered by donation to the City of Paris in memory of the attacks of 2015 - 2016.   Paris, Place de Tokyo - installation in 2018.  Image via Noirmontartproduction.

Early critics pointed out that the proposed location is near some of Paris’s busy modern art sites, but that it isn’t near the Bataclan.  I noticed immediately that Bouquet of Tulips would be near the Flame of Liberty, a similarly figurative, industrial public art object. Though originally installed in 1989 as a pendant to the State of Liberty’s flame and the spirit of global friendship, in 1997, it became a memorial to Princess Diana after her sudden death when her car crashed in a nearby tunnel.  There is a visual similarity to the two works, but the Flame of Liberty indicates how location (and, perhaps, a dose of candle-based imagery from an Elton John song) can often be the most important factor in sanctifying a memorial.

Flame of Liberty  - my photo, 2011.

Flame of Liberty - my photo, 2011.

The larger consideration in evaluating a proposal for a memorial is whether or not that sculpture, or other installation, can evoke the emotional impact of the tragedy it represents.  Can that memorial call its viewers immediately to understand that the event in question is significant and substantive in the popular memory of the nation?  Do the people who most need the memorial—those impacted whether directly or indirectly—see their feelings and experiences reflected in the imagery and message that the memorial presents?  As Kirk Savage notes in his book about the installation of memorials after the Civil War, Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America (1997), the relationship between an audience and a memorial is not a one-way street. Though viewers, and mourners, project their experiences on to the memorial, the physical presence of the sculpture serves powerfully to shape both the rituals involved in memorializing the tragedy in question but also to establish how the tragedy is remembered in the future.  If Parisians see Bouquet of Tulips as a superficial gesture from an outsider, it cannot serve its purpose because it fails to provide the oneness and catharsis they need.

A number of articles that I read did fixate on this idea of Koons being an outsider, an American—the artists, politicians, and other cultural figures who signed an open letter denouncing Bouquet of Tulips suggested that a competition be put in place for a memorial so that French artists may also suggest ways of remembering their countrymen. Yet competitions may equally exclude the views of “the people,” and debates have circulated for many, many years about whether or not art can display the inherent traits of the nation that produces it.  (See: art historian Michael Fried’s discussion of “Frenchness” in Manet, or the entire history of American art history.)  It's not only the artist's American-ness that poses a problem.  Koons and his representatives responded by pointing to the visual similarities between Lady Liberty’s torch and the flop of tulips and also twinning the intention of Bouquet of Tulips with the Statue of Liberty’s representation of the so-called spirit of friendship between France and the United States.  The canned nature of that rationale, proposing friendship as a balm, strikes me as both too obvious and too indicative of exactly how right the letter’s signatories are.

Of course, all through the nineteenth century, as France cycled through bloody war after bloody rebellion, the government and other organizing bodies solved the problem of allowing people to feel represented in their memorials and monuments by selling subscriptions.  By this I mean that, if I were a well-enough-to-do French person of that era, I might be able to buy a share in a monument project so that my very dollars assisted in its completion and publicly displayed my allegiance to the message.  Kirk Savage notes: “What gave monuments their peculiar appeal in an era of rising nationalism was their claim to speak for ‘the people.’” Though the “era of rising nationalism” is a concept of the long nineteenth century, we live in an era of confusing national allegiances and an era where people must remain attentive to the attempts of certain groups of people to speak for others.  The Bouquet of Tulips, even if Koons is sincere in his admiration of Paris and its people, is the vision of one man, and the suspicion that Bouquet of Tulips would be reproduced for gallery displays and sold causes a distillation of respect for his intent.  The open letter calls this “product placement” that would diminish the prominence of modern and contemporary French artists celebrated in the nearby museums.  They are right, but that may still not be the greatest sin of this project.

So... is Bouquet of Tulips a good memorial?  The answer is no.  It could be an excellent sculpture, one that seems lovelier than many works by Koons, but its factory-produced exterior feels hard and cold in even the mock-ups.  Arguments against its construction and installation could begin and end there without ever bringing in the practical questions about public financing or the danger of placing a 35-ton sculpture over exhibit galleries, two points that the open letter does raise.  Without a substantial emotional connection to the place where the Bataclan attack occurred or the people who were most deeply affected by it, a statue is simply a statue.  It may be appropriate for a modern art museum to have a statue by an artist like Jeff Koons in front of it, but that sculpture cannot be a proper memorial in a city that needs more than “optimism, rebirth, and the vitality of nature” to process the effects of a tragic event.

Bewitching History

The other day, I had an unexpected meeting with an older gentleman who told me many stories about his family history, including one story about the Salem Witch Trials that I, long-obsessed with the Salem Witch Trials, had never heard. 

Salem Witch Trials memorial.

Salem Witch Trials memorial.

He said that he had an ancestor who had been tried for witchcraft, convicted, and sentenced to hang—but who had then escaped before she could be executed.  I was stunned!  I thought, “Hmmm, I want to know more about the person who helped her,” then I texted the whole story to my best friend and headed home.  A few hours later, after I had gone to the grocery store and was frantically cooking some faux pho to eat for dinner, my best friend texted me a link to a Wikipedia entry on Mary Bradbury—a woman in 1692 Salem who was tried for witchcraft, convicted, sentenced to death, and then escaped before she could be executed.  So it’s true!

As we’ve come closer and closer to Halloween, witchy happenings and black cats have been in the news, Hocus Pocus has been playing nonstop on cable television, and pop culture recommendations have veered toward the spooky or paranormal.  In short, this has always been my favorite time of the year because both fictional and nonfictional manifestations of witchcraft fascinate me.  In recent months, a witchcraft museum opened in Cleveland – the Buckland Gallery of Witchcraft and Magick – providing a more permanent, more public home for a collection that’s been in development for many years.  I’ve been dying to go since I first read an article about it a couple weeks ago.

When I logged into the Ohio Digital Library to put a hold on the new John Green book (17 holds per each of 17 copies – who says kids don’t read…), they recommended three or four serious books on modern Wicca and Witchcraft for my reading pleasure.  One of them, Buckland’s Complete Book of Witchcraft, was written by Raymond Buckland, the man whose collection forms the basis of the new museum in Cleveland.  The other authors also sound familiar to me from years of reading about witchcraft and paganism in history and practice.

This is all to say – it’s important to me that history include the dark corners and address subjects that blur the line between fact and fiction.  It’s important to me that museums present topics that require a leap of faith on the part of visitors who need to trust the institution to give them information.  Whether or not Halloween is right around the corner.