Fake or Facsimile: Part 7: Fake Philanthropy

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At the beginning of my remarks for Part 6, I used a phrase to describe the Otsuka Museum as “the ultimate shrine to the art of the ‘knock-off’”; obviously I was positioning my discussion in terms of Part 1 of this series, “The Myth of the Yuandan”, and I was using the phrase ironically.  Subsequently, in an effort to find accurate figures for the actual cost of building the Otsuka Museum, I came across a Forbes article which is at a $100 Million USD variance with the Martin Thompson account in The Telegraph that I so much admire.  Neil Weinberg (“Michelangelos: Made in Japan”, June 1st, 1998)[i] offers a significantly lower figure for the Otsuka Museum: “this $300 million-plus shrine to knockoffs”.  I noted the similarity of phrasing—which I readily acknowledge—since this was (for me) a very late discovery of a very early report about the Museum (the earliest available to me, as it was produced almost precisely six months before the Thompson article of November 25th, 1998).  It took me a while to realize that this Forbes contribution “fell into my lap” by offering me a chance for a serendipitous pause, in which I could try to provide a (potentially helpful) “Mid-Term” recap of the issues that this series has been trying both to air and to address.

I have come to the conclusion that I shall never be able to provide readers with any more precise information as to Otsuka Museum costs than the very approximate figures offered by Weinberg and Thompson (and others). And there are so many unknown factors: does the figure offered combine the cost of planning, construction and ceramic reproduction, or are all these quite separate expenses?  Then: how does one put a price tag on the Founder’s desire to place the Museum in a “national park”: an arrangement exclusively sanctioned because the Museum is “five floors below ground and only two above” (Thompson).  This alone must have required the costs to rocket upwards.  Also: how does one put a dollar figure on the four years that the Founder’s son-in-law, Fuado Otsuka (the family name was adopted) spent travelling the world to get institutional permission to reproduce these masterpieces?  Weinberg offers the number as 1,050 works of art from somewhere north of 190 different galleries and foundations.  (Again, I cannot manage an exact number, it seems to fall somewhere just short of 200).  Weinberg also points out that royalties were, in fact, paid: “typically … 10% to 20% of the $4,000 to $8,000 it cost to make each square metre of tile”.  The issues are so varied that I simply have to abandon readers to cope with a massive margin of error.

What struck me immediately upon reading this Forbes article is that the lower figure of $300 Million-plus comes into the orbit of the purchase price—reported in February 2015—for the acquisition of Paul Gauguin’s When Will You Marry?[ii]—an oil painting (from 1892) to which an allusion was made at the conclusion of Part 6. This was a private transaction, and so was the “Summer/Autumn” 2015 purchase of Willem de Kooning’s Interchange (1955), which is also reputed to have approached the $300 Million USD mark.  The reason for the uncertainty is that the Interchange acquisition (by Ken Griffin) actually combined two transactions totalling $500 Million―according to “sources”―involving both Interchange and Jackson Pollock’s 1948 canvas: Number 17A.[iii]

So let’s bring an art market perspective to our remarks: if we were to allow the “true” cost of the Otsuka Museum to fall halfway between Weinberg’s $300 Million and Thompson’s $400 Million (1998) figures, then the ($350 Million) cost of the Otsuka project comes in—according to US Inflation Calculator, in 2015 terms—at $508m, a “little” over the purchase price of two iconic examples of American Abstract Expressionism. Seen in this light, the Otsuka strategy seems to have staged an unparalleled philanthropic coup!

I think it might be fair to say that the Forbes article takes a slightly less awestruck tone towards the Otsuka experiment than I might be inclined to employ. For instance, Weinberg emphasizes the limitations of the “3 by 9 feet” ceramic tile size restriction, which mean that larger works are required to employ “multiple tiles with spaces visible between them”.  We have discussed this earlier; the technology has limitations, but the virtue is that everyone is clear that these are ceramic replicas.  Weinberg’s 2nd paragraph, referring to Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment” consists of only four words: “Too bad it’s fake.”  This was bound to set my teeth on edge.  These ceramic images are very precisely neither “fakes” nor “counterfeits”: they replicate, and do not―nor can they―replace. Weinberg adds a positive note: “Stand far enough back and the cracks hardly show.”  Thanks, I’ll make sure to remember to keep my distance, especially from the Sistine Ceiling by Michelangelo, which has been “Made in Japan’.

Weinberg does not seem to be overwhelmed by the ceramic technology either. When discussing the Otsuka ceramic of van Gogh’s Sunflowers―remember, what we have here is actually Vincent’s own copy understood as a repetition―Weinberg suggests that “the thick, brilliantly textured brushstrokes … have been reduced to a poor imitation. At least the frame is nice.  It’s a hand-carved mock-up of the original.”  Where to begin?  For me, a second version of the famous van Gogh “Sunflower” series to be seen in Japan (alongside the Tokyo version) is a wonder.  The care taken in producing the reproduction, including the hand-crafting of the resident Amsterdam frame, shows an attention to detail, and a concern for the spectator that I find both breath-taking and humbling.  Weinberg does precede these remarks with an acknowledgment that spectators may run “their hands over” the Otsuka artworks.  Apart from certified van Gogh researchers, I wonder how close Amsterdam spectators are allowed to get to van Gogh’s brushwork in Amsterdam.  Again, to be fair, Weinberg mentions the Mona Lisa’s “bulletproof Plexiglass”.  But what Weinberg (in a short article) does not reference is the presence in the Otsuka Museum of the “reproduction” of another van Gogh’s Sunflowers, viz. Still Life: Vase with Five Sunflowers (1888);[iv] this is not, properly speaking, an Otsuka “Ceramic Board Masterpiece” exhibit, since it was hanging in the Yokohama City Art Museum on August 6th, 1945 (Hiroshima Day)―and lost[v]―as a result of a quite separate bombing raid.

Obviously, this “vaporized” van Gogh (Ashiya) Sunflowers has a huge symbolic importance for Japan, and must explain one aspect of the enthusiasm for van Gogh and his Sunflowers in particular―alongside the obvious attractions of van Gogh’s explicit and sustained japonisme.[vi] But the Ashiya Sunflowers does not conform to the conditions of any other Otsuka “ceramic masterpiece”, not least because there was no one from whom to seek permission!  It cannot properly be a reproduction in the Otsuka sense, nonetheless it is highly appropriate to find that it is now hanging in Naruto… and, yes, before you ask: it also has a very nice frame.

Some information that I owe the stimulating Forbes article is the name of one of “the three museums [that] remained resistant” (Thompson). Weinberg reports: “New York’s Museum of Modern Art shunned Otsuka’s overtures. ‘They sent a very rude letter’” according to the Founder’s son-in-law.  I confess that I find that a bit rich, since, for instance, in 2015, MoMA mounted an exhibition entitled: “Andy Warhol: Campbell’s Soup Cans and other Works, 1953-1967”.  And in the list of the world’s most expensive paintings, we find the Warhol Eight Elvises (“silkscreen on canvas”),[vii] that was sold for $100 Million USD in October 2008, probably to Qatar (not available for public viewing “since the 1960s”, and whereabouts unknown).[viii]  Simply, by providing the title of this Andy Warhol acquisition, Eight Elvises, I feel I have really said enough to rest my case.  The deeper implications of Warhol’s conquest of modern art “by assembly-line production methods of silkscreen printing”[ix]—according to MoMA’s very own catalogue for the 1989 Warhol “Retrospective”—will be explored in Fake or Facsmile: “Replicate and Authenticate”.  In the meantime, I trust that MoMA is maintaining its deeply principled stance and refusing to sell any Andy Warhol posters in its Museum shop!

Weinberg also informs us of the opposition of the Matisse family to the Otsuka project. Matisse’s grandson put it this way apparently: “My grandfather was very attentive to canvas or whatever he was working in, so it’s a moral issue with us” (Claude Duthuit). This is correct: there are moral issues involved here, I grant that―and perhaps we may have an opportunity to explore them—but I do need to add that I myself have sent Matisse Jazz postcards to friends, and a member of my family has actually purchased (and proudly worn) a Matisse Jazz jacket, so I see that I am deeply compromised.  All I can add is that there is also a profoundly “moral” dimension in the disciplined future preservation of the heritage that we so much admire.

One of the key charges against the project is the rather “sleazy” motives of the Founder. “Sleazy” is not a word that Weinberg uses, but it was the word that entered my mind when reading his article.  And if you don’t like “sleazy”, then I think one could try “Philistine” on for size.  “Caviar” in the Sistine Chapel (see Sir Peter Blake’s account of the opening event[x]); “edutainment”[xi] is the term used by the then Vice-President of the University of Tokyo, now Professor Emeritus, and according to the Otsuka Museum Website, Chairman of the “Advisory Committee on Paintings”, and still responsible for advising on “Ancient Arts”.  If one wanted to push this approach further one could emphasize the enthusiasm for weddings in the “Sistine Chapel”, or the fact that there are now spectacular Annual “Sistine Kabuki” performances, and in the 6th Annual staging (2015), complete with with Sistine motorcycle.[xii]   The Otsuka Group is proud of its initiatives in what it calls “Japanese-Western collaboration”  and with its retelling of the Odyssey in this 6th annual production.  The 3rd annual production incorporated flamenco dancing in its 2011 Kabuki.[xiii]   But then I need to counter that couples continue to get married (by choice) in beautiful, historical and ecclesiastical venues, and there have been rock concerts staged at the Giza Pyramids (Sakhira),[xiv] and in this Summer of 2017, performances of Divo Nero—Opera Rock[xv] required “a huge metallic stage”[xvi] to be constructed against a backdrop of Roman ruins, “the Colosseum and the Arch of Constantine loomed just a few dozen yards away”.

However, the real issue, in my opinion, is that the Museum Founder is “painted” as a Philistine. Weinberg seems to have had an interview with the Founder (or a telephone call), but all we seem to learn about him is that Masahito Otsuka (now with his ancestors) had “‘zero interest’ in art”, and didn’t bother defending the painstaking work involved in assembling these massive numbers of employees and contractors in bringing this breath-taking vision to grace Naruto. What moved the Founder, we learn, was showcasing “Otsuka Ohmi Ceramics”, and bringing tourists to Naruto (successfully, I think!).  The last word in the article is accorded to the Founder:  “Otsuka just shrugs. ‘Is it art? Don’t ask me…’”  The other Otsuka, the Founder’s son-in-law, Fuado Otsuka, who spent four years pulling the collection together from the list he was provided by the advisors, should have been given the last word, in my opinion.  Is it worthwhile creating a breath-taking facility; in a beautiful setting; re-creating frescoes from Pompeii’s “Villa of the Mysteries”; and clarifying how Leonardo’s “Last Supper” has been “restored” … is that art?  Yes, it is.

The late discovery of this crucial Forbes article represented a key moment in the evolution of my thinking about Fake or Facsimile. Of course, I learned things from it, but I also came to realize that I would be inclined to evaluate just about every item mentioned in Neil Weinberg’s article―apart from his passing approval of “all six panels in El Greco’s 12-metre-tall ‘High Altar’”―in the opposite sense from the one that he chooses to give it.  Is the late Masahito Otsuka a Philistine?  I have no idea… he might have been… but give me an industrialist who is dedicated to the preservation and display of acknowledged masterpieces, and I don’t care whether “he knows much about art” or not.  The project was conceived in order to celebrate 75 years of Otsuka corporate activity, and then the curvature of the Sistine Chapel ceiling was added to the Museum to honour a further ten.  Whatever else one may say about this “Philistine” approach, once these Captains of the Philistines begin a project of faithful reproduction, they are apparently prepared to go all the way, whatever the cost.  I come to praise Otsuka, not to bury him!

As I said at the beginning of this Part 7, I became uneasy when I discovered one similar bit of phrasing present in Weinberg’s 1998 article to one I had employed myself. I acknowledge the similitude, but it cannot be “copying” in the strict sense, since I had never previously read his article. This may, however, fall under the rubric of a “repetition” within a “series”, since we have clearly been thinking about the same things,  I seriously considered going back and changing my original wording … But then I pondered again the question—with which Part 6 concluded—as to whether Gauguin really did make a “copy” of van Gogh’s Sunflowers.  Obviously, I have no idea, and I wonder (apart from vast economic issues involved) after 130 years, does it really matter for our appreciation of the painting?  But as we have learned, it does really matter … to the tune of millions, even scores of millions of dollars.  Are you, therefore, telling me that those who make their living in the art world could be described as Philistines?  Obviously not: as we all know, “it’s not about the money”.

By EMS-62 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0]
When evaluating the Otsuka Museum of Art (the so-called Ceramic Board Masterpiece Art Museum) perhaps readers would be best served by trying to negotiate a middle course between Weinberg’s “Michelangelos: Made in Japan” and my “Fakes and  Facsimiles” approach.  Nonetheless I should still like to commend my modus operandi as having real merit.  In a word, I am clearly trying to find the positive within the negative; which is to say: to discover the true advantages and opportunities in all these myriad, confusing and, sometimes, counter-intuitive developments; and not at the expense of ignoring or sweeping aside the shortcomings and self-interests that may be at work here.  Was the Otsuka Founder a Philistine?  Maybe, but I know a lot of cultural institutions in North America which would be glad to have had Masahito Otsuka as their patron!

 

Next Time: Seven Replica Rembrandts

 

[i] https://www.forbes.com/forbes/1998/0601/6111188a.html

[ii] Nafea Faa Ipoipo? The Guardian, February 7th, 2015 (Chris Johnston): “Paul Gauguin’s When Will You Marry? Becomes most expensive Artwork ever”: “the painting Nafea Faa Ipoipo? … nearly… almost $300m.”  The Telegraph,a February 6th, 2015 (Henry Samuel): “£200m Gauguin becomes most expensive Work of Art of all time”: “for almost $300 million  … the buyer … was thought to be the state-financed Qatar Museums.  The Gulf nation had set the previous record in 2011 when it paid $259 million for The Card Players by Paul Cezanne…”

[iii] CNBC.com, February 18th, 2016 (Robert Frank): “Ken Griffin spent $500 million on two paintings: Sources”.

[iv] A splendid photograph is provided by Lucy Birmingham in Artscape Japan website: 1,000 Reproductions for 2,000 Years”

[v] The New York Times, April 9th, 1987 (Rita Reif): “‘Sunflowers’ Buyer: Japanese Insurer”

[vi] Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam website: “Inspiration from Japan”

[vii] It is worth reiterating that the Otsuka Museum Website provides a complete catalogue of the Museum reproductions at: http://o-museum.or.jp/english/files/lib/2/5/201503211851191150.pdf … While Gauguin, de Kooning, Pollock and Warhol are all represented; none of the record-beating paintings that we are discussing have made “the cut”.

[viii] artnews.com, August 7th, 2014 (Dan Duray): Qatar may have purchased Warhol’s ‘Eight Elvises’”; see also the Wikipedia entry under “List of most expensive paintings” which I have consulted frequently; there is also a link to the entry “Eight Elvises

[ix] MoMA staged an exhibition from February 6th to May 2nd, 1989 entitled: Andy Warhol: A Retrospective.  The exhibition catalogue was edited by Kynaston McShine.  New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1989.  Cf. the contribution by Marco Livingstone: “Do It Yourself: Notes on Warhol’s Techniques”, pp. 63-78; here p. 63

[x] The Telegraph: “Travel: Celebrity Interviews”, January 17th, 2017 (Nick Trend): “Sir Peter Blake… Most memorable Meal abroad?”

[xi]  Cf. Trip Advisor (Otsuka Museum of Art): “Great Art Experience for Families”

[xii] The Otsuka Volume 77, October 20th,  2015: “The Sixth Annual Sistine Kabuki with a Modern Twist of Technology”

[xiii] Otsuka Group CSR Report 2012: Highlight 3; p. 18: “Sistine Kabuki―A Meeting of Cultures”

[xiv] YouTube, March 28th, 2007

[xv] The New York Times, June 9th, 2017 (Elisabetta Povoledo): “Nero Rock Opera is a Burning Issue in Rome”

[xvi] npr.org, (June 16th, 2017 (Sylvia Poggioli): “Atop Ancient Ruins, a Rock Opera about Emperor Nero…”

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