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Real or fake? Experts war over ‘lost’ Van Gogh notebook

The discovery of 65 previously unknown drawings said to be by Vincent Van Gogh set off a bitter row about their authenticity on Tuesday, with Amsterdam's Van Gogh Museum dismissing as fakes what others hailed as one of the biggest art world finds in years.

Real or fake? Experts war over 'lost' Van Gogh notebook
All photos: AFP
In a damning statement, the museum claimed the contents of the “so-called lost sketchbook” unveiled by French publishers were imitations and “could not be attributed to Vincent Van Gogh”.
   
But the experts behind the discovery accused the museum of “jealousy”, and told AFP that “it was not the first time the Van Gogh Museum has got it wrong”.
   
The “lost” sketches come from the Dutch artist's time in the southern French city of Arles, when he produced some of his greatest paintings, including “Bedroom in Arles”, “The Night Cafe” and “Still Life: Vase with Twelve Sunflowers”.
  
Seven of Van Gogh's works are among the 30 most expensive paintings ever sold.
   
The museum's dramatic intervention came as the respected French publishing house Le Seuil was unveiling copies of the sketches to reporters in Paris.
  
Its book reproducing the drawings, “Vincent Van Gogh, the fog of Arles: the rediscovered sketchbook”, is to be published across the world Thursday.
 
 
'Slanging match' 
 
Its editor Bernard Comment stood by the  authenticity of the drawings, claiming that the Van Gogh Museum had been wrong before and had dismissed work that was later proved to be his.
   
“They are the guardians of the temple, it is inevitable” that they would say that, he told AFP, but several other respected experts were convinced they were real.
   
“They should be a bit more modest, and show a little respect rather than engage in a slanging match,” he added.
   
According to Comment, Van Gogh made the ink drawings in the accounts book of the famous Cafe de la Gare where he stayed at various times between 1888 and 1890, towards the end of his tormented life.
   
They include portraits of his friends the artist Paul Gauguin and Pierre and Marie Ginoux, who owned the cafe.
   
Van Gogh immortalised Marie — with whom he had a strong bond — in one of his most famous paintings, “L'Arlesienne” (The Arles Woman).
   
“The Yellow House”, where Van Gogh later lived and rowed with Gauguin, was her former home.
   
It was after a fight with Gauguin on December 23, 1888, that Van Gogh cut off part of his ear.
   
Canadian Van Gogh scholar Bogomila Welsh-Ovcharov told reporters she “instinctively could not believe what she was looking at” when she first opened the ledger before slowly “realising what I was holding in my hands was without doubt a work of one of the greatest modern artists”.
   
British expert Ronald Pickvance claimed the book was “the most revolutionary discovery in the history of Van Gogh” studies.
   
Le Seuil described the sketches — which come from the most important period in the artist's life — as “a very impressive ensemble” and insisted that “their authenticity is well established”.
   
It said that the ledger was found in the archives of the Cafe de la Gare, and was owned by “a woman of modest means” living in the south of France.
   
Most of the sketches are of the Provencal countryside around Arles where Van Gogh painted furiously during his year-long stay.
 
 
'Imitations' 
   
But in a lengthy and detailed demolition of the sketchbook, the Van Gogh Museum said its experts had long been aware of the notebook whose “provenance raises many questions”.
   
It said that having seen high quality photographs of 56 of the 65 sketches, its experts concluded they were not by Van Gogh.
   
“After examining a number of the original drawings in 2013, our experts did not change their minds. Their opinion… is that these album drawings are imitations of Van Gogh's drawings.
   
“The experts examined its style, technique and iconography, and among their conclusions were that it contains distinctive topographical errors and that its maker based it on discoloured drawings by Van Gogh,” the museum added.
   
Another clue it said debunked the notebook was that the drawings “are executed in brownish ink, and this type of ink has never been found in Van Gogh's drawings from the years 1888-1890”.
   
The most expensive Van Gogh painting ever sold, the “Portrait of Dr Gachet”, (below) which dates from this period, sold for $82.5 million (77 million euros) in New York in 1990. Experts estimate that it would go for more than $140 million today if it came to auction.
 

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ARCHITECTURE

Futuristic Gehry tower opens in World Heritage Arles

Rising high beyond an ancient Roman arena in Arles, a tall, twisted tower created by Frank Gehry shimmers in the sun, the latest futuristic addition to this southern French city known for its World Heritage sites.

Futuristic Gehry tower opens in World Heritage Arles
Gehry's Luma Tower opens in Arles, France. Photo: H I / Pixabay

The tower, which opens to the public on Saturday, is the flagship attraction of a new “creative campus” conceived by the Swiss Luma arts foundation that wants to offer artists a space to create, collaborate and showcase their work.

Gehry, the 92-year-old brain behind Bilbao’s Guggenheim museum and Los Angeles’ Walt Disney Concert Hall, wrapped 11,000 stainless steel panels around his tower above a huge glass round base.

It will house contemporary art exhibitions, a library, and offices, while the Luma Arles campus as a whole will host conferences and live performances.

From a distance, the structure reflects the changing lights of this town that inspired Van Gogh, capturing the whiteness of the limestone Alpilles mountain range nearby which glows a fierce orange when the sun sets.

Mustapha Bouhayati, the head of Luma Arles, says the town is no stranger to
imposing monuments; its ancient Roman arena and theatre have long drawn the
crowds.

The tower is just the latest addition, he says. “We’re building the heritage of tomorrow.”

Luma Arles spreads out over a huge former industrial wasteland.

Maja Hoffmann, a Swiss patron of the arts who created the foundation, says
the site took seven years to build and many more years to conceive.

Maja Hoffmann, founder and president of the Luma Foundation. Photo: Pascal GUYOT / AFP

Aside from the tower, Luma Arles also has exhibition and performance spaces in former industrial buildings, a phosphorescent skatepark created by South Korean artist Koo Jeong A and a sprawling public park conceived by Belgian landscape architect Bas Smets.

‘Arles chose me’

The wealthy great-granddaughter of a founder of Swiss drug giant Roche, Hoffmann has for years been involved in the world of contemporary art, like her grandmother before her.

A documentary producer and arts collector, she owns photos by Annie Leibovitz and Diane Arbus and says she hung out with Jean-Michel Basquiat in New York.

Her foundation’s stated aim is to promote artists and their work, with a special interest in environmental issues, human rights, education and culture.

She refuses to answer a question on how much the project in Arles cost. But as to why she chose the 53,000-strong town, Hoffmann responds: “I did not choose Arles, Arles chose me.”

She moved there as a baby when her father Luc Hoffmann, who co-founded WWF,
created a reserve to preserve the biodiversity of the Camargue, a region between the Mediterranean Sea and the Rhone river delta known for its pink flamingos.

The tower reflects that, with Camargue salt used as mural panels and the
delta’s algae as textile dye.

Hoffmann says she wants her project to attract more visitors in the winter, in a town where nearly a quarter of the population lives under the poverty line.

Some 190 people will be working at the Luma project over the summer, Bouhayati says, adding that Hoffman has created an “ecosystem for creation”.

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