The Tom Thomson exhibition at the Art Gallery of Hamilton currently has nearly 40 works. Two in particular are the stars of the show, or at least its raison d’Ãªtre. These two works may or may not have been painted by Thomson.
âTom Thomson? The Art of Authentication, âwhich hits Kingston in February, is a thoughtful show that doesn’t offer a conclusive yes or no. The exhibition is the result of chance, collaboration and creativity. And this is more than Thomson himself.
âIn fact, we’re just using it,â says Tobi Bruce, Director of Exhibitions and Collections and Senior Curator at AGH. âThe lovely by-product is that you can also look at this amazing collection from Thomsons. “
During his brief career as a painter before his mysterious death in 1917, Thomson produced hundreds of oil sketches. And, as the show’s catalog notes, he’s one of the most rigged Canadian artists.
People who work in historic Canadian art get a lot of requests that look like this: I bought this painting at a flea market and I have reason to believe it’s a Tom Thomson. Can you take a look?
But when Bruce received this particular request in 2014 from a man in Mississauga, it came with the support of June Bramall, a prominent art restorer who had worked for AGH. Bramall had discovered a “TT” signature when she cleaned the room.
The man had bought the work – for around $ 100 – at the Freelton Antique Mall in North Hamilton because it had caught his eye. There was some suggestion that it might be a Thomson, but not enough for him to take it seriously. It was so dirty that he sat in a drawer in the spare bedroom of his tiny house for about two years before he took it out and brought it to a friend of Bramall. He says that after working on it for a few months, Bramall told her she thought the coin was correct – the terminology used in authentication. (The Globe and Mail does not identify the man, who is afraid of being named because of the painting’s potential value.)
Bramall, who died in 2018, helped put him in touch with Bruce.
âWe don’t authenticate ourselves as institutional curators,â says Bruce. But she was intrigued. She mentioned it soon after while working on a project with Alicia Boutilier, chief curator / curator of historical Canadian art at the Agnes Etherington Art Center at Queen’s University in Kingston.
âAnd I said it was so weird, you know, just six months ago I had a similar situation,â Boutilier says. The painting brought to him was found in an antique dealer in southwestern Ontario around 1985. (The owner of this painting declined to speak to the Globe.)
At about the same time, news caught their attention: The Vancouver Art Gallery had acquired 10 works, she said, from Group of Seven member JEH MacDonald, who had been buried for more than 40 years on his former property north of Toronto. But questions have been raised about the work, as the Globe and Mail reported.
In response, Montreal gallery owner and expert in Canadian historical art Alan Klinkhoff offered to install one or more of the sketches alongside known MacDonald sketches and invite a panel of experts to review them.
The light bulb has gone out: Bruce and Boutilier have designed an exhibition on authentication, with the two sketches in question as the core.
Hamilton’s sketch shows a wharf with boathouses and a single canoe floating on the lake. Kingston’s sketch depicts trees in the snow, focusing on the trunks.
The exhibition, which opened in September, revolves around five elements of authentication: signature, style, material, materials and provenance.
The exhibition begins with a gallery of six works hanging on the wall, without labels. One is a known fake. Viewers are urged to determine which one it could be. This is the section that deals with signing – one of the first things experts look at when trying to authenticate. But Thomson rarely signed his work. Even when he did, the signing changed over the course of his career; his first signature was larger, cursive and “much more declarative”, notes the catalog.
In the materials section, the crucial role of scientific analysis is discussed: technology that allows experts to verify paint that the artist was known to have used, or for materials that were not available for the artist.
In style, one of the works in question is hung with well-known Thomsons; the wall labels are kept away so that viewers can again take a rating. They are encouraged to consider things such as brush strokes and color.
While a deviation from an artist’s known work can be a red flag, there are always anomalies. âLike Alicia says, you always have to be open to the fact that artists don’t always work in a box,â says Bruce. “It could have been something they were trying.”
The show also considers what is actually in the image. Is this a place where the artist is known to have been? Is it consistent with the known works? But just because Thomson didn’t often paint buildings doesn’t mean he never did. “The subject can be a sliding exercise”, explains Boutilier, during a virtual tour of the exhibition.
Finally, the exhibition looks at the provenance, the history of the property of the painting. Here, the detective work often focuses on what is written or stamped on the back of the work, and the supporting documents.
The show ends with two known forgeries that were part of a high-profile court case in the 1960s.
In the end, viewers often have an opinion. âPeople are pretty divided,â says Bruce. Some would say that there is no way that one or both paintings are not Thomsons; others are sure they are not right. Visitors seem to enjoy the exercise, the opportunity to be a judge, even without the gratification of a definitive answer.
The co-commissioners will not say what they think. “My own quiet opinion is changing,” says Boutilier.
âWe are not Thomson specialists,â adds Bruce. âThe real purpose of this for us, and I think where the project has really been successful, is to highlight all the behind-the-scenes work that curators, historians, dealers, restaurateurs do when they try to authenticate Something. And the audience is so fascinated by it.
Official authentication of a Thomson is extremely difficult; there are few experts who are ready to do this at this stage. Basically the only option to have a work authenticated is to auction it off, as auction houses may still be willing to do the work and take responsibility for it.
Joan Murray, the Thomson expert who compiled his catalog raisonnÃ© (which lists all known authentic works of a particular artist), withdrew from the active investigation into Thomson’s private works in 2016 and did not ‘will not add to the list.
It is proposed to open a sort of addendum, with a non-authenticating register of work and research materials. Acceptance would not mean authentication, but it would be a way of tracking any Thomson and supporting research documents in a central registry.
“Over the next hundred years, more work by Tom Thomson will be featured, just as Joan Murray herself predicted,” reads a draft register proposal, prepared by Angie Littlefield, an expert whose books include The fine kettle of Tom Thomson’s friends: biography, history, art and gastronomy. âArt history and research communities need to be on the ground floor to bring together the valuable materials that arise from such discoveries. “
The two works that form the core of this exhibition are candidates.
The exhibition ends in Hamilton on January 2 and is scheduled to open at Agnes on February 26. After that, the paintings will be returned to their owners. The Mississauga man plans to bring his house up and hang it on the wall.
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