The Albertina contains much of the Habsburg family’s riches, including around 900,000 prints and works on paper. Its most famous works are by Albrecht Dürer, including the grey-and-white ink drawing Praying Hands (1508), and a pair of proto-Realist watercolours of astonishing detail, Tuft of Grass (1503) and Young Hare (1502). Young Hare in particular is something of a cultural icon of Vienna. The museum’s gift shop sells figurative reproductions of the hare in a rainbow assortment of colours, and the wurstel stand outside has a colossal mint-green version perched atop it. These are the works I’m keenest to see, as I rush through stately rooms and galleries, with one eye on the clock.
The framed Dürers stare out from a slate-blue-and-gold patterned wall, in an alcove that one might easily miss, as it is kept intentionally dark. Light is a demon to art, slowly scorching away the colours, bleaching and bleeding them dry. Camera flashes, direct sunlight, even artificial indirect light can make them fade, and so the shadowy display of the Dürers makes perfect sense.
I spot Young Hare from a distance and dart forward to examine it closely. With a level of detail truly astonishing (if you’ve ever tried to paint with watercolours, you’ll know what a blunt instrument they are in inexpert hands), the hare sits adorably, its individual furs bristling and painted with unbelievable intricacy using a single-hair brush. The diminutive creature, which most people in Dürer’s time would have largely associated with lunch, is made grand and magnificent. This level of naturalism, portraying something real in every aspect of its detail, had not been an important concern for artists before Dürer’s time, and realism would not become a movement for another four-plus centuries. Photorealism would wait a century more. Yet this work is truly photorealistic. After a few moments, I look at the other Dürers here, before turning back to Young Hare. I can’t quite be sure, but something feels wrong.
There is an implicit contract in play between museums and their visitors. Since their origins as purpose-built institutions in the 18th century, when the collection of Sir Hans Sloane was gifted to the British nation to become the kernel of the British Museum, museums have been tasked with preserving and protecting our treasures against climate, deterioration, fire and theft, while at the same time presenting the collection to visitors for educational, aesthetic and research purposes. The public has an implicit trust in museums, relying on curators to display carefully selected and screened works. Fakes, forgeries or copies have no place in museums – at least, not knowingly, or without identifying them as such.
Our fascination with visiting museums draws on the cult of adulation for the unique work of art, as explored by Walter Benjamin in ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ (1936). We want an authentic encounter as opposed to the experience of gazing at reproductions in books. It’s the reason art-lovers build trips abroad around certain galleries, never mind that an artwork might be the product of many hands, created in the studio system in which a master such as Rembrandt or Rubens might have a dozen or more assistants and apprentices at work on any given painting. The outcry is enormous each time conspiracy theorists claim that Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa (1503-06), on display at the Louvre, is in fact a copy, with the original squirrelled away for safekeeping – and it would be a scandal of epic proportions if that were true.
Visitors expect a reverberant experience when confronting an original masterpiece. The iconic nature of the work offers them a communion with history, a sense of time-travel, and elicits a reverence akin to that felt by spiritual pilgrims who finally get to kneel before a religious relic. Museum-goers are on artistic pilgrimage, happy to encounter new treasures, but they set out to experience the ‘must-sees’. There is also an element of celebrity-spotting in play. When I see a work of art that I recognise from the textbooks but have never viewed in person, I get an endorphin rush of recognition. Imagine the disappointment if a celebrity-spotter thinks she’s spied David Beckham, only to realise it’s just a lookalike. Yet a parallel to this rather quotidian example occurs regularly in museums the world over, and no one seems to mind. Or rather, almost no one seems to notice.
Adapted from https://aeon.co/essays/is-there-a-place-for-fakery-in-art-galleries-and-museums