Chapter 51. The Case of the Ambiguity of Authenticity
A few years ago, a client asked me to identify the creator of the two paintings pictured below. Both works were oil on canvas and monogrammed SYM in the lower right. One showed the date 89, meaning 1989.
Generally speaking, a signed or monogrammed painting is accepted as having been painted by the individual signing or placing his or her monogram on the work, and is thus thought to be an authentic piece. There are other accepted phrases that reference degrees of authenticity, such as attributed to, in the manner of, school of and bearing the signature of. Each identifier represents a hierarchically qualitative opinion as to authenticity, based mostly on connoisseurship.
The two paintings shown here are reminiscent of the late 19th century works of Alfred de Breanski, Sr. Although their subject matter, composition, choice of palette and point of view are similar to those in de Breanskis works, they appear to have been executed much later, as de Breanskis signature is absent, and the monogram SYM and the date of 1989 appears in its stead.
Research has since indicated that the artist Sofronio (Sym) Ylanan Mendoza used the monogram SYM to sign his paintings. Born in 1934 in Cebu City, Philippines, Sym immigrated to Canada in 1981, settling in Richmond, BC. In order to verify authenticity, I contacted the artists daughter and asked her to confirm that her father had created these paintings. I received a reply a short time later, informing me that these pieces were not by her father.
The only conclusion I could reach was that someone had added the SYM monogram to these paintings not executed by Mendoza in order to present them as authentic when they were not.
Recent works by Mendoza are stylistically very different, although it would appear that his earlier works did share some stylistic similarities with these ones. So the problem becomes how to reconcile the variety of relativistic permutations that are possible when calling a work of art authentic. Is it enough to accept the artists contention, or did the artist have another agenda for perhaps deliberately denying he painted them?
The contemporary philosopher Bruno LaTour has theorized that there are no facts, such as authenticity, that are separate from the subjects fabrication. He suggests that facts are relational to the context of their production, and are similar to the act of fetishizing. LaTour seeks to free us from the tyranny of the scientific, subject/object mumbo-jumbo particular to Western civilization, in favour of an authenticity that depends on other factors, such as culture and experience.
So in this sense, the signature or monogram on a painting fetishizes the artwork by imbuing it with the belief of authenticity. It is no longer just paint on a canvas, but a culturally significant artefact that has special economic and cultural powers because of the signature.
Next: The Case of the Recalcitrant Rembrandt
Signed SYM oil on canvas, 16 x 20 inches