ust to have a look at a painting and enjoying its beauty is easy. Questions about the authenticity are of no value to enjoy what you can see there. They are rather a distraction.
But the question of authenticity becomes a serious and important one, as soon we start to consider collecting and spending money on artworks.
It is especially difficult to find out whether a work is really done by the hand whose name is attached in Far Eastern painting. A wide range of forgeries, imitations and false attributions forms a not at least financial risk for the connoisseur and collector.
A problem which cant be solved. The interested party has to live with the situation and only a long process of collecting the knowledge of technical qualities, a historical and intellectual background and the experience of a great number of references can form a ground on which a footing could be established – slowly and painstakingly, to even reach finally the point to ask the question of authenticity seriously. Who is not willing to go this way himself, will be forced out to trust others and this not only with the same risk, but also for a much greater price.
We will start to introduce a few basic categories which guide us to understand the quality of the painting and allow to consider any attribution to a masters name.
We will then try to establish what value such categories should have.
There are important differences between Japanese and Chinese paintings, between old and modern works and so on, and we will try to include them in our consideration too. In the end we expect to give not more than a little hope for the reader that beside all the limitations it is possible to achieve some understanding. An understanding which allows a more comfortable stand in front of a displayed painting.
To attribute a painting to a master we have very obvious categories.
There is for instance any form of external attributions as letters of reference, inscriptions on the painting, the mounting or the box. Than there are signatures and seal prints by the painter himself.
Always it should be included a thorough look to the used materials of the painting.
Less obvious and more complex, but also more important are the quality of the technical skills, calligraphic brushwork, colouration, and the composition. These categories could form a combined impression of the overall quality.
There exists finally a very difficult to grasp level of individual expression of an artist.
To achieve an understanding whether or not a proper level of quality, a signature, a seal imprint is also matching the individual hand of a painter, his individual technical skill set, we need references to compare to. This means other accessible paintings, which are doubtless established works by this same master.
It is extremely important to point out, that often the frame of references is not only very limited but simply not existent. Also with modern painters there are many works in important public and private collections already established, which should not be there. The great success of the Chinese art market recently and the indifferent use of reproductions of paintings everywhere, bears great risks when we try to establish valid references for painters even still alive.
So while we have not enough or no references for older artworks, we have often too many references for modern paintings.
What does make a known painting a reference? Could we trust big collections, museums?
In general everybody faces the same problems. The team of experts in a big auction house or museum has to find the same answers as a private collector and therefore it would be rather easy to point out the one or the other mistake in the evaluation of a painting. When of course a museum in China has a painting of a modern painter it should be easily accepted. But on a song painting also the collection seals of the Qing imperial collection are not really any guarantee for authenticity. Already in the Qing dynasty the situation is as bad as it is today and maybe now with the better exchange of data we are able to form a better picture for certain painters than a couple of hundred years earlier.
So is already a general acceptance of references difficult, a more differentiated view on lifetime of the artist, painted subject etc. should be desired too.
We will come back to value of references when we discuss the categories of quality and authentication.
Now we should establish an order for the categories of quality.
In the very important first place are the quality of the composition and the quality of the drawing. This includes a generally appreciation of the inherent logic of the composition and its execution in calligraphic brushwork, ink shading and colouration.
Chinese paintings have usually literary inscriptions. The content should fit time and topic of the painting. A good example how to appraoch this is a video lecture of James Cahill.
Is a general quality according to our expectations, in the next step the individual brushwork should be compared to over works established as references. In the case this is not possible, this would be it.
Only after the reached clarity regarding the quality in the painting it makes sense to take a closer look to signature and seal imprints.
The importance of general quality and individual brushwork should be differently valued in China and Japan.
Regarding Chinese paintings, we are mainly talking about works done by amateurs, members of the bureaucratic gentry, the landowning class. The dominance of this class of amateurs, the identical group is appearing as producers and collectors, allows professionally trained painters, with their superior technical skills to produce better paintings, forgeries to intrude the market. So unfortunately it is not a guarantee to accept the better drawn painting to easy.
A coherent composition is a helpful addition to check. Usually the hand, working with the original idea is doing the better job here. A very well painted forgery might slip in the understanding of an original composition. The existence of ghost painters, forgers working only in the style of a requested artist is unfortunately complicating matters a little bit more.
And also: who wants to be so careless to think that only original artworks are subject of imitations?
This gives in the case of Chinese painting and Japanese amateur painters (Zen-masters e.g. ) more value to the individual calligraphic style of the painter or calligrapher. Only of course, as long we could establish acceptable references to compare with.
The situation changes with a new type of professional painters in the 20th century China and shifts more to an greater weight put an general quality. An advantage immediately destroyed by the better access of forgers to their material in prints and online.
The question about a general quality is a very different matter then we are talking about the professional Japanese painters. Here the system of an internal education in techniques, topics and their representation in the great and proud painter studios produces such a high level of skill and understanding, that forgers are hardly able to keep up with it. Those professional painters are working also according to the subject and the taste of the usually unknown costumer in very different styles. So scrutinizing the individual calligraphic style is often less helpful and requires at least references of the same subject by the same hand. Often it will not be possible at all.
In this situation the general quality is of much greater importance. So if we can establish a certain very high level of quality in the composition, brushwork, shading and coloration we could at least exclude what is not good enough.
But how could this be done? What is such good quality?
Now this alone deserve a special essay. Its a difficult question, and in other places only answered with an autocratic declaration, in most cases its not answered at all.
In the end to see quality, it needs probably not only a trained eye but also a trained hand.
Calligraphic quality could be understand easier with a certain amount of practical study. Trying to understand calligraphy, brushwork as anything different than movement is not helpful. This problem grows of course even bigger when you try to compare individual brushwork with references. To compare two similar looking patches of colour or ink and not understand the movement had created them is meaningless.
Other painting techniques like ink shading have a lot less individual quality from the beginning. But a careless applied ink or colour shading in a painting of one of the best painters like Tanyuu, Tsunenobu or Ganku is unthinkable. So in this case the general level of quality can tell us a lot too. To obtain the skill of understanding quality of ink shading, a thorough study of references is essential. One has to know how a certain painter usually does it.
When we discuss the individual calligraphic quality we mean of course the brushwork generally. The general body of calligraphic strokes in the painting or calligraphic text is the important part.
The small, to the forger well known example of a signature is much less important than longer calligraphic texts or the painted subject.
Even less we should care about the seal imprints. Carved after a model a good forgery is easily achieved. Now even done with modern reproduction techniques so that there is no difference.
And such a imprint of the same seal might look very different anyway. Just take a look to the example of the seal prints on Ganku's fabulous set of Tiger and Dragon. The seal imprints on the two paintings of one set, do not make a fine set at all.
A fascinating painting with a great quality and a bad seal, is still fascinating and excellently painted!
Of course the signature is also subject to variations. Another example from a set by Tani Bunchou shows clearly intended differences between the three scrolls.
Often those less important parts of the individual calligraphic body of the paintings, signature and seal prints, are valued far to much.
And to make it worse they are carelessly compared to only reproduced references, coming even from a wood block print or a forgery and usually given without any idea of the used material and/ or there it is taken from.
As for any calligraphic reference by a third hand directly connected to the painting, an inscription on the painting or its box, a letter of reference, it should be treated as an individual artwork. It only could have any value after we could establish its authenticity, but not a very great one. Even a great mind could be wrong with his honest inscription. A piece of paper could be moved easily, a box exchanged without a problem.