Luc Tuymans, Giuseppe Penone, and Other Art-World Figures Defend Museum Director After Russian Forgery Scandal

Catherine de Zegher is fighting to keep her job after mounting a show of alleged Russian avant-garde forgeries.

Catherine de Zegher, director of Ghent's Museum of Fine Arts, and Igor Toporovski, founder of the Dieleghem Foundation, which loaned Russian avant-garde works now thought to be forgeries to the museum. De Zegher is now fighting her suspension from her post, and art world luminaries are coming to her support. Photo courtesy of the Dieleghem Foundation.
Catherine de Zegher, director of Ghent's Museum of Fine Arts, and Igor Toporovski, founder of the Dieleghem Foundation, which loaned Russian avant-garde works now thought to be forgeries to the museum. De Zegher is now fighting her suspension from her post, and art world luminaries are coming to her support. Photo courtesy of the Dieleghem Foundation.

An open letter signed by more than 60 art-world figures denounces the suspension of Catherine de Zegher from Ghent’s Museum voor Schone Kunsten, or Museum of Fine Arts, following revelations about possibly fake works in a Russian avant-garde show she organized. The letter criticizes the damage done to de Zegher’s reputation and the “trial by media” that the signatories say resulted in her suspension.

“We are appalled to see how one of the preeminent women curators of her generation internationally, a wholly professional and widely acclaimed museum director, has been made the plaything of unscrupulous media,” reads the letter, released by Flemish publication VRT NWS. “We affirm our full support for Catherine de Zegher as museum director and as curator.”

The signatories, first reported by ARTnews, include artists Cristina Iglesias, Mona Hatoum, Giuseppe Penone, and Luc Tuymans, as well as art historian Benjamin Buchloh, Frans Hals Museum director Ann Demeester, and Ann Gallagher, director of the British art collections at the Tate Modern.

The trouble for de Zegher began in January, when the Art Newspaper first raised suspicions over an exhibition of 20 never-before-seen Russian avant-garde works, which were said to be by radical 20th-century greats such as Wassily KandinskyKazimir Malevich, and Alexander Rodchenko.

On loan from Russian businessman and art collector Igor Toporovski’s Dieleghem Foundation, the works were intended as the prelude to a larger Russian Modernist show set to take place at MSK at the end of this year, before some scholars raised red flags over their lack of provenance.

A known painting by Yury Annenkov (left) and a work on view at the contested exhibition in Ghent . Coutesy of Dieleghem Foundation (Synthetic landscape)

A known painting by Yury Annenkov (left) and a work on view at the contested exhibition in Ghent. Courtesy of Dieleghem Foundation (Synthetic landscape).

A number of experts signed an open letter describing the works as “highly questionable.” Within days, the exhibition, titled “Russian Modernism: 1910–30,” was unceremoniously shut down. (A group of art dealers, joined by a descendant of one of the artists purported to appear in the show, have filed a civil complaint over the alleged forgeries, and Belgian police have carried out several raids in connection to the case.)

In March, MSK abruptly suspended de Zegher, its director since 2013. She learned of the decision from Belgian newspaper De Tijd“Are you serious? I know nothing about it,” she told reporters when asked about the decision to put her on leave.

Foreground: Objects including a box and distaff, allegedly decorated by Kazimir Malevich. Background, from left: paintings by Pavel Filonov, Yury Annenkov, Aleksandra Ekster, and Kazimir Malevich. Image courtesy of the Museum of Fine Art in Ghent.

Foreground: Objects including a box and distaff, allegedly decorated by Kazimir Malevich. Background, from left: paintings by Pavel Filonov, Yury Annenkov, Aleksandra Ekster, and Kazimir Malevich. The exhibition was pulled after the works’ authenticity was called into question. Photo courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Ghent.

This week, De Standaard reported that de Zegher is fighting her suspension, having filed a formal complaint with the city of Ghent. The government has hired Ernst & Young to audit the museum to determine whether de Zegher and her staff carried out their due diligence in determining the authenticity and provenance of the suspect artworks. Luxembourg’s National Museum of History of Art allegedly rejected the collection over concerns about their lack of documentation.

Read the full text of the open letter below.

About seven months ago, we learned through the press that Catherine de Zegher had been temporarily suspended as Director of the Museum of Fine Arts of Ghent (MSK). It followed a seven weeks media campaign of allegations made against the museum and its presentation within the permanent collection of the Russian avant-garde art from the Dieleghem Foundation, based in Brussels. The media allegations had risen to a crescendo, with the most extravagant claims being made, claims, which on examination appeared to have no factual basis and no discernible verifiable evidence. Malign motives were imputed to all those involved with the exhibition. In particular the personal attacks against Catherine de Zegher reached a peculiar and unprecedented intensity that resulted in a trial by media. Under pressure of the escalating and widespread attacks the city of Ghent caved in and temporarily suspended Catherine de Zegher.

Today, October 9, 2018, most obviously Catherine de Zegher’s position as “temporally suspended museum director” has not been clarified, and no additional scientific research or independent material-technical expertise have been initiated by municipal, regional, or national government authorities in Belgium to settle the authenticity of the Russian avant-garde works exhibited at the MSK. As a consequence, the mendacious allegations against her are kept alive and the situation seems to be lingering without solution in sight.

The scope of allegations and measures of isolation of a director and curator internationally recognized for her artistic vision, her championing of art by women and art from diverse cultures, her broad knowledge and expertise, her ceaseless curiosity, the relevance of her museum programming and the quality of her widely influential exhibitions and many books, stupefy us.

Just before the local and international press attack, Catherine de Zegher successfully accomplished the complete reinstallation of the Ghent Museum of Fine Arts. Behind the concept ‘From Bosch to Tuymans’, under her direction, the MSK had reinstalled some 600 works from its collection together with loans from private collections, and integrating contemporary projects in a dialogue with the historical works. This reinstallation had been and still is enthusiastically applauded by the international museum world.

Over a period of five years (2013–2018), Catherine de Zegher has given a totally new impetus to the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent, developing a unique and historically significant perspective with exhibitions including the work of lesser known artists and many women artists as well as exhibitions of artists and movements within the MSK expertise area of art from the 19th and 20th century and from its collection. She was working on more exhibitions of artists never shown in Belgium, such as Medardo Rosso and the upcoming Baroque exhibition around Artemisia Gentileschi, as well as preparing the international monograph exhibition of the Flemish master Jan van Eyck for 2020. Catherine de Zegher was one of the very few art professionals in a senior position in a Flemish art museum to have had an international career across four continents and to have brought artists whose work and ideas would otherwise have been lost to a wide and appreciative audience.

Catherine de Zegher has a long and illustrious career as director and curator of groundbreaking exhibitions and author of acclaimed publications, such as America: Bride of the Sun. 500 Years of Latin America and the Low Countries (1992) at the Royal Museum of Fine Art, Antwerp, and Inside the Visible. An Elliptical Traverse of Twentieth-Century Art in, of, and from the Feminine (1994–1996) at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. She was the Artistic Director of the 5th Moscow Biennale (2013) and of the 18th Biennale of Sydney (2012). She curated On Line. Drawing Through the Twentieth Century (2010–2011) at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and was the Director of Exhibitions and Publications at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. Previous to this position, from 1999–2006, she was for many years the Executive Director and Chief Curator of The Drawing Center in New York. Over the years, she has received Best Show awards from AICA and AAMC and became a member of the Royal Academy of Belgium for Science and the Arts.

We are art professionals, academics and artists. We love art, museums and audiences. To promote art as joy, energy, and source of imagination and as critical reflection on the past and the present, and to interact and relate with wide audiences is, in our eyes, an essential concern for society at large.

We are appalled to see how one of the preeminent women curators of her generation internationally, a wholly professional and widely acclaimed museum director, has been made the plaything of unscrupulous media and of international speculation in the art of the Russian avant-garde, resulting in a severe media process destroying her work and reputation.

Through this letter, we affirm our full support for Catherine de Zegher as museum director and as curator. We challenge the local and national authorities concerned on the important issue of having, keeping, protecting and supporting visionary museum directors in their country, remaining independent in their judgement from the pressure media exert and the correlated hype and sensation, and above all from the growing influence of a certain art market linked with finance and power. We ask them to seriously pay attention to the role art and museums play in our cities, regions and in the society at large, the great principles they represent, and the necessity of having inspirational museum directors and curators to lead the way.


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