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VAG exhibit shines spotlight on investigation into fake sketches

J.E.H. MacDonald? A Tangled Garden explores lengthy investigation into fake Group of Seven sketches donated to the Vancouver Art Gallery in 2015.

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In 2015, the Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG) announced the gift of 10 sketches by famed Group of Seven artist J.E.H. MacDonald.

MacDonald, a native of England who lived in Toronto, was a founder of the Group of Seven, a school of Canadian landscape painters active in the early 20th century.

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In the field, the painters often sketched in oil paint before going back to their studios, where they created larger works from those images. The smaller sketches are also considered prize pieces of art.

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Soon after the VAG’s announcement, experts began to publicly raise questions about the authenticity of the works, including in an in-depth article by Globe and Mail journalist Marsha Lederman.

In response to the concerns, VAG postponed its planned exhibition and set about digging deeper into the story of the sketches.

After almost nine years of investigation, the gallery concluded that 10 oil sketches thought to be by MacDonald were indeed fakes. And the journey to that discovery has been turned into a new exhibit titled J.E.H. MacDonald? A Tangled Garden.

“J.E.H. MacDonald? A Tangled Garden reflects our commitment to research, artistic inquiry and sharing new knowledge with our communities,” said Anthony Kiendl, VAG CEO and executive director, in a statement. “We invite the public to explore this fascinating story, which reveals the complexities that occur when art history and science connect. The gallery seeks to foster an environment of critical inquiry and transparency in which our audiences participate in the discourse surrounding the meaning of these artworks.”

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On at the gallery until May 12, the exhibit takes the viewer through the unravelling of the provenance of the artworks.

Photo of fake J.E.H. MacDonald painting
Unknown, Sketch after The Tangled Garden, ND, oil on paperboard, Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery. Photo by Courtesy of VAG /Rachel Topham, Vancouver Art Gal

With the input of experts, including leading art historians, handwriting experts and the scientific resources of the Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI), the VAG announced the 10 painted sketches will no longer be attributed to MacDonald — but rather, to an unknown painter. The exhibit includes a detailed presentation of the CCI’s findings.

“This investigation exemplifies how scientific examination can play an important role in the understanding and preservation of cultural heritage,” said Kate Helwig, senior conservation scientist at the Canadian Conservation Institute. “The CCI’s findings were crucial to the conclusive outcome of the investigation, which has led to the revised attribution of these 10 painted sketches.”

The exhibition allows visitors to examine the evidence and draw their own conclusions. The fakes, and the story of the investigation into them, will hang alongside attributed oil sketches by the Group of Seven, including MacDonald, drawn from the gallery’s permanent collection.

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“This exhibition provides our visitors (with) a rare opportunity to peek behind the scenes and see how we do the work we do,” said Richard Hill, the Smith Jarislowsky senior curator of Canadian art at the VAG, in the statement. “And the passion and dedication of everyone involved.”

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