EDITORIAL : An Impostor Artist Exposed: A Keane Scandal in Indian Art Scene / Editor-in-Chief Johny ML
Walter Keane impersonating as an artist and selling the works of his wife Margaret Keane after keeping her under house arrest and slave driving for a decade was busted when Margaret decided to come out and finally talk. Today, we have a Keane Moment in Indian art scene. Kerala based artist, Murali Nagappuzha has been doing the same; selling paintings done by other artists as his own works, without doing a single work in his life so far. JohnyML writes about this developing story of a would be large scale scandal.
In 1960s, the American art scene was still recovering from the hangover of Abstract Expressionism. The spiritual jargon that helped abstract art survive within the critical circuit was still refusing to fade off. Then there happened a new artist named Walter Keane with his works that depicted wide eyed eerie look doll like figures. The New York art scene was just experiencing the foreplay of titillating Pop Art. Critics found it difficult to categorize Walter Keane into some prefigured aesthetic school. Was he a Pop Artist or a Super Realist, which had just come and gone and which would reappear years later in Europe and China at once. Takashi Murakami would take another two more decades to happen. Walter Keane was a sensation. But soon the Keane phenomenon snow balled into a huge scandal; one of the worst cases of faking artistic abilities. Walter Keane was an impostor. The real artist behind the paintings was his wife Margaret Keane, whom he had kept under house arrest and lapped up name, fame and riches shamelessly. Margaret Keane took courage to come out into the open finally and busted her husband’s claims and years later she was given a huge compensation by the court too. The coming out was a moment of breaking a myth and making the career of a real artist. Walter Keane bowed and shamed out and Margaret Keane, a new artist was born. Later the life of Margaret was made into a movie, Big Eyes and Hollywood actress Amy Adams essayed the role convincingly.
Faking is not a new thing in art. People employ unknown artists to fake the works of the dead and the living masters. Secondary market and even the auction markets at times thrive in fake works of art. Faking a work of art is almost on the same lines as, ‘original till proven fake’. I had this wonderful opportunity to meet a few artists who faked the works of the masters. They work for the fake cartel which operates from within the legitimate art market in India and elsewhere. They say that a work of art can be proved to be a fake only when the fake-ness is proven historically. “The canvas used is from the time mentioned along with the signature, the style is exact to the dot and the themes do not move away from the accepted works of the artist. Hence, how do you say that it is a fake? The artist may be dead and gone and then how do you prove that it is not his?” One may find it a bit difficult to answer these questions as a fake is called a fake when it is dealt by a notorious dealer and a fake is an original when the same work is routed through a reputed dealer. We have to face it and live with it. But what about a series of works of art, lauded by an array of dealers, buyers and critics, exactly the way it had happened to the works by Walter Keane, and later on they are proven to be done by someone else? Once the authenticity of the works of art in question is brought out in public and the artist in question has become an impostor, what are we going to do with those works of art? And what are we going to do with that artist? Will he face criminal charges? Will we be raising the status of those artists who made the works for him, as original artists in the public domain, as in the case of Margaret Keane? What do the collectors who have already collected the works of art in question, do with them?
So folks, it is time to face our own Keane moment in India, and let us enjoy the gossips that are going to be doing the rounds in the coming days. In Kerala, a new scandal has broken out. A bunch of artists have come out in the open to say that one of the ‘acclaimed’ artists from Kerala, Murali Nagappuzha till date has been getting all his works painted by other painters and claiming the authorship of it for himself. A few counter questions may be raised at this moment. Isn’t it a norm for an artist to take the help of assistants and still the works remains credited to that of the artist who had commissioned them? Yes, artists who are busy and do a sort of multiple management of aesthetics and business, do employ assistants and much debate has happened around it. Today, having an assistant is not a shortcoming in the history of an artist provided the artist has a strong working career in the past all by and for himself. But here in the case of Murali Nagappuzha the issue is different altogether. This impostor artist, I am told, apparently has not done any work for himself till date. The truth, they say, is that he does not know how to paint. Murali Nagappuzha is a dealer of his own image.
K.G.Babu, a noted artist in Kerala and his brother K.G.Vijayan, have been painting for Murali Nagappuzha for the last ten years. They fell out with him a couple years back and since then Murali has managed to get other artists to continue in the same style, paying a pittance of Rs.300/- a day for the ‘labor’. In a press conference held in Kochi today, K.G.Babu accused Murali Nagappuzha for cheating him and his brother, giving them hope to establish their independent career, including foreign travel and shows. K.G.Babu, a well travelled artist by now is extremely good at painting figures and his brother is a specialist in painting greenery and foliage. The ability to create super realistic works by this duo was noticed by Murali Nagappuzha and he contacted them to start a series of paintings. They worked for this impostor but never knew that he was selling these works under his own signature. Art curators like Alka Pande took up Murali Nagappuzha and helped him establish in the national scene. Murali has this particular tendency to go to the camps, when he is invited, with a finished work and none has ever seen him painting in a camp. He makes use of those occasions to market himself and trap potential buyers, collectors and critics to sell his works.
It was a portrait of the noted novelist Anita Nair, done by K.G.Babu himself which blew the lid off. When Babu saw that his work was attributed to Murali Nagappuzha and the novelist herself was going full praise for the artist, the artist in K.G.Babu was hurt. He decided to terminate the contract with Murali Nagappuzha. Connected well with the powerful Communist Party of India (Marxist), CPM, Murali Nagappuzha could silence the protest of the artist duo using coercion and threat. And he went on with this malpractice taking help from other artist laborers. In due course of time, another artist namely Balamuralikrishna, a very good illustrator, happened to work in a children’s magazine run by the CPM, whose editorial content was co-ordinated by none other than Murali Nagappuzha. One of the very popular lyrical poets in Kerala, Prof. O.N.V.Kurup happened to see the illustrations done by Balamurali (ONV Kurup used to use a pen name ‘Balamurali’ during his younger days to hide his communist party affiliations from the college authorities) and he was fascinated by it. Upon asking about the author, this impostor, Murali Nagappuzha told the poet that all those illustrations were done by him under a different name. Unsuspecting, the respected poet too went on praising Murali Nagappuzha. By this time, he had become too big to be brought down. However, he seemed to have dug his own trap.
Using his connections in the Kerala Bhasha Institute (Kerala Language Institute) that publishes a series of extremely good research works in literature, history and so on, Murali Nagappuzha got his biography published by this agency. Interestingly, this book was about to be released in Kannur, the fort of the CPM by none other than Prof.Thomas Isaac, the former Finance Minister of Kerala and a Marxist ideologue. The artist community in Kerala has now come out to demand the withdrawal of that book which they consider as an undeserving tome for an impostor. K.G.Babu and K.G.Vijayan, in a press conference explained that they did the work for him for eking out a living but they have never pawned their subjectivity to the impostor. They say that they did not have any other way to stand up against him each time he was failing to fulfill the promises; exhibitions and foreign tours. Now with K.G.Babu having an independent career to his side, has finally come out to challenge and expose the impostor in Indian art, Murali Nagappuzha.
I am sure a lot of explaining has to be done not only by the impostor artist, Murali Nagappuzha himself but also by all those artists who have worked for him even after knowing that he was selling their works as his own by lending his signature. Generally speaking, the CPM intellectuals though are good at literature, music, dance and history, they are almost illiterate when it comes to the case of visual arts. They may talk about Picasso and Dali and even about Damien Hirst but not knowing beyond the skin deep information. Curators like Alka Pande do not think much about the background story of the works; they go by the ability of a work of art to make gold in the market. Alka Pande too has to come out in the open to explain why she did not do any background checking, despite the general scorn though a pall of suspicion was there always over the works of Murali Nagappuzha. This incident also drags Anita Nair to the spot. She also needs to explain why she thought Murali Nagappuzha was a great artist based on a portrait done by him. May be when these views are pieced together, and also read along with the story that Murali Nagappuzha himself has to narrate, we would get a better picture of the whole scandal. And while reading this many out there must be cringing in fear and embarrassment.
Editor in Chief