A Conversation with Alessandro Kokocinski about Eric Hebborn

June 22nd, 2010 § 9 comments

Alessandro Kokocinski is a painter, sculptor and draftsman. I visit with him in his studio in Tuscania, in the medieval church of San Biagio. The space is divided into two immense rooms and works that are part polychrome sculpture and part painting fill the studio. For some years he worked in theatre, designing sets, costumes and lighting for the performances of Lina Sastri, an actress and singer with whom he had a long relationship. As a young man he worked in the circus as an acrobat. It is pretty clear that his work in the performing arts has informed his paintings, sculptures, and drawings. Kokocinski’s website contains galleries for each of his art forms. In the fall he’ll go to Argentina for an exhibition of his work and for commissions for public spaces, a monument to the “Desaparecidos” (he himself was briefly imprisoned in the 1970s in Italy at the behest of Argentina’s military dictatorship, who wanted him extradited), and to start work on a monument for the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, commissioned to honor those who died in the 1992 bombing of that embassy. Next year he’ll have exhibitions in Salzburg and Perugia. Kokocinski is a fascinating person and artist, maybe more fascinating than the reason I go over to Tuscania to speak to him: Eric Hebborn.

Alessandro Kokocinski in his Studio | Tuscania | 15 June 2010

For those who don’t know about Eric Hebborn, the following is a brief biography. He was born in the suburbs of London in 1934. After a difficult childhood and youth, he went to the Royal Academy Art Schools, where he was a student between 1954 and 1959. Here is a portrait of Eric Hebborn in the Royal Academy’s collection, painted by his teacher Peter Greenham in about 1960. Hebborn was awarded a scholarship to the British School at Rome. He spent most of his life in Italy and made a living faking old and modern master drawings, and to a lesser extent paintings and sculptures.  He sold his falsifications through Pannini Galleries, a gallery he owned briefly in Rome; to dealers; and through the London auction houses. Hebborn also produced Hebborns in various media. He published two books, Drawn to Trouble : The Forging of An Artist (Edinburgh:Mainstream, 1991 and New York: Random House, 1993) and Il Manuale del Falsario (Vicenza: N. Pozza, 1995). The English version, The Faker’s Handbook (London: Cassell) came out posthumously in 1997. He died, perhaps mysteriously, on 10 January 1996, at the age of 61.

Kokocinski met Hebborn in about 1974  at Anticoli Corrado (province of Rome), where they both lived, and they remained friends until Hebborn’s death in 1996.  Anticoli Corrado is east of Tivoli, and less than an hour from Rome. While Alessandro was born in Italy, his parents soon afterward moved to South America, and that is where he grew up. Almost immediately after coming back to Italy in 1974, he went to Anticoli Corrado because of the Spanish poet and artist Rafael Alberti, who was a summer resident of the town. It is a hill town that has attracted artists for years, even centuries. The town was known for its particularly beautiful people, mostly women, who would work as models. (Not just women though. My Italian grandmother would tell the story of Lord Leighton, who hired a model from Anticoli Corrado and brought him to London, for his looks and stamina, to pose as the martyred St. Peter, upside down on a cross.)

Hebborn, starting in the 60s, rented a villa outside of Anticoli Corrado, a villa where Luigi Pirandello had spent the summer of 1936, visiting with his painter son Fausto, who, like Hebborn, was a long term tenant. Kokocinski says of the Villa San Filippo, “The designer of the garden, in either the early ottocento or late settecento, had also worked on the Vatican gardens and brought many exotic plants there. The garden was very attractive, attractive because the plants were old, at least 150 years old. The garden was more beautiful than the big villa itself.”  Later in the conversation I ask Alessandro if Hebborn had a good library and he says that he did and that he was very cultured, adding that he had a beautiful collection of Roman sculptures. Of Hebborn, he says, “He enjoyed living. “Gozzovigliava.” He spent money freely, everyday was a party, excesses in everything.” The way Kokocinski describes the era, it was a party for everybody, not just Hebborn.

Alessandro tells me that he and Hebborn had a joint show mostly of prints, but also drawings, and a few of Hebborn’s sculptures at the villa and that he has a pamphlet somewhere. “Eric taught me how to make engravings. He had a great knowledge of many techniques: sculpture, painting, drawing, and also engraving and etching. He had a small laboratory for printmaking and I learned how to make engravings. I still have some of the material from the show, not mine, but his.” I’m surprised by the fact that they would have the show in a private venue, wondering about the small number of people who could see it. Alessandro says that they did the show for friends, and that they both had a large circle of friends–an international group of artists, writers, theatre people, and dancers who visited. Alessandro remembers these years as being lived intensely, almost communally, with a lively exchange of ideas. “Much that I have now is in large part because of my great friendship with Eric Hebborn, to my maestro Riccardo Tommasi Ferroni, to Rafael Alberti, to Alberto Sughi and many, may others. Giving and taking. The richness in life comes from the exchange of ideas.”

Alessandro says that Hebborn taught him  “techniche neoclassiche” in painting and drawing. Now, when he says Neoclassic, I’m sure he does not mean the Neoclassicism of Canova, David, and Flaxman, but more old master or classic art. He still has the two studies after Caravaggio that he made with Hebborn’s help. They’re on old canvas and they’re really very good. A dealer friend of Hebborn’s had asked Kokocinski to make Rembrandts. The dealer would have supplied the “croste” or old paintings which could have been recycled, but Kokocinski had no interest, he was doing them to learn technique.

Hebborn showed Alessandro how he made the inks, how he cut quill pens, he taught him about old paper.  Hebborn was a good fourteen years older than Kokocinski and beyond friendship, there must have been something of a teacher/pupil relationship. Kokocinski on Hebborn’s own work “Strangely, when he did his own work as an artist, artist between quotes, the work was not great. It was, let’s say limited. However, when his copies were successful, they were extraordinary.” He goes on to clarify, as Hebborn did, that they weren’t really copies, but works in “the manner of” or inspired by old masters. Hebborn was open about what he was doing and he must of had a certain scorn for dealers and curators. He would say “How expert can these experts be if they can’t tell one of my drawings.” I ask Alessandro whether he remembers ever meeting Anthony Blunt and the name sounds familiar, but he can’t remember for sure.  Kokocinski thinks that Hebborn as Hebborn did his best work in sculpture. He remembers that Hebborn had exhibitions of his sculptural work in England.
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Alessandro uses old paper for his drawings. I ask him if he got this from Hebborn, and he says, “Yes, it must have been, even if not consciously.” He says he never makes drawings in preparation for paintings or other art forms. He makes them as finished works.  Just below is a watercolor on antique paper of a circus rider. It is from a book of drawings which was published in 2003. Alessandro says that the circus is the only art form that hasn’t been ruined by money. He worked in the circus in South America and his brother has had a life-long career in the circus. Alessandro explains “The circus is still extraordinary, and it has evolved and gotten better over the years. It’s still a virgin art form: the people are doing what they love, as long as their bodies let them, and they’re not in it to cash in as the rest of the art world is.”

Alessandro Kokocinski | At the Hungarian Circus | Watercolor on Antique Paper | 250 x 175 mm.

Alessandro tells of going to a museum in Buenos Aires a couple of years ago. A museum in a converted cigarette factory, where he pays an entrance of 2 or 3 Argentina dollars, which he explains is quite a bit there. “I enter these very beautiful spaces thinking that I would find things that I could admire and which I myself can’t do, to find doors to a universe that is more beautiful than what I see every day. Instead I find myself in this big gallery with old chairs and stuff heaped up on the floor. Also, a video, let’s say pornographic, but sad. If it were beautiful, it might even have excited, but instead it just turned one’s stomach. I say no. I go down to the ticket office and I say ‘Please, I’d like my money back, I paid to see things that I can’t make myself. I have to learn and  museums have to open doors to my soul/spirit through which I can see marvelous and beautiful things. Instead I see stuff, dirty clothes. I’m not interested in this and I consider this a swindle. It offends my intelligence.'” They give Alessandro his money back and the story, I think at least, tells a lot about his work. It is most certainly beautiful and it leads to a universe that one doesn’t see everyday.

Alessandro left Italy from 1986 to 1995 and lost touch with Hebborn, but when he returned they started seeing one another in Rome, where they were both living. Hebborn would go to Alessandro’s house once or twice a week for supper. Hebborn by this point had moved from Villa San Filippo to a house he built called Santa Maria, again outside of Anticoli Corrado and he had an apartment in Trastevere, where he was spending most of his time. Hebborn and Edgar had left each other and Alessandro sees this as the point where things started to go downhill for Hebborn. Edgar, a dancer from the Philippines who had performed in the musical Jesus Christ Superstar, and Hebborn had been together for some 25 years. Hebborn was drinking more and more. There weren’t the outlets that there used to be for his drawings and he complained that the dealers had made much more money on his fabrications than he had. On the plus side, he remembers Hebborn telling him that he had a good contracts for the books, and Alessandro remembers that Japanese television did a documentary on Hebborn. I ask him about Hebborn’s death and he says what a lot of people in Italy say, that you can’t exclude murder.

Probably the most interesting piece I have read about Eric Hebborn’s death was written by Matteo Collura in a highly recommended 4 May 2008 article published in the newspaper Corriere della Sera. In the article he tries to reconstruct what happened to Hebborn before his death in a Rome hospital on 10 January 1996. It is based on his interviews with people in the Trastevere neighborhood where Hebborn lived, from newspaper accounts, and from hospital and police reports. Hebborn had been seen the evening of 8 January by the proprietor of a wine shop, where he was a regular and where he had stopped for a couple of glasses of wine. The proprietor couldn’t remember whether he was alone, but he did remember that he wasn’t drunk and that he was going to dinner. Vague reports of Hebborn being in the company of another person exist, but nobody comes forth to identify or describe the person. Hours elapse and Hebborn is lying in the rain in Piazza Trilussa. Someone covers him with a raincoat that is not his own. Another unknown, calls for an ambulance and at 2 in the morning he arrives by ambulance at Nuova Regina Margherita Hosptial on Viale Trastevere.  Collura writes that Hebborn was taken for a drunken “barbuto” literally “bearded man,” but meaning hobo or homeless. He was wet from rain and left in a corner to sober up, his head wound unnoticed and unattended. His first real care came at about 10 in the morning and Collura points out this was a good 8 hours after he entered the hospital. It’s not clear at which point they find his wallet with ID, money, credit cards. He hadn’t been mugged. It wasn’t until 4 that afternoon, by this time he’d been taken across the river to San Giacomo Hospital, that he had a CAT scan and was operated on. Around midnight his breathing becomes irregular and he dies at 7:40 on 10 January 1996. In general if you talk to people in Rome, they say he was murdered, that the head wound came from the murderer, who must have been a dealer, and not from falling to the pavement.  They say the case was never properly investigated to shield powerful people. Another conspiracy theory for this conspiracy rich world.

Six months after Hebborn’s death, the official looking into the Hebborn case, and relying on the autopsy, dismissed it, saying that his death was only hastened by the head wound he suffered from falling, but he would have died from artereosclerosis (a quick check of the Mayo Clinic site shows that this is treatable) and the onset of cirrhosis of the liver. (There is something hypocritical here, since people who are in comas and can’t possibly recover are the objects of dramatic church vigils, their impossible lives prolonged, and their families and medical providers risk legal actions if treatments are discontinued.) What starts running through my mind is that even if you are a homeless drunk, you deserve prompt medical care; even if you are gay, you deserve a thorough investigation into your death. (Pasolini’s mysterious murder and the ensuing investigation are now being scrutinized, some 35 years later.) I also don’t think this is peculiar to Italy.

A month or two after Hebborn’s death, Kokocinski went to Anticoli Corrado to see what was happening with Santa Maria. He went to the house, found the door open, and the house had been ransacked. There was stuff all over the floor, things had been burnt. To gauge how bad it was, I ask him if it looks like the photos of Francis Bacon’s studio, and he says worse, it looked worse. The pity here is that the papers were not taken in as evidence, when there was thought that Hebborn might have been murdered.  Perhaps there would have been clues about his death. There might have been, or almost surely would have been records, maybe one for each drawing, showing where they’d been sold and a lot of doubts could have been lifted from the world of old master drawings.

Kokocinski picked up some papers, really at random, to remember his friend Eric Hebborn. He shares the folder with me. In it there are notes for his book, a letter to Sotheby’s and Christie’s, a couple of Hebborn as Hebborn drawings and various other papers. I scan some pages, and because it takes too long, I start photographing some of the pages. His handwriting can be good to very good. (In 2004 his treatise on calligraphy Italico per Italiani is published by Colla Editore. Hebborn had translated Michaelangelo’s sonnets into English and written them out.)  I’m struck by how organized he seems to be. Things are bulleted, and 1.2.3. Alessandro says that he was always very methodical and kept his papers well organized, everything in folders.

What surprises me so much about Hebborn is not so much Hebborn himself (I’ve gotten over that), but that so little work is done to try to isolate his fakes. If you look around at museum databases you’ll see that the British Museum is one of the few that list works of Hebborn. Unaccountably, they don’t provide images of their Hebborns. [See 13 Dec. 2012 comment/copyright issue.] Others, in fact, most museums don’t want to admit they have any of his works in their collections. What would really be a service, would be if some university/ies would offer seminars, maybe even Sotheby’s, where they have a training program, and have students assemble and publish online the drawing of Hebborn. It would be excellent for them to develop connoisseurship skills and it would help collectors and others in easing their minds about acquisitions. The business of the Hebborn forgeries have cast such a shadow that one would think that Sotheby’s, Christie’s, Colnaghi’s etc. would share their records to clear this business up.

Below are scans and photographs from the file and brief remarks.

Hebborn Drawing of a Seated Woman and Photograph of Hebborn/John Drawing

Drawing by Hebborn’s of a seated woman on common three-hole punch paper and a photograph of his “Augustus John” drawing, published in Drawn to Trouble.

Hebborn | Inscription Back of John Photo

Back of the photograph of “Augustus John” drawing with interesting inscription. In the book Drawn to Trouble he says that the drawing was given to his English landlord in lieu of rent. Here, it seems that he sold the drawing to Howard McCrindle, although the name is misspelled. Eric Hebborn has at least two of his own drawings, Hebborn as Hebborn,  published in McCrindle’s review, the Transatlantic Review, one in Dec. 1960 (No. 5) issue and another in Spring 1965 (No. 18) issue.

Hebborn | Draft Letter to Sotheby’s and Christie’s

Draft of a letter to the chairmen of Sotheby’s and Christie’s. Nice calligraphic handwriting and the amusing detail of how he cancels out the word “purchased” and writes “sold on my behalf.”

Hebborn | Drawing Media and Supports

Hebborn | Sources for Paper and Parchment

Notes for book, outlining drawing media and drawing supports.

Hebborn | Notes for Talk

Notes for a talk.

Hebborn | From Whom Mr. Hebborn Has Made Acquisitions

“From Whom Mr. Hebborn Has Made Acquisitions” is the heading on this typewritten page. It is written in the third person and has a rather legal tone.

Hebborn | Clipped from Newspaper | Carracci – Boy Drinking

A undated clipping from an English newspaper, about a hopping mad Mrs. King. Alessandro says that Carracci was a favorite of Eric Hebborn’s, although this one doesn’t look like it could have been done by Hebborn. There are no notations on the clipping.

§ 9 Responses to A Conversation with Alessandro Kokocinski about Eric Hebborn"

  • Paul Hamlyn says:

    Interesting stuff. Hebborn’s ‘in the manner of’ method always struck me as a blurring of the traditional studio system of pre-modern art, when it was routine for works attributed to major artists to have been wholly or partially made by assistants. In a moving passage in Drawn to Trouble lies a description of the preparations for and execution of a Piranesi drawing. The intensity he seems to achieve make you wonder whether he effectively becomes a Piranesi assistant.

    And, based on the work shown in the book, I would agree, his own work is nothing special, only when he’s possessed by some ancient does he come into his own.

    Regards,
    Paul

  • Lucy Vivante says:

    Dear Paul,

    Yes, a Piranesi assistant at the distance of a two hundred years or so. His freewheeling drawings in the style of Piranesi, Castiglione, Van Dyck etc. are a lot more convincing than his 15th and 16th century drawings.

    I remember Alessandro Kokocinski saying that Hebborn’s own sculptures and etchings were better than his drawings and pictures. I’d like to see some of his prints. (He received a place at the British School here in Rome to work on prints.)

    All best wishes,
    Lucy

  • Alex says:

    Alessandro is vague on a few points, but all in all pretty fair, i like how Eric’s relationship that lasts 25 years gets dismissed in a ‘oh Edgar’ a exotic dancer in Jesus Christ Superstar (it was a role in Hair) , villa San Filippo did have a garden more impressive then the house it’s self, even tho the secret garden and the tree house he used for drawing lessons where nicest thing , villa Santa Maria was not difficult to force open, as the bohemien couple Edgar and Eric where, they never had locks on the doors , the the theft was carried out in 3 different times, on the first all the drawings from the studio where stolen , on the second the hetchings and all the printig material, including the studies for the epic of gilgamesh, the wrestlers , and on the third part sculptures including a original alto rilievo of Luca della robbia that was set on the fireplace, oh i forgot, he used to make and keep sketches on moleskine booklets , and he must have had about 50 in his studio, those where stolen right after the funeral

  • Alex says:

    oh and if it’s random papers u want the house is still full

  • Lucy Vivante says:

    Hi Alex, Many thanks for your very interesting comments. If you’re in Rome, or near Rome, I’d love to invite you to lunch. All best, Lucy

  • Mauro Mioni says:

    A Roman, living abroad since 1964, I was introduced to Hebborn’s Drawn to Trouble, by another Roman exile, the Russian-born restorer Aleksey Tivetsky. I frankly delighted in Hebborn’s prose and was fascinated by the writer. As from time to time I travel to Rome to visit with my aged mother and a brother, I had hoped to meet Hebborn on my next trip. Clearly, after close to half century living abroad, I have become far removed from Roman events, as I was not aware Hebborn had been murdered not 300 meters from a small apartment I have near Piazza di S. Maria in Trastevere. Aside from ethical considerations, which in any case only exist in one’s most private sensibilities, the man must have been immensely fascinating. I am profoundly sorry for the loss.

  • Mark Swan says:

    I new Eric and Edgar well during the early eighties when living in Anticoli and shared many an idyllic hour with them in Santa Maria. Eric was always the most wonderful company, full of humour and generous in spirit. Many times since I have walked in my memory down through the chestnut woods that surrounded Santa Maria, to visit in my mind that haven of good sense and taste, such a rare and precious place. With Erics tragic death the chance of returning was forever gone but i thought to type his name along with that of Santa Maria into a search engine and found this sad news about the sacking of his house.
    The work of his that most impressed me was what he did around the Gilgamesh story. He had hand written with a beautiful calligraphy his own version in verse illustrated with his etchings. Eric planned to publish this as a limited edition and i don’t know whether this came to fruition. I have tried to find a copy but in vain, to hear that all this might have been subject to some wanton vandalism or profiteering is a terrible injustice to his name and loss to posterity. The many manusript sheets and etchings I saw reflected the intensity of feeling he had for the subject and together would have done justice to his sensitivity and talent.
    My apologies for a somewhat tangential comment but thanks to Lucy Vivante for hosting this page and posting the images of some of Erics work. It is only fitting that he should appear in a discussion about what makes drawings so appealing and attractive, he was certainly an authority on the subject.

  • Hugo Chapman says:

    The reason why the BM’s collection of Hebborn drawings has no images on the on-line database is simply for copyright reasons. I would be delighted to make them more accessible as they are a good group, all but one donated to us, which show EH’s skills as a faker of Old Master drawings. We would need to obtain permission from EH’s estate to allow images of them to appear on our website, so if anyone knows who are his heir(s) please let me know, otherwise we will have to wait for 70 years to elapse before copyright expires. If EH’s drawings were catalogued as the Old Masters they purported to be (and in the case of the ‘van Dyck’ the BM bought from Colnaghi’s in 1970 we were certainly taken in by his work) they could be illustrated on our website, but as works of a recently deceased artist they cannot.

  • Timothy says:

    Hi, this is especially for Alex, since you seem to have some inside knowledge. Hebborn mentioned a paper on drawing in his book. You dont happen to know if its still around? Or how to bet hold of it?

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