Galerie Michael Janssen celebrates the summer with their exhibition Petersburger Saloon. Filled bottom-to-top with works by Mario Ybarra Jr. and the Brothers Posin, the gallery is transformed into a space reminiscent of a nineteenth-century salon. Conveniently placed furniture enhances the effect and invites viewers to linger amid the stacked paintings while encouraging conversation in a manner befitting the social exhibition space. Discussions might include the thrills and upsets during the 2018 World Cup or the vast scope of politics (always contentious), but whatever the topic may be, the fervor will soon die away as visitors realize they are encircled by masterworks of art history.
But how is it possible? How is it that artifacts from Antiquity and sacred Russian ikons come to be nested between the some of the great examples of landscape and portraiture painting from the last five hundred years?
For this we must thank Evgeni, Semjon, and Michail Posin. Since relocating to Berlin more than thirty years ago, they have gained international celebrity for their work, and they are considered by many to be the best art reproducers in the world. Although they have made their reputation as forgers, one would be remiss to call them copyists or counterfeiters—for they are so much more. The trio realized their gift for reproduction while at the Russian Academy of Arts (when St. Petersburg was known as Leningrad), where they went through intensive training in the traditional plastic arts. The rigour of this experience seems never to have left them. They engage with every project to the fullest extent.
Regardless of whether they are painting a Vermeer, a Rembrandt, or a da Vinci, the trio begins each work with in-depth research about the artists, their techniques, and the historical contexts in which the artworks were made. They are even known to visit the originals in-person by travelling to major museums like the Louvre (a practice captured in Die Meisterfälscher aus Neukölln, Anke Rebbert’s 2014 documentary about the brothers). Their dedication is all in the service of best understanding their source material and capturing the spirit of the original—a quality that defines their work ethic and overall creative philosophy.
Demand for reproductions by the Brothers Posin keeps them working around the clock. Given so much popularity, one might think that they would have no time or interest in making artworks of their own invention. Think again! Folded into the exhibition are paintings born purely from the Posins’ imagination: single-horned monsters, bloodied-nose dragons, and figures from history whose features are treated with a humorous twist (like the cat-eyed portrait of Joseph Stalin). As fantastical as these images may be, they are at times difficult to distinguish from the facsimiles because of their skillfulness. Knowing so much about art and how to (re)make it has given the brothers the ability to create totally new and totally convincing paintings in the style of a given artist. Whereas some might find potential mischief in such talent, for the brothers it is yet another way to dialogue with their lifelong love of classical art.
Also in Petersburger Saloon, American artist Mario Ybarra Jr. enjoys a cameo appearance. Selection from his series From L.A. to S.A. and Space Tags—both part of a larger project entitled Silver and Blacks—are interspersed throughout. These nearly monochromatic drawings offer visual contrast to the surrounding colorful paintings, as do their references to graffiti, calligraphy, and comic books. The Mexican-American cultural cues that distinguish so much of Ybarra’s work stand apart from the Posins’ European hommages, and remind us that the history of art is a conversation of many voices.
Text: Patrick J. Reed