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The British Academy has just held a conference on Ancient Plaster March 30th & 31st 2021 in which I presented a video and was on one discussion panel on the 31st.

The videos to watch the event are here: Day One and Day Two.  
 
The conference programme and pre-watch videos are also available.

 

I took this rare opportunity to speak about life casting and the revolutionary discovery at the British Museum that there is a big Roman contribution to the Elgin Marbles and to the surprise of all it is superior to the Greek. The conference was planned for 2020 before Covid and the final morning was scheduled as me conducting a visit to the BM. Alas that never took place but one day I hope it will be possible again.
In the event the revolution that was hinted at in the ad was never mentioned or debated but I think we won on the life casting which had previously been a "career ending" taboo. A recording of the full conference is available but I recommend particularly Lumsden and my own videos. I wrote a letter to The Guardian including my closing note on the proceedings as follows:

 

To the editor of The Guardian
Re. The Ancient Plaster Conference.
2.4.21
Dear Sir,


I include below my closing notes on the conference in which you will see that the courageous ambition of the conference was hijacked by the establishment scholars and recorded in tedious detail in entirety. Apart from showing surprising ignorance of elementary details of sculptural practice on the part of the experts it demonstrates just how art is misruled by them.
Further details available at www.nigelkonstam.com
Faithfully yours,
Nigel Konstam

NOTES ON THE ANCIENT PLASTER CONFERENCE

These notes may help as there was never time to answer the many questions.

1. There is no need to confuse lime plaster with with gypsum plaster although the word plaster remains the same, their properties are very different; lime plaster (as in in lath and plaster) is used in Tudor architecture and for fresco painting and pargeting. It is the same chemically as lime mortar but made with fine, sharp sand. If well maintained it is remarkably resistant to weather and has compressive strength but very little tensile strength. It has a long working time of several hours but takes weeks to attain full strength by drying.
Gypsum plaster, on the other hand, is normally used in plaster casting and has remarkable tensile strength when mixed with fibre; so is the obvious choice for building a wooden armature for a colossal statue. However it is not very resistant to weather. It has a very much faster setting time, somewhere between 3 and 30 minutes under normal circumstances. It is therefore used for life or death castings as well as normal plaster casting for which lime plaster is not at all suitable.

2. It is important to realise the difference between waste-moulding and piece-moulding, which is very complicated and time consuming and developed in plaster (see note below for a more primitive clay-piece mould) somewhere in 18th or 19th centuries to produce multiples. A waste-mould has to be smashed to free the positive made of inflexible, plaster. It is not possible to take a plaster cast off an inflexible material unless it has no under-cuts whatever. However, it is possible to take several casts in a flexible material such as wax or damp clay out of a waste-mould without breaking it so long as the undercuts are not too severe. (All my bronze portraits are cast from the original clay in this way.)

3. Martin’s alginate was invented less than 50 years ago. However, a similar process was available to the ancients - by dipping a damp, live, hand 3 or 4 times into warm wax (near the point of setting). This glove of wax can then be sliced in half while still warm with a blunt blade such as the back of a table knife, in order to free the live hand and maintain the form of the wax mould. The wax mould should be cooled in water before trying to remove it from the hand. The results filled with plaster will be very similar to Martin’s with the added advantage that the wax can be reused.

4. Though I rate Bernini as the sculptor most gifted with natural talent, I cannot believe he made the second copy of his Scipio portrait (his greatest) from memory. He had, after all, the original blemished marble to work from. I can believe it took him only a fortnight to complete the second version. His behaviour in Paris is typical of a cunning showman who was not going to show those frogs how he actually achieved his best works. Why did he make the clay sketches if not for use later? The resulting portrait was nothing like so good as the Scipio. Bernini was a great sculptor but an inveterate braggart and what he said should not be taken as the basis for the inflated ideas of the earlier imagination or visual memory which now gravely distort opinion in the history of art.

5. Most sculptors choose to design first in clay or wax and make drawings from these maquettes if required; not vice versa. Michelangelo’s Ascension drawings bear witness to this because the wonderful Christ figures are clearly observed from a modified, probably wax figurine; while the subsidiary figures (from imagination) are perfectly horrid. Ancient geniuses fed their imagination with reality. (see “Michelangelo’s Models” or www.saveRembrandt.org)

6. Though I normally carve-direct into stone without previous design; for a large group, such as my “Good Samaritan” I made a papier-mache actual size model; first to try on site and then for a team of assistants to measure in the studio in order to remove masses of stone from the 12 ton block with diamond saws and then with more refined geometry and pneumatic hammers, before I the sculptor, need come on the scene to finish by eye, detail way beyond that on the paper model. In the 19thC the plaster model would be so detailed that the sculptor needed no hand in the marble, though doubtless some would choose to participate.

7. At the conference itself I pointed out that the two demonstrations of carving with geometry were stultifying 19thC inventions; where the Roman method using a measuring boss, callipers and plumb line pushed the sculptor’s thoughts towards Platonic solids and thus became the backbone of European drawing (citing Mantegna, Masaccio. Holbein. Rembrandt, Degas and Giacometti as examples. (see my article in Apollo, Aug. 1972)

CONCLUSION
It was a pity that no time at all could be found to discuss the ample evidence I had produced in my video for the the revision of art history through the comparison of the Dionysus figure (Greek) with the Ilissos figure on the west pediment of the Parthenon, which I hold to be Roman, in agreement with the earlier opinion of Richard Payne Knight. Those of you who may have been attracted by the advertisement “ the conference has the potential to revolutionise the entire field of Greek and Roman sculpture” should make known your disappointment and organise a further conference to that end.

We can at least hope that the discussion of life-casting will in future be allowed in archaeology circles as a result of this conference.

(In reviewing my contribution to the conference I would like to correct my description of the making of a primitive clay piece-mould for the bronze of the Apollo of Piraeus: I meant to say press the clay against the marble (not against the bronze). Perhaps one day someone could make a video of the process together with photos of the side and back views of the bronze which so badly miscarried. The feet and ankles are cast from life)

 

A Plea for more realism in Art

I am deeply grateful to the internet because it has given me the possibility of publishing my discoveries in art history which has largely been denied me by the establishment. My revolutionary book on Rembrandt is only available on internet. My pamphlet “Elgin Arguments” I published myself. The curious thing is, though I have scored a good number of hits during my long presence on internet the simple truths that I purvey have had zero tolerance or response from the establishment and little from the interested public. I takes a lot to persuade people to join a crusade but that is what is needed.

On the few occasions I have published in the prestigious journals it is because I have been sponsored or assisted by an establishment figure who could not be denied. Nonetheless, the prestige of Gombrich. Moran or Hoffmann have not earned me the response to a strong challenge to accepted ideas those highly esteemed persons had recognised and backed.

I have received only one near rational criticism of my Rembrandt mirror proofs in 48 years since I made them available in 1974, That was the observation that mirrors of the size I have calculated (8 foot across) did not exist in Rembrandt’s day. True but composite mirrors certainly did. Velásquez had a whole hall of mirrors at his disposal in the royal palace first in Toledo then in Madrid. Amsterdam was the leading manufacturer of mirrors in Rembrandt’s day. I have found the identical mirror to the one painted in Las Meninas in a Dutch frame in the sacristy of Toledo Cathedral. Eight such mirrors mounted together would be sufficient to see the whole figural subject matter of Las Meninas; alas, we have no record of the size of the mirrors in the Hall of Mirrors. I maintain that Las Meninas was painted in the room next door to the hall of mirrors in the royal palace in Toledo, the mirrors were then in the process of moving to Madrid. Everything fits but the position of the lighted doorway, which was in the position of the mirror as painted, and the second chandelier fitting – was placed centrally over the mirror to alter the perspective. The first chandelier fitting is in the true centre of the square room (Los Olbidados).

As a student of sculpture it was never my ambition to rewrite art history but curiosity led me to question many long held beliefs and after a lifetime of practical experience and enquiry I have amassed many truths about how pivotal masterpieces were actually achieved that should interest artists and might even be useful to them. Meanwhile the professional art historians refuse to recognise the proven truths that expose their time honoured beliefs as misconceptions.

Art history has been dogged by mythology even when written by the artists themselves. Telling tall stories is a normal part of sales technique, but much too much has been tolerated. In the last 50 years we have seen the rise to dominance of art by the professional art historians whose job is often selling art and as a result the mythology has got completely out of hand. Falsehoods harden into dogma if not corrected. Few people believe that Hercules actually performed his labours but mankind seems to love heroes on a grand scale. Superman is awe inspiring but when we apply the same aggrandisement to artists of the past it does not help our understanding of them or their techniques; in fact art mythology undermines the confidence of our present practitioners leading them to expect the same miracles from their own imagination that are falsely claimed for the old masters. This creates a gulf between past and present that is deeply destructive.

What we have admired over the centuries is normally the result of observation not imagination. The language of art is based upon our everyday experience. Old art helped us to recognise what was going on in the world: how humans express themselves non-verbally through body language. Modern art thinks it has gone beyond this commonly held language and invented a lot of abstract patterns that are without meaning, they may amuse for a time but cannot help us in life. I fear that this neglect in art is already taking its toll on human communication in life. The virtual world is partly to blame for this but body-language is no longer properly scrutinised by art historians; they have buried their heads in the pseudo-science of style.

Civilisations tend to be judged by the art they produce and for me and I guess for the silenced majority, the art in our lifetime is in steep decline. For the first time in history art is guided by the theoreticians rather than the artists and their patrons. Alas, there seems a direct relationship between the rising power of art historians and the decline of both connoisseurship and the practice of art. Little wonder that the language of discussion in art has come to be known as “art bollocks” and justly gets short shrift in the journals. It is the jargon of a tiny cottery in Britain who wield the substantial power over, income, and prestige of The Arts Council; they wield that power without scruple or proper government control. Time will almost certainly judge their investments on our behalf as laughable if not criminal. Their position at the apex of the art pyramid ensures that art education has suffered in a way that may take generations to repair, or may prove irreparable.

Art historians enjoy a prestigious position in society because their opinion, however flawed, influences the millions paid for works of art. They dress like bankers and they wield similar power without the necessary understanding. No wonder the top dogs – the Rembrandt scholars have come to judge themselves way beyond criticism and have therefore inflicted huge damage on their subject and refuse to listen when this is pointed out. (see Burlington Magazine Feb.1977 or SaveRembrandt.org).

I have a number of specific complaints against our art experts apart from their over estimation of the importance of invention. Secondly they are fixated on novelty in modern works. It is true that we have always admired any genuine innovation but most of their innovations are diversions that offer no new insights. I cannot name a single useful new cast of mind they have identified.Their novelties dilute the atmosphere of art, they degrade it to a one-night-stand on television. The language of art like any other language has to remain understandable to those who use it, only a very small percentage can afford to be new at any one time without loss of communication. Van Gogh is immediately recognisable and original but his drawing grammar is based on what he learnt from Rembrandt and his brilliant colour emerged after seeing the Impressionists and meeting Gauguin. Many artists claim to be standing on the shoulders of their predecessors; like scientists we build on the work of others. A sensible way forward is best decided by the artists over time rather than the art historians. They have made a terrible mess in the short time of their dominance. The most famous art movement is called the Renaissance meaning Rebirth. My own art often finds inspiration in what I see in the work of others.

Genuine innovations in art arrive rarely and are difficult to define. Rembrandt was perhaps the most original artist ever but I have to rely on my own judgement to know where it is that he is so original. I have learnt little from previous experts in this respect, and regard our present ones as an abomination with no understanding of his art or character. Group-think has taken them further from the Rembrandt we knew from his work, his statements, his teaching and from his contemporaries’ accounts than was imaginable before it has become our regular experience over the media for the last 50 years. Recently experts have wrought more havoc through their misunderstandings, than the succession of “super-artists” promoted by them, those leave us confused and rudderless but are soon forgotten.

A third complaint is related – it is their habit to attribute miracles to ancient masters that are far beyond anything achievable today. Otto Benesch who wrote the catalogue of ' drawings is explicit, speaking of Rembrandt’s biblical drawings he says “his continuously productive fantasy” produced scenes “ with such a nearness to life as if he had seen them with his own eyes.” Well I proved, beyond reasonable doubt, that he did see them in the reality that he produced in his studio for himself and his students to work from. It is obvious to any open mind but the experts are still in denial. They have to be or their expertise falls apart. Benesch insists that “invention was the strength of old art” where in his day (1957) “artists mainly rely upon a model.” See also Haverkamp Begemann’s letter to me (link) where he speaks of the 17th C imagination as if it was quite different from anything we experience today. I reasonably presume the 17th C imagination was very similar to our own; it is just that 17th C. artists had the good sense to feed their imagination on reality.

Much the same denial is happening with my rediscovery that the Elgin Marbles are half Roman replacements for the original Greek, which had been damaged by smoke. Furthermore and most surprisingly the Roman work has been regularly preferred by the experts to the Greek; exactly the reverse of their insistence that Greek art is vastly superior. Like the Rembrandt scholars, the archaeologists have remained silent in answer to these disturbing new truths. There is a summary and a video of the Greek discoveries at www.nigelkonstam.com also a pamphlet “Elgin Arguments”

When I call my findings a rediscovery that is because Richard Payne Knight pronounced they were all Roman at the time Elgin was selling his collection. Furthermore, Elgin himself left a group on the west pediment because he believed them to be Roman. I believe the whole of the west pediment is Roman. I do not rely on style there are many concrete observations such as the pattern of smoke and of weathering to aid us in making the uncomfortable leap to a new truth, however shocking.

*********************

Here I will attempt a geometric proof of the Rembrandt discoveries found at the same internet address: - but first it is essential to understand that a mirror image is a reversal of a new view of a three dimensional group. It is quite different to the print reversal one comes across in etchings for instance; those are a purely two dimensional reversals. All the reversals I use in the many instances published have to have a three dimensional group as source. My most used example is Rembrandt’s drawing of four musicians derived from two live models and their mirror image. This is particularly telling because of the reversal of the flutes but I have found 80 further examples of the same behaviour in drawings and 20 examples of a more complex use of mirrors resulting in two separate drawings. The most extensive example of this method is in the two paintings of “The Adoration of the Shepherds” where 8 figures and a number of architectural features from the Munich version, which is observed direct, are reversed in the London reflected version. Not as single figures, the spaces between them remain constant, the whole array is accurately mirrored but for the cow and the boy with a dog. The chances of this happening without a mirror (or a computer) must be many, many millions to one. There must have been a large group and a large mirror assembled in a barn for this project, furthermore student drawings support this explanation. I think scientists would regard this as proof. The Rembrandt scholars, nonetheless, feel free to neglect it at huge cost to Rembrandt and because of his status to art today. The National Gallery briefly returned their version to the Rembrandt room after I put my research on YouTube. It had been languishing in the basement after the Rembrandt Research Project had de-attributed it. Now it is in restoration for no reason other than embarrassment!

The Remedy Otto Benesch, who wrote the catalogue of Rembrandt’s drawings (Phaidon 1954) had a remarkably good eye but his ideas were often haywire; unfortunately the ideas have been followed unquestioningly by his successors. In his Rembrandt “Selected Drawings” (Phaidon 1957) Benesch gives the rational of his catalogue he states that “numerous as the studies from nature are… they are far out numbered by those that are the result of Rembrandt’s continuously productive fantasy” (p. 18.). My discovery of Rembrandt’s use of live models and mirrors decisively reverses Benesch’s statement: almost all are drawn from life. Benesch’s catalogue is nonetheless the best basis for future scholarship. He goes astray when he tries to date drawings. He invented a chronology of Rembrandt drawings which I disproved in my Burlington article (Feb.1977). Differences that Benesch explains by Rembrandt’s evolution, I explain by the change of stimulus, whether drawn from life, from reflection or from imagination. These three categories are clear-cut and recognisable by non-specialists. The same difference between observed and imagined is often seen among artists today. My research which was supported by Gombrich and many other eminent visitors to my exhibition at Imperial College should have led to a major revision immediately; instead any revision has made the position of the experts very much worse. (See also video The Dismissal of Hagar). Benesch had to stick to his ideas of imagination rather than groups of live models in order to construct his chronology. As soon as one knows there were groups of models there his chronology becomes nonsense. Unfortunately modern scholarship has chosen to.continued with Benesch’s nonsense and is therefore deeply damaging to our understanding of Rembrandt. Furthermore, Haverkamp-Begemann along with most of his colleagues seems to believe that the fewer drawings there are to deal with the easier it will be to understand Rembrandt so they have whittled them down to 500 where Benesch believes in nearly 1500. I believe in over 2200.

Rembrandt loved drawing, it was his discovery and try-out mode, the ones we most admire are observed from life recreated in the studio. The imagined ones are quite different and at their worst in B.970 Jupiter with Philemon and Baucis, where Rembrandt sees his failure and writes a note to himself on the drawing. There are many heavy handed composition's drawings which also testify to Rembrandt’s preference for working from observation; a fact constantly repeated in the documents but entirely neglected by the scholars..

At his best Benesch has this to say about the later drawings “the figures are now composed of cubes, rhombus and cylinder forms and have clearly crystallised shape” he is referring to what I regard as the Roman influence on Rembrandt. He is also wise insofar as he advises that “to find the genuine Rembrandt it's necessary to think of his attitude to humanity” advice that recent scholarship has again neglected. Could one possibly describe Dickens’ style leaving out his attitude to humanity?

Benesch also recognises that the facial expressions in Rembrandt’s drawings are fairly standard, “it is the expression of the body that carries the message so clearly”absolutely true; this approach is of course history painting which used to be the highest ambition for artists and certainly was for Rembrandt. Alas, in my student days this positive attitude to illustration was deeply frowned upon; we had come to believe other qualities in art were more valuable - the abstract architectural quality and although this quality had been often drowned out in Victorian times by sentiment, I personally don't think the architecture is more important than human expression which is the very basis of the language of old art. I call myself a New Humanist in the hope that body-language will return as a central interest of art. Rembrandt is the greatest of all illustrators, to neglect that aspect is to grossly underestimate him. To suggest that he achieved his pre-eminence from imagination is grossly misleading.

Benesch spent a lot of time trying to persuade us that Rembrandt’s handwriting adds to the spiritual quality of his work. In fact his handwriting is very much like anyone else's. In my analysis of “Christ Raising a Sick Woman”  I follow his thought process in turning a robust Christ who hoists the unfortunate woman to her feet - into Christ the miraculous healer. Nothing to do with handwriting all to do with nudging the image in the wished for direction. Rembrandt’s draughtsmanship aims at inner expression before muscularity and this is not limited to spiritual expression he is just as interested in how a group carries a body (see the comparison with Raphael or the throwing of a stone in The Stoning of St.Stephen or the thoughts of other guests in “The Unworthy Wedding Guest” all on YouTube. 

Nonetheless there's a much more important complaint I have to make against art history generally and that is the long-standing neglect or underestimation of Roman form. Rembrandt owned 30 Roman portraits and filled two books with drawings of them Rembrandt’s art is entirely based on Roman form rather than Greek. His huge originality rests on his extension of the Roman tradition. While art history is constantly ridiculing Roman in comparison with the Greek art; Rembrandt did the opposite. His flying angels seem to me a deliberate dig at Raphael’s (Greek) method. 

My much more recent discovery of the Roman additions to the Parthenon have strengthened the case that I have always felt but not expressed precisely before. Roman geometry developed in the process of copying, has become at least half of the European form tradition (See Masaccio, Mantegna, Holbein, Rembrandt, Degas, Giacometti) I, with my emphasis on the prime importance of observation, regard it as the better half of the European tradition, something that art history has been denying. Raphael was the master of the Greek form, suitable for invention but to me it is no more than the manipulation of a formula, which has become tired through over use, “idealised”is a poor substitute for truth. (I hope I have conveyed that idea on YouTube)

The word style is often linked with costume and there is a sense that style can be put on or changed like a suit of clothes; art history tends to treat it in this way but Stravinsky, who was a master style-changer, also said in his recorded conversations “style is the whole man” and I think Benesch was saying the same when he recommends finding the true Rembrandt through his attitudes to humanity.

Recent Rembrandt scholarship tends to confuse style with mere handwriting. The quality of marks made by Rembrandt’s various drawing implements. Chalk or charcoal make a very different mark to a quill pen or a reed pen. His pattern of form making, however remains remarkably consistent whether he is painting or drawing with a variety of implements. One must hope that art historians start thinking in terms of form rather than style. Style as they understand it is superficial and clearly wrong in Rembrandt’s case. As a generalisation artists’ style does vary as they develop but not in the rigid linear way Benesch and others suppose. The presence of a particular group of models is a far more reliable way of assigning dates than similarity of appearance to Hagar (see video linked above), which demonstrates how drawings of the same group have been separated from one another by Benesch’s system of style). The same could be said of “The Raising of Jairus’ Daughter” for instance, where drawings of the same group are dispersed by Benesch almost over Rembrandt’s entire working life. Benesch’s chronology is remarkably neat because he goes by appearance and is prepared to delete anything that interrupts his scheme; that makes it attractive but entirely misconceived. Much better to use the groups of recognisable models as the guide to approximate date aided by the dates of student paintings of the same group. Otherwise, leave the chronology to science, matching inks and paper. I am certain that Scotland Yard would do a much better job of putting Rembrandt’s drawings in order.

The word form has many meanings; in the art of drawing it usually means not physical form but the mental image of the physical. Greek Classical form uses ovoids and cylinders and in Roman more crystalline geometry (See chapter 2 of An Alternative History of Art) which I favour because it is more flexible i.e. Roman portraits, or Holbein’s portraits are far more individual than Classical Greek ones.)

When I was a student at Camberwell, Dr Vogel, who was the head of sculpture was only interested in whether one could see form or not. It usually took a year or two of study to come to understand what he was talking about but not everyone succeeded. I hope in future art historians will spend that time trying to see form. At the moment few do. They waste their time on “the quality of line!” and Benesch even believes lines contain spiritual significance - Yes, artists use lines to enclose areas. It is the way those areas stack together that creates form. Three rhombuses on a surface make a cube and this convention allows us to create more complicated three dimensional forms on a two dimensional surface (See this video, explanation at 2:48). The quality of line is irrelevant, one can do the same with areas of colour or of tone.

Benesch speaking of Rembrandt’s “important pen work” consisting of “thin whizzing lines or stronger ones with larger intervals... or the vibrant bands of delicate short hatches interspersed with slightly curving hairlines” he writes that Rembrandt had successfully studied the drawings of the Venetian Masters”. What absolute nonsense While all these observations are accurate it is quite clear that Benesch has never done hatching himself because all these marks often result from the the movement of drawing many parallel lines swiftly (known as hatching) they are purely the result of moving the hand swiftly across paper. They have nothing to do with the movement of the spirit they are purely muscular not only Venetians, everyone who does it is capable of the same kind of marks.

I have been critical of Benesch because he is by far the best published critic. The majority of the Rembrandt Research Project (RRP) team resigned because they could not agree on a way forward. There is no way forward they need to go back to Benesch, discarding his ideas about imagination and dating and start all over again by reading the documents. They have proved themselves incapable of reading the drawings, in spite of Rembrandt’s unique transparency. No other artist has left us a record of his “worthless” drawing as Rembrandt does deliberately. (See his flying angels link). On of the reasons artists admire him so much is his honesty in leaving a trail of different attempts. Joshua Reynolds counted 13 adjustments on his way to a final drawing now in the British Museum, which was only a part of his longer eccentric journey to the painting “Lamentation at the Foot of the Cross” (National Gallery, London – see their “Rembrandt, Art in the Making”). How this transparency could have changed into extreme distrust of Rembrandt is a long history of bloomers on the part of the scholars. The Copernicus of Art is no longer visited by students of art. Their trust has been undermined by a false history of the most trustworthy of artists.

Benesch uses the word “structure” as a weaver of fabric might use the term. He seems to have no understanding of geometric structure such as an architect or engineer might use it. That is why he has overlooked many Rembrandt masterpieces; the most obvious one is Rembrandt’s copy of a Holbein figure which actually goes further than Holbein himself in its geometrical structure, a real gem I came across in reproduction in a collection I think in The Hague. It appears in none of the books of Rembrandt’s drawings. It would be nice to have an illustration here. Another optimal example is a very important drawing of “David Appointing Solomon as his Successor” rejected by Benesch and others. In 1922 Benesch actually deattributed this wonderful drawing from a collection of drawings bought by the first Duke of Devonshire from one of Rembrandt’s most successful students) - all of which had earned high regard. I am also sorry to report that Benesch included that dreadful fake of Titus in his “Selected Drawings” of Rembrandt. After leaving the Albertina in Vienna Benesch taught at Harvard, the Dutch scholars are no better, so we must conclude that modern Rembrandt scholars have not the least idea of why artists hold drawing in such high esteem.

The fact that the experts have access to modern scientific instruments does not make them scientists. Their mind-set is medieval – what Benesch from Harvard said must be true, regardless of the overwhelming evidence against him!