Tim Appelo
September 27, 1996 AT 04:00 AM EDT

”I was quite shocked when [press reports] said the paintings in Surviving Picasso were ‘knockoffs,”’ says Vernon Witham. ”I’m not a knockoff artist — I’m a very great painter. This could ruin my whole reputation!”

Or make it. As Surviving opens, Witham’s Picassoesque paintings from his Cubist period (1946-51), some of which appear on screen, are going on sale at the Santa Fe, N.M., Tiqua Gallery. Witham’s work has been exhibited alongside Georgia O’Keeffe’s and Rufino Tamayo’s, but at 70, the Santa Fe resident is getting his first big taste of fame. ”We’ve had an art appraiser give us estimates — $8,000 to $48,000. Good enough for us.”

Surviving director James Ivory already owned a Witham, which he’d bought when he was Witham’s art-school classmate at the University of Oregon in Eugene circa 1951. Says Ivory, ”I paid $100 for it” — about three years’ tuition. ”I photographed his work and kept a lot of slides. Even after 40 years, they still looked good.”

They looked downright wonderful when Ivory realized his young art department, so good at faking Matisse cutouts, was not cutting the Cubist mustard. The best the artists could do was Picasso replicas — but those were forbidden by Picasso’s estate. ”I was really getting desperate,” says Ivory. ”The son, Claude [Picasso], never gave us a chance to have a meeting with him. There’s something kind of lunatic and royal about it — ‘The king has spoken!”’

So Warner Bros. hired a Whitney Museum curator to make sure no canvas was too close to the regal real thing (”Not a copy, God forbid!” says Ivory) — or too amateurish. ”The problem was you could see which particular works the art department was knocking off,” says the Whitney’s Francis M. Naumann. ”I made a rating system for the knockoffs: (a) That’s okay; (b) show only in shadows; (c) get it the hell away from the film, ’cause everybody would laugh themselves silly. I have to tell you, most of them were Cs.”

Ivory saved the day last November by finding Witham’s number in the University of Oregon art school alumni directory and phoning from London. ”I hadn’t heard from him since ’51,” says Witham. ”I never copied a Picasso in my life. My paintings play Picassos.”

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