Tuesday, June 30, 2009
New Yorker Review: Edward Dolnick's 'The Forger's Spell' and 'The Man Who Made Vermeers' by Jonathan Lopez
THE ART FORGER WHO BECAME A NATIONAL HERO.
by Peter Schjeldahl
The case of Han van Meegeren, the boldest modern forger of Old Masters (as far as we know), is a grand yarn of twisty deceit, involving prestigious dupes and scads of money, with a sensational trial at the finish. It even has a serious side. Van Meegeren, since his death, in 1947, has become a compulsive reference for philosophical discussions of fact and fraud in art—a subject bound to disquiet art lovers. (Be honest. What you are given to believe about an art work is going to color your experience of it.) He became the most original of fakers when, starting in 1936, he put aside mere canny simulations, mostly of the work of Johannes Vermeer, to create wildly implausible pictures which were presented as discoveries of a missing phase in the artist’s conveniently spotty, little-documented opus. (Only thirty-five undisputed Vermeers exist today. As an added boon to forgers, a few aren’t very good.) Van Meegeren’s tour de force was a feat more of intellect than of skill. He knew whom he had to fool first: an eighty-three-year-old monster of vanity named Abraham Bredius, who had an earned, though moldering, track record as an authenticator of newfound Vermeers. In 1937, in the august British art-history journal The Burlington Magazine, Bredius declared “The Supper at Emmaus,” the first of van Meegeren’s late counterfeits, to be “themasterpiece of Johannes Vermeer of Delft.” Other Dutch experts concurred, under pressure to keep a national treasure from being sold overseas. (The remarkably dreary canvas still hangs, presented now as a historical curio, at the Boijmans Museum, in Rotterdam, which bought it in 1937.) It took van Meegeren himself to reveal the truth, in 1945, when not to do so might have put his neck in a hangman’s noose.
Two new books re-spin the van Meegeren saga, one breezily, with entertaining digressions on secondary figures and the arcana of forgery, and the other in profoundly researched, focussed, absorbing depth. “The Forger’s Spell: A True Story of Vermeer, Nazis, and the Greatest Art Hoax of the Twentieth Century” (Harper; $26.95), by the science journalist Edward Dolnick, aggrandizes the story’s abundant hooks, such as the happenstance that van Meegeren’s victims included the art maven Hermann Göring, who, in 1943, swapped a hundred and thirty-seven paintings from his largely ill-gotten collection for a van Meegeren Vermeer. “The Man Who Made Vermeers: Unvarnishing the Legend of Master Forger Han van Meegeren” (Harcourt; $26), by the writer and artist Jonathan Lopez, brings hard light to van Meegeren’s machinations and (very bad) character. Lopez debunks the myths, savored by Dolnick, which cast the forger as a romantic avenger, and which sweeten the tale in other ways. It seems that Göring, while awaiting trial in Nuremberg, may not have learned that his cherished Vermeer was a phony, as nice as it is to think that he did. This small point is notable because, in time, the fact that van Meegeren had scammed Göring helped him not only to evade charges of collaboration but to become a folk hero. Lopez demonstrates how evidence of the painter’s coziness with the Occupation regime got buried by the single question of whether he had sold Göring a patrimonial cynosure (potentially a capital offense) or a worthless fake. Early in 1947, a newspaper poll found van Meegeren to be the second most popular man in the Netherlands, after the newly elected Prime Minister.
Van Meegeren was born in 1889, in the provincial city of Deventer, the third of five children in a middle-class Catholic family. In 1907, his father, a schoolmaster, sent him to Vermeer’s city, Delft, to study architecture. The feckless lad preferred to paint and draw. In 1911, he got his girlfriend, a Protestant named Anna de Voogt, pregnant. They married and soon had a second child. He worked as an assistant drawing instructor (the only steady job he ever held) until 1917, when he moved his household to “the city of beautiful nonsense,” as a contemporaneous guidebook characterized The Hague—the home of the royal family and an illustrious strutting ground for the idle rich. There he launched himself as an artist. With “his small, birdlike frame constantly aflutter and his irreverent sense of humor,” in Lopez’s description, van Meegeren beguiled the town. (A photograph of him from 1918, in Lopez’s book, made me laugh out loud; he comes across as the archetypal simpering fop, fit to start a scene by P. G. Wodehouse.) Lopez—who, unlike Dolnick, speaks Dutch and is steeped in the history of the period—records that van Meegeren became the favorite artist of the Liberal State Party of the Netherlands, a fading force of the patrician élite. His work was sprightly, in a nostalgically conservative vein. His pretty, filmy drawing of a doe, identified as a pet of the young Princess Julianna, became a popular icon throughout the Netherlands. Reproductions testify that he had a subtle sense of color and a firm gift for telling portraiture. Come to think of it, what are artistic forgeries but portraits of imaginary art works?
Van Meegeren’s first legitimate exhibition in The Hague, in 1917, of work in several genres, reaped positive reviews. His second, five years later, of Christian religious paintings, sold well but repelled critics with its treacly piety—van Meegeren, it turned out, was a student of Scripture. (In the show, there was an early-warning “Supper at Emmaus”—representing Jesus, who has appeared as a stranger to his disciples after his death, being recognized at the moment when he breaks bread for them.) Informed opinion consigned van Meegeren to the always populous ranks of the formerly promising. He evoked the setback poignantly in his public confession, in 1945: “Driven into a state of anxiety and depression due to the all-too-meager appreciation of my work, I decided, one fateful day, to revenge myself on the art critics and experts by doing something the likes of which the world had never seen before.” That’s rubbish, if only because the “something” to which van Meegeren referred—his invention of a new Vermeer style—was just the latest chapter in a then still unknown, long-running criminal enterprise. Lopez affirms that van Meegeren was dirty before his artistic reputation collapsed. He speculates—reasonably, to my mind—that faking ruined the artist’s creativity. “Slowly but surely, the imitative logic of forgery condemned Van Meegeren to a state of arrested development,” Lopez writes. The state of being oneself dies when set aside.
Lopez dates van Meegeren’s initiation into The Hague’s underworld of art swindlers to 1920, at the latest. He was mentored by a dealer and painter, Theo van Wijngaarden, who had apprenticed in chicanery with a titan: Leo Nardus. Nardus stuck American millionaires with innumerable old copies, fresh fakes, and fanciful misattributions of famous artists until 1908, when a panel of invited experts, including Bernard Berenson and Roger Fry, convened at the home of the Philadelphia streetcar magnate P. A. B. Widener and concluded that his collection was worth about five per cent of what Nardus had charged him for it. (Found out but unexposed—to spare Widener and other duped moguls public embarrassment—Nardus was left free to indulge his passions for chess and swordsmanship; he won a bronze medal in fencing for the Dutch team at the 1912 Olympics.) The hardly less resourceful van Wijngaarden, on his own, perfected a paint medium, gelatin glue, to finesse a standard test for the age of oil paint: rubbing with alcohol, which dissolves oils that have had less than decades to dry. (The glue weathers alcohol but, as was later discovered—too late for a generation of marks—softens on contact with another chemical compound: water.) Van Wijngaarden maintained a network of well-placed accomplices, extending to London and Berlin, who could pilot fakes into the mainstream of respectable commerce. He lacked only top-drawer product. He himself painted well, but not well enough. He wanted an adept protégé, and he found him in van Meegeren, who was ready.
Soon after arriving in The Hague, van Meegeren had cast off Anna and the children and taken up with the raffish Johanna de Boer, the actress wife of a friend. She became his complaisant partner for life and, in 1928, his second wife, apparently indulgent of his extravagant and libertine ways, as well as his alcoholism, which became full-blown in the early nineteen-thirties. During the war, van Meegeren even maintained a separate house, in Amsterdam, for partying, where, it was reported, prostitutes were encouraged to grab jewels from an opened strongbox on their way out. Johanna is frustratingly shadowy in both books. What she knew of her husband’s crimes needn’t be plumbed. Starting in the nineteen-twenties, his spasmodic income, which added up to millions of pre-inflation dollars, would have spoken for itself. After 1932, the couple inhabited houses on the French Riviera, where van Meegeren could more easily evade questions about his mysterious wealth. But Johanna’s point of view would be fascinating grist—for a novel, if not enough is discoverable to flesh out a biography. The same can be said of several supporting players in the comedy. Dolnick gratifies a reader’s side-long interest with piquant accounts of, among others, the gulled Bredius, a gay, once brilliant aesthete, living in splendor in Monaco, with an insatiable ache for prestige, and Joseph Piller, a young Jewish lieutenant and hero of the Dutch Resistance, who arrested van Meegeren—knocking at the door of the artist’s grand house on May 29, 1945—and then, in a fever of vicarious celebrity, became his champion, a seduction trenchantly conveyed by Lopez. (The “fat, swaggering” figure of the infinitely grotesque Göring, however, distractingly consumes far more pages in Dolnick’s narrative than his part warrants.)
Van Meegeren never admitted having produced any of the known gelatin-glue Vermeers, which included “The Lacemaker” and “The Smiling Girl,” but he almost certainly did paint them. Van Wijngaarden steered the pictures to the attention of a revered German connoisseur, Wilhelm von Bode, who was taken in by them—predictably, as they seem to have been created with him in mind. (“The Smiling Girl” echoed a detail of a Vermeer—“The Girl with a Glass of Wine”—that Bode had adored since his early youth.) The always sticky matter of provenance was glossed over with tales of impecunious émigrés from the Russian Revolution—at a time when toppled aristocrats manned hotel doors throughout Europe—and amid expectations that lost works by Vermeer were bound to turn up, several having done so since his rediscovery by a French connoisseur in the eighteen-sixties. The two paintings were sold to the Pittsburgh banker Andrew Mellon by the magus of Old Master dealers, Joseph Duveen, and adorned the National Gallery in Washington, at one point nervously reassigned to a “Follower of Vermeer,” in the nineteen-seventies. “The Lacemaker,” especially, looks silly now, depicting a pert young woman who could be a sidekick of Louise Brooks. But superior forgeries typically secrete subliminally up-to-the-minute associations, which pass, at first blush, as signs of “timeless” genius. The art historian Max Friedländer, who said, “Forgeries must be served hot,” promulgated a forty-year rule—four decades or so being how long it takes for the modern nuances of a forgery to date themselves as clichés of the period in which they were painted. Duveen was misled, although he wasn’t by van Meegeren’s “Emmaus.” In 1937, he sent his right-hand man, Edward Fowles, to inspect the painting in Paris. Fowles cabled, “PICTURE A ROTTEN FAKE.” (Duveen kept the verdict to himself; saving other dealers from disgrace didn’t figure in his business plan.) Both books vivify the wild-and-woolly milieu of Jazz Age dealing in old art. Barely professionalized, and with museum science still primitive, the trade relied on the often snap judgments of glorified amateurs, of whom even the loftiest (even Berenson) were goof-prone—Duveen had earlier spurned “Girl with the Red Hat,” the only true Vermeer to emerge in the twenties.
Dolnick is good on van Meegeren’s studio practice, which kept pace with scientific progress. Mediocre old paintings, from the prolific Dutch Golden Age, were cheaply available, as grounds to paint on; but the overnight creation of a convincingly antique paint surface was a challenge. Van Meegeren’s late fakes deploy Bakelite, which, as a liquid medium, hardens with heat and stands up to almost any solvent. He learned, with difficulty, to make an ancestor of modern plastics ape the fluency of oils. Many failed experiments led at length to a proper blend, with admixed floral oils, and the correct baking recipe. “Emmaus,” a big picture, would have been larger, but the old painting, on its original stretchers, that van Meegeren bought for the job wouldn’t fit in his makeshift oven. As a matter of course, he used only pigments that were available to Vermeer, and concocted effects of age: craquelure, wormholes, yellowed varnish, soilage, and, for good measure in “Emmaus,” a poorly repaired rip. He turned negligent in subsequent works. Göring’s canvas, “Christ and the Adulteress,” employs cobalt blue, a nineteenth-century innovation in paints, and it is carelessly drawn, with anatomical solecisms in the figures. But van Meegeren no longer had to evoke Vermeer. It was enough that the hand that painted the works plainly be the same that had painted “Emmaus.” In 1945, his captor, Joseph Piller, had him paint a valedictory Vermeer, putatively to settle doubts of his confession but really, Lopez establishes, as a publicity stunt. That showpiece, “Christ in the Temple,” strikes me, in reproduction, as by far the most fetching of the lot, garnished with a droll anachronism: Jesus holds forth over an opened Bible. Time-travelled to recent years, van Meegeren would have made an upstanding postmodernist.
In the nineteen-thirties, painting Vermeers became less of a problem for van Meegeren than legitimatizing them. Having drifted out of touch with complicit intermediaries, he came into his own as a con man, tricking innocents into bringing his goods to market. The patsy for “Emmaus” was a Liberal State Party parliamentarian, Gerard A. Boon, who had led the successful fight for woman suffrage in the Netherlands and was a fierce critic of Nazi Germany. Van Meegeren convinced this good man that the painting belonged to a Dutch family living in Italy, who, persecuted by the Fascist authorities, desperately needed funds for an escape to America. The rest was intricate but, once Bredius was on board, smoothly managed. Boon’s receptiveness to van Meegeren is a puzzle, given Lopez’s insistence that the artist was an arch ultra-rightist. But his case seems solid. For three years, starting in 1928, in The Hague, van Meegeren published a scurrilous magazine, De Kemphann (The Fighting Cock), in which, Lopez writes, he “denounced modern painting as ‘art-Bolshevism,’ described its proponents as a ‘slimy bunch of woman-haters and negro-lovers,’ and invoked the image of ‘a Jew with a handcart’ as a symbol for the international art market.” He execrated van Gogh in particular. In 1945, while van Meegeren was imprisoned, an awkward item turned up in Hitler’s private library at the Reich Chancellery, in Berlin: a deluxe volume of poems by a Dutch Nazi poet, illustrated by van Meegeren and inscribed, in German, “To my beloved Führer in grateful tribute, from H. van Meegeren, Laren, North Holland, 1942.” Van Meegeren acknowledged the signature but theorized that a German officer must have penned the dedication, even though the handwriting was clearly the same. At his trial on an open-and-shut charge of forgery, all such matters were ignored. Urges to go easy on van Meegeren seem to have afflicted ordinarily sensible people—Dolnick among them, in much of his book—as if by hypnosis.
Lopez advances a sophisticated and troubling answer to the question that is most likely to baffle us: How could anyone, for an instant, have taken “Emmaus” to be a work by Vermeer? I remember being stupefied, many years ago, when, ignorant of van Meegeren, I came upon the painting in the Boijmans. It seemed not only unlike Vermeer but unlike anything this side of a thrift shop. I missed stylistic cues that both Lopez and Dolnick describe, mainly the borrowed composition of a 1606 “Emmaus” by Caravaggio. This planted secret thrilled scholars who had been debating possible Italian influences on Vermeer, one writer having gone so far as to wonder if a lost work might be found to prove the connection. Vermeer was known to have painted one Biblical scene—“Christ in the House of Mary and Martha” (1654-55)—why not another? He was, and still is, suspected of having been a closet Catholic, embracing a faith, his wife’s, that was banned in Delft. Both the character and the obscure provenance of “Emmaus” made sense if it had been created for one of Delft’s clandestine Catholic churches. But that does not explain the enthusiasm of credulous aesthetes for a dismal painting. Lopez deduces a blind spot in our art-historical knowledge and, indeed, in our larger comprehension of European culture between the World Wars. We may easily peg the party-girl mien in “The Lacemaker” and the longueur of another van Meegeren triumph, “The Girl with a Blue Hat,” bought by the major collector Baron Heinrich Thyssen, which merits its sobriquet, “The Greta Garbo Vermeer.” But the period accent of “Emmaus” escapes us.
It’s Volksgeist, Lopez argues. “Folk spirit” has a long genealogy of relatively benign synonyms, such as “national character.” Hegel promoted it as a force in history. But the idea generated new, dark energies in the prewar period. Styles of heavily expressive, soulful celebrations of common people were prevalent in Germany. Unlike the better-known socialist realism, with its crisp paeans to the proletariat, Volkisch art cultivated painterly effects to stir both Christian and pagan mystical associations, favoring peasant scenes and such themes as familial devotion and earth-mother fecundity. Besides tapping that vogue, van Meegeren pandered to an eagerness, among rightist critics, to winkle out Germanic roots of classical Dutch art. He seems to have modelled the head of Christ, in his “Emmaus,” on a self-portrait by Dürer—a recondite proof of influence that he could count on experts to notice. Lopez argues that the determined suppression, after the war, of anything with a Nazi odor—and a chronic lack of appetite for the material ever since—leaves us blinking at hints of a style that was second nature in Europe seventy years ago. The contemporary resonance surely startled viewers at the time, but, rather than raise eyebrows, it enlarged the sense of Vermeer’s greatness. It seemed more than conceivable that a genius of his calibre could foreshadow future sensibilities as, say, Leonardo da Vinci is routinely credited with having done. Lopez’s exegesis of Nazi-tinged artistry is hard to absorb, without nausea, in the way that Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will” is hard to watch. But an empathetic grasp of that time’s susceptibility to van Meegeren’s bait brings the climactic scene of his trial, in Amsterdam, in October, 1947, to life.
Apparently, by 1947, the Dutch were not only tired of the war but tired of being tired of it, too. After a paroxysm of angry revenge on collaborators, they craved a carnival. Van Meegeren became a giddy nation’s “Lord of Misrule,” Lopez writes. Brushed aside were treasonous commissions for the Occupation and dealings with the vilest of local quislings—mainly the art commissioner Ed Gerdes, a zealous anti-Semite—and with Alois Miedl, a Bavarian banker who became Göring’s man in the Dutch art world, energetically plundering Jewish collections. Van Meegeren’s humiliation of so many stuffed shirts, Nazi and otherwise, was too pricelessly funny to be marred by stale grudges. The trial took place in a courtroom hung with “Emmaus” and other van Meegeren hoaxes. Superfluously, the artist having confessed, technical experts presented charts, graphs, and slides of a new test that proved the works’ recent manufacture. Van Meegeren fulsomely congratulated the men on their ingenuity. The faking of Old Masters would henceforth be impossible, he said. Courtroom onlookers clapped and whistled. I imagine, extrapolating from Lopez, that their pleasure went beyond jolly Schadenfreude. Seeing the celebrated paintings exposed as fraudulent may have enabled a purge of formerly impressive symbols. The auratic Christ and the wonderstruck disciples turned farcical. The slim, silver-haired van Meegeren, dapper in a blue serge suit, seems to have read the mood (whatever it was) perfectly and to have milked it for advantage.
He had done the Vermeers only to prove himself, he testified, hewing to what Lopez calls “the master-forger-as-misunderstood-genius storyline,” which the prosecution failed to deflate. At one point, the judge hazarded a skeptical note: “You do admit, though, that you sold these pictures for very high prices?” Van Meegeren’s answer cracked up the room: “I could hardly have done otherwise. Had I sold them for low prices, it would have been obvious they were fake.” He could get away with anything: “I didn’t do it for the money, which brought me nothing but trouble and unhappiness.” Just one witness, an art historian who had been active in the Resistance, hinted at shady aspects of van Meegeren’s wartime conduct. The artist countered with a mocking, nonsensical cross-examination, to the audience’s delight. The witness, Lopez writes, “smiled in a self-deprecating way and then wisely dropped the subject. Clearly, the day belonged to the master forger.” Cheering fans greeted van Meegeren when he emerged from the court. He was sentenced to a year in prison and forfeiture of his wealth (except for a sizable chunk that he had settled on Johanna by the legal stratagem of divorcing her). He died two months later, of heart failure—probably, Lopez reports, as a complication of syphilis. He was fifty-eight years old. Lopez, though intent on proving van Meegeren a skunk, can’t deny him a parting note of admiration: “To give him his due, he was indeed a truly brilliant fraud.”
Art forgery is among the least despised of crimes, except by its victims—the identity of those victims being more than exculpatory, for many people. Art is unique among universally esteemed creative fields in its aloofness from a public audience. Its economic base is a club of the wealthy, who share power to impose or repress value with professional and academic élites. Lopez’s muckraking of van Meegeren scants a fact that Dolnick merrily exploits: the forger gratifies class resentment precisely because he is a pariah. Unlike the subversive gestures of a Marcel Duchamp, say, his outrages will not become educational boilerplate in museums and universities. They are impeccably destructive, tarring not only pretensions to taste but the credibility of taste in general. The spectre of forgery chills the receptiveness—the will to believe—without which the experience of art cannot occur. Faith in authorship matters. We read the qualities of a work as the forthright decisions of a particular mind, wanting to let it commandeer our own minds, and we are disappointed when it doesn’t. If we are disappointed enough, when the named artist is familiar, we get suspicious. But we can never be certain in every case that someone—a veiled mind—isn’t playing us for suckers. Art lovers are people who brave that possible chagrin. ♦
Thursday, June 25, 2009
Monday, June 22, 2009
Chicago Tribune Review: Edward Dolnick’s ‘The Forger’s Spell’ and ‘The Man Who Made Vermeers’ by Jonathan Lopez
By Wendy Smith
Published within months of each other, these two wildly contrasting books about Dutch forger Han van Meegeren strikingly demonstrate that attitude indelibly shapes content.
In “The Forger’s Spell,” Edward Dolnick spins the swashbuckling tale of an outrageous con man who should have fooled no one, whose forgeries were so blatantly bad that the real mystery is: Why did all those so-called experts fall all over themselves to declare the works genuine?
Dolnick’s tone is zestfully cynical, his chronology impressionistic, as he romps through Van Meegeren’s misdeeds, placing front-and-center the painter’s most famous victim, Hermann Goering.
The author of “The Rescue Artist,” a well-received account of the 1994 theft and recovery of Edvard Munch’s iconic masterpiece “The Scream,” Dolnick paints Van Meegeren as a high-living rogue, downplaying his Nazi sympathies and displaying considerable affinity with his disdain for the dealers, curators and scholars who authenticated his bogus works.
Art historian Jonathan Lopez takes a sterner approach in “The Man Who Made Vermeers.” He depicts Van Meegeren as a talented, albeit second-rate, painter who turned to forgeries for easy money in the 1920s, much earlier than he ever admitted. Lopez also identifies the artist as an admirer of Hitler as far back as 1928, when Van Meegeren founded a reactionary magazine (unmentioned by Dolnick) that denounced modern painting as the degenerate output of Bolsheviks, “negro-lovers” and Jews in terms quite similar to those Hitler employed in “Mein Kampf.”
Van Meegeren was an outright collaborator during the Nazi occupation of Holland, charges Lopez, pointing to paintings he did in the 1940s under his own name replete with heroic images of the Volksgeist, “the essential spirit of the German people” touted by the Nazis. This same imagery, Lopez persuasively argues, pervaded Van Meegeren’s most successful forgeries: the series of phony Vermeers painted from 1936 to 1945, snapped up by museums and collectors (including Goering) as newfound examples of the 17th Century artist’s previously unknown “biblical” period.
Dolnick and Lopez differ considerably in their treatment of these biblical fakes. (They even translate the Dutch titles slightly differently; for the sake of simplicity I’ve used Lopez’s versions.) Both agree that “The Supper at Emmaus,” the first in this line, was by far the best and that it was modeled after a painting on the same subject by the Italian artist Caravaggio.
“Caravaggio was a brilliant, mischievous choice because there had long been speculation in art circles that Vermeer had studied Caravaggio’s work and been much influenced by it,” writes Dolnick.
“The forger needs to anticipate the connoisseur’s expectations and build in precisely those touches that will move the expert to say, ‘Just as I figured.’ ” These comments are in keeping with Dolnick’s vision of art experts as practically begging to be fooled.
Lopez notes more soberly that “Caravaggio was known to have exerted a strong influence over Dutch painters” and that “by imitating the sense of suspended action that pervades Vermeer’s paintings [as opposed to Caravaggio's flamboyantly theatricality] Van Meegeren gave ‘The Supper at Emmaus’ a crucial measure of credibility as an example of the master’s ‘missing’ biblical period.”
He moves on to examine the Germanic echoes, not just in “The Supper at Emmaus” but in all the biblical forgeries, including “Christ and the Adulteress,” the one sold to Goering. That canvas, he contends, “seems to lift its composition almost literally from a well-known 1940 painting by the Nazi artist Hans Schachinger.” Side-by-side photos buttress his argument, as well as the underlying point that Van Meegeren’s forgeries succeeded in part because they “exerted a strong subliminal attraction on viewers steeped in the visual culture of the day.” It’s a provocative, though debatable attempt to explain why so many experts were fooled by these works, which look obviously fake to the modern eye. Dolnick is content to paint a vivid, gossipy picture of feuds and backbiting among scholars and curators more eager to discredit their rivals and burnish their reputations with sensational finds than to carefully examine works about which they should have been skeptical.
Lopez’s portrait of the art market is fuller and more damning. He extensively discusses Van Meegeren’s 1920s apprenticeship with restorer/forger Theo van Wijngaarden (skated over by Dolnick, who prefers to see the artist as a buccaneering individual). Lopez delves into the interactions among shady art dealers, crooked businessmen and experts who were sometimes betrayed by corrupt associates coaching the forgers to appeal to their preconceptions. He shows the wealthy American collectors and dealers who were their initial marks becoming increasingly wary as some of Van Meegeren’s 1920s fakes were exposed.
The stage is thus ably set for the biblical forgeries, less vulnerable to damning stylistic comparisons, since there were so few authentic biblical Vermeers. This extensive background also leads naturally to the moral dilemmas faced by the art market in Nazi-occupied Holland.
The invading Germans preferred purchases, however coerced, to outright looting, except of course from enemies of the state. Panicked Jewish dealers and collectors sold to middlemen at bargain prices or hid their paintings; informers reaped big rewards for uncovering them.
“Commerce and pillage cohabited,” writes Lopez. Even reputable dealers were reluctant to ask awkward questions about desirable works of unknown provenance coming into the market.
It was a situation custom-made for Van Meegeren, as both authors demonstrate. They take very different approaches, however, to describing his shrewd maneuvers. “. . . Hitler and Goering were rubes who fancied themselves connoisseurs,” writes Dolnick. “Faced with the hideous prospect of Dutch masterpieces falling into German hands, Holland’s art establishment and its great industrialists flung money at the sellers.” The tone is mocking, the emphasis on the buyers’ gullibility.
Lopez reminds us that the Nazi collectors had darker motives: “to validate, in a material way, the Reich’s complete domination of Europe.”
The stakes were higher than Dolnick’s lighthearted summary suggests. Context is a problem throughout his enjoyable narrative, which leaps frequently into modern times to consult contemporary forgers or refer to Clifford Irving’s bogus Howard Hughes biography. It’s all great fun, and we learn a lot about the psychology of fakes, but it places Van Meegeren in a lineup of loveable scamps. It whitewashes the man who inscribed a book of his drawings, “To the beloved Fuehrer in grateful tribute.”
This damning inscription was one of the many pieces of evidence never introduced at Van Meegeren’s 1947 trial for forgery. (He died of heart disease shortly after being convicted and slapped on the wrist with a one-year sentence.) Indeed, as both authors note, he confessed to the Vermeer forgeries to evade the far graver charge of collaboration. Characteristically, Lopez focuses on Van Meegeren’s clever manipulation of Joop Piller, the Dutch Resistance leader who arrested him in May 1945 and who fell for the painter’s story that Van Meegeren faked the Vermeers to revenge himself on the critics who had scorned his own paintings.
Dolnick takes this explanation of Van Meegeren’s motives more or less at face value, and his hilarious account of the trial quotes generously from the embarrassed testimony of “seduced experts and suckered millionaires,” as well as the judge’s admonishment that “hopefully this history will teach the experts modesty.”
Lopez points out that the trial repackaged “a Nazi-loving art forger” as a folk hero who gulled Goering. His caustic comment about this sanitized view of Van Meegeren—it “transforms the tragedy of the Nazi era into light comedy” could also stand as a harsh but not entirely unfair assessment of Dolnick’s vivid treatment.
Breezily written and immensely entertaining, “The Forger’s Spell” will appeal to casual readers, especially anyone who thinks that critical pronouncements about art are mostly high-class hogwash.
Those with a more serious interest in the subject, however, will close Dolnick’s book with an uneasy feeling that it leaves out a lot, an impression amply justified by perusal of Lopez’s more detailed and thoughtful work in “The Man Who Made Vermeers.”
The Forger’s Spell: A True Story of Vermeer, Nazis, and the Greatest Art Hoax of the Twentieth Century
By Edward Dolnick
Harper, 350 pages, $26.95
The Man Who Made Vermeers: Unvarnishing the Legend of Master Forger Han van Meegeren
By Jonathan Lopez
Harcourt, 352 pages, $26
Sunday, June 21, 2009
Imagine this as the plot of a novel: in the 1920s, a moderately talented Dutch painter reacts furiously to bad reviews and becomes a forger of Old Masters in revenge. He paints six phony Vermeers with biblical subjects, thus creating a religious phase in the master’s career and fooling many established experts. During World War II, he collaborates with the Nazis and becomes the richest painter in the world from his fakes. Then Hermann Goering decides he must have a Vermeer because the Fuhrer has two and buys the phony “Christ and the Adulteress” in 1943. Arrested after the war for trading with the enemy, the artist claims he faked Goering’s masterpiece to fool the Germans. He then becomes a folk hero in the Netherlands despite being sentenced to a year in jail for forgery. But that’s not fiction; it actually happened, and one of the fakes, “The Supper at Emmaus,” still hangs in the Boijmans Museum in Rotterdam. Lopez strips away the folk hero veneer of van Meegeren by deep research into archives and a thorough understanding of the complex world of art, faking art, and selling it. He says, “Although the best forgeries may mimic the style of a long-dead artist, they tend to reflect the tastes and attitudes of their own period.” The faked Vermeers don’t look like Vermeers today, but in the 1940s, they did, as well as looking like National Socialist art. Here is a serious, funny, ironic, informative study of a delicious scoundrel that reads like a novel.
—Don Fry, The Virginia Quarterly Review
Saturday, June 20, 2009
NY Sun Review: 'The Man Who Made Vermeers' by Jonathan Lopez and 'The Forger's Spell' by Edward Dolnick
In the case of art fraud, however, whatever admiration we feel for the skill of a forger who passes off a modern fake as a venerable Old Master and makes fools of the experts is mixed with a sharp sense of betrayal. A painting that was once proclaimed a masterpiece suddenly loses its beauty when shown up as a forgery. How were we so thoroughly hoodwinked? What we thought was a Vermeer or a Frans Hals and flocked to see turns out overnight to be nothing but kitsch. And yet, isn't it the same painting, fake or not? We can all be deceived by counterfeit bills. But a forged artwork makes us question our very eyes.
Han van Meegeren was among the most skilled and successful forgers of the past century; his fakes made him a millionaire. His shady story has been well known for decades but until recently the full depth of his dishonesty remained unplumbed. Arrested at war's end by the dogged police officer Joseph Piller, a Dutch Jew who somehow survived the Nazi occupation, van Meegeren saved his skin by claiming that he hadn't actually trafficked in stolen art — he was accused of selling Vermeer's painting "Christ with the Woman Taken in Adultery" to Hermann Goering — but, in fact, had painted them, and other rediscovered "Vermeers," himself. In postwar Holland it was better to be tried for forgery than for collaboration, which carried the death penalty, and van Meegeren became something of a Dutch folk hero, as the artist who took the Nazis for a million-dollar ride.
The van Meegeren legend was as phony as his Vermeers, and two new books, appearing almost simultaneously, attempt to set the record straight. In "The Forger's Spell: A True Story of Vermeer, Nazis, and the Greatest Art Hoax of the Twentieth Century" (Harper, 361 pages, $26.95), science journalist Edward Dolnick gives a brisk and vivid account of van Meegeren's fraudulent exploits. His book reads like a thriller; crooks high and low, from "fat, swaggering, casually cruel Hermann Goering" to the charmingly candid English forger John Myatt, rub shoulders with deluded art dealers, preening connoisseurs, and duped collectors. But Mr. Dolnick also provides fascinating detail on the "art" of forgery, brought to new levels of ingenuity by van Meegeren. Thus, by adding Bakelite to his paints and warming his canvases in a makeshift oven, he could replicate the hardened surfaces genuine centuries-old paintings display; he even grew skilled at faking the wormholes in antique frames. And Mr. Dolnick is very good, too, on the historical circumstances, especially the daily horrors of life in Nazi-occupied Holland, where the forger grew rich while his countrymen starved. As it turns out, those circumstances had everything to do with van Meegeren's phenomenal success.
In "The Man Who Made Vermeers: Unvarnishing the Legend of Master Forger Han van Meegeren" (Harcourt, 340 pages, $26), the artist and historian Jonathan Lopez tells the same story but gives it, by contrast, unexpected depth. In his thoughtful and elegantly written account — which he calls "a liar's biography" — van Meegeren is exposed not merely as an unprincipled peddler of phony masterpieces but as an opportunist with Nazi convictions. He worked with the odious Jan Ubink, editor of "De Kemphaan," or "The Fighting Cock," for which he prepared lurid covers in the color schemes of the Reich. And he was pals with Ed Gerdes, a true believer who became the detested "art tsar" of the Nazi occupation. Even van Meegeren's own paintings not so subtly appropriated mawkish Nazi propaganda motifs. Though both authors have drawn on sources in Dutch, Mr. Lopez is steeped in the literature of the period and it shows to fine effect.
At his trial, which began in 1947, van Meegeren posed as an unjustly neglected artist who had taken his revenge on the art establishment through his forgeries; and they had deceived such eminent authorities as Abraham Bredius, who praised the saccharine "The Supper at Emmaus" as "the greatest Vermeer," and Dirk Hannema, director of the Rotterdam Museum, who made it a star exhibit. (It now hangs in a side corridor among the museum's curiosities.)
Though both books are beautifully illustrated, Mr. Dolnick's includes color plates that make it possible to see genuine Vermeers side by side with van Meegeren's forgeries. It's hard to believe anyone could be fooled. Mr. Dolnick notes that the most successful forgeries incorporate contemporary elements to which we unwittingly respond, and Mr. Lopez agrees. But Mr. Lopez clinches his case by including the so-called Greta Garbo Vermeer (usually known as "The Girl with a Blue Hat"), a forgery Mr. Dolnick fails to mention. This is a cloying portrait in which van Meegeren slyly adopted features taken from posters for Garbo's "Anna Christie." But Mr. Lopez goes further. He suggests that van Meegeren prospered because the Nazis had "distorted the very realm of perception itself." In the age of the Big Lie, the world Vermeer depicted with such loving precision itself seemed a forgery.
The November visit of a great Johannes Vermeer painting to Pasadena's also-great Norton Simon Museum ranks as a major mini-event. Vermeer's confirmed output was just 36 paintings. With the ones closest to Los Angeles 3,000 miles away in museums in New York and Washington, D.C., local desire to see "A Lady Writing" (c. 1655), on loan from the National Gallery of Art, is surely stoked.
My advice: Get a copy of Jonathan Lopez's terrific new book, "The Man Who Made Vermeers," so you'll have the whole month of October to digest it. Not that you'll need that long to read it. The book is a modest volume -- just 246 pages of text, plus another 36 of often fascinating end notes -- but it's so jam-packed and nicely written that you'll burn right through it.
The yearning for Vermeer is, in fact, central to Lopez's story, which chronicles how Han van Meegeren was able to successfully produce numerous forgeries of works claimed to be by the painter from Delft. Look at some of those fakes today, and they seem so obviously wrong as to leave one puzzled as to how they could have been accepted by some of the 20th century's best museum curators, art dealers and private collectors. We must be way smarter than them.
Well, no. Lopez astutely points out: "[A] fake doesn't necessarily succeed or fail according to the fidelity with which it replicates the distant past but on the basis of its power to sway the contemporary mind. Although the best forgeries may mimic the style of a long-dead artist, they tend to reflect the tastes and attitudes of their own period." Lopez shows how Van Meegeren split that critical difference.
Since the "tastes and attitudes" of Van Meegeren's own period included the horrific rise of Nazism in Europe, Lopez's fresh interpretation of events is very provocative -- not to mention convincing. Two important things he brings to his four-year revisionist study: The writer is himself a painter, so he understands art materials in a hands-on way; and, he's fluent in Dutch, which made interviews and original document research possible.
I haven't read Edward Dolnick's book on the same subject, "The Forger's Spell," also recently published. But it's hard to imagine improving on Lopez's gem of a tale.
-- Christopher Knight The Los Angeles Times, copyright Tribune Corp. All rights reserved.