Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Houston Chronicle Review: 'The Man Who Made Vermeers' by Jonathan Lopez

Fascist forger's bio a great flashlight read

Douglas Britt / Houston Chronicle

The electricity came back on in my house last night, which means today I'm transitioning away from directing pious glares of disapproval at the power haves to offering cringeing, apologetic gazes to the power have-nots. If it's any consolation, I'll tell them, knowing full well that it's not, we still don't have cable or Internet access. I'll miss the badge of martyrdom, but I'd rather have the A/C.

However, my time as a have-not gave me a new litmus test to apply when recommending books to friends, and I can say with authority that Jonathan Lopez's "The Man Who Made Vermeers: Unvarnishing the Legend of Master Forger Han van Meegeren" makes for a terrific read, even by flashlight as you lay on top of sweat-soaked sheets wishing you'd thought to buy a battery-operated fan before Ike struck.

Any reasonably capable writer could have made the story of Van Meegeren, who got rich forging and selling fake Old Master paintings -- including a Vermeer to Hermann Goering -- a page turner, and Lopez certainly does that.

But he also digs deeper, showing that what made Van Meegeren's fake Vermeers successful was not so much their similarity to the real things -- which, in fact, declined as his career progressed -- as his ability to make the paintings resonate with the zeitgeist of the period between the two world wars, when fascism was on the rise. He also effectively "reclaimed" (i.e., invented) a "lost" period of religious paintings from Vermeer's career that lent itself to the subtle symbolic coding that allowed art-world experts to see what they wanted to see in paintings that today, even in black-and-white reproduction, look unbelievably kitschy.

And Lopez shows how Van Meegeren duped Lt. Joseph Piller, the young Jewish Dutchman who first arrested him for trading with the Nazis, into turning a blind eye to the crook's history of support for fascism and helping create the popular image of the forger as an artist driven by the contempt of unfair modernist critics to show the world, including the Nazis, what he was capable of. In fact, Lopez writes, Van Meegeren's early work as an artist in his own right, while stylistically conservative, was fairly well received and declined, along with critics' opinions of it, only after he steeped himself in forgery and forever muddled his own artistic voice even as his technical mastery grew.

If Lopez's book is that compelling by flashlight, I can only imagine what reading it with the lights on is like.