Reviewed by Shawn Rossiter for 15 Bytes journal
Art forgers have frustrated and fascinated the art world for years. The critics whose reputations can be ruined by false attributions, and the collectors who find themselves holding a painting worth less than a tenth of what they paid for it, conjure up visions of public flogging or Bush-era modes of interrogation when they think of the charlatans. But to the general public, the forgers can be superstars, objects of fascination, and even praise. Eric Hebborn and Tom Keating both wrote books on their exploits as forgers. John Myatt was less proud of his own work, but his story has also been the subject of a popular book (Provenance -- see our review). These now famous forgers were preceeded by Han van Meegeren, who created one of the century's most famous fakes. Van Meegeren died before he could write his own expose -- and chances are he would have loved to do so -- but his story, in various permutations, has fascinated the public since it first came to light at the end of World War II. Two books published in 2008 keep his story alive.
To briefly tell van Meegeren's story is difficult, because it is hard to know which is the true and which a copy. The basic story goes something like this. After critics panned his own artwork, van Meegeren set about creating forgeries to prove his talents to the art world and take revenge on the critics. He was eventually exposed when one of his fake Vermeers ended up in the hands of Hermann Goering. After the War, the Allies discovered that van Meegeren had been the seller of the painting. Rather than be tried for treason (for selling national treasure to the occupying German forces) van Meegeren confessed to having forged the work. This brought to light a whole series of works thought to be by Vermeer that were painted by van Meegeren.
Edward Dolnick's The Forger's Spell follows this account fairly closely. His story concentrates on van Meegeren's "Christ at Emmaus," the fateful fake purchased by Goering, which at the time of van Meegeren's trial was the most famous Vermeer in the world. Dolnick likes to create a good narrative, but he can take too much time painting the lurid background of Nazi atrocities that appear in his frame while leaving the main figures only loosely rendered. He does explore in detail the physical process of forgery -- van Meegeren's breakthrough was the use of Bakelite (plastic) to mimic the effects of hardened oil paint -- and makes strong attempts at examining the psychological forces that drive a forger and also make possible his success in the larger world. In the end, though seriously flawed, Dolnick's van Meegeren still comes off as a sort of hero who pulled one over on the Nazis.
Jonathan Lopez's The Man Who Made Vermeers is a much more sober account of van Meegeren. Its subtitle -- "Unvarnishing the Legend of Master Forger Han van Meegeren" accurately portrays Lopez's in-depth historical analysis of van Meegeren's entire life and work as a forger. In Lopez's account van Meegeren still plays the masterful psychologist to pass off works that in hindsight look atrociously bad as real Vermeers. But he shows us a different character than either a heroic Dutchman putting one over on the Nazis or a spurned artist trying to get back at the art world that spurned him. Van Meegeren was actually an ardent fascist, and his growing fascination with the Nazis dovetails with his growing success as a forger. It was the easy money found in forgery, not the critics, that drove him to it. Along that path he lost his way as a painter. Lopez's book deals less with a lurid description of the atrocities of the Nazis, and more with the inner workings of the art world, from feuds between art historians to the workings of forgery rings.
Dolnick's book draws the outline for van Meegeren's success, but Lopez fills in the details. Van Meegeren's trick was to create plausible works, by taking advantage of gaps in the art historical knowledge and appealing to the sensibilities and bais of particular experts or the public at large. This is why he concentrated on religious Vermeers -- for many experts, the only surviving religious painting by Vermeer pointed to a larger, unknown oeuvre -- and why so many of the people in his paintings look like the screen idols of the thirties, and his compositions resemble Nazi Volkgeist. Van Meegeren was a conservative who did bristle against the opinions of more liberal painters and critics, but his career was by no means ruined by critics. He continued to paint and exhibit throughout the twenties and thirties, and even flourished as an artist under the Nazis. For Lopez, van Meegeren was not merely a hack artist. He says he was a conservative painter, developing talents and could have been the "Edward Hopper of the Netherlands." He just didn't have the vision.
Some people will tell you that the legend is better than the truth. But though the legend is always easier to tell the truth is usually far more interesting. The Forger's Spell will interest you in the story of one of this century's most famous forgers. But to understand more of the man and less of the myth, The Man Who Made Vermeers is the true article.