Monday, March 22, 2010

Video: Jonathan Lopez on The Man Who Made Vermeers

Jonathan Lopez discusses Vermeer and Old Master forgery -
recorded at the Cleveland Museum of Art on November 11, 2009.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Review: The Man Who Made Vermeers by Jonathan Lopez & The Forger's Spell by Edward Dolnick

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.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Chicago Tribune Review: 'The Forger's Spell' by Edward Dolnick and 'The Man Who Made Vermeers' by Jonathan Lopez

New books take a look at the man who forged Vermeer 'masterpieces'
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

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Review: 'The Forger's Spell' by Edward Dolnick and 'The Man Who Made Vermeers' by Jonathan Lopez

Marika Keblusek / NRC Handelsblad

Some sixty years after his death, master forger Han van Meegeren (1889-1947) continues to intrigue: in the past few years, not one but three English-language biographies of him have appeared. In 2006, the British journalist Frank Wynne published his (rather simplistic) I Was Vermeer, and now two new books about “the man who swindled Goering” have just come out in America.

The Forger’s Spell by Edward Dolnick and The Man Who Made Vermeers by Jonathan Lopez beautifully illustrate how Van Meegeren’s deceptions can still capture the imagination. But the two authors’ interpretations of that deception--and their ultimate judgments of it--could hardly be more sharply at odds.

The facts of the case are well-known. In May of 1945, shortly after the Liberation, the police rousted wealthy artist Han van Meegeren out of his bed on the Keizersgracht. In the art collection of Hermann Goering, a painting by Johannes Vermeer had been discovered, and it seemed to have been sold to the Reichsmarschall by Van Meegeren. That was collaboration.

During his interrogation, however, Van Meegeren made an astonishing declaration: it was no Vermeer that Goering had on the wall, but a Van Meegeren. And in the same breath, the painter let it be known that the most famous Vermeer in Dutch possession was also his own handiwork: The Supper at Emmaus, in Rotterdam’s Boijmans Museum, was a forgery.

It was a crushing blow for some of Europe’s most prominent museum directors and art experts, who had praised Van Meegeren’s Vermeers to the skies. And that was the point--at least according to the forger. A self-styled “misunderstood genius,” he said he had undertaken to fool the art world with his fake Old Masters as a form of revenge. He who laughs last, laughs best. That’s what public opinion believed. Van Meegeren was soon taken up as a folk hero--a man who had outsmarted his critics and the Nazis alike. That he had made millions in the process--and during the war, moreover--was passed over in discreet silence.

Most biographers agree that Van Meegeren was motivated by ordinary financial greed, not a quasi-heroic, “I’ll show them a thing or two” quest for vindication. Nonetheless, the scope and audacity of his deceptions still make for an unbelievable story, one worthy of the periodic retellings it receives. Many archival documents remained unknown and unexamined until 1979, when the groundbreaking Een vroege Vermeer uit 1937 (“An Early Vermeer of 1937”) by art historian Marijke van den Brandhof appeared. In 1996, Diederik Kraaijpoel and Harry van Wijnen published new information. And more recently, Frederik Kreuger has annointed himself as “the world’s greatest Van Meegeren expert and authorized biographer” on his website and in his Meestervervalser of 2004. Nearly all of these writers place Van Meegeren somewhere in the spectrum between the colorful rogue and--in the harsher verdicts--the opportunistic villain.

It is the art historian Jonathan Lopez who does away with the last vestiges of the “misunderstood genius” hypothesis. In contrast to the journalist Dolnick, who has based his breezily written book on existing accounts, interviews, and outsourced research, Lopez has spent years combing through Dutch, German, British, and American archives to bring to light an impressive quantity of new material, which he presents with irresistible elegance.

Lopez pulls no punches: Van Meegeren was a professional liar who more than sympathized with the Nazi regime. Long before he duped the art world in 1937 with the first of his “biblical” Vermeers, Van Meegeren had been involved with a commercial forgery ring in The Hague (beginning in the early 1920s), operating out of the studio of the forger/restorer Theo van Wijngaarden on the Sumatrastraat. Playing upon the affection for Vermeer’s portrayals of young women, Van Meegeren, Van Wijngaarden, and their partners delivered up “newly discovered” Old Masters to bona fide art dealers and collectors, some of whom--as Lopez shows--were considerably less trustworthy than one might otherwise have thought. The American businessman and collector Theodore Ward, for instance, must have known quite well what was going on in that atelier in The Hague, where his agent, Harold Wright, was a constant presence.

The “real” paintings produced by Van Meegeren as an artist in his own right were not all bad, but, suggests Lopez, the painter made a Faustian bargain, trading in his legitimate ambitions for the grand life of a top-flight forger. And what really made him such a good forger was the realization that technical skill and art-historical knowledge weren’t the only things needed to make a good fake. The public also has to believe in the fake as a work of art, and therefore the image must appeal, surreptitiously, to contemporary tastes, even as it simulates timeless beauty.

And this is precisely why The Supper at Emmaus made such a big impact in 1937. The canvas appealed to the mentality of the ‘30s--covertly, perhaps, but still in a quite seductive way. It presented a Catholic reactionary version of Vermeer deeply influenced, Lopez suggests, by the völkische propaganda of the time - the well-known images of Aryan farming families in the countryside. In 1942, Van Meegeren painted, under his own name, just such a farm family taking their evening meal. The similarity of this picture to The Supper at Emmaus is noteworthy, but it is the undeniable similarity of both to numerous examples of fascist visual culture that is really shocking.

That culture was nothing new for Van Meegeren. As early as 1928, he could be found railing against “art Bolshevism” in a magazine called De Kemphaan that he set up to defend Dutch culture and the Dutch “folk spirit.” The publication, whose editor was Van Meegeren’s life-long friend, the ultra-right-wing journalist Jan Ubink, was modeled on Italian and French fascist cultural criticism and propaganda; there were even verbatim borrowings from Mein Kampf.

The arch-opportunist Van Meegeren never officially joined any kind of fascist party, but he did associate closely with figures such as Ubink, the Dutch Nazi poet Martien Beversluis, and Ed Gerdes. This last gentleman was an outspoken Nazi, who served during the war as head of the occupation government’s Department of Art and Propaganda, responsible for the promotion of “true” Dutch art. Van Meegeren worked hard to win Gerdes’s trust by making donations to Nazi causes, and in return he received official commissions from the Department. He was also invited to exhibit his pictures--including the aforementioned Aryan farm family--in shows that Gerdes organized in Germany to showcase Nazi-friendly Dutch artists. At one such exhibition, Van Meegeren dedicated one of his entries to Hitler, who, incidentally, would receive, in 1942, an inscribed copy of Van Meegeren’s album of drawings, Teekeningen 1, dedicated by the artist to “the beloved Führer.”

The deus-ex-machina confession of 1945 wiped Van Meegeren’s image clean: he completely avoided the stigma of collaboration. All the attention in the forgery matter came to focus on the deception and the deceived, not on the deceiver. The pact with the devil would long remain unnoticed.

--translated from the Dutch by Han van Meegeren

Thursday, August 6, 2009 review: 'The Man Who Made Vermeers' by Jonathan Lopez and 'Can You Ever Forgive Me?' by Lee Israel

A fraud's life: New books on forgers raise provocative questions about the connections between authenticity and genius

Louis Bayard / Salon

All artists begin as forgers. They hear a chord progression, they see light splash on a canvas, they feel the pull of someone's sentences ... they fall in love. And it becomes the most natural thing in the world to write or draw or compose like the objects of their devotion.

Traditionally, this rite of passage is understood to be both necessary and necessarily brief. Growing up in the early years of the 20th century, for instance, a young painter like Han van Meegeren was expected to mimic the old masters as closely as possible, but only so that he could absorb their accomplishments and, one day, surpass them. What van Meegeren eventually realized -- to his chagrin, probably -- was that he was a much better artist when painting as someone else. So began one of the most audacious careers in the annals of art fraud, a journey superbly etched by Jonathan Lopez in his absorbing history "The Man Who Made Vermeers." Taken together with Lee Israel's eccentric affidavit-memoir, "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" the book raises provocative questions about the links between authenticity and art. Is the "true" better than the "false"? Can art ever spring from a lie?

Han van Meegeren didn't set out to be a forger. A small but elegant man with "a theatrically large presence," he paid his dues in the art world: went to the right schools, courted the right figures. His original work was considered solid enough to merit two solo exhibitions, and his pencil drawing of young Princess Juliana's pet deer (not as twee as it sounds) was widely admired and reproduced. During the 1920s, he made a fine living as portraitist of rich Dutch children.

But with his lifestyle demanding ever-larger infusions of capital, he struck up an apprenticeship with an art-world operator named Theo van Wijngaarden, who had devised a gelatin-glue medium that would simulate oil paint without dissolving under alcohol. (The alcohol test was then the most common tool for detecting forgeries.) Equipped with this new technology, van Meegeren soon began painting "previously undiscovered" variations of Franz Hals classics like "The Laughing Cavalier" and "Malle Babbe."

But he found his truest fit with another old master. For a forger like van Meegeren, Johannes Vermeer had the advantage of being both highly fashionable and deeply elusive, with few works to his name and large gaps in his oeuvre. By recycling panels and canvases from period paintings, van Meegeren was able to create "new Vermeers" so persuasive and unimpeachable, they fooled some of the world's most esteemed art appraisers.

Two of his earliest forgeries, "The Smiling Girl" and "The Lace Maker," were acquired by Andrew Mellon and were still hanging on the walls of Washington, D.C.'s National Gallery well into the 1950s. In 1944, no less an eminence than Luftwaffe chief Hermann Goering acquired the bogus "Christ and the Adulteress" ("the masterpiece of Johannes Vermeer of Delft," declared one art historian) for an unheard-of 1.65 million guilders, roughly $1 million. Goering hung the painting proudly in his country estate, and when Allied soldiers began closing in, he wrapped the canvas around a stovepipe and gave it to his wife's secretary, telling her she "would never have to worry about money again."

Van Meegeren, too, was well above financial worries. By war's end, he was one of the wealthiest men in Amsterdam, the owner of 57 properties, including a garage and a hotel, as well as countless jewels. "If van Meegeren had strolled into a bank vault with a wheelbarrow and a shovel," writes Lopez, "he couldn't possibly have walked away with more money than he made selling fakes during the war."

That wealth, coupled with his history of trading with the enemy, made him hard for liberation forces to ignore. Imprisoned by the Dutch government as a Nazi collaborator, the wily van Meegeren soon found a way both to confess and to expiate his crimes. In a flash of inspiration, he re-created himself as "a misunderstood genius who had turned to forgery only late in life, seeking revenge on the critics who had scorned him early in his artistic career." As for his dealings with Goering ... far from impeaching him, they added to his appeal. Who couldn't love the little guy who had swindled the big Nazi?

And so, against all odds, van Meegeren became a folk hero. In 1947, a Dutch newspaper poll ranked him second in popularity only to the newly elected prime minister and just ahead of Prince Bernhard. Although the state confiscated much of van Meegeren's assets and sentenced him to a year of prison, he died without serving a day of his term. His mythos, meanwhile, lived on -- until later generations of scholars began to uncover disquieting facts about him.

It turned out that van Meegeren was no amateur forger but a lifelong profiteer, as well as a Nazi sympathizer who received direct commissions from the occupying government and who gave generously to Nazi causes. In 1942, he dedicated a book of his drawings to "my beloved Führer in grateful tribute." Even his later Vermeers, as Lopez's astute analysis shows, bear elements of the Volksgeist that figured so prominently in Nazi-approved art. The paintings seem almost calculated to erase the gap between 17th century Holland and 20th century National Socialism.

Van Meegeren, in the final analysis, was "a truly brilliant fraud," but Lopez believes he paid a large price: "He allowed an essential part of who he was, the genuine artist, to wither on the vine. It was a Faustian bargain, one whose consequences included a chronic drinking problem, a failed first marriage, and a series of tawdry affairs."

Well, don't discount tawdry affairs unless you've tried them. At any rate, the moralistic equation Lopez introduces here -- between good conduct and good art -- is more than a little simplistic. And it begs the question: If van Meegeren had never been a forger, would he have become a great artist? Not according to available evidence. Aside from his society portraits, his early work is derivative and drab, and the paintings he actually signed in later life -- a Nazi allegory called "Arbeid"; a 1942 painting of a Dutch pianist imbibing the spectral influences of Bach, Beethoven, Schubert and Liszt -- are howlingly kitschy. One suspects that that van Meegeren had to lose himself in order to find himself.

The same trajectory can be seen in the not-so-cautionary true story of forger Lee Israel. The author of well-received lives of Tallulah Bankhead and Dorothy Kilgallen in the 1970s, Israel saw her fortunes quickly reversed and her book advances swallowed by stalled projects and a disastrous Estée Lauder biography. Within three years, she writes, she had "plummeted from best-sellerdom to welfare, with a couple of pit stops in between." Behind in her rent, her phone disconnected, her apartment teeming with flies and her friends long since fled, Israel crawled, inch by inch, onto the ledge of misdemeanor and, ultimately, felony.

She began by embellishing some old Fanny Brice letters. Emboldened, she moved into whole-cloth forgery: Edna Ferber, George S. Kaufman, Tennessee Williams. Over a two-year period, Israel churned out hundreds of phony letters, selling them for $75 to $100 a pop. (She would later find them in stores, marked up as high as $2,500.) Using the backlight from her broken TV set's electron tube, she was also able to trace signatures. One of her great coups was the John Hancock of Clara Blandick, best known as Auntie Em from "The Wizard of Oz," whose death by suicide had made her signature "the Holy Grail of Oz autographs."

When dealers grew suspicious, Israel graduated to outright theft, taking "a crook's tour" of university library collections, where she replaced valuable letters with forgeries and then, through an associate, sold the originals on the open market. Soon enough, the FBI came a-calling, and while Israel avoided jail time, she was sentenced to five years of probation, including six months of house arrest. ("I was not braceleted because a home phone was needed for that, and I had once again lost my service.") Looking back on her crimes, she can summon up at least some remorse: "I betrayed some people whom I had grown to like. With whom I'd made jokes and broke bread. And in doing so I joined, to my dismay, the great global souk, a marketplace of bad company and bad faith."

Israel's forgeries, of course, pale in scale alongside van Meegeren's, but they were driven by comparable forces: the same toxic brew of creative exhaustion, anger, will to power and alcoholism. (Israel admits to being loaded up on gin during her criminal years.) Like van Meegeren, Israel was almost shockingly resourceful in her deceit, amassing an array of vintage manual typewriters, which she kept in a rented locker: "Royals, Adlers, Remingtons, Olympias, even a German model with an umlaut, which I had bought for Dorothy Parker, knowing that she would have fun with an umlaut."

Neither forger was a mere copyist. Van Meegeren borrowed elements from genuine Vermeers like "The Astronomer," "The Music Lesson" and "The Girl Asleep," but he moved beyond preexisting notions of the artist's career to create an entirely new "biblical phase." The real Vermeer had painted only one biblical scene in his youth -- a bad one, at that -- but van Meegeren convinced a whole generation of scholars that the artist's marriage into a Catholic family had made him a counter-Reformationist. This deception, writes Lopez, had less to do with van Meegeren's artistic prowess than with his "use and misuse of history." He succeeded in "bending the past to his will."

Much the same can be said of Israel. The nominal writers of her faux letters live and breathe as vividly as fictional characters. Louise Brooks: old, ill, drunk, bristling with ancient resentments. Noel Coward, airing out the minutiae of his days: "The Ahernes came to dine on Wednesday and brought along Garbo. We jointed Bobby Andrews at Adrianne's for a lovely buffet." Lillian Hellman, rounding off a perfectly in-character kvetch with the earthy promise of "Come around and I will feed you."

"My success as a forger," writes Israel, "was somehow in sync with my erstwhile success as a biographer: I had for decades practiced a kind of merged identity with my subjects; to say I 'channeled' is only a slight exaggeration." One of her most appealing works is a letter of apology from Dorothy Parker (to a nonexistent correspondent): "I have a hangover that is a real museum piece; I'm sure then that I must have said something terrible. To save this kind of exertion in the future, I am thinking of having little letters runoff saying, 'Can you ever forgive me? Dorothy.'"

"As I wrote it," Israel recounts, "I imagined the waiflike Dorothy Parker apologizing for any one of countless improprieties, omissions, and/or cutting bons mots ... apologizing with no intentions whatsoever of mending her wayward ways." This letter is, in other words, the work of a novelist, who has submerged herself rather deeply in her subject. "I was a better writer as a forger," Israel admits, "than I had ever been as a writer."

A similar claim might be made for van Meegeren. Those early "Vermeers" -- the plaintive "Girl With a Blue Bow," the exquisitely placid "Lace Maker" -- are ineffable in their charm. One could imagine Vermeer himself painting them, had he world enough and time. Only in the guise of another artist, it seems, could van Meegeren taste Promethean fire, but taste it he did. Through a combination of arrogance and humility and expediency, this scoundrel-thief managed to drink the milk of paradise.

Saturday, July 4, 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 Hurricane 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 Meegern’s fake Vermeer’s 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.