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.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Brooklyn Rail Review: 'The Man Who Made Vermeers' by Jonathan Lopez

Jonathan Lopez, The Man Who Made Vermeers: Unvarnishing the Legend of Master Forger Han van Meegeren

In 1945, Han van Meegeren was arrested in a liberated Amsterdam by a Dutch resistance fighter, not only because van Meegeren (an art dealer and painter) had close ties to local fascists, but because during the war he had sold off one of his nation’s greatest treasures, a recently discovered Vermeer, to none other than Hermann Goering, head of the SS and a man who envied Hitler’s collection of Old Masters. But van Meegeren had an excuse, one that turned him from arch-traitor to something like a patriot—the Vermeer he had sold to the German was a fake, painted by van Meegeren himself.

That’s not all. Pride of place in the Dutch Boijmans Museum was held by what more than one critic called Vermeer’s greatest painting, The Supper at Emmaus. This, too, was from the brush of the master forger.

What makes Jonathan Lopez’s book such an engrossing read are not only his details of art forgers and their methods (such as over-painting on canvases fitting a particular period, after scraping them to the base layer), but his description of how van Meegeren read the minds of the collectors he was set on fooling.

A Dutch–fascist theorist of the 1930s, and friend of the forger, claimed that the Netherlands’ earlier glory—don’t forget it was the world’s chief power in the 17th century—was based on the fact that, though the elite was Protestant, the masses were Catholic, and their spirituality gave the era a special, elevated tone. Vermeer, who was a Protestant that had married into a Catholic family, had, aside from a few early, weak works, never painted a religious picture. Since the artist left few works overall, many critics speculated that he may have taken up biblical themes in lost pieces. Van Meegeren obligingly provided them, after being inspired by the kitsch he saw at the Aryan art festival accompanying the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

But here’s the crowning touch. Not only did the Vermeer forger dupe Goering and leading art dealers, he even tricked the man who arrested him, selling the soldier the story that he took up forgery because his first gallery show had been trounced by critics, and he was determined to make fools of them (and the Nazis) with his new Old Masters.

All previous books have shared this view of the forger’s life, which, Lopez shows, is also fake. Van Meegeren was an old hand at forgery, way before his first art show, and was a dyed-in-the-wool reactionary, pouring some of his ill-gotten gains into supporting a right-wing, anti-degenerate art magazine. Lopez does a wonderful job depicting the pre-World War II art world, in which American millionaires like Andrew Mellon proved particularly easy pickings. He also gives a vivid depiction of the crafty and corrupt van Meegeren, a well-rounded portrait depicting his absolute shallowness.

Jim Feast, The Brooklyn Rail

Friday, June 26, 2009

Interview with Jonathan Lopez, Author of 'The Man Who Made Vermeers'

Interview conducted and edited by Jonathan Janson for THE ESSENTIAL VERMEER NEWSLETTER

Q: The Han van Meegeren case is by far the most “popular” and written-about art forgery scam of all times. What piqued your interest to take on the topic yet again?

JL: There have been many books on Van Meegeren over the years. Some of them aren’t bad. But none of them really gets at the issues that interested me most. In writing my book, I wanted to go back to the original Dutch sources — trial testimony, investigation reports, correspondence, etc. — and really bear down hard on the facts of the case in a way that hadn’t been done before. I wanted to steep myself in the literature of the period and to present the story with a deep sense of history, because that’s really the key to understanding Han van Meegeren. He was a product of his times to a degree that I think other treatments of the subject have missed.

Q: Perhaps the most far-reaching accomplishment of your book is that it answers a question avoided by those who have taken up the subject previously: how could the most renowned museum curators, art dealers, and private collectors have been taken in by fakes that appear almost laughable today?

JL: This is exactly where a sense of history becomes important.

Q: But the way you go about answering this question involves more than history. There’s also an idea. You discuss Van Meegeren’s forgeries in the context of 20th century art and politics and propose that “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.” Could you elaborate on that a little more?

JL: Well, I'm not the first person to notice that forgeries tend to incorporate elements of the visual culture of their own period, and that this is one of the reasons that they can become so seductive — because they seem to suggest that these great painters of the past were so talented and so ingenious and had so much to say about life and the world that they actually anticipated our own concerns. But I try to delve into this idea with greater specificity and depth than has generally been done, particularly with reference to Van Meegeren’s later biblical Vermeer forgeries, which strike most people today as simply baffling.

Q: They are very ugly paintings.

JL: That’s true. They are. Van Meegeren’s Supper at Emmaus looks like an episode of The Munsters. And yet the great expert Abraham Bredius declared it to be the Vermeer’s greatest masterpiece in 1937. It was praised in the newspapers when it was first “discovered”; it hung in a major museum; exhibitions were organized around it; poetry was written in its honor. This was no small achievement for a forgery. But Emmaus and the other biblical Vermeer forgeries succeeded for a good reason: they really did blend in with the contemporary visual culture of their time. And today it's very hard for us to see that, because the elements of contemporary culture that they were drawing upon, or from which they sprung, were essentially wiped away, wiped off the face of the earth after the war.

Q: How so?

JL: In essence, what these forgeries had done was to re-interpret Vermeer in the light of art inspired by Nazi ideology — with which Van Meegeren, by the way, sympathized. In the book, I tease this out by pairing the forgeries with actual Nazi propaganda art produced during the time, including Nazi-influenced works that Van Meegeren himself produced during the war (under his own name) for the German occupation government of the Netherlands. The late Vermeer forgeries are basically a Nazi fantasy of Vermeer, and this was, of course, an entirely plausible image of Vermeer if you happened to be living in occupied Europe during the war, when Nazi imagery was an absolutely ubiquitous part of daily life. But today these fakes are stranded on a historical desert island. We don't know what they're referring back to. And they just look weirder and weirder as time goes by.

Q: Was Van Meegeren actually a Nazi?

JL: His relationship to Nazism was complex. On a personal level, Van Meegeren greatly admired Hitler — a fellow traditionalist artist, among other things — and he was a big fan of Mein Kampf, which he read just shortly after it came out. Then, during the war, he did these commissioned artworks for the Nazis. He also gave large sums to Nazi causes, joined Nazi-sponsored arts organizations, and once even sent an inscribed book of drawings to Hitler as a token of appreciation. So, I think it’s fair to say that Van Meegeren found Nazism quite appealing. On the other hand, though, he never officially joined the Party and, despite occasional crude comments, he wasn’t a pathological anti-Semite. Van Meegeren’s interest in the Nazi movement, like virtually everything else about Van Meegeren, was mostly narcissistic. He liked the idea of being the Übermensch, of standing, as it were, outside of history and bending the world to his will. For a forger, that’s a very powerful idea.

Q: After years of research, you probably know Van Meegeren better than anyone else. Could you sketch us a portrait of Van Meegeren, his personality, character, psychology, etc.?

JL : If you look at photos of Van Meegeren from his trial in 1947, you’ll see that he looks a bit like the old movie actor David Niven — silver hair brushed back from his forehead, impeccably tailored suit — all very soigné. He predated Ian Fleming’s novels, but he cultivated the kind of amused disdain that we might associate with a James Bond villain. In fact, I think he would have liked people to imagine him that way — as a sort of dangerous, impressive character with whom you would fear to bandy words. But the thing is that no one ever really took him all that seriously because he was so over the top, especially in his cynicism, which tended to become quite voluble when he was drunk, which he often was. Also, he was extremely short. And he spent a lot of time chasing after very tall women, which inevitably made him seem like a bit of a sight gag — an amorous, overdressed pipsqueak. He was definitely more like Dr. Evil than Dr. No.

Q: Did you enter your research with a thesis in mind, or did the accumulation of evidence suggest your book’s viewpoint on Van Meegeren?

JL: I had read and admired Marijke van den Brandhof’s book on Van Meegeren, Een vroege Vermeer uit 1937 (Utrecht: Spectrum, 1979), which was the first to document Van Meegeren’s Nazi connections, and I felt that it might be possible to go a bit further with this, to see where, biographically, these right-wing leanings might have come from in Van Meegeren’s life and to what extent they were related to his career as a forger. So, I think I had the basic framework going into the project, but I allowed the evidence to be my guide along the way.

Q: Can you describe the methods you used to research the subject?

JL: I did a lot of work in the state and municipal archives of the Netherlands. People kept telling me that I would never find anything — that the story was so old that there was no new material to discover — but there were lots of documents, particularly relating to the war years, that had never been exploited before. You just had to know where to look. For instance, if you knew the names of all of Van Meegeren’s friends and associates, you could turn up information about him in dossiers pertaining to them. I discovered a lot of new material that way. I also contacted descendents of people who knew Van Meegeren, especially descendents of his partners in crime. Their oral histories gave me leads for my archival research. Sometimes their stories proved to be verifiable; other times not.

Q: Did your background as an artist help you?

JL: I tried to examine every Van Meegeren forgery whose location is known, and being a painter definitely helped me understand what I was looking at. Van Meegeren had to invent completely new working methods in order to surmount some of the technical hurdles involved with forging Old Masters. For instance, none of his forgeries is actually painted with oil paint. In fact, it’s virtually impossible to forge an Old Master using oils, because oil paint can take up to a hundred years to dry and harden completely. So, a fake made with oils would be “soft” and fairly easy to unmask as a forgery. To get around this problem, forgers have, over the years, come up with any number of fast drying media to use in place of oils. In his earliest forgeries, for example, Van Meegeren used a paint based on gelatin glue, which hardened very quickly. But gelatin was actually not that difficult to detect if you knew what to look for, so it was risky to use. In his later forgeries, like Emmaus, Van Meegeren switched to a modern synthetic material that was virtually impossible to analyze using the scientific methods available at the time — Bakelite.

Q: Bakelite is a kind of plastic?

JL: It’s actually much more similar, in both its chemical and working properties, to the two-part epoxy resins commonly found in hardware stores today. You’ve seen this stuff, haven’t you? It comes in a syringe with two vials. You mix the contents of the two together to activate it. In any case, if you’ve ever used epoxy around the house, you know that it’s really runny, sticky stuff. So, imagine trying to paint a large, multi-figure, narrative history painting with a material like that. It would be pretty difficult. In order to work with Bakelite, Van Meegeren basically had to unlearn everything he knew from working in oils and re-invent his whole method of painting. He would apply very small amounts of the pigmented Bakelite to his canvas and then quickly pounce it smooth before it became too tacky to work with. If you examine the forgeries under magnification, you can see how it was done. It must have been an incredibly tedious way to work. But this is what forgery is all about. It’s not just about imitating Vermeer. There are many other considerations that go into creating a credible fake.

Q: How did museum personnel whose collections have a Van Meegeren on their hands receive you?

JL: You know, there’s this great myth that museums who own these old fakes are embarrassed by them and that this why they keep them in storage. Nothing could be further from the truth. Curators are generally quite amused by the fakes in their collections, and I’ve never yet had anyone turn down a request to see one. Fakes are kept in storage mostly because no one really knows what else to do with them. How do you display a fake? What do you say about it? Also, due to the way they’re made, fakes often deteriorate quite badly in a physical sense, and it’s difficult to keep them in presentable condition for display. Quite literally, they aren’t made to stand the test of time.

Q: Why did Van Meegeren fixate on Vermeer?

JL: Back in Van Meegeren’s day, scholars were still attempting to sort out who Vermeer really was as an artist. Very few authentic paintings by him were known to exist, and most of them had been identified only in recent decades. So the Vermeer forgeries that came on the market played up to this atmosphere of inquiry and investigation. They proposed a fictional narrative of Vermeer’s career, answering the implied question, “What else did Vermeer do?” — for instance, did he do portraits, did he do religious scenes, and so on. But from today’s vantage point, these forgeries now seem astonishingly anachronistic, because they weren’t really about Vermeer per se: they were about the way that the 20th century looked at the 17th century. Van Meegeren’s earliest attempts at Vermeer forgeries, for instance, have much more in common with his own 1920s society portraits than with any real work by Vermeer. But at the time, of course, this went unnoticed and, in fact, probably made the fakes all the more appealing on a subconscious level. They seemed both authentically old and hauntingly up to date.

Q: Did your investigation change your perception of the art of Vermeer?

JL: The fakes only underscore what a precious legacy Vermeer’s body of work really is. No more than 36 pictures by his hand are known to exist. It’s remarkable. And Vermeer is timeless — unlike the fakes, whose time has come and gone.

Q: What is your opinion of Van Meegeren’s legitimate work? Would there be any sense in any kind of Van Meegeren exhibition?

JL: It’s often said that Van Meegeren had no talent. Personally, I think that’s a bit too harsh. He actually did have some real ability, and he enjoyed a measure of success as a society portraitist during the 1920s. But as he became involved with forgery, he lost his way as an artist. In his review of my book in The New Yorker, Peter Schjeldahl had a wonderful line about this: “The state of being oneself dies when set aside.” There actually was a Van Meegeren exhibition in Rotterdam back in 1996, to coincide with the big Vermeer show at the Mauritshuis in The Hague. It was interesting, but a bit too large, I thought. Really, a little Van Meegeren goes a long way.

Q: If you could meet face to face with Van Meegeren today and ask one question, what would it be? What don’t we know that we need to?

JL: Well, if it really were Van Meegeren, I wouldn’t trust a word he said. But it would be nice to know more about his early career. There have been rumors about him as a forger that date back to newspaper articles from the 1920s. But when he was arrested at the end of the war, Van Meegeren only confessed to the fakes that the authorities already knew about, all of which were made after 1936. People have long suspected that there must have been more. Paul Coremans, who worked on the Van Meegeren court case, for example, maintained a lively correspondence on the subject. In the course of my own research, I was able to trace three Vermeer forgeries of the 1920s back to Van Meegeren through documentary evidence, visual analysis, and interviews with the family of one of Van Meegeren’s associates.I wrote up those findings in an article for Apollo called “Van Meegeren’s Early Vermeers.” I also incorporate this material into the book.The case is fairly compelling, but there can always be room for doubt as Van Meegeren never claimed these particular fakes as his own. Of course, I suppose there could be equal room for doubt about the attribution of many pictures, when you come right down to it. Wouldn’t the Rembrandt Research Project have a much easier time if they could just ask the old fellow, “Excuse me, Mr. Van Rijn, is this one over here yours?”

Q: Would you afford Van Meegeren one saving grace?

JL Personally, I find Van Meegeren utterly fascinating, and I always will. For all his faults, he was intelligent, clever, and profoundly resourceful — a truly brilliant fraud. And in an era when we have Bernard Madoff running around, and our entire economy looks more and more like a Potemkin village every day, I think Van Meegeren can probably still teach us a thing or two.

Q: Could a Vermeer forgery happen again today? Have we completely assimilated the case?

JL: I would have to say that the chances of anyone passing off a Vermeer forgery today would be pretty much non-existent. A good con artist always tries to find the common ground between what people want to hear and what he wants them to believe. In Van Meegeren’s day, experts fully expected that more Vermeers would turn up, so Van Meegeren was able to work within the bounds of that conceit. Today, however, no such expectation exists, so creating a fake Vermeer would be a non-starter. That’s not to say that forgery has ground to a halt. Good, convincing fakes continue to get made, and they continue to deceive laymen and experts alike. For instance, until Scotland Yard recently encouraged him to retire, John Myatt enjoyed a nice run duping the experts at Christie’s and Sotheby’s with fakes in the style of Matisse, Chagall, Gleizes, and Dubuffet. Forgery will always be with us. But it takes different forms in different eras.

Q: The success of The Man Who Made Vermeers has been amply confirmed by enthusiastic reviews, robust sales, award nominations, and numerous public lectures you have given. What is your next topic?

JL: I’m looking at a few possible subjects. The sort of work that I like to do tends to be research-intensive, so it may take a little time to refine a topic. But I’d definitely like it to be Dutch, and I’d prefer it to involve a completely admirable figure this time around. Van Meegeren is a very dark personality, and after four years in his company, I think it’s probably time for me to move on.

 click here for a slide show of all the images from the book.

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 click here for New Yorker review

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

Dutch Master

The art forger who became a national hero

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 “the masterpiece 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

Errol Morris: More Bamboozling

I would like to thank the Times readers who posted more than 700 comments to my seven-part essay on the forgeries of Han van Meegeren, “Bamboozling Ourselves.” The responses raised many questions with respect to the historical presentation of the Holocaust in the Netherlands, and to the aesthetic value of Van Meegeren’s forgeries. I found them interesting and thought-provoking. There have been a number of repeated themes that I will try to respond to. I was worried that this essay was much too long already – I’m sure that there are many who would agree – but if I could beg the readers’ indulgence, I also would like to bring up some new information.

Several readers commented on the research in this and other essays, which would not be possible without Homi Bhabha, the Director of the Humanities Center at Harvard. I would like to thank him for his encouragement, support and for providing access to one of the best libraries in the world (which fortunately happens to be just down the street from where I live). I would also like to stress that my essay was intended not as a replacement for Edward Dolnick’s and Jonathan Lopez’s books but rather as an inducement to read them.

I have included a Van Meegeren comic book by Ton van Tast from 1946. It was published after Van Meegeren’s confession but before his trial. It was kindly sent to me and partially translated by Jonathan Lopez.

Good Art or Bad Art?

There was disagreement on whether Van Meegeren’s forgeries (or his work in general) was good or bad. The very first comment concerned the obvious awfulness of Van Meegeren’s Vermeers. Of course, the awfulness only became obvious after Van Meegeren confessed to having forged them...

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Bamboozling Ourselves, Part 7

This is the final installment of “Bamboozling Ourselves.” Read the rest of the series.

A Tale of Three Locations

Amsterdam City Archives
Goudstikker business card.

Herengracht 458.

A sumptuous urban palace, Herengracht 458 was built at the time Vermeer was painting real Vermeers. The building was acquired by Jacques Goudstikker in 1927 and outfitted with period rooms – furniture, decorative arts, textiles, sculptures and, most significantly, paintings – Gothic, Italian Renaissance and Old Dutch. It became an amazing museum-like showcase for art. The Goudstikker family had been shaping the art world of Amsterdam for three generations. Goudstikker’s grandfather, Jacob, his father, Eduard, and then Jacques, who joined the firm as a young man in 1919.

He was one of the first dealers to have a thorough education in art history. From the moment he entered the family business, Jacques Goudstikker combined serious scholarship with a keen sense of how to market and promote art. This was reflected in his elaborate catalogues – his were some of the first to use photography extensively. They became the authoritative sources for art historical knowledge in Holland. He provided an entire discourse on why people living in modern homes should include at least one Dutch master: “It’s craziness to believe that a modern human being should live between bicycle tubes and dental instruments.”

At his country estate, Nyenrode, he created tableaux vivants with his wife and other guests, a living version of the paintings in his collections. For Jacques Goudstikker, his art collections were very much alive.

Left, Amsterdam City Archives; right, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

There is a photograph of Goudstikker and Queen Wilhelmina in 1929 at an exhibition at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. In the next few years, he would mount shows in major cities throughout Europe and America. Despite the decline of the Dutch economy, Goudstikker’s business continued to thrive.

Goudstikker and Queen
Amsterdam City Archives
: Goudstikker and Queen Wilhelmina.

And then, in 1940, at the age of 43, Jacques Goudstikker was dead. In many ways, the story is very simple. He was a victim of the Nazis, though he was not killed in a Nazi concentration camp.

When I first read the details of Goudstikker’s death, I suspected some sort of foul play. But the story seems even worse. Bad luck, an absurd sequence of events that no single individual could ever hope to control – his desperate attempts to flee Amsterdam; the bombing of the cargo ship that was taking him, his wife and infant son across the English Channel to safety; the refusal of the authorities to allow them (or any of the other Jewish émigrés) to disembark at Dover; and his accidental death in the middle of the night en route to Liverpool. The family was crowded together with many refugees in the hold of the ship. The baby was crying, and Goudstikker went up on deck. The rest is conjecture. The deck listing in heavy seas, the black night, the open hatch. . .

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Errol Morris: Bamboozling Ourselves, Part 6

The Illegal Camera

Verzetsmuseum, Amsterdam.

On May 10, 1940, the Nazis marched into Holland. Shortly afterwards, they asked the Dutch authorities to survey the Jewish population of Amsterdam. “This map (100 x 100 cm) was made by Amsterdam officials in January 1941 on the instructions of the occupiers. Each dot represents ten Jewish inhabitants. Of the 140,000 Dutch Jews, about 80,000 lived in Amsterdam.” [32]

The sequence of events leading to the destruction of the Jews of Holland follows what is now a well-known pattern. In October 1940 Jewish enterprises were required to register with the German occupiers; a month later Jewish public servants, including teachers and professors were dismissed from their jobs; in July 1941 special identity cards for Jews were issued. And on and on and on. The rounding up of Jews, their imprisonment at various transit camps, principally Westerbork, and ultimately, their deportation by train to the extermination camps in the east. But there is a larger point to be made about Dutch complicity in the Holocaust and their collaboration with the Nazis. The Dutch were among the worst...

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Thursday, June 18, 2009

Errol Morris: Bamboozling Ourselves, Part 5

The Devil’s Orb

Jonathan Lopez and I resumed our discussion of Van Meegeren. I was still in search of an answer to the question of whether Van Meegeren was an apolitical huckster or a Nazi. Perhaps there were some additional clues in Teekeningen 1.

ERROL MORRIS: So is Van Meegeren’s success, success in pandering? Finding out what Nazi collectors want, and then giving it to them?

JONATHAN LOPEZ: To some extent, yes. Although, that’s only part of it. He really was an artist, and he did have to become involved in the aesthetics of what he was doing and making things that he himself found appealing.

ERROL MORRIS: He had to incorporate something of himself in his painting — even the forgeries. By the way, many of the images in your book are just amazing, the Van Meegeren drawings. They’re so strange. “Creepy” is the right word.

JONATHAN LOPEZ: Oh, the Nazi drawings?


JONATHAN LOPEZ: Yeah, the one with the snake and the deer. That’s pretty horrendous. And the one with the soap bubble, “The Devil’s Orb” ["Grain, Petroleum, Cotton"]—

ERROL MORRIS: The soap bubble is utterly amazing.

Teekeningen 1
“Grain, Petroleum, Cotton” by Van Meegeren.

JONATHAN LOPEZ: That horrendous scary-looking book. My wife makes me keep it behind a door in my office so that nobody knows that we own the thing. Because you look at it — Jesus Christ what is this? It’s this sinister-looking book. It’s just creepy-looking. It’s enormous; it’s black. It’s got this gold Gothic script on it. It looks like an evil book.


JONATHAN LOPEZ: Well, pretty bad...

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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Errol Morris: Bamboozling Ourselves Part 4

Mealtime at the Farm

ERROL MORRIS: The picture “Mealtime at the Farm.”

'Mealtime at the Farm'
Getty Images
“Mealtime at the Farm,” Han van Meegeren.

JONATHAN LOPEZ: Take a look at some of the books from the German Reich art exhibitions every year during the 1930s and flip through them. You’ll see a lot of paintings in there that may, in fact, remind you of “The Supper at Emmaus,” these scenes of people in humble Bavarian dwellings gathering around a table to have a simple meal. “The Supper at Emmaus” was not just a picture, it was a type of picture. And you could find modern equivalents of it if you went to the great Nazi art exhibitions. And during the war, when Van Meegeren revitalized his career under his own name, he openly painted pictures like these, so-called Volksgeist paintings, and exhibited them in occupied Holland and also in Germany. One of them, he even dedicated publicly to Hitler. A lot of this art looks like kitsch to us today. Some of it looked like kitsch to people then, too. But it was a living style of art. And it was vital in a way that it isn’t today. And I think unless you understand some of the visual culture of the time, you’re never going to get to the point of understanding why any of these really strange looking pictures could ever have been accepted as Vermeers. Read more at…

Monday, June 15, 2009

Errol Morris: Bamboozling Ourselves Part 3

Bamboozling Ourselves (Part 3)

The Nazi Aesthetic

I was interested in the controversy surrounding a book of watercolors and drawings that is given only cursory attention in Dolnick’s book. Jonathan Lopez [10] puts the book, “Teekeningen 1,” front and center. It is in fact a framing device for his argument. References to “Teekeningen 1″ occur at the very beginning and near the very end.

JONATHAN LOPEZ: The book was found in Hitler’s library at the central offices of the Nazi government, the Reichschancellery in Berlin.

ERROL MORRIS: Tell me about this.

JONATHAN LOPEZ: I actually own a copy of this book. It’s an enormous tome with gold lettering and a big red insignia right in the center. So it’s got the red, black and gold colors of the Nazi party across the front of it. Some of the art in it is just kitsch; some of it has very strong Nazi-istic overtones.

Cover design, Teekeningen 1; Private Collection.

And it is paired up with poetry, most of it written by Martien Beversluis, a really hardcore Nazi friend of Van Meegeren’s. The whole project seems to have been conceived as a collaborationist gesture. And at some point in 1942, Van Meegeren signed a copy using artist’s charcoal. And he inscribed it: “To my beloved Führer in grateful tribute – Han van Meegeren.” [Dem geliebten Führer in dankbarer Anerkennung gewidmet von Han van Meegeren.] Some friend of his who was able to actually get this book to Hitler, or some friend of a friend, delivered it because it was found in Hitler’s library just days after the end of the war.

ERROL MORRIS: How did the inscription come to light?

JONATHAN LOPEZ: Even before anyone knew anything at all about Van Meegeren as the forger of Vermeer, there were people in and around Amsterdam who knew about him because of his pro-Nazi reputation. So when a young Dutch reporter, Jan Spierdijk, found the book in Berlin, it was news. One of the Resistance newspapers, De Waarheid, published Spierdijk’s account of what the inscription said. It was not a huge piece of news because Van Meegeren was not a famous person at that point, but it was such an outrageous thing that it made it into the newspaper. The newspaper did not print a facsimile of the inscription until months later. The original July 11, 1945, article had the content of the inscription noted only in the text of a sidebar to Spierdijk’s article about visiting the Reichschancellery.

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