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 v├Âlkische 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 F├╝hrer.”

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

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