Saturday, September 19, 2009

Book review: The Forger's Spell

The Forger's Spell: A True Story of Vermeer, Nazis, and the Greatest Art Hoax of the Twentieth Century by Edward Dolnick is one of the most fascinating true crime stories I've read in a long time.  Usually when forgers get caught it's because they've fooled one person too few. Han van Meegeren had the opposite problem, he fooled one person too many -- and that person happened to be Hermann Goering, Reich Marshall of Nazi Germany and Hitler's right hand man. 

Of course, when van Meegeren began his forging career, he didn't intend to sell fake Vermeers to Nazis; his motives were the more usual mix of a middling artist wanting to fool the critics who had disparaged his own work while making some money in the process.  He also didn't start off with fake Vermeers -- he began by forging works by 17th century artists who had a much larger body of extant work, like Frans Hal, and a less distinct style.

Van Meegeren had actually enjoyed a pretty comfortable life as a Dutch artist.  His work didn't get much respect from the critics -- his style was seen as both old-fashioned and too maudlin or saccharine -- but he was remarkably successful with the public.  At one time, copies of one of his drawings, "The Deer," could be found in almost home in Holland.  He was also a favorite portrait artist of the wealthy upper class.  In short, he wasn't starving in a garret in Delft and desperate for money.  (When he began working on his Vermeers, he was living in a villa on the French Riveria.)  At his trial, his defense attorney used the fact van Meegeren wasn't motivated by money as a mitigating factor -- van Meegeren wasn't interested in wealth, he just wanted to prove the critics were idiots who didn't know what they were looking at.

The Forger's Tale thus is an intriguing tale of the foibles of human nature and the wonders of social psychology.  People see what they want to see.  As long as people were prepared to believe they were looking at a Vermeer, the painting they saw was a masterpiece, a wonderful example of the interplay of light and shadow, a work of sheer genius.  As soon as they learned it was a van Meegeren, it turned into cartoonish, clumsy, downright ugly, a crude pastiche of Vermeer-like elements, and not worth the canvas it was painted on. 

As author Edward Dolnick explains, Vermeer was a highly risky choice for a forger.  Unlike many Renaissance artists, e.g., Rembrandt, Vermeer's body of work is distressingly small.  Less than 40 known paintings exist, and most of them are distinctly different from the work being done by his contemporaries.  And, as anyone who has ever seen one of the iconic Vermeers (e.g., The Milkmaid) knows, Vermeer's use of light can be stunning. That small body of work, however, also made Vermeer a choice that could have a huge payoff for the forger if the forgery succeeded.  Every art collector, every museum curator, every art historian dreamt of being the person who found a lost Vermeer.  The fact that it had happened once or twice -- in 1901 a painting with a Biblical theme, Christ in the House of Mary and Martha, was revealed to be a Vermeer -- fed that fever.  The Dutch art historian who found that Vermeer spent the rest of his life hoping to find another.  (Thanks to van Meegeren, he died believing he'd found not just one more Vermeer, but several.)

As forgers go, van Meegeren was a genius.  He knew all the things that can trip up a would-be forger and managed to dodge most of them, particularly in the first two or three Vermeers he cranked out.  Canvas and stretchers, for example -- if you want to paint a convincing 17th century Vermeer, you need to find 17th material to paint it on.  Van Meegeren did, and then painstakingly scraped off whatever low-value painting happened to be on the canvas rather than painting over it.  He wasn't going to take a chance on an x-ray showing that "Vermeer" had painted over a work by another artist that had been documented as being created a few years after Vermeer's death.  And then he solved the problem that made old oil paintings almost impossible to forge successfully. 

Oil paints dry extremely slowly, literally over decades of time.  Dolnick gives a number of examples of other forgers who settled for lower price points when they created fakes tied to artists who had been dead for several centuries:  charcoal drawings, for example, or pen and ink.  There were still technical issues involved (you needed old paper), but not nearly as difficult as those an "old" oil painting entailed.  An oil painting can be dry to the touch, but the paint remains soft for many years.  Fresh oil paint dissolves easily in turpentine and will stain turpentine-soaked swab.  After several centuries, however, oil paint is truly hard and relatively imperious to solvents.  Van Meegeren did not have the luxury of waitng several decades for his Vermeers to dry to a convincing hardness -- by the time they achieved it, he'd be dead.  And then he discovered Bakelite.  After experimenting for many months, van Meegeren devised a way to turn his oil paints into plastic.  He'd solved the softness problem.  Now all he needed was a sucker. 

He found one, of course.  In fact, between the mid-1930s and the end of World War II, he found several.  His Christ at Emmaus was hailed as a masterpiece, the finest Vermeer in the world.  A Dutch museum spent the equivalent of several million dollars to acquire it and then made it the centerpiece of their collection.  Looking at it now, a person can't help but wonder how anyone could be fooled by it.  But of course,  I know it's a fake.  If I didn't know it was a fake, but I'd seen other Vermeers, my reaction would more likely be along the lines of "Not quite what I was expecting, don't like it as much as some of his other stuff." 

With each Vermeer, van Meegeren got sloppier, the paintings cruder, more cartoonish, and the technical details messier.  Which, in the end, may have saved van Meegeren's life. 

One of the last Vermeers van Meegeren produced got sold to Hermann Goering.  Although the general perception is that the Nazis just looted, period, that isn't quite true.  Hitler, Goering, et al., had some pretensions of what constituted civilized behavior (I know; that's a phrase not normally associated with that regime) and did indeed "pay" for what they took.  They also kept meticulous records detailing every transaction.  They generally paid a lot less than what a piece was worth and they also made it very clear the seller didn't have much choice in the matter, but they paid.  Hermann Goering forked over the equivalent of $10 million for his fake Vermeer.

Then the war ended, the stashes of stolen art were found, and the investigations in the Netherlands and elsewhere into collaborations began.  Within two weeks of the end of the war, a Dutch investigator had found van Meegeren's name associated with both Goering and Hitler.  The immediate conclusion was that van Meegeren had collaborated with the Nazis in stealing Dutch national treasures, e.g., the Vermeer.  Not being a fool, van Meegeren realized that given a choice between being shot as a traitor and spending a few years in prison as a forger, the latter looked pretty good.

Of course, no one wanted to believe him, especially when he said he'd also done Christ at Emmaus, and that's when the book gets really good.  The immediate (and totally understandable) reaction was that van Meegeren was just trying to save his collaborating ass.

The fact the book is called The Forger's Spell:  A True Story of Vermeer, Nazis, and the Greatest Art Hoax of the Twentieth Century tells the astute reader that van Meegeren did eventually persuade enough of the right people that he was a simple forger, but what  is rather fascinating is the number of people who, despite scientific tests that verified van Meegeren's claims (like the x-ray that showed the original Abraham Hondius painting under Goering's Vermeer), still refused to believe they'd been wrong about the Vermeers.  Hermann Goering, for example, went to his death insisting his Vermeer was the real thing.  So did several of the art critics and historians who had decided van Meegeren's Vermeers were genuine when they'd first been "discovered."  They insisted that it didn't matter what the scientific evidence was, the only thing that counted was their own expertise.  

The Forger's Spell, in short, is a wonderful description of the way we all manage to fool ourselves.  We see what we want to see.  In some cases, once we're told what the hoax is, we can see it.  In others, especially if we're emotionally invested, no matter how many times the truth is revealed, we'll cling to our illusions (Iraq did have weapons of mass destruction, Barack Obama was born in Kenya).  This book focuses on a very narrow segment of society -- art and art collectors -- but the insights into human behavior are applicable everywhere.

[First painting shown is Vermeer's The Milkmaid, the second is van Meegeren's Christ at Emmaus.]

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like a fascinating book. Thanks for sharing.


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