Saturday, September 19, 2009
Book review: The Forger's Spell
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.
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.