The Forger's Spell: A True Story of Vermeer, Nazis, and the Greatest Art Hoax of the Twentieth Century
by Edward Dolnick
New Books Take a Look at the Man Who Forged Vermeer 'Masterpieces'
A review by Wendy Smith
[Ed. note: This review covers two books, The Forger's Spell and The Man Who Made Vermeers.]
Published within three 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 Spel, 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.
Wendy Smith is the author of Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940.
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