Reading Jonathan Lopez's book about the master forger Han van Meegeren, The Man who made Vermeers, I was reminded of the opening sequence of the 70s T.V. series Tinker Tailor, Soldier, Spy; this featured a doll that contained other versions of itself with slightly different expressions, until we get to the last one which has a blank face. Van Meegeren seems to have been like that. I bet that you could never pin down the real McCoy; he seems to have been skilful at manufacturing different versions of himself just as much as imitations of his favourite, Jan Vermeer. "Made" in this sense was not solely about faking paintings, but also creating bogus identities, mythologizing one's achievements, leaving a trail of false clues. So many roles: embittered forger producing fake Vermeers to spite the critics; millionaire decadent organizing parties for prostitutes in Amsterdam; Dutch folk hero playing to his fans at his trail in 1947, while surrounded by his own art; Nazi sympathizer writing inscriptions to Adolf Hitler in books embellished by fascist hieroglyphs.
It's the focus on the Nazi dimension that makes Lopez's book so distinctive and compelling. He's really sharp- and persuasive- on van Meegeren's association with the Nazi aesthetic. In a probing analysis, the author shows how the forger's most infamous work, the Supper at Emmaus, an expressionist re-imagining of early Vermeer with spectral forms with ghoulish faces, approaches the Volkgeist, or the spirit of the people tied to Germanic customs. A comparison between a later painting, Mealtime at the Farm of 1942- a kind of Louis Le Nain peasant meal meets the spirit of Mein Kampf- and the Supper at Emmaus, makes that Nazi connection very convincing.
In his time van Meegeren fooled not only leading players like Hermann Goering who owned one of his Vermeer forgeries, The Woman taken in Adultery, but also eminent art historians. None were more elevated and acclaimed than Abraham Bredius, one of the architects of Rembrandt scholarship- his paintings have Bredius numbers- and a man responsible for helping to purchase an uncontested Vermeer, the Allegory of Faith. Bredius has suffered the eternal humiliation of declaring the Supper at Emmaus a true Vermeer; he wrote an article in the bible of connoisseurship, The Burlington Magazine, in 1937, proclaiming its autograph status. As Lopez says, history and art history has been very rough on Bredius because he was conned by a clever psychologist who knew how to exploit the great Dutch art historian's weakness. Van Meegeren knew that Bredius expected religious pictures to emerge from Vermeer's early career, the one period of his career where pictures were scarce. And there was a lot riding on that "Vermeer"; not only an end-of-career coup for Bredius, but the making of the Boymans Museum in Rotterdam and its new Director Dirk Hannema, who eventually bought the painting on Bredius's advice for what would be the equivalent of $4 million today. When everything unraveled, Bredius saw his world crumble to dust around him; I suspect that his major gaffe was partly why the Rembrandt Research project was set up, because some of his attributions must have been doubted in the light of his mistake in 1937. To be fair to Bredius though, he was responsible in the 1930s for cutting Rembrandt's hyper inflated oeuvre, a sad irony.
There's something about art history set against World War II that makes books like this read like thrillers at times. This is a world not only of curators and dealers but murderers, thieves and the military police. There are hairbreath scrapes like the time van Meegeren arouses Goering's suspicions about the provenance of the Adulteress. Who doesn't feel the same chill as van Meegeren when he is ordered by the Reichsmarschall to write a letter detailing the picture's history of ownership? How does one invent a provenance of a picture one has forged recently? Characteristically, van Meegeren hits on a brilliant solution: he writes Goering a letter saying that he will reveal the name of the owner within two year's time from the date of purchase. This is a masterstroke because it will confirm Goering's suspicions about the criminal origins of the Adulteress, while giving him an out with the letter; but it will draw attention away from the picture as a fake. This is a typical van Meegeren ploy betraying his attitude to life- an inveterate optimist sure of his ability to escape from the worst of all possible predicaments by guile and sense of the moment opportunism.
The forger's luck ran out when the Allies apprehended Goering's picture dealer Alois Miedl, whose confession allowed the Adulteress to be traced back to van Meegeren. Miedl, quite a character himself, lived out the rest of life in sunny Spain bolstered by the proceeds accumulated through his dodgy wartime dealing. Others who had done the same were not so fortunate. Hannema was punished for collaborating with the Nazis and for sending art directly to them from Holland, his part was a revelation to me. Soon everybody was running for cover, collaborators, morally bankrupt dealers, women who had literally slept with the enemy, against a Holland of vengeful cruelty gradually ceding to leniency, a mood brilliantly evoked by Lopez with his sympathetic summary of the situation and use of harrowing photos of traitors suffering at the hands of the wrathful Dutch. This is one of the best descriptions of the war time Dutch art scene since parts of Lynne Nicholas's indispensable The Rape of Europa.
I've read a few books on van Meegeren, mainly for a current course I'm teaching on art crime, but I still can't really fathom how he succeeded beyond the dreams of most forgers. His Supper at Emmaus looks nothing like a Vermeer, but the forger managed to fool Bredius into believing it was. You'll find some possible reasons by another van Meegeren scholar, Errol Morris here, and lots more besides, including more from Jonathan Lopez. There's also a humorous and insightful film by the Boyman's Museum here.
Van Meegeren's fabrications now inhabit a curious world of tainted celebrity. Pictures like the Lacemaker, one of his earliest forgeries from 1926, are immensely appealing; and in such pictures perhaps we can detect an honest desire to emulate Vermeer to the best of the forger's abilities. It is a tragedy that van Meegeren could only discover his artistic ability through forgeries- his paintings under his own name hardly quicken the pulse. Lopez pulls no punches here, but he is impartial and objective. Yet, at the end of his book, we seem to encounter the blank face of the final TTSS doll, not somebody with a face or real identity. Van Meegeren's most successful forgery was the portrait of himself he presented to the world.