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the last vermeer

23 april 2021

Han van Meegeren is the rare art forger whose work is pretty good in its own right – even, and especially, his forgeries. That work, insofar as it comes on the market (much is still held by the museums that unwittingly bought it) can command a premium on the art market, as long as collectors can be sure they're getting genuine forgeries and not fake forgeries. The project of Jonathan Lopez's 2008 Man Who Made Vermeers – retitled in its 2020 movie tie-in edition as The Last Vermeer – is to scrape the phony glamour away from van Meegeren's reputation and see him unvarnished, as a really bad guy.

Van Meegeren has long been seen as a charming roué, despite growing documentary evidence to the contrary. (Lopez credits Dutch scholar Marijke van den Brandhof with assembling the first detailed debunking of the legend.) The legend goes that van Meegeren, a neglected talent, found a way during the Second World War to achieve artistic fulfillment while doing his part to frustrate the German occupiers of the Netherlands: he created skillful faux-Vermeers and sold them to Nazis for a huge markup.

This is a classic case of figuring that two wrongs make a right. Selling fake art is bad; trading with the enemy is bad; so selling fake art to the enemy is good? And presumably the more you get for the fake art, the worse for the enemy, so getting rich in the process (as van Meegeren did) is no crime either. And if you get style points too …

But as Lopez shows, van Meegeren had long been in business as a forger, growing rich in the 1920s and '30s by selling phony old masters to top-flight collectors. Two of his "Vermeers" hung in the Mellon collection and entered the U.S. National Gallery, long before he added Hermann Goering to his customer list. And to sell these ersatz Vermeers, Halses and de Hoochs, van Meegeren enlisted exclusive fences, duped distinguished art experts, and preyed on Dutch pride in the national cultural heritage.

As I mentioned, and as Lopez demonstrates with copious illustrations, van Meegeren was a pretty good original artist. Even as he was getting rich off fakes, he made a legitimate living as a portraitist, his pictures of prominent Dutch people having something of the 17th century about them that should have tipped folks off when he proceeded to "discover" 17th-century portaits that had something of the 20th about them. That cross-era kinship, says Lopez, is a curious fact of art history that explains why present-day audiences can be drawn to certain images from the past:

Most people … respond intuitively to that which seems familiar and comprehensible in an artwork, even one presumed to be centuries old. It's part of what makes forgeries so seductive. (6)
So if we like Vermeer in the first place because he seems so modern, we are susceptible to seeing a modern-looking image as a Vermeer.

This dynamic is complicated by the shifting diversity of any contemporary artistic period. As Lopez argues, van Meegeren didn't just imitate Vermeer, or sucker people into accepting slightly-too-modern images as genuine Vermeers. He invented an entire lost phase of Vermeer's artistic career, a Biblical series that the historical Vermeer might well have attempted, but didn't. Van Meegeren himself had a Biblical phase early on; critics hated it. He got to have another one, this time ascribing the work to Vermeer.

Van Meegeren took hints from Vermeer's early, genuine Christ in the House of Mary and Martha and elaborated them into a vein that Vermeer himself never pursued. Van Meegeren did a head of Christ, he did a Supper at Emmaus, and a Last Supper; he did the Christ with the Woman Taken in Adultery that he sold to Goering, and finally, after the war, on public display, he did a Jesus Among the Doctors just to prove he was really a forger.

As Lopez argues, the real matrix for these faux-Biblical-Vermeers isn't Vermeer or van Meegeren's individual bodies of work, but the kitschy approved art of the Third Reich, with its earnest scenes of families around tables striving to make Germany great again. Because van Meegeren was not only an inveterate forger, but a longtime Nazi sympathizer who skirted the bounds of what you could do to feather your nest and curry favor under the Occupation, without irrevocably outing yourself as a collaborator. "The entire atmosphere that shaped the emotional appeal of The Supper at Emmaus," says Lopez, "has faded away to the farthest reaches of living memory" (246). To us today the fake Biblical Vermeers simply look weird: how could anyone ever have seen them as from the hand of the creator of the View of Delft or The Milkmaid? But in the context of Nazi aesthetics, van Meegeren's paintings provided a genealogy for "non-degenerate" modern art.

The historical context for the van Meegeren forgeries is fascinating, as is the more abstract context of the nature of art forgery itself. As Carter Ratcliff recently observed,

much about every work of art is up for grabs: its intention, its meaning, and sometimes, even, the identity of its maker. That is why every dealer's nightmare — and, not so incidentally, the nightmare of every curator, art historian, and art critic — always looms over the world of art.
Because sometimes forgeries are just good: not even just technically good, but moving or beautiful in their own right. Tacky as The Supper at Emmaus may be when considered in some lights, dishonest as it may be in any light, it is a haunting image that indeed suggests a "what-if" about Vermeer's artistic direction. Van Meegeren was mainly a crook, but he was such a good painter that he opened a sideshadow onto art history: another way in which Vermeer could have been proto-modern, in a dubious, disturbing direction, if he had wanted to.

The 2019 film The Last Vermeer vigorously rearranges Lopez's historical narrative. Van Meegeren, well-played by Guy Pearce, becomes a character role; the leading part is Joseph Piller (Claes Bang), an important but secondary presence in the book. Piller was the Dutch Resistance fighter who briefly managed various postwar investigations into collaboration for the Allied command. Piller was the first to learn of the forgeries and then championed van Meegeren as a defrauder of the Nazis. Elements of mystery and family melodrama complicate the screenplay, and to be fair the prosaic story of van Meegeren's unmasking and self-remaking is better suited to nonfiction-novel terms than those of a two-hour dramatic film. The Last Vermeer is a smart, subtle film with a visual style that conveys the nature of van Meegeren's art very well.

Lopez, Jonathan. The Last Vermeer: Unvarnishing the legend of master forger Han van Meegeren. [Originally published as The Man Who Made Vermeers, 2008.] Boston: Houghton, 2020. ND 1662 .M43L67