Tuesday, 6 September 2011

I was Vermeer: the legend of the forger who swindled the Nazis

I Was Vermeer by Frank Wynne is a biography of Han Van Meegeren, the ingenious Dutch art forger who managed to install, albeit unintentionally, one of his fake Vermeers into the private collection of Hermann Göring.  Arrested for treason in 1945 – selling national treasures to the Nazis being highly illegal – he was vilified as a traitor by the press.  However, once it was proven that he had painted it himself, he became a national hero; the humble painter who duped one of Hitler’s right-hand men.  Van Meegeren’s own work is quite collectable now and he has somewhat of a cult following.

The book starts off with an account of Van Meegeren’s arrest in July 1945, then goes back to his childhood.  Born in 1889 in Deventer, Holland to an overbearing father who made him study architecture instead of fine art, it’s easy to see where Van Meegeren’s resentments started.  He was a talented painter and very sure of his own abilities.  Once finished with his architectural training, he painted full-time and exhibited.  He wasn’t able to make much of a living from it though as his subject matter and style didn’t fit what was going on in the art world in the 1910s.  Dealers and collectors considered his work out-of-date.  Van Meegeren and his family (by now he had a wife and two children to support) were constantly in debt.  It was a combination of his association with some dodgy characters and their nefarious art world dealings, his own overblown view of his talent and the festering resentment he nurtured against the Dutch art world for not recognising such that gave him the idea of painting a Vermeer himself.  

And this is the focus of the book.  Wynne gives a very detailed account of how, familiar with the X-ray and chemical analysis techniques the experts used to authenticate works of art, Van Meegeren painstakingly researched Vermeer’s pigments and painting structures to produce a work which would fool the art world.  It took him ten years of very dedicated work to achieve this – and all his efforts paid off with The Supper at Emmaus.  He had cleverly created a new Vermeer which conveniently fitted into a recognised gap in the painter’s oeuvre.  It was heralded as a masterpiece, perhaps Vermeer’s greatest, by Abraham Bredius one of the foremost Dutch art critics of the time and sold to one of the country’s top galleries. 

Originally his plan had been to create just one painting; when it was declared as genuine, a newly discovered work by the great master himself, and hanging in the Rijksmuseum, Van Meegeren would come clean.  Confess and embarrass the art world for they’re gullibility.  He had always had a taste for high living however, and went on to forge other works by Vermeer and some of his contemporaries, amassing huge wealth in the process.  It wasn’t until he was forced to confess in 1945 that his career as a forger came to an end.  Even then, the authorities didn’t want to believe him so he was tried, rather bizarrely, by ordeal; he spent two months painting a replica of one of his fakes whilst watched constantly by a rotating shift of lawyers, prison guards, art critics and journalists.  At the end of this period it was no longer in doubt that Göring’s painting was a fake and Van Meegeren’s status changed from despised traitor to heroic rogue (Göring had given the art dealer a large number of other Dutch paintings as part payment for the fake Vermeer; these were restored to the nation).

Frank Wynne is a journalist, not an art critic; I find it hard to describe quite in what style the book is written.  Wynne recreates conversations and makes assumptions about what Van Meegeren was feeling and thinking and presents these as fact, blurring truth with fiction.  He uses the present tense at times to build tension and atmosphere.  These elements make the book a quick and easy read; no impenetrable art theory here.  It doesn’t even read like a biography really, more a tale of true life crime, particularly as Wynne tries to build a psychological profile of the painter.  Even the title is a bit cheesy!  This isn’t really what I look for in a biography but I enjoyed it nonetheless.  If you're interested in art forgery and after an enjoyable, light read, give it a go.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting, thanks. What was the gap the Supper fitted into?

    - Caspar