February 20, 2013

Jonathan Keats' FORGED: Han van Meegeren (1889-1947)

Han van Meegeren's "Supper at Emmaus"
Review excerpt by Catherine Schofield Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor-in-chief

Forged: Why Fakes Are The Great Art of Our Age
Jonathon Keats
Oxford University Press 2013 ($19.95, 197 pages)

What is Authority? Han van Meegeren (1889-1947)

In Jonathan Keats' book on art forgers, the San Francisco art critic recounts how in 1917 art critics loved Han van Meegeren’s first exhibit of his paintings; however, five years later critics panned van Meegeren’s exhibit of biblical paintings (personally I blame Cézanne for modernism in art).  Keats writes:
Though the gallery found buyers for van Meegeren’s virtuoso depictions of the young Christ teaching in the Temple and the supper at Emmaus, his earnings could hardly compensate for the injury to his reputation.
Van Meegeren would revisit the subjects of these paintings in two pivotal moments of his life.  He created and sold Supper at Emmaus as a Vermeer, then, after accused of collaborating with the Nazis by selling a Dutch masterpiece to Goering, he confessed to his forgeries. Had van Meegeren forged art to mock art experts or did he just want to make more money? After all, Keats writes:
Van Meegeren was well compensated for this work [‘flattering portraits of the upper crust’], generating an income that many avant-garde artists would have envied.  But in the early 20th century, no modern painter could command prices comparable to the old masters.  Picasso earned approximately $5,000 for a major canvas in the ‘20s.  By comparison, The Laughing Cavalier by Frans Hals sold for approximately three times that amount – and it was a counterfeit.  The painter? Han van Meegeren.
The counterfeit Laughing Cavalier was painted in 1922, two years before van Meegeren’s second exhibit met the disdain of art critics and years before he sold five Vermeer paintings. In a 1937 issue of the Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, Abraham Bredius, the former director of The Hague’s Mauritshuis Museum, praised [van Meegeren’s] the newly discovered Supper at Emmaus as the ‘masterpiece of Johannes Vermeer of Delft.’ Keats writes of van Meegeren’s forgery success:
On the strength of the laudatory text, and the author’s eminence, the Museum Boijmans in Rotterdam acquired the painting for 520,000 guilders – approximately $3.9 million today – and made The Supper at Emmaus the centerpiece of a blockbuster exhibition on the golden age.
Conversation PieceThe Smiling GirlLace Maker, and a Portrait of a Girl with a Blue Bow were four paintings made by van Meegeren and sold as Vermeer paintings.  Art dealer Joseph Duveen sold The Lace Maker and The Smiling Girl to Andrew Mellon.  Keats writes about how the forger fooled the art experts:
In other words, the connoisseurship exploited by van Meegeren was the very basis of Vermeer’s art historical resurrection.  The authority he abused may have been venal and vainglorious – and jealously hostile to scientific verification – but there was no substitute for it.  Gullibility was the underside of open-mindedness.
Keats recounts the van Meegeren’s arrest for collaborating with the Nazis, how he subsequently diverted attention from his work for Hitler to confessing that the paintings allegedly sold to Nazis had been counterfeit Vermeers. He then participated in performance art by spending months in the former Goudstikker Gallery creating another forgery, The Young Christ Teaching in the Temple, to show off his ability. The Dutch public was led to believe that van Meegeren’s forgeries had resisted Nazi authority. The convicted forger died before beginning his prison sentence.  Keats writes:
For the experts and critics, the verdict and consequences were more ambiguous. Conveniently deceased before the trial, Abraham Bredius was universally condemned as a fool, while the few experts who had not been tricked took the opportunity to gloat.  Most noisily, the Duveen agent Edward Fowles publicly released a telegram he’d secretly cable to Joseph Duveen after seeing Emmaus in 1937: PICTURE A ROTTEN FAKE. When the New York Herald Tribune picked up his story, no mention was made of the suspect Vermeers that Duveen had sold Andrew Mellon. 
On the other hand, Dirk Hannema refused to accept that Emmaus was a fake and spent the rest of his life trying to establish its authenticity with funding from Daniël van Beuningen. Though no credible scholars took Hannema’s research seriously and he no longer had an official position at the museum, The Supper at Emmaus remained on exhibit at the Boijmans – with no mention of who’d painted it – until Hannema’s death in 1984.

The unlabeled Emmaus was a fitting tribute for Han van Meegeren, who’d shattered the authority that made him without fostering alternatives.
Van Gogh's Le Blute-fin Windmill and Dirk Hannema (AP)
However, Dirk Hannema's reputation did not end with his misidentification of van Meegeren's Vermeer forgery. Here's a link to a video about the controversial museum director's life in art connoisseurship and collecting (now at the Museum de Fundatie). Hannema spent years claiming that a painting of a windmill he'd purchased for 6,500 francs from a Parisian dealer was by Van Gogh -- and 25 years after his death the Van Gogh Museum authenticated Le Blute-fin Windmill.

The Boijmans exhibited Van Meegeren's Fake Vermeers in 2010.