It is difficult to imagine two books on a single subject that differ more in their approach to their subject than Frank Wynne’s biography of Han van Meegeren, the infamous Dutch forger of Vermeer, and Aviva Briefel’s dissection of literary representations of fakes and faking in the second half of the 19th century. One is a rattling good yarn, the other a scholarly work of considerable intricacy and insight. Yet both are illuminating and each reveals the worth of the other.
Han van Meegeren’s story is well-known. Arrested for the treasonable sale of a Dutch national treasure, Christ with the Woman Taken in Adultery by Vermeer, to Hermann Göring, he saved himself by proving that the painting was a fake and in so doing transformed himself into something of a national hero. Mr Wynne’s thorough and well-researched biography reads like a thriller. His essential sympathy for an essentially unattractive subject persuades the reader that, despite Van Meegeren’s arrogance and self-absorption, he was a talented anti-hero.
Dr Briefel’s analysis of the faker in fiction demonstrates that, for the Victorians, forgery, although criminal, was admirably virile. Forgery was represented as an exclusively male activity because, while women might copy, only men were considered capable of crossing the line beyond which “imitation becoming creative…rises to the rank of real art”. In the 19th century, the example of Michelangelo, who created a Sleeping Cupid that passed as a classical sculpture, provided an example that all forgers could call on to explain the essential morality of their deceptions.
Han van Meegeren, believing himself a self-taught genius at odds with the spirit of the age, was inspired by Paul Eudel’s account of Michelangelo’s Ceres (attributed on discovery to Praxiteles which the artist proved his own by producing the missing arm which he had broken off and retained) to cut off and keep part of the canvas on which he painted his first and greatest forgery The Supper at Emmaus.
Dr Briefel’s analysis of Henry James’s The American and Paste, Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun, George Du Maurier’s Trilby, Balzac’s Pierre Grassou, Wilkie Collins’s A Rogue’s Life and even George Cukor’s Gaslight is erudite and illuminating.
Her reflections on the representation of the dealer as Jew, woman as fake but never faker, and connoisseurship as a nexus for homosocial and homoerotic relationships disguised by the feminisation of the fake itself, are elegant and convincing. But what is missing, naturally enough from a work of literary criticism, is any real discussion of the visual experience of fakes.
Mr Wynne bravely tackles this head on. Bravely because it is very difficult to describe the visual impression made by Van Meegeren’s work without making oneself ridiculous either by describing it as unutterably repulsive and so failing completely to convey how it convinced the greatest Dutch critics, art historians and connoisseurs of the time, or by describing them as great works of art when they are now so embarrassingly evidently nothing of the kind. Abraham Bredius described Lady and Gentleman at the Spinet in The Burlington Magazine as “one of the finest gems in the master’s oeuvre” and Christ and the Disciples at Emmaus as “the masterpiece of Johannes Vermeer of Delft”. (Not everyone felt the same.) Their unmasking led van Meegeren’s contemporary and supporter, the popular journalist and author Godfried Bomans, to conclude that “it is not the Vermeers but the experts who authenticated them that are fakes”.
As Dr Briefel puts it: “Without any kind of molecular rearrangement, the detected object transforms into something altogether different than it was before the expert’s verdict.” Or, in Berenson’s words, “the moment the fatal word ‘forgery’ is pronounced…we actually see the object as less and less beautiful”. The study of fakes fascinates because it confronts us with human fallibility in an area where the authenticity both of the object and of the experience are sacred. Amusing, intriguing and chilling it serves as a reminder that the power of suggestion is such that, in the right circumstances, people can be led to believe almost anything at all. And not only about art.