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vermeer & van meegeren

Two small but interesting exhibitions related to Johannes Vermeer...

The Mauritshuis hosts 'The Young Vermeer', bringing together three of his early works: 'Diana and her Companions' ('Diana en haar nimfen'), 'Christ in the House of Martha and Mary' ('Christus in het huis van Martha en Maria') and 'The Procuress' ('De Koppelaarster').

Johannes Vermeer - Christ in the House of Martha and Mary

While mostly for Vermeer completists, these paintings already show his typical use of light and rich colors to create subtly balanced compositions that lead the eye into the image. See for instance how in 'Christ in the House of Martha and Mary' the interplay of glances and gestures of the three characters creates an intimate circle whose center is Christ's outstretched hand.

And they also provide a good frame of reference for another current exhibition: 'Van Meegeren's Fake Vermeers' at Boijmans, about Dutch master forger Han van Meegeren.

In one of the great scandals in art history, Boijmans bought a newly discovered Vermeer in 1937 for an at the time enormous sum. This was 'The Supper at Emmaus' ('De Emmausgangers'), which was later revealed to be a forgey by Van Meegeren, along with a number of other Vermeers and other 17th century Dutch masters. See this article and this short documentary for more on the story.

Han van Meegeren - Supper at Emmaus

To be sure, seeing these gloomy, awkward paintings now, it seems ludicrous they were once praised to high heaven as Vermeer's missing masterpieces. In fact it's tempting to just dismiss them as fascist abberations. Or is that too easy a judgment, comfortably 'objective' after they have been recontextualized for us by history?

In 2009 documentary maker Errol Morris wrote a seven-part essay in the NY Times on Van Meegeren's forgeries, titled 'Bamboozling Ourselves'. A fascinating investigation, it includes interviews with the authors of two recent books on the subject, Edward Dolnick ('The Forger's Spell') and Jonathan Lopez ('The Man Who Made Vermeers').

Was Van Meegeren a collaborator or an artist? Or both? And if he was a genius, what was his genius? His ability to trick people? Or was he able to trick people because he was an artist of genius? Who was Van Meegeren? A con man or Nazi? Did he forge paintings solely for monetary reward or was something more sinister involved?

Though Van Meegeren went to great length to make his paintings look authentically 17th century, they are not actual forgeries (as in, convincing copies of existing paintings). Rather, they're would-be Vermeers that he managed to pass off as real ones - which puts his art in the realm of the con man, making clever use of the confused wartime art climate.

But his forgeries raise more fundamental questions as well, about the nature of art and our obsession with authenticity.

...what makes a work of art great? Is it the signature of (or attribution to) an acknowledged master? Is it just a name? Or is it a name implying a provenance? With a photograph we may be interested in the photographer but also in what the photograph is of. With a painting this is often turned around, we may be interested in what the painting is of, but we are primarily interested in the question: who made it? Who held a brush to canvas and painted it?
Recommended:

woman holding a balance

On a rare loan from Washington DC, Johannes Vermeer 's ' Woman Holding a Balance ' ('Dame met weegschaal') is on display at the Rijksmuseum , along with ' The Milkmaid ' ('Het Melkmeisje') and ' Woman Reading a Letter ' ('De Brieflezend… Read the full post »

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