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'The Man Who Made Vermeers'

September 29, 2008 |  8:16 am

Vermeer's 'A Lady Writing The November visit of a great Johannes Vermeer painting to Pasadena's also-great Norton Simon Museum ranks as a major mini-event. Vermeer's confirmed output was just 36 paintings. With the ones closest to Los Angeles 3,000 miles away in museums in New York and Washington, D.C., local desire to see "A Lady Writing" (c. 1655), on loan from the National Gallery of Art, is surely stoked.

My advice: Get a copy of Jonathan Lopez's terrific new book, "The Man Who Made Vermeers," so you'll have the whole month of October to digest it. Not that you'll need that long to read it. The book is a modest volume -- just 246 pages of text, plus another 36 of often fascinating end notes -- but it's so jam-packed and nicely written that you'll burn right through it.

The yearning for Vermeer is, in fact, central to Lopez's story, which chronicles how Han van Meegeren was able to successfully produce numerous forgeries of works claimed to be by the painter from Delft. Look at some of those fakes today, and they seem so obviously wrong as to leave one puzzled as to how they could have been accepted by some of the 20th century's best museum curators, art dealers and private collectors. We must be way smarter than them.

Well, no. Lopez astutely points out: "[A] fake doesn't necessarily succeed or fail according to the fidelity with which it replicates the distant past but on the basis of its power to sway the contemporary mind. Although the best forgeries may mimic the style of a long-dead artist, they tend to reflect the tastes and attitudes of their own period." Lopez shows how Van Meegeren split that critical difference.

Since the "tastes and attitudes" of Van Meegeren's own period included the horrific rise of Nazism in Europe, Lopez's fresh interpretation of events is very provocative -- not to mention convincing. Two important things he brings to his four-year revisionist study: The writer is himself a painter, so he understands art materials in a hands-on way; and, he's fluent in Dutch, which made interviews and original document research possible.

I haven't read Edward Dolnick's book on the same subject, "The Forger's Spell," also recently published. But it's hard to imagine improving on Lopez's gem of a tale.

-- Christopher Knight

Photo: Johannes Vermeer, (Dutch, 1632-1675), "A Lady Writing" (c. 1655), National Gallery of Art 

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