Monday, April 22, 2013

Man Reading A Book At A Window

Over the weekend I stood by my window here south of Chicago, enjoying the seventeenth century Dutch sunshine in Delft and reading a book about a bizarre episode in the fine arts world that happened just before, during and just after World War Two.

This book. “The Forger’s Spell,” by Edward Dolnick.

It’s a very interesting book, very entertaining, and it has a very strange element to it, also. Before I get to the strange element, I want to talk about a couple of other things.

First of all, the copy I read was a library book. When I checked out the book, I noticed someone had folded-over a corner of one of the pages. I unfolded the corner without looking at the page. I figured either that was as far as the previous reader got before getting bored and abandoning the book, or the previous reader had found something on that page extremely interesting and wanted to remember the location. I wanted to read the book without expectations, so I unfolded the corner and just started at the beginning.

When I got to the page that had been marked by the folded-over corner—I could tell because the page had been folded so long the paper had become creased—the stuff on the page was so interesting that I folded-over the corner again, just as I’d found it. This is what was on the marked page:

The revolt against Spain began on June 5, 1568, when two Dutch noblemen, the Count of Egmont and the Count of Hoorn, sought to negotiate with King Philip’s representative in the Netherlands. By way of response, the Spanish official arrested the two Dutchmen and had them beheaded before a gaping crowd. Peace would not come for eighty years. The war was “still going on when Vermeer was born,” one historian writes, “as it had been when his father—and probably his grandfather—were born.”

Against this backdrop, Vermeer’s achievement stands out all the brighter. A few years ago, the journalist Lawrence Weschler traveled to The Hague to cover the Yugoslav War Crimes Tribunal. There he fell into conversation with the tribunal’s chief judge, who spent his days listening to detailed accounts of torture. The judge told Weschler the story of a torture victim who had gone mad. Weschler asked the judge how he coped with such testimony. On his lunch hour, the judge replied, he hurried to the Mauritshuis Museum “to spend a little time with the Vermeers.”

Weschler, too, had been communing with The Hague’s Vermeers. (The Girl with a Pearl Earring, A View of Delft, and Diana and Her Companions are at the Mauritshuis.) The judge’s remark, Weschler wrote, opened his eyes to “the true extent of Vermeer’s achievement—something I hadn’t fully grasped before. For, of course, when Vermeer was painting those images which for us have become the very emblem of peacefulness and serenity, all Europe was Bosnia (or had only just recently ceased to be): awash in incredibly vicious wars of religious persecution and proto-nationalist formation, wars of an at-that-time unprecedented violence and cruelty, replete with sieges and famines and massacres and mass rapes, unspeakable tortures and wholesale devastation.”

Perhaps it is not surprising that Vermeer chose to spend his days depicting quiet.

That’s pretty cool stuff. It reminds me, of course, of the Impressionists dealing with the Franco-Prussian War, and the Paris Commune.

It’s a bizarre inequality: How much peace and tranquility the entire world has derived from looking at and contemplating the beautiful and peaceful images created and passed along by the Impressionists, as compared to the almost unimaginable sufferings the artists themselves experienced living through their whole world—their ideal of the most civilized possible world—devolve into chaos, violence and brutal widespread death.

It’s the same kind of bizarre inequality—if not more so—with Vermeer. He was certainly part of a community in Delft and well-respected in his own lifetime. But he did not have around him an entire social movement the way the Impressionists had. He was not surrounded by passionate companions engaged so energetically in the same artistic struggle as he was, the way the Impressionists were. And the paintings he created—the few paintings, possibly less than fifty; there are almost as many self-portraits of Van Gogh in existence as there are paintings of any kind by Vermeer—and the few paintings Vermeer created have been a fountainhead of peace and reassurance and sanity and even humanity to every generation since. (Even when Vermeer was not famous as a name, his paintings were still loved and widely hung, just often attributed to an inaccurate source.)

And it’s bizarre too, isn’t it, that our own time marginalizes peaceful images, reducing the entire concept to heartless mechanical rubbish like the cottages of Thomas Kinkade or the landscapes of Bob Ross?

And our own time, of course, glorifies the exact opposite. Recently, an entertainment world businessman was quoted as saying, “It’s cool to be Quentin Tarantino.” And a very famous animator recently described how his very special, personal project will be “grim, but also funny and salacious and sexy”.

What the hell is wrong with us?

Everybody around the whole world—all economic strata, every educational background, every cultural background—can recognize and respond to the beauty and serenity and deep humanity in the images created by the Impressionists and by some individual artists like Vermeer, but nonetheless, every mainstream source of art and entertainment in the modern world is dedicated to cranking out images that are the exact opposite, images that glamorize and even romanticize violence, brutality and animal rage.

What the hell is wrong with us?


The strange thing about the book “The Forger’s Spell” is a very strange thing indeed.

Like almost all carefully written books about forgery in the fine arts world, the author acknowledges that the issue is almost certainly vastly more widespread than anyone will speak about publically. And, frankly, most experts publically will admit the issue is very widespread to begin with. So, we can only imagine how bad the problem of forgeries must really be.

This book looks very carefully at one very famous case—the Van Meegeren forgeries of Vermeer paintings—and it touches on any number of almost unbelievable conditions within the fine arts world that make forgeries possible: The narrow training of many experts, the pressures of big money, the politics of prestige, the difficult nature of the artifacts themselves, the obscuring veil of time, and, of course, the pernicious and/or mischievous creativity of sometimes immensely talented artists and/or con men.

But the author—and I’m guessing this must have been on purpose—the author doesn’t raise one very particular and interesting point, although he writes so very carefully and so very fully around the particular and interesting point that you can see the unwritten bit, so to speak, outlined by what is written.

Before I state that particular and interesting point, it’s worth saying that one reason the Van Meegeren forgeries of Vermeer are so interesting is because Van Meegeren was such a bad artist and the forgeries themselves look nothing like any known or suspected Vermeer images.

What the hell were people thinking?

Nobody knows what people were thinking.

The author, here, examines a lot of psychological theories of perception and expectations, and the cultural imperatives within any given time period.

But, still, nobody knows what people were thinking.

The Van Meegeren forgeries were ugly paintings that looked nothing like any known Vermeer, yet they fooled art experts and collectors and all the fringe kind of advisors that move within the big-money art world.

The point that seems to stand out to me as particular and interesting is that the author, here, never delves into the issue of unusual characteristics within the accepted body of Vermeer paintings.

Again, the author writes around the issue. He specifically brings up that within the forty or so paintings almost universally accepted as real Vermeers there are two “groups” of paintings. The author writes:

But the great riddle is that the two groups seem to have almost nothing to do with each other. Even today scholars point at the gulf in bewilderment. Many of them cite The Milkmaid as Vermeer’s first masterpiece, the earliest painting in Hannema’s second group. But eloquent as the scholars are in praise of The Milkmaid, they stammer when they try to sort out how Vermeer achieved the new look. “It is,” the art historian Christopher Wright observes, “as if Vermeer had suddenly decided to change his style almost out of recognition.”

He never asks: Could the “two groups” have been painted by two, or more, different painters?

But even beyond the “two groups” business, there are elements within even the most famous of accepted Vermeers that are strangely not discussed. In the famous The Girl with a Pearl Earring the model’s very close, very engaging and direct gaze is very unusual and to a modern eye looks almost like a Manet painting rather than something from two hundred years earlier. The almost equally famous Allegory of Faith has a typical Vermeer interior, but in the middle of the floor is a bloody, writhing snake [!] that looks like cover art from a fantasy or science fiction book. The almost equally famous Painter in his Studio has too many bizarre points to even list completely: The painter is working but his painting supplies are out-of-reach; he’s applying color to an almost blank canvas, not a carefully shaded under-painting; and probably most odd, at the scale the artist is portrayed as working, the model in front of him wouldn’t even fit on the artist’s canvas.

There are other similar issues with other accepted Vermeer paintings.

The author simply never asks: How many accepted Vermeers are actually very, very beautiful and successful forgeries that never got questioned and never got caught?

Throughout the book the author gives examples of people reacting very badly to discovering that paintings they had loved were actually forgeries. Many people react very badly to such news. Some people burn such paintings. Some people, but very few, simply shrug and say a beautiful image is a beautiful image and it doesn’t really matter if a master in Delft painted it four hundred years ago or, say, a master in Britain painted it one hundred years ago.

I guess the idea is the accepted body of work is so small and brings so many people so much joy that there is just no strong imperative to cause any trouble at all about it.

On one hand that makes sense.

But if a person accepts that line of thought—that a possibly unreal belief is okay because of some perceived larger existential good—doesn’t that raise the possibility of all sorts of dubious temptations?

Should historic narratives be true, or just appropriate?

Should historic biographies be true, or just appropriate?

Or should there be two sets of “facts” available: The general mass-market set, and a more detailed and more “true” set for people interested enough to investigate some issue further?

These are complicated issues and I certainly don’t have any deep answers.

But I do have one thought on this topic.

In the New Testament, there are incidents where Jesus addresses a general crowd and speaks in parables. Then, later in private, the apostles ask Jesus what He meant by this or that parable. Jesus then provides the apostles with an elaboration on how the parable was meant to be interpreted. In those instances—every time, and without exception—the meaning Jesus explains to the apostles is completely consistent with a simple, thoughtful reading of the parable itself. Jesus never, not once, engages in tricky word play or odd figures of speech and He certainly never implies one meaning to the masses and reveals an entirely different meaning to the apostles. Jesus doesn’t always say the same thing to the general public as to the, so to speak, “insiders.” But Jesus never, not once, provides two different meanings. The parables are always clearly driving at the exact same point Jesus reveals to the apostles.

My experience is that very, very few people choose to follow the example Jesus sets in the New Testament.

I wonder what the world would be like if more people even just tried to follow the example Jesus set with the parables?


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