Thursday, June 4, 2009

What Errol Morris' eye missed. Part I.

As a regular reader of Errol Morris' blog, the series on "Bamboozling Ourselves" 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6- 7 , has been my first blog read in the morning since it started, it touches on art history, and the development of both the aesthetic and scientific elements of the discipline of art history. The subject is the career and activities of Han van Meegeren, the forger who created a long series of paintings, palming them off as works of the Dutch Golden Age, a period which encompasses the 17th century.

Morris takes as his point of departure the two recent books on van Meegeren, one by Jonathan Lopez, one of the amazing rising bright lights of Art History, whose The Man Who Made Vermeers is a rich historical biography that assembles the essential facts of van Meegeren and his career; and Edward Dolnick who has essentially written a thriller about a forger and attempts to ground that story in the theory of virtuality.

Wallpaper (That Which Surrounds Us)

The reason I write on this is that there is a bias here: namely the bias which feminist theory would label "logocentrism:" an obsession with origin and with the importance of creativity as the focal point of examination. Morris is looking at the works of genius, or sub-genius in the case of kitsch art. But he ignores important evidence that comes from the ordinary. As someone who studies the ordinary, there are crucial details which change the story entirely. This is a critique, not an attack, on the brilliantly important work being talked about in these posts. It's not too much to say that Lopez' book will repay almost every minute you spend with it.

But there are a few more minutes that would help. 

The arc of van Meegeren's career is that he learned the late 19th century style, and some of the 20th century technique of art. He attempted to paint under his own name and then began creating ersatz works which he sold into the inter-war art market as from the Dutch Golden age, claiming that these were from private collections which were being sold under some form of financial duress. 

In the 1930's with the rise of Nazi-ism, he began painting paintings attributed to Vermeer, but in a completely different manner. It is this change of manner that is important, because under this new style, he was a raging success, where as before he had been hit or miss in his creations. The explanations as to why are offered by Dolnick: in that the old style was "too close" and invited scrutiny, where as the new style was farther away and "Vermeerish" and acceptable, in the same way a cartoon is cute, but a corpse is not.

Let's take a comparison of the two works: the one on the left a van Meegeren, the one on the right, a Vermeer. It is clear that van Meegeren had that Vermeer as part of his source material: the sleeves and genre elements are copies. The window is of the same kind, the lighting is the same. An art historian with modern eyes would then begin comparing the techniques: is the light the same? Is the handling of the face as artistic? Does it create in us a warm sense that a "real" Vermeer has. This notion of viewer as consumer, and the viewers pleasure as the reality of creation turns a creator into a brand name. We want the Vermeer thing, we go to Vermeer.

But the problem with van Meegeren is that he isn't there. He can pastiche elements, but the scene isn't real to him. We see this in some simple things: first, the music is in the wrong place. The girl is tuning the guitar and looking out the window, but the music is at the wrong angle to read. One can create perhaps of a story, buy that is also a modern convention. There is no story to a pose picture, save that the artist wants to create by posing. There's no story that has someone else put the music there, and then she sits, because, as we see from the mirror, the other person is also sitting behind something, an instrument perhaps, or embroidery. 

But this is playing the game of details, and invites Dolnick's argument of the "valley of uncanny." that is close things invite close scrutiny, while farther things are seen as cartoons. The obvious game changingly wrong thing in this painting is on the lower right hand corner. The table cloth. While the van Meegeren here can pass for a Dutch Golden Age painting in bad light at a distance, or in that shot, at an angle in 3D, though not by Vermeer for artistic reasons I will get into, it is only by special pleading. The table cloth, you see, is all wrong aesthetically.

Let me post a closer comparison, again in 3D, for reasons I will get to in a moment.

The fabric on the left is typical for Vermeer and his period: it is a rich pattern. In an age when everything is bespoke, made for and by the instructions of the client, richness is richness. There is an aesthetic at work here: the merchant or other wealthy person gains power by appealing to the tastes of those he deals with. He hires a painter to make an object, to his taste. Naturally every object in the painting is going to establish that same individualized craftsmanship. Painter, vase, and tablecloth. 

Now, look at the van Meegeren. There is nothing wrong, aesthetically, with Pueblo Indian primitive, or any other from of geometric primitive. However, it is out of place in a Vermeer period work. Look at every tablecloth in a painting from the Vermeer, and there will not be one like this. Because in the imputed period of that table cloth, the Dutch were not interested in that kind of aesthetic. It speaks of a different kind of relationship with nature and with artistic output. One look at the table cloth, and it is clear that the earliest possible date is much later.

One can then spot the reason why, even if this were Golden Age, it would not be by Vermeer. The reason sits in plain sight to any one who can draw. The fruit bowl. It is a knock off exercise of the gestural school of drawing now exemplified by The Natural Way to Draw by Kimon Nicolaides, unpublished at his death in 1938, but a summation of the way that drawing was taught then, and to a great extent, now. drawing is dancing over the page with marker in hand.

The reason we know the painting is ersatz, and not done from life by an artist, is a matter of 3D vision. That fruit bowl is impossibly sharp, unless the viewer is looking at it. Now the aesthetic of looking in paintings is not universal. There are plenty of times and places where it is impossible to identify where the artist is looking. It is a matter of the relationship of painting and viewer. In Vermeer's moment, part of what made him an in demand craftsman, was that he was inside the life, and his paintings have virtuality to them. The viewer can tell where the eye of the painter is focused, and the rest of the painting make sense in sharpness. In the Vermeer, the painter is looking directly at the woman's mid-section. Everything gets blurrier away from that central area that stretches from the arm on the window to that midsection.  

In the van Meegeren by contrast, there is the mirror that is sharp, the light from the window, the hand. In short he is engaging in pastiche. He is taking elements he knows from paintings, including the Vermeer, and piecing them together. But pastiche is not an aesthetic of Vermeer's work, or of this genre. It is in other places in that time, specifically, allegory paintings. But not  in domestic works. Thus van Meegren, despite pastiching the time, makes several errors that mark him as probably being from the later part of the 19th century, or most likely the early 20th century. 

This is because for Vermeer, the scene exists in his mind in 3D. If he moves something from where it actually is, it takes on all the qualities of being moved. van Meegeren can change perspective and lighting, but not the field of view. Nor does he want to, in a deep sense. More on why in a moment.

The reason I place these in 3D is that in a flat book, it is easy to miss the virtuality effect that Vermeer creates. Without lots of distance to create 3D perspective, he needs to buttress the effect by the field of vision. van Meegeren juts the table out forward, which is not an invalid move, but does not do other things.

The Ahistorical Historical Eye

But the analysis I just did is ahistorical. It relies on something that was not present at that time: a highly educated eye, and self-placement in history. Both are not present in 1930. 

The first part is easier to explain. I've seen much of the publicly available Vermeer corpus. But I know that it is, because people have filtered out "not-Vermeer" for me. I know what people tell me a Vermeer looks like. I've also seen reproductions of thousands of paintings. In other words, an ordinary art history student of 2009 has the visual range of experience of only a few people in 1930. The reproductions I have seen are better, not black and white plates or drawings, but large glossy originals, or slides taken in 35mm with precise lenses and exacting lighting. The ordinary reader can go check the paintings themselves. 

This ahistorical sense of knowledge of the past makes it hard for us to understand a time when a close Vermeer might have been accepted, simply because the sense of Vermeerness was not as firmly entrenched. 

The second part follows from the first. We can all look, we can all comment. We can all exchange. There is a relentless mill of comment which was not the case then. Now days or weeks might pass before one person reads an important paper. Maybe months. But important works are far less likely to remain hidden. This crops up in Lopez' revision of van Meegeren: by looking at the signature, and putting the picture forward, he obliterates the myth of van Meegeren the pankster. But before, an expert could dismiss it, and people believed that dismissal.

If van Meegeren's early "ersatz" period works had merely been fobbed off as real, and they were, this would not be much of a story. There have been hundreds of misattributed, or forged, paintings in art history. Over 400 paintings have been removed from attribution to "Rembrandt" in the decades of the post-war era. What is important is that van Meegeren was not creating copies in his second period, nor pastiched forgeries, but something else.


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