Friday, June 12, 2009

What Errol Morris' Eye Missed Part V

For those joining in the middle, this series is in response to Errol Morris' "Bamboozling Ourselves," which recounts his examination of two recent books on the forger Han van Meegeren. What is missing from the series is an artistic and historical eye, which I have, in some way tried to supply. The first part of this is that we look at these forgeries ahistorically, in that recent methods of forensics, such as carbon dating, radiology, and chemistry, have allowed us to greatly refine our knowledge, and thus create an identity of a painter that is more focused than before.

James W Von Brunn is a holocaust denier, and on June 11th, he entered the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC, and began shooting "indiscriminately." It is easy to condemn such obvious insanity, and it is easy to censure the obvious horrors of the Third Reich. It is so easy, that we do it when we should be censuring far closer evils that we commit ourselves. The genocides of others, in other places, are easier to attack, than our own failings.

van Meegeren's hoax is in the same category, in that it is easy to say that "those" people fooled themselves, and that the aesthetic which he practiced is dead. A closer examination of the aesthetics of his paintings shows that the easy explanation is not the simplest that is consistent with all of the facts.

The first layer of the aesthetic composition of van Meegeren's hoax is, importantly, that he becomes a painter, rather than a pastiche artist. His early forgery attempts clumsily insert elements, rather than maintaining a consistent "eye" framework. They have other defects as well, in that they contain decorative pieces which are anachronistic, and the use of blue which is only possible in Europe after 1704, with the creation of Prussian blue. Chinese vases meant for European export were white and blue in part, because blueness set them at fantastic contrast to the Europeans, who only had expensive Lapis Lazuli for blue. Early van Meegeren, then has the problem that his eye is industrialized: even if he sets himself a palette that is old, his extensive use of blue through out a composition marks it as incorrect. His choice of textiles is, likewise, industrialized. His drawing technique, based on modern ideas of drawing, is visible in the fruit arrangement.

van Meegeren aping Vermeer is not then, a painter. His technical defects, combined with the defects in production, such as the soft surface, blue usage, synthetic Ultramarine, cracking problems, and absence of the correct underlayer, are all addressed in his late hoax period. He finds out how to artificially harden the surface, he learns to crack it correctly, his palette contains natural Ultramarine, and it is used in the same concentrated manner of a painter of Vermeer's time.

The "valley of uncanny" explanation fails, because while to our ahistorical eye, the early forgeries are more like Vermeer's style than the late ones, they are not off in small details, but quite obviously wrong in ways that were obvious enough in their time and place. The later hoax Vermeers, by contrast, are nothing like Vermeer, or any painter of that period. The "valley of uncanny" explanation would require, instead, that they be a cartoon, facsimile. They are not. Instead they are meant to pass some level of examination of the materials, and argue from the materials that they must be genuine. What makes them a hoax, like the manuscript sold to West, and the Piltdown Man, is that they were intended to change the way people looked at history. 

van Meegeren, while discarding elements of aesthetics which marked his earlier work as post synthetic color and post-Victorian drawing technique, and van Meegeren was an excellent draughtsman, acquired, as the third part of this essay describes, the poster and mass elements of modern period works, exemplified by Art Deco. His obsession with spanish art is also in evidence. It is impossible to look at the hoax van Meegeren, without seeing a clear parallel to mannerist style in Spain, particularly that of El Greco. For example the trinity above has similar handling of genre clothing, faces, and color composition. But van Meegeren chooses darkness over light, in a manner which is both dutch and spanish.

As importantly, van Meegeren's hoax style, has virtuality: it organizes around a point of vision correctly, which is in focus, as all else is out of focus. His pastiches do not do this. This is, in essence the "Lopez Aesthetic" theory of van Meegeren, and a close examination of the paintings almost supports it, but not entirely.

Part of the problem is in one of the very details which Lopes uncovered in his exhaustive research trip through Europe: the materials sent to Berlin by van Meegeren, specifically to curry favor with the leaders of the Third Reich. They change the most logical interpretation of the hoax. That detail is the book of watercolors that van Meegeren sent to Berlin, and which was found among the items in the Nazi high command's possession. A forger would not have done this, since the objective would be to not call attention to it. More over, the style of the watercolors has betraying marks that van Meegeren was the artist, specifically, as Lopez points out, the use of heavy droping eyes.

The volume indicates that van Meegeren was not merely trying to sell forgeries, but was offering his services to the Third Reich to replace the original Vermeer, with this Vermeer. Just as van Meegeren had to create an aesthetic which fit with the context of his times, and he also had to purge his aesthetic of those aspects which betrayed too obvious a modern provenance, he went back to El Greco, commonly seen as a proto-modern in many of his works, such as the landscape of Toledo, for the precedent, and material, of a modern before modern times. 

What is even more startling is the faces in the late van Meegeren hoax style. They are clearly not European, but New World, or African, or some other combination of characteristics. This in paintinger purporting to be from a period when these faces were virtually unknown as such to Europeans. It might be argued by the most slender of threads that these are Moorish, or Turkish. But that was not part of Vermeer's subject world either.

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