Wednesday, June 10, 2009

What Errol Morris' Eyes Missed Part IV


The psychology of forgery is different from the psychology of apocrypha. The forger wants to create something which fools some group of people in the present into believing that an object was created in a time or place differently from where it was created. The creator of apocrypha wants to change history itself. Many fakes are are intended to do not merely slip in with the rest of the flotsam and jetsam of the past, but to change the way that past is viewed. The word for creation of apocrypha of this kind is "hoax." And this is a word that is not prominent in Morris' essay on the subject, even thought that is what is implied by the thesis that the paintings that worked were too modern. van Meegeren perpetrated, not forgery, but a hoax.

One of the most famous hoaxes comes from palentology, the "
Piltdown Man" that had a primitive jaw and a large brain, very different from the skeletons coming to light at that time. It was also in England. The reason this is important is that Europeans wanted man to be smart early, and European early. What makes this an even closer parallel is that Dawson's collection of antiquities contains numerous fakes and hoaxes, many of them using the same techniques as the Piltdown Man. The combination of racism, wish fulfillment, and techniques which would not have passed tests even at the time, is much the same as the one which van Meegeren used. Just as with van Meegeren, Dawson fooled particular people, and chose his first circle of victims carefully, because many experts would not be fooled. The Piltdown man was suspected from the beginning, but remained believed in until 1953. almost 40 years later. van Meegeren's late Vermeers had defenders up until the 1960's, almost 30 years after he perpetrated his hoax.

The Prussians Are Coming

In late 1795, Benjamin West, then president of the Royal Academy of Arts obtained a manuscript from Thomas and Ann Jemima Provis which purported to be on the techniques of Titian and others. The work was, as it turned out, a hoax, and West recanted. One of the give aways in the manuscript is something that shows up in most exposures of hoaxes: an anachronism. In the case of the West hoax, the give away was "Prussian Blue."

Prussian Blue has an interesting history, it was an accident. Specifically, an accident in 1704, and hence, not something which Titian, probably born between 1488 and 1490, would have known about. 

The story runs this way. Beginning in the 1500's Europeans began to mine and acquire resources at a pace vastly faster than previously. They had been, to this point, behind in metallurgy and mining compared with most other major societies. However, mining changed the state of European understanding. In the medieval and early renaissance periods, the focus of the study of compounds was systematic, but that system was completely erroneous in virtually every aspect. 

The 16th and 17th saw a dramatic transformation with the introduction of the first aspects of scientific method: record keeping, notation, and measurement. Pendulum clocks, invented in 1656, as well as precision measurement of quantities, began to make the possibility of experiment a reality. 

But to begin closer to the story, mining's explosion in Europe caused an explosion of knowledge of metals. In the 1470's Funken is able to isolate copper from silver, at the same time Europe harnesses water and wind power for mining. In 1516, the great silver strike at Joachimstal is made. 40 years later, the mining had reached the point where water was pouring in, and the first lift pump in Europe was installed. To move the large quantities of ore out, wheeled carts were put on rails. These, the first railroads, were again at Joachimstal, in 1553. Some time in this period black powder is used for blasting, creating the first major improvement in breaking rock since the process of setting a fire to heat rock and then cracking it with steam was first used by the Romans. 

Long before steam, coal becomes important: for smelting. Laws were passed to prohibit cutting of trees for iron smelting, and against the export of coal. Engines are distant, the raw extraction of heat was what was important. Just as with computers today, one resource was so overwhelmingly important, that people would do anything to get at it, even if it meant cutting down every tree in Europe.

It is impossible not to look at this broad cutting of forest, orgy of mining and burning, and give it a name: Industrialization. Europeans needed metals that could withstand forces far greater than they had previously needed. Latches, bolts, nails, fire arms. Sailing long distances is an exercise in durability. One of the first codifiers of knowledge is known to history as Georgius Agricola, born in 1494 and died in 1555. His great work is De Re Metallica. He is credited as the founder of geology, but such precision of modern divisions is far too weak. Instead, his title, "The nature of minerals," is closer to the reality. Europe had discovered, or rediscovered, the study of the physical world. His early works described water and wind as forces. 

His biography is then, what you would expect. He worked from 1527 until his death in centers of mining, including Joachimsthal. The exploitation of the Western Hemisphere further expanded the demand for knowledge of material science. The challenge was to extract, refine, and use metals and their products. 

Taken together at a distance, we can see the truth of what he is writing about: an industrial revolution. Europe's first industrial revolution is not with the steam engine, but with mining, mechanical power, and material science. The driving forces were to create more food, and to mine more minerals from the ground. Europe, along with the rest of the Eurasian world, was awakening from the medieval period where migrations dominated the backdrop of geopolitical landscape. The paradox was that cataclysm was giving way to life. During the relatively warm medieval period, Eurasia is a vast "land ocean," across which flowed horse mounted armies, and trade on foot. With the coming of the "Little Ice Age" this cross land based movement was cutailed. The great barbarian migrations were long gone, but the horse mounted land empires flourished. The end of this land ocean marks the end of the physical force that kept the world within a medieval model of decentralization to withstand shocks that could come from any direction, at anytime. 

Another great area of advancement, was in the study of medicine. Just as Europeans were mining, and building objects of greater durability for warfare, so too was Europe rediscovering the city, and the human body. For art, for medicine, for warfare. The great work of the 17th century was William Harvey's circulatory theory, and the examination of life through the microscope starting with Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, who was a contemporary of Vermeer. Both were born in 1632, and lived in Delft. In the way of such things, they may have known each other.

Now why this digression through metallurgy and  blood? Because in 1704, a paint maker working in an alchemist's laboratory was searching for a better red pigment. In the way of that time, animate, and inanimate, chemicals were considered completely different. Now we know the difference is carbon, the chemistry of carbon is so complex that it, combined largely with Hydrogen, Oxygen, and Nitrogen forms the basis for life. However, at that time, mixtures of the two were regarded with importance.

The operating theory was that there was an animus, a human like spirit, that drove actions. The search was to find the animating forces, and then, it would be possible to make chemicals do what humans wanted. The dyer mixed blood and potash, and the result was a white powder, which when oxidized became Fe4[Fe(CN)6]3. Importantly, it was insoluble, richly blue, and changed the color of the world. Within a few years the pigment had spread, and was being used in paintings by Watteau. It was a European blue to rival the blue that China had, which was based on salts of Cobalt, which had been used in combination with tin underglaze for white since the 8th or 9th century at the latest, and perhaps before.

In the middle part of the century, the Chemical Revolution, begun by Etienne Francois Geoffroy's work on affinities, caught up to cobalt blue, and prussian blue. Cobalt blue was recognized as being the result of a previously undescribed metal. Georg Brandt began doing experiments in the 1720's and distinguished cobalt from bismuth in 1730. In 1742 he proved that cobalt, and not bismuth, was the source of the blue color in glass. Brandt marks the scond generation of the chemical revolution, and he relentlessly attacked alchemy. Knowledge, open, was beginning to push proprietary secrets out of the center. It would be 1802 before modern cobalt blue, which is Cobalt Aluminate, would be prepared.

Prussian blue has an even more complex place in chemistry. It's blue color comes from the shift of Iron from Fe (II) to Fe (III), and the variations in its color from the impurities, exact number of cyanic groups, and the size of the particles. What is going on in the molecule is more complex. In chemistry, reduction and oxidation are complementary processes, and they refer to the removal (oxidation) and addition (reduction) of electrons, or more exactly, in the shifting of the state of the electrons in a chemical, even if no electrons are moved in the chemical sense. This may sound circular, and it is, oxidation is change in state, even if no actual transfer of electrons can be shown. This strangeness is a topic for advanced chemistry, and shows up in superconductors and organic chemistry. 

The number of electrons less than neutral is the oxidation state. When one atom or molecule is being oxidized, another is being reduced, or free electrons are being produced. Redox reactions then, balance gained and lost electrons. Fe (II) is short two electrons, and Fe(III) is three electrons short. Negative oxidation states, such as that of sulphur are written as negative numbers. This can cause confusion, because electrons have negative charge, but a molecule or atom in a negative oxidation state, has a positive charge. 

What happens is that low spin Fe(II) is converted into high spin Fe(III) by oxidation. Generally oxidation rules are simple: various elements prefer to be in particular states, and when calculating the oxidation state of most molecules, simple rules apply with some exceptions. When the number isn't obvious it is in parentheses with a roman numeral. So oxidation, such as rust, is the stripping away of electrons from the base metal. That is why reduction in smelting is creating an electro-chemically neutral pure element. 

Prussian blue is one of those complex molecules, which oxidizes the iron, to produce a new state, in this case Fe(III), which is relatively stable.  The Fe(III) scatters blue light, and that is the blue color. The chemical reaction strips an electron away from Fe(II), and then surrounds the new high spin Fe(III) so that it does not easily gain that electron back. 

In short, Prussian Blue was not the secret to Titian and the Renaissance, but to Watteau and the just ended Baroque. The hoax perpetrated on West provides a measuring rod for the difference between forgery, and apocrypha. The forger wants the production of his or her work to float out with the stream of objects. To be just one more painting, driver's license, or passport. My friends used to erase the last digit on their driver's licenses, and substitute a lower one to get into clubs. 

The hoax, by contrast, wants not merely to add to history, but to change it. Now no forgery can help but to change perception of history, but this is, to the forger, incidental. The forger needs to fool crucial people, but the perpetrator of a hoax needs to fool the crucial people, the people who need to be fooled, because, like West, they want to believe. 

But history, our history, isn't done with Prussian Blue. So important is this blue color that the molecule that is associated with it was named for being blue. Or rather, cyan.

More exactly: Cyanide.

The Benjamin West "Venetian Secret" hoax tells us a great deal about the psychology of a hoax, and it's structure. The perpetrator picks a victim who wants to believe, and extracts money. The first target is picked not just because they will accept the hoax, but spread it, act on it, and mix the hoax with their own work. West was the target, because he was influential, capable, and wanted to believe. If he could execute paintings that would be accepted at "Titianesque" the hoax would be secure. West's work is famous, particularly his painting of the death of General Wolfe. His place as a minor but brilliant painter is secure, as an examination of his work shows

The problem, of course, is that instead of brilliance, Prussian Blue yields coolness. (An ironic note, the best picture of the painting in question on the web, is mislabelled.) 


The important psychological transformation is not merely to see a the object of the hoax as a member of the present, but to see them as the present sees the past. West was at the very moment when a young chemistry was ripping apart alchemy. The process by which Prussian blue was first made is classic alchemist: mix together potent chemicals, and seek a purer form of the human quality that is desired. A generation later, it is the stuff of mixing compounds in an acid bath. Rather than ox blood and preparations, it is a matter of treating compounds with each other.



Titian then is seen as an alchemist who is a proto-modern, at least as moderns of 1795 saw themselves. He has the secret knowledge that comes later, but also that there was a secret knowledge in the past which the new science had not yet captured. This much accords with the Errol Morris thesis that van Meegeren recast Vermeer as a modern Nazi. However, the light of the West case goes further. Once you know that blue in Europe before Prussian Blue is an expensive act, from lapis lazuli, then you know throwing blue around is a modern act, a modern trait. Now go back and look at van Meegeren's forgery again. It is a modern in the textiles, but also in the blue hue. Like West, use of blues is something which divides the world of European painting. For van Meegeren, it is an act which Vermeer would not have spattered about as the cast of the canvas. Go back to the comparisons: for Vermeer, blue is the gem of the composition, for van Meegeren, it is the bread and butter of his palette. It is also why the bold blue of an earlier forgery looks wrong: such a hue was not on Vermeer's palette to have survived the time to the present.

This opens an examination of the science of the forgery, and it's connection, through Prussian Blue, to a hoax, intimately connected with the Nazi past, that is alive and well in the present.







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