Friday, June 12, 2009

What Errol Morris' Eyes Missed Part IV

The Place From Whence It Comes

There is an arms race between the forger and the detective. They both draw on the same set of resources. However, once an object is produced, it becomes a standing target, while the motion of technology and aesthetics moves on. The forger doesn't need to win forever, just for long enough to be long gone. van Meegeren almost made it out alive: he lived very well during the last decade of his life, in a time when millions of people were losing their lives. 

The forger then has two important tasks: he has to pass those tests that are common in his time, but then he has to insert his work so thoroughly, that it is not questioned. The best way to pass a test for authenticity, is to not have to take it. Since forgeries have different time spans, the care of construction is an act of provenance: who created a document, and for what purpose.

When we look at van Meegeren, it is with ahistorical eyes. We know what a "Vermeer" looks like, because our idea of "Vermeerness" is trained by a relentless weeding out of not Vermeers, and indeed of the entire corpus of art. Our eyes have become historically sensitive to balances of color, technique, choice of subject, and treatment. But the people of that time were not so attuned. In fact, the early 20th century was, in many respects, the golden age of art forgery, because there was an intersection: a demand for a past that was there, in living memory, but was, in fact, dying. As more and more people were being channeled into new pursuits, the very craftsmanship aesthetic which made art objects was dying. The rich wanted them, because that was becoming the definition of rich: to be able to live among hand crafted things in a mass produced age. To have old things in an age of explosion and production.

This market, combined with a general lack of a forensics of art, created a demand for art production, and drew too it a supply of artists who could not make a living on their own production. These artists were caught: they were neither subservient enough to subject to be illustrators, nor steeped in the new enough to be art innovators, nor were they alive at the right time to be the originals. The story of Aleco Dossena is instructive as to the relationship of art and forgery at that time.

Aleco Dossena was an artist who had truly mastered many ancient and renaissance styles. If you are looking for works which can fool even an historically accurate eye: his can still do it. Set one of his early renaissance style works next to an original, and often the original begins to look fake. He worked for $200 a piece, which is about 3000 dollars modern, so not a bad wage. But it was often not paid. The unscrupulous art dealers took his, not even copies, in that they were not copies, but originals in an old spirit, and sold them as antiquities and original old masters, for prices that ranged over $10,000.

Original creation, is worth nothing. Genius is worth nothing. Rarity, is priceless. One can only know what has become important in retrospect, even assuming one can separate the good from the bad. This is not to say you can't, but take all the good, and not all of that will hook to the future. Once the future arrives, the people who made it are dead, and the present is willing to pay a great deal to touch their own past. Thus the market for the forger.

Now Aleco, like many artists, aged his works in an old style, precisely because he wanted them to fit in with that old style. There are copies littered about Rome today which are weathered so that they fit in. The originals having been long since removed in doors to protect against the effects of acid rain. But he was involved in the production of art in a tradition, one that many others were. He just happened to be able to do what van Meegeren was not: make art in that style.

The reason for this comparison is to drive a final nail in the "Valley of Uncanny" theory of the van Meegeren hoax. The original closer visually paintings are not picked out because of small details, but because of things which were obvious to enough people at that time. They weren't looking at the painting first, because they knew they did not have a good idea what the painting should look like. Instead, they looked at things which do not show in computer pictures: the technical details of the forger.

The early "Vermeer style" van Meegerens, you see, make a mistake, as alluded to previously, with blue. After 1704, blue became cheap. It was not always in fashion, but Europeans could give a blue cast to paintings if they wanted with Prussian Blue, then Cobalt Blue, and finally, synthetic Ultramarine, the natural form of which is from Lapis Laluzi. Before 1704, blue is an expensive act. In our historicized eyes, the blue period that van Meegeren took Vermeer through, is obvious. Even if your palette has only period colors on it, the relative expenses of those colors is different. However even if one uses only Ultramarine, the synthetic kind is easily identifiable under microscopic inspection. van Meegeren was caught in exactly this way: lots of cheap synthetic Ultramarine was the give away.

van Meegeren learned, he started buying natural Ultramarine for his forgeries. Another thing which was obvious was that his paint was still soft, instead of the hard surface of old paintings. van Meegeren of the Vermeer period was caught by this too. Thus, found among his effects is a painting which is with a blue wash, and which did not have the hardened surface.

Vermeer was exacting about blue, because his world was. van Meegeren, steeped in blue, had to adjust his eyes. van Meegeren's late style paintings are closer to Vermeer in their palette and color balance: blue becomes the central act in Jesus' clothes. There is no blue cast to everything. van Meegeren, by having to buy expensive natural Ultramarine, which was, ironically, cut with cobalt blue which gives his paintings away to later inspection, became historicized in his choice of colors. Suddenly he and Vermeer had the same care in where to use blue.

So let us look again at the van Meegerens, only this time next to each other. From this vantage, the ahistorical blue tint, becomes obvious. The valley of uncanny theory makes the wrong comparison. To have a too close for comfort valley, one first to ask what is the standard. For the world of the 1920's and 1930's, cluttered with hundreds of fakes, misattributions, and gaps in output, style is only secondary. First one must establish provenance, and then judge among the those objects thought to be genuine.

The nature of the race between the forger and the detective is the subject of Paul Craddock's Scientific Investigation of Copies, Fakes and Forgeries, with an entire section devoted to van Meegeren. It outlines how his early forgeries were caught out because they did not have the right use of canvas, the right surface, the right pallete. His later works, while far from Vermeer in style, used meticulous methods to make sure that his paintings would meet even very cutting edge, for the time, tests, such as examination for cracks. 

This is again where a polluted pool of originals is the forgers friend. Many of the paintings attributed then to Vermeer, were, themselves, not by Vermeer. Many were forgeries, that is works made to be misattributed. With a polluted pool, it is harder to draw sharp lines and connections. One way that van Meegeren was helped was in the area of cracking. 

What van Meegeren did, as forgers had for centuries, was acquire lesser canvases and then strip them of their original painting, but not their original backing and sizing. That is the layers of prepainting put down on the canvas. Since X-Rays were then becoming used to look at the behind the painting parts of a painting, he was particularly careful to remove any lead white. Lead, of course, absorbs X-rays very well. Then van Meegeren would go to work on his painting, but he would then want to have the tell tale cracks of time. To do this, he rolled the canvas in several directions. The problem, if you think about it, is that this will make the new artificially hardened, paint crack with lines that would run along the tube of the canvas. Examination with a magnifying glass, or microscope, reveals these lines clearly. It also creates the blotches and rips. Now we know that almost all Vermeers are in good condition, without this damage. However, then, it was perfectly reasonable to expect damaged older paintings. 

Not long after van Meegeren's active career, radio carbon dating and more sophisticated use of X-rays became the forger's great enemy. More recent pigments had the wrong isotopes, particularly lead isotopes, and the ability to examine the brush work on the under layer of paintings began knocking out forgeries. The first is a matter of craft: the time when smelting occurs. The second, however, opened a window into originality itself, in that brush work is part of what the artist does that makes his or her production unique.

This provoked a great purge of art works: project were established to find the real Vermeer, Rembrandt, and other artists' catalogs. Provenance became more carefully checked, including applying these same methods to purported documentation. Fakes were sometimes caught, not because they were recent, but because their documents were. Radio carbon dating and microscopes, by beginning to cast out the misattributed, refined our sense of what the past looked like. It also underlined why many of the great artists were great: they were better than their contemporaries at many of the same things that caught the early van Meegeren, including better use of virtuality in the way they organized the space.

van Meegeren then, in his second period, became steeped in the technology of his age, in understanding how to fool that technology, and the people who used it. His late period paintings exhibit a technological aesthetic in reverse. One can even say that he was a modern painter, who, as part of his movement, adopted the old palette of painting, and an old sense of color balance. 

This awareness of technology is part of the aesthetic of the paintings. van Meegeren learns to avoid aesthetic choices that mark his paintings as post-synthetic colors, even if he is using old materials, he learns to use them in old ways.  However, the very techniques he uses to age the paintings, damages them. And even with his more historicized eyes, he is not painting Dutch paintings at all. The thing that links van Meegeren the forger, and van Meegeren the hoaxter, is another linking aesthetic.


Prussian blue ushered in an era of synthetic colors. The chemical revolution, which it was at the cusp of, would learn to use real chemical power, rather than elaborate trial and error, to seek new chemical combinations an manufacturing processes. Europe went from occasionally tripping over a good idea, to being the heart of producing good ideas. This is an underrated part of why Europe passed China in economic output. The invention of the steam engine would not produce advances as quickly as the advances that it was a part of. 

However, some time ago, someone contacted me. He was interested in Prussic Blue, and in cyanide stains. He queried me, having gotten my email address, about blue stains on walls, and the chemistry of Prussic acid. 

Prussic acid is cyanide, that is HCN, dissolved in water. It is a colorless week acid, which is, however, highly volatile. It does not take much for HCN to reconstitute itself and sublimate into the air. Most people will smell HCN as having a bitter almond odor. It is not, in itself, blue.

However, it is called cyanide, because of the history of it's discovery from Prussian blue. Prussian blue has a complex chemistry, it takes Fe(II), that is iron in an oxidation state of plus 2, and converts some in to Fe(III). It is a polymer, that is a large molecule composed of repeated structures. It is called a coordinate polymer, because it has metals connected by multiple ligand bridges. A ligand bridge is when a metal or metaloid bonds closely with an atom or group. A bridge is when the group can then form a bond with another metal, forming a "bridge." A coordinate polymer, then, is composed of bridges of a metal, metaloid, or metal based ion, ligand molecules, a bridge, and then another metal. In the case of Prussian blue, the pattern is Fe(II) - CNO - Fe(III). The Fe(II) is surrounded by six carbon atoms, which bind to Nitrogen. The Fe(III) are surounded by Nitrogen and Oxygen. In 1752, around the time that cobalt blue was being isolated, Prussian blue was found to be composed of Iron Oxide, and a new acid, called "blue acid" from it's source.  

What makes the molecule interesting is that there are many different polymer arrangements, and the way that prussic blue is produced means that there are many possible varations, even within a particular batch. The structure of prussian blue has been deduced carefully, and only in the 20th century has it begun to yield all of its secrets. Part of the reason is that while HCN is soluble and volatile, that is it dissolves readily in water, and escapes quickly into the air, if it forms a polymer with Iron, it is insoluble, and non-volatile. People can ingest Prussian blue, and it is even used as an antidote to some heavy metal poisionings. Cyanide, as everyone knows, is a lethal poison. This is because of redox again. Our bodies engage in a complex chain of steps to oxidize sugars and get energy. However CN binds more readily in two of these steps than Oxygen itself does, but releases no energy. The body continues to happily pass CN down the chain, and dies from being unable to run the cell machinery. It would be like having a wood fire that releases no heat.

HCN in acid is dangerous, it is volatile, it can engage in chemical reactions readily. As with nitroglycerine in dynamite, the solution to handling HCN, is to mix it with a porous, inert, material. In this form it can be handled. Zyclon B, since cyanide is "blue acid" was the means by which Cyanide was transported. Ordinary HCN, used, for example, for delousing, had warning odor chemicals, often themselves somewhat poisonous, mixed in. The Zyclon B for extermination, did not have these warning chemicals. 

It is this difference that formed the basis of an attempt at holocaust denial: namely, that the concentrations of cyanide were higher in areas where delousing occurred than in areas where extermination occurred. These attempts were partially debunked by Richard J. Green The difference is that in extermination areas, pure HCN was applied. The walls and bricks of the extermination areas did not have free Fe(II)O salt, the other key part of forming a "Prussian Blue" or iron blue. However, the warning compounds formed an additional chemical element, which helped catalyze the formation of iron blues, that is coordinate polymers of iron salt and cyanide.

This process, the oxidation of HCN with Chlorine to cyanate is the basis for commercial decyanization. Cyanide, by itself, is not blue, it is the combination of cyanide and iron in Fe(III) state that is. The differing component then was that delousing, with chlorinated warning odor, was more likely to produce the correct conditions for the polymerization. Once this process starts, it is autocatalytic, that is, it releases enough heat to continue the reaction. This releases heat to accelerate the Fe Cl reaction. Fe(III) Cl, a salt of Iron, can be an input to an "iron blue," just as the iron in blood was for the very first Prussian Blue.

Fe(II) does not readily react with Chlorine at lower temperatures, but does so at higher temperatures. It producs a red-brown Fe(III)Chloride. We can now go back to the origin of Prussian Blue: mixing of blood, with potash and other substances. What happened the first time was a cumbersome and accidental formation of a polymer from blood. What happened in the delousing chambers was the same thing, some of the chlorinated warning odor created Fe(III) to mix with the HCN. The source of the iron? Ambient: blood, bricks, objects. Remember people in the gas chambers had their effects removed, these were left outside. People in the delousing stations, were injured, surrounded by metal effects. It takes relatively little free iron to form Prussian blue staining. As is obvious from its history as a dye, Prussian blue is stable, insoluble, and takes only a small amount to impart a very powerful blue.

The chemistry of Prussian Blue, then, forms a not coincidental link to van Meegeren. It was the presence of bluing that helped identify his early fakes. It was the presence of bluing in the delousing stations that later holocaust deniers used to try and create another hoax. This is what the Nazipop duo "Prussian Blue" is referring to in their name: a holocaust denier hoax. I suppose if I do nothing else in Second Life, this is a small contribution: pointing out that Chlorinated warning chemicals form a catalyst to produce iron blues from free Fe(II), and to stabilize HCN, as they are used in the present. This should account for the higher concentrations of Cyanide still present in the delousing areas, and the blue staining. It also accounts for why there may be blue staining in some of the gas chambers: using some of the warning odor Zyclon B in a gas chamber. This could be tested for by looking for some of the predictable by products, some of which are stable, of these reactions. Since there were several warning odor chemicals used, these could be researched and tested to see which produce the iron blue staining.

van Meegeren, part of an industrialized society, was trying to remove the same blue stain which was the hallmark element of genocide. This is almost the last element in understanding what happened with van Meegeren. He did not fool "one person too many," but was, instead, attempting to reveal himself to Goering, and, in effect, become the official producer of a fake past.

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