Books Essay - Winter 2011

The Faux Arts

Variations on a theme of deception

By Edwin M. Yoder Jr. | December 1, 2010

Three years ago I published a historical novel, Lions at Lamb House, that imagines an encounter between Henry James and Sigmund Freud. Freud is a visitor at James’s Sussex residence, Lamb House, in the year 1908. The two lions find that they enjoy one another’s company, and James, on a dare, submits to a “short-term” psychoanalysis by its founder. Thirty-one years later, a fragmentary case history of the analysis is dis­­covered among Freud’s papers after his death in London exile. The provocative feature of that “lost” case history is Freud’s startling admission that during his dialogue with James he was tempted to renounce psychoanalysis and “apprentice myself to poetry.”

The tale is entirely invented, although it is true that Freud visited his half brothers in Manchester in the year of my story. No such encounter between the two titans of Western intellect and art is known to history, al­though I tried hard to furnish my tale with authentic historical and circumstantial detail. Any perpetrator of this bastard form—historical fiction being a patent contradiction in terms—must at times feel a pang of guilt for his liberties with the past. At least if he or she has a conscience about truth in history. That may be why I appended a disclaimer at the end of the story—I admit, of course, that it is special pleading:

There is fact in fiction and fiction in fact. What is commonly viewed as an impermeable barrier is often an osmotic membrane. The difficulty of establishing what is historically true, as in many notorious forgeries, is an intrinsic impediment of the human record.

When I was writing Lions at Lamb House and other fanciful fictions, it occurred to me that historical fiction is merely one variant of a form that might be called the faux arts. Recently, a far more brazen mode of the faux arts came to wide notice in two new books about a Dutch art forger and his pseudo-Vermeers.

The faux Vermeers of Han van Meegeren are an example of the lucrative possibilities of art forgery. Between 1937 and the end of World War II, Van Meegeren painted and sold at least six imitation Vermeers, cashing in on the belated recognition that the 17th-century Delft artist is among the great masters. According to one of Van Meegeren’s biographers, this exploit was merely the culmination of a career as a counterfeiter stretching back into the 1920s. Even so, Van Mee­geren’s lucrative career might have remained obscure had his dupes not included Hitler’s World War II air marshal, Hermann Goering. As “the man who swindled Goering,” Van Meegeren enjoyed the admiration of the Dutch public when, after the war, he went on trial for forgery.

The painter he counterfeited, Vermeer (born 1632, the son of an innkeeper and art dealer), seems to have supported himself by art dealing and is said to have painted for his own pleasure, there being no record that he sold a canvas of his own during his lifetime. The surviving body of his work is remarkably small for that of a great master—only 35 undisputed Vermeers. Little else is known of his life, although one movie producer has stretched his most familiar painting, Girl with a Pearl Earring, into a biopic. The bio­graphical materials have the same tantalizing scarcity that we associate with Shakespeare’s: the magnitude of the art dwarfs what we know of the life. But what is exasperating for those who long to know more about Vermeer proved to be a con man’s opportunity. Van Meegeren seized it with relish and flair. His “Vermeers” reached the art market just when Hitler’s armies either menaced or, after 1940, occupied the Netherlands. Hitler and Goering, who were looting European art collections wholesale, pined for their own Vermeers; and it is from their unsavory greed that Van Meegeren’s story derives much of its entertainment value. He may or may not have painted the earlier forgeries with an eye on the Nazi lust for stolen masterworks; but his faux Vermeers certainly profited from it.

A master forger of art—unlike a mere teller of historical tall tales whose inauthenticity is known up front—faces many hazards. He who would create plausible old masters must avoid anachronisms in surfaces, textures, and pigments—even the nails that attach a canvas to its stretcher may give the game away. Are they period nails? Do canvases show traces of contemporary pigment? Zinc white supplanted lead white only in the mid-19th century. Tube paints, also developed in the 19th century, presented another hazard, because they don’t reveal the microscopic flaking that lingers from the era when artists ground and mixed their own paints from solid materials—the same evolution in art technology, incidentally, that made it possible for the great impressionists to flee their studios for the open air. Jonathan Lopez, in his book The Man Who Made Vermeers (2008), notes that in some of his later forgeries Van Meegeren was so incautious as to use cobalt blue, which only became available three centuries after Vermeer’s death. But not, it seems, in his most spectacular deception, The Supper at Emmaus, a painting based on the post-Crucifixion New Testament story.

In The Forger’s Spell (also 2008), Edward Dolnick describes in detail the pains that Van Meegeren took to avoid telltale clues in texture and materials. The forger acquired a 17th-century painting on the cheap. He removed the canvas from its stretcher and effaced the original painting, taking care not to damage the fabric. He then cut the canvas down to fit a special oven and applied the usual layers of chalk and glue underpainting. He had discovered that Bakelite, a plastic developed in the 1920s for wiring insulation and other uses, yielded a dependable surface hardness after two hours’ baking at 250ºF. Bakelite surfaces, when painted, would acquire a fixed resistance to the usual tests for fakery. Having painted and baked his picture, he administered an imitation craquelure by “breaking” the canvas over his knee. He applied a wash of India ink to imitate the minute debris that fills the crackling in old paintings. Voila! A synthetic Vermeer that fooled the experts.

Van Meegeren’s first two faux Vermeers were biblical in subject, The Supper at Emmaus and The Woman Taken in Adultery. A mere glance at these works, even to my inexpert eye, deepens the mystery. How could such noted connoisseurs of the time as Abraham Bredius have endorsed Supper in the authoritative Burlington Magazine? How could learned authorities have been taken in by Van Meegeren’s saccharine and un-Vermeer-like evocations of what one critic has called “a zombie Christ”? In every aspect, including the distorted anatomy of one robed arm, these pictures shout forgery. Not everyone was de­ceived. The Amsterdam agent of Duveen’s of London and New York (noted purveyors of European old masters to such collectors as Morgan, Frick, and Mellon) dismissed the Supper as “a rotten fake.” Even so, it was authenticated and sold to Boymans Museum in Rotterdam for 500,000 guilders, the equivalent today of millions of dollars, and crowds hurried to admire it.

Lopez theorizes that the prevalence of a Nazi Zeitgeist somehow blurred the vision and judgment of eminent experts, an inventive but I think dubious hypothesis. In other respects, the forger took pains to cover his tracks. Van Mee­geren was too crafty to fence his forgeries himself. He engaged intermediaries who wove tangled provenances, featuring tales of lost pictures, missing after years of obscurity and suddenly rediscovered. Ultimately the most delicious result was the deception of Goering, who swapped no fewer than 137 artworks from his collection (a good number of which were undoubtedly stolen) for The Woman Taken in Adultery. When Goering was told of the deception at the Nuremberg war crimes trials, he refused to believe it.

In painterly deceptions of this sort we have a literal instance of trompe l’oeil; for assuming no technical blunders, the human eye, schooled or unschooled, is the only available instrument of authentication. Thomas Hoving, the late curator of the Metropolitan Museum, once described the exotic process by which he authenticated masterpieces, isolating himself from them until the critical moment, then abruptly engaging in a sort of high-noon confrontation in which he challenged the picture in question to “speak to me, baby.”

Van Meegeren’s amusing tale ends in 1947 with his trial for forgery. While on trial he played a last trick. He confounded the skeptics who doubted his skill by painting yet another faux Vermeer, Jesus Teaching in the Temple. His little joke was to show the precocious young rabbi instructing the wise elders from a post-Gutenberg Bible, obviously anachronistic.

Another branch of the faux arts engaged the interest of none other than the great Dr. Samuel Johnson. In 1775, Dr. Johnson published his Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, an account of his and James Boswell’s Scottish tour. Among the tasks they assigned themselves was an investigation of the so-called epics of Ossian, allegedly the work of a third-century Gaelic poet. Ossian was supposedly the son of Fingal, the hero of the work. Dr. Johnson had already recorded his skepticism:

The editor, or author, never could show the original; nor can it be shown by any other; to revenge reasonable incredulity, by refusing evidence is a degree of insolence, with which the world is not yet acquainted. . . . The Scots [Johnson continues—tweaking Boswell’s native land was a familiar hobby and delight of his] have something to plead for their easy reception of an improbable fiction: they are seduced by their fondness for their supposed ancestors. A Scotchman must be a very sturdy moralist, who does not love Scotland better than truth.

When Johnson again recorded his doubts of the authenticity of Ossian’s flowery epics, he soon heard a growl from James Macpherson, the poet who claimed to have found and translated them 12 years earlier from the original Gaelic tongue. The rustic epics created a sensation. Napoleon, for instance, later carried an Italian translation on campaign and had scenes from “Fingal,” as one part of the epic was called, painted on the ceiling of his study. Goethe admired this “ancient Erse” poetry, even incorporating some of it into The Sorrows of Young Werther; and Felix Mendelsson paid melodic tribute in the “Fingal’s Cave” part of his Hebrides Suite.

When Boswell notified Johnson that Mac­pherson was threatening to thrash him for publishing his insulting skepticism, Johnson was defiant: “No man has a claim to credit upon his own word when better evidence, if he had it, may be easily produced. . . . The Erse [Gaelic] language was never written till very lately for the purposes of religion. A nation that cannot write, or a language that was never written, has no manuscripts.” But in case the indignant poet, a hulking man 27 years his junior, might try to carry out his threat, Dr. Johnson purchased a 10-foot-long oak cudgel with a weighty knob at the top and kept it at his bedside. Meanwhile, he dispatched a defiant note to Macpherson:

I received your foolish and impudent letter. . . . I shall never be deterred from detecting what I think a cheat, by the menaces of a ruffian.

What would you have me retract? I thought your book an imposture; I think it an imposture still. . . . You may print this if you will.

Dr. Johnson was right; Ossian’s Erse epics were an imposture, a forgery, and to this day the only evidence that they ever existed lies in Macpherson’s flowery “translations.” The epics themselves are a mingle-mangle of imitation biblical cadences and stilted knockoffs of Homer—“Their souls are kindled at the battles of old. . . . Their eyes are flames of fire. They roll in search of the foes of the land. Their mighty hands are on their swords. Lightning pours from their sides of steel,” etc. But the secret under­lying the perennial human susceptibility to the faux arts is that we hear what we wish to hear, and believe what we wish to believe. One indignant fan of Ossian protested, in Macpherson’s defense, “But Dr. Johnson, do you really believe that any man could write such poetry?” “Yes,” he responded. “Many men. Many women. And many children.”

My third sample was of far greater historical consequence. In the late ninth century, a document known to European history as the Donation of Constantine was written—or, to be more accurate, contrived, probably in the papal chancery. It purported to show that Constantine, the first Christian emperor, grateful to have been cured of leprosy by Pope Sylvester, had deeded the entire Western world to papal ownership. There were telltale implausibilities in this epochal document, but it was widely credited. Dante, unaware that the Donation would later be shown to be a forgery, was a scathing critic. Addressing papal simonists in Canto XIX of his Inferno, and picturing them in his careful quest for metaphorical equivalents of their sins and crimes as upside down with their feet in flames, he wrote:

“Ah, Constantine! What measure of
Stems from that source—not your
conversion, I mean:
Rather the dowry that the first rich Father
Accepted from you!”

The Donation, in Dante’s view, had paralyzed imperial authority against the secular claims of the papacy (in the unending struggle between the Guelphs and Ghibellines, respectively partisans of the pope and the empire), while corrupting divine office.

Lorenzo Valla’s exposure of the Donation was a pioneering Renaissance exercise in textual analysis, historical and linguistic. Its rough-and-tumble rhetoric is a bit shocking to modern ears, although Glen Bowersock, a distinguished classicist and translator of Valla’s boisterous critique, tells us that the attack on the Donation is, in rhetorical form, an “oratio,” of which vehemence and sarcasm are conventional hallmarks. Valla dismisses the tale of Pope Sylvester’s miraculous cure of Constantine’s leprosy as a tall tale—as bogus, he suggests, as the fable that the same pontiff slew a dragon that was lurking in a cave near Rome. Why, he asks, would the first Christian emperor throw away the worldly spoils he had fought so hard for? Why is there no record of Sylvester’s acceptance of the Donation? Why, if the pope ever exercised sovereignty over the West, is there no papal coinage, the usual mark of such sovereignty? Why the anachronistic use in the Donation text of the term pope, or the Eastern term satraps? And why—the crowning rhetorical question—does the Donation speak of Constantinople as a patriarchate when, in Valla’s crushing words, “it was not yet . . . a see, nor a Christian city, nor named Constantinople, nor founded, nor planned”? And by the way, Valla added, the forger’s Latin is barbaric!

These three examples of the faux arts obviously differ in gravity and consequence. The story of Van Meegeren’s forged Vermeers is essentially dark comedy, drawing its piquancy from the swindling of the Nazi bigwigs. Macpherson’s deception was equally venial, assuming that he based his translations of the hypothetical Ossian on actual Gaelic poetry and fooled mainly those who wished to embellish the Scottish past. The romantic taste for woodnotes wild is fertile ground for such deceptions. The far more consequential Donation of Constantine, however, helped to feed a violent, often bloody, struggle for political supremacy in the Italian peninsula for half a millennium, and on that account it fully justifies Dante’s condemnation.

That said, a few “buts” and “howevers” that may seem to echo my earlier observation about the ulterior kinship of fact and fiction. There are useful terms for this human propensity for self-deception: We call it wishful, or sometimes magical, thinking, and it is a powerful ally for the forger in all the faux arts.

Henry James understood and even sympathized with this familiar frailty. An accomplished student of artifice, he wrote a magisterial story, “The Real Thing,” that explores the paradox of the real, one of his ingenious parables of art. In the story, an artist is commissioned to paint gentry figures to illustrate a novel. If his characters are credible, an entire cycle of novels will be his to illustrate. One day he is visited at his London studio by two natty figures, Major and Mrs. Monarch. Poised, courtly, elegantly dressed, they are clearly of the upper crust. He assumes that they have come, as do other carriage-trade clients, to have their portraits painted. But no. They are down on their luck and seek employment as models. They propose to sit for him as “real” gentry, assuming that as the “real thing” they will guide his brush more accurately than the hired low-end models who can only imitate ladies and gentlemen. Pitying their plight, he has them pose. But the drawings that result are stiff and lifeless—how lifeless a fellow artist brusquely remarks:

“Who are they?”[his friend asks]
I told him, as far as was necessary, and he declared, heartlessly: “Ce sont des gens qu’il faut mettre la porte” (You ought to show these people the door).
“You’ve never seen them; they’re awfully good,” I compassionately objected.
“Not seen them? Why, all this recent work of yours drops to pieces with them.”

The illustrator, although sympathetic with the diminished gentlefolk, heeds his friend’s advice and returns to his usual professional models—a cockney woman who can do ladies, and an immigrant Italian, a failed orange vendor, who is a more persuasive gentleman than Major Monarch. Thus the real is for purposes of artifice unreal; while the artificial, given verve and talent, is a surer guide to the artist’s brush. For the chastened illustrator, the contrast illustrates “the perverse and cruel law in virtue of which the real thing could be so much less precious than the unreal.” James’s story neatly embodies the paradox of reality in the arts and one secret of our susceptibility to the faux arts.

Would Dante have found James’s story altogether shocking? Surely not. Dante must have been conscious of the tricky relationship between artifice and the artificial. His Commedia is itself a brilliant invention. His imaginary journey with Virgil to the underworld levies upon literary patterns and models established by Virgil and Homer. Dante doubtless realized in sober moments that distinctions between the true and the false are often less absolute than they seem to the moralist.

Forgeries, especially in painting and sculpture, and even in literature, appear real enough until we discover that they are not. And even then, some forgeries recur, no matter how often or authoritatively exploded. A particularly vicious example is that of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The Protocols purport to document a Jewish plot to seize world power, but they were, in actuality, cribbed from an imaginary dialogue between Machiavelli and Montesquieu and circulated by the czar’s secret police in imperial Russia. Their long lives as pseudohistory exemplify the occasional truth that the more brazen the forgery, the more stubbornly it endures. Henry Ford, who once pronounced that “history is the bunk,” played his role in making it so by tirelessly promoting the phony Protocols as authentic.

Which leads to a final variation on this theme. Puccini’s lighthearted one-act opera, Gianni Schicchi, tells with lyrical grace the story of a 13th-century swindler who is summoned by a family who discover that their rich patriarch, now on his death bed, plans to leave his fortune to a religious order. The trickster impersonates the dying man and manages to procure a new will. But in an amusing twist he confounds the family’s design by leaving the fortune to himself.

May a swindler redeem himself by a cleverer swindle than the one he has signed up to perform, double-crossing the double-crossers? At the end of Puccini’s opera, Gianni Schicchi pleads that while Dante dispatched him to hell for the sin of impersonation, the entertainment value of his trickery is such as to spare him that dire sentence. He starts the applause himself; the audience joins in. As in James’s “The Real Thing,” the opera subverts rigid categories of moral and aesthetic discrimination. Dante, to be sure, would not have been amused. In his classic Thomist theology, impersonation was a serious form of fraud, and the laws of Florence prescribed severe penalties (exile and the loss of a hand) for the crime. Deep within the inferno, Gianni Schicchi keeps the company of other deceivers—Sinon, who tricked the Trojans into bringing the wooden horse within their gates, and Potiphar’s wife, the perjured accuser of the young Joseph. Gianni’s plea for clemency would be wasted on Dante.

Is it wasted on us? It isn’t a question that lends itself to certain and stable answers. With Gianni Schicchi, then, I am forced to appeal to the audience. Is it not a venial offense, and sometimes even a service to deeper and more important truths, to complicate the stark either/or categories of the real and unreal? Henry James evidently thought so—see also “The Figure in the Carpet,” in which a writer persuades a credulous reader that there is some deeply hidden key to his meaning, and which extols the sly deceptions that enable artists to disarm the literal minded. On the magisterial authority of Henry James, hero of my historical tale that never happened, I rest my case.

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