The Faux Arts: Variations on a theme of deception.

Author:Yoder, Edwin Milton, Jr.
Position:BOOKS - Critical essay

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 "shortterm" 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 en counter 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...

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