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I Was Vermeer: The Rise And Fall Of The Twentieth Century's Greatest Forger (2006)

I Was Vermeer: The Rise and Fall of the Twentieth Century's Greatest Forger (2006)
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3.84 of 5 Votes: 3
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1582345937 (ISBN13: 9781582345932)
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English
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bloomsbury usa
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I Was Vermeer: The Rise And Fall Of T...
I Was Vermeer: The Rise And Fall Of The Twentieth Century's Greatest Forger (2006)

About book: Art history is a matter of provenance; art collecting an affair of prestige. Commerce in art is the ineluctable confluence of provenance and prestige. Han van Meegeren (1889–1947), a talented painter who despised the work of modernists such as Picasso, understood that he could only succeed as an artist by obliterating himself and becoming his 17th-century avatar, Vermeer.To Han, as Frank Wynne calls him throughout this lively biography, "I Was Vermeer: The Rise and Fall of the Twentieth Century's Greatest Forger," Vermeer's radiant realism was the very embodiment of the highest art. Ironically, Vermeer's own reputation rose most rapidly in the early 20th century — largely through the efforts of a Dutch critic, Abraham Bredius — even as artists were abandoning the kinds of verisimilitude Vermeer perfected.While Han's own work languished for lack of critical attention, critics hungered for more Vermeers, a slight body of work now reckoned to include no more than 35 or so paintings. Bredius speculated that because Vermeer's reputation had only recently risen, there might well be other Vermeers that a discerning critic might discover.So it was that Han set out to create a veritable Vermeer. Possessed of extraordinary skill, Han also was fired by a desire to humiliate critics who had shunned his own work. To prove them fools, however, he had to do more than paint like a genius. He had to re-create the paints Vermeer employed, find just the right 17th-century canvas he could strip of its paint, reproduce in depth the crackling (fine lines) that grace the work of Old Masters, and harden the painting's surface so that it could withstand various tests designed to ascertain whether a canvas had indeed aged over time.Finally, Han had to choose just the right subject matter. Here he was at his cunning best, choosing "The Supper at Emmaus," which he would pass off as a rare example of Vermeer's middle period, a work that would fill the gap between the artist's early and late periods.The trick was to get Bredius to authenticate the painting. Shrewdly Han worked through intermediaries, friends he coached to tell the tale of how this painting belonged to a Dutch family that preferred to remain anonymous because they had been forced to smuggle it out of Italy, fearing the Fascists would confiscate it. Better that the Dutch government buy this masterpiece in hope it would remain in Holland.Han's initial plan was to disclose the forgery as soon as the painting sold, in 1937. But he was a reckless and extravagant man who quickly went through the fortune he acquired for the forgery. Living the good life meant more forgeries and millions of dollars for Han. Even Herman Goering was swindled, a ruse which, unfortunately for Han, ended the forger's career.Right after the war the Dutch were eager to punish collaborators, and Han found himself in prison because of his dealings with Goering. It took Han some time to tell the truth. So convinced were certain critics that they stuck by their attributions. What nonsense, they cried, the idea that an inferior artist could produce a Vermeer! But Han set about creating another Vermeer while serving a sort of house arrest, thus proving his bona fides — an odd word, to be sure, to use in connection with a forger.Han never served his sentence, dying in 1947 shortly after his trial. In the end, he hardly seemed a criminal at all to the Dutch. One journalist wrote, "It is not the Vermeers, but the experts who authenticated them that are fakes." The journalist even proposed erecting a statue to Han van Meegeren, collecting funds for a work that was never built.Mr. Wynne misses certain opportunities that a student of art history might have explored. What about Han's scorn for the critics? Although he was able to dupe the greatest Vermeer expert in the world, Han got lucky, since Bredius, then in his 80s with failing eyesight, was perhaps not in top form. At the same time, there were always critics who saw through Han's Vermeers. Like other forms of criticism, art criticism is only as good as the critic.Han's success, however, raises other significant questions about art and art criticism. Do we, for example, stand in awe of the Mona Lisa because we know we are supposed to stand in awe of the Mona Lisa, because generations of admirers have done so? Walter Pater suggested that such works of art derive their value not merely from what is actually on the canvas but from what the beholder brings to the painting. Similarly, Oscar Wilde, Pater's student, suggested in "The Critic as Artist" that art's value is a matter of projection — that in order for the critic to say something valuable about the work of art he has to re-create it, so that, in effect, he is an artist.Han may have in one sense conned the critics, but in another way (according to Wilde) he affirmed art. Had Han not confessed, countless people would still be admiring his Vermeers — as one critic whom Mr. Wynne invokes suggests. The biographer also notes that other forgeries remain on museum walls, while still others are attributed to the wrong artists.Frank Wynne tells Han's story well, although how well it is hard to say. He clearly relies on other biographies, including several in Dutch, a language that the biographer apparently knows well. He includes a bibliography but no source notes. Especially troubling are the long dialogues between Han and others. Do these conversations come from other biographies? And if so, how accurate are they? And how strange that a biography of a forger should provoke troubling questions about its own provenance!

"I was Vermeer" tells a fascinating story entertainingly, albeit with a small but detectable admixture of sloppy writing.The story is that of a Dutch painter who became an enormously successful forger. He made millions (whatever currency you're counting in). The climax of the book (if climax isn't too purple a word) sees our anti-hero facing comeuppance. Frank Wynne focuses rather too much for my taste on giving us a flavour of the techniques Van Meegeren, the quasi-eponymous forger, used to pass his work off as Vermeer's, but perhaps that aspect is of interest to some readers. I found Wynne's handling of the man's psychology a little over-confident. He has clearly done his research, though, so perhaps I'm being unfair; but I feel the circumstances related are sufficient by themselves to indicate how he got entangled in his murky business and suggest possible psychological explanations without asserting what in fact cannot be known. All in the name of vividness presumably.So we have a man who unites (at least) considerable talent as a painter with a willingness (whatever the combination of motives) to commit deception and indeed crime by means of that talent. So far so fairly interesting.But what makes this more than just a crime yarn is something Wynne gives a bit less prominence than I would have liked: namely, the relationship between forgery and the financial and - even more importantly - cultural status of artworks and ultimately of art itself. Two aspects of this theme are discussed - see in particular Chapter 13, titled "A most stupid and malignant race". One is the fact that the art establishment (critics, experts, auction houses, collectors) have vested interests in not rocking the boat too much - this includes often keeping quiet publicly about suspicions of forgery; the other is the provocative fact that one and the same picture can appear (to the experts, and perhaps to a docile public too) utterly sublime one moment and utterly worthess the next, simply by virtue of being declared a forgery But all is not lost! The same painting can become magnificent again just as abruptly, on production of another expert's declaration that it is indeed an original Vermeer (or any other sanctified art genius).That's rich food for thought. I enjoyed Wynne's book; it's very readable (you can skim the technical stuff, for the non-forging reader it's just authenticating padding). Clearly I'd have enjoyed it more if he'd taken a more reflective tack, but I'm sure many readers will be happy with his approach.One last quibble. The writer is an award-winning translator, so it's a shame he left in things like: "What remained was easy, he had only to paint a masterpiece", which is a cliche of a sentence and on top of that has a comma where a colon should be. Talk about a ha'porth of tar.All reservations expressed, I would still quite warmly recommend this to anyone who likes a good yarn and/or is interested in the nature or even history of art. Just tighten up the editing next time, please, Frank!
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Reviews
Tim Hulsizer
This enjoyable tale chronicles the life and times of Han van Meegeren, a Dutch art forger who taught himself to create authentic old style oil paints using "ingredients" they used in Vermeer's time. He also created his own ovens to help bake the paintings to produce the craquelure (cracked texture) of old paintings. He was so good that certain of his paintings are still believed to be genuine despite his protestations, and other acknowledged Vermeers are under suspicion despite his denials. He was a serial womanizer, drunk, and liar but there's no denying the man had talent. Where the book suffers is, unfortunately, the writing itself. Despite the gripping true story, the author takes many liberties with things no person could know, such as people's motivations and entire fabricated conversations from decades ago. It's a minor distraction intended to provide spice to what would otherwise be a series of dates, people, sums of money,and places. But it just wasn't necessary when the simple, unvarnished truth (pun intended) is as good as this is. I direct you to Batavia's Graveyard, a previous read of mine which managed to be a supremely engaging historical account without resorting to fake emotion or manufactured dialogue. Overall "I Was Vermeer" is a dense read for anyone not into art history but it unfolds in an almost unbelievable fashion as Han dupes historian after expert after dealer. I recommend it to anyone who's heard of Vermeer and cares about his work.
Ann Frost
This was a fascinating account of how to forge 17th century art. This forger was meticulous in his operation and managed to bring several "lost" Vermeers to light. And by "several" paintings, I mean enough to make him millions of dollars. Of course he could never deposit the money in the bank and so part of what I enjoyed was reading about where he ended up stashing his money - in real estate and in land - not only the assets, but literally IN the houses and ON the property (as in buried in the ground). He also claimed his wife had no idea what he was doing in his studio as he worked on these paintings. That stretches the imagination a bit. Overall, an interesting read. Looking forward to seeing some real (I think!) Vermeers in NYC in a couple of weeks.
Sara
This true story of Han van Meegeren, a Dutch forger creating and selling "genuine" Vermeers in the 1930s and 40s makes a great book jacket summary. That's what drew me in. The writing is good and there are glossy illustrations so readers can see Vermeers and van Meegerens side by side. The book jacket summary sketches out the arc of the story, but for me, the actual text didn't really match up. The agonizing decision to admit to forgery seemed to come pretty easily and things wrapped up pretty quickly from then on.The chapters about Han's ingenious process for creating his forgeries were very interesting. The final chapters about Han's trial for selling a Dutch national treasure to a Nazi show Han's colorful personality and help close the story on an engaging note. Definitely worth a read for art lovers.
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