Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Don't be Fooled Again

Near the end of May, Errol Morris published a seven part essay in the New York Times called Bamboozling Ourselves (Part One is here) that is well worth reading. He discusses two new books that have recently been published about the painter and forger Han van Meegeren. He also uses van Meegeren's story as a jumping off place to think about a lot of interesting things including the concept of people letting themselves be fooled. Not uneducated, stupid people; people who should know better.

Here is Morris' synopsis of van Meegeren's story:

Shortly after the liberation of Holland, Han van Meegeren, a painter and art dealer living in Amsterdam was arrested for collaboration with the Third Reich. He was accused among other things of having sold a Vermeer to Reichsmarshal Hermann Göring — essentially of having plundered the patrimony of his homeland for his own benefit and the benefit of the Nazis. To save his skin — the penalty for collaborating was imprisonment or hanging — Van Meegeren revealed that the painting sold to Göring and many other paintings that he had sold as works of the Dutch masters were forgeries. He had painted all of them.

Not everyone believed him. The New York Times, in its 1945 story, said:

The director of the Rotterdam Museum said the prisoner was a fantasist who had a grudge against museums and similar institutions. A painting restorer in The Hague said that if one of the disputed works which he transferred to new canvas recently, “Pilgrims to Emmaus” [“Supper at Emmaus”] was indeed a forgery, then the painter must be considered a genius in that particular line.

To prove that he, indeed, painted the paintings he claimed to have forged, the authorities actually requested van Meegeren to do one more painting under their supervision. As Morris points out, this painting was not a forgery because he wasn't passing it off as anyone's work but his own.

The series of essays is thought provoking because part of what Morris discovered about forgeries is that it is not just the forger who is perpetrating the fraud; many other people are unwittingly complicit in the fraud because they want the story to be true. The customer wants the "discovered" painting to be real and most of the time doesn't even ask that it be tested. Sometimes the authenticator of the painting has his own agenda and wants the painting to be real. And, Morris meditates, this complicity occurs in frauds other than paintings.

The essay (and the follow up blog post More Bamboozling in which he responds to comments) is well worth reading.

But I found myself, in reading about van Meegeren and his trial, thinking about a work of fiction: Robertson Davies' What's Bred in the Bone. In Davies' novel, a Canadian painter working as an art restorer in Germany before the war is asked, as an exercise, to paint a painting in the style of an old master and to do it so that no one can tell it was painted in contemporary times. The exercise is meant to help him as an art restorer - the goal of a restoration to be as un-noticeable as possible. He paints the painting and it is judged a success. He also discovers that he loves painting in this old style and where he was only a mediocre modern painter he is very good at painting in the older style. But of course there is no market for that style.

The plot turns when he is forced to flee Germany during the war and the painting is left behind to be discovered after the war when art work stolen by the Nazis was being recovered. The "exercise" painting is identified by experts as an old master. The Canadian painter does not step forward to reveal the truth but in staying silent he dooms himself to never paint again. At this point in his life he cannot bring himself to paint in any other style and he knows that any painting he does will be too revealing.

One of the questions the novel explores is whether the painting, which is judged a masterpiece when it is thought to be hundreds of years old, is not a masterpiece when we know it to be only 50 years old. What is it that makes a work of art a masterpiece?

Curious about some of the similarities in the stories I did a little quick and dirty research on Davies' novel and discovered that, indeed, the story of van Meegeren was in Davies' mind when he was writing the novel and one of the characters is indeed based on van Meegeren. Davies' alludes to the question that van Meergen asked at his trial: "Yesterday this picture was worth millions of guilders. Art lovers from around the world paid money to see it. Today it is worth nothing and people would not cross the street to see it for free. It is the same picture. What has changed?"

Morris says that it is the change in provenance that matters. Davies thinks it is the fact of fallibility that changes the perception of the art. Davies says that fakes scare us because experts "of all kinds are our modern priests and we want to think them infallible."

Morris is fascinated by the idea that high priests can be fallible. He isn't interested in the common man but in people who should know better and who allow themselves to be fooled. As Morris writes in Part Five of his essay, we see what we want to see despite masses of information to the contrary:

We live with a glut of information. More information than ever before. And yet, we see so very little. The same human mechanisms that operated thousands of years ago still operate today. If we don’t wish to know something, if we prefer to believe something that’s false is true, there is little that prevents us from doing so. Invariably, we prefer fantasy to the truth.

As part of his essay, Morris interviewed the authors of the two new books and then followed up with e-mails. One of them, Jonathan Lopez, e-mailed the following:

We now live at a time when a lot of smart people have fallen prey to expertly packaged lies … I think that the Van Meegeren story has unusual resonance at this particular moment for that reason. I think, actually, that this is why we have two books coming out on this subject at the same time. There’s something false in the air.

Ultimately, I believe that it’s extremely important to understand how reasonable people can be led into misjudgments — even truly awful ones … That’s why I ended “The Man Who Made Vermeers” with Göring’s quote to Gustave Gilbert at Nuremberg.

Morris gives us the quote from Göring:

Why, of course, people don’t want war. Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece? Naturally, the common people don’t want war… That is understood. But it is the leaders of the country who determine policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along… The people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.

It is to the complicity of the collective that Morris finally turns in his essay, raising questions about the Dutch population during the war and what he calls the Alice in Wonderland like aspect of the accounts of what happened that were written after the war.

As I say, it is a thought provoking essay not only about art but about life. I recommend it.