Wednesday, June 3, 2009
stop liking nazi'z
The Devil’s Orb
Jonathan Lopez and I resumed our discussion of Van Meegeren. I was still in search of an answer to the question of whether Van Meegeren was an apolitical huckster or a Nazi. Perhaps there were some additional clues in Teekeningen 1.
ERROL MORRIS: So is Van Meegeren’s success, success in pandering? Finding out what Nazi collectors want, and then giving it to them?
JONATHAN LOPEZ: To some extent, yes. Although, that’s only part of it. He really was an artist, and he did have to become involved in the aesthetics of what he was doing and making things that he himself found appealing.
ERROL MORRIS: He had to incorporate something of himself in his painting — even the forgeries. By the way, many of the images in your book are just amazing, the Van Meegeren drawings. They’re so strange. “Creepy” is the right word.
JONATHAN LOPEZ: Oh, the Nazi drawings?
ERROL MORRIS: Yeah.
JONATHAN LOPEZ: Yeah, the one with the snake and the deer. That’s pretty horrendous. And the one with the soap bubble, “The Devil’s Orb” ["Grain, Petroleum, Cotton"]—
ERROL MORRIS: The soap bubble is utterly amazing.
“Grain, Petroleum, Cotton” by Han Van Meegeren.
JONATHAN LOPEZ: That horrendous scary-looking book. My wife makes me keep it behind a door in my office so that nobody knows that we own the thing. Because you look at it — Jesus Christ what is this? It’s this sinister-looking book. It’s just creepy-looking. It’s enormous; it’s black. It’s got this gold Gothic script on it. It looks like an evil book.
ERROL MORRIS: Evil?
JONATHAN LOPEZ: Well, pretty bad. It was a very difficult kind of research to do. You have to do primary source research to get anywhere, because most of the secondary literature is not very good. It tends to repeat the same misinformation over and over again. So you have to go into –
ERROL MORRIS: You have to dig.
JONATHAN LOPEZ: You have to dig around, and you have to look in places you wouldn’t initially think of looking. And you have to learn everything you can about this man and who he was, and about who he knew, and who they were. And you have to recreate the culture in which he functioned. It was quite difficult. I had to learn Dutch. It involved a lot of hard work. I looked up the relatives and descendants of lots of people. I found these people in the Netherlands and wrote them letters in halting Dutch begging them to let me come talk to them. Eventually they agreed. A lot of the paintings that are reproduced in the book are from photographs that I took. It’s not like you’re going to find Van Meegeren’s works hanging in a museum. They’re family portraits that he did for wealthy Dutch families and are still in the possession of the families for which they were made. I had to track down those pictures and ask people: “Could I come see the picture of your mother at your house in the middle of nowhere in Holland. And by the way, you don’t know me: I’m a weirdo from America who’s interested in this obscure artist.”
I asked Lopez to translate the Beversluis poem that accompanies the drawing “Grain, Petroleum, Cotton.” He wrote to me, “It is called ‘The Devil’s Orb’ and is written in rhyming couplets. I can’t get it to rhyme in English, but here is a fairly poetic translation.” 
THE DEVIL’S ORB
Oh World — the Devil’s Orb —
Your vanity shall lead you to hell.
Frothing money-lust calls out its imprecations
As the devil reclines naked and shameless on that dread book
Blowing from his pipe your eternal torment
Out of the Old Testament’s hate…
We lie prostrate before three mighty powers:
Petroleum, grain, and cotton!
We are their victims, beaten with cudgels
And by their hand and their cloak is the grand Design spoiled.
Oh they stand and lift the glass
And we dance with glee when given leave.
Their monocles and coins sparkle
While their insatiable maws get filled—but life itself is emptied.
Through hunger and death
With the lash at your back and your back to the Word.
The people pass through this triumphant-seeming world
Led to perdition.
An unholy spirit lurks behind
The shimmer of illusion and festivity.
He grows swollen with our tears and sweat.
But still we pull him forward.
With our noses to the grindstone and our hearts sunken
We labor for their fiendish demon Baal, whose meaningless orb
Rolls us onward to the great chasm.
Oh spiral of decadence!
Parade of spiritual slaves
Caught in the storm winds like flightless birds
Made weak with panic and bloodied with shot
Oh dream of transcendence endured in suffering!
The orb is filled to bursting!
Glory alights and avarice must lose out!
For the mortal curtain is too thin and the emptiness too profound!
Blinded by the clouds
Of stupidity and fear of the gaping abyss,
All sins shall be redeemed in a fiery day of reckoning
By Love…the Light.
Detail of “The Devil’s Orb.”
Van Meegeren’s images can be interpreted in many different ways. Beversluis’ poem, how-ever, leaves little to the imagination. The opening lines reek of anti-Semitism. Although Lopez spends many pages in his book arguing his brief for why Van Meegeren must be considered a Nazi-sympathizer, the poem and the drawing, alone, powerfully underline his thesis.
And so, Han van Meegeren forged 11 Vermeers, a Frans Hals, a couple of de Hoochs and a Terborch. But for Lopez, Van Meegeren’s greatest forgery was not any of his paintings. It was his biography. It was his success in convincing Joseph Piller, the Jewish agent of the Dutch Resistance who arrested him, and eventually the rest of the world that he was a folk-hero — a gifted artist who conned Göring — not a Nazi-sympathizer or collaborator. As such, forgery is similar to sleight of hand. You misdirect attention, emphasize certain details and suppress others. 
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.
Early in his career (1922), Van Meegeren had drawn Princess Juliana’s pet deer from the royal menagerie in The Hague. It became one of his best-known works.
Twenty years later, he returned to the fawn — in a drawing from Teekeningen 1 — but this time it is wrapped in the coils of a viper. It’s an endlessly suggestive image, but who can say what it really means? Drawings and paintings — like photographs — can be endlessly interpreted and reinterpreted. We can believe what we want to believe about them. Is the deer, the people of Holland, ensnared by a Nazi viper? Is Van Meegeren the viper, and the deer, the gullible people of the world? Is it a simple allegory of the weak being inevitably destroyed by the strong? And if we can ultimately decide these questions, can we determine Van Meegeren’s intentions, that is, what he was trying to say to Hitler, the ultimate recipient of this work?
For both Dolnick and Lopez, Van Meegeren is a chameleon who can change his colors to suit his audience. But if for Dolnick Van Meegeren is a trickster, a cad, an opportunist, for Lopez there is something far more insidious, far more sinister lurking in the shadows. If the Nazis could be seen as a bunch of fanatical losers who criminally seized power through duplicity and cunning, Van Meegeren is their poster boy.
Van Meegeren asked: what was the difference between “The Supper at Emmaus” before and after it was revealed to be a fake. Van Meegeren’s question is thought provoking. Van Meegeren’s “The Supper at Emmaus” is the same painting as Vermeer’s “The Supper at Emmaus,” but it is a painting that is perceived differently.  It is seen to have a different provenance, a different history — and that of course is of crucial importance to art collectors and connoisseurs around the world. Changing the proper name involves changing the perceived provenance. “The Supper at Emmaus” was painted by Van Meegeren; in that respect, it doesn’t matter what we call it. Notwithstanding, the mere act of calling it “a Vermeer” — or signing it with a signature that looks like Vermeer’s signature — makes us see it as a Vermeer.  And this tells us in part: what’s in a name. A name is about a history, a provenance, and a trail that leads us back into the past, but the use of a name (appropriately or inappropriately) can short-circuit our need to verify that “it” is what we think it is. The name prevents us from looking into the possibility of a different and distinct history. The name overwhelms the thing itself. Even Bredius remarks on “the beautiful signature, I.V. Meer…” Compare for yourselves a compilation of signature samples: six different forgeries by Van Meegeren (at the bottom) and 16 different signatures by Vermeer (at the top.)
A.B. de Vries, “Jan Vermeer van Delft”
It is also possible that the name “Vermeer” inspired Van Meegeren to do some of his best work. Yes, he did it as a forger, but as Lopez suggests, “The Supper at Emmaus” may be Van Meegeren’s greatest work and also the greatest Nazi work of art. Did imagining himself as Vermeer, pretending to be Vermeer allow him to do better work than he could have done otherwise? Did he need to see himself as an amalgam of Van Meegeren and Vermeer?
Two people in one. Two books on the nature of the fraud that he committed. Dolnick and Lopez are presumably writing about the same man, but they have different sets of beliefs about him. Or perhaps they are merely discussing different aspects of the same man. Are we talking about the mystery of personality or its inherent complexity? Could personality be analogous to a deck of cards that is constantly shuffled, different cards at different times appearing at the top of the deck? Teekeningen 1 is a case in point. On one hand, Van Meegeren is sending to the Fürher evidence that the Vermeers that he is selling are really Van Meegerens. (Did he also send a copy to Göring?) It is as if he is saying: “Look at these drawings. Don’t they remind you of something?” Is it like a dare? A deliberate flirtation with danger? An artist who wants his collectors to appreciate his paintings — even if they are forgeries? Or on the other hand, is it a sincere offering from an admiring and loyal servant? 
If the two books are reflections on two aspects of one man, I wondered again if we should make anything out of their time of publication. Why these two books now? I wrote to Jonathan Lopez, and he wrote back:
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.
Here is 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.
There are endless debates about whether leaders “drag the people along” or whether they are puppets of forces which exist outside of themselves. This is the substance of Tolstoy’s theory of history outlined in “War and Peace” — the general’s delusion (it could be Göring’s or Napoleon’s) that he is in control of history when he is but a pawn.  History, when all is said and done, is enacted by all of us, not by a select few, and it is to the story of the collective to which I now turn.
 In addition to the translation Jonathan Lopez (in an e-mail to me) provided the following analysis: “In Dutch, it’s much clearer that the shimmering orb (or “bubble” — same word in Dutch, and maybe the better translation in this instance) is being blown by the Devil out of his pipe and that this bubble is literally made out of “money lust” which is the spirit of “hate” emanating from the Old Testament, the book upon which the Devil reclines. In English, it’s a little hard to make all of these connections perfectly clear without using a lot of dependent clauses, mostly because our sentence structure is so different, and we don’t have nouns with gender. Anyway, the Devil, and the world’s prostration before the powers of finance and commodities — wheat, petroleum, cotton — are explicitly identified by Beversluis with the values of the Old Testament, which spoil the divine “Design.” In contrast, the “Light” and spirit of “Love” embodied in the true “Word”— i.e. the New Testament — are hidden from us as we toil unwittingly in the Devil’s service. Hence, “a fiery day of reckoning” is needed to break the devilish avarice of Old Testament values that are beating the world to a bloody pulp. Of course, in the final analysis, this is all basically just a lot of angry nonsense—but it does help to explain Van Meegeren’s weird drawing with the businessmen and dancing girls inside the bubble, and the devil with a pipe lying on an open book, which otherwise is rather obscure. And there is definitely an issue of context here too. When Karl Marx denounces international capitalism, he’s calling for a workers’ revolution. When a member of the Nazi party, like Beversluis, denounces international capitalism, he’s probably calling for some-thing a bit different, such as, perhaps, getting all the Jews out of the business world — which is just what the Nazis were up to in Holland and elsewhere at the time Beversluis and Van Meegeren collaborated on this weird book with its weird Naziistic cover. Jewish-owned businesses — department stores, movie studios, art galleries — were being Ary-anized, that is to say, placed in the hands of Nazi overseers while the Jewish owners were deported to concentration camps in Germany and eastern Europe. “Fiery day of reckoning” = the Holocaust? Or perhaps just the Axis cause in general? Tricky question. Tricky book. But, for Van Meegeren, wartime collaboration, like everything else, meant never completely showing his hand. That’s what makes him so fascinatingly devious.”
 And to underline this claim, Lopez cites John Ford’s masterpiece “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”: “When the legend came to be accepted as fact, the papers preferred to print the legend,” from “The Man Who Made Vermeers,” p. 210.
 We could look at a Sherrie Levine copy of a Walker Evans photograph and believe that it is an original Walker Evans. But if we are then told that it is a Sherrie Levine, we perceive it differently. It has a different provenance. It is often supposed that the idea of copying a photograph is different from copying a painting, but what is clear is that every copy (no matter how exact) has a different provenance, and hence is different. Of course, we can be mistaken about the provenance of something, and then see it differently when our mistake has been corrected. Van Meegeren provides the parallel example for painting. We attribute a (faux) Vermeer to Van Meegeren, and we see it differently.
 Here, I have to take issue with Shakespeare. I don’t believe a rose by any another name would smell as sweet. But I can agree wholeheartedly with Gertrude Stein. A rose is a rose is a rose.
 Lopez clearly believes it is the latter, and clearly does not like me either suggesting otherwise or that it may be more complicated. In one of his e-mails to me he wrote, “I think [the idea of Van Meegeren flirting with danger] gets us back to the merry trickster idea of Van Meegeren, and it’s something of an apologist argument, i.e., that Van Meegeren was putting one over on Hitler. Yes, it was daring of Van Meegeren to ape his own forgeries, but people at the time actually assumed that he was paying homage to Vermeer. This homage is noted explicitly in both the biographical essay by E.A. van Genderen Stort at the beginning of Teekeningen 1 and in the interpretive essay that follows it by the Nazi journalist Pieter Koomen. Koomen also goes on, characteristically, to contrast Van Meegeren’s reverence for history to the cosmopolitan degeneracy of Kathi Kollwitz. Both authors also note that there are works in Teekeningen 1 that strongly resemble Rembrandt — the sepia drawing — and Frans Hals — ‘The Vagabond.’ So it was not particularly surprising that Van Meegeren would also imitate Vermeer. It’s not that people didn’t notice the resemblance: they did. But they had no reason to suspect that there was more to the re-semblance than met the eye. In hindsight, now that we know that Emmaus was a fake, it seems like Van Meegeren was deliberately flirting with danger. But take away that hind-sight, and how dangerous was it really? People wrote poetry in honor of Emmaus — why shouldn’t a traditionalist artist like Van Meegeren imitate its form and style. With the drawing ‘Mother Love,’ Van Meegeren was actually continuing, by new and different means, the quarrel with art history that he had begun with ‘The Supper at Emmaus.’ Having already inserted a Nazi Vermeer into the canon, he proceeded to pull Vermeer explicitly into the orbit of contemporary Volkgeist painting. Put the photo of the German mother wearing her Mutterkreuz in the middle of your comparison of ‘Mother Love’ and ‘Christ and the Adulteress’ and you’ll see what I mean. It’s as though Van Meegeren were taking a victory lap. When Van Meegeren sent the signed copy of Teekeningen 1 to Hitler with ‘dankbarer Annerkennung,’ I think he was sincerely thanking Hitler for changing the world in a way that made Emmaus possible. Hitler, with his will to power, changed the present; Van Meegeren the past — but both in the service of the same ideology. In a way, they were partners in crime.”
 The standard reference (aside from the second epilogue to Tolstoy’s War and Peace) is Isaiah Berlin’s essay on Tolstoy’s philosophy of history, The Hedgehog and the Fox. Berlin paraphrasing Tolstoy writes, “There is a particularly vivid simile where the great man is likened to the ram whom the shepherd is fattening for slaughter. Because duly grows fatter, and perhaps is used as a bellwether for the rest of the flock, he may easily imagine hat he is the leader of the flock, and that the other sheep go where they go solely in obedience to his will. He thinks this and the flock may think it too. Nevertheless, the purpose of his selection is not the role he believes himself to play, but slaughter — a purpose conceived by beings whose aims neither he nor the rest of the sheep can fathom.” I would humbly offer a somewhat different theory: The Self-Important Theory of History, where any individual sees himself as the progenitor of everything, unless things go badly, and then it’s someone else’s fault.