Sunday, September 27, 2009

Han Van Meegeren versus Malcolm Gladwell

There's been a lot of attention given to master art forger Han Van Meegeren recently. Since 2006, three new books have been published ("The Man Who Made Vermeer's" by Jonathan Lopez, "The Forger's Spell" by Edward Dolnick and "I was Vermeer" by Frank Wynne) and one classic has been reissued ("Master Art Forger" by John Godley) .

Van Meegeren, for those unfamiliar the story, was a technically accomplished artist working in pre-World War Two Holland. The indifference (and occasional scorn) of his contemporary critics lead Van Meegeren to seek a kind of artistic revenge. He fabricated a plan that hinged on creating a fake Vermeer; a forgery to be passed off on the unsuspecting art world. He'd "discover" the painting, set the critics fawning over its brilliance, and then - in a moment of Hollywood style triumph - reveal it was not a genuine Vermeer after all but rather a masterpiece from the hand of the unjustly maligned Van Meegeren. As it was, Van Meegeren chose not to play out his revenge fantasy in quite such a spectacular way. Instead, he ended up painting and selling a whole catalog of fake Vermeers, making quite a living in the process before landing in jail for treason at the war's end (Hermann Goering being among his list of buyers)

What makes the story especially interesting is the precipitous decline in the believability of Van Meegeren's forgeries. Woman Playing Music and Woman Reading Music were both painted in 1935-36. They're plausible Vermeers, adhering to the style and psychology of what we know about the artist. Both show a figure engaged in a solitary pursuit, lit from a window to the left, in an interior very much like those that Vermeer painted.

I'm never surprised that experts might have been fooled by these paintings. They are, as mentioned, plausible. But Van Meegeren didn't stop there. From 1936 on he expanded his repertoire and created a series of "Biblical Vermeers" that are, to put it bluntly, creepy and bad. They're big, muddy and lifeless. My wife can't look at them. I barely can. Supper at Emmaus is like dinner with the Adams Family, and The Blessing of Jacob is...well...look at it...or don't.

So what does any of this have to do with Malcolm Gladwell? Well, in pondering Van Meegeren and his creepy Jesus paintings, I was reminded of Gladwell's bestseller "Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking". In "Blink" Gladwell demonstrates the value of "rapid cognition", that is, the process of knowing even before you consciously know why you know. "Blink" is Gladwell's meditation on "snap judgments" and he demonstrates that these first responses and reactions can often be the most accurate.

By way of illustration, Gladwell leads off his book with the story of a forged Greek sculpture purportedly from the 6th Century B.C. He describes a litany of first reactions from experts who'd seen it, ranging from "feeling cold" to "intuitive revulsion". These experts didn't need tests, x-rays, residual soil samples, or anything else to know they were looking at a fake. They could just tell - in the blink of an eye - that it was wrong. How is it then that so many experts were fooled by Han Van Meergeren's forgeries? If I experienced "intuitive revulsion" looking at Van Meergeren's work, why didn't they?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Social Calendar.

It looks like it's going to be a busy week!

Luc Tuymans at the Wexner Center Members Preview, Wednesday September 16.
I'm really excited about this exhibition. It's the inaugural show of Tuymans' first retrospective in the U.S and I'm thrilled Columbus gets to play host. Tuymans is an interesting painter. I love the kind of complimentary relationship he's developed between painting and photography. There's a strong conceptual component at work as well. The paintings are narrative but in a way that forces us to question the story itself. Plus, you've got to love a painter who distrusts images. It's not quite as iconic as the righteous soldier who detests violence, but it's up there.

I've started writing art reviews for Columbus Underground and I'm looking forward to tackling this exhibit. The pressure's on though. There's already been quite a lot written about Tuyman's. Hopefully I'll find an angle. The show opens to the public on Thursday 9/17.

Independents Day 2009 Saturday September 19.
Have I mentioned I'm in a band? We're called The Patsys and we've been laying low for most of 2009. That apparently didn't deter Jess Faller and the good folks at the Columbus Music Co-op to from inviting us to play. So we've assembled the musicians, tuned the instruments, and practiced the set to be ready for our 8:00 PM slot on the Gay Street Stage. This event really is a lot of fun. It's a celebration of art, music and food, focusing on the independent spirit that's alive and well in Columbus. (...and as of now, the Columbus Music Co-op people are still looking for volunteers, so pitch in!)

Scoot-A-Que 12 Friday-Sunday September 18-20
Every year The Columbus Cutters Scooter Club puts on Central Ohio's biggest scooter rally. Events include a Friday night movie at Studio 35, a meet-up at North Market and ride to Granville on Saturday afternoon, and a prom-themed party on Saturday night at Capital City Scooters. As someone who's ridden scooters for all of my adult life, I look forward to this event every year. Now if I can just find that powder blue tux I had.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Price is Right.

I was out running errands today and stopped by Target to pick up some toiletries and snacks. I made my selections and chose what looked like the best check-out lane. The person ahead of me paid and moved on, and the young man at the register began scanning my items. When he attempted to scan the antiperspirant/deodorant I had, something went afoul. No price registered.

"Not again," he muttered. It was obvious he'd had prior issues with his machine.

He tried scanning it a second, third, and fourth time, each attempt being as unsuccessful as the first. Undeterred, he squinted at the item, rubbed the bar code with his finger, and tried scanning it again. Nothing.

Now I'm not one to lecture other people about how to run their railroad, so I resisted the impulse to tell him to just type the numbers in manually. I figured if that was in his skill set or training he'd get around to it in good time. Instead, he offered a solution that caught me totally off-guard.

"You don't happen to know how much this was, do you?" he asked.

"No. Sorry," I said.

"Hrrmmm...," he thought for a second. "Do you want to take a guess?"

"You want me to guess how much it was?" I replied.

"Yeah. Sure."

Well I don't know about you, but this was uncharted territory for me. I'm familiar with the process of price checks, and I've seen plenty of employees use the PA to call for help. I've stood by as UPC numbers are typed manually into a checkout system and I've watched while sales associates consult all manner of binders and help screens. What I've never experienced is someone asking me to - in effect - make up a price.

To the contrary, all of my experience up to this point had lead me to the inescapable conclusion that determining the accurate price of an item at checkout trumps everything. It trumps my time, the cashier's time, and the time of everyone standing in line behind us. It trumps the manager's time taken to override an errant price, and it trumps the time of the person who has to go find the actual price. It's never mattered how much the item cost, or how much time it takes. The singular, exclusionary, and most important thing is that the price be accurately determined. That was until today.

Today we broke through all that to a kind of higher plane. Me and Clerk-Dude became co-conspirators operating in a brave new world; one where honesty, convenience, and ease of egress were going to trump penny-pinching, loss reduction, balanced cash drawers, and the litany of rambling corporate-speak they likely drill into cashier heads before giving them access to registers. He didn't want the hassle and figured I probably didn't want it either. It was a small moment to be sure, but a liberating one.

"I don't remember exactly. I think it was like $2.59," I offered.

"Cool," he said, and rung it up.

On reflection, I might have been charged too much, but I think it was worth it.