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?

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