WHAT MAKES GREAT ART GREAT?
I recently finished a fast nonfiction read called The Forger’s Spell, by Edward Dolnick. No, it’s not about photography. But it is about art, and it raises some interesting questions. What makes great art “great?” How much respect do we give a work simply because it’s attributed to a “master,” or because a “great critic” tells us the work is a masterpiece? When do we judge a work on our own, and when are we swept along by a tide of opinion?
More particularly, The Forger’s Spell is about Han Van Meegeren, who had a successful career forging and throwing into the marketplace “newly discovered” Vermeers. For the most part, his forgeries weren’t copies of lost paintings. Instead, he broke new ground by creating original works in the style of his subject. One such piece found its way into Göring’s possession, and as a result, at the end of the war, Van Meegeren was arrested and charged with selling a national treasure to the enemy. If proven, the act would rise to the level of collaboration, a crime then punishable by death. Van Meegeren’s defense? Göring’s prize was no national treasure. It was Van Meegeren’s own creation – an original painting, made in the style of Vermeer, a forgery. Put to task, Van Meegeren painted another “masterpiece” to prove he could do it, then was placed on trial to prove his story.
If this weren’t true – and it is – it would be equally readable as a novel.
At its core, The Forger’s Spell raises a fascinating question. States Dolnick:
“Underlying all the specific questions about who painted what, a deeper question lurks. Van Meegeren posed it in its starkest form:
‘Yesterday this picture was worth millions of guilders, and experts and art lovers would come from all over the world and pay money to see it …. Today, it is worth nothing, and nobody would cross the street to see it for free. But the picture has not changed. What has?’”
[Dolnick, 1st par. of the Epilogue (2008)]
As noted elsewhere by Dolnick when interviewed by the film director, Errol Morris: “On the surface it seemed to be a story about art and history, but really, it’s a story about psychology.” [Errol Morris, “Bamboozling ourselves,” New York Times, 5/27/09 at click here]
When Dolnick finally saw, not a picture or copy, but Van Meegeren’s actual “Supper at Emmaus,” a painting that once had the reputation of being Vermeer’s greatest work, he said:
‘Well, it’s an astonishing thing to see …. You want to see the object that started all this. It’s hard, having thought about it and seen so many reproductions of it, to see it for itself, in the same way that it was hard for the Dutch in the 1930s who were told that this is the greatest painting ever, it was hard for them to see it simply as a painting …. [F]or me, knowing it had touched off this whole story, it was hard to look at it and say, ‘Is it really dreadful? Could, in fact, it actually be beautiful?’ It was surrounded with too much story to be able to look at it and make an open-minded judgment.”
[Errol Morris, supra]
Referencing Abraham Bredius, the critic who “discovered” and authenticated Van Meegeren’s “The Supper at Emmaus,” Errol Morris writes:
“In 1937 Bredius wrote, ‘It is a wonderful moment in the life of a lover of art when he finds himself suddenly confronted with a hitherto unknown painting by a great master. Untouched. On the original canvas and without any restoration. Just as it left the painter’s studio!’ For Bredius in 1937 “The Supper at Emmaus” is the greatest Vermeer. By 1947 it was no longer even a Vermeer, and it was an embarrassment.'”
[Errol Morris, supra]
This should certainly make one think twice when confronting the rave of a critic or crowd.
Published around the same time as Dolnick’s book is another treatment of the subject: The Man Who Made Vermeers, by Jonathan Lopez. From what I can gather, Lopez’s book takes a more in-depth approach, but it would have to be well written indeed to be as fast a read. Perhaps it is. Notably, Lopez also sees Van Meegeren as a real Nazi sympathesizer, while Dolnick is less direct on the subject.
As already referenced above, here’s a link to a well-written, lengthy seven-part New York Times piece by Errol Morris on the Van Meegeren phenomenon (which includes interviews with Dolnick and Lopez): click here.