Sunday, October 26, 2008

"I too am Vermeer!"

In the latest NYRB (subscriber-only), James Fenton on Vermeermania and forgery (that link should work for Columbia-affiliated readers). Concerning Dutch museum director Dirk Hannema, condemned for collaborating with the Nazis, Fenton writes:
Born in 1895, Hannema had been a very young man when he became director of the Boymans in 1921, and in 1945 he still had almost forty years to live with his disgrace. He was numbered among the fout, the people on the wrong side. Throughout the rest of his life he was routinely ostracized. And yet he was accommodated successively in two castles or manor houses by the province of Overijssel, where he housed his own private collection and made it available to the public.

I visited the second of these, Het Nijenhuis, not long ago, and on the way was able to buy a copy of one of the strangest products of Vermeermania, Hannema's booklet publishing his own collection of "Vermeers."[5] These were not Van Meegeren forgeries. They were Netherlandish paintings from Hannema's own collection which, in his isolation and disgrace, he began to attribute to the master. It seems that, like the slaves in the film shouting "I am Spartacus! I am Spartacus!," the paintings on Hannema's walls called out to him, one by one, in the lonely winter nights, "I am Vermeer! I too am Vermeer!"

They don't look at all like Vermeers, but nor, for that matter, do all Vermeers. The Edinburgh Christ in the House of Martha and Mary doesn't look like a Vermeer, although its signature has been accepted as genuine. The Diana and Her Companions in The Hague doesn't look like the other two Vermeers in the same room, and it is noticeable, if you wait and watch what the Mauritshuis visitors actually do, that, for ten people who spend time looking at the Girl with a Pearl Earring, about one turns around to examine the View of Delft ; and for every ten who examine the View of Delft, about one goes on to look at Diana and Her Companions.

Certainly the Girl with a Pearl Earring is currently the most famous Vermeer, but when it appeared at auction in early 1882 it was attributed to an unknown master. The man who recognized it as a Vermeer was Victor de Stuers, a prominent cultural official, the brains behind the Rijksmuseum. He urged a friend, A.A. des Tombe, to bid for it, trusting that he would be the sort of man to leave it to the state, which indeed he did. He had been able to buy it for two florins and thirty stuivers (about $200 in today's dollars), largely, no doubt, because it didn't in those days look like a Vermeer.

Hannema's Vermeers include The Penitent and Impenitent Thieves Being Led to Golgotha, a vigorous study in men's back muscles and buttocks (now hanging in Zwolle, attributed to a Flemish painter, Abraham Janssens van Nuyssen); Belisarius Begging (depicting a man on a chair or throne, certainly no beggar, gesticulating for some reason); a group portrait supposed to show Vermeer with his wife and two children on a balcony (more likely an aristocratic couple on a country estate, with a peacock); and A Fish on a Brown Earthenware Platter. This last painting, admirable in its way, so enchanted Hannema that he couldn't at first decide whether it was by Goya, or Rembrandt, or Carel Fabritius, or Vermeer—four of his favorite painters.

He was mad when it came to the subject of Vermeer. He was one of a small group of doomed believers who kept alive a campaign on behalf of Van Meegeren's forgeries long after the forger himself had denounced them. But on other subjects he was capable of perfectly sane judgments. Perhaps his madness whispered to him that he could redeem his reputation by offering to Holland so many rediscovered masterpieces. And so he sat the decades out, surrounded by photographs of the royal family (proof of his loyalty and devotion to the Crown), among his works of art, in a baroque moated castle, amid tall, rare trees and ancient fishponds, shrieked at by his peacocks and whispered to by his Vermeers—an internal exile, doomed to his beauty spot at the end of its pavĂ©-cobbled drive.

1 comment:

  1. Thank goodness the castle was moated! ...One of those shrieking peacocks must be an ancestor of the stuffed one who wanted to see Cintra Wilson's credit report. Two crazed peacock references in one week is enough for me! haha