Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Roommates in Forgery: Han van Meegeren

In Chatterton, Daniel and Tom's roommate Brian is the brain of the operation, the washed-up intellectual who initiates their streak of forgery as a way to lash back at the "historical establishment." Brian Meegeren (as his name appears on his fellowship rejection letter) is named for another famous forger, Han van Meegeren. Brian's role in Chatterton is comical, absurd but mostly benign - the real van Meegeren's streak of crime was not.

In the Netherlands in the 1920s, Han van Meegeren began forging Dutch masters to augment his income, despite relative fame and success as an artist in his own name. Later van Meegeren would claim he was driven to forgery by the unrelenting criticism of the art world, but research reveals an even darker side to his faked Vermeers. A Nazi sympathizer, van Meegeren incorporated what Jonathan Lopez describes as Reich symbology in The Supper at Emmaus, his most infamous Vermeer forgery, which was actually believed to be Vermeer's ultimate masterpiece until it was debunked in 1945 - nearly ten years after van Meegeren had painted it.

After the Allied victory, van Meegeren began to varnish his own story as deceptively as he had crafted his old-as-new Vermeers. Claiming that he had sold The Supper at Emmaus to Reichsmarshall Hermann Goring as an act of mockery and defiance against the now-defeated occupiers, van Meegeren became a folk hero. But as Jonathan Lopez reveals in his fascinating book, van Meegeren was actually a collaborator who enthusiastically capitalized on the purchasing power of his country's occupiers and may even have sent an autographed book of his contemporary works to Hitler himself.

In Chatterton, Brian Meegeren is just a frustrated intellectual whose own verbosity is the biggest deflator of others' esteem. But his egotism and inadvertent humor is a whimsical dream compared to the dark chimera created in the art world by the real Han van Meegeren.

1 comment:

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