Nov 15th 2020

Film Review: The Last Vermeer

by Sam Ben-Meir

Sam Ben-Meir is professor of philosophy and world religions at Mercy Collage in New York.

The Last Vermeer – producer Dan Friedkin’s directorial debut – is a well-paced and thoroughly engaging World War II drama. Joseph Piller (played by Claes Bang), is a Dutch Jew who fought with the Resistance during the war; and is now commissioned with uncovering and redistributing art stolen by the Nazis. Enter the flamboyant painter and art dealer, Han van Meegeren (masterfully played by Guy Pearce) who is suspected of selling Dutch art treasures to Field-Marshal Hermann Goering and other top Nazi officials. Piller’s story is complicated by a fraught relationship with his wife (played by Marie Bach Henson), who remained in Holland during the occupation; and while she provided intelligence to the Resistance, the implication is that she was only able to acquire such intelligence by carrying on a romantic dalliance with Nazi officers.

Piller comes to believe in van Meegeren’s innocence, putting him at odds with government officials who want to see the artist suffer the fate of collaborators – public execution by a firing squad. The climax of the film is a courtroom battle, in which van Meegeren seeks to prove that while he acted the role of a Nazi sympathizer – throwing lavish, hedonistic soirées frequented and enjoyed by members of the occupying force – he was, in reality, swindling Goering and other officials by selling them masterful forgeries that he himself painted: van Meegeren was a national hero, not a collaborator.

As bizarre and unlikely as van Meegeren’s story sounds, it is mostly true: he may indeed have been the greatest art forger of the twentieth century; and as the film accurately relates, he scrupulously studied every aspect of Vermeer’s style and technique, and in time devised a method to produce what was in effect the perfect forgery. He acquired authentic seventeenth century canvases, and mixed his own paints using raw materials, according to formulas used by the ‘Master of Delft’. But it was not enough to utilize Vermeer’s materials and techniques if he wanted to fool the most discerning critics.

Perhaps his greatest technical challenge was in how to get the oil paint to thoroughly harden, a naturally occurring process which took some fifty years. Van Meegeren’s solution involved mixing his pigments with a synthetic resin, Bakelite (phenol formaldehyde) and ultimately baking the canvas. The canvas would then be rolled over a cylinder to increase the cracks. The result was a painting that looked and responded to the critic as if it were three hundred years old.  

The artist’s relationship to the art critic is a theme which runs through the film and adds to the dramatic punch of van Meegeren’s trial. At one point, van Meegeren explains to Piller that his career as a legitimate painter was thwarted by critics who dismissed his work as irrelevant and derivative. It is true that the painter’s work was dismissed by Dutch art critics who scornfully reproached the artist for a style which remained too close to that of the Renaissance masters – prompting one critic to write that van Meegeren was “a gifted technician who… has every virtue except originality.” The forgeries then were not only an attempt to deceive unwitting fascists like Goering; but to make fools of the same critics who dismissed him as a mediocrity. He would outdo the very same masters who the critics adored.

In 1937, the art historian Abraham Bredius, one of the world’s foremost experts on Vermeer, was presented with Christ and the Disciples at Emmaus – his verdict was unequivocal: "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…” Van Meegeren certainly succeeded then in duping the critics and experts. The explanation for his success, however, goes beyond mere fidelity to his subject’s technique and style, and touches on themes explored in the very different, and superb film “The Best Offer” (2013), directed by Giuseppe Tornatore – briefly put, the idea that in every forgery, there is something real. Van Meegren would say, for example, that he produced the Vermeers, “not for money, but for art’s sake.”

For van Meegeren, a truly successful forgery solicits the collaboration of the viewer – the audience has to become a participant in the illusion; and this requires that the forgery contain something authentic, which captures the audience on a level more primitive and emotionally resonant than their conscious critical judgment. It is no accident that Bredius would go on to describe Christ at Emmaus as, “quite different from all his other paintings and yet every inch a Vermeer. In no other picture by the great master of Delft do we find such sentiment, such a profound understanding of the Bible story..." Van Meegeren effectively confirms that the best forgery does not simply reproduce an original – the forger invariably puts something of themselves in the work which reveals their own unique touch and aesthetic sensibilities.

The painter is spared a death sentence when Piller dramatically proves to the court that the Vermeers lining the room were indeed forgeries made by none other than van Meegeren himself. Following the trial, as the artist enjoyed an immense popularity, Piller is shown a book of van Meegeren’s work containing an inscription written by the painter and dedicated to none other than his “beloved Führer”. Piller realizes that van Meegeren was not simply the adversary of fascism which he claimed to be; nor was he innocent of making overtures to the enemy. Perhaps it is Piller’s discovery that when it comes to war there is no such thing as innocence that allows him to finally forgive his wife and return to her side.

The film raises many more questions than it answers – as a good film should. How is it, for example, that paintings can go from being national treasures of great genius to being virtually worthless, from one moment to the next, without changing a stroke? Not surprisingly, van Meegeren’s case prompted the art establishment to reassess its methods and practices. But as the film underscores, deeper questions about the nature of art and genius remain with us and likely always will.

“The Last Vermeer” (2019) had its world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival on August 31, 2019. It is scheduled to be released on November 20, 2020, by Sony Pictures. Directed by Dan Friedkin; screenplay by Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, James McGee; based on the book The Man Who Made Vermeers by Jonathan Lopez. Starring Claes Bang, Olivia Grant, Vicky Krieps, Marie Bach Henson, Roland Møller and Guy Pearce. Rated R for some language, violence and nudity.

 

 

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