Young Christ in the Temple
© Barry Kavanagh 2005
Of course, I was taught as a child about how Christ rose from the dead. Yes, His suffering on the cross was abrogated. He transcended suffering. And by doing so, He alleviated the sufferings of mankind, promising resurrection and eternal life. I learned this as a child. But there is something I have learned, in addition to that, since.
I believe His personal suffering was not completely cancelled out. I believe that some of His suffering remained here on Earth. A remnant of the pain of His crucifixion permeates our consciousness, our imagination, our myths, our dreams. I believe in this awful remnant because it is the only thing that helps me stomach this world, full as it is of parasites, hypocrites, imitation philosophers, bigheaded impresarios, greedy profiteers and millions of slavering idiots. It helps me.
The imbecile Field Security officers sit and watch me as I work. They smoke cigarettes, drink coffee, scratch, cough and squeak their shoes. The windows are worthless; the Amsterdam light enveloping us glows dimly and uselessly. It's like we’re trapped inside a dull green bottle in this purgatorial place.
This beautiful boy, turned towards the light from the window (that typical Vermeer light-source), is the perfect Young Christ. The old teachers of the Temple surround him, so amazed by the child’s scriptural knowledge. It would be wrong to dismiss them as ignorant simpletons, because they have the wit to recognize intelligence in their visitor, and perhaps they sense the boy is the Messiah. But I suspect they were ignorant in the long run, and did not follow Him to salvation. The lapdogs of Caiphas! Blind clowns in the darkness! How the Christ shines. The Christ that I, Han van Meegeren, have created.
Those filthy swine, the vain cocks, the gabbling hyenas! The Field Security dolts suspected me of trading with the enemy!
All because that fat German monkey Goering ended up with Christ and the Adulteress, my fine Vermeer. Who could have known the Nazi would have had such refinement and taste? A cultured mind must have dwelled beneath his vile murderous exterior. Or perhaps it was pure avarice. The scum.
It was because of this the hysterical Field Security Service decided to celebrate victory in Europe by arresting me as a collaborator. The fact that I had sold the Adulteress to a Dutch collector and had nothing to do with the sale to Goering didn’t stop them from poking their snouts into my affairs. I absolutely refused to tell them where I obtained the painting. I told them it had come from an old Italian family, that I had bought it long before the war and that the sale had been confidential: the old noble family were embarrassed to have to sell off their heirlooms, and so on. But that wasn’t good enough for the Field Security pigs. They had to know everything. Goering had paid 1.65 million guilders for the Adulteress and they wanted to know the painting’s entire history. I think it was the high monetary figure that provoked their interest; I doubt that such primitive men were fascinated by the painting’s aura of greatness. I apologized to these strong arms of the law as best as I could, and told them that I simply couldn’t breach professional confidentiality. It should have ended there but they got suspicious, and seemed to think I knew more than I was saying. They thought my principled stance indicated I must be best pals with Goering and the rest of the Nazi ape gang and all sorts of devils. The reference to an Italian family got them thinking about fascisti. I should have known that aggressive dogs like these would be all worked up with end-of-war hysteria.
Six weeks in a stinking dark jail cell, literally stinking because I was in there for about twenty hours a day with my own piss and shit in a dented latrine - and nothing decent to eat, nothing to do, no brushes and paints. Some days I would just sit on the cot, shivering and shaking in the cold. Sometimes there would be interrogation. Three or four men in a room, sitting on all sides of me, asking me the same questions over and over: Where did I get the painting? What were my connections with fascist Italy? Was such-and-such a Bavarian banker a go-between for me and Goering? Did I have meetings with that pampered Teutonic gibbon? What did I think of the occupation of the Netherlands? Was it true there were no food shortages in my home?
Eventually the half-witted nature of these questions wore me down. I just got sick of it. Who could endure such insolence forever? To my tired eyes, the interrogators began to take on moronic facial expressions all too common among art critics and Vermeer experts. So the day came when I just stood up and waved my arms at this assemblage of gabbling turkeys and silenced their loud, irritating and ignorant questions once and for all.
“Fools! You are fools like the rest of them! I sold no great national treasure - I painted it myself!”
Yes, that shut their crowing beaks. The interrogators took a step back, and I was fired up at last. I shook my fist at them and went on: “And I painted the Vermeer in the Boymans, the ones sold to that silly, simple-minded goat van Beuningen, and even the one bought by the State! I painted them all! Fools!”
There is nothing more disgusting in this life than the way that true artists are treated. And it didn’t begin in that foul jail.
I have many bitter memories of my father holding my drawings close up to my face, then tearing them to tiny pieces, all the time with that furious scowl, which revealed all the worst crevasses of his face. He thought my school work was more important than my art. The plankton-brained bully wanted me to become an architect. My only prayer to Christ is that hell burns hottest for his kind of obnoxious, repellent philistine.
It was my high school art teacher, Bartus Korteling, God rest his soul, who took me under his wing. It was he who gave me a love for 17th century masterpieces. He even taught me the formulations for pigments used in that era, which came in useful later, I have to say. That man was an angel from Heaven. Study at The Hague Academy followed, and that prepared me for a successful career. Those were good years. I remember one occasion when I was very annoyed at a bad mark I had received for portraiture, so at my still life examination, I painted not only the still life in the time given, but also the table, the examiners and the room, and all perfect likenesses! They had no choice but to award me an academic prize!
I had exhibitions in The Hague, at which everything sold. I was a young painter with much promise. One very successful painting of mine, which was reproduced on greeting cards and calendars, was one I did of a little deer. I recall laughing about that though, as the only reason the painting received any interest from the commercial world was because the deer in question happened to be owned by Queen Juliana. Often I feel I am dealing with a world populated by mindless sheep! However, my more serious work also sold well, and it was just when I was doing my most profound work in Symbolist painting, around 1923, that the critics chose to turn against me. Their fickle brainlessness allowed them to be duped by the talentless self-promotion of creatures like Mondrian. He was hardly a virtuoso, but he managed to make a name for himself with his meaningless modern excretions. He managed to trick the world into worshipping his work, which no one with any discernment should have even called art. The era of charlatans began, and real painters with real skills were ignored by the critics, who had more modish cocktails to sip.
This was what drove me to forgery. I had a need - the world had a need - to prove that the critics and so-called experts had no place on the pedestals onto which they had slithered, and that they had not a single functioning brain among their slimy ranks.
I decided to forge a Dutch master, and no one was more suitable than Vermeer. So few paintings from his long career had come to light; it was universally assumed that there had to be more. I spent half of the 1930s researching, refining and perfecting Vermeer forgeries to my own satisfaction. Initially I copied directly from his work. I studied his Woman in Blue in the Rijksmuseum very carefully. I copied the woman for my Woman Reading Music, as I was trying to get as close to Vermeer as I possibly could.
But I put this painting aside, as this was only a phase of my research. I wanted to master Vermeer’s style but I didn’t want to use a forgery that had the exact appearance of a Vermeer. To prove my full artistic powers, I needed to create a new kind of Vermeer, one that shared the stylistic characteristics of my own best work. It was obvious that my paintings were works of genius. The only way I could get this proclamation from the mouths of art experts was for them to think they were looking at the work of Vermeer. Was not Vermeer closer to their hearts than even Queen Juliana’s adorable little deer? They would find themselves describing the wonderful qualities of van Meegeren without realizing it. The Vermeer I would put on the market would be, ultimately, a van Meegeren!
I already had a good knowledge of who the most prominent Vermeer experts were, and who would be evaluating my forgery. To have my non-Vermeer accepted by these men I needed to include elements of their own pet theories. Bredius in particular was a leader in the field of Vermeer scholarship, and luckily for me, he had the most nonsensical theories. It was he who had the anonymous Christ in the House of Mary and Martha accepted as a Vermeer, and he predicted that other Vermeers with religious subjects would be found. While he might seem like a baboon, Bredius in fact had the intelligence of a cactus, because the notion that Mary and Martha is a Vermeer is as laughable as it is whimsical. But it was grist to my mill; I would paint a religious subject.
Bredius had seen an Italian influence in Mary and Martha, so I decided that Vermeer had seen Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus and painted his own version of the subject, thus flattering the alleged expert even more. So here was the resurrected Christ sitting to eat with His disciples, by the ubiquitous light-source, the window, and during the meal they suddenly recognize Him. I didn’t use Caravaggio’s wizened old serving maid. Rather I went for a younger servant, in the attractive personage of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring in a dark robe. Thus I composed my masterpiece, Christ at Emmaus, by Johannes Vermeer, the Master of Delft.
The oval-headed girl, the pointillé on the bread, the downcast eyes, all of these were Vermeer characteristics, but as planned, the painting had more characteristics of my style than it had of Vermeer’s. I used my vision of the drama of humanity, with large heads, heavy-lidded eyes, and downward creases at the corners of the mouth, all of which contribute towards a sense of momentousness.
Painting something of artistic genius was not as much of a problem for me as the technical aspects of forgery were. Experts had to be convinced that the canvas was old, that the pigments were Vermeer’s, that the paint had hardened over time, and that crackle had formed.
The age of the canvas was the most elementary problem. Even a platypus with a severely crushed head could tell whether a canvas was 300 years old or not. But this elementary problem had a very simple solution. It was only a question of buying an old painting by an unknown, inconsequential artist from Vermeer’s era, and removing the paint from it. I was able to purchase a number of these canvases quite easily. As is the case today, there were any number of bad, inept artists who should never have approached a canvas, or even lived, and it was a joy to erase their work.
Reproducing Vermeer’s pigments was a more complex issue. There were no synthetic pigments in his day. Fortunately, there were books I could refer to, and I had already received a store of knowledge from the saintly Bartus Korteling. So I knew which raw materials to get my hands on. I made red from burnt sienna, vermilion from cinnabar, yellow ochre from the right kind of earth, gamboge yellow from resinous gum, indigo from the juice of isatis tinctoria, brown from burnt umber, black from carbon, and white from lead. The problematic colour was blue, Vermeer’s stunning ultramarine blue. He made it from powdered lapis lazuli, and I had to obtain a substantial amount of this rare powder, which can only be found in a few remote corners of the globe. Luckily I had done some restoration work in the past to make ends meet, and had become familiar with a supplier of rare materials in London. This firm was able to get the powder for me, and even re-supplied me on four or five occasions.
An even more complex thing I needed to mimic was the hardening of the paint. The oil content of paint does not dry as quickly as you might imagine. It can take over half a century for it to completely evaporate.
Obviously I needed to heat the canvas in such a way as to replicate this drying process. This required an oven, and of adequate size to take a large canvas. For instance, the canvas I used for the Emmaus was four feet square, so the oven had to be larger than that. I had one built to my specifications by a French electrical company, and I kept it in my basement, out of sight. It turned out to be worth the investment. But it also came near to giving me away. One morning, there was an uncomfortable encounter with the police, who were searching for a young girl who had disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Large quantities of smoke had been seen coming from my chimney, and when the investigating officers visited they didn’t like the look of my oven, which seemed to have ample room for a corpse. I convinced them of my innocence by telling the truth - that I was conducting artistic experiments - without arousing any suspicion of the dark art of forgery. That was an amusing episode.
There was more to this bakery than simply shoving the painting into an oven. By baking a painting, colours can alter, or the surface of the paint can become marked and burned. The painting had to have a chemical composition that hardened in my oven in the correct way. So, a couple of years of chemical experiments followed. My first main discovery was that oil of lilacs evaporated quicker than the usual kind of oils. This would prevent the surface of the paint burning or blistering. So that was the right kind of oil for me. But I still had to find a way to give centuries of hardening to the paint without affecting the brilliance of the colours. I kept my nose in chemistry books, and that’s how I came to read about a newly developed, hard substance called bakelite, which although hard, is made from of liquid chemicals, phenol and formaldehyde. I realized instantly that a solution of phenol-formaldehyde would help me harden my paint!
This is how I painted. I made up my Vermeer pigments, mixed them with oil of lilacs, and had them ready on my palette. I dipped my paintbrush into my preparation of phenol-formaldehyde, before I took paint from the palette to make each stroke on the canvas. When I finished painting, I baked the canvas. The temperature was set at 105 degrees Celsius, and the canvas went into the oven for two hours. The phenol-formaldehyde evaporated during the baking process. Traces of it could probably be found in the painting, but an investigator would have to be looking for it to find it, and that was not very likely, because no one had ever used it in painting before.
The most difficult problem of all was the crackle. With oil paintings, the evaporation of the oil content of the paint over years means that eventually there will be less paint on a canvas than when it was originally painted. That’s how crackle appears. Tiny crevasses open up between areas of paint, and fill with little bits of dust. My forgery had to have this crackle.
The solution to this lay in my solution to the first problem: I used a 17th century canvas. When removing the layers of paint, I decided to leave the bottom layer intact, with all of its crackle. Certainly, the contours of the original painting would show up under an X-ray, but I knew that experts rarely use X-rays, and that in any case the presence of an under-painting does not necessarily mean forgery; it is not uncommon for artists to re-use canvases. They certainly did it in Vermeer’s time, and his income was not such that he would not have had to sometimes. I removed the top layers of paint using soap and water and a pumice stone, with exhaustive care, so that all those crevasses remained. Then, by adding a thin layer of paint and baking the canvas, I found that the crackle reappeared on the surface. Each time I added a layer of paint and baked the canvas, the crackle would successfully appear. The only consideration I had was to add only thin layers of paint, not thick ones. It was important that all the crackle in the bottom layer appeared on the surface, because naturally crackle would work its way down from the surface to the lower layers. To have crackle in the bottom layer that was not on the top would expose the painting as a forgery. So I kept my layers thin.
When the finished painting was baked and hard, I added a coat of varnish and let it dry. The crackle appeared in the layer of varnish. Then I added a layer of Indian ink and let that dry. The varnish and ink were easily removed with alcohol, but some ink seeped into the crevasses, looking exactly like the required centuries of dust. Lovely, just lovely.
And that was not the final touch. No, the coup de grâce was the “V.M.” signature: Vermeer - or, perhaps, van Meegeren.
I didn’t have to use a “fence” to sell the Emmaus. I do not associate with criminal vermin. I simply lied to a sentimental man of honour, a certain Dr Boon, a great man, in fact the only honest politician I ever met. I gave him the “noble Italian family fallen on hard times embarrassed to sell off an heirloom” yarn, and asked him not to bother mentioning modest little me, their kind helper, when acting as go-between. He dried his sympathetic eyes with a corner of his spotless handkerchief, and set off into the night, determined to do the right thing. He was a lovable puppy. Predictably, he asked my favourite little insect Bredius for his expert opinion on the authenticity of the painting.
Ha, ha, that Bredius! Unaware he was flying into my web, the old bluebottle buzzed and buzzed: “Neither the beautiful signature nor the pointillé on the bread which Christ is blessing, is necessary to convince us that we have here a - I am inclined to say - the masterpiece of Johannes Vermeer of Delft, and moreover, one of his largest works, quite different from all his other paintings and yet every inch a Vermeer.”
In 1937, after such magnificent authentication, Boon sold the painting to a consortium of experts, dealers, critics, museum directors and other miaowing, mewling fat-cats, who purred with pleasure and paid 520,000 guilders for it, thinking they’d really got the cream this time. They displayed it with pride in the Boymans museum in Rotterdam, where it was given prominence over all other Vermeers, and visitors flocked to see it. I became a very rich man.
Would I announce publicly the truth of the forgery, exposing the experts for what they were? This would indeed be a triumph over the art world I would relish. But I would have to return the money if I did that, and I now had enough money to live as I pleased. No, no, I would keep the money, and savour my victory over the enemy privately. That dilemma was no dilemma at all. Also, if I now told the world the truth, the painting would be removed from the wall in the Boymans and it would no longer be considered art at all.
This last consideration soon began to bother me. In fact, I fell into a deep melancholy. Bredius and the others had failed to spot forgery and, as I had wished, they praised my work as Vermeer’s greatest, when it is obviously painted in my personal artistic style. I could congratulate myself that I had created a new kind of forgery, a Vermeer in the style of van Meegeren. But I felt sick in my stomach, knowing that it was a great painting, not merely a great forgery. It needed some other kind of praise. I felt terribly sad.
My thoughts grew darker. Bredius and the other duped experts were as stupid as molluscs, and I was a true genius of forgery, but if my forgery technique was a work of genius, then those who were fooled could not genuinely be called idiots because, surely, a genius could fool anyone? This thought almost drove me insane.
I decided to forge more Vermeers. And I would reveal the greatness of my painting of the Emmaus by painting uglier, sloppier works, which it would outshine by comparison. And I would reduce the high standards of my forgery. Each Vermeer would be worse than the last, aesthetically and technically, and with each one I would of course demand a higher price. In this way, dunce remained dunce, genius remained genius, and genius got richer.
Christ and the Adulteress was finished in 1943, five fake religious Vermeers and millions of guilders later. Did I say it was a “fine Vermeer” with an “aura of greatness” earlier? That was my little joke. On the contrary, the painting has several inelegant flaws, which I contrived. The four figures are horribly congested on the small canvas; I shaded Christ’s face on the right side as in all the other paintings, making Vermeer seem quite unimaginative; Christ’s robe is creased in an unrealistically lumpy way; the anatomy is generally bad, with flat bodies that don’t exist beneath the ribs; and there is none of the serenity one would associate with a Vermeer, a serenity present in the Emmaus. But this ugliness did not prevent it being sold; a Vermeer is a Vermeer.
I also made two deliberate errors in the forgery technique. I left a large section of the under-painting intact on the bottom layer of the canvas. This would not reveal forgery, but it would be a hint that something was amiss. It made no sense that Vermeer would not completely remove the paint from an old canvas before beginning his new work. It would have been hardly any labour for him at all to scrape it off. It would only be a laborious job for a forger like me, because I would have to preserve the crackle while removing it. The second error was designed to definitely indicate forgery. I decided to be sparing with my precious lapis lazuli powder, and used cobalt blue when painting Christ’s robe. I had used cobalt blue in my ‘practice’ forgery, the Woman Reading Music, but did not use it again until now, as it is a pigment not found in painting until the 19th century. But its presence went unnoticed and the Adulteress passed authentication.
Let me tell you how that nasty, squat, wingless vampire bat Goering ended up with it. Boon was not the agent this time; he disappeared at the beginning of the Nazi occupation. For this sale I used a malleable whelp called van Strijvesande. His malleability was advantageous, in that I could manipulate him into selling the painting using a vague story and without mentioning my name, but it was also disadvantageous, as it proved possible for others to manipulate him. Van Strijvesande had dealings with an unpleasant German banker who had an office in Amsterdam. I had specifically told the boy not to mention the ‘discovery’ of a Vermeer to that elephant-nosed, giraffe-necked, walrus-toothed, hippopotamus-bellied, skunk-perfumed, jackal-brained Hun, whose name was Miedl, but he must have let the cat out of the bag. Miedl loped off to Dr Hofer, an infamously sly, secretive, vicious leopard, who procured art for members of the Nazi leadership.
The shadowy Hofer arranged the sale, and Goering paid 1,650,000 guilders, more than anyone had paid for any of my other Vermeers. What a sum! The prune-skinned Nazi must have been in an excellent mood that day. I’m sure he was all sweetness and light on his gleeful spending spree, laughing and whoring after a long hard day in the murder chamber, knee deep in blood, biting the heads off babies, or whatever it was a Nazi leader did while at work, apart from lose wars. He paid in kind, and Miedl received 200 Dutch national art treasures for my worthless fake. The paintings were sold to Dutch institutions in the Netherlands, as was right, and van Strijvesande delivered me cash. Goering stuffed the masterpiece into his secret salt mine in Austria, which was not so secret that the Allied Art Commission didn’t find it immediately after the war ended. And lo and behold, they unearthed a Vermeer of which they had never heard. The efficient German paperwork allowed them to trace the painting back through Hofer to Miedl and to van Strijvesande, and the Field Security Service came knocking on my door, wanting to know where I’d got the painting.
They didn’t believe my confession at first. How could so many Vermeers be forgeries? Important people in the Dutch art world had bought them; how could the great connoisseurs have been so wrong? I offered to prove it. I asked them to allow me to go free, to let me use a studio, to give me the materials I needed for Vermeer’s pigments, to supply me with oil of lilacs, phenol and formaldehyde. I would paint them a new Vermeer.
The newspapers are in love with this story. “He paints for his life,” they declare, calling me a national hero, “the man who swindled Goering,” while the State persecutes me with a trial in which, ridiculously, my life depends on my being found guilty! I will be tried for treason if I am not found guilty of forgery.
I concentrate on painting, despite the bottled light of Amsterdam, and those pestilent gnats in the room smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee, scratching, coughing and squeaking their shoes. I concentrate on my Christ, and his enraptured eyes, full as it is of Truth and God’s wisdom.
Gaze upon the Young Christ in the Temple. Isn’t it full of Truth, my fake?
I have seen Christ’s face every day this last couple of months, and I have thought all about Him. And I believe that I am right when I say that some of His suffering still pervades the world. I sense a pain I can almost communicate with, as I work here every day, watched and judged, and suffering.