Lopez/The Masterforger and the Fascist Dream - Copyright 2006 © De Groene Amsterdammer

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THE MASTERFORGER AND THE FASCIST DREAM by Jonathan Lopez for De Groene Amsterdammer On the 11th of July 1945, the newly legal Underground newspaper De Waarheid ran a front page article featuring correspondent Jan Spierdijk‟s first impressions of Berlin under Allied control. The main text described the devastated Reichschancellery, where broken furniture and scraps of paper littered the marble floors – “Once the pride of Berlin, today a pathetic ruin.” In a small sidebar, the editors mentioned that Spierdijk had found a copy of Han van Meegeren‟s book Teekeningen I in Hitler‟s personal library, inscribed with a glowing dedication to the Fuhrer. There was no photo, but according to the article, the inscription said: “Dem geliebten Führer in dankbarer Anerkennung gewidmet, von H. van Meegeren, Laren, Noord Holland 1942.” This book also contained verses by the fanatical NSB-er Martien Beversluis. The judgement of the Communist-aligned Resistance paper was swift and damning: “If any doubts about the political sympathies of Mr. Van Meegeren may have lingered, this report has extinguished them.”

Lopez/The Masterforger and the Fascist Dream - Copyright 2006 © De Groene Amsterdammer

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If you are familiar with the literature on Van Meegeren, you will be aware that his billet doux to Adolf Hitler has long been a subject of dispute. Van Meegeren claimed that he had signed many copies of Teekeningen I shortly after it was published and suggested that the inscription could easily have been set above his name at a later date, perhaps by a “German officer” wishing to make the Fuhrer a gift of the book. Far-fetched though it was, this story succeeded in buying Van Meegeren a bit of breathing room back in 1945 – and that was really all he needed. As the news of his Vermeer forgeries grew into an international sensation, his praise for Hitler was quickly swept off the front pages and into the footnotes of history. It has remained there until this day – yet another puzzling artifact from a life conducted mostly in the shadows. In the course of my research for a new English-language monograph on Van Meegeren, I recently came across a photo of the dedication. It is not to be found in any of the existing books on the artist, and it merits a careful look. Without an image of the original handwritten text, one could never be sure how much credence to give Van Meegeren‟s alibi, and most accounts of the incident hedge their bets. Comparing the handwriting in the inscription – the elongated tail on all the g‟s, for instance – to that in the text of a poster which Van Meegeren made for the Royal Menagerie in 1921, it‟s quite clear who wrote these fond words to the Fuhrer. It wasn‟t a German officer.

foto: Haags Gemeetearchief, geen reproductie zonder toestemming

Turn the clock back to 7 January 1925 and have a look at Van Meegeren as he was then. There was a testimonial dinner that night in the Hague – an oak-paneled room, men in smoking attire, long tables covered in white linen. The occasion was the 60-year jubilee of former cabinet minister dr. ir. C. Lely of the Liberale Staatspartij. The party chairman, mr. H. C. Dresselhuys, rose to praise Lely‟s work on the State‟s plans for draining the Zuiderzee. Noting that the first phase of this vast undertaking – the dike linking Wieringen to the mainland – had just been completed, Dresselhuys announced a special surprise: “One of our best contemporary artists, far more motivated by sympathy for our principles and our honoree than by any desire for material gain, Mr. Van Meegeren, co-guest at our gathering, has generously agreed to immortalize this historic moment on canvas.” During the nineteen-twenties, Han van Meegeren was the artist of choice for the patrician Liberale Staatspartij. He did portraits of the party leaders, their well-to-do supporters, their wives, their children – and the Liberalen accepted him happily into their orbit. A middle-class Deventer lad from a strict Catholic family, Van Meegeren was not born to this milieu, but, having come to the city to pursue an artistic career, he soon

Lopez/The Masterforger and the Fascist Dream - Copyright 2006 © De Groene Amsterdammer

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discovered the discreet charms of high society. His work from this period displays an air of studied sophistication. Upon first seeing Van Meegeren‟s now-famous depiction of Princess Juliana‟s pet deer, the reviewer for the Liberaal-aligned Het Vaderland exclaimed, “Such brittle elegance. Such aristocracy. It is splendid!”

Van Meegeren‟s closest connection within the Party establishment was Member of Parliament mr. G.A. Boon. A staunch conservative on economic issues, Boon nonetheless championed women‟s rights during the twenties and was later known for his strident anti-fascism. In 1933, just one year into Hitler‟s reign, Boon declared: “Every country must follow the form of government that it chooses for itself, but Germany has to realize that the entire civilized world will stand against it until the shameful mistreatment of its small Jewish minority comes to an end.” Referring to the hopes of men like Anton Mussert and Alfred Haighton who advocated a totalitarian regime for the Netherlands, Boon would ask simply: “Could anyone imagine something less Dutch?” It was Boon‟s high-minded politics that first got him mixed up in the sale of Van Meegeren‟s forgeries. In the summer of 1936, soon to lose his seat in Parliament as the Liberalen expected a trouncing in the autumn elections, Boon was vacationing in Nice when he happened to run into his old acquaintance, the portraitist to the Liberalen. Van Meegeren had moved to the Côte d‟Azur in 1932 and had not seen Boon for some time. Freshly returned from Berlin, where he had gone to observe the Olympic games, Van Meegeren was distressed to hear that such a fine man was facing hard times. For old times‟ sake, he offered to let Boon in on a business proposition. There was apparently a Dutch family living in Italy who were being harassed by Mussolini. They needed help. “They were confirmed anti-fascists and were being spied on by the black-shirts and their agents,” Boon would later recall the story. “The family was therefore in danger and they desperately wanted to emigrate to America.” They had to sell an important artwork from their collection to raise money for the trip, but because of Italy‟s export controls they would never be able to bring it to market. If Van Meegeren could get the painting into France, would Boon be willing to find a buyer? The unwitting Boon brokered the sale of the Emmausgangers on behalf of this fictitious, persecuted family and made Van Meegeren a very rich man in the process. Free of financial concerns, the masterforger would no longer do portraits of wealthy Liberalen – but he did accept a somewhat different commission in 1938. Alfred Haighton – notorious right-wing agitator and mentor to Martien Beversluis – wanted a memorial painting of his deceased father, and in short order he would get one. Having

collectie: Haagse Kunstkring foto: Haags Gemeetearchief, geen reproductie zonder toestemming

Lopez/The Masterforger and the Fascist Dream - Copyright 2006 © De Groene Amsterdammer

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exploited G.A. Boon‟s anti-fascist sympathies, Van Meegeren was entirely content to render a personal favor to a man once described in the Italian press (albeit with a bit of hyperbole) as il capo del fascismo hollandese. Unnoticed then or thereafter, this picture is mentioned nowhere in the literature on the artist.

There was, alas, a great deal about Van Meegeren that G.A. Boon didn‟t know, or at least preferred not to see. Van Meegeren had been spouting extremist rhetoric on and off since 1928. In that year – with the help of the journalist Jan Ubink – Van Meegeren founded a reactionary arts magazine called De Kemphaan in the Hague. In his harshest contributions, Van Meegeren denounced modern painting as “art-Bolshevism,” described its proponents as a “slimy bunch of woman-haters and negro-lovers,” and invoked the image of “a Jew with a handcart” as a symbol for the international art market. He explained the “spiritual sickness” of modernism as follows: There is no art which attracts so many parasites and proselytes as painting. Under the flag of a few drunken madmen and a few artanarchists, they smear their colors on canvas and shut the mouths of anyone who might protest with a flood of made-up terms meant to sound like philosophy or psychology. With cheap material – their inner spirit – they cover fine linen. The product becomes accepted as a demonstration of ‘sensitivity’ by those around it, fearful to be seen as ‘insensitive’ themselves. As unoriginal a writer as he was a painter, Van Meegeren borrowed these arguments from an existing model. In 1925, a little-known German author – a frustrated artist himself – had offered a like-sounding anti-modernist harangue: One feared to be called ‘uncomprehending’ by these madmen and swindlers, as if it were shameful not to understand the productions of spiritual degenerates or slick con-men. These apostles of the ‘one true faith’ in the cultural realm had a very easy means to present their madness as great art: everything that seemed idiotic or crazy they explained as a representation of their ‘inner state of mind,’ which was really just a cheap way of shutting up any protest beforehand. The writer was Adolf Hitler, and the book, Mein Kampf.

photo: property of the author; no reproduction without his written permission

Lopez/The Masterforger and the Fascist Dream - Copyright 2006 © De Groene Amsterdammer

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Jan Spierdijk was stunned when he discovered the inscribed copy of Teekeningen I at the Reichschancellery. De Waarheid‟s man on the spot in Berlin was, as it happens, acquainted with Van Meegeren socially. Spierdijk had met Van Meegeren a few times during the war at small bohemian gatherings in Amsterdam and had always taken the artist for a harmless, boozy eccentric. “No one was interested in Van Meegeren as a painter,” Spierdijk would later remember. “As a person, he could be amusing through his biting cynicism – but only up to a certain point, and that was the point of drunkenness. Whenever the topic of the Occupation came up, he talked all „anti‟ and made it seem like he was no friend of the Krauts.” Although Van Meegeren was not a member of the NSB – and, thus, not a cardcarrying collaborator – it would be hard to say that he was no friend to the Germans. During the Occupation, Van Meegeren gave substantial sums of money to the German Red Cross and the Winterhulp. He took part in Nazi-sponsored art exhibitions in both the Netherlands and Germany, and at one such event, his entry bore a public dedication to Hitler. In 1942, in response to a request from the hated Ed Gerdes – the Reichskommisar‟s Jew-bashing arbiter of taste – Van Meegeren produced a painting depicting a wool collection drive to benefit the troops on the Eastern front. Wildly rich and, hence, scarcely in need of commissions, Van Meegeren nonetheless sucked up to Gerdes throughout the war, seeking the prestige that came with official recognition. The head-office of the Nederlandsch Arbeids-Front – a nazistic, anti-semitic perversion of pre-war Dutch trade unions – was adorned with the heroic-symbolic Van Meegeren painting „Arbeid.‟ This grandiose tribute to the corporative state illustrated an idea long popular in Van Meegeren‟s circle. “In a dynamic society, every function has its proper role: commerce, industry, agriculture, also war,” Jan Ubink proclaimed just prior to the German invasion. The former editor of De Kemphaan noted that parliamentary democracy was inefficient at regulating these functions, but suggested that there was an alternative: “In the so-called totalitarian state one sees things differently. There, the parliamentary game is no longer played, but rather, according to the dictates of the categorical imperative, the state cultivates the free time of its citizens in ways that benefit the entire society.” Ubink – a timid collaborator during the Occupation – lost his enthusiasm for the Führer-system in 1944, when he was officially reprimanded for newspaper columns that were deemed “counterproductive, from the national-socialistic viewpoint.” His transgression consisted of complaining in print about reduced theatrical offerings in Groningen. Van Meegeren included „Arbeid‟ in Teekeningen I – where he paired his images not with the cerebral musings of Jan Ubink, but with the blood-and-soil poetry of his most militant friend, Martien Beversluis. If there were certain lines that Ubink and Van Meegeren feared to cross during the Occupation, the same cannot be said of this truebelieving Nazi. Ubink, for instance, advanced his career during the war simply by remaining non-committal as he slipped into posts from which more principled journalists had been removed. Beversluis, in contrast, stormed the airwaves with firebreathing propaganda broadcasts for the Reichskommisar. He became the NSB mayor of the town of Veere and received a commendation for remaining at his post during Dolle Dinsdag. He even wrote a children‟s book intended to instill the youth of the Netherlands with appreciation for their benevolent Fuhrer.

Lopez/The Masterforger and the Fascist Dream - Copyright 2006 © De Groene Amsterdammer

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Odious as Beversluis was, his verses provided an intellectual anchor for the sometimes confusing pictorial repertoire Van Meegeren deployed in Teekeningen I. In his idiosyncratic and somewhat heterodox approach to the Nazi ideal, Van Meegeren could easily veer from volkish kitsch to Zarathustrian meditations in a single composition. With an accumulation of death‟s heads, nude models, and flesh eating rats, Van Meegeren‟s work during this period frequently devolved into wild-eyed nihilism – or else kinky soft-core pornography.

In „Graan, Petroleum, Katoen,‟ for instance, Van Meegeren presents the unfolding global crisis sweeping away the perfidy of the pre-war elite. This nightmare vision includes a vanitas motif of a soap bubble pushed along by an angular devil-figure straight out of Hieronymous Bosch. Inside this shimmering orb, one sees a long row of sashwearing dignitaries out of the 1920‟s at a ceremonial gathering much like Lely‟s jubilee. They are accompanied, incongruously, by a kick-line of scantily clad dancers. For Van Meegeren, who had at various times expressed a fondness for both patricians and showgirls, consigning them all to the ash-heap of history represented a strange reversal of opinion. The cabaret-evening atmosphere of such artworks does raise questions about the sincerity – or, at least, the sanity – with which Van Meegeren approached his own treason. Making pictures for Nazi causes and dedicating them to Hitler isn‟t most people‟s idea of light entertainment – but Han van Meegeren wasn‟t most people. Even his vicious rantings from the 1920‟s contained a bizarre element of Haagse Bluff – the puffed-up play-acting of a maniacal poseur. Certainly, his histrionics crossed over into something far darker during the war – but Van Meegeren himself may never have noticed the difference. For the maker of the Emmausgangers, deceit, treachery, and wrath were the habits of a lifetime. Was he obliged to change his ways simply because hell was raging on earth?

foto: Haags Gemeetearchief, geen reproductie zonder toestemming

Lopez/The Masterforger and the Fascist Dream - Copyright 2006 © De Groene Amsterdammer

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In Teekeningen I, Van Meegeren offers an unsettling reprise of his most beloved image: Princess Juliana‟s Hertje is shown ravished by an enormous black-speckled snake. The notion of „brittle elegance‟ has been left far behind, along with any lingering royalist impulse. The full implications of this sado-politico animal picture are somewhat ambiguous, but contemplating the motives behind it provokes a feeling that comes up again and again when exploring Van Meegeren‟s life. It‟s like opening the wrong door on a hotel hallway and witnessing something incredibly sordid. As soon as possible, you‟ll shut that door – but, as you walk away, you can‟t help wondering how people contort themselves into positions of such baroque perversity. “A crazy man.” This was how Jan Spierdijk put it – and he probably summed up the matter as well as anyone could. “Han van Meegeren was a crazy man.”

foto: Haags Gemeetearchief, geen reproductie zonder toestemming