Sunday, July 20, 2014

Intent to Deceive at the Ringling Museum

Ad for the exhibit featuring Girl with A Pearl Earring
by John Myatt (in the style of Vermeer) 
I always love a docent tour.  It's a chance to take in an exhibit while being spoon-fed all sorts of interesting information. Based on the turn-out at the Walk and Talk for the Intent to Deceive exhibit at the Ringling last week, I am not alone.  There were probably 100 people following Maureen Zaremba, director of education, and Chris Jones, assistant curator of exhibitions, around the galleries that featured five of the world's most famous art forgers.  Luckily, I had spent the hour before the Walk and Talk visiting the exhibit, using the time to take a closer look at the show.  (Even if there had only been a handful of people on the docent tour, I knew I wouldn't get to view the exhibit at my own pace.)

I thought I'd share the stories of my two "favorite" forgers from the exhibit:  Han van Meegeren and Mark Landis.

Girl with Blue Bow by
Han van Meegeren
 (in the style of Vermeer)
Han van Meegeren was a Dutch artist who got a bit irritated about the fact that his artwork wasn't making as big of a splash as he felt was warranted.  Sure, he was well-received as a portrait artist, but wasn't he really as good as some of the Dutch masters like, say, Vermeer? Shown here is van Meegeren's first attempt at forging a Vermeer -- Girl with Blue Bow.  To today's art experts, his works could never pass.  (Marlene Dietrich was a popular actress of van Meegeren's day, and apparently many of his subjects bear a striking resemblance.)  Even at the time, some experts had questions about his forged Vermeers because they looked too much like conventional portraits.  But van Meegeren's primary work capitalized on a theory that Vermeer had painted a series of religious paintings early in his career that had never been found.  When "Vermeer" paintings with religious themes began to surface, the market was eager to accept their authenticity.

Van Meegeren in court
Van Meegeren was found out in a very unique manner.  One of his "Vermeers"--Christ and the Adulteress--made its way into the collection of Nazi Field Marshall Hermann Goring.  After the war, Van Meegeren was charged as a traitor for selling a piece of Dutch cultural heritage to the Nazis.  His defense:  "It's a forgery!"  It wasn't a hard call for Van Meegeren, since treason was punishable by death.  The prosecutor was skeptical of this unusual defense.  Van Meegeren was asked to paint a Vermeer for the court, which he willingly did.  He was convicted of forgery and fraud--punishable with a sentence of at least one year--but died before he went to jail.

Untitled by Mark Landis (in the style of Matisse)
Mark Landis was an entirely different character.  Instead of being motivated by greed or ego, it was mental illness that drove him to forge works of art.  Landis was diagnosed at a young age as schizophrenic, and his treatment included art therapy.  He realized that he had some talent and, inspired by both well-known artists like Matisse and lesser known artists like Stanslas Lepine, created some additional works for their portfolios.

Mark Landis in disguise 
Landis didn't try to profit from his forgeries, though.  Instead, he donated them to museums and galleries, often in memory of his parents.  He said, "I gave a picture to a museum in honor of my father which I hoped would please Mother.  Everyone was so nice I got in the habit of donating pictures to museums.  Being treated nicely by people was something I wasn't familiar with, and I liked it very much."  (How sad is that?)  Sometimes Landis dressed up as a priest when he went to offer a work as a donation.  After all, who would suspect a priest of art fraud?  (Technically, Landis didn't engage in fraud since he did not seek any financial gain.)   Be on the look-out for a documentary about Landis entitled "Art and Craft" that will be coming out in September.

"Intent to Deceive" only runs through August 2nd, so make it a priority to get there if your interest has been piqued. Each of the men included has a very different story, and the exhibit does a wonderful job of sharing them (even without the benefit of a docent!)

After the show closes, there will be two Art and a Movie follow-on events that sound like lots of fun.  The first is on August 14th.  Following a discussion by curators and conservators about art authentication, there will be a showing of "Who the #$&% is Jackson Pollock?," a documentary about a woman who believes she bought a long-lost Pollock painting at a garage sale for $5.00.

The second event is on the topic of traveling with masterpieces and will take place on August 21st.  Art handlers and couriers will talk about what's involved in transporting major works of art.  There will then be a showing of "Bean," a movie about "the bumbling Mr. Bean" bringing a masterpiece to Los Angeles.

Both events are being held at on Thursday nights when admission to the Museum is reduced, so you can expect a big crowd.  Hope to see you there!

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