Talking to the annual conference of the Workers Education Association in Sheffield today, on the theme of ‘A Sustainable Future’, I point to the story of the forger, Van Meegeren.
Hans Van Meegeren was an artist who had been rejected in the 1920s by the art establishment, as too derivative. So, he set out to prove that great art could indeed be copied.
Over the 1930s, he painted a series of pictures in the style of Frans Hals, Pieter de Hooch and Johannes Vermeer.
His most successful forgery was Supper at Emmaus, created in 1937 while living in the south of France.
This was hailed as a real Vermeer by famous art experts. Abraham Bredius acclaimed it as “the masterpiece of Johannes Vermeer of Delft” and wrote of the “wonderful moment” of coming up against an unknown painting by a great master.
Through a Nazi art dealer, Meegeren sold one, Christ with the Adultress, to the up and coming German politician, Hermann Göring.
When Goring was informed that his “Vermeer” was actually a forgery, Goring looked, according to one contemporary, “as if for the first time he had discovered there was evil in the world”.
And all this didn’t last long. After the war, accused of selling national treasures to the Nazis, Van Meegeren confessed to producing the forgeries.
What is remarkable now is that you look at his Vermeers, they look like 1930s pastiches.
This is the Supper at Emmaus.
For art critics in recent decades, that is as 1930s as Agatha Christie and Eltham Palace. And the Depression.
It is not the 1660s.
But in the 1930s, you can’t see it. You can’t escape your time so easily, even if you can’t see how it shapes everything you see.
Like looking through the bottom of a glass, our assumptions make some things larger and clearer, but others hazy and obscure.
To imagine the future, we first have to explore how to let go of the present.