KPBS AIRDATE: JULY 13, 2001
Art imitates art. And fact is stranger than fiction. “Van Meegeren, Master Forger” is a world premiere play by a local writer, and it’s an absolutely mind-boggling true story. David Wiener’s new work is an authorized dramatization of the 1967 book by the same name (by Lord John Killbracken), about a mid-20th century Dutch painter who couldn’t get a break from the critics, and who refused to bribe them for a good review, as so many of his confreres were in the habit of doing.
So he plotted an elaborate revenge. He painted new and flawless Vermeers. He used the same kinds of badger-hair brushes as the acclaimed 17th century painter Johannes Vermeer; he ground his own colors by hand, he devised a painstaking process to crack and age the paintings. And he fooled everyone, especially the most prominent Vermeer scholar of the day. After that, all the other critics fell in line. All told, Han Van Meegeren painted and sold seven faux Vermeers, and they hung in places as prestigious as Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum. He was fabulously wealthy during the war, while his countrymen starved and died. He owned 50 properties, including houses, hotels and nightclubs in Paris.
He would have stopped after the first multi-million dollar sale, but the riches and the lifestyle were addictive. It all came tumbling down after the Liberation, when the hidden private art collection of Hermann Goering was unearthed, and it included one of these never-before-seen Vermeer masterpieces. The painting was ultimately traced to Van Meegeren, who was arrested and charged with treason, punishable by death, for collaborating with the Nazis and selling them national treasures. Van Meegeren admitted his guilt, but to forgery, not treason. To prove that he was indeed the artist who created the wonderful works, he offered to paint another Vermeer, in full view of the authorities. He saved his own life by proving his forgery. He was convicted of fraud in 1947 and sentenced to two years in prison. But by that time he was sickly and died two months later. He certainly reaped his revenge, and made a mockery of the haughty, elitist art establishment.
The story is so irresistible, it overrides some of the weaknesses of Wiener’s script. But the play could really have legs, if it can be trimmed down, if the female journalist and resentful critic can be re-thought, if Wiener can trust the audience and not bludgeon them with exposition. He really can write dialogue. Octad-One’s artistic director Wayne Alan Erreca does double duty here, and acquits himself admirably as both director and lead actor. He effectively captures Van Meegeren’s sly, cynical humor, and teases generally credible performances from the rest of the cast. This risky endeavor, obviously produced on a shoestring, harks back to the glory days of Octad-One Productions, when Martin Gerrish took his fledgling company in often thrilling and unpredictable directions. If this is what’s happening in Lakeside these days, saddle me up.
©2001 Patté Productions Inc.