Dupes, Hoaxes, and Pranks
IF YOUR LICENSE HAS EXPIRED
YOU WILL NEED YOUR ORIGINAL
I was waiting in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles, the 34th Street office, a line that, had it been unwound from its switchbacks might have stretched for several city blocks. Overhead to the left of my position a LED board blinked a variety of paid advertisements and public service announcements, beckoning for the attention of the scores who stood waiting, swaying to music, reading or audibly complaining to those around them. The red dots marched out their messages imploring even the oblivious and annoyed. Most stared ahead glassy-eyed.
MAKE A DREAM COME TRUE.
BECOME AN EGG DONOR. $8000
FREE MEDICAL EVALUATION…
The man in front of me nodded his head back and forth to Bollywood music leaking from his ipod, a man behind me gripped a bag covered with buttons: The Pirate’s Life for Me; I Wish You Were a Beer; If I Fall Asleep Clowns Will Eat Me. With the other hand he clutched a skateboard so he would still be mobile even if, for whatever reason, he turned out to be prevented from renewing his license. With his baggy clothes, the man himself gave the impression of being clown-like, only tenuously connected to the slow movement of the line; others had to nudge him to get him to move at all, yet he was very confident in his own screw-you-buddy kind of way.
NEW VICTORY THEATER
My son and I had recently seen Oz, the Australian circus, and watched a woman juggle an impossible number of balls, while keeping an impossible number of hula-hoops spinning while a clown walked on the ceiling. He stepped on the ceiling as effortlessly as if he were in a gravity-less chamber, put on a jacket and sat in an upside down chair. Clothing did, however, respond to gravity. Jacket flaps hung towards the floor, but a hat screwed tightly on his head remained in place. Making himself at home on the ceiling he took a flask from his pocket, flipped open the top, and quickly took a drink. How did he do it? Perhaps his shoes were heavily magnetized. While sitting in the chair he removed a folded newspaper from an inner jacket pocket, relaxed, crossing his legs, and began to read. If the trick to defying gravity lay in seriously magnetized shoes whose force connected him to the heights of the stage, he now remained attached to the ceiling by one oversized zapato.
OZ scooted off the LED panel. On the heels of VICTORY the red dots re-aligned themselves.
TRANSPORT YOURSELF TO
17TH CENTURY HOLLAND
The word “back” was absent; perhaps the excision was made in the interest of paring down to only absolutely essential information, but by eliminating preposition the possibility of lateral transport is raised. Time is folded, a tesseract is entered. You pass through a portal and electricity, fuel injection rockets, fission, and so on have yet to be harnessed. You made a sidestep to the 17th century as if it were waiting there all along, held suspended, never really ending. Good-bye to 34th Street. You are conveyed to an amusement park of 17th century Holland. The spectacle hints of many kinds of wonders as revealed by a series of tableaux: shipbuilding, mapmaking, exploring new continents. See the Dutch East India Company discover there is more money to be made from piracy than by propping up marginally productive colonies. The company is so powerful it is almost a nation on its own. The nascent corporation wrests the Malaccan islands from the Portuguese though it is not quite a global success. See the Dutch governor, Peter Stuyvesant cede Breukalein, New Amsterdam (also known as Mannahatta), to the British High Command. Outgunned, outmanned, he had no choice but to surrender without a shot being fired, and the island where the Department of Motor Vehicles will one day sprout becomes New York. Meanwhile the Dutch presence in South America is reduced to a foothold in Guiana where sugar cane is cut by slaves and back on a canvas in Amsterdam a woman pours milk from a jar while sunlight falls forever, and so it will never truly be night.
The LED board’s hint of time travel is only the introduction to the actual message: an exhibition of paintings from the Netherlands at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Twelve years before Vermeer was born many members of his family were involved in a plot to manufacture counterfeit Dutch money, gulden banknotes of various denominations. Two leaders of the plot lost their heads via the sword while others went bankrupt trying to buy their way out of prison. Vermeer’s father sold his bed, not a small loss; beds were considered one of the middle classes’ most valuable assets at the time. The conspirators of 1620 were a presence in Vermeer’s life, and as he grew up to paint Dutch men and women engaged in the apparently innocuous tasks of everyday life the linguistic coincidence between his father’s occupation may have occurred to him; that he, too, was a counterfeijer of the visible world.1
Vermeer was himself the subject of forgery during the late 1930s. Henricus Antonius van Meegeren, disgusted with the established institutions of the Dutch academy launched a procedure that would create new opportunities for advancing the forger’s art. By creating a medium made of phenol formaldehyde resin dissolved in benzene or turpentine he could render the surface of a canvas so it took on the appearance of a 17th century Dutch painting after baking for two hours at 105 C. Once out of the oven the resulting crackelure not only looked appropriate but was resistant to the challenge of existing chemical analysis. Van Meegeren had the technique; now he needed content. What kind of “new” Vermeers could be produced that could be launched into the art market without generating suspicion? He stumbled across a book by Dr. D. Hannema, Director of the Boysmans Museum in Rotterdam, and Dr. A.F.E. van Schendel, who would later become Director of the Riksmuseum. They theorized it was likely that somewhere existed a body of Vermeers which had been influenced by Caravaggio. The yet to be found paintings composed a decidedly “non-Dutch” corpus, but were Vermeers nonetheless. Armed with these theories, van Meegeren was off and running. Less a forger than an insinuator of new paintings he painted Christ at Emmaus and The Raising of Lazarus on 17th century canvas still on its stretchers. Where he found this material is unknown. Disguised van Meegerens were authenticated by a variety of experts as real Vermeers, and he went on to produce a number of old master Dutch paintings of equivalent quality.
In 1942 Christ and the Adulteress, a Vermeer produced by van Meegeren, came to the attention of Reichsmarschall, Hermann Goering. Although the Dutch artist was horrified at the idea of selling even a fake painting to the Reichsmarschall, nonetheless the sale became official. What had started as a jab at the Academy that made a practice of tossing the young van Meegerens’ and his original paintings out the door spiraled entirely out of his control. If he experienced revulsion at the time of the transaction with Goering, after the war things were only going to get worse for him. Traced as the dealer who brokered the sale of what was thought to be a national treasure to a Nazi, he was arrested as a collaborator.
Van Meegeren was hanging by one magnetized shoe, his laces were loose, and his foot was slipping from a greased sole. Sitting in an Amsterdam jail, it must have looked like the right moment to finally confess to the forgeries. As much as he pleaded, authorities were dubious of his claim. His story seemed like nothing more than a ruse to weasel out of more serious charges. The Vermeers and others he sold had all, in the past, been authenticated. Van Meegeren was instructed to go ahead and paint a Vermeer if he was such a great copyist and so, Christ Among the Doctors was created. Charges switched from collaborating with the enemy to art fraud, but then Van Meegeren’s status flipped again. He was the artist who tricked Goering. At the end of his life, in 1947, though dying from drug and alcohol use, he had become a national hero.
Henricus Antonius van Meegeren is consistently referred to as a lousy painter, but it’s hard to know what constituted that you-stink-pal-get-lost judgment. What does it mean to be a bad painter? Mark Jones in Fake describes his work in withering terms.
Christ and the Adulterers [sic] sold to Goering in 1942 exhibits most of the stylistic traits typical of van Meegeren, not Vermeer. Among the most conspicuous characteristics are heavy-lidded eyes with raccoon-like shadowing, overly fleshy lips and noses, square-tipped wooden looking figures, and fragile, tiny wrists. The bag-like garments hung over the figures do not even succeed in disguising the faker’s lack of ability... The adulteress has no more arm than do most figures in van Meegeren’s other ‘Vermeers.’ The facial types in his religious Vermeers express three emotions: simpering goodness, anemic holiness, and swarthy roguery.2
Although Van Meegeren could be criticized for poor execution of a style of painting that demanded verisimilitude, he did discover a way to fool those who, during most of his lifetime, continually gave him the boot in no uncertain terms. Then, like Lazarus, he was resurrected and rose from ashes of his own making.
The subject of his fakes was very specific: bible scenes, moral tales, a profusion of Christs. Perhaps the desperate outsider consciously or unconsciously chose Christianity, the consummate insider subject matter to tell his story, as opposed to Vermeer’s quiet candlelit film stills: a girl with a flute, a woman in blue reading a letter, a maid looking out a window. Under the influence and laboring in the margins, it’s possible van Meegeren saw himself as wounded, a saint of the rejected, Christ among the arrogant doctors, wandering among those burghers he saw as gleeful and pretentious, barring his way at every turn.
PICTURES FOR THE AMERICAN PEOPLE
Rockwell and Vermeer, separated by more than four hundred years and the invention of photography, are strange bedfellows even on a LED board. If both were fired by a desire to paint observable reality or potentially observable reality, Vermeer’s project, ironically, seems more closely aligned to the camera. If both painters are huddled under the same realism umbrella, it’s an uneasy rubbing of shoulders. One might just as soon get wet as stand with the other, but perhaps not. Rockwell invents; his pictures grab you by the lapels, slap you on the back in a hale-fellow-well-met and now I’ll tell you a story kind of encounter, while Vermeer quietly takes a snapshot half disguised by a curtain or peering through panes of glass in a leaded window.
Both Vermeer and Rockwell painted the middle class at a time when wealth was growing quickly for the former (generated by middle class business acumen rather than title) and for the latter as Americans emerged from the Depression and then World War Two, moving from Hoovervilles and cities to mushrooming suburbs. The Dutch were the premier architects of the urban single-family house, high and narrow, and it was this structure that gave shelter to the figures of Vermeer’s universe. Smaller families lived in this new kind of real estate, a unit of organization that would barrel towards the concept of the nuclear family with its mad relatives transferred from ships of fools to the newly invented attic. Prosperity hinged on the colonial enterprise; the Dutch were a superpower of the late seventeenth century who competed with the British for pieces of the globe.
Often at the head of the table in both Dutch and American houses women write letters, play guitars, pour milk, sleep, laugh, perform in the circus, win fights despite black eyes, run with wet paintings in hand, brush in mouth. For both Vermeer and Rockwell women were vehicles of family life, agents who ushered in scenarios of comfort and togetherness, but neither stick entirely to this rendition of things. Rockwell’s women might flirt, even kiss a sailor under the wrong window and their future, though usually in the land of turkey dinners and children safely tucked in at night, they can, alternatively, join the ranks of Rosie the Riveter or exhausted shop girls still at work on Christmas Eve. It would be difficult to read domestic bliss in Vermeer’s The Procuress. Drink in hand, grabbed by the man in front of her, the procuress, though looking down, smiles. Although it was descended from a line of similarly themed prints and paintings, the men and single woman are explicit enough to imagine this painting was the porn channel for Dutch burghers of the 1600s.
More subtle than The Procuress, Soldier and Laughing Girl only hints at what the earlier painting represented so directly. Alone in a bare room, Holland and northern Friesland mapped out behind them, the smiling woman has a half-filled drink in her hand. Some of the wine must have already been swallowed while the soldier, hand on his hip, his partial profile obscured by his huge hat appears to be very entertaining. In taverns or on street corners Vermeer would have been a listener, as well, taking note of first or second hand accounts of his country’s far-flung colonial wars. The Dutch East India Company was at swords points in Sri Lanka, the Caribbean, and Indonesia. The soldier could be about to leave for or have just returned from any of these campaigns. He’s back in the world of big lace collars and curly wigs or about to depart for tropical jungles, spice groves, the high seas.
Rockwell’s experience of war was more direct. Illustrating A Night on a Troop Train, he drew soldiers playing cards, smoking, looking out a train window, a solitary fellow reading a paper, foot on his duffle bag. Of the drawing Rockwell wrote, “The Army censors wouldn’t allow photographers aboard troop trains, but they permitted me to make these candid portraits of young paratroopers starting on the last lap of their journey to the front.”3
Give Him Enough and On Time (1943), a painting which became a magazine cover, was intentionally composed in Rockwell’s studio. The suggestion for painting came from the Ordnance Department of the United States Army, and they sent a gun crew and machine gun to his studio in Vermont. The gunner wanted his weapon “in gleaming condition… The coil of the cartridge tape and the empty cartridges show that he is down to his last shot.”?4 The soldier’s shirt is in rags, ripped by Rockwell himself, and he looks like he is in the middle of combat, not posing somewhere in northern New England. This kind of realism was probably less available to Vermeer, nor did it appear to interest him. Vermeer, in terms of visualization of war, is looking through a domestic window. The soldier is visiting girls, and his clothing is anything but ragged. The violence is in the past or future, unarticulated. Vermeer, unlike Rockwell, hints a ghostly blueprint of a story. What’s in the letter the woman reads at the window? Did she need to be alone to read it? Rockwell gives you an explicit scenario minus the talk or thought balloons.
NOVEMBER 3 - MARCH 3
Nostalgia and sentimentality are words often associated with Norman Rockwell, so much so that the process of re-evaluating Rockwell is a tough row to hoe. Arthur Danto called his images “shovelfuls of stardust.”?5 Claiming for the illustrator of magazine covers and calendars the territory occupied by painters like Vermeer requires a long period of quarantine with the possibility that citizenship in that province will never be fully acquired, and there is a good chance of being sent back without so much as a short, tourist-like visit. Rockwell was not concerned with producing a counterfeit of reality, but he was the subject of a solitary counterfeit scheme.
Breaking Home Ties is a painting of enormous sentimental power. A clean-cut young man in a suit sits on the running board of his father’s truck. Beside him sits his father, denim work shirt, cigarette in his mouth, black pointed boots. He holds what looks like a cowboy hat in his hand as well as his son’s tidier Borsalino. Suitcase, books to one side. Collie with his head resting on the boy’s knee. Elbows on his knees, the father could be looking down the road for a train or bus. He does not look happy. The viewer and the father might suspect leaving home is a one-way street, but the young man has his eyes on the clock. He’s optimistic, and his bag is packed. Breaking Home Ties was painted in 1954 as Rockwell’s second wife, Mary, was entering the Riggs Institute for Psychiatric treatment.
The painting was bought in 1960 for $900 by Don Trachte, one of the artists involved in the production of Henry, a cartoon that originated in the 1940s. Cartoonist Carl Anderson began the strip, although Trachte would take over the strip and come to be closely identified with the bald and mute boy. Henry looked a bit like an attenuated Sluggo, of Sluggo and Nancy if Sluggo, who predated Henry by about ten years, ever took off his hat. Apart from a few early strips Henry was always mute. Without speech or thought balloons Henry was a pantomime character. Bald, wide-eyed, on the round side, he resembled a baby, and true to form, Henry looked at the world in very simple, almost infantile terms. The most ordinary objects: umbrellas, stationary bicycles, toasters, etc. were an enigma to Henry, and so he utilized them in an improvisatory, ad hoc manner as if they themselves had no history of obvious use, and that way lay the strip’s humor which was always visual.
Trachte painted a copy of Breaking Home Ties in order to keep the original from his wife during divorce proceedings. The counterfeit painting was later lent to the Rockwell Museum and only discovered to be a forgery after his death when one of Trachte’s sons uncovered a secret chamber in his father’s house. The hidden room contained, among other things, the original Breaking Home Ties.
Trachte, in fact, painted two versions of Breaking Home Ties. One was intended to be an exact replica of the Rockwell, but in the other more mysterious version, he replaced Rockwell’s father and son with himself and Henry waiting for the bus. Why was this image so vital to Trachte that not only would he create a duplicate of it but paint this hybrid of his own (inherited) cartoon son sitting in the place of the boy leaving his father as if Henry were leaving him, Trachte, his adoptive parent? Two narratives merge: Henry, the hapless boy, who often solves the problem at hand by creating more chaos and that of the clean cut fellow in a wide tie, leaving home for parts unknown. By replacing him with Henry, the creator of havoc, Trachte was sending another ceiling-walker into the world. A soul who couldn’t figure out which end of the knife should be used for cutting would leave home unable to figure out that ordinarily you walk on the floor. By replacing the father with himself, the loss of the ephemeral cartoon boy who flips gravity on its head is still an image that expresses a very sad state of affairs. But because it’s Henry, the clown, sitting on the running board, you can’t trust the idea that time marches on, there’s no turning back. If gravity can be defied, maybe you shouldn’t be surprised that time can stand still or even reverse direction.
Was the Rockwell painting a constant backdrop for Trachte, like a song you can’t or don’t want to get out of your head? The hybrid painting, the parody, symbolized a meeting between Rockwell’s snapshot of an imaginary American moment (voted by readers as the second most popular ever cover in the history of The Saturday Evening Post) and Trachte’s great comic work, Henry. Both Henry and Rockwell’s father and son were icons of a sort, and both occupied a space in popular imagery, but one was based in the ephemeral world of the Sunday funnies, while the other, though printed on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post, was oil paint on canvas which implied that Rockwell, at least, was grounded in a generally sterner no nonsense kind of stuff. Trachte, as the father, holds a traditional artist’s palette while he sits on the truck’s running board. He looks grim. Henry, whose head is enormous, bald, inflated, looks over Trachte’s head. Henry has no mouth. An excellent keeper of secrets, he never speaks.
There are differing accounts of the exact date Trachte inherited the strip from Carl Anderson. Some accounts say he actually took over in 1948 when Anderson died, other versions give the date six years earlier when severe arthritis prevented Anderson from continuing. He needed to imitate Anderson’s style, but Henry also evolved to become even more minimalist, a style which must have been distinctly Trachte’s. Yet he had to have been a very skilled painter to copy the Rockwell so exactly. The duplicate was almost undetectable, although a few had doubts. Some colors seemed a little washed out and this was attributed to a conservator who, somewhere along the line, took a liberal hand with cleaning or conserving. Despite these suspicions the painting’s provenance since 1960 was unquestionable. The faded faces, the colors that weren’t quite right could only be blamed on unknown and unknowable circumstances. The painting had toured from Moscow to Cairo; it could have been damaged or exposed to the elements in any number of ways that would have affected its surface. When Trachte’s son, Dave, found photographs of the original painting a few details were missing, elements didn’t match up, and he went looking for possible hiding places in his father’s old house. A gap in the wall paneling revealed the secret room which contained the original Breaking Home Ties, now valued at $5,000,000.
In terms of current value Vermeer’s paintings have traveled a similar road. Nearly bankrupt at the time of his death, his widow, Catharina, gave two paintings to the baker, Hendrik van Buyten, in place the sum of 616 guilder and 6 stuivers owed for bread and a few weeks later twenty-six paintings were disposed of in order to settle other shopping bills.
Henry is not as well known as other comics from the post-war era. I was a Henry reader after watching the clock in Hebrew School every Sunday for several years in the mid-1960s. My father would pick up me, my sisters, and a few friends, then we would stop at Lou’s on River Street in Troy, New York where, among other things, he would buy two newspapers one without cartoons and one with them. The Henry narrative was frustrating in the way Prince Valiant and Apartment 3-G which were serials, were not. The humor wasn’t as witty as the life lessons proposed by Peanuts, but somehow you always read Henry, you couldn’t completely skip it even if, with a fourth grader’s sense of misplaced superiority you considered that bald kid forehead-slapping inane. I’m sorry Henry is less remembered now.
The discovery of the duplicate painting throws new light on Trachte’s parody of it, and I wish he’d drawn or painted more of them. What if the hidden painting had never been discovered? Would it have mattered? Is the substitute really just as good as the original?
Forged texts cannot be dismissed as mere pale reflections of their originals. They are, in part, and not a negligible part, of the stemma of the text. They can also be deeply revealing witnesses of the ‘sociology of the text’, a mirror of the society which elicited the forgery. More important yet, as war advances technology so fake texts refine the critical impulse that can expose them. Forgery, like any form of imitation, embodies a creative impulse, and that is reason enough for taking its products seriously.?6
Mark Jones suggests works like the Trachte versions of Breaking Home Ties shouldn’t be dismissed as a ploy intended to preserve the Rockwell for his children or to keep the valuable original from his wife, that they should be taken seriously as paintings, as interpretations on their own. The footprint of a story Rockwell never intended can be read in the variations of the duplicates, hinting at a different kind of broken tie. These copies stand on their own two feet whether hatched for criminal intent or as a joke, and they blast their meaning at us through megaphones and whispers with as much authority and intrigue as the works they were meant to mirror.
EGG DONOR…. $8000
FREE MEDICAL EVALUATION…
A sculpture grew in Brooklyn that had a lot to do with eggs and their future once they were fertilized: Daniel Edward’s “Monument to Pro-life” statue of a naked Britney Spears giving birth while straddling a bear skin rug shown at the Capla Kesting Fine Art Gallery in Williamsburg.
Spears had not been so notorious (within the demographic that may have only marginal interest in her) since late October 2001 when posters advertising her upcoming live from Las Vegas HBO special were papered all over the five boroughs of New York City. The timing of these advertisements must have been strategic. The war in Afghanistan had begun barely two weeks earlier. The smell in subway stations near the World Trade Center was still overwhelming, often compared to the burning body smell of concentration camps, and people seen coming and going in these stations often wore masks. Behind them, behind all of us, plastered over and over were images of Britney Spears in a white jeweled Elvis jacket. Within a few days the scores of posters were defaced in a variety of ways: Britney attacked by a series of penises (cum represented by chewing gum), Britney with moustache and beard (several styles), rotten teeth, face torn away (full or partial) replaced by a smiley face. Captions added either coming out of her mouth or general voice over: Pepsi, Viacom, Disney. Smell ya’ later, Britbot. Spear Britney: everything that’s wrong with America. I did it, not Osama, blame me. Media Fabrication magic markered on a Hello My Name is sticker slapped on Britney’s lapel.
The Britney Spears’ statue, on the other hand, was executed in the style of Jeff Koons’ Michael Jackson and Bubbles, a white and gold ceramic sculpture of Jackson and chimp made in 1988. The Edward’s statue was entitled Monument to the Pro-Life Movement, but in the context of a Williamsburg gallery, there was a disjuncture between the title and the message. Although Edward, in repeated statements, claimed complete sincerity in his motives, there was a tricky disparity at work even without the loaded title that commandeered the meaning of the statue and determined the controversy with which it was received. Here was a nearly life size, realistic statue of the (usually) sexually charged Spears in what to some viewers might be a particularly unlovely position, all her bits revealed, baby Sean Preston crowning as she kneeled on all fours, but Monument was hardly being exhibited in what would be considered a venue that would welcome a piece of anti-abortion agitprop.
If Edward was alluding to Koons, who constructs parodies of popular culture in high art contexts, then Monument is a double negative that still isn’t a positive. What does it mean to quote Jeff Koons, to quote the quoter? With the echoes of Koons in style, scale, material, and subject of portraiture, it’s hard to swallow that the correspondence between cause and image was sincere, but maybe it was. Someone, instead, might be laughing his head off at the whole shooting match. It’s unknown who bought Monument to the Pro-Life Movement or what was paid for it.
Between the experience of waiting for a New York subway train, fall 2001, and the image of Britney Spears Live From Las Vegas, between the experience of seeing the bare naked Koons-like Spears in a Williamsburg gallery and figuring out what the title was all about, context tells meaning to go take a space walk.
IF YOUR LICENSE HAS EXPIRED
YOU WILL NEED YOUR ORIGINAL
At the top of the line I approached the counter and passed the man a bundle of all the necessary documents. He flipped through them, making a face as if something were not right, and it wasn’t. The birth certificate I presented, though original, was the “wallet” sized version, not, apparently the real, authentic birth certificate lying somewhere in rusting files in a New Haven municipal basement. I needed the larger size original. He insisted and began to look at the next person in line, the man with the skateboard and clown pants. I argued that the little yellow square was as authentic as any document it would take me weeks to find and acquire. He shook his head. The one I held in my hand just wasn’t the original I needed. I tried to tell him this size-challenged version had all the same information as the other one, the one I would never find. Sorry, doll, was all he said, and I was on my way.
1. Vermeer and His Milieu: a Web of Social History, John Michael Montias, Princeton University Press, 1989.
2. Fake? The Art of Deception, ed. Mark Jones, University of California Press, 1990.
3. Norman Rockwell, Illustrator, Arthur Leighton Guptill, Watson-Guptill Publications, 1970.
4. Norman Rockwell, Illustrator, Arthur Leighton Guptill, Watson-Guptill Publications, 1970.
5. Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People, ed. Maureen Hart Hennessey, Abrams, 1999..
6. Fake? The Art of Deception, ed. Mark Jones, University of California Press, 1990.
Susan Daitch is the author of two novels, L.C., and The Colorist, and a collection of short fiction, Storytown. Besides the Rail, her work has appeared in failbetter.com, The Pushcart Prize Anthology, Ploughshares, The Norton Anthology of Postmodern Fiction, and featured in The Review of Contemporary Fiction.