The Last Vermeer Should Have Been Better



Directed by Dan Friedkin

Sony Pictures, 118 minutes, R (brief nudity, language, violence)





Near the end of The Last Vermeer Han van Meergern proclaims, “I believe every fascist deserves to be swindled.” No argument there, but was the audience also swindled? Sort of. Movies such as this can be more frustrating than bad ones. It’s merely okay and it’s too easy to detect the various ways in which scriptwriters and director Dan Friedkin give us a muddy watercolor instead of a vibrant oil.


The plot is based on actual events detailed by Jonathan Lopez in his 2008 book The Man Who Made Vermeers. World War II has ended and the Allied Command is in the process of shutting down to return control of The Netherlands to a civilian government. That’s not good news for Captain Joseph Piller (Claes Bang), a Dutch Jew tracing art looted by the Nazis. He has a big fish in custody: Han van Meergern (Guy Pearce). He stands accused of selling Christ and the Adulterer, a hitherto lost work of 17th century luminary Johannes Vermeer, to Hitler’s righthand man, Hermann Goering. The 1.6 million guilders van Meergern pocketed was, at the time, the most ever paid for an artwork. Detective Alex De Klerks (August Diehl) wants possession of van Meergern, perhaps to send him to the firing squad with other Dutch collaborators, or worse to let him walk in exchange for information.


Piller finds van Meergern privileged and arrogant, but he also entertains an inkling of doubt about his guilt. The last point is among several unfilled plot holes. Why does Piller care about van Meergern? Pearce plays van Meergern in full foppish condescension. He lived in the lap of luxury while Piller, a member of the Dutch Resistance, spent the war avoiding being captured and sent to a death camp. Friedkin offers psychobabble instead of solid motives; Piller’s wife Leez (Marie Bach Hansen) was also in the Resistance, but her job was to court the Nazis to ferret out information. Joseph believes she did her best work in the boudoir. Or is that just because Piller is drawn to his assistant Minna Holberg (Vicky Krieps), a widow? Friedkin’s attempt to suggest their relationship remained chaste either further whitewashes Piller’s behavior or is another plot hole–take your pick.


Friedkin tries to play coy, but he need not have bothered; it’s obvious before the film is 20 minutes old that van Meergern is a forger. Perhaps he wanted us not to notice that women of The Last Vermeer are afterthoughts. Leez is scarcely present and the only other female character of note is Cootje Henning (Olivia Grant), a social gadfly, model, and serial paramour whose biggest scene is an unclothed one. These are odd choices given that Minna who figured out that van Meergern is telling the truth that the Vermeer he sold to Goring was a forgery by his own hand. That’s a hard sell, though, as everyone van Meergern claims can verify his claim is missing or dead, and the entire Dutch art establishment views van Meergern as a hack who couldn’t possibly paint like Vermeer.   


What’s a man facing the firing squad to do? Why paint another Vermeer, of course. It will be a defense exhibit at van Meergern’s trial, but not one that a Dutch court or the art world wishes to entertain. After all, Piller is a Jew defending a traitor with a fanciful tale of using Bakelite (an early plastic) to pass the usual test for forgery. Worse still, the same art critics scoff at van Meergern’s boast that he also painted several other “Vermeers” on display in art museums, including Christ at Emmaus at the Boijmans in Rotterdam whose director, Dirk Hannema (Adrian Scarborough), is the chief witness for the prosecution. Van Meergern’s flamboyant braggadocio sways spectators witnessing the trial, but is the Dutch public too hungry for a hero and too anxious to believe what isn’t so?   


The Last Vermeer is worth watching for Pearce’s star turn, its takedown of pompous critics, and its lessons on how easily “truth” can be massaged. If only what was made up was as exciting as what really happened, this would have been a gem.


Rob Weir


Postscript: Among art connoisseurs, few 17th century painters are as celebrated as Vermeer. He left just 36 recognized works, several of which are certainly fakes. Han van Meergern is now viewed as the greatest forger in Western art history.


2022 Art in the Orchard: Mark Fenwick



Park Hill Orchard

82 Park Hill Road, Easthampton, MA

Through Thanksgiving Weekend


Park Hill Orchard in Easthampton is one of the loveliest spots in Western Massachusetts. Where else can you (literally) frame Mt. Tom in your camera or cellphone lens with pumpkin patches and apple trees in the foreground?


In addition, since 2011 the orchard also spotlights the work of creative sculptors who mount their works on the grounds behind and across the street from the stand where you can buy fruit, cider, and other tempting goodies. It’s an area where kids can run wild while their parents check out the art, but expansive enough that those without kids in tow can get up close and take in the sculptures without dodging little feet or being annoyed by their playful screams. (The latter just float away toward Mt. Tom!)


Every other year there is a theme but in this, an off year, they feature the work of just two artists: the stone work of Gerald Clark and the wood wonders of Mark Fenwick. In addition, a lot of past alums have left their art in place so you can also visit a few old favorites (or see them for the first time). This includes the big red frame created by Easthampton’s Jean-Pierre Pasche where you can pose for selfies, snap a cool pic of loved ones, or just give some perspective to images of Mt Tom.


I will concentrate on Fenwick’s works in this piece. To say he’s been around short-changes his experience. He was born in Portsmouth, New Hampshire to a shipbuilding family, shuffled off to a Vermont commune in the 1960s and 1970s, moved to California in the mid-1980s, drifted a few other places, headed back to Vermont, and now lives near Brattleboro. The constant in his life has been a love of the woods. He can talk in the sometimes-cryptic way artists do, but he boils down his approach thus: “I do as I did when I was ten. I go into the woods, find a stick... though now a log... and I take it home to carve.”


As if it were that simple! You need to toss in a fascination with mythology as filtered through a cut-and-paste approach that resonates with today’s mash-up practices. Hipsters need to know, however, that he was way ahead of them–by decades! The exhibit is called “Hidden Gems” and, to be sure, Fenwick’s pieces invite imaginations to create their own stories.


I will make a few comments, but mostly I will let Fenwick’s works speak for themselves. (If, for no other reason, I lost the booklet with the titles!)


Rob Weir



This one reminded me of Brancusi in wood. Take a good look at Emily's knees. You won't see them again until next summer!                      


Love this Inuit-stytle dancing bear! Maybe new as it oozes sap.


Minotaur or Babe the Blue Ox? Yes!

The Corn Palace


Your guess is as good as mine!

This one reminded me of Claes Oldenburg. 

Note the tail! 

If you envision the Middle Passage, yup! 


Hispanic Heritage Month II; Museum of Spanish Colonial Art

Museum of Spanish Colonial Art

Santa Fe, New Mexico


If you live in the East, really good Spanish art can be difficult to find unless you live near a large city such as Boston, New York, or Washington DC. Even then, the older treasures one sees trends more toward famous artists–Velázquez, Goya, Murillo, El Greco–and isn’t representative of Hispanic culture in general. 



To see the best of that kind of art it is often necessary to travel to the West or Southwest. The Museum of Colonial Spanish Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico, is not a large facility but it is one that samples images, sculpture, icons, and objects from the period in which today’s Southwest was controlled by Spain. (The museum also devotes space to more recent creations by contemporary artists.) You can find it on Santa Fe's Museum Hill, a complex of numerous institutions devoted largely to those considered minority groups.



As you might expect, much of Spanish art draws inspiration from the Catholic religion of the conquistadors. Hence, there are numerous religious paintings and icons of saints. One of the more interesting saints is St. Isadore, the farmer saint. He was an 11th century figure, but his common man status and his reputation for kindness toward animals and the poor have made him an ever-lasting one–a sort of Spanish St. Francis of Assisi, if you will. It is intriguing to see how later representations of St. Isadore are less medieval and more peasant-like. Surprisingly, there are also numerous takes on Kateri Tekakwitha, also known as Lily of the Mohawks. She gained fame for her vow of virginity and was the first Native American to be canonized, but she was decidedly not from the Southwest. She spent her life (1656-80) in what is now New York State.






But it is not just religious art that is on display. Craft has gotten its long overdue recognition as fine art. Weaving, for example, can be as complex as any oil painting or sculpture. So too can be a carved wooden headboard. The Spanish also earned their well-deserved reputation for eye-catching ceramic tile work.


St Anthony



St. Michael



In the end, though, it is hard to get around the fact that there are simply a lot of saints in Hispanic art. Well-known venerated figures such as Saint Anthony and Saint Michael abound. As you can anticipate, carvings and paintings of Jesus also proliferate, as do examples of religious medals. A well-executed tin medal of the Holy Spirit caught my eye.





This small museum is often overlooked, as it stands in the shadow of the International Folk Art Museum and several devoted to Native American art. Don't make the mistake of ignoring it; the next time you are in Santa Fe spend an hour or so with the older art inside the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art and then wander over to the contemporary exhibits. I think you will be happy that you did so.


Rob Weir