Art Forgers and the Deconstruction of Genius
On February 23, 2014, 60 Minutes aired an exposé on the German art forger Wolfgang Beltracchi, and it spurred a national conversation as to why his paintings were any less good than the autograph works he imitated. After all, his fakes had been exhibited at the Metropolitan and sold at Christie’s, and elite collectors happily enjoyed them as if they were authentic. Since the art market’s inception, art forgery has been a constant presence. The phenomenon derives from the market’s prioritization of canonical masters, and the art forgers work serves to directly undermine that hierarchy. This paper would address the portrayals of the art forger and attribution questions in literature, film, and television, and how they serve to validate the general public’s scepticism in the unique genius of the anointed canonical masters. Starting with Hilaire Beloc’s The Missing Masterpiece from the 1920s, which comically reworked the early twentieth century’s first great attribution trial, that of the two versions of La Belle Ferronnière , this novel centers on a trial over a modernist masterpiece that cannot be distinguished from its copies. The story features thinly veiled sendups of two of the era’s dominant figures, Joseph Duveen and Bernard Berenson. Perhaps the single greatest institutional critique of the genius artist was achieved by the Hungarian Elmyr de Hory, who faked the key figures of the École de Paris, Picasso, Matisse, and Modigliani. Elmyr’s works entered the collections of museums and were sold by Knoedler. They only became known, however, when Clifford Irving published his biography, Fake! The Story of Elmyr De Hory, the Greatest Art Forger of Our Time in 1969. Irving’s subsequent imprisonment for producing a fake autobiography of Howard Hughes inspired Orson Welles, himself a master of illusion, to create his last film F for Fake, about the pair. The film ends, however, with an entirely concocted narrative of Picasso and a beautiful young model who markets her grandfather’s works as his. The fabricated conversation between Picasso and his model returns to the question of whether, if the public enjoyed the works as if they were Picassos, why does it matter that they were not? A variation of that same narrative would appear in The Simpsons 15th episode of season 25, “The War of Art," where a discovered masterpiece by Johan Oldenveldt turns out, when they travel to his island home (a clear reference to Elmyr’s home on Ibiza), to be a forgery by Klaus Ziegler. A conversation ensues that directly imitates the conversation at the end of F for Fake. Again, the question is raised, why does it matter if the work is by the master if the public believes it is, and they enjoy it as such?
Copyright (c) 2021 Jeffrey Taylor
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