Jazz, film, and improvised culture.
Beltracchi: the Art of Getting Off Easy for Forgery
Family is important to notorious art forger
Wolfgang Beltracchi. His closest accomplice was his wife Helene and his
documentarian is the son of his lawyer, Reinhard Birkenstock. Beltracchi’s best
forgeries were not copies of known works, but rather “newly discovered” works
from important early Modernists, designed to fill holes in their oeuvres. This
was not a new approach to art fraud, but Beltracchi was unusually successful at
it. Even now, the art world still does not know how many of his “originals”
have penetrated into museums and galleries. The rather unrepentant forger has
no intention of revealing those secrets in Arne Birkenstock’s Beltracchi: the Art of Forgery (trailer here), which opens this
Wednesday in New York at Film Forum.
Thanks to a lenient work release program, the
Beltracchis still enjoyed the fruits of their criminal endeavors during the
day, puttering around their villa before returning to prison in the evening (supposedly
they are employed by a friend’s photography studio). Wolfgang Beltracchi is now
required to paint solely under his own name, but he shows Birkenstock how it is
done, for old times’ sake. He is happy to explain the process, but plays it coy
when asking for specifics on his past forgeries.
It is a shame Art of Forgery was not released while the Beltracchis were serving
their sentences, because it could have spurred the court to revoke their
privileges. Clearly, Birkenstock expects viewers to consider Beltracchi a roguishly
jolly Falstaffian fellow, but instead we see someone who always manages to
flaunt the rules. Frankly, it is annoying. There are also predictable questions
raised regarding the fundamental value of art. Beltracchi and Birkenstock are
definitely right about one thing, the current market climate gave experts every
incentive to give his forgeries a pass, rather than digging into them with a
fine tooth comb.
There is no question Art of Forgery would have been a more compelling film if it had
taken a more narrative-focused true crime approach, in the tradition of Smash & Grab and The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne. Art and Craft, the documentary profile
of the socially awkward forger Mark Landis might be an obvious comparative film,
but filmmakers Sam Cullman & Jennifer Grausman give nearly equal time to
Landis’s Javert, thereby establishing conflict. Instead, Birkenstock’s film is
like one long boasting session for Beltracchi.
and Landis, it is hard to have confidence in the integrity of any art you might
find in most respectable institutions. That is not good for fine art’s place in
the wider universe. Beltracchi’s story is indeed fascinating, but Birkenstock
never fully tells it, omitting for instance a former business partner’s
allegations he burgled their gallery (a nice bit of sensationalism surely worth
re-dredging). Unfortunately, Birkenstock is just too thoroughly charmed by his
subject. Beltracchi: the Art of Forgery has
its intriguing moments, but it is too much like an artist’s working process
doc, like Gerhard Richter Painter,
which is a tad problematic for a film about a convicted forger. A mixed bag
best enjoyed by those who bear a grudge against the established art world, it
opens this Wednesday (8/19) at New York’s Film Forum.
Labels: Documentary, German Cinema