Reviews

'Beltracchi: The Art of Forgery' Almost Hits the Mark

This isn't an failure but it's not an unqualified success. Its greatest triumph is that it encourages to look beyond its own frames, whether it means to or not.


Beltracchi: The Art of Forgery

Director: Arne Birkenstock
Cast: Wolfgang Beltracchi, Helene Beltracchi
Distributor: Icarus
Rated: NR
Release date: 2015-11-17

Beltracchi: The Art of Forgery attempts to make its titular character, convicted art forger Wolfgang Beltracchi, a kind of folk hero. Sure, he’s a con man who swindled the art world out of untold millions, but he’s kind of likeable, you know? A guy who has that je nais se quois and sure, some joie de vivre, too, but he might just also make you scream sacre bleu!

He was sentenced to six years in prison back in 2011 for his forgeries, including faked works by Max Ernst, Heinrich Campendonk and others. Beltracchi was convicted of forging a relatively small body of work compared to the countless numbers he’s boasted of creating.

If he sounds like the kind of guy whose shoes you might want to spit on, well, that’s part of the charm. And director Arne Birkenstock knows that. How else could this guy have thrived if not for his undeniable charms and, face it, craftsmanship. What Beltracchi did was, in its way, a work of imagination: Rather than copy existing works, he created new ones. He looked for gaps in the oeuvre of painters and made his move. These were lost works, some that had languished here or there for decades, were unknown, forgotten, too personal, whatever story you want to provide for them.

Their provenances could be traced to the collections of people who Beltracchi and his wife not so much made up but reclaimed as established art collectors. (Despite, we discover, that if you’re in the art world and have a good collection, you’re going to be known. So, the invention has to be a greater than you might think.) These works are sometimes breathtaking in the life that Beltracchi gives them. Forgery or no, they are works of art. Ones that many were in fact proud to add to their collections.

Beltracchi walks us through the process of creating forgeries: finding canvas that was the right age, getting the right materials; then he had to work through the act of making the new work, carefully crafting something worth the going price; he’d bake the canvas, add dirt to the fame and, he offers, in certain instances, make sure that the picture smelled as though it were authentic to the time and place from which it was said to have emerged.

It’s fascinating to see him work, a bit annoying to hear him claim that he’s improving upon the work the artists themselves did, and a little sad that we don’t really get the particulars of his total deception. There are other parties involved whose inventions and deceptions, accidental or otherwise, are as important as those of Beltracchi, but those stories are really only hinted at and then in a manner that is, in a word, cursory.

Beltracchi’s full story never really emerges, either. Perhaps he’s hopeful that some of that will be told in grand style on big screens by big actors, but perhaps it’s also that Birkenstock couldn’t see these flaws in the film that he was making. Not knowing who Beltracchi deceived and when and for how much makes it easier to like him, one supposes, and the film asks us to do that. He's only doing what the art world demands, after all: Filling a void. It’s a market for people who love art and if art emerges they will buy it. That argument only goes so far, of course, and Beltracchi seems to acknowledge the glory days of his forgeries are over.

Our subject is able to capture our attention and imaginations for the bulk of the film and his sparring with art historians is remarkably civil. The problem is that the film’s focus on him becomes so close and closed off that it’s dizzying. It’s only in the final moments that we meet his children, for example, that we are given the full view of a man who is more complex than we might first think.

Still, even with its flaws, Beltracchi: The Art of Forgery provides a fun view and a good starting point for a deeper discussion about the wild ways of the art world and those who fall victim to or become forgers just like Beltracchi.

The film is shot in German with English subtitles and features an interview with Beltracchi and his wife, Helene (she was imprisoned at the same time as him), an interview with Birkenstock and a featurette with art authenticators visiting the artist’s studio.

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