(written for MovieMail in 2007. Taking its cue from the film, it's possible that parts of this review are not exactly four-square to the truth.)
In 1996, the Fondation Pierre Gianadda in Martigny, Switzerland held an exhibition entitled Vérités et Mensonges, the name taken from the French title of Orson Welles’ film about fakery and deception, F for Fake. It collected together a remarkable assortment of forgeries and copies of paintings that were, by and large, created to deceive, confuse, or at the very least, gain notoriety and hope that resultant attention would increase the value of the piece.
All the usual suspects were there. There were van Meegeren Vermeers, including his Last Supper and Woman Taken in Adultery (past owner, one Field Marshal Hermann Goering – and how anyone thought they were the work of Johannes Vermeer of Delft becomes more incredible with every passing year). There was a de Hory van Dongen along with a brace each of his Matisse and Modigliani copies, and two David Stein Braques of similar composition, both entitled Still Life with Pitcher, with the only substantial difference being that one was signed G Braque, and the other, presumably painted during his incarceration, signed Stein, D.
These were joined by an excellent Lothar Malskat Chagall, an anonymous Courbet, a Tom Keating Degas (along with a fake Tom Keating Degas), a pair of Corots from the infamous collection of Dr. Jousseaume, (as well as a copy of the Newsweek magazine from 1940 which declared, jokingly, that ‘Of the 2,500 paintings Corot did in his lifetime, 7800 are to be found in America.’), and even a Van Gogh canvas that had passed through the hands of notorious art dealer Otto Wacker.
In sculpture, a number of fine Etruscan warriors were joined by their Chinese terracotta counterparts. Unfortunately, Michelangelo’s Sleeping Cupid, (a genuine fake which he artificially aged through burial in acid earth so he could command a higher price and with which he subsequently duped a Cardinal) was unavailable for display, having disappeared sometime in the 17th century, but there was instead a 19th century forgery of this earlier fake. (Interestingly, the sculptor of this later piece, Gianfranco Rinaldi, was himself a sculptor of some renown, making his piece a genuine artist’s forgery of a genuine artist’s forgery.)
Of ‘medieval’ exhibits, the finest was the fake ‘Anonymous’ (Master of Willisau) altarpiece. Or rather, the 15th-century altarpice was genuine, as were the pigments, mixed according to 15th century practice. Even the style and subject was convincing, with the daisies pricking through the grass in the manner of Jan van Eyck. The difference was of course that it was painted in the hope of monetary profit in the 20th century instead of religious benefit in the 15th.
Adding to the fun of the collection were the quotes and notes from the contemporary experts, placed alongside the exhibits and proclaiming that such a painting was ‘a notable addition to the artist’s canon’, or that it ‘demonstrated beyond question the refinement of the artist’s finesse’. Picasso’s quote that he could paint false Picassos as well as anyone else was placed next to one of his more derivative sketches – which in this case just happened to be a genuine, but rather dull, Picasso.
Anyway, of relevance to this current piece is the fact that also included in the exhibition was the painting that Elmyr de Hory did of Michelangelo on camera in F for Fake (and which he signed ‘Orson Wells’) as well as a canvas purportedly painted by Welles himself on his trip as a teenager to Ireland in 1930 (and which recalled the landscapes of Jack Butler Yeats by the by). Very few of Welles’ paintings from this era have come to light. More are undoubtedly waiting for discovery as I write.
Also included were three nudes, in oil, of Oja Kodar – Welles’s lover and collaborator on F for Fake, who is seen (along with her sister) in a little summer frock, turning covertly-filmed men’s heads as she not-so innocently walks among them throught the streets at the beginning of the film. All three of the paintings carry the signature ‘Elmyr’. The question is, did he really paint them? This would be of academic interest only if it weren’t for the fact that discovery of the actual painter would change how much the paintings are worth. De Hory pictures go for quite an amount, but if it could be proved that they were painted by Welles, due to their rarity, they would probably be worth more. As, again on camera in F for Fake, Welles signed a picture – a chalk and pastels caricature of a reclusive Howard Hughes – with the signature ‘Elmyr’, this would lend weight to this argument. Maybe we’ll never know for sure. Perhaps Welles and de Hory conspired and painted them together (which would be the best of all possible outcomes for the dealers one supposes).
The exhibition was very much in the mischievous spirit of Welles, Kodar, Graver and Reichenbach’s film F for Fake (aka Fake!, About Fakes and Truth and Lies), in which Orson Welles, proclaiming himself a charlatan with a beady twinkle in his eye, helps himself to great amusement at the expense of authority and experts. Cheerfully mixing sleight-of-hand and magic with the sharpest of editing (on which he spent a year), he concocts a multivalent work which is tricksy, complex and enormous fun. Numerous parties contribute to the conversation on the nature of fakes and fakery, with Welles, Elmyr de Hory, Clifford Irving (and his pet monkey) and Howard Hughes (or a microphone, or Don Ameche) engaged in a playful dialogue, both virtual and actual, that crosses continents and years. In the innovative brio with which F for Fake marshals all this found footage – from documentaries, films, staged scenes and set-ups, photographs, newsreel clips, interviews and Welles’s own narration – the film thoroughly reveals the hand of its showman maker, who is at least one step ahead of us right the way through. Just when we think we have the measure of his smiling, quizzical eyes, we realise that he is actually looking right past us over our shoulder. He notices we are distracted and pulls yet another trick out of his sleeve