Reel Artists Film Fest Kicks Off with 'Beltracchi'

Beltracchi: The Art of Forgery
(Germany, 93 min.)
Dir. Arne Birkenstock
“You don’t have to be a genius to do a painting like that,” says painter Wolfgang Beltracchi as he observes one of his own beautiful canvasses hanging on his studio wall.  Beltracchi is a virtuoso with his paintbrush, but he also happens to be a master forger. Anyone can paint a Max Ernst, he implies as he looks upon the “Max Ernst” painting of his own creation. As for whether Beltracchi is a painterly genius or a true artist is another matter, though, as Beltracchi: The Art of Forgery paints an ingenious portrait of the way we perceive art. Beltracchi opens Toronto’s Reel Artists Film Festival on Thursday, and it’s bound to stimulate a healthy debate over what constitutes “real art.” The film provocatively asks if artistic genius resides in technique or in inspiration.

Beltracchi finds itself in the guise of an unlikely crowd-pleaser as director Arne Birkenstock offers both an insider’s glimpse at the art of forgery and an exposé of the art world in turn. Entering the mind of a criminal and a charlatan is rarely so enjoyable. The film is very fun and insightful as it follows the charismatic Beltracchi like an observant apprentice as the convicted art forger reveals the skill, technique, and keen understanding of the idiosyncrasies of the business that allowed him to score nearly £30 million before he the art world discovered his con. It might not take a genius to paint a masterpiece, but it takes a level of wily skills to outsmart so many experts for so long.

Beltracchi gives an impressive range of access as he takes Birkenstock on the full journey of a forgery. Learn how to spot a good old canvas to use as the foundation—art dealer stamps are king!—and learn how to strip away the layers to replace the canvas with a new coat of paint. He even shows audiences the essential tip of padding the space between the canvas and the frame with dirt to mimic the dust that accumulates under a painting over the years. (It’s all in the details!) Beltracchi seems to relish the chance to show the tricks of his trade—he went to jail for his crimes, so he has nothing to hide—and the elaborate attention to detail and genuine technical prowess with a paintbrush reveal a man who could have been a legitimate artist if he could find the inspiration.

However, therein lays the film’s true stroke of genius: why don’t some figures in the art world consider Beltracchi an artist? His paintings are undeniably beautiful and they fetch the same exorbitant prices as the works they imitate. Beltracchi, on one level, asks if the value of art comes from the work on the canvas or simply from the name etched onto the corner. Alternatively, the film takes Beltracchi’s game of art-for-profit to ask if the value of art derives from something far more philosophical.

 One intriguing interview with a couple of passionate art collectors who fell victim to Beltracchi’s con shows the inherent extra-textual element that classifies a work as art. It’s the reason behind the work, its meaning, which gives art value. (Although it’s worth noting that the couple takes a noticeable amount of pride in name recognition.) The couple describes how they adored the painting when the husband bought it as a gift for his wife, but then relate how the baseness of the painting strips it of its work. “Now it’s just something to decorate a wall,” they say, noting that a painting that aims not to express or evoke feeling is not “art.”

The curators, auctioneers, experts, critics, and aficionados who chime in throughout the documentary offer a range of ideas to cover the full spectrum of the debate. Some might say that art is in the eye of the beholder, while others call a duck a duck and dismiss the merit of the work over its deviant intent. The all seem to agree, though, that the enormity and meticulousness of Beltracchi’s con game (his wife was also complicit as a seller) is a truly impressive stroke. (And their elaborate backstory to validate the forgeries is a highlight of the film.) However, Birkenstock cuts the perspectives of the talking heads together to reveal the fickleness of the artistic canon. No matter how much one admires or abhors Beltracchi’s work, the film provides a healthy range of proof that art is a business driven by names, dollars, and some very debatable sense.

Rating: ★★★½ (out of ★★★★★)

Beltracchi: The Art of Forgery opens the Reel Artists Film Festival on Thursday, March 26 at TIFF Lightbox. Please note that director Arne Birkenstock will introduce the film and then participate in a conversation with art critic Blake Gopnik on the subject of art forgeries.

It also screens on Friday, March 27 at 9:10pm at TIFF Lightbox.

Please visit canadianart.ca/raff/ for more information.

Stay tuned for more RAFF coverage!