FAKE! Orson Welles Tells Art to F-off

“Talent borrows, genius steals.”

That hallowed phrase among artists, with all its implied images of a cat-suited Andy Warhol abseiling down a skyscraper with a massive ruby in his pocket (don’t drop it Andy!), has many incarnations. It has more incarnations than Buddah, Vishnu and Bob all rolled into one. More incarnations than Bowie. So many of the great and good have voiced the sentiment that it might as well be taken as a given that your favourite creative type has had a bash at personalising it at some point. But what is the nature of stealing here, as opposed to borrowing?

Jaunty, dynamic, cacophonic; bustling with movement and filled to the brim with ridiculous, insane life: more caper than documentary, F for Fake, Orson Welles’ final film, about ‘hanky panky men’ in the Art World is a strange and delightful oddity that was itself partly stolen. Directly, that is, from another film-maker François Reichenbach. It incorporates document, fiction and a shred of biography. It’s been called an essay in a film (a Fessay? An Essilm?). It’s uncompromisingly playful, but nonetheless leaves you questioning it on a serious level.

True to form, it indulges in its fair share of trickery, misdirection and mischief. It delights in its style, which seems to be most every style (including some new ones). You can imagine the sphere of its influence stretching from Wes Anderson to Eurotrash television. The question it asks about fraud, the question at the heart of the film (and mirrored by questions about the film’s own authenticity), is a mind-boggling one: fake or real – what does it matter if you can’t tell the difference?

For all intents and purposes, the film’s subjects are three men and two women: the infamous international art forger Elmyr de Hory, his ‘biographer’ Clifford Irving, Irving’s wife Edith Sommer and the actress Oja Kodar. And Welles himself. All come together on the quiet island of Ibiza in a pill-popping Manumission frenzy in a true-life tale of fraud (even involving Welles favourite Howard Hughs) that’s far stranger than most fiction.

Elmyr De Hory was pretty good at copying famous artists. In fact, for ‘pretty good’ substitute ‘totally impeccable’. That is to say no-one, not collectors, nor experts, on occasion not even the artist themselves, could discern the difference. His forgeries appeared (and appear, apparently) in numerous major art collections – making a mockery of the idea that the so-called authorities know anything much at all and, in turn, pulling the rug out from under the idea of an ‘art market’, that is: a market where art is assigned a monetary value (and hence a value in terms of merit) as though it had intrinsic or inherent value. De Hory, as it transpires, isn’t the only faker in this drama, with all of the above-mentioned players getting in on the act.

Strangely, and by pure coincidence, I’d watched ‘The Banksy film’ Exit Through the Gift Shop for the first time the night before the F for Fake screening. These two films serve as different answers to the same question – or, it might be better to say, two questions that hint at even bigger questions. In opposition to this fake documentary (is it?) about a man who produces fakes as a means of undermining the Art World, Exit Through the Gift Shop is a real documentary (is it?) about a man faking his way into the Art World with fake art, whilst seemingly believing what he’s doing wholeheartedly. There is one crucial difference: De Hory produces forgeries. Thierry Guetta, or Mr Brainwash as he came to be known, produces ‘originals’ that are entirely – mind-fuckingly – derivative (and of course Madonna commissioned Guetta to design her last Greatest Hits album cover).

They are each ‘stealing’ without stealing, borrowing for different reasons – and (strange to say, especially about the idiot-savant Guetta) they’re each indisputably a genius in their own right – De Hory at being someone else, Guetta pretending to be himself, through the lens of other people.

If you’re into Orson Welles, good stories, strange facts, Exit Through the Gift Shop or have even a passing interest in art, I’d highly recommend catching this underrated little gem (oh, Andy!) while it’s on at the BFI.

F for Fake is being screened at the BFI Southbank from 24th August 2012, as well as selected venues across the UK. Contributor Ed Wall can be followed on Twitter @edward1wall.

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