What is it, exactly, that qualifies a piece of art as a masterpiece? Some hold that the artist must create something previously unknown, while others base the work off of credible technique or the emotion behind the piece. But if an artist can recreate the same merit and the same emotions without investing his true self on the canvas, is it still a masterpiece? The documentary “Beltracchi: The Art of Forgery” follows the story of Wolfgang Beltracchi, who managed to surpass these qualifications of a masterpiece — albeit only temporarily.
Beltracchi infuriated the art world by passing forgeries of 20th-century painters as the original masterpieces, permeating them into the hands of art dealers and curators for nearly four decades. He recreated the works of Friesz, Campendonk, Max Ernst and Picasso, and he did so with little challenge. Beltracchi not only recreated missing, known pieces, he also filled in gaps in these artists’ repertoires. Although he meticulously created more than 300 pieces of art, his works were discredited as mere forgery, rather than a testament to his talent and dedication to detail. He has no formal artistic training — nor does he mention how he became an expert in forgery — yet he managed to dupe the most experienced specialists.
There is no room for error in Beltracchi’s occupation, as art specialists are quick to distinguish markers of date and authenticity. Beltracchi worked with utmost precision.
Within the documentary, he scours flea markets to find paintings that can be stripped and refurbished for his new work. By incorporating the faded lines of the secondhand canvas’s original, Beltracchi creates a Marie Vassilieff from an ordinary nude, and the record of the original has disappeared. He even stuffs the crevice of the frame with dust that dates back to 1915 Barcelona after the piece has baked in his homemade oven.
Throughout the documentary, Beltracchi adopts an unparalleled confidence and a certain smugness and levity about the situation. To the dealers who he has disgraced, Beltracchi claims, “there’s nothing (he) couldn’t paint.” By “get(ting) inside the painter’s head,” Beltracchi can even paint pieces that the artists did not produce. He even goes so far as to counter the critics and dealers who disqualify him as a true artist, claiming that his work is actually better than the original, as he adds to the pieces. He has the talent to pass a fake as an original and can add to the dimensions of it as well.
But the view of dealers and critics alike align with that of James Roundell of the Society of London Art Dealers. He said Beltracchi “hasn’t really brought in anything new,” focusing on the idea that art must be innovative in order to be deemed a masterpiece. He continued with “Malevich made the first black square. Now we could all paint the black square, but Malevich was the first one to do it. That was the key moment in the development of abstract art. So people who come afterwards do not have the same artistic worth or value — much less somebody who decides to fake a Malevich.”
The art collectors, Mr. and Mrs. Ommeslaghe, continue with this sentiment regarding innovation and art. Beltracchi’s Campendonk hung among works by Renoir, Warhol and Matisse in their show room. Although the Campendonk was the wife’s favorite piece, when she realized it was a forgery, she no longer considered it a work of art but rather “a decorative object.” It is the same painting, stylistically — but it does not originate from the inventor of the style. Therefore, Mrs. Ommeslaghe no longer considers it a masterpiece.
Beltracchi was sentenced to six years in prison in 2011. His sanctions, however, are fairly lenient, considering that he can work in his studio with his wife during the day and only returns to his cell for the night. Beltracchi now works to create his own style, though he wonders how the world will accept his original pieces.
By including films and interviews of the forger at work in his studio, the documentary successfully captures Beltracchi’s ability to replicate the works of some of the most renowned painters of the 20th century. Director and writer Arne Birkenstock highlights the discrepancy of what makes art by juxtaposing the frustrated responses of disgraced critics and Beltracchi’s unbothered temperament.