Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage of the 2015 Reel Artists Film Festival. For more information visit canadianart.ca/raff.
Beltracchi: The Art of Forgery
Wolfgang Beltracchi lived a life of lavish parties and exquisite art, gorgeous villas and expensive vacations, and it was all paid for with forgeries. For decades, Beltracchi had been scamming the art world out of millions of dollars by faking the works of masters of early 20th century art. This highly profitable scam came to an end in 2010 when Beltracchi, his wife and two associates were arrested for fraud, and he subsequently confessed. Beltracchi: The Art of Forgery (2014) follows Wolfgang and his wife Helene after their sentencing, as the pair reminisce on their criminal career and forge a few paintings for the cameras.
If you’re looking for a balanced account of the scandal, however, you won’t find it here. Directed by Arne Birkenstock, the son of Beltracchi’s lawyer who has, in the words of a 2012 Vanity Fair profile, been working “to turn [his]notoriety into a marketable commodity,” The Art of Forgery is almost entirely concerned with rehabilitating Beltracchi’s image. Not that it needs that much rehabilitation in his own country: he is frequently considered a kind of populist hero, a Regular Joe taking on the overstuffed art world elite. Beltracchi himself certainly believes this, and The Art of Forgery seems to concur.
The scenes of Beltracchi creating his forgeries offer up nothing new by way of technique — prior documentaries, television specials and even the Jonathan Gash Lovejoy books have gone into it all before — but the film seems more concerned with legitimizing his artistic ability than anything else. A couple of zippy montages of Polaroids from his early “hippie” days and later life with his family give him an almost harmless, sitcom-star air. But even though it tries, the film cannot completely conceal Beltracchi’s arrogance, anti-intellectualism and outright jealousy, or his desperation to sell his most recent paintings… all signed with his own name, of course, at least now that the authorities are watching. Viewers may be left wondering if The Art of Forgery is documentary or a commercial.
Since 1953, Canadian psychiatrist and politician Janusz Dukszta has commissioned over 100 sculptures, murals and portraits of himself. His fabulously appointed (if over-crowded) apartment holds most of these artworks, including a series of photographs of himself standing before his bookshelves; those photos, in turn, have been mounted and placed in front of those very same shelves. In Patron Saint, which has its world premiere on March 28 at the Reel Artists Film Festival, Dukzsta is interviewed next to these photos, creating a delightfully silly pastiche of the Droste effect, and proof that neither Dukzsta nor the filmmakers take him too seriously.
Often, the artists he commissions don’t take him that seriously, either. References to Dukzsta’s physical similarity to Lenin are made in several artworks that depict him, and most of the artists featured in Patron Saint have a few chuckles at their patron’s expense. But Dukzsta chuckles at himself, too, and even if he doesn’t fully understand why he’s commissioned all these artworks, he has several amusing and insightful theories.
Director Michael Kainer does a terrific job of easing you into the colorful Canadian art scene by opening at a bal masqué held in Dukszta’s honor on the occasion of “Portrait of a Patron,” a collection of his portraits on display at the University of Toronto Art Centre. A psychiatrist and colleague is interviewed at the ball discussing Dukszta’s eccentricity, oblivious to the fact that he’s telling us all this through a fabulous scarlet mask covered in beads and dyed feathers. As the film continues, there are more interviews, more feathered masks, more delightful characters, and more paintings of Dukszta as Christ and Batman, all of which seems completely logical, even necessary, by the finale. And throughout, Janusz Dukszta maintains an elegant and cultivated distance, impeccable — and mask-less — in his formal dinner dress.
Cartoonists: Foot Soldiers of Democracy
The lives and careers of 12 political cartoonists from around the world are profiled in Stephanie Valloatto’s Cartoonists: Foot Soldiers of Democracy, her first feature-length film. With interviews, archival clips, cartoons and animation, Cartoonists takes a broad look at the sociopolitical functions of political cartoonists, their struggle against censorship, and their effect on the public during times of political upheaval. With the massacre at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical magazine, in January of this year, Cartoonists has become more relevant than ever.
In its attempt to tackle such a complicated topic in one fell swoop, however, Cartoonists risks being too general to be of much import. So often, just as a cartoonist such as Pi San or Willis From Tunis really gets into the topic of their work and its reception, the film cuts away to another cartoonist in another part of the world. It’s jarring and frustrating because Cartoonists rarely goes back to delve deeper; with 12 artists to profile, it doesn’t have the time.
There is also a strange lack of truly offensive cartoons to be seen in the film. What’s shown is largely what certain governments or religions find offensive, and it’s fascinating stuff, but Cartoonists so deliberately side-steps common racist, homophobic and sexist depictions in these cartoons that the absence of discussion becomes notable. This is especially true in their obvious avoidance of the “Face of Muhammed” cartoons printed in a Danish newspaper in 2005 and lack of mention of the 2011 Charlie Hebdo attacks.
Cartoonists is obviously afraid to tackle the more difficult subjects, and the avoidance is off-putting. Similarly, there is far too much filler; Mikhail Zlatkovsky spends more time dancing around in his backyard with neighbors than talking about his career, and Michel Kichka gives an interview where it’s clear he’s practiced everything he’s going to say, at length, and probably in front of a mirror. Cartoonists manages to take an important topic full of history and nuance and turn it into a dull and overly broad survey that will leave viewers wanting much more.