“Is it art? Well, how is it valued? The value depends upon opinion, opinion depends on the experts, a faker like Elmyr makes fools of the experts, so who’s the expert? Who’s the faker?” Orson Welles in F for Fake.
F for Fake* is Orson Welles’ experimental 1974 documentary “about trickery and fraud, about lies… and any story is almost certainly some kind of lie.” It focuses on three fakers with deep conceptual connections, as seen through the lens of Welles’ own admitted penchant for telling self-aggrandizing lies in real life. Of course he can’t avoid mentioning in particular the huge trouble he got into as a result of drawing reality into his fiction (or vice versa) with Citizen Kane and his notorious War of the Worlds radio broadcast. “I didn’t go to jail,” he says sardonically, “I went to Hollywood!”
This is by way of contrast with one of the film’s other subjects, the art forger Elmyr de Hory, who did go to jail several times for his efforts. He was wanted by Interpol and various other law enforcement agencies for most of his life. It’s hard not to suggest that Interpol perhaps needed to sort out their priorities and do something more important instead of hounding an elderly man who painted unauthorised copies of expensive paintings and apparently did no harm to anybody who wasn’t a greedy, ignorant fool, especially if we also bear in mind that de Hory was driven to suicide two years after this film was released because he was about to be extradited to France (and probably given a long prison sentence) for some of his “art crimes”.
“I should confess to what? Committing masterpieces?” Elmyr de Hory.
I only caught up with this film very recently; I’d heard of it but never had the opportunity to see it. Now that I have seen the film, it’s also particularly fascinating to me because in the past few years I’ve started working in a style and an intellectual framework that very closely resembles F for Fake, despite never having seen it. It’s almost uncanny: my own Stendhal Syndrome and Magickal Realism, and my films and performances on the subject of the Edwardian hoaxer Horace de Vere Cole, for example, all in their own ways seem like homages to the techniques of F for Fake, although they were/are entirely unknowing ones. This artistic symmetry goes right down to the fascination with the deceit of art, the ways we fool and lie to ourselves, and even the way Welles speaks to the camera here: apparently conversational but in fact deeply structured, scripted and manipulative.
Oh well, if you’re going to be possessed by the spirits of dead film makers I suppose you might as well be possessed by the best. It’s nice to be vindicated, although also slightly troubling to be vindicated by somebody like Welles who is now almost as famous for being constantly thwarted in his ambitions and his serial failure to reach his own full potential as he is for his truly brilliant successes. More than slightly troubling, actually.
I don’t know if I’m either doomed or brilliant, but this film certainly is the latter. In fact its shotgun approach to narrative, its visual playfulness and its exploitation of the edit’s power anticipates a lot of creative tactics that didn’t hit the mainstream until the globalised MTV era of the mid-Eighties to mid-Nineties, and didn’t come to full fruition until our current phase of YouTube and mashup culture.
“It should not even exist that one person makes a decision about what’s good and what’s bad.” Elmyr de Hory.
Elmyr de Hory was a painter who experienced no success whatsoever in his attempts to get his own work seen. Like many artists (including some of the best ones) he was boundlessly arrogant and relentlessly self-mythologising, but in his case to no avail. He found his true calling in a talent for painting works by other artists: Matisse, Picasso and Modigliani are mentioned, among others. “A man of talent taking the mickey out of those who had rejected him, translating disappointment into a gigantic joke,” says Welles. “If the lawyers would just let us we could name you one highly respected museum which boasts of an important collection of Post Impressionists- every single one of which was painted by Elmyr.”
For Welles and the cameras de Hory flawlessly draws a Matisse “from 1936” and then blithely throws it on the fire, knowing he can make another whenever he wants to. Later he paints Welles in his own style, but signs it with a perfect, fluid simulacrum of Welles’ handwriting.
F… also reveals that an unnamed but prominent art dealer owned de Hory’s supposedly “luxurious” house on Ibiza, presumably as a way of essentially farming him and getting privileged access to his fakes. Another participant, a former gallerist himself, confirms that (at least circa 1965-1975) many blind eyes were turned to art works of dubious provenance or outright fakes if there was any conceivable way somebody could get away with selling them.
“The important distinction to make when you’re talking about the genuine quality of a painting is not so much whether it’s a real painting or a fake. It’s whether it’s a good fake or a bad fake… If you didn’t have an art market then fakers couldn’t exist.” Clifford Irving.
“If you hang these paintings [i.e. his fakes] long enough in a museum they become real.” Elmyr de Hory.
Things get complicated with the introduction of de Hory’s biographer Clifford Irving. During the making of the film Irving became entangled in another briar patch of fakery and deceit, this time a home grown one. His biography- ostensibly based on interviews with Howard Hughes- turns out to be completely fabricated. This sends Welles, F for Fake and its viewers down a spiralling, infinite rabbit hole of lies within lies. At the very least Irving’s hoax calls into question the veracity of his de Hory biography, and the nature of the collaboration between these two accomplished and brazen fabulists. Irving’s wife appears fleetingly too, first defending de Hory against accusations that he is an art forger, then changing her story entirely to assert that if he did it then she wishes there were more like him. She was also a failed artist and an impostor, involved in fraud against Swiss banks and masquerading as an heiress of the Hughes clan.
Irving’s faked Howard Hughes biography obviously catches Welles’ magpie eye because Welles claims here that Hughes was the first and main model for Charles Foster Kane; not (or not completely) William Randolph Hearst as is popularly reported, although Welles also admits to cribbing some details from Hearst later in the development process for Citizen Kane. Hearst certainly took Kane as a vicious dig aimed in his direction and never forgave Welles for it; how interesting that a monster should recognise himself so completely even when the portrait’s not meant to be him.
This reminds me very much of a reaction to my book, from which this blog derives. There I mention (without naming) a well-known person who has worked in several senior roles at UK galleries including one very large institution from which he was forced to resign, under a cloud of allegations regarding particularly unpleasant sexual improprieties of various types, both inside and out of his workplace. I’ve had the misfortune to see directly, with my own eyes, the way this pathetic tiny-dicked creep speaks to and treats women in public and this was quite appalling enough. I have no problem with believing worse reports of his behaviour. I avoided naming him then (and now) because some of the accusations might expose him to criminal prosecution if his victims chose to press charges against him. Obviously I would not want to [a] add to their distress or [b] compromise his trial, if he ever had one.
Many people in the British art world will immediately know exactly who I’m alluding to. What’s really intriguing, though, is that somebody else entirely also reacted furiously to reading that section because he seems to think I was talking about him. He basically outed himself as an belligerent, unrepentant sexual offender who hasn’t been caught and punished yet. Indeed, like his comrade in sexual harassment and assault he just keeps on failing upwards, or at least sideways. And therein lies the true value of mockery: just a little nudge and the whole thing becomes self-perpetuating because people you weren’t even aiming at (but know in their own hearts that they’re also baddies) start making themselves look stupid by throwing themselves onto your barbs.
Welles is also tickled by the fact that by the early Seventies Hughes was mainly famous for being a crazy recluse who spoke to nobody, ever. This makes Irving contacting Hearst for a lengthy interview simultaneously unlikely to the point of being inconceivable, a thing that many people wished to be true, and potentially lucrative for whoever could achieve such a thing: at the intersection of these three territories lies the most fertile soil for the liar, the hoaxer, the prankster.
“I began at the top, and I’ve been working my way down ever since.” Orson Welles.**
In its final third the film even pays out on what seems at first a gratuitous opportunity for Welles to show off his Mrs, the undeniably foxy Oja Kodar. And frankly even if it didn’t pay off and he was just bragging, I say let him. I think I’d boast too if I’d had Rita Hayworth on my arm (and elsewhere) as a young man, and I could still attract comparable brainy stunners like her when I was in the porky, washed up, high functioning alcoholic twilight of my middle agedness. The set up is near the beginning of the film, when Kodar- in full on swinging dolly bird getup- literally stops traffic as drooling men are unknowingly filmed losing their critical faculties and most of their self control because she’s wearing a short dress.
The payoff is where Welles and Kodar tell a story about how she deployed the same blatant feminine wiles to seduce and scam Picasso out of twenty-two valuable paintings. Here, of course, the pair also gleefully utilise and then undermine the notion that she’s a passive recipient of anyone’s gaze: she is in fact an active exploiter of the well-documented heterosexual male weakness for anything reasonably attractive in a skirt. This is where F for Fake is revealed to be a complex trick in its own right, constructed in true Wellesian style, like a jigsaw puzzle you’re compelled to disassemble and rebuild properly the very moment you start to see what the picture actually is.
Even from his youth, Welles understood in a profound and instinctive way the unspoken contract between artist and audience, the tacit acceptance of certain conceits and lies, the fact that there are unspoken but firm rules for the transaction. Many artists and film makers in the present day don’t even seem to be aware that there is or that there can be a contract between them and their audiences. You can lie all you want, but your story has to hold water because if it doesn’t then you’ve failed in your job of taking people out of their normal lives, you’ve broken the contract. In F for Fake, Welles even provides a fairly literal interpretation of this contract, but his deliberate slight of hand may conceal it from you until he’s ready to spring it upon you again. He was a serial perpetrator of masterpieces.
“As for the key, it was not symbolic of anything- this isn’t that kind of movie.” Orson Welles.
* F for Fake is available on DVD or to stream from online video services like Netflix. You may well be able to find parts of it on YouTube, but I haven’t looked.
** He wasn’t kidding. How about this for an ignominious end to a great man’s career? Trying to bring the heavy artillery of his intellect and integrity to bear on a frozen pea: “In the depths of your ignorance, what is it you want?”
Or even worse, “MMWAHAAAAAH! The… … … Frr…ench shhhampagne…”