F For Fake
But is it ART?
In his free-form documentary F for Fake, Orson Welles, through interview, speculation and illusion, states that art itself can in no circumstance be purely “genuine” in the traditional sense, and that truth, by nature, is relative, and, in many instances, irrelevant. The art world, and art itself, as Orson Welles presents it, is by no means genuine. In the modern age, the quality of art, as driven by the art market, depends not on aesthetics and beauty, but the recognition of the artist and the prestige of the work. In short, the value of a piece determines its quality. So-called “experts” in the field of art determine whether or not a piece is genuine, and with the “wave of a hand,” a foolish expert can price a forgery well above its “correct” worth. Such circumstances have brought about the existence of men such as Elmyr de Hory, the art forger nestled away on the sleepy island of Ibiza. He makes his living imitating and plagiarizing works of others, and infiltrates the art market with his own forgeries. Though validated by the “experts” controlling the museums and art markets, several forgeries crafted by Elmyr find their way into prestigious collections and public art galleries. The presence of such “fakes”, as Welles likes to describe them, tarnishes the original works present elsewhere. Such a thought does not bother Elmyr, who smugly replies, “I don’t feel bad for Modigliani, I feel good for me.” Why shouldn’t he feel good for himself? His acts of defiance essentially deface the entire concept of an “expert” of art, an art market, and the simple act of putting a price on a painting. Elmyr and his colleagues quietly hijack the art world every time they approach the canvas. The silent, subtle prank undermines the purpose of trading priceless masterpieces. However, Welles never fully condemns Elmyr or his actions. Even de Hory’s own biographer, Clifford Irving, describes the man he tries to expose a “folk hero.” Elmyr justifies his actions, claiming, “If you hang my paintings in a museum, or a collection, and if they hang long enough, they become real.” When dealing with a forger, the existence of truth is irrelevant. Is a forgery not a painting? To claim that the “fakes” adorning the walls of several prestigious and respected galleries across the nation are somehow less artistic than the originals runs parallel to accusing a film adaptation of Hamlet less meaningful because it was not directed by Shakespeare. In one of several of Welles’ anecdotes, he claims that Picasso denied painting one of his originals. When contradicted, his response was: “I can paint false Picassos as well as anybody.” Such a statement implies that truth applies to art as little as it does to forgeries; art is in and of itself a truth. Welles himself states, “the pompous word for [truth] is art.” Art is a fabrication or exaggeration of sorts, to which truth is incompatible. With the presence of forgeries in significant galleries and a lack of indisputable authority in the realm of “experts,” art can in no way, remain genuine in the modern world.Forgers, as demonstrated in the film, do not emerge out of desire to plagiarize, but instead do so as an element of survival. Elmyr describes his youth as plagued with trouble and meager living; painting no longer was passion, but a means of finding his next meal. Forgery, though with the appearance of extravagance, simply provided the painter with an easy escape from absolute poverty. Even Irving, who tries time and again to reveal to the world Elmyr’s deception, created the fake biography of legendary tycoon and hermit Howard Hughes because his “fiction didn’t sell.” His hunger for acknowledgment and acceptance in the literary community drove him to create a hoax unparalleled by any “faker” known until that point. Finally, Mr. Orson Welles himself did not turn to show business with the aspirations of becoming a star, but instead scammed his way onto a Dublin stage in search of a meal. His first big break consisted of an elaborate fabrication. Through the use of radio, Mr. Welles lead his country to believe that Hell found its way onto American soil. The fortune of a man built itself up on a lie; without the ability to scam and deceive Orson Welles, not unbeknownst to himself, would not have a career without his ability to lie. The motivation behind the demonstrated creativity strips the glamour from art. These admired crafts prove to be driven by survivalist necessities as opposed to artistic expressions, thus, in one sense, undermining the intention and meaning of the final product.The most deceiving and mischievous “faker” in the entire film is without a doubt Welles. Through tongue-in-cheek presentations of various illusions and tricks, he deceives the audience or characters he interacts with throughout the ninety minutes he is on screen. He opens the film with the words “For my next experiment”, suggesting to the audience that this entire production is no more than a manipulation of the facts and the observer’s perception. He presents himself as a magician, but, through misleading information and editing styles, he is, in reality, closer to the likes of a con artist. There is no denying, however, that his deceit is, in fact, art. The self-proclaimed “charlatan” opens with innocent magic tricks, but soon imposes his own environmentupon the train stations he stands in. The artificial white wall, though in the midst of a train station covered in shroud, appears to be a piece of an empty room; the shadowy figure dressed in black addresses the audience, promising a whole hour of truth, soon finds himself, by means of post-production editing, in space as ambiguous as possible. His surroundings emanate discord, with the background gradually illuminating, and a series of slanted and asymmetrical colored windows appearing behind him. Welles creates atmosphere plagued with uncertainty. The man mocks the viewer from behind the screen with the illusion. In several instances, the narrator appears in an editing studio, which includes stacks of reels behind his desk, and sprawls of film in front of him. He suggests that the entire project has been spliced together with the dominating figure huddled over the frames. The scenes are overtly artificial; the two men are obviously in different locations at different times. Welles himself dominates and manipulates the dialogue. In a vast instance of shots, the visual images stand still while the audio continues to play, further adding to the sense of false situations and circumstances, and also suggesting that Welles sees his subjects as objects or tools. It appears he photographs those on screen, thereby transforming them into pieces of art. He manipulates the viewer more than any man on screen. The “hour of truth” is, in fact, not an hour, considering at the end of the film, the seventeen minutes Welles has been “lying [his] head off,” do not compensate for the time not covered by the full hour of truth. With approximately six minutes of footage unclaimed as true or false, one must question the original confessions and promises. Welles nullifies his oath, perhaps intentionally, with unfulfilled vows. As a viewer, one cannot assume the content of the film holds truth. In his final illusion, the master magician, by simply waving his hands, manages to lift a “deceased” old man and make him disappear. Of course, this elderly figure breathes heavily as Welles slips the sheet over his body. In addition, he gives Welles the slightest smile and wink before the sheet covers his face. Often priding himself in his trickery, Welles deceives throughout the film, regardless of his pledges. Though the purpose of F for Fake is to expose and analyze “fakers” of all degrees, the film rarely scolds the imposters it examines, but instead admires the beauty of modesty. While referring to Chartres, the famed French cathedral, Welles recites a somber, reluctant narration regarding the cruelty of time and art in its most beautiful form: anonymous. The cathedral, slowly fading through the montage sequence, represents the ideal work of art, “without a signature” and serving as “a celebration to God’s glory and the dignity of man.” This work of art chooses not to praise itself, and cares not for its value or prestige, and it is this monument alone, “which we choose, when all our cities are dust, to stand intact.” The narration admits the effect of time is inevitable, and that man will, with time fall. But, Chartres insists upon opposite attitude. Welles summarizes this mentality by saying “our songs will all be silenced. But what of it? Go on singing.” The images of the cathedral, alone in the distance, combined with Welles’ monologue, provide hope for the waning man. Perhaps the most pivotal element of the film is introduced by “A bit of verse by Kipling.” Welles and his idealistic mentality would hope that, in relationship to the art world, “maybe a man’s name doesn’t matter all that much.” The bitter reality, though often absent from the film, presents itself in the form of a devil. With the words “It’s pretty, but is it art?” the art world negates any optimistic tendencies on the narrator’s behalf. Name is everything. Art dealers, when confronted with a painting ask who painted it, what it is worth, and how much selling it will net. The quality expresses itself in the signature at the bottom of the painting. The unforgiving truth is that profit drives the museums, the art dealers, the market, and each of these factors compose and direct the course on the artist. Art will never be genuine; “pretty” doesn’t make art. The experts make the art. The forgers make fools of the experts. Does this leave the forgers in charge of the art world? The world itself is run by fakes. Art can never be fully appreciated without the price tag set in place by “experts” undermined by forgers. Art, according to Welles, cannot be pure so long as a signature adorns the corner.In his F for Fake, Orson Welles, in search of all things false determines that the art world, governed by “experts” and vandalized by forgers, will never be genuine, and that his art is no exception.