F for Fake

In “F for Fake,” Orson Welles invites us to consider the interplay between fakery and reality in the world – how can we “know” something? What part of our knowledge is given to us by “experts” whose opinions we have adopted and whose assertions we now believe to be unassailable fact? And how can we be sure that those experts are neither mistaken nor lying to us?

On the other side of the coin (which may change into a key with a wave of the magician’s hand), how can we be sure we know something ourselves? Are our eyes always reliable? How can we ensure that we aren’t being hoodwinked? And do we in fact want to know the truth, or is belief in the lie sometimes more appealing?

The story of Elmyr de Hory and Clifford Irving is a fascinating one, and the deep twist in it (that the biographer who exposed the fake turns out to be a fake himself) is delicious to both Welles and the audience. And it certainly provides a lot of authentic commentary on issues of truth that were current then (Watergate and Vietnam spring immediately to mind) and chillingly current now (the steady diet of “alternative facts” that the Trump administration seems intent on feeding us). One of Welles’ most valuable insights is that art forgery only becomes a viable career when there exists an art market willing to pay for it and not ask too many questions. These days, of course, we have a truth market operating on much the same principle, drenched now, as then, in pleasure and incuriosity.

Yet I couldn’t help feeling that the actual heart of the piece were the bits of truth that Welles seemed determined to sweep away or push to the side, perhaps because they complicated his ripping yarn and his fashionably cynical notion that surface has finally and permanently trumped substance. Irving makes glancing reference to de Hory being chased from town to town, one step ahead of the law, while simultaneously telling the story of his Modiglianis, van Dongens and Picassos hanging in the world’s most important museums. He never mentions that this flight was kicked off by a diligent and unremembered curator who noticed that drawings purportedly created by three different artists appeared to have been made by the same hand.

And the enigma of de Hory itself is grounded in several awful realities, among them the Holocaust, persecution for his sexuality and a number of suicide attempts, the last of which was successful. Irving poses the question of why de Hory never “made it” as an artist in his own right, and posits that it might have been because he had nothing original to say. Yet there is a poignant authenticity to the existence he created in the margins available to him that remains even after his many forgeries have been exposed.

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