We might forgive the casual observer’s relaxed views of art forgers. Perhaps because many of us, on some level, love an outlaw. Tales of art forgers have been popular: Clifford Irving’s Fake! (1969) examined the life of notorious art faker Elmyr de Höry. Orson Welles’ documentary examination of creation and storytelling F for Fake (1973) still cuts to the heart of what it means to make art. Done well, portrayals of art forgery force us to question the aesthetic experience. Yet many fail to acknowledge the underlying wrongdoing. Putting aside their colorful stories and backgrounds, all art counterfeiters are creating an elaborate lie. These individuals defraud our collective cultural heritage by distorting the body of work that artists have created. Prof. John Henry Merryman has called art counterfeiters “cultural vandals”. Those who watch the new documentary, Art and Craft, will first want to mark its subject as a vandal, but by the end may feel differently about him.
The documentary offers a terrific examination of the complicated predicament Landis gifted to at least 46 museums in 20 States. And does so by allowing the museum staff and Landis himself to tell us how he was able to fool so many for so long.
Landis would forge works with skill, such skill that he was able to use surprisingly inexpensive materials. But rather than sell his works, he would pose as a donor and give away his forged work. Most recently he impersonated a Jesuit priest. In the past he would pretend to come from old money. He would arrive at mostly small to mid-size art museums in his deceased mother’s cadillac and give his forged creations away. The documentary film, directed by Sam Cullman and Jennifer Grausman, with Mark Becker co-directing, gives us a first-hand view of how Landis creates forgeries and shows him giving them away. Viewers will come away with different impressions of the man. Landis battles anxiety, schizophrenia, and other mental illnesses. In scenes where he describes his day-to-day well-being to doctors and caregivers, he’s asked how he stays busy, how he engages with the world.
Landis forges with simple materials: instant coffee, cheap frames, plywood, photocopies, some paint and most of all clever technique. His materials are purchased from chain hobby and home improvement stores. The man who finally caught Landis was Mat Leininger, a former Registrar at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art The filmmakers hint at but don’t quite dive in to the tricky question of whether Leinenger’s pursuit of Landis and his forgeries made his employers at the Cincinnati Art Museum uncomfortable, or if there were other reasons for his dismissal. But for much of the film Leininger offer’s Prof. Merryman’s position, basically pointing out Landis’s wrongdoing, and expressing frustration at how difficult it can be to convince some museum staff that they have been fooled. Special praise should go to those curators who were willing to be filmed on camera after having been fooled.