I recently went to the Museum of Fine Arts again, for the first time since the covid burst onto our shores. The place is much the same but somewhat different, which I guess is sorta the pandemic world now.
I grew up going to museums and I have always liked them. Doing photography the way I do, I’m always looking for new ideas for composition and color story. There’s also something great about just being around so much beauty, like we find in a place like the Museum of Fine Arts.
Walking through the museum though I had kinda a funny thought. What if I was looking at a forgery? What if some of these paintings weren’t actually painted by the old master it said they had been painted by? I wonder why I had this thought.
Years ago, I happened upon a piece on 60 Minutes about a man named Wolfgang Beltracchi. As Bob Simon says in the piece, the name isn’t familiar. Beltracchi??? Well, you get the meet the man in the piece and he is, well, interesting. And kinda an evil genius, if you really want to get precise about it. On the screen, you see this sorta aging hippie with some pretty long hair giving the funniest interview you have ever heard with what is in essence a criminal. Now you see Beltracchi was an art forger. Well, I guess more of an artist inspired by other artists? I’m not sure. But he sure had a lot of fun doing what he did.
What Beltracchi did was to look for historically accurate materials to make paintings out of, like canvases and paints. Then he figured out what great painters would paint if they had the time and had felt like it. Oh and he made up a story with his wife that the paintings belonged to her grandfather and that he hid them during World War II from the Nazis. I mean genius.
I mean you can look at this as a conventional sort of crime story, were it not for Beltracchi’s hilarious demeanor throughout the whole thing. He could not care less about what the art experts and the museums thought of him, before he was caught. More on that later. Yeah, my paintings are in all those museums. Ya ya. And then he just laughs slyly to himself. The best scene, my favorite scene though is with his wife, Helene, when the interviewer says — you were really the Bonnie and Clyde of the art world. Beltracchi responds by saying — oh yes, Bonnie and Clyde but without weapons, only with pencils. You can tell at that moment, you can really tell Beltracchi is extremely impressed with himself being able to pull this one over on the stuffy art world. It seems that it’s Beltracchi’s world and we’re just living in it.
One day though, Beltracchi was tripped up by a pigment in one of his paints. It seems the titanium white in one of his paintings wasn’t made when the actual artist would have painted and Beltracchi was caught. He was thrown in prison and lost all of his money. But the funniest part of all of it is that he doesn’t seem sorry or to care about what he did. Yeah, he’s a criminal but you have to love him for this.
Wandering through the Museum of Fine Arts, I really thought — these are beautiful works of art, but am I maybe looking at a real life Beltracchi? Those Dutch masters so precise in all of their details, the ruffled collars so precisely drawn and filled in, but maybe those were forgeries. Was I there looking at a Beltracchi or was I just looking for Beltracchi? I guess only that evil genius really knows for sure.
Some of the beauties I saw at the Museum of Fine Arts: