What do Pablo Picasso, Marie Laurencin, Hans Holbein, Dr. Seuss, Milton Avery, Paul Signac, and Charles Schulz all have in common? Well, they're artists, of one sort or another. They've also had works copied and passed off as originals by Mark Landis.
The skill of Landis's forgeries sets them apart. "They look so good, so real. The guy is a skilled artist," as one museum official says in "Art and Craft." More than 40 have acquired Landis's work — not knowing the work was by Landis. And the acquisitions were gifts, not purchases. Here's what truly sets apart Landis: He doesn't sell his forgeries to museums, he donates them. Where other forgers see themselves as artists, albeit of an unusual sort, Landis sees himself as a philanthropist, albeit of an even more unusual sort.
So Sam Cullman, Jennifer Grausman, and Mark Becker, the directors of "Art and Craft," have themselves an enticing subject in Landis's activities. They do not have an enticing subject in Landis himself.
This is a big month for films about art forgers. Later in October the Criterion Collection brings to Blu-ray "F for Fake," Orson Welles's dazzlingly prestidigitatory documentary about the forger Elmyr de Hory. Released in 1973, it was the last film Welles completed.
De Hory was a born performer. Landis is anything but. Almost painfully thin, he walks with a stoop and looks like a wispy version of Dwight D. Eisenhower. He has a Warhol affectlessness, minus any of Andy's slyness. Then again, maybe not. We hear him tell an art student, "Arts and crafts is just the greatest thing; and watch TV while you do it, too."
The documentary begins with Landis entering a Hobby Lobby to get materials. He later praises the selection of supplies at Walmart and Lowe's. The man is nothing if not practical — craftsmanlike — in going about his business. How do you "age" a painting? "The back is easy," Landis confides. "You just pour coffee on it."
We see him call a museum to arrange a donation and then present it in person. (Didn't the museum officials find it odd that a cameraman was accompanying Landis?) He sometimes makes donations pretending to be a Jesuit. We see him insert a piece of white cardboard to the front of his buttoned shirt collar and, voila, he's ordained. "The Church could use a guy like me," Landis says. "I'd be a good priest."
Various art-world people are interviewed: duped museum directors, a former FBI agent who specializes in art crime, curators. The primary figure is a former museum registrar, Matt Leininger. Beefy and assertive, he's anti-matter to Landis's matter. He's also an Inspector Javert, having spent four increasingly obsessive years in pursuit of Landis. "He messed with the wrong registrar," Leininger says, "that's what he did."
Leininger and Landis finally meet, at an exhibition of the forger's work. It provides a nice resolution. Tellingly, we see Landis use his scarf to cover the door handle as he enters the museum. Is he afraid of picking up germs — or leaving fingerprints?
Contact of any sort would appear to disturb him. Landis comes across as a bruise waiting to happen. He had a nervous breakdown when he was 17 (now 59, he looks closer to 80) and spent more than a year at the Menninger Clinic. At one point, the filmmakers have him read aloud his psychological evaluation. Diagnosed with schizophrenia, he now lives in Laurel, Miss.
It isn't just Landis's proximity to New Orleans that suggests a male Blanche Dubois. The act of watching him, no less than the act of his being filmed, feels like exploitation. Obviously, Landis was a willing participant in the filming. No less obviously, he likes being the center of attention. The filmmakers surely meant him no ill. They just wanted to tell a good story. "Art and Craft" certainly is that. But intention ends where art begins. It's also where forgery begins — and ends, too.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.