The Forger

Yesterday, I read this story in the New York Times: “Elusive Forger, Giving but Never Stealing.”

It’s about an art forger named Mark Landis, who paints pictures in various styles and then donates them to museums.

He’s a con artist of sorts, except that the con is to give the museum something rather than to take something away. He assumes various identities: a priest, a philanthropist. He goes to the museum, offers to donate a picture he has painted. He often imitates painters that are less well known, but has painted a Daumier, a Watteau, a Picasso. (How would you forge a Picasso? Surely all the Picassos are known. Would he really dare approach a museum with a newly discovered Picasso? Imagine the publicity!)

What interested me about this article was the man himself. Who is Landis? What motivates him to do what he does? I would imagine that most forgers are motivated by money, but that doesn’t seem to be his motivation at all. He’s not selling the paintings. Does he find satisfaction in the con itself? Surely there are better and easier cons that would give him as much satisfaction. No, he sits in a studio painting, creating pictures good enough to fool a museum curator. And then he attempts to give them to the museums. Is it a pleasure having imitated an artist so well that he can fool people into thinking the painting is an original? That must be part of it. A sort of pleasure in the craft, and in having put one over on both the experts and the museum visitors.

But I really don’t know. If I were writing about a man like Landis, I would have to create a story for him, one that provides him with motivations for doing what he does. They would be motivations I don’t have myself, because I’m a writer, not a forger. I’m the real thing. I can’t imagine trying to pass my work off as someone else’s.  But in creating him as a character, I would have to understand his motivations – to see the world as he does.

When I read a story like this one, I’m always fascinated. By a man who forges paintings and donates them to museums, by a writing prodigy who disappears before her thirtieth birthday, even by a woman who writes letters to imprisoned serial killers. (All of these stories are true, and the last one is particularly disturbing and dark, but because I am a writer, they all catch my interest. I think, who was this person? What motivations did he or she have? And how would I write a character like this?)

Writers aren’t always interested in people. But I think that’s the sort of writer I am. And I’m particularly interested in people who are odd or eccentric. I suppose that’s because I feel a certain affinity. After all, what I do is odd and eccentric as well. I put words on paper and they create worlds, and characters to inhabit those worlds. I make things up (not exactly for a living, but for at least five cents a word).

It’s not fair to Mark Landis, what I’m doing here – turning him into an object of speculation, and ultimately perhaps into a literary character. But what we do as writers isn’t fair, is it? We take our experiences, the people we’ve known or people we’ve simply glimpsed on a bus, and we turn them all into material for our writing. Perhaps in a way the art of the forger is kinder, more generous. He only imitates art. We capture life.

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6 Responses to The Forger

  1. Oh, I understand Landis completely! I once wrote a pseudoepigraphic lost part of the Bible and have always been delighted (though also discomfited) when I get email from people who took it at face value…

  2. Is what Landis does any different from what writers do? He imitates art and tries to pass it off as the real thing? Writers imitate life and try to pass it off as the real thing, at least for the purposes of immersion in the story. I think the main difference is that he is brazen about his inspiration, and writers tend to be a bit more coy about what comes from where.

  3. Cambias says:

    I can think of three reasons to do this.

    1) Vulgar Commerce — he’s doing this to attract attention so he can sell other artworks (maybe even “original forgeries”) and make money.

    2) Protest — he may be trying to send a message about the way museum curators and art collectors are more interested in the signature at the bottom than the work itself.

    3) SHEER AWESOMENESS!

  4. Ben, I’m going to set aside time to read that! 🙂

    Jeremiah, I do think they’re different in this way: he’s imitating someone else’s style, while a writer will be trying to find his or her own style. Of course writers do end up imitating styles, but they’re striving for originality. He’s not. He’s not trying to share his own particular vision of the world, but has adopted someone else’s vision. When I write, I’m trying to show you what I think and feel and see. My own particular take on the world. I think that’s an important difference.

    I do think his activity has an awesome subversive quality though. 🙂

  5. Jeremiah, I do think they’re different in this way: he’s imitating someone else’s style, while a writer will be trying to find his or her own style.

    So he’s like a fanfic writer.

  6. Ha! In a way, yes . . . (Now I’m thinking, what would a Picasso mashup look like? Maybe that’s the next movement in art. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and Sea Serpents!)

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