SPIEGEL Interview with Wolfgang Beltracchi Confessions of a Genius Art Forger
Part 3: 'I Painted Because I Wanted To'
Beltracchi's career as an art forger almost came to an end in the 1990s. The Berlin police had investigated two art dealers from Aachen and a technical draftsman who was addicted to heroin. They had been dealing in forged paintings since the late 1980s, preferably works by the relatively unknown Expressionist Johannes Molzahn, but the fakes also included a Heinrich Campendonk. The paintings had been sold for relatively small sums, several tens of thousands of marks in each case, and the sentences were mild. The police discovered that most of the fakes, 21 in total, were the work of a certain Wolfgang Fischer from Krefeld. But the investigators couldn't find him.
Beltracchi looks at the images. "That one's great," he says. "That one's garbage." He flips through the police list with the 21 forged paintings. "And that's supposed to be a Campendonk? That junkie must have painted it. I stand behind my paintings, but some of those aren't mine. I was always afraid that these people would be caught one day."
SPIEGEL: In addition to the Molzahns, did people order other paintings from you? Campendonks, for example?
Beltracchi: Gentlemen, I can only say one thing in reply to that: No one ever ordered anything from me. I painted because I wanted to. It's really unbelievable that you're trying to insinuate something like that.
SPIEGEL: There is a 1986 exhibition catalog from the Claus Runkel Gallery in London.
Beltracchi: Do you have the catalog? I've never seen it.
SPIEGEL: There are paintings in there that could also be Beltracchis: two Campendonks, "Yellow Nude with Deer in a Mountain Landscape" and "Red Cow and Houses", and one by the Russian painter Vladimir Bechteyev that's called "Landscape near Murnau." Are you familiar with the paintings?
Beltracchi: They're beautiful, aren't they?
SPIEGEL: You should explain the way you work once again. So you would study an artist and then paint a small series?
Beltracchi: I didn't paint any series, but you have to study the artists very intensively. That's why there were times when, years later, I painted individual paintings by a given artist again. That way it wasn't as much work anymore. Besides, the painting part was never the problem. What was really complicated was finding old canvases and frames. Sometimes they could be had for 30 and sometimes for 5,000. Some of them were really beautiful paintings, and I still have them in my head today. If I couldn't get the old paint off, I incorporated details of the old image into the new one.
SPIEGEL: In your confession before the court, you described how you approached an artist's work.
Beltracchi: Yes, based on the example of André Derain, who, next to Matisse, was one of the main representatives of Fauvism. One also has to know that only Derains from the Fauvist phase, that is, from the years 1905 to 1909, fetch high prices. At first I got the literature on the artist, and then I went to exhibitions and museums. It was important to see the paintings in the original, because the colors in printed images are often wrong. I also went to Collioure, where Derain spent a summer with Matisse in 1905. I took a look at the village, the beach and the light, and I got a feeling for the atmosphere and the mood of that summer.
SPIEGEL: How does that work?
Beltracchi: I became one with Derain and his time. (Alfred) Dreyfus was about to be acquitted, (Georges) Clemenceau was about to become prime minister, and World War I was still nine years away. Derain painted fantastic pictures that summer. I recognized what was special about a particular artist, in order to do it just a little better than he had managed himself. Which is certainly possible: After all, we know today how art history has developed since then.
SPIEGEL: That all sounds very strange.
Beltracchi: But this is the key point. Every philharmonic orchestra merely interprets the composer. My goal was to create new music by that composer. In doing so, I wanted to find the painter's creative center and become familiar with it, so that I could see through his eyes how his paintings came about and, of course, see the new picture I was painting through his eyes -- before I even painted it.
SPIEGEL: Your Campendonk forgeries, for example, led to an explosion in prices for his paintings on the art market.
Beltracchi: Prices tripled. The same thing happened with (Max) Pechstein and Max Ernst. His widow Dorothea Tanning, an artist in her own right, said that one of my forgeries was the most beautiful Max Ernst painting she had ever seen. The trick is to paint a picture that doesn't exist, and yet that fits perfectly into an artist's body of work. Even though experts claimed otherwise during the trial, I didn't use any additional technical help on a single painting. No projectors, no grids. It's ridiculous. Why should I take the trouble to project a sketch if I can draw it by hand?
SPIEGEL: Why does this infuriate you?
Beltracchi: It annoys me. These are just after-the-fact, shabby attempts by experts to explain away the fact that they had praised the same paintings for years.
SPIEGEL: Would you have recognized your own paintings as fakes?
Beltracchi: Of course. It was always a little strange to see one of those paintings in a museum. Whenever that happened, I would try to steer clear of the painting in question. I didn't want to get too close, because I was afraid that the painting would talk to me.
SPIEGEL: You met Otto S.-K., who has also been sentenced, in Krefeld in the mid-1980s. You painted and he was in charge of sales. That was the beginning of the period when stories had to be invented about the provenance of the paintings.
Beltracchi: I didn't want to get involved with art dealers and experts. Previously, it had just involved flea markets. Otto had come up with the story about the Knops collection. He turned master tailor Knops from Krefeld, his grandfather, into an art collector. But we didn't take the issue of provenance overly seriously at the time.
- Part 1: Confessions of a Genius Art Forger
- Part 2: 'I Worked as a Waiter in a Strip Bar'
- Part 3: 'I Painted Because I Wanted To'
- Part 4: 'No One Wants a Painting to Be a Forgery'
- Part 5: 'The Whole Thing Was Discovered Because of an Incorrectly Labeled Tube'
- Part 6: 'Nothing Is Easier Than a Pollock'