For three decades, Mark Landis quietly infiltrated art museums across the United States with donated forgeries, works he carefully copied himself from the whole of art history. Paul Signac, Pablo Picasso, Hans Holbein, less-known names like Louis Valtat — sometimes they even went on display in the galleries. A new documentary called Art and Craft, released today in Los Angeles, tries to figure out what compels Landis, with a sympathetic portrait of a very curious character.
Directors Sam Cullman and Jennifer Grausman discovered his story through a 2011 New York Times article, which wouldn’t have existed if not for a man named Matthew Leininger. While a registrar at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, he discovered works Landis was supposedly donating had already been given to other museums. As he dug deeper, he realized just how far the web of forgeries stretched.
The film, however, is much more interested in Landis, although Leininger gets some brooding screen time. It’s obvious the filmmakers were a bit enamored with this small man with his tinny voice, Ignatius Reilly-level confidence, and clever handiwork — employing coffee to stain cheap Hobby Lobby frames to an antique patina, using colored pencils to replicate a chalk drawing, even showing us step-by-step how to make a new Picasso out of a printed copy and some shellac.
It’s clear from the film that the Mississippi-based Landis, whose speech is often a string of old movie quotes, became obsessed with the attention of being a museum donor, and the scenes with his case worker and interviews on his mental health suggest some psychological roots.”I got addicted to being a philanthropist,” he says, noting that it was seldom he had people so nice to him. Yet he adds: “I didn’t do anything wrong or illegal.” And he didn’t, no money was traded, no financial harm that could be prosecuted was done, it was only the integrity of the museums which was marred.
That isn’t the focus of the film, however, nor the possible implications on art value, or the time wasted with his forgeries. Yet Landis is a fascinating figure to watch, as he impersonates a priest, even inviting the filmmakers to witness one of his blatant fake donations, supposedly in honor of a non-existent dead sister. And as an exploration of the value and authenticity of art, it is as good a lesson as any to not take anything at face value, including an otherwise nondescript man whose skilled work may be on wider display than the artists he copied.
Art and Craft is released today in Los Angeles. A full list of screenings is online.