Within the last two decades art collecting has become the new gold rush for the affluent. A Wild West of sorts where auction houses and anyone with the financial means can parlay an artist’s hard work into big dollars. The commodification of art has always been a melting pot of complications but, as Jamie Kastner’s There Are No Fakes shows, the broth now carries a disturbing taste.
Kastner’s documentary is a tale of two vastly different worlds that intersect in unexpected ways. In one realm are art sellers and collectors who thrive off the clout that comes with dealing in the best works of art. In the other, an Ontario city where poverty and crime form an unhealthy power structure. The common link between both is legendary artist Norval Morrisseau. A man who was once hailed as “The Picasso of the North,” Morrisseau is still viewed around the world as one of the most influential Indigenous artists.
The creator of the Woodland School style of indigenous art, Morrisseau was not only a source of Canadian pride, but a man whose life had its share of ups and downs. Through his various struggles, the number of people who coveted his pieces only grew with each passing year. The demand for Morrisseau’s art inevitably led to rumours surfacing about forgeries of his works creeping into the marketplace in the early 2000s.
The extent of which was not known until musician Kevin Hearn, of the famed band Barenaked Ladies, learned that his own beloved Morrisseau painting was a fake.
Starting his own investigation into the origins of the painting he purchased, Hearn uncovered an intricate and volatile network of collectors and sellers who have a vested interest in Morrisseau’s paintings. Some of whom are so steadfast in their beliefs that no fakes exist that they will use online attacks and lawsuits to challenge anyone who says otherwise.
In observing Hearn’s quest to get the alleged fakes off the market, and the individuals on both side of the debate, Kastner’s film exposes how little Morrisseau’s actual artistic vision factored into the views of some. Many, most of whom are white, speak of the value of Morrisseau’s art without really understanding the indigenous culture or history that influenced each brush stroke.
This glaring neglect for seeing Morrisseau as anything other than a product floods every aspect of Kastner’s cinematic canvas. It is a point that is really emphasized when the film plunges into the dark waters of Morrisseau’s time in Northwestern Ontario.
It is in these moments, when the stench of corruption hangs thick in the air, where There Are No Fakes is arguably most gripping. Kastner’s unflinching lens slowly unravels a stunning web of addiction, crime and abuse. The depths of which are so chilling that it will have one looking at the art world in a whole new light.
If there is one quibble to be had with There Are No Fakes it is that the disturbing second half overshadows everything that preceded it. This creates for a rather uneven experience at times as the documentary feels like two distinct films thrown together. The almost gleefully way the film focuses on the mudslinging between the quirky cast of affluent characters in the first section feels less entertaining when the other shoe drops.
Their conflicts, as valid a catalyst as it may be for the legal dispute aspects, do not hold a candle to the devasting stories that make up the latter portion of the film. It also would have helped if Kastner had more evenly spread out the story of Morrisseau’s turbulent personal life throughout. While one can understand the temptation to pair the artist’s success with those who now crave his works, including some more of his pitfalls earlier in the film would have provided more balanced nuance.
Fortunately, these issues do not hinder what is otherwise a captivating tale. There Are No Fakes is a haunting portrait of greed, class and the horrors that can arise when art is only viewed through a monetary lens.
There Are No Fakes will screen on TVO on February 1, 3, 5 at 9 PM EST