The 51st HK Arts Festival

Discover the Delights of Deception

Text / Richard Lord

The story of a forger who fooled the world, experimental theatre performance True Copy asks a simple question: why do we value the truth so much?

It tells the barely believable story of Geert Jan Jansen, one of the greatest art forgers of all time, who perfectly mimicked the styles of numerous masters, including Picasso, Klimt, Miró, Cocteau, Matisse, Dufy and Van Gogh, making millions of euros selling the works as originals. True Copy reveals how he built a career for himself through forgery for decades.

The work of Belgian experimental theatre company BERLIN (the name comes from the final one in a series of city-based works that marked the beginning of the company), True Copy has its Asian premiere at the 2023 Hong Kong Arts Festival. The company is best known for its wildly experimental productions that bring different media together in unexpected combinations.

Reality check

BERLIN's innovative staging of True Copy involves Jansen retelling his story in front of a wall of paintings that turn out to be digital projections, sometimes disappearing behind the set into recreations of some of his studios (he had one for each artist he copied at a castle he owned in France), where he demonstrates his forgery techniques. There's even a point when one of Jansen's works is auctioned live on stage; so far, the most one has fetched is 3,600 euros (HK$28,100).

The show poses questions about the value we place on truth and authenticity. As Jansen himself says, if his works are indistinguishable from those of the masters he copies, and if their owners are perfectly happy with them, where's the problem? This is illustrated rather neatly in the story of his arrest, after which police put out an appeal for people who had been defrauded by Jansen to come forward and help provide evidence. Not a single one did so.

"No one wants to consider that they might have a fake one in their home," says Yves Degryse, the co-founder and current artistic director of BERLIN who appears in the production himself, introducing the show and periodically acting as Jansen's interviewer.

Delightful deception

But then, with a forger being almost by definition an unreliable narrator, the audience is also invited to examine how much of what he says is true. As Jansen himself says: "Sometimes it's just delightful to be deceived."

The show was launched in 2018 with a fairly spectacular marketing campaign, the story of which is woven into the performance. BERLIN sent an anonymous letter to a Dutch writer claiming that Picasso's La Tête d'Arlequin (1971), one of seven major works that had been stolen from Kunsthal Rotterdam in 2012, was buried under a tree in eastern Romania. After the work was recovered, it was revealed to be a fake by Jansen.

"The lady who discovered it took video footage and sent it to the national news in Holland. Within 24 hours, it was on the news in 20 different countries, all in exactly the same words. So everyone just likes to copy, copy, copy."

A self-taught master

BERLIN first used Jansen as a character in its previous production Perhaps All The Dragons (2014), in which 30 audience members sat in front of screens, each of them learning about the lives of five from a cast of 30 real characters with extraordinary tales to tell. After researching the subject of master forgers but struggling to make contact with any—a lot of the very good ones have never been caught— Degryse read about Jansen in a newspaper.

"The big differences from other master forgers were that he was public because he had been caught, and could paint like approximately 18 masters—and he was totally self-taught."

After the show, he realised he wasn't finished with him as a character.

"I was thinking about the idea of fiction and non-fiction. Our roots at BERLIN are very documentary-based and we were trying to move into mixing the two. My first meeting with Geert Jan was the turning point in my thinking about this. As long as you don't know a work is a forgery, there's no problem. Imagine you're in a museum enjoying a painting and someone says in your ear: it's a fake. Everything is devalued. In our culture, supposedly a copy of something is always less. Geert Jan is the translation of a certain idea about the value of truth."