Portrait of an Unidentified Man

The Great Hall, The Arts Centre, Christchurch

30/07/2009 - 02/08/2009

Christchurch Arts Festival 2009

Production Details

In a Paris garret in 1946, a casual sketch is mistaken for a Picasso original by a self-proclaimed expert. The artist is Elmyr de Hory, an impoverished Hungarian refugee with an unusual talent who, rather than dispelling his friend’s illusion, sells her the drawing for 250 francs. So begins the career of the most notorious and prolific art forger of the 20th century, and the extraordinary fraud that would span four decades and two continents, turning the international art market on its ear.

Starring playwright Pierre Brault, Portrait of an Unidentified Man explores the story of a man who may have painted more than a thousand classics of modern art. How did he pull it off? How were so many fooled for so long? And how many of his works are still hanging undetected in world famous museums?

For more information visit www.sleepingdog.ca 

Pre-show talk with Producer Judi Pearl and set designer Martin Conboy, moderated by Festival Director Guy Boyce:
Friday 31 July, 6.30pm, The Great Hall, The Arts Centre

"A play of marvellous question marks. A one-act, 80 minute marvel, Portrait of an Unidentified Man is the must-see production of the theatre season… this is really the performance of the year. Brault is simply astonishing."  CBC Radio 

30 July – 2 August, 7.30pm
Sat 1 August, 2.00pm
WhereThe Great Hall
A Reserve: $30
Concession/Friend: $25
Book through Ticketek
0800 TICKETEK (842 538) 
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Producer Judi Pearl
Lighting and Set Designer Martin Conboy

1hr 25 mins, no interval

Feats of illusion

Review by Lindsay Clark 02nd Aug 2009

Sleeping Dog Theatre from Ottawa specialises in bringing to stage life the histories of extraordinary individuals and using them to explore underlying themes of interest to us all, pointing up lessons from the past and raising the questions we need to ask of it.

In bringing from the shadows the dealings of Elmyr de Hory, the most prolific art forger of the twentieth century, Pierre Brault has come up with a fascinating study. At the same time, he raises questions about all art and about the nature of deception.

Things could become very deep and philosophical then, but the solo piece is craftily set in de Hory’s last hours. Bailed up by the police, he bargains for privacy overnight, by sketching the inspector’s likeness and promising a full confession. His last signature will be his own.

From his beginnings as a struggling artist in Paris, the Hungarian born refugee has a roller coaster existence. He consorted, he tells us, with the ‘wild beasts’ of colour, the Fauves, headed by Matisse and confirmed by Vlaminck. The works of Picasso, Braque, Modigliani are sources for his talented replication.

The first line, he tells us, is the most important. For his life as a forger, the first line is drawn when Lady Malcolm Campbell, avaricious collector, mistakenly snaps up some ‘masterly’ sketches and sells them on to a dealer for a handsome profit. The hard-up de Hory, allowing the illusion to stand, is suddenly presented with a career which will take him around the art capitals of world, sometimes just ahead of discovery.

At every turn, gently probing questions keep the thematic interest before us. "Everyone loves an impostor," according to Orson Welles, quoted in the play, and there are many references excusing, at least partly, the great deceptions we follow. "All art is on loan," we are told, and "I become, I do not copy." Besides, it takes two to come to a bargain and greed is often the catalyst which clouds vision.

Pierre Brault is no mere apologist however. The life he depicts has ultimately been lived at the expense of finding his own way. Elmyr de Hory’s ‘fame’ around the world comes on the strength of borrowed signatures. Brault the actor is mesmerising and the creation of character after character an amazing feat of illusion in itself. He is a master of transition with the physical and vocal dexterity demanded by this exacting genre.

Inspired under-floor lighting from Martin Conboy features to focus and amplify each sequence, with the art world cleverly suggested at the feet of the master forger. The final ‘canvas’ is blank, confirming that though the story has been told, truth about art is not so neatly captured. 
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