By Karen Gordon
When Kevin Hearn, of Barenaked Ladies, discovered that a painting by the acclaimed Anishinaabe artist Norval Morrisseau that he’d bought from a reputable Yorkville art gallery for $20,000 was probably a fake, he asked the gallery for a refund.
When the owners refused, Hearn took them to court. That’s the narrative launching pad for There Are No Fakes, the twisty, engrossing documentary by Toronto filmmaker Jamie Kastner (The Skyjackers Tale, The Secret Disco Revolution) that recently made its debut at the Hot Docs Festival.
Morrisseau is one of Canada’s most successful painters. The artist, dubbed “The Picasso of the North”, invented what is now known as the Woodland School of art, which was inspired by traditional and spiritual traditions, including his own from the Bingwi Neyaashi Anishinaabek First Nation. He was considered a shaman who channeled that atavism into his paintings as well.
Morrisseau was lucky enough to see his star rise in his lifetime. But luck wasn’t always with him. He’s also, allegedly the most forged painter in Canadian history.
To figure out whether Hearn’s painting is real or fake, Kastner sets out to follow its alleged provenance. That sends him into the corners of the art world and some some unexpectedly dark territory.
He meets a cast of characters, most of whom have some stake in being able to sell Morrisseau’s work, including auctioneers, sellers, resellers, and, as well, people who claim to be fighting for the artist’s legacy and the integrity of his genuine works. These included the dealer who represented Morrisseau until his death, and Morrisseau’s protege.
Everyone in this film talks openly to Kastner, and as he follows the leads, what is revealed is a fascinating, complicated and sometimes nasty story.
The film starts as a court case, but then takes a series of unexpected twists, from Toronto to Thunder Bay, and into serious criminal activities including, and beyond art forgery, issues of art, culture and commerce, and revelations about the very complicated life of Morriseau and the people, including family, around him.
It’s also, unfortunately, a quintessentially Canadian story. Morriseau was a child of the Residential school system. He grew up to become a famous painter, but fame didn’t provide relief. He was haunted and hobbled by alcoholism that made him vulnerable.
There Are No Fakesis a riveting detective story that goes beyond the art world and into larger issues of society and endangered principles of integrity.
There Are No Fakes. Directed by Jamie Kastner. Opens June 14 in Toronto (at the AGO), Vancouver and Calgary.