|Tom Flynn and John Myatt (right) with 'Indiana' canvas|
Thursday's opening night was heaving with Myatt fans bussed in by Castle's 37 regional outlets around the country. The prosecco flowed, the crowd Ooh'd and Aah'd at the fake Monets, Picassos, and Renoirs, while Myatt beamed and obligingly signed catalogues for his many admirers.
One Castle employee, from the company's Wolverhampton gallery, predicted that most of the works would sell over the coming weeks. With smaller canvases priced at £2,500 and larger Impressionist-style works set at around £25,000-30,000, the exhibition looked set to be another lucrative outing for the repentant forger. The following day we sat down for a chat:
John, most artists would die for crowds like last night. To what do you attribute the success of an opening like that?
I think people find the art industry impregnable and alienating and run by a group of self-regarding élites, basically, and possibly the idea that there is a route around them and maybe also a route towards the enjoyment of paintings that doesn’t have to be brokered by the opinion of another élite that support that élite. And there is a certain honesty in something that says, ‘I’m a fake; take me or leave me. If you don’t like me, that’s fine, if you do like me that’s even better.’ But I think for the rest of the time the art establishment, as such, and the magazine industry and the intellectual industry and everything else behind it has actually intimidated a vast amount of the public into a kind of passive acceptance of other people’s opinions. And this is just … the popularity of what I do … might be because it liberates people to say, ‘Well actually, it might look like a van Gogh but I don’t like it.’ You can’t actually say that in front of a real van Gogh or stand in front of one hundred million pounds and say…well, I suppose you could…
People do, quite frequently…
|Castle clients celebrate the latest Myatt show|
Yes, they might, but the fact is they’re mesmerised by that amount of money, or how many houses you could buy or what you could do just by living off the interest. All that for just one van Gogh. So your opinion to some extent is utterly worthless in the face of the vast amounts of money that this thing actually embodies. So there you are, looking at a painting that says, “Well actually I’m a fake van Gogh anyway” and suddenly you can … I had a conversation with a guy once who was the director of the museum in Stockholm and he’d come from Stockholm to interview me and he said, “If I had an exhibition of van Gogh’s paintings they’d be queuing all the way round the block, but if I had an exhibition of fake van Goghs they would be queuing all the way round the block and all the way down to the railway station.” The public have a vast appetite for it because it sort of waves two fingers up at the art world.
So is this something you’ve only discovered since the success you’ve enjoyed after coming out of prison?
Very much so. Because I really thought that what I’d done first of all was wrong and it was a mistake to have done it. And well, I mean originally it was the policeman who arrested me who started me off painting again.
I gather the prosecutor was at the private view party here last night.
Yes, Clifford. He was here last night. But I wasn’t prepared, as you said…it was sold out last night in two hours. There simply weren’t any places left. They almost said we’ll need to have two openings. And so yes, if your question is why is it so popular, that, I think, is the explanation.
Couldn’t you have done what do you do now prior to meeting John Drewe? Did it ever occur to you to do that?
No it didn’t. Because the prison sentence and the notoriety that came from that, and the press interest, whether I like it or don’t like it, and quite often I don’t like it, because I’d rather have got where I am now without the crime. But I couldn’t have done it. It’s a back story. Even in contemporary art the back-story is crucial. The Rothko back-story, the De Kooning back-story, the Barnett Newman back-story. All this is fascinating and helps to elevate and maintain the prices. My back-story, unfortunately, is part of who I am and what I do.
But you’ve clearly come to terms with that.
Well, there is no point in not coming to terms with it.
But there is also a human fascination generally with people who have broken the law. You’re not a criminal; you didn’t murder anyone, but even if you had murdered someone you could become a source of fascination.
Pigeon and Apple: View from E.Wing, Brixton Prison
Now, you paint your own pictures as well. I saw the picture of your Brixton prison cell (left). It reminded me of Mandela’s pictures painted from his Robben Island cell. Not that I’m comparing you with Mandela, I hasten to add…
No but I know what you mean.
But those personal works are in a completely different idiom, so is there a consistency to your own style?
Yes, there is. I’m a representational painter. That’s why I do what I do because it liberates me from the stylistic area where I am, so I can say, "OK, I feel like splashing some paint around today, so I’ll have a go at Giacometti, or Monet, or Miro." It doesn’t often factor back into my own stuff, which is much more precise and geometrical. I like balance and composition and so on.
Has anyone given you a show of your own work?
Well, to some extent this one here is a show of my own work.
But I meant a show devoted just to your own original works in your own style, because you’re clearly a competent painter.
Well, maybe, but it will probably happen after I’m dead. And then they’ll start collecting my originals.
Most of your work seems to be of the modernist period. You don’t do Renaissance style painting or works inspired by the Dutch Golden Age
Actually I have. I did Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring and van Goyen seascapes.
Is there anyone you wouldn’t take on for any reason?
I’d struggle with the Pre-Raphaelites. What’s his name… who painted The Scapegoat…
Yes, it took them eighteen months, two years, even three years to paint some of their pictures. Frith’s Derby Day, for instance. I just can’t be bothered, frankly, and why would you? I really admire the Pre-Raphaelites. I mean, the beautiful, wonderful technique, but it’s just not fun.
Nude with Mandolin, in the style of Picasso
Yes, and I get the sense from that Picasso Cubist picture downstairs (right) that you luxuriated in the process. You seem to be enjoying yourself.
I love it.
And these are not exact copies of existing pictures…
Oh no. That would be silly, wouldn’t it?
So in the great ‘paint-off’ between you and Beltracchi, who would win?
Well, he’s done a lot better, hasn’t he. Is he still in prison?
I think he may be out now, but in any event it was hardly prison as he was allowed out during the day to carry on painting.
He does seem to be a bit of an a*******, doesn’t he?
Well, you said that, not me! But yes, he does seem to be rather up himself.
I think so, but the guy’s a brilliant forger. Better than me. He’s just brilliant but he spoils it by kind of wallowing in it a bit.
I get the sense that this is becoming almost a new industry now. I mean we’ve had the Pollocks in America and Beltracchi’s Expressionists in Germany and you obviously have notoriety and fame in the UK and beyond. What do you put that down to?
The inaccessibility of the art world. It’s money. You just look at the money and everything else makes sense. I mean you can’t afford a Miró. So the next best thing is something that looks like a Miró, appears to be a Miró, even has a Miró signature on the front but it’s a fake. But not a copy. People always say, can you do a copy? And I say please, no, because it’s boring, because all they say then is, “Ooh, look your bit there isn’t quite the same…” That’s not what painting is all about. These days people can project images onto canvases, and fair play to them, but it’s not what I do. No, it’s about money.
How long does it take you to make a work?
That Picasso over there took from start to finish six or seven months, but that other one on the easel took maybe ten days, two weeks. But even then I made so many changes to it because I thought I’d finished it, but another couple of weeks went into it. Some things, like that Picasso watercolour, were done very quickly, maybe two or three hours. There’s no point taking months and months because you lose the freshness and spontaneity of the marks which are crucial to the immediacy of it. So if it took him half an hour to do it, it had better take you half an hour too.
One of the young men from the Castle Gallery in Wolverhampton was here last night and he told me that all the pictures in this show will have sold out over the coming weeks. There is obviously a very big demand for what you do.
Well, yes. Lucky me.
Is that correct, that you’ll sell out this entire show?
Yes, I’d have thought so.
So you must be making plenty of money from it?
Well, certainly I make a living. I don’t have a nervous breakdown every time a brown envelope drops on the mat
As you used to do before you met Drewe
As I used to do. I probably receive thirty or forty percent of what they sell things for.
And how many galleries do you have looking after your work?
Well, Castle have thirty or forty galleries up and down the country, but what I’m trying to persuade them to do is…while I like having these big shows...I’m in two minds about it, really. I’d like to have an exhibition where you’ve got twelve or thirteen paintings, just smaller. But on the other hand I wouldn’t be getting The Sun newspaper and The Times and the Independent, and you. I wouldn’t be getting that, but I’m not sure that I’d mind really. I’d just like it to be a little bit more intimate.
So where do you paint from these days?
North Staffordshire, Junction 14, M6. That’s where the studio is. We have an old farm up there.
How did they treat you in prison? Were they good to you?
They weren’t bad to me. The secret for just getting on in prison is just not to have any kind of attitude. Get your head down and get on with it. There is a certain kind of person who just….I remember one boy came in… I’d been in about two weeks and he had come in for some kind of traffic accident. And he was only in for about two days but he completely freaked out. He threw himself on the razor wire and cut himself to ribbons and because he tried to escape he got an extra month or something. And he was walking around all bandaged up and everyone was laughing at him. Ninety percent of the human population can cope with some form of incarceration up to about six months or so. The problems are, as you say, murder, or aggravated burglary or something, where people are getting seven or eight, ten or fifteen years, and in one or two cases twenty or thirty years and they send these guys round the prisons, painting the prisons. They’re still in prison now, some of these guys and when they come out there will be nothing for them. There’ll be no home, no family, no nothing. And that’s a problem. A social problem, really.
How long were you in?
I was in for four months. I got a year but that came down to six months because any sentence under four years you’d normally serve … and I then I had an electronic tag which knocked two months off that, so I went in in February and came out in June.
It’s a happy ending for you. Would you say crime pays? You would surely have to conclude that from last night’s reception and the crowds flocking to your exhibitions?
Yes, you would. I tried to cover that before. I mean I would not be talking to you now were it not for the crime. You can’t airbrush that out.
That’s candid of you
Well, it’s the truth and, as you said, I think in the hierarchy of crime, you’ve got the pedophiles who even in prison people would like to murder them and possibly at the very bottom you’ve got art fraud, which many believe is a victimless crime, which it isn’t actually. But certainly, there are aspects to it that…I mean many people say to me, “They shouldn’t have sent you to prison. It’s ridiculous. You should have done community service.” So in the public mind, certainly, art fraud isn’t really a crime, but it is. I mean grannies buy paintings. I’ve just done an interview with a young man who is doing something for the BBC called Fake Britain and there are a whole lot of people who are knowingly putting paintings on eBay signed Monet or Renoir, or whatever, with no paperwork or provenance or anything. I mean it’s obvious to you and I that they cannot possibly be…but they’re cleverer than that. I mean they’re putting Herrings, you know, the sort of thing that might have come from a country house, like the fox hounds that Herring did, or a beaten-up old Samuel Palmer, so it’s just possible, and so…and they are actually using old canvases and stretchers, so they’re not fakes, they’re forgeries, but they’re actually putting them on there and saying, sort of disclaiming. It’s quite wicked, actually.
How do you personally differentiate a fake from a forgery, because the two terms are used interchangeably.
If you look at Monopoly money, that’s fake money, forged money is what I might have in my pocket right now. My paintings are fakes because the stretchers are modern, the canvas is modern, and the paint is acrylic. It always was, that’s the craziest thing.
And you used house paints on the earlier ones, didn’t you?
Yes! House paints! With KY Jelly!
Yes and it’s extraordinary when you think that Beltracchi got caught because they found Titanium White in his pictures after he had been so scrupulous about ensuring that all his pigments were of the period.
Yes, that’s how they got him, you see, and they would have got me straight away on that basis.
What’s the most expensive painting you’ve sold. What’s the best price you’ve got?
It’s in here right now. I think, £39,000.
Is that the Lichtenstein?
No, the Monet. The Avenue of Flowers.
Do you sell more Impressionist style pictures than Modernist pictures, or Pop paintings?
Yes, I think the Monets do quite well. But you can’t spend your life painting French Impressionism.
Have you done Pollock?
To commission, yes, but not here. They’re very large and cumbersome things to do.
So there’s no likelihood that any of these things could make their way back to market at some point and fool someone, be mistaken for the authentic article?
The paintings in this gallery? It would be possible in a hundred years time if they were re-lined.
So you mark everything?
Oh, yeah! Everything’s clearly marked on the back and given a catalogue number and we have a database and computer chip on some of them and all kinds of ways to protect me from any kind of criminal thing. I don’t want all that to start all over again, no way.
And find yourself back in Brixton Prison.
And of course this gallery here, because they would be implicated.
Did the Castle Gallery come you or did you approach them?
They came to me. I had a little show in Dover Street about 2003 and Mr Washington, who owns Washington Green, [the owners of Castle Galleries] said, ‘Would you like to work for us?’