Thursday, July 25, 2019

Interview: Mark Forgy, Elmyr de Hory's apprentice, on his mentor's approach to art

Editor's note: This story was initially published on January 21, 2017.

Story by Joseph Ford Cotto

People can be very difficult – some more than others.

For certain individuals, however, hustling, lonesomeness, and habitual aversion to truth are anything other than values of unguided choice. Rather, these are adopted as survival strategies in an unforgiving world. Quite often, the folks susceptible to a lifestyle rooted in such things are not bad men and women at all. They are, above all else, survivors who not only how – but what it means – to get by.

Elmyr de Hory was one of these people.

His life was one of boundless talent whose naturally-forged path to glory was met with roadblock after roadblock. Said complications were not the stuff of conventional society – de Hory was forced into a concentration camp during World War II, made to live as a displaced person after escaping the clutches of Nazism, faced with widespread aversion because of his homosexuality, and met with coolness by artistic authorities of his time because they believed his painting style was no longer en vogue.

Could that man ever paint! The son of a commonplace Hungarian merchant, he was so skilled with a brush and canvas that his works eventually fooled many of the same ‘authorities’ who never would have thought his creations worthy of purchase – it was believed that Picassos, Matisses, and the like stood in front of them.

Little did they know that Elmyr had since begun to emulate the style of masters and perfected his craft so well that some of those very artists believed his paintings to be their own.

The story of intrigue, passion, and uneasy glamor which unravels from there is best told by Mark Forgy.

“As a young American Midwesterner, I fell under [Elmyr’s] spell …. in 1969 on the Mediterranean island of Ibiza, becoming his personal assistant while he became my mentor and closest friend,” Forgy tells on his website. “[Elmyr’s] hilltop villa was my university where, beyond the glamour of the rich and famous, the people I met seemed to spring from the mind of Lewis Carroll. Elmyr also had deeper secrets than anyone knew.”

Forgy wrote The Forger’s Apprentice, an aptly titled book which is both an autobiography and a biography of de Hory. He shared his memories of Elmyr with me, and some of these are included below in this first entry of a four-part series encompassing our discussion.

Joseph Ford Cotto: Elmyr de Hory was a very complicated man who, despite replicating the works of others, had his own unique philosophy about artwork. In a nutshell, how could this be described?

Mark Forgy: First, Elmyr was always careful to point out that he was not a copiest replicating existing works but rather creating new works in the styles of various artists. This important distinction aided his long and successful illicit career, making detection harder, though his Intent to deceive was clear. Yes, he was a complex person, remarkable in his talent, urbane, generous, intelligent and immensely likable - a winning hand for any con man; he drew others to him.

That said, one of the outstanding ironies of his artifice was a simultaneous propensity to be duped by others. In all the years that I knew he remained inordinately naive well beyond what experience should have taught him. His misplaced trust in others was never clearer than his association with Fernand Legros, his longtime partner and dealer, an out and out sociopath in my view.

In regard to Elmyr's philosophy on art, I think the most important lesson he imparted to me was this: Never seek validation in a work of art by the signature or price tag attached to it. He championed the notion that art should be accepted on its intrinsic merit and it was an unshakable conviction that his own art was worthy of acceptance. Even though his own avant-garde style was not dissimilar from his contemporaries or near-contemporaries who had earned critical or monetary success, public tastes had moved away from what he might have otherwise have earned had his art and historical trends intersected.

Cotto: De Hory was made to hide his sexual orientation, evade Antisemitism, and adapt to many different cultures. Later in life, his finances were badly mismanaged -- through no fault of his own. It is fair to say that he could have become a very bitter person, but this was not the case. What was his approach to dealing with the world around him?

Forgy: Elmyr's existence was an uneasy one of assumed identities, being an illegal alien, evading detection as an art forger, and being homosexual at a time when it meant that one was a social outcast constantly in danger of incarceration because of his sexuality. I think these perils may have prompted him to disclaim his Jewish heritage, as well. Despite these burdens, he remained an optimist, buoyant in his trust of others, confident that things would work out even though it may have been self-delusional. However, considering the extent of subterfuge, it is easier to understand how fact and fiction became so entwined in his saga.

Cotto: How did you meet Elmyr?

Forgy: I met Elmyr the moment I got off the overnight ferry from Barcelona. It was a sunny autumn morning; the port area all but empty of people but for this dapper man waiting on the quay. I approached him and asked if he spoke English. He smiled and said "Like they do in Kansas City." Typically Elmyr. Could he recommend any cheap hotels, I asked. He did and we parted. However, when I ran into him later that evening I told him I hadn't any luck finding a room. He then offered to let me stay in his guest room that night - preferable to sleeping on the beach.

His spontaneous generosity was genuine, not a ploy as one might think. However, my stay drifted into a few days during which I tried to make myself useful. After about a week it was clear that I'd stepped into a world well beyond my Minnesotan experience. We got along well and said he was looking for someone to help him around the house. Was I interested in working for him? I had little drive to return to the States, back to college. I felt my education there would be much more fruitful. That's how my swan dive down the rabbit hole began.