My reading in recent years has included a fair amount on art forgery, both while I was writing Rembrandt Sings and afterwards. Right now I am working my way through a serious tome: Art Forgery: The History of a Modern Obsession by Thierry Lemain where I was struck right away by the difference he points up between literary forgeries and art forgeries. Literary forgeries, he says, never consist in forging an original object but, by contrast, that is what art forgeries are all about. Up to a point, Professor, but only up to a point!
Many novels, not just mystery and crime, seek to create what critics call Realism; a funny word which these critics use to mean the story isn’t real; it’s been made up but the author has gone to great lengths to make is seem realistic. Real places, real events and some real people are mentioned to add to that sense of reality but it is a conjuring trick. The author/magician is using the genuinely real to distract our attention from the fact that the rest of the story is fiction.
I get the best of both worlds from reading (and writing) novels about art forgery. One very recent example is the clever story with the title which does what it says on the dust jacket: The Art Forger. Barbara Shapiro, who teaches creative fiction at Northeastern University, takes as her central character and narrator recently graduated artist Claire Roth, who is struggling to make any impact on the contemporary art scene in Boston and beyond. She has several things working against her. First, she values the painterly qualities that develop from using the techniques of major artists of earlier periods; building layer upon layer of colour and varnish, baking them dry, then painting wet-on-dry to create the luminosity of their paintings rather than, say, abstract expressionists who can’t wait until the previous layer has dried to slap on more paint, wet-on-wet, as well as scraping away the built up layers to expose the scaffolding. Her painting preferences do mean that she is the one to turn to if you want to commission a reproduction (not, let’s be clear, a forgery) of a subject previously painted by Degas. She makes something of a living out of this but receives maybe a tenth of what the dealer will charge clients who want an ersatz Degas, maybe even to match their drapes, but who do not have the wealth to bid for the scarce and expensive real thing.
Claire has another problem that is hinted at, glancingly referred to but not spelled out at the outset so as to maintain the suspense and paint on more layers of mystery. There is something in her recent past that means she is persona non grata in the gallery world, and among dealers who might exhibit and sell her work. She has had some association with an established artist who was her tutor on her degree course. Shapiro slowly lets the reader into the secret.
The novel starts from the fact that the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, holding and showing, under very strict bequest conditions, the art collection of the wife of a Boston Brahmin of the nineteenth century in what was the lady’s own home; and from the fact that on March 18, 1990 some wicked men, dressed as policemen, broke in and stole thirteen works of art that might fetch $500 million at auction today – probably more because of their now even more interesting provenance. They have never been recovered or returned. From time to time, we are allowed mostly fictional insights into the mind and mores of this lady in the form of letters the novel’s Isabella might have written from Paris to her niece back home in Boston.
Weaving these strands together, the novel opens with Claire Roth running round and round her studio pulling together examples of her work to show to a dealer, the man with the up-market gallery who was her erstwhile tutor’s agent, who has, out of the blue, said he wants to come round and see what she is doing. Now, it is a well-established fact that dealers in possession of a gallery do not need to visit struggling artists’ studios. With one phone call they can bring them all running to their gallery. So what’s it all about and why does someone who has previously shunned her want to spend time with her work and in her studio?
Since this book is a crime thriller, there are clues put in front of the reader, but hidden in plain view, and Shapiro is the master of the slow reveal in a volume of the seven veils. To tell more of the story would risk spoiling it for readers and if anything is a crime that surely is. Important then to say only that with her knowledge of her subjects, Boston, the art scene, painters’ techniques and the work of Edgar Degas builds up a gripping and convincing story that does not have a happy but rather an uplifting ending. It will appeal across a wide spectrum from readers of crime fiction, lovers of art and those like you and me who enjoy watching characters we have taken a shine to work out their problems, meet and overcome their challenges, and it will be a joy especially to lovers of finely crafted language.
I rate The Art Forger 8 out of 10 which means I shall be looking out for more by this creative writer. Who would think that art forgery could be such fun?