Monday, August 19, 2013

The Art Forger - Does Life Imitate Art?

I recently finished listening to B. A. Shapiro's The Art Forger and was pleasantly surprised at this truly satisfying mystery, love story, and instructional exercise in the history of forgeries and how they're accomplished. I was only looking for a title to pass the time while I walk in the morning but I got more than I bargained for. So, the reviewers were right!

In this novel Claire Roth is a woman who's always subsuming her own passions and ambitions for someone else's. Like so many women before her, she was willing to be the muse to a painter who was "blocked." But oh how it must stick in the craw to see someone else bask in the limelight and be declared a genius for the work that you've done. What happens when that woman finally breaks out?

Claire was a good art student but for some reason, she just never stood out from the crowd. Her work was consistent but simply didn't get noticed, so she earned her living working for, an organization that paid artists to recreate the works of the masters. Claire's particular forte? Degas. So when the renowned gallery owner Aiden Markel arrived at Claire's studio with one of the most famous Degas works, After the Bath, stolen from Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner museum years earlier, she was practically orgasmic just being in the same room with the canvas.

The deal that she cuts with Aiden, to copy After the Bath for a buyer, and then return the original to the museum, would make both of them wealthy and secure her a showing of her own work, a privilege she's only dreamed of, at the Markel G studio. And this deal with the devil might have worked gloriously had it not been for two things. Aiden and Claire begin a love affair and Claire realizes, after significant study and reflection, that the "original" Degas that Aiden brought to her is, in fact, a forgery.

As Claire proceeds to copy the Degas, she walks us through the steps that must be followed to assure authentication. It's a fascinating process that involves baking the canvas to attain the crackling effect of old oils and then washing the finished work with yellowing agents that mimic the appearance of aging. Ms. Shapiro adds depth to the story with a secondary plot that involves Isabella Stewart's relationship with Edgar Degas as told through letters from Europe home to her niece in Boston.

The author manages to touch on the legal and moral implications of copying famous works and the fine line, if any, between forging and recreating. But where she really shines  her light is on the assumptions made by experts in the field, authenticators, curators, and experts who should be able to spot a fake a mile away but rather, choose to see what they want to see. This concept really hit home for me when I spotted this article in last week's New York Times:

In the art world there appears to be very little trust among dealers, curators, artists and buyers. After reading this book you'll understand why! Well worth the time and read quite nicely by Xe Sands.


Jessica said...

I just finished listening as well. I really liked it!

Catherine Vaughn said...

Looking forward to reading this's the September selection for my book discussion group