Reviewed by Linda Rimel
LINDA RIMEL is an author and playwright.
“Now that I’ve admitted the truth to myself,” Claire Roth muses in B.A. Shapiro’s “The Art Forger,” “I see evidence of forgery everywhere. The brushstrokes aren’t as refined as Degas’ always are, and there’s a tentativeness to them. Depth doesn’t flow from the focal point of the painting out to the edges and then beyond; it feels narrow, constricted.
“And Francoise, how could I have been so blind? Too stiff, with an aura of self-consciousness, as if she’s aware of being watched, rather than caught in an unobserved moment.”
Through a first person, present-tense narration and the immediacy it makes possible, Shapiro explores what the art world must look like to someone who can paint like Edgar Degas and is denied the credit she thinks she deserves for her original work.
In Claire’s case, she is three years out of a graduate program in Boston, supporting her painting habit by making legal copies of famous works for something called Reproductions.com and volunteering as an art teacher in “juvy,” a juvenile detention facility. She is persona non grata among dealers and curators who could help her career.
Her career has been stalled for the three years since she helped her mentor and lover out of a creative slump by doing a painting for him. That thread and one from the 19th century, told via (fictional) letters from the founder of Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, are intertwined with one in which Claire is engaged to copy a “copy” that she suspects is the original and stolen — and forged.
Because the viewpoint is usually Claire’s, readers are treated to a fascinating survey of art forgers. A certified copyist, Claire knows the Theodore Rousseau quotation: “We can only talk about the bad forgeries, the ones that have been detected. The good ones are still hanging on museum walls.” Shapiro shows Claire researching Degas’ paintings and sketchbooks, preparing canvasses, painting and chemically simulating decades of maturation.
Even better, the descriptions are through an artist’s eyes. “The Fairmont Copley Plaza,” Claire observes, is “a grand hotel that resembles a Renaissance palace. It should be tacky with its soaring marble columns, painted ceilings, and overdone gold filigree, but somehow it isn’t.”
“The empty walls” in juvy “are the usual rotting-vegetable green. …” The room smells like cheap cologne mingled with stale sweat, and the odor is making me nauseous. Underpaid lawyers. Scared, stupid boys. And now me. Locked in. The air is overheated, and the walls are tight. I begin to sweat.”
Shapiro also provides Claire’s takes on urban development and her artist friends. They may work in beauty, but they use crude gestures and language, and they can be cliquish and competitive.
No prettier is the larger world of stolen art that a canvas of Claire’s may be entering. Claire learns that the 13 pieces taken, for example, from the Gardner Museum in 1990 — in reality, and never recovered — may have become collateral for drug deals or financing for organized crime or terrorists, and may be being stored at harmful temperatures or humidity. They may be lost.
Shapiro also relates what Claire learns about the bizarre motivations of private collectors. Her book explores art’s transforming power, an artist’s loneliness, love and mysteries from three centuries.
Shapiro writes credibly about the work involved. “Where my drive to finish ‘Bath II’ was frenzied and hallucinogenic, preliminary work on my [own paintings] is surprisingly soothing. Like scuba diving off a coral reef. A slow-motion immersion into the exotically foreign, compelling, and breath-taking, heightened by the hint of peril.”
The one thing Shapiro doesn’t seem to know how to copy is newspaper style. The fictitious Boston Globe article she inserts reads like a novel. It isn’t even in inverted pyramid style, and it’s what opens the book.
But from then on it’s a great read.