Saturday, October 12, 2013

The marriage of art and storytelling

I am what you might call a Sunday painter--I have taken a few classes at the local community college, participated in a few workshops with well-known artists, and try to make Sundays my day for art expression. In the course of my studies, I have had occasion to attempt the copying of someone else's artwork (as an assignment, I hasten to add).

I have, therefore, always been in awe of the art of the forger. I know it's not an admirable profession, in the sense that you're deliberately trying to fool people into paying millions for a Van Gogh that you created in your kitchen; but it is an accomplished profession, given the extreme difficulty of getting each color and brushstroke so close to perfect that the imitation is undetectable by experts from the great art collections of the world.

Given this interest, I eagerly picked up The Art Forger, a novel by B. A. Shapiro, from our new books shelf. My favorite quote from amongst the reviews is from Amazon's editors' picks:
"The most absorbing story every written about watching paint dry."
It truly was absorbing, and yes, there was quite a bit about drying paint in its pages! The thing that is so difficult about the forger's craft is that in addition to making a painting look right in terms of style and color, it also has to test as a work of its era, which means using a canvas of the proper age, and getting the paint to dry in such a way as to duplicate the craquelure, which is "a network of fine cracks on old paintings caused by the deterioration of pigment or varnish" (Free Online Dictionary). Author Shapiro managed, by alternating the details of this craft with a taut mystery/thriller, to make it fascinating.

A summary of the story: Accomplished painter Claire Roth was previously involved in an art-related scandal that has made her name mud and sidelined her career. To support herself, she has signed on with a company that produces high quality reproductions of masterpieces for sale, and she is their Degas specialist.

The story is set in Boston for a very important reason: In 1990, there was a legendary art heist in which 13 master works (including a Degas from his "bathers" series) were stolen from Boston's Isabelle Stewart Gardner Museum, never to be seen again. Soon after the story opens, Boston's most prominent gallery owner brings this missing Degas (not disclosing the details of how or from whom he acquired it) to Roth, and asks her to make a copy of it for him. The trade-off is that she will receive a one-woman show of her own paintings at his gallery. Claire is engaged and challenged, and can't resist the temptation, but as she begins this arduous task, she makes some interesting discoveries about the painting's provenance and origins that lead her to investigate the personal life of art collector Isabelle Gardner and her possible relationship with the artist, Edgar Degas, as well as pointing her towards some contemporary scandals.

I appreciated the multiple levels of this novel: mystery, art, and moral dilemma. It's always fun to put yourselves in the shoes of the protagonist and say to yourself, What would I do if presented with this choice? Claire is at once ambivalent and determined, and the stages she goes through are enlightening to observe, as she struggles with whether it is acceptable to do something wrong for all the right reasons. The other characters, both current and historical, are equally well fleshed out, and the revelation at the end was unexpected. A truly engrossing and engaging read.

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