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Narrative layers and Barbara Shapiros The Art Forger

The Art Forger by Barbara Shapiro Narrative layers and Barbara Shapiros The Art Forger

Im here with a public service message: though BA Shapiros The Art Forger is being billed as a literary thriller, in all honesty its nothing of the sort. Its plot may draw on the 1990 Isabella Gardner Stewart Museum art theft and extrapolate from there, but really its about the passion of the creator, the pure love of art itself. And its because of this that the book will resonate with ardent book loversbecause were not so different from lovers of the fine arts, are we?

Following a scandal involving claims about the true origins of the work of one of her professors, once promising artist Claire Roth has been effectively shut out from the Boston art community. Any chances she might have had of securing a gallery showing of her own, or of being nominated for an award are long gone: this is a community that has a very long memory. Having been barred from the usual points of entry into the art world, Claire has had to take a slightly sideways approach to making a living as an artist. Although she continues to create original work on the side, her bread and butter is the commissions she undertakes through a company called, for whom she creates copies of major works of art.

Claire is a top-notch copyist, and her reproductions of the work of Degas in particular are superb. And its because of these skills that Aiden Markel, the charismatic and successful owner of Markel G, approaches Claire with an extraordinarily murky sounding proposition: a true forgerynot copyof a work by Degas that he plans to then pass off as the original. Markel sweetens the deal with a hefty sum of cash, plenty of flattery about Claires work and the gallery showing it might land her if she agrees, and a bit of fluff about his gregarious desire to help return the stolen Degas to the Isabella Gardner Stewart Museum.

The nature of the agreement obviously puts Claire and Markel to some degree of risk, but for the most part the business about art heists and dodgy art buyers remains in the background, which is perhaps where it best belongs. Instead, the key focus of the book is about the human love of art and the sheer reverence that art creates in people. Claires eventual agreement to Markels proposition seems to have far less to do with the cool $50,000 shes offered for the job than it does the opportunity to be in the presence of an original Degas, and to be able to learn from it as an apprentice might from a master:'I dont want to give it back. I want to live with it, spend time with it, paint it.

Indeed she does, and the scenes in which she deconstructs and reconstructs the painting are both moving for Claires evident passion for the work, and fascinating for their detailed descriptions of what exactly goes into creating a forgery so skilled it will fool the experts. (At one point Theodore Rousseau from the Met is quoted as saying: We can only talk about the bad forgeries, the ones that have been detected. The good ones are still hanging on museum walls.) Shapiros writing in these scenes is rich and evocative, but yet is undermined at times by its efforts towards accuracy: it wanders off on constant digressions about famous forgers, art techniques and so on, and although these are certainly interesting, they do often give the impression that weve leapt into a work of narrative nonfiction and have left the story itself behind.

Just as Claire is immensely conscious of the layers and layers that go into recreating Degas use of light, so too is Shapiro intent on adding layers to her narrative. Unfortunately its an approach that ends up less a seamless Degas and more my own attempts at cooking a lasagna alla nonna. I understand the appeal of creating a narrative that mirrors the structure of a piece of art (Iris Anthony has done so recently in her'Ruins of Lace, which I reviewed here), but where the layers in a painting are obscured by those painted on top of them, the narrative layers in this book exist in with a sort of teenage self-consciousness. Perhaps its not the right comparison: perhaps a better comparison is a final work with its accompanying compositional sketches, or perhaps its the Degas bathing series itselfa series of related works.

You see, in addition to the present-day forgery plot, were also given a flash-back subplot that gets us up to speed on how Claire has become an art world pariah, and which mirrors to a fairly unlikely degree that of the main plot not only in terms of how things unfold, but also in terms of the particular personality traits of those involved: Claires hubris and her lovers readiness to use her to their own ends, for example. Therere also a few bewildering subplots that might have been better excised (painted over, perhaps): those involving the Cheers-like meeting-at-a-pub scenes with Claires art friends, which dont seem to add anything at all to the plot, and a lengthy and largely pointless subplot involving Claires volunteering at a local juvenile detention centre.

This last subplot is perhaps the most baffling of all, as its given so much page space, yet really only offers up a tiny grain of insight that surely might have been gleaned through Claires Google addiction or sketching with one of her left-handed artist friends, perhaps. The biggest problem with this subplot is that it ends up making the whole book feel too weighty and too similar: its not a Degas bathing series, but rather a bunch of Warhol printsvariations on a theme that may do wonders in the art world, but not so much in the literary context.

In all, I enjoyed The Art Forger less for the story than for the art trivia, though I do have to commend Shapiro for getting across so richly Claires passion for her work. As a literary thriller its not especially thrilling, but as a lengthy journey into art and the strange things that art moves people to do, its quite fascinating. What is it about the fine arts that moves us so much, and certain pieces in particular? That sees people hide away masterpieces in private collections for their own eyes only? Why do people go to such extraordinary lengths to claim a piece by a master? And what does it mean when a forgery is so perfect that it cant be differentiated from the originalwhat is true, and at that, what is real?

'Rating: star Narrative layers and Barbara Shapiros The Art Forgerstar Narrative layers and Barbara Shapiros The Art Forgerstar Narrative layers and Barbara Shapiros The Art Forgerblankstar Narrative layers and Barbara Shapiros The Art Forgerblankstar Narrative layers and Barbara Shapiros The Art Forger (good)


With thanks to Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill (via Netgalley) for the review copy

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