Art mystery keeps you in suspense as you learn
The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro, Algonquin Books, 2012, 360 pages, ISBN 978-1-61620-132-6, $23.95.
By Donald H. Harrison
SAN DIEGO –This work of fiction is a compelling story in which the events of three time periods are laced through a single narrative, then tied up together in a literary bow. Novelist Shapiro sustains interest, remarkably so, in all three subplots of The Art Forger.
In chronological order, these include 1) a late 19th century tale about Isabella Stewart Gardner, a woman who traveled through Europe to collect a fabulous art collection for her Gardner Museum; 2) a 21st-century story of a student who was shunned by the art world after she revealed that she painted a masterpiece that her famous artist lover took credit for; and 3) a present-day story of the same woman artist, older and marginally wiser, who accepts a commission from a wealthy and reputable art gallery owner to forge–or is it simply to reproduce?–a famous Degas painting that had been stolen from the Gardner Museum in a celebrated heist.
Although she has incredible talent as an artist, protagonist Claire Roth is but an ordinary mortal as she sidesteps moral issues in her quest to redeem her reputation and become recognized as one of the world’s best contemporary artists. As she teaches us some of the finer points of art forgery — such as baking a canvas to make a new painting seem older–we watch her become more deeply enmeshed in a caper that we know can’t end well for all its co-conspirators.
Still, excitement and suspense build as Roth paints After The Bath V (an imaginary Degas painting) and she suspects that the masterpiece she is forging may itself be a forgery. That sends her, between coats, to her computer and to museum archives to see if she can validate her theory.
Thus, we have an interesting situation in which a perpetrator is also a detective. Throw in how the artist and the gallery owner seduce each other and you have a fast-moving story that intrigues while it educates.
Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World. He may be contacted at email@example.com
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