I almost invariably have reservations when it comes to the fictional portrayal of artists. Writers, too. But especially artists. I remember not especially believing the character of Gulley Jimson (remember him, in The Horse's Mouth?) at a time when he was the archetype of the fictional artist/protagonist. It seems that the temptation to romanticize a creative character is irresistible.
This thought occurred as I finished the best-selling novel by B. A. Shapiro, The Art Forger…
… which is otherwise a terrific read. I felt ambivalent about her artist/narrator Claire Roth. But first the good stuff. Shapiro has a great story, and it's well told. She interweaves three narrative threads: Claire's current story, told from her own point of view; her back-story, printed in bold to avoid confusion; and the (fictional) story of (the real) Isabella Stewart Gardner's (fictional) relationship with Edgar Degas, told in epistolary form of (again fictional) contemporaneous letters to her niece.
Sounds complicated, but it's really a neat narrative package, and Shapiro juggles the balance between imaginative fiction and historical fact with grace and ease. The three threads involve plenty of skullduggery, centered around the famous, real--and as yet unsolved--theft of masterpieces, including several works by Degas, from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. Shapiro writes convincingly about the plight of the artist in a contemporary art world contaminated by celebrity and money, and about the dominant role of elitist museums and galleries. There's just the right measure of suspense, which builds towards the book's slightly unbelievable but delightfully wacky climax.
So let's talk about Claire. There's much to like about her. She's off-beat, and vulnerable in the way that artists often are, torn between a stormy emotional life and a dedication to her art; and as a consequence makes the kind of bad decisions that get her into trouble. There's a pattern to her relationship with men, in which she wavers between quasi-childish dependency and a fierce desire to fulfill herself as an independent woman. On the plus side of this character, too, is Shapiro's excellent and thoroughly convincing description of her technical skills. We're really in the studio with her, watching her at work and enjoying every moment of her process. I learned some fascinating detail about paint and canvas, and the forger's craft.
My problem--am I being picky?--comes with the professional career path with which the author credits her protagonist. As the personal friend of many artists and a long-time observer of the national art scene, I was skeptical about Claire's rise from art student and mistress of a "Famous Artist" to master-forger to superstar artist in her own right. No matter the obstacles and misadventures, it was a little too glib to be believable to anyone who frequents the underside of the art world, where thousands of truly gifted artists struggle to be included in a group show, let alone leap from nothing more than notoriety and scandal into a big-time gallery that is hyped (fictionally) to the heights of a Gagosian or a Zwirner. The truth is that great forgers are rarely great artists, and great artists rarely forgers. Claire moves too easily, for my comfort and credulity, between the two, and leaves me with that small "yes, but" in the back of my mind just when I want to be unequivocally convinced.
But I read. I got hooked. I chuckled, held my breath. And kept turning the pages faster as I neared the end. As I said, "The Art Forger" is a really good read.