Saturday, January 4, 2014

Of Art, Novels, and Forgeries

Last month my eldest was well into her Nutcracker run, so when it stormed one Saturday and she had two performances, I sat out the snow in a bookstore and read Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch, cover to cover.

The book is more of a tiered cake than a Tartt, as it comes in at some 740++ pages, so gentle readers can imagine how long the day was.  But it was a lovely spree, with nothing to focus on but my novel.

It's no plot secret that the titular goldfinch refers to a painting in a museum (currently on display at the Frick), a portrait of said bird.  I've been thinking of portraits a good deal lately, as well as forgeries and fakes, in an aesthetic literary context (I may offer a seminar on the "literary hoax".) 

The New York Times, at summer's end, printed an article about one gallery dealer who commissioned a painter to do up some Basquiats, Pollocks, and Rothkos, among others. Here is a response piece in "praise" of forgeries.

 And there's a new exhibit at Springfield Museums in Massachusetts called Intent to Deceive: Fakes and Forgeries in the Art World, which opens later this month. One forgery, "Head of Christ," even had its own security personnel accompany it in the transAtlantic flight from the Netherlands. (All the portraits featured in this post are forgeries from that exhibit. Many are from the collection of Mark Forgy, who wrote a book (below) about one of the artists and who has an almost perfect last name for such an investigation.) 

I can imagine that it would be a tremendous blow to learn that a painting one believed to be by one celebrated artist is actually by another painter.  But I've also been thinking about a different kind of art fraud (the term is loosely used, as you'll learn), one prompted by some antiquing and novel reading.

Do gentle readers know Edith Wharton's The Custom of the Country?  It's one of my favourite Wharton novels, with a social-climbing, thoroughly unlikeable heroine who's the product of "new money," the aggressive and determined entrepreneurial culture.Without giving away the plot, this midwestern lass moves with her family from the cornfields to New York City, where she actively pursues husbands, depending on their social position and perceived wealth.  And she learns that status and wealth do not always go hand in hand.

The novel ends in a splendid New York City home, which has its walls covered with ancestral portraits, though none of them are of the owner's family. He's purchased them all from Europe, and on one hand they function as hunting trophies, the spoils of looting aristocratic families in need of money, and on the other hand they look toward what would become a new American pasttime--antiquing--or even its more humble cousin--American picking.

I confess (does this need to be a confession?) to LOVING vintage portraits of people I don't know.  One of my first purchases when I moved here was a very old, quite small oil painting of a grandfather with a lush white beard, formal suit.  In December during my east coast swing I saw two more portraits that were beautiful--a mother and daughter--and I continue to think about them.  Perhaps as we move more and more into the digital realm these objects will become more precious.

I think I'd be quite happy in a house filled with beautiful portraits of people I don't know, to whom I'm not related.  It's kind of an art fraud, but if I really think about the concept, I am related to the portraits, just not by biology.  I relate to them through their aesthetic appeal, through the warmth in the subjects' eyes, through the collection of my haphazard aesthetic family.  And I'd hope that the paintings, if they come alive at night while the flesh-and-blood humans have gone to sleep, might find a community among themselves too.


GSL said...

I actually am reading Custom of the Country and am fairly early on. I turned away from your post just as you said "without giving away the plot... it's about a Midwest family..." I've been burned a few times before in just such a manner and still haven't forgiven the transgressors. It is the next book club selection over at scheduled for February 1 which I was going to alert you to. We did Little Women last month and the discussion was quite spirited. I am far enough long to know that a Sargent-like portrait artist may feature prominently as events unfold. We would love to have Miss C join in.
Excellent post!

Miss Cavendish said...

Oh, fantastic! I'll have a look at the book club. And do return to my "plot" when you finish the novel and we'll discuss!