The Art Forger a Good Mystery, but No Masterpiece

By B.A. Shapiro
Algonquin Books ISBN: 978-1616201326
·      * * ½

Barbara Shapiro certainly knows a juicy topic when she sees it and, in New England, they don’t get much juicier than the 1990 heist at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Thieves, disguised as Boston policemen, talked their way into the Stewart after hours, subdued two night watchmen, and made off with 13 masterpieces valued at over $500 million, including works from Manet, Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Degas. Twenty-three years later, the Gardner robbery is one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of our time. In March of 2013, the Boston Globe revealed that investigators have turned attention again to one of the guards on duty (though he’s passed two lie detector tests). Thus far, every trail has gone cold or led to a dead end.

Shapiro’s delicious hook is to assume that one of the paintings has surfaced, one by Degas titled After the Bath. (No such work exists; this is Shapiro’s invention based on a famed series of bathers that Degas did paint.) Collector Aiden Markel secretly has the work, which he has secured through some very shady contacts and double-dealing, and wants to enlist artist Claire Roth in a dangerous scheme that she’s told will restore the painting to the Gardner, put much-needed money into her starving artist’s pocket, and lead to a one-woman gallery show of her own. The question is, who can be trusted?

Claire certainly needs a break. She was once the paramour of art world sensation Isaac Cullion, a former whiz kid who hasn’t had an idea in years. Out of love, Roth paints a work upon which Cullion signed his own name. It took the art world by storm and resurrected Cullion’s reputation. Alas, Cullion left Claire for another woman before committing suicide, and her insistence that she actually painted Cullion’s masterpiece is rejected by “experts” and viewed as a contributing factor in Cullion’s death. So say that Claire’s reputation is mud is an understatement. Years later she pays the rent by teaching classes at a local juvenile lockup, and by copying masterpieces for one of those companies will sell you a reproduction of a Degas for a few hundred bucks. Claire is more than good at this task—she’s convincing.

The real action starts when Markel asks Claire to copy After the Bath—from the original. Her task is nothing less than forgery; she needs to convince world art experts that her work is that of Degas, so everything must check out—the age of the canvas, the chemistry of the pigments she uses, and every single brush stroke. There is no margin for error. The canvas?  A Jean-Louis Ernest Meissonier that happens to be exactly the right size and is such a minor work that no one will ever miss it, so Claire’s first job is to strip it. It’s also the first of a whole lot of improbable “coincidences” in the novel. Meissonier was once considered an important classicist, hence obliterating one of his works isn’t likely. Another convenient invention is Amelia, Isabella Stewart Gardner’s niece and secret confidant. No such person ever existed, but never mind….
Claire begins to have serious misgivings about the brushwork of the alleged Degas and begins to wonder if she’s copying a copy of a copy. (How meta!) I will not spoil the mystery with any more detail. It’s a pretty good yarn, actually, even when aspects of it spill into Dan Brown territory. It’s probably best if you consume this book the way you might a beach novel, though I recommend you keep an iPad handy to find images of real art works mentioned, as these will supplement your enjoyment.

Shapiro isn’t a great stylist and she’s definitely guilty of contrivances that make sense only within the questionable logic systems she has constructed. If you think too much, you’ll wonder why an artist no one ever heard of knows more about one of the world’s most famous painters than art experts. You may also find Claire Roth too immature, too insecure, and too inexperienced to be part of such an elaborate ruse. And you’ll certainly wonder why all of her friends act as if they are college sophomores rather than adults in their 30s and 40s. But, as I said, try not to ask these questions. If you’re one of those readers that can simply immerse yourself in a thorny who-dunnit, Shapiro’s novel is a cut above those knock-‘em-out potboilers you find in the ten for a buck remainder bins.

You may also acquire a bit of art history knowledge along the way, be overcome by a sudden desire to visit the Gardner, and gain respect for the pure painters who crank out copies of masterpieces to go above living-room sofas across the land. It also reminds us that the wildly eccentric Gardner needs a fictional treatment of her own. All of these are good things, “good” being an adjective I’d also apply to Shapiro’s novel. It’s no Degas, but it’s not a bad Meissonier.—Rob Weir


Hors Satan: Masterpiece or Rubbish?

HORS SATAN (Outside Satan.)
Directed by Bruno Dumont
3B Productions 110mins, in French with English subtitles (one nude/sex scene.)
No stars or 5 stars? (* * *)

Bruno Dumont is best known for religious fables that make absolutely no concessions to a popular audience. His previous picture, Hadewijch, centered on a religious novice so devout, she was thrown out of her convent. His current work is even more extreme. Set in a bleak, thinly populated, haunting corner of Pas de Calais near Boulogne, where a ragged ascetic figure played by David Dewaele, resembles the student who played Christ in Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St Matthew. He trawls the desolate countryside bordering the nearby beach - a mix of wild tangled undergrowth, twisted bending trees and blank sand. He sleeps rough in this isolated area in what looks like the remains of a building where just a small 90deg brick corner is left. Fed by local families, he stops for silent prayers gazing over the shimmering horizons towards the sea. He kills two people: the abusive father of Elle, a teenage girl played by Alexandra Lematre and a forest guard played by Christophe Bon who had bothered the same girl. He also refuses the sexual advances of the teenage girl but makes love to a stray back-packer, Juliette Bacquet who then appears, at orgasm, to enter a state of ecstasy.
The film appears to be dealing with notions of the closeness of the sacred and demonic, the idea that good and evil, the Christ-like and the Satanic, are different sides of the same coin. The dialogue is minimal and there’s no music – all sound is natural: wind, rain, footsteps, voices and cries. But maybe Dumont has other things in mind. There are many problems with this film. Heavily resembling Pasolini’s and Antonioni’s work, it’s not an easy ride. Its Bresson-like silences, the crawling camerawork over the wild landscape, and the slowness in reaching any conclusions ensure that viewers will have to pay sharp attention.  It could be a masterpiece; it could also be utter drivel. In the end, I suspect there are elements of each. Some reviewers have noted Dumont’s seeming lack of empathy with the people in the village. Other complaints concern the main character’s aloof behavior. Some criticism is off base and reflect desires for a comprehensive study that are not borne out by the film’s overarching aesthetics. Did viewers expect the villagers to hold dinner parties? This isn’t a Hollywood thriller or a stifling romantic-comedy and it’s a sure thing it will not get released at a mall near you! To catch it you’ll need to track down an independent cinema, a college film series, or wait for its DVD release. Or you could jet off to London, where it seems to be doing better box office than other places. --Lloyd Cellus


Ben Bedford: Skilled Songwriter of Moving Tales

What We Lost
Waterbug 111
* * * *

What is it about the Midwest that causes songwriters and storytellers to crop up like late summer wheat? Illini Ben Bedford knows how to tell and retell great stories; he also knows that the bittersweet ones pack the biggest wallop. Or, as he puts it on “Cloudless,” my favorite track from his latest album, “A fallen angel sings the sweetest song.” The eponymous title track of What We Lost is the album’s central theme, but Bedford gives us far more than a melancholy collection of regret songs. In his subtle narratives, loss inspires search, and it yields things we never expected to find. On “Fallen,” it’s two riverboat men who drift into forbidden love; on “Empty Sky”–said to be partly autobiographical–it’s a latter-day Adam and Eve who find plenty of happiness after their metaphorical expulsion from Eden.

The reedy-voiced Bedford also pays tribute to past mentors. The poet Vachel Lindsay is the subject of “Vachel,” which is part dirge, part tribute, and part life lesson wrapped in the deliberate pacing and stripped down instrumentation of early Leonard Cohen. “Fire in His Bones,” which honors delta blues artist Charlie Patton (c. 1887-1934), is incongruously (but touchingly) rendered in acoustic folk style. Bedford is capable of country blues, though, as he showcases on “John the Baptist,” a song that sounds like something Greg Brown needs to add to his repertoire. In true Bedford style, John the Baptist’s message is ambiguous; he’s an inspiration, but he’s a fanatic akin to a TV evangelist. He may have even been crazy but–as Bedford sings–“a madman’s truth is still the truth.” The problem is that “truth” sometimes lies buried (“Cahokia”), or lost in a maze of injustice (“The Ballad of Harlington Wood,” a post Pine Ridge shootout song). Bedford appropriately ends his crisp ten-track collection with “Guinevere is Sleeping.” What do we make of Guinevere? Check out the myriad legend cycles before you decide. Maybe she’s just the flaxen-haired innocence into whose eyes we all long to gaze.

There’s some excellent songwriting on this album. I suppose the music wears the “folk” label, but there are also very tasteful Nashville production values, and Bedford mixes styles enough to keep the music from wearing a groove into our expectations. I get the feeling we’ll be hearing a lot more of this man’s songs.--Rob Weir