One of the three women of focus in María Gainza’s latest novel is Enriqueta Macedo, a sort of Anna Wintour figure towering over the art valuations department of Ciudad Bank in Argentina. Of course, when I refer to Anna Wintour here, I am picturing the ice queen of Vogue (angular bob, Chanel sunglasses), but I have filled in everything with the fictional Miranda Priestly, played by Meryl Streep, in the film adaptation of The Devil Wears Prada. Priestly was a much more entertaining, love-to-hate imitation of Wintour. And even though I’ve seen the documentary The September Issue, where the real Wintour appears in an attempt to shed the “devil” from her reputation, whenever I see a photograph of Wintour, my memory chooses Streep. That’s the power of imitation, or of art in general. It can seduce its viewer, fill in gaps of knowledge with its drama, and influence opinion over reason. Is the imitation more real? That’s neither here nor there. Who is the real Wintour, anyway? Who cares. My opinion was formed long before I heard Wintour’s voice in The September Issue. It was solidified when I watched Streep squeeze Anne Hathaway to the point of resignation.
Imitation, or more specifically, forgery, is the central subject of Gainza’s Portrait of an Unknown Lady, translated by Thomas Bunstead. Our nameless narrator (who’s only once referred to as Señorita M.—María perhaps?), a former art critic, takes us back to her early days in the Buenos Aires art scene, when she was a young woman eager for experience. M. becomes Enriqueta Macedo’s protégé, and at first, it’s a real Devil Wears Prada situation. When Enriqueta says “café,” our narrator asks, “What size?” But that’s just a brief prelude to what M. discovers about her new boss. Enriqueta is much more interesting than a mere art world power player. In addition to being one of Argentina’s preeminent art authenticators, Enriqueta is integral to Argentina’s forgery business, because she authenticates paintings that she happens to know are fake.
This is the crux of the novel, and Enriqueta brings our narrator in on the scheme early, seducing her through questions like: “Can forgery not give as much pleasure as an original? Isn’t there a point when fakes become more authentic than originals? And anyway . . . isn’t the real scandal the market itself?”
That line takes place in a sauna, where the two women, down to swimsuits, discuss Enriqueta’s illicit moonlighting. At about the same time, we feel Gainza having a bit of fun in this criminal territory, and Bunstead, as translator, is able to render her voice with equal enthusiasm. “O sauna! O great leveler! With bellies on display, there is nothing to tell the millionaire from the beggar, the low-down criminal from the most distinguished of citizens.” The American reader will feel that Gainza is touching on our present moment here—the incredible wealth disparity between the poor and middle classes and the millionaires and billionaires who deal in civilization’s great art. Following the thought, as far as crimes go, there’s something victimless about forgery, because from the artist’s point-of-view (Enriqueta and our narrator are artists in their own way), millionaires have too much money, and when governments fail to tax the rich and equalize opportunity, people like Enriqueta must take matters into their own hands.
Our narrator and Enriqueta are “identical souls . . .. two romantics, rebels to the bourgeoisie and to that whole way of seeing the world: the buying way.” Through their friendship, our narrator’s life gets more interesting. From the little we know about Señorita M. at the start, we put together that her life is lacking both direction and what Enriqueta provides her: thrill. Now she meets forgers leading obscure lives, graduates of fine arts academies who never quite broke into the art scene. They congregate at the Hotel Melancholical, a sort of Chelsea Hotel for the fine arts outcasts and emigrés of Buenos Aires.
It is in the Hotel Melancholical where we meet our second woman of focus, Renée, a master forger. Enriqueta had met her when they were both students at the Fine Arts Academy, where they were shown how to imitate great artists, “which is how painting is taught in art schools.” Renée’s specialty is reproducing the work of Mariette Lydis, the Austrian-Argentine painter and illustrator who may be altogether unknown to the casual reader—I only learned of her through this novel. The real Lydis fled Nazi-occupied Europe for Argentina, where she lived until 1970, mainly creating portraits of female couples and children in a dark and muted, art-deco style. For a time, Lydis’s work is red-hot, and Renée can not only imitate her, but paint in her style—which is what differentiates Renée from the other forgers at the Hotel Melancholical. Renée and Enriqueta combine to form a forgery operation nonpareil until the demand for Lydis dries up. Renée disappears while Enriqueta continues her certification scheme with other forgers until her unexpected death.
Some years pass and our narrator has left art valuations for a life as an art critic, which she views as another scheme adjacent to forgery. “You see the object, you translate the vision into words and add any speculation you deem relevant. If no vision comes, the artwork can also be written about using words that are not your own, other people’s words artfully reassembled. I wasn’t fooling myself: reviews of the visual arts were the most neglected strand in all the supplements, meaning you could get away with writing whatever you liked.” Gainza brings up interesting questions about the ethics of criticism. Our narrator has developed some sway and her influence is respected. She’s not fully engaged, nor does she love her work, but her name in print can be a “high-impact weapon” and while she’s not authenticating forged works anymore, she’s still blowing hot air into the art speculation bubble. As an author reviewing another author’s novel, this was a little reminder that we critics do have a responsibility to the truth. We must shut out the noise of the market, resist what’s trending, and refrain from giving out hyperbole like it’s candy.
And then the real rebellion begins in the heart of our critic, once M. is called upon by an old acquaintance, Lozinski, to help hype up interest in Mariette Lydis once again. Lozinski has come into possession of some of the real Lydis’s personal effects. There’s a bit of puzzling exposition surrounding the origin of said possessions that may require occasional backtracking. Yes, we were once dealing in forgeries by Mariette Lydis but are now dealing in the actual effects of the real Mariette Lydis, which include some drawings and lithographs.
There’s nothing too amazing in the bundle—charcoal sketches, a pearl necklace, postcards, a birch branch—but with the right writer drumming up the hype, Operation Lydis is underway. Here’s where Gainza has tremendous fun with fakery, and where her inventiveness and language breathe a new dimension into the novel. M. creates the auction catalog and concocts a story behind each object. These objects tell the biography of Mariette Lydis, our third woman of interest, through twenty-six knickknacks. The catalog itself is interpolated into a chapter. It’s this fashionable combination of fiction and nonfiction that gives the novel its playfulness.
Less successful is the second half of the novel. Coming off of the lucrative Operation Lydis, M. leaves her life as an art critic to write a biography of Lydis’s master forger, Renée, who had disappeared before Enriqueta’s death. It’s a reflection of the first half of the book, where M. builds a portrait of a lady through an art catalog. Gainza, through her narrator, now attempts to build a portrait of Renée through police reports and interviews with Renée’s old acquaintances. When the art one leaves behind can tell a story, what does that mean for the forger? Renée’s life, while interesting, doesn’t generate the kind of narrative propulsion one hopes for. She is both mystery and disappointment, both to the narrator and, sadly, to the reader. M. doesn’t have enough to write her book, and the novel becomes a sort of catalog of M.’s failure to uncover the truth of a person. This is a recurring theme—both Lydis and Renée are impossible to know from M.’s vantage point. M. too, without a name, is that sort of faceless narrator who reveals occasional details about herself, but whom we never really get to know. She’s only visible though her obsessions: Enriqueta, Lydis, and Renée.
Gainza’s ideas about art and value are compelling throughout, and she is certainly adept at drawing parallels between imitation, identity, and truly knowing something or someone. The issue is that reading about the metaphoric parallels in this novel is like viewing paintings in a gallery. Gainza’s ideas are on display, we can see them and recognize their thematic importance, but they never really feel engaged, nor do they produce satisfying dramatic outcomes. In a sense, there’s little to feel here, but loads to admire. That said, this is also the kind of artful novel whose intention isn’t to satisfy dramatically. The plot, if any, is a muted tone of gray. There and not there. Gainza is much more interested in presenting a portrait of three (actually, four, including M.) women as they rebel against the art world and the select few who get to partake in it. The proletariat may well get to share in the pleasure of art by visiting museums, but who owns its true value? Gainza’s three women are each, in their own way, raising a big middle finger to Art, Inc.
As I mentioned, before reading Portrait of an Unknown Lady, I was completely ignorant of the artist Mariette Lydis. Although the auction catalog M. produces and all of Lydis’s paintings in the novel are forgeries, Gainza has actually resurrected Lydis’s spirit. It hovers over the dark hotel rooms of the Hotel Melancholical and the wide boulevards of Buenos Aires. In the novel, the narrator explains the concept of “Resurrection Men,” those responsible for reviving a long-forgotten artist, hype men essentially, to increase a work’s value. Which brings me back to my idea of the fictional Miranda Priestly leaving a bigger impression, at least in my mind, than the real Anna Wintour. Gainza has, intentionally or not, resurrected an artist, championed the unknown Mariette Lydis, and given the fictional Lydis a space to live in the reader’s imagination. Forgery or not, one always leaves the gallery with a certain impression.
© 2022 by Alex Gilvarry. All rights reserved.