Awash With Forgeries


Jan van Eyck, Crucifixion and Last Judgement, c. 1440 (detail)

From Frieze:

Novels are awash with forgeries – in fact there are more of them than original works of art. A provisional explanation: the art work in fiction is less likely to be the basis for some epiphany than to be a MacGuffin, a dramatic device whose physical form is – as Alfred Hitchcock explained to François Truffaut – ‘beside the point’. All that matters is that the MacGuffin ‘must seem to be of vital importance to the characters’; in its purest distillation, which Hitchcock believed he had achieved in North by Northwest (1959), the MacGuffin is ‘nothing at all!’ Despite this helpful malleability of form, for ease of plotting the canny novelist must pay heed to the issue of transportability: the MacGuffin has to be able to change hands swiftly. This is possibly the reason that forged paintings outnumber sculptures in modern fiction, comprising anything from Hieronymus Bosch’s Seven Deadly Sins (in William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, 1955) to Hubert van Eyck’s The Gaping Mouth of Hell (in Robertson Davies’ What’s Bred in the Bone, 1985), from a Christian icon (in Tom McCarthy’s Men in Space, 2007) to knocked-off versions of a missing British painter (in Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley Under Ground, 1970). Of course the forgery simply offers better dramatic possibilities, as Highsmith’s antihero Tom Ripley realizes, quoting Han van Meegeren, the great forger of Vermeer: ‘An artist does things naturally, without effort […] A forger struggles, and if he succeeds, it is a genuine achievement.’ But – just as gallerists in popular fiction are typically feckless spivs, critics are embittered alcoholics and collectors are benevolent fools – the prevalence of the forged work of art is doubtless also wrapped up with a sneaking desire to expose art-world expertise as no more than a profitable sham.

“The Lives and Deaths of Fictional Artists”, Sam Thorne, Frieze

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