Sunday, January 7, 2001
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Posted on: Sunday, January 7, 2001

Novel on Paris art forgeries skims over moral dilemmas

By Aimee Maude Sims
Associated Press

"THE FORGER" by Paul Watkins. Picador, hardback, $25.

"What’s the difference between a painting that was done only by Rembrandt and one that was done partly by him?"

"A hell of a lot of money."

And perhaps your life.

Paul Watkins’ novel "The Forger" paints a tale of survival and deception against the backdrop of Paris on the eve of the Nazi invasion.

David Halifax, a young, career-driven American painter, is summoned to Paris on a mysterious art scholarship. There, under the tutelage of an old Russian soldier who was once a genius of the art world, Halifax learns that a painting’s worth is in the eye of the beholder, and that his hand had better be sharper than any beholder’s eye.

Halifax sells out his high hopes of perfecting his craft and seeing the sights his long-dead father saw to become a forger in the Paris art underworld. Along the way, he and his new business associates are confronted by some challenging questions:

What is loyalty? Is it fighting a public battle to defeat greater evil, or privately walking both sides of the fence and risking one’s life to win small victories?

What does it mean to be an artist? Must you force one more unique voice into the milieu or can the skills of mimicry, lip-synching and characterization be just as valued?

And what attracts a person to a van Gogh anyway? Is it the authorship of the painting, or the connection you make with it?

"They are drawn to it," explains Halifax’s art dealer, "because of the thought that van Gogh touched that canvas, because his muscles worked the spatulas that laid on the paint so thickly. That it was his madness making him do it. They want to touch something that has been touched by someone whose name is immortal. Because it was there when he was there. That’s what they pay for."

And pay they do: a Corot for a Rembrandt, a Cranach for a Picasso, although it’s Halifax’s madness that directs the spatulas to van Gogh-like perfection as he creates forgeries of Hitler’s favorites to be traded for France’s most cherished masterpieces, using an exchange rate of blood and fear.

Watkins’ novel re-creates a complex time in history, when an artist’s soul was measured against a tyrant’s whim. And the winner was always the same.

Halifax faces his guilt about faking genius, but what about the sting of fueling artistic corruption by kowtowing to a tyrant?

Although Watkins has mastered using details to enliven his writing and has crafted an unusual and worthy story, some of his characters’ personality flaws lack substance and the plot has some weaknesses. Halifax’s sentimental need to trace his father’s footsteps disappears suddenly midway through the story. Also, the book starts slowly, ever so gradually charging the atmosphere as the invasion approaches. But once war arrives, the only sustaining tension is that the stakes become higher.

The U.S. government confirmed in 1945 that the Nazis had looted about one-fifth of the world’s most valued art, confiscating pieces labeled "Entartete Kunst" ("Degenerate Art") - or simply art displeasing to Hitler. Today, art collectors and curators of family collections are still fighting for the return of these stolen treasures. However, Watkins’ novel shies away from considering some of that era’s more difficult moral dilemmas.

A deeper exploration of the characters’ inner moral struggles would have given readers more to enjoy in this novel.

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