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María Gainza: Portrait of an Unknown Lady review – queens of the unreal | reviews, news & interviews

María Gainza: Portrait of an Unknown Lady review – queens of the unreal

María Gainza: Portrait of an Unknown Lady review – queens of the unreal

Smoke and mirrors in the Buenos Aires art world

Illusions of reality: María GainzaRosana Schoijett

It’s no surprise that the theme of fakes and forgery appeals so much to writers, who traffic in plausible illusions and often believe (in María Gainza’s words) that truth is “just another well-told story”.

From the age of Balzac and Zola to modern iterations in the novels of authors such as Michael Frayn, Donna Tartt and Maylis de Kerangal (in her recent Painting Time), shelves of fiction have drawn their plots around the fine pencil line that divides authenticity from imposture in art. In this, Gainza’s second novel, the Argentinian author – and former art critic – adds a fresh item to a well-stocked fictional gallery of disguises, deceits and trompe l'oeil stunts. If the result resembles a set of spirited and playful sketches more than a grand, unified canvas, Portrait of an Unknown Lady does show effectively why fakes will always catch the literary eye.

 Our narrator is a sardonic Buenos Aires critic who checks into a city hotel under an assumed name with a story – or rather several stories – of art-world skullduggery to tell. Her friendship with the elegant and mysterious, chain-smoking Enriqueta, “a work of art in her own right” who authenticates paintings for a bank, has opened the door to a band of artist-tricksters active in the Buenos Aires of the 1960s. Based in a bohemian flop-house, the Hotel Melancholical, they aimed to strike a blow against bourgeois pretence and rapacity by “cheating the rich”. The merry pranksters specialised in high-society portraits supposedly painted by Mariette Lydis. Now, Lydis really existed. A good chunk of the book – framed as entries to an auction catalogue – engagingly traces her passage from pre-war Vienna via avant-garde circles in London and Paris to Buenos Aires, where she lived (until 1970) and flourished after Europe “slid off her like the shed skin of a reptile”. Lydis’s life-partner, as we learn, was Erica Marx: a granddaughter of Karl.


In Portrait of an Unknown Lady the baton – or brush – of counterfeiting with a conscience passes from “one queen of making things up” to another. The resourceful Lydis restlessly reinvents herself, and her style; Enriqueta validates the imitations that help siphon funds from the elite towards the counter-cultural mavericks; finally, the narrator’s twisting path leads in the direction of a gifted, shadowy “original forger” known as Renée. Given her “aura of a legend”, as a shape-shifting magician who looks in a rare blurry photo like a “Valkyrie stuffed into a tailored dress”, the quest for Renée promises a satisfying end to Gainza’s upscale romp. Sadly, the hunt, and the plot, peters out a bit. A plodding legalistic detour charts another case of forgery, with a thick impasto of editorial reflections from the narrator on art, truth and lies. These tend to feel sludgy when they should be crisp. 

 Thomas Bunstead’s translation smartly juggles the different registers of Gainza’s prose – with its mimicry of critical art-speak, dealers’ jargon, law-court legalese – but the sheer variety of tone itself hints at a softening of focus and outline. I turned from this Portrait sensing that a keen mind and a sharp eye had not quite fixed the form that would deliver a balanced composition. Perhaps the protean, enigmatic Mariette Lydis deserved a novel of her own. 


  • Portrait of an Unknown Lady by María Gainza, translated by Thomas Bunstead (Harvill Secker, £14.99) 

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