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Art history is the queen of fables and a breeder of criminals. Such is the warning at the heart of La luz negra (which translates to The Black Light), the second novel by Argentine art critic-turned-fiction writer María Gaínza, published last year in Spanish. In a hotel room overlooking the cemetery of La Recoleta in Buenos Aires, gazing at the tombs of Eva Perón, Adolfo Bioy Casares, and Mariette Lydis, a middle-aged art critic traces her first steps into the world of art criminality. Guided by Enriqueta, the number-one art appraiser in the city and a key figure in a counterfeiting scheme, the critic’s story pays homage to the Argentine art politics of the 1960s, where art, life, and revolution were one and the same. “A good forgery, can it not furnish the same amount of pleasure as an original? At some point, isn’t the fake more real than the authentic? And in the end, isn’t the market the real scandal?” Enriqueta asks her once wide-eyed assistant. Naked in a steam room, the mentor reveals to her student the backstage of the local counterfeit art world, whose star is a recently vanished woman known as La Negra, the Black One. Before the young protagonist learns more, her mentor dies, leaving the former to mourn the past and untangle the crime at the heart of the city’s galleries and museums.
The second part of the novel develops into a Bolañesque detective story in search of La Negra, presumably the pseudonym of María Vargas, a painter working in the 1960s who was well-known in the bohemian circles of Buenos Aires. La Negra’s dark skin, piercing beauty, unruly personality, famous lovers, and sudden disappearance are infamous in the local bars and intellectual circles. According to local legend she was the most talented forger at the time, with an expertise in the paintings of Mariette Lydis, Antonio Berni, and Pedro Figari. Her copies, we are told, are part of museums and private collections even today. “She was an original forger,” the narrator states, perhaps echoing Gaínza’s provocative thoughts on Latin American modern art. In La Negra’s copies, sold mostly to European and American galleries and museums, there is an element of subversion in relation to an art world that places white names at the origins of aesthetic revolutions and Latin Americans artists as mere followers. There are many examples in Argentine literature of criminals becoming heroes, while the state, politics, empire, and the economy are portrayed as the real villains. With her novel, Gaínza addresses this long tradition by revealing the talented La Negra as a visionary artist, whose practice of questioning the foundations of art might be read as the lost link between politically committed Argentine art and the pieces handled by curators and sold in the market.
Jorge Luis Borges once suggested, in his labyrinthine way, that a writer is never sure if the incident provokes the tale or if the story creates the event. In Argentina, other writers have complicated this statement. In Artificial Respiration (1980), Ricardo Piglia once imagined an encounter between the Jewish writer Franz Kafka and the failed painter Adolf Hilter; in El Affair Skeffington (1992), María Moreno invented Dolly, an American who traverses the French rive gauche of the 1920s and attends parties with Gertrude Stein. But in La luz negra, Gaínza suggests that if the separation between fiction and reality is futile in literary fiction, in the art world those correspondences are indeed fertile (and worth good money).
The tone is set in the very first pages of the novel, when the art critic chooses to disguise herself under the pseudonym María Lydis, fusing the author’s name with that of Mariette Lydis, the Viennese painter who created kitschy portraits of the Argentine upper class. Later in the novel, the art critic is contacted by Enriqueta’s old team to write the catalogue for a suspiciously sudden discovery: the personal archive of the Austrian painter. The money will be used to fund the pension of an accomplished translator who was once a key figure in the literary scene and a good friend of La Negra, but who is now impoverished and almost forgotten. Within the threads of fiction, the novel has one conviction: Is not fantasy always at the core of art, as well as criticism, art history, and curating? The invented catalogue of Mariette Lydis’s personal archive, introduced by a masculine picture of Lydis and accompanied by improbable stories, embodies a pleasure that is unique to fiction, the bliss of writing and fantasizing about what could’ve been.
The “black light” is both a tool for the protagonist’s detective work and a thematic device; in the novel it is meant to search for those who stood in the shadows of the art world. An instrument for forensic investigators to trace blood, semen, saliva, or sweat, art appraisers also use the black light to distinguish the last stroke on a painting and, thus, the signature gestures of painters and their forgers. But Gainza focuses on the few who can see what is revealed under such a light. One of the most beautiful aspects of this novel are the bonds it illuminates between women, based on an unconventional expression of femininity: worn-out coats, twisted smiles, skin too brown for the white majority of Buenos Aires, a terrifying personality that dwarfs men, and a unique understanding of an art world that excludes them. La Negra, Enriqueta, and the art critic are “idénticas almas bajo distintos disfraces” (identical souls under different disguises). As she looks down at the cemetery, the narrator sees the black light as a way to resuscitate something savage, amid the tourists in leisure clothes and the curators in navy suits that swarm through the corridors of today’s museums and galleries. The novel delineates a countercultural artistic creation, which, in today’s art world, seems almost utopian.