Maria Gainza: Portrait Of An Unknown Lady


It sparks up your life when you meet an unusually interesting person with personal and intellectual panache. You look forward to their company and come away from it energised. Then, less so, and less so. The novelty fades and you begin to find them predictable. It happens with writers too, and it happened to me with this book. I loved Optic Nerve and looked forward to this one, La Luz Negra in the Spanish title. I wasn’t going to write about it because I was so disappointed, but it’s an interesting reading experience to find yourself suddenly on the alert, suspecting something is going wrong but willing to give the author the benefit of the doubt – until you aren’t. You suddenly decide, no, that’s it.

I was absorbed in the first half of the book, in which the unnamed narrator, an art critic, tells the story of Enriqueta, the distinguished mentor who got her involved in art crime, authenticating fakes painted by a little school of talented students. Enriqueta didn’t do this for the money: she wanted to raise the bar for art in general; the true measure of a painting, she said, was how good it was, not the accuracy of the signature in the corner….And anyway, isn’t the real scandal the art market itself?

Hmmm….so why play their game? Why not use her influence to champion those talented unknowns?

With such a knowledgeable mentor, you’d think the narrator would come to love art, but she doesn’t seem to. In her job as a critic she goes home after a show to sit at computer, get supposedly engaged review down, the succession of hackneyed phrases…empty language, language just to occupy column inches.

What she falls for is personalities – Enriqueta herself, the painter Marietta Lydis and the talented forger Renée. The second half of the book is a search for Renée, who would now be a very old woman if still alive. There’s lots of light and colour as she hears stories from lovers, enemies and those simply unimpressed by a flamboyant personality. The problem for me is that I found Renée a caricature of the bohemian femme fatale, and the narrative hadn’t convinced me that I should be so interested in her. I certainly didn’t feel, as the narrator does, that she approximates an immortal being, an angel or demon from the Paradise Lost illustrated by William Blake. Blake’s Paradise Lost illustrations, said Enriqueta, are all I believe in.

In the end it all seemed to crumble in my fingers. A theme that’s interesting in itself is played out in characters who aren’t subtle enough to do what might be done with it. If you want an engrossing exploration of authenticity, obsession and the enveloping allure of art, as the blurb for this book has it, read the wonderful Optic Nerve.

10 thoughts on “Maria Gainza: Portrait Of An Unknown Lady

  1. Optic Nerve is on my wishlist as I’ve heard nothing but great things about it from a range of readers, yourself included. What a shame that this new one failed to deliver…

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