“Since his death in 1932, fifteen monographs and countless scholarly articles have been written about Guillaume Barrineau and his work. There have also been six biographies, four documentaries, and even a novel in which he appears as character—a rather disreputable one, I’m afraid, but then the novel, like Barrineau, is French.”
She was good, this Millie Schonkenner. Though she looked young to be the curator of a major show, her self-assurance was without fissures; in fact, it was attractive and so was she with her red hair, designer dress, and good legs tapering down to spike heels. It was these stilettos I noticed first. While, to put it mildly, I can’t afford such footwear, I have a thing for them, an aesthetic affinity, I’d say, not a fetish. I suppose some of the guests had identical feelings about expensive modernist paintings, except that they could own them. Ms. Schonkenner’s shoes were distinctive. Not Prada or Monolo Blahnik, not Jimmy Chu; I had examined those catalogues the way some men do golf gear. These stilettos were jet black with curved straps, the usual pointed, closed toe; but the leather had some magical midnight-blue highlights and soles of the same jazzy hue. I found myself guessing: Gianvito Rossi, Isabel Marant? Maybe Christian Louboutin?
It was a happy crowd. They were pleased with themselves for being there, and Millie Schonkenner deftly reinforced the mood of self-congratulation. They rewarded her by laughing at her witticisms. She made them feel included, on the inside of something unimpeachable, culturally speaking, and that counted for a lot. I’d noticed that among the better educated populace of Los Angeles the yearning for cultural validation is endemic. Perhaps it’s owing to living on the left coast instead of the right one. So Millie Schonkenner made these folks feel valued, like philanthropists and connoisseurs. Above all, they were being thanked which was, presumably, the chief point of the dinner.
I stood at the back, arms at my sides, leaning against the wall by the big doors. I looked at my black shoes, so practical, so hideous. I had to wait for the speeches to wind up and the guests to depart; then my colleagues and I would clear the dessert plates and the coffee cups. A waitress waiting, uniform on her back, Oxfords on her feet, arms at her sides.
“I had the idea for this show long ago, when I was still in graduate school,” Millie was saying. “That’s right, believe it or not. I fell in love with Barrineau’s work and wrote my dissertation on him. I won’t tell you the title but, in German, it could sink a heavy cruiser.”
I touched the silk paneled wall, looked at the crystal sconces and beveled mirrors of the Bordeaux Room. The Beverly Wilshire Hotel is at 9500 Wilshire Boulevard. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, LACMA, where Millie Schonkenner landed her dream job, is just a few blocks down, at 5905. The choice of venue for the banquet was obvious; and, given all the well-heeled Francophiles among the guests, it had to be the Bordeaux Room. The Beverly Wilshire has as many stars as you can get, five of them; it’s like a pair of Giuseppe Zanottis, impressive and worth it, if you’ve got the dough.
“As we all know, Guillaume Barrineau was industrious, really prolific, yet his standards never slipped. His work is in museums all over the civilized world. Luckily, the University awarded me a travel grant so I was able to study a lot of his work by visiting museums. But, I’m greedy. I knew that the majority of Barrineau’s output was in private hands. In yours.”
I estimated the crowd at about sixty people, full capacity. The Bordeaux Room is multifunctional. It can be filled with tables, as it was that night, or chairs set in rows for presentations from the stage. Without all the chairs and tables, the place makes an elegant ballroom. The Bordeaux Room is French the way Grauman’s Theater is Chinese.
Millie wasn’t perfectly impeccable. She had a tendency to talk about herself when she shouldn’t. I understood. She was only a few years older than I am, fresh from graduate school, while I’m still in it. My field is Early Modern Europe—think Charles V and Cardinal Richelieu. The hotel calls me when they need me, and the money comes in handy. Anyway, I talk about myself or my work at the wrong times. My advisor, Professor Rheinach, was probably right when he observed that, in our twenties, we really believe the universe is an infinite sphere and we’re in the very middle of it. Professor Rheinach himself is over seventy and gets exasperated when he’s asked about his retirement plans. He once told me he would like to expire in the middle of his lecture on the persecution of the Huguenots. He’s a wise man who likes young people while many of his junior colleagues aren’t and don’t. I think he’d appreciate Millie Schonkenner.
“At my job interview, I told the Director about my idea for this show,” Millie was saying. “He must have liked it because here I am and there you are. The administration must have thought I’d be able to pull it off—which means charm you into loaning us your pictures. And you agreed, bless you. I know it was more than the promise of a dinner at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel and admission to today’s private opening. I believe we united in this enterprise because of our love of art in general and the astonishing work of Guillaume Barrineau in particular.”
Replete with gourmet fare and perhaps a little fuddled with grand cru drink, everybody applauded Millie and, I suppose, themselves. If Barrineau was a great artist and they owned one or two or three of his paintings, then, to that degree, they were great too.
It was getting late and I figured things were wrapping up, but Millie didn’t leave the stage. I was getting ancy. A paper on Huldrych Zwingli lay half done on the bridge table that served as my desk. I could see that my coworkers, comely one and all, were impatient too.
The applause stopped when Millie motioned for silence, palms down, as if bouncing a beach ball or landing a plane on a carrier. “I have a special treat for you all, a last-minute addition to the evening’s program. We’re fortunate to be joined by Mademoiselle Julie Prixendieu, who has flown in specially from France to be with us tonight. Mademoiselle Prixendieu is a direct descendant of the artist we are here to honor. She would like say a few words to you about her great-grandfather. Mademoiselle Prixendieu?”
A woman rose from one of the tables nearest the stage, the one with the museum’s bigwigs. Her age was difficult to fix; it often is with the bien soignée. Thirty to fifty, somewhere in there, I guess. She was slim, dark-haired, tall, wore a striking violet dress with a fringed blue scarf, and sling back pumps that looked like the pair of Valentinos I’d drooled over in Vogue. She climbed to the stage gracefully, took Millie’s proffered hand, but did so formally, then gripped the sides of the podium and began to speak in an enchanting accent and a bell-like voice.
“Yes, I am, to be sure, a direct descendant of Guillaume Barrineau—direct but not, hélas, legitimate. My great-grandfather had, so far as I know, three children but not even a single wife.”
There was scattered laugher of the same variety evoked by Millie, more polite than sincere, companionable, not hearty. Mlle. Prixendieu looked sternly out over the tables, and the mirth quickly petered out.
“My own profession,” she continued, “lies in the industrial art at which this city excels—that is to say, cinema. I do costuming and art direction. When it comes to the study of Guillaume Barrineau, I confess I am merely an amateur, albeit an interested one. I hope you will be kind enough to be patient with me. I was told by Kristin Scott Thomas that my English is not so bad, but that my accent is.”
There were deprecatory noises from several men. I expect they were fascinated by this sophisticated, striking, and exotic woman while their insecure wives and girlfriends were trying to size her up.
“I was pleased and surprised to be asked to join you this evening. Not many people know of my connection to the artist, but then few know as much about him as Mademoiselle Schonkenner.” Millie’s surname she pronounced ShowenkenAIRE.
“I hesitated. It is a long way to travel but I am between films and the Museum generously offered to pay all my expenses. Did they do the same for you?”
This rhetorical question elicited a quantity of genuine laughter. I couldn’t see Millie, who had returned to her place at the bigwigs’ table, but I imagine she was blushing.
“As I say, I am no scholar. I have not even read much about Barrineau. Nevertheless, there are a few things I should like to say about my great-grandfather and his work. You must understand, though, that these remarks derive from family history, which is always an oral history and erected on shifting sands.
“I shall begin with something quite definite and that ought to be pleasing to devotees of Barrineau’s work. For eighty years people have been saying that great-grandfather was under the influence of Fernand Léger, especially in what are called his peintures mécanistes, the ones mocked by a famous critic with a pair of glib and dismissive similes. I’m sure you know the sentence: ‘His chrysanthemums look like buzz saws, his women like locomotives.’ Oui, ses femmes comme des locomotives! To this he added the less famous but more interesting and perceptive verdict that Barrineau’s art is ‘full of tenderness and hatred.’ It is easy to say Barrineau’s mechanistic modernism was inspired by Léger’s style, called, also disrespectfully, le Tubisme. This is simply because Léger was born in 1881 and Barrineau in 1893. But, according to my grandmother, the case was just the opposite. That is to say, it was Guillaume who influenced Fernand, the younger who led the elder. They knew each other well, of course, and were close until their friendship ended. The two shared a bond that made them equals. I refer to their service in the Great War. Léger was gassed at Verdun; Guillaume was three times wounded and, apart from periods of convalescence, in combat more or less continuously for four years.
“Grandmother once told me that no one can understand her father without grasping what the war did to him, what he lost, and how he was deranged by it. What he lost was what all France lost--his generation, all the dearest friends of his youth. There is a group of paintings done near the end of Barrineau’s life which are considered by critics to be lyrical and serene, harkening back to the Impressionism of La Belle Époque, quite unlike the rest of his oeuvre. These are the plein-air landscapes done in 1930 and 1931. As Barrineau neglected to give them titles, the curators did so. They chose simple names: Dawn, Sunset, Noon, Portrait of Zouzou on a Picnic, Monsieur Torquemal Fishing, Country Cottage Near the Escaut, etcetera. Proper titles would have revealed their true significance: Dawn over Verdun, Sunset on the Somme, Noon at Ypres, La Zouzou Picnicking at Paschendaele, Monsieur Torquemal Fishing in the Marne, Cottage at Cambrai. All battlefields, bone yards one and all.
“Barrineau suffered from shell shock. What they now call PTSD. That is why he beat those two models, why he assaulted the teenage daughter of a gallery owner; it is behind all those barroom brawls and the infamous rift with Léger as well. Barrineau was tormented by dreams and memories like nightmares. Only through art was he able to achieve calm, relief, redemption. . . .”
Here Mlle. Prixendieu halted and looked over the audience of collectors, the plutocrats of whom, I later learned, her great-grandfather had said: “They are loathsome and absolutely vital.” Everyone could see that she had been carried away, had all but forgotten about us; but she quickly recovered herself and concluded with just two more sentences.
“The same, it occurs to me, might be said of the twentieth century. Merci et bon soir.”
People clapped and Millie made for the stage, but Mlle. Prixendieu did not relinquish the podium. “I fear to detain you further, but I have brought with me from Paris an uninvited guest. He is, I believe, waiting out in the mezzanine. He too would like to address a few remarks to you.”
She looked straight at me. “Ma Chère,” she said, “would you be so good as to summon him? His name is Laurens de Meester.”
The lenders stirred; all faces turned toward me. At the bigwig table there was consternation. Millie froze halfway up to the stage, stilettos trembling beneath her. I had no idea who this Laurens de Meester might be, but evidently she did.
I stepped out to the mezzanine. There wasn’t much going on at that hour. Plush carpets, piped Vivaldi, a few couples, a view of the lobby below. On a banquette across from the elevator I spotted a balding man, fiftyish. He was dressed in a well-cut tuxedo complete with patent leather shoes. His long, intelligent face was alarmingly pale, like a yeshiva scholar’s. Seeing me, he leapt to his feet and smiled. It was a rather foxy smile.
“Mr. Laurens de Meester?”
“In the flesh, such as it is,” he said jovially and in an accent I supposed must be Dutch. He leaned toward me conspiratorially. “May I go in?”
I held the high, padded door open for him, and Laurens de Meester strode into the Bordeaux Room with the confidence of Cary Grant or James Bond. Whatever was going on, it wasn’t boring.
Mlle. Prixendieu motioned for him to join her on the stage. There was no need as de Meester was already making his way with brisk agility through the maze of tables. He bounded up to the stage, stopped for a couple deep breaths, then took Mlle. Prixendieu’s hand. He bowed over and kissed it then conducted her to one of the chairs at the rear of the platform. The whole routine struck me as comical. Something’s definitely up with these two, I thought.
Meanwhile, Millie had sought a safe haven back with the bigwigs, under the protective wing of the Director, so to speak.
De Meester made himself comfortable at the podium and offered everybody his cunning grin.
“For those of you unfamiliar with my name and reputation—and, in all modesty, I must suppose that at least a few of you will be aware of both—I am an art forger, a rather successful one, with the exception of one regrettable slip, a moronic error. Three weeks ago I was released from the Bijlmerbajes, Amsterdam’s prison which, incidentally, is one of the few jails the Dutch government has yet to close for lack of trade. We Netherlanders are a law-abiding nation, a forgiving one too. I served only four years of my seven-year sentence. Good behavior after bad.”
He pointed to his right cheek. “I regret to appear before you so pasty-faced. The sun and I have only just be reintroduced to one another. . . . However, to business—for it is on business that I am here, the business of Barrineau. I shall try to explain everything precisely. Then, should you have any questions, I shall undertake to reply with equal clarity.”
He paused here and pulled up his sleeves to reveal his gold cufflinks.
“Now,” he resumed, “I love many artists and, if I may be permitted to say so, with a greater understanding and a more profound intimacy than the most devoted scholars and collectors. Among my favorites is Guillaume Barrineau whose great talent, I am certain, no one here will gainsay. To paint a Barrineau is to feel his pain, his rage, his loss, his tenderness. I say this so that you will not mistake me for a mere common criminal. Criminality is a necessary attribute of the art forger but scarcely sufficient. Only those capable of an empathetic leap, only those who can feel the soul behind the brushstroke will achieve real distinction in the craft. Therefore, while I am ashamed of my past misdeeds, I am nonetheless proud of my work. Believe me when I tell you that I have embarrassed the foremost experts in Europe and America. . . . But, as I keep saying, I am here on business.” Again he paused, looked left and right. “Excuse me. Would it be possible to have a glass of water?”
One of my male-model colleagues fetched it for him.
As de Meester took the glass he stared at the dude a bit creepily. “Thank you, young man. You know, you would have made a fine subject for Albrecht Dürer or rather, no, wait— I think rather Eustache le Suer.”
He smiled his vulpine smile. He drank his water. We waited.
“To business, then. At last. A business proposition, that is. I almost regret to inform you that among the paintings you have so generously loaned to the magnificent Los Angeles County Museum of Art there is one that was not painted by the ancestor of Mademoiselle Prixendieu. It was created by yours most truly. Needless to say, were this provenance to become known, the market value of said picture would plummet the way your stock market did on the twentieth of September, 2008. However, if you will give me the paltry sum of $700,000 I hereby solemnly promise to keep the matter to myself. Forever.”
The reaction was about what you’d expect. Howls, as they say, of indignation.
“Really,” said de Meester loudly yet smoothly, “if you all contribute—and you should, as you are all running the same risk—the sum can be arrived at with minimal pain. Think of it as a one-time insurance premium.”
“I’m calling the police!” an obese man shouted and took out his cell phone.
“This is not an affair of interest to the police,” replied de Meester.
“It’s a shake-down!”
“Not at all,” said Laurens de Meester airily. “I have served my penitential time, more than half of it, anyway. The forgery in question has already been paid for—I mean by me and, of course, by one of you. You are familiar with the concept of double jeopardy, no? Moreover, I am truly a reformed man, full of amazing grace. Would you prefer me to confess the truth, then? To say which of your valuable paintings is not—valuable? I have violated no law this evening. I have simply proposed, as I keep reminding us all, a business arrangement among mutually interested parties. You are entirely free to turn it down. You are free to contribute or not, just as you wish.”
“It’s an goddamn outrage!”
Everyone looked toward the bigwigs’ table where Millie cowered and the Director shrugged.
“I’ll take my leave now and allow you to confer on the issue,” said Laurens de Meer. “Mademoiselle Prixendieu and I will be easy to contact. We are staying upstairs tonight—in the Signature Rodeo Suite, isn’t it, Julie?—thanks to the munificence of the Museum, for which we are both grateful. We will, I’m afraid, need your answer by noon tomorrow. I’m sure your understand; we have a flight to catch. Thank you and I wish you all a very good evening.”
With that, he and Barrineau’s great-granddaughter walked out of the Bordeaux Room.
My colleagues and I were dismissed, the tables still uncleared.
There never was an announcement about any fakes. The show of privately held Barrineaus proved a real draw for LACMA and, I presume, was a triumph for Millie Schonkenner. Perhaps the claim that there was a fake was the real fake. Who can say for sure?
I did manage to finish my Zwingli paper on time. Professor Rheinach gave it an A-. I was tempted to celebrate with a pair of Fendi pumps. They were on-line and on sale, but I really couldn’t afford them. Besides, they might have been knockoffs.
Robert Wexelblatt is professor of humanities at Boston University’s College of General Studies. He has published essays, stories, and poems in a wide variety of journals, the story collections, Life in the Temperate Zone and The Decline of Our Neighborhood, a book of essays, Professors at Play, two short novels, Losses and The Derangement of Jules Torquemal. His novel, Zublinka Among Women, won the Indie Book Awards First Prize for Fiction. His most recent book is The Artist Wears Rough Clothing.