What does it mean to be known? For a group of women in the South American art world, that seemingly simple question leads to more questions. In María Gainza’s Portrait of an Unknown Lady, unknown ladies abound—the nameless narrator, her enigmatic late boss and a long-gone painter—but only one ties them together: a master forger who may or may not still be alive, whom the narrator has vowed to track down. As Gainza follows her on her quest, she also offers a spare but vivid peek inside a female-dominated environment that’s both fascinatingly specific and deeply universal.
Thanks to family connections, the 25-year-old narrator lands a job in a prestigious Buenos Aires auction house and is immediately fascinated by her employer, Enriqueta Macedo. A nationally renowned expert in art authentication, Enriqueta runs the narrator ragged at work but also takes her to the spa on weekends. Enriqueta soon confides a major secret of her success: She sells certifications of authentication for artworks that she knows are forgeries. “Can a forgery not give as much pleasure as the original? . . . Isn’t the real scandal the market itself?” she asks the narrator in justification.
After finding Enriqueta dead of natural causes, the narrator’s grief-fueled breakdown inspires a covert mission. Donning Enriqueta’s black fur coat, the narrator checks into a hotel in hopes of locating Renée, a forger best known for her replications of the works of Mariette Lydis, a portraitist from the 1920s with her own colorful past. Enriqueta hadn’t seen Renée in over a decade, and as the narrator follows leads from Enriqueta’s and Renée’s ex-classmates and colleagues, she asks herself what she is really hoping to find, and why.
For these women, art is less occupation and more religion. Mariette, Renée, Enriqueta and the narrator have their own reasons for creating and selling art, as well as their own obstacles to fulfillment, but it’s the art itself that unites them. Through catalog descriptions, court transcripts and the narrator’s own introspective voice, acclaimed Argentine author Gainza, an art critic herself, deftly explores the quest for truth, both in brushstrokes and within oneself. Portrait of an Unknown Lady offers no easy answers but provides immense pleasure in the journey to find them.