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Originally published Sunday, April 20, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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"The Forgery of Venus," riffs on art history

Michael Gruber's new thriller, "The Forgery of Venus," is as layered as a luminous portrait by an old master. In fact, its hero (or anti-hero...

Seattle Times book editor

Author appearance

Michael Gruber

The author of "The Forgery of Venus" will read at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Elliott Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main St., Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com).

Michael Gruber's new thriller, "The Forgery of Venus," is as layered as a luminous portrait by an old master. In fact, its hero (or anti-hero) is a painter whose ardent desire is to become an old master, despite being born three centuries too late.

"The Forgery of Venus" (William Morrow, 336 pp., $24.95) is a tour de force combination of suspense and characterization, as well as a primer on the world of art and art forgery. The polymathic Seattle-based author (Gruber has a doctorate in marine sciences and was a speechwriter for former EPA head William Ruckelshaus) has set a standard for brainy, intricate mysteries that juggle philosophical, cultural and even religious issues.

"The Forgery of Venus" tells the tale of Chaz Wilmot, a brilliant painter whose gifts exceed even those of his famous painter father. But he wants to paint like the old masters, and nobody in the contemporary art world cares. Chaz is recruited into a psychological study investigating whether the ingestion of a hallucinogen promotes creativity. It does, and then some — it sends Chaz cartwheeling back through time, first through his own childhood, then into the childhood of the famous Spanish court painter Diego Velázquez (1599-1660).

Soon Chaz paints even more vividly, but he's both in jeopardy of losing his mind and in danger of being recruited by some very rich and nasty characters determined to use him to forge famous paintings. In a recent interview Gruber talked about the threads he pulled together to write "The Forgery of Venus:"

Q: Talk about how you learned about painting and the culture and business of art for this book.

A: When I was 22, I lived in a loft with a guy who was a painter in SoHo. One night we had been drinking a lot, and he said, "I'll paint you." He drew me in charcoal and painted my portrait — the guy was painting like Velázquez; with bravura technique and psychological presentation.

I was 22 when it was painted, and when I was 22 I was not a very nice person. I keep it in the attic, like the picture of Dorian Gray. This guy later became a successful commercial artist, but he never painted like that again. I wondered: why is the skill of someone who can paint like the old masters not valued?

Q: Why did you decide to focus on Velázquez and his painting, "The Rokeby Venus"?

A: On a trip to London a couple of years ago, I visited the National Gallery and went to the Velázquez room. There was "The Rokeby Venus" (also known as "The Toilet of Venus" and "Venus at her Mirror"). This painting has a resonance. It was attacked by a suffragette. She succeeded in slashing it. It was repaired and now is under glass.

The power of the image is enormous — the presentation of a woman's body with all its warmth and erotic charge. But it was not Velázquez's style. He was the court painter of Philip IV — he was an insider of high rank. Nudes were seriously frowned upon in the age of the Spanish Inquisition.

Velázquez had gone to Rome — many people think he painted four nudes there, but only "The Rokeby Venus" survived. Velázquez went from the most rigid, sexually repressed court in Europe to the relative freedom of Rome — suddenly it was party time.

Q: You also play with the idea of what is really "original" in art.

A: There are a lot of ways of looking at that. Milan Kundera (the Czech writer) wrote an essay about originality and creativity. Suppose someone came up with a music manuscript that looks like a late, unknown Beethoven string quartet. He performs it, people are crying, very moved. Then he revealed that he wrote it last month. Kundera said it would be regarded as garbage. Kundera claimed it would completely lose its value because it was an impostor. But there's the paradox of fiction — why do you cry when a fake character dies? It's the basis of art. You engage with people who don't exist and care about them as you would your friends and relatives.

Q: Why is it that people still revere the old masters, even though no one painting that way today gets critical respect?

A: Why do people still want to do easel painting? What is art's purpose? What is its current state in our culture? I did a lot of research. I have a feeling for painting, I have lived with a painter (Gruber's wife) for 35 years.

We live in a decadent age, a period in art history where there's no juice left in the culture. Everyone is living off times past — we don't believe in anything. Art has to be iconic, reflect something the culture believes in.

The Greeks believed in beauty. Christian Europe believed in the church. The Dutch masters believed in the bourgeois ideal, that everyone would get richer and more comfortable and wonderful — science would solve everything. Modern art is elegiac. How terrible that we have lost this wonderful culture. That's worrisome because artists are prophets. If anybody comes up with a new idea, they're immediately trivialized and attacked by the antibodies of culture — it gets blogosphered to death.

On the other hand — who could have made the Barack Obama story up? It may be that people will look back and say — this was the beginning of a completely different thing.

Q: A number of museum paintings have been stolen in the last couple of years. Who perpetrates this kind of crime, and why?

A: Most art theft is semi-amateur, but professional gangs do steal paintings for collateral. If you have a $10 million painting, you can use it as collateral for a $1 million loan. There's an enormous undocumented black market economy in the world.

Q: Why are some wealthy people so obsessed with owning rare paintings?

A: If all you do is make money — you feel that emptiness and you want to be close to someone who is plugged in. What you are saying when you buy a valued painting is — I can afford it, and you can't. So many people now can afford a Lexus or a McMansion. At the highest levels of wealth, you can spend $100 million on a painting, which says: "I made it — I've got the Monet."

Talent is unequally distributed, and talented people have a finite lifetime. Van Gogh never sold a painting; now they sell in the tens of millions of dollars.

Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or mgwinn@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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