I have often been asked which fiction book best summarizes the dilemmas and appeal of fine art and have been able to conjure up but one, What’s Bred in the Bone, by Robertson Davies, the second volume in the "Cornish Trilogy," published in 1985.
Davies, a fabulist with a whimsical touch, often rather passive-aggressively called "Canada’s greatest novelist," is now out of fashion, but What’s Bred in the Bone remains a perfect chimerical examination of a life in art and our fascination thereof. It is an examination, told from the point of view of a mythical figure called the Recording Angel, of an eccentric Canadian art collector named Francis Cornish. Born by accident, as the result of the presentation of his mother to King Edward VII, his public image is one of penury, obsessive hand washing, and a desire to comprehensively collect the dubious output of Canadian artists.
Francis’ private identity is another thing. For one thing, he is an accomplished drawing prodigy and forger of Old Masters. His training, absorbed as a lonely child of alienation from his prominent family, is done under the secret instruction of an undertaker overseeing bodies in a morgue, which Davies describes with a mixture of Dickensian delight and anguish. What motivates the young Cornish is a grandiose appreciation of his own connoisseurship versus the lazy eyes of the so-called experts.
Cornish sets out on a mission to fabricate the greatest Old Master painting of all, which will be recognized as a genuine quattrocento masterpiece. In order to acquire the skills to achieve his goal, he apprentices himself to an Italian painter and forger who has the unlikely job of art adviser to Hermann Göring, Nazi marshal of the Third Reich. In this capacity, in an Italian atelier, Francis forges paintings which are presented to Göring as the real thing, while the genuine masterpieces are hidden away in a wine cellar, to be repatriated after the presumed Allied victory.
All the while, Cornish is perfecting his allegorical painting, whose mythological figures are drawn from his contemporary associations. It is the discovery, after Cornish’s death as an old man, of the image of the undertaker, who gave Francis his start, that leads the wealthy owners of the painting to its bogus provenance and sends Cornish’s heirs and trustees on a foolhardy mission to prevent the downfall of his memory and their fortune, in light of the fake.
Davies’ theme about the art world is simultaneously simple and all-encompassing: that the making of art is nothing but artifice and that the cloak of such artifice is necessary to shield the rest of us from the blinding glow of truth and reality. What’s Bred in the Bone is structured like a Tiepolo ceiling, full of gaudy complexities and sarcastic beauties. As art made into fiction and back into fact, no novel of similar purpose comes close to it.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).