At one point in The Last Painting of Sara de Vos it is the late 1950s and a young Australian art student is in conversation with a middle age New Yorker. She is trying to explain to him why an Australian audience would be more likely to identify a good piece of classical music as European rather than Australian. “What does that say about Australians?” He asks, and she replies: “That we don’t trust our own talents. That anything foreign or exotic is automatically better or more refined.” Australian cultural cringe in a nutshell. An observation which has little to do with the plot or major concerns of the novel but just one of the many themes of this accomplished and engaging novel.
The events of 1958 are the fulcrum of the novel. Ellie Shipley, a young Australian art restorer and academic is talked into creating a forgery of a painting by a female 17th century Dutch artist. When he discovers the theft of his family heirloom, the painting’s owner Marty de Groot takes on a false identity to track her down. Forty two years later, and Ellie is an art expert in Sydney, assisting with the curation of an exhibition which has received two copies of the same painting. One of them is her forgery. And along with one of those copies comes an ageing de Groot, the man from whom the original painting was stolen all those years before. Intertwined with this story is the story of the painting itself and its artist Sara de Vos, herself ahead of her time.
This is a story about art – the making of art, the collection of art and the study of art. But there is so much going on beneath the surface of this story. Themes of fraud and authenticity, sexism, culture and identity resonate across the three timeframes, in no way overwhelming the narrative. Dominic Smith explores these themse by shifting effortlessly between the Mad Men feel of 1950s New York, to the hardscrabble for artists during the tulip boom of 17th Century Holland and the optimism of Sydney on the cusp of the 2000 Olympics. Each of these eras and settings are beautifully rendered and brought to life through the eyes of his characters.
There is plenty of mileage in de Groot’s hunt for the forger in 1950s New York and Ellie’s moral quandary forty years later to drive the novel. But there are deeper secrets, themselves tied up with the artistic process. The painting that Ellie forged was thought to be the last of de Vos’s works but another painting turns up at the 2000 exhibit, one that was painted later, potentially throwing Ellie’s life’s work on de Vos into doubt. So that the title of the novel itself reveals itself as a puzzle, an artistic detective story, the edges of which only becoming clear as de Vos’s story unfolds and the resolution nowhere near as simple as it first appears.
With plenty of local authors across every genre making it big globally Australia has left its literary cultural cringe behind. The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, a multi-layered, emotionally effective, page turning novel about art is further proof that Australian novelists can indeed trust their own talents and excel on the world stage.