Friday, November 27, 2015

The Greeks had Painters but no Novels (no. 2)

The Roman Poet Ovid gave us Pygmalion, an Artist Obsessed

IN WESTERN CULTURE, we always go back to the Greeks. And as John Updike showed us in his National Book Award novel, The Centaur (1963), the ancient mythology of the Mediterranean can still give us modern books about artists. (More about Updike on artists another day).
            However, we look in vain for a surviving text from the ancient Greek writers that is about a craftsman or painter.
            As a story-telling people, the Greeks must have had verbal tales about artists. These artisans were renowned for composing murals, decorating amphorae (storage jars), and painting the bright colors on the limestone and marble statues that filled Greek temples. Today we see the Greek statues as white stone, but in their own time, colors covered them in gaudy celebration.
            The painter, however, was not a sufficiently heroic or tragic figure, apparently. As Aristotle might have said, a mere craftsman was not enough to create “catharsis”—a beneficial release of emotions—in a work for the Greek theater, filled as it was with betrayal and revenge and commentary on the vanity of the powerful. Nor was the artist the kind of action hero that would fit Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.
            We might note that the first Greek comedy, titled Frogs and written by Aristophanes, pits two Greek playwrights, Euripedes and Aeschylus—two painters of words—against each other to make fun of their pretensions. Not real artisans, though.
            Only with the Romans do we start to read about the visual artist as a main character.
            This is thanks to Ovid, the Roman poet. He wrote about metamorphoses, that is, gods and humans changing into each other and into other things. Ovid’s narrative—titled Metamorphoses, or “book of transformations”—compiles 250 myths. The stories go back to the beginning of the world and end with the reign of Julius Caesar.
            Tucked into the magnum opus is the story of Pygmalion, the first surviving story in which we meet a studio artist worthy of the name.
            Pygmalion is a Greek from Cyprus. He is not a painter but rather a sculptor, the art that had the highest ranking in classical antiquity. As is well known in this poetic myth, Pygmalion carved a beautiful female form in ivory. After that, he was no longer “interested in women"; he fell in love with his artwork.
            On the day of the Aphrodite festival, he appealed to the goddess with offerings: give him a bride who is “the living likeness of my ivory girl,” he said in his heart. Back at the studio, all it took was for Pygmalion to kiss his ivory beauty, and she came to life—and in truly a first, the artist married his work of art.
            We’ll have lots of artists obsessed with their creations in the novels that follow over the centuries. The nonfiction version began during the Italian Renaissance with Vasari’s Lives of the Artists. (1550, expanded 1568). When the modern novel was being invented in Germany and France, bridging the late 1700s with the early 1800s—the Romantic era in European arts and letters—we finally get the artistic type as a central character.
            And for better or worse, the obsession theme has retained an odd prevalence.
            Take Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774). It’s about a young wandering artist enthralled by drawing nature. Being unlucky in love, though, young Werther commits suicide.
            By the late nineteenth century, the French writer Émile Zola put a permanent stamp on the image of the obsessed artist. His 1886 novel, The Work (in French, L’œuvre, often translated The Masterpiece), sees an artist lose his wife and his sanity trying to finish a painting. Zola lived among the French Impressionists, and it has been said that his fictional painter mirrors his friend, Paul Cézanne. The novel’s fictional journalist is no doubt Zola himself.
            But there are obsessions and there are obsessions. An artist needs to be a little obsessed to finish a difficult and excellent work. After that, the trick is to move on. The same goes with writers of novels, some of whom are ultra-obsessive, perhaps making Pygmalion look, by comparison, more like a calm amphora painter.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Novelists on Artists: How this Blog Began (no. 1)

 by Larry Witham

Discovering a History of Novels about Painters and Art

I AM WRITING this blog as an outgrowth of my new novel, Gallery Pieces: An Art Mystery.  After a long stretch of writing nonfiction, I began conceiving Gallery Pieces in 2014, immersing myself in art history and art topics. What I also learned was this: How novelists over the centuries have portrayed artists and their world. That will be the theme of this blog, titled “Novelists on Artists.”
            Like many readers, I enjoy novels that set the action amid a theme or milieu. My two previous novels did that with religion. My Negev Project (1994) was about the discovery of ancient biblical manuscripts in the war-torn Middle East. It also pivoted on the idea that Jesus was married; this was nine years before Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code! The second novel, Dark Blossom: A Novel of East and West (1997), took up the idea of revelation in the modern scientific world (with a heroine getting the divine message, and a story-long contrasting of Buddhism and Christianity).
            The milieu of Gallery Pieces is the art world, and thus an “art mystery.” Writing such a book put me in league with a small trend in Western literature: novels about artists, painters in particular. Quite by accident, I began to master that topic in itself.
            I looked into the topic for purely mercenary reasons: I had to sell my manuscript. Once I completed Gallery Pieces, I began pitching it to New York agents and publishers. This pitch requires a marketing plan, and that includes a kind of “opposition research.” In other words, you must tell publishers what other books compete with yours.
            After a few weeks of opposition research, my curiosity got the best of me. I was drawn into the entire history of this type of novel. Now I have researched about 130 novels of this species. They hold a treasure trove of themes—enough to blog on regularly for the next year.
            I will cover works from the Roman poet Ovid and the French writer Balzac up through 2016. The genre includes high-toned literature and lowly gumshoe crime. We’ve got serial killers and artists who save the world. Because I will write about plots, let me now issue a “spoiler alert.” I will often reveal what happens in the end (that is, whodunit).
            As a career writer, I enjoy indulging in the craft. But let no one doubt my motives. I engage in this laborious blogging task—research, writing, editing—to publicize my own novel. As a sage once said, how silly is it to write a book and have no one read it?
            Thanks for looking in.