Thursday, December 31, 2015

'In Search of Lost Time' is a Catalog of Paintings (no. 10)

 by Larry Witham

proust holds the record for number of paintings in a novel

MARCEL PROUST’S SEVEN-volume novel, In Search of Lost Time, is not for the fainthearted. Anyone short of the Proust scholars has probably gone only as far as one volume, or reading samplings of the style that has made Proust “the greatest modern novelist.”
            The novel holds the all-time record for artistic references. This is not only because of its length, although that is obviously the case. (Proust published the first volume in 1913; the last came out in 1927, after his death). In addition, though, Proust was filled with ideas on paintings, art history, and the art critics of his era. He could easily engaged in massive “name dropping” about artworks—either as integral to the novel’s narrative, or as a kind of showing off (depending on your point of view).
            The novel’s story is told by an unnamed narrator, whose recollections of his life around Paris introduce him to a famous writer, a composer, and a painter, all of whom allow the narrator to discuss art. Painting, however, takes an especially prominent place. For all three arts, the oft-quoted notion of the narrator is a fair summary: “Thanks to art, instead of seeing one world only, our own, we see that world multiply itself and we have at our disposal as many worlds as there are original artists.”
            The novel itself bears this out. It does not have a traditional plot. Instead it is a kind of massive stream of consciousness mixed with observations. It includes the internal thoughts of many characters, although the narrator is the chief one—the thread that holds the story together.
            The narrator begins in childhood. He grows up amid family and friends, moving through French society, social visits, restaurants, salons, brothels, and resorts (and finally Venice). He falls in love with a young woman, aspiring all the while to become a writer (which materializes only at the end of the novel). His love is for the dark-haired teenager Albertine. As the years pass, and after an erratic cohabitation, Albertine leaves him. Then she dies of a riding accident. The narrator’s youthful experience of idealism, ambition, love, and jealousy are now augmented by sadness, regret, and loss.
            In all, the narrator has passed from youth to maturity. He gets his first article published in Le Figaro. Then comes the First World War. As he ages and faces death, he returns to his old haunts, where particular objects—as in the entire novel—evoke his memories. In mood, the story follows the narrator’s own musing that, “Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.”
            Across the vast melodrama, the narrator (and sometimes others) mention more than one hundred painters. They may just cite an artist's name, describe an artwork, or give the exact title of a historic or modern painting.
            The occasion for discussing art often comes when the narrator visits the studio of the painter Elstir. (The painter had in fact first introduced the narrator to Albertine and her group at the fictional seaside resort of Balbec.) During these studio episodes, the narrator waxes eloquently on the art of painting and how artists derive remarkable impressions from ordinary objects. Critics have said Proust invented Elstir based on his direct knowledge of the Paris painters Moreau, Degas, Turner, Monet, and Renoir.
            The novel’s references to paintings arise most frequently as descriptions of human characters or moods. The narrator makes these comparisons, but so do other characters, especially Mr. Swann, the second most prominent voice in the novel after the narrator.
            Swann knows his paintings. Once he says, “Oh, yes, that boy I saw here once, who looks so like the Bellini portrait of Mahomet II.” Later, the beautiful former courtesan Odette makes Swann think that she has a “face worthy to figure in Botticelli’s ‘Life of Moses.” When Odette is sad, she reminds Swann “of the faces of some of the women created by the painter of the ‘Primavera.’” (Again, Botticelli).
            The young narrator often does the same. He notes that Swann resembles a figure “with the arched nose and fair hair in Luini’s fresco,” Adoration of the Magi. The narrator passes a working woman who looks like “portrait of Jeffreys by Hogarth, with her face as red as if her favorite beverage were gin rather than tea.”
            The paintings serve as stimulants to all the emotional intrigues and loves being worked out between the novels many characters. The narrator goes to Venice, for example, and the painted churches and palaces egg on new feelings. The paintings, for example, “almost succeeded one day in reviving my love for Albertine.” Late in the novel, a famous writer, now old, looks at a yellow wall highlighted in Vermeer’s View of Deflt painting. The writer concludes that his own works are nothing compared to that patch of yellow; he stumbles back, and dies, at this disconcerting realization.
            Also at the end of the novel, old age is envisioned in the “terrible ravaged faces” of Rembrandt’s late self-portraits. The narrator closes with memories of artists who inspired him. He thinks of both Elistir (fictional) and Chardin (real), painters who let go of past tradition to paint in new ways—in other words, he says, “you can make a new version of what you love only by first renouncing it.”
            By the number of references alone, Proust could be said to favor the artists Mantegna, Rembrandt, Botticelli, and Titian. He cites specific painting of the American expatriate James McNeill Whistler, who was all the rage in London and Paris at the time. The novel’s first reference to an artist is to the French landscape painter Corot. The last reference (as noted) is to the French genre painter Chardin.
            In real life, Proust encountered paintings in the Louvre, art books, and journals. He later traveled to Italy and Holland. He began as a great admirer of both Whistler and the English art critic John Ruskin. When Ruskin and Whistler had their famous clash over the morality of art—Ruskin saying art must be moral—Proust tended to side with Whistler. In other words, art is independent of morals.
            And it could be said that when Ruskin died in 1900, and when Monet was displaying his gigantic lily pond Impressionist paintings, Proust swung further in that direction. “One finds in In Search of Lost Time a good deal of clinical objectivity, but no narrative omniscience,” says Eric Karpeles, whose scholarly work, Paintings in Proust, is the authoritative—and well-illustrated—source on this topic. Translated: Proust’s novel was like a giant lily pond, filled with movement and colorful impression, but lacking the structural quality of architecture.
            Paintings served well for this kind of impressionistic description of objects that evoked memories and likenesses. Despite the highly visual nature of Proust’s writing, the apartment he lived in during his last days was barren of artworks or decoration. He seemed to be saying that art was a visual stimulus that led to sensual temptations, and therefore, to do one’s art—as a writer in Proust’s case—there needs to be no distractions, especially if one is escaping the disappointments of life by turning to art completely.

Monday, December 28, 2015

A Queen and King of the Art Mystery Genre (no. 9)

 by Larry Witham

Both Charlotte and Aaron Elkins created art-world protagonists

ENTER ALIX LONDON. She’s young and beautiful. She’s a Harvard-trained art expert who can drive a race car, when necessary, and stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the FBI. And, not only that.
            Her famous father held top posts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (before spending ten years in prison as a celebrated art forger). When the chips are down, Alix handily escapes death, and with intuition alone, she can spot a fake painting a mile away.
            It took three “Alix London Mysteries” to flesh out this indomitable heroine of the contemporary art scene. And then she was gone, retired (after 2014) to the crowded pantheon of mystery-novel protagonists whose series must always end. Yet Alix covered a universe of art while she was here.
            She is the creation of the mystery-novel husband-and-wife team Aaron and Charlotte Elkins, who’s popular, light-fare novels are almost beyond number. Six of them, however, are devoted to two protagonists—one male and one female—who are art experts solving crimes in the art world.
            With the arrival of Alix, Charlotte takes the lead on the book cover. Naturally so. With a degree in art history, Charlotte Elkins was an art librarian for many years before joining her husband’s writing regime. (Anthropologist husband Aaron, who probably invented the forensic mystery, had earlier introduced his own art-expert protagonist, Chris Norgren, in 1987, in the first of three Norgren art-crime capers).
            The arrival of Alix London in 2012 has some geographical rhyme and reason behind it: the Elkins couple lives in Washington State, home to the Empire.
            In 2011, Amazon launched a mystery and thriller imprint, Thomas & Mercer books. The “Alix London Mysteries” appeared the very next year under Amazon’s auspices. A certain degree of local pride influences most authors, and some publishers. Protagonist Norgren, for instance, is director of the Seattle Art Museum in two of his adventures (1991 and 1993), Alix lives in the city, and her paroled father, Geoff, has ended up working at the Seattle Art Museum as well.
            Which of the two series does better justice to the art world—Alix London or Chris Norgren—is for the reader to judge. But one thing is for sure: Alix London’s three escapades stanching art crime, under the guiding pen of Charlotte Elkins, pack a significant amount of art-world information and explication.
            The third and last title in the series, The Art Whisperer (2014), provides a taste of the author’s considerable art expertise, which richly adorns the following plot:
            Alix has arrived in Palm Springs, Calif., to do restoration work on an inventory of older paintings that the Brethwaite Museum is selling at auction to solve its financial problems. The Iron Lady who runs the museum, Mrs. Brethwaite, has just hired a new director, Clark Calder. He is cutting costs, consolidating departments, and laying off staff. He has also tried to modernize the museum by persuading Mrs. Brethwaite to buy a Jackson Pollock painting for millions of dollars. Indeed, the Pollock is drawing the most museum attendance.
            Nobody likes Clark, however. So from the start, he’s the likely villain of the piece. In fact, he had left his previous job at an Austin, Tx., museum when it was discovered that he bought a fake Whistler painting (a fake that Alix, in fact, had found out; a subplot here is that unbeknownst to Alix, Clark is venting his revenge against her by posting nasty, anonymous Internet blogs besmirching her reputation). The truth outs, of course. The Pollock is indeed a fake, and Clark knows it. He’s in cahoots with a corrupt art dealership in Manhattan, Lord and Keen, that sells fakes to unsuspecting local museums (as in the previous case with the Whistler in Austin).
            Into this conflicted world of the Palm Springs museum comes Alix, who immediately senses—by intuition alone—that the Pollock is a fake. She is being an annoying “art whisperer,” one museum staffer says. Her persistence, however, alarms Clark. So to shut Alix up, he enters her bungalow with a mask and tries to kill her. At first, the police think it might be the “Phantom Burglar” making the rounds in Palm Springs.
            As an apparent aside, one museum asset going to auction is a set of twelve miniature portraits on ceramic pendants. Again, Alix has the gut feeling that two of them might be authentic John Singleton Copley miniatures, and thus worth millions. The dumpy and balding Jerry Swanson, an overly-friendly auction appraiser who’s arrived from San Francisco, assures Alix that she’s wrong. The miniatures are by a lesser-known artist, and not worth much.
            Actually, though, Jerry realizes that Alix is correct. So he goes to Clark. They hatch a plan to buy the miniatures cheap at the coming auction, then launder them for millions.
            Eventually, the police agree with Alix’s theory that Clark Calder had tried to kill her before she could prove the Pollock was a fake. Then Clark himself is murdered, and confusion reigns. But only for a moment: it becomes clear that greedy Jerry Swanson didn’t want to share the miniatures’ auction profits with Clark. So Jerry ran him down with a rental car, simulating a random hit-and-run.
            From a previous “Alix London Mystery” novel, A Cruise to Die For (2013), Alix had done undercover work in the Mediterranean for Ted Ellesworth, special agent with FBI Art Crime Team. Now, by happy coincidence, Ted also arrives in Palm Springs. He is following the trail of the corrupt Lord and Keen art dealers from another angle.
            When Ted and Alix last met, matters had not ended well: she was almost killed by the Albanian mafia! Despite their secret love for each other, neither could surmount their mutually strong egos and competencies and put it into words.
            Now, in Palm Springs, the feelings are rekindled. They survive a car crash after Jerry Swanson cuts Alix’s break line. Back at a gala reception for the streamlined Brethwaite Museum, they put all the pieces together. They nab Jerry as he tries to make a run for it.
            Finally, Alix and Ted can have a dinner together in peace and quiet. Comparing notes, they realize they’ve had wrong impression. As Ted clarifies, “I’m in love with you, dimwit.” She concurs, calling him the same. And if a fourth novel appears, we definitely have a power couple to solve art crime of any dimension—Alix with her preternatural intuition about fakes, and Ted with the considerable resources of the FBI.
           For now, it was a great run and a tribute to the knowledge and imagination of Charlotte Elkins. (To come: a look at Chris Norgren, the other art sleuth).

Monday, December 21, 2015

Painting a Maritime Disaster: Géricault in Fiction (no. 8)

 by Larry Witham

A Tale of art and catastrophe joined seamlessly

THE NOVELIST MAY ask herself, “What historical painting is worth crafting a novel around.”
            One celebrated author chose Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, a pint-sized portrait painting done in 1665. The result for author Tracy Chevalier was a 1999 international bestseller. The novel, bearing the same name, pivoted on Vermeer’s longings for the innocent, sixteen-year-old model who, for us, has been immortalized.
            As an historical event, however, this is fairly warm pudding (or thin gruel?) It is a psychological drama in a lush period settings, seventeenth-century Delft, Holland.
            As a polar opposite, a novel might have been written about Velázquez’s The Surrender of Breda (1635). Here’s drama, to be sure, the victory of Spain’s most famous general over his counterpart in the Netherlands. It’s a favorite for academic books (with the painting usually on the cover), but it has spawned no fictional treatment.
            Let’s cut to the chase: the only big art, big history novel in memory is Australian author Arabella Edge’s The God of Spring (2005). She makes a big painting a big window onto a full-blown, horrific, human drama.
            This is the well-imagined story of how the French artist Jean-Louis André Théodore Géricault painted his masterpiece, The Raft of the Medusa (1819). He painted it as the political events still were unfolding, making art and event simultaneous. And it offered this novelist the delicious challenge of structuring such a real-time tale.
            The Medusa maritime catastrophe is well known.
            In summer of 1816, a French frigate, the Medusa, ran aground with its four hundred passengers. It was thirty miles off the West African coast. To lighten the ship, a raft was built for supplies. But in a gale, the frigate was breaking up, so most of the passengers filled the frigate's two large long boats, while 146 passengers were loaded onto the giant, rickety raft. The long boats pulled the raft, but when the odds became desperate, the raft was cut loose.
            Over the next twelve days, the 146 desperate rafters reduced themselves to fifteen by suicide, murder, exposure, mercy killings (and some cannibalism).
            The entire tragedy was due to leadership incompetence, followed by panic and a spiraling human depravity. Back in Paris, it will become a blame-game between the Royalist government—head of the navy—and the recently ousted Republicans.
            In The God of Spring, we meet Géricault on his return from two unproductive months in Rome, where he’d not heard of the Medusa. He is presently having an affair with his old uncle’s younger wife, Alexandrine—indeed the uncle who has most supported his career as a portrait and history painter. Until now, Géricault has been doing mythological paintings using Alexandrine as a model. Some of these artworks are driven by the lust and guilt of their affair.
            Aspiring to greatness, though, Géricault is in search of grand topic—like what he’s just heard regarding the Medusa.
            The newspaper editor he visits is mum, being under pressure from the Royalists. But on leaving the office, Géricault is buttonholed by a young clerk. For a fee he leads the painter to two survivors, Savigny, the ship surgeon, and Corréard, an engineer. Géricault invites them to live at his family’s large estate.
            With this set-piece in place, much of the middle of the novel is the tale told by the two guilt-ridden men (who in reality, did provide the first full account of the Medusa tragedy, published in 1818). As Géricault listens, he mulls and sketches. The story is so ignoble, however, that his two guests exclude many grim particulars. Every time truths dribble out, Géricault is forced to rethink his painting. He’d seen some gritty stuff in life: whoring at sixteen, burying dead bodies, and witnessing guillotine massacres. But “nothing had prepared him” for this.
            The painter takes his project to feverish extremes. He builds a raft in his studio as a model. From the morgue he retrieves limbs of dead bodies to arrange for studies. Finally, the clerk leads him to a third survivor, Thomas, who ultimately divulges the worst—but also the climax, the day the rescue ship arrived. “All I possess in the world is my story,” Thomas reports. “The conflict did not reside with the ocean but festered on board the ship.”
            For Géricault’s part, “A terrible, feverish thrill of anticipation began to course through him. His heart quickened at the thought that, finally, he might apprehend those fatal days on the raft.” Soon comes the turning point: the vision. “With a great welling of excitement, Géricault knew he had found his subject at last—the first sighting of the Argus” (the rescue ship).
            Géricault’s obsession dooms his relationship with Alexandrine. She wants full attention, and for good reason. She is pregnant by the painter, and in the face of marital scandal, is soon off to the convent, lovers never to meet again. His heart torn, Géricault cannot stop, and the painting is brought to completion. Misfortune waits in the wings, however.
            While fox hunting in England, he is thrown from a horse, damaging his back and starting a tumor that will take his life. Bedridden in Paris, he is visited by his student, Eugéne Delacroix (the next great Romantic history painter). Géricault envies his student’s youth and future, and laments that his own life has produced only five “good” paintings. He refuses the doctor’s painful treatments and dies in the rainy season—never again to see spring (a la the title, The God of Spring).
           In this novel, the great painter expires in a brooding darkness that echoes the Medusa tale itself. What price, the novel seems to ask, for a harrowing masterpiece to be born? Quite different from Girl with a Pearl Earring, wouldn't you say?

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Two Female Mystery Novelists Kill off Female Artists (no. 7)

 by Larry Witham

The Art World of Feminists Offers a New Crime Setting

TWO NORTH AMERICAN veterans of fiction have written murder mysteries that feature strong female sleuths alongside strong female artists. The girl sleuths get glory, and the girl artists get murdered.
            Before it’s over, though, the artist characters evoke a colorful pallet of feminist themes. The central theme—like the big helping of white on every painter’s palette—is a woman’s independence.
            In Canadian author Gail Bowen’s Murder at the Mendel (1991), controversial feminist artist Sally Love is killed at a gala art party in her honor in Saskatoon, a city in the plains of Canada (just north of Montana). Someone has put a highly allergic substance in her desert. Mishap or murder?
            The second author is Kate Wilhelm, who’s Death of an Artist: A Mystery (2012) uses a less subtle method of murder. The artist, named Stef, breaks her neck after plummeting down the steps at her home studio in a small, coastal Oregon town. Accident of skullduggery?
            Through such murder mysteries, Bowen and Wilhelm—both of whom specialize in female detective-type series—can explore all the relations that interest women readers. In this case, by having women artists as victims, the authors can do some probing of the tortured, creative, female soul.
            In both novels, both artists were deeply troubled girls. Sally Love ran away from home in her early teens. Similarly, in Death of an Artist, Stef had a uneasy childhood, perhaps for medical reasons. Doctors said “manic-depressive” or “sociopathic.” Others dropped terms such as hyperactive, bipolar, attention deficit, narcissistic, and egotistical.
            Now these two girls are back home as adult female artists, and both are quite successful before they are murdered.
            Sally Love is famous for in-your-face artworks. Her current show is “erotobiography”: seven paintings of male genitalia. This includes a large, permanent fresco with a hundred such organs. Obviously, troubled Sally has slept around quite a lot. As a fictional character, she might be mirroring the real-life British artist, Stacy Emin, who is rich and famous for doing autobiographical work about her promiscuous sex life and attempted suicide.
            Back in Oregon, Stef is also a success—except that she refuses to sell her sought-after paintings. Stef is recovering from a string of failed relationships. She has turned inward, living mostly in her studio with her artworks. She’s prone to screaming outbursts, however, on this topic: the attempts by her former art dealer, who is also her latest ex-husband, to sell her paintings for his gain and profit.
            Meanwhile, the lives of Sally and Stef exist in a web of female kinship that makes up much of the storyline of the two novels. In the case of Sally Love, these female ties lend to a horrific turn in the plot: Sally’s mother is the one who murders Sally, it turns own.
            In this novel, the female sleuth is Joanne Kilbourn, a middle-aged and married professor with a daughter. Kilbourn has known Sally Love and her “kind” mother since childhood—so the clincher is all the more shocking. Greek mythology has fathers killing sons, or in the case of Agamemnon, sacrificing a daughter to the gods for good weather. But mothers killing daughters puts a new feminist twist on the tragedian tradition.
             Back in Oregon, it becomes obvious that Stef’s ex-husband is the culprit in her “accidental” fall. He kills her to void the legal contract that stops him from selling her paintings. The tension rises when the mother and daughter of Stef, having access to a gun in the house, are entertaining serious thoughts about shooting the ex.
            Into this Oregon family drama comes retired New York cop, Tony. He is soul searching after being wrongly blamed for an accidental shooting at a crime scene. Working on the sly, Tony concludes that there is no evidence that would convict the ex in court. In fact, this is why the ladies want to shoot him. But Tony has an alternative. He works it out so that the vile art-dealer ex-husband drowns in a river, and with the evidence on him.
            Both of these seasoned novelists—Bowen and Wilhelm—have had to decide what kind of art the female victims were producing. Describing art in writing is not easy, and there’s always the risk of falling into clichés.
            Bowen walks a fine line on the cliché issue. As noted, the female artist in Murder at the Mendel is a type of artist “ripped from the headlines.” She does offensive sexual art and draws religious protesters. Even so, she clashes with another feminist artist over whether vagina art is old-hat (Sally voting for male genitalia as the new wave). Indeed, the Guerrilla Girls, a real-life feminist protest group formed in the 1980s, storm Sally’s art party because she is backsliding.
            The work of Oregon artist Stef reflects her troubled childhood. It’s the pleasant imagery of a little girl seeking wonderland, and this makes it salable to collectors for their living rooms. One such work is called, Feathers and Ferns. Stef’s mother sees her grown daughter’s beach paintings as childhood dreams: “a beach enclosed by black basalt cliffs, higher and more forbidding in the painting than in real life, the way they must have appeared to a child.”
            One beach painting shows a girl in several versions, each ghost-like: "The little girl was translucent, impressionistic, kneeling at one tide pool, squatting at another, sitting cross-legged, upright . . . all different, the same child, recalled by Stef the adult artist, then hidden away." Now her daughter is gonemurdered, in fact. That makes Stef the "ghost child" who wanted to spend forever among the happy treasures of the tide pools.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Plotting Novels Around Secret Codes in Paintings (no. 6)

 by Larry Witham

The 'Code' Craze Was Destined to Enter Art World Fiction

LEONARDO DA VINCI’S Last Supper fresco in Milan, Italy, has survived wartime bombings, years of repainting, and the Renaissance artist’s own use of experimental paint that rapidly flaked off the plaster. Still, Dan Brown’s mega-thriller, The Da Vinci Code, has persuaded millions that the effeminate-looking figure to Jesus’s right is not John, a male apostle, but Mary Magdalene, a female.
            Such is the ambiguity of finding secret messages in antique paintings that, today, may look very different from the originals. But of course, we are talking about fiction.
            In The Da Vinci Code, the painting’s female-looking figure plus some secret geometry leads our hero, Harvard symbolist Robert Langdon, to discover an ancient society perpetuated to protect the Holy Grail (i.e., the offspring of Jesus). Naturally, Langdon’s ally Sophie Neveu is a French “cryptologist,” that is, a code breaker.
            The modern-day code craze was bound to show up in fiction, though it had some strong precedents in academia. Literary criticism, with its “close reading” of texts, came up with the idea that books are coded with surprisingly deep meanings and prejudices. In this view, the codes are not even known to the authors. The skilled interpreters must find them.
            Along these lines, the Italian academic Umberto Eco became famous for his 1980 novel, The Name of the Rose. It is said that Eco imbued the novel with his academic specialty, “semiotics,” which is the reading of symbols and signs. Some have exalted Name of the Rose as a semiotic novel. On the other hand, others see it as simply an atmospheric detective story, the atmosphere being thick with medieval beliefs and lore (nothing particularly semiotic about it).
            The theme of “secret codes” actually got its boost in commercial publishing in 1998. That was the year of the international bestseller The Bible Code. The nonfiction book was written by an Israeli mathematician. He purported to show that the biblical text predicted modern-day assassinations, among other things. In two subsequent books (code II and code III), the entire human future is prognosticated.
            For a very long time, painters have been presumed to put hidden meanings in their paintings. The new art history field of “iconology” (as distinct from iconography) dedicates itself to looking for these. So it’s surprising that there are not more novels about codes hidden in works of art. But we do have a few.
            Perhaps the best documented is British novelist Vanora Bennett’s Portrait of an Unknown Woman (2007). Well documented because Bennett builds her story on a well-known debate over the meaning of three works by the Dutch artist Hans Holbein, who painted at the English court in late 1520s. Holbein did two portraits and a sketch of Sir Thomas More and his family circle.
            Novelist Bennett, and some academics, link the paintings to one of the top, unsolved political mysteries in British history: what happened to two prince-heirs locked in the London Tower during the reign of King Richard III? The question is important because the Tudor Dynasty that overthrew Richard justified it on his murder of the princes. However, if Richard did not kill them, then the Tudors are usurpers.
            According to one scholar, one of the Holbein family portraits contains eighty symbols that assert Richard III’s innocence. As a painter in the court for six years, according to this theory, Holbein had learned all the secret facts of Richard's innocence from Thomas More, the ultimate political insider in the House of Tudor.
            Fiction writer Bennett has turned this into an engaging romance novel that centers on the twenty-three-year-old adopted daughter of More, Meg Gigg. She appears in one family portrait but not the other. She is also an object of love rivalry between Holbein and another court suitor. The novel’s backstory, of course, is about the intrigues of Tudor King Henry VIII’s court, and the real fate of those two princes in the Tower. The painting has to tell the story in symbols because Thomas More cannot risk writing it down in plain English.
            In addition to novelist Bennet, two other writers have used secret coding in artworks to enliven their contemporary novels. Michael Frayn does this in his Headlong (1999), and Noah Charney in his The Art Thief (2007).
            Frayn’s comic novel follows the attempts of Martin Clay, an academic iconologist, to prove he has found a missing work by the Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel, who died in 1569. Iconology has often been confused with semiotics, and usually it is only scholarly practitioners who know the difference, or at least debate about it. But in essence, they are both attempts to find deeper clues and “truths” in an artwork. At the comic end of Headlong, protagonist Clay’s final, crucial clue on the antique painting is burned to a cinder.
            In Charney’s Art Thief, the clue is mathematical. The plot denouement hinges on opening a safe in the home of a suspect. The two French sleuths, Inspector Bizot and his art academic sidekick, Jean-Paul Lesgourges, find an etching by Albrecht Dürer, the famous Melancholia I. One of their previous clues points to a “magic square,” a numerical oddity, in the Dürer etching. This leads to an “aha!” moment: the Dürer provides the combination to the safe.
            “The thieves gave us the safe name, and the combination to open it, while they were stealing the painting,” Lesgourges says in a moment of triumph. (This mathematical clue element can be a bit abstruse, but author Charney helpfully adds an explanation of the magic square in the reading group discussion appendix of the novel).
            Which brings us back to Dan Brown—and the question of who launched the art coding craze first. The question produced a few lawsuits.
            British nonfiction authors Michael Baigent, et al., sued Brown for plagiarism. They had already written Holy Blood, Holy Grail, which interprets a Nicholas Poussin painting of tomb-side Greek shepherds (Even in Arcadia I exist) as a clue to the same Templar treasure that Brown alludes to. Next, author Lewis Perdue claimed that he preceded Brown with two similar novels: The Da Vinci Legacy (1983) and Daughter of God (2000). None of the lawsuits worked.
            Short of a lawsuit, the Russian art historian and scientist Mikhail Anikin simply declared that he coined “da Vinci code” in his own interpretation of Leonardo’s works.
            By comparison, the novelistic use of supposed Hans Holbein codes has been much less contentious. When it comes to King Richard III, advocates disagree agreeably. Some take Richard’s side, others side with the Tudors. A much beloved 1951 detective novel by Josephine Tey, The Daughter of Time, plays this up—in favor of Richard. Here, a seasoned English detective looks at a painted portrait of King Richard III—stereotyped as a reviled, hunchback monarch—and cannot believe he has the face of a murderer. So he proves King Richard’s innocence. Not bad, considering it started by looking at an old, old painting.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

The Awkward Encounter Called Art Appreciation (no. 5)

 by Larry Witham

Novels in Which Not Everyone Likes Art

MOST PEOPLE ENJOY a good painting. Yet art appreciation is not as simple as it sounds. An artwork might evoke just a passing glance. At other times, it might seem absurd, entirely irrelevant to people outside that art-world bubble.
            A good many novelists have noticed this fact. They have used the awkward side of art appreciation to add charm to a story. It’s also a great way to poke fun at the extremes of seeing in works of art more than is really there, objectively speaking.
            Take David Lipsky’s coming-of-age novel, The Art Fair (1996). Single mom Joan Freeley is ambitiously climbing up in the New York art scene. She makes large, abstract, color stain paintings. It’s a style modeled after her idol and rival, cutting-edge painter Celia. Now mom’s career is crumbling, but she still takes her teenage son Richard—the narrator of the story—to yet another gallery “opening” featuring Celia.
            As Richard glances at the paintings, he doesn’t get what all the art aficionados see in them after intense periods of looking.
            Says his mom, “Try to really look.”
            “I am looking,” Richard retorts.
            What he mainly notices is that the titles have nothing to do with the paintings, and prices range from $16,000 to $20,000. This is the first art gallery “opening” party Richard goes to with his mom. For the rest of the novel he bolsters her sliding morale—as a has-been artist—from one opening party to another.
            This contrast between people who “do get” and “don’t get” art appears in three other interesting novels.
            In Jeff Vande Zande’s Landscape with Fragmented Figures (2009), brothers Ray and Sammy Casper are forced to live with each other in working class upper Michigan after their father died. Sammy is an unemployed plant worker and heavy drinker; Ray a painter and art professor on a downward slope. His artist girlfriend left him because he lost “vision” in his art. In other words, Ray had regressed into painting nice pictures to sell to corporation lobbies, while she was radical, displaying as art the spattered drop cloths of the house-painter proletariat.
            Brother Sammy can’t understand the big deal about Ray’s late unhappiness over art. “What’s your big beef?” he asks.
            Ray: “I can’t explain it, really. It’s just with my art.”
            Sammy notes that Ray knows how to paint stuff pretty good. Ray says that’s not enough. He grabs a picture of Renoir’s Luncheon at the Boating Party and says to Sammy: “This is art. This has vision.”
            Sammy studied the painting. He got two more beers, lit a cigarette and says, “It looks like a bunch of a--holes having lunch. . . . I mean, it’s good. I sure as hell couldn’t do it.” Ray tries to make Sammy see how Renoir reveals human relations. Sammy says, “I don’t know. I guess.”
            Their conversation descends into an argument about who has real problems in life. It sure doesn’t seem to Sammy that a painter losing artistic vision is much compared to losing jobs, spouses, and a place to live. “Most people I know have real problems,” Sammy says. “Sounds to me like you’re just dreaming s--t up to worry about.”
            Art appreciation also comes hard to the husband narrator of David Nicholls’s witty novel, US, which tells the story of the Petersen family of London. They are taking a Grand Tour of Europe’s art museums before the son goes off to college. The wife has just told her boring husband Douglas, a biochemist, that she is leaving him. As former art student and painter, she yearns for the creative, fancy-free days of her youth. First, though, the tottering family will take the trip—and see if it might change things.
            At the Louvre, Douglas explains why he doesn’t get art the way his wife does: “My art appreciation is almost on par with my French,” he says. “Despite all my best efforts my responses seem to me fundamentally shallow.”
            In portraiture he likes people he can recognize: “Look, it’s Uncle Tony.” In realist works he looks for detail: “Look at the eyelashes!” And in abstract art he goes for his favorite colors: “‘I love the blue’—as if the works of Rothko and Mondrian were little more than immense paint charts.” Indeed, his concept of beauty is shaped by the microbes he studies in the laboratory.
            On reaching one painting by the Italian Renaissance humorist Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Douglas declares to his son, “Look, Albie, his face is made up of fruits and vegetables.” For this insult to Albie’s intelligence, the father believes he deserves “the award for Most Banal Remark Ever Made in an Art Gallery.” Going to an art museum is tiring, he finds out. It’s partly because of “the mental exertion of wondering what to say.”
            The police in crime novels also face their share of difficult art appreciation. They look at paintings to ferret out clues or evidence. A great scene like this crops up in Peter Heller’s artist-noir-Southwest novel, The Painter (2015). Jim Stegner is a Postimpressionist painter living in a cabin studio in rural Colorado. For a second time, he’s in trouble with the law. Now he’s killed a man with a rock. Two deputies arrive and notice a big painting he’s been working on.
            “Can I take a look at it?” asks the older deputy. His smile becomes a “big grin” at the title: Ocean of Women. A good many females and one male swim in the nebulous, watery scene on the canvas.
            The young deputy is adjusting to the culture shock, according to Stegner’s first person narration: “The kid stood uneasily before the easel, his hand on his holstered gun, blinking. I could tell he wanted to laugh, maybe the first time he’d seen an original painting ever, one that wasn’t painted by an aunt that had taken a How to Paint a Western Landscape by Numbers class and hung it in the den next to the flat screen, . . .” Still, the kid deputy “glanced at his mentor and relaxed, twitched a smile, studied the painting, dove into it, couldn’t help himself, his eyes roved from woman to woman wondering maybe how many the swimmer could f— and still tread water.”
            Then the senior cop picks up another painting, “Wow,” he says. “Diverse. When’d you paint this?” It's the picture of a hunched man digging a grave. Stegner painted it the day of murder, and he says, “Maybe it’s time I get a lawyer.”

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Lawyers Who Write Novels Overlook the Art World (no. 4)

 by Larry Witham

One Legal Thriller Puts the Story of Painting at the Crux

COUNTLESS LEGAL THRILLERS have been published since lawyer-novelists Scott Turow and John Grisham came on the scene. That was in 1987 (Presumed Innocent) and 1991 (The Firm). So it’s surprising how long it took for a law-firm caper to include art as the central topic.
            This is the work of yet another lawyer-novelist, Heather Terrell. She caught the genre wave with her first novel, The Chrysalis (2007). It follows a lawsuit that claims a Manhattan auction house holds a Dutch painting looted by the Nazis.
            The painting, done in the seventeenth-century by Johannes Miereveld, shows a Virgin Mary holding a cocoon (i.e. chrysalis) with an emerging yellow butterfly.
            The story opens with the case: An eminent auction house, Beazley’s, is putting The Chrysalis on the block. But just before that, Hilda Baum, whose ancestor was a Dutch art dealer, sues the house, claiming the Nazi’s stole the painting from her family. The heroine is Manhattan lawyer Mara Coyne. Her firm is defending the auction house. Her performance in this case—that is, winning for Beazley’s against Baum—will determine whether she becomes partner.
            The legal cusp of the story is not a trial, but rather Coyne’s exploration of the “provenance”—the ownership history—of The Chrysalis painting. This allows the reader to learn a great deal about these legal technicalities.
            However, along the way, Coyne and Lillian Joyce, the very elderly chief of the Provenance Department at Beazley’s, discover that the house had secretly built itself on the purchase of looted art. Much of it was bought from Kurt Strasser, an unscrupulous Swiss dealer who plied his art trade with the Nazis.
            How did Beazley’s get the stolen art?
            One of the auction house’s American founders, Edward Roarke, had a military friend in Europe named Frank Shaughnessy. Frank bought stolen art from Strasser. Then he shipped it to his wife by way of the military post office. Edward picked it up, and back at the auction house, had naïve staff prepare fake provenance papers. The works took on new legitimate histories, and could be sold at auction.
            Unfortunately for Coyne, as the Chrysalis lawsuit case opens, she falls in love with the nephew of the crooked Edward Roarke. The nephew is Michael, a lawyer at Beazley’s who is in on its decades-long scam. Michael is cheering on Mara Coyne in her legal strategy to crush Hilda Baum’s lawsuit. Unbeknownst to Mara, the Baum lawsuit could unearth the entire malignant history of Beazley’s auction house.
            The twists and turns start coming. Opponents and allies start changing sides as the truth is being discovered.
            As the story opens, Mara and Michael gradually become lovers. Also at the beginning, Mara and Lillian Joyce, the old archivist, rub each other the wrong way. Then comes the reversal. Mara and Lillian unite to throw Michael in jail and vindicate the Baum lawsuit’s claims. No longer a lover, Michael becomes a physical threat to the two women as they race to find incriminating documents and spill the beans to the New York Times.
            Author Terrell plots her book by alternating between three time periods: New York at the time of the lawsuit, Holland in the 1600s when The Chrysalis was painted, and the 1940s, when dealer Strasser was buying and selling with the Nazis. By jumping between the three periods, the author hopes the reader will begin to see the implications: The painting itself holds clues that legitimize Hilda Baum’s claim about its provenance.
            If the love story of Mara and Michael becomes a train wreck, the love story of Johannes the painter and Amalia, the daughter of a Calvinist patron, had a happy ending. Or, at least as happy as it could be in an age of religious wars in Europe. Once Johannes and Amalia are secretly in love—and secretly becoming Catholics in a Calvinist town—he produces “a clandestine painting for the Jesuits of the Catholic meeting house” (i.e. The Chrysalis). He fills it with conventional Catholic symbols surrounding the Virgin Mary, but then adds more, with Amalia’s advice, pertaining to their lovers' bliss.
            In the end, the Beazley’s archivist Lilian—who is in her eighties—realizes what had happened at the auction house during all the years she had worked there. As a young woman, she had arrived at the firm. Her first job was to produce the provenance records for The Chrysalis. At the time, she was also having an affair with Beazley’s head man, Edward Roarke. This was the first of many times the head man would manipulate her to produce a false documents for illicit artworks.
            “I’ve been a pawn in Edward’s game all along,” Lillian said. “I wonder how many provenances he laundered through me.”
            Now that Lilian knows this, she is Coyne’s chief ally. Lillian also finds out that the painter of The Chrysalis, Johannes Miereveld, is her distant ancestor. By the symbolism in the painting she has identified its provenance in a new and deeper way. Sadly, in all the excitement, the elderly Lillian dies of a heart failure. Happily, she has left her family inheritance to Coyne, her only friend in the world now.
            The bad guys at Beazley’s manage to escape exposure at first. They report The Chrysalis was stolen, collect the insurance, and secretly squash the Baum lawsuit by cutting a deal with Hilda Baum: they secretly give her back The Chrysalis, since the theft was an inside job. Not so fast, though. Coyne gets the story to the New York Times. The fall of Beazley’s auction house is left to the reader’s imagination.
            The author has mined the topic of art looted during World War II, a topic covered in a range of excellent non-fiction books. In novels that involve art, a few others draw upon that art looting theme without the legal drama. (see a future blog post on this).
         The Canadian author Robertson Davies makes trading in art with the Nazis a centerpiece of his What’s Bred in the Bone (1985), the epic story of Francis Cornish, patriarch of the Cornish clan that populates three of his novels. The same is true with Paul Watkins’s The Forger (2000), about an American art student in Paris around 1939 who helps the French resistance forge paintings to protect real ones from the Nazis. Briefly, in Kurt Vonnegut’s Bluebeard (1987), the main character recalls being on the Allied team sorting through the looted art of the defeated Germans. And in the The Rembrandt Affair (2010), Daniel Silva has former Mosad agent Gabriel Allon rescuing a painting by the Dutch master stolen in those days of Nazi looting.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The Great Battle between Paintings and Photographs (no. 3)

 by Larry Witham

Modern Novels often Contrast the Photographer and Painter

IT TOOK A WHILE for photography in the nineteenth century to be called “art,” putting it in head-to-head competition with painting. But when that moment came, the art world changed. This theme of painting v. photography has provide great plot twists—and philosophic reflection—in some novels about art and artists.
            Surprisingly, when the French Impressionists first challenged the academic painting tradition in Europe in 1874, their rebel exhibit was held in a photography studio. At that time, photos were not seen as alternatives to paintings. Impressionists were mesmerized by the new technology. Many of them—like Pissarro—were pro-technology and pro-science, as in the new scientific study of the effect of colors.
            In Irving Stone’s novel on Pissarro (Depths of Glory, 1985), the founding Impressionist holds that photography can never replace a real “picture,” that is, a painting. They are two different creatures. In one scene, Pissarro says to Vincent Van Gogh: “The reflection of reality in a mirror, if it could be caught, would not be a picture at all, it would be no more than a photograph.”
            A mere photograph!
            Still, photos began to spell the doom of much painted portraiture. Later, mass reproduction of artworks changed the very status of “masterpieces.” Today, photos continue to undermine the sale of original art. Four modern novels explore these effects with three different emphases (anti-photo, pro-photo, and the economics of photography).
            The French author Michel Houellebecq’s novel, The Map and the Territory (2010) is many elegant things, but in its character, Jed—who wavers between high success in both photography and painting—it provides a delightful jab against the camera and its advocates.
            To wit: “For a long time photographers had exasperated Jed, especially the great photographers, with their claim to reveal in their snapshots the truth of their models. They didn't reveal anything at all, just placed themselves in front of you and switched on the motor of the camera to take hundreds of random snapshots while chuckling, and later chose the least bad of the lot; that's how they proceeded, without exception, all those so-called great photographers.”
            Jed knew of what he spoke, since in this story, he becomes an internationally known photographer for his angled images of Micheline Maps.
            Contrary to Jed’s cynicism, the heroine in Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers (2013) thinks photography is the greatest art. She is Reno, a photography major who recently graduated from a college art department. While she allegedly “draws”—making lines in snow with skies and lines in dirt with motorcycle tires—she documents her conceptual art with a movie camera. Indeed, central to the plot, her trip to Europe to photo-document motorcycle-speed-as-art takes her into the world of 1970s riots and terrorist kidnappings in Rome and Milan, Italy.
            Pity not Reno, however. Pity Kingdom Swann, a fictional artist who suffered the photo revolution. Swan is a British portraitist of the old school. He also excelled in old school paintings of the “heroic nude,” a tradition that drew upon stories from mythology, the Bible, and ancient history. This is the setting for the 1990 novel by British writer Miles Gibson, titled Kingdom Swann.
            As one character in the Victorian story says: “A painting emulates but a photograph stimulates. That’s the difference. It’s magic. It’s witchcraft. It’s stealing from life.” And so it was that Swann began to do staged photos for clients dressed as heroic figures, and, eventually—under the guidance a mischievous marketer—as naked heroic figures. Unbeknownst to the guileless Swann, his partner is cropping the photos and selling them on the side as Victorian pornography.
            Gibson, the author, has a libertine intent in writing this erotic novel. The plot shows how Victorian prudes give Swann nothing but trouble. Speaking of libertine, the novel allowed the BBC television staff to do a 2001 movie featuring lots of naked women.
            What Swann discovered, of course, is that replication of images can make more money than a single, time-consuming, painting.
            This had been the ideological insight of such European art critics as Walter Benjamin, a Marxist thinker. He wrote on how the “fetish” or “magic” or “aura” of a single artwork is changed by mass production imagery. On the good side, this puts a masterpiece in Everyman’s grasp; on the bad, it leads to the further commodification of art, a Marxist no-no. Both these good and bad outcomes are fairly obvious to common sense. But Benjamin plumbed all the subtle implications. (See his essay, “The Work of Art in the age of Mechanical Reproduction,” 1936).
            And so does Katherine Weber’s exquisite short novel The Music Lesson (1999), a title that refers to a fictional Vermeer painting that is stolen by an IRA splinter group in a ransom caper. Patricia Dolan is the woman holding the painting in an isolated village in Ireland. As an art historian, she is forced to think deeply about the picture’s effect on her. Deeper still, a replication of the real Vermeer was used to pull off the theft, pointing out the difference between images and reality, the novel suggests.
            Dolan even quotes Benjamin: “What mattered was their [i.e. masterpieces] existence, not their being on view.” This was the aura. Since prehistoric times, a painting is “first and foremost, an instrument of magic.”
            The Vermeer certainly has a magical effect on the heroine, who reflects on this personal impact across the novels narrative. The see-saw between real and imitation becomes a principle that drives the plot: the thieves use a fake to steal the real, and Dolan in turn uses another fake—a product of mass “mechanical reproduction”—to recover the real. As Weber says in her comments on the novel, the story is about the dynamics between perception and reality, a topic that the battle between paintings and photos has surely complicated.