Monday, February 29, 2016

Imagining the Real Stories behind Old Dutch Portrait Paintings (no. 28)

 by Larry Witham


AT THE GREAT art museums of the world, we typically find a northern European section with a sampling of large, dark portrait paintings of a man dressed in black with a white collar “ruff.” Beside him, his wife is similarly dressed in the austere manner of a Dutch business family of the seventeenth century.
            These are the past family momentos of the wealthy mercantile class of Amsterdam’s trading empire, the sorts of people who kept Rembrandt, Franz Hals, and other now-famous painters in business with commissions.
            Novelist Deborah Moggach has taken two such (fictional) husband-wife portraits and created an entire story of the two couples, the two painters, and a year-long drama that surrounds their lives. She has done so not only in an elegant, economical prose, but in a symmetrical plot that is as tight as the composition of these kinds of portraits.
            And to add flavor to what essentially is a love-triangle story, the novel is set during the brief rise of the Dutch tulip market, which enriched Amsterdam for a few years, at least until the speculative “tulip economy” crashed. Thus the novel’s title, Tulip Fever (2000).
            One day the painter Jan arrives at the home of the wealthy merchant Cornelius to paint him and his much younger wife, Sophia. The marriage is a pact of sorts: she wants to escape her dull, impoverish life at home, and Cornelius desires an heir. While painting, Jan lusts for Sophia, and later she reciprocates. They need to find a way to extricate her from the marriage.
            The die is cast. From the start, also, the novel’s many short chapters each represent the point of view, or activity, of one of the five or so main characters. Sophia’s voice is in the first person “I,” and so her viewpoint—at first devious and later remorseful—is the primary guide through the entire story.
            Another perspective is given through Maria, the maid, who is young Sophia’s best friend, despite the social chasm between them. Maria has just gotten pregnant by her bow, Willem. Fortunately, though, Willem has saved enough money to propose marriage and save Maria from an unwed scandal.
            Then a misunderstanding ruins everything. One night, Sophia sneaks off to make love with Jan. She is wearing Maria’s maid cloak. Willem sees the cloak, thinking it is Maria, and follows. Peaking in the window, he thinks his Maria is having an affair with the painter. Distraught, Willem goes down to the docks, joins the navy (which is battling the English for maritime supremacy), and disappears.
            Nobody knows what happened to Willem. But Sophia, with her adultery, and Maria, with her pregnancy, each have a problem. They arrive at a bizarre solution, prompting Sophia to say, “We are two reckless young women; we are in love.”
            Their gambit: Sophia will pretend to be pregnant, Maria will hide her pregnancy, and when the child is born (apparently to Sophia) old Cornelius will believe that he has his heir. In such manner, Maria escapes community shunning. And Sophia, meanwhile, can fake her own death at childbirth. After that, she and Jan will escape to the East Indies.
            All the while, author Moggach reminds us that painters are working all around Amsterdam. Jan is among those who will become less famous in art history, but still a painter whose work will, one day, hang in museums. Jan also has a student, Jacob, who feels betrayed when Jan plans to close his studio; this means Jacob will not receive the certificate necessary to join the guild, putting his career in jeopardy. Jacob wants revenge (and later delivers).
            Jan’s plans now unravel. Taken by the tulip craze, he decides to invest all his money in the speculative tulip market. He also neglects his painting. Jan hopes to earn enough money for the East Indies escape. All might have turned out well until his drunken assistant eats a prize tulip bulb—“the most valuable tulip bulb in the world”—thinking it is an onion. “We are ruined,” Jan tells Sophia.
            As Jan looks for a solution, Sophia has a sudden religious awakening and Maria bears the child. They have successfully fooled old Cornelius. Grieving at her sin, Sophia goes to the canal in a storm and (seemingly) drowns herself.
            Back at home, Maria tells Cornelius the truth—it is her child. Also, Willem suddenly returns from the seas, now a tough soldier with money. Cornelius acknowledges Willem as the true father and stands aside. Cornelius then pursues Jan and Sophia on the ship they are supposed to be booked on (according to informant Jacob, the betrayed student).
            And the plot now comes full circle.
            Maria and Willem marry and inherit wealth from Cornelius. The rising talent Jacob paints their family portrait. Stranded on board the ship (where Jan and Sophia did not show up), Cornelius ends up in the East Indies. He goes primitive and takes up with a young native woman (never to return).
            Having lost Sophia and his tulip wealth, Jan returns to painting, and indeed, in hindsight, he will become one of the great Dutch masters.
            “Out of suffering he creates great art,” the narrator tells us. Jan becomes known for his Dutch genre paintings, typically great still lifes that feature the vanity objects of the wealthy classes. In one painting, he has a book opened to a page that reads in Latin, “We played, we gambled, we lost.”
            Then one day, six years later, Jan is crossing the market square and a nun in a grey habit walks by. A gust flutters her veil, and Jan thinks he sees Sophia. She disappears into the monastery. By now, however, Jan is unable to know whether it is really Sophia, or, as the narrators concludes, “has dreaming her into life, into paint, so possessed him that he can no longer separate art from illusion?”
            As museum guides tell us, the old Dutch family portraits are of real people who once, long ago, were civic leaders. Today, the paintings can be a bore. A novelist such as Moggach, however, has created a story that reminds us how improbable some of these lives—both of the portrait sitters and the painters—might have been.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

And the Nobel Prize for Painting Goes to—a Novelist (no. 27)

 by Larry Witham


THERE IS NO NOBEL Prize for painting. So the closest brush with this greatness has been the 1973 Nobel Prize in Literature. It was given to Australian author Patrick White, who’s last and longest novel is about a painter.
            White, a kind of Faulkner of Australia, won the prize for producing an “epic and psychological narrative art which has introduced a new continent into literature.” That string of novels ends in The Vivisector (1970), the story of Australian modernist painter Hurttle Duffield.
            Duffield is not the kind of Dickensian character everyone knows about. But Down Under, and in literary circles, he evokes a favorite image of the modern artist: tortured—and torturing—having lived in a century of Depression, war, personal debauchery, and the art market. The renowned Australian artist Sydney Nolan—perhaps one model for White’s mosaic story—stood in for the ailing Mr. White at the Noble Prize awards, reading White’s brief comments.
            Understanding The Vivisector, however, may be aided by knowing that White was also an acquaintance of the British artist Francis Bacon. As a painter of humanoid horror, Bacon was no wallflower himself: randy, fast-living, and as he said, saddled with “a weakness for alcohol and young boys.”
            In any case, Duffield could be anyone between Nolan and Bacon, and others included.
            The title, Vivisector, sets the macabre tone. Duffield grows up in Depression-era Australia, where cattle and slaughter underwrite the economy. In “a dirty deal,” his impoverished parents sell him to a wealthy family that wants a brother for their hunchbacked daughter. His new mother, avid for an animal humane society, is galvanized further on a family trip to London. They see a simulated vivisected dog—meaning the dog is cut open, revealing its green and purplish innards, for scientific research. “The dog’s exposed teeth were gnashing in a permanent and most realistic agony.” Sounds like a Bacon painting.
            After this, Duffield conceives of “God the Vivisector,” thinking that such a being gave man both cruelty and brilliance. Duffield doesn’t believe in supreme beings, but he wants to think big about a cruel world that is dotted with occasional brilliance, perhaps, in the work of an artist. His own lifelong struggle is to capture Light itself—one painting is called Marriage of Light—in a single, end-all, transcendent painting.
            Just the opposite, though, Duffield’s sees mostly darkness. His Latin tutor kills himself; young Hurttle “paints it on the wall.” He goes to the war front. On return he lives with a Sydney prostitute, Nance. For his home and studio he builds a “shack on the edge of the gorge.” After a night of drunken argument, Nance falls down the cliff. Accident, suicide, murder?
            By now, Duffield has a postwar art dealer, Caldicott, a homosexual attracted to the younger artist. His dealer dies after a “long illness.” Duffield’s torturous paintings—rocks, animal forms, scenes with blood—first sell to a few rich ladies in Sydney. Then they’re scooped up in London and New York (and eventually the Tate and Museum of Modern Art).
            A childhood girlfriend named Boo appears. Now she is Mrs. Davenport (or Mrs. Lopez), a wealthy art collector. She introduces Duffield to an even wealthier Greek shipping couple, and the missus—Hero Pavloussi—seduces Duffield amidst his frightening artworks. She takes him to a Greek island in pursuit of a monastic wise man (who is not there).
            Later, Hero attempts suicide and finally dies of cancer. Back in Australia, Duffield becomes enamored of a young girl, Kathy Volkov, who is going on to her own fame as a concert pianist. Hurttle has seduced the girl, but world ambition calls, and she leaves him behind. On her European tour, she writes to thank him for teaching her—with his “delicious kisses and all the other lovely play”—about how to be an artist.
            The great Retrospective of Duffield is now at hand. Except that Hurttle has a stroke. He is crippled in body and mind. His plan to complete a series of “God paintings”—fulfilling his early notations about “God the Vivisector”—may be delayed. In the end, he is still searching for the ultimate Light painting. His mind—in the last chapters—is filled with a confusion of words (that is, the text is like impressionistic poetry, not making any sense except in the haunting, hopeless mood White tries to create).
            Some commentators have said The Vivisector is about such ideals as truth, love, and the struggling artist. Maybe so. Everyone is a candidate for struggle, although the artist-as-struggler is a convenient literary motif. The truth-love dichotomy is more interesting. Duffield says that although his paintings “deliver truth,” he’s “failed so far in love.” The truth of his ghastly paintings, in other words, gets in the way of normal relationships. Paintings aren’t always vehicles of truth, of course. They can simply be an artist’s confusion, unhappiness, and psychosis in paint.
            With Patrick White the novelist, we’re talking about great and prolific literary fiction. He knows that fiction works best when it pushes the human dilemma to extremes. Such is the character of Hurttle Duffield, a vivisector of the human condition. Most painters don’t have to endure such a tortured life. Instead, they can read about it in a 617-page novel, and that is just fine.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Novel about a Shanghai Painter-Lady Crosses West to East (no. 26)

 by Larry Witham


IN ART TEXTBOOKS we often read of how Japanese prints influenced the French Impressionists. Rarely do we hear about cultural movement in the opposite direction: How did Western painting influence Asia?  In fiction, that topic was finally taken up by Jennifer Cody Epstein’s The Painter from Shanghai (2008).
            Epstein earned two of her three academic degrees in Asian studies and international politics. Hence, the novel’s vista on China’s cultural experience in the early twentieth century could not be in better Western hands.
            The novel recreates the story of the real-life Chinese painter Pan Yuliang, a former indentured courtesan. During cosmopolitan Shanghai’s roaring twenties, Yuliang rose to be the “famous Madame Pan,” the scandalously modern, woman painter.
            In real life, Yuliang’s Impressionist-realist works were mostly of women with flowers and household accoutrements—and mostly as nudes. This Western style of painting was daring in China. Once on show, the artworks enticed the “wealthy Shanghainese and art-savvy Chinese,” the novel tells us, but also goaded detractors to label her “a threat to public decency.”
            The heart of the story is Yuliang’s discovery of the Western approach to art—especially life drawing and painting the nude—amid the country’s conservative Confucian strictures on art and design. During her life at the brothel, she once mused, she'd seen the female body in so many contortions that it was impossible for the female form to shock or offend her. To the contrary, though, Yuliang posed her figures in modest elegance. Nevertheless, because they “show all,” as her nervous dealer said, they pushed the envelope in puritanical China.
            The novel plays up these ironies. For example, there is open acceptance of brothels and concubines in the society. And yet paying women to be nude models at an art school becomes a public controversy. This draws our heroine’s interest. She tries at home to draw a body, even her own hand, and then has “a rush of clarity” about art. “She can draw them from life. That, of course, is why it’s called ‘life study.’”
            She is taught further by a small circle of pro-Western-style artists in Shanghai (whom newspapers called “traitors to art”). One teacher says the obvious in the face of community protest:  “Western artists have been performing life studies for centuries.”
            After studying in Paris, Yuliang returns to China with a realist style very much akin to the more realist periods of a Matisse, Bonnard, Picasso, or Modigliani. This was at a time when art officials tied to government still editorialized that, “Renior is vulgar, Cezanne is shallow, Matisse is inferior.” Yuliang adds to their chagrin by specializing in female nudes. This seals her fate, and in 1937 she will leave China for good.
            The works of the historical Pan Yuliang’s (as in Mrs. Pan) have survived in great number, totaling perhaps four thousand. Yet she did not keep a diary, preserve letters, or have her biography detailed before she died in Paris in 1977. As a result, the novelist’s touch is required to enliven The Painter from Shanghai, and it was done by Epstein in four ways.
            The first half of the book is essentially about the life of a young Chinese woman sold to a house of prostitution—“the Hall”—after her parents died. The second half begins when a kindhearted businessman saves her from that life; he makes her one of his wives. With time to spare, she “scribbles,” learns about drawing, and then meets students at a Western-style art academy. She persuades its teacher to let her in, though she did not pass the entry test. “I’m better,” she says. That’s why she should get the last opening slot.
            Her latent talent appears, and she wins a scholarship to study at the elite École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. There, she has a love affair with a young Chinese exile, Kundu, who is part of the communist movement. It wants to overthrow the old imperial system, and is competing with the Nationalists for who will dictate the new Chinese social order.
            Her lover Kundu, it turns out, is a right hand man to Zhou Enlai, the future premier of Communist China. Yuliang's tangential ties to this revolutionary circle, the “CCP cadre,” goes public back in China. As a result, her old-fashioned husband—who has energetically supported her painting career—will lose his job as the Communist-Nationalist rivalry intensifies.
            A dramatic crescendo comes in 1929 in Shanghi, which Yuliang calls the “Paris of the East.” She is having a major exhibition. Rightwing thugs who support the Nationalists demolish the exhibit after they steal the paintings. “All gone,” Yuliang says, nearly broken. “Half a lifetime of work.”
            The vandals leave only one painting, that of a male figure. She stomps it to pieces and says to the newspaper cameras, “There. . . . I always finish the job.” It’s kind of her motto through the story.
            Yuliang is a tenacious, but beaten for the moment. She quits painting. She conforms by being a university teacher. In the end, though, she cannot bear to censure her creativity. On a final night, she embraces her devoted older husband, yearns to bear his child, but all to no avail. In his embrace, “She is already miles away.” She says to herself conclusively, “I didn’t chose to be this way. . . . I’ve tried to change. I simply can’t.”
            She buys a one-way ticket to Marseilles, France, where a gallery wants to exhibit her work. Her husband believes China will get better. He thinks she is off on a holiday. She know it’s her final exile.
            As a novel, The Painter from Shanghai reveals some of the ironic twists that modern art trends have taken, East and West.
             One is seen in the contrast Epstein draws between the opening of Yuliang’s story and the account of the 1929 “disastrous exhibition,” which is a highpoint at the end of the novel. During that exhibit, which nearly ended her career, Yuliang’s paintings were at the cutting edge of controversy. However, in the first pages of the novel, we meet Yuliang at her Paris studio in 1957. She is still painting nude models. But it’s a time in Europe when “People don’t want girls with flowers right now. They want splashes and gashes.” In other words, abstract art has shunted aside the kind of figurative painting to which Yuliang has wedded herself.
            Another twist is this: After she leaves China, the Communist Party enforces “socialist realism” as the only acceptable form of painting. The party rejects the same imperial aesthetic that Yuliang and her teachers opposed, but now it has adopted Western realism for totalitarian purposes.
            Still, Yuliang feels triumphant, and still very Chinese, we can suppose. In the nonfiction world, she kept her Chinese citizenship and was buried in Chinese robes in Montmartre, the Paris hub of the artistic avant-garde during her own youthful heyday.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Goethe’s Young Werther and the Painter’s Dilemma (no. 25)

 by Larry Witham


NOT MANY NOVELISTS renounce their best-selling works later in life. The German author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe did just that with his Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), the story of a wandering artist.
            Geothe wrote the novel when he was twenty-four. Young Werther has been called the stalking horse of the Romantic era in European arts and letters. And the plot explains why: Werther leaves aristocratic comfort to travel and draw. He is swept up in nature and simple village life. Then he falls for a maiden, Charlotte. But she must marry an older man. There is no way out, so Werther shoots himself in the head with a hunting pistol. No one but the gravediggers attend his funeral.
            You can see why a mature Goethe—who went on to science, philosophy, epic poetry, statesmanship, and travel writing—might have looked back on his first novel with some chagrin. It is clearly autobiographical. Still, it was a marvelously-written work, and defined “bestseller” in his century. It was a kind of Twilight or Titanic storyline for the lovelorn youth of his era, sans the vampire and Leonardo Dicaprio.
            The story is composed as a series of letters that Werther wrote to his friend Wilhelm. A fictional author (who is not Wilhelm) has “carefully collected” these missives, hoping that to Werther’s “spirit and character you [the reader] cannot refuse your admiration and love: to his fate you will not deny your tears.”
            Throughout his letters, Werther, a draftsman who also presumably painted, delivers a paean to Nature. It is the antidote to the “rules” of society. The power or Nature also challenges Werther’s work ethic, so to speak. “I am so happy [and] so absorbed in the exquisite sense of mere tranquil existence, that I neglect my talents. I should be incapable of drawing a single stroke at the present moment; and yet I feel that I never was a greater artist than now.”
            The one college-educated fellow in the countryside seeks out Werther when he learns that, as Werther explains, “I am drawing a good deal, and that I know Greek.”
            Werther draws two children in happy repose. He adds to the picture “the neighboring hedge, the barn-door, and some broken cart-wheels, just as they happened to lie; and I found in about an hour that I had made a very correct and interesting drawing, without putting in the slightest thing of my own.” In other words, Werther is a convert to artistic realism (aka naturalism). This was his “resolution of adhering, for the future, entirely to nature. She alone is inexhaustible, and capable of forming the greatest masters.”
            Goethe introduced the idea of “genius” into Werther’s “artistic contemplations,” and let that cat out of the bag. Sixteen years after the novel was published, the nearby Prussian philosopher Emanuel Kant took up the genius topic big time in his Critique of Judgment, and art history would never be the same. (That is, only exceptional and true artists merited the label of genius, which Kant meticulously analyzed and defined).
            Werther also introduces readers to the dilemma of the artist, commented on for generations. If there is so much beauty in the world, why does the painter have to make something beautiful in a sketch or on a canvas? One theory today is that artists are inherently unhappy; they can’t be content with seeing a beautiful flower, so they must make a picture of one. Or as Werther asks, “Can we never take pleasure in nature without having recourse to art?”
            His friend Wilhem, however, writes back to Werther to urge him not to lose his vocational focus amid all the epiphanies. Werther replies: “You insist so much on my not neglecting my drawing . . . and yet I am unable to express myself: my powers of execution are so weak, everything seems to swim and float before me, so that I cannot make a clear, bold outline.” Here is the “painters block” that artists know so well.
            Werther’s solution is to attempt to do a portrait of Charlotte, whom he loves from afar. Getting the exact likeness is not easy. He tells Wilhelm how he’s “disgraced myself” in losing his former ability to draw faces. “This is the more annoying, as I was formerly very happy in taking likenesses. I have since sketched her profile, and must content myself with that.”
            In the end, the art means little. Love means everything. Werther takes his life.
            Goethe lived a long life. He died at age eighty-three at the height of the Romantic era (1800-1850). If he distanced himself from the novel, perhaps as too adolescent, he remained an advocate of nature appreciation and artistic realism. His novel gave Western literature and the philosophy of art some major themes. It also produced a model for the romantic suicide, which young men would literally follow across that century.
            You might say he foreshadowed the 1950s Beat Generation and after—the drug-addled Romantics of the modern American era—if you want to stretch the matter. As Werther says at one point, “Once more I am a wanderer, a pilgrim, through the world. But what else are you!”

Monday, February 15, 2016

A Bellini Painting of a Sultan Stirs Intrigue from Venice to Istanbul (no. 24)

 by Larry Witham


AH, BEAUTIFUL VENICE! Actually, in 1840, it was not beautiful at all, according to the setting for Jason Goodwin’s exotic detective novel, The Bellini Card (2008). Under Austrian Hapsburg rule, the city’s palaces are dilapidated, the canals muddy green, and the political intrigues nastier than ever.
            All the treasures, in fact, are hidden away.
            To begin this story, the new and young sultan in Istanbul hears rumors that an Italian Renaissance painting of a past sultan, the “Great Conqueror” Mahumet II, is for sale in Venice. It’s been missing for a few generations. “If the picture exists, I wish for it,” says Sultan Abdulmecid, just taking office. “Send for Yashim.”
            Yashim is author Goodwin’s unique creation, a highly-educated court eunuch and investigator, a chief fixer for the sultans. The Bellini Card is Yashim’s third adventure. In this case, however, a court bureaucrat, Resid Pasha (a pasha being a high-ranking Turkish official) intervenes. When the conniving Resid tells Yashim that it’s not necessary to go to Venice, Yashim secretly sends his friend Stanislaw Palewski, a former Polish ambassador. He arrives in Venice posing as an American art buyer named Mr. Brett.
            Eventually, two Venetian dealers with information about the painting are killed. So Yashim himself glides into Venice, arriving in the disguise of a pasha (ensconced on a barge and wearing an Ottoman turban and so much else that no one can really recognize him).
            One theme of the novel is that “Venice is theater,” and there’s a good many ploys taking place behind disguises and masks. Indeed, a key mystery to the novel is based on a misunderstanding because of the disguises. Back during one of the annual Venice Carnivals (famous for the use of masks), it was rumored that the new young sultan had sneaked into sinful Venice, played cards and drank—and who knows what else—and then returned to Istanbul.
            The Austrian Hapsburgs, who control Venice, believe they can use this scandalous information as possible blackmail, giving them a political upper hand over the inexperienced sultan. However, the true fact is that it was Resid Pasha—yes, wearing a mask—who had come to Venice to satiate his carnal appetites. To hide this guilty fact, Resid Pasha has sent a Tatar assassin to Venice. The assassin is to kill anyone who saw Resid Pasha at a Carnival card game. He’s also to kill the art dealers and get the Bellini painting for Resid’s own purposes.
            The painting is a historical fact (as Goodwin explains in the back-of-the-book notes).
            In the year 1480, the great Venetian painter Gentile Bellini had gone to Istanbul as unofficial ambassador from his republic. After meeting Sultan Mahumet II, he painted his portrait (which now hangs in the National Gallery, London). In the novel, Goodwin has the Tatar die in a storm-flooded Venetian canal, and the Bellini canvas goes down with him.
            Cleverly enough, this can still jibe with true art history, however, since conceivably someone could have found the floating canvas, repainted the extensive damage—which is the real case with the painting—and mounted it on a panel. Such a repair history roughly matches the real painting’s legacy.
            Goodwin is a scholar of the Byzantine Empire. A strength of the novel is the backdrop of political relations between Venice and the East and the atmospheric descriptions of both Istanbul and Venice. To add some intellectual heft, Goodwin also inserts references to an ancient Greek mathematical principle that had been recovered by the Muslims and transmitted back to Europe. It is one of the famous mathematical calculations of the Greek geometer Archimedes, a calculus known as “The Sand Reckoner.”
            Archimedes wanted to estimate the size of the universe by asking, How many grains of sand would it take to fill the cosmic space? First he calculated how many grains are in, say, a square mile—he spoke of “myriad” instead of our modern mile—then extended that to a thousand square miles, and so on. He extrapolated up to cosmic proportions.
            One visualized result of Archimedes’ principle of repetitive expansion would be a diagram, an eight-pointed star inside a square. The design was used in Ottoman mosaics and later in Western art. It’s also a topic the philosophical Yashim reflects upon: the diagram represents myriad connections, just like all the connections he finds in discovering who killed whom, who was really in Venice, and who has had the painting all these years.
            “Nothing is still,” Yashim says. “Nothing remains the same except that pattern that lies beneath.” Back during Bellini’s visit with the sultan, in fact, the pattern stood for diplomatic amity because “the pattern reconciles . . . east with west.”
            The possessor of the Bellini painting is Clara, an Italian countess (“the contessa”), who as it turns out, was also host to the Venice Carnival card game at which Resid Pasha had participated, wearing his mask, of course. Problem is, Resid got into terrible debt with his losing hands. This was another reason Resid had sent the Tatar assassin to seize the painting: the contessa had hidden the debt note on the back of the painting. The Austrians, meanwhile, also wanted to get their hands on the debt note, a key element if they ever wanted to blackmail the sultan (again, whom they thought was the man at the card game). Remember, Venice is theater.
            One would do well to read some history about Venice and the Ottoman Turks in the nineteenth century before delving into a Goodwin novel. A lot of motives can be difficult to ferret out, for the author is not explicit: He knows it would bog down the narrative to give too much political history and explain all the social positions (pashas, dukes, contessas, courtesans, Tatars, Moors—and more).
            A bit of Venetian art history passes through easily enough. The contessa’s long-lost son, a kind of idiot savant, surfaces as a forger of paintings by Canaletto, Venice’s preeminent urban landscape artist. While Bellini paintings are “not in fashion,” Titians are very upmarket. All three are famed Venetian painters.
            The masked motives and masked people in The Bellini Card lend to a very complex plot. But if one can appreciate the theory—a novel about disguises—a certain satisfaction is guaranteed when, at the end, Yashim and Resid summarize what had really happened. As the narrator has warned us more than once, “Venice was theater in so many ways.”

Thursday, February 11, 2016

A ‘Cozy’ Detective Plot Gives Artists Motives to Kill Critics (no. 23)

 by Larry Witham


SOME PLOT DEVICES in fiction are never out of season, especially in detective mysteries.
            Agatha Christie created one indelible format with her And Then There Were None (1939). A group of people are invited to an island estate. The next morning one of them is dead. Everyone is stranded there for the rest of the story. Each person is a momentary suspect (at least until he or she also is murdered).
       Of modern-day writers, the Canadian author Louise Penny has probably best applied this “Agatha Christie formula” to the art world. Indeed, Penny is a three-time winner of the Agatha Christie Award for detective novels.
            In Penny’s A Trick of the Light (2011), a cast of art world characters attend a party at the home of fifty-something artist Clara Morrow, who has just broken through with a heralded painting exhibit at the famed Musée in Montreal. Clara lives in the nearby rural town of Three Pines with her artist husband, Peter.
            The next morning, an unexpected visitor—and childhood friend of Clara—is found chocked to death in the garden. She is Lilian, who had given up an artist career to become an acerbic art critic at a Canadian newspaper. And because Lilian’s caustic reviews had ruined more than a few artist careers, any of the art world people celebrating Clara’s exhibition might have a motive to kill her.
       A Trick of Light is Penny’s seventh installment of her Chief Inspector Gamache series. So naturally, Gamache arrives in Three Pines. He sets up his homicide shop and starts going down the list of suspects. The list is considerable, with motives seemingly everywhere.
            Even after the murder, and after the party, the key characters find reasons to stay around Three Pines. This makes it convenient in the end for all of them to be in the same hotel restaurant when Gamache (as a Christie-style detective) reveals the logic of his deductions and fingers the culprit, who then, in turn, vents all the reasons for the murder.
            Besides the art world themes, two other topics weigh heavily in this village melodrama. One is a foray into the Montreal Alcoholics Anonymous, to which the victim and at least two suspects belong. A second keynote is marital tension. Of the four marriages mentioned in the story, three are about to end in separation or divorce. Gamache’s marriage is the only one that escapes the turmoil.
            Through the character of Clara Morrow, Penny explores the interior life of all artists, the vast majority of whom will never have the luck that Clara has had—finally being discovered, if late in life. For that matter, an array of art-world players are dissected by Penny with surprising insight and subtlety.
            There may be a few howlers, nevertheless. At one point in the dialogue, characters joke at how everyone says artworks are “stunning,” making it a meaningless term. Yet at the same time, the sincere dialogue speaks of the “genius” of paintings by Clara and by Lilian, as if the two talented ladies share a perch with Einstein and Michelangelo.
            It is the critics from New York to London who have declared Clara the artist of the hour, however. And it's that acclaim that draws the art glitterati to her Three Pines art party. Penny takes us through the crowd, where we find jealousy, the politics of art shows and art dealers, and the clashing tastes in art styles.
            The party draws three cagey art dealers. A suspicious art couple lingers about. Then there is husband Peter, an unsuccessful avant-garde painter. He has long belittled Clara’s traditional paintings, but now those paintings have shot to fame.
            One clue soon jumps out. During her art critic days, Lilian had written that one Canadian artist was “a natural, producing art like a bodily function.” Everyone in the Canadian art world remembers the slur, but no one can remember who Lilian was writing about. Indeed, this person seems to be the killer, wreaking revenge on Lilian, who had suggested that the art was human waste.
            By the end, we think the killer must be an artist named Suzanne. She was Lilian’s friend at the AA meetings. After a novel-long search in old newspapers, one of Chief Inspector Gamache’s staff finds that Lilian’s “bodily function” review was about Suzanne’s art work. The tarring had ended Suzanne’s artistic career. The junior cops believe they’ve wrapped up the case (since by now, Suzanne has lied several times).
            But the philosophically-inclined chief inspector is wiser.
            As Gamache plods along (this is a kind of “cozy” mystery, after all, with dialogue that is both clever and illuminating), he probes one red herring (false lead) after another. He agrees that someone had killed Lilian for her abusive reviews, but for him the timing and scene of the crime are the most crucial.
            Everyone finally gathers in the Three Pines hotel. Chief Inspector Gamache unfurls his impeccable logic. One of the art dealers is the murderer, he declares, naming the name and pointing the finger. The assembly is shocked. Before the dealer went into the business, he too had aspired to be an artist. But critic Lilian had cut him off at the knees. As Gamache also explains, the dealer wanted to tarnish Clara’s success by having a murder blight her art party: the dealer had once represented Clara, later terminated her at the gallery, and now resents her success without him.
            One red herring was interesting from the start. Clara and Lilian had been best friends as girls. Both became aspiring young artists. But Lilian had stolen Clara’s ideas, so they had a bitter falling out. At one point, Lilian’s parents accuse Clara of killing Lilian over that past hostility.
            In the end, however, the story returns to clueless Peter, husband of the now famous artist, Clara Morrow. Clara believes that because Peter is not truly happy about her astounding success, he does not truly love her. She asks Peter to leave for a year (a modern marriage solution?). It’s take-a-break time for some artistic soul-searching. In all, a well-plotted cozy that also, inescapably, has a message, probably about women in the art world.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Vonnegut Makes Even His Painters Anti-War (no. 22)

 by Larry Witham


THE LATE KURT Vonnegut was known for strong anti-war sentiments in many of his novels, and one of these is about a painter, a novel titled Bluebeard (1987).
            A natural, if uneven, writer, Vonnegut had paid his dues during the Second World War. Captured by the Germans after the Battle of the Bulge, he was in Dresden in 1944 when the Allies firebombed the city. Vonnegut survived by being three stories underground in a meat locker. Later he was repatriated to freedom by the Soviet Army.
            All of which explains a good deal about his best novels, especially his darkly satirical Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), a best-seller that catapulted him to enduring fame in the American world of art and letters—and in the student anti-war movement. Fame was sweet, but life not so easy. After a rough psychological spot through the 1970s, Vonnegut came back with a series of satirical novels, one of which is Bluebeard.
            Bluebeard is not the name of the artist. It's rather a reference to a gruesome fairy tale in which a nobleman secretly kills one wife after another and hides their corpses in a room of his castle. In the latest marriage, the noble tells his wife she can visit any room except that one (and, of course, she opens it when he’s out of town).
            In Vonnegut’s 1987 novel, the old artist Robo Karabekian has an estate in the Hamptons. On it stands an old a potato barn turned into a studio for his large paintings (the typical size for Abstract Expressionists of the 1950s). The studio is his Bluebeard room, or as he tells us, “I am Bluebeard, and my studio is my forbidden chamber.”
            The novel is a pseudo-biography of a once-famous Abstract Expressionist (Ab-Ex). Told in the first person, the story often flashes to the past as Robo narrates a few weeks of events in the present. And Robo drives our interest with a single question: What is he hiding in his potato barn?
            As the tale unfolds, Robo is a widower living at his Hamptons mansion, a kind of house-museum. He obtained the property by marrying a wealthy woman back when he had relative fame in the art world. Presently, a visitor arrives at his door, a writer named Mrs. Berman. She wants to do a book on his life, but Robo resists. Privately, however, he reflects on his adventures, and that is the heart of the novel.
            Robo tells the story of immigrants, war, and the cynical business of modern art. He chronicles his rise to be a noted Abstract Expressionists, in fact, the best pal of Jackson Pollack and another artist (fictional) named Terry Kitchen. They were “Three Musketeers” down at the Cedar Tavern in Manhattan, the storied hangout of the painters of that postwar generation.
            Robo’s parents were Armenian migrants to California. There, the young artist aspired to be like a famous magazine illustrator back East, a realist artist named Dan Gregory. Robo’s art career was not working out in the California sticks, “So I went to New York to be born again.” He arrived in 1933, and came under Gregory’s wing.
            This Manhattan artists is obviously the villain of the piece: he’s stubbornly realist in his art, saying a good painting is “virtually indistinguishable from a photograph,” and that Abstract art is “the work of swindlers and lunatics and degenerates.” To make his villainy even clearer, Gregory goes to Italy to support Mussolini and the fascists.
            Robo, who temporarily falls in love with his teacher’s assistant, Marlene, has studied “representational” painting at the Art Students League. But in aversion to the snobbish Gregory, Robo swings in the opposite direction. He becomes an Abstract Expressionists and, as he says later, Matisse is his favorite painter.
            War arrives. Robo goes to the front. He leads a camouflage unit and loses an eye in battle. After victory, he goes to Paris and visits Picasso to see if he “was OK,” then goes to Florence to privately hawk some foot-loose paintings he’d picked up in the chaos of the war front. Still in the Army, he does some final work identifying paintings looted by the Nazis.
            Robo returns to New York, where he becomes known as “Diamond Robo Karabekian,” in other words, a slick art dealer. He gets a NYU business degree and hangs out with the early Abstract painters, buying some works, and getting others free that “nobody wanted.” Soon he is a major collector and dealer as well as a sometime painter.
            “I could talk if not paint pictures,” Robo reports. Eventually he marries money among the heirs of the Taft family, inherits the Hampton estate, and now is alone, looking back on his life.
            We readers are still wondering: What’s in the potato barn, Robo?
            Mrs. Berman, the writer, is also eager to get a peek. One day he takes her out to the locked building. Before this, Robo has offered up a few stories—not exactly true--about what’s out there (in Vonnegut dream-style, what characters say can be taken several ways).
            At first Robo says the barn houses what remains of a major art project he had done years earlier—eight painted panels, each 8 x 8 feet in size. The panels had once decorated a big corporate lobby in Manhattan, but were discarded after the blue paint and tape Robo used began falling off. (Big paintings that have deteriorated is a real Ab-Ex issue). After Robo retrieved the unwanted panels, he scrubbed and primed them back to the original white.
            So, is there a white wall of primed canvases in the barn?
            At one point he tells Mrs. Berman the thing is called, I Tried and Failed and Cleaned Up Afterwards, so It’s Your Turn Now.
            When Robo finally takes her inside, it is a different story. He now calls the artwork the “whatchamacallit” painting. Apparently, the eight years in which Robo had vanished from New York society—a kind of artist’s disappearance—he had painted all sixty-four-feet of the canvas surfaces in remarkably realist detail (the kind that the loathed Gregory has advocated).
            What Robo has painted, however, is a vast landscape of battle scenes with hundreds of figures, each with a story about the terrors of war. Viewers, he says, can make up war stories with any of the people in the painting. He tells Mrs. Berman the title: Now It’s Women’s Turn. War is “man” made, Robo is suggesting, and there the novel ends.
            After this 1987 novel, Vonnegut will live twenty more years. His last work is a collection of essays, A Man Without a Country, reflecting—in print at least—his final alienation from the kind of nation states in which he experienced both war and a remarkably successful literary career.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Art Schools as the Scene of the Crime (no. 21)

 by Larry Witham


ART COLLEGES IN the United States have changed little in the past generation, except for the new role played by computers and digital art. In short, there is less drawing and more use of technology. But the four years of art discipline remain fairly standard.
            That is why two novels about art schools—one set in the present, the other in the 1950s—create a picture that is somewhat similar.
            In Nicholas Kilmer’s A Butterfly in Flame (2010), the story revolves around a scheme to close an art school, Stillton Academy, as part of a land grab to develop a luxury resort on the coast north of Boston. Quite a different novel is The Cheese Monkeys: A Novel in Two Semesters (2001), by Chip Kidd, in which the quirky narrative follows the narrator through his first year in at a state college art department, mainly enduring Art 127, a course in graphic design (i.e. commercial art).
            Both novels have the feel of autobiography, and not surprisingly.
            Novelist Kilmer, a former teacher of studio art and classics, was dean of a small, struggling art college in Boston that merged into the larger state college system. A Butterfly in Flame is the seventh (of eight) installments of his “Fred Taylor Art Mysteries,” which take place in Massachusetts.
            In this episode, Cambridge-residing Fred Taylor, an art investigator for a wealthy Boston collector, not only discovers the real estate calumny. He also unearths an unknown Albert Bierstadt landscape painting worth millions. The landscape mural is rolled up in a dusty classroom attic and, if sold, could save the art academy financially.
            In all his novels, Kilmer gives protagonist Fred Taylor a kind of high-minded tone, critical of fools and adamant about quality in art. A Butterfly in Flame finds Fred a bit more disparaging than usual, perhaps. He is distraught by the slack standards of art education, for example. One may sense Kilmer’s own clash with educational bureaucracies when he portrays, at fictional Stillton Academy, the worst that can happen.
            In The Cheese Monkeys, author Kidd also reveals his own life story. He became a well-known graphic designer, producing covers for best-selling authors. Kidd attended a state college art department in the 1950s. His satire on two semesters of life there offer a kind of Catcher in the Rye of the art school (or perhaps a Kerouac On the Road imitation).
            Either way, the unnamed eighteen-year-old narrator has fingered his art teachers, and the art department, as phonies (to use Holden Caulfield favorite term). An early line is typical: “Majoring in Art at the state university appealed to me because I have always hated Art, and I had a hunch if any school would treat the subject with the proper disdain, it would be one that was run by the government (i.e. a state college).”
            As to the “cheese monkeys,” early in the novel, our protagonist sees a kind of joke sculpture done by someone and titled, “Is Nothing Sacred?” or “Seventh Circle of the Cheese Monkeys,” two of its material elements being “Bagfuls of pretension” and “Hot air.” This makes our protagonist laugh, and think, “Bravo,” at this put-down of art.
            Still, a semester of Introduction to Drawing and the same in Introduction to Graphic Design do educate our young, ungrateful, anti-hero.
            The clash between students and teachers do not come into the open until the second semester Graphic Design course, where a hard-nosed, slow-to-praise Prof. Winter Sorbeck presides. During four assignments on communication through Graphic Design, he excoriates the students, especially a young lady, Himillsy, whom our hero fancies. The fourth project prompts her to fire a gun at Sorbeck, though it has blanks.
            When the final project comes, the students stress-out, do all-nighters, and one girls cuts off the tip of her thumb with an X-acto knife. But also, Sorbeck does not show up for finals: He is fired. That’s because, during the faculty art show, he put out a cooler, closed tight, bearing a sign in provocative Graphic Design fashion, “WHATEVER YOU DO, DON’T OPEN…” It was opened, of course. The cooler was filled with human excrement. The stench soon engulfed the Visual Arts building.
            The story is filled with adolescent (and adult) profanity that’s bluer than even the frequent freshman bathroom humor of this novel. As noted, even the professor acts out in the end. Author Kidd is suggesting, perhaps, his felt-need for rebellion in a 1950s art department, given the Cold War and McCarthy Era. At a frat party, Himillsy is drugged and nearly raped, except our hero intervenes. Surprisingly, she then turns on him for interfering in her life.
            The story ends with the final project. The narrator book-binds his graphic texts and the cover title reads, The Cheese Monkeys. Himillsy sends in her final project by UPS, a fish bowl with the fish inside representing herself: “That’s MMMMEEEEEEEEEEEEE.”
            Like much modern-day art, or like Beat Generation narrative, The Cheese Monkeys is not about an end product (in this case, a novel with a plot that resolves itself), but rather a “process.” In this, graphic artist Chip Kidd presents a lively freshman-year tour, if not really a plot.
            The title of Kilmer’s novel, A Butterfly in Flame, also requires some explanation. The place to begin and end is its plot: A teacher and female student go missing at the art academy, and Fred Taylor is asked go in, feign being a substitute teacher, and find out where the two went (since a fraternizing scandal might be afoot). Fred soon realizes that the art school—filled mostly with sincere students and faculty—is otherwise a kind of charade. It needs accreditation to survive in the little coastal town, but for some reason the academy Board is plotting for its failure and closure.
            As Fred discovers in the end, the Board, a Boston bank, and a few other culprits are buying up the town to build a holiday spot, something like a Stillton Sound Resorts. To do this, the art academy must fail, and one hotel—a holdout in the land grab—must be brought to heal.
            The plan unravels, and one culprit—a onetime academy director—is killed to keep him silent. Then the missing female art student shows up with papers proving her father-banker is in on the conspiracy. Fortunately, Fred finds the Bierstadt mural (plus another Bierstadt at the old hotel), and as the police round up the bad guys, the art academy is due for a large new endowment and a new Board of Directors. In real life, Bierstadt had painted butterflies on some greeting cards, and one also shows up around the Stillton Academy. When the witty and erudite Fred discusses a fire that destroyed the academy founder’s home—and presumably some paintings on canvas—he said of the paintings: “They’d have the chance of a butterfly in flame.”
            As in all his “Fred Taylor Mysteries,” Kilmer has put one particular art work at the center of the plot. This novel has the Bierstadt. His other novels feature, respectively, a Vermeer, a Copley, a Renaissance old master, a Turner, a medieval illuminated manuscript, a Da Vinci, and a Bosch. His publisher says Kilmer “writes the most gripping—and well researched—art mysteries of today,” an in-the-ballpark claim, given the author’s academic credentials and productivity. Plus, Kilmer used to head an art academy.
            (More on Fred Taylor, and all “art mystery” series, in a later post).

Monday, February 1, 2016

Comic Fiction with a Brain Meets the Secrets of ‘Art Theory’ (no. 20)

 by Larry Witham


WHEN MICHAEL FRAYN writes a comic novel, he also demands that readers use their frontal lobes. This alluring amalgam of intelligence and wit runs through the one novel the British playwright has composed around art history: Headlong (1999).
            The cerebral parts of Frayn’s fictional works tend toward philosophy. And so it is in Headlong. It’s what one would expect from a writer notable for his play, Copenhagen. That story is about physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg discussing whether there is certainty in the subatomic world.
            In the novel Headlong, the plot orbits around a married couple who are professors. Martin is a philosopher and Kate an art historian. In Martin’s case, his ebullient mind will get the comic best of him as he blunders into the art market. He hopes to make a few million by discovering the philosophical secrets of an enigmatic painting by the sixteenth century Flemish artist Peter Bruegel the Elder.
            During their academic breaks, Martin, Kate, and their infant daughter head to their cottage in the countryside. They unexpectedly have new neighbors, Tony and Laura Churt, a coarse working-class couple who’ve just inherited a large estate called Upwood. The manor has a number of old, dusty paintings. Having heard from townsfolk that Kate knows art history, the Churt’s ask them over to take a look.
            Are the paintings worth anything?
            There’s one dark, old panel that Churt has no interest in, but it galvanizes Martin: “I recognize it instantly.” Saying nothing, Martin believes it is a long-lost Bruegel painting. Martin knows that topic because he’s trying unsuccessfully to write a book on philosophical nominalism in fifteenth century Netherlandish art.
            Now the comedy and satire begin. It’s enlivened by Frayn’s decision to have Martin as the narrator of the story. Martin speaks in hindsight, looking back on a string of small catastrophes, telling us what happened and defending his actions. He doesn’t tell us the answer to the mystery until the end: is the panel really the long-lost Bruegel?
            After Martin meets the Churts, he offers to help Tony Churt dispose of his paintings discretely. Martin’s true motive is to get the Bruegel. The scheme is amenable to Tony since he wants to hide the art cache from taxes and from his disliked brother, who also has a claim on the estate. Tony is a hard character to get along with; his wife, Laura, for example, is ready to leave him because of his brutish ways.
            We have here a satire on the English class system as well: the Churts meet the professors. “He’s a philosopher,” Kate tells Laura on their first visit. “My God,” says Laura. “I’ve never met a philosopher before.”
            The cerebral part of the comedy thickens when Martin launches his research to prove the painting must be the Merrymakers, one of the six paintings Bruegel did of the seasons. And Martin has a method. While his art historian wife applies “iconography” in her research, the philosophical Martin applies “iconology.” This approach, he says, looks for symbols that reveal the artist’s deepest thoughts, and is therefore superior to mere iconography (which simply itemizes subject matter in a painting).
            As he tells the bewildered Churts: “Iconology teaches us that the plain iconography has to be read in conjunction with a wider style and artistic intention—that its real meaning is the opposite of what it appears to be.” And so it is with Bruegel’s calendric paintings, Martin believes. Most people think they are quaint seasonal tableaus of rural life. Martin is convinced that they carry a subversive political message against Spain's empire, which had occupied the Netherlands when Bruegel painted.
            To prove this theory, Martin is off to the London archives, finding clue after clue, debate after debate, on what Bruegel was doing. It’s a satire on real-life iconologists, who split hairs and come up with extravagant theories on what can be found in medieval and Renaissance imagery. Iconology, you see, is Martin’s “own pet discipline.” This inclination is one reason his wife is constantly worried about him. “She thinks that I’ve lost my way in life,” Martin confides to the reader. This contrasts with her down-to-earth career building.
            At one phase, Martin believes he’s narrowed down his quarry—the dark panel at the Churt estate—to be a Bruegel painting of springtime. Thus, it would be the very first of the six-painting cycle. “High Spring,” Martin exults. “And this is what I have, there’s no doubt whatever left in my mind.”
            Upon leaving the art library, he realizes that he might “be the man who’d finally solved the mystery of Bruegel.” What is more, the dangerous secrets that had been held in the painting would explain why it was “removed and hidden,” and thus lost to history.
            To get the Bruegel panel, Martin snags himself in two imbroglios. First is his suggestion to Laura that he’s attracted to her, which Martin uses to get her help. Second is Martin’s clumsy negotiations in the art world, which end with a rival dealer—one John Quiss—getting Churt’s ear and spoiling all of Martin’s plans.
            This sparks a final conflict. When Tony Churt cavalierly decides to let Quiss have the rest of the paintings (including the Bruegel), Martin and Laura take action. They first roar off in a Land Rover with the wrong paintings, come back, incite Tony to pull out and fire his hunting rifle, and this time grab the correct painting, the Bruegel. They begin a highway chase, Martin and Laura in the Land Rover, Tony in pursuit.
            They end in a crash. As the Land Rover catches fire, Martin barely gets the Bruegel painting out to observe a final clue in the Merrymakers scene that would confirm both his theory and the painting’s authenticity. However, the fire has already charred the panel down to that spot. Martin will never know if his theory is correct. Furthermore, the world will never know what really happened to the lost Bruegel.
            The conclusion fits one of Frayn’s favorite topics: the utter uncertainty of things.
            Martin is philosophical about the very bad luck of his exploits. “Well, I was plainly not put into this world to be an art dealer,” he says. He nurses his burnt hands and is thankful that Kate accepts him back as her husband. He’d done his best to solve a great mystery, but alas. Perhaps some final judgment on his theory will arrive in history. But, he tell us in his report, it may be “a judgment than can in the nature of things almost certainly never be delivered.”