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.”

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