Thursday, March 31, 2016

Part II: Approaches to the Fictional Biography of Artemisia (no. 37)

 by Larry Witham


SUSAN VREELAND HAS earned a reputation as perhaps the leading romance writer of historical art fiction, ranging in her characters across the northern Renaissance, the Italian baroque period, the French Impressionists, and more.
            She came on the scene in 1999 with the sleeper bestseller The Girl in Hyacinth Blue (1999), published by a small Denver press. It tells a kind of romantic and tragic story surrounding the Dutch artist Vermeer and one of his paintings.
            With her publishing platform secure, Vreeland moved on to a second art history novel, telling the story of the Italian baroque-period painter Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1656), the first woman to be accepted into the Florence Academy.
            The novel is titled The Passion of Artemisia, (2002), and this time it came out with a major New York publishing house. It was a curtain raiser for other of Vreeland’s upmarket art historical novels to come, and in this benchmark work, Artemisia’s “passion” is a very appropriate term.
            Of all the Artemisia novels (see Part I), Vreeland’s is by far the best known and the most commercially successful. In Passion of Artemisia, Vreeland’s graceful prose pulls out all the stops when it comes to a woman’s longings, feelings, resolves and resentments. Of course, Artemisia—as all of her biographers have detailed—had some very legitimate things to complain about, despite her otherwise successful and interesting life (at least compared to virtually all other women in the seventeenth century).
            The first is her rape at age eighteen, made famous now by a rape trial that was documented in historical records. Vreeland opens her story here. She presents the trial in its raw gynecologic detail. Not only are the church officials the epitome of evil, but we also find Artemisia passionately loathing her father, a betrayer. He sued the rapist over a stolen painting, and this had dragged Artemisia into a humiliating public spectacle.
            The passion shows up in a few other strong themes. A central one, perhaps second only to the rape, is Artemisia’s artistic specialty—painting a violent biblical scene in which a wronged woman cuts off the head of the man. This is the story of Judith, and in several such head-cutting oil paintings, Artemisia both innovates in composition and, as this novel suggests, gets vicarious revenge against such wanton men.
            Vreeland’s novel also focuses on Artemisia's additional quality as a painter: she does nude females. To paint biblical and mythological stories that required naked women, Artemisia could use a female model, whereas (officially, at least), male guild artists and students could use only male nudes, otherwise it was said to be a scandal.
            In painting women, Artemisia made some obvious changes in the expressions on their faces. For narrative effect, Vreeland reads the painter’s thoughts into some of the works, suggesting how Artemisia had revealed a true female psychology in facial expressions and bodily gestures (versus the idealized, passive looks used by male painters).
            By the subject matter and the psychology, Artemisia introduces a woman’s point of view into Western art, the novel implies. If that’s not clear, Artemisia states it plainly to her father. Society can change its view on women, she tells him: “Things will change, father, they must, and art can help create the change.”
            Artemisia's passions, and the training she received from her father, would gradually put her in significant company. For a start, her husband—with whom we are treated to a few sex scenes—takes her to Florence, away from Rome, with its bad memories. In Florence, she becomes friends with the nephew of Michelangelo, gains introduction to the house of de Medici (for whom she paints), and becomes a close friend of no less than Galileo. They are both trying to drag the medieval world into the modern one, as this story goes.
            Still, the most passionate side of Artemisia stems from the sense of injustice she feels toward her father. It is also shown in her devotion to her daughter, raising her to be a painter and an independent woman. However, the daughter does not agree; she doesn’t like to paint, and would rather marry a nobleman. Indeed, Artemisia chastises her daughter for not “feeling” passion (“white hot passion”), and not feeling utter indignation over the “pain and humiliation” that her mother’s life has undergone (again, focused on the rape trial).
            In one of her rare critical moments (of herself) Artemisia admits that she is actually a lot like her father. He has sacrificed her for his art, and looking back, she has also left her husband and neglected her daughter for her art. “We have both chosen art over our daughters,” Artemisia confesses.
            In this novel, Vreeland is looking for emotional drama, a strong sense of grievance, distinctly good people and bad people—and finally, a symmetrical plot. For example, the real Artemisia had at least four children, some of them boys. In The Passion of Artemisia, Vreeland simplifies it down to one daughter, an only child, so that a mother-daughter dialogue can stitch across the novel uninterrupted.
            Also symmetrical, Artemisia ends up in London with her father (true to history) and they reconcile (an unknown in history). Art is pain. Life is like that, and older and wiser Artemisia realizes. At least her father taught her to see, to use her imagination, and to paint.
            The number of Artemisia novels—three so far—pales next to the hundreds of graduate student papers done on the most notable female artist of Renaissance Italy. As noted in Part I, literary critic Susan Sontag spoke of the first Artemisia novel (Artemisia, 1947, by Anna Banti), as solace for aggrieved women, both readers and Banti herself. As the author, Banti could, by “assuming the full burden of sympathy, console and fortify herself,” Sontag says. “And [console] the reader—especially the woman reader.” One virtue of all Artemisia novels, to be sure.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Part I: Approaches to the Fictional Biography of Artemisia (no. 36)

 by Larry Witham


THE ITALIAN PAINTER Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1656) has become a modern heroine of sorts, the topic of novels, countless academic papers, and a documentary. Artemisia, who painted in the baroque style, has also prompted the literary critic Susan Sontag to reflect on the different ways that modern fiction writers handle historical biography.
            In an essay and book review about Artemisia, Sontag said fictional treatments of the past typically take three approaches: the historical novel, the biographical novel, and the fictionalized biography.
            While the three distinctions are subtle (or even non-existent), Sontag’s point is that the first novel about the painter—a novel titled Artemisia (1947) and written by the Italian art critic Anna Banti—followed none of the three.
            Writing in Italy during WWII, Banti had at first completed a kind of documentary novel about Artemisia by 1945. Then the manuscript was lost in her native city of Florence during the final battle that ousted the Germans. Naturally distraught, Banti re-wrote the novel, but in an entirely different way. It now is a conversation between her and Artemisia. They share their mutual hardships in a kind of dialogue, what Sontag calls a story “about a woman of great accomplishment [Banti] haunted by another woman of great accomplishment [Artemisia].”
            Besides Artemisia’s milestone achievements—the first woman accepted in the Florence Academy, a friend of Galileo, and a painter of masterworks in Rome, Florence, Naples, and London—she is remembered mostly for one great injustice. At age eighteen, she was raped by a man who worked with her father. Her father, also a noted baroque painter, followed Caravaggio and taught his daughter those techniques of dramatic dark and light (known as chiaroscuro).
            The father took the rapist to trial (actually, over a stolen painting), and the trial exposed Artemisia to great public humiliation. Having lost her mother, Artemisia had a life-long, and problematic, relationship to her father as both only parent and art mentor. In fictional treatments, Artemisia usually hates him for his allowing the trial. Still, she must also love him for being her blood and her teacher. He gave her a path to professional accomplishment.
            As a literary critic, Sontag is an uber-feminist, of course. Thus, for her money, both Banti and Artemisia had become too dependent on a male figure. For Banti, the dependence was on her husband, the famous art historian Roberto Longhi (who, in fact, wrote the first historical essay on Artemisia, bringing her obscure past to the attention of the scholarly art world). In Artemisia’s case, Sontag says she was probably too dependent on her father, and thus it shows up in fictional treatments as well.
            For instance, in the Banti novel, Sontag notes, the most thrilling part is about Artemisia making the daunting trip to London to join her father. By comparison, the Banti novel has Artemisia narrating her rape simply by telling the sad tale to Banti in conversation, then resting her head on the author’s shoulder. In short, Sontag does not find either woman modern enough.
            Banti, writing elsewhere, has said that her novel hoped to show Artemisia’s quest to “to be justified, to be avenged, to be in command.” Artimesia is the classic proud and indignant woman. And yet Banti’s novel is not built on the “women’s rage and women’s victimization” (Sontag's phrase) that typifies modern feminist literature. Sontag mildly regrets this, since the historical Artemisia has such potential for evoking those particular emotions.
            Many years after Banti’s effort, two more novels have told Artemisia’s story. Neither has the experimental tone of Banti’s work, putting both of them more clearly in Sontag’s categories for historical biography. The two novels are: Artemisia (1998) by the French author Alexandra Lapierre and The Passion of Artemisia (2002) by the American author Susan Vreeland. (Vreeland’s novel will be looked at more closely in Part II).
            Both the Lapierre and Vreeland novels have had to ask: Should the novel stay with the facts, dull as they may be sometimes? Should new significant facts be invented to dramatize or smooth the narrative? And, finally, should the story have an agenda—picking heroes and villains, that is—or look for a more complex story in the factual evidence?
            To simplify, the French author Lapierre sticks with facts and adds ambiguity in judging the characters. In contrast, Vreeland invents facts for dramatic effect and presents her tale as a morality play with clear victims and oppressors.
            The French author Lapierre, whose Artemisia novel was translated into English in 2002, began with a purely factual agenda. She wanted to write a nonfiction biography of Artemisia, putting the painter and her painter-father, Orazio, “back into the historical, religious and social contexts of the various worlds that they had inhabited.” But to do so, she decided, would finally require her to “fictionalize elements of the story.” The sixty pages of academic notes in the back of the novel testify to its factual accuracy, at least in explaining why Lapierre “adopted certain theories and why I made the choices I did.”
            The “novel” is impressive for it details, organizing its chronology of events in forty-one sections. These bear titles ranging from “The First Five Months After the Rape,” to “Artemisia’s Bedroom,” “Travelling between Rome and Florence,” “Florence in Galileo’s Day,” and “The Queen’s House in Greenwich,” where Artemisia painted ceiling panels with her father.
            By the time Lapierre wrote her novel, already “there were drawers full of doctoral theses on Artemisia Gentileschi in universities across the United States.” Yet the baroque painter did not fully enter upmarket commercial fiction until Vreeland seized on the topic—to be discussed next in Part II.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Standing in the Shoes of Velasquez by Way of Hallucination (no. 35)

 by Larry Witham


THE CENTRAL ART history character in Michael Gruber’s contemporary novel, The Forgery of Venus (2008), is the seventeenth-century painter Diego Velázquez. But there’s also some spirit of Timothy Leary, Ken Keasy, and Hunter S. Thompson thrown in as well.
            All three were 1960s denizens of LSD and peyote use, and as a novel, Forgery of Venus harks back to that mind-altering milieu. In this work of fiction, a strong dose of psychotropic drugs allows young protagonist Chaz Wilmot to hallucinate that he is the Spanish painter of old. As Chaz tells us, “In having [drug-induced] fantasies about being Velázquez, I was still being who I was, if you get what I'm saying.” In other words, Chaz is saying he is a traditional painter, as was Velázquez.
            Chaz Wilmot is subjected to his hallucinations off and on for several months, and it is this psychological time shifting that gives the novel its unique feel. The hallucinogenic experience also becomes a fulcrum for the plot: Chaz ends up forging a historic Velázquez painting, the (fictional) Alba Venus, something he could not have done without the phantasms.
            The novel opens with Chaz's old college friend telling us what has happened. Chaz has become a New York artist. When the discovery of a "missing" Velázquez painting makes headlines, Chaz tells his friend that it was he, in fact, who had painted the work. Chaz gives him a set of digital audio files with his account of how all of this came to be. The audio narration is essentially the rest of the novel.
            Chaz has stumbled into his adventure by way of his three college friends, all alumni of Columbia University. One has become an art dealer. Another is a medical researcher. The friend that Chaz gives the audio records to has become a lawyer, and thus a trusted and objective raconteur.
            Chaz has become a realistic painter, but with a history hanging over him. His father was a famous illustrator, but they never got along. Extremely talented, Chaz has also been a drug addict. He’s been in rehab twice and is on a second marriage. His wife, Lottie, is loyal and his son has a life-threatening lung ailment.
            As a traditionalist painter—with an “incredible facility with styles of the past”—Chaz is also being sidelined by the avant-garde art scene in New York. So he’s looking for alternatives. For a start, his medical friend invites him to volunteer to participate in a clinical experiment that attempts to understand human creativity. He is given doses of Salvinorin A, a true-to-life psychotropic (like mescaline, for example) found in a plant (Salvia divinorum) in Mexico and used by shamans for centuries.
            What Chaz does not realize, however, is that the clinicians have implanted a long-term dose of Salvinorin under his skin. As the drug seeps into his system over several months, Chaz is subjected to several sudden experiences of time travel, both in New York City and Europe. Later, someone will diagnose this as “an unprecedented reaction to Salvanorin combined with amnesia, also drug related.” When Chaz discusses it with confidants, it's described as “sense memories” of the past or a “vivid dream.”
            All the while, the reader may think Chaz is going crazy—as Chaz does at times—or that this story may be some kind of paranormal tale. Or, is this a time-travel fantasy, a kind of sci-fi novel? No to all three, however.
            The story is exploring the drugged imagination of an artist. We see Chaz under the influence in New York and later in Venice, where he has gone to work on restoring historical paintings (and where he slowly gets into the old-masters forgery business). In Venice he imagines himself being Velázquez and paints just as the old master would have. He also has a love affair with the Spanish painter’s model of four centuries ago.
            The trick in such a plot is to explain how Chaz’s physical body can operated in the real world as he hallucinates, and how people around him over these periods don’t notice that he’s in a hallucinatory state.
            A skilled novelist, Gruber achieves this well enough by essentially avoiding too much explanation, gingerly introducing a few episodes where Chaz is going around knocking on doors and visiting places that are in the future. The people he meets simply think he’s going a little crazy. After all, Chaz is known for his history of drug use. And, of course, at one point in New York the men in white coats take him to Bellevue mental hospital for a day or two.
            While we are in New York with Chaz, author Gruber paints the hip art scene in thick strokes. To escape this stressful environment, Chaz accepts his art dealer friend’s invitation to do the restoration work in Venice. There, Chaz meets a veteran art crook, a German named Krebs, and is lured into a wider forgery occupation. Through the Krebs episode we learn the history of modern art looting and forgery.
            Gruber has had quite a career before becoming a successful novelist. He traveled in the 1960s with rock groups (druggies, no doubt), served as an Army medic, and then became a marine biologist with a PhD. In other words, he knows the biological foundations for mind-bending drugs, keeping the novel within the bounds of plausibility.
            The story finally comes around to Chaz’s wife and his art dealer friend. They are in a conspiracy of sorts. The art dealer gave Chaz the Krebs connection, and the wife encourage him to do the forgeries, since it would allow him to earn the money needed for their son’s medical treatment. She also wants Chaz to fulfill his old-masters art potential, as he certainly did by inventing a Velázquez painting that fooled world experts.
            Through his hallucinatory time travel, Chaz produced the Alba Venus, which the world now believes is a “lost” painting, presently found. How will history ever know that it’s really not a lost Velasquez, but a time-travel forgery? Chaz put his wife’s birth mark on Venus’s body, that’s how.
            The lawyer-friend has the final say at the end of the novel. He watches as the Venus sells on the auction block in Manhattan. He has no reason to doubt the story in the digital files, and he is mulling the prospect of writing the book.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Art Analysis in this Novel is Packaged in Emotional Melodrama (no. 34)

 by Larry Witham


IN TRACY GUZEMAN’S The Gravity of Birds (2013), the artist theme is strong and the three main characters are obvious. They are two rivalrous sisters and an older painter named Thomas Bayber, whose sexual escapades will seal everyone’s fate.
            Yet in this novel, keep your eye on a fourth character in particular, an art authenticator named Stephen Jameson. He is the surprise in the end.
            The story begins in 1963 with the summertime encounter between the sisters and the painter at a lakeside resort in New England. Presently, the novel goes fast-forward, giving most of its attention to the threesome's grown-up lives in 2007. In that present time, we first meet Jameson, and for some reason he merits quite a bit of biographical background.
            Something is afoot with Jameson, it seems. Even so, he remains an enigma as the story of the artist Bayber and the two sisters travels a predictable storyline of love affairs and jealousies. We are never quite sure why we're being told Jameson's backstory, let alone about his dicey emotional life.
            By 2007, Bayber is a famous artist, a recluse in his seventies who is about to die. He discloses an unknown painting of his, which is missing its two wings (it’s a triptych). He asks his loyal biographer, an art historian named Mr. Finch, to contact Jameson the art authenticator and together find the two sisters. It is presumed that they have the other parts of the painting, which will be worth millions at an art auction.
            The sisters are Natalie and Alice. We met them in 1963 in their early teens. Natalie is attractive yet troubled. Alice is the intelligent younger sister bound for academic work in ornithology (thus the “bird” title). Alice is crippled by rheumatoid arthritis, though, and will have to give up her professional pursuit.
            The only physical action in the story is the research and travels of Finch and Jameson as they try to find the grown women (although in flashback, there is an Alice-giving-birth scene during a Hurricane!). The search for the sisters finally takes Finch and Jameson to Tennessee and New Mexico. They have professional and financial motives to piece together the triptych, while Bayber is apparently trying to reconcile something with Natalie and Alice.
            At the outset, Stephen Jameson’s ties to Bayber are nonexistent, with a small exception. Jameson’s father, Dylan Jameson, had owned a popular SoHo art gallery in New York. He had helped promote the career of Bayber, who rose to success as a painter and art-scene playboy.
            A main feature of Stephen Jameson is his unhappiness about his late parents, and particularly his father. Stephen is cerebral and awkward. When he made bad decisions in life, his father Dylan gave more scold than hugs, such that “the distance between them seemed cavernous.” Stephen constantly feels an emotional void. Hmm. Interesting!
            He is not the only unhappy person in this Gravity of Birds saga. The novel opens with a lengthy poem. We thus know we're entering “literary fiction,” a story of deep meaning and overwrought prose. Readers will differ on whether there is too much of this, of course. The characters seem in perpetual states of sadness, epiphany, anxiety, or regret. In between, mundane life is described in remarkable (or excruciatingly literary) detail—from eating airplane peanuts to the bath oils in a shower.
            In writing an art novel, Guzeman has also embraced the challenge of inventing several kinds of artworks. She then describes not only how they look, but the feelings that characters have upon seeing this painting or that sculpture.
            The analysis of artworks is a necessary part of the story. That is because the author uses the triptych—a group painting of Bayber, Natalie, Alice, and Alice’s daughter—as a pictorial symbol of the sexual tension between them. The story narrative explains their relationship well enough. But the use of a painting as a symbol introduces an element of artistic melodrama: What dark family secret does the painting reveal?
            The secret is this: Around 1963, Natalie was promiscuous. When she got pregnant (not by Bayber), her parents made her get an abortion. She became sterile and thus could never find a husband. Around 1972, Bayber gets Alice pregnant. It's a one-night stand, so they never meet again, though Bayber puts bird images in his paintings, suggesting he misses Alice, who never tells Bayber of the child.
            When Natalie notices the pregnancy, she hates Alice for her fertility. So when the daughter is born, Natalie tricks Alice to think the child is stillborn. She secretly sends the infant off to grow up with a loyal housekeeper. As characters, Natalie is remarkably revengeful and Alice equally naïve. Thomas Bayber, meanwhile, is hardly a tragic figure; he’s a selfish rogue, now enervated by excess and age.
            What, then, is Stephen Jameson? He and Finch track down Alice, Natalie (who has died by 2007), and Alice’s daughter. This familial context prompts Jameson to dwell on his own family, or lack thereof.
            Lo and behold, however, his family also has a dark secret—about to be revealed.
            As Finch is taking evidentiary photos of the two lost art panels, he decides to snap one of Alice’s daughter with Stephen. “Something’s wrong here,” Finch says. Then he “pulled the camera away and looked at the two more closely, his heart in this throat.” They look alike. Indeed, Alice's lost daughter and the lonely Stephen are actually brother and sister, Thomas Bayber being their father. Finch says, “So this is the reason he’d [Bayber] insisted on Stephen” authenticating the lost paintings.
            The melodrama persists. Suddenly the aged Bayber dies with the photos in his hands. Alice has found her daughter (and vice versa). The widowed Finch (he laments his wife’s death throughout the novel) may have a new girlfriend. And Stephen Jameson has found both his genetic father, Bayber, and his half-sister. (At some point in the past, in other words, the promiscuous Bayber had lain with the wife of Dylan Jameson, the SoHo gallerist and non-biological father of Stephen).
            The novel is rich in artistic detail and ambiance. But it is far richer in its constant mix of bad fortune, sudden good fortune, and enough coincidence to make even Charles Dickens blush, but not too strongly.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Updike’s ‘The Centaur’ is His Rare Novel to Feature an Artist (no. 33)

 by Larry Witham


THE LATE NOVELIST John Updike was rarely a man of few words, at least when it came to his ebullient prose. An exception may be his first of two novels about an artist, The Centaur (1963), which won the National Book Award for fiction.
            The story is about Peter Caldwell, a young man who, now living in Manhattan, looks back on the life he had with his mother and father in rural Pennsylvania. However, we don’t really discover the adult narrator’s state of mind—indeed, that he is an adult artist—until the very end of the novel.
            Throughout the story, we learn that Peter grows up with a grandfather who is a Protestant minister and a father who is a public school science teacher. As to what Peter himself has become, Updike saves until the last. Just before the novel is over, Peter tells us “I am my father’s son. . . . Priest, teacher, artist: the classic degeneration.”
            It is the 1960s when Peter gives us his recollections. The former country boy has obviously gone avant-garde. He has a loft in SoHo, lives with a black girlfriend, and muses about Tibetan lamas, yin and yang, Freud, and oriental sex mysticism.
            We had hints of Peter's artistic fate, of course. During his youth, he had visited the local museum. There, he saw clumsy paintings by local artists, which “nevertheless radiated the innocence and hope, the hope of seizing something and holding it fast, that enters whenever a brush touches canvas.” Peter wanted to do this, too, someday.
            In all, The Centaur's narrative about a brief period in Peter's youth is a story of his father’s sacrifices for his family, especially for a son who turns out quite different, ending up a modernist, urban artist. The genius of The Centaur, though, is that Updike has modeled this somewhat mundane American tale on the Greek myth of Chiron, “the noblest and wisest of the centaurs.” It thus becomes a strange, evocative family reminiscence.
            In the Greek legend, Chiron is seriously wounded by an arrow, but is unable to die because of his immortality. He can escape that pain only by giving up his life for his son, Prometheus, who would also be doomed otherwise. It is a story of parental self-sacrifice (and in Greek mythology, at least, sacrifice for a greater good, since Prometheus can now give fire to humans).
            In Updike’s retelling of the myth, Olympus, the home of Chiron, becomes Olinger High School outside Alton, Pa., in 1947. Chiron becomes Peter’s father, George Caldwell. He endures both real and mythological pain as a science teacher bedeviled by a school bureaucracy. Mixing mythic fantasy with reality, the novel recounts how one day in science class, for example, a student shoots Caldwell with an arrow (as in the Greek myth). After class, Caldwell tries to extract the arrow from his leg (and school life simply goes on).
            The Caldwell family story is about father George’s disappointments in life. He once had been a high school sports hero. He was also a brave soldier in the war. Now he is locked into a dull career, hoping to “stay in there” to retire with a pension.
            Peter, the son, also has his problems, afflicted with a skin condition and tending toward being a loner. He watches his father’s life. Through it all, of course, Peter’s father is making sacrifices (that is, simply rearing the family) so that his son can make his own future choices.
            By the time of The Centaur, Updike had already written his first Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom novel, Rabbit, Run (1960), which, according to the critics, has the underlying theme of a suburbanite trying to escape his humdrum life. The same mood infuses The Centaur. Although George Caldwell is never able to escape (as he’d like), his son apparently does, having made it to New York and to the 1960s art scene.
            Updike, who died in 2009, has made The Centaur fairly autobiographical, granted that the novel’s main feature is its linkage to Greek mythology. Updike was reared in Reading, Pa., and his father was a school teacher. Updike also left the countryside for the Ivy League and the big city. He is obviously grateful for the sacrifices that his father (and mother, an aspiring writer) made for him, though his novels do comment acidly on the conformist lives of his parents’ generation.
            That an artist appears in an early Updike novel makes sense, since he’d been one himself, sort of. At Harvard he was a cartoonist (and writer) for the satirical The Harvard Lampoon. He received an art scholarship to Oxford University, putting him on the fence about which career—illustration or writing—he might pursue. Famed editor E.B. White met him and tipped the balance, offering Updike a job at The New Yorker (to write the witty “Talk of the Town” column).
            Updike became a chronicler of modern-day life and anxiety, often putting large doses of sex and religion—two topics that fascinated him—into his plots. Near the end of his life, Updike wrote a second novel (of twenty-eight) about an artist, Seek My Face (2002), the tale of a one-day interview with an elderly female artist named Hope, whose recollections tell the story of postwar American art. Unlike The Centaur, the artist's character is revealed from the start, and in depth, whereas with Peter-the-adult-artist, only at the end do we learn where he has ended up—in New York, feeling sad sympathy for his father, apparently. And we learn this in a few spare, almost oblique, references in the novel’s final pages.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Russian Jewish Painters and Poets: Marc Chagall and Yiddish Tales (no. 32)

 by Larry Witham


WHEN YIDDISH LITERARY scholar Dara Horn heard about the 2001 theft of a small Marc Chagall painting from the Jewish Museum of New York, she had her theme for a novel. The result is The World to Come (2006), a work of fiction that combines modern art with aspects of Yiddish culture, that is, the language tradition of Eastern European and Russian Jewry.
            The story opens with the theft of a Chagall painting in Manhattan, setting the contemporary stage. Just as often, though, the novel flashes back to Chagall’s early art career in the Soviet Union. The people back then will have ties to the modern-day characters, of course (this being a kind of family saga novel), but there is a third distinct layer to The World to Come as well.
            This is the layer of Yiddish fairy tales, or “symbolist” stories, that Horn incorporates in the narrative, tying them to Yiddish poets associated to Chagall. The Yiddish stories, being dreamlike, often dissolve the clarity of the novel’s plot. Yet they are consistent in this: they tell of how suffering people find solace in these Yiddish fantasies—imaginary tales that are often as cheerful as Chagall’s paintings.
            In the present, we meet Ben and Sara Ziskind, a brother and sister who are children of Russian émigré parents now deceased. Ben and Sara are the hub of a brainy family circle. Despite his childhood spinal problems, Ben is a prodigy with encyclopedic knowledge, “the Wizkind . . . cripple” at school. Sara, a skilled painter, also has a PhD in art history and marries Leonid, a brilliant mathematician.
            One evening, Ben attends a cocktail party at the (fictional) Museum of Hebraic Art. On the wall he sees a Marc Chagall painting that used to be in his mother’s living room. His mother, Rosalie Ziskind, had been a well-known designer of children’s books, illustrating Yiddish-type stories with watercolors.
            Persuaded that the painting belongs to his family, Ben steals it and takes it home to show Sarah. At the museum, Ben had met Erica Frank, a staff member and his future girlfriend. She logically concludes that he must be the thief (she finds paperwork saying the painting’s original owner had been Rosalie Ziskind, Ben’s mother).
            The mystery in the plot is how Ben's mother, Rosalie, had obtained an original Chagall, now worth a million dollars, and, in turn, how it came into the possession of a Russian museum official who had loaned it to the Manhattan retrospective exhibit. Again, this takes the story back to the early days of Chagall, when he painted in Moscow in the 1920's, soon after the Russian Revolution.
            As Soviet history recounts, painters and Yiddish poets were given leeway in those years before the rise of Stalin. In parts of this novel, we read of Chagall’s life as a teacher in a Soviet art collective. He also paints large murals for the Moscow State Jewish Theater. Chagall's friend is the Yiddish poet Der Nister and his art student is Boris Kulbak, to whom he gives a small painting (the one in question in the future theft).
            In time, however, the Soviets crack down on both artists and Jews. Chagall emigrates to Western Europe. Before the deadly purge begins, Boris the artist gives the Chagall painting to his daughter. And Der Nister conceals his handwritten Yiddish stories in the lining of the Chagall murals. The artwork and writings disappear into the dark political chaos—until Ben and Sara begin to figure things out in New York.
            Their mother, Rosalie, had indeed owned the Chagall painting. As we learn, she is actually the daughter of Boris, originally named Raisya. Her name was changed to “Rosalie” on her arrival in New Jersey as a Russian émigré. Years later, when Rosalie’s husband died, she needed money to keep the house and send the children to college. So she sent the Chagall painting to a post-Soviet Russian art dealer for an appraisal.
            The Russian dealer is corrupt, and even worse. On receiving the painting, he wrote back to Rosalie that it was a fake (fairly common with Chagall’s) and must be destroyed. Horror of horrors, he is also the very Soviet lackey who had sent Boris (Rosalie's father) to the gulag, and now is lending the painting to the Manhattan Chagall exhibition. Given these horrendous facts, Ben’s theft is justified. Erica Frank, the museum staffer, now takes his side. Sara, a skilled painter, forges a replica of the on-loan Chagall and Erica re-installs it at the museum (as if it never left).
            More than this, however, Erica has begun to probe a collection of old Chagall murals in the dark, cavernous basement of the museum. There she finds the handwritten stories of the Yiddish poet Der Nister stuffed in the murals. A new realization comes: Rosalie Ziskind, who had accepted professional praise as the "author" of the Yiddish children’s books, had simply copied the lost Der Nister stories. “Your mother, whose work I very much admired, is a plagiarist and a fraud,” Erica blurts out, at least at first.
            The family, and Erica, again confront the puzzle of art and forgery. They realize that if Rosalie had not reconstituted Der Nister’s work as her own, the old Yiddish stories would have been lost forever, a loss to the Russian Jewish heritage. (Rosalie had tried to get them published, in fact, but there was no market for the arcane literature. Under her name, they became popular).
            Besides containing the dreaminess of the Yiddish fairy tales, and despite the obvious talents of Ben and Sara, The World to Come is a novel about the constant threat to Jewish survival, both physically and culturally. Early on, Ben despairs over the end of his family line: “Don’t you get it? Our family is finished, Sara,” and therefore he stole the painting as the only thing they had left. What is more, the novel frequently cites a Yiddish tale, “All-Bridge,” an imaginary span that “leads from the deepest depths of the abyss to the highest heights of heaven.”
            Perhaps fittingly, if darkly, the narrative ends with Erica in the basement hoping to revive the Chagall and Yiddish heritages. At that very moment, however, a terrorist bomb destroys the museum. Ben rushes down into the smoldering dark, but it’s too late.
            The novel closes with yet another Yiddish story, much like a Chagall paintings. Happy Jewish people are crossing bridges in the sky, floating above ghetto buildings, and ultimately finding a better world to come.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Peter Bruegel and His Paintings Come Alive in Fiction (no. 31)

 by Larry Witham


WHEN HE TURNED his attention to European art history, the prolific sci-fi author Rudy Rucker did not chose Hieronymous Bosch (1450-1516), whose weird and bizarre imagery surely qualifies as early science fiction. Instead, Rucker turned to Bosch’s successor, Peter Bruegel the Elder (1525-1569), who continued in the strange illustrative manner of his predecessor.
            Both were pioneers of a distinct Netherlandish art, part academic, part cartoon and documentary. Both Bosch and Bruegel found fame in their lifetimes and were patronized by the new merchant dealers and the aristocracy.
            However, these were touchy political times in the Netherlands. Bruegel, for instance, practiced on the eve of the religious wars between Catholics and Protestants. His illustrative paintings, with their incredible detail, could well be taken as commentary on such political issues, since the artworks were frequently moral tales about sin and virtue and the vanities and absurdities of man. Bruegel apparently walked a fine line between being accused of political “lampoons” and claiming that his art simply was decorative or expressive of fairy tales.
            In the novel As Above, So Below (2002), Rucker takes good advantage of this political tension to cast a story that is historically accurate, yet adds in a fictional drama about Bruegel’s conflict with the occupying powers, the Spanish Hapsburgs.
            The treatment of Bruegel as historical fiction is rare, but not unknown (as Rucker nobly shares in his acknowledgments). What’s new in Rucker’s treatment is how he organizes the biographical chronology based on sixteen artworks by Bruegel. Rucker’s story telling also emulates the earthy—almost scatological—grittiness of Bruegel’s own paintings. The artworks never stop short of illustrating every nasty aspect of human life: death, illness, ugliness, lust, and calumny.
            We meet the young Bruegel on his first trip to Rome, where he sees the great Renaissance art of the city. In Rucker’s fictional gloss, Bruegel draws a first miniature of the Tower of Babel based on the Roman Coliseum (a real and astonishing painting that Bruegel rendered twice later in his career).
            Next, in his hometown of Antwerp, Bruegel moves from apprentice to guild member. He becomes a leading draftsmen for publishers, and eventually corrals wealthy patrons.
            Now he moves to Brussels, and there we follow Bruegel’s family and love life, his new reputation as a serious painter, and his establishment of a studio. Rucker, a careful scientist (indeed a mathematician and computer pro) explains in precise detail the new technologies of painting, of which Bruegel takes advantage.
            The drama, however, is political. The Spaniards have occupied the towns, and along with that they claim the right to live in local residences. Two Spaniards—with “Carlos the monkey” the chief villain—take over Bruegel’s house. When drunk, Carlos plays in Bruegel’s studio, ruining is paintings. These are Bruegel’s livelihood, which Carlos is seriously threatening.
            Bruegel is desperate: “He had to drive the soldiers from his studio.” The plan is to have the seductive Niay, a laundress in the local brothel, ply the Spaniards with nutmeg and gin. Then Bruegel would simulate a ghost to scare them away (this was the age of witches, recall). However, Bruegel-as-ghost-with-sword only provokes the drunk Carlos, who raises his saber and attacks. To stop him, the painter’s ally strangles Carlos to death (the other solider is indeed spooked, and ran off).
            “A fitting revenge for daubing on Master Bruegel’s picture, eh?” a friend says. They put the body in a painting crate and spirit it out of the town. “Good,” Bruegel says. “Do it right away.”
            And speaking of drama, all the while Bruegel’s wife is bearing their first child, a son, downstairs as the end of Carlos is taking place upstairs.
            Fortunately, the next Spaniard to occupy the house, Corporal Miguel accepts the story that the two soldiers went AWOL. Miguel is more spy than soldier and Bruegel is able to persuade him that his paintings are mere “fairy tales,” not political commentary. And so Bruegel’s career continues unhindered, with a few more great paintings in the offing (such as The Blind Leading the Blind) before he dies relatively young, not yet knowing that his son would take up the baton. After Peter the Elder expires, the book ends on this line: “After a bit, Little Peter walked across the room and picked up his father’s brush.”
            Rucker builds on the known Bruegel biography, putting in the main historical figures. In Bruegel’s intimate circles, he seems to add some progressive commentary, for example making Bruegel’s close colleague, the wise and brilliant cartographer Abraham Ortelius, a gay man, and his loyal friend, Williblad Cheroo, a Native American.
            We also meet Bruegel’s two main patrons, true to history. The first is the wealthy Antwerp merchant Nicholaas Jonghelinck, who commissioned the six-season series. The second is Cardinal Granvelle; he frequently queries Bruegel on whether or not his paintings are trying to insult Catholic dignitaries and policies. For example, Bruegel has rendered the New Testament story of the Massacre of the Innocents as taking place in a Flemish town, suggesting symbolically the atrocities of the Spanish Inquisition.
            Granvelle remains fond of Bruegel. When the cardinal is promoted in rank to Naples, he still requests new paintings. In sum, Bruegel moved in fairly high social circles. In the novel, Rucker has him meeting even the Hapsburg royalty, the Hapsburg king himself and the regent Margaret, who in effect was the local ruler for the dynasty. Bruegel plays his cards close to his chest, walking a fine line between offending neither the Catholic rulers nor the “Calvinist fanatics.” Helpfully, one of his fans is the Archduke of Austria, who takes over most of the in-debt Jonghelinck’s stock of Bruegel paintings.
            To add earthiness, the novel offers up some colorful fictions. The libidinous young Bruegel fornicates with his art teacher’s wife, and then marries his art teacher’s daughter. All of society is a bit off, with witch burnings, heretics on gallows, sexual promiscuity, vomit, boils, foul smells, dreadful faces, and death at everyone’s door—much like Bruegel’s more horrendous paintings. A nice break from computer science for author Rucker, we can imagine.
            In the midst of all this, Bruegel completes his famous series of six paintings of the four seasons, for which he is paid grandly, and during which he finds the greatest moment of happiness in his life. Today, about forty of Bruegel’s paintings still survive, and if not quite up to modern science fiction, they are surely among the weirdest renderings of that bygone era, Hieronymous Bosch notwithstanding. As Bruegel says in the novel, he is not a follower of Bosch, but rather “the new Bosch.”

Monday, March 7, 2016

Degas and Cassatt a Romantic Twosome in Art History Fiction (no. 30)

 by Larry Witham


A ROMANCE BETWEEN two famous painters is not easy to find in art history. That’s why novels on the subject have turned to Edgar Degas and Mary Cassatt. While their relationship is actually uncertain, their acquaintance is well-documented.
            They met in Paris during the Belle Époque (the 1870s onward). She was the American woman breaking into the new Impressionist art circles, he the French virtuoso around whom many Impressionist pioneers revolved. Of the two painters, Degas has been the primary topic of romance novels. When Cassatt is not the fictional love interest, other women—patrons or ballerinas—fill that role in the novelist’s mind.
            The supposed Cassatt-Degas romance is at the heart of two recent works of fiction. Added to that, three more novels put Degas in romantic entanglements with other women.
            ■ The fullest novel on a Cassatt-Degas dalliance is Robin Oliveira’s I Always Loved You (2014). It opens with the elderly Mary, eyes fading, thinking back to what might have been.
            She first meets Degas at the Paris Salon, the annual art exhibit. He takes interest in her work, visits her studio, and encourages her painting style. A third of the novel is dedicated to the year 1877, when there is much ferment among the Impressionists, and in this we enter the Impressionist world.
            Eventually, Cassatt gives Degas her virginity but is never quite sure where it goes from there. As Mary says, “The point is, Edgar, that we don’t know what to do with one another. And I can’t trust you.” He has said they could marry, but that will lead to inconveniences and “boredom.” The most he ever offers is, “I didn’t say I didn’t love you.”
            Mary’s career also comes first, especially after her major Paris exhibit. She avoids being “irretrievably entangled” with Degas and later hates him for his anti-Semitism. They are destined to go their own ways because of art, and because of their strong personalities. But in the end she grieves their parting, realizing that “pain was the foundation of art.”
            The novel, in fact, is a story of lost love for a few characters. Part of entering this intimate world of the Impressionists is to meet Degas’s friend, Edouard Manet, who is in an awkward marriage, a true story all its own. The male painters are a promiscuous lot (also true history). Manet contracts syphilis and, meanwhile, actually is in love with his brother’s wife, the painter Berthe Morisot.
            The story closes with Mary, having become famous, outliving all the other Impressionists, who are dying off in the 1890s. Before she goes, she burns Degas’s letters, thankful at least that he taught her to “paint love.”
            ■ The Degas-Cassatt relationship takes on an entirely different vantage in Harriet Scott Chessman’s Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper (2001). Lydia is Mary’s older sister by seven years. As Lydia struggles nobly in the Cassatt family home in Paris with a kidney disease, Mary paints her as a model, producing five now-famous works of art.
            Chessman plots the story on these five painter-model episodes. The story follows Lydia’s thoughts as she watches her sister rise as a painter. Lydia is also a witness to Mary’s apparent romance with Degas. In her own heart, Lydia imagines her own love affair with Degas. When he looks upon Lydia, she feels beautiful, even important. The same uplift happens as she's surrounded by the five paintings. Some of them became famous at the time—prompting Lydia to protest when these family memories will be sold at the Salon.
            Lydia’s illness grows worse. She dies in 1882, and this at the peak of Mary’s success. The story mixes the beauty of art with the laments of life. In her humble crochet, Lydia, too, aspires to create beauty. Still, she cannot avoid comparing herself to Mary, pondering what her own life might have been, struggling to appreciate—in the face of death—what she nevertheless has seen and lived.
            In the next two novels, Degas is seen from the viewpoint of young women in the world of the Paris ballet, which Degas visited, sketched, and painted.
            ■ Dancing for Degas: A Novel (Kathryn Wagner, 2010). Here, the twelve-year-old ballet student Alexandrie, a poor girl risen to success at the Opera Ballet, is a character who inspires many of Degas’s pastels and paintings. In this fictional treatment, the ballet world is a dark place. Parents are greedy and the venue is a swamp of sexual politics. Older ballerinas compete with newcomers. Wealthy men gain access to ballerinas as whores. Alexandrie is attracted to Degas, but he is just as manipulative as the rest. Still, she learns how to survive. The 1870 Franco-Prussian War intervenes. Cézanne and Monet make appearances. The novel features several of Degas’s ballet compositions, reading into them some of his intrigues with the girls. After thirteen years of this, Alexandrie meets an American who will take her away.
            ■ The Painted Girls (2013) by Cathy Marie Buchanan. This story focuses on Degas’s innovative wax sculpture of a ballerina. Done in a two-thirds scale, it bears a wig of human hair, ballerina bodice, tutu, slippers. Buchanan dramatizes the true facts (which she first saw in a documentary); three indigent Belgian sisters arrive in Paris to survive. One of them, the fourteen-year-old Marie Goethem, works at the Paris Opéra. She gains the attention of Degas. Soon we find her in Degas’s studio, naked and vulnerable, posing for the wax sculpture. Again, here is a story of young women on the brink of prostitution to escape from poverty. In the novel, Marie avoids the snares, despite the coming-on of one wealthy patron. She and her sister support each other. The wax sculpture is also an art historical story: Degas is reaching fame, and its display in 1881 brings an outcry from the critics (only now, in fiction, were are given the story of the model, not just the artwork).
            ■ While the aforementioned novels are historical, The Art Forger (2012) by B.A. Shapiro glances back at Degas from contemporary Boston. The heroine is a young Boston painter seeking her success in the competitive art market. She makes “copies” of famous works (a copy only being a “forgery” if you attach an illicit signature and try to sell it as authentic).
            She is hired to make an “innocent” copy of a Degas painting, and that’s where the excitement begins. In Boston, of course, the theft of paintings from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum remains a great mystery. In the real event, some Degas drawings were stolen. Novelist Shapiro adds a fictional Degas painting to the cache (indeed, the one being copied). It’s titled After the Bath and is Degas’s painting of Isabella Gardner (naked), founder of the museum.
            In addition to the painting, the novel uses fictional love letters between Degas and Gardner to produce their hypothetical romance. The letters, and the sexual politics of the Gardner-Degas tryst, become clues that lead our heroine to find the stolen Degas painting.
            It’s no accident that all five novels are written by women for, presumable, a female readership. Romance novels rank top in sales in all fiction. However, the image of male lovers in these Degas novels do not fare well, generally. The feminist edge can be sharp. In the The Art Forger, not only do we have the lusty Isabella Gardner (and the contemporary heroine having aesthetic “orgasms”), the story’s villains are two predatory men who try to thwart our heroine’s art career (though, alternatively, there is a good guy who is gay).

Thursday, March 3, 2016

A Detective Pursues Artworks in the Dark World of the Sarajevo Siege (no. 29)

 by Larry Witham


THE ART HISTORIAN Lynn H. Nichols is not a novelist. Since 1994, however, quite a few novelists have been in her debt.
            Nichols wrote The Rape of Europa. It is the single best book on the Nazi looting of European art. And among her grateful following is novelist Dan Fesperman, who takes us into the Balkans and incorporates the WWII art-looting legacy into his unique detective novel, Lie in the Dark (1999). It may be the single best novel on the 1990s civil war in Bosnia (at least to this blog), thanks to its art world elements.
            As a war correspondent in Bosnia, Fesperman gained real-life observations of the military, political, and cultural clashes of that time. He has used that knowledge to create an evocative backdrop for what begins as a murder investigation.
            The story takes place in Sarajevo amid a four-year siege of the city (1992-96), a bitter part of the armed strife between ethnic Bosnians, Serbs, Croats, and Muslims after the breakup of Yugoslavia. During the siege, the Serbs are seeking to capture Sarajevo, a Bosnian government enclave.
            Siege or not, life and crime go on. One night the local police chief, Esmir Vitas, is shot and killed by the river. Vitas is an honest cop dedicated to cracking down on gangsters who control various neighborhoods. Still, the Interior Ministry suspiciously concludes that Vitas was struck by an errant sniper bullet. It sends Inspector Vlado Petric—our hero and one of two city homicide detectives—to wrap up the case and file it away.
            At the morgue, however, Petric obtains a scrap of paper from the victim’s pants pocket with a name and address. When he goes to this address, the real story, told by a former Yugoslav museum official named Milan Glavis, begins to unfold.
            The story is this: At the end of WWII, representatives from countries invaded by the Nazis went to “collecting points” in Allied- and Soviet-occupied Germany to reclaim stolen art. The two men in charge of Sarajevo’s National Museum made this reclamation trip with a criminal plan in mind: to take paintings that are not really theirs.
            Using blank slips, they forged bogus art claims on hundreds of works, spiriting them back to Sarajevo, a kind of looting in reverse. The museum was too small, so they farmed out the paintings, mainly to offices and homes of the new Communist Party elite. To keep track of these transfers of art, they produced a “transfer file” with a card and notations for each artwork.
            “We knew all along where everything was,” the former museum director tells Inspector Petric.
            Now, in the chaos of the Sarajevo siege, a district warlord, Commander Zarko, has used his control of a city sector to round up the “transferred” art to sell it on the black market. Once Zarko is killed, however, a small group of high-ranking Interior Ministry “special police” and a few military men decided to take over the art smuggling ring. They send the art to Frankfurt for illicit sales in the West.
            To pull this off, the corrupt officials have engaged in a lot of “sweet-talking UNESCO underlings and blue-helmeted shipping officers” who oversee the UN-controlled airport—the only way to ship materials out of Sarajevo.
            Gradually, Inspector Petric realizes that his government superiors had probably killed Vitas to protect the smuggling operation. To investigate further could mean his own death, and yet Petric continues to dig deeper into the maze of corruption. His investigation takes him across dangerous check points and into some of the worst zones of the city. More than once, he takes a car or taxi down “Sniper Alley,” with fingers crossed.
            For example, he heads for the notorious neighborhood of Dobrinja: “If Sarajevo had become a sort of hell on earth, Dobrinja was it innermost circle of despair and isolation.” The driver must avoid “shell holes and torn metal without slowing down enough to invite gunfire.” Serbian snipers are on three sides.
            When the museum director-informant also shows up dead at the morgue, Petric knows he can no longer trust his police superiors (or even his partner, who tries to kill him in the end). So he hooks up with British war correspondent Toby Perkins. Toby’s got an armored Land Rover and UN press pass to get through check points. “An art smuggle operation,” Toby realizes. “And with some very big fish involved.”
            Petric also has a female ally, Amira, a “farm wife” who came to the city to survive as a prostitute outside the military barracks. She was a witness to the Vitas shooting. She ends up offering a safe house for Petric and Toby (and a place to hide paintings and the transfer file).
            In this novel, artworks are not described, except for focusing on an “impressionist masterpiece” of a “field of lilies” hung in the apartment of Petric’s informant. In the last pages, this is the painting that Petric finds on its way to Frankfurt, where he hopes to use it as proof of the art crimes swirling about Sarajevo.
            Readers of detective noir will find Lie in the Dark to be a familiar friend. It evokes the dark atmosphere of works such as Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park, Eric Ambler’s A Coffin for Dimitrios, and Graham Greene’s The Third Man.
            In the last chapter, we find Petric inside a crate with one of the paintings being shipped to Germany (indeed, the very same impressionist lilies). The crate is almost opened by guards, but since a corrupt police official knows the crate contains his latest stolen cache, he tells the guards to pass over it. This is the novel’s last satisfying twist. The plane, with Petric, is off to Germany.
            The story began with Inspector Petric seeing gravediggers on a snowy hill, and in flight, he looks out a crack in the crate and sees the same snowy hill, soon to have its gravediggers at work again.