Monday, May 30, 2016

The Gardner Art Museum Heist of 1990 Lives on in Novels (no. 52)

 by Larry Witham


THE 1990 HEIST of artworks from the Isabella Steward Gardner Museum in Boston remains a black hole in the history of crime. None of the thirteen items—from a Rembrandt to a Vermeer—has been recovered, and theories abound on who did the deed.
            Crime novelist David Hosp is not the only writer who has wrapped the Gardner heist itno fiction. But his novel, Among Thieves (2010) presents as gritty a tale as the noir approach to art crime could possible do. And he offers a fictional theory that ties up all the loose ends of the actual heist—and offers hope that the paintings soon will be returned.
            Hosp write a crime series featuring Boston criminal defense lawyer Scott Finn, an Irish “southie” (south Boston). Finn left behind a foster-home misfortune and his juvenile delinquency to become a powerhouse lawyer. He’s forty-four when we catch up with him in Among Thieves, and he is defending a small-time Irish thief named Devon Malley, who used to work for famous the Irish-American gang boss “Whitey” Bulger.
            Now begins the fiction. It was Devon, we find out, who pulled off the Gardner heist with an imported Irish gangster, “the Irishman.” Bulger had ordered the heist at the behest of the IRA, which had been using stolen art for financing. However, by the time the Gardner heist was done, the publicity made the art works impossible to sell. A few years after the hiest, Bulger summoned Devon. They picked up the hidden paintings and put them in a storage unit. Soon after, Bulger was on the run, having been indicted in Boston for gang murders.
            We begin the story of Among Thieves twenty years later. A group of IRA radicals has split from the main organization, which has signed a truce in Ireland. The radical wing wants the paintings to finance their continued struggle. They have sent a killer to Boston torture Devon and two others to find out where the paintings are.
            Finn, the lawyer, is working with Devon on a minor theft charge when the other two are tortured and killed. Devon knows he is next, so he works with Finn for a way out. Unbeknownst to Finn, Devon had already floated the idea of selling the paintings. The FBI is working covertly to manage the exchange. After the first murder, two Boston police detectives begin to follow Finn and the FBI, suspicious of the lawyer and the feds, who are always there, but won’t tell them anything.
            In the end, the Irish killer takes Devon’s daughter hostage. The killer thinks he’s gotten the crate with the paintings, but amid a car crash—the Boston cops with the fleeing killer—it is revealed that the crate is empty. Devon is also surprised. The solution is the “third person,” that is, a third individual who had a key to the storage unit and must have taken them.
            Says lawyer Finn, “The question is, who was the third?”
            Finn figures this out in the end—the third person is an elderly caretaker at the museum, now retired. He grew up in Bulger’s neighborhood. Back in the day, Bulger came to him and said if he didn’t help with a heist, they’d burn down the Gardner Museum. Thus, the caretaker helped pull an inside job to save the art institution he loved.
            How then does author Hosp reconcile his novel’s plot with the still-missing paintings in the real world? Easy. The caretaker says that their location will be revealed when he dies, which won’t be long, given his brittle age.
            In all, Hosp sticks to the facts as the FBI knows them. The real thieves took some oddities, such as a decorative finial at the top of a flag pole and some Degas sketches. In the novel, this is explained as Devon just doing some treasure hunting as “the Irishman” went after the valuable paintings, cutting each from its frame. The caretaker, moreover, had supplied all the security, layout, and art information. For fiction, it’s about as close as we can get to what really happened.
            Before the Gardner heist, the popular mystery writer Jane Langton gave us Murder at the Gardner (1988), part of the Bostonian who-done-it Homer Kelly detective series, its major strength being a full description of the Gardner interior and collection. After the heist, at least two other art novels besides Hosp’s Among Thieves touch on the event, if tangentially:
            ■ Hollywood actor and comedian Steve Martin’s An Object of Beauty (2010) follows the career of a hip young woman, Lacey Yaeger, in New York City. She’s an art dealer riding the art market rollercoaster. Her story stretches from the go-go eighties to the market crash of 2008.
            Along the way, the reader thinks that the plot will turn on Lacey discovering that her boss is laundering two of the stolen Gardner paintings, a Rembrandt and a Vermeer. The suspicion rises, but recedes quickly. Lacey learns that he is working with the FBI. The Vermeer she found is only a copy, a decoy for an FBI sting. After that, the novel loses any suggestion of a crime plot. Lacey’s misjudgments—her sleeping around and her small step into market fraud—catch up with her. She ends broke. Her gallery closes. She returns home to her mother in Atlanta, Georgia.
            ■ B.A. Shapiro’s The Art Forger (2012) presents young heroine Claire Roth, a professional painter-copier of old masters (for buyers who legally want a copy). Claire has a humble studio in Boston. She is brought a “copy” of a Degas stolen in the Gardner heist; the novel invents a painting called After the Bath. Claire accepts the job, thinking she is doing a copy of a copy.
            The novel also interjects the story of the Gilded Age founder of the museum, Isabella Stewart Gardner, known intimately as “Belle.” Novelist Shapiro does this by inventing romantic letters between Belle and Degas. The sexual plot thickens, since After the Bath is a naked painting of Belle, who in her day was a powerful and wealthy Bostonian socialite.
            In the present, Belle’s niece Sandra has all her aunt’s papers. Claire meets Sandra researching the Gardner case and the Degas. Sandra is in her eighties, the last Gardner heir. And Sandra has an untold secret: years before the Gardner heist, she had stolen After the Bath from the museum and had a professional forger make a copy to replace it. So, whoever did the Gardner heist, had stolen a mere copy.
            By the end of the story, the FBI and Claire figure this out. But it is only the brilliant Claire who solves the mystery: she goes to Sandra’s brownstone, confronts her, breaches a secret room, and finds the true Degas painting, After the Bath. The room is like a shrine, for it only contains the painting and a chair facing it.
            The Art Forger has been called “chic lit,” and its arc does focus on the lusty womanhood of Belle and the triumphs of the female artist Claire against two heterosexual male nemeses (though, as might be expected, Claire does have a hip gay ally).
            Novelist Hosp’s Among Thieves follows more closely some of the actual theories about the Gardner heist. Much of the bona fide speculation does look to the IRA and Bulger as complicit. Among Thieves also recreates the internecine struggle in Boston between cops, the FBI, the IRA, and the Bulger legacy.
            Take your pick, but clearly it’s Among Thieves that gets us closer to full-blown reality.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Jewish Orthodoxy and Modern Art Meet in Asher Lev (no. 51)

 by Larry Witham


THERE ARE A few names in modern Jewish fiction that will always rise to the top. Among them, Chaim Potok is the only one to craft a novel around Jewishness and modern art. Potok wrote My Name is Asher Lev (1972). The novel creates the archetype of an observant Jewish artist dazzled by the art of Western culture, both its religious past and its secular present.
            A New York rabbi and a scholar of Judaism, Potok’s work is not the only treatment of Jews and art, of course. Novels about the Nazi theft of Jewish-owned artworks in Europe are legion. However, it has been singularly left to Potok to create a character, Asher Lev, who tells of his artistic journey as a modern painter from the viewpoint of an Orthodox Jew.
             As is typical in Potok novels, his main character, Asher, is a Hasidim in Brooklyn, where the ultra-Orthodoxy have fled during a century of trials and tribulation in Europe and Russia.
            My Name is Asher Lev is Potok’s third novel. As with the previous two, The Chosen (1967) and The Promise (1969), he elaborates on the way Orthodox Jews feel bound to ancestors and posterity, carrying the burden of “atoning” for sins and a broken world. Added to this, the observant Jew is always at risk of crossing the “border” into the non-kosher world, what Asher Lev’s rabbi calls “the world of the Other Side.”
            And so it is with Asher Lev, who we follow from his youth, his apprenticeship with an older Jewish artist, his graduation from college, and his year-or-so pilgrimage to Italy and France (where he paints in Paris). The story culminates in his first big art show back in Manhattan.
            Through it all, as Asher says, he has painted as “an observant Jew,” but one who had to follow his art, not the tastes or sentiments of his conservative parents and religious community.
            At the end of the novel, the art show offends everyone. Asher is asked to leave the neighborhood of Orthodox Brooklyn. His modernist artwork is “hurting” others. “It is not good for you to remain here,” his rabbi says, recommending he go live with the Hasidim in Paris. “You have crossed a boundary. I cannot help you. You are alone now. I give you my blessing.”
            A classic Potok theme.
            How did Asher Lev arrive at this point? That story hinges on his relations to his Russian lineage parents, especially his mother, and the old Jewish artist he meets one day at the rabbi’s office. Asher’s father is a missionary, traveling the world to set up schools (yeshivas) to preserve the Orthodox tradition. His mother, often left alone, becomes a scholar of the Russian language and politics. Inevitably, both in the age of Soviet communism and the German Reich, they become involved in helping Jews escape from Europe.
            Asher’s mother, especially, is haunted by death, which reaches her brother (a car accident), but also many Russian Jews. She asks Asher to make her “pretty pictures,” since the world is grim enough.
            But to the contrary, the Jewish painter Jacob Kahn, who once had hung out with Picasso, tells him: “The world is a terrible place.” Art must not be pretty. It must be real. “As an artist you are responsible to no one and no thing. An artist is responsible to his art. Anything else is propaganda.” Asher becomes Kahn’s disciple. The first Orthodox boundary Asher crosses will be paintings of nude women. These are in an art exhibit, and Asher’s parent will not attend. Orthodoxy demands modesty.
            The novel begins with Asher telling us that his story is his “defense” argument against rumors (he says “mythology”) that he has left the faith and become its enemy by making offensive paintings. His artistic experience has been a mystery, he says. “It is absurd to apologize for a mystery.”
            In a word, Asher claims that despite his art, he is right with God, the “Master of the Universe,” as his sectarian Hasidic group—the Ladover from Eastern Europe—styles God’s name (in ultra-Orthodoxy, the name “God” may not be said).
            In creating the dilemma and character of Asher Lev, Potok has drawn upon a fruitful precedent. This is the work of Marc Chagal, a Russian Jew who migrated to Paris and finally to the United States. Chagal was a purely modern artist, though his paintings often had fantastical imagery filled with Jewish symbols (and thus a favorite of religious and secular Jews around the world).
            At the same time, however, Chagal aimed to shock. This was manifest in two painting he did of the crucifixion, which is a distinctly Christian theme (and a theme usually offensive to Jews, since the Pharisees of old have been blamed for Jesus’s death).
            The two painting are titled The White Crucifixion (1938) and the The Yellow Crucifixion (1943). Chagal painted the first in Paris after the events of "Kristallnacht," the beginning of the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany. The second painting was done in response to news of the Holocaust. In each, Chagal has used the Christian image of ultimate suffering—Christ on the cross—and mixed it with Jewish accoutrement, such as Torahs, prayer phylacteries, and flames representing the Holocaust.
            While Chagal’s intentions were clear—though controversial—Asher Lev must explain why he will do exactly the same kind of painting. While traveling in Europe—and Florence and Paris especially—the fictional Asher is moved by the suffering theme in Christian art. It makes him think of his mother, like the Pietà of Michelangelo.
            “I wanted to paint Mama’s torment,” Asher says to himself. Two things come to his mind: First is the Christian crucifixion and second his mental image of his mother standing in the living room with the Venetian blinds behind her, as if she is on a cross. He imagines how he’ll explain this painted image to his mother: “Mama, it is a crucifixion. I made our living-room window into a crucifix and I put you on it to show the world my feeling about your waiting, your fears, your anguish. Do you understand?”
            Asher has ended up, we read, being “an observant Jew working on a crucifixion because there was no aesthetic mold in his own religious tradition into which he could pour a painting of ultimate anguish and torment.”
            Asher’s money-grubbing agent in New York is happily stunned at the controversial paintings, as are critics and collectors. A great show exhibits all his works, including Brooklyn Crucifixion I and Brooklyn Crucifixion II. Asher catapults to fame. His parent attend, but are shocked. “There are limits, Asher,” his trembling mother says. After this, the rabbi suggests he move to Paris. In the last scene, Asher is getting into his taxi at the airport, looking back to see his parents in the window.
            Asher is not gone forever, though.
            In 1990, Potok wrote a sequel, The Gift of Asher Lev. From his new home in France, Asher returns to New York as trustee of his uncle’s secret collection of modern art. At the same time, a great debate rages on the leadership succession after a Hasidic chief rabbi is on his death bed. Potok planned a third Asher novel, but it did not materialize.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Part I: The Gift of Da Vinci in Fiction Keeps on Giving (no. 50)

 by Larry Witham


WHAT PUBLISHERS WEEKLY once called “the Da Vinci juggernaut” has ground to a halt. Still, when that publishing trend was at full steam, it seeded the fiction world with an array of novels about the Renaissance artist.
            Some Da Vinci novels have been of the “religious conspiracy thriller” variety. Others have used the historical romance format. They featured women—Italian aristocrats or models for Leonardo’s paintings—who intersected with the artist’s life. One novel series has portrayed Leonardo as a murder detective, and another as a military engineer who, in three episodes, helps his Italian prince fight off the enemy. (To be sure, the juggernaut has had many nonfiction works as well, all thriving on a sudden craze in the book market for Da Vinci titles).
            The standout novels, of course, have been the two works about The Last Supper, Leonardo’s most famous painting next to the Mona Lisa. Enough has been said about The Da Vinci Code (2000), the novel that triggered the Da Vinci juggernaut. So we will look at its nearest clone, The Secret Supper (2006 in English), by the Spanish academic-turned-novelist Javier Sierra.
            It came out in Spanish in 2004, the same year The Da Vinci Code was translated in Europe. And it’s no secret that The Secret Supper did well on the coat tails of Da Vinci Code, offering an even more complex plot about how Leonardo put “secret” messages into his Milan-monastery wall mural of Jesus eating with his twelve disciples.
            Set in the fifteenth century, the story kicks off with Father Agostino Leyre, a papal investigator and cryptologist, telling his tale, looking back on the fateful events. When he had worked for the Vatican, a person named “the Soothsayer” in Milan sent a cryptic seven-sentence letter in Latin to Rome. The letter warned that Milan’s political leadership was setting up a pagan society at a famed monastery.
            When Leyre arrives, he meets Leonardo Da Vinci, who has begun painting The Last Supper in the monastery’s refectory. Although Leyre is trying to find the Soothsayer, it is Leonardo who is all the talk in Milan. Orthodox believers are worried that Leonardo’s two recent paintings—known to us as the Madonna of the Rocks and The Last Supper—veer from traditional Christian symbolism, and thus suggest a budding heresy.
            And not only that. It has also become known that the late wife of the ruler of Milan had studied astrology and pagan thought with Leonardo. Meanwhile, Leonardo’s apprentice is doing a painting of Mary Magdalene—not exactly a church saint—and is using a young countess in the ruling household as the model.
            Well, Father Leyre can’t really figure out what’s going on until the end, but we can jump there for the sake of argument. In short, a “lost gospel” had resurfaced during the Italian Renaissance. Contrary to the papal authority, it told the story of how Jesus gave his true teachings to the Church of John (not that of Peter, who founded the Roman Church). John, the disciple, had shared this secret knowledge with Mary Magdalene. During the early persecution of Jesus followers, Mary went to south France to preach (and had her own children, it seems).
            Now, in Leonardo’s time, the Plato scholar Marsilio Ficino has recovered the lost gospel of the Church of John, and thus its secrets (centered on St. Magdalene). Fearful that this true gospel will be lost again, Ficino gives the secrets to Leonardo. The painter, in turn, paints the secret truths into The Last Supper (truth you can see using a complex decoding key).
            The Ficino-Leonardo idea is that when people contemplate the painting, they will be converted to the true faith. Moreover, the painting can serve as the initiation sacrament for a new religious movement. The novel also suggests that other great painters (Raphael, Botticelli, etc.) would copy Leonardo’s Last Supper, spreading the secret truth to the world.
            The Soothsayer, as it turns out, is a gnarly one-eyed monk in the Milan monastery. He had converted to the new truth of Leonardo and Ficino, but now he is an embittered apostate who opposes them. So the one-eyed monk tattled to Rome. He wants to crush the new movement, which in its late medieval and Renaissance form is called the Cathars (a real historical group).
            In the end, the truth of the Church of John is so compelling that Father-Leyre-the-investigator becomes a convert. We find him in exile in the Egyptian desert, looking back, telling his story. Don’t forget the countess either. She is, after all, in the blood line of Mary Magdalene, a secret held by Leonardo, who is a key player in the revival of the heretical Church of John.
            So, what is the secret teaching Leonardo is promulgating? Historically, it is what we now call a Gnostic gospel. Back then, it was manifest in groups such as the Cathars, who were both gnostic and Manichean; that is, they viewed the material world as lower or evil. As an anti-Rome movement, they opposed political power, meat-eating, and wealth. Gnostics also had a general “gnostic” teaching about spiritual “Light.” Importantly, this idea rejects the need of clergy since individuals can have direct communion and knowledge of God.
            According to the novel, all of this truth-telling is in The Last Supper painting. The author uses historical facts to construct his elaborate symbol structure—relying on utensils on the table and the positions and gestures of Jesus’ disciples—but it is hardly the kind of puzzle ordinary people could decipher.
            In the epilogue, the novel notes that the so-called Gnostic Gospels were, in the 1950s, dug up in ancient pots at the Egyptian site of Nag Hamadi. Father Leyre spent his last years searching for the lost gospels of the Church of John, and he ended up dying in his monk’s cell not far from where they were dug up in the 1950s.
            Of course, all Da Vinci novels are not in search of such religious conspiracy, so this blog will look at the rest of the Leonardo-in-fiction species in Part II at a later date.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Palahniuk Takes the Painter into the Dark Paranormal World (no. 49)

 by Larry Witham


SHOCK-NOVELIST CHUCK Palahniuk has a devout following, readers who enjoy the searing and the grotesque. His sixth novel, Diary: A Novel (2003), takes a new trajectory, introducing an artist as the main character, and then rooting the story in the paranormal.
            Best known for his Fight Club (1996), and described by his publisher as “America’s most inventive nihilist,” Palahniuk delivers a high dose of titillating gloom in what might be called his first art novel. It is the purported “diary” of the trials and tribulations of Misty, an art student who married an apparently slacker husband, Peter (also an art student).
            The marriage has taken her to Waytansea Island off the coast of Los Angeles, where Peter’s family is among a small, spooky “aristocracy” that is trying to ward off tourists and commercial developers. Unfortunately, as the story opens, Peter has slipped into a comma after an apparent suicide attempt, pumping exhaust into his car.
            Misty is left with a thirteen-year-old daughter, a grinding waitress job at one of the tourist hotels, and a dominating mother-in-law who suggests she keep a “diary” of daily events so when Peter revives, he can read about her life.
            Besides the essential plot of the novel, Palahniuk has put it together with several devices. One is the diary, a tradition, we’re told, of sailor wives when husbands were on long voyages. The wives usually put in each day’s weather, and thus Palahniuk peppers Misty’s diary with regular spinoffs, such as: “The weather today is calm and sunny, but the air is full of bullshit.”
            Another device is the voice: Palahniuk uses several perspective, but with a strong emphasis on “you” and “your,” trendy since Jay McInerney’s 1984 novel Bright Lights, Big City (Its famous first line was: “It’s six a.m. Do you know where you are? How did you get here?”).
            Next, the author uses two more tools, both with an artistic theme. First is the detailed and recurring description of human anatomy as learned in life drawing at art school. That is, the novel gives all the Latin names of muscles behind facial expressions and the sinews and bones underlying bodily forms. Second, Palahniuk builds on the conceit that great art is produced by suffering. Throughout the novel, we get a list of great painters and composers who suffered mental, physical or social travail. There’s also ample notes on the self-mortification and denial practiced by spiritual virtuosi.
            In short, Palahniuk is a novelist who enjoys parading wide swaths of knowledge, which may be taken by some readers as delightful texture, or by others as just “too much information.” Either way, the plot becomes clear before long.
            At first we think Peter is just a jerk, a feckless and somewhat gross art student. He cavalierly marries Misty (he’s rich and handsome, she’s poor and overweight) and then her takes her to the family island. Later, he “attempts” suicide and leaves her twisting in the wind (he’s in a coma throughout the novel). Still, for some reason, Peter’s mother tells Misty, “You will be a great artist.” And, indeed, almost miraculously, Misty starts producing great art.
            Due to Misty’s depression and substance abuse, however, the family doctor on the island prescribes her pills, and eventually clinical treatment. Here is where the horror part begins. Misty is locked in a room in one of the resort hotel attics and, strapped to a bed and administered fluids and medication, she completes 100 drawings and paintings in a kind of prolonged delirium. She has been made to suffer all along so her art turns out “great.”
            In time, with the help of Peter’s friend, Angel, Misty figures out what’s going on. “It’s a plot,” she says after escaping the room. And so it is, and here is where the paranormal-ghost-reincarnation side of the story kicks in.
            The island has a curse; it labors under a “karmic cycle.” Generations earlier, a woman artist helped the island prosper by her great financial success. After she died, she came back into the world every four generations when “the island ran out of money.” She, too, like Misty, wrote a diary.
            On every karmic cycle, the spooky elite who control the “traditions” of the island send their sons out to art schools in America. They try to find where the woman artist has reincarnated (so to speak), marry her, and bring her back to the island. There, she would again be “the greatest artist of all time,” hold a major show, produce a wealth of sales, and then mysteriously die (in Misty’s case, the good doctor had put the poisons found in paint pigments in her pills).
            Peter, not the slacker we at first think, wanted to end the cycle. Of course, given our de rigueur times, Palahniuk has made Peter a gay hero, the lover of Angel (who helps save Misty, but is murdered). Although Peter had followed island “tradition,” going to an art school, finding Misty, and bringing her back to fulfill the cursed cycle, his true plan is to blow the whistle on the island cabal. That is why someone put him in the car filled with exhaust.
            Not exactly a Fight Club plot (which is about violence as a radical psychotherapy to end a character’s insomnia). Still, Palahniuk’s 2003 storyline in Diary took the author into the growing market for dark, paranormal fantasy. His using an artist, in fact, precedes similar works of fiction: Canadian fantasist Charles de Lint’s Memory and Dream (2007), Stephen King’s Duma Key (2008), and Terry Goodkind’s The Law of Nine (2009). These authors all use a painter and his or her paintings as channels between two worlds, letting the painters joust victoriously with vengeful ghosts or otherworldly beings.
            The Pacific Northwest’s Palahniuk stands apart by sticking to his trademark prose, stark and eager to tell of all the painful, violent, and disgusting things that happened to people, their moods, and their bodies.
            A final device concludes the novel. It’s one of those come-full-circle formats that is fair game. Misty and her daughter escape the island. The bad news is that Peter and Angel have died in their battle against the island cabal; plus, the art show hotel burns down (set afire by the daughter), leaving 132 charred skeletons. The good news is that Misty has the entire story written down in her diary. So she changes her name to Nora Adams, and sends the diary to an author who happens to be named “Chuck Palahniuk” to consider publishing it in full.
            And that children, is how Diary: A Novel was published. “There’s something out there!” (as they say in the “X Files”).

Monday, May 9, 2016

The Guilt of Wartime Japanese Art Assuaged by Time (no. 48)

 by Larry Witham


WITH JAPAN’S DEFEAT in World War II, its young and old generations had a reckoning. The youngest adults questioned the 1930s “patriotic” impulses of their parents, impulses that led to a devastating war on the homeland.
            This is the cultural setting of Japanese novelist Kazuo Ishiguro’s An Artist of the Floating World (1986), a first-person narration by an elderly patriotic artist of his experience around 1949. He is Masuji Ono and the story focuses on his fears—real or imagined—that his work in wartime propaganda art had sullied his family reputation. Across much of the novel, he worries that his past will threaten the marriage prospects for his twenty-six-year-old daughter.
            In those days of arranged marriages, each family investigates the other, often using “detectives.” Ono frets over the probing, since already, the previous year, a first marriage attempt for his second daughter had failed. Ono visits two of his old art compatriots to ask that they give him a good recommendation if a detective inquires.
            Ishiguro, best known for his novel (later a movie) The Remains of the Day (1989), does an exquisite job in evoking Ono’s fears, only for readers to learn at the end that Ono’s interior guilt is what haunts him. Nobody actually holds his wartime art against him. This comes through in several poignant episodes.
            Generally, Ono suspects his two daughters are whispering about his past. So he decides to bring the issue into the open. “I’m quite prepared to acknowledge there are certain aspects to my career I have no cause to be proud of,” he tells the married daughter. However, she is sincerely perplexed by his apology. “Father [Ono] was simply a painter,” she says. “He must stop believing he has done some great wrong.”
            In a similar vein, Ono has spent the year worrying that Dr. Saito, a noted art critic, had closely followed his pro-war career, and thus may not let his son marry Ono’s daughter. Dr. Saito, in fact, hardly noticed Ono’s work—again, showing how the elderly artist was imagining, under guilt pangs, that he was famous then, but reviled now.
            His old artist colleague summarizes the truth of the matter: “Our contribution was always marginal,” he tells Ono. “No one cares now what the likes of you and me once did.” Ono had produced a popular banner painting of young men bearing rifles, while his friend produced a popular China-occupation banner.
            Even though this popular imagery helped generate support for Japan’s militarism, said the friend, “We’re the only ones who care now.”
            This novel takes place over eighteen months. It is a touching story of guilt and forgiveness. Time passes and the next generation looks ahead optimistically as Ono’s devastated city rebuilds.
            In addition to portraying Japanese character, and contrasting three generations effected by the war, the novel explores the world of Japanese artists. Young artists trained with a “master artist.” They worked in group settings and were expected to reproduce the house style. This could be commercial or traditional. Artists also illustrated magazines or comic books.
            Ono left a company that produced “Japanese art” for export to join a more traditional workshop. There, the goal was to produce fine art that mirrored the sights of the Japanese “pleasure district,” or “floating world”: geishas, lanterns, gatherings, and such. It is painting that sought to “capture the fragile lantern light of the pleasure world.”
            Other artists in the 1930s, however, caught by the “new spirit” that wanted the Emperor and military to “restore” Japanese greatness, felt this pleasure art—a world of effete “businessmen and politicians”—was complacent. It needed to be replaced by a bolder aesthetic that rallied the nation. This was the goal of a group called the Okada-Shingen Society, which recruited artists for the imperial-military cause.
            Ono responded. He at first wanted to do realist art to help the poor. That deviance from the “pleasure world” style prompted a fellow artist to call Ono a “traitor.” Ono gradually was persuaded to patriotic art, a style using strong calligraphy and hard outlines.
            The pro-war art group disdained not only the old-fashioned art, but the modern, for bringing “European influence into Utamaro tradition had come to be regarded as fundamentally unpatriotic.” Indeed, as a talented artist, Ono rose to be a member of the Cultural Committee of the Interior Department and “official advisor to the Committee on Unpatriotic Activities.” Then, at his career high point, he won the patriotic Shigeta Foundation Award in 1938.
            To his later regret, Ono had suggested the Committee visit an artist friend to invite him into the patriotic fold. Unfortunately, the thugs burned the artist’s “decadent” art and took him in for questioning (the most concrete incident in Ono’s feeling postwar guilt).
            After the war, Ono is old and retired, watching his two daughters make their way into marriage and a future; his son, Kenji, died on the front and his wife was killed in a city bombing. The one who comforts old Ono most is his grandson, Ichiro, on whom he dotes. The grandson represents a new reality in Japan, the American occupation. Ichiro has become enamored of the new American imports, from the “hi-ho Silver” of the Lone Ranger to eating spinach like “Popeye the Sailorman.”
            In his own overconfident youth as an artist, Ono had decided to “risk everything in the endeavor to rise above the mediocre.” Tragically, it was a high personal motive, but in hindsight the national war fervor was a very bad cause.
            Ono is left to watch his old friends and reputable peers die. In one case, a musical composer of patriotic songs committed suicide to “apologize.” Ono’s daughters worry he might do the same. Instead, he finds peace in fond memories of his younger days in the old, now destroyed, pleasure district, the “floating world” between night and dawn. It has been replaced by glass office buildings. He sees young men in white shirts coming out of them, as optimistic as he had been in youth, and thinks: “One can only wish these young people well.”

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Paul Gauguin as a Model for the Anti-Social, Heroic Artist (no. 47)

 by Larry Witham


THE FRENCH PAINTER Henri Matisse, thinking of his artistic predecessor Paul Gauguin, traveled to Tahiti in 1930 to try to catch the same exotic inspiration extolled by the man who advocated “savage” art. Unfortunately, Matisse found Tahiti to be no more stirring than a beach in the French Riviera.
            Eleven years earlier, however, the British playwright W. Somerset Maugham found all the inspiration he needed in the myth of Gauguin in Polynesia. Maugham wrote The Moon and Sixpence (1919), which he described as a take-off on Gauguin. The painter had died in 1903, but had since catapulted to fame as an innovator in symbolist, expressionist, and primitive art.
            In writing the novel, Maugham had a dramatic point to make: there is a type of individual who is in society, but is completely, and heroically, indifferent to its rules. The novel has been taken as Maugham own reflection on his struggles as a literary artist in British high society, since, despite his marriage and rise in London theater, his homosexual affairs put him at odds with the anti-sodomy laws.
            In Gauguin, presumably, Maugham had located a kind of person who could throw his rebellion in the face of society, and yet in the end, become a towering figure in society—as in Gauguin’s case, heralded as a modern genius.
            Today, Gauguin is considered a benchmark in art history. Nevertheless, he was a rather cagey fellow. He left his family in the 1880s to paint and worked tirelessly to portray himself as the great “savage” artist who had, for the sake of Parisians, discovered the erotic idyll of Tahiti. Despite this self-promotion—he penned two autobiographies—his twenty years in the Paris art scene brought him no recognition. After his death, that changed.
            In The Moon and Sixpence, Maugham creates a parallel personality. He is Charles Strickland, a London stockbroker (as in Gauguin’s Paris profession). One day, Strickland leaves his wife and children and goes to Paris. The story is told by an acquaintance of Strickland’s wife, who goes to find the absent husband. It was not a woman who made him leave, the gruff Strickland tells his intrepid visitor. “I want to paint,” he says.
            The story of Strickland (i.e. a Gauguin type) is first told by the narrator’s observations of him on a brief meeting in London and then over a brief period in Paris. Our narrator has a falling out with Strickland after the former stockbroker breaks up the marriage of another artist; that wife, drawn by Strickland’s animal magnetism, kills herself when the painter leaves her. Strickland goes to Marseille and in time boards a ship for Tahiti.
            Years later, our narrator also goes to Tahiti. Through four witnesses he hears the story of the rest of Strickland’s life on the island: fights with authority, living like a beachcomber, marrying a native girl, producing magical paintings, and dying of leprosy, isolated in a backwater and shunned for his plague.
            When the narrator arrives, though, the late Strickland’s paintings are selling in Europe for astounding prices. Our narrator meets locals, such as acquaintances and an art dealer, who marvel at how much the odd paintings now are worth. To end on a heroic note, Maugham limns how Strickland had painted the walls and ceiling of his jungle house with a marvelous mural of exotica, and was at last found as a decayed heap in its corner, dead from leprosy. Strickland required his Polynesian wife to burn the house after his death, proving even more that he was not after fame, but simply was driven to express himself on his own terms as an artist.
            Gauguin was rugged and daring, to be sure, shouldering a good deal of hardship in his quest for fame. As scholarship now shows, he was also quite an operator, making modern-day PR look tepid by comparison. As noted, Gauguin had so built up Tahiti as an exotic paradise, that Matisse was destined to be disappointed when he actually went there. (Maugham, otherwise, does paint it as paradise, easy to do in contrast to cold, Protestant England).
            Still, Maugham captures a kind of impossible—or admirable, depending on your point of view—human being in Strickland. At one point our narrator challenges the painter over how he treats his family, someone else’s marriage, and social norms in general.
            “Look here,” he says to the painter, “if everyone acted like you, the world couldn’t go on.”
            “That’s a damned silly thing to say,” says Strickland, now in a Paris garret, bearded, unkempt, an ornery.  “Everyone doesn’t want to act like me. The great majority are perfectly content to do the ordinary thing.”
            Narrator: “You evidently don’t believe in the maxim:  ‘Act so that every one of your actions is capable of being made into a universal rule.’”
            Strickland: “I never heard it before, but it’s rotten nonsense.”
            Narrator: “Well, it was Kant who said it.”
            Strickland: “I don't care; it’s rotten nonsense.”
            It is on such themes—and in descriptions of Polynesia—that Maugham is deeply eloquent. He forces readers to decide whose side they’re on, Strickland’s or that of society? (Maugham leaves room for both evocations, since Strickland can be so impossibly offensive at times; and yet the author seems to take his side in the end). The title comes from a quip made about Maugham’s writings: someone can be distracted by gazing at the moon (idealism) and miss seeing sixpence dropped on the street (practicality).
            Critics have pointed out how Gauguin and Strickland are the same and different. Perhaps the differences are the most telling. Gauguin traveled much, dying at age fifty-four in the South Pacific; Strickland made one great trip to Tahiti. Gauguin was in the thick of the Paris art scene; Strickland knows nothing of art trends, striking out on his own. Finally, Gauguin tries mightily to persuade Parisian society of his greatness; Strickland turns his back on everything.
            The Moon and Sixpence is one of those novels, perhaps like Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness (1899), in which we meet a haunting central figure (with Conrad, the narrator Marlow sets out to meet the ivory trader Kurtz deep inside the Congo). In such novels, after the particulars are over, a type of persona lingers on, ghost-like.
            Strickland is more this larger-than-life persona that even Gauguin had been, which reveals the strength of fiction versus biography. More than a few artists, past and present, have leaned toward Strickland’s outlook, and have been honored for this (think of the French poète maudit, the poet who lives “against” society). That is the ideal (the title’s “Moon”), of course, for most artists—from Gauguin to Maugham—seek social recognition, a practical matter, and the more the better.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Art and the Holocaust: a Potent Mix in Contemporary Fiction (no. 46)

 by Larry Witham


NOVELIST ALYSON RICHMOND explained in an author interview that she wanted to write a work of fiction “where I could explore an artist’s experience during WWII and the Holocaust.” The result is her The Lost Wife (2011). It is the first of three Holocaust-and-art novels by three different authors who share a desire to twin these powerful topics.
            Soon after Lost Wife came Ayelet Waldman’s Love and Treasure (2014) and B.A. Shapiro’s The Muralist (2015). Novels about the Holocaust, the Jews, and the visual arts have a rich pedigree. But these three female authors have joined the topic with historical romance. They are deeply familiar with Jewish tradition and Holocaust studies.
            All stories of war, love, and loss pull the same heart strings. In a novel about the Holocaust, this effect is created by introducing a single character in some depth, or two characters who fall in love before or during the times of trouble, and then have one of them die or disappear. The story is typically about one of the lovers, friends, or family in search of that lost trail.
            Richmond, Waldman, and Shapiro have evoked this sense of loss in different ways.
            In The Lost Wife, it is a young wife, presumed consumed by the Holocaust, who appears later. Waldman's Love and Treasure has an American Jewish soldier in Allied-occupied Austria fall in love with a postwar Holocaust survivor, who then disappears in the quest to found Israel (plus, there’s also a story of a Jewish suffragette in Hungary who is lost in the Nazi camps).
            In The Muralist, Shapiro gives us a young French-Jewish painter who not only revolutionizes modern art in New York City, but disappears at age twenty in Nazi-occupied France looking for her family. Fortunately, we learn at the very end, she was hidden from the Nazis by what the Jews will later call a “righteous Christian”; he runs a village bakery, and will marry her. Now a French baker’s wife, she will paint as a hobby, raise a family in obscurity, and die peacefully—unknown to art history.
            All three novels take an opportunity to summarize the horrors of the Holocaust in general. Even so, the focus is on the particular: a single country, the wartime politics (Jewish migration and the founding Israel, for example), and the most salient art events (such as the Nazi art mines in Bavaria, art looting of Paris, or the “Hungarian gold train”).
            Naturally, Holocaust novels focused on deportations and camps take us more directly into the horrors. These three art-and-Holocaust works must share space with the wider topic of art and artists, and by this means each novels earns its unique flavor.
            Richmond turns to the authentic history of artists who tried to continue their work in Nazi occupied Prague. She enters this world by making the young “wife” an art student, who survives in a camp by use of her artistic talents.
            In Love and Treasure, Waldman recreates the world of the cosmopolitan Jews of Vienna and Budapest before the war, a time of their great financial, intellectual, and artistic achievement. Much of the novel orbits around the real story of the “Hungarian gold train,” a Nazi storehouse of the wealth—gold, jewelry, art, silverware from synagogues, etc.—confiscated from Jews by Hungarians allied with the Reich.
            Shapiro, who like Richmond had written a previous novel set in the art world, has chosen the New York City art scene between the wars to introduce her heroine, Alizée Benoit. A French migrant, Alizée is part of the WPA mural project after the Depression. In this way, she entangles her life with famous artists in the “New York School” of emerging Abstract Expressionists. By way of the federal arts project, she also makes contact with Eleanor Roosevelt to plead the case for allowing European Jews to migrate to America (at a time when an anti-migrant policy prevailed).
            Any novel about the Holocaust must, of course, be categorized as tragedy, which in fiction can find a redeeming story line in love, devotion, or as these three novels suggest, “the power of art” to raise beauty above the ugly side of human nature.
            As a postscript, it is worth noting that these three exemplary Holocaust-and-art novels have what might be called more distant cousins: novels about art that have ties to Jews and WWII, but do not make the Holocaust central. Two recent offerings under this rubric are Ellis Avery’s The Last Nude (2012), and Jojo Moyes’s The Girl You Left Behind (2012).
            In the first, described as “mainstream lesbian” fiction, Avery tells the story of the Paris-based Polish artist Tamara de Lempicka around 1927. The plot focuses on Tamara making love to, and manipulating, Rafaela, a seventeen-year-old female model who is a Jew from Brooklyn. Tamara—it seems—saves Rafaela from the Holocaust when the Nazi’s later invade France.
            The Girl You Left Behind looks at art looted in both world wars. The story mainly harks back to World War I, when a Frenchman’s painting of his wife was confiscated during the brutal Prussian occupation. It then explores to “reparation” industry in London, the legal movement to return art to Jews who were victimized by Nazis in the next war.
            As with all such novels, there’s an inescapable mandate to responds creatively to the exhortation of Eli Wiesel—author of the pioneer Holocaust memoir Night (1960) and followed by the related novels Dawn (1961) and The Accident (1962)—to “never forget."