Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Kay on the Fiction of Art and Artists

From Kay: A favorite sub-genre of mine is what I call ‘Art and Artist Fiction,’ and I’d like to share some of my favorite books. They range from historical fiction (most common) to comedy, mystery, and a (borderline) thriller. I’ve even snuck in one biography that has a very narrow focus. Subjects include individual artists, specific works of art, collaborations, art collectors/collections and gallery owners. While all the books are instructive in varying degrees, they are, most importantly, engaging, entertaining, and well-written. Listed in roughly chronological order, the first book takes place centuries ago.

As Above, So Below: A Novel of Peter Bruegel by Rudy Rucker is smashingly good historical fiction that immediately throws you into the sixteenth century. Born in the early 1500s, Bruegel lived largely in the Lowlands (Belgium, The Netherlands) during a time when inquisition-style Spaniards were largely in control. Influenced strongly by Hieronymus Bosch, Bruegel’s paintings depict the coarseness, crudeness, confusion, and cruelty of the times. Each chapter carries the title of one of Bruegel’s paintings, along with a black and white illustration of it, and the chapter is roughly themed accordingly. I guarantee you'll be thankful you live in the 21st century.

Luncheon of the Boating Party by Susan Vreeland. Vreeland richly describes the extraordinary circumstances under which Renoir painted one of his most famous paintings, Luncheon of the Boating Party. Renoir impulsively decides to complete, in a very narrow window of time, a huge painting on the terrace of a friend’s restaurant/hotel on the Seine, not far outside Paris. Renoir quickly purchases his canvas and paints, and rounds up fourteen models to sit for the painting over eight consecutive Sunday afternoons. Crazy? Yes! Does he succeed? Fabulously! The simple joy of a sunny Sunday afternoon spent with good friends, food, wine, and conversation brilliantly comes across in Renoir’s painting and in Vreeland’s luscious writing.

The Yellow House: Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Nine Turbulent Weeks Spent in Arles by Martin Gayford. This biography tells the tale of Gauguin and van Gogh’s brief time together in van Gogh’s tiny yellow house in Provence. Gauguin had reservations about the collaboration, and van Gogh was excited but also anxious, yet neither voiced their concerns. Onward! Gayford brings to life the little town and its inhabitants, the countryside, the artists’ daily activities, their conversations, and their many disagreements. The art produced and the methods used by both artists are also part of the story. If not for the volume and quality of paintings each artist completed during their tumultuous time together, one might wish they had acted on their reservations (pun intended) and cancelled the collaboration. Then again, van Gogh may have traveled the same disastrous road afterwards anyway.

The book above and the book below could hardly be more different.

Sacré Bleu: A Comedy d’Art by Christopher Moore. If you’ve read Christopher Moore, you already know you’ll be in for a fun romp. The story is filled with many of the famous artists of the Impressionist period, with whom Moore takes many, many liberties. The book contains handsome reproductions of famous works by the artists, some of which curiously don’t seem to contain any of the starring ultramarine pigment of the book’s title. Did I mention the setting is Paris? What’s not to love?

The Collector’s Apprentice by BA Shapiro. Dive into the rapidly evolving art world of the 1920s with Shapiro’s latest book that is part historical fiction, part pure fabrication. The Paris art scene is populated with the likes of Henri Matisse and Gertrude Stein. Complex ideas about influences and confluences within the remarkable Post-Impressionist art world are folded seamlessly into the dialogue. You’ll be swept into a quiet tale of intrigue starring a wealthy American amassing a huge collection of contemporary European art (based on the real collector Albert C Barnes), a young lady (probably loosely based on a Barnes employee) and a savvy con artist from America (pure fiction). The story will take you for a couple of unexpected spins before letting you go well satisfied.

Lisette’s List by Susan Vreeland. Lisette is 100% Paris born and bred. With great reluctance, she accompanies her husband to Provence to care for his dying grandfather, Pascal. Pascal owns seven paintings by renowned Impressionist-era artists including Pissarro, Cezanne and Picasso. What Pascal really wants is to tell stories about how he met these artists, why they gave him paintings, and what he loves about each one. Lisette becomes an eager listener. WWII calls her husband away, and much to Lisette’s own surprise, she stays in Provence for quite some time after her husband dies in the war; she has important tasks to complete before she returns to Paris. To tell more is to give away too much, but I loved the characters, the setting, and the conversations about the art, the artists, and Pascal’s descriptions of Paris. By the way, this book is entirely fictional.

The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose. This is a fictionalized account (approved by the artist) of Marina Abramovic's 2010 art performance at MOMA where she sat face-to-face, eye-to-eye, with museum visitors, one at a time, for 75 days. She sat unmoving, in the same pose every day, her expression unchanged except for occasional tears. The performance had surprisingly deep effects on both visitors who sat with her and visitors who simply observed the performance, some of whom returned day after day. The story focuses on several fictional characters' almost obsessive attraction to the performance and the effect it has on their lives. Not unlike the apparent enchantment of the performance, it was hard to tear my eyes from the pages of this book.

The Art Forger by BA Shapiro. Shapiro uses a real-life event to jump off into a wonderfully crafted, completely fictional tale set years later. The 1990 theft at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum remains the largest art heist in history. (Warning: my single visit to the museum occurred just weeks before the theft, so I'm certain my love of this book contains some bias.) The thirteen stolen pieces include works by Vermeer (1), Manet (1), Rembrandt (2) and Degas (5); none have been recovered. Shapiro’s story takes place about 12 years after the heist. Claire works as a freelance art reproductionist (she copies famous art works) in addition to painting her own work. A premier local gallery owner contacts her for a ‘secret’ job that he can’t tell her about until she agrees to do it. Let’s just say it involves the heist and a lot of money. The book describes painting techniques in some depth, which I found fascinating; I especially enjoyed learning about some of the bizarre techniques used by forgers. Add a couple of mercurial and self-absorbed characters plus several plot twists and turns, and voila: The Art Forger is a great example of light cultural entertainment!

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