Summer Reading

Issue no5
Oct-Nov 2021

The summer calls for a different reading list. Therefore, this list is not so much focused on the latest articles in art magazines but on novels. To stick to our program, we have selected four (fairly) recent novels, coincidentally all written by women, in which art plays a pivotal role.

Rachel Kushner
The Flamethrowers

Rachel Kushner has been writing about contemporary art for years and this is no different in her latest novel The Flamethrowers, which alternates between the New York art scene of the 1970s where the young, naive, provincial protagonist artist Reno tries to gain a foothold, the salt flats in Utah where she partakes in motorcycle competitions and makes documentary photography for her art projects and the bourgeois, perverted Italy of her older artist lover as well as the Italy of the radical movements of 1977. The different and widely diverging story lines (art, motorcycles, radicalism) sometimes hardly come together and there are rather long passages where one wonders why we need this new turn of events. But the novel has such a strong ending that the book and Reno stay with you long after you have forgotten about the typical gallery squabbles (who shows who? who is doing who?) that seems to enter every novel or film on art like a knee-jerk reaction.

Claire Messud
The Woman Upstairs

For those not very fond of the angry-woman narrative, The Woman Upstairs starts with a rather hard to stomach couple of pages of angryness: "How angry am I? You don't want to know." is the opening sentence. But we do want to know! The book does not succeed in convincing us that the protagonist Nora Eldrigde, a self-proclaimed so-called woman upstairs who is nothing but a silent do-gooder, a nice girl who never claim any space for herself, is in fact really seriously angry.

The single, lonely, and childless at 42 Nora once aspired at being an artist and this dream is reawakened when she meets the Shahids: a Parisian/Lebanese/Italian family. She dreams their 8-year-old boy Reza to be hers, she falls in love with Sirena, an installation artist who has a breakthrough in the Paris and New York art scene and sort of sleeps with her husband Skandar. For a blissfull couple of months, Nora and Sirena share an industrial, loft-style studio space on the outskirts of New York where Sirena flourishes with the help of Nora and Nora herself makes a series of tiny dioramas of artists’ rooms, starting with Emily Dickinson. The descriptions of the artworks made by both women are a little hard to stomach at moments, the cliches pile up and the typical tropes are too manifest. However, here as well there is a clever ending to save the day in which Nora finds her most private moment of sexual abandon to have, unknowingly, become part of the video works by Sirena.

Donna Tartt
The Goldfinch

That art and life sometimes come very close together, was recently once again proven in the case of the Frenchman Patrick Vialaneix who stole a painting by Rembrandt (Child with a Soap Bubble) and kept it hidden for 15 years. He first saw the painting at the age of 13 during a museum visit with his mother and was instantly obsessed with it. But the painting and the secret drove Vialaneix almost literally mad and he handed it over this spring to the French police.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt shows uncanny similarities to this story, although she couldn't have known of Vialaneix while working on her third, sturdy book. The stolen painting featuring in The Goldfinch is the small masterpiece by Carel Fabritius (a celebrated student of Rembrandt of whom almost no works survived a gunpowder explosion in 1654) called The Goldfinch and hanging in the newly reopened Mauritshuis in The Hague.

The book opens with the protagonist Theo Decker rotting away in a hotel room in Amsterdam, too afraid to leave or call for help because of his involvement in murder, trafficking and theft. In this room and in his feverish state, he starts telling his story, how he came into possession of Fabritius’s tiny bird painting during an attack on a museum in New York, how he lost his beloved and adored mother during this attack, the living with different families and especially with his addicted father, the relieve he briefly finds in restoring and selling antiques, the many unexpected ways in which everything can and will go wrong for some people. Obsession runs like a red thread through this 700 plus pages novel.

Siri Hustvedt
The Blazing World

Maybe the most in-depth, investigative art novel on this list is The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt, who has, like Kushner, written about contemporary art in previous books as well. At the heart of this novel is a cruel and condescending New York art world that favors "a cock and a pair of balls" to women any day. So yes, another angry-woman narrative but this one more compelling and believable. The protagonist Harriet Burden, an artist mainly known as the wife of a famous art dealer, asks three of her male contemporaries to show her work under their own names (and here too, the artwork in the shape of a diorama is present). These shows, called Maskings in the diaries of Burden, are "made" by the male artists Anton Tish (the young up and coming star), Phineas Eldridge (the enfant terrible) and Rune (the enigma) and are successful enough so that Burdens later claims to these shows are never fully believed.

The novel is constructed as an investigative biography by the fictional academic I. V. Hess who brings together testimonies, diaries (annotated by Hess and spiced with lots of footnotes on philosophy and art), interviews, essays, articles and letters years after the death of Burden. We learn of Burdens downfall, her anger, her struggles with Rune who is actually using her rather than the other way around through the mixed textual formats and various voices that sometimes make the book feel like doing homework but that at other times sweep you along in a journalistic quest with a nice who-done-it edge to it.

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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 5 — 2021