Elizabeth Kostova, The Swan Thieves, 2010, Little Brown and Company, New York, $26.99
R.O. Blechman, Dear James, Letters to a Young Illustrator, 2009, Simon & Schuster, New York, $25
The much trumpeted new novel, The Swan Thieves (sorry, I couldn’t resist the pun), revolves around a set of artist characters, some of whom inhabit the late 19th century and others who struggle away at their easels 100 years later. At the center of the story is a larger-than-life maverick, contemporary painter Robert Oliver, who tries to stab a painting hanging in Washington, D.C.’s National Gallery of Art. Have you noticed, ever since the Da Vinci Code, how popular paintings are as plot devices in novels?
Since I am interested in how novelists portray artists and the art world, I slogged through all 576 pages of The Swan Thieves. With the exception of Henry James’s modern novelists have failed badly at creating convincingly complex creative types and the various milieus in which they operate. Sorry to say that Swan Thieves doesn’t break the pattern.
Another star of Elizabeth Kostova’s cast of characters is Beatrice de Clerval, a proper 19th-century Parisian bourgeois married lady who is also, remarkably, a beautiful, talented artist who longs to paint nudes and to hang out with the Impressionists who are revolutionizing 19th-century art. A few of her pictures, submitted under a pseudonym, actually make it into the annual Paris Salon. Beatrice is swept away for a single night by passion for her dapper uncle-in-law. He’s an older, wiser, tragically widowed painter who understands and encourages her talent far better than does her benign but cloddish business-man husband. And her father-in-law, his brother, happens to be blind (note the symbolism).
Oh dear, guess what. A despicable, blackmailing British art dealer soon blocks Beatrice’s fledgling career. Threatening to reveal her adultery, he proceeds to claim and sell her paintings as his own. Pregnant after the one-night stand, she stops working, except, that is, for her most powerful not-exactly Impressionist painting of a pair of cruel men abducting some swans, which remains sequestered secretly in the family.
Robert Oliver, our modern painter, is ruled by his increasingly intense but hidden obsession with the long-dead Beatrice. After the National Gallery episode, he lands in a psychiatric hospital being treated by a ruminating psychiatrist who is also -- an amateur painter! The maddened Mr. Oliver, who has been obsessively turning out images of Beatrice to the point where he has abandoned his family and lost his teaching job in the art department of a North Carolina college, is refusing to speak. So the psychiatrist sets out to unravel the mystery of why he won’t talk, along the way behaving increasingly unethically, to the extent that the shrink ends up marrying the moody but handsome painter’s former girlfriend.
She is another painter and Robert’s former student. The doctor also seeks out his divorced wife, still another frustrated artist, whom he left alone with two children and a nice house back in the college town. Both spurned women get a pretty raw deal throughout the book. Manipulated like chess pieces, they never come alive either as complex characters or as artists.
In addition, though the shrink discovers Beatrice’s secrets and apparently cures Robert, all the characters sound alike and no one in the story behaves like an adult, much less a genuine artist, though we are repeatedly informed that the incarcerated painter is a genius. And despite the amusing complications of the plot, it turns out that Swan Thieves, little more than melodramatic chick lit, is an excruciating read for anyone who actually knows any artists. It promulgates a sentimental La Vie de Boheme version of the artist as unstable, messy at housekeeping, emotionally irresponsible and terminally egomaniacal. Though the author insists on his charisma, Robert Oliver behaves like nobody you’d ever want to know. And the description of what his paintings are like is actually embarrassing.
My verdict; the book is unconvincing as an exploration of artistic execution and temperament as well as tediously mushy. It manages simultaneously to trivialize art, artists, mental illness and psychiatrists! Literary critics, addled by the success of Kostova’s first big novel, The Historian, have been far too kind to her second effort.
So, just why can’t most writers convincingly portray artists or the art world? My theory about this exasperatingly shallow, unsatisfactory kind of depiction is that most novelists fantasize about the art world without having a very good idea about the ways that visual artists actually work to keep body and soul together and attempt to manage their careers. Nor is it an easy job to describe specific kinds of visual thinking and creative working methods. Also, too often writers remain infected with a weakness for the art world’s superficial glamour. And with what I call the Van Gogh syndrome -- those stale myths concerning the extremist nature of artistic temperament and life in the studio. After all, excessive behavior is much more enticing to write about than is grinding hard work.
The slim new book by R.O. Blechman is a fine antidote to the Van Gogh syndrome. This illustrious dean of illustrators published his first illustrated book in 1953. His distinctive, witty work has been seen frequently on New Yorker covers, in newspapers and in his groundbreaking animated films, which received a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 2003.
His Dear James, Letters to a Young Illustrator, embellished by many of his drawings, is really a memoir that conveys with refreshing intimacy, clarity and simplicity much of what he has learned through experience about the challenges and rewards of being a working artist. Constructed like and inspired by Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, it is a series of letters written over time to a tyro colleague. In them Blechman, always tough-minded beneath his indefatigable civility, describes his own learning curve and dispenses quiet, totally realistic advice to the eponymous James (who, he explains, is a figment of his imagination standing for the younger illustrators and artists he has known during his 50-year career.)
Blechman, who also started the animation facility known as the Ink Tank, for many years had his studio in one of Manhattan’s most remarkable spaces. In midtown, it was formerly architect Bertram Goodhue’s Gothic Revival penthouse office, complete with a terrace and a giant and beautiful fireplace. Using these unforgettable rooms as an example, Blechman maintains in his letters to James that an artist’s working environment matters. "The important thing is that an environment moves you, that it engenders a passionate state of mind," Passion, he says," is the primary engine driving creativity. The enemy of art is indifference."††††††††
Blechman, highly practical, advises James to keep his day job while he is starting out, to steel himself against those inevitable printed rejection letters, and to realize that artists rarely are judged by their peers. His anecdotes about his own career demonstrate that focused perseverance and hard labor are required keep working artists going. He discusses the absurdity of the largely artificial distinction made between commercial art and what he calls "gallery art." He also describes the importance of making contacts in getting work (and the serendipity of being in the right place at the right time). His book belongs on every artist’s bookshelf along with Anne Truitt’s three classics about what it is actually like to commit yourself to an artist’s life.
ALEXANDRA ANDERSON-SPIVY is an art critic. She is writing the biography of the photographer Baron Adolph de Meyer.