I still have a head full of discussions about art, color, craft, and books. This time, instead of a book about color, I want to talk about a mystery I am reading. All the books in this series are well written, and I really enjoy the characters. This latest novel is about art, and I am increasingly distressed about the representation of art and artists in the book.
The novel is part of Louise Penny's Inspector Gamache series. This latest one is titled
The Long Way Home. If you don't want spoilers, don't read any farther, though I do not yet know how the story ends. The only part of the story I will give away is a very well-known fact of art history that the characters -- including art school faculty and students, and the sophisticated art-loving friends -- don't seem to know.
An major character in the series, a painter, has gone missing. The novel is about the search for Peter by several other major characters who live in Three Pines, the village in Québec province that appears on no maps. Almost everyone in the novel is in the midst of ongoing, incessantly narrated existential crises, even Henri, the German Shepherd. As they look for Peter, they trace an evolution/revolution that has taken place in his artwork during the year of his absence from Three Pines.
So far so good, although I began to roll my eyes at the repeated narration of the aforementioned angst.
But here we have a group of sensitive, cultured artists and art lovers, and a third-person narrator, who say complete nonsense about art. While looking at a canvas of Peter's that is radically different in all ways from all his previous work, his artist wife Clara points to one stroke of green paint and declares that is where the revolution in his work started. Never mind that he has turned to landscape after despising it for years, that he has turned to wild clashing color and distorted perspective after years of painting precise detailed magnification of items in cold neutrals. Never mind that he has traveled the world looking for places of mystical power to paint in his new style. Now they marvel that his new work seems to involve "an alchemy of the real and perception," as if that were not true of all art.
Perhaps what distresses me most is an element of the story dating back to Peter and Clara's days in art school (and here is where the spoiler comes in). The art school, apparently, adored Peter's precision and technical brilliance, and did not know what to do with Clara's creativity and installations. And so when Clara's (and other students') works were not selected one year for the annual juried exhibition, a temporary instructor at the school (who the main characters know is mad based on his self-portrait) displayed those works in an exhibit he called the salon des refusés. Clara and the others are mortified by this display, and the instructor is fired.
Huge problem with this. Every single one of the students and teachers at the school would have known that the historic salon des refusés, in 1863, exhibited works by Manet, Coubet, and Pisarro after they had been rejected from the juried Paris Salon. The emperor of France decreed those works should be exhibited in the same Palace of Industry as the Paris Salon. Thousands of people toured the exhibit. While some ridiculed the paintings, it kicked off the independent exhibitions that brought the Impressionists their fame and importance.
So really. Would a young radical artist be offended by having her work be the key item in a salon des refusés? Would the administration of the school be so shocked they would fire an instructor, and assume he was mad? And would it take most of the novel until the sophisticated art-loving characters realized the instructor meant this as an honor?
Mind you, this book is not written in the casual slap-dash tone of a novel that might refer to art in passing. This carefully written novel is all about art and artists, and takes on a tone of traditional high-culture adoration of the "artistic spirit." I still want to know what happened to Peter, so I am not going to abandon the book. But it seems that while the author is not ignorant about art and art history, she assumes her readers are.