86th – Vonnegut and Zola’s failed painters
Kurt Vonnegut’s Bluebeard is a book I hold dear. I first devoured Vonnegut’s words more than 15 years ago when his beaten paperbacks filled our smoke filled London flat (I know its pretentious, but that’s what it was, a flat!). The only thing that outnumbered the Vonnegut books was the number of ashtrays we had, all stolen from pubs that we worked at or frequented. A good friend had imported a few of his favorite titles for our 3 month stint in the UK. I picked up several at a used bookshop in Leicester Square that seemed more of the 60’s than of the 90’s. I am sure it is a Pret a Manger or a Topshop by now.
In Bluebeard, Vonnegut’s absurdist humor gives way to blunt narration by Rabo Karabekian, the out-of-touch painter who lives his life in a stately home on the eastern end of Long Island. Karabekian was seemingly born an adept illustrator and serves for a time as an apprentice to a Mussolini loving bizzaro Norman Rockwell figure. Then our narrator falls in with a downtown art crowd that name checks real painters plenty but exists as a parable more than an art history lesson. We learn early that Karabekian’s paint choice for his massive (Rothkoesque) fields of color led all of his paintings to simply slide off their canvases over time. His obsolescence was unplanned, but fated by chemistry and Vonneguts cruel humor. The artist loses his family to his painting, and then his painting to gravity.
The old potato barn that serves as his studio is owned by a woman who eventually takes Rabo as her husband. He is set financially from this and later from the growing value of his great collection of paintings. Rabo’s barn is now padlocked and his last work is sealed inside. No one much cares for his work, since all his painting is no more than a memory. In the end, this last painting is the lynchpin to Bluebeard’s story. Though other paintings are mentioned, it is this “final act” which sets nearly everything in motion. Karabekian is closed off, not spiteful, but resigned to his place in history.
Émile Zola’s His Masterpiece has Claude Lantier as its central figure. His passion, more of a possession, to make paintings that depict the true light of things is roughly based on Cezanne, but also Manet and Monet. The artist’s career is covered start to finish in the book. Without telling too much of the tale, the artist is misunderstood but true to himself. He falters often and always suffers because of his art. Zola’s portrait is emblematic of the painterly ideal with his starving artists stalking the shadows of Montmartre. Lantier is ultimately a failure in his lifetime. The Masterpiece in question could be the first painting of his youth which causes an uproar, or the great work that slowly kills him, or the tiny dashed off sketch of a dead loved one.
It is sad to watch as his mentor becomes a joke, his friend who steals from him grow rich and his friend who writes (Zola’s avatar) becomes famous but saddened by the constant obsession with work. Art costs them all their lives and their loves. The ideal of a suffering, starving artist is not new but it may have been fully formed and cast in bronze in His Masterpiece.
I love Vonnegut/Karabekian’s words. Their frank sadness and humor is laid out like a table set for guests. Few tricks are employed, aside from the MacGuffin of the barn painting. Zola crushes the soul of his painter slowly like the erosion of a beach. Both have failed, publicly and personally and both end on vastly different paths. This unrelenting passion to make art, and in particular one triumphant work, fuels them until they are spent. A few weeks back I wrote my Goldfinch list, and this is where I have gotten so far. 2 fictional tales of sad men, shooting for immortality and learning vastly different things from their failure.
– Jeff Bergman, June 2014
Atlas will be back again in 2 weeks.
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