«A historical novel is a work of fiction set in the past. The most important word in this definition for me is “fiction». In this way Barbara A. Shapiro debuted in the note appendix to her latest novel The muralist, released in Italy as The artist, and by reading from this angle we took the best that this narrative wanted to offer. Alizée Benoit and Danielle Abrams are the novels’s protagonists and their intertwined lives give a structure to the story, while the American historical period that marked the passage from the Great Depression to the Second World War, or the background of Christie’s house of auctions, provide the setting.
One of the novel’s characteristics is in fact the continuous time shift from the present to the past: the writer doesn’t linger on today’s situation in contrast to the space dedicated to the scenery of the Roosevelt administration’s years. Similarly, the reader is introduced to Alizée through her reflections, profound and painful, and her occasionally impulsive decisions nonetheless always created by her energy and a constant determination, almost to the detriment of the present-day Danielle who may seem superficial and indecisive, a frantic victim of the haste and performance expectations typical of our days.
If some American reviews expressed their concern about the dialogues between Alizée and her friends, or highlighted the difference in depth of the personalities of the two protagonists, we hypothesize that they are simply “daughters of their time”, examples of different life’s styles. Alizée’s one in which the daily rhythms were slow even when they seemed agitated, simply because of the lack of communication means, so common and obvious nowadays -no e-mails but letters that took months to be delivered- and Danielle’s one in which the computerization continues to delude the contemporary world through the immediacy of time and space.
This contrast becomes here wanted and emphasized just to mark seventy years of history and the transition from one century to another. Moreover, the contraposition of the two women, united by family ties grandaunt/grandniece, is only apparent: both are determined to achieve a goal, both must respond to what, at the eyes of others, is an obsession while for them it means to listen to their souls’ voice.
The novel’s beginning focuses on what is the biggest fear of a famous Auction House: in front of entirely new material, the risk is double, on one hand the doubt of missing the “masterpiece of the century”, on the other to certify as authentic a “real fake”. This is the fear of the Danielle’s boss in front of a box containing paintings that could be attributed to Pollock or Rothko, when they were still “young and unknown.” The point of view of Danielle is totally different: those works may have been painted by the great aunt Alizée, mysteriously disappeared in the Forties and who, according to the family legend, was a friend of the artists.
The framework reflects the end of the Thirties, marked by the reforms proposed by the New Deal that also touched artistic relevance areas such as the FSA-Farm Security Administration, recorded by photographic reportages signed by names like Jack Delano, Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, and the WPA-Work Progress Administration with the department of the Federal Art Project, where artists such as Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning -all mentioned in the book- had been working.
Alizée Benoit was then one of these artists paid by the government to create public art works and, without any pre-established calculation, it was in that particular ferment of ideas and experiments that the Abstract Expressionism found inspiration; a movement also known to be the first typically American artistic phenomenon to influence culturally and artistically the rest of the world after the WW II. The creation of murals was one of the artworks commissioned to the WPA artists -hence the original title of the book- to be presented to the population as a testimony of the American identity. When, in 1943 the division suddenly closed, the artists were discharged and the works ended up in the garbage or junk dealers, reason fact that gave rise to the rumors of forgotten treasures fortuitously found in dusty attics. It was this particular anecdote that draws the attention of Shapiro and, as she puts it, gave her the idea of the novel.
The canvases, or pieces of canvases, found and delivered to Chrstie’s for authentication are the link between the two stories. On the one hand the story of Danielle, who dissents from her manager because he wants to assign quickly the artworks to known exponents of Abstract Expressionism, and because of that she continues to search independently. She is driven both by the belief that those artworks could be of her grandaunt Alizée, and by the intuition that there may be other paintings similar and not yet found. On the other hand the story of Alizée, whose inspirational force generates discussions on the meaning of art, and develops, as a result, a highly original style, that leads her to dare a completely new kind of work, dragging along also her group of friends. The reader gets so involved from the narrative and, like with a thriller novel, will go on page after page looking for the culprit-artist of those mysterious paintings.
At the beginning we said that the setting is not only artistic but also historical and political, in fact, the structure of the novel is based on two continuous movements: on the one hand the time frame, the two periods 1939 and 2015, and on the other hand the space frame between the US and Europe. Alizée lives in New York but her family is in France, where the war has begun and already produces silent victims whose echo reaches the United States as a remote sound. But she knows what is really happening. She receives letters from her brother and other relatives alerting her about the European situation and their concerns, being Jews, asking Alizée to apply for visas for them in order to move to NY. At this juncture, the US government deeply struggled to decide if it had to participate to the conflict in the defense of human rights (only?), or to remain concentrated focused on domestic/internal politics, devoting itself to solving the economic and social crisis of the Nation. The political and artistic interrelation is highlighted by the figure of Eleanor Roosevelt and Picasso’s artwork Guernica: can the sensibility and creativity of an artist change the course of events through the public dissemination of an artwork? Has Art Today this power?
The warp and woof of the novel weave personal introspection, social issues and artistic curiosity in a web of suspense and references that keep the reader’s attention alive. We asked some questions to Barbara A. Shapiro to meet the reader’s curiosity and we present them in this short interview.
What came first: the protagonist’s life or the historical setting?
The historical setting came first for me. I wanted write another book about art after the success of The Art Forger, and I’d always wanted to write a novel set during the American Great Depression. When I started doing research, it became clear that the WPA -Roosevelt’s program to put the US back to work during the depression- which hired artists and paid them to create art, had to be the central subject.
This isn’t your first artistic-historical novel, is the love for art stronger than the passion for writing?
I do love art, it’s a part of me, but writing is who I am.
If Alizée were a contemporary artist what do you think would be the artistic movement closer to her personality?
If Alizée were living today, I’m sure she’d be working abstractly, but probably pushing the envelope. She’d most likely be working conceptually, perhaps with found objects or something no one else has thought of.
In your opinion, what has replace today the Jumble Shop in New York?
I don’t know an exact place that might represent the Jumble Shop today, but I’m sure there are many scattered around NYC and most cities around the world. Artists -like writers- need a community to help them through the many obstacles of being an artist and will always create spots where they can hang out.
2016 sees in Italy, particularly in Venice, many events celebrating the Five Hundredth Anniversary of the Ghetto and your novel fits perfectly into the context: is it an unintentional tribute?
It was unintentional, but the themes of the novel circle around the idea that the human animal is always afraid of the “other” and strives to overcome him and supplant his own ideas on the others’ lands and people. Unfortunately this creates war, ghettos and refugees, and even more unfortunately repeats itself into the present, and I fear, the future.
Are you working on a new novel?
Yes. I just handed in the first draft of my next novel, which has many of the same elements as both The Art Forger and The Muralist: art, history, mystery and a few love stories. This one takes place in the 1920s in Paris and Philadelphia and is about the post-impressionists and the early modernists.
Have a nice reading!