Tag Archives: artist

Holy the Firm – Annie Dillard

I’ve been a fan of Annie Dillard forever. She turns woods walking into a profoundly mystical experience. And her prose–her prose hovers always at the edge of poetry. In this slim collection of three connected essays, it slips over the edge. Holy the Firm is purely poetic. Every word seems chosen from a depth of meditation like some bit of mineral from the ocean floor. Dillard uses words as she imagines them, not as we remember them. She makes language into music and ideas into fragments of sky. And she is as ruthlessly brutal as the wonders and horrors she describes.

In Holy the Firm, Dillard watches a moth stick itself into the molten wax of a candle, burst into flame, curl, shrivel, ash apart until it is only a slender husk, a vertical wick for the flame. She reads by its light for two hours.  The metaphor is apt for an artist–a writer–and stunning. And terrible. Her cat brings gifts of dead birds. She tosses the cat out the door and a bird over the porch rail for whatever fate of consummation awaits it. And she writes: “Into this world fell a plane…It fell easily; one wing snagged on a fir top; the metal fell down the air and smashed in the thin woods where cattle browse; the fuel exploded; and Julie Norwich seven years old burnt off her face.”

Now let your breath out. This is a child, not a moth, and this, too, happened at the edge of the Pacific Ocean where Dillard was holed up in a one-room house with a glass wall facing West. The weight of words is no different for a view of the mountains, a spider behind the toilet, a human tragedy of unimaginable agony.  The writer tries to make sense of it, tries for the numinous in all of it, supposes the ruined child will be gifted with a wisdom far beyond her years. Better she should have a face. But how do we comprehend the unapproachable? Where in the sea or sky is there space to contain the unforgivable, the inexplicable?

A moth becomes a wick that contains the flame. The bright hope of a child’s life flames out. There are islands hidden behind islands in the mist. Dillard believes in a god who has something to do with all of it. She accepts the hardness of rock, the vulnerability of frailty. And she must wait, at the water’s edge, at the place where the land ends, for the exact word, the never-before-used-in-exactly-this-way word, to fit the puzzle of her observations precisely within the frame of a skinny book, page by page.

Holy the Firm   Annie Dillard | Harper Colophon  1984

The Map and the Territory – Michel Houellebecq

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Michel Houellebecq’s The Map and the Territory is an oddly gripping story about an artist, Jed Martin, who allows life, love, inspiration, acclaim and skyrocketing market value to come to him. His is an unintentionally Zen existence; he remains detached from competition, much of the art world, the mundane irritations of daily living and even the day’s news.  Martin meets the love of his life, Olga, when she is working in Paris for the Michelin company. At the time, Martin is making photographs of Michelin maps and an exhibition that Olga helps to arrange puts him on the map and lands him a gallery. When Olga is transferred to Russia, Martin stays in Paris.

His mother’s suicide when he was young, his renowned architect father’s preoccupation with his work, his own ambivalence about pursuing anything—or anyone—instill in him a habit of silence and solitude that enhances his artistic reputation. Martin spends long years developing new directions for his art and then reveals a body of work when he has exhausted the medium. He progresses from photographs of industrial objects to photographs of road maps to painted portraits of people who typify professions. Subjects of the portraits that cause a sensation and boost prices for his work range from a prostitute to Martin’s father on the eve of his retirement from his successful architecture firm to Bill Gates and Steve Jobs discussing the future of technology to a reclusive famous writer—named Michel Houellebecq—whom Martin engages to write program notes for an exhibit, paints for his final portrait in the series, and attempts to befriend as a fellow seeker of truth and artistic mentor.

The real Houellebecq traces the arc of Martin’s life as fame overtakes him. The artist remains impassive, noting each time an event or a relationship comes to an end for him that this will be the last time he paints a portrait, sees a lover, speaks to his father, visits a friend. Occasionally he relapses into art making. More often he gets lost in his own thinking. One day he is enlisted by the police to help solve a gruesome and baffling crime—and this only adds to his wealth, his isolation and his mystique.

The Map and the Territory is a wonderful novel–it won the 2010 Prix Goncourt and a raft of enthusiastic reviews. I hated to put it aside when real life interfered and I was fascinated by Jed Martin and his search for meaning. The descriptions of places and people are beautifully rendered, the humor is intelligent, the skewering of society is performed by a master. This book was a pure pleasure to read in a day—I wish all of the books I encountered reached the level of Houellebecq’s and I will search out more of his work in hopes that it is all this good.

The Map and the Territory   Michel Houellebecq | Alred A. Knopf   2012

Unfinished Portrait – Anthea Fraser

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Unfinished Portrait by Anthea Fraser isn’t so much a who-dunnit? as a where-is-she? Writer Rona Parish is commissioned to produce a biography of Elspeth Wilding, a celebrated painter who disappeared more than a year before, leaving her studio, unfinished work and family behind. Rona hesitates—she is a series amateur sleuth who gets dragged into more mayhem than she can handle–afraid that this story could be more than a simple book. But she succumbs and, naturally, the baffling disappearance takes center stage. Elspeth’s trail lures Rona outside her picturesque village of Marsborough to towns in the surrounding countryside, to London and even to the Scottish coast.

Elspeth Wilding is, or was,  a reclusive, egocentric, wild talent and everyone has a tale to tell about her, many of them unflattering. Rona struggles to maintain her comfortable, event-free life, lunching and dining nearly every day with friends, her twin sister, and her artist husband who lives at home part time and in his studio across town, where he teaches art students several days a week. Rona’s dog needs constant walking. Her sister collects a difficult but attractive boyfriend with a connection to Wilding. Wilding’s family members do and don’t know what happened to her. And all is not as it seems in the art world or in Wilding’s world.

An old friend, a dramatic suicide, a greedy possibly-corrupt celebrity, a loyal housekeeper, divorced parents with new partners, a Scottish hideaway and some old masterpieces complicate the plot. The book is a UK print and is written in British vernacular, which makes it more interesting. Rona’s life of pubs, wine bars, interior design and fashion shows is upscale and moderately privileged—she seems to have a readymade journalism job for the times when she doesn’t feel up to the work of biographies so the story bears a tinge of fairytale. She doesn’t work especially hard nor ask very penetrating questions of her sources.

A murder that seems, and is, senseless lends sudden urgency to solving the mystery but the resolution comes pretty much out of nowhere and doesn’t feel organic to the plot. The concerns of the characters don’t come across as terribly urgent, the evil is grafted on, and the end is not entirely satisfying. Fraser creates a world of fortunate people who are more or less unmindful of their advantages and so it’s hard to get too worked up about their problems. Unfinished Portrait is an undemanding read with lovely Britishisms and an okay but uncompelling mystery that you cannot solve but that is ultimately revealed in detail. Could have been stronger. I’m going to reserve judgment until I plow through one more of her mysteries with a different protagonist, to see whether she dashes off finales as casually in all of her novels.

Unfinished Portrait (Rona Parish Mysteries)   Anthea Fraser | Severn House  2010

Van Gogh: The Life – Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith

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Wheat Field with Crows was not the last painting Vincent Van Gogh ever made. And he most likely did not kill himself, despite popular legend. He did suffer all his life from serious and escalating mental illness and he started out to be an art dealer, not an artist, taking his place in the bourgeois family business. Van Gogh: The Life, an exhaustive examination of the painter’s biography, uses voluminous correspondence and close scrutiny of historical materials and the paintings to explain the trajectory of a genius.

Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith track Vincent Van Gogh’s maternal and paternal families, his early upbringing as the son of a local pastor in Holland, the economic and political events that affected the family fortunes, his complex relationships with his parents and siblings, and the demons that gripped him with increasing ferocity. Failure and desperation drove Van Gogh to paint, first as a way to earn a living when his attempts to work for his uncle as a dealer of fine prints were an unmitigated disaster. Later he strove to earn his brother Theo’s respect and extricate himself from financial dependence on Theo, a goal he would never come close to realizing. And finally, the feverish bursts of painting held the nightmares in his mind at bay, staving off the devastating breakdowns that triggered episodes of bizarre behavior and incapacitated him for months.

He wondered in his letters how much more he might have painted had he been a stable and less intense person. His fragile mind was damaged by a family that couldn’t understand or support him. His family was torn apart by the public spectacle of a drinker, a madman, a restless habitué of the city’s seedier neighborhoods. Vincent satisfied his need for female companionship with prostitutes who often posed for him and occasionally lived with him. But he longed for a successful conventional life, even as his temperament and temper pushed him farther toward the margins. He was brilliant but the world was slow to apprehend and embrace his art. He tortured Theo for attention and money, and tortured his friends with chaotic behavior and angry verbal condemnation.

The biography fills in the life behind the iconic paintings. Starry Night has a heartbreaking backstory. The irises and the olive trees are a desperate attempt to capture a way of seeing, a singular beauty that the ugliness in his skull could not touch. Everything hurt him: letters from parents and siblings; rejection by women, employers, art dealers, exhibition juries; Theo’s happiness in his impending marriage and his eventual child; the criticism of his peers and rebuffs from artists like Gauguin. Van Gogh had the miserable fortune to live when mental illness was barely recognized and could not be accurately diagnosed and treated. Compounding the tragedy were the family genes—none too healthy—and his own brilliance. He knew how badly his life and his precarious mind served him and he tried repeatedly to create a tranquil home and loyal companionship for himself.

The ear incident is precisely and horribly described and the gunshot that would kill him is examined in the light of all the evidence and lack of evidence around the event. Naifeh and Smith make a convincing case for the theory that Vincent Van Gogh was the victim of a spoiled teenage bully’s prank, not a suicide attempt. If they are right, then he died protecting two boys from a charge of murder—and maybe chose death as a merciful release from the devastating monsters inside his own head. In the end you wonder if there would have been any Van Gogh masterpieces if the boy and the man had a more peaceful and traditionally productive life. With a wife, children, a thriving business and a family that accepted him and approved of him, Vincent Van Gogh might have been content to sell art made by other people and luxuriate in the comfort of his own emotional constancy and material success.

Van Gogh: The Life   Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith | Random House   2011