Books: Then and Now

Category: Now

Review: The Muralist by B.A. Shapiro  

By: Richard E. Gower

“Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.”

                                                                        PABLO PICASSO  

The Muralist by B.A. Shapiro is a captivating work of historical fiction, with a focus on the world of fine art. The author (the B is for Barbara) very convincingly integrates a fictional main protagonist, Alizée Benoit, into the real-life milieu of modernist painters like Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner and others who were at the forefront of abstract expressionism in the United States, prior to World War II.

For those who must have a category for selecting what they read, this book is essentially a mystery story but there are touches of other genres throughout it as well. It should tantalize any student of American history as the author skilfully weaves the narrative around the lives, events and actions involving President Franklin D. and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, as well as other notable and controversial figures of that period like Charles Lindberg and Joseph P. Kennedy.

And for anyone even marginally interested in art history the story is a delight as it brings the group of artists now regarded as titans in their field into surroundings that are all too human and we get to see their day to day behaviour and conflicts (as imagined by the author, aided by impeccable research) with both their creativity and the achievement of recognition; personal struggles that are touchingly plausible and, sadly, all too believable because of human and societal predictability.

In a way, the book stands as a metaphorical tautology (or perhaps tautological metaphor) in that it is a form of art about art imitating life. The characters are very human; much is known about the artists of that period so B.A. Shapiro had ample historical background to draw from in order to word-paint the scenarios for her fiction. In a form of afterword called: A Novelist’s Toolkit, she writes about how the group of artists that forms the core of real-life characters in this book, typically lived.

“In between long bouts of work, they drank and smoked and partied and jumped in and out of each other’s beds. What fun. They all had to be part of the novel.”

The imagined carryings-on between the fictional and real-life characters make for a compelling story on their own, but a novel will also often strike a resonant note with a reader because elements of the storyline may seem to echo a fresh-in-the-mind news event and I found that to be the case with this one. The plight of innocent families trying to escape the horrors of the civil war in Syria has been much in the news lately and I was struck by the historical parallels that are key to the narrative in this book.

I think it’s safe to say that the documented horrors of the Holocaust are ubiquitous in our current culture, however, except among scholars, less is generally known today, by many people, of the disgraceful action taken by a number of governments during the lead-up to and during World War II in restricting and turning away European Jews who were trying to flee from countries that had been overrun by the Nazis. Travel visas were systematically denied and shiploads of refugees were actually turned away from North American ports. This travesty becomes a focal point of The Muralist.

According to an article in The Kansas City Star  where the author was interviewed, she stated that the situational circumstance in the book that is shamefully similar to what many Syrian refugees are facing today – public resistance to and government dithering over a moral obligation because of ‘security’ fears, while innocents suffer and perish – was unintended. She wrote The Muralist well before the current humanitarian crisis in Syria became a daily news item.

Notwithstanding that, she acknowledges that the story may serve to call attention to the present-day parallel. In the Star article, she is quoted as follows:   “‘it kind of follows along with the point I was focusing on in the book, which is war and this is what happens when crazy men want to conquer the world. They create wars, and there are refugees who have to run from their homes and nobody’s willing to take them in.

“Sometimes, it’s hard for people to see through the rhetoric of the moment. Everybody knows Hitler was bad and the Holocaust was bad. It might be easier, reading this book, to understand that and say, ‘Oh, this is the same thing that’s going on now.’”

Notwithstanding the above, The Muralist is far from being a strident polemic. Like her earlier book (The Art Forger) that was centred around a similar milieu, B.A. Shapiro skilfully blends fact with fiction; unmasking along the way some of the behind-the-scenes connivance and machination (unprincipled careerism knows no occupational boundaries) that goes on in the commercial and curated worlds of fine art. It also furnishes insight into the Federal Art Project, a real-life employment initiative funded by the U.S. government that began in the 1930s and ended during World War II. It provided steady, paid work for hand-to-mouth artists and artisans who might have otherwise wound up on relief.

I found this book to be one of the most emotionally wrenching works of fiction that I have read in a long time. Besides being a thoroughly compelling mystery, it also stands as a testament to the economic fragility that was (and is) daily fare for a great many inspired souls who practice the creative arts, and underlines how often their work goes unappreciated and undervalued during their lifetimes. Today, original paintings by modernist artists like Georgia O’Keeffe and others of that period who struggled for recognition and barely eked out a living in the early twentieth century now bring seven-figure prices at auction. There is probably an object lesson somewhere in that incongruity.  REG

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