What is art? Give ’em what they know, and when you’ve done it do it again (Rudyard Kipling)

Considering the lack of good art theories in the last two decades – a period of time in which art curators have overwhelmed art critics and art writers – we have turned to novelists, discovering that the perspective on art of authors such as Orhan Pamuk, Don De Lillo, Paul Auster, Tom McCarthy, Georges Perrec, Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Bernhard or Cormac McCarthy is more than enlightening and informed. Sometimes art is the core of the novel, other times it is just a conceptual hint embedded in the story. However, the result of this “lateral” kind of art writing is, most of the time, a pleasant discovery by which the novel itself is furthermore extended in its own possibilities.


The book we review here, is “The light that Failed”, published in 1891, the first Rudyard Kipling’s novel. Dick Heldar, the main character, is a painter who achieves success thanks to his war-time illustrations of the Sudan campaign for some London newspapers. Heldar is in love with Maisie, his childhood playmate, a character based on the real-life of artist Flo Garrard (according to The Guardian she was a slender girl with pre-Raphaelite looks, pale skin, long dark hair, large grey eyes and a boyish figure. Kipling was smitten on sight with a love that would last 11 years and inform his attitude to women for the rest of his life). Dick loves Maisie, but she is focused on her commercially unsuccessful career as an artist, in comparison to his, so their relation turns out to be an enquiry of the conflict between love and art. This is – from our point of view – the reason why the novel is a must-read. Then Dick becomes blind, he can’t paint anymore, and Maisie leaves him, probably driven by her “blind” faith in her work, or simply by egoism. Even if blind, Dick goes back to the battle fileld, seeking for adventure, to fell completely alive. Quote:


Then he checked himself: ‘I don’t know what I shall be. I don’t seem to be able to pass any exams, but I can make awful caricatures of the masters. Ho! Ho!’ ‘Be n artist, then,’ said Maisie. ‘You’re always laughing at my trying to draw; and it will do good.’ ‘I’ll never laugh at anything you do,’ he answered. ‘I’ll be an artist, and I’ll do things.’ ‘Artists always want money, don’t they?’ ‘I’ve got a hundred and twenty pounds a year of my own. My guardians tell me I’m to have it when I come of age. That will be enough to begin with.’

July 24, 2015