Art novels: visual art according to writers

Stefano Pirovano

A list of novels explaining visual art, artists and collectors better than any art critic book

Due to the lack of relevant new critical writings in the art scene – after the Relational Aesthetics by Nicolas Bourriaud no other incisive tools have been produced – a couple of years ago we turned to those novels in which art is involved. Since then we have gathered together a collection of twenty-five books, mainly from the last two centuries, that we would like to present here, along with some observations about what we have discovered during our long journey through this sort of parallel dimension of the art writing.

It was The Remainder (2005), by Tom McCarthy, that has inspired our research. This isn’t a book which tells about artists or artworks; we prefer to look at it as a potential installation in itself, since its author is a former visual artist who is perfectly conscious that only thanks to a specific mind set an urinal can be actually turned into a work of art.

It is with this particular set of mind that we have read the contest between the figurative artist and the conceptual one described in an outstanding passage by Orhan Pamuk in My name is red (1998), and it was indeed a valid approach, as proved by the novel he has published ten years later, The Museum of Innocence (2008). An obsessive love story is intertwined with the experience of an individual who is creating his own personal museum.

Of course Pamuk is not the only novelist who has realized the narrative potentialities of the museum. The nipping critic that Thomas Bernhard moves to the human society in Old Masters (1985) is identified by a notorious portrait by Jacopo Tintoretto preserved in Vienna, at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, that the novel’s main character often visits. And a museum, in this case the Metropolitan in New York, is also where the adventure of the main character of The Goldfinch (2014) by Donna Tartt begins. In both cases art is just an ingredient, but not less important than others. The specific readings of the artworks Bernard and Tartt provide is derived by their extraordinary sensitivity and are definitely a must read if you love “The man with the white beard” by Tintoretto or “The anatomy lesson” by Rembrandt. Similarly, if you like Malevich, you will find extremely engaging the interpretation of his black square given by Sergej Nosov in Il volo dei corvi (2008, English edition not available yet).

Another interesting sight on Tintoretto is given by Geoff Dyer in Jeff in Venice, death in Varanasi (2009), where at a certain point Jeff, an art writer and journalist visiting the Venice Biennial, finds himself at the Scuola Grande di San Rocco snorting coke on the small mirror he has been given at the entrance of the site to look at the paintings on the ceiling. His vivid description of the Biennial’s behind the scene, night parties, and typical characters is not only plausible, but also instructive.

Even if you are an insider, and you know the “who is who”, useful readings are also By Nightfall (2010) by Michael Cunningham and What I loved (2003), by Siri Hustvedt. The first one perfectly reports about the life of a contemporary art gallerist, who is not a tycoon in his business, nevertheless someone who knows the game very well. In a similar way, Hustvedt’s ambitious novel gives you a comprehensive vision on the kind of friendship an art historian may have with a living artist. The point of view of the painter was also taken by Henry James in The real thing (1892), but in this case the real core of the matter is the decadent couple the artist is portraying.

As known, Siri Hustvedt is married to Paul Auster, author of Leviathan (1992). One of the characters of this novel, the photographer Maria Turner, is inspired to French artist Sophie Calle. After the novel has been published, Auster was asked by the artist to write the instruction for one of her performances as compensation for the fact that the writer, so Ms. Calle claimed, hadn’t quoted her work as a source of his novel.

A trustful and vivid description of what dealing with art means is to be found in Steve Martin‘s An Object of Beauty (2010), but in this instance the level of writing is not that of a professional novelist and the young and sexy auction house’s operator may appear overly-exaggerated, thus sometimes unpleasant. On the contrary, the story of the painter whose life is the focus of Kurt Vonnegut‘s Bluebeard (1987) is more than a simple glance at the early American post-war abstraction.

The Manual of painting and calligraphy (1977) by José Saramago includes description of an undervalued Italian artist called Valeriano Trubbiani, whose work has been seen by the nobel prize at the Venice Biennial, while in The light that failed (1890) Rudyard Kypling takes the point of view of a painter and war reporter who becomes blind. Also Graham Green gives his perspective on contemporary art in Travels with my hunt (1969), where it is easily explained why Pop art is not that different from the art produced during the Renaissance age.

Masters such as Don De Lillo and Cormack McCarthy have dealt with art too. The first one in White Noise (1985), where an extraordinary session of painting over abandoned air-planes is described from an air-balloon, while the second one takes the iconic “Lightning field” by Walter De Maria as a source of inspiration for the mysterious conclusion of Blood meridian (1985).

More recently, Michel Houellebecq‘s The map and the territory (2010) has been based on the life of a not yet identified painter and Jonathan Franzen describes some paintings by Eric Fischl in his novel “Freedom” (2010), whose one of the main characters is effectively a musician.

Other art in novels are  Lucy Lippard‘s I see, you mean (1979), Bret Easton Ellis‘s American Psycho (1991), Serge Gainsbourg‘s Evguénie Sokolov (1980), Patrick McGraph‘s Asylum (1996) and Port Mungo (2004), and probably Tom Wolfe‘s The painted word (1975),

A special mention in this still uncompleted list goes to George Perec‘s Life: a user manual (1878) and A gallery portrait (1979), which probably are the two most complex and intriguing books that can be ascribed to the art in novels category up to now. This latter, in particular, is the only one which takes into consideration the fundamental point of view of an art collector.

April 23, 2018