Don’t you love the above image? I confess to be slightly obsessed and entirely in love with many WPA posters from the 1930s and ‘40s. Besides offering a chance to view the social history of the United States at that time, I find the particular aesthetics of much of the illustrative poster art of that period especially pleasing. And it also somehow makes my heart happy that there was actually a national program that supported artists during a time of great financial difficulty. I’m always looking for clues that our societies are willing to support what I think are most essential contributions that are rather more frequently than not dismissed as non-essential and less-than-important. So evidence that artists, poets, and teachers are valued seems such an indicator of hopefulness that I can’t help but celebrate it whenever and however it shows up.
This image itself feels like a perfect representation of my winter -so many snowy, cold, stormy days that it feels like a series of snow-day holidays strung together into a perfect environment for cozying up with a stack of books. I’ve begun this year matching my extraordinary pace of reading from last year, and while I wonder if it will be sustainable in coming months, for now I’m celebrating all the treasures that I’ve been delving into.
Today I have three historical fiction books I want to share that have rocked my world in deep ways, each about artists. I confess historical fiction is a genre that really hasn’t captured my interest in the past and yet here it is lighting me up in the moment and sending my thoughts into profound ponderings.
Each of the books I devoured as an audiobook borrowed online from my local library, and apparently audiobook listening is a new passion I’ve seamlessly incorporated into my daily routine. I’ve always loved being read to, and making it a daily treat has become an indulgence I’m not especially willing to forego right now. If you’re inspired by any of these books, I gently encourage you to consider listening to them. One offers some lovely phrases in ancient Italian and another a speaker with a Trinidadian lilt.
Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough is a powerful, not altogether easy story to bear witness to, and yet this is one I would consider mandatory reading for everyone concerned about how inequality of power over women (and by extension any marginalized group) must be rigorously, thoroughly, and finally forever dismantled. It’s based on the true incident in the life of artist Artemisia Gentileschi, an early Italian Baroque painter of the 1600s, a gifted artist even as a teenager in a time when such a thing was hardly acceptable nor an acknowledged profession for a woman. She was raped at age 17 by a fellow artist tutoring her, a well-renowed and clearly more powerful artist, and despite all odds and outrageous obstacles she chose to press charges against her rapist, in an act requiring unimaginable courage, determination, and emotional strength. The story is told from Artemisia’s viewpoint, and it is a richly layered and nuanced story, carrying a subtext of messages from her long-dead mother offering guidance and empowered encouragement based on the stories she used to share.
In keeping with my practice of awarding a rating based on floriography, the language of flowers, giving a hint at the plot as well as my appraisal, I offer a bouquet composed of Bilberry for treachery; Adonis for sorrowful remembrance; and Mistletoe for surmounting difficulties.
Next up for review is The Scribe of Siena: A Novel by Melodie Winawer. I was quite engrossed by this story, a time-travel wonder that moves between current time and Siena, Italy, the Tuscan city-state of the 1300s. The protagonist, a neurosurgeon, makes her way to Siena following the death of her brother, a historical researcher who had been interested in the mystery of why Siena was exponentially more adversely affected by the plague than surrounding areas, including Florence. While settling his estate, and delving into his research which apparently is of great interest to rival historians, she finds herself suddenly trapped in 14th century Siena. Not a very easy transition for a modern woman, who struggles to survive in a medieval culture. Being literate, quite an unusual thing for women at that time, in an extraordinary stroke of luck she manages to get a job as a scribe in the local monastery/hospital/pilgrim’s center. There she meets an artist commissioned to produce some religious paintings, and between trying to get back to her proper timeline, sussing out clues that might help resolve her brother’s research mystery, panic knowing that the plague is about to hit, she falls in love with the fresco master artist, whose diary was part of the research her brother had in his possession. I was definitely charmed by this one, which clearly articulates the challenges, hardships, and treachery of life in that earlier century, as well as the gifts.
My floriography rating for this one is an arrangement of American Starwort for welcome to a stranger; French Willow for bravery and humanity; and Sweet Pea for departures and lasting pleasures.
The Muse by Jessie Burton is another time-spanning tale involving artwork created in the 1930s rediscovered in the 1960s. The story is told in these two timelines, one in Spain at the time of the Spanish civil war and subsequent rise of Nazi domination and the latter in London.
In Spain, Olive, (daughter of an Austrian art dealer who doesn’t believe woman can actually have artistic talent and an English woman aristocrat who has fallen into the role of alcoholic arm candy) is actually a very inspired avant-garde painter, who plays a very complicated game of wanting to be seen as the talented artist she truly is while understanding women aren’t recognized or represented as such. This part of the story is filled with intrigue, deception, political activism, and the harsh reality of that particular historical period rubbing up against the perceptions and lives of those anchored in privilege. And all of this is reflected through the drama of Olive’s paintings.
The London-based story features Odelle, a young woman from Trinidad who struggles living as a black immigrant whose heart’s wish is to be published as a poet. She supports herself as a typist at an art museum, and it’s there she gets involved in the continuing mystery of the newly re-discovered painting. More intrigue, deception, and finally clarity about the painting’s origin, this time held in a container of one woman making peace with what it means to be seen, really seen, as one wishes to be.
As with the other books I’ve mentioned, this one has given me much to think about. I’m awarding a garland composed of Acanthus representing the fine arts and artifice, Canterbury Bells for acknowledgment, Venus Trap for deceit, and White Chrysanthemum for truth.
Above all, with all these works, I’m pondering what Iris Murdoch once wrote:
“Tyrants always fear art because tyrants want to mystify while art tends to clarify. The good artist is a vehicle of truth, he formulates ideas which would otherwise remain vague and focuses attention upon facts which can then no longer be ignored. The tyrant persecutes the artist by silencing him or by attempting to degrade or buy him. This has always been so.”
I, too believe this to be true, and yet I hold enduring hope that this can be shifted. And that we can all be part of it.
What do you think? Have you found your reading taking unexpected travels? Have something good to recommend? Believe in the power of art? Love WPA posters as much as I do? Do tell – you know I love to hear.