I seem to have read quite a few novels that either revolve around the art world or have art as a significant theme. Perhaps there’s been a trend over the past few years or perhaps it’s because art interests me so much, regularly flexing my National Art Pass at exhibitions back before the pandemic. Whichever, it seems to lend itself to enjoyable fiction. Here, then, are five novels about art that I’ve particularly liked, most with a thread of suspense running through them. All but one have links to reviews on this blog.
Dominic Smith’s The Last Painting of Sara de Vos is a tightly plotted, inventive novel through which run three timelines: the titular Sara’s seventeenth-century narrative, the theft of her painting in the 1950s and the preparations for an exhibition in Sydney in 2000. In 1957, a beautifully executed copy is substituted for the only extant de Vos painting which has been in the de Groot family for centuries. Marty de Groot’s investigations take a somewhat unorthodox route leading him to Ellie Shipley, a PhD student turned conservator who – decades later – will become the acknowledged expert on de Vos, her career celebrated in an exhibition which will have de Groot’s painting as its centrepiece. Still in a private collection, the work is to be delivered by its owner. Then a collector in Leiden offers the same piece to the gallery’s director. Smith deftly weaves the story of the painting and its creator through Ellie and Marty’s narratives, linking all three satisfyingly together in this entertaining literary page-turner
Michael Frayn’s Headlong also has a slight whiff of the thriller about it as Martin Clay‘s mind first wanders from the project he should be completing, then canters off down a track heading for either disaster or fame, fortune and his name enshrined in the annals of art history. Invited to dine with the Churts, the local, somewhat fraying, landed gentry, Martin and Kate find their opinions solicited on several paintings. Martin convinces himself that he’s found a missing work by Pieter Bruegel, a discovery he keeps not only from his hosts but also from his wife. Casting aside his original plans and shrugging off any troubling little ethical concerns, Martin immerses himself in researching Bruegel in the London Library, hatching precarious schemes to get his hands on the supposed missing masterpiece and taxing the patience of the long-suffering Kate. With a cast of entertaining characters, Headlong combines erudition with high farce and a page-turning pace
Based on the case of Otto Wacker, Clare Clark’s In the Full Light of the Sun carries on the page-turning theme with an exploration of the machinations of the self-regarding art world taken in by an audacious fraud against the background of the failed Weimar Republic and the rise of the Nazis. Julius Köhler-Schultz, pillar of the art establishment, meets Matthias Rachmann, a young dealer apparently respectful of his expertise. Julius is the author of a bestselling van Gogh biography whose dearest possession is a painting by the artist taken by his wife when she left him. When a young talented artist, once the object of Julius’ attention, attends the opening of Matthias’ new gallery which proudly boasts a cache of lost van Goghs, she meets an aspiring journalist who scents a scandal and roots it out.
There’s a pleasing thread of tension running through Gail Jones’ The Death of Noah Glass which follows the eponymous art historian’s children, each trying to cope with their estranged father’s death and the suggestion that he may have been involved in something nefarious. Martin and Evie have little in common besides their father. After their mother died, Noah had taken his children to live close to her family. They became the centre of his life, yet they never knew it. Evie moves into Noah’s flat after his death ostensibly to clear it but hoping to find the essence of him there. Martin takes off for Sicily where Noah had spent three months shortly before his death, ostensibly to investigate the implication of Noah’s involvement in an art theft but desperate to try to understand the man he feels he hardly knew. A beautifully wrought, erudite novel which encompasses themes of art, love, grief and family.
The Death of Noah Glass reminded a little of Siri Hustvedt’s What I Loved, one of my favourite contemporary novels. It’s written from the point of view of art historian Leo Hertzberg looking back on his long friendship with Bill Weschler whose work he first discovered in a New York gallery when Bill was a complete unknown. So impressed is Leo with Bill’s work that he tracks him down and their lives become entangled. Hustvedt’s novel is the story of their intense relationship, of the women they live with, their work and their sons both born in the same year but whose lives take very different turns. Hustvedt’s writing has an extraordinary depth. Her descriptions of Bill’s work are wonderfully vivid. She brings to it an art historian’s training coupled with superb descriptive skills. If you haven’t yet read it yet, please do. It’s a sublime piece of fiction
Any novels about art you’d like to recommend?
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