An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin
“Great paintings live on because they’re not quite explicable.” says Steve Martin. In “An Object of Beauty” , Steve Martin puts his considerable knowledge of the art world in full display. This novel is part fictional memoir, and part primer on the business of fine art collecting. It takes place in New York City and covers a period from about 1997 through 2008.
The novel is narrated by Daniel Franks, a writer for art world publications but who is really a stand in for Martin. The main character is Lacey Yeager, who is young, ambitious, gorgeous, quick witted and morally suspect. We follow her from art school to an internship at Sotheby’s, to working for a private art dealer to opening her own art gallery. Lacey is a master manipulator of men. She has Daniel Franks in her thrall throughout the book. Lacey sleeps with every man she meets, except Franks. She commits fraud for personal monetary gain, spies on competitors, and makes the big time.
The art market is booming along with the housing bubble in the early 2000s with money coming in from Russia and China. But as they say what goes up must come down as her career slides in the collapse of Wall Street and the subsequent drying up of the big money. As Martin states: “Art as an aesthetic principle was supported by thousands of years of discernment and psychic rewards, but art as a commodity was held up by air. The loss of confidence that affected banks and financial instruments was now affecting art as well.”
As we go through the book the works of art that Martin is talking about are displayed in full color inserts so that we can better appreciate them.
Steve Martin is an American actor, comedian, author, playwright, producer, musician and composer, and an avid art collector. I knew he was funny but had no idea he was such a good writer. I thoroughly enjoyed this book.
A History of the World in 100 Objects, by Neil MacGregor
If you’ve ever wanted to visit the British Museum but couldn’t afford the airfare, now you don’t have too. Neil Macgregor, Director of the British Museum brings it to you in his new book.
Here are 100 carefully selected objects that represent the sum total of the progress of Humanity. All the major civilizations of the world are represented here, including Meso America (Olmec, Maya, Aztec) ; South America (Paracas, Moshe, Inca); Europe (Celts, Minoans, Athenians, Romans, Byzantium, Ottoman-Turks); the Tigris-Euphrates river valley(Sumerians, Assyrians, Lydians, Persians); Egypt and Nile delta (Ancient Egyptians); Africa (Kushites, Oba, Kilwa, Ife); Indus Valley (Gupta, Orissan, Mughal); and China (Zhou, Confucian, Han, Tang, and Ming Dynasties, Mongolia, Timurid Empire, Quig Dynasty). All of the objects are either works of art or tools that look like works of art. Some are very well known like the Rosetta Stone, Ming Vases, Beowulf’s Helmet, and The Easter Island Statues. All the world’s great religions are profiled including Buddhism, Confucianism, Judaism, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, and Christianity.
In each of 100 short chapters, MacGregor writes a brief description and history of each object, which keeps the book from getting long and boring. Photographs of the objects are beautifully rendered against mostly black backgrounds. Also included is a brief paragraph from experts in their various fields such as Archaeology, Linguistics, Ancient Literature, etc.
Here is an example of one of the interesting things one could learn from this book. This passage refers to Marco Polo and his first encounter with now world famous Chinese Ceramics:
“One of the Startling things he had seen was Porcelain; indeed, the very word ‘porcelain’ comes to us from Marco Polo’s description of his travels in Qubilai Khan China. The Italian porcellana, little piglet, is a slang word for cowry shells, which do indeed look a little like curled-up piglets. And the only thing that Marco Polo could think of to give his readers an idea of the shell-like sheen of the hard, fine ceramics that he saw in China was a cowry shell, a porcellana. And so we’ve called it ‘little piglets’ porcelain, ever since –this is if we’re not just calling it ‘china’.
A book that is very worth your while.
The Lady in Gold, by Anne-Marie O’Connor
In June 2006, The Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer was sold at auction at Christie’s in New York for a record 135 million dollars. The buyer of the painting was Ron Lauder, who had coveted the gold portrait of Adele for years. He needed a destination painting for his new museum in New York City called the Neue Galerie. This painting had a lot of history behind it. He was willing to pay a lot of money for it. How this gorgeous painting was created, and how it came to the United States is the subject of a fascinating book by Anne-Marie O’ Connor.
The painter was Gustav Klimt, part of a new generation of artists in the early 1900s who refused to conform to convention and were instead in the vanguard of the nascent “Art for Art’s sake” movement. The subject of the painting was Adele Bloch-Bauer, a wealthy Jewish socialite, who was also ahead of her time, being an avid suffragist, chain smoker, and salon intellectual. There were also rumors that she and Gustav were lovers although nothing has been proven. Klimt produced several portraits of Adele and often used real gold leaf which added to the allure of his work. However at the time most everyone was disgusted by the overt eroticism of Klimt’s pieces and thus they did not enjoy wide popularity.
The painting resided happily on the walls of the Bloch-Bauer family’s Belvedere Estate in Vienna, until the Anschluss (March 1938) when Hitler insisted that Germany and Austria be united under the Third Reich. Jews and Jewish property were fair game for the Nazis. They stole vast art collections from all the countries of Europe, but Klimt’s works were spared because “Der Fuhrer” considered modern art to be degenerate and unwholesome. However the painting was expropriated by Viennese nationals, who were not Nazis but had no love for the Jews. The name of the painting was changed to “The Lady in Gold” so as to eradicate any connection to its Jewish owners. It survived the war and ended up in a national museum.
During the last decades of the twentieth century, modern art gained in popularity and value. Most of the Viennese Jews had perished in the holocaust, but some claimants came forward and demanded restitution for their stolen property. Litigation went on for years but finally the painting was restored to its rightful owners, the heirs of Adele and her family.
“in Vienna, the impact of the Bloch-Bauer restitution rippled out of ministries and courtrooms and into cafes and dinner parties. “It was our Austrian ‘Mona Lisa’ ” lamented Werner Furnsinn, the director of the Austrian Culture Ministry’s Commission for Provenance Research.
If you like modern art and history, then this book will be perfect for you.
The Marriage Artist, by Andrew Winer
This is an intricately woven novel which incorporates grand themes such as love, marriage, death, history, religion, and art. Most of the characters are Jewish, and there are two main plots.
The first plotline involves a love triangle between Josef, a famous gifted artist, his friend Max, who is doubly doomed, being Jewish and gay, and Hannah, who is depressed. The story begins in Vienna in 1928, when 8-year-old Josef meets his grandfather, a rabbi, and discovers a talent for drawing Ketubah, an ornate Jewish marriage certificate. “After all,” his grandfather states, “Marriage demands of us the impossible. It is a job for which there is no apprenticeship – a riddle no one has ever solved. And the husband and wife, naively jumping into this great mystery, are left to shape it according to a vision they don’t have. This is where the Ketubah comes in. A Good Ketubah, in words both practical and poetic, in beauty that is symbolic and personal to the bride and groom, illuminates the mystery of the union of man and woman. A Good Ketubah helps give them a vision, a start.”
Joseph draws many Ketubah but becomes disillusioned when the reality is the Ketubah does not guarantee happiness. He meets Max and they both swear to never get married. Many years later Josef meets Hannah when they are both trying to flee from Hitler’s regime. They are married in line at an emigration station, both intending to go to Palestine. But they never leave and Hannah becomes pregnant with baby Herman. Max secretly loves Josef and is not pleased to share him with Hannah. All three of them end up in the concentration camps.
Baby Herman escapes the fate of the concentration camps and grows up to be a Buddhist. Herman’s son Benjamin becomes a troubled, gifted artist like his grandfather.
The second plotline (taking place in present-day New York) involves an art critic named Daniel Lichtmann, whose wife Alexandra has a suicidal affair with Benjamin. The deaths occur at the book’s beginning, and Daniel tries to discover why this happened, and unravels the stories of Josef, Max, and Hannah.