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10 Novels on Art, Artists and Art World Shenanigans

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Judging by the number of people visiting public art galleries - the figures are increasing year-on-year according to government stats - I reckon there must be an appetite for novels delving into the art business. I've compiled a list of 10 novels ranging from historical fiction and thrillers through to more philosophical writings. Some are successful in their authentic portrayal of artists-at-work while others deal with the murky world of art dealing and forgery. On my bedside table at the moment are Barbara Kingsolver's The Lacuna and John Lanchester's The Debt to Pleasure.

Headlong by Michael Frayn (1999)
Gossip and false accusation are the underlying themes of Pieter Bruegel's cycle of paintings entitled The Twelve Months and in Michael Frayn's tragi-comic novel Headlong a previously unknown painting from this cycle surfaces in the shabby country home of the Churts. When scholarly neighbour Martin Clay catches sight of the painting he hatches a plan to defraud the Churts of this priceless work of art. His equally scholarly wife reluctantly becomes embroilled. There's a culture clash between the two couples brought into focus when the Clays explain the subtle differences between their specialisms - iconology and iconography - which is unbelievably funny. Despite the comic aspect, there's heavy-weight art history in this novel, which opens up the world of the Spanish Inquisition in the Netherlands. Perhaps inevitably, the ending is less than totally satisfying and sadly tips into farce. But still a great read.

Men in Space by Tom McCarthy (2007)
Set in Prague and Amsterdam, Men in Space emerged from a series of disjointed semi-autobiographical sketches according to Tom McCarthy. He brought them together in a philosophical story revolving around a stolen icon. Initially it's hard going - lots of characters and unpronounceable place names. But stick with it. McCarthy leads us into a thriller involving a group of bohemian artists, Bulgarian gangsters and the Czech secret police. The icon is first described in the novel by a state spook who examines a photocopy of the stolen artwork. In turn, other characters describe the painting, each with their own personal interpretation. McCarthy gives an authentic portrayal of a contemporary artist, Ivan Manasek, using his traditional academic training to make a perfect copy of the stolen art treasure. And there's a painfully touching love story, too.

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (1927)
Virginia Woolf held the inside track when it came to writing about artists because her sister was the painter Vanessa Bell and both women were part of the Bloomsbury Group. At the time, Woolf was intrigued by modernist painters' experiments with form and she applied their ideas to novel-writing. To The Lighthouse is set before and after The First World War at the summer retreat of the Ramsey family in Scotland, and among the house guests is a modernist painter Lily Briscoe. Lily is struggling with a painting of Mrs Ramsey and she seems to grasp that she will only succeed when she understands her complex feelings towards Mrs Ramsey. A remark by another house guest gnaws at Lily throughout the novel: 'Women can't write, women can't paint.' Woolf's experimental novel, written in three parts, is semi-autobiographical - a meditation on her relationship with her parents and a critique of the late Victorian world.

Point Omega by Don DeLillo (2010)
This is a spare and slow-paced novel, which allows DeLillo's characters to notice everyday banalities and make close observations. This takes the reader inside the mindset behind much contemporary art making. This short novel opens in a darkened gallery at the New York's Museum of Modern Art where a man is watching Douglas Gordon's video installation 24 Hour Psycho - Hitchcock's film slowed to a running time of 24 hours. Details are revealed that are lost at normal speed - countering 'the shallow act of seeing'. And there's a great line: 'He kept feeling things whose meaning escaped him.'

The story then shifts to the California desert where wannabe filmmaker Jim Finley is trying to persuade right-wing intellectual Richard Elster to take part in an art-house movie in which he'd recount, in a single take, his experiences of working inside the Pentagon during the Iraq War. His daughter Jessie comes to stay. The novel is a reflection on the nature of time and hindsight. I won't give anything away but there's a twist, which DeLillo pulls off brilliantly. And the book ends with a scene back in the MoMA gallery.


The Birth of Venus
by Sarah Dunant (2004)
The prologue to this novel gives a graphic description of a death in a Florentine nunnery during the sixteenth century. When the nuns prepare Sister Lucrezia for burial there's a startling discovery - she has a serpent tattooed across her body. So, slim chance of a happy ending, you might think. Birth of Venus tells the story of Alessandra Cecchi the daughter of a textile merchant in sixteenth century Renaissance Florence. She's desperate to follow her passion for drawing. Her father employs a painter to create frescoes in their private chapel and Alessandra conspires to spend time with him. But she's soon married off in a marriage of convenience.

The novel is set in a time of political and religious upheaval. I can in fact vouch for the historical detail because I read, out of pure curiosity, an academic study Nuns and Nunneries in Renaissance Florence. Seriously fascinating stuff. Nunneries were economic powerhouses and many young women were forced into holy orders because of the high cost of wedding dowries. Nevertheless, nuns often enjoyed greater self-determination than they would within marriage, and several nun painters did exist - though little of their work has survived. In The Birth of Venus, Alessandra joins a nunnery and achieves her dream of painting her own frescoes.

Glover's Mistake by Nick Laird (2009)
Thwarted ambition and disappointment is the theme of this novel, which some reviewers have labelled as lad-lit. I think that's a tad harsh. David Pinner teaches English, is unlucky in love, and writes a vicious art review blog The Damp Review. He bumps into his former teacher from Goldsmiths art college, Ruth Marks, now a successful New York-based artist. She's old enough to be his mother but he becomes infatuated. She falls for his better-looking, bartender flatmate James Glover, a committed Christian. The novel gradually turns into a psychological thriller feeding off David's jealousy and bitterness towards people "To Whom Things Come Easy."

Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier (1999)
Chevalier's atmospheric novel imagines life inside the household of Dutch painter Vermeer in the 1660s. It explores the tense relationships between Vermeer, his wife, mother-in-law and servants. And it illuminates the tricky business dealings with his main patron. A maid, Griet, is allowed an important role in Vermeer's studio - mixing his paints, adjusting his compositions, and modelling for the painting Girl With A Pearl Earring.

The film of this book, starring Colin Firth and Scarlett Johansson, was so captivating that I did wonder if I needed to read the book. Heresy, I know. But I did read it and I was immediately struck by the particular delights of Chevalier's writing. In the opening pages Griet prepares vegetables in her parents' kitchen as Vermeer and his wife visit to discuss her employment. Chevalier brilliantly foreshadows the future relationship between Vermeer and Griet as he quizzes the young woman over her careful arrangement of the chopped vegetables. Clever stuff.

Life - A User's Manual by Georges Perec (1978), translated (1987) by David Bellos
I included this novel in a previous list about fractured narratives, and I feel compelled to include it here, too. The wealthy Englishman Bartlebooth lives in a Parisian apartment block and, enlisting the skills of other residents, he embarks on a truly quixotic art project, which becomes his life's work. It's surreal, conceptual, utterly pointless. But the project gives him something to do with his time and money. He takes watercolour lessons for 10 years from the elderly painter Valène before setting off around the world with his butler Smautf to make 500 paintings of seascapes and harbour scenes. Over the next 20 years, he sends these paintings back to the craftsman Gaspard Winckler who glues each painting to a poplar board, which he skillfully cuts to make a jigsaw. On his return in 1954, Bartlebooth spends the remaining years of his life making up the jigsaws. Another resident, Morellet, takes each completed jigsaw and applies a gypsum solution to fill the paper cuts and the sheet of paper is detached from the poplar. Each painting is then posted to the port where it was created where the paint is washed off and the paper returned to Bartlebooth.
Along the way, Perec tells us the life stories of other residents in the apartment block, in a social form of jigsaw, exploring their connections over the generations.


The Man in the Picture
by Susan Hill (2007)
I'm no fan of ghost stories or Gothic tales so I'll include, here, the shortest example that I've read - a novella by Susan Hill. The story begins in the college rooms of an elderly Cambridge don, Theo, who is visited by a former student. It's a wintry night and Theo asks Oliver if he could tell him a story as they huddle round the fireside. According to Theo it's 'the right sort of tale for such a night'. So, we know already it's going to be a chiller. He tells his former student about a small painting hanging on his wall - a Venetian carnival scene with a disturbing figure staring out of the picture. By agreeing to listen to the tale, Oliver unwittingly takes 'a share of the load'. To use the online soft-sell, if you like this one you'll also like Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Theft: A Love Story by Peter Carey (2006)
Peter Carey delves into the murky world of art authentication committees telling a believable tale of corruption among commercial art dealers. He brings together three strong characters: Australian expressionistic painter Michael, struggling to find recognition outside his home country; Hugh, his brother who has learning difficulties; and Marlene who is ruthless in wielding her power to authenticate paintings by the deceased artist Jacques Leibovitz. Michael is a rather outmoded artist - tortured genius working on immense, heavily daubed canvases. A bit of conceptual cool is creeping in - he's adding text to his latest works. Carey writes scenes from the points of view of both Michael and Hugh, and there's plenty humour with Hugh frequently puncturing his brother's world view.