Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Pictures at an Exhibition

48. Pictures at an Exhibition, by Sara Houghteling

What is the loss of art, compared to the murder of millions of human beings? Perhaps little. Yet art is part of what makes us human, and the destruction and theft of art because of its associations with people of a particular ethnicity is soul murder.

During World War II, the Germans looted the great museums and the great private collections of Europe. Much of this loot has never been recovered, and, even where it has, much of it has not or cannot be restituted, because of lack of records, resistance from its current "owners" or because there are no survivors left to reclaim it.

This is the historical backdrop for Sara Houghteling's beautiful first novel.

Max Berenzon (a nod, perhaps, in the direction of Bernard B?) is the son of a Parisian art dealer and his concert pianist wife. Though his father, Daniel, spends hours with him, getting him to memorize the paintings in his exhibitions, Max is not encouraged to enter the business, but rather is urged to go to medical school. Daniel instead hires as assistants young curators from the Louvre, with one of whom, Rose Clément, Max will fall in love. Despite that time spent together, there is no real closeness between Max and his father, and his one attempt at sharing in the business ends in disaster, as he bids on a Manet that turns out to be a forgery. Then the war closes in and the Berenzons flee to the town of Le Puy, and hide in the home of a gentile.

The Germans are routed from Paris. It is August, 1944, and the Berenzons return to their home to find thee had been a fire, and that the paintings in the gallery vault have disappeard. They will learn that many more entrusted to a bank vault are also gone. Max begins his attempts to find and recover his father's collection. In the process, he learns family secrets that go a long way to explaining that lack of closeness, that lack of encouragement, that he experienced.

The first, pre-war, part of this novel describes a Paris under the cloud of the coming war. The warnings are there, observed. Some heed the warnings, others, like Max's friend Bertrand's family, cannot believe that the service and sacrifice they have given France will not protect them.

The second part I found even more compelling, as Max learns the extent of the losses. These are not merely losses of art, but losses of trust, learning of how other dealers have turned a blind eye to the sources of what is now hanging on their walls. But there is honor and bravery, too. Believed by some to be a collaborator, Rose (whose character is based on a real person, Rose Valland) has, in fact, spent the war protecting art, letting the Resistance know the trains on which it is being spirited out, so they will not be bombed, secretly documenting what art the Germans have taken. She is living now with her piles of paper, knowing they will be needed.

Art is important. Its loss, particularly under these circumstances, is a tragedy. But Houghteling does not let us forget the greater loss, the loss of life under circumstances which are almost unimaginable. While Max searches for the lost paintings, he is also searching for news of his friend, Bertrand, and is taken under the wing of a survivor of the camps, who wonders when he will learn the news of his wife and son. There is a particularly compelling passage in which Max's wartime experience at LePuy is contrasted with that of Chaim Tenenwurzeil:

"It was at Auschwitz that [Chaim] learned of the German surrender at Stalingrad, thus locating his arrival there in February of 1943.

"That same winter, I was in Le Puy, where the stark, bare tree branches were like Chinese calligraphy against the sky. After a storm, Monsieur Bickart enlisted me to shake the snow from their boughs so they would not be damaged . . .

"The winter Chaim was first interned, Mother embroidered handkerchiefs for us all and gave them out on Christmas morning, out of respect for our host. We drank a fierce hot cider, then Father and Mother played belote while Monsieur Bickart stirred the fire, lost in thought, with the flush of the fire and the cider in his cheeks."

Suffering is relative.

This is a stunning debut novel, well-researched, with characters who are psychologically believeable. The portraits Houghteling draws of Paris in the days before and after the fall of Paris have the absolute ring of truth.

(If you know the whereabouts of art stolen in the war, or if you or your family had art stolen from you, there are resources available to seek restitution:
A resource list
B'nai B'rith Klutznick National Jewish Museum Holocaust Art Resource List.)

Never forget.


  1. I definitely have to get this book. It sounds great. I have recently joined an art history reads challenge, so this may work for that too.

  2. Along similar lines is The Lost Chalice, which I reviewed here.

    By the way, I meant to comment yesterday to thank you for nominating me for the Kreativ Blogger Award. That was a nice surprise to find in my inbox!

  3. That sounds like a wonderful book!