Thursday, November 23, 2017
Books

Review: Shapiro's 'The Muralist' combines art, history in a bold portrait

RECOMMENDED READING


When you look at the chaotic drips of a Jackson Pollock painting or the intense fields of pure color of a Mark Rothko canvas, your first thought might not be that both grew out of a government program.

In the 1930s, in the depths of the Great Depression, the Federal Art Project, an arm of the Works Progress Administration, commissioned some 10,000 artists all over the nation to teach, research and create art.

In her new historical novel, The Muralist, B.A. Shapiro imagines a story based amid the birth of abstract expressionism, America's first original style of art, and the real-life friendships of some of the young artists who worked on FAP projects in New York City in the late 1930s and early '40s. Not yet famous but bursting with talent and ambition, Willem de Kooning, Lee Krasner, Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko were all there in those years.

Shapiro links them all with a fictional artist, Alizée Benoit, who is the main character of The Muralist. The book alternates between two time periods: Alizée's life in New York in 1939-40, and the present day, when her great-niece, an art researcher named Danielle Abrams, embarks on a quest to discover what happened to her mysterious ancestor.

According to family lore and two paintings that seem to be all that is left of her work, Alizée was a brilliant, innovative young painter and an influence on her later-famous friends — but she disappeared without a trace in 1940, and her work has been forgotten.

Danielle, who works for Christie's auction house, accidentally discovers pieces of canvas, apparently cut from a larger painting, hidden on the backs of newly-found works that may be by Krasner, Pollock and Rothko. She sees a similarity to her great-aunt's surviving work and is determined to track down the truth about the woman who was "the reason I studied art in the first place."

In the chapters that tell Alizée's story, we learn that she had plenty of secrets. Born in the United States to French Jewish parents, Alizée was sent back to France along with her brother, Henrí, after their parents died in a horrific accident, to be raised by their uncle and aunt.

Alizée returned to the United States to pursue her art career, but in 1939 the rest of her family is still in France and becoming ever more fearful under the shadow of Germany's growing power under Hitler. Alizée swings from the euphoria of discovering her artistic powers (and carrying on an affair with Rothko) to the distress she feels as her aunt, brother and cousin send her increasingly desperate letters imploring her to help them get visas to join her in the United States. Living hand to mouth on her FAP stipend, Alizée struggles to figure out some way to rescue them.

And then Eleanor Roosevelt shows up at the warehouse where Alizée, Krasner and other artists are working on a mural project. A serendipitous meeting between the first lady and Alizée will set in motion a series of events that link art, politics, American isolationism and Alizée's increasingly fragile mental state.

Shapiro, whose last novel was The Art Forger, has written about artists before, and she grounds this story in the biographies of the leading abstract expressionists and the history of that movement. Most vivid among those characters are Krasner, who is Alizée's close and supportive friend and a strong female counterpart to the boys' club around them, and Rothko, whose own struggles with severe depression make him sympathetic to Alizée's emotional turmoil.

Shapiro also weaves into her story some of the more shameful aspects of U.S. history in the years just before the nation entered World War II, including the anti-Semitic activities of Assistant Secretary of State Breckenridge Long, who blocked as many as 190,000 visas for Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis, and the tragic story of the SS St. Louis, a ship bearing more than 900 German Jews, who were refused entrance to Cuba and the United States and forced to return to Europe, where many died in Nazi concentration camps.

Even Alizée's artist friends reflect the intense isolationism common among Americans in those years before Pearl Harbor; indeed, the abstract expressionists take it a step further in their rejection of political content in art. When Alizée and Rothko go to see Picasso's great antiwar painting Guernica, Rothko says, "It's good, I'll give him that. ... But propaganda has no place in art."

Shapiro keeps her story moving at a brisk pace as she cuts back and forth between Alizée's life and Danielle's reconstruction of it. It's a portrait in bold strokes, and one well worth experiencing.

Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

     
Comments
When to watch ‘Rudolph,’ ‘The Polar Express,’ ‘A Christmas Story Live’ and more holiday specials

When to watch ‘Rudolph,’ ‘The Polar Express,’ ‘A Christmas Story Live’ and more holiday specials

'Tis the season for a TV schedule packed with holiday specials and Christmas classics.We've already been seeing Christmas movies and commercials since early November, but the days following Thanksgiving are when all the networks kick into high gear.F...
Published: 11/22/17
How ‘A Christmas Carol’ was born

How ‘A Christmas Carol’ was born

Charles Dickens’ best-known and most beloved book almost didn’t happen. In 1843, Dickens, then 31, was already dealing with the downside of international success. He had followed bestsellers like Oliver Twist with several flops and was s...
Published: 11/22/17
What to watch this week: ‘Marvel’s Runaways,’ ‘Godless,’ Thanksgiving specials

What to watch this week: ‘Marvel’s Runaways,’ ‘Godless,’ Thanksgiving specials

MondayDavid Letterman: The Mark Twain Prize, 9 p.m., PBS: A special celebrating the work of Late Night and The Late Show host David Letterman.SERIES PREMIERE: Big Hero 6 the Series, 8 p.m., Disney Channel: The new animated series takes place after th...
Published: 11/20/17
Video: Forget Pizza Rat. Meet St. Petersburg’s Pizza Squirrel

Video: Forget Pizza Rat. Meet St. Petersburg’s Pizza Squirrel

New York, it seems, doesn't have a monopoly on pizza-chomping rodents.Around 2:45 p.m. Friday, the Tampa Bay Times spotted a squirrel digging a nearly entire slice of pizza out of a trash can at 146 Second St. N in St. Petersburg. The squirrel hoppe...
Published: 11/17/17
Here are this week’s pop culture winners and losers

Here are this week’s pop culture winners and losers

WINNERS:Taylor SwiftFollowing the death of his mother, Gloria, The Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon shared a touching story with the audience about his mom squeezing his hand three times and saying "I love you," when he was a kid. "Last week, I was in ...
Published: 11/17/17
Review: ‘Marvel’s Runaways’ pits rebellious teens against their evil parents

Review: ‘Marvel’s Runaways’ pits rebellious teens against their evil parents

The parents in Runaways really are the worst.Hulu's new Marvel series follows a ragtag group of teenagers who have to band together to defeat their own parents, who are collective members of a secret criminal organization called the Pride.In the wake...
Published: 11/17/17
What to watch this weekend: ‘The Punisher,’ ‘Search Party,’ Elizabeth Smart Lifetime movie

What to watch this weekend: ‘The Punisher,’ ‘Search Party,’ Elizabeth Smart Lifetime movie

GRIEF AND GUNS: THE PUNISHERMarvel fans first saw Marine veteran Frank Castle (Jon Bernthal) in Netflix's Daredevil series. The brutish anti-hero finally gets his own series with The Punisher, exploring what he did after helping Daredevil (Charlie Co...
Published: 11/17/17
Review: George Saunders’ ‘Sea Oak’ makes a dead-funny TV comedy

Review: George Saunders’ ‘Sea Oak’ makes a dead-funny TV comedy

Recently, George Saunders won the Man Booker Prize, one of the world’s most prestigious literary awards.And now he has a TV show about zombies!Saunders, one of America’s best writers of fiction, won the 2017 Booker for his splendid novel Lincoln in t...
Published: 11/16/17
Updated: 11/22/17
Jesmyn Ward wins National Book Award for ‘Sing, Unburied, Sing’

Jesmyn Ward wins National Book Award for ‘Sing, Unburied, Sing’

Jesmyn Ward is having a good year.At a glamorous ceremony Wednesday night in New York, Ward was named the winner of the 2017 National Book Award for Sing, Unburied, Sing, about a Mississippi family's epic road trip. The book is Ward's third novel ...
Published: 11/16/17

Events: Tampa historians to sign books at hurricane relief benefit

Book TalkNancy Christie (Rut-Busting Book for Writers) will sign her book at 11 a.m. Nov. 20 at 321 Books, 6901 22nd Ave. N, St. Petersburg.John Cinchett (Vintage Tampa Storefronts and Scenes), Rex Gordon (History of Hillsborough High School), Linda ...
Published: 11/16/17