Monday, March 16, 2009

It wasn't always the City of Lights

Pictures at an Exhibition
by Sara Houghteling

Pictures at an Exhibition is the story of the Berenzon family, as told through the eyes of son Max. Max's father Daniel is one of the premiere art dealers in Paris. He sells the works of their next-door neighbor, Pablo Picasso, and has an exclusive contract with Henri Matisse. Works by Sisley, Degas, Lautrec, Manet, and too many others to name pass through the Berenzon Gallery. They are a wealthy and respected family. And while they're not religious in the least, like many of the art dealers of the time, they are Jewish.

Max was raised surrounded by great works of art. Every evening, his father would drill him on memorizing each work from exhibitions of the past. Max has always assumed that he would one day inherit the gallery. However, when Max is a teenager, Daniel informs him that he can't "with good conscience" pass the gallery down to him. Daniel doesn't believe Max has the right abilities and temperament to fill the role. It would be an understatement to say that Max has some "daddy issues."

So, as the story gets going in 1939, nineteen-year-old Max is studying to be a doctor. His father has just taken on the latest in a series of apprentices. Max typically resents these interlopers, but Rose Clément is different. She is beautiful, independent, awe-inspiring. It is love at first sight. It's not long before a relationship of sorts begins between Max and Rose. But no matter how many ways Max shows his love for her, Rose clings to her independence. Their romance, the business of the gallery, and everything else are put on hold with the outbreak of the war.

Rose is working furiously with the staff at the Louvre to safeguard the artworks. Daniel puts 250 of his most valuable paintings in the vault at the Chase Bank. More are hidden in a secret basement room in the gallery. Max and his parents flee the city and hide in the countryside. They stay away from Paris for several years, and we don't see them again until their return in 1944. Someone else is living in their house. The gallery is a wreck, and all the artwork has been found and stolen. Likewise, the art that was in Chase Bank is gone. Despite the fact that both Max and Daniel were born in France, they have been stripped of their citizenship. They have few rights, and almost no recourse for the injustices that have befallen their family. Their wealth is gone. Everything they had is gone.

Daniel decides to cut his losses and return to his wife in the country. Max, perhaps in an attempt to finally win his father's respect, stays in a wholly changed Paris to seek out their artwork through channels of varying legitimacy. It is Max's quest to find Rose, the art, and most of all himself that encompass the latter two thirds of the novel. It shouldn't come as a shock to any reader that it's a sad and difficult story.

I had a really conflicted response to this novel. In part, I'm sure, it was because of my own Jewish heritage. I'm no more religious than the characters in this book, but seriously, has anyone ever written a novel where the Jews lived happily ever after? It just gets depressing after a while. So, it would be accurate to say I had an emotional response to the book.

Intellectually, I loved every bit of this novel that was about the art. Whether it was ruminations on the works themselves, gossip about the artists, or details of how the French protected their treasures, I thought it was absolutely fascinating. Houghteling did a great job of providing an insiders view of a fascinating time in the art world.

I had a more difficult time relating to the main characters. At one point, Max says to Rose, "I couldn't understand you less." Bravo, Max, I thought. I shared his sentiment. But the truth is, I had a difficult time with Max, too. I don't think they were badly-drawn or unrealistic characters, just people that I had little in common with or understanding of. It made it a bit difficult to care that much about them or root for their romance.

There's an interesting author's note at the end of this novel. I was truly surprised by how much of the book came straight from the historical research. That went a ways towards explaining why parts of the novel were bogged down in details. All and all, even thought I wasn't fully invested in the character's stories, I was interested in learning about the time and place in which they lived. I'd recommend Pictures at an Exhibition for readers interested in art, history, or Jewish literature.

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