“Elle par bonheur et toujours nue” par Guy Goffette – in painting when many small lies make a great truth

With a quirky title perhaps including a pun on “bonheur” and “Bonnard”, these linked short stories form a poetical, fragmented fictionalised biography of the post-Impressionist painter who made a lifelong companion of Marthe, the young woman who captivated him in a chance encounter on a Pairs street, and provided the model for hundreds of paintings and sketches of her, often in the bath, dressing or relaxing on the bed, but “toujours nue” (“Forever Nude” in the English translation).

We learn that Marthe was really Marie, a poor farmer’s daughter who adopted a false name including an aristocratic “de” when she escaped to Paris to make her fortune. Bonnard did not discover this until he came to marry her more than thirty years later. He had his own share of secrets, in particular his liaison with a vivacious young blonde, Renée Monchaty, a marked contrast to the apparently more passive Marthe, increasingly shrewish and sickly as she aged. Renée’s suicide, perhaps sparked by his marriage, shocked Bonnard to the core. All this could have been worked into a dramatic novel, together with Bonnard’s legal problems after Marthe’s death, which led eventually to a change in the law guaranteeing an artist’s rights of full ownership to his or her entire body of work. However, Goffette is much more interested in writing about Bonnard’s art as a form of visual poetry, using colour in place of words, and in portraying the artist as a man who shunned “la gloire imbécile”, wishing only to paint what he pleased, when and how he wanted.

At first, I found the style overblown as in the opening chapter, where Goffette describes entering a gallery hot and flustered, only to be refreshed by encountering a painting of the toujours nue Marthe spraying herself with eau de Cologne. Written from a male viewpoint, the lengthy sensual, even erotic description of Marthe made me uneasy. It seemed voyeuristic and sexist, akin to a man assuming the right to impose himself on a pretty stranger who has caught his eye in the street.
However, gradually, the writer won me over, mainly in helping me to view Bonnard’s paintings with new eyes. This was only possible since I had access to a computer and was able to find images of most of the paintings he describes. It would actually be a better book with photographs of these works included.

Goffette showed me how the use of a black blind, cutting off my view “comme une guillotine”, made it fall “brutalement” to a sleeping Marthe and cat: in fact, it drew my attention to the view outside the window, another theme Bonnard loved to explore. I was also struck by the vivid colours in his last painting, an almond tree in blossom. On his death bed, with his nephew’s help, he still felt the urge to change a patch of ground from green to bright yellow.

Although the flowery style is not to my taste, there are a number of telling insights, and I have also discovered a large number of paintings by Bonnard which I like, and am now able to appreciate why he was and is so highly regarded as a painter, if not by Picasso.


In a time of monsters – Travels through a Middle East in Revolt by Emma Sky

Encouraged to read this by Emma Sky’s sharp analysis in BBC radio interviews of the unintended consequences of the Iraq War, I realised too late that to find out more about her role as political advisor to the American commander General Ray Odierno in its aftermath, enabling her to give damning evidence at the Chilcot Enquiry, I should have started with her book “The Unravelling”.

“In a Time of Monsters” proves as is often the case with travel books to be very anecdotal and episodic, often revealing some telling insights through a chance encounter, but also frustrating, even confusing at times, in what it omits or glosses over. The background history of the Shias versus Sunni is a little too fragmented, while the explanation of the Caliphates from the death of Mohammed up to the recent attempts of Daesh to create a single Islamic state probably comes too late in the book, some two-thirds of the way through.

“Bored, bitter and twisted”, with an acute sense of anticlimax and loss of purpose after her return to London in 2010, perhaps even a little traumatised by her experience in Iraq as she suggests most westerners are, she resolves to make sense of events by visiting countries affected by the Arab Spring: Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Iraq, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kurdistan and so on.

Making use of what seems like an inexhaustible network of obliging high level political contacts prepared to engage in boozy debates, Emma Sky has no difficulty in striking up conversations with strangers prepared to chat at length . Perhaps her childhood as the matron’s daughter at a boys’ boarding school gave her the confidence to act with such ease in “a man’s world” and also to embark on risky, physically tough journeys, solo or with a male guide for the reward of seeing beautiful, remote areas, like the mountains of Kyrgyzstan. Skimming along the river on a jet ski, white-water rafting, swimming into caves to scale waterfalls: sometimes, the socialising and exciting activities, seem too much of a digression from the lives of ordinary Arabs.

It is no surprise that Emma Sky criticises the US for allowing Daesh (or ISIS) to gain a foothold in Iraq in the anger over government corruption and discrimination against Sunnis following the fall of Saddam Hussein. She also condemns the failure to take early action against Assad in Syria to force him to negotiate. It is perhaps more of a surprise that she is so harsh on Obama, described as “leading from behind” and being too passive. However, she does not really provide convincing evidence that continued use of direct force by the West would have yielded the desired results without unacceptable levels of bloodshed, not to mention resentment over apparent attempts to dominate . She is also very critical of Iran as a somewhat malign and destabilising force, reaching tentacles even to the borders of Israel, but was perhaps unable to make the visit to the country which would assist a clear and more objective analysis.

There is a logical progression, in that, being in date order, the visits reflect the passage of events, so that by 2014 Emma Sky is at the refugee camp of Zaatari, close to the border in Jordan, which has become the fourth largest city in the country owing to the flood of refugees from Syria. By 2016 she is in Greece and Eastern Europe tracing the destabilising pressure of Arab refugees pushed out by the devastation in parts of the Middle East. She even visits London to suggest, perhaps too simplistically, that the Brexit vote itself was largely the result of concerns over migration triggered partly by the instability of the Middle East.

The Epilogue finds her on the pilgrim trail to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, a time of acceptance of her past naïve over-optimism, but clinging to the belief that “this is not a time for cynicism or despair” in the hope that her students will manage to leave the world a better place than they found it.

“The improbability of love” by Hannah Rothschild – pas pour “Moi”

Whereas the prologue to a novel is usually a short, sharp dramatic incident to “hook” the reader,  this starts with an indigestible litany of the caricatured stereotypes of super-rich clients converging on the Monachorum auction house, and the staff baited to lure them into bidding up the price of “The Improbability of Love”,  a painting hyped as likely to sell for a record sum. The storyline then switches back six months to the lovelorn Annie buying the painting for only £75 on an impulse, thus rescuing the masterpiece in its neglected and unrecognised state from half a century spent in a rundown antique shop.

The author is undeniably articulate with a vivid imagination,  her professional knowledge of how paintings may be cleaned, dated, attributed and interpreted is quite interesting, and the book seems to have delighted many reviewers, but I found it almost unreadable, a frothy confection with a hollow centre.

Part farce, part Mills and Boon romance, past crime thriller, it falls short for me by reason of its ramshackle plot, with implausible twists and many niggling inconsistencies in the basic telling. It is too long, by reason of the continual wordy digressions. Even the painting, which adopts the irritating habit of addressing us, has to remind us in a gimmicky seven line Chapter 11: “Hello. I am still here…….Moi”. Arch and snobbish after spending centuries in gilded salons, it cannot identify modern cars by name but has somehow acquired some knowledge of modern life despite being stuck in a shop for fifty years.  I would rather have had a thread about the painter’s creator Antoine Watteau running through the book.

Was this written as a ludicrous parody of the art world to amuse friends “in the know”?  I was struck by the chapter which, instead of creating an exaggerated stereotype, dissects a real-life artist in the form of Damien Hirst.  When boorish exiled Russian oligarch Vlad visits the Tate Modern retrospective, he encounters sharks in formaldehyde in glass tanks, rooms full of medical equipment and a piece made of dead flies and diamonds. “Suddenly he got Hirst: the man was a brilliant comedian making a joke out of life and the art world and all those who took it seriously……you can encase anything, add jewels and precious metals, but it’s still the same old s***.”  (This is a quotation from th book). Presumably, Hirst is happy about this representation, as a form of free  publicity.

In contrast to the turgid detail of earlier chapters, the ending feels quite condensed and rushed, as if the author has bored herself and grown anxious to finish it.

Truth seems stranger and more entertaining than fiction, also provoking a real debate over the value we put on works of art.

A recent example is the purchase at the record price of $450.3 million dollars of  the long lost “Salvator Mundi” which may well be, though possibly only in part, the work of Leonardo da Vinci but claimed to have been so heavily restored that the Louvre Abu Dhabi postponed its initial plan to display it.

I am also  reminded of the excellent and highly recommended “The Vanishing Man: In Pursuit of Velazquez” by Laura Cumming,  who  demonstrates some of the problems of attributing paintings correctly to their creators. It is also disturbing to read about the dealer who, having cleaned up a “Velasquez” to make it more attractive to a buyer, had it darkened and aged to fetch a better price.