Degenerate art

A fictional account touches on a real wartime issue

Fugitive Colors by Lisa Barr (photo credit:  Arcade Publishing)
Fugitive Colors by Lisa Barr
(photo credit: Arcade Publishing)
Lisa Barr chose a timely topic for her debut novel: the Nazis’ seizure of thousands of Expressionist and other Modernist European artworks deemed “degenerate” due to their Jewish origin or “un-German” subject matter.
Legal battles by original owners to retrieve valuable – sometimes masterpiece – paintings still rage today, capturing international headlines and spawning non-fiction works such as Anne-Marie O’Connor’s The Lady in Gold: The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt’s Masterpiece, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer.
A former editor of The Jerusalem Post’s In Jerusalem supplement, Barr approaches the subject from a fictional perspective, conjuring a foursome of promising painters who meet in their youth in 1930s Paris. Three are Jewish, the other a blueblood German and not nearly as talented as his friends. Add in their stunningly beautiful, promiscuous studio model, Charlotte, and you have more than enough fodder for a fast-paced story fueled by personal and professional jealousy.
The main character is Julian (Yakov) Klein, who is introduced in the prologue as a sort of My Name Is Asher Lev character. Growing up in a strictly Orthodox family in 1920s Chicago, his innate artistic drive is stifled by his parents, stereotypically depicted as a mousy mother and rigid father. The boy’s only outlets are stealing art books from the public library and drawing in secret. When finally he runs away to Paris, he happens on the trio of painters at a café, and his fortunes become entwined with theirs – tragically, as it turns out.
Against their better judgment, Julian and his friend Rene Levy follow their German friend Felix to Berlin, enticed by the promise of studying under the great Expressionist Ernst Engel. Engel recruits Julian to spy on Felix, who is now collaborating with his powerful Nazi father.
Engel’s desperate goal is saving some of the targeted artworks from confiscation, and their creators from arrest or worse.
“Who the hell am I to save Germany’s artists?” Julian thinks to himself. “And yet, Engel, the artist, had showed him how to paint, how to see and feel color, how to believe he could somehow make a difference.
Julian, the Jew who gave up his religion for art, was now being chosen for something bigger.”
Yet Julian, for the most part, does not have the right stuff. He not only fails to prevent death and destruction, but unwittingly catalyzes some of it. And he experiences his own horrors, including imprisonment in Sachsenhausen and Dachau.
Barr’s page-turning plotline includes the elements of a gripping story: rivalry, hate, jealousy, lust, ambition, intrigue, disloyalty and true friendship, set in a tense, cruel historical time period. The book adds a personal, behind-the-scenes flavor to a wartime episode that continues to have contemporary relevance.
However, one troubling aspect of this story is its unrelenting hard edge. The harsh depictions of violence and tragedy, though understandably central to a realistic depiction of events, lack any tempering streaks of tenderness. The characters may evoke sympathy, but I did not find any one of them truly likable. Julian can be admired for demonstrating extraordinary bravery and loyalty, but he is no hero.
Barr was wise to inject an American into the plot, much in the way that Leon Uris’s inclusion of nurse Kitty Fremont helped make Exodus so accessible to American readers. But he is not as successful a character, and some of his dialogue even has an anachronistic feel.
I have not read the few previous novels woven around Nazi persecution of painters (such as With a Gemlike Flame: A Novel of Venice and a Lost Masterpiece by David Adams Cleveland), so I cannot compare Barr’s treatment to theirs.
It is important to mention that the very genre of Holocaust fiction is a matter for debate. On the one hand, why make up tales when so many true accounts are yet to be told? Why play into the hands of Holocaust- deniers who would have the world believe the whole thing was fiction? On the other hand, historical fiction allows for a penetrating and fuller look at individuals’ motives, feelings and reactions from a third-person point of view. The ability to imagine dialogue and other details can make for a more absorbing story.
Leaving that debate aside, Fugitive Colors is commendable for shedding a dramatic light on a terrifying facet of Nazi ideology.
Some enthusiastic reviewers have been predicting a motion-picture version. In fact, Barr won first prize from the Hollywood Film Festival in the category of best unpublished manuscript.
Given the obviously visual nature of the story, I can certainly see a successful translation of this book to the silver screen. A movie has the potential to spread awareness about the Nazi war on “degenerate art” much more broadly than a book could ever do. And if an actor such as, for example, Daniel Radcliffe or Shia LaBeouf were to play the lead, perhaps Julian might achieve star quality