Still life after the Shoah

Implicitly, the author asks whether art maintains any meaning after the slaughter of the six million.

art exhibition book 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
art exhibition book 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Pictures at an Exhibition By Sara Houghteling Alfred A. Knopf 243 pp. $24.95 Nazi theft of priceless artwork from Jewish collectors surely ranks among history's greatest pillages. In France alone, more than one-third of all private artwork, or more than 100,000 paintings - works by many of the giants of Impressionism and early modern art - fell into Nazi hands, often with the help of French collaborators. Clearly, the odysseys of many of these works, and that of their former owners, are important aspects of both the history of modern art as well as the Shoah. But does one man's hopeless search for his family's stolen treasures, where along the way he learns the full truth of what happened to those sent east, make for good fiction? First-time author Sara Houghteling - a Harvard graduate and Fulbright scholarship recipient - makes a valiant attempt in Pictures at an Exhibition by painting vivid portraits of Paris immediately before the war, and its surreal state after the liberation in 1944. The author raises many profound questions: To what extent do objects and belongings comprise personal identity, and does the plight of a family that's lost everything they have matter in the wake of the Holocaust? Implicitly, it also asks whether art maintains any meaning after the slaughter of the six million, or if there is still a purpose in creating beauty in such a world? However, the problem with the book is that the city's streets, galleries and auction houses are rendered far more fully than the human characters that inhabit these pages and struggle to find their way in a world figuratively turned upside down. The novel begins in Paris in 1939 and is narrated by Max Berezon, the 19-year-old scion of one of France's most celebrated art dealers and an accomplished pianist originally from Poland. The title refers to the orchestral suite of the same name by Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky, which offers the listener a tour of a St. Petersburg art collection and represents a true marriage of visual arts and classical music. We're told early on that Max's father, Daniel, regularly sells the work of Matisse and Picasso, and has a close relationship with each. Max wishes to follow in his father's footsteps, but unlike, say Chaim Potok's My Name Is Asher Lev, where the father tries to prevent his gifted son from pursing art, here the father refuses to allow his son to become an apprentice. Instead, he sends him off to medical school, an endeavor for which he apparently has almost no interest, and makes only sporadic appearances. Instead, he spends much of his energy pining for and courting his father's newest apprentice, Rose Clement. Houghteling reveals in her author's note that the unattainable love interest is modeled after Rose Valland (1898-1980), a French art historian who covertly chronicled Nazi theft of artwork from national and private collections. Yet, despite his yearnings, their relationship develops into a kind of brotherly-sisterly affair and takes a back seat to the novelist's interest in her protagonist's struggles with his father. The reader is told little of the three years that the Berezon family is forced to hide in a basement in the south of France, imbuing the experience with an unspeakable aura, one that the conscious mind largely avoids. After returning to Paris, Max wonders if he "had not, in fact, come home at all, but was instead a ghost." Still, how can one feel immersed in the narrator's consciousness if there are so few references to this ordeal? When the narrator and his father return to Paris - Max's mother Eva essentially never reappears - of course everything the family had is gone. Daniel is seemingly resigned to loss and the once overbearing art dealer tells his son, with a surprising degree of self-introspection, that "this is why we fare poorly when we affix ourselves to objects. They lead to longing and speculation." Max, though, who had always been trying to prove his worth to his father, disagrees, leaves his father, and sets out on a Kafkaesque quest to find lost treasures, especially his father's favorite Edouard Manet still life, Almonds. This search through the topsy-turvy world of Paris in 1944 and 1945 leads him back to Clement, who still rejects his advances but not his friendship, and also results in his discovery of a long-held family secret that is supposed to explain his troubled relationship with father. It doesn't. The narrator's parents come off as almost as photographic negatives, shadowy impressions and not fully formed characters with a life of their own. The characters more skillfully rendered end up playing minor roles, including a childhood friend who's also the progeny of art dealer royalty and a religious Jew named Chaim who takes Max in as a boarder when he seemingly has nowhere else to go. Unlike so many authors today, who devote most of their energies to prose pyrotechnics, Houghteling actually has a story to tell, and a compelling and important one at that, and she does so skillfully, even if the first-person narrator's voice at time comes across as stilted. But its biggest weakness is that many of the characters fail to make a strong imprint. That ultimately prevents the novel from eliciting its intended effect: to haunt the reader long after it's put down. The writer is on the staff of the Jewish Exponent, a weekly newspaper in Philadelphia.