Monday, March 21, 2011

THE SALON by Nick Bertozzi

the salon cover

Georges Braque is a typical starving artist in Paris, hoping to invent a new style of painting. After courting the favor of important avant-garde art collectors Gertrude and Leo Stein, he becomes embroiled in the salon--a group of the Stein's friends (including Pablo Picasso, Guillaume Apollinaire, Erik Satie, and Alice B. Toklas) who drink a special blue absinthe that allows them to enter paintings. Unfortunately, Gauguin's former mistress, Anna, has figured out a way to live in the paintings permanently, which has given her super-human strength; and now she's taking bloody revenge on the artists for being objectified, by ripping their heads off. Leo and Gertrude are certain they'll be next.

sample page

A part of me really loved this graphic novel--and yes, it was the art historian part. As soon as I saw Memory's review of it on Stella Matutina, I knew I had to read it. A good portion of my master's thesis involved the avant-garde in early twentieth-century Paris, including Apollinaire and Picasso, so it was soooo totally up my alley. That being said, the part of me that reads for pure entertainment value was disappointed. The only character with any personality in this novel was Picasso, and his motivations were pretty basic: food and sex. Everyone else seemed fairly interchangeable. The book feels edited down to the point of near-incomprehensibility, but at the same time it takes a looong time to read. The ending was kind of lame, and I didn't feel like I learned much of anything about this time period or the avant-garde.

But like I said, as a person who knows way too much about this shit, I did enjoy it. My favorite part of the novel was, surprisingly, Picasso. As some of you may know, I'm not a fan of Picasso. I think he's an overrated hack, in all honesty, so any book that presents Picasso as a lewd and unoriginal "little man" who fucks chickens (all true--okay, maybe the chicken part isn't) gets my vote. I actually warmed up to Picasso a bit while reading The Salon, just because he was so stupid. I also loved clever Apollinaire, even though he didn't get a lot of scenes, as a dashing bi-sexual playa playa.

Leo and Gertrude's storyline, on the other hand, seemed to go nowhere; nor was Georges Braque very interesting. This is unfortunate, since Braque's the hero of the story and the Steins are the main connection to Anna, the murderous blue woman.

gauguin's spirit of the dead watching
Paul Gauguin. Spirit of the Dead Watching, 1892.

Anna, meanwhile, was very interesting. In the graphic novel, Anna is the girl seen in paintings such Spirit of the Dead Watching--in real life, Gauguin's fourteen-year-old Tahitian wife, Tehura. In The Salon, he takes her to Paris, where they both become addicted to the blue absinthe that allows them to enter paintings. Anna starts to whore herself out for money to buy more of it. She becomes ill with a European disease (let's face it, probably syphilis) and dies, but Gauguin paints new bodies for them and they both become blue people living inside a paradise he painted. Only, Anna now hunts the streets of Paris, tearing the heads off of Gauguin's artist friends and collectors of his work.

This is why I say Anna is taking revenge for her objectification--Gauguin has taken away her humanity, literally regulated her to the status of a painted, sexual object forever. But not powerless--she takes control of Gauguin's blue image, trapping him inside his own painting, and kills those who would presume to possess her (interesting side note: the "spirit of the dead" that Gauguin referred to in the painting of Tehura was occasionally described as a blue spirit with sharp fangs). In that context, I found the conclusion of this sub-plot and how the salon winds up putting an end to Anna particularly interesting.

How does this all tie into Braque and Picasso and the invention of Cubism? It's not made explicit in the novel, but I think the move to non-representational art in the story is connected to Anna, in that little pieces of inanimate objects cannot come out of their paintings to attack you, as apparently Tahitian women can. Cubism is hailed in the novel as a new way of seeing whole objects in two-dimensional space, but it's also a safer representational method for the characters in the book--and crueler for their subjects. Picasso takes Gauguin's objectification of Anna to a new level and fucks her into oblivion until she's nothing more than disorganized facial features, an object unable to bite back, finally and truly relegated to two-dimensional space.

As for the art of the graphic novel itself, the panels mostly have two colors, and the change in them are used to signal different storylines. The colors are kind of garish, but it fits into the style of painting that was going on at the time (as you can see in Spirit of the Dead Watching, above). There are also some very elegant and well-done visual quotations from other famous paintings that made me smile, but didn't really play any significant role in the plot. If I were to be honest, I found myself missing the manga style of illustration, but c'est la vie.

The Salon has a lot of great ideas and is definitely worth checking out if you're interested in this time period. I do wish, however, that the characters were more fully realized and that the narrative flowed more smoothly. It has the feeling of an artistic vision that was restrained; I don't know if that's true or not, but I do have affection for this graphic novel and definitely appreciate what Nick Bertozzi was trying to create.

Musical Notes: Kathleen Edwards, "I Make the Dough, You Get the Glory"


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