“The Swan Thieves” by Elizabeth Kostova

This book took me what seemed like forever to finish. I’m still hesitant on my verdict though. It’s one of those books you can’t decide whether it was a decent one or a mediocre one. On the one hand, there’s nothing you particularly hated, but on the other, there’s nothing you particularly liked either. But just because it has had so many accolades, and the author’s previous book seems to have made decent success, you guess that it has to be a decent one.

Nevertheless, I still think it was 500 pages too long, considering the last 60 or so pages were sufficient to keep me alert. While the descriptions transcending time, of Robert’s artistic talent in the present day, and of Beatrice de Clerval’s artistic efforts and her extra marital love for Olivier in 19th Century France are to be taken note of, I just couldn’t let myself be enraptured by the accounts of the different characters and their perspectives.

However, I once read a Tweet by an author that criticizing the efforts and works of authors can also be a form of bullying (could it be called ‘literary or artistic bullying’?), so I’ll just talk about the one good thing I got out from the book.

The long novel is about the journey Dr. Marlowe undertakes in order to understand a recent patient he has had in his psychiatric hospital, Robert, a painter who ‘attacked’ a specific painting at the museum. His unflinching silence forces the doctor to seek the two women he shared his life with once in the past, a journey during which he tries to uncover Robert’s continuing mesmerizing yet slightly frightening obsession with a dark-haired woman he keeps painting over and over. Marlowe finds out that the woman is none other than Beatrice de Clerval, a French woman having lived in mid and late 19th century, surrounded by the then-contemporary works of renown Impressionist artists such as Monet and Pissaro. Based on the little historical material on this female artist who didn’t get the attention she perhaps deserved because of the time, and on her correspondence with an uncle, Robert sets as his objective the re-creation of this talented woman and artist and giving the lauds and praise he thinks she deserved.

The one thing I am grateful to Kostova is her detailed yet far from boring and somewhat artistic in itself, description of all the works of art appearing in this book. Whether it is the finished piece in itself, seen as a whole, the process the artist goes through to produce such work, the observer’s perspective looking at the creative progress, the minutely diverse and delicate colors of the object (natural scenery or portrait), or the admirer’s intake of the displayed work of art, the work the author goes through and presents to her readers is a painting in itself.

Having gone to different museums in basically every city I’ve been (not that I’ve traveled the world or anything), I’ve always had an interest in art, an interest that could alas not be met by the same degree of understanding or emotions. I envy and truly respect people who can look at an artistic piece for more than 10 minutes and be deeply moved by them, emotions that can be translated into words other than ‘It’s nice’ or ‘It’s pretty’.

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Taken at the Art Institute of Chicago

I can read a decent book and think about it the whole day, have incessant reviews written and re-written in my head and put them down in writing, carefully choosing my own words as if I were creating a new piece of literature myself, and be excited at an unexpected discovery of some symbolism or parallel within the novel. But when it comes to drawings and paintings, my emotional and intellectual process suddenly comes to a halt and I go blank. While some people will notice the intricacies of color variations, yellow, gold, somewhat green, white, etc,  in the plains, or the subtle caresses of the wind blowing in the trees, what I see is ‘yellow plain’ and ‘green, still trees’. No matter how many times I go to museums and art galleries, I just can’t seem to distinguish between works of Monet, Renoir and Manet.

For instance, whose work is this?

For instance, whose work is this?

I thank Degas for his affinity for ballet dancers, because that is the only way I can recognize his work. I also thank Van Gogh for his unique touch and techniques because that is the only way I can identify his signature. I think I like Impressionism because, frankly, ‘the colors are pretty’, and at least, my brain goes ‘Painting of a woman’, ‘Painting of a vast field of flowers’, or ‘Painting of an outdoors picnic’ when I see works belonging to that category. I don’t, for instance  have to strain my neck trying to perceive the woman in the blue cube drawn over the brown circle, or rattle my brain to find the meaning behind what clearly ‘looks like a pot‘ but obviously isn’t ‘just a pot‘, like in all these cubist/surrealist/modern works. And don’t even get me started on performance art.

For instance, how am I supposed to understand these? 

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Being thus more and more convinced  that an understanding or a liking of art was perhaps an innate ability and not an acquired taste, I was beginning to give up on my efforts to make art as part of ‘things I like that could make me look cool and smart and sophisticated‘. But this book has somewhat given me a thin ray of hope. I was genuinely moved by how the author found the right ways to portray, not just every single piece of work, or what goes through the artist’s mind and how what he/she sees is translated onto the canvas, but also, and mostly, how the viewer catches the whirl of aspiration and design transmitted in each stroke of the brush. My liking for Impressionism has also further increased, allowing me to believe that perhaps at the base of my taste, actually lay all these emotions and inspiration too, I was just not able to express them in words as well as Kostova did. I may not have felt the same strong feelings as Marlowe did when he saw the genius works of Robert, if I had actually been in front of the piece myself, but Kostova’s words helped me get a small yet clear glimpse at what some art aficionados might feel. Her depictions are so convincing that I actually looked for a ‘Beatrice de Clerval’ in Google, secretly hoping she might be an actual artist and I may be able to see her work in person one day if I were to travel to Washington DC or go to the right museum in Paris. 

I can’t say that I will be touched by every single piece of art that I see from now on, but I think I will at least have more motivation and encouragement to take my time to look more profoundly into certain pieces in art galleries and museums.

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