The mystery behind art of the matter

The Swan Thieves
By Elizabeth Kostova,
Sphere
Rs 395, 611 pages

Why is it that in the historical art galleries of painting — or of sculpture, for that matter — only a very few women are represented? While we have only to look at the work of artists like Amrita Sher-Gil and Anjolie Ela Menon, to mention just two, to see that this no longer holds true, it is all the more strange that in the western tradition of the plastic arts right up to and through the 19th century women artists are largely noted by their absence.

The most obvious social reason behind this is that, thanks to their associations with what used to be called a ‘bohemian’ lifestyle, painting and sculpture were considered out of bounds for ‘respectable’ women. Was this proscription part of a larger gender chauvinism which sought to keep the world of art — and the intensity of experience and emotion that it stood for — in the safekeeping of male hegemony ?

This is the question – unasked in so many words by the author herself, but implied nonetheless — that hovers like a question mark over this novel which might be described as a truly artful mystery. Elizabeth Kostova’s first novel , “The Historian” , which became an international bestseller, was a haunting re-narration of the Dracula legend , first recounted by the Irish writer Bram Stoker who turned the cult of the vampire into a literary classic.

Kostova’s erudite and extremely eerie update lived up to Stoker’s masterpiece and won both critical acclaim and a wide readership.

In her second novel, Kostova has turned to the world of painting and painters, with specific focus on the French Impressionists — Monet, Manet, Pissarro, et al — of the 19th century. The story begins in presentday Washington DC where a middleaged psychiatrist, who is also an amateur painter, Andrew Marlow, is called in to take up the case of a wellknown American artist, Robert Oliver , who has been apprehended in an apparent attempt to vandalise an Impressionist painting, Leda and the Swan, displayed in the city’s National Gallery. Under psychiatric care, Oliver lapses into a brooding silence, like that of a dormant volcano, his suppressed emotions finding expression in the form of a mysterious , beautiful woman whose face he paints from some secret memory over and over again with obsessive repetition.

At the heart of the mystery is a small collection of letters exchanged in 1877 over several months between elderly French painter, Olivier Vignot, and his nephew’s young wife, Beatrice de Clerval, herself an aspiring artist. The letters , which were in Oliver’s possession when he tried to slash the Leda painting, are the only clue that Marlow, who against his will finds himself becoming a detective in the realm of art history, has in unravelling the enigma of the unknown woman who is central to his patient’s obsession.

Kostova unfolds her story with skill, with the voices of different narrators, past and present, carrying the plot forward to its inevitable conclusion, which itself is like a chiascuro painting, an interwoven pattern of light and darkness. On its surface a poignant love story, The Swan Thieves at a deeper level raises questions about the relationship of art to the reality of our everyday lives. Which is more ‘real’ , in the ‘real’ sense of the term, whatever that might be: the customary world of the commonplace and the conventional, or the image-world transfixed and transfigured, beyond time and place, by the intensity of the artist’s vision?

That’s the larger mystery that The Swan Thieves leaves readers to solve for themselves.

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— Besttopic

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