Art makes for great stories. Because there’s always a story behind the making of art.
In The Muse by Jessie Burton (HarperCollins 2016), there isn’t just one, but two interwinding stories – set 30 years apart – about a mysterious painting. One story is set in a 1960s London art gallery, the other in a beautiful Spanish villa at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War.
Spain, 1936. A Viennese art dealer and and his family have recently arrived at a dreamy villa on the warm southern coast of Spain. Their daughter Olive has just been admitted to the Slade School of Fine Art in London, but doesn’t know how to ask her father for permission to go. He wouldn’t approve. He doesn’t think women should paint.
So instead of confronting her parents, Olive sneaks upstairs to the attic in order to paint in secret. Her new canvases are infused with the passion and inspiration she feels for her new home – the heat, the sun, the landscape, the orchards, but especially, the dark, handsome villager named Isaac Robles who has stirred up something new and deep inside her. Isaac is an artist too, but mostly he’s a young revolutionary intent on organizing and agitating for his cause.
In the middle of this lush and provocative setting, Olive creates a painting that sounds just gorgeous: a loose, surrealistic view of the villa (they call it a “finca”) from the bottom of the orchards, with fields painted in “ochres and grasshopper greens, the folkloric tenderness of russet furrows and mustard browns.” Olive even surprises herself:
She never knew she was capable of such work. She had made, for the first time, a picture of such movement and excess and fecundity that she felt almost shocked.
Olive hides The Orchard under her bed and works on sketches of her muse Isaac (Isaac Chopping Wood, Isaac with Coffee Cup) until she is inspired to try an even more complicated painting.
Isaac and his sister have told Olive about a old Spanish legend in which two sisters, Santa Rufina and Santa Justa, become Christian martyrs. (It’s a real story, but I’d never heard of it before so of course I had to Google it.) Two sisters are persecuted for their Christian beliefs during the Roman Empire. After breaking a pot with a pagan image of Venus, one sister is thrown down a well and the other is thrown to the lions.
Somehow, Olive figures out a way to paint it. She calls it Santa Justa in the Well.
The new piece was a surreal composition, colorful, disjointed to the gaze. It was a diptych; Santa Justa before her arrest and after, set against a dark indigo sky and a shining field. . . .
The left half of the painting was lush and glowing. Olive had used ordinary oils, but had also experimented with gold leaf, which glinted in the light as she held the painting up. . . .
In the middle of the healthy land on this left-hand side stood a woman, her hair the color of the crop. She was carrying a heavy pot with deer and rabbits painted on it, and its centre was the face of the goddess Venus. Both the faces of the woman and Venus looked proud, staring out at the viewer.
I tried to imagine what this painting might look like. I can definitely see The Orchard in my mind’s eye, but not this one. There’s sky and crops and the full figure of a woman and a pot so detailed you can see the little deer and rabbits and the face of Venus. And then the other side of the diptych it gets even more complicated.
On the right half of the painting, the crop was deadened and limp. The woman appeared again, except this time she was curled inside a circle, hovering over the crop. This circle was filled with an internal perspective to make it look as if it had depth, as if the woman was lying at the bottom of a well. Her hair was now severed and dull, her pot had smashed around her, a puzzle impossible for anyone to piece together. Around the rim of the well, full-sized deer and rabbits peered down, as if set free from the broken crockery. Venus had vanished.
My goodness, what a difficult project for Olive to take on as a beginning painter. As I say to myself sometimes when I’m struggling with a difficult painting: “maybe you’ve bitten off more than you can chew with this one.” Olive has had no formal training – not that’s the only route to artistic genius, but it sure helps. And how quickly did she paint it? This complicated a composition would take days, weeks, even months. And how did she keep her act of painting so secret? What about the strong smell of oil paint (which her father the art dealer would’ve recognized)? Apparently Olive’s parents were quite distracted during this part of the book.
The Muse relies heavily on the myth of original genius. It makes a good story. An untrained but inspired young woman creates a breathtaking piece of art without any training, instruction or advice. It sounds lovely, but I don’t happen to believe in it.
That’s not to say the subject would have been impossible to paint. Other famous Spanish artists have taken their turn with the legend of Santa Justa and Santa Rufina, including Valasquez, de Goya and Murillo.
Fortunately, I was able to put aside my misgivings about how Olive’s paintings came to be, because the story soon becomes a fascinating mystery. The Spanish Civil War intervenes with its tales of danger, tragedy, loss and confusion, and we’re not quite sure what’s become of Olive’s secret paintings, much less Olive’s family and friends.
London, 1967. Odelle, a young Caribbean immigrant with dreams of becoming a writer nabs a typing job at a fancy London art gallery. She stumbles upon a long-lost painting that her professional colleagues attribute to a Spanish artist named Isaac Robles, who is rumored to have died in the Spanish Civil War decades earlier. (Remember that hot young revolutionary, Olive’s muse? Yes, him.)
The gallery prepares for a show announcing its exciting new discovery and highlighting Isaac Robles’ short but apparently brilliant career. Odelle digs deeper into the painting’s provenance and makes an unlikely ally. As Odelle uncovers the truth behind the painting, she find the inner fuel to pick up her own neglected journals and return to her dreams of becoming a writer.
In the end, it turns out that Odelle has encountered a muse of her own. As Odelle says in the last wonderful line in the book, “in the end, a piece of art only succeeds when its creator – to paraphrase Olive Schloss – possesses the belief that brings it into being.”
And that, friends, is how you write a terrific book. Art makes for great stories, doesn’t it? Oh, and by the way, the author Jessie Burton has a fabulous Pinterest Board for The Muse. Check it out!
The Muse by Jessie Burton. Highly recommended.