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Books 108-109: An Equal Stillness and The Painted Word

Book 108: An Equal Stillness
Author: Francesca Kay, 2009
Genre: Contemporary. Art. British
Other Details: Hardback. 230 pages.

This novel was presented as a biography of a British artist named Jennet Mallow. Mallow and her circle are fictional though the author places them within the social context of the British art scene of the mid-late twentieth century.

The opening chapter is written by her biographer, whose identity is not revealed until the final pages. It then goes on to detail Jennet's life from childhood with a strong focus upon her tumultuous marriage to fellow artist David Heston. At the outset of their relationship he is the rising star and she is very much in his shadow. However, when his hard drinking and dark moods begin to threaten his career, it is Jennet who holds their family together. She also begins to explore her own talent. Over time her reputation grows stronger and then eclipses David's. As might be expected David becomes deeply envious of her success creating even more problems for their marriage.

As a student of art history I was very impressed by the way in which Kay created an entire body of work for a modern artist working in England from 1947 through to the turn of the century. The paintings come alive on the page as if they actually existed. She also explores issues linked to creativity and the demands placed upon the individual by such a talent. Overall it is a beautiful and intelligently written novel though its faux biographical format does leave it somewhat emotionally detached from its characters. I felt it was a remarkable début that deserved to win the 2009 Orange Prize for New Writers.

Orange Prize Page for An Equal Stillness - with interview and downloadable extract

Book 109: The Painted Word
Author: Tom Wolfe, 1975
Genre: Art. Cultural History. Satire. Non Fiction.
Other Details: Paperback, 128 pages.

A small gem of a book that serves up a provocative survey of the New York Modern Art scene, focusing on the post-War period when New York began its dominance of the art world. It's a fascinating work in terms of the social history of art given that Wolfe is a writer who takes no prisoners as he calls attention to the absurdities of the changing fashions in art and art theory.

Written in 1975, he makes the point that it was the powerful art critics, the three he dubbed the kings of "Cultureburg": Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg and Leo Steinberg, who had determined the course of modern art theory and which artists became celebrated and collected. His ridiculing of the most respected members of the art world meant that its publication was met with widespread negative reviews, rather highlighting Wolfe's stance about how insular that world was. Time though has proved Wolfe's point as in terms of the social history of modern art a similar argument has emerged as the dominant theory of its development.

The Painted Word fits in beautifully with my more sober academic books on the art history of the period. How I wish I'd had it on hand with a quote or two to spice up my essays! Saying that, it may be a book that is of interest mainly to those who have some familiarity with the art and art theory of the mid-20th century as it assumes a knowledge of various artists, art movements and the movers and shakers of the period. I have not read any of Wolfe's works for some time, though this reminded me of how much I enjoy his sharp wit and wry observations on both high and popular culture.

Tom Wolfe's page on The Painted Word - with link to Excerpt.
Tags: art, british, cultural studies, fiction, non-fiction, orange prize, satire
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