Books: Pictures and Words

April 2014 Home Column List 2

Books: Pictures and Words

Fugitive Colors: A Novel by Lisa Barr. (Arcade, 400 pp. $24.95)

The opening epigraphs of Lisa Barr’s debut novel, Fugitive Colors—the first by Paul Klee on how “color has taken possession” of him, the second by Adolf Hitler that “anyone who sees and paints a sky green and fields blue ought to be sterilized”—set the stage for an absorbing, can’t-put-down story about Modern art and Nazi Germany.

It begins in 1926 when young Yakov Klein, who feels painting in his soul, rebels against his Orthodox family in Chicago (“Yakov sat long hours in the cheder, barely listening to the teachings of the rabbi, instead daydreaming about painters”) and flees to New York, then Paris. There he meets three budding artists and they become fast friends. The novel ends in 1960, when Abstract Expressionism, now a hot buy at art auctions, brings together the tragic past and a retributive present.

But the story centers, compellingly, on the rise of German Expressionism and Abstract Expressionism in the 1930s, an innovative artistic and cultural movement that Joseph Goebbels labeled degenerate and obscene, art practiced and promulgated largely by Jewish artists, collectors and gallery owners. (One of the secondary pleasures of the novel is its use of both famous and lesser-known painters such as Ernst Engel and Max Kruger.)

Barr, former managing editor of The Jerusalem Post and Moment magazine as well as a reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times, has crafted a narrative that successfully brings together intrigue, romance, suspense and an informed sense of the bohemian art scene that turned the world of form, technique and color on its head. At least a third of the novel re-creates the hedonistic Left Bank between the wars when, as Wordsworth wrote about the French Revolution, “bliss it was in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven.” It was a time of feeling free to love, drink, dare, create; a time of passionate friendships and constructive rivalries, as these were forged out of common ideas and ideals; a time when those who felt themselves to be artists would risk all to realize that “ethereal landing where art and artist became one.”

The book also delivers a knowing sense of anti-Semitism as exemplified by the French who “tolerate Jews but don’t accept them,” even if they themselves are Jewish. Of course, as the Holocaust metastasized, Jews became targets more than the avant-garde. Trusted friends, out of jealousy as well as fear, turned into collaborators, even enemies. Race, blood and power could come to count for more than intellectual and artistic ties. It was inevitable that a Nazi goal would become the confiscation, the “full-scale rape of every major piece of art throughout Europe,” the purging of works that did not conform to the Aryan ideal and the horrific cover-up of this looting then—and now.

Though some parts of the novel may seem strained—a helpful guard in Dachau, the long-delayed triumph of art over evil—Fugitive Colors is a moving, even heartbreaking, tale and a unique revisiting of familiar Holocaust literature. And, dare it be said, based on the cast of colorful characters and memorable settings, a potential movie? —Joan Baum

Children of Israel by Alethea Gold. Photographed by Luca Zordan. (Gefen Publishing House, 192 pp. $36)

Beautiful, smiling children—Jewish (secular and hasidic) and Arab (Christian and Muslim), Druze and Bedouin, Armenian and Circassian—may be Israel’s best public face. Who can dispute the success of a country with such happy children?

Children of Israel focuses mainly on programs that promote peace, respect, cooperation and friendship between Arabs and Jews: The Peres Center for Peace in Jaffa; the Jewish-Arab Waldorf School in the lower Galilee; the village of Neve Shalom; Israel Boy and Girl Scouts Federation (Tzofim); the Arab-Jewish Community Center in Jaffa; and Brit Bnei Shem, founded by Ruth Dayan. Also included are the Bialik-Rogozin School in south Tel Aviv, notable for educating non-Jewish immigrants from more than 50 countries.

Aside from the usual images of bar mitzvas at the Kotel, there are girls jumping rope, a boy band recording in a Tel Aviv studio, children in an Arab village practicing traditional Japanese Budo and swimming in a secret pond in the desert.

Interestingly, there is a spread of fathers and sons but none of mothers and daughters. Also, none of the photographs were taken beyond the green line. —Zelda Shluker

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