‘The Muralist’ by B.A. Shapiro
The Muralist by B.A. Shapiro (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 352 pp. $26.95)
The Muralist, a novel set in the late 1930s and early 1940s, explores a new, distinctly American art movement: Abstract Expressionism.
In true historical fiction style, B.A. Shapiro, author of The Art Forger, has combined the exploits of real artists and real government figures with made-up characters against the lead-up to World War II.
Shapiro has overlaid her story with the slightly implausible tale of the fictional Alizée Benoit, a promising French-born Jewish artist working in New York who mysteriously disappears. Her modern-day grandniece, Danielle Abrams, a lapsed artist working as a researcher at Christie’s auction house, decides to find out what happened to Alizée.
Along the way, we meet some of the creative giants of the art world: Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko and others. They, like Alizée, are working for the Works Progress Administration, the government’s project to put artists to work during the Depression.
Alizée lives in a cold-water flat in Greenwich Village. Shapiro describes her as “charismatic, headstrong and talented,” and she captures the attention of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt during the First Lady’s visit to the artists at the WPA when Alizée says: “I noticed that all of the WPA. murals are representational. There are lots of us doing nonrepresentational work right here in New York. All over the country.”
Alizée has another agenda. Her European relatives are struggling to find refuge. “Things grow more difficult by the day,” her cousin writes from Belgium. “They have imposed their so-called anti-Jewish regulations,including yellow stars, curfews, and the unimpeded looting of shops. The police, the royal prosecutor, and the citizens of Antwerp stand by and do nothing. Cowards all.”
Here the story takes on urgency, particularly because of the obstreperous shenanigans of the United States State Department and Assistant Secretary of State Breckenridge Long, a notorious anti-Semite who imposed inordinate delays on refugees seeking to come to America’s shores. Alizée’s relatives were on board the S.S. St. Louis, the ill-fated ship sailing to Miami only to be turned away.
Irate and heartbroken about the betrayal of her relatives and other refugees, Alizée produces the work Turned, a tumultuous depiction of the lives torn asunder into “statelessness, hopelessness, and finally, nothingness,” Shapiro writes, “in red, white and blue.” The painting becomes a cause célèbre, criticized in the press for shaming the anti-interventionists and because Eleanor Roosevelt, Alizée’s patron, buys it and hangs it in her Hyde Park, N.Y., cottage. Despite these efforts, Roosevelt was unable to persuade the president to loosen Long’s stranglehold on immigration.
Shortly after, as Alizée’s mural is about to be unveiled, she disappears.
The story shifts back to the present as her grandniece, a character sketchily drawn, discovers panels of paintings on the backs of canvases by the early Abstract Expressionists. Could they be part of a mural that Alizée worked on so many years earlier? Would they lead to the vanished aunt? And did her aunt’s work influence Abstract Expressionism? These questions propel Danielle to trace Alizée’s whereabouts. Eventually, Danielle discovers the truth, but for some, the answer is anticlimactic.
Stewart Kampel is a frequent reviewer for Hadassah Magazine.