“Whistler, how’s your mother?”

says Manet to Whistler, in one of the funniest lines of Sacré Bleu: A Comedy d’Art, by Christopher Moore. Whistler responds, “She’s an arrangement in gray and black…” using the actual title of Whistler’s Mother, supposedly before he actually paints the painting. A little in-joke for American art enthusiasts.

Whistler’s Mother, or An Arrangement in Gray and Black

I had read one book by Christopher Moore before, called The Stupidest Angel: A Heartwarming Tale of Christmas Terror (which is apparently going to be a movie; if it’s a quarter as funny as the book, it’ll be worth seeing.) Perhaps apart from David Sedaris, it was the most I’ve ever laughed out loud while reading a book. Here’s one scene, the rise of the zombies, that I found particularly memorable in its wry absurdity:

“Suddenly we are all gluttons, are we? Well, I have always enjoyed Danish Modern furniture for its functional yet elegant design, so once we have consumed the brains of these revelers, I feel compelled to seek out one of these furniture boutiques I have heard so much about from newlyweds in the chapel. First we feast, then IKEA.”

“IKEA,” chanted the dead. “First we feast, then IKEA. First we feast, then IKEA.”

… No one knows why, but second only to eating the brains of the living, the dead love affordable prefab furniture.

I gather this is generally Moore’s M.O., comic mysteries with a supernatural twist, but never really felt like shelling out bucks for other books of his, until I heard he’d published one about art, about the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists in particular, and more generally about the power of the color blue (my favorite). BOOM! On my Amazon wishlist. BOOM! Got it for a graduation present (thanks cousins Nina, Yash and Luca!).

I will start by saying that this was not as laugh-out loud funny as The Stupidest Angel, but I enjoyed it just the same. The enjoyment was similar to my enjoyment of Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris: it’s not a masterpiece, but as an art person, I get a kick out of seeing these artists turned into characters, regardless of how accurate or inaccurate. (Adrian Brody as Salvador Dalí was an absolute riot!)

In Sacré Bleu, Toulouse-Lautrec is one of two main characters, along with his friend, a fictional baker/painter named Lucien Lessard, who plays the straight man to Toulouse-Lautrec’s clowning, wisecracking and debauchery. As mentioned above, Manet and Whistler make brief appearances, as do Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Gauguin, the van Gogh brothers, Seurat, Morisot, Michelangelo, and many more.

SPOILER ALERT! If you want to know nothing about the plot going into the book, stop reading here. The premise is that there’s a mysterious Colorman selling a powerful ultramarine blue, which in combination with a female spirit that inhabits the artists’ muses and inspires them both sexually and artistically, results in shifts in time and place, as well as sudden and tragic deaths.

Another great line from the book:

“You said Gauguin was a self-important tosser,” said Lucien.

“I did?”

“Many times.”

“Well I meant theorist.”

Moore concludes with an afterword titled, “So Now You’ve Ruined Art,” in which he distinguishes fact from fiction in his book. More is based in truth than you might think, and though the dialogue of course comes across as anachronistically contemporary, he did try to base artists’ personalities on first- and second-hand accounts. On Degas’ absence from the book, he says:

…considering him as a potential character, it seemed as if he was a miserable, unlikable guy, and I didn’t want to have to portray that. So he doesn’t get a part in my book. See, if you hadn’t been a jerk, you’d have had a speaking part, Degas, but no.

He concludes with a mediation on the commercialism of Impressionism:

There is a tendency, I’ve found, among academics and art enthusiasts, to dismiss the Impressionists, with their fields of flowers and their pink-cheeked girls, as insignificant, pablum for the masses, and once you’re seen your thousandth tote bag sporting Monet’s lilies, it’s understandable. Among museums, the Impressionists, represent a cash cow, because any show that features them will pack the museum for weeks, even months, wile it runs, and so they are often regarded with a restrained resentment, if not for the painters, for the masses who come to see their work. Out of the context of their own time, the Impressionists just seem to be producing “pretty pictures.” Yet, Impressionism represented a quantum leap in painting and ultimately art in general.

Well said. As arguably the first, or at least one of the first, dominoes along the chain of modernism, I’d have to agree.

I would recommend Sacré Bleu as a great vacation read for anyone, particularly art historians who might want to read about art, sort of, without having to digest anything too heavy.

One thought on ““Whistler, how’s your mother?”

  1. Pingback: Vacation Interlude: Shelburne Museum | SmARTy ART Chick

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