Novel Displays Sordid Art World

'The Bird Nester', a real painting by Watteau

‘The Bird Nester’, a real painting by Watteau

The new novel The Improbability of Love takes readers on a romp through the contemporary art business world, shining an unsparing light on its less savory aspects – avarice, envy, viciousness and stratospheric wealth. Our docent is author Hannah Rothschild, who is more than qualified to guide us through that seamy and rarified world. When Rothschild hasn’t been producing documentary films or writing books, she has served as a trustee for the National Gallery in London and as the liaison between that institution and the Tate Modern museum. Rothschild is currently the chair of the National Gallery’s board of trustees. She did not have to rove far to research the one percent; she is a scion of the famed banking family.

The Improbability of Love delivers plot aplenty. Hanging at the novel’s center is a fictional lost painting by the French artist Antoine Watteau (1684-1721), considered to be the founder of the Rococo style of painting.

The protagonist is Annie McDee, a poor and lonely aspiring chef. She spots a small dusty painting in a junk shop and parts with 75 pounds, which she can ill afford, to buy the grime-encrusted canvas. The improbable story then fulfills every junk shop habitue’s fantasy as the painting turns out to be the lost “Improbability of Love,” worth several hundred million pounds.

The painting’s 300-year provenance includes having been a token of love proffered by famous besotted personages, including Voltaire. It passed in and out of the palaces of what seems like half of Europe’s royal families. And then there is its theft, fraud and disappearance during the Nazi era.

ImprobabilityOfLoveDramatis personae include a 91-year old founder of a feared art gallery empire, a titled auctioneer facing bankruptcy, a foppish dilettante paid oodles to wave sophistication over the nouveau riche, Russian oligarchs who must funnel millions of their billions to a Putin-esque “Leader,” a rich American rapper, a hedge fund tycoon, the protagonist’s alcoholic mother, and an artist with talent and no money who of course falls in love with our heroine. That list only skims the surface. The improbability of the plot grows in the final chapters, ending with a gun battle in a venerable auction house and the painting being saved for the British empire through the legerdemain of a James Bondish agent.

Ars longa, vita brevis. Rothschild has more than escapade on her mind. As to the murky motivations of collectors, the novel informs us that they buy “partly for investment, partly to big it up with their friends, partly to decorate, but mainly in the hope that the cloak of creativity could extend to cover their shoulders. Beauty has an intrinsic value. From the earliest Chinese dynasties, from the Pharaohs, to the Greeks and on through history, men have believed that beauty makes them better, lifts them from the morass of their sordid business deals to a higher plane.”

More cynically, we read that “in a declining, degenerate, money-obsessed era, where even Mammon lets most down, art has become a kind of religion. [It] offers glorious temples and learned high priests as well as covenants and creeds. The new churches are known as museums, in which the contemplation of art has become a kind of prayer and communal activity. . . It was ever thus.”

There are a few passages in the book where a careful reader might detect an echo or two of Rothschild’s own privileged upbringing, such as this one about the gallery despot’s daughter: “Terrified of being judged or exposed as someone who had won her position through nepotism, Rebecca worked longer hours and took fewer holidays than anyone else in the company, including her father. She rehearsed facts and opinions before every meeting and lay awake most nights fretting.”

The story also gives Rothschild room to explore the gnarly conflict art curators and museums face between preservation and restoration. (This tension was well examined in a recent article by Ben Lerner in the New Yorker magazine.)

To be successful, novels, like plays and films, must strike a balance between character and plot. Plot is the conveyance for whatever intimacy we develop with the characters. The Improbability of Love is weakest in some of its characters’ dialog, particularly toward the end as the pace of action accelerates. Characters’ speech is at times overwrought and melodramatic, undermining credibility. (Perhaps someone who writes scripts is more likely to find this fault.)

The novel’s most innovative feature is that the lost and forgotten painting is a character with its own first-person voice. In ten of the novel’s chapters Watteau’s woeful canvas imparts exposition while offering wry and jaded observations. After all, that piece of stretched canvas has had three centuries to observe human folly.

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