Contemporary fiction offers a full palette of novels exploring human nature via paintings and painters: Deborah Moggach’s Tulip Fever, Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, Leonardo’s Swans by Karen Essex, Susan Vreeland’s Girl in Hyacinth Blue, and Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer-Prize winning Goldfinch.
Now we have Saving Kandinsky, Mary Basson’s novel about Gabriele “Ella” Münter. “Ella” was the student and lover of the better-known painter Wassily Kandinsky—and the reason the Nazis failed to destroy his works of “Modernism—A Conspiracy by People Who Hate German Decency.”
The novel dramatizes politics while exploring the artistic life. Young Ella feels that “drawing was as good as having friends. When she was working on a piece, she concentrated, hard. She entered into her work as though she were opening the door to a room where she might circulate among the forms and shapes inside, a choreographer among dancers.”
But when Kandinsky flirts with abstraction, Ella must rethink her definition of art. Looking at an early example of Expressionism, she protests, “’People won’t recognize the scene.’
‘No. Not with their eyes,’” Kandinsky answers.
With Ella, we begin to grasp the significance of what the Nazis condemned as “Degenerate”—and a why passion beyond love motivated Ella to risk her life protecting his paintings.
When the Nazis come for the work Ella has hidden, she “…felt her neck and shoulders grow tense, the hawk rising. She wanted to peck…with her beak, to shout out…leave her house, just get out. Count, she told herself, count quickly. Onetwothreefourfive. Breathe. The raptor quieted. ‘I don’t believe I caught your name, young man.’
‘Answer the question, please. We know, as well, that your father defected to America.’ He might have been chastising a wayward child.
Once again, the truth would serve. She pushed the bird down. ‘Papa? My goodness. Well, yes, but he came back, didn’t he, before I was born. Papa was a dentist in Dusseldorf, but you might know that already. Now, let’s see. As for those Communists, I couldn’t say for certain they want. I’m not really the person to ask.’”
This is a beautifully written read about courage, wit, aesthetics. How did Basson do it?
~Tension. Add it, and you have the luxury of analyzing art (or whatever).
~ History. It can be a genuine source of inspiration—and plot.
~Love. The real kind—with all the complications of early 20th century Europe.
Tip: Write about what you love—what moves you. The readers will follow.