Fugitive Colors, by Lisa Barr. GIRLilla Warfare Press. 398 pages. $12.95 trade paperback.
Mixing romance and horror, history and imagination, high art and double-dealing artifice, Lisa Barr has fashioned a dynamic page-turner of young artists caught up in the Nazis rise to power and their leaders attempted control over the definition, sanctioning, and purposes of art.
We first meet Yakov Klein as a young child, then as a rebellious teenager in an Orthodox Chicago family. Chaffing at the restraints that surround him, Yakov feels compelled to replace his traditional Judaism with the religion of art. Learning about art and becoming an artist drive him to abandon his roots and strike out on his own, first in New York, and later in Paris.
As Julian Klein, he sets aside his opportunity to attend a reputable Paris art school to team up with his new, adventurous friends and learn from their master teacher. The bonds between Felix, Rene, Julian grow powerful, as they spur each other on to finding their true styles and subjects. Their degree of mutual support is frequently compromised by their extreme competitiveness. And they compete not only for artistic supremacy but for the beautiful young women, fellow artist Adrienne and unscrupulous model Charlotte, who are part of their circle.
The competition is primarily between the enormously talented Rene and the ambitious but mediocre Felix. Rene’s success embitters Felix, though he keeps up the semblance of friendship. Julian tends to be the peacemaker, a satellite figure who needs more time to find his own direction.
Their personal stories, romances, and dizzying artistic enterprise become more and more folded into the story of Hitler’s rise and its effects on the world of European art. Just as Nazi policy will include an ethnic cleansing of non-Aryan populations, most notably Jews, it will also include a cultural cleansing of what it considers depraved art. Guess what? It considers all of the revolutionary schools of art developed in the early 20th century to be decadent and thus a threat to the Uber Race.
Julian, Rene, and other fight to save the art, the artists, and the gallery owners (Rene’s father prominent among them) who create or foster the iconoclastic modern and contemporary masters. Felix, by now, has returned to his German roots and taken on a major role in the Nazi project.
The Nazi plan is to steal or otherwise confiscate the decadent artworks and sell them at top prices to help fill the Nazi coffers. Julian becomes involved as a sort of spy, and both he and Rene end up severely beaten and imprisoned in Dachau for their attempts to thwart the Nazi plan. It seems almost incidental that Julian, Rene, and Adrienne are Jewish, for Ms. Barr’s emphasis suggests that the art issue is looming much larger than the ethnic issue at this time (early and mid 1930s).
Lisa Barr’s own literary brushstrokes carry all the colors of passion. As she builds her characters, sets her scenes, and considers the power of art and artistic genius, she paints a very rich canvas. Her descriptions of artworks and of artists at work are dazzling, evoking the longings, fears, manias, and even the hatreds released in the kaleidoscope of colors and shapes. There is a lushness of descriptive imagery that is intoxicating, though it is sometimes overdone.
Fugitive Colors is, in part, a celebration of youth, self-discovery, loyalty, and infatuation. Julian is over and over again acting against his best interest in his subordination to Rene’s needs, enthusiasm, and plans of action. As an intermediary between Rene and Felix, he walks a careful and dangerous line. His relationships with Adrienne and Charlotte are part of a complex puzzle of shifting erotic patterns.
It is ironic that a novel so concerned with celebrating the joy of art and artistic sensibility is also a novel that explores the murderous ends of ambition and jealousy, both on the individual and the collective scale. Extreme passion seems to obey no laws but its own.
Fugitive Colors has a cinematic feel. I can’t keep from trying to cast the parts for a blockbuster film based on this novel. Such qualities have already been recognized: the manuscript won first prize at the Hollywood Film Festival for “Best Unpublished Manuscript.” Read it and you’ll see what I mean.
This review appears in the January 2013 issues of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier Count, FL), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties), and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota/Manatee).