The Muralist, by B. A. Shapiro. Algonquin Books. 352 pages. Hardcover $26.95.
This book dazzles and excites with its penetrating look at the New York art scene during the Depression; the situation in Europe for Jews seeking to flee Nazi persecution and murder; and the present-time life of a young woman working for a major art auction house. The plot is carefully managed through two alternating time lines: one begins in 1939 and is focused on an obscure Jewish artist, Alizée Benoit; the other follows today’s Danielle Abrams, Alizée’s great niece. It becomes Danielle’s obsession to discover Alizée’s fate.
Alizée is an American citizen who lived for many years in France, returning to the United States in 1937 at the age of 19 already a well-schooled artist. When readers meet her in 1939, she is part of a circle of young artists who are creating a great new American art form – Abstract Expressionism. The others include Jackson Pollack, Lee Krasner, Mark Rothko, and on occasion Dutch-born Willem de Kooning. They challenge and inspire one another while living in dire poverty.
These and other artists survive on commissions received from a special branch of the Works Progress Administration that buys paintings for display in public buildings. This Federal Art Project favored representational rather than abstract art, handicapping the chances for this group’s experimentation being accepted.
When sporadic messages from her relatives describe their deteriorating situation in France and urge her to help, Alizée, who feels a deep and constant responsibility for saving them, becomes a political activist. Her target is Breckinridge Long, the man in charge of administering immigration controls, whose personal mission was to block oppressed Europeans (and especially Jews) from getting the necessary visas. He was only too successful. Alizée tries to engage Eleanor Roosevelt to assist in this effort, an effort that includes politically-charged art that Alizée develops to raise public awareness of the Jewish plight.
Impressed by the power of Picasso’s “Guernica,” she decides to create a mural for a forthcoming exhibition. With time running out, she enlists her artist cohorts to help her with the project.
Facing many frustrations and with her physical and mental health severely declining, Alizée disappears in 1940.
The 2015 timeline follows Danielle’s curiosity about her vanished great aunt. This curiosity is spurred into action by some mysterious paintings, fragments of a larger work, that she finds hidden in envelopes pasted to the back of paintings transmitted to Christie’s, the famous and influential auction house where Danielle works.
Interviews, data-base searches, and other research slowly reveal an impression of Alizée’s life and artistic mission. Still, Danielle’s struggle to establish the “historical” Alizée and to discover if she is alive is frustrated until she makes a last-ditch effort that takes her to France. . . .
To read the entire review, as it appears in the November 25, 2015 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the November 26 Naples, Bonita Springs, and Punta Gorda/Port Charlotte editons, click here: Florida Weekly – Shapiro
Note: there is a typo at the end of the printed article. The internet address for the Collier County Jewish Book Festival is www.jewishbookfestival.org