Book Review: Fugitive Colors

Composition VI by Vassily Kandinsky (1913)

— Reviewer: Rabbi Goldie Milgram

Fugitive Colors by Lisa Barr offers a sensuous and stunning entry into the art scene in Europe during World War II. This work of profoundly engaging historical fiction delves into the passion and peril of those artists who were then in the thrall of creating a wide array of modern art genres. Entartete Kunste — “degenerate art” is the term the Nazi spin doctors created to justify prohibiting, destroying and also secretly hoarding some of the works of emerging avant garde masters such as Klee, Mondrian, Munch, Chagall, Kandinsky, Nolde and over one hundred more.

The full review after the jump.
Barr’s riveting scenes sear with the heat of in-the-moment abstract expressionist innovation, in contrast to many earlier grand masters who would stand at easels carefully placing each stroke. She reminds us of how magnificently radical these artists were in their time, how outsider their ways in contrast to classical realism and even their Classical Impressionist forebears.

Rene began to caress the wall with midnight blue pigment, lightly dragging his brush across the white plaster, creating an undulated effect. He then added in light dabs of orange, and the texture changed completely. Julian had never seen anything like it. As the music picked up, Rene’s body began to twist as he painted. He swept from left to right, blending in various shades of yellow, green and red into the blue… His full lips were parted, his breath was heavy, his eyes opened and closed rapidly as if surprised. His neck muscles seemed to be bursting through his skin. Rene looked at once monstrous and inhumanly handsome. He did not paint. He was the paint.

This insider-styled story can’t help but fascinate. The action is given over through the eyes of Julian, a young Orthodox Jewish American who abandons his difficult family in service of his essence — drawing, painting-art.

When he spotted Ernst Engel’s work, he had to make a conscious effort to keep his hands at his sides. He leaned forward and read the plaque: “Women Bathing.” It was gorgeous, sensual and forbidden. The colors were shocking. The lake was pinkish, the sky golden, the naked bodies free-flowing with burgundy and splashes of indigo. Julian yearned to touch the painting, to feel the depth of the texture against his fingertips…

Julian may yearn to paint, but trysts and jealousies between artist friends and Nazi horrors steadily intrude with vicious intensity. The ethical dilemmas he will face yield important questions for contemplation and discussion, particularly whether to put your life and integrity at risk for a friend, or lover, or for the sake of saving works of art. Today, just over 60 years after the Holocaust, incredibly, it is not so difficult to imagine art being stalked like a fugitive. Here in America numerous fundamentalists attempt to prevent various forms of art and books from appearing in public institutions. The wielding of degenerate Nazi power is well and extensively articulated by Barr:

  “Hartt,” began the Baron, “you will compile the lists of artists whose work we will confiscate and the museum directors who refuse to cooperate with us. They must be dismissed from their positions immediately. Start with Berlin’s Nationalgalerie, particularly the Kronprinz-Palias, it should be purged of all its modern art. Dismiss everyone who works there, effective immediately… I expect a full-scale plan on my desk at the end of this month…
  “Exactly how far can I go?” Streibel piped up.
  “Far enough,” the Baron answered. “The key to our success is to spread fear. Once there is real fear out there, I promise you it will perpetuate and do the work for us…”

Have you, for example, perhaps viewed Emil Nolde’s surviving light and life-filled color-full canvases? 1,052 of his works were taken by the Nazis, most were slashed or burned. While Fugitive Colors focuses on the evolution of Abstract Expressionism, art forms declared “degenerate” also included: Bauhaus, Fauvism, Cubism, Impressionism, Dada, New Objectivity, and Surrealism.

The Nazis exhibited the works they stole in an Entartete Kundst exhibit in Munich, featuring over 650 paintings, sculptures, prints, and books by 112 artists from July 19, 1937 until November 30 before taking the show to eleven other cities in Germany and Austria. Famously, on the night of July 27, 1942 in the gardens of the Galerie National du Jeu de Paume in Paris, works by Miro, Picasso, Ernst, Klee, Leger and Picasso were destroyed in a bonfire. According to Stephanie Barron, author of Degenerate Art: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany, 16,558 works were expropriated during this time. A good number of works were secreted away by Goebbels and other Nazis leaders in hopes of future appreciation in value. Some that were found buried after the war are thought to be among the substantial collection in the Hermitage in St Petersburg, Russia. Major museums in Paris, Munich and New York are among those with significant collections open to the public.

Lisa Barr’s Fugitive Colors is more than good reading; it is an important form of honoring the legacy of the abstract expressionists. She advances our appreciation of this genre of painting by creating readable sensations of the sort usually reported by synesthetes — where the senses switch places — tasting a color, seeing a sound, hearing a touch — a rare accomplishment.

Powerful pacing, well-developed characters, expert twists of the plot and the capacity to effectively convey genuine human and artistic sensibilities informed by in-depth period research result in a book that is hard to put down. This work of historical fiction won the Hollywood Film Festival’s manuscript “Opus Magnum Discovery Award.” Fugitive Colors by Lisa Barr is a book you won’t be likely to forget.