A Novel of Art in Wartime

The Muralist, by B. A. Shapiro, (Algonquin Books), 352 pages, release date 3 November, 2015

B. A. Shapiro’s work will already be familiar to many readers because of the success of her novel The Art Forger. The Muralist is a match for The Art Forger in terms of engaging, fast-paced reading, but it also probes larger questions than the earlier book did.

The Muralist features two main characters: Danielle Abrams, living in the present day and working at an art auction house, having given up her aspirations to become an artist herself, and Danielle’s great-aunt Alizée Benoit, who was an artist with the Works Progress Administration (WPA) during FDR’s presidency. It’s Alizée’s story that drives the novel. Alizée is Jewish, the only member of her family to have moved from France to the U.S. before the start of World War II. She simultaneously struggles to bring her family to the U.S. and to develop a new kind of art, one that will later become known as Abstract Expressionism.

Alizée crosses paths with many major figures in World War II-era America. Shapiro has her working alongside real WPA artists who would later become famous: Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, and Lee Krasner. While Rothko and Pollock feel politics has no place in art, as European Jews struggle to escape the advancing Nazi army—and as they are turned away from virtually all Allied countries—Alizée begins to question the worth of art outside of politics. As Alizée works to develop an art form that is both political and abstract, she becomes acquainted with Eleanor Roosevelt, who purchases on of Alizée’s paintings.

Then, suddenly, Alizée disappears, never to be heard from again. Despite the best efforts of Rothko, Pollock, Krasner, Roosevelt, and members of Alizée’s family, no trace of her can be found. Danielle’s half of the story has her attempting to uncover the fate of her great-aunt and to prove that a set of unattributed paintings are her great-aunt’s work.

The novel begins somewhat slowly, but builds to a point where it is genuinely difficult to put down. Readers who’ve lived through or after World War II know of the genocide that is about to occur. Like Alizée, most won’t be able to understand the failure of major political figures to see this genocide coming and to work against it. The discussions among the WPA artists, as invented by Shapiro, become increasingly significant within this context. The issue of the role of politics in art is seen not just as a question of aesthetics, but a question of what the artist’s role (and our own) is in a world full of injustice.

This is a novel that readers will feel compelled to race through and that will stay with them long after they’ve finished reading.

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