Pictures at an Exhibition
by Sara Houghteling
Knopf, 256 pp., $24.95
As a vision of post-World War II Paris at the moment the great city was beginning to right itself after four years of German occupation, Pictures at an Exhibition has the fine-grained feeling of photographs by Kertesz or Atget. But in a sparkling prewar prelude--to mix art and music in ways this writer does--it's the memories of a young Max Berenzon, as recollected by Max in late middle age, that render his picture of family ineradicable.
Born into the cultural aristocracy of Parisian art dealers of the 1920s, Max was the son of gallery owner Daniel Berenzon, renowned for his Modigliani-like elegance and expertise in 20th-century painting (he represented Picasso and Matisse). Max's beautiful mother, Eva, was a Polish-born concert pianist who "heard sharps in the opening and closing of my dresser drawers and an unpleasant A-flat when the telephone rang. She thanked Father for choosing an automobile whose motor played an excellent C."
If the aristocracy was a bit shallow--Max's grandfather made his fortune trading materials for the canvases of as-yet unknown artists in his paint shop--the adoring Max ranked his father among the great European collectors
whose genius was not in the handling of paint itself, but in the handling of men who painted. They encouraged the artists' outrageous experiments so that they could paint without fear of financial ruin. . . . They were as devoted as monks to the beauty of their illuminated manuscripts. Or so my father said, in his most rhapsodic moments.
Beyond the rhapsody, Daniel had the connoisseur's coolly assessing eye. Among his paintings was only one, Manet's Almonds, that without ever admitting his love for it, he refused to sell. And to his son's deep disappointment, he had urged Max toward medical school, as not suited to the collector's career: "I lacked, he had said, the memory, the business acumen, the ruthlessness, and the lucidity of vision to predict what could be bought one spring and sold a dozen Junes hence."
In the family apartment housing the gallery, while Eva listened over the radio to the fall of her homeland to Hitler, Max was falling in love with Daniel's new assistant, Rose Clément. Paris hovered under the threat of German bombardment, with sandbags stockpiled inside the Louvre, when Max, eager to impress both Daniel and Rose, bid at auction on another Manet, but Rose recognized the work as a fake. Humiliated, Max gratefully saw his father shrug off his blunder as a valuable lesson, and one learned eventually by every connoisseur. But the best consolation came from Eva, in her awkward French, describing the origin of Mussorgsky's most famous musical composition, to make a case for the necessity of all art--good or bad, lost or remembered, original or derivative, even inauthentic.
In August 1944 the challenge of authenticity becomes a recurring theme when Daniel and Max reach Paris, with Eva left safe in the countryside and the Germans in retreat, and find their apartment fire-ravaged and stripped of all paintings and furnishings. Across Europe, wartime damage under the Third Reich in artwork alone is estimated today at some 100,000 works stolen, destroyed, or lost, some 40,000 of which have never been recovered--and the loss was greatest by far in France. Unfurling the scope of this depredation, Pictures narrows its lens down to the personal as Max sets out, leaving his badly demoralized father behind, to uncover what's left of the Parisian art world, looking also for Rose and his childhood friend Bernard, to recoup what he can of his own and his family's past.
Houghteling writes with a spare grace, every scene supple and brisk, on this dark odyssey through a spiritually dimmed city, where refugees wait in long lines for ration cards, collaborators hide out in the Paris police force, and American soldiers haggle to sell valued possessions back to their original owners. Imagined characters mix with historical figures: Daniel is based on the fabled Parisian gallery owner Paul Rosenberg; René Huyghe, credited here with Daniel's hiring of Rose, was a distinguished curator at the Louvre; Bertrand was a scion of a great family of museum contributors lost in the concentration camps. Even Maurice Chevalier appears, to define a moment of moral ambiguity.
Skirting through a little Left Bank pornography on the way back to the heights of an art market soured by survival-level opportunism and greed, a chance find in a ratty bookshop has Daniel returned to the exercise of his critical powers, when Max finds Rose again, and learns some of the perversities of wartime looting:
"It was with your collection that I understood how Goering had organized a new economy. It benefited Hitler first, Goering shortly thereafter and next the French art dealers. . . . The market was flooded with forgeries precisely because the Germans wanted this so-called Aryan art, from centuries past with no 'degeneracy' and no modernity. . . . No money changed hands. The Jews' art replaced the need for currency. Goering kept his two paintings, and the French dealer obtained twelve masterpieces that he would quickly sell. . . . Hitler's acquisitions are much easier for me to trace, since he insisted on 'paying' for his. He had a middle-class attitude toward finances."
Rose is based on the real-life Rose Valland, a curator at Paris's museum of modern works, the Jeu de Paume. Frumpy and single-minded, Valland worked virtually unnoticed under the noses of the Nazis throughout the war, documenting the huge volume of confiscated works that passed through the museum, and alerting the Resistance about trainloads of loot headed for Germany, keeping them out of range of Allied bombs.
If a poignant family secret linked to Almonds never quite gains traction against the density of the history embedded here, the story never loses the thread of its main intention: to calibrate the sustaining power of art, great or modest, among those who know it best and treasure it most, beyond every nuance of creative expression and centime of material worth--and the consolation in the memories of it when all else has been lost. And if the Rose of history never quite lived up to the glamour of Max's Rose, chalk it up to the memories of a young man in Paris seeing for the first time through the eyes of love.
Edith Alston is a writer and editor in New York.