When fiction attempts to incorporate art and artists, it can often end badly. Descriptions of the act of creating can read like bad erotica, or pages of too much art historical detail disrupt the flow of the story. Both feel like the author is showing off how much research they have done; they’ve read some Gombrich or have sat in an artist’s studio for a day, hovering at their elbow.
So when two books come along that do it right, I rejoice. This is no surprise for readers of Ali Smith, but The Muse is an unexpected joy. The two are very different but both explore the impact art can have in one’s life, why one creates, and the role art history has in society.
Autumn is the first in a quartet of books, Seasonal, by Ali Smith all about life in Britain now. And by now, I mean that Autumn is about Brexit and Jo Cox and the aftermath last summer, yet it was only published in October. It is about Elisabeth, a zero-hours junior history of art lecturer, and her friendship with her old neighbour Daniel and what he teaches her about life, art, humanity, identity, politics and death. They have a shared interest in the sixties pop artist Pauline Boty, an extraordinary figure whose work and biography Smith weaves into the storyline.
The Muse is Jessie Burton’s second novel, following her bestseller The Miniaturist, and I think this is far better. Set in 1960’s London and 1930’s Spain, it follows Odelle, a young woman who has come to London from Trinidad to pursue her career as a writer, and Olive, a girl who paints in secret and finds inspiration in both the Andalusian landscape and a handsome young revolutionary called Isaac. The mystery behind a painting links the two stories together to great effect.
It is obvious that both Burton and Smith understand the impact that art can have on one’s life and each treat it both with reverence and playfulness. In The Muse, Odelle works as a typist at the Skelton Institute (a thinly-veiled fictional Courtauld) and learns about the mechanics behind provenance, exhibitions and how cut-throat the art world can be, whereas Olive realises the harm that art and passion cause, to devastating consequences. For Elisabeth in Autumn, art is a healing tool that aids her in better understanding the world. Her research into Boty leads her to question the authority male artists are automatically given, and how women are relegated as amateurs, and how she in turn relegates herself.
In these books, the incorporation of art enriches the story and allows Smith and Burton to use visual culture as a conduit for abstract thought and feeling. This is the beauty of art. A way to uncover and express that which is deeply held, and to better understand the worlds we inhabit.