Books, Fiction

Art and Books: Kate Russo, Balzac, and the uncertainties of art

For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror
which we are barely able to endure and are awed
because it serenely disdains to destroy us.
Rainer Maria Rilke

Contributed by Mark Wethli / In the second part of Kate Russo’s marvelous first novel, Super Host, published earlier this year, we meet Emma Easton, an artist from Providence, Rhode Island. She and her husband Theo, both RISD grads, are in London for a month, where he’s come to help his mother with his brother’s worsening drug addiction. During their time in London they’re staying at an “AirBed” run by Bennett Driscoll, a British painter whose once stellar career has fizzled, forcing him to rent his ample and well-appointed home to visitors and take up residence in the garden studio behind the house. He turns out to be good at his new enterprise, earning him the coveted title of an AirBed “Super Host.” Over the course of the book we meet three of his guests and learn how their stories and his intertwine. All three tales are witty, moving, and beautifully written, but it’s Emma Easton’s that raises the most provocative questions about the often torturous relationship between an artist and her work.

Emma is being treated for a variety of obsessive-compulsive disorders, most notably her unsettling reaction to physical imperfections of any kind – peeling paint, ripped or torn upholstery, or any sign of decay or degradation – which she calls her “negative obsessions.” Alone for extended periods of time, Emma sets up a drawing studio in a spacious, well-lit room on the upper story of the house, where she occasionally watches Bennett from her view overlooking the garden and his studio. She notices him watching her, heightening her sense of vulnerability, isolation, and anxiety alongside feelings of contempt, fascination, and envy towards her host.

Emma’s compulsions lead her to transform one of the rooms of Bennett’s house. She begins with a crack she notices along one wall of her studio, painstakingly retracing it with a maroon pencil and embellishing it further with successive rows of colored lines until it becomes a wide band. She then outlines and fills in each of the boards on the white wood floor in a similar manner. Fascinated and terrified by what she’s done, she imagines telling her therapist about the transmogrified crack: “It’s pulsing. It’s alive.” When Theo comes home and discovers the room, he’s taken aback, insisting on “fixing” what he considers a psychotic episode by painting it over. She passively but gratefully agrees, yet she is aware that her perception of the crack as she had enhanced it, even painted over, will remain real and painful.

It’s interesting to imagine Emma’s finished piece. Russo describes a large, well-lit room with white walls and ceiling and a painted floor, with generous skylights and one wall of windows facing the garden. Even with the king-size bed and some bedroom furniture, it would be hard to miss the embellished crack, which Emma sees as a bruised vein: invasive, out of place, uncanny. The world’s loss of an extraordinary artistic achievement and the questionable mental state of its creator are poignant themes here, reminiscent of  “The Unknown Masterpiece,” the celebrated short story by Honoré de Balzac, published in 1831.

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In 1931 Pablo Picasso made a series of etchings that illustrated Balzac’s short story, “The Hidden Masterpiece” (Le Chef-d’oeuvre inconnu). Image via Open Culture.

Many artists, including Cezanne and Picasso – and very likely Bennett Driscoll– have identified with Balzac’s main character, the master painter Frenhofer. His single-minded determination to paint his masterpiece – a portrait of a beautiful woman – leads him to create a painting that might look to us like a Turner or a de Kooning, save for the appearance of a solitary human foot. We’re left to assume that this one recognizable element is the only remaining fragment of the portrait that preceded it, and to question whether the painting is either a transcendent work of genius or a delusional product of madness. Frenhofer’s small audience of two other painters have no idea what to make of it. To them, the painting appears to be “confused masses of color and a multitude of fantastical lines,” even as they note the bare foot “emerging from the chaos of color, half-tints and vague shadows that made up a dim, formless fog.” Bitterly disappointed by their reaction, Frenhofer destroys the painting and dies the same night, heartbroken.

While Emma’s story and Frenhofer’s are not the same, the ways in which they overlap and diverge are nevertheless revealing. Unlike Frenhofer, of course, Easton is just starting her life as an artist. She never has a chance to discuss the work with her husband, as Frenhofer does with his two friends, or to hear anyone else’s reaction to it as a work of art. Though both she and Theo have a sophisticated understanding of contemporary art, neither of them seems to regard the work as art at all, but as the manifestation of neurosis or a willful act of vandalism. In other words, Emma and Theo are as blind to her creation as Frenhofer’s friends are to his, in both cases because their preconceptions of “art” were too small or inflexible to embrace the work any differently.

Emma’s and Frenhofer’s reasons for destroying their own artworks are likewise not the same. Frenhofer destroys his piece in a fit of despair because he regards his painting as an artistic and vocational failure. Emma agrees to the erasure of her creation in hopes of escaping her inner demons. Theo’s motives, by comparison, are more cowardly as he seeks merely to avoid Bennett’s opprobrium and to conceal a truth about his wife that he’s unable to confront or remedy.

What the two stories have in common, however, is asking the reader to confront the question of each artist’s state of mind. Were each of them working at such an advanced level, consciously or not, that the work was beyond their contemporaries’ comprehension, or had they simply come unhinged? Or does it matter?

Balzac’s story has proven extraordinarily prescient and influential. Picasso intentionally rented the studio it was set in, and painted Guernica there, reflecting the story’s well-earned reputation as “a parable of modern art,” as Dore Ashton called it. Emma’s story in Russo’s novel, for its part, is a compelling addition to this theme, but one whose impact on the future of art is still unknown. Nevertheless, Emma’s plight serves as a modern parable for any artist who has suppressed the full extent of her powers because they were too daunting, repellent, or incomprehensible. At the same time, this failing intimates how some artists – by virtue of temperament or sheer determination – have been able to embrace and pursue their vision to its fullest in spite of their demons and debilities.

When Picasso was asked, late in life, to what he attributed his success, he reportedly replied, “self-trust,” relegating a long list of artistic and creative abilities to lesser roles. Most artists dream of bringing their work “to life” in one form or another, the story of Pygmalion being a classic paradigm. But for Emma, that prospect is frightening and compels her to turn away from what might have been her masterpiece, as well as art’s greatest reward—to create something larger than oneself. “It looks like it’s rotting,” she thinks to herself. “Only living things can rot.” The cruel irony is that the work she has brought to life reminds her of death and decay, which moves her to destroy it; a vivid example of the very fine line that separates an artist’s fruition from her undoing. The trick, as Picasso suggested, is to find the strength, however one can, to trust oneself.

About the author: Mark Wethli is a painter and the A. Leroy Greason Professor of Art at Bowdoin College.

Related Posts:
Fiction: The Unknown Masterpiece [Honore De Balzac]
Fiction: The Teddy Bears [Laurie Fendrich]
Agnes Martin: A resolutely solitary endeavor
Matthew Wong: Fearless to the end

3 Comments

  1. I found this really intriguing in the book too. Still working hard on VISUALIZING what Emma created. A sad loss. Briiliant writing here and in the novel.

  2. I just finished “Super Host” and was similarly impressed with Russo’s depiction of Emma’s relationship to her art making. Being an artist, I tend to get easily annoyed by the way most artist protagonists are portrayed in fiction yet I bought Emma, both as a character and as an artist. I too kept trying to visualize the room she transformed.

  3. I’m often annoyed by the way artist protagonists are depicted in contemporary fiction.
    However, I too, thought Kate Russo did a great job in “Super Host” exploring Emma’s relationship to her art making. I can’t get the room she transformed out of my head.

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