I know nothing about art. Really nothing. I mean, I know when I like something, but that's about it. And I'm sorry to say it's not that I haven't had the opportunity to learn about art--actually, the college I went to had a very well-regarded art department. However, to take any of the classes, you had to first take Art 101, a yearlong survey course which was nothing less than a blood sport. The professors who ran the course were a particularly haughty, terrifying bunch; students who signed up to take the class waited in fear to find out which professor's tutorial they had been assigned to. In the end, it didn't matter, though, because they all were harsh, just harsh in different ways. That was just the day-to-day matter of taking the course, though--the midterms and finals in each semester held the entire college hostage. Students dropped pretty much everything else to study for them, and only them. It was considered a badge of honor to spend Friday and Saturday night in the Art History Library or Art Museum, and if you didn't at least try to get locked in to the museum overnight before an exam, well, you basically weren't trying (like that was a tough one for the security guard to crack--a hundred girls all trying to squeeze into corners and behind slim sculptures). Our school was supposed to have a spontaneous, let's celebrate autumn day off each October, but everyone could pretty much pick the date, because the art history professors wouldn't let the administration schedule it on one of their important dates...which was every day, according to them.
I decided I didn't need that kind of trouble, so I never got around to taking Art 101. I still feel somewhat guilty about it, though, so when wandering through the library, I saw a bright red book called, Explosive Acts : Toulouse-Lautrec, Oscar Wilde, Félix Fénẽon and the Art & Anarchy of the Fin de Siècle, by David Sweetman, I thought I had found something that would help fill this tremendous hole in my knowledge. A book about a time period I liked very much, connected with historical events I found interesting--those crazy 19th century anarchists, who couldn't ever really change society because anytime they came close to creating a political movement, someone would say, "Wait! We can't organize--we're anarchists!" And then they'd all scatter. Mix that in with a little art nouveau plus Paris, and you have pure fun, right?
When you pull a book randomly off a shelf, you sometimes experience the joy of finding an unexpected treasure. Other times, though, you just make a mistake. Sweetman's book felt closer to the latter for me.
Coming soon to a faux-French bistro near you.
The main problem was really the title. A title gives readers certain expectations, and when they don't match, sometimes it almost doesn't matter whether the book is good or not--it just feels disappointing. This book's title led me to believe that Toulouse-Lautrec, Oscar Wilde, and Félix Fénẽon were connected to each other and to the anarchists that created chaos with their bombings in Europe in the late 19th century. But Sweetman starts off with a straightforward biography of Toulouse-Lautrec, and that's pretty much where the book stays. Eventually Fénẽon and Wilde show up, and they get little, sketchy mini biographies, but that's really it. Then they just dodge in and out, and then strangely enough, as far as I can tell (I'll get to that in a minute), they don't meet up with and become close to or weave into the Lautrec story in any real way. Instead, Sweetman writes things like, "Fénẽon wrote about Lautrec's work..." "Wilde would have been familiar with Lautrec from Fénẽon's work..." "Fénẽon would likely have met Wilde here..." "Lautrec and Wilde's paths probably crossed there..." And needless to say, none of them turned out to have been tied to the anarchists, or really politically active.
Well, actually let me clarify that--it seems that Sweetman's premise (which I had misinterpreted from the title) is actually that although they weren't consciously politically active, they were through their work...inadvertently...I think... That is, that Lautrec, by choosing to paint workers, the lower-classes, the downtrodden and those treated roughly by life (hint: the people he painted at the Moulin Rouge were actually not having fun, if you look closely enough), was taking a political stance. Okay, that's one way of looking at it. Or maybe he was painting the people he found the most interesting or colorful. Fénẽon also was being political by using his critical writing to support artists who painted things like the underside of life. Or maybe he just liked new ways of artistic expression. And Wilde, by...oh well, you got me there. I think Sweetman means he was political by hanging out with artists. When he wasn't writing successful drawing room comedies. Which of course were also subversive because...oh yes, they featured strong women. Yes, that's the connection, Wilde and Lautrec both were intrigued by strong women. And that's why Lautrec liked to live in high-end Parisian brothels.
Okay, this is where the charade must end and I must make a confession. I can no longer keep my dreadful secret--I did not finish this book. I feel somewhat ashamed, because I usually do make every effort to finish a book, even one I don't feel that good about, because I don't think it's fair for me to judge a book without giving it a full chance. But I had a very practical reason--I was only about one hundred fifty pages from the end, and I knew I wouldn't be able to get to the library this weekend, and maybe not even on Monday. So I thought it was possible that if I kept this book and didn't go to the library, then I ran the risk of running out of things to read. Well, sure, I guess I could have gone, gotten my new books and kept this one a little longer. I could have done that if I liked the book more, but I just didn't.
Here's the problem. It's not that the book is dreadful--it's just that I felt like I wasn't getting good information. Sure, some of the little biographical nuggets Sweetman threw in were interesting enough, but they were interesting enough to make me think that I'd rather be reading a full out biography of Lautrec, and not one that wandered around so much, or was making a point I didn't really buy, or felt had much meaning. I also don't know if the art analysis was enough for me; oddly, in a book that was supposed to be using Lautrec's art to explain a political viewpoint, I felt like I wasn't getting a lot out of the passages about Lautrec's paintings. For some reason, I kept finding myself thinking, "Really...?" rather skeptically as I read. This could be my own admitted ignorance, but I'd like another take on it all from another source. On a minor point, I found the book's design a little frustrating--this was one of those books where pictures showed up pages before or after they were discussed in the text, which is always annoying--not all of them, but enough. Also, while I understand that printing color pages is very expensive, still, this is supposed to be a book about art and artists, so couldn't they have worked in one tiny section of color plates?
I can't really comment on Sweetman's handling of Wilde and Fénẽon, because there wasn't enough there, and it didn't feel cohesive enough. Of course I now must guiltily say that perhaps it all comes together in those last one hundred fifty pages.
With that in mind, I feel it's unfair for me to make a recommendation for or against this book. I can only say that it wasn't right for me, although it did pique my interest in reading more about the artists in that time period. The real question, though, is whether I would have gotten more out of this book if I had taken Art 101. The haughty professor brigade would no doubt say absolutely, yes. I would giddily say, no, and think instead of starlit fall New England nights where I stood outside and looked at the shadows of the mountains, instead of the dingy interior of the art library, and of being in Paris and looking at the sun coming through the high windows of a former train station, now a museum, instead of the paintings on the wall, and of other things, which are too strange and elusive to say aloud.