Posted by: Graeme McMillan on April 29, 2007
It almost feels like an insult to say that THE SALON should be compulsory reading for any course teaching the history of 20th century art; it suggests that the book is some kind of dry, informative, educational text, which couldn’t be further from the truth; someone who has absolutely no knowledge or interest in art could read this book and come away as in love with it as I did, without feeling as if they were being lectured or preached to. But nonetheless, one of the wonderful – and wonderfully sly – things about this book is the way that, almost without you noticing, it tries to explain the thinking behind the cubist movement and introduce you to Gertrude Stein and many of the movers and shakers of her artistic salon in Paris at the opening of the last century. It may distract with the amazingly inventive larger plot, but throughout the whole thing, conversation between Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque illustrates the excitement and drive that led to (and immediately surrounded) early cubism in a way that makes the whole thing relatable and understandable better than any art history teacher ever could.
And I taught in an art school, once. I should know these things.
There is nothing wrong with The Salon. And I kind of mean that in the literal sense – This is one of those rare books that you read with joy and a sense of stunned awe at just how good it is. Nick Bertozzi’s writing ambitiously mixes art theory with murder mystery with cultural history remixed with imaginative flights of fantasy (the effects of absinthe, for example, have to be seen to be believed) without putting a step wrong; the facts of the story may not be entirely historically accurate – I’m pretty sure that Gauguin’s ultimate fate, for example, is not what actually happened – but it’s true to who those involved were in terms of personality and outlook, and manages to relate those personalities truly to the reader while in the midst of a speedy and enjoyable pulp plot. Visually, Bertozzi doesn’t disappoint either; with a cartoony line reminiscent of Paul Pope drawing New Yorker cartoons and a smart and effective use of color throughout the book, it’s both beautiful and evocative, pushing the reader’s take on the action gently but surely throughout the entire book. The design of the book, with chapters separated by small pencil drawings surrounded by white space, and frontispieces that work both as design elements and plot hints, is also something to be applauded – This is a book that as intelligent in its visual elements as in its written elements, and – unusually for books that you can say that about – in both of those cases, it happens to be extremely intelligent as opposed to “Rob Liefeld”.
It’s a book that surpasses the hype, and something that I read and immediately started raving about to anyone that would listen, probably much to their annoyance. Smart, enjoyable, funny and entirely Excellent.