Picturing Exhibition Collectors

Books

By Saul Austerlitz

Published May 20, 2009, issue of May 29, 2009.
  • Print
  • Share Share

A chance encounter at a Parisian cocktail party brought novelist Sara Houghteling together with the woman whose family would serve as the subject of her first novel. Chatting with a lawyer, Houghteling mentioned her work in progress, which would study the efforts of a prominent French family of art dealers to recover works of art looted by the Nazis. She was told the story sounded a great deal like that of a friend’s family. The 31-year-old Jewish novelist was introduced to Marianne Rosenberg, whose grandfather, Paul, had been one of the most prominent dealers of modern art in pre-World War II Paris, serving as the exclusive dealer for Picasso, Braque and Matisse, among others. Houghteling already had been fascinated by the heroic efforts of the curator of the Jeu de Paume museum in Paris, Rose Valland, who had taken great risks to document Nazi looting. Bringing together the two strands — dealer and curator, Jew and non-Jew — Houghteling’s debut novel, “Pictures at an Exhibition,” was born.

Fulbright and Beyond: From a cocktail party attendee to award-winning writer in one novel swoop.
SARA HOUGHTELING
Fulbright and Beyond: From a cocktail party attendee to award-winning writer in one novel swoop.

“The modern art world, in my opinion,” Houghteling said, “was really driven by these Jewish dealers, who were willing to take tremendous financial risks, tremendous professional risks, on these Christian artists so they could be artists.”

The protagonist of “Pictures,” Max Berenzon, scion of the art dealing Berenzon family, undertakes a Dantean journey through the post-liberation Parisian underworld, in search of his father’s stolen collection. His father’s onetime assistant, Rose Clement, the subject of the younger Berenzon’s unrequited love, turns herself into “a registry of lost art,” assisting Berenzon in sorting through the amoral morass of former Nazi collaborators and unscrupulous dealers — all in the hope of tracking down his father’s favorite painting: Manet’s forlorn, barren “Almonds.” Clement and Berenzon are representatives of a France that never was, unceasingly pursuing the truth of French collaboration and moral callousness, and “Almonds” is a symbol of Berenzon’s own constricted life.

“Max is somebody who feels constrained in his life, and he doesn’t quite understand why. This is a late Manet, and so it’s a very constrained painting,” Houghteling said.

For the author, the seeds of “Pictures” had been planted long ago. “My father’s father worked for the Marshall Plan, and so my father lived in Paris as a young boy in the postwar period, and had these incredible stories of being in a place that’s known as the capital of luxury, but where there was also incredible privation,” the author and California high school teacher said. An art history enthusiast, Houghteling had suggested writing a series of interconnected stories inspired by Manet paintings for her Harvard undergraduate thesis, only to be summarily denied; however, while enrolled in a Master of Fine Arts program at the University of Michigan, Houghteling had the opportunity to study art history with a professor who was willing to accept novel chapters in lieu of research papers.

Houghteling’s grasp of art historical nuance is immediately obvious in reading “Pictures,” which mingles suspense novel atmospherics and Jewish history with sharply observed thumbnail portraits of lost modern art masterpieces. “Whenever I was stuck in the novel, I would try and write about a painting,” Houghteling remembered, “and that would often help me become unstuck. Probably, the tension between two different art forms rubbing up against each other liberated my writer’s block.”

Houghteling spent a year in Paris on a Fulbright scholarship, and encounters with the elderly Jews she met there informed the novel’s atmosphere. The elfin descendant of a furniture dealer remembered gentile families ringing his family’s doorbell in the middle of the night. When the door was opened, his family would discover 10 matching chairs, or an armoire. His parents chalked it up to French generosity to a family in need, but the sons knew otherwise, seeing the anonymous donations as ex-collaborators’ scrambling to discard the evidence of their assistance to the Nazis.

Romance and clear-eyed historical reportage: These are the building blocks of Houghteling’s novel, the product of a Jewish writer for whom the idea of France is perpetually fraught with conflict. For a brief moment, Houghteling considered writing “Pictures” from the perspective of a Christian art dealer, but this notion was rapidly jettisoned. “I thought about what it would be like to write this from the point of view of a Christian art dealing family, and I realize that I’ve never tasted a communion wafer,” Houghteling noted. “That was my real hang-up.”

At an event at New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage last February, Houghteling and Rosenberg discussed the fate of the latter’s art collection, of which 62 paintings remain at large. The Rosenberg family has pledged never to settle for a payoff, preferring the paintings themselves to a financial settlement. Encouraged by the recent return of numerous legendary artworks, including Klimt’s “Adele Bloch-Bauer I,” to their rightful Jewish owners, Rosenberg expressed cautious optimism that eventually, the remainder of her family’s paintings would be discovered. Unlikelier things had happened: Rosenberg’s father, Alexandre, serving with De Gaulle’s Free French Forces, had been sent in 1944 to stop the last train of Jews being deported from France. The train contained no Jews, but Rosenberg discovered 29 Braques, eight Bonnards, four Degas and 64 Picassos — all belonging to his family.

Saul Austerlitz is a writer living in New York.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • Planning on catching "Fading Gigolo" this weekend? Read our review.
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. http://jd.fo/q3Iaj Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach! http://jd.fo/q3LO2
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • Aperitif Cocktail, Tequila Shot, Tom Collins or Vodka Soda — Which son do you relate to?
  • Elvis craved bacon on tour. Michael Jackson craved matzo ball soup. We've got the recipe.
  • This is the face of hatred.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.