Horizon at Sandy Point

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Book review: Art and artifice in The Goldfinch

The Goldfinch is an actual work of Dutch artist Carel Fabritius who was a student of Rembrandt and a member of the Delft School. Though influenced by Rembrandt, Fabritius developed his own style. According to Wikipedia, "Fabritius' portraits feature delicately lit subjects against light-coloured, textured backgrounds. ... he became interested in the technical aspects of painting. He used cool colour harmonies to create shape in a luminous style of painting."

The Goldfinch was painted in 1654. Fabritius was experimenting with technique: "he showed excellent control of a heavily loaded brush." Fabritius died on October 12,1654, caught in the explosion of the Delft Gunpowder magazine which destroyed a quarter of the city, along with his studio and many of his paintings. He was 32. Only a few of his paintings survived, among them The Sentry and The Goldfinch. And no, The Goldfinch was not housed in nor did it disappear from the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Donna Tartt's prize-winning book The Goldfinch creates a parallel reality in which the life of schoolboy Theo Decker intersects with Fabritius's painting in a terrorist explosion at the New York Museum. In this violent event, he loses his mother. He saves the painting. And embarks on a life-defining adventure that brings him understanding and some wealth, and elucidates the nature and impact of art.

When he sees the original painting in the museum, Theo is instinctively drawn to it. His mother loved the painting, and he remembers the reproduction that until then, was for him the real thing. After the blast, when he takes the small canvas out of its frame and puts it in his backpack for safekeeping, The Goldfinch becomes the memento of his mother and keepsake of all he lost on that day. What follows is a life adventure that some have called Dickensian; others Harry Potterish.

Theo's relationship to the painting evolves with his life: attraction, acquisition, possession which breeds fear, and the eventual resolution which releases him. It is a complex emotional process, this relationship to a work of art. His friend Hobie is an excellent craftsman, fixing old furniture using traditional techniques, copying and matching wood grain and colour, but not an artist. The book debates the validity of copies (steps to the appreciation of the original) and the value of original artworks;  makes us wonder about the nature of the experience in the presence of art. Once encountered, the experience never leaves us. The Goldfinch is such an experience; it will remain and resonate with the real happening all around you, providing perspective, taking you out of yourself.

It is a story that may be read by all ages, the language apt and immediate, on occasion elaborately eloquent and over-wordy. Perhaps like the heavier brush strokes on The Goldfinch. The art historian will tell us why The Goldfinch may be considered a masterpiece: because it is one of a few remaining works by an artist who was experimenting; because his style might be seen in the works of more famous later painters, Vermeer and de Hooch. It is indeed a precious link, a marker in the continuum of human civilization. Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch is contemporary, dramatic, not just successor to Dickens and Rowling, but points the way to literature that integrates the past with the cinematic and digital qualities of the present.