Is art just a refuge for those who can’t connect?
From “The Italian Teacher”, by Tom Rachman
When I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, Irving Stone held the franchise for historical fiction about artists. His biographical novel about Vincent Van Gogh, “Lust for Life,” was made into a movie in 1956, with Kirk Douglas starring as the troubled Dutch impressionist.
Almost a decade later, Charlton Heston starred as the multi-talented artistic genius, Michelangelo, in the movie version of Stone’s 1961 best-selling biographical novel, “The Agony and the Ecstasy.”
American readers clearly love to read novels about artists with big passions and big personalities, artists who “lust for life” while suffering “the agony and the ecstasy” of what it means to be an artist. Striding into that genre comes Bear Bavinsky, a larger-than-life fictional painter who barges into our reading lives in “The Italian Teacher,” written by Tom Rachman.
Actually, Bear doesn’t stride off the first page of the novel, which opens in Rome in 1955, he stands up in a copper bathtub, lights his ever-present tobacco pipe, and holds onto his five-year old son’s head to balance himself as he steps out of the tub. The son, Pinch, bears the weight of his father then, and throughout the rest of the novel. His father, “a fortyish male animal,” is married to Pinch’s mother, Natalie, who is also an artist, a potter. The three of them, their relationship with one another and the people they engage with, both real and imagined, become the novel, which takes us in 89 chapters from Rome, 1955, to London, 2018.
Bear Bavinsky. His name speaks volumes about the artist. He dominates every relationship he’s involved in. Multiple wives; multiple lovers; seventeen children in all by them. But his favorite child is Charles Bavinsky, nick-named Pinch, born in 1950, whose life story is the centerpiece of the novel.
Bear’s artistic journey is very clear to him. He looks for perfection in his work, and over a lifetime he methodically, patiently, develops a series of paintings that are simply called “26 Life Stills,” distinctive paintings that are parts of people, not whole people, but limbs, necks, hands. All the attempts at art that don’t meet his highly critical evaluations end up getting incinerated so as to not devalue his search for perfection in his art.
Meanwhile, wives, lovers, children, suffer from neglect, especially Pinch, who while growing up, sees himself following in his father’s footsteps, becoming an artist in his own right. When he finally works up the courage as a young man, after years of practice, to show Bear one of his own paintings, Bear looks at his son’s work and says, “You’re not an artist. And you never will be.”
Bear’s extraordinarily high artistic standard won’t even allow him to appreciate his wife’s pottery. He tells his son in a phone call after Natalie’s suicide, “She wants to please…her pieces were never really first class….”
One of Bear’s daughters, Birdie, Pinch’s step-sister, says to Pinch late in the novel, “The art was so much better than the man.” Bear was ruthless in all of his relationships.
As Pinch grows up, he temporarily ends his pursuit of an art career to look for other possible careers, first as an art critic and later as a linguist, following his interest in languages. At the Utz Language School in England, he becomes the eponymous Italian teacher.
A financial crisis for Pinch’s older step-sister, Birdie—Bear’s youngest daughter—ignites the fire at the core of the novel: Pinch’s decision to imitate his father’s paintings with his own art work that he then sells as if it were Bear’s work. When the first sale is eventually completed in a dramatic coup de grace, it opens up a veritable palette of possibilities for Pinch that leads step by step, easel by easel, to the novel’s dramatic conclusion.
Tom Rachman is a gifted storyteller. He takes on many issues in the world of art, from the basic question, what is art? to how does art get valued? to who sets those values?
At times, he becomes an aphorist about art:
I’ve never met an artist who didn’t worry what everybody thinks.
[Artists] get imprisoned by their success.
Never did he fall into the maw of mammon.
Nothing sadder than those who declare themselves artists when not a soul cares what they create.
To succeed as an artist demands a rare confluence of personality, of talent, of luck—all bundled into a single lifespan.
The paintings are remorse, made visible.
Nobody wants a well-behaved artist.
The taste-makers call something important until it becomes so, making themselves important in the process.
Success in art is fifty-percent timing, fifty percent geography. The rest is talent.
But because this novel is about relationships, Bear’s many, Pinch’s fewer but more developed, Rachman also chooses to become an aphorist about relationships:
Nobody likes to be understood without warning.
What a muddled sensation: the success of one who didn’t love you back.
It is so much easier to connect when you cannot touch.
Why does anyone reach out to an old flame? It’s never quite innocent.
The indolent and the industrious cannot stay friends.
Rachman combines fictional people with real people—Caravaggio, Chagall, Modigliani, Picasso—and with real historic events, such as the Documenta Exhibition in Kassel, Germany in 1959 and the Guggenheim 64 Painters Exhibit in 1961, to weave a story about family and the state of modern art. At times, Rachman is too ornate in his descriptions, too slapstick in his attempts at humor, to satisfy this reviewer’s expectations.
But his observations about artists and their attempts at filling an empty canvas do ring true, such as this quote near the novel’s end:
“But he [Pinch] finds solidarity here, linking himself with all those quiet types who looked upon blank surfaces with expectations, those who mark objects to erase themselves, who dissolve in the bliss of work.”
To dissolve in the bliss of work. Rachman knows something true here. And that makes up for quite a few artless lapses.
November 13, 2018