Saturday, October 20, 2007

Girl in Hyacinth Blue --

I now understand why Susan Vreeland is a medyo big deal. While I wasn't so impressed with her Artemisia, I was blown away by Girl in Hyacinth Blue -- her "first" novel.

When I first heard about Girl in Hyacinth Blue, I thought it was just riding on the success of Girl with a Pearl Earring (the whole Vermeer connection) but Vreeland's novel is very, very different.

It was very bold of Vreeland to create a painting and to attribute it to Vermeer. It is a simple painting, described as that of a girl looking out of a window but the painting has a very complicated history which is explored in Vreeland's novel.

The novel begins in the "now" where the owner of the painting shows it to his friend and the question of its authenticity and author are asked. Is it really a Vermeer? How/Where did you get it?

And so it began -- with each succeeding chapter, we are taken further and further into the painting's history and we get a glimpse of how each of the painting's owners viewed her -- the Nazi who "saved" it from Hitler's Department for the Appropriation of Household Effects; the Nazi's son trying to reconcile the two halves of the painting's story: his father's part in the atrocities and the beauty of the painting; the man who bought it to remember his first and only love (and his wife who thought it was his anniversary present to her); the daughter who posed for the painting, etc.

It brings about another question -- what is the purpose of Art? Vreeland provides different answers to this question -- ranging from purely commercial to deeply personal but the common theme in all the chapters is that Art is valuable.

One of the central questions of the story is whether the painting is an authentic Vermeer because it was never signed. I think it makes a wonderful point about Art -- does the artist really matter or is the work itself enough? Will the work be valued less if it weren't a Vermeer? Vreeland explores this question in the chapter "Hyacinth Blues" --

"There is no signature. If there was any chance those papers said a van Mieris, I'd give you two hundred guilders, but for only a Vermeer, phugh."

I wrapped the painting again and left without a word more, took it to a second dealer and said it was a van Mieris.

"Are you sure it's not a Vermeer?"

"I'm certain."

Near the end of the novel, Vreeland reveals that it is a Vermeer but, by then, it doesn't matter anymore. For me, the painting has come alive and has become very real before this revelation. What this does is add yet another dimension to the painting -- why did Vermeer "paint" it? What were his circumstances when he "painted" it? In the chapter, "Still Life" we see Vermeer the painter but also Vermeer the man. While his works are beautiful, his life was a constant struggle with poverty, society and his family.

Vreeland's novel is a thought-provoking exploration of Art. She invites her readers to engage in a moment of quite contemplation, as though one was viewing a painting and not a novel -- and to ask the questions the novel presents.

"Why does the world need another painting of a woman alone in a room? Or a hundred more paintings?"

"The world doesn't know all that it needs yet..."

My copy of the book has a reader's guide at the back and one of the points for discussion is how we imagine the Girl in Hyacinth Blue. I searched the Internet for the covers of the book and here they are:

The cover that I have

Another cover

A guy actually painted his version of it ^_^

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