Monday, January 03, 2005

Irving Stone’s Depths of Glory

‘Depths of Glory’ is a biographical novel of the impressionist painter Camille Pissario. The best thing I liked about the novel was its lyrical and poetic narrative. The beauty in the prose is peered in its strength only by the fierce resolve evoked by one man living his life out in a way he wanted. And if the story is accurate, it indeed qualifies as a reference book for those interested in 19th century art life. Don’t get turned off by this seemingly academic tone I have set for this review. It is not just about painting. It has everything that has ever beleaguered the artist. Passion, Awe for nature, Grit, Iconoclasm, Comradeship and last but not the least Love.
In one simple sentence the work celebrates the work and life of Camille Pissario. Camille was the vanguard of a new artistic movement, which was brewing in the mid-19th century, called Impressionism. Impressionist artists were dissatisfied with the existing art form which drew heavily upon historical, biblical and political themes. The Impressionist painters found their inspiration in Nature. They defined painting as brushing down their impressions which they had when they were first moved by the motif. Hence the name. The novel talks ruggedly about how this group of mavericks turned the art world upside down. Each colourful member in this iconoclastic group was portrayed beautifully by the author. He has caught the eccentricities of each one of them so vividly.
The descriptions of the paintings as Camille paints them are delightful as well. The novelist in fact seems to have made a serious effort to capture in text what the painter has tried to capture in his canvas. You can judge this after digesting the fact that it has prompted me, who am quite alien to the fact that you can find joy in the beauty of an Orchard bloom caught in the canvas, to search for Camille’s celebrated paintings in the Internet.

To cut short a long summary, here is what our Camille Pissario did:
Decided to become a painter alienating his family entrenched in trade.
Alienates his family even more by falling in love with the family servant girl.
Being a Jew alienated his religion by his act of marriage to the Catholic servant, Julie.
Alienates the art world by painting nature and more than a proportionate number of nude models, thus defying the status quo.

What you have in the end is one heck of an iconoclast, one explosive movement and what is inevitable in these circumstances: one floundering family.

What I also liked about the novel is the fact that it was extremely realistic. It was not painting the picture of the idealized bohemian life like the ones which people like to read. Rather it describes in the most mind-numbing detail, the pain and challenges that come along with being who you really are. The way Camille’s family pulled it all off is also described heroically.
It would be a great injustice to the novel and to Camille himself if I forget to glorify the love between Camille and Julie. What started as a painting assignment in a run-down servant quarters blossomed into a strong-willed love any man would die for. Julie is portrayed as an extremely docile creature given in to her husband’s almost futile determination to prove himself to the world. She puts up with all the travail that comes up with marrying a half-insane artist whose income is not enough to replenish his oil and canvas supplies. Even then, she occasionally in the most subtle ways prompts him of the obvious reality.
The novel culminates with the society finally maturing enough to appreciate Camille’s work. It is different from the usual happy-endings in the sense that the protagonist did not perform one ultimate artistic leap to get himself recognized. It is the society rather which had taken that leap.

The following are some selected sentences which moved me:

Painting, art in general enchants me. It’s my life. Nothing else matters. When you put all your soul into a work, all that is noble in you, you cannot fail to find a kindred spirit who understands you, and you do not need a host of such spirits.

They were a superbly matched couple but grimly determined not to acknowledge it, both frightened by their attraction, held apart by a mutual horror of intimacy.

He wants the ‘Legion of Honor’. The little red ribbon in his buttonhole. That’s more important to him than good painting. What he doesn’t understand is that the little ribbon in his buttonhole will rot with the rest of him in the coffin, while good art is indestructible.

Pisarrio, you don’t believe in proper God. He takes good care of fools, children and artists.

I don’t know which is worse, being hungry when you are here or being lonely when you are gone.

It was an endless journey home. When he burst into the house, ran through the rooms to the kitchen, he found Julie resignedly peeling potatoes. An explosion of thankfulness burst through his lungs. He took her in his arms, wept in relief, strong broken phrases of how much he loved her.

As I told Cezane, Do not attempt to convince your peers, the next generation will understand you. We only have to survive.

He turned away from his easel, from his window overlooking the universe, a tiny smile at the corner of his lips, his dark eyes gleaming with the memories of the decades of struggle of his impressionist confreres.

Happy are those who see beauty in the modest spots where others see nothing. Everything is beautiful; the whole secret lies in knowing how to interpret.

With novels like “The Da-Vinci Code” getting hysterical attention these days, one must not relinquish the simple joys of poetic sensitivity.
I generally don’t like to talk about the not-so-good things about any work; nevertheless, I give it to: The novel is really looooong. Sometimes the cycle of acceptance and then the fall from grace is almost monotonous. This is probably because the author wanted to write an authentic account of his life history. Also, the abject poverty is described at least once in every chapter that you seem so sober in the end of it all. It will certainly make a great read especially after you have being pounded upon by those fast-paced novels whose authors claim that they have done a through and a comprehensive research on the subject. I guess you know what I am talking about…. ;-)


Gokulakrishnan S said...

Ossum review dude.

Anonymous said...

I happened to come across your blogspot while doing a search for Depths of Glory, which I am currently in midst of reading, although I had the paperback for ages collecting dust. I thought your review was insightful, and I tend to agree with your accessment of the details in the biographical novel. I've read Stone's The Agony and the Ectasy, and thought that too was a good novel.
But the more I read into Depths of Glory, I find what a truly great work it is. It does allow the reader to gather a great deal of the movement of impressionism, Pissaro's own struggle, without any of the romanticism surrounding the life of a boheme.
I'm glad someone else has read it, and especially glad you gave a very insightful review of the novel.

A.J.Anto said...

Thats a lot of compliments!! :-) I will try to get my hands on Stone's "The Agony and the Ectasy" as soon as i am back in Landmark Chennai.

Anonymous said...

Your article is very informative and helped me further.

Thanks, David