Sacré Bleu – A Comedy D’Art

Although I had started reading Christopher Moore’s Sacré Bleu on my Kindle as I flew West, I stopped abruptly when my good friend told me her real book had the pictures in color. Mine were all in gray. Now with the book in hand, I can see I made the right decision. Not only does Moore sprinkle the narrative with great art from Manet, Toulouse-Lautrec, Pissarro, and many others, the cover is blue, and if you look carefully, the print is too.

At first, Moore’s typically irreverent approach seems tame compared to some of his other books. This story opens with the death of Van Gogh, and creates a mystery around his death; was it suicide or murder?

“Who tries to kill himself by shooting himself in the chest, then walks a mile to seek medical attention?”

But soon Moore introduces a few notes to let you know he has more than an investigation in mind: a mysterious crooked man in a bowler hat who mixes colors; a strange source for the cerulean blue powder used for the precious ultramarine pigment; time travel that gives participants amnesia; and his usual mix of crazy happenings. As promised, the color blue affects all the action – along with Moore’s trademark other-worldly fantasy mayhem.

Claude Monet

In Moore’s story you are invited into the world of Lucien Lessard, a French baker aspiring to be a great artist like his famous nineteenth century customers. (Lucien seemed so real, I found myself looking for his name among the Impressionists.)  Juliette is his beautiful model who seems to have an affinity for artists and the unusual capacity to put them under her spell while posing nude.  

As she travels through history with the Colorman, she leaves a wake of inspired paintings and a few painters with syphilis.  Her influence is not restricted to portraiture; Turner’s light and Monet’s railcars in steam are products of her Muse. Look for the blue.

J.M.W. Turner

Moore’s use of famous paintings as the focus for the plot reminded me of Steve Martin’s rendition of the dark and shady side of art in his last book – An Object of Beauty – but Moore’s Sacré Bleu resembles more of a Grimm’s fractured fairy tale version of art history.  In his “Afterward: So, Now You’ve Ruined Art,” Moore acknowledges his historical sources – some he ignored or changed for the sake of the story, but if you are a fan of Moore’s imaginative mix of fast-moving plots with crazy yet witty characters (Fluke is one of my favorites), you expect him to be bawdy, funny, and weird.  If you are a lover of great art, be prepared to never look at a painting again without thinking of Moore’s explanations for their inspiration.

Always entertaining, Moore has produced another gem in his collection of fantastic tales.   But be sure to read this one with the blue pages in your hands.

Related ReviewSteve Martin’s “An Object of Beauty

The Yellow House: Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Nine Turbulent Weeks in Provence

Can an artist be great if he hasn’t starved a little, or seen the world through his eccentricity?  In The Yellow House, Martin Gayford writes a documentary that reads like a novel, with his two main characters, the poor and upcoming self-taught artists – Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin.  Within nine weeks together in Southern France, they influenced both each other’s lives and art.

When Vincent Van Gogh sets up a studio that he hoped would attract a salon of artists in Arles, France,  his art dealer brother Theo was justifiably concerned for his ability to manage alone.   Theo bribed Gauguin with exclusivity in selling his paintings, free room and board, and an allowance that will keep both artists supported while they produce their art.  Using sketches of art produced during that nine week productive period, Gayford tracks how their friendship develops, until it tragically and abruptly ends.

References to their family lives, their personal habits, and their inspirations – all reveal Van Gogh and Gauguin as real men – more than the myths of “crazy artist and seer” attributed to Van Gogh, and Gauguin as “the painter who rejected civilization and went to live on the other side of the world in a primitive Eden.”  Like all their paintings, their stories were not so black and white.

In his last two chapters, “The Crisis” and “The Aftermath,”  Gayford brings his biographical story to its climax and explains the incident of Van Gogh’s ear as well as Gauguin’s eventual relocation to Tahiti.  If you skip over some of the other chapters, these two are worth your attention – again, the real story is more than the myths.

The Yellow House was a slow read for me; I actually read chapters now and then while reading other books – not a book that compelled me to stay with it – but an easy tutorial about who was behind those familiar renditions of sunflowers, starry nights, women, and self-portraits.