Friday, 31 August 2018

Book Review: The Naked Lady by Vicente Blasco Ibáñez be an artist usually implies many struggles, some of them useless not to say quixotic. Part of the problem are people who feel called upon to decide what true art should or should not be and thus influence public opinion including potential buyers. Notably religious leaders along with other rich and powerful personalities have inspired and supported, but also limited artists in their work during most of human history. In Spain, the Holy Inquisition left its mark in art as well as in the minds of people as the painting protagonist of the classical novel The Naked Lady by Vicente Blasco Ibáñez is painfully aware. His convent-educated, bourgeois wife gets into a tantrum over models taking off their clothes before him in his workshop. He abides by her wishes and becomes a celebrated painter of “decent” pictures dreaming all the while of producing a nude like Francisco de Goya.

Vicente Blasco Ibáñez born in Valencia, Spain, in January 1867. After law studies, he devoted himself to writing and socialist politics that brought him into prison and French exile several times. In 1892, he published his first novel La araña negra (tr. The Black Spider). Other Valencian novels like Mayflower (Flor de mayo: 1895), The Cabin (La Barraca: 1898), and Reeds and Mud (Cañas y barro: 1902) followed before he turned from naturalistic to sociocritical with The Shadow of the Cathedral (La Catedral: 1903), and The Fruit of the Vine (La bodega: 1905). After these he wrote some psychological novels like The Naked Lady (La maja desnuda: 1906; also translated as Woman Triumphant) and Blood and Sand (Sangre y arena: 1908). Discontent with Spanish politics at the dawn of World War I, he moved once more to France where he produced his highly popular war novels, most importantly The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Los cuatro jinetes del Apocalipsis: 1916), Mare Nostrum (1918), and The Temptress (La Tierra de Todos: 1922). Among his late historical novels The Pope of the Sea (El Papa del mar: 1925) deserves being mentioned. Vicente Blasco Ibáñez died in Menton, France, in January 1928.

the painter Renovales meets an old friend in the Prado museum in Madrid. He seizes the opportunity to contemplate The Naked Lady in Francisco de Goya’s famous picture known as the Maja and regrets living among prigs who would disapprove of him realizing his dream of painting such a nude because flesh embarrasses them too much. Thanks to talent and perseveration the blacksmith’s son from a remote village achieved after years of struggling everything that a man in his forties can wish for. As an artist he gained international renown and wealth. He built a mansion in Madrid combining gallery, workshop and home under one roof. Wife and daughter share his success, and yet, Renovales lives in a private hell. Once he used to call his wife Josefina lovingly “his Maja”, things changed radically, though, when the fragile woman lost beauty and strength giving birth to their child. Already before, Josefina had objected to female models in his workshop urging him to choose “decent” motives for his pictures, but then her jealousy began to grow beyond all bounds making her resent even the dazzling women in his imagination and the artist’s eternal adoration of beauty. She is a nervous wreck who flies into a rage in one moment and has a crying fit in the next. After twenty years of marriage, Renovales betrays his wife for the first time ever getting involved with a Countess as notorious for her looks as for her love affairs who went to convent school with his wife and whom he portraits. The grief makes Josefina fall fatally sick. Renovales lives in peace until a year after her death, when suddenly he gets obsessed with painting a nude of his late wife as a young woman…

The story of the painter whom his prude wife keeps all her life from producing the nude of his dreams equal to The Naked Lady of Francisco de Goya is a third-person narrative from the point of view of an omniscient and unconcerned observer. The characters of the novel quite lack life and psychological depth being all rather one-dimensional, socially adapted types with a penchant to melodramatic behaviour. This is particularly true regarding the painter’s wife who seems almost incredibly infantile and calls to mind the women in Sigmund Freud’s consulting room. Maybe the author knew the famous psychiatrist’s work although it definitely doesn’t show. Some scenes in the final third part of the novel strongly reminded me of George Rodenbach’s novel Bruges-la-morte from 1892 (»»» read my short review on Lagraziana’s Kalliopeion). Despite some passages that are a clear critique of the priggish and hypocritical bourgeois society of the time that held ancient Catholic values high in esteem, it’s an altogether light and entertaining read. The as detailed as picturesque descriptions of Madrid at the fin-de-siècle are nothing less than impressive. I read the novel in an original Spanish edition and found the language unpretentious, thus easy to read.

Admittedly, The Naked Lady by Vicente Blasco Ibáñez hasn’t been the complete pleasure that I had hoped for, but I still passed a passably good time taking into account that it’s a novel from the early twentieth century. At least, it was interesting to see Madrid as well as different parts of Italy through the eyes of an artist of the time, i.e. the writer walking in the shoes of a famous fictitious painter. Except for their names, most of the places will have changed so significantly in the past one hundred years that I actually feel tempted to go and see for myself someday. The bored-out socialites and neurasthenic women, on the other hand, rather annoyed me, even more than poor Renovales who sacrificed his artistic dreams to domestic peace. Although too light to my taste and not particularly realistic in my opinion, the novel still deserves my recommendation.

Nota bene:
Vicente Blasco Ibáñez died already in 1928 and therefore the original Spanish versions of everything that he wrote has been in the public domain now for nearly twenty years. Some of his works, among them Woman Triumphant (Frances Partridge’s translation from 1959 more aptly titled The Naked Lady is still copyrighted!), can be downloaded for free from the Project Gutenberg site.

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