The Metropolitan Museum in New York City owns my very favorite painting, The River Seine at Chatou, by Maurice de Vlaminck. I love the colours, so characteristic of Fauvism; more generally, I like just about anything by Vlaminck or Andre Derain, such as The Fishing Boats at Collioure. Because I so admire these painters' work, I was particularly dismayed to learn in Frederic Spotts's A Shameful Peace that both had been regarded as Nazi collaborators during World War II. I read Spotts' book twice last year as prep to my novel and, while I understand that some people disagree with his scholarship, I have found the book full of valuable insights.
Here is a quote from p.44 of the hardcover edition: "Present also were all the leading collaborationists in the cultural field. From the visual arts were Derain, Despiau, Van Dongen, Segonzac and Vlaminck." On p.178: "At the time of the Liberation, the National Front of Artists called for the arrest of Derain, Vlaminck, Van Dongen, Othon Friesz and Andre Dunoyer de Segonzac."
It is difficult to separate the artist from the work he has created - should I think less highly of Vlaminck's paintings because of their author's behavior during the war? Do the man's failings lessen his contribution to art history? The Metropolitan Museum of Art continues to exhibit Vlaminck's pictures, in a very prominent manner; boycotting an artist who has been dead for half a century seems a bit pointless. But my discomfort when I see The River Seine at Chatou helps me remember Vlaminck's dark side, which casts a shadow on - although it does not completely obscure - the groundbreaking character of his paintings. What a shame for someone with so much talent to ruin his reputation in such a definitive manner.
The theme of art vs ethics is dear to my heart since a character in my novel - Yvonne - is loosely based on French soprano Germaine Lubin, whose associations during the war apparently put an end to her career at the Liberation. It has been hard for me to reach an opinion about Lubin, since different authors have written different - and sometimes contradictory - things about her. Yvonne, for her part, is someone who thought she could make art while ignoring the political environment: something that never ends well in times of evil. I like trying to convey how she was swallowed by the political machine (although most of the action happens after the war), but it is tricky to do because nothing can excuse her behavior, not even naivete. The reader is much more comfortable siding with Madeleine - her colleague who refused to sing for Hitler - as the main character of the story.
I am getting ready to send my first batch of queries in a few weeks and am curious to see what agents will have to say about the novel.