NABOKV-L post 0018659, Sun, 11 Oct 2009 21:16:58 -0700

A Note on two books on VN & painting
A Brief Note on Gavriel Shapiro's "The Sublime Artist's Studio: Nabokov & Painting" and "Nabokov and the Art of Painting" by Gerard de Vries, D. B.. Johnson & Liana Ashenden

Professor Shapiro (Cornell) is a Nabokov specialist with particular expertise in painting, an art that plays an unusually large role in Nabokov's fictions. It is an important and relatively understudied aspect of his writing with its strong visual orientation both in terms of content and style. The writer-to-be, who had envisioned becoming a painter, grew up in an environment saturated with the visual arts -- in his home, in imperial St. Petersburg, and as an art museum-addicted adult in Europe and the U.S.


Shapiro first examines Nabokov's childhood artistic milieu and organizes the remaining chapters largely in terms of historical categories: Old Masters, landscape painting, the the early XXth century Russian "World of Art" group, Richard Muther's magisterial survey of XIX Century European art impact on the young Nabokov, and, finally, the role of German Expressionism of the first decades of the XXth century during the writer's decade in Berlin . Within these chapters Shapiro identifies (rightly, sometimes tentatively) the paintings alluded to in Nabokov's writings and offers brief accounts of their role in the novels. Twenty-eight black and white reproductions are provided.

Prof. Shapiro's fine study omits Nabokov's longest and most art-saturated novel from consideration on the reasonable grounds that its extensive art references have been extensively treated in another recent volume: Nabokov and the Art of Painting co-authored by Gerard de Vries, et al (Amsterdam University Press, 2006). Whereas Shapiro organizes his study by painters and their "schools," periods, etc., the de Vries volume is organized by the Nabokov writings in which they appear. The first takes the paintings as the basic approach; the second takes the novels as the organizing principle. Both approaches have their pros and cons depending upon whether the readers' interest is primarily focused upon the novels or on the paintings. Shapiro is better on the Russian novels while de Vries et al slight coverage of the Russian novels while offering extensive material on the very important Ada. De Vries, crucially for a book about visual art, offers 30-odd color reproductions and 40 black and white illustrations. It also contains three useful appendices: the first is a listing of the page numbers of the volume's illustrations and is followed by separate indices of all artists & authors mentioned in the volume itself.

Taken together, the two studies offer a useful compendium of information about the unique blending of the literary and visual arts in the work of one of the finest writers of the XXth century.

D. Barton Johnson

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