I’ve just read a wild tour de force of a comic book, set in 1907 Paris in the homes of Gertrude and Leo Stein, Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Appollinaire and Paul Gauguin. The Salon is a slim paperback by Nick Bertozzi, who tells an absolutely loopy but smart story drawn in a fast-moving straight action-comix style.
Within the time frame of this comic book’s mystery plot, Gertrude Stein will meet and fall in love with a feisty ragamuffin named Alice Tolkas, Picasso will paint his famous portrait of Gertrude Stein, and Picasso and Braque will invent cubism. In fact, all of these things did happen in 1907, and Bertozzi clearly knows his stuff. He threads many “art history” lessons into this tale, and correctly describes the way Pablo Picasso profited from Georges Braque’s idea for a drawing style that depicted any number of possible perspectives instead of a single perspective. (Picasso, on the other hand, emphasized cubism as a form of zen-like minimalism, and also as a primitivist homage to his beloved African masks). Bertozzi also convincingly depicts the ongoing beef between the Cubists and the Fauvists, though he is probably unfair to the worthy Fauvist Henri Matisse, who comes off as a sourpuss.
The glue that holds this artwork together is a murder plot involving the blue-skinned spirit of a dead Tahitian woman, brought to Paris by Paul Gauguin, who leaps into paintings and dwells inside the canvases (the elderly Gauguin, it turns out, is dwelling sadly inside a canvas too) while she waits for the chance to jump out and kill people. A special kind of blue absinthe from a country called “Lysurgia” allows the cubists and poets at the Paris salon to jump inside canvases too, and eventually they must chase the murderer inside this absinthe-soaked realm. I like the obviously symbolic and heavily metaphysical plot okay, I guess — it reminds me of Matthew Pearl’s The Dante Code, which also posits an aesthetic movement as the catalyst for a misguided serial murderer. But I like this book best for its earthbound scenes, its clever, perceptive depiction of a group of young Modernists working in a creative white heat.
Pablo Picasso is the book’s best character, a hilarious irrepressible egotist who paints buck naked and goes around shouting in a mangled Spanish/French: “Are you creetic? You talk sheet of me?”
The Salon by Nick Bertozzi gets a strong “buy” recommendation from LitKicks.