I was eager to read The Muralist by B.A. Shapiro because I enjoyed Shapiro’s “The Art Forger” which intertwined the main character with the unsolved Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist.
The Muralist moves back and forth between the late 1930’s and the present weaving a mystery around two characters who are blood related. Alizee Benoit, a young American painter living in New York working in the 1930’s for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and Danielle Abrams, Alizee’s great niece, who works for Christie’s auction house. Danielle has always been fascinated with her great aunt who disappeared without a trace around 1940. She is convinced the answers to what happened to her great aunt lie within the Abstract Expressionist artists and their paintings she is researching for authenticity.
I like how Shapiro connects the fictional character, Alizee, with well-known abstract expressionist painters such as: Mark Rothko, Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollock. The author touches upon mental illness and substance abuse which plagued Rothko and Pollock. Her characters discuss the difficulty of having the freedom to create original noncommissioned works of art at authentic places like the ‘Jumbo Shop’, a once hobnob for artists in Greenwich Village. I enjoyed reading the author’s depiction of Eleanor Roosevelt, who lobbied her husband for the New Deal programs, and her close friend; ‘Hick’ as open minded women who promoted originality and humanity.
While reading The Muralist, I thought about Sante Graziani’s Mural in the D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts which celebrates the arts in Springfield in the 1940’s. It was a gift of the Van Norman Machine Tool Company and is depicted in the mural along with other Springfield landmarks such as the Old First Church in Court Square and the Alexander House on Elliot Street. Graziani’s mural is a favorite with school groups who like to point out the different art forms while learning about the medium and the artist as well as the history of Springfield. When I reached the end of the book, it made me think about all the murals, created by artists for the WPA, and wonder about the role they will play in our country’s history going forward.
Laura Cienciwa is the Art & History curriculum coordinator at the Springfield Museums.