Basson’s debut novel, a work of historical fiction, tells a poignant story of saving works of art from destruction and of salvation through art.
Gabriele “Ella” Münter, a real-life student of “Professor K” at the progressive Phalanx School in Germany in 1902, absorbs her mentor’s avant-garde theories about art. “The truest art should be like music,” he declares: “completely abstract,” with “no picture at all.” Professor K is Wassily Kandinsky, the Russian painter who, in the early 20th century, was one of the first proponents of abstraction in art. Ella, young and self-conscious but talented, falls in love with her professor, and a romantic relationship forms between them—one founded on attraction, admiration, volatility and artistic philosophy. With other artists, they found the influential Der Blaue Reiter (the Blue Rider) group, and they travel frequently in an attempt to depict different cultural spheres on canvas. “[F]reeing art from its bonds is our mission,” Kandinsky declares. Hardship, whether pertaining to internal stability or external world events, follows them. When the Nazi Party comes into power in Germany, expressionistic artworks are deemed “threats to German culture”; Ella is forced to make a decision that is both deeply personal and historically consequential. Her dilemma, her struggles and her creativity form the basis of a quietly stunning true story. Although the relationship between Ella and Kandinsky doesn’t lack for tempestuousness, it avoids the prurience of a clichéd, passionate romance between artists, and it’s similarly disinterested in the fireworks of a raucous art-heist narrative. In fact, other than intermittent descriptions of Münter’s paintings—presumably taken from a catalog or wall plaques adjacent to her works in museums—Basson’s novel is straight narrative; there are no stylistic experiments to mirror her subjects, but that directness and lack of pretense don’t make the novel simple. Rather, it’s an evocative study of artistic beliefs and the creative minds that form them. In particular, Basson offers a rare appreciation of Münter, who, despite creating works with mastery of color and form, hasn’t received the same attention as her better-regarded companion.
A steadily thoughtful exploration of artistry, loyalty and choice.