Harriet Burden, the artist. Her last words to her granddaughter summed up her life, “fight for yourself, don’t let anybody push you around.”
This book is from my as yet unpublished 2016 English reading list
This book is about the struggle of Harriet, ‘Harry’ Burden to be recognised as an artist.
Harriet had exposed her work as a young artist in New York many years ago but without real recognition, she then married the rich and famous art dealer Felix Lord and had two children Maizie and Ethan putting their lives before hers and when Felix dies suddenly the book and Harriet’s story really begin.
The book is built up from numerous interviews of people close to Harriet or influential in the flow of the story and from Harriet’s many notebooks about her life. Harriet places her struggle to be taken seriously as an artist as that of a woman’s struggle, she had noticed that Felix in all his years had only ever represented two women And success and failure in the art world is not decided on talent or on the work produced but by rich men, as Rachel Griessman, Harriet’s childhood friend says:
Men with money make the art world go round, men with money decide who wins and who loses what’s good and what’s bad I offered the comment that this was changing, slowly perhaps but changing nevertheless that more and more women were getting their due I just read something about it, Harry’s expression turned bitter. Even the most famous woman artist is a bargain when compared to the most famous man dirt cheap in comparison look at the divine Louise Bourgeois what does that tell you? Harry’s voice cracked, money talks it tells you about what is valued, what matters it sure as hell isn’t women.
As we learn from a letter from Richard Brickman (Harriet herself), Harriet’s project was to present her own work, which was never taken seriously, through male artists by organising three separate one off exhibitions of her work through three different male artists at three different galleries and through three successes prove her point, at the same time exacting revenge on the New York art world.
In 1998 her first protégé was a young unsuccessful artist called Anton Tisch, whom she schooled and trained with her wide art knowledge over a year, and the public loved this new young artist with such wide knowledge, as her second protégé Phileas T Eldridge put it:
The boy had learned a lot during his tutelage with Harry I couldn’t help but think that their story was an interesting reconfiguration Of the Pygmalion myth with the roles reversed.
Harriet felt vindicated but angry at the truth revealed, whereas Tisch could not handle the sudden success.
What did it mean that an amorphous ‘They’ had celebrated her work when it arrived in a 34 year old body with a cock, to borrow Harry’s words, what were the enthusiasts actually seeing I asked, her work or just Anton, the portrait of the artist as a young hunk
As the story moves on in a jerky non linear fashion made possible by the interview and notebook extract form of the book, we become close to Harriet’s multi-faceted character, her wide reading and we, as she, become aware that Felix, ‘Felix (who) knew how to excite collectors how to flatter them how to make them imagine that they were the ones that had truly seen and understood the work of art in front of them.’ had lead a double life fuelled by desire which began to tear apart Harriet with doubts and suspicions she could not control ‘Once there is a secret you can fill up the hole with suspicion.’
Her second exhibition was with Phileas T Eldridge, a black homosexual artist proved once again to be a success, Harriet taking great pains to ensure that no one could trace her back to the work.
The last of her three exhibitions, in 2003, crowning her project as a whole to be known as Masking was to be with the artist known only as Roon, but from here on things do not go as planned, who is Roon actually? Are there flaws in Harriet’s plan as she decides to transform herself into a man through Roon?
In a moment of lucidity Harriet realises that she:
will just have to keep working, the studio is burgeoning with the unseen works, the myriad monstrosities of someone named Harriet Burden maybe when the revelation comes the proverbial scales will fall from their eyes maybe when I’m dead some wandering art critic will come to the building where the goods are stored and look, really look, because the person, me, will finally be missing.
This was a novel that kept me busy, head down for many a day but what a work, pushing everything to one side, a compulsive, complete, somewhat intellectual read. I had read good things about this book beforehand, In the presence of such writing I feel that my feeble write up, which only managed to touch the surface, just cannot do it justice.
First published in English as The Blazing World by Sceptre in 2014
Translated into French by Christine Le Bœuf as Un Monde Flamboyant and published by Actes Sud in 2014