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Pictures at an Exhibition by Sara…
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Pictures at an Exhibition (2009)

by Sara Houghteling

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Pictures at an Exhibition is the story of Max Berenzon and his relation with his father and his father's magnificent art collection. The family is Jewish and the story takes place in the 1930's and 1940 's in Paris. The Berenzon Gallery was one of the five premier art galleries in Paris with a concentration on post Impressionist art, primarily the exclusive shows of Picasso and Matisse. Although Max loves the art world, his father feels Max lacks the all important undefined "instinct" to be successful. He hires an assistant Rose Clement who does have that illusive quality. Max promptly falls in love with her.

The core of the book is what happens to the Berenzon collection during the Nazi occupation of Paris. When the war is over Max tries to trace down the missing pictures, removed by the Nazis and their French associates. He discovers a pit of greed and corruption where art dealers bought the "decadent" modern art for one tenth of its worth and got rich selling the paintings on the black market or in Switzerland during the war and to rich Americans after the war. Occupying soldiers supposed to protect the looted treasures try to sell Max two of his family's paintings. He finds a Manet and tries to claim it only to have the dealer disappear.

Rose's story runs parallel to Max's. Turning herself from a beauty to a prim and plain assistant curator, she becomes one of the custodians at the Jeu de Paume. The museum has become a sorting place for the confiscated art of Paris. During the day she shows Nazi collectors like Goering around the museum so he can "buy" art for himself and gifts for Hitler. At night, she records the details of every object and keeps a secret journal of where each piece is dispatched. Her mission after the war is to locate each missing painting and restore it to its owner if possible.

The novel is a fascinating look at this period in history. Especially interesting to me was Rose's story. Unfortunately, less interesting was Max's story. It becomes muddled about two thirds of the way through with Max's search for his missing friend and an unnecessary mystery of a missing sister. An interesting novel that could have been so much more. ( )
  Liz1564 | Feb 10, 2013 |
Max Berenzon grew up in Paris between the wars as the privileged only son of a well-respected Jewish art dealer. Max's only ambition was to follow in his father's footsteps. However, his father doubted his instinct and ability to succeed as an art dealer and tried to steer him in a different direction. Max is both jealous of and attracted to Rose, a young Louvre employee who has become the latest of his father's live-in assistants. When it appeared that France would fall to the Nazis, the Berenzon's stored their collection for safe keeping and went into hiding. Upon their return to Paris, they discover that their entire collection has been looted. Max becomes fixated on the single goal of finding his father's lost paintings. Will Rose be an ally or a foe?

This is unusual for Holocaust novels in that it skips the war years almost entirely. The focus of the novel is on what was lost during the war. I was surprised by the intensity of the outrage I felt as Max scoured Paris after the war looking for traces of the lost collection. Non-Jewish art dealers had profited from trade in the art works left behind by Jews who had been deported or had gone into hiding. The survival and return of the former Jewish owners was at best inconvenient. Because Max was not in Paris during the Nazi occupation, he had to hear about it from other characters who had lived through and witnessed the events. These long conversational information dumps diluted the novel's emotional impact for me.

This novel may appeal to readers with an interest in art and/or art history, World War II and the Holocaust, Paris, and father/son relationships. ( )
1 vote cbl_tn | Apr 23, 2012 |
The subject matter addressed in Pictures at an Exhibition (what happened to art during the Nazi occupation of France during WWII) is fascinating and historical. However I had some trouble following the story line of young Max and his journey in and out of hiding and his attempt to recover his father's art collection. The Afterward explains that many of Houghteling's characters (Rose and various art dealers) are based on actual people. I would have rather read a true account of what happened rather than fiction. ( )
1 vote KatherineGregg | Apr 12, 2011 |
I read a variety of books of all types each year. I like a book that has a good flow of words,a beginning a good middle and end. This book was quite awkward to read on many levels. It was a birthday gift from my daughter. If it were not for that I would have evoked the Reader's Bill Of Rights and given up after about page 50. The French seem to be portrayed in novels as very unemoting,secretive people. I am thiking of all the characters in The World At Night another book that takes place during WW II in France. This book is filled with unlikable,weird people. There was next to zero character development with two of the main characters,Rose and Bertrand. We know so little of Max and his relationship with this Bertrand that it is hard for us to understand his constant search for him after paris is liberated. It took 3/4 of the book to understand that Rose was one of those strange woman loving objects more than people. Whew...so glad this book is done! ( )
  MEENIEREADS | Feb 23, 2010 |
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Epigraph
"Only in a house where one has learnt to be lonely does one have this solicitude for things." -
Elizabeth Bowen, The Death of the Heart
Dedication
For Fiora and James Houghteling
and

Florence and Burton Waisbren
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In the twilight of my life, I began to question if my childhood was a time of almost absurd languor, or if the violence that would strike us later had lurked there all along.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0307266850, Hardcover)

Julia Glass Reviews Pictures at an Exhibition

Julia Glass is the author of Three Junes, which won the National Book Award in 2002, The Whole World Over, and I See You Everywhere, published in 2008. Learn more about Julia Glass in the Julia Glass Store, and read her guest review of Sara Houghteling's Pictures at an Exhibition:

I read a lot of debut fiction, in part because editors often seek my endorsement for these books, but also because one of my greatest pleasures as a reader is the discovery of a fresh voice. Sarah Houghteling’s voice is fresh indeed, yet it is also remarkably mature. Pictures at an Exhibition is at once an authoritative historical novel, a family saga, a labyrinthine love story, and a sumptuous meditation on the purpose and value of material beauty when war threatens the very fiber of civilization.

In constructing her true-to-life story about Jewish art collectors before and after World War II, Houghteling made a clever and sophisticated choice. Through the eyes of her narrator, Max Berenzon--an impetuous young man who yearns to fill the shoes of his elegant father, not just an art dealer but a patron to the likes of Picasso and Matisse--she begins by showing us high-society Paris of 1939, a place of such prosperity and worldliness that those who occupy it can hardly believe it will be vulnerable to the palpable winds of political change. Yet as we readers know from our 21st-century perch, this world will soon and swiftly fall apart. (Those who savor irony will think of our own society a year ago now.) And then, in a bold fictional move, Houghteling bypasses the events of the war itself, vaulting us forward to the time of reckoning: for Max, for his father, and for the shell-shocked survivors of a divided France--among them Rose, a talented art connoisseur who attracts yet mystifies Max. In order to help safeguard her country’s artistic legacy, did she collaborate with the Nazis?

Max’s twin obsessions with repossessing his father’s plundered art collection and understanding this elusive woman provide the momentum for a story that is suspenseful, moving, illuminating, and ultimately satisfying. It solves a captivating mystery while showing us yet again how our lives, regardless of our private fortunes, will bend to the forces of history.--Julia Glass

(Photo © Peter Ross)

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:25:05 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

In the wake of World War II, Max Berenzon, the son of an art dealer and his pianist wife, wanders Paris in an effort to recover his family's lost masterpieces, looted by the Nazis during occupation, uncovering in the process an old family secret.

» see all 3 descriptions

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