"The most sublime backside in art." Venus at Her Mirror. Circa 1647-1651. Diego Velazquez. Velazquez's model may have been his muse. Not a metaphorical muse, as in a woman who inspired him. As in an actual, classical, supernatural spirit who took on human form and enraptured him, a frequent occurrence in the history of art, as the painters Lucien Lessard and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec discover when they investigate the murder of their friend Vincent Van Gogh in Christopher Moore's comic fantasy mystery, Sacre Bleu.
Paris. 1890. Lucien Lessard, a talented young painter, mentored by some of the most famous Impressionists and friends with several of the best Post-Impressionists, is beside himself with joy. Juliette, the woman who broke his heart three years ago, has breezed back into his life, more beautiful, more alluring, more insistent and far less inhibited than before. Not only has she enthusiastically agreed to be his mistress, she is willing to pose for him, nude, inspiring him to produce the best painting of his blossoming career.
It's mildly disconcerting that Juliette doesn't look or act quite as Lucien remembered. It's discombobulating when she takes him on a picnic to La Grenouillere, a waterside park outside Paris with a public boathouse and floating cafe immortalized in paintings by Renoir, considering the boathouse burned down years before and was never rebuilt. And it's downright eerie that after they spend a week together in London Lucien returns home to find that no one noticed he was gone.
But none of that matters. What matters is that he and Juliette are happy and his painting of her is on its way to being a masterpiece, although it does seem to be requiring him to use an awful lot of blue.
Meanwhile, Lucien's good friend, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, has reencountered his favorite model, a redheaded laundress named Carmen Gaudin, who to his dismay disappeared three years ago, driven away by his mother who was afraid he'd become dangerously obsessed with the girl. The disconcerting thing for Henri, however, is that Carmen doesn't recall ever posing for him. In fact, she has no memory of him at all. When he tries to jog her memory by describing their times working together as artist and model, she tells him that it couldn't have happened because she'd been desperately ill at the time, bedridden with a fever that she believes must have affected her brain because she doesn't remember anything that happened while she was sick.
Oddly, as they talk, Henri realizes that his his own memory of that time is fuzzy.
Henri felt his face go numb, as if he’d been slapped, but the stinging lingered. She really didn’t know him. “We were very close, mademoiselle.”
“Friends?” she asked. “Were we friends, monsieur?”
“More than friends, Carmen. We spent many evenings, many nights together.”
Her hand went to her mouth, as if she were horrified. “Lovers? We weren’t lovers.”
Henri searched her face for some hint of deception, some glimmer of recognition, of shame, of joy, but he found nothing.
“No, mademoiselle,” he said, the words as painful to him as having a tooth pulled. “We worked together. We were more than friends. An artist’s model is more than a friend.”
"She seemed relieved. “And I was your model?”
“The best I’ve worked with. I could show you the paintings.” But even as he said it, he knew he couldn’t. He could show her a few of the paintings. But he had only three. Yet he remembered, or thought he remembered, painting a dozen. He could see the nude he painted of her, and remember how reluctant she’d been to post for it, but he couldn’t remember selling the painting, and he certainly didn’t have it now..
There are whole months he can’t remember. And along with the paintings he remembers having painting that he doesn’t have, he has paintings he doesn’t remember having painted. It dawns on him that Lucien’s renewed obsession with Juliette is turning into exactly the same sort of obsession he had with Carmen, and what’s more, Carmen and Juliette are connected through a mysterious and malicious maker and vendor of artist’s pigments known only as the Colorman and that this Colorman is almost certainly the character his and Lucien’s friend Vincent Van Gogh warned him to steer clear of in a letter written just before he shot himself.
Supposedly shot himself.
What if, Henri asks himself, Vincent didn’t commit suicide?
What if he was murdered?
The mystery at the heart of Sacre Bleu: A Comedy d'Art, Christopher Moore’s comic fantasy-mystery is straight-forward: Who killed Vincent Van Gogh and why and will they kill again?
The fantasy arises from the fact that throughout most of history the color blue was a problem for artists. The best blue pigments, the truest, most vivid blue, a blue that would not fade over time, were hard to come by and consequently very expensive. In Sacre Bleu,the most vital blue is literally alive. It's not a mixture of minerals and oils. It's a being. A being the Colorman has enslaved and from whose spirit he makes his sacred blue, using a magical process that ultimately requires a human sacrifice.
The laughs are provided by the screwball dialog, some usually deft but occasionally clumsy slapstick, the more than routine dirty jokes, and the incongruity of it all, the comedy, the fantasy, and the mystery, playing itself out against a realistic and for the most part historically accurate background of Bohemian Paris in the days when the Moulin Rouge was notorious in its own right and not because of its immortalization in the paintings and drawings of its most famous customer.
Moore is a very funny writer but I thought the other books of his I've read---Island of the Sequined Love Nun, Fluke: Or, I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings, and Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal---were eventually eaten up by their conceits, sidetracked into explorations of their weirdnesses, and tangled up in their increasingly self-complicating plots. In Sacre Bleu he avoids that, mainly, I think because his respect and affection for the artists in his cast of characters and their work keep him on the straight and narrow. Even as he's using events in their lives and their paintings as springboards for jokes and props and devices in his fantastical plot, he stays true to their histories, their characters, and their achievements.
Renoir, Camille Pissarro, Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, James McNeil Whistler, and others are all recognizably themselves or at least come across as passable likenesses of themselves. Moore's version of Paul Gaugin is more of a caricature than a portrait, but a well-drawn and funny caricature, and his Lautrec is something of a cartoon. But that's appropriate for an artist whose paintings and drawings were essentially brilliant cartoon. The world was inclined to look at Lautrec as an amusing grotesque and he returned the compliment, although perhaps with more sympathy.
If you've taken a college level art history course or two or even just visited a few museums you'll recognize that much of what Moore has going on is based on fact. You couldn't put it as is in a catalog for an exhibition, but you won't find it contradicted by such a catalog. Not all of it, at any rate. Monet probably didn't simultaneously paint six versions of Gare Saint-Lazare in half an hour and I'm pretty sure that no inventor friend of Lautrec provided him with a steam powered set of prosthetic legs he could use to telescope himself like Inspector Gadget to see over crowds.
The plot jumps around in time and space, carrying some of the main characters with it, from France in the late 1800s to Renaissance Italy to prehistoric Spain to present day New York City. The focus though is the Paris art scene from 1870 to 1890. You don't have to have taken any classes or attended any blockbuster exhibitions to follow the plot. It helps but it's not required. Moore doesn't assign homework as he goes. But with what he gives us and a little googling, Sacre Bleu works as a crash course in the history of French Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. Moore even provides visual aids. Sacre Bleu is illustrated with color reproductions of many of the paintings referred to or used as models for settings and characters, making it a very pretty read. It's probably stunning on a kindle fire or iPad.
Still, Sacre Bleu is in no way a textbook. It's a serious thriller (comedies can be very serious) with a deadly mystery at its center. The first part of that mystery---who killed Van Gogh and why---gets cleared up fairly early in the going. The second part---will they kill again?---remains an open question right up to the end. Henri and Lucien are up against villains who aren't merely human and in the case of one of them not always human. And, as Henri keeps pointing out they're artists and artists being dreamy and idealistic types inclined to self-indulgence and in the habit of stopping in the middle of things to drop what they're doing and reach for a brush or a pencil don't make the most incisive detectives or energetic heroes.
But what I enjoyed most were the characters, and not just the ones drawn (sorry) from real life, the painters and some of the subjects of their paintings like Van Gogh’s Dr Gauchet and Toulouse-Lautrec’s dancers, clowns, and prostitutes. The wonderfully repulsive Colorman, an imp of malice who’s sort of an obscene Rumpelstiltskin offering to spin metaphorical straw into literal gold and every other color, especially blue and demanding the resulting painting in return. Juliette, a most unusual femme fatale, who as adapted to her strange situation with pragmatism, cynicism, and emotional detachment, but also with courage and wit. Lucien’s formidable mother who proves to be a kitchen ninja when it comes to wielding a crepe pan as a weapon in defense of her children. Lucien’s genial, kindly, but secretly broken-hearted father, a prosperous baker who has put aside his own dreams of becoming a painter to provide for his family and has to content himself with being the friend and patron of the struggling artists who are his neighbors and non-paying customers. Lucien.
Moore does such a good job with Lucien, capturing and dramatizing the young artist’s thinking, idealism, work, and background and placing him so convincingly in the historical milieu that I still can’t get over his being invention and not based on a real painter like Moore’s Toulouse-Lautrec.
Speaking of whom…
Henri’s my favorite character. Moore’s too, I suspect. He’s given him all the best lines. Cynical, lewd, self-indulgent, self-destructive, self-hating, but proud, brave, resilient, relentlessly charming and witty, he is the book’s second hero. High-strung and often in considerable pain from his broken and deformed legs, he’s prone to bouts of hysteria and fits of melancholy, but when the situation requires he can be self-possessed and, considering how hard it is for him to get around---the steam-powered Inspector Gadget artificial legs are of uncertain utility--- remarkably resourceful and energetic. And, despite everything, he’s a fundamentally happy man. The drinking, the drugs, the whoring are all part of an effort to distract himself from his pain, loneliness, and self-contempt, but they are something else as well. Fun. Henri is having such a good time on his private road to perdition that it begins to feel as though he’s actually been granted a little, compensatory glimpse of heaven by whichever saint is the patron saint of artists. No matter what happens to him, Henri is sustained by one life-affirming thought.
“I am the painter Toulouse-Lautrec!”
And he is. Or I hope he is. I hope that cartoonish as he sometimes is, he’s also a work of realistic portraiture. If the real Toulouse-Lautrec wasn’t like Henri, he should have been.
Medically speaking, Toulouse-Lautrec’s shortness wasn’t due to dwarfism. He was permanently crippled by a childhood accident. Still, if Sacre Bleu is optioned for a movie, Peter Dinklage is already screen-testing for the part of Henri. Except that he wields a walking stick instead of a sword and sips absinthe instead of quaffing ale, there’s quite a bit of Game of Throne’s Tyrian in Sacre Bleu’s Toulouse-Lautrec.
At that moment, seeing the color in the case, the pentimento that had been rising in Herni’s mind became a clear, vivid image. He had seen them together, one time outside of his studio, Carmen and the Colorman. How had he forgotten? “Actually, I have used your color before. Perhaps you remember?”
The Colorman looked up from his case. “I would remember selling to a dwarf, I think.”
Henri wanted right then to bash the twisted little creature’s brains in with his walking stick, but he calmed himself enough to just snap, “Monsieur, I am not a dwarf. I am fully seven centimeters taller than the requisite for a dwarf, and I resent your implication.”
“So sorry, monsieur, my mistake. Still, I would remember selling to you.”
“Your color was obtained through a girl who modeled for me, a Mademoiselle Carmen Gaudin. Perhaps you remember her.”
“Is she a housemaid? My maid quit yesterday.”
“Your standards were perhaps too demanding for her?”
“Penis,” explained the Colorman with a shrug.
“Ah, I understand,” said Henri. “Mine refuses to do windows…”
As I said, enjoying Sacre Bleu doesn’t require homework and a quick bit of googling will fill in if at any given point you want to know a little more about the history and the background. But if you want to know a lot more, then Christopher Moore can help you out. He’s put up a website devoted to the book full of more information and more paintings, Christopher Moore’s Sacre Bleu Chapter Guide.