“Historians who constantly present their Scotland Yard credentials,” T. J. Clark writes, “never fail to miss what the real crime was.”* In The Model, Lars Saabye Christensen makes certain that Scotland Yard historians are not disappointed. In doing so, of course, his clues blind him as well as them to what the novel is about.
Peter Wihl is a painter preparing a retrospective of what has become a middling career, after an early, initial success. His wife, Helene, is working as a stage designer for a production of Ibsen's The Wild Duck. To mark his fiftieth birthday (the occasion for the retrospective), Wihl decides to do a portrait of their daughter, Kaia, as a gift to her and Helene. As he begins work, he discovers he is going blind.
Echoes of The Wild Duck, Ibsen's play about the Ekdahl family, are not to be missed. In Ibsen's play, Hedvig, the daughter of the Ekdahls, is going blind and sacrifices herself for her father. Hjalmar, her father, works on an invention that will not only stop the world in its tracks but also save his daughter from blindness (and poverty). (In Christensen's version, it is Wihl, who is going blind and must sacrifice himself for his daughter.) Gregers Werle, Hjalmar's friend, implores him to follow his ideal at all costs. (In the Christensen story, it is Ben, Wihl's agent and gallery owner, who urges him to follow his ideals.)
Well-worn chestnuts about painting and painters make up the mis-en-scene. Ben is, of course, gay and has a young lover, Patrick, an artist whose aesthetic is epater la bourgeoisie at all times, as much as possible. At one point, Wihl puts his paintings outside, as Edvard Munch did. In avuncular tones, Wihl tells interviewers, friends, himself that, “the artist is bourgeois, art is free”; “Art does not imitate life; life, and death in particular, imitate art”; “You don't finish a picture. You forsake it.”
Thomas Hammer, a disgraced surgeon and classmate of Wihl's, who does a thriving clandestine trade in body parts in Estonia, convinces Wihl to let him surgically replace his deteriorating eyes with those of a starving Estonian girl whose brother has sold them so that they might eat. Wihl's family, even his agent, is appalled by what he has done, although Wihl does not understand why.
This is, if you will, the model of the artist (which gives the book its title), who in being true to himself alienates himself from middle class society. The artist sacrifices everything for his art the story goes. Although Wihl undergoes the operation, he tells himself, not to be a burden to his family, he also knows he has done so to remain an artist. He has done what he needs to do (reprising Hjalmar Ekdahl in The Wild Duck, whose adherence to his ideals destroys him).
Earlier, Wihl had dismissed the portrayal of Vermeer in the film, “A Girl With a Pearl Earring,” as naive, false. When asked for his reaction to the film, he does not talk about it but instead about a painting of Vermeer's shown in the film:
“In the painting known as “The Milkmaid” Vermeer painted a nail in the bare wall behind her. It casts a small shadow. That's all. It is perhaps the most beautiful thing ever painted. A nail on a bare wall. And if you run your hand gently across the picture you can feel the nail scrape against the surface of your hand. All art should have a nail like this.”
There are no nails in Wihl's paintings. He is no more an artist than the enfant terrible, Patrick, he criticizes. An early painting of his titled, “Amputation,” is directive. In one way or another, Wihl has cut himself off from parents, wife, child, himself and his success as an artist permits him the comfort and safety he needs to insulate himself from life. Artists may be neurotic but neurosis is not art.
In a discussion about Helene's production The Wild Duck, Wihl asks why she wants to re-interpret Ibsen. “All he shows is the consequences,” she replies. “I want the audience to see everything.” Christensen's novel misses the crime. We see everything but what we need to see. It is a portrait of the artist hammered together, jury-rigged as it were, out of cliches, conventional wisdom and bourgeois pieties. Ben's summary of Ibsen's play that “self-centered middle-aged men must be the most loathsome in existence” summarizes Wihl nicely.
Robert Buckeye has had two works of fiction published, Pressure Drop and The Munch Case and has written on film and art as well as literature.
*The phrase Clark acknowledges is from Ernst Bloch.