Inside my copy of Susan Vreeland’s Life Studies there is an inscription which reads, “Dana, Warmly, Susan Vreeland.” Nearly a year ago, I drove to the library in Decatur, which usually only takes about 30 minutes, but actually took an hour in the downpour and the dark. Susan Vreeland is an engaging reader. Perhaps that comes with 30 years of teaching high school English. I found myself wishing I’d been in her class. She must have been something.
I truly enjoyed Girl in Hyacinth Blue, which can also be viewed as a collection of short stories, except each story is about the same painting. The ownership of the painting is traced back from the present to its creation. To each owner it means something else, and each owner has his or her own story.
Life Studies is also about the stories behind art, but it is different from Girl in Hyacinth Blue. Clearly, Vreeland has a penchant for nineteenth century art, especially Impressionism. I read this book in pieces, picking up a story here and there over the course of the last year. I found something to enjoy in each, and I appreciated the fact that Vreeland put the art mentioned in the book up at her website. Each story is unique and has its charms. The first half of the book is devoted more to the actual artists. We learn of their lives either through them directly or through those they have touched — lovers, servants, neighbors, and children. The second half is devoted to ordinary people and their reactions to and affections for art.
Of the stories, I think my favorite was “In the Absence of Memory,” which was about the daughter of Amadeo Modigliani. I knew nothing of Modigliani before I read this story, but his story was very interesting. Of the stories, I shouldn’t wonder if this one was the one Vreeland researched the most, as I discovered Modigliani’s daughter Jeanne did indeed write Modigliani: Man and Myth (out of print), for which Vreeland expresses “gratitude” to Jeanne Modigliani’s “forthrightness.”
Second perhaps to “In the Absence Memory,” perhaps was “Crayon, 1955.” Vreeland states that it is semiautobiographical, and it reminded me a little bit of To Kill a Mockingbird. The young protagonist gets a chance to “walk around” in her neighbor’s “skin” when she is asked to take care of her plants while the intrepid neighbor is in Guatamala on an archaeological dig. What she learns fascinates her.
As a teacher, I enjoyed “At Least Five Hundred Words.” If you’ve ever been made to write a punitive essay or do lines, you’ll appreciate the humor and poignancy of that story. However, “Their Lady Tristeza,” which documents the miraculous appearance of a nude Virgin in the form of Matisse’s Nu Bleu on a classroom whiteboard fell flat for me. Something just didn’t quite gel.
I think art-lovers in particular would enjoy this book, but there is a little something for everyone to relate to in Life Studies; all of us have experienced loss, pain, wonder, joy, and curiosity, whether through art or just the art of living.