Home > Art, History, Literature, Reviews > Art, Deception and Oppression from the Same Brush: Michael Frayn’s “Headlong”

Art, Deception and Oppression from the Same Brush: Michael Frayn’s “Headlong”

On its surface a comic novel drawing from an enduring mystery in the history of art, British novelist Michael Frayn’s Booker-shortlist Headlong is also more deeply a book about the ease of moral corruption and how human drives and desires rush us into wrong more often than they point us along the path to right. The title refers most particularly to a detail in an imagined lost masterpiece that his protagonist comes to feel encapsulates the artist’s social and historical context, his aesthetic impact, and irrefutably proves the work’s provenence. But it also describes the heedlessness of the protagonist’s quest to uncover the truth about the painting and his helpless determination to possess it for himself, if only briefly, before exposing its henceforth-unknown existence to the fine art world.

Frayn’s protagonist is Martin, a young academic who relocates to an English country cottage with his equally young art historian wife Kate and their newborn daughter at the onset of Headlong. The rural sabbatical has a specific purpose: the mercurial Martin has proven to be too easily distracted from writing a planned book, spiralling off into intellectual and scholarly tangents instead of focusing on the vital professional and financial project that it is hoped he will be able to hone in on in the country. The book itself might even be a tangent, or at least the neurotic overthinker Martin (tendencies that delightfully dominate Frayn’s narrative prose) suspects that his wife suspects it is. Ostensibly based in philosophy, Martin nonetheless is chasing a field outside his immediate expertise and in Kate’s realm: he fancies himself a budding art historian as well (an expression of his fondness for her that manifests unwittingly as competition with her), and his book purports to tackle the dry-sounding topic of the impact of nominalism on early Netherlandish art.

Martin’s willingness to pursue intellectual will-o’-the-wisps and become inextricably mired in a morass as a result is thus well and truly established. Predictably, rather than hunkering down to write, Martin becomes obsessed with a painting he glimpses only briefly in the decrepit country seat that neighbours his cottage. Once the impressive estate of the noble Churt clan, Upwood has fallen on leaner days under the unsteady stewardship of current master of the house Tony Churt, a rugged outdoorsman who has more interest in dogs and hunting pheasants than in the artistic family heirlooms strewn about the manor. He’s already sold many paintings to make up for the funds he’s squandered in a variety of ill-conceived schemes, and is receptive to Martin’s offer to broker the sale of more such works.

Martin knows less about selling art than he has made himself learn about analyzing it academically, but his amateuring dealing is all part of an elaborate scheme to get his hands on his true object of desire. The tantalizing painting that he is shown at the end of an uncomfortable dinner at Upwood is, Martin believes, a lost work by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Bruegel was a prominent painter in the mid-16th century Netherlands whose masterful landscapes and detailed scenes of peasant life, at once satirical and empathetic, have made his small surviving body of work among the most admired and priceless in European art. Though Martin cannot be 100% certain of it (and never does manage to prove it, even to himself), he comes to believe strongly enough that the oak-panel painting he examines in Upwood’s breakfast-room is not merely a lost Bruegel but the missing sixth painting in the master’s famous cycle of seasons of the year, The Months (most of which are in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna).

With reluctant academic, emotional, and financial support from the doubting Kate, Martin plots to raise enough money from selling a massive Baroque Italian painting of the abduction of Helen of Troy for Tony to purchase the supposed Bruegel along with a couple of other Dutch canvases for himself. Keeping his suspicions of the painting’s true provence from the Churts, he will then belatedly “discover” that it covers the missing months in Bruegel’s cycle and achieve notoriety and riches in selling it on to a public institution. Unfortunately, the process of pulling off this con requires not only escalating falsehoods but a painful stretching of Martin’s pecuniary means, of his relationship with Kate, and of the bounds of the law. It will also lead Martin into what increasingly resembles an affair with Churt’s dissatisfied younger wife Laura.

This modern comic pastoral is juxtaposed with Martin’s researches into the Netherlands of Bruegel’s time, which he hopes will uncover some clue, some scrap of evidence that the painting is an authentic Bruegel (and therefore valuable almost beyond measure). Entering unwisely into a dynastic political union with Habsburg Spain in the late 1400s, the Low Countries became a central front in the post-Reformation tug of war between Catholic monarchies and dissenting Protestant nobility. By the time Bruegel was at work in what is now Belgium’s Flemish region (his career roughly covered the 1550s and 1560s, though reliable biographical information is scant), Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and his son Philip II were brutally repressing Calvinists in their Dutch territories through inquisitorial practices, mass arrests and execution, and occasional indiscriminate massacres. Protestants responded with widespread iconoclastic riots, destroying relics, icons, and works of Catholic art in churches throughout the country. Cycles of persecution and retaliation lasted for more than 80 years, until the Dutch Republic emerged from a protracted war and became one of Early Modern Europe’s economic powerhouses by the middle of the 17th Century.

Although a major patron of Bruegel’s was a cardinal and inquisitor who pulled the strings of the Spanish imperial domination of the Dutch, Martin believes that the artist embedded details in his work that would have been easily recognized as commentaries or even satires of the social and political situation in the country at the time. Perhaps naively, he comes to believes that if he can connect the scene depicted in the supposed missing Bruegel spring painting with historical details, it will prove it to be genuine. Even if Martin’s conviction that a chain of academic interpretation can stand in for definitive attribution is a bit silly from an art expert’s perspective, the fact that the telling detail he seizes on (too late, as it happens) is one reflective of violent repression and terror visited upon the populace by the authorities is telling.

Martin does some bad things in the service of what he feels to be the higher purpose of art, but nothing nearly as terrible as the horrors visited upon the Netherlands under Spanish rule. And yet, out of that fire came the eternal masterpieces of Pieter Bruegel the Elder; indeed, with his creations supported by the reign of terror’s mastermind Granvelle, Bruegel was, in a way, a part of that terror, a collaborator, one of his own people’s vicarious executioners. Martin and Kate discuss the relative value of art and of human life at one point in Headlong, and the novel suggests that humanist leanings may not be so accurate in valuing a person over a painting. Martin is wrong to do so, and Frayn is clear enough about that, in his dissembling comic way. But Headlong also suggests that the same irresistible current that carried Bruegel – who painted what could not be painted, as a contemporary put it – to creative pinnacles also sweeps Martin along in crafting and executing his fabulously inventive but morally reprehensible deceptions in order to possess a piece of artistic eternity. And so, more troublingly, it carried (and still carries) the powerful towards oppression of the powerless. The same river waters carry us all, inevitably, to the same deep unknown sea.

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Categories: Art, History, Literature, Reviews
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