Sleeping with Expressionism

Article excerpt

Byline: GEORGE WALDEN

SEEK MY FACE JOHN UPDIKE (Hamish Hamilton, u16.99) JOHN Updike is 71, his heroine here is 78, and her memories, recounted to an interviewer, centre on the art world of the 1950s.

This is no septuagenarian author aching to be up to date. The one young contemporary in the novel - priggish, callow Kathryn, art writer and interviewer - is sketchily drawn, largely, one suspects, because Updike is not too interested in her.

After around 50 books he has earned a little self-indulgence.

An almost-artist himself, who studied at art college and has written many excellent articles and reviews on the subject, Updike's interest lies less in today's talkie-art than in the post-war flowering of American painting, and who can blame him?

The fictional device he uses works well at first. Hope, herself a painter, is married to Jackson Pollock (Zack in the novel), before moving on to marriages or affairs with characters representing the other great artists of the period. Resilient, savvy and brittle with age, Hope is wonderfully drawn, and no hint of the usual retroactive feminism skews the picture.

Spunky as she is, she lived at a time when women were more likely to subside into supportive status, particularly if their man happened to be something of a genius. (As a small and redundant provocation, Updike tosses in the suggestion that prissily modern Kathryn will end up doing the same, though without the genius).

Hope's picture of Pollock - his drinking, his rages and retreat to the barn to drip out his famous paintings - is rawly alive, not least because of Updike's empathy with his subject.

In an account of the huge success of the exhibition of New American Painting when it toured Europe in 1959, the author's dogged patriotism surfaces: "They didn't know what had hit them, but they knew a bomb had gone off in their faces: freedom in action, baby. Only in America - Hey, you want revolution?

Here it is - Surrealism without the smirk, abstraction without geometry, every painting a wrestle with God. …