We have all observed and appreciated art. However, when we experience art, it is generally in a bubble of our own experiences and preferences. More often than not, we may know the artist only in name and that he or she is noteworthy leading to the required appreciation. It is rare that we have knowledge of how the artists’ life experiences led to their ultimate creations and masterpieces. We know nothing of the subjects, the driving forces that resulted in the creation of the piece, nor the inner turmoil the artists endured to create their works.

Masters and Servants by Pierre Michon is an incredibly special literary work in that it truly does bring art to life. The work consists of five short stories focusing on the subjects of masterpieces and the artists’ relationships with the subjects of those pieces. Michon’s grasp of language and the art of storytelling is equal to the artistic ability of the artists he explores in Masters and Servants. These artists include Vincent van Gogh, Francisco Goya, Antoine Watteau, Claude Lorrain, and Lorentino.

In the first of five short stories, Michon provides the intimate details of Joseph Roulin’s life as it shortly overlapped with van Gogh’s until Joseph decides to sell one of his van Gough’s pieces. Michon dives into each and every minute detail of Joseph’s life—his job, political views, excessive drinking, reaction to van Gogh’s death, and inability to appreciate why van Gogh’s art reached the masterpiece level. Each and every word is carefully calculated like each line an artist commits to the canvas. The prose fluctuates between time and space without notice as the art that is being described. This is evidence in the following excerpt:

I want it to bear his name; so that words and the rhythms of language instantly endorse the great peacoat and hat of the post office; so that words and their rhythms grow old in Marseille and remember Arles; so that words end up sprouting beards; they’ll appear in Prussian blue; they’ll be alcoholic and republican; they won’t make sense of one drop of the paintings; but with some luck, or by kidnapping, perhaps words will once again become a painting; they’ll be muzhik or boyar as the spirit moves me—and completely arbitrary, as usual—but will come visibly to light, manifest, and die.

The voice of Masters and Servants is synonymous with the narrator of Wes Anderson films. The narrator is neither neutral nor impartial because his/her agenda is to paint a specific image and induce a calculated perception of the artists and their subjects. The best descriptor I could find for the narrator’s voice was that of a personification of a manifesto; one whose goal is to remind use that artists are people and art does not stand on its own without the artist lest we forget the hardships, confusions, and externalities that resulted in our beloved masterpieces. For example,

Van Gogh—who never thought as far as Rome, who was too modest or barbaric to think that far—van Gogh had thought about Marseille throughout his life; I don’t know what novel had made him imagine it to be some sort of artists’ Mecca, as he’s said, but he was surely the only artist to think it so, all because the paint Monticelli had lived and died there—done in by arrogance, misery, and absinthe, a parinter he ranked as highly as Rembrandt, Rubens, Delacroix—Monticelli whose painting I wouldn’t know how to judge but that they tell me aren’t so ugly . . . So van Gogh wanted to go to Marseille with Gauguin . . . who knows if a rich van Gogh wouldn’t have been as elegant as Manet, and just as smitten with etiquette. Due has never made it there: and, postmortem, he delegated Roulin.

Each of the remaining four short stories are equally delightful and enlightening in content and language. I was so moved by this work, I promptly biked to the bookstore to pick up the remaining Michon works available in English, which, as it turns out, are all part of the Yale University Press Margellos Series.

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Masters and Servants
By Pierre Michon
Translated by Wyatt Mason
Reviewed by Tiffany Nichols
192 pages, paperback
ISBN: 9780300180695
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