PROVENANCE tells the history of a painting, from its creation in Amsterdam in1641 to its discovery in 1990 in a hallway of an administrative building of small college in Brooklyn.
Interwoven into the story of the painting are the stories of the people who owned the painting and the historical events that carried the painting across the world.
During the Dutch Rennaissance, a time when art is flourishing and Amsterdam is the capital of European art, a young boy named Joseph, the son of a cleaning woman hired by artist Rembrandt van Rijn, finds himself as the apprentice to the famous and sought-after artist. Joseph is an unlikely candidate because of his social status but also because he is Jewish.
The artist is commissioned to paint a portrait of a mother and daughter, which the subjects do not like and van Rijn refuses to alter. Joseph alters the painting and signs his name ‘Hurwitz’. As the Nazi uprising moves through Europe, a Dutch art dealer named Erich Arnheiter, manages to barter the freedom of the Simon family in exchange for a painting for the Reichmarshall’s private collection. In addition, Arnheiter manages to set aside the Hurwitz painting for himself.
Though Arnheiter himself never reclaims the painting, it eventually the painting makes its way through other owners and countries until it is discovered again in the United States, which then leads to a journey back to the birthplace and history of the painting.
Author Howard A. Kwon weaves a rich tale about the journey of a painting and the lives it touched. There is no one protagonist for the whole story. However; each part of the three part book has a diverse range of palpable characters that are vehicles for the journey of the painting, and reveal the setting, the culture of the various countries and time periods in history, from the flourishing artistic revival in Europe to the crushing sterilization of Europe during the Nazi takeover to a 1940s America during mass immigration and then a more modern day America and Europe.
The pace of the story changes throughout the book, from a descriptive narrative balanced with dialogue in part one revealing the creation of the painting, to a condensed and information-driven narrative with little dialogue in part two and then progressing in part three to a more balanced narrative with description and dialogue. Though this pace change does work on some levels with the rushed, clipped pace of the almost-dogmatic presentation of the story revealing the Nazi’s harsh takeover in Europe and the dispersing and the relocation of Jewish families; the shift is a little surprising since it is not always clear that the painting is the main subject.
Despite these changes in narrative tone and pacing, Kwon’s writing is clean and tight. His story about coincidence, human spirit and journeys is enticing and keeps the reader turning the pages to discover where destiny will take the players.
PROVENANCE is an engrossing and mysterious read.
Reviewed by Maya Fleischmann for IndieReader