So the third season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel has dropped, but for the moment I’m looking back at an episode from season 2, and there will be spoilers.
While The Crown devoted an entire episode to a real event–the painting and sad destruction of Winston Churchill’s portrait, and while Bojack Horseman has scattered art references throughout, the Mrs. Maisel season 2 episode “Look, She Made a Hat” gets much more personal with a take on art that’s all its own.
Part of the fun of a period show like Mrs. Maisel is, of course, spotting the real people—Lenny Bruce is the only major recurring character based on a real person, although a few of the other comedians Midge meets are real people. Midge herself seems to be at least partly based on Joan Rivers, although with a different background. Sophie Lennon seems to have been inspired at least in part by Gertrude Berg, although Berg herself wasn’t shy about dropping her on-screen persona Molly Goldberg; she never wore a fat suit either, and showed off her nicely decorated home in interviews. So in this episode Midge goes to an art gallery, and then meets the famous, and famously difficult and reclusive, artist Declan Howell. And Howell, like other characters, never existed.
Who was the inspiration for Declan Howell, then? It’s hard to say, although others have speculated. Some artists of the time were relatively reclusive and even unwilling to sell their work. Before Warhol many artists considered it gauche to talk about money even as modern art prices were rising and many collectors, like Midge’s beau Benjamin, were at least as interested in investing as they were in aesthetics. Or more interested. Benjamin doesn’t really collect art; he collects names, and he’s more pleased to have gotten a painting before another collector could than he is with anything he sees. There’s a brief cameo by Yoko Ono, and her one line, “Nice ladder,” may be a joke about conceptual art, but it also shows she’s more tuned in than Benjamin.
As a side note the stand-up comedy boom that started in the ‘50’s would be echoed in the ‘80’s profusion of comedy clubs and cable specials and comedian-based sitcoms. So too the modern art craze that started at the same time as stand-up would return with a vengeance in the ‘80’s. And it’s not hard to imagine a show about woman artist in the ‘50’s struggling for recognition and who paints as well as, or better than, her male counterparts. It probably wouldn’t be as funny as Mrs. Maisel but I’d still watch the hell out of it. In fact there are even glimmers of such a story when Midge’s mother takes art classes and talks to a group of young women who, sadly, don’t see themselves as “real” artists. I even had hopes that Midge would meet at least one real woman artist in this episode–Dorothea Tanning, maybe, who could have been in New York at the time–but the woman, Agnes Reynolds, who sells her a painting, and a hat, doesn’t even seem to be based on a real person.
Getting back to the subject of who Declan Howell was, well, other bloggers have delved into that, but something I haven’t seen anyone pick up on is the resemblance to Kurt Vonnegut’s Bluebeard. Specifically there’s the fact that both Howell and Vonnegut’s protagonist, Rabo Karabekian, are part of the Abstract Expressionist movement and both have a secret chamber where they’ve hidden one staggering painting.
Although while Howell is reluctant to let go of even the paintings he lets people see Karabekian is happy to sell his work. And that’s part of the joke. Vonnegut dismisses Abstract Expressionism as meaningless, even worthless, with a single damning moment. Because of “unforeseen chemical reactions” Karabekian’s paintings are self-destructive.
I mean — people who had paid fifteen- or twenty- or even thirty thousand dollars for a picture of mine found themselves gazing at a blank canvas, all ready for a new picture, and ringlets of colored tapes and what looked like moldy Rice Krispies on the floor.
Take that, Banksy.
Really, though, it’s a cheap shot at modern art, especially abstraction, which Vonnegut seems to have regarded as meaningless, even soulless. Karabekian’s final hidden painting, revealed at the end of the novel, is figurative, and Declan Howell’s painting, which we never never actually see, seems to be figurative too. It’s a bit of a letdown, really–not that the painting is figurative, but that the show didn’t take the risk of letting us see it, even if what really matters is Midge’s response to it. In fact what really matters is what causes Howell to invite her to his studio in the first place. He’s intrigued that she bought a painting from an unknown woman in a back room of the gallery, and the only reason she bought it is because she liked it, and because she saw herself in it.
I thought, ‘I know her. She has a secret. She knows a joke that I don’t. Maybe if I take her home, she’ll tell me the joke.’
Why else would you buy a painting? Kristine over at Adulting In Progress has a great post about a painting that, in a different way, spoke to her; like Midge Maisel she wanted it because of what it meant, and not as an investment.
I mentioned The Crown and Bojack Horseman at the beginning and the way those shows treat art fits with their outlook–as history or a punchline, but Mrs. Maisel treats art as act of passion, as something people are driven to do, something that requires sacrifice. What it ultimately tells us is that Midge’s pursuit of a career in comedy is no joke.