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“The Woman Who Heard Color” by Kelly Jones is a compelling historical novel that takes the reader to Nazi Germany and the destruction of all the art that was deemed “deranged” by the Third Reich.
Hitler had once been an aspiring artist himself and maybe thought he was a connoisseur of good German art. He hated what had become a new modernistic movement within his country and wanted museums cleansed of “Modern Art.” As he invaded and conquered, he wanted only the best to hang in his German museums. He liked paintings of German mothers with their blond children, muscular square-jawed soldiers and idealized farm workers. He did not like Chagall or Picasso or Wassily Kandinsky. Hitler knew, however, that some of these artists were deemed valuable in other countries and in an effort to raise money for his military plans, he auctioned off all the art he detested. The rest was to be burned.
In this story a young ‘art detective’ named Lauren O’Farrell is trying to track down the heirs of a woman named Hanna Schmidt Fleischmann, who may have been instrumental in ridding Germany of the unwanted art. She was hired by the Third Reich to catalogue an entire warehouse of “degenerate” art, stolen by Hitler from private collections, museums and homes. Under false pretensions, Lauren has made an appointment to interview 82- year-old Isabelle Fletcher, who she thinks is a daughter Hanna with the intention of interviewing her about a missing Wassily Kandinsky painting. She has been invited to Mrs. Fletcher’s spacious apartment in New York. Isabelle Fletcher takes Lauren completely off guard in her first few sentences by telling Lauren she knows exactly why Lauren is there, and that she has decided it is time for the truth to be told. Isabelle’s mother, Hanna, dead now for 60 years, had a condition known as synesthesia, a condition that allows a person to appreciate colors, sounds or words with two or more senses at the same time. Kandinsky as well as many other creative people shared that condition that allowed them to “hear” colors.
So begins the story of Hannah, who, as a daughter of a Bavarian dairy farmer, went on to become one of the foremost critics of 20th century art. The story, although fictional, takes the reader through some real life events. Decisions were not so easily made in those days. Freedoms were disappearing along with the art. Hannah ends up marrying a wealthy Jewish art dealer and having two Jewish children. She loathes the Nazis yet ends up working for them mainly to survive.
She loves the art that Hitler wants destroyed but feels she has to do something to protect the art. The novel is historically accurate and is based somewhat on museum purges. The story is thought provoking while covering four decades of German history. The author engages the reader in piecing together experiences with Isabelle’s recollections with chapters alternating between Lauren and Hanna’s perspectives with Isabelle’s point of view included as an interlude.