Review by C.J. Bunce
Who was Thomas Girten? At the end of writer-artist Oscar Zarate’s new graphic novel Thomas Girten–The Forgotten Painter you will probably not learn much more than you already know, but the journey will be an intriguing one. The giant, nearly 400-page, full-color, illustrated, hardcover account is more contemporary fiction story than biography. Following three aspiring artist friends as they deal with their personal dramas against the backdrop of the little-known life of the pioneering watercolorist, they play detective. The result is something like Alan Moore might have crafted early in his career (Zarate collaborated with Moore previously).
The trio of fictional aspiring artists, who meet weekly to paint live subjects in an art class, all ruminate about an artist one of them discovers: Girten, a contemporary of J.M.W. Turner, both founders of the British school of watercolor painting and supposedly rivals. Turner deferred to Girten as to skill, but Girten died at 27, so Turner would become the painter famous for the medium and era. The unspoken question but undercurrent of the narrative is whether Girten really would have achieved equal fame and notoriety. “Had poor Tom lived, I would have starved,” is supposedly a quote by Turner on Girtin’s untimely death.
Girten’s story takes a backseat to the trio: Sarah, a religious woman about to become a grandmother; Arturo, an Argentinean expatriate in England (like the book’s author); and Fred, a whistle-blower fired as he is about to disclose his findings–he is the member of the group bringing up Girten as a source of interest.
Unless you adhere to precise historical study and method, you may find yourself doing what the characters do in this story–they fantasize their hero into something he probably wasn’t, projecting themselves outward to create a false history. It happens for any historical figure we have very little information about, like Poe or Shakespeare or Mozart. Girten was none of these. Or was he?
The most intriguing message of Zarate’s dramatic, graphical interpretation of Girten’s life comes from Dr. Greg Smith, a research expert in the field, via a brief afterword. Did Zarate get any of the life of Girten right? Does it matter?
Zarate includes only a few actual reproductions of Girten’s work in the book, each as two-page foldouts. This allows the reader to encounter the paintings just as the characters do. It works very well, and if you can’t see the genius of the man’s work, the characters will help you along.
But the few, select works included don’t entirely do justice to Girten. To experience that, go to the afterword writer’s website here, and you may find something on the level of an 18th century creative Mozart. According to Dr. Smith, “Apart from the works themselves, Girtin’s career is marked by relatively few documentary details, leading, in the past, to an all-too-speculative approach to his life story.”
Ultimately Arturo, a contrarian atheist, is the most fleshed out of the trio of characters, possibly because Zarate infused himself in the character. The author incorporates a subtext of ghosts all around us that is so subtle you may just miss it, but it also shows the writer/artist’s skill in creating a narrative that would stand up well as a film. It’s a credit to Zarate that his story and images can keep a reader glued to this kind of drama. It’s the kind of use of the graphic novel medium you’ll hope to see continued.