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After they are dead, most peoples' lives take on an air of inevitability. It looks then that they couldn't possibly have had any other kind of life. Even lives that were dogged by bad luck seem destined to unfold the way they did. My mother likes to dwell at length on what might have happened if she had married a farmer instead of a math professor. Her vision of alternative bliss features a ruddy lifestyle surrounded by gentle farm creatures, a brood of guileless children (totally unlike me), and a strapping mate with a great appetite for manual labor and her. It's a nice life but it wasn't hers. City girl to the bone, she'd have run screaming from the first goose that'd had a canine incident.

The Romanian-French Jewish painter Victor Brauner was a great lover of Romanian folklore, which features farm creatures among its myriads of motifs. Brauner was an urban and urbane city man who was central to the life of the avant garde in Bucharest and Paris. He joined the Surrealist movement in the late 1920s in Paris and would have been one of the most famous artists of the epoch if he hadn't returned to Bucharest in the '30s. Less interesting painters, like Salvador Dali, took the Surrealist crown and ran with it all the way to mega-fame and fortune. Brauner in Bucharest was adored by poets and painters, but neither Peggy Guggenheim nor Nancy Cunard nor Andre Breton lived in Bucharest. In the late '30s, Brauner returned to Paris, but the Nazis were starting to close in and all the artists were madly scrambling for passports out of France. Brauner spent the war in hiding in the Pyrenee mountains where he painted with candle wax. When the war ended, he had an astonishing body of work ready to show. Unfortunately, the vogue for Surrealist art had waned after the war, and his work seemed out of place as abstract painting and the New York School conquered Paris. Brauner would have doubtlessly returned to Bucharest again, to face certain obscurity and repression by the Communist government. His brother Harry, a great musician and musicologist, was later imprisoned by the Communists.

Luckily, Brauner hung on and met Dominique de Menil just after the war. The Houston collector became his patron. Dominique bought his art and Brauner died a recognized artist in the '60s. His post-mortem reputation grew as it became obvious that he was a great painter whose work would have eclipsed that of Salvador Dali if he'd been given a chance by history.

The De Menil Collection in Houston has opened a big show of Brauner's work, accompanied by a handsome book. Dominique de Menil is no longer with us, but their collaboration, a painter and a patron, speaks volumes about fate and chance. The Surrealists believed in something they called "le hasard objectiv," or "inevitable random occurrence." Those objective accidents are what makes lives what they are, but they occur only if the lives they determine are already hospitable to their reception. My mother's style would have rejected her dream-farmer even if he had shown up. Brauner's bad timing eventually receded when Dominique showed up. Go see the show and don't tell my mother what I just said.


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