The Guy, The Girl, The Artist and His Ex by Gabrielle Williams is a Young Adult novel, published this year but set in Melbourne in 1986, when Pablo Picasso’s Weeping Woman was stolen from the National Gallery of Victoria on St Kilda Road.
There are four main characters in the story; Guy, who is failing Year 12 at school, Rafi, a Columbian girl whose mother has mental-health issues, Luke, an attractive and successful artist who cares more about himself than anyone else, and Penny, Luke’s ex-girlfriend and the mother of their son.
As I read I became more and more interested in the actual story of the painting, which was of Picasso’s mistress, Dora Maar, a poet and an artist. Picasso is said to have interpreted Dora’s sadness at being unable to have children in his Weeping Woman series of paintings. Picasso treated Dora cruelly, setting her up against his other mistresses and even after she suffered a nervous breakdown, he went out of his way to make her unhappy.
The theft of the Weeping Woman actually took place. The painting was purchased the year before the theft for about 1.5 million dollars, which was the highest price paid at the time by the NGV for an artwork. The painting disappeared one night and a note left saying that the painting had been removed for maintenance, signed by the ACT (Australian Cultural Terrorists). As ACT also stands for the Australian Capital Territory, staff at the NGV didn’t immediately realise the painting had been stolen. The thieves sent ransom notes for the return of the Weeping Woman, demanding an increase in funding for the arts. Eventually the Weeping Woman was found in a locker at the Spencer Street Train Station. The thieves have never been found.
Guy, Rafi, Luke and Penny all, either wittingly or unwittingly, play a role in the theft of the painting and in its return. Their lives are all changed by the painting and the theft. Apart from Luke and Penny, who have a child together, they begin the story as separate characters whose lives become entwined as the story develops.
Interestingly, Penny’s party trick, which initially attracted Luke to her was something that Dora Maar did when she first met Picasso, quickly stabbing a knife between each of her fingers.
I didn’t become very attached to any of the characters, although I did have more sympathy for the girls, who had a harder lot in life than the boys in the story. The story is quite clever and I really enjoyed the opportunity to learn about the actual painting and the theft. I also enjoyed that the story was set in Melbourne and the 1980’s references. I suspect teenage girls would particularly enjoy The Guy, The Girl, The Artist and His Ex.