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Bluebeard | Context


The Armenian Genocide

At the start of World War I in 1914, the Armenian people lived in parts of the Ottoman Empire, which included what is now Turkey, and in parts of Russia. When Russia sided with Great Britain and France against the Ottoman Empire, Germany, and Austro-Hungary, the Young Turk government, a group of nationalist reformers who had overthrown the Ottoman sultan and created a constitutional government, tried to force all the Armenians to fight for the Ottoman Empire and its allies. The Armenians refused, insisting that they would fight with their home countries. Turkish resentment grew, and losses were blamed on supposed Armenian sympathies with Russia. The Turks began a mass extermination of Armenians in retaliation. Armenians have long held that this was simply a cover for a planned genocide against their people, who were disliked by Muslim Turks for being Christian, living separately in their own villages, and speaking their own language. The killings were much as Bluebeard's narrator Rabo Karabekian describes in the novel. Soldiers forced Armenians away from their villages and either starved or shot them, simply leaving their bodies in the killing fields. It is estimated that one million Armenians were killed by the Turks.

Vonnegut shapes the descriptions of Rabo's parents through the horrific experience of the Armenian genocide. Both survive the slaughter, but it changes their lives. Rabo's father never recovers from the trauma. The shadows of the genocide follow the Karabekians all the way to America and darken Rabo's childhood, shaping him and his view of the world. In another way the genocide solidifies the Karabekians' ethnic identity, making their desire for the community, with so few Armenians left, of their own people all the stronger.

World War II

Vonnegut chose an existing character from his novel Breakfast of Champions (1973) to use as the narrator of Bluebeard. Breakfast with Champions follows the relationship between a writer, Kilgore Trout, and a businessman, Dwayne Hoover, who is driven insane by their interaction. Vonnegut takes a minor character from the novel, Rabo Karabekian, a one-eyed painter, and makes him the main character and the narrator of Bluebeard. Rabo, a veteran, loses his eye during World War II. His experience corresponds in many ways to events Vonnegut went through during the same war. Most specifically, the notable scene of the green valley full of people that is the basis for Rabo's final painting was something Vonnegut himself actually experienced on Victory in Europe Day (V-E Day), May 8, 1945.

World War II was a violent global conflict lasting from 1939–45. The Allies (mainly England, France, the Soviet Union, and later the United States) fought against the Axis (Germany, Japan, and Italy). The war was largely born from festering issues left over from World War I, and it became a fight against genocide and occupation by Germany under Adolf Hitler and the totalitarian governments of the Axis powers. America did not enter the war until after the surprise bombing of the U.S. naval base in Pearl Harbor by the Japanese in December 1941.

Technological advances made World War II the bloodiest and most horrific war in history until that point, and included chemical warfare, tanks, huge aircraft, bombs, and nuclear weapons. Aerial bombing decimated European cities, including Dresden, Germany, an experience that author Kurt Vonnegut survived and which was the basis for his most famous novel, Slaughterhouse-Five. Millions died in the war, and countless soldiers and civilians were injured, including Vonnegut, as well as the main character of Bluebeard, Rabo Karabekian, who lost an eye.

The beginning of the end of the war came when the Allies invaded Europe on D-Day, June 6, 1944, as they landed on the beaches of France. Victory in Europe was burned into the mind of Vonnegut, who was freed from being a prisoner of war on that day and which was immortalized in Rabo Karabekian's painting Now It's the Women's Turn.

Abstract Expressionism

The abstract expressionist movement began in America in the 1940s after World War II. After the horrors of the war, many artists felt it was time start anew. They reinvigorated their work by turning to abstract expressionism, which was strongly influenced by avant-garde artists who fled Europe as it came under Nazi control. The movement became a prevailing style during the 1950s and was characterized by improvisational application of paint and a rejection of conventional subject matter in favor of abstract forms in order to achieve the creative expression of the unconscious.

The abstract expressionist movement encompassed a wide range of approaches, from large, open fields of color, to fluid shapes, to action painting. Jackson Pollock, for example, arguably the most famous abstract expressionist painter, would place a huge canvas on the floor and then spatter or drip paint onto it to form vast networks of different colors. The fictional artwork of Rabo Karabekian most closely resembles that of real abstract expressionist Mark Rothko, who created large canvases using only a color or two, not unlike the description of a painting by the protagonist of Bluebeard, Rabo's Windsor Blue Number Seventeen. Many of the abstract expressionists, including Pollock and Rothko, committed suicide. Rabo points out that this only increased the price of their artwork. Some only achieved fame after their deaths.

The novel Bluebeard was inspired by an article Kurt Vonnegut wrote in 1983 for Esquire magazine about the artist Jackson Pollock. In studying the work of Pollock, Vonnegut became interested in abstract expressionism's deconstruction and criticism of narrative. Deconstruction involves reducing things to their basic parts. The possibility of wholeness then becomes complicated, especially when it comes to narrative. Deconstruction disrupts continuity of narrative and brings into question our ability to comprehend or communicate.

New York Art Scene

The 1950s and 1960s saw New York become the center of the art world, replacing Paris. The New York art scene witnessed an explosion of new styles of art at this time. Art reflected the countercultural, radical feelings of its day. Exemplary of avant-garde in the West, abstract expressionism, made famous by Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, over the course of the decade began to feel passé and was gradually replaced with minimalism and other trends.

In the novel, Rabo Karabekian's paintings of a single field of color with a few vertical bands of color would have been a part of the minimalist movement. The East Village in New York, where Rabo and Terry Kitchen share a studio, was an inexpensive place in the city to rent space, and it quickly became a hive of artists and musicians during this time.

Vonnegut the Visual Artist

Besides being a prolific writer, Vonnegut was a visual artist who practiced drawing, painting, and the graphic arts. His first published piece of art appeared in his novel Slaughterhouse-Five in 1969. It was a drawing of a locket worn by Montana Wildhack, one of the characters in the novel. Many more of Vonnegut's illustrations appeared in his novel Breakfast of Champions.

Vonnegut's writing and his art, which he often referred to as doodling, both came from his enormous creativity. His daughter Nanette said that if her father had a second life to live he would have mastered the visual arts and then wanted to be a poet instead. Vonnegut's artwork has appeared in a number of galleries and shows over the years, and a collection of pieces he drew while writing Bluebeard from 1985–87 has been published in a book titled Kurt Vonnegut Drawings, published in 2014. The one-eyed Armenian artist, Rabo Karabekian, clearly takes inspiration from Vonnegut's own artistic talents and interests.

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