Thereby hangs a tale
Art and fiction can make interesting bedfellows
Art museums are a favourite mise-en-scene for novelists’ storylines and denouements.
Dan Brown’s popular museum romp The Da Vinci Code, for example, opens with the murder of a curator in the Louvre’s Grand Gallery and its finale unfolds beneath the museum’s glass pyramid; Dominic Smith’s elegant and erudite The Last Painting of Sara de Vos is partially set in Sydney’s Art Gallery of NSW. But Jeremy Maas’s hilarious Holman Hunt and The Light of the World, on the world tour of Victorian-era artist Holman Hunt’s allegorical portrait depicting a sombre, blond Jesus holding a lantern while knocking on the door of a dilapidated hut, is more entertaining than any fiction. Hunt’s 1902 painting (his third copy) toured the world and in March 1906 was exhibited in Sydney’s then newly opened National Art Gallery of NSW (now the Art Gallery of NSW) sparking a frenzy of religiosity. Sydneysiders briefly embraced piety as crowds in the Domain prayed and sang hymns, others spoke in diverse tongues and prayer meetings proliferated. During its 16-day exhibition 302,183 of the city’s estimated 530,000 population viewed the portrait.
The painting’s antipodean tour continued to New Zealand where it attracted exuberant crowds and inspired an epiphany for a Dunedin farmer, who to the disquiet of his family, neighbours and probably sheep, took to tramping his paddocks dressed as Jesus in toga and sandals. Today the painting hangs serenely in London’s St Paul’s Cathedral.
Anthony Doerr’s enthralling Pulitzer Prize-winning novel All the Light We Cannot See opens in Paris’s Museum of Natural History during World War II when the German occupation causes an employee and his sixyear-old blind daughter to flee the city the museums and art galleries of which soon became the Wehrmacht’s favourite tourist destination.
Browsing a Seine-side bookstall, I find a wellthumbed February 1944 copy of Der Deutsche Wegleiter, the fortnightly German soldiers’ guidebook to occupied Paris and (with cover concealed) use it as a guide to the City of Light’s darkest years. The Wegleiter advertised opening hours for the Louvre (but made no mention of the empty gilt frames and plinths of the 3961 paintings and sculptures in remote storage), and also advertised the Museum of Natural History, symphony concerts, cabarets, fashion shows, operas and films. The Soldaten Kino in Montmartre was screening the German musical Wir machen Musik, and the French comedy Bonjour Mesdames, Bonjour Messieurs opened on February 22, 1944; its Jewish co-writer Robert Desnos was arrested the following week and sent to Terezin concentration camp.
Alan Riding’s And the Show Went On: Cultural Life in Nazi-Occupied Paris recounts how staff at the Musee de L’Homme ( Museum of Mankind) produced one of Paris’s earliest underground newspapers, Resistance, on the museum’s roneo machine. The group was soon infiltrated and denounced, the men executed and the women transported to slave labour camps.
Biographies of museum and gallery directors can also be bizarre beyond fiction. The dyspeptic Albert C. Barnes made his fortune developing the antiseptic drug Argyrol, then sold his business prior to New York’s 1929 Wall Street collapse. He installed his massive modernist and post-impressionist collection in his Barnes Foundation mansion in Philadelphia’s suburb of Merion. The opinionated and cantankerous doctor displayed the works without labels and lit only by skylights and windows; admission was by postal application and favoured workingclass and black Philadelphians. Barnes relished slamming the door on any art critics, curators and museum directors who came knocking and reputedly prowled his galleries dressed as a workman while eavesdropping on visitors, ejecting those he disapproved of. In 1951 Dr Barnes had his final confrontation — unfortunately with a truck at a Philadelphia intersection.
After decades of contesting the doctor’s will, his collection was relocated in 2012 to hang in a new Barnes Foundation building (with duplicated interior ambience) in uptown Philadelphia. You can access both sides of the ongoing controversy by reading Howard Greenfeld’s unauthorised biography, The Devil and Doctor Barnes, and view the 2009 film The Art of the Steal on YouTube.
On April 1, 1998, David Bowie’s New York publishing company 21 threw a book launch for William Boyd’s monograph Nat Tate An American Artist: 1928-1960. Tate the “forgotten artist” was one of Peggy Guggenheim’s many lovers and burned most of his paintings before taking his life by jumping off a Staten Island ferry in 1960. Nat Tate, however, did not die, because he was never born, but invented for Bowie’s April Fool’s Day Ern Malley-style jape on New York’s paparazzi and art scene.
Bohemian “art addict” Peggy Guggenheim (1898-1979) was no invention but born into New York’s mega-rich Guggenheim family, much of whose fortune she inherited after her father went down with the Titanic. In 1920, Peggy travelled to Paris where she nurtured, collected and bedded numerous avant-garde artists and writers. Several husbands later and back in Paris in 1939, she set herself “on a regime to buy one picture a day” and fled with her artworks (by Dali, Tanguy, Breton, Max Ernst et al) three days before the Nazis occupied the French capital. Returning to New York, she opened her avant-garde gallery, The Art of this Century. In 1947, she returned to Europe to establish her Peggy Guggenheim Collection at Venice’s canal-side Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, today one of the northern Italian city’s most visited museums. Peggy claimed she had “about 1000” lovers (mostly male, but not including Nat Tate of course). She is buried in the palazzo garden next to her 14 dogs with names such as Cappuccino and Sir Herbert. Have lunch on the palazzo’s rooftop restaurant with its sublime view of the Grand Canal while browsing her rollicking memoir, Out of this Century: Confessions of an Art Addict.
Dan Brown’s 2013 caper, Inferno, gallops readers from Florentine galleries to its climax in Istanbul’s Basilica cistern and the storied Hagia Sophia, site of religious worship, massacres, enthronements and sublime architecture. It was consecrated as Constantinople’s Greek Orthodox basilica in 537 AD; violently converted by Crusaders to Catholicism between 1204 and 1261; then again became Greek Orthodox; a mosque from 1453–1931; and finally secularised as a museum by president Ataturk in 1935. Today, Hagia Sophia is the most heart-stopping experience in a city of resplendent museums. In 1967, Pope Paul VI had a confused Dan Brown moment, created world headlines and embarrassed his Turkish hosts by dropping to his knees and praying on entering the veteran museum.
Nobel prize-winning Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk’s eerie 2008 novel The Museum of Innocence — on his infatuation with beautiful shop-girl Fusun, whom he met while engaged to another woman — is also the name of his museum, opened in 2012. The traditional wooden building in Istanbul’s Cukurcuma district exhibits more than 1000 of his fictional lady love’s artefacts. Take your copy of The Museum of Innocence for free admission (an entry ticket is printed in the final chapter) and purchase the unique and elegant catalogue, The Innocence of Objects, which Pamuk curated, imagined, and wrote.
In-flight reading while returning home? Museum obsessives should relish the last chapter of The Museum of Innocence for Pamuk’s exotic small museums listing — Proust’s house in Illiers-Combray in central France; Paris’s Musee Edith Piaf; New York’s Glove Museum and Baltimore’s Edgar Allan Poe house. Also read John Updike’s short story, Museums and Women. Updike met his future wife in a museum and assures readers they offer the opposite to what we seek in churches, but you must decide for yourself.
Brian Turner is a former manager of the Art Gallery of NSW bookshop and author of three books
Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, top; Audrey Tautou and Tom Hanks in the film adaptation of The Da Vinci Code, above centre right; Marcel Proust’s house, now a museum, in IlliersCombray, France, above centre; portrait of Albert Barnes, founder of the Barnes Foundation, in its Philadelphia home, above right; Holman Hunt’s The Light of the World, above