Thereby hangs a tale

Art and fic­tion can make in­ter­est­ing bed­fel­lows

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - BRIAN TURNER

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...

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