Book Description Rome
: In the small Baroque church of Santa Giuliana, a magnificent Caravaggio altarpiece disappears without a trace in the middle of the night.
Paris: In the basement vault of the Malevich Society, curator Geneviéve Delacloche is shocked to discover the disappearance of the Society's greatest treasure, White-on-White by Suprematist painter Kasimir Malevich.
London: At the National Gallery of Modern Art, the museum's latest acquisition is stolen just hours after it was purchased for more than six million pounds.
In The Art Thief, three thefts are simultaneously investigated in three cities, but these apparently isolated crimes have much more in common than anyone imagines. In Rome, the police enlist the help of renowned art investigator Gabriel Coffin when tracking down the stolen masterpiece. In Paris, Geneviéve Delacloche is aided by Police Inspector Jean-Jacques Bizot, who finds a trail of bizarre clues and puzzles that leads him ever deeper into a baffling conspiracy. In London, Inspector Harry Wickenden of Scotland Yard oversees the museum's attempts to ransom back its stolen painting, only to have the masterpiece's recovery deepen the mystery even further.
A dizzying array of forgeries, overpaintings, and double-crosses unfolds as the story races through auction houses, museums, and private galleries--and the secret places where priceless works of art are made available to collectors who will stop at nothing to satisfy their hearts' desires.
Full of fascinating art-historical detail, crackling dialogue, and a brain-teasing plot, Noah Charney's debut novel is a sophisticated, stylish thriller, as irresistible and multifaceted as a great work of art.
"The Man Who Stole the Mona Lisa"
For decades, Parisian newspapers bemoaned the lack of security at the Louvre, and one had even joked that someday someone would walk off with the Mona Lisa
. It finally happened in 1911. A man in a Louvre worker's uniform remained inside the museum after closing hours, hiding in a utility staircase. He emerged in the darkness, took Mona Lisa
down from the wall, and retreated back to his hiding place. There, he removed the panel painting from its frame, leaving the empty frame on the stairs. He descended the stairs to leave with his prize, only to find that he had been locked in. The thief had to wait until the morning, when the first janitor came by to sweep the courtyard. Seeing someone inside, the janitor opened the door, thinking a worker had been locked in accidentally. The man inside, carrying something large and flat under a white sheet, quickly made his way into the streets of Paris and disappeared.
The Mona Lisa theft was the subject of international headlines, but the police made no headway in its recovery. They interviewed hundreds of people, including the man eventually uncovered as the thief, with little result. Years passed. And then, in Florence, an art dealer received a note saying that someone in possession of the Mona Lisa wished to donate it to the Uffizi. At first, the dealer thought it was a joke. But he contacted the director of the Uffizi museum, and the two met the possessor of the Mona Lisa in his hotel. They authenticated the masterpiece and called the police.
The thief turned out to be Vincenzo Peruggia, an Italian glazier who had once lived in Paris. He had, ironically enough, been hired along with other glaziers to install protective glass over some of the Louvre's most famous paintings, to protect them from potential vandals. Peruggia believed that the Mona Lisa had been stolen from Italy by Napoleon, and claimed that he stole it only for his wish to repatriate it. While Napoleon was guilty of the greatest number of art thefts of any individual in history, he was not guilty in this instance. The Mona Lisa had been a favorite painting of Leonardo's. When Leonardo moved to France to work for King Francois I near the end of his life, he brought the Mona Lisa with him. When he died, his possessions passed on to the king of France. But Peruggia seemed firmly to believe that he was a national hero, reclaiming one of Italys greatest masterpieces from the thieving French who had stolen it away. In returning the painting to Italy, the man who stole the Mona Lisa had not so much been caught as he had simply presented himself to an unsympathetic audience.
Noah Charney's Top Ten Must-See Artworks in the USA
This guide covers works in the United States which, for the most part, are not in major cities. As there is so much wonderful art in the United States, I have focused on art which is American and evocative of the nations unique history and cultural perspective. I hope that this will encourage pilgrimages to visit works off the beaten path, to unusual destinations in pursuit of beauty.
Edward Hopper: Nighthawks (1942)
Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL
Hopper's is a dark America. Foreboding in its brightness, ominous in the strong harsh colors, dark without shadows, lonely in crowds, tender-heart helpless in a kingdom of advantages. His characters are taking advantage or being taken advantage of. The subtext of Hoppers works defies their surface opacity--we think we see everything clearly, understand the moment portrayed, until we stare further. A cottony doubt creeps in from the edges of his paintings. Where is the darkness in this land of light? It is in the oxygen in Hopper's trapped rooms and nightscapes. No wonder that Hitchcock modeled his cinematography and sets to resemble Hoppers backdrops. In Nighthawks, we learn how lonely a city can be. A painted Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Hopper's protagonists seek comfort and companionship in an ocean of fellow humans, and find none. Like cave dwellers huddled around a fire, the nighthawks of the title lean into the counter of a late-night diner for safety. We have a sense that they could help each other float in the aquatic darkness, if only they realized it.
Norman Rockwell: The Four Freedoms (1943)
Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge, MA
Rockwell is the painter most closely associated with Americana, intermingling myth and truth, a mist of the desired, actual, and dreamt--of values of American life. His work is best known for the prints of it which appeared in the now-extinct Saturday Evening Pos, scenes of rural, wholesome sweetness tinged with nationalism and the occasional daub of politics. Rockwell is an American icon, but in one set of paintings, he elevates himself to a place in the Canon. Painted in seven months in 1943, in a fit of passion during which he lost 15 pounds, Rockwell's four-painting Freedoms series was inspired by a speech made by President Roosevelt, who declared that four principle freedoms were the rights of every human being: freedom of speech, freedom from want, freedom to worship, and freedom from fear. Perhaps most iconic of the group, Freedom from Want shows a hard-working family sitting down to a Thanksgiving meal prepared by Grandma, offering suitable thanks for the feast at hand. Freedom of Speech, however, is Rockwell's best and most subtle work, as he himself stated. At a town meeting, a man stands to speak. He is a hard worker, a man of limited education and few words, but of a strong heart and a goodness bound up in his eyes. He is unsure of himself, but so moved by the subject at hand and empowered by the knowledge of his freedom to do so, he addresses the crowd. To painting what Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was to film, this work and indeed Rockwell's oeuvre, makes one proud to be American, and calls on us today to revitalize the values upon which America was founded, to coax reality back out from the myth.
Gainsborough: Portrait of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire (1783)
National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
The theft of this masterpiece was the first major art theft of the Modern period, when art crime first became a significant criminal enterprise. At midnight in May of 1876, two men walked briskly along Old Bond Street in London. Through the fog and darkness, a short, slender man with a handlebar moustache and an enormous bear of a man towering beside him could perhaps just have been made out. They stopped in front of the elegant and renowned Agnew Gallerya name that had been splashed across the front pages of the newspapers in the preceding weeks. Thomas Agnew had purchased Thomas Gainsborough's Portrait of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire for a record-breaking auction price of 10,000 guineas. Agnew had agreed on a resale price to an American banker, Junius Morgan, who planned to give the portrait to his son, J. P. Morgan. The portrait was to be displayed for two weeks at Agnews Gallery before its acquisition by the Morgans.
But Adam Worth had other plans. Adam Worth was perhaps the most successful thief in history. His criminal career spanned continents. Bank robbery, train robbery, diamond smuggling, running an international organized crime syndicatehe succeeded in every criminal enterprise he pursued, including art theft. A journalist gave him the nickname "The Napoleon of Crime" for his diminutive stature and grand criminal genius, a title appropriated by Conan Doyle for his villainous character, Professor Moriarty.
On that May night, the bear of a man lifted Worth up to the second floor window ledge of the Agnew Gallery. Worth pried open the window with a crowbar and slipped inside. With surgical precision, he sliced the canvas painting from its stretcher, then disappeared into the night as the guard slept downstairs. The police were baffled. All that they could piece together was that the thief was wearing hob-nailed boots, and may or may not have been left-handed. Worth kept the portrait for 25 years, through prison sentences and his pursuit by his own real-life Sherlock Holmes, William Pinkerton of the Pinkerton Agency. Worth finally returned the painting to J. P. Morgan, for a price that allowed him to retire from crime. From its place on the wall of the National Gallery today, you might infer a look of relief onto the face of the kidnap victim, finally in a place of rest and safety.
Walter de Maria: Lightning Field (1977)
In a remote area of the high desert in New Mexico, this installation is comprised of 400 steel poles arranged in a great grid of one square mile by one square kilometer. The poles are two inches thick and average 20 feet 7 inches in height, spaced 220 feet apart. They present a sculpture that you can walk through, or experience from afar as a natural performance.
In the tiny village of Quernado, New Mexico, there is an agency which will drive you out to a rustic cabin in the desert. This cabin has basic provisions for one-night stays, rough wooden walls, two bedrooms, a bath, and most importantly, a long wind-blown porch lined with rocking chairs which nod in the endless breeze. From this porch, you may gaze across a mile of flat empty desert to the Lightning Field. This area has been carefully selected because, between May and September, it is a cauldron of electrical storms. Most nights a fearsome, rainless, tumbling cloud descends and produces claps of thunder and bolts of lightning, which are drawn to the steel poles. De Maria uses the forces of man to lure down nature, without controlling it. He has made a pact with nature, in which she will perform for him, guiding her lightning tendrils down to the field of his design. The resulting lightning show inspires awe, fear, beauty, and most of all, a sense of the sublime. The definition of the sublime is a sensation which combines beauty and horror, emphasizing the relative insignificance and weakness of man in the face of nature's vastness. What better example of natures power than the wiry, muscular harpoons of her lightning bolts, cracking at the earth. It is the privilege of the viewer of this work to rock gently on the cabin porch and gaze at the glass-caged maelstrom of De Maria's masterpiece.
Robert Smithson: Spiral Jetty (1970)
Great Salt Lake, UT
Using black basalt rocks from the site, Smithson built a coil 1,500 feet long and 15 feet wide that miters its way into the clay-red lake water. It must be reached by car, following tortuous directions through the Golden Spike National Historic Site. The work has altered over time, as the waters of the lake have shifted the initial spiral. It is now mostly submerged in the water. It is also a work that is only fully legible when seen from the sky. From the earth beside it, one has only a loose sense of its shepherd's crook form. We are meant, therefore, to be aware of something larger than ourselves, something that we, in a simple and unaided capacity, cannot wholly take in. The spiral form is one which occurs constantly in nature, mathematically recessing inward. And at this great size, the natural form becomes totemic. Like Stonehenge or the heads on Easter Island, we encounter a monumental man-made construction whose purpose escapes us. But in this age, we feel comfortable checking the box that calls it art, and leaving it at that. Like De Maria's Lightning Field, reaching Spiral Jetty requires a pilgrimage. It will not be stumbled upon, hanging in a museum with countless other works. The experience is heightened because of the journey required. The savor on the tongue of the approaching goal as the car shudders from side to side on rough dirt roads, the very act of pilgrimage, raises the sense of the import of the experience and the reward of the destination.
Ansel Adams: Moon and Half Dome (1960)
Adams Gallery, Yosemite National Park, CA
The wild glories of the American wilderness must be experienced. They are difficult to trap in a work of art, of any medium. But while the entirety eludes us, pieces of it can be caught and admired in frame cages. What Ansel Adams achieves is a fistful of gorgeous splinters of the American wilderness. Each photograph is a narrow portrayal of an element of the whole, like the mirror of nature shattered, the shards gathered up and framed individually. Adams's popularity has limited his critical acclaim, but we must not assume that what is popular is without true artistic merit. Ansel Adamss work best captures in art the untameable American wilderness. Although most of the areas he photographed are now preserved as national parks, one may wander an exhibit of his work and wonder what viewers a millenium hence might think of the by then extinct wilds of America. What if Adams's works were mementos of a nature that no longer existed, like a skeletal brontosaurus whose existence we must only imagine from what remains?
Thomas Eakins: The Gross Clinic(1875)
Jefferson Medical College, Philadelphia, PA
The room is dark round the edges, spotlit. At Jefferson Medical College, the clinic's director, Dr. Gross, operates on a young man for osteomyelitis of the femur, narrating the procedure to his medical students, who sit round the operating theater, straining for a better view. Dr. Gross performs a conservative operation, rather than amputation, which had been the only solution for the ailment in question before his time. The moment we see is still prior to the adoption of hygenic surgical equipment. But we are witness to a new era of medicine, captured in a frozen awe of science, the new magic. A contemporary review read: "one of the most powerful, horrible, yet fascinating pictures that has been painted anywhere this century... but the more one praises it, the more one must condemn its admission to a gallery where men and women of weak nerves must be compelled to look at it, for not to look at it is impossible." Eakins's incredibly life-like and dramatic painting, of monumental size, is a record of history. But it comes at a time when nascent photography sat primed to replace painting as a memory tool. Eakins was interested in photography and in exploring what painting could do that photography could not. Relieved of the weight of necessary and accurate record, painting achieved a new freedom with the advent of photography. Painting could suddenly do what photography could notbend reality for dramatic effect. Was any one moment of Dr. Gross's operation as dramatic, tense, and magical as Eakins's work? His record is of a collective mood, painted after witnessing, a wholly invented view. We know that what the painting portrays could not have been exactly what Eakins saw, because he portrays himself in the painting, sitting behind Dr. Gross, whom we the viewers see from the front. Painting can employ the imagination, the will and sleight of hand of the artist, to go beyond photographys imprint of what is.
Matthew Barney: Cremaster Cycle (1994-2002)
Viewable by commissioned exhibition only
Currently on view at the Guggenheim Museum, NY
Barney has created five feature-length films comprising the Cremaster Cycle. In doing so, he employs a variety of media, carrying on the tradition of the opera completo, the total work of art first perfected by Bernini in 17th century Rome. As contemporary and new as it feels, Barney's work is deeply rooted in the history of art. But Barney has added to the traditional available media (painting, drawing, sculpture, dance, music), with his inclusion of film. Adding the new medium of his era, Barney remains a contemporary artist, but extends a long and rich line of influence, claiming his place as a link in the chain of the history of art. This is unusual, as so many contemporary artists desire to express themselves by breaking from art history. Of course, even the most violent break away from history is a reaction to that history, and so is inextricably woven into the history from which it wishes to sever ties.
Barney provides a beautiful revolution laced with tradition. The Cremaster Cycle's concept begins with the cremaster, the male muscle which controls the rise and descent of the testicles in response to external stimuli, such as temperature change. His films are biological allegories of emotional states, with a focus on longing and anguished despair. But analysis aside, they are incredibly beautiful. If seen only as a montage of evocative, haunting images, they warrant attention. To delve into the allegory, unfold the riddle, is a daunting task for the most knowledgeable of critics, and is not requisite to enjoyment. One of the most important jobs of a good work of art is to inspire beauty, wonder, and awe. Barney certainly fulfills this assignment. The Cremaster Cycle is carefully controlled so that it may be shown only at selected museums and galleries. Currently on view at the Guggenheim in New York, any opportunity to see this miraculous work must be seized.
Robert Rauschenberg: Retroactive I (1963)
Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, PA
America thrives on icons, and yet few know the meaning of iconography. From the Greek ikon, meaning symbol, iconography is the study of symbols, most frequently in works of art. We've all used the term "iconic image," but do we know what it means? An image which is symbolic of something greater than what it physically represents, an image as idea. But we need to recognize the ideas buried within iconic images, or they lose their power. If we see a painting of a crucified man, we must know that it is Jesus, know the story of his life and death, know why people care about it, in order for the painting to be anything more than a representation of a crucified man. Remove the man from the cross. We are left with two pieces of wood in the shape of a "t." The cross is an iconic image, but its symbolism requires knowledge on the part of the viewer. With no knowledge of Christianity, a cross is of no import.
And today? If you see two golden arches, McDonald's comes to mind. We have been trained by their advertising to associate a selected image with an idea, in this case a food purveyor, and the inspiration of hunger which its products quench. The golden arches are a contemporary symbol, no less universally recognizable than the aforementioned cross. Where does Rauschenberg come into play? His collages, particularly Retroactive I, are melted swarms of iconic images of Americana. This particular piece is evocative of a certain period in American history. President Kennedy and an astronaut, glued into place and pressed with bleeding color. We must recognize Kennedy to know his story and why it matters, just as we must know of the space race and the moon landing to imbue the astronaut with significance. The overall feeling that we come away with, prompted by these touchstones, is a collage of American fear and triumph, conquest and tragedy, a need to be greater not for ourselves, but in contrast to others. We encounter, as novelist Don DeLillo put it, "American magic and dread." But this symbolism, while linked to a period in history when the iconic images in the work were fresh in the news, is also a part of the history of art. It is a landmark of its moment, but renews the long art historical tradition of the use of iconography to convey hidden meanings through silent images.
Robert Motherwell: Elegy to the Spanish Republic (1960)
Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Dallas/Fort Worth, TX
Looming darkness. Motherwell's works, abstract and nebulous, little more to describe than black inkblots nearly eradicating a white backdrop, force in their viewers an inexplicable sense of foreboding and discomfort, as of a black cloud slowly passing in front of the sun, a cloud which may never dissipate and will cradle you in endless night. If one could explain the potency of Motherwell's paintings, it would diminish their effect. Part of the greatness of art is it slippery defiance of explanation. To explain is to file away, to compartmentalize, to weaken by the parameters of definition. It is more frightening, more powerful, and more rewarding, to encounter willingly something that defies definition. You lie peacefully asleep alone in your bedroom, and then you wake. Slowly, without opening your eyes, you can sense that you no longer sleep. You can feel something, a presence, leaning over you in your bed, an enormous dark presence, encroaching upon you, but you have not yet opened your eyes to encounter this presence. Then, through pounding heart, you open your eyes wide. And there is nothing there. This is the work of Robert Motherwell.
Copyright 2007 Noah Charney