Jilly: The Fine Art Of Story

The Fine Art of StoryEver since I read Kay’s fascinating post about Tim’s Vermeer, I’ve been thinking about art and artists, and what a rich source of inspiration they are for story-tellers.

Works of art are fabulous story fuel. It’s one of the few subjects where you could stretch your writer’s imagination to breaking point without ever threatening suspension of disbelief. Artworks can be distinctive and visual, enriching the plot as well as helping to move it along. They’re subject to the whims of fashion, passion, politics and expert opinion. They could be worth a fortune today and a pocketful of loose change tomorrow, or vice versa. They’re highly portable (for which read steal-able), and can disappear for years and reappear just as mysteriously. They’re susceptible to forgery, offering a wealth of opportunity for foul play and double-dealing.

Here are three very recent true stories. You’d struggle to make up something half this good.

Nazi looted art ‘found in Munich’

According to media reports at the end of last year, a collection of 1,500 artworks confiscated by the Nazis during the 1930s and 1940s, including pieces by Matisse, Picasso and Chagall, was discovered in Munich. The estimated value of the haul was supposedly around one billion euros (more than $1.3 billion). The story goes that the art was found by chance in 2011, when the tax authorities investigated the elderly, reclusive son of a Munich art dealer and obtained a search warrant for his apartment. The paintings had been kept in a darkened room and the man sold one occasionally when he ran short of funds. A second haul of a further 238 artworks including pieces by Monet, Manet, Renoir, Pissarro, Cezanne, Corot, Gauguin, and Toulouse-Lautrec was found in February this year at the man’s dilapidated Salzburg home.

Stolen Gauguin was on factory worker’s kitchen wall for 40 years

Italian Fine Art police this week displayed two paintings – a Gauguin and a Bonnard – that were stolen in the 1970s from the London home of the widower of the daughter of one of the founders of the Marks & Spencer department store. They were left on a train in Italy and sold at an unclaimed lost property auction by Italian railways. A Fiat factory worker liked the look of them, bought them for 45,000 lira (a little over £30), and hung them in his kitchen, where they remained for more than 40 years until the man’s son saw a Gauguin in an art book and noticed the similarity to the painting in his father’s kitchen. Estimated value of the two paintings: something in excess of 30 milion euros.

Businessman’s ‘Chagall’ will probably be burned

A British art lover, Martin Lang, bought a painting attributed to Chagall for £100k in 1992 on the advice of a Russian art dealer who worked for one of the major auction houses. The painting appeared in a book by a Soviet art expert who was also a friend of Chagall. Last year Mr Lang volunteered his painting for scrutiny by the art experts of the BBC programme Fake or Fortune? After investigation, the BBC team suggested that the paint pigments were too modern for the painting to be genuine, so the work was submitted to the Chagall committe in Paris for authentication. The committee is headed by Chagall’s two grand-daughters and is committed to defending his legacy, and apparently under French law they are entitled to destroy the painting. Mr Lang asked for it to be officially marked a fake and returned to him, but the Chagall committee refused, and according to reports this week it seems that the painting is likely to be burned in front of a magistrate.

My favorite piece of art-related romantic fiction is Jenny Crusie’s Faking It. I like the fakes in Jenny’s story even more having read the news reports above, and I note that they would have passed the test that tripped up Mr Lang’s ‘Chagall’.

For romantic suspense, there’s Elizabeth Lowell’s Die In Plain Sight, in which a young painter submits for authentication a painting from a collection she inherited from her grandfather, and finds herself in the middle of a murder mystery.

My husband, the mystery lover, recommends Lawrence Block’s clever and fun The Burglar Who Painted Like Mondrian.

And of course artists make fascinating characters – I’m sure there must be many more than the obvious Tracy Chevalier’s Girl With A Pearl Ear-Ring.

Do you have a favorite art-y story or movie?

11 thoughts on “Jilly: The Fine Art Of Story

  1. Hailey Lind’s Art Lover’s Mystery series. I love Michael more than I love Davy from Faking It, and that’s saying something. Michael’s faults are front and center in the first couple of books, but by the fourth book his arc is coming into focus. Tons of “writer no-no’s” in these books, but the characters are wonderful. If Annie doesn’t end up with Michael at the end of this series I will have to hunt down Juliet Blackwell and her sister (the two together write as Hailey Lind) and have a serious talk with them.

  2. There’s a documentary not about theft called “Herb and Dorothy,” which is about a NYC couple who collected modern art. Herb was a postal worker, and Dorothy was a librarian. They lived on her salary and bought art with his. They bought art from young and unappreciated or not-yet-made-it artists for almost 50 years, sometimes in installments, but a favorite anecdote is about how they got a piece from Christo in exchange for cat sitting. They had no restrictions on what they bought, other than that they had to like it, the piece had to fit in their one-bedroom apartment, and they had to be able to get the piece home on the subway or in a taxi. After 30 years, they had collected about 4,000 pieces—all of it still in their apartment—now worth millions of dollars, which they donated to the National Gallery. And after their place was cleaned out, they started collecting again. There’s a hilarious bit where Dorothy, I think, hauls a box out from under their bed and starts showing the photographer all the pieces. Plus the walls in their apartment are amazing. You think Gertrude Stein’s house was crowded with art? Nothing like these folks. Here’s a link to an article from PBS: http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/herb-and-dorothy/film.html

    • Wow, Kay, that’s an even better story than the reclusive hoarder. I love stories of ordinary people doing extraordinary things.

      • They make it look so easy. They just really had an eye for art. When I saw the movie on PBS a while ago, I thought, “Anybody could do that.” And anybody could. If they had a good eye. That, alas, is not me.

  3. I’m so glad I asked for recommendations. I just had a look at Hailey Lind’s website – love the sound of these books. I should have a little free reading time next week and I’ll definitely be giving these a try. Thanks, Jennifer!

    • I enjoyed Juliet Blackwell’s stories about the witch who owns a vintage clothing store. The plot is a bit sluggish, but the heroine is nice, and they are fun, easy reads.

      I’ve been meaning to give the Hailey Lind books a try, too.

      • I like Blackwell’s Witchcraft Mysteries, too. They feel slow because, like everything she writes, they are too heavy on the practical details of the heroine’s professional life. I like vintage clothes, so I can tolerate that in the Witchcraft Mysteries for the sake of the brilliant stories. Faux finishing and art interests me, so while I do skip some sections of the Art Lover’s Mysteries, it’s not too bad. Her Haunted Home Renovation series, though, is half fabulous story, half handyman manual. I can count on skimming vast segments of book. I think if broken down into its components, you could have two absolutely brilliant series- one ghost hunter fantasy series, and one fascinating anecdotal house-rehabbing guide.

        My daughter also adores the Witchcraft Mysteries. She is obsessed with the gargoyle who goes about disguised as a pot-bellied pig. 🙂

        • I think I like the details in the Witchcraft Mysteries. I can’t for the life of me recall the drama/conflict in any of the books right now, and that’s kind of a problem. I believe the first was about The Crying One (a Mexican folk monster who lives in the water and drowns people?) but I don’t really remember the other ones. Love the pig. Love the clothes. But the plot is too elusive for me.

        • I’m going to try them, though I’ll leave the Haunted Home Renovation ones for now – I worked on a couple of renovation projects in my day job and that was more than enough for me!

          Your comment reminds me that my dad used to love Arthur Hailey books – I think they were thrillers, but each one was set around a particular industry (I remember one about car manufacturing). I think he felt as though he was learning something as well as enjoying the story. Maybe that’s how he justified reading them – he wasn’t one for time-wasting 🙂

  4. This isn’t exactly a story, but back in the days of the short story, I heard that science fiction magazine editors would receive artwork, and then pass it to favored authors and say, “Hey, make me a story.” Synergetic! Also, it meant that interesting art was getting a wider audience . . . .

  5. Michaeline, I don’t remember any of the plots from Blackwell’s Witchcraft Mysteries, either, but I do remember all the details of the heroine’s love life, which is primarily what I read for anyway. I think Blackwell is doing a great job with Lily Ivory’s suitors, and that the romance is not only well done, but brilliantly showing character growth for Lily. I love how Oscar’s reactions (Oscar the gargoyle/pig) seem to foreshadow the direction the love story will take in the series.

    Jilly, hope this was sufficiently vague and unspoiler-y. 🙂

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