lundi 4 mai 2009

A time of great loss

The cover jacket certainly looked promising. The story description even more so. Pictures at an Exhibtion is in France during the occupation years. The main characters are a family of Jewish art collectors whose extremely rich collection vanishes during the war. The son Max becomes obsessed with recovering these works of art. He is helped in his quest by Rose Clement, his father’s former Gallery assistant who somehow managed to keep her work at the Louvre under the hostile forces.
It’s a very good premise for a story and its clear from the writing that the author took pains to carefully research the historical details of the book. Despite such promise however, I found myself disappointed with the development of her characters. They are never as fully fleshed as they could have been. As such, I could never fully get into them and the story doesn’t take flight. This is especially disappointing with the character of Rose Clement, who we later learn was based on the real life Rose Valland, who worked in secret with the Resistance movement under great peril. Reading this book made me want to read up more on the real Rose Valland whose life sounds like a thriller.
What is good about Pictures from an Exhibition is its depiction of Paris and its citizens under the Occupation. For instance, the author describes in great and fascinating detail the evacuation of artworks from the Louvre. Its amazing to think that the Louvre was once emptied of its treasures. It must have been a massive undertaking, all of it taking place under great pressure. No less fascinating but infinitely more harrowing are the scenes detailing the loss through burning of hundreds of thousands of artworks which were deemed as degenerate or dangerous by the Nazis. Or the loss to rapacious hands of precious art works by Morissot, Manet and Picasso which today have not been recovered. The author was likewise unsparing in showing that while the pillage and looting were carried out by the occupying forces, there were a good number of French citizens who benefited from such stolen artworks through collaboration. So much art lost to human greed. If only to be reminded not to go down the same path, its worth reading this book.

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