Tuesday, 12 February 2008

Art and Crime and the Desire to Possess: Pictures Stolen from Arms Magnate's Museum

The picture of the young man on the front pages this morning jumped out at me. It is Paul Cezanne’s "Boy in a Red Vest," which I have stared at often, trying to figure out just what is wrong with his arms. The painting would be arresting anyway, but one arm would be longer than the other if they were extended, I’m sure. Was that intentional? What does it say about Cezanne and the way he saw the world?

The reproduction I have of the painting is in the catalogue of an exhibit which visited Montreal in 1990, The Passionate Eye: Impressionist and Other Master Paintings from the E.G. Bührle Collection, (Zurich, Artemis, 1990.) It was a fabulous exhibit from a fabulous collection and I returned several times. Aside from the truly astounding paintings, I found myself wondering about the ethics of one man collecting so many masterworks, particularly when the money he used to buy them came from his Oerlikon armaments factories. The question so preoccupied me that I put it at the center of my new novel The Violets of Usambara, where the main female character finds herself asking the same questions, while her politician husband wants her to make nice with the Bürhle family because Oerlikon is building new installations in Quebec.

Yesterday Marc Côté of Cormorant Books called me with one last question before the book was sent to the printers. This morning reproductions of the painting are everywhere because thieves stole it and three others from the Bürhle museum in Zurich on Sunday. Clearly the appeal of these paintings transcends morals: somone must have them, no matter what. And what does that say about art?

Photo: Reuters

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