Red Fern Book Review

My Rembrandt

April 05, 2021 Amy Mair Season 1 Episode 10
Red Fern Book Review
My Rembrandt
Show Notes Transcript

Host Amy Mair dives into the elegant and sometimes sordid world of fine art with My Rembrandt, a quirky and compelling documentary about a Dutch aristocrat and his race to find the first new Rembrandt in 40 years, An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin, The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt and The Art Forger by Barbara Shapiro. She concludes the episode with a national story about the debate over a Flemish still life and Nazi-looted art acquired by the Art Gallery of Ontario.

Books and Resources discussed:

My Rembrandt, Apple TV
An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin
Born Standing Up by Steve Martin
Shopgirl by Steve Martin
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
The Art Forger by Barbara Shapiro
New York Times Magazine article on Jan Six XI (contains spoilers to My Rembrandt)
The Globe and Mail article on debate over Still Life with Flowers by Jan van Kessel

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Amy Mair 0:

22 Welcome back to the Red Fern Book Review.I am your host, Amy. And today we're going to look at the world of fine art. I came up with the idea for this podcast after watching a compelling documentary on Apple TV called My Rembrandt. So I wanted to take a look at that. And then I want to take a look at three novels that I've read in recent years, that have fine art as their focus. And finally, I want to conclude with a national story about a piece of fine art from the Art Gallery of Ontario that has, there's a dispute over who owns it. So to get us started, I wanted to just mention, the reason why I really was drawn to this documentary and why I enjoy art history, I studied it in school. And I find it such a fascinating way to remember history. So if you take a history course and you read a book, or you listen to a lecture, I find it you're not going to remember necessarily that much about it. But when someone flashes a painting in front of your face and it's a dark room and you've got someone talking to you about it, you can get transported back and learn more about people's motivations. You can see what they were wearing. You learn about religion, traditions, and I find that I retain much more than information. I also find it I mean, it's often intriguing how people came to own the art, what's happened with the art. We're gonna get into that a little bit more. And, you know, I've come to find out often it can involve criminal activity. There's of course, glamour. It involves a lot of different things. So this particular documentary that I really liked. It focuses on a guy named Jan Six. That's his name. He is from an aristocratic family in the Netherlands, and he is the 11th Jan Six. Every time there's a firstborn son in the family they carry that name. He comes from a family that has collected art for generations. And the first Jan Six was a contemporary and friend of Rembrandt. So this guy believes he has found the first Rembrandt in over 40 years. That is the focus of this documentary. And interwoven throughout is a cast of characters of collectors, restoration experts, billionaires would be art dealers and just other people that also collect Rembrandt and have an interest in him. But this guy, I found him really interesting. He's in his early 40s, he's tall, and he wears a suit, which seems a bit formal for this day and age. And you can see, he's got this kind of floppy mop of hair and he looks like he comes from this aristocratic family. He grew up in a 54-room house on one of the canals in downtown Amsterdam. And in the documentary you get to go through the house and so I found that really cool. Apparently it's a museum, and you can make appointments to try and get in there. But you know, it's not easy to get access. It's these rabbit warren of hallways and paintings everywhere. It's apparently like 270 paintings and they're everywhere. There are curtains it is overstuffed with memorabilia. It looks like quite a time capsule. And he actually grew up in this house. Apparently the living quarters were a bit separated from this, but this was his home that he interacted in everyday and one of the things I kept thinking is "Oh my god I have raised two boys and I can't even imagine to having them among Titians, Hals, Reubens, Tintorettos and Rembrandts in the house. I mean, that just would not have ended well. Anyway, he grew up around one of Rembrandt's most famous portraits. It's called Portrait of Jan Six. It actually hangs in that particular home. But the intrigue in this documentary, which is interesting is basically, the guy was flipping through a Christie's art catalog one day, and he believes he saw what is a Rembrandt. And in this catalog, it's attributed to Circle of Rembrandt and isn't selling for very much money. Now, when I say not very much money, I think it's a few $100,000s. But so then the story is about what happens. He actually goes on to buy this painting. He has to be quite secretive, because he can't let people know. So otherwise that would, maybe Christie's will take it off the market, or they'll be competing buyers. And so it's what happens along those lines. And I've got a really great article from the New York Times magazine that I'm going to link in the bio if you want to do a deep dive into to what happened there. But the other part of this documentary that I really liked is it looks at these other people including a duke from Scotland. His name is the Duke of Buccleuch. He has an advisor from a museum in Amsterdam come help him rehang one of his paintings. He has a Rembrandt and it's called An Old Woman Reading. And it's a very famous painting. It's beautiful. It's this older woman, and she's crouched over, looking down at a book. And she's backlit, as you often see in Rembrandt paintings. And she has a cape over her head to dramatic effect. It's quite something. And, you know, just getting to see this guy's grounds he has. He's lives on 280 acres. And he's just so obsessive about this painting, as is everyone in this documentary. And what I also found really interesting is when these people talk about people featured in Rembrandt paintings they'll say him or her like it's an actual person. I thought that was kind of kind of crazy. So that's that, and I would check that out. I now want to look at three novels that have art history as their focus. The first one I wanted to mention is called An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin and it was published in 2010. You may or may not know that Steve Martin is an author. And he's actually a really strong writer. And this particular book, it was set in New York. It's about a young woman named Lacey Yeager and her climb up the ranks of the art auction house Sotheby's and then beyond. She goes on to do things in the art world beyond the auction house. And it's about the inner workings of the high-end art world. And while I'm mentioning this book, this book is good. There are two books of his that I enjoy even more. Steve Martin wrote a book called Born Standing Up and it's a memoir about his life just up until the point that he becomes insanely famous during his time on Saturday Night Live and through a stand up comedy. He also wrote Shopgirl and that's a novella. It's extremely good. It's about a bored sales girl in L.A., a wealthy businessman, aimlessly aimless young musician and their love triangle. And this this was made actually made into a movie with Steve Martin and Claire Danes. The next book I wanted to mention, is The Goldfinch with Donna Tartt. That was published in 2013. Most of you will probably have heard of this book, if not read it. It won the Pulitzer Prize. And if you're looking for a book that's just really involved (It's long and it travels through different time periods and throughout different countries and goes from New York to L.A.) this is the book for you. This book is about a 13 year old boy named Theodore Decker, who survives a terrorist bombing in an art museum. And he's with his mother at the time and his mother is killed. So while there's a wreckage and rubble around him, he steals a small Dutch Golden Age painting called The Goldfinch. It's a small painting. And he just takes it with him. And it's about what happens from there on out. It is actually a real painting. What I found really interesting about this book, and I didn't know that much about it until I read it, was that fine art, if it's stolen, there's not much you can do with it. You certainly can't resell it. And so it is either going to be whisked away and taken into somebody's bunker and their private secret gallery somewhere, or it's going to be used as collateral for criminals and drug dealers. That's how it's used in this book. And so I found that really interesting is it sort of it takes this middle place. So it's often used, kind of in the shadows. And I found that really interesting. This book was made into a movie with Nicole Kidman and it was released in 2019. The last book I wanted to mention is a book that I think you probably have not heard of and I think it would be a great book club book. It's called The Art Forger by Barbara Shapiro. And it was published in 2012. And it's a novel based on the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist. I've always been kind of fascinated with that theft. It's historical fiction around that. So if you don't know about that theft, it took place in 1990. I've actually been to the museum. I went there in the '80s, before the works were stolen. Isabella Stewart Gardner was a wealthy woman and an art philanthropist in the city of Boston. And in 1903, she opened this elaborate museum slash home, and it was based on a Venetian Palazzo. So it's got inner courtyards and fountains and statues, and it looks like a mini Italian palace with great landscaping. And it's filled with all kinds of artwork including Vermeers and Rembrandts. What's really neat when you go in it is it seems like you're in someone's home. I mean, someone's elaborate home. But you know, it doesn't seem like it's not your typical art gallery. One little caveat, when she died, she she put into her will that none of the artwork could be moved. So that that brings us to the the art theft. In 1992 men dressed as police officers came in the middle of the night, and they took 13 works from the museum, including Rembrandt's only recorded seascape, and it that art theft has never been solved. There's all kinds of theories. For a long time people thought it was the guard, he was new. I don't think he did do it. There's a lot of different theories. They think it had to do with the underworld, the criminal underworld world. And the the two men who did it may have actually since passed away, but the works have never been recovered. what they've done now is they've left the empty frames. When you steal art, you typically slash the arts directly from the frames and you leave the frame. So the frames are hanging in place. And the idea is that they're hanging empty, waiting to be returned. So that's kind of mysterious. I really enjoyed this book. It's about a struggling artist, her name is Claire Roth and she's about 30 years old. And in order to make a living, she'd makes reproductions of artwork, but she tells herself that she's not making forgeries that she's making reproductions. And then one day, a man comes to her and asked her for two make a special copy of a painting. And the copy is looks incredibly similar to a piece of work that she knows has been stolen from the Gardner Museum. And so then he says there can be no questions asked and then in addition to the painting, he pays her well, he gives her some other things as well. And so she has to make this decision. So that's what this is about, is whether she will paint this painting or not. The author includes imagined letters between Isabella Gardner and her niece. I wanted to conclude, just as I was watching My Rembrandt there was an interesting news story about a piece of art at the Art Gallery of Ontario, and it's called Still Life with Flowers by Jan van Kessel. And it's a Flemish plenish master that painted it in the 17th century. It's a traditional still life, as you can imagine, with kind of bright colors, dark lit from the back. These arrangements are quite in style right now. It's lopsided and the flowers are splayed out beyond the vase. What happened was effect family in Europe made a claim that this is actually part of art that was stolen from a Jewish family and taken by the Nazis and sold at a very low, low price. And then meanwhile, another family is saying they would like more details and in fact it might belong to them. So that's been brought up in the news recently. And it just kind of brought home the whole idea that behind the beauty, there's also sometimes intrigue and bad things can happen in the art world. So that's all I have to say today. And I wanted to thank you so much for joining me. And I will be including everything that I've talked about today in the show notes. Talk with you next time. Thank you very much.

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