The masses are swooning over great art

Masterpieces show up in books, movies, plays


January 11, 2004|By Karin Lipson | Karin Lipson,NEWSDAY

Tracy Chevalier knew she had a good story brewing as soon as she read the magazine article about a set of six mysterious medieval tapestries hanging in a Paris museum.

"Alarm bells went off," the novelist recalled recently, "and I said, `Aha, there's stuff to be filled in here!' "

What sort of stuff? Well, who, for instance, was the elegant woman in each of the elaborate tapestries, which are known as The Lady and the Unicorn? Who designed them? Who wanted them enough to pay a fortune for them?

So fill in Chevalier did, weaving her own fictional tale about the origin of the tapestries in her latest novel, The Lady and the Unicorn (Dutton, $23.95), which landed in bookstores late last month.

The plot is itself a tapestry of sex, violence, medieval politics, the role of women, sex (did we mention that?) and, on occasion, even true love. But ultimately, as Chevalier writes in the afterword, "This is a novel about creating art."

As such, it's in growing company. Emerging from the domain of museums, galleries and textbooks, art seems to be a hot topic these days, appearing all around us in everyday culture. Walk into a bookstore, hit a movie, go to a play - and you may find yourself thinking about art.


Dan Brown's thriller The Da Vinci Code. With more than 5 million copies in print, this novel is the mega-hit of art-inspired popular works. Sure, it's a murder mystery on a religious (or, some would say, pseudo-religious) theme - a wild scavenger hunt involving the pursuit of the Holy Grail, the identity of Mary Magdalene and lots more in that vein.

But what's on the cover? Leonardo's Mona Lisa, one of the great art icons of the Western world. And what does the author use as key evidence for his interpretation of the true nature of the Grail? Leonardo's famed mural The Last Supper. If there's a perfect current example of high art meets pop art, this is it.

Mona Lisa Smile, the newest Julia Roberts vehicle. Roberts plays a 1950s art history instructor at exclusive Wellesley College, who (among other things) teaches her young charges how to really look at and understand art. She asks: What is good art? And why is the original inherently better than the reproduction? The movie garnered mixed reviews (along with the ire of some Wellesley grads), but it does raise intriguing questions about the nature of creativity and analytical thought.

Girl With a Pearl Earring, Chevalier's best-seller, published in 2000 and recently reissued in a new paperback edition. Like The Lady and the Unicorn, it begins with a real work of art (the beguiling portrait of a young woman by the 17th-century artist Jan Vermeer), from which it spins the fictional tale of the servant girl who inspired the artist. The movie version, starring Scarlett Johansson as Griet, the girl, and Colin Firth as Vermeer, arrives in theaters soon.

The Stendhal Syndrome, a coming off-Broadway double bill by Tony winner Terrence McNally, featuring Isabella Rossellini, in her stage debut, and Richard Thomas. The first of the double bill, called Full Frontal Nudity, explores what can happen when three very different American tourists and their European tour guide are confronted by one colossal work of art - Michelangelo's sculpture of the biblical David. The syndrome is a term for a kind of ecstasy and disorientation that can occur in the face of overwhelmingly beautiful art.

Leonardo is familiar

Inevitably, perhaps, some refinements of these works are lost in translation. Seeing Mona Lisa Smile, after all, is not really like taking an art-appreciation course, and reading The Da Vinci Code doesn't equal studying Renaissance painting. So, does the subject's popularization give art historians the chills? Do they bemoan the dumbing down of their life's work? No, at least not in the case of Denise Allen, whose specialty is the Italian Renaissance.

"People are reading these things for pleasure and enjoyment and some kind of fulfillment, and I think that's terrific," said Allen, associate curator at New York's Frick Collection.

As a curator, of course, Allen thinks the best way to enjoy the profound gifts that art offers "is to see the work of art itself."

Sometimes, she pointed out, a popular work taps into an existing fascination with a work of art or artist - like Leonardo. The art popularizes the fiction, rather than the other way around.

"Even if you've just been through high school, you've heard about Leonardo, about the Mona Lisa," said Allen, and Leonardo "is associated in our minds with the mystery of searching for answers."

The answers offered in The Da Vinci Code have been amply skewered, both on religious grounds and for their interpretations of art history. But there's no denying that the book is a page-turner that can induce almost breathless excitement, and its influence is likely to spread. Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind) has signed on as director of the film version, with production due to start this year.

Teen-age fascination

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