Saturday, February 22, 2014

La la la la la not listening!

My friends told me not to go and see it, but I did. "That's two hours of my life I'm not getting back," said one of them. He was talking about The Monuments Men, the new movie in which George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman and - oh, loads of famous people - save art masterpieces from the Nazis at the end of World War Two.
Well, I went to see it anyway, mainly because I'd heard it featured the Ghent Altarpiece (a painting in which I have a personal interest), and I'm very glad I did, because I loved the film. I'm glad I didn't let myself be put off.

If someone in Hollywood had sat down and created a film tailored specifically to all the things I like, it probably would have been something like this. It has Ghent in it, and Bruges, and Paris, and bits of Germany, including Remagen, which I visited several times when we lived in Bad M√ľnstereifel. It has dialogue in Flemish, French and German, which always gives me a bit of a kick because I rarely get to practise any of those in Crieff. It has the Ghent Altarpiece, of course, and all the main characters are really interested in it. (If I could step into the world of that film for an hour I'd have someone who'd listen to me going on about it without flinching.) Oh, and it has George Clooney and Matt Damon.

The story, as you may know, is about the small team of museum directors, art historians, etc who are tasked with rescuing pieces of art stolen by the Nazis during the War, before the Nazis can destroy them in a fit of if-I-can't-have-them-nobody-can or the Russians can pinch them. The events on which the film is based are true but have (obviously) been dramatised. The Ghent Altarpiece really was stolen by the Nazis and really did end up in a salt mine in Germany. It was recovered by the Allies and eventually returned to Saint Bavo's cathedral in Ghent (see pic above), where it still resides today. If you are interested in seeing this amazing painting, there is a fabulous website here which allows you to explore it in gorgeous detail.

The Ghent Altarpiece has a certain notoriety as the most stolen artwork of all time; you can read a recent Guardian article about its theft-ridden history here. It hasn't survived all of its adventures entirely intact; in 1934 a panel was stolen and never recovered, although according to the article, "a detective with the Ghent police remains assigned to it, inheriting the case from his predecessors." (NB I should think that is a fabulous job, but likely to lead to obsession.)

The reason for my particular interest in the Ghent Altarpiece is that it was a major inspiration for my upcoming novel The Demons of Ghent (out on June 5th). When I was planning my Forbidden Spaces trilogy, I decided to set the middle novel in Ghent simply because I had been there once for four hours and fell in love with the city! Before I started to work on the book I went back for a week and spent days walking around Ghent, taking photographs, filming and making notes. I also went and stood in front of the Ghent Altarpiece and stared at it. It's a stunning artwork, huge but incredibly detailed, with brilliant jewel-like colours. It also has some intriguing and weird aspects to it: for example, the central figure of the Mystic Lamb (representing Christ), who stands on an altar in a formal, almost heraldic way, with a neat jet of blood arcing out of his breast into a chalice. Nearly all of the figures on that panel and those to either side of it are gazing at this bizarre scene. A few are looking away. One single figure to the right of the Lamb stares straight out of the painting, meeting the viewer's eyes with a challenging expression. I found this distinctly unnerving! Why did whichever of the Van Eyck brothers painted this figure choose to have him doing this? It feels as though there is a message in that direct gaze.

I was so fascinated by the Altarpiece that not only does it have a role to play in the plot of The Demons of Ghent, it also features in an early and dramatic scene in the book. Heroine Veerle De Keyser stands in front of it, where I stood, and notices some of the things that I noticed. She's a girl known more for her climbing ability and house breaking habits than art appreciation, but she feels the painting's power just as I did.

I was charmed to see, by the way, that the Belgian premiere of The Monuments Men was held inside Saint Bavo's cathedral in Ghent earlier this month. I wish I could have been there!

Above: my book doesn't have George Clooney in it, 
but it does have this rather handsome chap on the cover!


  1. Yes! My friend saw the film last week and loved it!! I'm totally going to see it for the art *cough* (not because it's has loads of cute "boys" in it). I have another friend who is in the art biz and specialized in 13th to 15th century panel paintings. I wonder if she's been to Ghent? I must send her the link to your blog and that other site of the alter piece. And the second book is out in June! Yay!!! So coool!

  2. :-) Maybe the reason my daughter and I loved the film so much is that we have an emotional attachment to the Ghent Altarpiece. Maybe without that, it wouldn't be so gripping! I'm such a twit really - I KNOW the Altarpiece survived WW2 because I have SEEN it TWICE, but I was still on tenterhooks!! :-D

  3. Good. I really want to see it. Not because of the Ghent Altarpiece. Because of Jean Dujardin.

  4. Yes, he is wonderful in it too. Only I have to admit I mainly had eyes for the Ghent Altarpiece. Art geeky, much.