Pictures at an Exhibition: Art, War And Memory in Paris

In the novel Pictures At An Exhibition, (Knopf Hardcover 2009, Vintage Paperback 2010) Sara Houghteling tells a captivating story of the Nazi looting of art in occupied Paris during World War II. Told through the eyes Max Berenzon, the son of a highly successful art dealer in Paris, this exceptionally researched and beautifully executed book is about lost paintings, lost love, the art of survival and the power of the imagination.

Max’s father is a leading Jewish art dealer with a gallery on Rue La Boetie in the 1920’s and 30’s. The gallery represents such artists as Picasso, Matisse, Manet and Morisot. In a wonderfully imagined scene in the book, Max’s father would pass by Picasso’s studio, just a couple of doors down from the gallery, and Picasso would raise his canvases up to the window for his dealer’s friendly thumbs-up.

Max grows up with artwork on his walls and and in his veins. Max’s father makes Max memorize the paintings of the wall at one of their exhibitions, in the exact order in which they appear. They are etched into his memory, a lesson that will prepare Max for the tragic mission that lies ahead.

Anti-semitism is building in Paris and Max’s family finally realizes the true danger and scope of the Nazi threat. They leave their gallery and artwork behind as they escape to a small village in southern France. Max’s youthful sidekick, Betrand Camondo, the grandson of Count Moises de Camondo, tries to stay in Paris too long and sadly becomes of les absents.

After three years in hiding, Max returns to liberated Paris and finds his father’s gallery completely looted. Max stumbles through Paris, searching for his friend Bertrand and hunting down his father’s lost art in the shady world of black market galleries and tight-lipped collaborators. Max seeks out his father’s former gallery assistant, Rose Clement, for whom he has long had unreciprocated feelings.

Rose is modeled after the real-life Rose Valland, who earned the French Legion of Honor for her work as a spy and gallery assistant in the Jeu de Paume during World War II. Valland covertly tracked most of the 20,000 pieces of the stolen art, enabling the Monuments Men to follow the front lines and rescue the art from Hitler’s private collection or secret hide-outs deep in the mountains of Germany.  In 2005, the French government placed a plaque on the outside of the Jeu de Paume to commemorates her heroism.

I enjoyed this book so much that I followed it up with Monuments Men by Robert Edsel and The Rape of Europa by Lynn Nicholson. In addition, fans of old movies might enjoy watching The Train, a hyped-up version of the Rose Valland story starring Burt Lancaster and Jeanne Moreau. For Rape of Europa is also available as a documentary film, which I highly recommend.

I can’t wait to sign up for a Paris During the Occupation walking tour. In the meantime, I took a short walk down Rue La Boetie to find the site of the Berenzon’s fictional gallery and Picasso’s former art studio. Because Sarah Houghteling has a Master of Fine Arts and researched the book while on a Fulbright scholarship to Paris, I wouldn’t be surprised if the addresses are based on historical fact. I really hope so. On my own visit, I sat down inside 21 Rue La Boettie (in what is now a Pomme et Pain restaurant) and enjoyed some hot vegetable soup, right in the spot where Picasso would have raised his canvas in a salute to  Daniel Berenzon.

I give my own salute to Sara Houghteling and Pictures At An Exhibition. Highly recommended. This would be a great book for a book club to read along with a trip to their favorite art museum. Or better yet, a trip to Paris!

23 Rue La Boetie: Berenzon Gallery

21, Rue La Boetie, Picasso's Studio

Rose Valland Plaque at Jeu de Paume