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The Missing Masterpieceby Ian Callinan
From the Dustjacket
The Missing Masterpiece is a satirical spoof on the snobbish world of art collectors. Ian Callinan uses his insider knowledge to have some wicked fun at the expense of our State art galleries. He exposes a nexus of self-serving politicians, a gallery director's lust for power and prestige, and a fair amount of gossip, intrigue and fraud. We follow the farcical adventures of a hapless innocent in this devious world as he sleuths away in his quest for the missing masterpiece.
Anyone who has ever wondered how the experts decide what hangs on the walls of our State art galleries will love this book.
Publisher : Central Queensland UniversityPress
First published : 2001
ISBN : 1 876780 05 3
No. Pages : 216 pages
The culturally elitist world of running a Public Art Gallery is laid bare by Ian Callinan in The Missing Masterpiece, a lightly witty novel that highlights some of the difficulties facing an art gallery curator and the dangers of wanting something too badly. Wracked with under funding and close public scrutiny, pressured by a Board of Trustees and a self-serving Minister for the Arts, it's the curator's job to organise exhibitions that will be interesting and relevant enough to attract the public through the doors. The funding has to be justified, the art affordable and the profile high. Yes, it's a thankless job performed by art devotees who themselves are often failed artists. One such man is our diminutive protagonist Davenport Jones, whose passion takes him far beyond the call of duty.
Davenport Jones is a curator at the State Art Gallery (which state is not specified, but I like to think it's Melbourne) and is blessed with a keen eye for late nineteenth century paintings with a memory that can recall just about every work and style that he has ever seen. But his blessings end there.
The strength of Davenport Jones lies solely and only in his passion and expertise in the work of the brilliant (and completely fictional) Spanish post-expressionist artist Gabriel Divera, a man who spent a short part of his career in Australia and who, it is said, experimented in the cubist style 10 years before it was thought to be created in Europe. Davenport would gladly like to find some sort of supporting evidence of his theories on the life and work of this man.
So when he catches a slight whiff of a possibility that an old woman on the Gold Coast may be able to help him in his search for a cubist Divera, he makes the single biggest impulsive decision of his life and hops on a plane for Queensland risking his marriage, his job and his reputation. His hasty decision will take him through the Gold Coast and on up to the wilds of Papua New Guinea in a whirlwind trip fed by his dreams of uncovering the elusive (or possibly even non-existent) Divera painting.
Davenport is an ineffectual man who allows himself to be berated and attacked by everyone around him from his wife, to his boss, and even to total strangers on the street. At first his victimisation is amusing as every inconvenience, problem or hiccup is blamed on the unfortunate man who accepts the unreasonable torrents with little or no response. But as the abuse becomes more and more unreasonable and still no reaction from Davenport, I found it rather irritating. Even I was starting to develop a dislike to the poor unfortunate bloke.
But it's hard to hold too much against such an amiable fellow who simply wants to immerse himself in his artistic passion. His wife, Gloria, on the other hand, now there is a piece of work who has been vividly moulded into a completely reprehensible package.
This was a very enjoyable book, rich in good humour and with an ironic turn of phrase that catches you unready at times. The plot is an interesting one moving slowly and depending on Davenport's perceived deficiencies before suddenly blooming to its fullest potential in the final few chapters. Slightly cliched in the outcome, this was a story that made getting there an enjoyable experience.
The Missing Masterpiece turns out to be quite a cleverly intriguing little story that culminates in a rather pressure-filled conclusion of unexpected proportions. Along the way we are served a caustic commentary on the fickle art world as art itself is overtaken by greed and self-aggrandisement of the custodians and politicians in charge of the country's state art galleries. It's interesting the extent to which Callinan casts these characters in such an unflattering light considering the author himself has served on his fair share of state art gallery boards over the years. One just wonders how much is fiction and how much is derived from experience.
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