March 13, 2012

The Journal of Art Crime, Fall 2011: Diane Joy Charney reviews Terence M. Russell's "The Discovery of Egypt: Vivant Denon's Travels with Napoleon's Army" and Denon's erotic novel "No Tomorrow"

In the Fall 2011 Issue of The Journal of Art Crime, Diane Joy Charney reviews Terence M. Russell's The Discovery of Egypt: Vivant Denon's Travels with Napoleon's Army (Sutton Publishing Limited, 2005) and Viviant Denon's No Tomorrow (Translated from the French Point de Lendemain by Lydia Davis with an introduction by Peter Brooks, New York Review Books, 2009):
Does the name “Denon” ring a bell? Perhaps it would if you are the sort of Louvre visitor who has gazed up at the inscription “Pavillon Denon” on the Louvre’s fa├žade, or who notices, en route to the “Mona Lisa,” to “The Winged Victory of Samothrace,” and to Michelangelo’s Slave sculptures, that you are walking in the museum’s “Denon Wing”. Or maybe you are a connaisseur of erotic literature who knows about the new dual-language edition of “No Tomorrow,” a work attributed to Denon that has recently garnered attention in literary circles. Just who could this chameleon-like Denon fellow be? 
Known as “Napoleon’s Eye,” as well as a lover of the Empress Josephine and eventual director of the Louvre, Denon was a man of many talents. Writer, artist, collector, adventurer, archeologist, tastemaker, and charming courtier, he could metamorphose into whatever role was required of him. 
Readers of Terence Russell’s scholarly, authoritative text will get to know the colorful Denon as an intrepid artist able to sketch rapidly under fire who was selected to accompany the French troops on their Egyptian campaign. In addition to his drawing skills, however, Denon paints with his words keen observations about the land and culture he encounters. Denon’s illustrated record of what he saw in Egypt is here made available to the non-speaker of French, through Russell’s well-chosen quotes and drawings. Russell’s paraphrasing and commentary, although sometimes more dry than Denon’s own words, add a necessary framework to the story. 
It is thanks to Denon that so many Egyptian artifacts made it safely to Paris, where as a result of his efforts, the wonders of Ancient Egypt began to be known and appreciated. Without Denon, today’s Louvre would not be the treasure house that it is. To those interested in art crime, however, there is another facet to Denon’s far-reaching influence and collecting style. 
As an immensely likeable master courtier, Denon was able to put a positive spin on what amounted to Napoleon’s looting of the art of countries where he waged war. Under Bonaparte, the appropriation of art became standard policy. In praising Napoleon for his heroic efforts to “conserve” great art in the face of “the torment of war,” Denon lauds a policy that would later be copied by Hitler, whose wholesale confiscation of art was touted as an effort to “protect” it. 
Now how does the reader put together the Denon who drew for sixteen hours straight through eyelids bleeding from the windblown sand, with the author of the 30-page erotic classic, “No Tomorrow,” which according to one reader, should be next to “titillating” in the dictionary? Although Denon was known to have talent for pornographic art, it may be quite a leap from that to authoring what Good Reads calls “one of the masterpieces of eighteenth-century literature, a book to set beside Laclos’ ‘Les Liasons Dangereuses.’”
Diane Joy Charney teaches French Literature at Yale University, where she is also Tutor-in-Writing and the Mellon Forum Fellow of Timothy Dwight College.

You may read the entire review by purchasing a subscription to The Journal of Art Crime.

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