Saturday, July 23, 2016

Novelist Daniel Silva celebrates the art world via superspy Gabriel Allon

Best-selling author Daniel Silva signs copies of his new novel, The Black Widow, before his appearance at the Jewish Community Center in Dallas on Sunday, July 17. (Jewish Community Center/Jewish Community Center)

To say that Daniel Silva is a best-selling author is a bit like saying Henry Aaron was a decent home-run hitter. Before July 12, Silva had written 18 novels, all of which claimed their place on the New York Times best-seller list. He only recently released his 19thThe Black Widow, which brought him to Dallas last Sunday night.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Silva on stage during his sold-out appearance at the Jewish Community Center. During his remarks, I thought, "Wow, he'd be a terrific subject for Art Notes." Art plays a major role, even a critical role, in most Silva novels. 
The character at the heart of 16 Silva classics is superspy Gabriel Allon, who doubles as an art restorer. You could even say that Allon is an internationally renowned art restorer. The crowd at the JCC, which numbered more than 500 adoring fans, beseeched the author: Why did he make Gabriel Allon an art restorer? 
So he told them. Years ago, he was walking the streets of Georgetown with his wife, who reminded him that they were having dinner that night with David Bull, who just happens to be one of the world's most famous art restorers.
"That's it!" Silva said. "Gabriel will be an art restorer."
Silva sounded almost rhapsodic in telling a story about meeting Bull at the National Gallery of Art, where Bull was paintings conservator, and getting to see the work Bull was doing on a masterpiece by Claude Monet. Silva even got to touch the painting. His idea of making Allon an art restorer has both deepened his friendship with Bull and launched a rare collaboration between the two. Silva thanks Bull profusely in the acknowledgements to The Black Widow (and for that matter, several other books). I should note here that restoration is a 21st century endeavor at many major museums, including the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth and the Dallas Museum of Art, where it became a high priority under previous director Maxwell Anderson, whom Silva also knows.
"What has been fascinating is that this has attracted a lot of attention," Bull told me in his British accent, in a telephone call.  
"Once, I was in San Diego, and suddenly, somebody says to me, 'You're Gabriel Allon!' This has happened frequently in various places." About 18 months ago, Bull met a lawyer who wanted him to look at a painting. During their discussion on restoration, the man "mentioned Gabriel Allon and said, 'Have you read those books?' This has happened oh so many times." 
But Bull wants you to know: He is not a spy. "I would be very bad at it. I don't think I could shoot straight. I would be no good at doing what he does." 
So, Silva deemed art restoration to be the perfect foil for the elusive Allon, who is a superspy but also, well, an assassin. As Silva's Facebook page points out, "In one part of his life, Gabriel has to destroy, in the other he is able to restore. Art restoration symbolizes Gabriel's way of trying to make damaged people and the damaged world whole again."
It helps that Silva loves, as in really, really loves, great works of art. It's a passion he can embrace by using Allon as his vehicle of indulgence.
A 2015 story in the Washington Post describes Bull as "Silva's secret weapon. In a way, he's helped the author become the John le Carré of art conservation. Bull's tools have touched Picassos, Monets and even a da Vinci. And while the conservator is nothing if not respectful of his writing friend -- he would never consider meddling with Silva's prose -- there was one proposed twist in The Heist he couldn't accept. Silva wanted Allon to roll up a real van Gogh at one point in the book."
Bull protested mightily. "Never, never, never," he said. "Because Gabriel loves the painting. He would not damage a painting."
In the past, Silva has spoken to hundreds of sold-out crowds, including one several years ago at the DMA, where he riffed on art like a lead guitarist turned loose on stage. Bull shared this about him with the Washington Post
"I might not hear from him in six months and then suddenly there's e-mails and telephone calls because he's hit a certain moment and he just wants to be sure," Bull said. "When it comes to dealing with paintings and the restoration of paintings, he wants everything to be absolutely accurate. Tell him you use a little thing like a stick, like a Q-Tip, then he says, 'What solvents do you use?' He's meticulous in his research."
And when it comes to his followers, Silva enjoys bipartisan adoration. Two of his biggest fans are former President Bill Clinton (he does a darned good imitation of the 42nd president, by the way) and Newt Gingrich, a Republican who served as speaker of the House of Representatives during Clinton's White House years. 
Clinton appeared on the Today show on NBC in 2011 and said his "favorite character in fiction" is -- who else? -- Gabriel Allon, art restorer and superspy. 
Gingrich tweeted this on July 18: 
This is a CBS interview with Silva, who talks about why he used the subject of art theft for the centerpiece of one of his novels: 

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