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Jonathan Santlofer's latest, The Lost Van Gogh. returns with his characters from The Last Mona Lisa, Luke Perrone, Alexis Verde, and Interpol Art Crime agent John Washington Smith (now working private), as they become involved with a newly discovered Van Gogh that has them racing around Europe to keep it from nefarious hands. Jonathan took some questions from me about, the book, writing, and art.

SCOTT MONTGOMERY: How did the idea of The Last Van Gogh come about?

JONATHAN SANTLOFER: It was two-fold. I’d read a letter from Van Gogh’s young artist friend, Emile Bernard, describing his funeral, which sparked an idea about a missing or lost Van Gogh self-portrait. At the same time, I was becoming increasingly obsessed with art restitution, a huge and problematic question for museums today as more and more art becomes identified as stolen or illegally appropriated. I put these ideas together to create a story that I hoped would be serious, exciting, and thrilling.

S.M.: You examine the controversy about who certain pieces of art belong to. What did you want to explore with that?

J.S.: In the novel I am mainly concerned with the Nazi art looting that took place during WWII, and the need for that artwork to be restituted to heirs of the original owners. The question of who should own great art is different but also important. Should private collectors have an important piece of art locked away for their eyes only, or should it belong to the public? It’s a question I ponder and wonder what other people think.


S.M: The Nazi occupation plays a major part in the novel. What drew you to that part of history?

J.S.: The way the Nazis went into occupied countries with lists of art collectors to target is unprecedented. Collectors were forced to sell their art with a gun to their head, the sales documented, though very little or no money was ever exchanged, many of the collectors sent to concentration camps where they were murdered. The Nazis stole over one-fifth of the art in Europe, some of it still not recovered. Artwork the Nazis personally liked was taken by Hitler for a museum he was proposing to build in his hometown of Linz, Austria, or went into the collections of high-ranking Nazi officials like Goring and Goebbels. The art they didn’t like (labeled “degenerate”) was sold to finance the war effort or burned. I was also interested and impressed at how the French Resistance protected art, which they saw not only as precious objects but as their heritage and culture, something I used in my book.


S.M.: There is a tense climax involving the hand off of the painting. Is there anything you keep in mind when designing a passage like that?

J.S.: Everything in the book leads to that moment, all the threads coming together in a climactic scene. I don’t explain how it all comes together but show it as dramatically as possible. I do not answer every question because life rarely does, but enough to satisfy the reader and the story. I always want the reader to be surprised and totally enthralled by the action and the ending but then to see it was inevitable. To think, I should have seen that coming!


S.M.: Do you approach writing in the same way you approach drawing and painting?

J.S.: Yes and no. All creative acts share certain ways of thinking, but painting and writing are different activities. Painting and drawing are very physical, plus they are tangible—you can see the whole thing right there in front of you and react to it. A novel exists mainly inside your head, and you can’t see it all at once. In both writing and painting I am organic and reactive, meaning that I rarely sketch out a painting or outline a novel. I like being surprised and reacting in the moment. It makes it more exciting for me, and if I’m excited, I think the viewer or reader will be more excited as well.

S.M.: What can anybody who creates learn from Van Gogh?

J.S.: Van Gogh gives us many lessons. First, to find what you love and stick with it. He failed at being a pastor (like his father), and an art dealer like his brother, Theo. He was not a natural, facile draftsman, and he struggled to get things down on paper and canvas, and in so doing created a new way of seeing, a new idea and vision of painting and drawing. Once he realized that being an artist was all he wanted he did not let anyone tell him he could not do it or was not good enough (and many did). Though his self-doubt was often strong, so was his commitment. I love this quote: If you hear a voice within you say 'you cannot paint,' then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.

And he worked harder than anyone. In his last 70 days of life, in Auvers-sur-Oise, he made 75 paintings, more than one a day!

He was just being recognized when he died. Articles that praised his fierce, uncompromising artwork were being written about him. Had he lived a few more years he’d have seen enormous success. 


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