There, in the left center of a Cubist still life by Juan Gris valued at a quarter-million dollars and hanging prominently in the National Gallery of Art, lies a black-masked green cover of a pulp mystery novel.
The mystery has achieved the status of fine arts at last, consecrated in a key work of synthetic Cubism.
And thereby hangs a tale of suspense, illusion, mysterious disappearances, high emotions in the intellectual salons of Paris involving poet Apollinaire and painters Picasso and Gris among otherhe theft of the Monalisa.
For those of us tired of explaining why we read mysteries - the only novels being written with plot, character and basic human emotions - it is a vindication to hear art experts talk about how Cubism in painting and poetry is related to the construction of a mystery story.
"The Cubists planted clues for the viewer," explains E.A. Carmean Jr., curator of 20th-century painting at the National Gallery of Art, who also reads an occasional mystery novel. "Gris' special fascination with Fantomas was probably tied to the criminal's ability to create mystery out of the ordinary setting."
"Fantomas," the still-life by Gris recently purchased by the National Gallery, drew its title from a mystery series that features a master criminal as hero rather than villain. Authors Pierre Souvestie and Mafcel Allain churned out 32 novels about Fantomas. So popular was the original series just several adventures were [WORD ILLEGIBLE] silent films. Fantomas was resurrected in the 1920s with some sound [WORD ILLEGIBLE] appearing in the 1930s.
Fantomas who has a touch of the British Raffles, makes [WORD ILLEGIBLE] use of illusion and surprise in his mercenary explots.
"There's nothing that he cannot do!" exclaims Juve, his frustrated detective-persuer at one point.
Fantomas has been described this way: The fellow was no where and everywhere at one and the same moment. Nothing was secure from his enterprise nothing could be guarded against his rapacity. He mocked at the strongest safes."
In one adventure, he leaves his mark at the scene of the (See PULP, K7, Col. 3) (PULP, From K1) crime, something like "Fantomas Was Here." It seemed he had a rubber stamp on his shoe.
Gris painted the still-life in 1915. Along with a pipe, newspaper masthead, bowl of fruit and a glass in abstract, he included the cover of a "Fantomas" mystery.
On the green cover of the book, Gris splashed a black mask true to the Fantomas appearance of "black hood and flaming eyes . . . eyes now grim and menacing . . . "
Carmean thinks the black mask was probably the invention of the artist. However, a clue to Gris' use of the isolated mask might have come from the cover of the last volume in the original series. That was "La Fin de Fantomas." It carried a cover to catch the eyes of book browsers along the street stalls of Paris - a foundering boat with an empty life buoy and an solitary black mask floating on the surface. It marks the spot when Fantomas, the master criminal, and Detective Juve perish in the sinking of the ship Gigantic off the coast of New Foundland.
Gris' planting of the clue of the Fantomas cover may have been a bit of high-style propaganda. The Cubist poet Apollinaire created an esthetic cause celebre when he proposed raising the popular detective series to the status of the classics.
Among those espousing the cause of the Societe des Amis de Fantomas was a young Spanish painter named Picasso.
Picasso and Apollinaire soon found themselves involved in a real-life heist caper, the theft of the Mona Lisa in 1911 (it was returned mysteriously, unharmed, some eight years later).
It seems that Apollinaire's secretary had been running a profitable sideline by selling small statuettes filched from the Louvre. He had sold several to the poet and painter.
With the theft of the Mona Lisa, fearing that he might be linked with that monstrous crime, the secretary tried to return some of the loot anonymously to a newspaper. Unlike Fantomas, he was quickly identified.
Picasso and Apollinaire, afraid that they might be deported to their native Spain and Poland, panicked and tried to get rid of their statuettes.
Apollinaire turned in his statuettes at the newspaper and was recognized. Picasso talked of tossing his into the Seine. The police broke into Apollianire's rooms and found a cache of paintings - mostly gifts from friends like Picasso and Braque. But that was enough for the police to jail him for a month. His good friend, Picasso, denied that he had ever known the poet or even heard of him.
Gris may have drawn on the Fantomas series in two other paintings. The man hiding behind a stein of beer and a copy of a newspaper in "Figure Seated in a Cafe" (1941) may be Fantomas.