Behind the Canvas: The Role of Paintings in Peter Ackroyd's Chatterton and Arturo Pérez-Reverte's The Flanders Panel
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In this paper I analyze two contemporary European novels: Chatterton (1987) by Peter Ackroyd and The Flanders Panel [La Tabla de Flandes, 1991] by Arturo Pérez Reverte. In both texts a mysterious historical painting triggers a quest in the narrated present. An exploration of the temporal strata, the historical palimpsests in or “behind the canvas” in the two novels is at the heart of the detective plots occurring in the fictional present and which somehow relate to a mystery inserted in a recognizable historical past. The double plot of detection: unveiling past and present secrets is the main focus of this paper. Particular emphasis is placed on the relevance of the semiotic functions of the two artistic objects. In Chatterton, the quest for meaning is linked with a search for authenticity. A triple temporal setting results in a complex structure in which certain patterns are echoed through different periods. The painting is utilized here also to reflect upon one of the main themes of the novel: the authenticity of art. In The Flanders Panel, a painted game of chess played in the past is revived, and the characters that surround the painting in the fictional present are forced into being a piece on the chessboard. Both novels are structured around a quest, and the question of whether these texts belong to the genre of detective fiction is addressed at the outset of the paper by tracing a subgenre of detective novels in which the plot spins around an artistic or cultural object: Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, Eco’s The Name of the Rose.