In brief: Chambres Closes

In this rich and thought-provoking tour de force, Emmanuel Pernoud forges a parallel between the chambre close (locked-room) mystery and the mythology of the painter’s atelier. He builds his thesis on close comparative study of Belle Époque iconography, popular fiction and high art. A dazzling product of already fertile scholarship on the “long” 19th century, the domestic interior and its decoration, as well as the links between early psychoanalysis and the detective genre, Pernoud sketches the heady roots of Modernism in “yellow journalism” and railway reading. This fraught vision of both bourgeois and bohemian interiors as sites of murder and claustrophobia is beautifully illustrated by artists ranging from Daumier to Vuillard, Vallotton, Munch and Sickert up to Hopper and Henry Darger. 

Among the book’s other themes are collectors’ apartments, including the placement of Bacons, the bedroom of invalid-poet Joë Bousquet, the psychopathology of wallpaper and the “framing” both of pictures and films. 

With a narrative that includes everyone from Conan Doyle and H.G. Wells to Proust and Hitchcock, this book becomes absorbing as it expands to explore a host of adjacent issues such as similarities between the maison close (bordello) and the chambre close, and the differences between French and British thrillers. Pernoud even ponders the art critic as a closeted figure of just such “interiority”, posing the nicely worded paradox: “Où suis-je en train d’écrire? La dernière chambre de ce livre est le nôtre.”

The one major lacuna is that the famous murder of the painter Adolphe Steinheil at his Impasse Ronsin atelier in 1908 should not be mentioned. Likewise, Charles Matton, the Parisian creator of closed box room sculptures, and a friend of Bacon, demands some presence. While Walter Sickert appears, as well as examples of fictional serial-killer artists, no reference is made to the Patricia Cornwell book that suggested the English painter was Jack the Ripper. But such elements may be added to the English edition, which will be eagerly awaited by all art-historian aficionados of detective stories.

Adrian Dannatt is a writer, editor and curator based in Paris and London. His book and show on the Impasse Ronsin is currently at the Paul Kasmin Gallery, New York

Chambres Closes: Art et Claustration à l’Âge du Roman Policier

Emmanuel Pernoud

Editions Hazan, 256pp, €16 (pb); in French only