Art history is very much a haunted field, with the specters of works obliterated, lost, hidden, or just vanished floating around it. Our visual culture is defined as much by destruction as it is by creation.
“The history of art is full of ghosts,” Céline Delavaux writes in the introduction to her book The Impossible Museum: The Best Art You’ll Never See. “And some of them, paradoxically, are more famous and more precious than many of the works that reside in serene and discreet splendor in our museums.”
The book, published in 2012 by Prestel, is worth a look for the sheer amount of phantoms manifested within its pages. Also, with the Monuments Men film opening next month and sparking dialogue all over about what was saved during World War II, it’s important to also remember what couldn’t be salvaged. As Delavaux writes: “Without question wars are the most formidable enemies of the work of art.”
For instance, the debaucherous 17th-century “Bacchanal” by Peter Paul Rubens, along with large holdings from Berlin’s Kaiser Friedrich Museum, were lost in a 1945 fire. And of course it’s hard to forget the demolition of the Buddhas of Bamiyan by the Taliban. Yet some of the loss compiled in the book isn’t so dramatic. Niklaus Manuel Deutsch’s gleefully macabre “Dance of Death” was a 328-foot mural that lined a cemetery in Bern, Switzerland, for over a century but was lost in 1660 to urban redevelopment. Jean-Pierre Raynaud deliberately demolished his white-tile-lined villa “La Maison,” which he worked on from 1969 until he had it bashed into pieces in 1993. Other works were wrecked by other artists, like Goya’s unsettling scene of grotesque old ladies at the opera swabbed over an anonymous 17th-century painter. Others you just aren’t allowed to see, like the delicate frescoes at the isolated monasteries of Mount Athos, open only to rare male visitors.
More often than not, whoever, the reason for the loss is greed. François Boucher’s 18th-century “The Sleeping Sheperd” was drowned in a French canal by the mother of the thief who stole it. The glimmer of 1,576 diamonds lured burglars to the Louvre in 1976 to swipe the coronation sword of Charles X. The woeful story of Henry Moore’s “Reclining Figure” was followed last fall by the disappearance of another of his sculptures from a sculpture park in Scotland.
For a truly harrowing view of art theft, you can turn not to a book or an archive but the FBI’s National Stolen Art File, where you’ll find works like Jackson Pollock “Springs Winter (Or Winter in Springs),” which was stolen in 2005 from the small Everhart Museum in Pennsylvania. The FBI concentrates on works that are valued at least at $100,000, but you can see from the list of their current Top Ten Art Crimes that many of the pieces far exceed that value. Artifacts looted in Iraq, the Van Gogh Museum theft, Caravaggio’s “Nativity with San Lorenzo and San Francisco,” and works stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum join the 1727 Davidoff-Morini Stradivarius violin, valued at some $3.5 million and stolen from violinist Erica Morini’s home in 1995.
Delavaux’s book doesn’t do quite as thorough a job as the Tate’s Gallery of Lost Art, which took a case-study approach and is sadly now offline itself after its ephemeral internet presence from July 2012 to July 2013. Yet the two projects appearing so close together shows a trend of twisting back through time to find what’s missing. Art does vanish, but it’s also sometimes found — for example, the jade sculpture purloined from the Fogg Museum at Harvard in 1979 that was restored this month. There’s recently been an added emphasis on art looted by the Nazis, with institutions like the Victoria and Albert Museum uploading their inventory of confiscated modern art, the most extensive such list known to exist.
Hopefully all of this suggests a concentrated effort to reveal the gaps in art history, as well as an acknowledgement of the ephemeral nature of even the greatest work. Making these collections of missing art, even as their accuracy ebbs and changes with time, gives those pieces that have been reduced to memory yet another bit of traction to remind history of their presence.
The Impossible Museum: The Best Art You’ll Never See by Céline Delavaux is available from Prestel.