February 16, 2003, Scotland on Sunday, "When great works of art become casualties of war," by Gale Iain,
OPEN any monograph on any artist, from Giotto to Warhol, and somewhere in the list of works you will invariably find a short but ringingly poignant word. 'Lost' is an art-historical commonplace and hardly surprising given the way in which over the past six centuries art has changed hands. But what exactly does it mean and how does it happen? A new book attempts to shed light on both questions.
Missing Masterpieces is a fascinating collection of art- historical detective stories, in which Gert-Rudolf Flick, sometime proprietor of art journal Apollo, examines the fate of 24 lost works of art. While much of the text would be too esoteric for all but the art-history scholar, it does raise broader questions.
Flick's book is a catalogue of cultural catastrophe. A sad and horribly frustrating aide-memoire to works which it is now impossible to see, and most of which, for lack of illustration, we are left only to conjure in the mind. In some cases, however, images do survive as engravings or copies and a picture emerges of the extent of our loss. And as it does we begin to ask, if this is what a mere 24 pictures represent, what are we missing in the 130,000 works of art---including pieces by Van Gogh, Monet and almost every world-class painter---currently noted by the Art Loss Register, the international record of missing works of art?
Perhaps the most telling lesson of Flick's book is on the way in which art goes missing. Theft, accident and mis-attribution are front-runners, but time and again it is violent conflict which is the underlying cause. Many works lost during the Second World War have recently been joined by cultural casualties from conflicts in the Balkans and Afghanistan. Flick's book, though, starts by looking back three centuries, to two earlier wars.
In the mid-17th century, as the Thirty Years War ravaged Europe and its art treasures, the English Civil War spelt similar calamity for Britain's art. The fabulous collection of Charles I was dispersed after the king's execution, and those of other proscribed aristocrats also suffered, not always from simple acts of violence. Flick laments the sequestration by parliament of the property of the Earl of Arundel and Duke of Hamilton, resulting in the selling-off of their collections. For it is when such well-kept collections are broken up that works go missing.
Of the king's own paintings, while some, including a few by Rubens, were thrown into the Thames, most were sold at Somerset House---to pay for the army that had defeated him. Others went to pay off royal debts. So Charles's plumber got a Titian, his builder a Correggio, and to his draper, one John Geere, went Van Dyck's group portrait of Charles's children and Titian's reportedly sublime portrait of Isabella d'Este. He was its last recorded owner.
If official policy destroyed Stuart Britain's important collections, disasters also came at a lower level as Puritan iconoclasts embarked on an orgy of destruction of religious art. The process was repeated a century later in Revolutionary France. Flick cites the destruction of Old Masters belonging to Louis XVI and examines how the sale of the collection of the soon to be guillotined duc d'Orleans resulted in the eventual loss of important works. Similarly, in 1917 the Bolsheviks vandalised much of Russia's imperial and aristocratic art collections and 30 years later the Nazis famously burnt works by so-called 'degenerate' artists, including Matisse, Gauguin and Picasso.
In our own time the process is echoed in the devastation wrought by the Taliban. And it's not just bigots who are to blame. Looting has always gone hand in hand with war. While the soldiery long saw it as a right, at the highest level looting was authorised to create new collections: in Napoleon's case, the Louvre. In the 20th century, with the occupying Nazis came a high command keen to acquire works of art. While Goering was the arch-connoisseur, thievery was rife and Raphael's famous Portrait of a Young Man, once in a Polish collection, was last seen in the hands of a Wehrmacht General.
There is, however, no room for complacency. For even without such self-interest, war can sanction cultural vandalism in the name of humanity. In February 1945 the British and Americans bombed Dresden, obliterating forever one of the gems of the Northern Baroque. Food for thought as we prepare to go to war against Iraq, home of some of the world's most important ancient monuments.
Remember too, though, the little-reported fact that when the twin towers went down on 9/11, some 300 Rodin sculptures from the collection of Cantor Fitzgerald were also reduced to rubble.
War, however it comes, as a clash of interests, a pre-emptive strike, a punitive mission or an act of terror, brings more than a terrible loss of human life. It brings a loss of art. A lessening of humanity.
Missing Masterpieces, Merrell, GBP 40
IAIN GALE. "When great works of art become casualties of war." Scotland on Sunday. 2003. HighBeam Research. (October 3, 2010). http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1P2-12941481.html