Stories of missing works of art and literature

“The nail of the Louvre” by Georges Léonnec, 1911 Photograph: Roger-Viollet/Getty

“The nail of the Louvre” by Georges Léonnec, 1911 Photograph: Roger-Viollet/Getty

TLS’s Toby Lichtig writes: Anyone who is not perplexed by the complex issues surrounding the loss of works of art hasn’t thought about them sufficiently.” This call to contemplation by the writer and rare-book dealer Rick Gekoski is the animating force behind Lost, Stolen or Shredded, a collection of essays about the gaps and missed directions in the recent history of human culture, the precious works of art that have een destroyed or pilfered, irrevocably distorted or never created in the first place. Its grouchy tone also belies the appeal of its author. Gekoski has an ear for lively prose and a nose for a good story, particularly if it involves a degree of mystery. “There is, after all, something wearying, predictable and banal, about knowing things”, he writes, citing Franz Kafka as an author who profits by exclusion. In his foreword, Gekoski tells the story of Kafka and Max Brod’s visit to the Louvre in 1911. The pair travelled from Milan and queued to get into the room that housed the “Mona Lisa”. Eventually, they pushed their way to the front. But they had not come to see the painting: they had come to see its absence. One week earlier, it had been stolen.

Much of the ground in this anthology has already been covered, but even the more familiar tales benefit from retelling. The fifteen discrete chapters form what Gekoski calls “my own internal museum of loss”, and although the author insists that he can offer no overarching thesis (“it is not my aim to write generally about the nature of loss”), we are reminded, time and again, that the creation of a work of art is merely the beginning of its narrative, that “to be without loss is to be without change”, and that an artwork is more than the sum of its parts. Context, for Gekoski, is everything, as Marcel Duchamp, or Jacques Derrida, would doubtless have agreed. One writer also notable for his absence in this erudite and wide-ranging collection is Walter Benjamin, who wrote, in his famous essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, about the “aura” of a work of art. This, for Benjamin, is what gives art its authenticity, both aesthetically and – of interest to a dealer such as Gekoski – in market terms. “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element”, Benjamin wrote: “its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.” This notion of “aura” seems to hang heavy in Lost, Stolen or Shredded as Gekoski considers the various ways in which it can be negated, enhanced or interfered with.

The creation of a work of art is merely the beginning of its narrative

The two-year disappearance of the “Mona Lisa” merely added to its character – a similar effect, it might be argued, to accumulated centuries of craquelure and patination. The robbery of the “Urewera Mural” in New Zealand created a legend of its own. Gekoski describes the theft of Colin McCahon’s painting – filled with references to Tuhoe tribal history – by two Maori activists, bent, in their own words, on giving the New Zealand authorities “a taste of what it feels like to have something taken from you against your will and be powerless to stop it”. Gekoski uses this tale to digress on the politicization and “sanctity” of art, posing the uncomfortable, if facile, question of whether a “priceless” painting can ever be “more valuable than a human life”. He sensibly avoids the answer but does conclude, in the light of the valuable debate that erupted about Maori dispossession, that the mural was “better lost than found”. It was eventually returned, somewhat damaged, after several months of “investigative incompetence” and a series of intricate negotiations with the campaigners.

Who has the right to appropriate or ruin a work of art? At what point does it become public property? For Gekoski, there are no simple answers. He considers Graham Sutherland’s portrait of Winston Churchill, a commission by Churchill’s parliamentary colleagues on the occasion of his eightieth birthday, in 1954, which the British Prime Minister despised (“it makes me look half-witted, which I ain’t”) and which was later destroyed at the request of Churchill’s wife, Clementine. Gekoski notes that Lady Churchill had form in this area, having demolished portraits of her husband by Walter Sickert and Paul Maze, and argues, unconvincingly, that the Churchills had “ample justification” for their actions because the painting was commissioned “to honour [Churchill], and it didn’t”. One wonders how the public would now react if Prince Philip decided to feed Lucian Freud’s portrait of the Queen to the Windsor hearth.

It is for quite another reason that Gekoski finds it “hard to regret the destruction of [Philip] Larkin’s diaries”, by Larkin’s lover Monica Jones – and that is because they were never “meant” for public consumption in the first place. But the real explanation is that the contents were likely to be so distasteful. There are some things, it seems, Gekoski would rather not know (the revelations about the private life of Eric Gill have “ruined” Gill’s art for him). It is easy to disagree with him on this point – surely our understanding of an author better informs the work – but Gekoski is correct that our view of Larkin “is probably more sympathetic” as a consequence, and this undoubtedly helps us to focus on the poetry. And whereas we may mourn the “extra badness” lost to history in the untold stories of Lord Byron’s incinerated memoirs, “there is nothing attractive about the extremes of the Larkinian”.

The question of ownership again arises in a stimulating discussion of the ongoing purchase of Kafka’s manuscripts by the National Library of Israel from the estate of Max Brod’s mistress, Esther Hoffe – a process that recalls The Trial in its tortuousness and technicality. Other subjects of interest to the author include the pillaged treasures of the Kingdom of Benin, the repatriation of Nazi loot, and the recent fate of the National Museum of Baghdad, which lost around “15,000 antiquities” during the Second Iraq War. Gekoski acknowledges that one man’s plunder is another man’s national archive, pausing to reflect that “if we embark upon a frenzy of giving back from one culture to another, we will come to have museums which are merely ‘national’ . . . where a kind of crimped provincialism holds sway”. This is, of course, easy to say when, like Gekoski, you have a city such as London at your disposal. He is more sympathetic to the dispossessed populace of Benin than that of nineteenth-century Egypt because “the Oba . . . had enhanced and protected their treasures”.

Who has the right to appropriate or ruin a work of art?

A chapter on fakes, focusing on the notorious master forger Mark Hofmann, helps to inform the debate about authenticity, and another on literary process looks at a “finished” artwork’s ghostly parallel lives. Does our appreciation of The Waste Land change when we consider its original opening: “First we had a couple of feelers down at Tom’s place”? Gekoski has little to say about this, but he does raise an interesting point in considering the future of literary archives in the age of total electronic recall. An author such as Jeanette Winterson may indeed destroy her work in progress as a matter of course (“I don’t want my personal papers becoming a doctoral thesis”, she wrote in her memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?), but anyone who uses a computer unwittingly records their every keystroke onto their hard drive. Gekoski could have said more about a culture in which everything has become at once more disposable and obsessively documented, in which notions of authorial privacy have changed beyond recognition, in which physical objects (books, letters, CDs, photographs) are dismissed as yesterday’s technology, copying is akin to acquiring, and artists such as David Hockney paint not with a brush on canvas but a thumb on screen. This is the age of digital reproduction, and the implications for art’s “aura” are manifold.

Lost, Stolen or Shredded could ultimately have benefited from a wider thesis, perhaps based around this point, but it isn’t Gekoski’s style to confine art to a box. “No fun in that”, he mutters. This collection originally appeared as a series of broadcasts for BBC Radio 4, and this is how it should be read: in short bursts, with great pleasure, and even greater consideration to art’s contradictions and contingencies.

Source: TLS – “The afterlives of art”


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