Sometimes it is good to be lost.
Van Gogh’s sunflower painting left from France on the mail steamer Binna in late May of 1920. It arrived in Japan on December 12 of that same year.
The new owner, Koyata Yamamoto was the executive director of the Yamamoto Sholen Corporation and managed the Osaka branch as the executive director. He paid 20,000 yen for Still Life: Vase with Five Sunflowers, one of Van Gogh’s sunflower series painted in the summer of 1888. The artist described the work as “three flowers, one flower which has wilted and lost its leaves and one in bud on a background of royal blue” in a letter to his brother late that season.
On August 6, 1945 American planes hit the Uchide district of Ashiya, raining bombs that killed dozens and set fire to Yamamoto’s house. Vase with Five Sunflowers was in its usual place on the drawing-room wall, being consumed by the conflagration.
But even without war, it’s hard to keep track of many works of art.
Somehow, someone managed to walk away from the Neue Nationalgalerie with Lucien Freud’s portrait of the artist Francis Bacon. That was May, 1988. Berlin. The museum was brimming with visitors that day and yet no one saw a thing. A patron reported the missing piece to security. A lock down turned up nothing and, despite pleas from both the Tate Museum (the actual owner) and an aged Lucien Freud, the painting remains on the wanted list.
Typically, I focus on lost or stolen archaeological items on this blog but the timeless allure surrounding any form of lost art – no matter what happened to them – hooks me every time.
Someone at the Tate Museum clearly agrees and so they have given us the Gallery of Lost Art, a new, innovative online archive and research center of vanished pieces of modern art. The website works like a game. The visitor prowls about a online warehouse of clues to find information about the works that have left the public sphere.
This is good because, you see, there has never been a time when art was not disappearing.
In 1204 members of the Fourth Crusade sacked Constantinople and melted down the 1500 years old colossal bronze Hercules of Lysippus. The Galla Placidia mosaics of the western and eastern imperial families were torn apart in 1747. Michelangelo’s 1492 marble of Hercules somehow vanished from Fontainebleau in the late 1700s. An Austrian artillery shell obliterated the fresco of The Translation of the Holy House of Loreto by Gianbattista Tiepolo in the Church of the Scalzi, Venice in 1915. Pablo Picasso‘s The Painter was aboard Swissair Flight 111 when it slammed into the waters off of Halifax in September 1998. And then there were the Buddhas of Bamyan, tragically destroyed – on purpose – by the Taliban in 2001…….
<SIGH> We could go on.
Art works are vulnerable, after all. Think of what was lost in the World Trade Centers.
All that aside, some of the greatest of lost art is only famous because it is lost – and even more probably deserves to be lost. Think of the benefits. First of all, criticizing the piece becomes staggeringly difficult. No longer can clumsy museum staff harm the piece, colors will never fade and no mad-man will ever slash it with a box cutter. In alot of ways it’s kind of where you want to be because it is the lost-ness that gives lost works an aura they may not have had hanging from a wall in the Met. They have become a myth.
You can’t really go wrong with lost art.
Georges Braques spent months creating amazing cubist paper constructions prior to entering the French army in 1914 – and he threw them all out. Only one striking photograph survives. Winston Churchill’s window famously destroyed a painting of the British leader because she found it unflattering. The Nazi’s disappeared Otto Freundlich’s Large Head (The New Man) because they considered it “degenerate”. And then there are entire artists who vanish. Bas Jan Ader went missing himself in 1975. As part of his conceptual work called In Search of the Miraculous he set sail across the Atlantic on his boat Ocean Wave, alone, and was never heard from again.
Art disappears for a stunning variety of reasons. Sometimes losing the artwork is actually the point. Part of the Tate’s collection, The Tomb, by Paul Thek was a ziggurat constructed in the 1960s. Inside was a dead hippy mannequin surrounded by private letters and a pouch containing the amputated fingers from the mannequin’s right hand. Upon its creation, a few photos were taken of The Tomb…and then it was simply left to decay.
But that was the point.
Did Braques imagine his papier-collé work as a mystery from the beginning or were they part of the manic experimentation he and young Picasso engaged in on a daily basis, never meaning for the world to see? We will never know. And THAT, my friends, is cool.
Imagine an art gumshoe passing an entire life searching for a missing masterpiece that the artist meant to lose from the moment it was conceived.
The Tate Museum’s online exhibition will itself go missing in 358 days.
So get to the Gallery of Lost Art now.