The Museum of Lost Art, Noah Charney, Phaidon; £19.95
If art is largely illusion, as the theorists claim, then how much more illusionary is art that no longer exists? Extant artworks elicit complex considerations of perspective, proportion, reality and temporality—yet, strangely, so can extinct or missing ones, their absence a presence, a virtual reality Kunstkammer of once-weres and might-have-beens. The Museum of Lost Art reminds us of civilisation’s essential contingency.
The author of The Art of Forgery now turns his acute eye on works that have been bombed, buried, burned, drowned, dumped, looted, stolen or vandalized—or which were never intended to last, or maybe never existed. Just as some texts are only known through doxographers, some artworks have only come down to us by repute, or as copies. Certain once-famous reputations might have survived, and certain now-famous reputations might be dimmer, had their and their rivals’ works not been winnowed by accident, act of God, changing taste, theft, vandalism, or war. One hundred and fifteen Caravaggios may have been lost in history’s churn, as were celebrated images such as Holbein’s Hans von Zürich, Velázquez’s Expulsion of the Moriscos, and Courbet’s Stonebreakers. Even the Mona Lisa went missing between 1911 and 1913 (it was later attacked by acid and rock), and the van Eycks’ Adoration of the Mystic Lamb was set alight both accidentally and deliberately, forged, dismembered, and six times stolen.
All areas of artistic endeavour are in here. Raimondi’s pornographic I Modi engravings, themselves derived from lost paintings, were censored by the Vatican but lived on obliquely in Carracci’s Loves of the Gods in Rome’s Palazzo Farnese. Also included are the statues of Praxiteles, the Colossus of Rhodes and the Alexandria Lighthouse, the brilliant confection that was the Field of the Cloth of Gold, Chinese bronzes, the Bamiyan Buddhas blown up by the Taliban and Damien Hirst’s creations incendiarized in the 2004 Momart fire. Engaging anecdotes and insights range from Savonarola and ISIS to the conservators, curators and sleuths who, each year, quietly rescue countless expressions of creativity, reframing the narrative, restoring the world’s repository, shoring up genius against eternity. The Museum of Lost Art is paradoxically partly about finding it again.
This review first appeared in Country Life, and is reproduced with permission