Lost art can rewrite history in an instant
Michelangelo statues show the value of having an open mind, questioning
One of the great things about art history is that its grand narrative is never set in stone. It might sometimes seem as though everything it was possible to say about the great art of the past had already been recorded. In triplicate.
But then along comes a news story like the announcement that the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England, has “found” two bronze sculptures by Michelangelo, when previously we thought none had survived. The 16th-century Italian master is thought to have worked on them between his two most famous works — the marble sculpture David and the ceiling of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel.
If the attribution proves to be correct, then at a stroke countless “definitive” tomes about the Italian genius will need to be rewritten. Isn’t that exciting? And tantalizing when you consider what else is yet to be discovered.
Of course the Fitzwilliam hasn’t suddenly “found” these two bronze statues in a forgotten storeroom, as someone might chance upon loose coins under the sofa cushions. But thanks to an ingenious art historian, these two male nudes, formerly attributed to lesser artists, have now been assigned to the hand of Michelangelo. It’s a question of connoisseurship, of a discriminating eye inviting us to view objects in a fresh light.
But often, lost masterpieces really do emerge out of the blue — especially in the sphere of antiquities. As Peter Stewart of the Classical Art Research Centre at the University of Oxford puts it: “Classical art is a heritage of loss.” What he means is that pretty much all of the artworks the ancient Greeks and Romans considered masterpieces have disappeared. The Greeks were proud of their painters, such as Apelles, but not a single ancient Greek panel painting has survived. This is why art historians have always been besotted with painted Greek pots. In antiquity, these objects were relatively humdrum. Yet when it comes to ancient painting, there isn’t anything else.
It’s a similar story with sculpture. Most bronze statues from antiquity have been melted down. Every now and then one will come to light — such as the sculpture of an athlete raised off the seabed near Croatia in 1999, one of the highlights of the British Museum’s exhibition Defining Beauty: The Body in Ancient Greek Art, opening in March.
In August 1972, a chemist from Rome snorkelling off the coast of Riace in southern Italy spotted a hand sticking out of the seabed. On closer inspection, he realized it was metal. It belonged to one of a pair of magnificent naked, bearded bronze warriors cast when classical Greek art was at its zenith. Their quality was so striking that they had an impact on popular culture: One of them was brought to vigorous life in Amore Greco, a pornographic Italian comic.
The Riace Warriors are now enshrined in art history textbooks — yet scholars are still squabbling over who made them, when and why. Until they turned up, of course, nobody knew that they had been “lost.”
The later history of art is haunted by phantom artworks that we know have disappeared.
Some of these are paintings stolen in dramatic art heists, such as the theft of 13 works of art, including Rembrandt’s Storm on the Sea of Galilee and Vermeer’s The Concert, from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in 1990, or the removal of an imposing Nativity by Caravaggio from the Oratory of San Lorenzo in Palermo one night in October 1969. (There are rumours the Caravaggio may have ended up in the hands of the mafia before being left to rot in a barn, where it was eaten by pigs.) The Righteous Judges panel from Van Eyck’s splendid 15th-century Ghent Altarpiece that went missing in 1934 remains unrecovered.
The mysteries surrounding stolen works of art seem exciting. But the sad truth is that most of the objects on the FBI’s missing list will have been irreparably damaged in the criminal underworld.
Then there are the works we know have disappeared for good, such as Van Gogh’s Six Sunflowers (1888). Acquired by a Japanese collector in 1920, it was destroyed during the bombings of Japan in 1945, and now exists only in the form of a colour photograph taken in 1921.
It wasn’t just Van Gogh: During the Second World War the Nazis plundered Europe’s cultural treasures. As recently as 2012, a cache of more than 1,400 Nazi-looted artworks was found in a Munich apartment belonging to the son of Hitler’s art dealer.
So dealers and art detectives still dream of finding a missing masterpiece in a dusty attic. To a degree, a similar impulse motivates people to tune in to Antiques Roadshow: We all hope that porcelain jar inherited from our grandparents will actually prove to be a priceless Ming-dynasty vase.
Are we delusional? Not entirely, says art historian and dealer Bendor Grosvenor, one of the stars of the hit BBC series Fake or Fortune? “There are many, many ‘lost works’ waiting to be discovered,” he says — and he should know: He has discovered several hitherto-unattributed paintings by Van Dyck.
Grosvenor says people tend to fixate upon “lost” works of art of which we have a record. “But,” he says, “most often discoveries are made of works we didn’t even know were ‘lost.’ Often they’re hiding in plain sight, but may be obscured either by condition issues, or simply labouring under a (false) attribution made ages ago that nobody has thought to question. There’s no one way to find these things, of course, but the key is to take an empirical view of everything. Trust your own eye, and have an open mind. Question everything.”
In the field of art history, even hard facts sometimes turn out to be fiction.
A cache of more than 1,400 Nazi-looted artworks was found in a Munich apartment belonging to the son of Hitler’s art dealer.