The Smoke-Ghosts of Art

Julian Bell, “When Fire Claims a Lifetime’s Work,” The Guardian (Review, p. 21) 19 April 2014

“Every painter’s nightmare”, other painters have been telling me, and one that comes real for quite a few artists, placing me in too good company, among the smoke-ghosts of art: all the legendary masterpieces of ancient Greece and China; epoch-making works by Mantegna, Titian and Courbet; oeuvres such as those of Carel Fabritius (wiped out in Delft’s gunpowder disaster of 1654) or of Thomas Theodor Heine (in the bombing of Leipzig in 1944), scant traces suggesting the brilliance that was lost. I review my past now and track the fearful possibility seeping, prophetically, into the imagery of my own pictures. A few years ago, travels took me to an ever-burning pit in the Karakum Desert, the abandoned outcome of a 1971 Soviet gas probe. It felt an imaginative homecoming, this endless end of everything, and I stretched my largest canvas to restage it. A canvas now dematerialised, along with some 60 others. Beat that, Gustav Metzger, master of auto-destructive art!

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