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!

Ghostly Mutterings in Galleries

Jonathan Jones, “Lost Art Comes Back to Haunt Us,” The Guardian 6 June 2012

The art that exists is a tiny fraction of the art that is lost. Vanished works outnumber the surviving masterpieces in museums, just as the dead outnumber the living. Where are the paintings of Apelles, court artist to Alexander the Great, who was said to be the greatest artist of all time? Gone forever. Not a fragment of any of his paintings survives. Meanwhile, the reputation of Gustav Klimt is forever scarred by the destruction of some of his most serious works at the end of the second world war.

Lost art exerts a fascination all of its own. Like ghostly mutterings in galleries, the images of vanished works linger behind the surviving corpus of art. Ghosts of Leonardo da Vinci’s Battle of Anghiari haunt Salvador Dali’s painting Spain. Holbein’s destroyed Whitehall mural is commemorated by his eerie full-size drawing of Henry VIII.

In the 20th century, art’s relationship with disappearance got stranger than ever. Some artists made works that were designed to disappear — Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty sank into the landscape before re-emerging in recent years.

[…] It hurts to lose art. Lucian Freud never gave up looking for a portrait of Francis Bacon by him that was stolen in Berlin. He made a compelling Wanted poster appealing for its return — Freud’s only work of conceptual art. The loss was evidently painful: the painting was an intimate record of his friend and equal, and eerily vanished from Berlin, where Freud had spent his early years. Berlin was his lost city.

Lost art is fascinating because it epitomises everything else that is lost, as well. The miracle of its occasional recovery is an image of redemption.