NOW LOST… These two devastating words have inspired most of my novels.
I write about missing art and the lost lives of artists and their forgotten models who, over time, have become the anonymous heroes and heroines of art.
While it can’t be helped that galleries and museums and houses sometimes burn to the ground and priceless art is destroyed. Some artefacts have been burned in ignorance (such as the last, stuffed, dodo from the Ashmolean Museum) and others from acts of violence. The vanity fires of the fifteenth-century spring to mind. Thousands of objects, including paintings and sculpture considered profane, were burned during the time of Savonarola’s religious cleansing.
But, it’s the confiscated (read stolen) items that still exist out there in actual space that captivates my imagination.
You can tell from the stark space between a lacklustre presentation of paintings displayed in a row, that ‘Lisa’ was not yet the star of the Louvre. Her abduction in 1911 transformed her from an ‘oh, hang it over there as it’s the same size’ to a front page news celebrity with her own glass case.
So, why would a present day artist ever plant their paintings in a casual art show, public display, or the walls of a busy local restaurant, hanging on a single nail, and not expect them to grow legs? Granted, the larger ones may have a chance to escape light-fingered ‘art collectors,’ and some paintings would be hard-pressed to give away, being less than covetable, but art with heart is a temptation.
In 2003, Leonardo’s ‘Madonna of the Yarnwinder,’ known as the ‘Buccleuch Madonna’ was stolen from a Scottish castle. Two thieves posing as tourists made a lighthearted quip to a surprised observer saying, “Don’t worry, love, we’re the police. This is just practice,” and continued exiting through a window. The painting is approx. 19 in. X 14.5 in. It remained on the missing paintings list until 2007, and is now safe in a secure gallery.
Curiously, there are many copies of this work from Leonardo’s studio, but none contain a key detail documented by an eye-witness report during its creation. A basket is missing from all known versions, none of which is considered the prime original. Does this masterpiece wait ‘out in the open’ under dirt and varnish to be discovered, sold to the highest bidder, and become ‘lost’ to the rest of the world?
The ‘Mona Lisa’ was in the ‘small enough to stuff under a coat’ variety, and left via the museum door in broad daylight, in what Leonardo liked to call hiding the obvious in plain sight where it would be assimilated as nothing noteworthy to rouse suspicion.
Sometimes the words: ‘sold at auction’ are as sad as ‘now lost.’
The most subtle forms of iconography blend under the radar, and provenance often ends with a murky flash of ‘now you see it; now you don’t; now it’s lost; now it’s found; now it’s sold; now it’s… somewhere.’
Which rather lends creative meaning to the term: ‘vanishing point.’