This past weekend, the George Clooney action-comedy film The Monuments Men opened in theatres. Based on Robert M. Edsel’s books The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History, the film tells the story of an Allied group called the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Program. This platoon of art historians, museum directors and curators was tasked with protecting culturally significant items before their destruction by Hitler’s soldiers during World War II. A largely forgotten part of the historical narrative, this group was hugely influential in protecting the artistic heritage of many European communities during and following the war. The release of this movie serves to remind us all what an important role art plays in our lives and in preserving our culture.
A few weeks ago we focused on Five Uncovered Manuscripts that Changed the Way We Look at History, highlighting the significance the discovery of these formerly lost documents had on our understanding of human history. This week, we look at the opposite side of that coin, as we wonder what could have been had these important pieces of art not been destroyed or lost forever.
1) The Library of Alexandria
When someone says “lost piece of cultural history,” The Library of Alexandria immediately springs to mind. Housing up to one million scrolls, this Egyptian library held the work of hundreds of years of artists and thinkers. However, the library was not always celebrated among the people of the day, and attempts to burn it to the ground were numerous and relentless. It’s not known why the people of Alexandria eventually gave up on rebuilding the library, but after thrice restoring it following attacks by the Roman Empire, they finally admitted defeat after the Muslim conquest of 642 CE. The only silver lining of this immeasurable loss is the art inspired by the destruction of the library. Indeed, the only physical manifestations of the Library of Alexandria we have left are the paintings of it burning to the ground.
2) The Colossus of Rhodes
It’s easy to blame human anger or ignorance when art is destroyed, but losses suffered due to an act of nature are sometimes even more difficult to get over, as truly nothing could have been done to stop them. The Colossus of Rhodes was a massive statue of the Greek titan Helios (the sun, personified), built by Chares of Lindos between 292 and 280 BCE. Standing nearly one hundred feet high, this masterpiece is considered by many to be one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Unfortunately, like the saying goes, “the bigger they are, the harder they fall,” and an earthquake in 226 BCE proved to be too much for the gigantic statue to bear. After taking more twelve years to build, the monument stood over the city of Rhodes for just fifty-six years, before collapsing into hundreds of pieces which still cover the ground today.
3) Countless Works by Sandro Botticelli
Most people know the Bonfire of the Vanities as a 1987 novel by the American writer Tom Wolfe. What people don’t often know is that the title of the book was inspired by an actual fire. The original Bonfire of the Vanities was a late 15th century practice by Italian priests that involved the destruction of artworks depicting themes deemed to be secular, mythological or sinful. One of the greatest losses suffered in these fires was the destruction of several paintings by Sandro Botticelli, an artist who played a key role in the birth of the Renaissance. Though the artists he inspired went on to create great works celebrating humanist themes, the only remaining Botticelli paintings are primarily meditations on religion, depriving modern art appreciators of the Greco-Roman and pagan-style art for which he was best known.
4) Picasso’s “Le Peintre”
On September 2, 1998, Swissair Flight 111 crashed off the coast of Halifax, Nova Scotia. Along with the 229 people killed in the crash, almost half a billion dollars’ worth of diamonds, jewels and artwork were lost at sea. Though ninety-eight percent of the plane itself was recovered from the water, the precious cargo was completely lost, save for about twenty centimeters of a signed 1963 Collotype of Pablo Picasso’s “Le Peintre.”
5) Paintings by Gustav Klimt
This should probably be labelled 5-19 on the list, as fourteen paintings by Gustav Flimt were lost in a single period. Proving that even the Monuments Men were not enough to save all the artwork at risk during World War Two, these works by the prominent Austrian symbolist were destroyed when the Nazis set Schloss Immendorf ablaze in 1945.
6) Canvases from the “Entablature” Series by Roy Lichtenstein
The attacks on the United States on September 11, 2011 were a devastating assault not just on human life but on cultural heritage as well. Along with 2996 immediate casualties of the day, works of art were also destroyed in the plane crashes. Housed in the Twin Towers were several original canvases of pop artist Roy Lichtenstein’s “Entablature” series, a collection that represented a break in his comic book parodies as he reproduced the designs of traditional Greco-Roman columns and moldings.
7) Claude Monet’s “Water Lilies”
Claude Monet, a founding member of the French Impressionist movement, was so captivated by the water lilies on the pond in his magnificent Giverny garden that he created over 250 oil and canvas paintings depicting the flowers. In 1957, New York City’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) landed a coup in the art world, acquiring two paintings of the “Water Lilies” series. However, just months later a fire broke out at the MoMA, killing one worker and irreparably damaging Monet’s eighteen-foot “Water Lilies” painting and a smaller piece, as well.
8) “The Stonebreakers” by Gustave Courbet
It wasn’t just the Nazis that priceless works of art needed protection from during World War Two. The American firebombing of Dresden in February 1945 immediately cremated nearly everything and everyone (a notable survivor being Kurt Vonnegut) on the ground, including countless works of art. One such work was Gustave Courbet’s “The Stonebreakers,” a hugely influential masterpiece depicting peasant labour, painted on a canvas size typically reserved for royal or religious artworks. Unveiled in 1850 at the Paris Salon, “The Stonebreakers” represented a shocking and influential shift from the art of the bourgeois to that of social realism. Though it continues to be referenced as a turning point in art history, the painting itself has been lost to us forever.
9) Michelangelo’s “Leda and the Swan”
Everyone knows the story of “Leda and the Swan” as being one of the ickiest pieces of Greek mythology. But even with the somewhat unpleasant subject matter, there’s no reason to celebrate the loss of this Michelangelo painting. Though the destruction of the artwork has never been confirmed, this painting hasn’t been seen since the early 1530s (not long after its creation). According to popular accounts, Michelangelo gave the painting to his student, Antonio Mini, who then took it to France where it is likely that he sold it. Luckily, before the original was lost, the court painter Rosso Fiorentino painted a copy of it, leaving this reproduction of “Leda and the Swan” as the only version that remains. Interestingly enough, Leonardo da Vinci’s take on the story, “Leda,” has also gone missing though its destruction has never been confirmed. The speculation is that a rather conservative owner had it destroyed to save the virtue of potential viewers.
10) Antoine Watteau’s “Spring” (and possibly “Autumn” and “Winter”)
In the early 1700s, French painter Antoine Watteau created a series of four seasonal paintings for Pierre Crozat; however, only the “Summer” piece is officially accounted for today. At some point throughout the years, “Spring,” “Autumn,” and “Winter” all disappeared to whereabouts unknown. In 1964 “Spring” was rediscovered, only to be destroyed in a fire just two years later. Similar fates seem to befall many of Watteau’s works, so when another painting thought to be lost, “La Surprise,” was rediscovered in 2007, it was so rare and valued that it sold at an auction for fifteen million Euros. One can only imagine the values that would be assigned to “Autumn” and “Winter” should they ever reappear.
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