Noah Charney’s The Museum of Lost Art

Noah Charney
The Museum of Lost Art
(Phaidon, 2018)

It is a sobering moment to imagine the sheer volume of artworks which at one point enjoyed a physical life on earth but now cease to exist. To collect them in a museum, Noah Charney writes, “would contain more masterpieces than all the world’s museums combined.” The use of the hyperbolic term—not just “artworks,” but “masterpieces”—demonstrates the dramatic tone that characterizes his book, The Museum of Lost Art. It communicates Charney’s gravity: the book’s scope essentially upends the discipline of art history as we know it, which he suggests is limited to a “core of some 200 or so extant historic works.” We often confine art history to that which is visible, instead of considering the vastly underappreciated influence of works we know about through only secondary sources. Imagine, then, a painting to supersede Rogier van der Weyden’s Deposition, originally commissioned for Brussels town hall in 1450 but known to us now only by a 1459 tapestry copy. Likewise, but for circumstances preventing its completion, Leonardo da Vinci’s Sforza Horse would have been the largest equestrian statue in the world, and the Mona Lisa may never have come to dominate his oeuvre in popular imagination. These “what if” scenarios come thick and fast in this survey. 

Charney uses the structural device of a museum to bring vivacity to artworks which no longer have visual presence. Like a museum, the artifacts in question are a selection of the more exemplary and historically important, making the book a distillation of all the best bits of this alternative art history. The case studies are presented in short summaries rather than solid continuous texts and as such function similarly to succinct wall captions accompanying exhibits. This enables Charney to briskly and efficiently present the content, a difficult task given the geographical and historical breadth covered. The syntax is frequently conversational, demonstrating a deftness in manipulating dry historical substance into readable prose, but at times can be overegged into simplistic synopses that feel condescending. For example, Napoleon forced the surrender of art to amplify dominance over his victors, which Charney cavalierly describes as, “Lose to his army, and you will lose your art.”

The Museum of Lost Art, Noah Charney, Phaidon; open at pages 52-53, 'War'.

He systematically examines the various methods of loss through segments—“Theft,” “War,” and “Accident”—that are subdivided further; under “War” is “Looting,” “Confiscation,” and “Collateral Damage.” Each with diverse case studies. For example, looting was an officially sanctioned method of payment for British troops during the Opium Wars of the mid-19th century and, during a fire in 1734 in the Royal Alcázar palace in Madrid, attendants frantically struggled to remove the paintings: Velazquez’s Las Meninas survived, while several works by Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese, Van Dyck, Raphael, Bosch, and Brueghel burned. Under the category “Destroyed by Owner,” we learn of Japanese businessman Ryoei Saito who in 1990 bought Van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr Gachet (1890) for $82.5 million, stating he wished to be cremated with it when he died. Since his death in 1996, the painting’s whereabouts remain unknown.

Charney reconsiders the definition of “lost” to include items that are not completely physically destroyed, but are nonetheless unavailable to us by means that have ramifications for the work’s meaning. For example, in 1976 performance artist Ulay presented Fototot, photographs that were overexposed and “lost” when the gallery lighting came on. Does an artwork, created specifically to have such a limited existence, still exist if documented? Considering the field of conservation, Charney lists examples such as Hans Holbein the Younger’s The Ambassadors (1533) in which previously “lost” details of a hidden crucifix, discovered during 1891 conservation, revealed a more political agenda. Redefining lost also enables Charney to bookend the text with optimism, musing on what further treasures may reappear in someone’s attic, like the recently located Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi. He even titles one section of his conclusion “Lost is Just Another Word for Waiting to be Found.” Although a section of similar literary examples, such as Kafka’s will that his writings should be burned after his death and Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, written in 1957 and posthumously published in 2015, feel shoehorned in to demonstrate this point.

The Museum of Lost Art, Noah Charney, Phaidon; open at pages 170-171, 'Temporal Works', showing Christo and Jeanne-Claude, 'The Gates'

For religious and secular relics, myth and legend provide insight into an artwork’s “existence,” showing how oral and written tradition can supplant or shape cultural history. There is no contemporary evidence of the Holy Grail—the cup from which Christ supposedly drank during the last supper—yet from the twelfth century onwards it existed in medieval romances. Charney relies on these myths for his description rather than secondary sources, which would have provided welcome intellectual meat. But yet he advises of the objects described in Vasari’s Lives of the Artists (1550), “In trying to separate legendary products of imagination and oral tradition from descriptions of objects that once existed but have been lost, the level of specificity is key, as is the ‘provenance’ of the story.” 

Other sections raise questions about modern computer developments. “Is Some Lost Art Better Off Lost?” and “Can Lost Art be Replicated?” describe the dubious achievement of The Next Rembrandt project which in 2016 created a “new” Rembrandt. Using a computer facial recognition algorithm and hybridization of existing Rembrandt subjects, it composed a fictional portrait digitally printed in a matching painting style. Charney imagines, somewhat humorously, “in the near future, a physical museum of lost art, hung with printed replicas.” 

Charney presents a vast and complex subject in entertainingly zippy segments. Readers with existing knowledge of the cases explored will be re-tread of relatively well-known examples and therefore would have benefitted from some greater depth. But for those new to art history and archeology, The Museum of Lost Art is an exciting, lushly illustrated, accessible introduction.

Contributor

Olivia McEwan

Olivia McEwan completed her BA and MA in Medieval Art History from the Courtauld Institute, London and is now a freelance writer and journalist covering UK exhibitions and art news. She also draws upon her medieval interests in her work as a practicing artist.

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