The notion of ‘Lost Art’ is an alien concept for most people. Art is made to be permanent, to withstand the test of time. We admire the art of the High Renaissance not only for its huge technical skill but also its age value- we relish the thought of being able to engage with something that was created 500 years before we were.
We only ever think about the work that has survived, that is still present to be admired, collected, bought and sold.
We never think about the art that is not.
Francis Bacon, Gorilla with Microphones, 1946 (photo: Tate Gallery of Lost Art)
The Gallery of Lost Art is a project set up by Tate to document and present the major works of the last 100 years that has been lost, either through neglect or decay, iconoclasm, destroyed, stolen and even those that were made to disappear, lasting, perhaps, a few months, days or even minutes. Tate urges us to explore how loss has shaped the modern art world, and affected the way we think about and view art in the 20th century.
The website calls itself a Virtual Exhibition and allows the viewer to move around the space, as if in an actual museum or gallery. It is divided into different sections: erased, discarded, stolen, attacked, missing, rejected, unrealized, transient, ephemeral. And frankly, it’s heartbreaking.
Perhaps the poignant piece to me was Alexander Calder’s Bent Propeller of 1970. I have always had an affinity with Calder’s work, from his huge, still, serene sculptures to his twirling and ever-changing mobiles and, of course, the circus: made completely out of everyday objects such as wire, corkscrews and scraps of fabric and metal, Calder created a whole circus of acrobats that performed incredible tricks, tightrope walkers and trapeze artists soaring through the air, and a lion with a shaggy mane and ferocious roar. Bent Propeller listed in the ‘destroyed’ section- the seven metre tall metal sculpture stood in the Plaza of the World Trade Centre, and was crushed under the debris in the attacks of 9/11. The attacks shook the world, causing tremors of shock to be felt in almost every nation, so it is without surprise that the lost art was not seen as the main victim. However, along with huge loss of life, these attacks also caused a huge loss of art. The exact number of works is unknown, since records were lost along with them, however the total value has been estimated to be as high as $100 million.
Alexander Calder, Bent Propeller, 1970 (photo: Tate Gallery of Lost Art)
Some works were destroyed by their very creator, such as Francis Bacon’s Study for Gorilla with Microphones, 1946. Bacon never stopped working on his paintings, so the canvases often became so clogged with paint and debris that they had to be discarded. He also regularly destroyed works he was not happy with. Discovered in his studio after his death in 1992, were hundreds of destroyed works, stacked on the floor and against the walls. The fracturing of dry paint on some of the canvases suggests they were slashed long after their completion- others were clearly attacked while the pain was still wet. Gorilla with Microphones was among the paintings discovered on the floor of Bacon’s studio, cut into two separate pieces.
Stolen works is another very interesting section, with Picasso leading the list of artists whose work has been stolen. Due to the high prices his work was achieving and how prolific he was, it is estimated that around 600 of his works have been identified as subject to theft.
This website serves to draw our attention to works that would otherwise be completely forgotten, breathing new life into what has now died out. It makes the viewer realize the fragility of art, regardless of how permanent the materials may seem, and also question how different the face of modern art might be today if we still had these missing works.