To mark the anniversary of the end of World War II the curators of the Bode Museum in Berlin have created an extraordinary and haunting exhibition, The Missing Museum. It is an exhibition about what they have lost and what was destroyed by war. I have been wondering why a show about what isn’t there (or what is ruined), should be so powerful as a viewing experience. Ultimately it isn’t the great skill that went into creating the art, nor even the irony of something created to project the vision of a world of beauty falling victim to a darker reality. It is simpler than that. It is personal. The Gemaldegalerie alone lost 400 works of art, but the curators know that statistics are just numbers in the end, that they fail to convey the individual nature of the losses, nor the remarkable quality of the art that is gone for ever. So they decided to blow up black and white photographs of the missing paintings to their actual size and display these on the walls. The effect is compelling and eerie.
The photographs function like ghosts or witnesses of the great works they represent, and on this scale they do convey something of the original’s physical presence [Fig 1]. Just enough to make you aware of what has been lost. The black and white photograph of Botticelli’s Madonna and Child is displayed in an ornate and beautiful gilt frame, all that is left now of the work [Fig 2].
For some artists, like Caravaggio, the loss is huge. His first version of St Matthew writing the gospel, which was rejected, and which tells part of the story of his daring naturalism and the problems it caused the Catholic church, is gone, as is a much smaller painting of the prostitute Fillide, who was the model for his painting of St. Catherine. There will never be an opportunity now to assess a third painting also destroyed, an Agony in the garden, whose authenticity was disputed.
I can’t decide what is worse; the huge photographs of missing paintings lining the walls, or the before and after displays of sculpture. These consist of plaster-casts of the originals before the war, displayed alongside what was retrieved after the war. Some never came back at all. The most distressing of those on display is a early medieval bust of a Madonna and Child by Tino ad Camaino, which originally showed the Madonna tenderly clasping the Christ child’s foot [Fig 3]. This came back as just a fragment, or shard of the Madonna’s face and the upper part of the child’s face [Fig 4]. The majority of sculptures were burnt in two disastrous fires in the Friedrichshain bunker where many masterpieces were being stored in 1945, just days after it came under the authority of the Soviet army. The heat was so intense that the marble turned back into lime and plaster, and the delicate maiolica plates and sculptures exploded.
Particularly harrowing are two statues of Renaissance shield-bearers by Tullio Lombardo c.1493 [Fig 5]. From the photos the originals appear to have been beautiful, full of grace, elegance and self-assurance.
What remains is laid out on a plinth like two corpses [Fig 6 ].One statue is burnt beyond recognition, a battered and blackened trunk with a disfigured face. The other, whose legs and feet are displayed still upright but separated from the body, is recognisable as one of the figures in the photograph. His face survived more or less intact but his torso is blotchy and strangely mottled, the result of being treated with hydrogen peroxide, a bunsen burner and a rasp, in an attempt to restore the original sheen of the marble.
It is a relief to come across François Duquesnoy’s small, chubby statue of Cupid in the next room, comparatively unscathed, missing only his bow and his wings [FIG 8].
At close range though the bullet hole in his temple [FIG 9] is visible and another can be seen in his back. The juxtaposition of vulnerability and extreme youth and the stark evidence of violence is chilling. In part the shock is that a figure representing love should so obviously be the target of a very different kind of emotion, but my strong reaction to the deliberate damage is also due to the sculptural medium itself. Where sculpture represents the human body we respond to it as if it were real. As Johann Gottfried Herder wrote at the end of the eighteenth century: ’Because a [sculpture] represents a human being, a fully animated body…it seizes hold of us and penetrates our being, awakening the full range of responsive human feeling…’. In other words what we see is violence done to a small boy. Leaving the bullet holes visible was a controversial decision, one that is defended by the conservators on the audio-guide. They argued that the damage to the statue was not so pronounced that it compromised the figure aesthetically, while other scholars expressed the view that it fetishised one moment in the history of the object, the wrong moment, and instead any display strategy should have prioritised the moment of its creation.
Sitting in the café at the Bode Museum afterwards, I was surprised how much the exhibition made me care about the fate of these works of art, to the extent that I personally mourned their loss. The first message is that culture is one of the first casualties of war, something we have becoming increasingly aware of after watching videos of the Isis assaults on ancient artefacts at Mosul museum (luckily mostly copies) and the monumental statue at the Nergal gate to ancient Nineveh. At Nineveh the group combined destruction with systematic looting. Recently the group also attacked the ancient city of Dur Sharrukin, razing the walls. The current widespread destruction of cultural heritage makes the other objective of the exhibition also highly topical: the deliberate act of remembering. In this is echoes so many recent ceremonies globally to mark the end of the war. All the curators, none of whom have ever seen any of these works of art in their original state, are determined not to allow their destruction to disappear from public memory.
By CHE Postdoctoral Research Fellow Lisa Beaven.