Sunday, October 12, 2014

Lost, Stolen or Shredded: The elusive shadows in Art and Literature

A look at the world of politics, statecraft, diplomacy and books

Lost, Stolen, or Shredded: Stories of Missing Works of Art and Literature
Rick Gekoski
Profile Books, London, 2014

Rick Gekoski who is a dealer in rare books, manuscripts and art has written an interesting book which sheds light on the arcane world of auctions, art transfer and recovery/restitution of cultural property. With a D Phil from Oxford University, Gekoski certainly knows both the academic and transactional aspects of this quaint and should I say with a degree of trepidation, murky arena of literary auctions and acquisition of papers, letters, manuscripts and memorabilia. This book offers a fascinating glimpse into the wheeling and dealing that goes on in the art world. Did you know that the Mona Lisa was once stolen by an Italian nationalist and then was restored to the Louvre where it hangs still. This book begins with that episode and in the course of 15 short, pithy essays the author has brought out unknown facts behind several famous collections.

The discussion relating to the Urewera Mural that evoked "complex and contradictory local sensibilities" is a remarkable exercise in coming to terms with the political identity of dispossessed native groups in White settler state such as New Zealand and Australia. Denied right--political and cultural--art became the terrain over which political identities were created. This essay raises the disturbing question: Did the genocide of the native population of these countries lead to the crisis of identity in which even memory remains as elusive as dreamtime. This particular essay records the mural and its afterlife in the imagination of the indigenous Tuhoe society of New Zealand.  Sir Winston Churchill is a character who remains extremely controversial and no wonder his portrait commissioned by his admirers in the British Parliament generated disturbing emotions. The destruction of the portrait by Graham Sutherland by the widow of Churchill is seen as an act of vandalism by the admirers of the British statesman. Or was it an act of redemption? Dealers are known to pursue their quest for letters and documents. The search for a lost poem by James Joyce is certainly interesting. But I wonder how such quets help us understand the poetry of Joyce better. There are however more serious matters in this book.

Do the dead have rights? Gekoski asks this question but does not provide a straight answer. This question is particularly pertinent when authors and other powerful cultural icons like poets and novelists instruct their literary executors to destroy their papers. Do historians have a right to claim the materials pertaining to the life of the people they study. Lord Byron whose life by no stretch of the imagination was an exemplary life in the service of his God, King and Nation, was a meticulous recorder of his "conquests"  and his publisher burnt the 3 think volumes of his diaries thereby depriving the future of ever understanding the mind of this great but elusive genius. As  a historian, I feel that the dead have no right to hold on to their secrets. After death the truth of their earthly lives must be told and therefore destruction of private papers, letters and the like must be strongly discouraged.

This book is an excellent introduction to the abstract questions of art, its ownership, and the like. Though the author does not address these questions directly these questions lurk just beneath the surface.      

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