The best art that you'll never see
Art usually outlives the generation that created it. But it can also disappear, whether through theft, destruction or transformation. In these extracts from a new book, CÉLINE DELAVAUXtells the turbulent stories of five notable pieces
BOY IN A RED WAISTCOAT
When Paul Cézanne recognised himself as the character of the wretched painter in a novel by his friend Émile Zola he was so hurt that broke off contact with the writer. If the artist had hoped for more success in his lifetime, he could not have imagined that, a century later, his paintings would fetch such prices that they provoked robberies and hold-ups.
The acerbic jeers that greeted works by the Impressionists and, later, the cubists seem hollow in light of the astronomical prices the paintings by these avant-garde artists command today. An example of art at the crossroads between these two movements, Cézanne’s Boy in a Red Waistcoat was stolen in 2008 in a manner worthy of an action movie and, until very recently, remained one of Interpol’s most-wanted works of art.
One Sunday in February 2008, towards the end of the afternoon, three unusual visitors entered the Foundation EG Bührle in Zurich, a Swiss museum famous for its collection of Impressionist paintings.
Three minutes later, hooded and armed, the criminals left the scene weighed down with a Monet, a Degas, a Van Gogh and a Cézanne, all simply snatched from the walls. This precious loot was extremely bulky, to the extent that some witnesses saw the paintings sticking out of the trunk of the getaway car.
With an estimated value of more than €100 million, these works were much too famous to go on the market. As if to prove this, the Van Gogh and the Monet resurfaced a few weeks after the theft, dumped in the car park of a Zurich psychiatric clinic.
As for Boy in a Red Waistcoat, it was found in Belgrade in April this year, thanks to the efforts of a buyer who was prepared to pay the thieves €3 million, and it was returned to the Foundation EG Bührle.
The work’s homage to colour recalls the ideas of the Impressionists: subjective perception and feeling outweigh an academic representation dependent on the logic of perspective and a respect for proportions.
Moreover, one can already see, in the treatment of shapes, the method invented by Cézanne himself: “Treat nature in terms of the cylinder, the sphere, and the cone.” This rule would be recalled by Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso when they invented cubism.
Works of art can, of course, pursue a destiny quite separate from that of their owners. But when a sculpture survives an extraordinarily murderous attack it acquires a symbolic force beyond measure.
After the attacks of September 11th, 2001, in New York, the Sphere, a monumental sculpture by the German artist Fritz Koenig that stood in the middle of a plaza at the World Trade Center, was damaged but survived beneath the rubble. This resistance deemed it worthy of conservation, and it was relocated as a memorial to the victims of 9/11 in a park in lower Manhattan.
Fritz Koenig worked on his Great Spherical Caryatid, his response to a commission from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, from 1967 to 1971. Overlooking a fountain on Austin J Tobin Plaza, the sculpture was quickly adopted by New Yorkers, who nicknamed it the Sphere. The piece rotated every 24 hours, symbolising peace on the planet beyond international commercial trading.
Koenig had seen the meaning of his work in relation to the installation site, one of the most sensitive locations for world trade and therefore stability, which became the target of atrocious carnage 30 years later. The sculpture, made from 20 tons of bronze and steel, was found beneath the rubble. Its survival – it still bears the scars of the attack – has invested it with a new symbolic responsibility: relocated to Battery Park, today it stands as a temporary memorial to the victims of the September 11th attacks.