This article is the first in a series of posts exploring loss in relation to curated spaces. The next will discuss the incorporation of ‘stolen histories’ into the display of objects.
Stolen art makes the news. Recently we’ve had a handful of stories about different sorts of theft; there’s the Van Gogh that just got returned in an Ikea bag, the latest shambles at the British Museum, and the return by the United States of over 250 artefacts to Italy. In the Italian case, police investigations revealed that these items had been looted from various sites across the country and sold via illicit dealers to museums and private collectors in North America. Most of the spoils are ancient, and some are considered of such historical or artistic value that they are estimated to be worth tens of millions of pounds. It was only last September, too, that the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York itself returned £16m worth of ‘stolen art’ to Italy, including a bust of Athena worth about £3m.
When artefacts are deemed to be stolen or illegitimately owned, the return process and corresponding discourse about ownership become a significant part of their histories. Sometimes museums and galleries present these events as integral to the object and its cultural value, and this is often done by virtue of traditional gallery media such as labels or booklets. It’s also, ironically, good for business. The fanfare of coverage about stolen artefacts emphasises antagonism; newspapers, ever pugilistic, lap up the chance to pit nation against nation, and as in this case, to spin restitutions as parodies of apology. Everyone’s talking about what being stolen means for these objects. But what about the void they leave behind? Can you curate ‘nothing’?
Above: Frames at The Gardner, Boston. Photo: FBI
One of the most famous art thefts of all time was the 1990 heist at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. The Gardner collection is comprised of renowned oil paintings, decorative arts and tapestries, and is housed in a purpose-built block designed to resemble a Venetian palace. The place came back into public consciousness during the pandemic thanks to the four-part Netflix series This is a Robbery: The World’s Biggest Art Heist, which dramatically outlines the logistics of the theft. Another example closer to home is Christ Church Picture Gallery in Oxford, that was subject to a high-profile art heist whilst I was (coincidentally) a student there. Its curatorial circumstances differ from The Gardner because the bulk of its collection was bequeathed by alumni for the use of college members rather than the general public, and it is heavily skewed towards oil paintings and drawings from the Italian Renaissance. The collection opened to the public in 1968 and is still housed in its 60s Powell and Moya designed complex.
Entering the primary room of the gallery, the absence of three works is obvious because the curatorial team has decided, à la Isabella Stewart Gardner, to leave the empty frames on show. These even have slightly modified labels stating ‘The empty frame remains hanging in the Picture Gallery as a placeholder for the stolen painting and as a symbol of hope for their return.’ These frames are much more than just a placeholder or token of resolve — they are jarring in a way that amplifies the consideration of what was there before: what non-abstract art is and how we interact with it. Standing in front of the frame, the sensation I felt was disbelief — disbelief that something so expansive could ever have been contained in such a small physical space. Intuitively, I felt that there must be something more to the art apart from the object that filled the void, making plain the processes of contemplation, speculation, and mental embellishment that contribute so heavily to our relationship with art.
Above: Main gallery of Christ Church Picture Gallery. Photo: University of Oxford
In discussions of art, paintings are often described as both windows and thresholds, both of which delineate ‘where one is’ from ‘where one is not’. In this way, what they frame, mimics not only the appearance, but also the sensation of other space. That space can have independent actors, variable lighting, and even textures that have haptic qualities. When you’re confronted with an empty frame, it can spark the imagination to conceive what an image might have done — where it might have taken you. But the empty frame also reminds us of the painting’s materiality. The art reveals itself as an artefact - as an object in the world - by virtue of its absence.
Something different is going on at Christ Church Picture Gallery as opposed to The Gardner. The latter is brimming with objects that we are taught to see as exactly that — creations that were primarily valued for their artefact (instrumental) rather than artistic (intrinsic) value. And this changes the way in which we see the empty frames. Those frames do not really seem out of place in a room where there is extensive furniture, ancient artefacts and old-fashioned curiosities. Even the walls of the The Gardner are (at least when I visited in 2019) richly wallpapered, thus making the empty frames appear less stark and conspicuous. At Christ Church, things are markedly different because very little space is devoted to the types of artisan object on display at The Gardner. In addition, the walls are a harsh blank spectre, and the striking voids are (ironically) exacerbated by natural light streaming down from the windows the culprits entered through.
All this points to the distinction between nothing and absence: a void of absence is curatorially delimited and is therefore capable of being observed. It seems like common sense to argue that if there is space in a gallery, art should be on show, but oddly, at least from my tacit observations of other visitors in Christ Church with me, it appears that visitors enjoy the lack of art more. What these two galleries have elected to do is curate (or literally, frame) absence. This distinguishes their work from that of deliberately constructed empty space, for example in contemporary art, in that here, something is missing from its ‘proper’ place. One accidental function of the empty frames is that they imply where these artworks should be; they suggest a permanence in the curation of this collection. Though not strictly chronological (there is a bit of intermingling between the Renaissance and 17th century) there is an implicit hang structure nonetheless, and the clear message is ‘this is where this piece fits’ — within art history, and literally within the gallery.
Why is absence appealing? To answer this question, we can defer to architecture. Whilst theft is one way that people are forced to confront absence, a far more common circumstance is the encounter with remains of buildings. When I think about ruins, I think about beautiful ones in particular. Countless artists, travellers, and writers have been enraptured by architectural residue, particularly that of ancient civilisations. Numerous writings and drawings stress the point — Sir John Soane, for instance, and Joseph Gandy’s illustrations of his Bank of England in (probable) ruins. Whilst beautiful ruins might imply the existence of once beautiful buildings, their appeal derives from qualities of mystery, absence, and wonder. In turn, these qualities are intertwined with states of decay — the irregular jagged outcrops that diverge from neat forms, the eclectic variety of textures brought about by ruin, and nature’s power to reclaim human constructions. States of absence have a unique appeal to our curiosity; they are scars that we want to know the story behind, and this is exactly what is going on at Christ Church where the empty frames can elicit more excitement than the works themselves did.
This is also true of buildings. What are arguably some of the world’s most beautiful ruins do not arise from beautiful buildings — Pompeii is a case in point. There is no doubt that many of the structures in Pompeii (particularly the temples and moneyed villas) were and are considered beautiful. But the pedestrian elements of the city, chocked full with lively (smelly) shopfronts and cheap rooms, are open to dispute. I’d venture that they were, on a good day, quaintly pretty. The ruins have become more beautiful than the thing they are ruins of. In this respect, the remains of Pompeii are the inverse of the frames at Christ Church, in that absence is more beautiful than presence. In a different respect, both are now arguably more alluring — the process of having clues and mentally speculating about what is lost is applicable to both.
Mystery, though, is a fickle thing. It enjoys shady corners more than the limelight. Tranquillity is almost a precondition, something I noticed when visiting Pompeii earlier this Summer. If you get to Pompeii first thing in the morning, you’re in for a treat — it’s not the vivid frescoes, preserved shopfronts or Vesuvian vistas I’m talking about, it’s the privilege of being able to make it past the crowded entrance, leave the busy forum behind, and get to the backstreets. There you can wander the flagstones in peace and get an unadulterated encounter with the most evocative things the Romans ever left us — their doorways, their businesses, and their house walls, embellished with the animals, portraits, and landscapes they chose. We necessarily project our own experiences of the world onto places like this in order to understand them, and museums can’t come close to replicating the kind of human connection we feel when confronted with a place like Pompeii. We’re not looking at a calculated assortment of artefacts or collection of objects we are told are representative, but the actual place where life happened, where teenagers fell in love and children played in the street.
Tranquillity provides an opportunity to pay closer attention and to contemplate. What it also does is effectively eliminate any pollution from one’s imagination, the encounter is seemingly unadulterated. Paradoxically, although throngs follow tour guides around the streets in the hope of some specialist information, or exclusive tips, it is perhaps in their absence that we learn more. Could this also be said of art galleries? The notion of tranquillity is similarly applicable; galleries, like libraries, are places where we are expected to be quiet, precisely so that people can get the most out of what they’re looking at. It’s no coincidence that in the drawings and paintings of ruins I alluded to, there’s only ever one or two people in the picture.
When absence is curated, the whole process is in sustained appeal to our curiosity, in a similar way to the often-accidental absences of ruins. Both tranquillity and mystery have important roles to play in how we interact with curated absence, and ultimately that absence lays bare the structure of where art ‘belongs’. So next time your irreplaceable masterpiece gets nicked, don’t fear: there’s meaning in the mystery…
Vincent Jordan is an Editor and Contributor at Curation Space
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