All the Art We Cannot See

"Irish Greenhouse," 12 x 16, Oil on canvas (2016)

"Irish Greenhouse," 12 x 16, Oil on canvas (2016)

            When I started getting serious about painting again a few years ago, I read a lot to acquaint myself not just with painting techniques, but the art industry in general. One subset of this interest was a macabre fascination with art theft.

            I learned that the myth of the rich man sitting in a secret den with his stolen masterpiece behind a velvet curtain for only him to view was untrue. The true world of art theft was much different. Typically, people stealing art are not art lovers, or even knowledgeable about art. They usually cannot sell any masterpieces they successfully get away with because the artwork is too well known and the provenance would be checked by any dealers. So where is the art? The stolen art is sometimes passed among criminal gangs and is used as a bargaining chip to reduce criminal sentences when thieves are caught. Stolen art may sit for years in close-knit communities in far flung corners of the world where it would be impossible for an art theft investigator to show up unnoticed to try to locate the art. I read that many museums are sitting ducks. They can neither afford adequate insurance for the priceless items they possess, nor can they afford to hire enough guards. If a theft occurs, the public does not always know it. Embarrassed institutions may just negotiate a ransom and quietly get the piece back. After all, if other potential donors do not think art they contributed would be protected, they might not choose to donate art to that museum.

            Fortunately, a few books and Netflix documentaries later, I got over my fascination with this topic and moved on. But, in addition to grieving over masterpieces that we cannot see anymore due to art theft – for instance Rembrandt’s only seascape ever painted, The Storm on the Sea of Galilee – that was part of the 1990 heist from the Isabelle Stewart Gardner museum – I started contemplating all the other reasons that we do not see art.

            Here is my list:

  • We do not see art because our most famous museums have far more art than they have space to exhibit. Some pieces sit forever in dark storage rooms in their basements.
  • We do not see art because there is a thriving investment business in buying high-end art. Masterworks may be purchased not because the buyer loves the piece, but because it is more precious than diamonds, gold or, pound for pound, almost any other commodity. This type of buyer purchases art because it is a hedge against inflation, and thus a very safe investment. Huge secure units exist in “safe harbors” around the world, such as in Switzerland, where art is stored year after year in climate-controlled containers with no one to view it.
  • We do not routinely see even that art which hangs on museum walls if it is not in the city where we live. The most fortunate of us travel widely, but no one can get to all the museums around the world. Even someone who could get to them all would get to them all only a limited number of times.
  • We, of course, do not see all the art purchased by private buyers who display it in their homes, unless we are lucky enough to be guests there, and only as long as we are guests.
  •  Even the artists who create their own work may see it only briefly. Off it goes to the new owner. Once Vincent mailed his work off to Theo, it was not around for Vincent to see again.  Matisse did travel with great fanfare from France to the art-filled apartment of the Cone sisters in Baltimore to gaze on his art once more, then back to France he went. Vermeer’s work went out the door quickly to pay for his family expenses and art supplies. Happily, I recently learned that he did keep his favorite piece all his life – both for his enjoyment and also to show potential customers what he could do. It was called The Allegory of Painting, aka The Art of Painting, and it was one of his largest (I saw this beautiful work last summer in the Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna). Alas, his widow lost it through bankruptcy after his death after trying in vain to keep it from bankruptcy by giving it to her mother.

            The odd part, then, about our fascination with the disappearance of art through theft, is that we, the art-loving public, grieve immensely over the piece of stolen art, as well we should. But hardly ever does anyone talk about the shame of not being able to see the vast majority of the art we do not see.

            While it will never make up for the art that we cannot see, stolen or otherwise, at least we now have photography and other ways of making reproductions. Artists can photograph and create an archive of their work to have around the studio. We can leave the art museum with the images on our cameras, or on gift shop postcards, or even on scarves and other products. And anyone with access to the internet can now explore the treasures of the world with hundreds of thousands of images of art from museums everywhere. If we are willing to look at the images, there is hardly any art that we now cannot see.