After the terrible events this week in Paris and the devastating damage done to the Notre Dame Cathedral I began to think about the lost artwork contained within it and all the artwork that has been ravaged by fire throughout history.
Sadly, there has been a lot.
By Miguel Jacinto Meléndez - Public Domain,
One art collector who suffered more than most in this regard was Prince Philip V of Spain. He lived in what was known as the fortress of Royal Alcázar. He housed his massive art collection in a purpose made gallery, and on Christmas Eve in 1734 a fire broke out. The family scrambled to save what they could, the religious relics were the highest priority for them, and these were taken out first. The flames moved quickly and relentlessly through the grand halls and the family knew they wouldn't be able to save everything. They threw many paintings out of the upper floor windows in an attempt to speed up the process; this included one of my all-time favourite paintings, Las Meninas by Velasquez. The burning of Royal Alcázar is one of the most devastating tragedies in art history. Over 500 paintings were destroyed, among them works by Velázquez, Bosch, Da Vinci, Raphael, Titian, Tintoretto, Rubens, and Van Dyck. Imagine how much they would be worth today and the sad fact is that we will never know what they looked like.
War has been a great ravager of the art world, and none more so than the Second World War. I'm not counting the thousands of pieces of art that the German Army pillaged from the Jewish people, but work that was destroyed by both German and Allied forces. The Germans were a little more motivated to do this as their leader Adolph Hitler had ordered that artwork which didn't meet his approval would be branded as 'degenerate art' and burned. The German army seized over 16,000 individual works of art, many of which were sequestered away into personal collections of officers, some were sold at auctions to museums and the rest were put to the flames. Herman Goering himself was said to have taken works by Vincent Van Gogh and Cezzane for his personal collection. The hypocrisy and vile nature of the whole process are astounding. Works considered "degenerate art" by Picasso, Dalí, Ernst, Klee, Léger and Miró were all destroyed in a bonfire on the night of July 27, 1942, in the gardens of the Galerie nationale du Jeu de Paume in Paris.
As the war came to an end, the devastation didn't stop. Schloss Immendorf was a building in the lower east part of Austria, it was used to house stolen artwork by the Nazi's. As the Allied forces pushed to chase down the fleeing army, it is believed that a group of German Soldiers set fire to the building which was housing a very important set of work by Gustav Klimt known as the Klimt University of Vienna Ceiling Paintings of 1900 to 1907. They were all lost among many other works that were never catalogued or known. The Allied forces also did a lot of damage, but this was collateral and not specific as the German army had intended.
Georg Matthäus Vischer; scan by Feldkurat Katz - Georg Matthäus Vischer Topographia Austriae inferioris
Gustav Klimt - Hygieia
What we see here is one of the few quality images of the lost Klimt paintings. Medicine was the second painting, presented in March 1901 at the tenth Secession Exhibition. It featured a column of semi-nude figures on the right hand side of the painting, representing the river of life. Beside it was a young nude female who floated in space, with a newborn infant at her feet, representing life. A skeleton represented death in the river of life. The only link between the floating woman and the river of bodies is two arms, the woman's and a man's as seen from behind. At the bottom of the painting Hygieia stood with the Aesculapian snake around her arm and the cup of Lethe in her hand, turning her back to mankind.
This image is only the bottom part of the paintings, there was much more to it, but the only images that exist of it are in black and white.
In 1945 during the American bombing of Osaka, one of Van Goghs greatest paintings 'Six Sunflowers' was destroyed. All we have left of it is a photograph that was taken by the Museum in Japan.
At the same time in Europe, Berlin knew it was about to be invaded as the German Army was pushed back; Russia was at the gates of the city. They emptied the museums and placed all the paintings in the most secure places they had which were the flack towers. So named after the anti-aircraft guns that sat on top of them. Flakturm Friedrichshain housed the art collection from the Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum and it was thought to be safe in this building. Unfortunately, a fire broke out and over 400 pieces of the greatest art collection in Germany were incinerated. The collection included works by Caravaggio, Tintoretto, Cranach, and Rubens, as well as several sculptures by Donatello and his followers.
At this point, I think it's fair to point out that as I'm just talking about the artwork that was lost during the Second World War, I am in no way glossing over the terrible loss of life or putting paintings and sculptures in a higher category of tragic loss than the human cost of this awful conflict - nothing can ever measure up to that.
Moving on to the post-war era and the loss of works didn't stop. At the ripe old age of 80, Winston Churchill sat for a portrait by Graham Sutherland. This wasn't completed in one sitting and Churchill wanted to be kept in the loop on the progress of the painting all the way through. Sutherland worked and reworked the image after Churchill had voiced his dislike of it, and on receipt of the finished painting was furious. He felt it made him look old and weak and as if he was sat on a toilet. The painting was a truly great portrait of a great statesman at the end of his career; painted in a modern and realistic style. A few months after taking possession of the painting, it was taken out by his wife on the grounds of their home and burnt so Winston would never have to see it again.
America has suffered two great losses of Art in the 20th Century. In 1958, the Museum of Modern Art in New York was seen with smoke billowing from its windows, yes you've guessed it - another fire, two of Monets great waterlily paintings were destroyed. A large one of 5.5 metres in length was totally ravaged by the flames and the smaller of the two pieces was sent for restoration in the hope that it may yet be saved. Three years later the conservators made the announcement that the painting was lost and their best efforts to resurrect it had failed.
The second was one that doesn't get mentioned much because if the tragic loss of human life associated with the terrible event, but on 9/11 when the two towers came down, over $100 million in art was destroyed.
The loss of art throughout history has been nothing if not consistent in its devastation. Fire is a brutal element which respects nothing and lays waste to anything in its path. Once a painting or sculpture is lost, it is lost forever. Even the original artists couldn't recreate it exactly - if they would ever want to.
The damage to the artwork in the Cathedral in Notre Dame is unknown at the moment. The religious artefacts and many smaller pieces have been moved to the Louvre for safe keeping. The Cathedral will give up its secrets eventually, but until then let's keep our fingers crossed that some or all of the artwork has survived.