Olivia Ward Jackson examines how an artwork’s past influences our perception of it, and discusses how this sheds light on topical issues within the world of art today.
Should the journey of a work of art contribute to its meaning? Or is the meaning of art restricted by the time and place of its creation, and by the ambitions of its creator? These questions have profound implications for our treatment of art today, and can help illuminate tricky issues such as repatriation and restoration.
The view held by some proponents of repatriation is that art loses its cultural value when it is removed from its birthplace. The exquisite goddess of Morgantina, widely identified as Persephone, was returned in 2011 from the J. Paul Getty Museum in California to Sicily. The statue was to be displayed in its original context, which was the ancient Greek city of Morgantina, nearby to where Persephone was allegedly pulled into the underworld by Hades. Similarly, there are many other ongoing campaigns for repatriation, such as for the return of the Elgin Marbles from the British Museum to the Acropolis Museum of Athens, where they would be reunited with other remnants of the ancient Greek Parthenon and Acropolis.
Art has always been subject to human evils and to this day many masterpieces remain victims of war, theft, violence or deceit. Some suggest that we ought to rectify the wrongs of the past by sending art back to its original, and arguably rightful, owners. The Goddess of Morgantina was returned from California after it was discovered that it had been looted and illegally sold to the Americans. In this way, art is cleansed of the unpleasantness of history, retaining its original significance rather than reflecting the changing circumstances in which it finds itself.
But there are many who argue the opposite: that, rather than attempting to deny or redress the wrongs of the past, we should accept them as part of the grand narrative of history. This would mean allowing artworks to tell their own unique story of human creativity and destruction in whichever alien land they may have ended up.
Let us return to the Elgin Marbles, which tell us of a magnificent ancient past, but are also tainted by a history of imperialism. The legitimacy of the deal that led to their removal from Greece has been intensely debated: Greek campaigners argue that Turkish authorities, acting on behalf of the occupying Ottoman Empire, ignored the will of the oppressed Greek population by offering the sculptures to Lord Elgin.
Meanwhile, the British Museum insists that Elgin’s removal of the Elgin Marbles was perfectly legitimate, since he was a British diplomat acting with the permission of the ruling Turkish authorities. In this way, nineteenth-century imperialism altered the story and identity of the ancient sculptures. The essence of the Elgin Marbles changed fundamentally as they absorbed new meanings over 2,500 years, journeying through ancient Greece, the Ottoman Empire and eventually into modern-day London.
Now let us turn to an example that has caused less political controversy. The Horses of Saint Mark’s Basilica embody a history of war and conquest, as well as being sculptures of great elegance and splendour. During the Fourth Crusade, the horses were forcefully taken by the Venetians in the sack of Constantinople in 1204. Niketes Choniates, an eyewitness, described the terrible event in terms of ‘weeping, lamentations, grief, the groaning of men, the shrieks of women, wounds, rape, captivity.’
The horses remained in Venice as a war trophy until they were looted again, this time in 1797 by Napoleon, who paraded them around Paris and installed them on top of the Arc de Triomphe. The horses were eventually returned to the Venetians at the end of the Napoleonic War by the Austrians, and they rest today in Saint Mark. Many centuries have passed since the horses were first stolen and so there have been no attempts to return them to their original home. Yet, we have not lost interest in the horses, which today still remind us of brutal conquests and mighty nations in eras bygone.
Lord Elgin removed the Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon because he believed he was rescuing them from further harm. Indeed, by the time Elgin arrived in Athens, forty percent of the Parthenon’s sculptures had already been demolished, as part of the Parthenon exploded when it was being used by the Ottomans to store gunpowder. Indeed, Elgin’s desire to rescue and restore the Elgin Marbles might well have ensured their survival, as well as projecting onto them a nineteenth century conception of British civilization and cultural paternalism that remains part of their identity to this day. This illustrates the great effect restoration can have on the journey of an artwork and its significance in the present-day.
Art restorers grapple with many questions including whether to preserve the story of an artwork in its physical appearance, or to try and recreate the original work of an artist. Cimabue’s Crucifix was terribly damaged in the Florence flood of November 1966, which took many lives as well as destroying Renaissance masterpieces. However, restorers decided not to attempt to return the Crucifix to its original glory, but instead made only small alterations, allowing the flood to be remembered through its destructive impact on the work.
An antithetical view was taken towards the restoration of Stonehenge in the late 1950s. In this case, restorers artificially reversed the natural development of the 5,000 year old pagan site by returning the stones to what was deemed to be their initial resting place. The restorers were attempting to make
Stonehenge more intelligible to the ordinary visitor by recreating the site as it would have been originally. The contrast between Stonehenge and Cimabue leads us to wonder whether, when we engage with art, we
are looking for the authentic product of a rich and diverse history, or for a representation of an original artwork?
On a recent visit to London Zoo, I noticed that its iconic modernist penguin pool, designed by Berthold Lubetkin, had been emptied of its inhabitants. Ironically, it turned out that the stylish concrete enclosure had hurt the penguins’ feet and upset their courting ritual. Although stripped of its initial purpose, the pool still remains a bastion of 1930s architecture in the center of London, exemplifying again the unpredictable journey that works of art can take.
Every piece of art has a tale to tell, however disturbing or tragic, and we must listen with open minds and ears. Only by understanding the unique journey of an artwork can we decide how best to appreciate and care for it.