The fragile and reckless lives of art

WeWealth | July 2020

Recent antiracism protests in the United States, Great Britain and elsewhere saw the toppling of statues representing figures that may offend political, ethnic or religious sensibilities. Statues of Christopher Columbus – guilty, according to some interpretations, of having paved the way to usurpation and colonial conquest – have been pulled down their pedestals and placed in storage, when not vandalized. The statue of the explorer that stood proudly next to the beautiful Coit Tower in San Francisco has suffered the same fate. In truth, the building is
marked by the democratic and multicultural commitment of its fresco murals devoted to stories of popular resistance, to abuse of power and to another crisis, that of 1929. In the English city of Bristol, where the unjust triangular trading system saw the light (slaves were taken from Africa to the Americas, sugar and money in quantity were brought to Europe), the target of the Black Lives Matter protests was the statue of Edward Colston: the bronze statue
of the local wealthy ‘philanthropist’, who made money through the flourishing market, was pulled down and thrown into the river. Overnight and with no public permission, Marc Quinn – a controversial artist member of the Young British Artists movement (today rightly included in the National Gallery collection) – installed on the empty plinth the sculpture of a Black Lives Matter protester, Jen Reid, with a raised fist. It was 15th July 2020; a few hours later, the threedimensional black resin figure was removed by the city authorities. Beyond the rightful protests over the death of George Floyd, dismantling, vandalization and replacements are part and parcel of the history of iconoclasm. This is, in fact, a longstanding practice which lays emphasis on the thematic and ideological dimension of images regardless of any possible artistic content, destroying, in its way, artworks that may ‘offend’ the faith or ideas of a given community. How can we not recall the statues and paintings pillaged in the name of the aniconic Protestant faith during the religious wars of the sixteenth century? Or, the new English landscape delineated after the dissolution of the monasteries, marked by the ruins of sumptuous abbeys or convents? In some regions of Europe, the religious conflict destroyed centuries worth of Gothic and Medieval art. In waves, the rage of the people is unleashed against the symbols of power, such as the power of the church or the monarchy during the French Revolution. 1789 witnessed the destruction of the gables of thousands of cathedrals and the beheading of innumerable apostles, Christs, Maries and Saints; entire collections, impossible for their owners to save, were cast into flames. Political turbulence and art do not coexist easily. However, the embryonic idea of heritage saw the light in France in the very last years of the eighteenth century; it was intended to delineate a collective territory of beauty and to promote its protection and conservation. Still, without
needing to mention recent hurtful events, such as Palmyra and other episodes of violence at the hands of the Taliban, we are quite aware of the many difficulties and obstacles that projects of common good have to face in torn-apart communities. The fate of art objects mingles with the tumultuous course of history, creating a sharp contrast between the immutability of images and a whirlwind of events which leads to destruction or dispersion, changing dramatically the maps of art. This brings to mind yet another Revolution, less known than the French one, but just as meaningful. When the Revolution broke out in England in 1642, London was then THE capital of European art, with plenty of priceless treasures mostly acquired (or stolen?) in Italy at the behest of the Stuart family, particularly King Charles I. After the regicide in 1649, artworks were sold to the highest bidders as a means to swell the coffers of the new republican state; in fact, in the absence of any true sense of the value or taste, they were sold off. Hundreds of art objects were moved to today’s Hungary, the Netherlands and France; among them were the works of several Italian artists such as Titian, Veronese and Tintoretto. As a result, it took centuries for London to regain the status of artistic capital. The tale of collections has nothing to envy to the tale of history and politics; it too consists of dramatic turns of events, sudden changes and mysterious disappearances. A similar fate was in store for Robert Walpole’s rich collection: available, towards the middle of the eighteenth century, only to the admiring gaze of a restricted (and, for the most part, aristocratic) few, it was eventually sold through the good
offices of James Christie, the founder of the well-known auction house. This was to settle the gambling debts of the Minister’s unruly grandson. The happy buyer was the Russian Empress Catherine II. In fact, there was no end to the artistic thirst of the Tsarina who, in 1772, also acquired the immense and refined collection of the wealthy financer Pierre Crozat, on this occasion through the mediation of the philosopher Denis Diderot…
The chapters of this tale unfold adventurously, following the pace of great crises – political, economic, but also private, domestic and emotional. All of them tend to intensify with the artistic turmoil: in the legitimate ways of the market or in clandestinity, through theft or illicit purloining, without mentioning the ever-present iconoclastic deeds. For, however immutable and everlasting artworks may be, they live uncertain, multifarious, troubled lives.

Caroline Patey
Cultural advisor at Finer Finance Explorer