Thursday, March 18, 2010



When thieves stole $300 million worth of art from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum on March 18, 1990 -- 20 years ago today -- they did no favors to the artworks themselves, which were handled roughly in the process, and may have been damaged. But did they do an unintended favor for art appreciation? 

I grew up just a few miles from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, which is styled after a Venetian palazzo, four stories with a garden courtyard in the center, and a lovely fountain that makes visitors lose track of time. The Gardner’s founder and namesake was a socialite who died in 1924 and left her residence and art collection to remain as a museum for the public’s enjoyment “forever.” The presumption of permanence is odd coming from a woman whose son died at age 2; she must have known something of the contingency of life. Or maybe that’s just the point; in the wake of her loss, perhaps she hoped to create something everlasting. Indeed, her will decreed that neither the physical plant nor the art collection ever be changed.

Even if the whole collection didn’t remain intact forever, it did remain long enough for me to see it as a teenager. Of all the works I saw, the one I remembered best was Rembrandt’s “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee.” How could I not remember it? For one thing, it was the first Rembrandt I ever saw, and the master’s importance is impressed upon the minds of schoolchildren the world over. What’s more, it’s a big, dramatic narrative painting that depicts a passage from Luke 8, with Jesus and the panicked apostles in a storm-tossed boat, just before Jesus calms the waves and rebukes the apostles for their lack of faith. But memory is a queer thing. Like most museum visitors, I may have looked at the painting for a minute at most. Would I have remembered it if it hadn’t been stolen years later? Probably not.

But in the event, I can’t forget it. “Storm” is one of the world’s most famous stolen works of art. In 1990, two men dressed as Boston cops gained entry to the museum in the wee hours of the morning after St. Patrick’s Day, as the city’s real police officers were likely busy with other things. Against the museum’s explicit rules, the guards let the “cops” in, and were then tied up in the basement while the thieves had the run of the place for about 80 minutes. They stole 13 works in all—a few Rembrandts, one of only about 35 known Vermeer paintings still in existence, a Manet, a Flinck, several drawings by Degas, a finial from a flagpole, a Chinese vase. The haul was estimated at $300 million in value (sometimes higher); it is still the largest property theft in U.S. history, and the crime remains unsolved.

The robbery transformed the Gardner from a fine museum into the site of what some called a tragedy. Newspaper reports quote visitors in tears, saying that the works belonged to the public, or at least belonged in a publicly accessible place. The museum’s director and trustees were understandably saddened. I don’t doubt the loss was and still is genuinely painful for them. The empty frames—returned to the wall, in accordance with the term of Gardner’s will that nothing in the collection be changed—have served as a constant reminder of the theft. If a picture frame can be famous, then perhaps the most famous is the one that once held “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee.”

That and the other works have been reproduced endlessly on posters and postcards and websites. We have instant access to images of any of these artworks, which begs the question why the genuine articles matter at all. Walter Benjamin famously wrote that an original artwork’s “aura”—the history and myth and ritual that pertain to it—is what distinguishes it from mechanical reproductions, such as photographs. But is that really true?

“Storm” may retain physical traces of its history, such as dust and grease from its exposure and handling over time—a sort of ship’s record of its passages. But even there, it’s the back-story of those traces that give the painting its aura, rather than the traces themselves. We can only intuit that history, or have it passed down to us. The aura of a painting may emanate from its physicality, but the aura itself is entirely conceptual, it’s in our minds. Or as Picasso remarked, “The only thing that’s important is the legend created by the picture, and not whether it continues to exist itself.”

I caught, as I say, my one real glimpse of “Storm” as a teenager. The fact that I, along with most the rest of the world, have been deprived of seeing the original painting again makes me wonder, was that one stolen glance perhaps enough? Would repeated exposure to the original have increased my appreciation of it any more than repeated exposure to a photographic reproduction? I can discover aspects of the painting and its legend by looking at it on my computer screen, or by reading or contemplation. Or by wondering on its loss, its whereabouts, its spirit. For years now I have visited the Gardner every time I’m in Boston, and have seen the empty frame far more than I ever saw the painting that it once held. That frame now emits the aura of the theft, and it has fired my imagination in ways that the painting might never have done. Even photographs of the empty frame touch me, for I know the story. It’s Walter Benjamin turned on his head. This is not the mechanical reproduction of a work of art, but the mechanical reproduction of the absence of a work of art. The painting’s loss has magnified its legend in ways that its presence never could.

“Storm” was and is considered “priceless,” if only because it was never to be sold, and there was no market valuation of it. Certainly if it had been put up for auction, it would have been appraised and assigned a starting bid—a high one, admittedly, but a dollar value nevertheless. Much as we might want to crow about the inestimable loss to culture, the fact is that few people ever appreciated this or any other painting—we look at it for seconds or maybe a few minutes, collect an impression of it, maybe buy a postcard at the gift shop, and that is all. Does the original artwork matter? Maybe as a commodity on the art market. But the loss of this one painting, great though it may be, can serve as a challenge of sorts in how we view and appreciate all art—not just its dollar value on the market, but its artistic value in the culture.

The loss of “Storm” from public view may inspire us to see it more closely. To look at reproductions. To wonder at its aura. To think of the empty frame looking back at us as a dare to remember that painting. To see it without having to look. To picture Jesus on the boat, about to ask the apostles, and by extension the rest of us, where is your faith? Or, where is your imagination?

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