What Do You See in the Absence?

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by Debbie Vance

Art has great meaning within our culture. Art can depict an event (take Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica”) or an entire cultural generation (take TS Eliot’s “The Waste Land”).

Art is powerful–and expensive–and when lost, it leaves a great void.

Today’s news reported on two different instances of art theft, and two methods of  resolution, bringing to question what place absence holds in art. In history?

The first article, “The unfinished art business of World War Two,” Godfrey Barker of the BBC News looks at the history of Nazi theft and destruction of Europe’s great artwork, and one man’s place within it. Cornelius Gurlitt, the son of an art trader who worked for Hitler, was investigated for tax fraud in early 2011, at which time a collection of 1,500 artworks was discovered hidden in his home. The article, “Most Nazi-looted art ‘still missing,’ says expert,” goes into detail on the matter, and explains that the Bavarian customs authorities have been holding the artworks while attempting to find their original owners, and will hold a news conference tomorrow morning about the discovery.

Rembrandt, A Lady and Gentleman in Black, Sophie Calle

The second article, “Sophie Calle: Remembrance of Gardner Paintings Lost,” by Kimberly Chou explains a new art project “about the presence of absence at a museum whose beloved Old Masters disappeared in a notorious heist.” In 1990, 13 artworks were stolen from Boston’s Isabella Steward Gardner Museum, and the heist remains unsolved to this day. French conceptual artist Sophie Calle has put together a two-part exhibition of text- and photo-based works: “Last Seen…” (1991) for which she “asked museum staff what they remembered of the works and photographed them in front of the then-blank walls,” and “What Do You See?” (2012) which revisits the first project.

Today, as you view, appreciate, critique, and create art, consider what effects it has on our culture–on you–and then consider how absence–silence–alters that.

What do you see in the absence?

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