Roasted Picasso, Braised Mattise, Charred Freud: Art in the Oven

Harlequin's Head

Picasso’s Harlequin’s Head

Woman with Eyes Closed

Woman with Eyes Closed

Reading Girl in White and Yellow

Reading Girl in White and Yellow

I was up and about the other night, unable to sleep, not ready to start a new book, and mindlessly checking out  things on-line. I checked my e-mails, paged through my Zite selections, spun through scores of Twitter and Tumblr postings. And I came upon this very intriguing headline:

Stolen Picasso and Monet art ‘burned’ in Romanian oven 

And the lead paragraph read thus:

Romanian investigators have found the remains of paint, canvas and nails in the oven of a woman whose son is charged with stealing masterpieces from a Dutch gallery in October last year.

(click headline to read original article)

Authorities believe that these are the remains of a cache of paintings that were stolen from a Dutch museum in October 2012 and which included Picasso’s Harlequin Head, Monet’s Waterloo Bridge, Mattise’s  Reading Girl in White and Yellow, and Lucien Freud’s Woman with Eyes Closed.

The burnt remains–pigments, bits of wood, nails–were found in the home of a Romanian woman whose son had been arrested in connection with the heist.The woman, Olga Dogaru, told authorities that she had burned the paintings to destroy any evidence that linked her son to the theft. The paintings, which are valued between $130 and $250 million, have not yet been officially identified with the remains in Mrs. Dogaru’s oven, but the likelihood is great.

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 And so I began thinking and wondering.

In a small house in Romania, we have fragments of painting primer, paint, wood, canvass and nails. In a way, these famous paintings have been “deconstructed” to their most basic elements. What element is missing? Genius? Kind of nebulous. Inspiration? Maybe even more so. Certainly execution and vision.

But what was once one thing is now something else. (In many ways, isn’t that a way of defining art itself.)

One of the officials working on the case stated that if these oven remains are indeed the paintings they are looking for then Olga Dogaru’s actions are a “crime against humanity.”

Come on, now.  After the horrors of the Holocaust, the crimes of Pol Pot, various tribal genocides, corporate environmental rape, the atrocities of the twentieth century and the new horrors of the young twenty-first, I think calling this a “crime against humanity” is a bit overstated and a bit overdramatic.

Don’t get me wrong. I am no philistine. I  love art. It is a very important and crucial part of my life, day in and day out.  I love amateurish, clunky student art and exquisite paintings by the Old Masters. I love rough draft architectural models and elegant Brancusi Birds in Space.  I love the avant garde and the mainstream.

And yet, my life is not appreciably diminished by the loss of these individual paintings. There are paintings that I love, that I am lucky to be able to visit often. But if they were gone, life would go on.  For me, as well as most of the other 7 billion people on earth.

Undoubtedly, it is a shame that these paintings are gone forever. (A bit amusing that they were destroyed by a mother trying to protect her ne’er-do-well son and probably unaware of the magnitude of her actions.) The monetary loss is arbitrary…and irrelevant. And the fact they they will never be seen in the original is regrettable.

But the entire story has me thinking hard about Art. What is it? What is it for? What is its relationship with society? What are the tiers?  And what and who determines them?

To be honest, I don’t know the answers. But they are important questions to ask.

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