"This book is about why art is not sacred. It is splendid, tragic, a thing of genius, but not sacred. Because art is like life: that's where you will find blood and sweat, tears and drama." (From the foreword to the book)
The value of a painting or sculpture is not only determined by its aesthetic qualities and the name of the artist who produced it, but also by the dramatic events and secrets that are commonly associated with that piece of art. The great masters have always captivated thieves, swindlers and risk takers who were prepared to spare no effort to enrich themselves and to sun themselves in the glow of the arts. The man on the street would find it hard to imagine how widespread dirty art deals are, and how much political ambition and passion are in play around them. The same is true for the counterfeiting industry, the multitudinous products of which are in circulation all around the globe.
Grigorij Kozlov tells twelve stories of especially spectacular attacks on world-famous masterpieces — of infamous forgeries and sensational scandals in the art world, of audacious thefts and shady deals with famous paintings. Attempt on the Arts is not written for a specialist audience, but is rather told as a thorough investigation of the criminal history of the arts that reads like an exciting thriller. In his detective-like reconstructions of historical cases, Kozlov reveals how the aura surrounding art comes into being, how myths are built independently of the intentions of the artists who created the works, and which motives, often far from artistic ones, determine the fate of a painting.
For example, the author recounts how it came about that the portrait of a not especially young, nor attractive, woman became a superstar, and made an impact on the taste of a wide swath of the public, from well-known artists and writers to cooks and washer women.
Five and a half million people visit the Louvre Museum annually, a quarter of which only come to see the most famous and enigmatic painting in the world, the only painting that no one dares to restore - the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci. Why is it that she is the one to have become a hallmark, a fetish to the masses?
It was the painter and the art historian Giorgio Vasari who laid the foundation of the myth surrounding the Mona Lisa. Even though he had never seen the painting, he discussed it full of enchantment in his Biography of the Most Famous Painters, Sculptors, and Architects. He was the one who carelessly and irreversibly tied the most famous painting in the world with the name Mona Lisa, who at the age of sixteen, for financial reasons had to marry an old widower. In the imagination of the public, this became a lovers' triangle encompassing the young genius Leonardo, a despotic old husband, and the beautiful Gioconda. This completely ignored the facts that Mona Lisa's husband was younger than Leonardo, and that the artist was being prosecuted by the authorities for his homosexuality.
The career of the Mona Lisa began in the bath house of King Francis I, in the company of erotic paintings and sculptures. For over two hundred years she moved from one royal castle to another: Fontainebleau, the Louvre, Versailles. In the eighteenth century, however, her luck ran out. She no longer fit in with the ideals of beauty as defined by Classicism, or the frivolous shepherdesses of the Rococo period, and the enthusiasm of the art-collector kings for her diminished. After that she was transferred to the apartments of ministers, continuing her climb down the ladder of the hierarchy of the court until the First Consul of the French Republic, General Bonaparte, decided to decorate his bedroom in the Tuileries Palace with her, finally giving her to the first public Museum in the Louvre, where she was discovered by the Romanticist writers who saw in her the ideal image of an enigmatic femme fatale.
Still the Mona Lisa's definitive fame only came after she was stolen in 1911. The list of suspects included Kaiser Wilhelm II, the Anarchists, the American millionaire Morgan, and even the painter Pablo Picasso. For the first time, the theft of a painting became a worldwide sensation. The Press saw to it that the directors of the Louvre and the Police Prefect of Paris were replaced, and considered the possibility of a European war. It was only the sinking of the Titanic that drove the reports about the investigation of the theft from the front pages of the newspapers around the globe. In the meantime, the thief slept soundly on his pillow for two years, with the canvas of the Mona Lisa under it. The picture could have been found earlier, if the Police Commissioner had not been so hostile to the use of fingerprints, but in the end fingerprinting won the day and many a perpetrator found himself behind bars.
These days, every imaginable celebrity has been depicted as the Mona Lisa, from Stalin to Monica Lewinsky. No one should be surprised that there is a porno website with the name Mona Lisa. Ethnographers have even found reproductions of Gioconda among the sacred treasures of the aboriginals of Australia in the middle of the local gods. And in May 2005, the face of the Mona Lisa was sent into space to the International Space Station in the form of a digital picture by the artist George Pusenkoff.
How a minor Dutch painter put the “great art expert” Göring on the cross, and apparently palmed off real Vermeers on him.
At the time that even the exceptionally successful Rembrandt had to earn his money with the production of plaster casts of classical statues, Vermeer, thanks to his providential marriage and his mother-in-law, was pampered by the fates. But after his death he sank into oblivion, until he was rediscovered by the French revolutionary Théophile Thoré, who was persecuted by Napoleon III. Because of this he had to work as a journalist, and his articles on the arts published under the name William Bürger were read by the whole of educated Europe. It is thanks to him that Vermeer became a celebrity at the end of the nineteenth century. The Impressionists did the rest, and in the thirties of the next century Vermeer acquired worldwide fame.
At this point in time, there were only a few known genre paintings by Vermeer, but the Dutch art historian Abraham Bredius was convinced that a search should be made for Vermeer's historical-religious works. It was not long before someone surprisingly brought him The Supper at Emmaus for authentication. Bredius enthusiastically attested Vermeer's authorship. After that, as if by magic, one unknown religious Vermeer after another turned up. One of them was purchased by Herman Göring from the artist Han van Meegeren on the territory of the Netherlands which had already been annexed by Germany. In doing so he was faster than his Führer, who was also interested in buying this painting. After the war, the artist was arrested for the sale of national treasures, and confessed that he had painted the picture himself. They gave him back his studio, gave him all the requisites, including morphine, and locked him in with six witnesses. In the course of the next two months the prisoner painted another picture "in the style of Vermeer." This one was called Jesus amid the Scribes, in which the faces of the scribes are clearly similar to those of the witnesses, and Christ resembles the prisoner. Van Meegeren's confession shocked the whole of the Netherlands. He announced that all the recently rediscovered religious paintings by Vermeer were really his forgeries, including the crowning jewel of the collection of the Boijmans Museum in Rotterdam, Christ and the Disciples in Emmaus. He had begun to forge Vemeers after he comprehended that he could not sell his own paintings, when he read Abraham Bredius' article about the search for Vermeer's Biblical works. For the first time in history, the accused tried hard to prove his guilt: the maximum penalty for forgery was four years in prison, while for collaboration with Göring, he could have been sentenced to be hanged.
The public made Van Meegeren a folk hero, because he was a Dutchman who had managed to lead the hated Göring down the garden path, and because he was an artist who had managed to make fools out of all the pompous aesthetes and art historians. Van Meegeren caused such a panic among the experts and collectors that the original list of paintings that had previously been considered to have been authored by Vermeer was cut almost in half: of the 55, only 35 remained. A portion of these paintings turned out to be by other seventeen-century artists, some were the work of unknown forgers from around the end of the nineteenth century, or the beginning of the twentieth, approximately the time that the Delft Sphinx was in fashion. But the "religious" pseudo-Vermeers that were painted by a small, vindictive man will always remain the record holder in the history of forgeries. Göring, on the other hand, died without ever learning the conclusion of the Dutch trial. The former Reichsmarshall attentively followed events in Amsterdam from the Nuremberg Trials where he was a defendant, taking advice from leading Vermeer experts. Göring could not believe that someone had palmed a forgery off on him.
Why the biggest art theft of the twentieth century, which included valuable paintings by Rembrandt, Degas and Manet, has never been solved
Isabella Stewart Gardner, an extravagant lady who was crazy about boxing, baseball and the arts, had one of the most excellent art collections in the world in her private museum in Boston: 2,500 works from 30 countries. In 1990, in the night of the Irish Catholic celebration of Saint Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, two men in police uniforms stole two Rembrandts, a portrait by Eduard Manet, a three-thousand-year-old Chinese bronze chalice, several drawings by Edgar Degas and the centerpiece of the collection, The Concert by Jan Vermeer of Delft, which has been valued at 100 million dollars. Even though a five million dollar reward has been offered for the recovery of the works, the robbery remains unsolved to this day. The FBI's best investigators are still breaking their heads, trying to comprehend the significance of the bizarre list of stolen objects, and why the thieves took relatively cheap drawings by Degas with equestrian motifs while leaving behind priceless masters like Tizian, Botticelli and Michelangelo. One idea is that one of the thieves was interested in horses. The modus operandi of the thieves indicated that these were skilled professionals, but not knowledgeable art thieves who would never ever have cut the paintings out of their frames in such a barbarous manner. The Irish mafia was among the suspects, as were the Irish terrorists of the infamous IRA. The timing of the theft to coincide with Saint Patrick's Day was very symbolic.
Myles Connor, recognized in criminal circles as a "specialist in art theft", rose to stardom during the investigation. At the time of the robbery, he was doing time in a prison in Rhode Island for trading in stolen art works. He claimed that the idea for the theft was "stolen" from him by his assistant, Bobby Donati, who supposedly brought the professional thief David Houghton on board for the job. The trail breaks down here, however, because Bobby Donati was found stabbed in the trunk of a car in Boston a year after the robbery. His partner Houghton died a year later. It is a paradox that even if the thieves could eventually be found, they could not be prosecuted because the statue of limitations has expired. According to the law in Massachusetts, a theft cannot be prosecuted after six years.
How old masters from the Bremen Art Society's collection—including Dürer's The Women's Bath House—finally returned to Bremen after a decades' long Odyssey
Just before the end of World War II, a Soviet Engineer Brigade was deeply disappointed when it did not find any treasure in the basement of a castle near Berlin, just a few miscellaneous drawings and paintings. Well, at least there were a few naked beauties among them, and one of the drawings portrayed a women's bath house. They divided up the booty justly: first choice went to the brigade commander, then the battalion commanders, the company commanders, and then to the enlisted men. All the useless stuff, like boring landscapes and portraits, was thrown on the floor and expressly trampled under foot. Many of the paintings were clearly signed by artists like Goya, Rembrandt, Van Gogh. The drawing of the bath house was decorated by the initials "A.D." — Albrecht Dürer.
Captain Baldin, who in civilian life was a restorer at the Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius Monastery, was already too late when he got to this drunken orgy. He was only able to save a few things, and to swap for others with those in his regiment on its way back home, using things like a harmonica, a map case, or a pair of chrome leather "Churchill boots," so named because they were a gift of the British. But the soldiers did not want to trade the "nude painting" for anything. Every platoon was proud of its beauty and had sewn her on the tarp of its truck. The Women's Bath House was especially prized. It was the first really unclothed representation of the female body in Northern European art in genre scene.
The captain managed to bring 362 works back home and turn them over to the museum. The rest of the drawings were spread across the country, from Samarkand to Novosibirsk. A number of them ended up in the hands of disreputable businessmen. In 1993, a restricted warehouse of an Azerbaijani Museum in Baku was plundered, and one of the 12 drawings that was stolen was the most famous exhibit of the Bremen Art Society's collection, Dürer's The Women's Bath House. Shortly thereafter the drawings turned up in New York, but the buyer was able to evade the FBI. Then four years later they showed up again in Asia. A Japanese businessman offered to sell the Dürer's The Women's Bath House and other drawings to some German diplomats for a million dollars each. Bremen Art Society began negotiations in a hope to find masterpieces. Finally the businessman was arrested in New York together with stolen drawings. In July 2001, the Dürer's The Women's Bath House and other drawings were shipped by American authorities from New York to Bremen. And on 11 September, the World Trade Center ceased to exist. That is where the drawings had been stored after the arrest, in the headquarters of the Customs Office.
That same year Bremen recovered 101 further drawings. One of the men who had served in the engineer unit turned them over to the German Embassy. All those years he had kept the drawings under his bed. The author of this book deserves the lion's share of the credit for helping locate items from the collection and return them to their country of origin.
Why rumors of Van Gogh's apparent insanity were being spread and who profited from it
Van Gogh is still viewed today as the poster child of a martyr to modern art, a mad genius, whose twisted brain brought forth images that turned the generally accepted conception of art upside down. These were images that he literally sprayed onto canvas without any preparation or preliminary sketches, thereby producing 800 paintings in the course of eight years. The father of this myth about Van Gogh is the German art historian and Gallery Curator Julius Meier-Graefe, who was the first to recognize the material uses of a legend about the "Jesus Christ of painting," and who wrote the first Van-Gogh biography (1911). Not even the publication of the correspondence between Vincent and his brother Theo van Gogh, a professional art dealer, could break the power of this legend. From their correspondence it is clear that Van Gogh, who began as an art dealer himself, knew literally all the significant Impressionists, and in addition to this, had worked long and hard on the same motif. The public, however, did not want to hear anything about Van Gogh "with his feet planted firmly on the ground". Therefore, Meier-Graefe's new book entitled Vincent (1921), with the subtitle A Novel of a Man in Search of God was very successful. Unexpectedly it was followed by a wave of Van-Gogh forgeries. In the mid-1920s, a certain dancer and art dealer, named Otto Wacker, entered the scene in Berlin. He astounded all his clients with the announcement that a Russian aristocrat living in Switzerland had managed to smuggle his gallery, which included 30 Van-Gogh paintings, out of the Soviet Union. He could not give the name of this man, because the Chekists (the secret police) in Russia would put pressure on the members of his family remaining there. This man needed money to support his relatives and to continue the struggle against Bolshevism. This tale was irrefutable. This was the time that Berlin was full of Russian emigrants who were spending the remains of their earlier riches. The main thing, however, was that the paintings that Wacker was offering for sale corresponded completely to the myth of "Vincent." They were full of suns, sweeping, rich suns, precisely the kinds of suns that according to Meier-Graefe were the source of Van Gogh's genius and madness that had driven him to suicide. When the "Russian" paintings were shown to the creator of this myth, he enthusiastically "recognized" them as real Van Goghs.
Wacker opened a modern gallery in the center of Berlin for the sale of these paintings. His fall, however, was brought about by a grand Van Gogh retrospective that was put on by the reputable Gallery Cassirer. Against the background of hundreds of real works by Van Gogh, the four paintings "selected by Wacker" were no comparison. The police confiscated 16 fresh Van Goghs from Wacker and his relatives, and the court sentenced him to pay compensation for damages and a year in prison.
After the war Wacker found a career in the GDR as a dancer and teacher. Before his death in 1970, he stated that a number of the Van Goghs that he had sold were still adorning the walls of some of the leading museums in the world. He did not say exactly which paintings these were. Even Wacker case did not shatter the myth. The American author Irving Stone used Meier-Graefe's "discovery" as the basis for his bestseller Lust for Life, which was later turned into the famous Hollywood movie, starring Kirk Douglas as Van Gogh.
The myth-building process continues today. In the 1990s the press declared that there were forgeries among the paintings from the collection of the premier Van-Gogh devotee and art dealer Émile Schuffenecker. Among them is Sunflowers, which was purchased in 1989 by a Japanese company for more than 30 million dollars and at that time was the most expensive picture in the world. Only a cooperation of many experts made proving the authenticity of this masterpiece possible. At first it was forgers trying to pass off their work as original Van Goghs, now the originals are turning into forgeries. No other artist has ever been given such an "honor."
The things the megalomaniacal museum projects of more or less dilettantish dictators like Napoleon, Hitler and Stalin have in common
Napoleon and Dominique Vivant Denon, Adolf Hitler and Hans Posse, Josef Stalin and Igor Grabar. The idea of a supermuseum was born of the fear of these tyrants of disappearing in the river of time without a trace, out of their lust to demonstrate their power, and to create something everlasting, and out of the attempts of brilliant art historians to realize the dream of all art students by creating the most impressive collection of all times and all nations.
The custom of stealing the art of the conquered is ancient. The Romans brought back whole ships full of statues and the columns of famous temples from defeated Greece. The crusaders who emptied Constantinople flooded Europe with ancient monuments and Byzantine art. The idea of creating a "museum of museums" as a monument to dictators, however, has only surfaced three times. Napoleon was the first to manage to bring together art treasures from across Europe in the Louvre. First and foremost were the ancient sculptures, which apparently embodied the spirit of republican freedom and imperial grandeur. After Waterloo, however, a great number of these were returned to their rightful owners. This was the first restitution of art treasures in world history. The second attempt was undertaken by Adolf Hitler, who wanted to bring together the master works of the arts stolen from all over Europe in his home town of Linz. Hitler wanted to turn Linz into the Culture capital, not only of the Third Reich, but of the whole world. He considered "Project Linz" as a sort of secret political weapon that could be fired after Germany's military victory. The Führer saw this museum as the treasure trove of Europe united under the Swastika. Therefore it would draw on not only the collections of the Louvre, but also those of Vienna and Berlin. One of the main sources for this supermuseum were the "Enemies of the Reich," primarily Jews, but also the "inferior races," like the Slavs. There was, of course, no interest in the art of these peoples, only in the works of "real Aryan" artists that had been acquired by them. Some Jews were released from the concentration camps when their friends or relatives turned in a painting that the Führer absolutely had to have.
The supermuseum was supposed to demonstrate "the decisive influence of the Aryan spirit on the arts," therefore the Northern Renaissance was especially prized: the Van Eykcs' altar in Ghent, Vermeer, Breughel and Rembrandt, Dürer and Cranach, Watteau and Michelangelo. The paintings of the "degenerate" Impressionists and Modernists were to be exchanged for "true Aryan art." Whole armies of art experts and antiquities specialists were employed under the leadership of the Director of the Dresden Pinakothek, Hans Posse, to set up the museum. He did not sympathize with the Nazis, but he could not withstand the temptation to establish the most important museum of all times and all peoples. After the war, the Americans discovered the works destined for the Führer's museum in the salt mines of western Austria. For the most part they were returned to their respective homelands.
No one in the USSR was aware of Hitler's plans, but nonetheless Stalin dreamed of an analogous supermuseum project. The preparations for the confiscation of culturally valuable European objects began in 1943. A special Bureau of Art experts was tasked with compiling a list of the masterpieces from the best museums of Germany and its allies. The idea was to create the Museum of World Art in Moscow in the complex of the Palace of Soviets - an administrative center and a congress hall near Kremlin. This gigantic construction was to rise on the ruins of the Christ-the-Savior Cathedral.
The main building was intended to be the pedestal of a 100-meter-high statue of Lenin. As part of the most impressive manifestations of the Communist grandeur the museum packed with trophy arts would be a memorial dedicated to the glory of the Soviet Army. From 1945 on, art treasures poured into the USSR by the thousands, but in the winter and spring the box cars were not heated so that many of the art works suffered serious damage during transport. Altogether the project amounted to approximately two and a half million museum exhibition pieces. Rather than being exhibited in the remodeled Palace of Soviets, the art works were kept under lock and key in the warehouses of the museums of Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev. For a while there was a secret "museum in a museum" in two halls of the State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, where master works from Dresden, Gotha and Leipzig hung shoulder to shoulder, floor to ceiling on all the walls. Only the Soviet elite had access to this collection, and then only with the special permission of Marshall Voroshilov who had the portfolio for art in the Politburo. But after the beginning of the Cold War, these art works too were hidden in the warehouses. Khrushchev only gave a part of this collection back, and to this day the rest are a bone of contention between Russia and Germany.
What motivates people to destroy valuable art
Attacks on works of art are normally explained as destructive rage. The ancient Greek cobbler Herostratos is infamous in this respect, because he set fire to the world wonder, the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus in order to achieve immortal fame. There are, however, other causes for the vandalization of art. One of them is the effect that great works of art have on people with mental problems. In January 1913, Abram Balashov, a young member of the Old Believers, pulled a knife out of the leg of his boot in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, and threw himself on Ilya Repin's painting Ivan the Terrible and his Son Ivan. "Enough of this blood," he screamed, and stabbed his knife into the middle of the picture three times, right into the Czar's face that is distorted by insanity. For him, the painting had become the incarnation of not only his personal misfortune, but also the social problems in Europe that would soon turn into the First World War. Instead of restoring the painting, the aging Repin painted Ivan the Terrible's head anew, as if he wanted to demonstrate to one and all that he had not lost his talent. This time the restorers had to save the painting from its creator. Repin's new work was removed and the original version restored. The painting went back on display in the gallery, and Balashov went into psychiatric care.
There are a number of such maniacs. The well-known "Acid terrorist" Hans-Joachim Bohlmann was created by scientists like another Frankenstein. A famous surgeon operated on the quiet schizophrenic's brain for demonstrative purposes, whereupon the unhappy man decided he could free himself from his phobias, if he sprayed the paintings of his favorite masters (Rubens, Rembrandt and Dürer) with sulfuric acid. He damaged approximately 50 master works, for which he only got seven years in prison, even though the damage was more than 130 million dollars.
The first politically motivated attack on a work of art was made in 1914. The art student Mary Richardson cut up the painting Venus in Front of a Mirror by Velázquez as a sign of protest against the arrest of the leader of the Suffragette Movement Emmeline Pankhurst, and as a sign of disgust with "pornography." Richardson's attack served as a signal for a massive attack by the Suffragette Movement on "naked" art. The first half of 1914 saw more than a hundred attacks on marvelous works of art. And in 1985, Bronius Maigis, a Lithuanian from Kaunas, attacked Rembrandt's Danae in the Hermitage in Leningrad, first with a knife, and then with sulfuric acid. Maigis said that his act was motivated by the fight for Lithuanian independence. It took twelve years to restore the painting.
More and more often, however, vandalism is being viewed as an artistic statement. That was why the Russian artist Alexander Brener sprayed a dollar sign on Kasimir Malevich's painting Suprematism in the City Museum in Amsterdam. He called this act an artistic action directed against the commercialization of art. Whoever thinks that art and life have nothing to do with one another is wrong. Vandals are the murderers of art, but the paintings are not always innocent victims. They can push some people over the edge into insanity. Vandalism is the tragic dividing line between the world of the arts and the world of people.
Another of Koslov's topics is no less interesting: the fate of the altar in Gent painted by the Van Eyck brothers, the "progenitors" of modern painting. There have been numerous attempts to destroy or steal the altar. It was looted first by Napoleon and then by Hitler. And then there is the scandal about the heritage of the talented artist Mark Rothko, a Russian Jew who emigrated to the USA, and who climbed to be the third greatest representative of Russian abstract art after Kandinsky and Malevich. Or perhaps the history of the rescue of the most venerated and legendary icon Our Lady of Vladimir, a unique piece of Byzantine art from the twelfth century that is the symbol of Russian statehood.