He collected absences. For him they were more intense, vibrant and real than the presences that they shadowed. And this one – he’d just heard the news of the most audacious art theft of his time – was astonishing, quite enough to merit a change of travel plans. And so he and his friend Max departed from Milan and headed for Paris, the scene of the crime.
On a day early in September 1911 they arrived at the Louvre that little bit late to join the queue, heightening the anticipation. When they eventually entered the Salon Carré, they approached the spot where the Mona Lisa had been displayed for generations. The crowd – all of whom had come on the same pilgrimage – pushed forward, and the little man, jostled, could hardly see. Taking his friend by the shoulder, Max pushed to the very front. Other onlookers paused to deposit flowers on the floor beneath, with notes of remembrance tied in silk ribbons.
He stood in front of the wall, those obsidian eyes staring, rapt. The painting was gone. That’s why he was there. It had been stolen a week before, and the Museum had only just reopened to the public. The crowd had come expressly to see where it used to be, and now wasn’t.
For Franz Kafka, the absent Mona Lisa was in the process of joining the internal collection that he called his ‘invisible curiosities’: sights, monuments and works of art that he had missed seeing. The phrase, like many of Kafka’s aperçus, is both puzzling and provocative. It occurs several times in his writing, often in the context of thinking about the movies. Max Brod refers to the idea (it is unclear which of them first used it) in describing a scene in a film in which a young woman is travelling quickly in a taxi at night in Munich: ‘We see, of all edifices, only the first floor, since the car’s big visor blocks our view. Fantastic imaginings of the height of the palaces and churches.’
Kafka, musing on the scene and imaginatively engaged by what is not seen, expanded the image, as the ‘driver calls out the names of the invisible sights’. What fascinates him is that something significant is out there, moving by too quickly to apprehend, as in a few seconds’ exposure in a film.
Travelling on hissing tires, in the back of a taxi on a rainy night, a cityscape partially revealed as it whizzes by, might be taken as a metaphor for the human journey. A concentrated act of attention, peering out the window, can only frustrate, with its suggestions of larger hidden presences. What is imperfectly revealed is a shadowy simulacrum of what is most assuredly out there, if only one had the light, the time and the right vantage point from which to see it.
There is a similarity between this image and that of Plato’s allegory of the caves, in which a fully realised world casts its shadow on the wall, and is taken to be all that there is. In Kafka’s reframing of the metaphor, though, there is a doubly troubling centre: again there is the blurred approximation of the real, but in the taxi image the onlooker is aware of his estrangement from that fleeting world, whereas in Plato’s the shadows are taken to be all that there is.
So: are we all tootling about in taxis, craning our necks at the unlit streets? Not at all; you don’t always take a cab. What we have here – which is so typical of Kafka – is a suggestive moment which seems to have some general application, but also resists it. There are plenty of experiences in which we walk the streets in the presence of the familiar: buildings, people, landscapes, seen in clear light. Kafka, though, is more imaginatively engaged by the barely apprehended, suggestive, lost. There is, after all, something wearying, predictable and banal, about knowing things.
This fascination with what is shimmeringly and incompletely present haunts Kafka’s imagination and pervades his work. He is the perfect onlooker for an absent presence, not for the Mona Lisa itself but for where it used to be. She had been stolen, or perhaps one should say kidnapped? But why such a crowd? More people had come to see where the Mona Lisa used to be than had attended when it was hanging in its accustomed place. What were they looking at, and for? Because all they saw was a shadowy band of grime on the wall that marked the outlines of the missing picture, and which seemed in itself to frame the possibilities of new imagining. Could the assembled throng – they knew the image, most of them – project it into that seemingly empty space? For the moment it almost made artists of them.
I have invoked the figure of Franz Kafka, queuing excitedly to add to his catalogue of absences, not because there is something surreal – something Kafkaesque – in his pursuit, but because he is, for once, typical. There is nothing eccentric in his obsession with absent objects and lost opportunities. Kafka stands, here, both for myself and, I hope, for my reader. We are all curious about our invisible curiosities.
Lost, Stolen or Shredded consists of a series of chapters broadly based on stories of lost works of art and literature, where ‘lost’ means, as Humpty Dumpty remarked firmly about his choice of a word, ‘just what I choose it to mean’. They can be read individually, for it is not my aim to write generally about the nature of loss, or to give some potted history of works of art that have been lost. No fun in that.
When a wilful destruction of a work is contemplated, knotty moral problems may attend the act. Was Philip Larkin’s secretary right to shred his diaries, shortly before his death? Or Byron’s executors to burn his Memoirs? Was Max Brod right to reject Kafka’s final instruction to burn all of his unpublished manuscripts?
For me, the stories of Byron, Larkin and Kafka are connected to each other, mutually illuminate, force distinction and discrimination, both confuse and illustrate, lead inevitably to philosophical, moral and psychological reflection. Stories of loss attach to each other like stray atoms, coagulate and grow into something more complex and more compelling than single entities.
If you want to understand the attachment engendered by works of art, you would do better to read Bruce Chatwin’s Utz, or Henry James’s The Spoils of Poynton, than a treatise on the subject. We often learn more from a compelling story than from whole volumes of sociology or art history. Stories are more entertaining, more instructive, and more memorable. They stick in the mind, and to each other: they make a world.
These stories are chosen because they are part of my own internal museum of loss. In recounting them I am, inevitably, also writing about myself. All writing, admittedly, is a form of autobiography, however impersonal and ‘objective’ it may seem. The way in which we see and value things, put them together, express their meanings and relations, inevitably reveals something of the mind and voice of the observer, whether they be a novelist or a mathematician. Wordsworth observes that the world as we encounter it is something that we ‘half perceive and half create’, and I have felt it necessary in writing these chapters, which are part essay and part memoir, to reveal and to interrogate both elements of this process. What is out there? Why, and how, do I care?
In the course of the forthcoming chapters I occasionally seem to find myself on both sides of a question, apparently unable or unwilling to choose, so complex and intractable are the questions. There’s danger in this, to be sure. It seems to offer a soft option, to absolve one from thinking sufficiently hard about a topic finally to come down on one side or the other.
Is it regrettable that cultural objects are forcibly appropriated from their native soil and transported to foreign museums? Yes. Is it a boon and a delight that we can visit those museums and learn about other civilisations? Certainly.
Can it be right to destroy an important work of art, as Winston Churchill’s wife burned a portrait of him by Graham Sutherland? It seems a vile precedent, which gives credibility to the enemies of culture such as the Maoists, with their wholesale conflagration of centuries of Chinese art, architecture and literature. And yet there are instances – is this one? – in which such vandalism seems justifiable.
It’s easy enough to scrape away at such tensions, smooth them over, force the recalcitrant material into easier shapes. That is just what I have tried to avoid. Anyone who is not perplexed by the complex issues surrounding the loss of works of art hasn’t thought about them sufficiently.
There is a phrase in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness that is apposite here. Trying desperately to understand the full implications of what has happened to him on his appalling trip down the Congo, the narrator muses that ‘the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze’. Though this has caused one commentator to accuse the author of ‘making a virtue out of not knowing what he means’, I’m on Conrad’s side on this one. I distrust people who emphatically know what they mean.
I rather like that haziness, with its suggestion that when we seek to understand our most complex ‘episodes’ it is only by craning our necks, squinting our eyes, trying to make out what is imperfectly before us. Like Kafka and Max Brod in that night-time taxi ride, trying to perceive what is only partially knowable. When we are faced with ultimate questions and intractable mysteries, meaning is often imperfectly apprehended, guessed at rather than mastered, tantalisingly ungraspable: a glow that brings out a haze.
It’s a most elusive metaphor, dangerous in its way, a counsel to accept ambiguity and clearly to honour unclarity: to provide a sense of the world, of its muddle and unseen presences, that is accurate and moving, provocative, real.
Some Reviews and Responses
London Evening Standard (Michael Prodger)
“Gekoski gives each of his subjects this Moral Maze treatment. Because he is an informed and discursive interrogator, and never shy of expressing an opinion, these essays entertainingly mix whodunnit narrative with cultural polemic.”
The Scotsman (Stuart Kelly)
“this beguiling and intriguing series of essays on the fragility of our culture….not only is Gekoski superbly well-read, but he will cunningly interrogate our often contradictory feelings towards the loss of great works of art….It’s a delightfully eclectic mix, made even more interesting by Gekoski’s willingness to countenance the idea that loss is not always a tragedy….The whole is enlivened by Gekoski’s trenchant asides.”
The Guardian (Kathryn Hughes)
“Gekoski seeks to illustrate the missing lives of major artworks with a series of jaunty case histories. Yet despite uncovering every kind of cultural cupidity and stupidity, Gekoski finishes his tour of duty sounding upbeat. He has clambered into too many dusty attics and groped under too many sofas to go weepy at the thought of what might not be there.”
The Times (Jeanette Winterson)
“Part of the pleasure of sitting crosslegged on the floor with Gekoski, going through his rummage-drawer of disappearances, is that he raises enough interesting questions to show how difficult it is to take a particular view, though he is not too shy to tell us where he stands.”
The Spectator (Brian Sewell)
“…his discursions on such matters as the burning of Byron’s memoirs, Larkin’s diaries and the library of the Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum are enchanting speculations on what might have been ….”
The Sunday Times (Christopher Hart)
“This delightful collection of essays…. arrives at many a thoughtful conclusion. Gekoski is always lively and opinionated.”
The Observer (Alexander Larman)
“In this highly entertaining book, the author goes in search of some of the great missing works of art and literature, using a mixture of careful detective work and some erudite speculation…..Gekoski isn’t afraid to offer some controversial opinions…..One finishes the book exhilarated and amused.”
The Financial Times (Carl Wilkinson )
“Gekoski has carved out a niche addressing liminal subjects:…In Lost, Stolen or Shredded he brings the same wry and analytical eye to bear on some fascinating tales….An illuminating and eclectic book that addresses some of the big questions: what is art and why does it matter?”
Daily Mail (Craig Brown)
“In his latest collection of short, sparky essays, Rick Gekoski has had the bright idea of exploring the world of missing works of art…. Gekoski is never mealy-mouthed, never the spokesman for received opinion. He is the opposite of stuffy, preferring to leave his audience provoked rather than placated…. It’s all good, rollicking stuff…So this book should raise eyebrows galore, but then that is part of its purpose. It asks many exciting questions and, in doing so, makes life, and art, seem more vital than ever.”
TLS (Toby Lichtig)
A “call to contemplation.” Gekoski has an ear for lively prose and a nose for a good story… This erudite and wide-ranging collection… should be read: in short bursts, with great pleasure, and even greater consideration to art’s contradictions and contingencies.”
KatieWardWriter (author of Girl Reading)
“…he’s witty, knowledgeable and engaging – someone I’d definitely want to be seated next to at a dinner party. Despite the big themes this is a hugely readable book about an intriguing subject.”
Country Life (Ysenda Maxtone Grahaam)
“Rick Gekoski is charming company as a writer….fluent and raconteurish and you feel as if you’re sitting across a pub table from him while he tells you a series of astonishing stories.”
The Hindu (Pradeep Sebastian)
“Rick Gekoski offers tantalising glimpses into lost treasures…..fascinating essays.”
Irish Examiner (Peter Murray)
“An expertly told tale… of an interesting curatorial project, which is also anti-curatorial…. The author of Lost, Stolen or Shredded is every bit as interesting as his writings.”
The National, UAE (Jonathan Gornall)
“A fascinating new survey… By inviting us to consider what might have been, rather than what simply is, Gekoski recruits us as willing collaborators in the very process of art.”
New Zealand Herald. (John Gardner)
“The book raises weighty issues but Gekoski, whose background is a winning mixture of academia and book dealing, has as good an eye for a joke as he has for a rare volume.”
Otago Daily Times, (Geoff Adams)
“An erudite and witty writer… The most interesting content, though, is the way Gekoski raises and debates many questions…This is a good book to read and keep – not lose or shred.”
Christchurch Press (Anna Rogers)
“An erudition worn lightly, an enormous passion for ideas, a wicked and well deployed
sense of humour, a fearlessness about expressing a personal view and an ability
to write a fine and memorable sentence….Gekoski is like the best kind of dinner companion, amiable and articulate, witty and wise, challenging without being aggressive, interested only in
exploring the endlessly fascinating world about him, with all its losses, and its joys.”
Southland Times, New Zealand (Michael Fallow)
“Make what you will of Gekoski’s take on these and many other cases, but he’s a cracking good storyteller and on those grounds alone the book is an agreeable read. And near its conclusion there’s the perfect, almost shimmering quotation to illuminate the book’s entire approach.”
Graham Beattie, Beattie’s Book Blog (NZ)
“He is an erudite and witty man….I found the book a delightful, entertaining and often provocative read as Gekoski, an informed and articulate author, raises here a number of questions about our relationship with art.”
Book Oxygen (Sian Miles)
“This is a treasure-trove of a book written by a generous, humorous, wise and voluptuous author, the sharing of whose life experiences in a highly competitive field is deeply and unusually enriching.”
Literary Review (Alan Massie).
“entertaining collection of essays….”
Picked as Book of the Week by Time Out.
Guardian Review of Reviews.