ed. by Julien Chapuis and Stephan Kemperdick. Michael Imhof Verlag, November 2016. 144 p. ill. ISBN 9783731903215 (pbk.), $21.95.
Reviewed March 2017
Based on a 2015 exhibition at the Bode Museum in Berlin, The Lost Museum is an exploration of a major art collection that was destroyed in the days following World War II. The Flakturm Friedrichshain bunker fire was one of the most devastating losses of rare and significant art in history, where over 400 paintings from Berlin’s art museums were destroyed, as was a third of the sculpture gallery. Of the objects stored in the bunker, only frames and fragments remain, and these formed the basis of the exhibition and the book, both designed to bring these lost masterpieces back into the public consciousness.
Editors Julien Chapuis and Stephan Kemperdick make the argument that the artworks of this collection, despite their condition or the absence of the physical object, still have value in both art and world history. They bring together considerable knowledge and professional meaning to this effort; Chapuis is Director of the Skulpturensammlung and Kemperdick is Curator of Early Dutch, German, and French art at the Gemäldegalerie. Both are part of the Bode Museum, formerly the Kaiser Friedrich Museum, where the ill-fated collections originated.
Part exhibition catalog, part history and critical essays, the book’s chapters cover pivotal moments and challenges in the process of resurrecting lost art. “Loss and Restitution” recounts the history of the collection, from early attempts to protect to it (which resulted in its unfortunate storage location), to reclaiming surviving pieces that were taken by the Soviet army in the days and weeks after the war. “Remembrance” is a eulogy for those paintings presumed lost forever, including Caravaggio’s provocative masterpiece, St. Matthew and the Angel. One of the most interesting chapters concerns the practical and ethical challenges of restoring damaged sculptures that survived the fire and were returned to the museum. Here the authors perform in-depth examinations of the damage, the chemical effects of extreme heat, and early botched restoration attempts. They also debate the value of full restoration, vacillating between doing justice to the artist’s original work and preserving the cultural history that the damage represents.
The book tries, as much as possible, to cover every aspect of the impact of the lost collection and offers 142 high resolution images of lost, damaged, or restored art. It is one of few, if not the only title to publish them for an English-speaking audience. The editors consulted twenty-two authors, including art historians, conservators, and curators.
The Lost Museum is recommended for purchase as a valuable and interesting read for students of conservation and art history, a meditation on the ethics of restoration for curators, and a call for art historians to examine the potential of lost art as an intellectually rich area of study.