Tom Lubbock: Lost art isn't irreplaceable. But it probably won't be replaced

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The Independent Online

Somebody was telling Napoleon about the fame of artists, and how much more immortal it was than the fame of soldiers. So how long, the general asked, might the best-preserved painting be expected to last? "Oh, perhaps 800 years." "Bah! Telle immortalité!" Some immortality.

Somebody was telling Napoleon about the fame of artists, and how much more immortal it was than the fame of soldiers. So how long, the general asked, might the best-preserved painting be expected to last? "Oh, perhaps 800 years." "Bah! Telle immortalité!" Some immortality.

Death is an occupational hazard for any artwork that uses a physical medium, rather than words or notes. If it's not destroyed before its time, it will eventually perish. The roster of lost art is inevitably impressive - all the painting and most of the sculpture of ancient Greece, for a start.

The latest losses in the Momart fire, though a serious dent in the Saatchi collection, make only a small annexe to an enormous graveyard.

But it's odd to hear talk about irreplaceable losses. Really? You'd have thought that, with the will and the funding, many of these works were perfectly replaceable. It wouldn't be very hard for Tracey Emin to re-stitch the names of Every One I Have Ever Slept With onto a little tent (it might need some updating since 1995). A painting by Martin Maloney could be swiftly repainted by almost anyone. A Patrick Caulfield, a Chris Ofili, a Gary Hume, might need more time. The Chapman brothers' Hell , an apocalyptic tableau, featuring thousands of model figures, would obviously take ages.

Still, as art fires go, the prospects could hardly be rosier. Get replicating. The original artists are alive. Full photographic records exist. The materials and techniques employed are all current. Contemporary art is always falling apart, anyway, and museums now have very competent restoration departments. And if the replica wasn't quite exact, this is not the kind of art where tiny differences usually matter. Besides, to judge from the experience of artists I know who have had to recreate a work, the second version (contrary to certain myths about creativity) is usually superior.

"We'll remake it - it's only art," the Chapman brothers have said about Hell . I hope they do. I hope many of the burnt pieces are remade. But I bet they won't be. After all, it would be such a fantastic bore. And most of this stuff is so 90s now! We've done that. Got to move on. When the history of our art is written, it may be said, strangely, that these works, very highly regarded, were by mischance destroyed.

It would have been quite easy to replace them, but we just couldn't be bothered. It was only art.

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