Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Lost art

Thinking about the mummies vandalized in Egypt, my thoughts turned - as they sometimes do - to the art and artefacts that were damaged or destroyed during World War II. What remains in the collection of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, for instance, are a mere fraction of the medical specimens collected by surgeon and anatomist John Hunter (1728-1793) after the museum was damaged in the Blitz. There are plenty of lists of art and architecture destroyed by bombing (World Heritage sites, buildings in the U.K., and paintings by Breughel the Elder, Caravaggio, Mantegna, Rubens, Courbet, Van Gogh, and Klimt enumerated on lists of lost artworks), but no aggregations that I could find of museum specimens lost to war. As luck would have it, I did find a very recent story of artifacts that were painstakingly restored after they were shattered.

The remains of a 1st millennium citadel were discovered in 1899 in what is today Syria. The spectacular finds were excavated from the Tell Halaf mound between 1911 and 1913 and were brought to Berlin in 1930, but the private museum in which they were displayed was destroyed during World War II by an aerial phosphor bomb. "The blaze destroyed all wooden and limestone artefacts, as well as the plaster casts. The basalt rock statues and bas-reliefs withstood the scorching heat, but not the temperature shock caused by the cold water used in an attempt to extinguish the fire. The surviving Aramaean artefacts shattered in thousand pieces." Nearly 60 years later, a restoration project was begun to piece the monumental stone sculptures and relief panels together from 27,000 fragments (9 truckloads) that had been salvaged and stored. The results of these efforts are on display in Berlin's Pergamon Museum through August 14th in an exhibition entitled "The Tell Halaf Adventure." Among the 40 figures pieced back together are a pair of lions that guarded the palace, a bas-relief of a lion (shown above, before and after restoration), a female figure from a monumental grave, a sphinx, a griffin, and a mythical cross between a scorpion, a bird, and a man. "No one could have imagined several years ago that this exhibition would be possible. Tell Halaf had been forgotten. It was thought to be certain that the pieces which disappeared in 1943 were irretrievably lost," said Michael Eissenhauer, director of Berlin's state museums.

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