Roberto Matta: The last surrealist
Extraordinary oil on canevas for sale in November in New York.
46x66 cm - Painted in 1939
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Art is stronger than terrorism!
The demolition of the Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001 was the most dramatic example of a wave of iconoclasm in Afghanistan that left no museum immune from looting. Today, with ISIS targeting and destroying ancient cultural sites in Syria and Iraq, it may be that views of these historic structures will survive only in photographs. The Getty Research Institute recently announced
its acquisition of a suite of photographs that offer rare glimpses of some of these places as they stood 150 years ago. Captured in 1864 by French naval officer Louis Vignes, the well-preserved pictures show sites in present day Beirut, Lebanon, and the Roman ruins in Palmyra, Syria. Among the 47 prints are the earliest printed photographs of Palmyra, showing the Temple Baalshamin and Temple of Bel, both of which ISIS is believed to have recently obliterated. Other images show panoramas of Beirut’s port —the region’s most significant in the 19th century— and views of the city surrounded by grand pine trees.
These photographs represent rare primary documents of a region and World Heritage Site in crisis, preserving the memory of its ancient monuments and natural beauty for posterity. The fact that the World Heritage Site of Palmyra is now vastly demolished makes the black-and-white images all the more haunting. Vignes’s lens captured the Temple of Bel and the Temple Baal Shamin with their monumental walls still intact, as well as shots of the city’s great colonnade, attached to sturdy triumphal arches, and tombs that bordered it.
Beirut, Lebanon, and Palymyra, Syria, have been irreparably altered both by the 1975 Lebanese war and the current Syrian war. In the face of the unspeakable human tragedy and cultural destruction of these conflicts, there is little scholars can do but strive to record, preserve, and interpret the historical record of these tremendously important historic sites. Because of recent events, these rare photographs are now even more valuable as research documents for scholars of the Middle East.
On another hand, the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), a professional body representing the leading art museums in North America, issued “Protocols for Safe Havens for Works of Cultural Significance from Countries in Crisis.” The protocols offer museums a framework to provide shelter for works of art at risk owing to “war, terrorism or natural disasters,” a definition that includes Islamic State-looted objects. Owners of works at risk can request safe haven at an AAMD member museum.
In turn, museums will not seek permanent title or ownership, but instead act as temporary stewards. Once a conflict-related or natural threat has waned sufficiently in the afflicted area, the works will be returned. Although international efforts to document and rescue heritage at risk are not new, the advent of the Internet has made them more far-reaching and effective by introducing illustrated, searchable, web-based documentation that can be accessed by anyone, anywhere. So while looters have been using the web to market their ill-gotten gains, stewards of cultural heritage have been using it to warn about threats and retrieve lost works.