Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 22, 2023
Beate Fricke and Aden Kumler, eds. Destroyed—Disappeared—Lost—Never Were University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2022. 168 pp.; 19 b/w ills. Paper $18.95 (978-0-271-09328-4)

Although the study of premodern art history often relies on fragmentary evidence, the absent object remains curiously understudied—acknowledged but rarely examined as a critical component to the shape of art history itself. When the object of study is gone—inaccessible through deliberate destruction or the events of time—the art historian must confront this loss doubly: as evidence and as absence. The collection of essays in the compact and provocative book, Destroyed—Disappeared—Lost—Never Were, not only addresses this art historical problem as its central line of inquiry but it also reveals how, as editors Beate Fricke and Aden Kumler suggest, that ‘‘attending to absence itself can be intellectually productive, even liberating” (5).

The editors’ interrogation of absence is wide-ranging and ambitious. Rather than focusing on complete destruction or irretrievable damage, Fricke and Kumler allow space for thinking about transitory or temporary losses as well as works that “never were,” whose physical presence was always absent. These kinds of losses—total, partial, temporal, and imagined—force the art historian to reach beyond the usual tools of description and research (and away from the trend towards materiality), a process that can be met with melancholy but also with imagination and optimism. This optimistic approach to absence provides a poignant thread throughout the essays—not for their ability to recover loss but for exploring what this loss reveals as much as it conceals.

The essays in this volume address the issue of absence across the premodern globe. This inclusive approach to the period 500–1500 CE reflects the editors’ awareness of the value of their topic beyond their specialism in European medieval art history and demonstrates the cultural complexities imbedded in the interpretation of loss and destruction. Described by Fricke and Kumler as a “kaleidoscopic array of reflections,” the essays are short case studies, ranging from eight to fifteen pages, allowing for speculation and in some cases, personal reflection (1). It is a fruitful and refreshing approach that benefits from the authors’ careful explanation of linguistic terminology and theories of pictorial representation to a nonspecialist audience. It works because it does not try to engage in comparative analysis (unless warning against it), but rather the essays demonstrate how the concept of loss can generate a wide variety of questions and approaches. 

Three essays in the volume are notable for their consideration of the questions art historians must ask about evidence in the face of absence. Claudia Brittenham’s study of a Maya wooden lintel that perished in a fire in New York (chapter 2), for example, considers what is required of the object to be considered “lost.” As she notes, the less we know about an object, the harder it is to register its loss. Brittenham considers this loss in two ways: questioning what it might have revealed for the study of Maya art but also what might have incurred if it had remained in situ. These sorts of losses—unknowable and unquantifiable—are set against a backdrop of erasure of Native American culture itself, an important but often overlooked aspect of Maya art historiography. Similarly, Jaś Elsner is frank about the impossible task of premodern art historians face to understand the past from fragmentary evidence (chapter 4). He demonstrates its global application through a discussion of two distinct images from India and Byzantium that illustrate the problems of assuming pictorial representation is synonymous with the object itself. To fill in gaps of knowledge with our imagination can be a resource, but it is one that must be applied with caution. Likewise, Michelle McCoy examines both the evidence used to study loss and how we record them in her study of the Library Cave of Dunhuang (chapter 9). McCoy first considers the discovery of the cave and its documentation through staged photography. She then examines how the photograph reveals the original context of the cave as a memorial shrine that contained a painted or sculpted icon of the Buddha known as a “shadow.” While McCoy admits that the photograph’s seeming adoption of pictorial terms of Buddhist art may have been inadvertent, her investigation of the mechanisms by which we can access and evaluate lost objects (and how this evidence can be manipulated) is an important consideration.

Given the editors’ specialism, Late Antiquity and European Middle Ages also figure prominently in this volume. The first chapter by Michele Bacci examines the destruction of sacred architecture in Jerusalem and considers architectural demolition as distinct from loss of loca sancta. Bacci makes the important distinction between “locative and ritual/performative forms of experiencing the supernatural dimension” that exist in the holy sites of Jerusalem which are activated through cultural memory (25).  While the site-bound holiness of the Temple Mount is a much-discussed concept, Bacci’s study positions it in the context of indestructability; the destruction of the Temple only resulted in the perishing of its frame. In contrast, Lena Leipe’s study of lost reliquaries examines the modern viewer’s understanding of and relationship to the sacred not through its frame but through physical remains—the relic itself (chapter 7). Looking at cases in which the relic, namely human bones, survive without its reliquary container, Leipe considers both ethical considerations of display and the ways in which these objects declare their material presence despite the absence of their sacred signifiers. Sonja Drimmer focuses on the question of object biography, speculating on the actions and thoughts of the various owners and handlers of the Confessio Amantis, whose versions have suffered (and survived) several instances of image removal and mending (chapter 3). Drimmer considers her own relationship to the manuscript, arguing that the melancholy often associated with the art historical distance between object and viewer does not resonate with her experience. It is here that the optimism Fricke and Kumler suggest seems most enthusiastically employed. This approach works well for damaged objects but less so for entirely destroyed ones, and perhaps it is not as unique to medieval manuscripts as Drimmer implies. While books often last far beyond their makers, Danielle Joyner reflects upon a part of the medieval world that was inevitably perishable: the garden (chapter 5). Joyner not only considers the medieval garden as lost but also imagined, examining the gardens in the unrealized Plan of Saint Gall and contemplating what sort of pleasures these images provoked in their own right. Joyner, who brings these gardens to life through an imagined description of the never-realized gardens, argues that the drawings would have provided a way to enjoy the senses of the garden that balanced their impermanence.

This tension between permeance and impermanence is also explored in the essays by Kristopher W. Kersey (chapter 6) and Meekyung MacMurdie (chapter 8). Arguing that the acceptance of transience and impermanence is not as universal a trait of Japanese aesthetics as often presumed, Kersey first explores how broken and mended ceramic vessels known as Kintsugi visually emphasize rupture and endurance over impermanence. He then turns to a focused investigation of a set of pictorial scrolls, noting how they “sought physical permanence in the technology of the scroll” but also presented multiple modes of representation that allowed for a sense of virtual permanence (93). MacMurdie’s careful study of unrealized machines in an Islamic technical compendium similarly considers the cultural conditions and acceptance of physical permanence. Focusing on the relationship between image making and the production of knowledge in the medieval Islamic world, MacMurdie ends her study through an examination of “sensible geometry” as “a site of discursive high stakes in terms of ways of knowing and states of being” that allowed for a similar engagement with wonder and awe associated with technical marvels (124). Kersey and MacMurdie’s essays exemplify the importance of evaluating absence and loss from a non-Western perspective, but also probe important questions about tangibility which is invaluable across various art histories.

The volume concludes with Peter Geimer’s reflection on the study of loss and the practice of art history (chapter 10). Geimer reminds us that “not all is lost” in loss and that the object often re-presents itself if only to remind us of its inaccessibility. Geimer ends with a call for art historians to resist the impulse to “fix” an object in time, but rather he suggests that we accept the unrest of the object that is both present and absent, near and far. This volume makes great strides in its attempt to answer this call, though it leaves room for more prolonged studies. The paperback format allows for a modest price point, but the images are limited and (at least in hard copy) only available in black and white. In addition, considerations of the erasure of cultural heritage and iconoclasms would be a welcome continuation of the themes taken up in Fricke and Kumler’s introduction. Destroyed—Disappeared—Lost—Never Were is the sort of scholarship that begins to fill the literal lacunae cautiously avoided by premodern art historians for so long, but perhaps no longer.

Elisa A. Foster
Lecturer, Department of History of Art, University of York;
Lecturer, MA Curation Practices & MA Creative Practice, Leeds Arts University