Stuart Little and the recovery of lost art
Studying art history is bittersweet for me. Much art is ephemeral, and any preservation is only as good as your failsafe. Fires, floods, random ink spills, hard drive crashes, memorable chat-based file deletion and a myriad of other things mean that a huge amount of data has simply been lost in the time. I have read about composers or performers, the best of their age, with all their musical works lost. We know Sappho’s poetry only in fragments. Early films were highly flammable and entire warehouses caught fire, in addition to being destroyed or lost for a number of non-accidental reasons – in 2013 the Library of Congress reported that 75% of all films in the silent era had been lost. For my part, as a child, my favorite painter was Claude Monet, and when I learned that he painted on old canvases, I cried thinking of all the paintings that no one will ever see!
But just as there have been losses, there have been startling discoveries. I worked with a flautist from the Boston area who recreated an early 19th century concerto. The most important oboe concerto in the repertoire is Mozart’s — and it wasn’t rediscovered in an attic until 1920 by a Mozart scholar named Bernhard Paumgartner. (And amusing to my modern college background, the article detailing the discovery is only four pages long.) The US Library of Congress also hosts a biannual event called “Mostly Lost” with unidentified film scraps and the public invited to help to identify aspects. Mere seconds of a movie can show something distinctive and lead to correct identification. From what I’ve heard, it’s a fun event and a mysterious real-life puzzle that might have archival significance for these celluloid scraps. Despite ongoing efforts like this to find lost art, many of the greatest discoveries have been made by accident.
During the Christmas holidays in 2009, Hungarian art historian Gergely Barki chose to relax with his daughter and watch the 1999 film Stuart Littlewhen he recognized the artwork in Stuart’s salon as a missing painting by the Hungarian avant-garde artist Róbert Berény (1887 – 1953).
Barki recognized the painting – “The Sleeping Lady with a Black Vase” – from a black-and-white photograph taken of the work when it was last exhibited, in 1928. “It wasn’t just on screen for a second, but in several scenes in the movie, so I knew I wasn’t dreaming. It was a very happy moment,” said Barki, who had no idea how it ended up as the setting. in a 1999 children’s film.
Barki, who is writing a biography of Berény, has gone into full detective mode. “I started writing emails to everyone involved in the movie,” he told the New York Post. He sent letters to the film’s creators, Sony Pictures and Columbia Pictures, eventually receiving a response from the film’s former set designer two years later.
According to Barki, the film’s assistant, whose name has not been reported, had picked up the painting from an antique store in Pasadena, Calif., for just $500. Unaware of its origin or value, she used the artwork to decorate the family’s apartment – performed by the disembodied voices of Michael J. Fox, Jonathan Lipnicki, Geena Davis and Hugh Laurie – in the film based on the well-received book. -liked by EB White. After production was complete, the assistant purchased the painting from the studio and hung it in her apartment. “I had the chance to visit him and see the painting and tell him all about the painter,” Barki said. “She was very surprised.
Berény was one of the leaders of the Hungarian avant-garde movement in the early 20th century and was heavily influenced by artists like Cézanne and van Gogh, thanks to his training and work in Paris. “Berény’s work was exhibited throughout his life, notably at the Ernst Museum in Budapest, at the National Salon of 1929 and 1932, and he represented Hungary at the Venice Biennales of 1928, 1934 and 1936. de Berény are in the collections of the Hungarian National Gallery in Budapest, the Janus Pannonius Museum in Pécs, and the Deák Collection in Székesfehérvár and have been exhibited as far away as the Santa Barbara Museum of Art in California. Unfortunately, his studio was destroyed during World War II and many of his works are presumed lost. But Berény’s importance to Hungarian art history combined with the rarity of his extant work made Barki’s discovery all the more significant. The five-year journey from discovery to repatriation ended with a record sale of 70 million forints (226,500 euros) at a pre-Christmas auction organized by the Budapest Congress Centre. Barki suspects the reason the painting has survived the century is that it left Hungary when it was sold in 1928 “because that was when it was last exhibited. and, as most of the buyers were Jewish, he probably left the country as a result of the war”. What a journey this little painting has taken, and how wonderful that it has returned home.
When I first thought of writing this article, I thought it was extremely charming and welcome good news. I stupidly hadn’t looked at the dates, and I thought it was a recent post – the dangers of coming across interesting posts via social media! But even good news from 2014 is still good news to read in 2022, especially given the general tenor of today’s news, and hopefully the story of “The Sleeping Lady in the Black Vase” will enchant you too!
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