Plunder: An Alternative History of Art

Mary-Ann Middelkoop, University of Oxford,

Elsje van Kessel, University of St Andrews,

‘I place looting at the heart of the modern formation of what is called art, analyzing how it was obscured and transformed into the history of collecting.’ This session proposes to take up the challenge presented by Ariella Aïsha Azoulay, examining the history of plunder and loot as an alternative history of art. From the triumphant parade of sacred objects from the Temple in Jerusalem through the streets of Rome, to the stolen treasures from Egypt, Italy and elsewhere that were put in a new museum in Paris by Napoleon Bonaparte, art objects have been seized and taken back home as trophies of war, spoil and loot. Over time, these illicit transfers of artistic ‘treasures’ and their display, have been captured, imagined, and re-interpreted by contemporary artists, whose works continue to question and tell stories of triumph and loss. This session invites papers that critically engage with the relationship between art history and the history of plunder. What instances, beyond the canonical cases, can be identified? How has looting been represented visually? How have histories of loss and possession forged an understanding of objects as art? What are the roles of resistance and restitution? The session aims to combine case studies of plunder with more theoretical reflections, in order to open up a fundamental debate about the role of looting in our discipline and the global history of art.

Speakers & Abstracts

Trophies of Empire: modes of acquisition, legitimization and colonial denial in art and heritage interpretation

Anjalie Dalal-Clayton (Decolonising Arts Institute, University of the Arts London)

Ananda Rutherford (Tate)

Tate Greenhalgh (National Trust)

Within the discipline of art history, and cultural heritage more broadly, there are increasing moves to acknowledge violent colonial contexts for the production, consumption and subsequent institutional acquisition of artworks and objects into collections. Recognition that plundering or looting are part of the provenance of an artefact is crucial, but definitions of these terms emphasise theft or the use of physical force in settings of war or civil disorder. This does not adequately account for colonial transactions that did not directly involve theft or force, but nonetheless arose in the shadow of colonial violence, mired in the sometimes subtle, but deeply problematic colonial power dynamics of empire.

This paper comes out of the two-year AHRC-funded research project, Provisional Semantics, led by Tate in partnership with University of the Arts London’s Decolonising Arts Institute, Imperial War Museums and the National Trust. It will present some of the findings from the project’s National Trust case study, which focuses on how objects have been interpreted at the Clive Museum, Powis Castle. The paper will argue for an expanded understanding of modes of acquisition in the broader context of colonial violence. It will evidence how an absence of looting in the provenance of an art object is invoked in present day contexts to obscure, or even deny, the violence and traumas of empire, the insidious relationships of power and influence between the coloniser and colonised, and the ongoing legacies of empire for contemporary audiences.

From Umayyad Madinat al-Zahra to Almohad Seville: The Plunder and Reuse of Andalusi Capitals

Nausheen Hoosein (University of York)

Despite its brief tenure as caliphal capital, Madinat al-Zahra is perhaps the most emblematic palatial construction of tenth-century Umayyad Spain. The rectangular-plan city was composed of three terraced platforms and was built as a fortified administrative and ceremonial headquarters. In the eleventh century, following the collapse of Umayyad rule, Madinat al- Zahra was sacked and burned, a mere seventy-four years after its establishment. Nevertheless, its ruins provoked acute interest in Andalusi court style and for centuries after its demise, the palatial complex was plundered for its sumptuous marble fragments and reusable building materials.

Some 150 kilometres west of Madinat al-Zahra and almost two centuries after its demise, the Berber Almohads would designate Seville as their Iberian capital and construct the Alcázar, royal residence, as well as the minaret-tower, popularly known as La Giralda today. Despite the significant lapse in time and space, these two dynasties, the Umayyads (r. 756-1031) and the Almohads (r.1130-1269), and their respective constructions, Madinat al-Zahra and La Giralda, are connected materially and metaphorically through the reuse of marble from the former to the latter.

The questions I will ask are: why would the twelfth-century Almohads choose to loot and later transport relatively heavy Andalusi marble from the ruins of al-Zahra to their Sevillian sites? What meanings- triumphant, practical or rhetorical- can we uncover in the plunder of Andalusi capitals? With this paper, I plan to extend the idea of plunder considering the context of medieval Seville and contextualise La Giralda and the Alcázar as paradigmatic examples of Almohad reuse of Andalusi spolia.

Rituals of Appropriation and the Propagandistic Role of Exhibition Catalogues

Cynthia Prieur (Queen’s University)

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, appropriated art came to constitute a significant portion of early museum collections across France as a direct result of the French government’s policy of looting between 1794 and 1811. Scholars continue to revisit the plunder of Europe’s art treasures at the hands of the French army for two main reasons: it was one of the most well-documented cases of a highly organized and methodical system of mass appropriation, and it had a lasting impact on the objects themselves–both physically and ideologically. Although the historical and political circumstances of these events have been well-documented, particularly in light of the role played by the Louvre Museum and its staff, less has been written about the ideological framework underpinning the museumification of looted works of art.  The agents that despoiled these objects transformed and reshaped their histories, namely narratives about their origin and their theft.

Just as Carol Duncan has proposed that art museums are ritual spaces, Bénédicte Savoy has described the integration of looted art objects into the Louvre Museum’s collection as a rituels d’appropriation.  She argues that after these works of art were seized, crated, and sent to Paris, where they were examined by experts at the Louvre, a ritual was performed whereby they were restored, displayed, and documented in exhibition catalogues as part of their integration into the collection.

This paper will consider the last of these three rituals, reflecting on the propagandistic language in the exhibition catalogues produced by the curators at the Louvre between 1798 and 1800, which accompanied the display of works taken from the Italian peninsula between 1796 and 1798. It will also examine similar language in catalogues produced by the French regional museums after 1802, when many of these same works were sent to regional cities and integrated into their collections. This paper will argue that the catalogues helped to canonize new historical narratives about these looted objects and encouraged anti-restitution sentiment to grow in the region.

A Gentleman’s Illustrated Guide to Spoliation

Nancy Karrels (University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign)

In 1806 and 1807, Vivant Denon, the Louvre Museum’s first director, commissioned the Alsatian artist Benjamin Zix to visually document Denon’s art pillaging missions to Germany and Austria. Designed as part of a larger graphic project to celebrate Napoleonic conquests, these images captured Denon’s unique vision of state-sponsored plunder as a legitimate approach to art collecting. This virtually unexamined corpus of sketches and finished drawings intended for publication (but never printed) deviated from the broader iconography of looting made in Napoleonic France: rather than honouring and memorializing French military triumphs, Denon’s spoliation imagery articulated reciprocities between empire-building and museum-building at the dawn of the museum age.

This paper proposes that Zix’s drawings formed a visual narrative of systematic cultural conquest that positioned plundering—when in the capable hands of the gentleman-scholar Denon—as a respectable and scientific approach to growing an encyclopedic museum while ignoring imperial violence’s harm to local communities. From depictions of the meticulous handling of collections by French looting commissions in Vienna to portrayals of Denon performing his erudition before onlookers in Kassel and Berlin, this graphic handbook for pillaging expressly featured signifiers of authority, discipline, and technical sophistication to corroborate claims that French museum specialists were uniquely skilled at caring for the precious treasures of France’s vanquished enemies. Thus, the so-called Dessins Denon captured the imperial modality of art and its accumulation all while expressing Denon’s ambition to be remembered as the innovator of an efficient methodology of spoliation-as-collecting and an actor in France’s military achievements.

Plunder, Restitution and the Challenge of False Provenances

Laurel Zuckerman

Is the threat of post-plunder restitution fuelling an epidemic of false provenances? If so, under which conditions, by whom and how? What, if anything, can be done to prevent these falsifications from permanently damaging the historical record?
This paper examines these questions and concludes with proposals for action. Organised in four parts, it takes as its starting point a dozen variations of false provenances attached to a single painting, starting in 1938. It then builds out, connecting the false provenances of this painting to the false provenances of other artworks, to identify patterns. These patterns form the basis for the construction of a general theory concerning plunder, restitution and the deliberate falsification of the historical record. Societal context, motive and opportunity are identified as key factors, and it is observed that the authors of false provenances —far from marginal players—frequently occupy positions of trust, posing the threat of uncritical adoption of false information, and its spread throughout the entire network of provenance citations. The fourth part focuses on solutions, notably the creation of a Registry of False Provenances and their Authors, not unlike efforts to track forgers. 

The paper concludes with an urgent call to action to safeguard the historical record concerning plunder and its aftermath.

Plunder in the Public Eye: Alternative Forms of Restitution in Contemporary Art Practice

Liza Weber (Centre for German-Jewish Studies, University of Sussex)

This paper opens with a survey of restitution as performed and motivated by the artist: from Hans Haacke’s ‘Manet-PROJECKT’74’ (1974) at the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum in Cologne to Maria Eichhorn’s ‘Politics of Restitution’ (2003) at the Lenbachhaus in Munich and, more recently, Dag Erik Elgin’s ‘Half Image/Half Figure’ (2015) at the Henie Onstad Kunstsenter in Høvikodden. In doing so, it means to demonstrate how creative practices have shed light on not only the history of plunder, ongoing to this day, but also the questions of what, how and why looted objects should be exhibited: in the words of the curator, Adam Szymczyk, “as ethical, legal, art-historical and artistic issues”.

Taking the latter as a point of departure, this paper concludes with the author’s own proposal for an artistic intervention: an alternative restitution for the sculpture of Ramesses II at the British Museum. Under the umbrella of the grassroots project ‘100 Histories of 100 Worlds in 1 Object’, which revisits Neil McGregor’s BBC podcast, the author proposes a filmed movement piece, which not only maps the history of the sculpture’s plunder and provenance, but also imagines its symbolic return to its origins of ancient Egypt.



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