Poets: Our Last Hope (and maybe record?)

I am about halfway through Lost Art: Missing Artworks of the Twentieth Century by Jennifer Mundy – it is a fascinating book that covers 40 case studies of important artwork that can no longer be viewed for various reasons (stolen, destroyed, lost, etc). The book came out of an online project sponsored by the Tate called The Gallery of Lost Art. The website is no longer active (it was specifically designed to be temporary), but you can view the archives and records of the project.

Where do poets come in? Well, the book has already discussed one case where it is only thanks to a poet that we know anything about a missing piece of art. The poet Petrarch is our only record of a portrait by the Italian master Simone Martini (1284-1344) – he references the portrait in Canzoniere 96 and 130 (can find both of these via this portal of Petrarch’s sonnets). A little research uncovers multiple examples of artwork for which only the written descriptions remain.

Ekphrasis is the term applied to the written description of visual artwork – and ekphrastic poetry is poetry that describes visual art.  It can form part of the record and experience of a work of art. Art can still be lost forever – despite the internet and digital records – Lost Art mentions the estimated $100 million worth of art destroyed in the Twin Towers on Sept 11, 2001. So keep up the good work, poets – keep writing poetry describing the experience of artworks. You never know when you might be our only record of it – and even if a photograph exists, your poem might still be better!

Both W.H. Auden (read his here) and William Carlos Williams (read his here) wrote poems about the painting “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” – which actually turns out to be a lost piece of art. The version in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, is now thought to be a copy of the lost original by Pieter Bruegel (ca 1525-1569). The painting in question is below.


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