Like people, works of art inevitably change with time. They get restored, are preserved in perfect environments by conscientious museums, and yet there is still no way to freeze a masterpiece for ever. Even the comparatively recent paintings of Vincent van Gogh were reported this week to be losing their original colour. Here are five works of art that have seen better days.
Van Gogh, Sunflowers (1888)
Van Gogh’s use of red lead is causing his paintings to grow dull, reports say. I suspect that few people look at Van Gogh’s gold and earthen sunflowers and think them colourless, however. The truth is that the artist’s techniques have been studied in unusual depth by the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. His art is not more at risk than most paintings – we just know more about its chemical structure. That kind of knowledge is always distressing, like knowing your own medical statistics.
Damien Hirst, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991)
If the supposed deterioration of Van Gogh’s art is invisible to the naked eye, the flabby white wrinkled decay of the tiger shark Damien Hirst pickled to create his most famous work is impossible to ignore. Hirst seems to have overestimated the preserving power of formaldehyde. When his toothy vitrine was first revealed at the Saatchi Gallery almost a quarter of a century ago, the perfectly preserved shark created a menacing illusion. Today, it is a lumpen relic, a curiosity, a very dead shark.
Marcel Duchamp, The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even (1915-23)
When his glass allegory of a “female” cloud-like form being courted by “malic moulds” – pathetic substitutes for men – was accidentally smashed in 1926, Duchamp did not attempt to conceal the damage. He carefully reassembled his piece so that all the cracks were visible. Duchamp thus acknowledged that deterioration is part of the meaning of a work of art. His bride bears time’s scars with pride.
Leonardo da Vinci, The Last Supper (1494-98)
As soon as it was painted, Leonardo’s Last Supper started to fade. The combination of an unsuitable wall and his insistence on using a modified oil technique rather than good fresco methods meant it was soon a flaking ruin. And yet, from the 1490s onwards, this painting has been revered for its intellect. The mind of Leonardo dazzles among the specks of his surviving colours.
Eva Hesse, Repetition Nineteen III (1968)
The sculptor Hesse used industrially fabricated polymers to make her art. Over time, her latex creations have decayed shockingly. Even the best-preserved look like they have been dunked in urine for 50 years. But is this a problem? The symptoms of decay and decline in Hesse’s art add to its melancholic mystery.
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