The Rembrandts and Vermeer are still missing, 23 years later, the result of one of the world’s most infamous art thefts. But on Thursday, they will return — in spirit — to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum as part of an exhibit with a fascinating premise: that you can both mourn and celebrate, giving loss its own redemptive value.
“Sophie Calle: Last Seen” revisits the 1990 Gardner theft, which claimed 13 works worth hundreds of millions of dollars. It commemorates the missing works through large, glossy photographs showing the spaces where the stolen paintings hung, along with text from interviews with museum staffers and visitors.
Calle’s meditation has already generated buzz in the art world; now, for museum staff still pained by the failure to recover the stolen works, it is offering a level of comfort.
“It’s like the rising of the phoenix,” said Pieranna Cavalchini, the museum’s curator of contemporary art. “You have this terrible situation of what happened. Of death and loss and disappearance. And this idea that in this morass of sadness you can actually have this spark of creativity and create a body of work that is so beautiful and meaningful and will be lasting in time.”
The show is also a homecoming for an exhibit created in Boston but never shown here.
The first nine images created in “Last Seen” first went on display at the Carnegie International in Pittsburgh in 1991 and have traveled over the past two decades around the world. They can now be shown at the Gardner because of the museum’s recent expansion, which added a second major building with a dedicated art space.
Five new pieces have never been on display. They were produced for the Gardner show. The exhibition has already been highlighted in the Washington Post and New York Times as one of the fall’s notable shows.
The first nine photographs show empty spaces where Rembrandts, a Manet, and a Vermeer once hung. They are accompanied by framed texts featuring interviews with museum staffers about the stolen art. The second section features five images, with museum staffers — and Calle’s shadow — standing in front of empty frames, backs to the camera.
Only one of the models is obvious. That’s Anne Hawley, the longtime museum director, gazing where a Govaert Flinck once hung. Her reflection is pinched, weary, and pale.
“To see the work without all the feelings of that time still coming up — I don’t think I can look at this the way a curator would or a critic would,” said Hawley. “For me, it’s so personal.”
Back in 1990, Calle visited the Gardner often while assembling her first solo museum show in the United States at the Institute of Contemporary Art. A few months later, the Gardner theft occurred and Calle called Hawley to see if she could visit.
In particular, Calle had heard that one of her favorites, Vermeer’s “The Concert,” was among the missing.
“I admired her work and thought it would be a wonderful way of injecting into this horrible situation a creative artist who would be very healing,” said Hawley. “So I just agreed over the phone. I basically agreed to turn her loose.”
What does Calle recall of that conversation?
“I just remember how striking it was to see such empty spaces in such a crowded museum,” she said.
Calle returned to revisit the project last November. She had been interested in the museum’s decision, in 1995 — after she had already completed the initial “Last Seen” images — to hang the empty frames on the museum walls, reminders of the priceless works still missing.
“The absence was even more striking,” said Calle, “like a body on the floor after a crime and you draw around the body with the white chalk.”
Over the past three decades, Calle has specialized in projects that explore issues of identity and shifting perspectives. She posed as a hotel chambermaid for one piece, and had her mother hire a private investigator to follow her for another. The results of the latter, which include surveillance photographs of Calle, became “The Shadow,” a work displayed at the ICA earlier this year as part of the museum’s acclaimed show: “This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s.”
In her piece based on the Vermeer, Calle features a large color image of the blank space in the gallery where the valuable painting once hung. The framed text includes 14 statements about the painting, ranging from the matter-of-fact (“I couldn’t describe what was in it. I remember it had a gold frame, very thick, carved, ornate”) to the sublime (“I could hear them singing but it seemed very private, quiet and pure. You felt like an intruder and you wouldn’t want them to know you were watching”).
And the statements are anonymous. Museum visitors do not get to find out who said what.
“It’s not an investigation,” said Calle, explaining her reasoning. “I’m not a journalist. It has to be fluid. It is the poetic text on the wall, the text that makes you dream or laugh or whatever. It’s about the imagination and how you try to imagine it, that missing painting.”
Struck by the pieces immediately but frustrated by the Gardner’s limited space back in the ’90s, Hawley called Trevor Fairbrother, then the curator of contemporary art at the Museum of Fine Arts, and urged him to purchase one of the works. He did.
Over the years, as Calle’s profile rose, Cavalchini, the museum’s contemporary art curator, has wanted to work with her. She finally found the opportunity after mentioning, to the artist, the 1995 decision to hang the empty frames.
That inspired Calle to return.