By now most everyone is familiar with Walter Benjamin's essay 1936 "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." Especially with Benjamin's argument that photographic reproduction brings about a "withering" or diminishing of the art object's "aura" -- its value, authenticity, or "authority" as a singular, hand-crafted artifact in material culture. He explained:
"Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be. This unique existence of the work of art determined the history to which it was subject throughout the time of its existence. This includes the changes which it may have suffered in physical condition over the years as well as the various changes in its ownership. The traces of the first can be revealed only by chemical or physical analyses which it is impossible to perform on a reproduction; changes of ownership are subject to a tradition which must be traced from the situation of the original. [...]
The situations into which the product of mechanical reproduction can be brought may not touch the actual work of art, yet the quality of its presence is always depreciated. This holds not only for the art work but also, for instance, for a landscape which passes in review before the spectator in a movie. In the case of the art object, a most sensitive nucleus – namely, its authenticity – is interfered with whereas no natural object is vulnerable on that score. The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced. Since the historical testimony rests on the authenticity, the former, too, is jeopardized by reproduction when substantive duration ceases to matter. And what is really jeopardized when the historical testimony is affected is the authority of the object."
André Malraux took this idea as the premise for his Le musée imaginaire (or Museum Without Walls), arguing that this process of reproduction and disconnection ultimately liberates art objects from their historical and physical origins, thereby making them available to circulate broadly throughout the public sphere.
And about specific some specific works of art: Above is Gustav Courbet's The Stone Breakers (aka, The Quarrymen), painted in 1849. In some ways it's an archetypal Courbet painting, in that it typifies certain elements of his work -- primarily its gritty and grubby portrayal of figures performing manual labor, a subject considered -- by the academic dictates concerning genre painting and the like -- controversial at the time on account of being too lowly and crude, and therefore unworthy of depiction. As such its an example of the "Realist" aesthetic that Courbet shared with his critical champion Emile Zola. It's also considered in many ways of the ethos that not only informed Courbet's Realism, but also his politics, as well.* While it's not as famous as his A Burial at Ornans or The Painter's Studio or a couple of his other works, it ranks highly enough to have frequently reproduced over the years, quite frequently as the sole of representative example of Courbet's work in survey-level art history textbooks.**
But the painting itself no longer exists, and hasn't since 1945 when it was destroyed during the ariel bombing of Dresden. At the time the painting was reputedly aboard a transport truck that was carting it and some 154 other works away from Dresden for safer territory, a truck which was quickly targeted and destroyed by an RAF bomber. Which is why it turns up, alongside works by Ruebens, Caravaggio, Cranach, Van Gogh and many others in this Flickr pool someone's assembled of "Lost Art: Masterpieces Destroyed in War," a collection of some 170 images that appears to be a subset of an online collection of images posted by the Clark Art Institute. With each, there is no longer an original from which all reproductions are taken, there are just the facsimiles.
Turning up in the pool are Otto Dix's Street Fight and War Cripples, each depicting various aspects of the political turmoil of post-WWI/Weimar Germany. Which draws our attention to the text that accompanies the pool, which states that the photos "represent the only remaining documentation of important works of art -- art that was destroyed before high quality color photography became the standard for documenting art." Leaving them, it seems, to carry on in their existence in diminished form --in an achromatic virtual half-life.
A number of works, particularly landscapes, by Gustav Klimt turn up due to the destruction of a private collection in Austria during the final days of WWII. among the many works lost was Music II, which I've seen many times before; and for some reason, I'm fairly certain I've seen it (on occasion) reproduced in color. Perhaps my memory's playing tricks on me? Or maybe there are colorized version of the photograph floating around. Or maybe a color lithograph version of the painting exists?***
But it seems that the biggest causality of the lot is Casper David Friedrich. It appears that many of the works included were lost in a pair of fires, the first of which (curiously) occurring when the Glaspalast in Munich burned down in 1931. While the fire was apparently deemed an act of arson, its unconnected to with any military actions; seeing how it wildly predated WII proper, and happened nearly a year in advance of Hilter's appointment as chancellor.
And curiously also, Kurt Schwitters's Dadaist Merzbau construction turns up in the collection. Which calls attention to the fact that it is (I believe) the sole entry in the collection that is not a painting. Surely there are plenty of sculpture that have lost to the ravages of war over the years?
* Courbet having been quite chummy with Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, and also having served a stint in the hoosegow for his own activities as a Communard.
** The painting also typifies a visual trope that occurs through a good many Courbet works -- that of a figure, often depicted performing some act of manual labor, facing away from the viewer. I believe it was the art historian Michael Fried who once offered the intriguing theory that this recurring figure serves as a "doubling" or a visual analog of the artist -- of the craftsman himself facing into the picture plane while he works.
*** And I actually have a book on Klimt that includes a color reproduction of Schubert at the Piano, so I'm inclined to say that the pool isn't entirely accurate in that respect.