Imagine a gallery full of the world’s lost masterpieces. Now put it on the internet, overlay it with some haunting echo tones, and voilà, you’re at the Gallery of Lost Art – an interactive website dedicated to stolen, censored, and even unrealized works of art. Curated by Jennifer Mundy and produced by Tate and Channel 4, the site isn’t so much a gallery as it is an excavation; an elaborate investigation into the disappearances of works by Lucian Freud, Marcel Duchamp, and a host of other transcendental artists. Users can browse the site by artist, or by the nature of a work’s disappearance (e.g., “discarded,” “ephemeral,” “attacked,” etc.). Each piece is accompanied by high-res images, in-depth essays, and archival photographs or other media pertaining to its creation — and dissolution.
“Art history tends to be the history of what has survived,” Mundy explains on the site’s blog. “But loss has shaped our sense of art’s history in ways that we are often not aware of. Museums normally tell stories through the objects they have in their collections. But this exhibition focuses on significant works that cannot be seen.”
Among these “works that cannot be seen” is a sprawling piece by Frida Kahlo, titled The Wounded Table. Kahlo completed the painting in 1940 for the International Exhibition on Surrealism, which was scheduled to open that year in her hometown of Mexico City. Hoping to leave an impression on Andre Breton and other leading surrealists, she submitted two comparatively enormous paintings for the exhibition: The Two Fridas, and The Wounded Table, pictured below.
The Wounded Table remains the largest work Kahlo has ever completed, though it was never exposed to a large audience. The painting remained in Kahlo’s home until at least 1946, when she apparently bestowed it upon a Russian ambassador to Mexico. Circumstantial evidence suggests that it may have been on display at a museum in Moscow — something Kahlo alluded to in a 1949 interview — though there are no records to substantiate this. In fact, the painting has been missing since 1955, when it was mentioned in a catalogue for a Mexican art exhibition in Warsaw, Poland. The catalogue does not specify an owner, and all efforts to trace the work have thus far been unsuccessful.
The Wounded Table, like all of Kahlo’s work, is a deeply personal piece. Her own portrait acts as the fulcrum of the painting, though there are shades of melancholy and loss not seen in any of her previous paintings — a tenor that could be explained by the circumstances surrounding its creation. Kahlo finalized her divorce from longtime partner Diego Rivera in November 1939, after years of betrayal and philandering on both sides. In her essay on the piece, Mundy dissects the ways in which Kahlo weaves the personal with the allegorical:
For The Wounded Table Kahlo chose two powerful pictorial traditions to frame, and give greater resonance to, her self-representation.
The first was the metaphor of life as a performance on stage. In her wide painting, theatre curtains frame the scene, whiel a tipped-up stage and painted backdrop complete the viewer’s sense of watching some sort of allegorical play. Kahlo’s work was grounded in realism and close observation but it also embraced the theatrical possibilities of disguise, pretence and fantastical narratives.
The second was the Christian iconography surrounding Christ’s Last Supper and his impending betrayal by one of his disciples, Judas. As in traditional depictions of the Last Supper, Kahlo (who, like Christ at his death, was then thirty-three) placed herself at the centre of a table. Standing behind her with one arm around her shoulder is a large ‘Judas figure’. In Mexican villages and towns on the Saturday before Easter, Judas figures made from bamboo and papier-mache, with sometimes the faces of hated politicians or notorious criminals, were hoisted above the gathered crowds and exploded, limb by limb, through fireworks attached to them. Kahlo had such a Judas figure in her home, dressed, as shown in the painting, in Rivera’s overalls. Although the overalls may have been a domestic joke, the symbolism linking Rivera with Judas was obvious: notwithstanding their open marriage, Rivera’s persistent philandering and his affair with Kahlo’s own sister had been a source of heartbreak for her.
Rivera, incidentally enough, is also featured in the Gallery of Lost Art. His mural, Man at the Crossroads Looking With Uncertainty but With Hope and High Vision to the Choosing of a New and Better Future (1933), was supposed to grace the lobby of the Rockefeller Center in New York, but was quickly scrapped due to the communist overtones of its content — an episode brilliantly captured in Julie Taymor’s 2002 film, Frida. Below is an early sketch of his work.
Click here to browse through the Gallery for yourself, but be warned that it won’t be around for long. The site will only be live for 12 months before it, like the art it houses, disappears forever.