The Dynamic Field of Art History

Art history is “a dynamic and evolving field” as new discoveries are made and old interpretations are reconsidered. Current events, such as conflicts in the Middle East, affect the study and preservation of historical art, and past events, such as looting during World War II, are still being set right. Ancient art continues to draw a crowd. Exhibits, such as Pompeii: Stories from an Eruption and Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs at the Field Museum in Chicago, educate and inspire new and renewed interest in art that is a portal to man’s past.
The market for antiquities also remains dynamic. Individual collectors and museums sell and acquire pieces to expand and refine their collections, such as the second-century classical marble portrait acquired by the Milwaukee Art Museum. Fine art sales can have the their problems, though. The J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles has had its share of troubles with recent acquisitions. Authorities in Italy accused the Getty- as well as other museums including 20 suspicious objects at the Metropolitan Museum of Art1- of purchasing works stolen or illegally excavated from Italy. The Getty is not the only museum under fire, but Italy demands that 42 objects in the Getty’s collection be returned. The Getty has already returned objects that were previously under debate, including a Trojan War kylix and a youth head.
Stolen works are not the only objects that are questioned. The Getty acquired a kouros statue in 1983, but it was accompanied by forged provenance. A dispute has arisen as to whether the piece itself is also a forgery. The kouros is in remarkable condition considering its supposed age of 2500 years. It also combines characteristics of more than one style. The status of this piece has not been determined, but it does raise the point that forgery of art and provenance remain an issue in art history today. Christie’s had a similar problem when they sold a portrait of Roman Emperor Trajan, listed as an antiquity. Evidence shows, though, that the portrait was stolen and that it was a 17th century reproduction.
War also has a profound effect on art history. Currently, a military base has been built around the ruins of Babylon and the Ziggurat of Ur in Iraq. Looting is epidemic at the closed National Museum in Baghdad, and it is too dangerous for art historians and archaeologists to return to work. Past wars also have damaged art that may have survived in better condition. The Parthenon remained reasonably in tact for 2100 years until it was used as a powder magazine and subsequently blown up during a battle between the Turks and Venetians in 1673. As recent as 2001, art museums formed a plan to identify and return works of art that had been confiscated by the Nazis during WWII. Art historians still remain vigilant in their resolve to preserve historic art. Italian experts are now helping rebuild the Iran National Museum2.
New excavations and discoveries continue to be made. Recently, 76 Roman statues were uncovered at Cyrene in Libya. Just this week, archaeologists reportedly discovered the oldest known Mayan painting3, dating from 100 B.C.E. Aside from new discoveries, new interpretations of previously discovered objects also shed new light onto ancient art. A bronze statue of Zeus was originally thought to be Poseidon because it had been discovered in the sea off the coast of Greece. A bronze statue of the pagan Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius survived destruction by early Christians when it was mistaken for a likeness of Constantine. In many ways, art history is a changing and growing field.

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