Inside the Museums

Words by Stephen Scobie

Sometime during the night of May 19-20, 2010, a thief (or possibly thieves) broke into the Musée de l’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, and stole five paintings. At the time I am writing this article, no arrests have been made, and the paintings have not been recovered.

Most initial press reports referred to them simply as “a Picasso, a Matisse, and three others,” so let me start by giving them the proper respect of naming them:


Henri Matisse, Pastorale, 1905.

Georges Braque, Olive Tree near Estaque, 1906.

Pablo Picasso, Pigeon with Green Peas, 1912.

Amadeo Modigliani, Woman with Fan, 1919.

Fernand Léger, Still Life with Candlestick, 1922.


In the words of Jonathan Jones, art critic for the British newspaper The Guardian, “These five works together add up to a better choice of the best art of the 20th century than you could find in most modern art museums.”

When I first saw the news, flashed on the bottom of a tv screen, it said only “a museum in Paris,” so of course I wondered which one. Then it said “Museum of Modern Art,” which is a phrase I associate almost exclusively with MoMA in New York, so I was still confused. Then I understood that it was in fact the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, that sprawling, rather ugly building on the avenue de Président-Wilson, midway between Alma and Trocadéro, across the river from the Tour Eiffel and the new Musée Branly. The museum forms one of two symmetrical wings, the other side comprising the Palais de Tokyo.

And instantly in my mind I could picture (as it were) the room, the very wall, from which these paintings had been taken. I could remember the museum, the collection — and that it is, apart from the Pompidou Centre, the finest collection of modern art on public display in Paris. I had last been there two years previously, in May 2008. It is a long, curving gallery, on the ground floor — a very basic display area, no fancy architecture to get in the way of the paintings.

It also, I remembered, allows photography, and I had, on that last visit, taken a few shots with my new digital camera. So I went to my computer and consulted my files, and sure enough, there they were. Of the five missing paintings, I had taken photos of two. Not surprisingly, given my tastes, the Braque and the Picasso. There they were, on my home computer screen, “taken” by my own hand—and now “taken” by quite another hand.

But my feeling of personal connection goes deeper than that. I have a long-standing attachment to this building. Back in the winter of 1975-76, my wife Maureen and I were staying in Paris, and I was going through a crash course of self-instruction in modern art, especially in Cubism. I used to spend hours in the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, especially in the rather gloomy basement rooms (I think they may have been on the Palais de Tokyo side) which exhibited (almost reluctantly, it seemed) the majestic paintings of the later Braque. The brooding still lives of the 20s; the bent and tactile space of his billiard tables. Whatever I know, whatever I feel about modern art: I learnt it in those basement rooms, in this museum.

So I took this robbery personally. It wasn’t just the national patrimony that had been violated: it was my own memory, my own history.

The conventional wisdom is that these paintings can never be sold on the open market: they are far too well known. And so far, at least publicly, no one has demanded ransom for them. There remains the figure, much loved by popular fiction, of the Clandestine Collector: the rich crook who commissions the theft and then hides the paintings away, never able to show them to anybody, but content with the mere fact of possession.

(In the very first James Bond film, Dr. No, a scene in the villain’s private study shows in the background, on one wall, a Goya portrait which had been stolen from the National Gallery in London just before the film was made.)

One variant, which I saw proposed on the net shortly after the Paris theft, suggests that the thieves make very high quality copies of the stolen works, and sell them to several Clandestine Collectors. The fact of the theft gives the copies a kind of criminal provenance, and also ensures that the buyers cannot complain if they find out they’ve been conned.

All such calculations depend, of course, on the absolute distinction in value between the original and the reproduction. A canvas painted by Picasso is worth millions; exactly the same canvas, painted by another hand, would be worthless. Value, in this sense, has nothing to do with aesthetics. Qualities of colour, form, composition—and least of all subject-matter—are beside the point. All that matters is that the canvas was painted by a particular person at a particular point in history.

A painting, that is, is an utterly unique object. Books exist in multiple copies—even “rare” first editions may run into the hundreds. Music exists in multiple performances and recordings—any one performance may be unique, but it cannot exclude the possibility of other performances. Perhaps, in architecture, a building is a unique instance. But no other art form depends more than painting does on the singularity of its embodiment.

This quality gives to paintings an intense feeling of presence. Walter Benjamin called it an “aura.” Seeing a painting “in the flesh” is qualitatively different from seeing even the finest reproduction. Of course, there are things which even the best reproductions cannot reproduce: the texture of the paint surface, the tactile trace of the brush, the exact, unmediated colours. But the aura is more than that. I think it depends on the feeling that you get, standing in the same space as the painting, at arm’s length on the wall in front of you. And that feeling has to do, paradoxically, with death.

Whenever I visit a museum, there is always a part of me which is wondering: how many times in my life will I have the chance to stand here again? How many times, in the short span of years left to me, will I be able to stand in this room in the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris? Even if I lived full-time in Paris, the answer would still be: a finite number. Since I do not live in Paris, the answer is: a rather small number. I can easily re-read a book, or replay a recording; I cannot easily come back here and stand in this spot, in front of this painting. Every time I leave a museum, it is potentially for the last time. Every time I turn away from my favourite Braque, I say farewell to it forever.

The painting, that is, speaks to the viewer’s mortality. But it also speaks to its own. A canvas will, with good luck and decent care, outlive most viewers. Some have lasted several centuries. They have longevity, which is not the same thing as immortality. But canvases are fragile. Paints fade and crack. A painting could be badly stored, lost, burned, slashed—or stolen. And when a canvas is, somehow, gone, then the whole essence of the work is gone. A stolen book can be replaced, and a reader may take the same experience from the new copy; but a missing painting is gone absolutely.

I have no clear memory of what I did, that day in May 2008, when I walked out of the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, but I suspect that I paused in the doorway, and turned for one last look down the walls of the curved gallery. On my way out, I probably paused for a few last seconds in front of each of my favourites — which would certainly have included Georges Braque’s L’olivier près de l’Estaque. I would have wondered how often I might ever see it again, how often I might stand in this gallery in front of it. But I would also have thought: Even if I never see it again, at least it will still be here, on this wall, and thousands of other people will still see it, and rejoice in it. At least it will still be here.

And now it’s not. And maybe never will be again.

Inside the museums, as Dylan sings, infinity goes up on trial. And sometimes, also, outside.