Tour de force at the Met
by Elvis Fuentes
You read the news. Over a hundred paintings have been stolen from Havana’s National Museum of Fine Arts without the directorship even noticing it. Canvases have been cut from their frames. Well, it may be in part good news for Miami, where some of the paintings have shown up; Miami is so plagued with forgeries that some originals won’t hurt.
At first, I thought that Pavel Acosta had something to do with it—after all, he is a well-known thief with some experience in museums. When he lived in Havana, he made a living out of stealing paint from old walls and cars, which he used to create his own paintings. I’m not sure where he stole the glue from, but I suspect he is the reason Cuban postal stamps fall off the envelopes on their way out of the island. He admits he was ideologically and practically trained to steal—he was formed entirely under Cuba’s educational system, which teaches that all the world’s knowledge is humanity’s birthright, so no one has to pay royalties to the sources of that knowledge. Oh, sweet communism.
But Acosta did not take those paintings from Havana. This new series of works, Stolen from the Met, are his best alibi. He was busy with another stealing act. He spent the past several months plotting and executing the perfect crime: chopping off sections of walls from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where six of his favorite paintings once hung. Not because he wanted to do it that way; he most likely would have preferred to walk out of the museum with a painting under his arm, but you know how possessive museums are of their holdings. They hold onto them like ticks onto a dog.
His plan stemmed from disappointment. When he visited the Met, he was struck by how little he knew about the paintings he had loved. It turned out that his love of art was very much like the love born of online chats—what you get through books or slides or pictures are not the real thing. For one, photographs do not capture the nuances of the surface, the differences in brushwork, the subtle tonalities of a color that slowly but definitely metamorphoses on the surface. Then, you can’t even guess what kind frame surrounds the painting when you see it on the page of a book or the screen of a computer. It’s the same with those dates online. Why is it that they don’t include the frame with the painting? I blame the museums for what happened to those canvases cut from their frames. Because of them, we do not view frames with the same importance that artists probably did. Maybe if we had educated the thieves on the significance that a frame carries for the story of a canvas, we could have avoided the savage mutilation. Acosta knows better, which is why he stole these paintings from the Met, frame and all.
Anyway, here you have these images you may have dreamed of having in your living room. I bet you thought about it when you visited the Met. They are 1:1 proportion to the originals; they include their frames and the very piece of sheetrock where they belong.
This Vermeer would definitely go well on a wall next to a window from which light comes pouring in, just like in the painting. And because Acosta has replicated in lines the visual effects of the original, you can see that the shadows work as well in monochromes as they do in color. The same goes for Greuze, whose undulating veil and hair frame the woman’s face. Here, the lines behave like whirling streams within a larger current moving in the same direction. And who can imagine this painting without its frame? That is something you cannot “unsee.”
Velázquez’s royal renderings are always a treat. Here is María Teresa, Infanta of Spain, daughter of Philip IV. The original is actually a fragment of a larger canvas that was cut down at some point in time. Acosta might have chosen to steal the one copy showing the Infanta’s full body, which is at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, but he stuck to the original, loyal to his fetish. Translating Velázquez’s smooth brushwork into the hard language of lines was his most difficult task. We must commend the artists who, before photography was invented, spent their time drawing masterpieces on copper places, so the images could travel the world in the form of prints. What Acosta does is similar in technique even if it is quite different in spirit. Unlike him, those artists began the crippling tradition of slicing the frames off the image.
This Van Gogh is a chaotic whirlwind of bleeding light and crumbling lines. Thus, the knife must yield to the hand to rip rather than cut the thickening paint layers. Only by doing this can Acosta recreate the impastos of Van Gogh’s surfaces. Accident must be part of the plan. Lines can’t be perfect. The knife is back on Picasso’s restless surface. More than with lines, he plays with strips that are sharp, bold, and capricious. Sometimes strips overlap; they weigh more. Cubist painting is geometric bodybuilding.
Then we stop. El Greco breathes in this painting; every single pore of it. He looks out at us with the serenity of a mastered work. Isn’t this the visual translation of “breathtaking”?
Pavel Acosta’s Stolen from the Met is the perfect crime. An unprecedented tour de force in rediscovering old masters, these paintings truly stand out as conceptually sophisticated and technically brilliant. When I first learned about this new series, I was afraid that Acosta would go on to forge paintings to make a decent living in Miami. Then I found out that he was only seeking to translate them into his monochromatic obsession. The outcome has been truly rewarding. Acosta not only emulates these painters, but also presents strong commentaryon museums’ troubled engagement with their treasured possessions. If only they had listened, those thieves in Havana may have never sliced those canvases from their frames. A stolen copy from the Met—or from Cuba’s National Museum of Fine Arts for that matter—would do just fine.