The provenance of this work was written during a collaborative writing session at LACE on 30 January 2011. Writers include: Amanda Ackerman, Harold Abramowitz, Kate Durbin, Sarah Shun-lien Bynum and Teresa Carmody. Event writer collaborators: Aimee Bender, Allison Carter, Mark Z. Danielewski, Carribean Fragoza, Veronica Gonzalez, Janice Lee, Harryette Mullen, Janet Sarbanes, Anna Joy Springer, and Stephen Van Dyck.
We are extremely grateful that the heirs of Alice Lyle Adams have allowed Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions the historic opportunity of sharing this important work with an American public. The story of the work — its creation, its influence, its looting, the discovery of the theft and the legal battle to have the art returned — reads like a sweeping epic of loss and redemption, a tale that spans Edwardian London, the salons of Chicago’s Gold Coast, the darkness of the Holocaust, the drug dens of Berlin, and the U.S. Supreme Court.
The story begins with the work’s creation in 1911.
The British artist Nigel Stratton was tolerated by certain members of the Bloomsbury Group but he never succeeded in penetrating its inner circle; some critics argue that this failure is what precipitated his mental collapse and his decision to rechristen himself “Nigel van Eyck,” presumably an allusion to the Early Netherlandish painter. This psychotic break also marked a significant turning point in his development as an artist: He abandoned the delicate portraits and landscapes he had been working on in Cambridge and turned instead to the more radical approach of which this remarkable piece is an early example.
From Nigel Van Eyck’s personal papers, dated April 14, 1911:
There was a hole in the ground that was hungry. The hole in the ground was the size of a hole in the ground, or the size of a dry well. The hole in the ground (b. 1608) wanted to eat the whole world but couldn’t. But there was a painter (d. 1917) who had painted the world; first he had painted the world inside a bubble that dwelled inside the most inside part of his inside body. This had happened because he had fallen in love. The woman had had a swan’s neck. They lived together for a while in a small house by a snaking blue river. They had children. But many years after that she had died, and then many years after that, eventually, he could not remember her all that well. So he decided to paint the world on the outermost part of his body, a canvas. Once he had finished the painting, and declared it decent and lively, or better than that even, he decided to see if he could sell it. Sitting on a beautiful, lithe horse, he made his way into town. The hole in the ground saw him passing by and rumbled. The sound was like wind chimes. Music you would want to eat forever. The hole swallowed the man, the painting, and his horse. But it only wanted the world. With its giant void-tunnel teeth the hole sawed the man apart from the horse, sawed the man apart from the painting. It spit the man and the horse up out of itself and returned them to solid ground. The painting it kept. Then it destroyed. It swallowed the sky first. But before that the sky split open and everyone on that earth could breathe at last. The fruit, the people, the animals, the stones, the bodies of water, the buildings, the farms, the clothes, the instruments, the bottles, the molten core, the vapors, the money became pure ink inside a great nothing or something or belly that could have been shaped like a well. Like the world seeing itself better. And then they became nothing-something, and then entirely flat, but not even. Sated, the hole turned the world, the painting, to mud. Sated, the painting spit out the mud. The beautiful lump of mud flew up out of the hole, and the Dutch painter caught it his hands. It was more beautiful than anything he had ever seen. It was more beautiful than he could describe. Now the world had been digested and created at least twice, and not just by human hands. He could not sell it. He wanted to find the perfect person to whom he could gift the most beautiful creation on earth. But he was no longer in love. He searched the world for years. Finding no one in particular, he finally settled on a dear friend who has at his bedside when he died. The friend, however, was ungrateful and unappreciative. Because this friend thought that all objects were merely possessions only, with no echoes, no vocal chords, no value. The friend would soon sell this artwork at a British auction house for a terrific sum of money.