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Katrina's Art

by Alan Huffman

The lost art of the Gulf Coast, one year later.

Editor's note.

August 29, 2006

Because LOST Magazine publishes monthly, it can't always be timely. But loss, as we all experience and remember it, is by its nature current. Loss sticks with us; it's always here.

Hurricane Katrina has stuck with us for one year, now. It left vast, random spaces behind, many of which remain unfilled. Alan Huffman's essay, "Katrina's Art," makes us aware, too, of the storm's specificity, and of its appetite for, among other things, the culture of the Gulf Coast.

Though LOST usually runs single essays in its Lost Person, Lost Place, and Lost Thing sections, we chose to use this one essay to fill all three sections this issue. And though LOST usually publishes on the first Monday of each month and will post the rest of issue No. 8 on September 4, we wanted to give "Katrina's Art" some space of its own. And so it is, with the first issue of our second volume, that we come to you early with a story of art on the Gulf Coast, one loss of many that will always be current, on their anniversary and otherwise.

—LOST Magazine

"As paintings go, it was not that good, really," Madeleine McMullan recalls in a voice still gilded by pre-war Austria after 60 years in the United States. "I don't even know who painted it. It wasn't considered valuable — in fact, my father hated it." McMullan is talking about a portrait of her mother that was painted in Vienna in 1920, smuggled out of the country when the family fled the Nazis on the eve of World War II, and lost on the surge of Hurricane Katrina last year.

The last time McMullan saw the portrait, it was hanging above her prized Louis XVI settee in the hallway of her family's summer home in Pass Christian, Mississippi. It was a centerpiece of the house, which was built in 1845 with tall windows and broad galleries to catch the breezes and a sweeping view of the Gulf of Mexico. The moment she hung it there, in an alcove, McMullan knew she had found the perfect spot, or so it seemed.

Done in oils in a style known as decote, the portrait was among precious few mementos of her family's peripatetic saga, which unfolded across four turbulent years as Europe disintegrated, and culminated in their arrival in Baltimore in 1940. On a bright autumn day in Lake Forest, Illinois, where McMullan and her husband Jim live for most of the year, she recalls her family shuttering their three-story manse on Vienna's Hofzeile Strasse, preparing to flee. It was a defining moment in her own history of loss and survival.

As they were preparing to leave, everyone knew the importance of concealing valuables from the Nazis, she says. Already her grandmother had taken the family silver to Geneva on repeated train trips, hidden in her handbag a few pieces at a time. Someone — McMullan doesn't remember who — removed the portrait from its frame and folded it before the family fled, first to Switzerland, next to France, then to England, and finally to the U.S. The grand old house in Vienna, with all their remaining possessions, including a large collection of art, was allegedly bombed to rubble during the war.

McMullan inherited the portrait, which still bore the crease marks from the folding, after her father's death, and she took it to the summer home in Pass Christian. After trying it in several rooms, "I finally found that perfect spot in the alcove, and there I put my mother," she says.

Though the house was among a handful to survive Katrina along Pass Christian's East Scenic Drive, it was gutted by 145-mph winds and a 30-foot tidal surge, which carried away two-thirds of its contents, ripped out some floors, exploded some walls, and battered the arching live oaks on the lawn. With so much loss all around, with bodies being pulled from the wreckage up and down the war zone that the Gulf Coast had become, and with neighboring New Orleans descending into chaos, McMullan realized that her family was comparatively fortunate. Her mother's portrait was a footnote to the worst natural disaster, the worst historic preservation disaster, and — as is only now becoming apparent — arguably the worst single loss of cultural artifacts and art in U.S. history. In New Orleans there was unimaginable ruin; in Pass Christian and elsewhere along the Gulf Coast, there was obliteration. Still, her mother's portrait was something that had seemed destined to survive, and now it was gone and no one knew where it went.


Across Mississippi's coastal counties, more than 65,000 homes were destroyed by the storm, and on the beach facing the Mississippi Sound, a residential esplanade running intermittently for perhaps 50 miles was reduced to flotsam and jetsam in a matter of hours, the wreckage interrupted here and there by the husks of the few ravaged structures that survived. Amid the bewildering enumeration of lost lives, it took a while for most people to recognize what else was gone: The feeling of permanence that had set the Mississippi Coast apart from typical beachfront communities of stilted houses and fake stucco condos. Hundreds of historic buildings were destroyed — buildings that had survived countless hurricanes, some for as long as two centuries — and many, including the McMullans' house, discharged upon the wind and surge extensive collections of art. Countless collections, such as one that vanished from a home across the bay, which reputedly included works by Rembrandt and Picasso, were irreplaceable. Because the Gulf Coast was also a mecca for artists, the loss of such private collections was exacerbated by the destruction of artists' studios, museums, galleries, and public buildings in which local art was on display. "We've lost art on a grand scale," is how Biloxi attorney and art collector Patrick Bergin describes the cataclysm. Bergin, who rode out the storm with his family in their home on the Back Bay of Biloxi, recalls frantically moving as much of his art as possible upstairs as the rising water swept through the ground floor, but says much of the collection was lost anyway. "And it's heartbreaking," he says, "to think of everything in those 100-plus-year-old houses on the beach — all the antiques, heirlooms, art, sculpture — washed out into the Gulf or buried under debris."

Even as the losses are being reckoned, random pieces of art have been found among the sodden drifts of clothing, building timbers, broken china cabinets, blinded TV sets, and rank refrigerators. In one odd coincidence, an Ocean Springs, Mississippi, woman found a water-damaged watercolor, of a marsh scene, in a marsh. Such finds have provided a source of both inspiration and bewilderment, leaving artists and collectors to wonder:  Where, exactly, did it all go? For many, including Long Beach, Mississippi, collector David Lord, this is anything but an idle exercise. Lord lost a personal art collection whose value he estimates at more than $7 million, and he has no idea where it went or whether he will see any of the pieces again.

Today, a year after the storm, as the Gulf Coast echoes with the din of backhoes and dump trucks hauling away the last of an estimated 40 million cubic yards of debris, "gone" is not a satisfactory — nor, in many cases, an accurate — explanation, which makes it hard for collectors and artists to find closure or to envision what the future might, or should, hold. With so many places to search, with so much inscrutable evidence constantly assaulting the eye, "I do lie awake at night wondering," McMullan says. Might her mother's portrait one day be recovered, or, barring that, might she learn how it met its end?


The possibilities, of course, are endless. McMullan's portrait might lie buried in the muck and sand of the offshore waters, or it could be hanging in a treetop with the drapery and clothes that flutter like tattered prayer flags across the coast. It could have washed up on a beach in Texas, or Yucatan, or it could be buried with all the other unseen treasures in the scores of landfills that were hastily permitted in inland counties after the storm. It could, conceivably, eventually show up on eBay. The storm surge of Katrina was the largest ever recorded in North America and swept as far as ten miles inland, leaving a swath of destruction 150 miles wide. Beyond reckoning the losses, finding out precisely what happened has become a preoccupation for those seeking to salvage evidence of the shattered past.

The surge of Katrina was not, as might be imagined, simply a giant tidal wave that struck the beach, then carried the resulting wreckage out to sea. Instead it mounted steadily, bounding higher until it overtook the sea wall that lines much of the beach, advancing further with each crashing wave to slosh across streets and highways before roaring in a whitewater torrent over embankments, into buildings, back out, and in again. The tide reached the third floor of some structures, crowned by breaking, wind-driven waves, the force of which grew exponentially when coupled with the increasing weight of the water. Foundations were undermined, walls yielded to the stress, and rafts of wreckage, vehicles, and boats collected and acted as battering rams. Once the eye passed, the water began to fall and the flow reversed, but not uniformly, because the winds had shifted and the obstacles had moved. Debris was scattered everywhere.

Not surprisingly, locating art was not a high priority for most people in the immediate aftermath of the storm. Faced with recovering bodies and finding food, water, and shelter, "People were overwhelmed," says Gwen Impson, who heads the Hancock County artists' association known as The Arts. "People were dealing with life and death issues. But slowly it began to sink in, and people began to go through the piles of debris."

There is still no official estimate of the total value of the artwork that was lost, and there may never be. Because so many collections were uninsured, often the only documentation was contained in the personal records of their owners, and sometimes those records, too, have vanished. Some of the artwork was never photographed. Jim Lamantia, a retired architect who is now an art collector, dealer, and part-time appraiser, says he lost the majority of his own collection, though his gallery in New Orleans was spared. "Monetarily, my loss was significant," he says. None of his art, including his inventory in the gallery, was insured. "I can't afford the sort of insurance I'd have to have," he says.

Lamantia, who lives in Pass Christian and New York City, says he retrieved some of his paintings from debris piles, shipped a few to New York for restoration, and is creating collages from the remnants of his 18th century Piranesi paper prints. He says he is skeptical of some of the losses claimed by other collectors, but is not surprised that people would evacuate without their art. "The extent of Katrina was unimaginable," he says. "We boarded up and comfortably left."  In some cases the only evidence of the value of the lost art is in surviving examples. Prior to the storm, Lord says he donated one painting from his collection, a watercolor of a Central Park scene by Maurice Pendergrass that appraised at $980,000, to the New Orleans Museum of Art. The museum's director, John Bullard, confirms the donation.

"It's a beautiful piece," Bullard says, adding that although the museum did not participate in the appraisal, "$900,000 is certainly not out of line for a major Pendergrass painting." (The museum's collection survived.)

Blake Vonder Haar, whose New Orleans art restoration studio has traditionally drawn clients from the Gulf Coast, says her business has been deluged with artwork that was soaked with saltwater, caked with mud, ripped, faded, or disintegrating. "We've taken 4,000 pieces of damaged art since Katrina, but very few are from the Gulf Coast — I can count them on one hand — because most of them are just gone," she says. Among the rare survivors, which she is currently restoring, is the oversized "Portrait of Jan de Groot" by artist Jerry Farnsworth, whose work also hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum in New York. The painting, which features de Groot with an owl on his shoulder, was pulled from a debris pile blocking a Biloxi street.

The incentive such finds gives to the continuing search is undercut by the preponderance of debris, the bewildering array of places to look, and the lack of an official clearinghouse for lost art, which makes it difficult to reunite found pieces with their owners. Most of the happy endings have come about by happenstance, and through word-of-mouth. As the storm retreats into history, the chances of finding more are rapidly dimming, yet many are reluctant to give up the search.

In addition to the portrait, the McMullans lost 700 volumes of books, photos taken during the Depression by author Eudora Welty, a set of original Audubon prints, and a letter from author William Faulkner describing his visit to the home. "I picture those bookcases falling over, and then the floors going, and all that water rushing under the house, and the books just fell into the hole and were carried away," McMullan says. "That's the only way I can visualize it." Not long ago, she adds, "A woman called me and said she thought she'd found my portrait. It had washed up on the edge of the bay, in Bay St. Louis. But she described it to me and the color of the hair was different — it was black and my mother's was reddish-blonde. The tilt of the head was different. I didn't even get the woman's name. It gets to the point that this whole thing is so painful you want to erase it. But you can't."



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Articles in this Issue

The Death of the Dream, by William G. Gabler
Here, by Crystal Gandrud
Katrina's Art, by Alan Huffman
Geology, by Shannon Applegate
Prelapsarian Studies, by Connie Corzilius
Group Psychology, by Simon Leys
Writing Systems, by Erik Rhey
August 2006


Alan Huffman is the author of two books: Ten Point and Mississippi in Africa (the latter now available in paperback from Gotham Books). He has contributed to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution; The Los Angeles Times; Washington Post Magazine; Smithsonian; Preservation; Outside; and The Oxford American. He lives near Bolton, Mississippi, and his website is www.mississippiinafrica.com.

Buy Alan Huffman's books through Amazon at the LOST Store.

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