sculpture of a marble torso with missing arms, head and leg and a leaf covering the groin

Le Torse du Belvedère. Vatican, 1859, James Anderson. Albumen silver print, 8 9/16 × 6 7/8 in. J. Paul Getty Museum, 84.XO.251.3.16

When you think of the term “fragment,” what comes to mind? A tattered bit of cloth? A shattered piece of pottery? Maybe you imagine that an object must have simply come to be the way it is because, well, all things break eventually.

But people who study art have long considered the inevitable disintegration of objects. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke mused on this subject when he wrote of a broken statue,

We cannot know his legendary head

with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso

is still suffused with brilliance from inside,

like a lamp…

Rilke was writing about one of the many sculptures missing heads, arms, and legs that survive as only fragments of their former selves. Yet for him, what remains of the statue becomes a work of art in its own right.

Researchers at the Getty are taking a similar approach when it comes to the study of fragmented objects. “The Fragment” is the 2020–2022 theme for the Getty Scholars Program, and the cohort of academics from around the world is changing the perception that a fragment is just something that is broken or incomplete. Given that fragments are everywhere in the historical record, Getty scholars are looking at a range of objects, from Japanese calligraphy albums to Greek funerary arrangements.

Why study fragments? For one, because they can open up perceptions about what is assumed to be broken as opposed to whole. “The first step of understanding the importance of ‘fragments’ is to stop thinking of them as useless and discarded,” says Cicek Beeby, a postdoctoral Fellow at the Getty Research Institute. “A fragment is not necessarily broken. It can be a single but self-sufficient layer of something complex.”

Beeby studies the ways that remains were treated in mortuary sites of Early Iron Age Greece, and so the “fragments” of her research are actually deceased human bodies. As she explains, the attitude a society has towards its dead says a lot about its notions of fragmentation and decay: “In some cultures, it is imperative to preserve the integrity of the body after death. In others, the body can be transformed into other forms—ashes, for instance—and can be scattered.” In addition, certain pieces of the body can be treated with particular reverence. Heads, for instance, might be kept by family members and decorated or buried in special ways. In this case, the skull—a fragment of the larger body—comes to symbolically stand in for the entire person.

7 people surrounding a body, lying horizontally

Black-figure “pinax” (plaque) showing the lying-in-state of a body (prothesis) attended by family members, with women ritually tearing their hair. Gela Painter, late 6th century BCE. Walters Art Museum

To understand a fragment, it is also crucial to consider not just the object itself but the historical contexts that surround it. “A fragment can be used to create new meanings for the whole they were once part of,” says Lawrence Chua, associate professor of architectural history at Syracuse University. He gives the example of Angkor Wat, the iconic temple structure in Cambodia that has had its image appropriated and reproduced throughout its history. In this case, its fragmentation is metaphorical. “Angkor Wat appears as a logo on the flags of nearly every Cambodian government, from the French colonial protectorate, the Japanese occupation, independence, the Khmer Rouge period, and so on until today,” Chua says. “It was used by competing colonial regimes and their postcolonial successors to make claims about the lands and peoples they ruled over.” Understanding these socio-political circumstances is key to understanding the building itself, as well as its fragmented reproductions.

black and white photograph of a multi layered building with three triangular towers on top

Cambodia—Angkor—Angkor Wat—Unpublished image 18, 1966 or earlier, Wim Swaan. Getty Research Institute 96.P.21

David Zagoury, a Getty Research Institute postdoctoral scholar, agrees. “A work of art that has travelled through time is always somehow a fragment of what it has been,” he says. “As it is decontextualized, recontextualized, reframed or translated, its integrity is affected in one way or another.”

Yet not all fragmentation happens by accident. Sometimes objects are intentionally destroyed in wars or conflicts; sometimes they are broken in the process of being looted; and sometimes, objects are demolished as political acts or artistic statements. Zagoury studies this last kind of breakage. He researches ceramic jugs from the Renaissance with satirical images of the pope that may have been made with the intention of being smashed as part of a critique of the Catholic Church. In this case, fragmentation would have been planned and deliberate, built into the design of the object itself. “Irreversibly breaking an image is a powerful gesture,” he says. “It was as disturbing in the pre-modern world as it is to us today. Smashing an image could be an act of protest.”

Ceramic vase with a carving of the side of a man’s face with a big nose and wavy hair

Stoneware funnel-necked jug, 1550–1600, Siegburg, Germany. Height: 6 1/3 in. Courtesy LVR-LandesMuseum Bonn, 74.4219

Given these possibilities, one might start to see almost everything as fragmented in one way or another. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. “Things break, including artworks, sooner or later,” says Wei-Cheng Lin, professor of art at the University of Chicago, who studies shattered Buddhist icons in premodern China. “Breakage is part of art, and thus studying art as if the work won’t change physically and artistically after the moment of its creation is misleading.”

However, it is also the work that scholars do, and not just the objects they study, that embodies the idea of fragmentation. “In many respects, studying fragments is what we do as researchers regardless of our discipline because the amount one person can perceive and process is limited,” says Akiko Walley, professor of Japanese art at the University of Oregon. Research is the work of trying to paint a fuller picture—of humanity, of history—with each person working within their own niche, and each contributing their small, specific bit. We might never get there completely, but at least we can manage to put together some of the pieces.