Acts of War: Afterlives and Nazi-Looted Art
It was just another act of war. No, not the world war that had ravaged Europe and threatened freedom everywhere. Not the war in which the Nazis had captured Paris and entered the firm of Georges Wildenstein.
Not an act in their wider agenda, which killed six million Jews and obliged Wildenstein, a Jewish art dealer, to ‘Aryanize’ his practice. Not an act of an entire art-looting task force, or Einsatzstab Reichsleiter, which seized much of his collection and made him sell still more at nominal rates. No, it was the subject of just one of those works, centuries before. Claude Lorrain painted Battle on a Bridge in 1655, and it appears once more in Afterlives: Recovering the Lost Stories of Looted Art at the Jewish Museum. It shows a battle in an unnamed war, from an artist better known for his golden light. This, too, is first and foremost a landscape painting, and his serenity extends even here.
Still, it looks far less serene in light of the terrible present. War, it seems to say, is inescapable, even for Claude. And yet the mob on the bridge has little to do with this or that army, and the families herding animals in the foreground outshine the battle lines. These are not combatants, witnesses, or bystanders but survivors, and they have become a reminder of so many Jewish and other refugees to this day. The painting has had an afterlife. In the course of time, the lost stories can only multiply.
Looters and martyrs
It would be a hard story to tell even in the singular. The Nazis looted something like a million works of art – and millions more books and other precious objects. The looting has led to conflicting stories as well. The very week the show opened, competing interests debated an American museum’s obligation to return art that it had obtained legally, for a price, long after the crime (almost anyone would say that it must). Often as not, the debate concerns the spoils not just of World War II, but centuries of colonialism as well.
At the Jewish Museum, the stories are still harder to number. The show begins as an exhibition of looted art, and it opens with its largest and most powerful work. In Large Blue Horse by Franz Marc, the coiled animal barely fits on the canvas or within the red, green, and yellow landscape. Its intensity serves as a rejoinder to those who confiscated it as ‘degenerate art’. But then in no time “Afterlives” moves past painting to cultural objects, personal stories, and historical records. It ends with four artists who revisit the looting now.
Still, for all the numbers, the curators promise a close count. For Darsie Alexander and Sam Sackeroff, the stories boil down to two, of looting and recovery. Oh, and a third, of what happened to all that stuff along the way. Any one of those stories is worth recovering. They are larger and more complicated than you may ever have dreamed. Take, for one, just how the looting took place.
The sheer enormity of the crime is worth repeating. The Nazis confiscated work on the spot, as from Wildenstein. They broke into a bank vault in Bordeaux to seize the collection of the most renowned Jewish dealer, Paul Rosenberg. They took still more after its owners fled or were arrested and killed. They took 2,000 items from one collector alone, David David-Weill. A still-life with roses here is just one of more than two dozen of his by Pierre Bonnard.
Take, too, why the looting took place, and again there is no one answer. The Nazis took some work because they hated it and what it meant to others. They exhibited ‘degenerate art’ as an object lesson, including a celebration of Purim by Marc Chagall, and they meant still more to be quietly destroyed. But then they took some, too, because they liked it and saw an opportunity. Hitler set Claude Lorrain aside for a planned Führermuseum, and Hermann Göring eyed a reclining nude by Gustave Courbet for his estate in Bavaria. And who’s to say when they took Jewish antiquities to suppress it and when out of lust for precious silver?
What happened next is more frightening still, in its cold calculation and naked ambition. The Jeu de Paume in Paris, tennis courts that later became a museum for Impressionism before the d’Orsay, held plenty, as did a salt mine in Austria. Munich housed a central collecting point. Echoes of the Nazi handling of human beings are impossible to ignore. The looters numbered the spoils, just as tattoos tracked and reduced the humanity of those slated for death. Art had its transport trains, just like the concentration camps, and the storerooms at the Jeu de Paume became known as its Hall of Martyrs.
A happy ending?
In time comes restitution. In an overwhelmingly text-heavy show, almost every wall label can speak of it. It comes so completely and so often that the museum seems downright desperate for a happy ending, but then you may be, too. Two late paintings from Rosenberg by Henri Matisse, long separated, came together again at last, redoubling their joy in color. Many a collector survived as well. Wildenstein’s gallery carries on in New York to this day.
Just as impressive are the institutions behind recovery, and there, too, the stories multiply. They commence even before war’s end, when French soldiers captured a transport, and they have not ended. The Nuremberg trials considered looting a war crime, and the Offenbach Archival Depot stepped in to help, from 1945 to 1949. The Jewish Cultural Reconstruction project issued reports, with Hannah Arendt as director. The Jewish Museum played a role, and it is not shy of boasting. The Jewish community in Danzig (now Gdańsk) arranged for shipments to the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.
The work may have other happy endings as well. Those shipments brought art to new eyes. The original owners may have sold their work after restitution, too. Claude’s battle scene found a home in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. I confess that the return of work looted by Napoleon and imperialism can make me nostalgic for its place in western museums (just as I miss Guernica, which Picasso always intended for Spain, at the Museum of Modern Art). Still, now others can see it as their heritage.
For all that, not every story has a happy ending. You may know Arendt better from her scathing portrait of Adolf Eichmann at Nuremberg and ‘the banality of evil’. Nor does the show’s opening text mention a shift in theme, to Jewish artists and their fate. A whole wall has sketches that they made in hiding, in prison, or in the camps. The show recovers Friedrich Vordemberge-Gildewart and Otto Freundlich, both of them Jews, for the history of abstract painting. Dark tracery by Fédor Löwenstein recalls stained glass and makes his colors shine.
And then there are stories that the curators never acknowledge but cannot help putting on display. As any reader of this magazine will know, a work of art has many. It reinvents itself, constantly, in the hands of the artist and the eyes of the viewer. Chagall’s Purim speaks to tradition, but with floating forms informed by his work in Soviet art, united by a red background informed by Matisse. Bonnard’s still-life has two acts of creation 25 years apart. They take him from the feathery style of Post-Impressionism to something more fully modern.
Works speak to one another as well, exchanging stories, from the moment they enter an exhibition like this one. A stick figure by Pablo Picasso comes to resemble an abstract sign nearby by Paul Klee. One of the show’s first works, by Max Pechstein, appears in context of the Nazi hatred of German Expressionism and Pechstein’s movement, Die Brücke. Yet its acid reds and yellows reappear with Matisse, and its flaming trees become that much more vivid compared to Matisse’s flowers—and its nudes that much more sensual and morally ambivalent. A massive bather by Paul Cézanne stands apart, but then Cézanne was never all that social. When you come to Camille Pissarro, for a portrait of Pissarro’s daughter, you may wonder how their friendship lasted as long as it did.
Not even past
Still other work changes its story just by being here, among the looted—and among the afterlives today. It is not just Claude. Bernardo Strozzi in the early Baroque painted an act of mercy, a woman bringing water to the thirsty, and you can only ask why mercy is in such short supply. Henri Fantin-Latour paints himself in 1861 as rebellious and brooding, and there is much here to brood over and to rebel against. Freundlich paints The Unity of Life and Death as a virtual traffic jam of colored squares. Could he have seen death coming in 1938?
The play of pasts and presents extends to artists close, painfully close, to the scene. George Grosz pictured an Approaching Storm in 1940, as a swirl of brushwork, and now it had arrived, with an impact that he could never have foreseen. Kurt Schwitters had seen enough to include Nazi customs stamps into his collage, Opened by Customs, and now customs had done everything it could to seal his lips for good. August Sander photographed friends and neighbors who fled their homes, as Persecuted Jews. In his portraits, people tend to look less like individuals than types, defined by their dress and occupation. Here he finds instead a compelling dignity.
The show ends with four contemporary artists, continuing the dialogue. They are reflecting on the stories before them and bringing their own. But which story is which? Maria Eichhorn comes first, adding to the records of Arendt and her project with documents, reproductions, and spoken text. You may mistake it for the curator’s work immediately before. You may not even consider that a mistake.
After a partition, the remaining three speak for themselves, but again by looking back. Hadar Gad renders the impoundment centers on canvas, in an amber that recalls metalpoint and the sepia tone of early photographs. Piled books look like mountains and a hall of martyrs like the grand interior of a European train hall or the old Penn Station. Dor Guez places objects on pedestals, much like the display before it—but humble, disposable objects from her grandparents, who escaped death in Nazi-occupied Tunisia, and her Jewish and Palestinian parents. Lisa Oppenheim tries to identify a looted still life in photo-collage, with shifting views of the work and close-ups closer to clouds. Of course, she never does.
Each has its drawbacks—all the more so given the show’s shifting contexts. Oppenheim’s chosen still-life is nothing like any of the paintings on display. Guez’s objects, accompanied by fragmentary printed letters, have stories still waiting to be told. Gad’s paintings need their labels to connect them to the looted, and Eichhorn’s are hardly the show’s most telling and terrifying records. Still, they are all gorgeous enough, and the more compelling question is simpler: should they appear at all?
So many stories make for a rich exhibition, richer than the curators could have intended—and richer, too, than they can accommodate. How can 19 paintings stand for a thousand, and why just those four contemporaries? They could have had a separate, fuller show of new art, leaving more room for the looted. Yet they bring home how far the stories extend into the present. Here the past really is never dead. As William Faulkner put it, “It’s not even past.”
Afterlives: Recovering the Lost Stories of Looted Art
The Jewish Museum, NY, August 20, 2021-January 9, 2022