In “Afterlives”, about looted art, why are the victims an afterthought?
Some titles from the last few months. March: the French government agrees to return a major landscape by Gustav Klimt to the heirs of Nora Stiasny, a Jew from Vienna, forced to sell it before being sent on her death in 1942.
June: the Royal Museums of Fine Arts in Brussels return a still life by Lovis Corinth to the family of Gustav and Emma Mayer, Jewish refugees from Germany whose property was looted in Nazi-occupied Belgium.
August: the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam agrees to return a first Kandinsky to the descendants of Irma Klein and Robert Lewenstein, a Jewish couple forced to sell it during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands.
World War II is now three quarters of a century past, but the fate of works of art stolen from Jewish collectors in Europe from 1933 to 1945 is far from settled. American museums (notably the Houston Museum of Fine Arts) are also embroiled in claims and counterclaims over what constitutes a duress sale. This year, the claims of Holocaust survivors reached the United States Supreme Court. And as museums and governments also heed requests for repatriation of artifacts removed from former colonies, legal precedents regarding Nazi plunder are of global significance.
So I came to “Afterlives: Recovering the Lost Stories of Looted Art,” an undoubtedly well-intentioned exhibition on looted art that opened last month at the Jewish Museum, to explore a chapter of history that still remains. topical. I left with a feeling of disappointment, even bewilderment. It brings together a somewhat random sample of looted and salvaged paintings, from a history painting by Baroque painter Bernardo Strozzi to a still life by Matisse produced more than three centuries later. But their complete stories are drowned in a spectacle that oscillates between too many themes: looted art, purged museums, Jewish literary and religious volumes, art made in concentration camps, not to mention a few pale “answers” to the artists’ past. contemporaries. . Regarding one of the most serious periods in art history, “Afterlives” is imprecise on its subject, and at times downright neglectful of the Jewish lives it is supposed to reintroduce.
“Afterlives” tells us from its subtitle that it aims to “recover the lost stories of looted art”. An introductory text promises to tell “the stories of the people who lived it”. Two of the three paintings in the first gallery indicate the issues at stake. A small, thick floral still life by Bonnard, now owned by the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, was among thousands stolen by the Nazis from French banker David David-Weill and stored in an Austrian salt mine. A luminous landscape with nudes by Max Pechstein, painter of the expressionist group Die Brücke, was seized in the Parisian house of Hugo Simon and only returned to his heirs this year.
But when you read the text next to the first painting you see in this show, “The Great Blue Horses” by Franz Marc from 1911, you will find out that it was never looted at all. This large oil, a prime example of Munich’s avant-garde movement Der Blaue Reiter, was shown alongside the Pechstein at an anti-Nazi exhibition in London in 1938, the year after the famous ‘Degenerate Art’ exhibition which targeted so many modern German people. artists. After that, “The Large Blue Horses” was shipped to the United States, where it appeared in a traveling exhibition of banned German art. In 1942 it entered the collection of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.
Opening a show about looting with an image that hasn’t been looted doesn’t inspire confidence, and “Afterlives” only clouds up on what it’s really about. A collage by Kurt Schwitters, made from exile in Norway, and a Cape Cod landscape by George Grosz, exiled in the United States, address the fates of German artists who, like Marc, were exposed by the Nazi regime. But the exhibit only takes a look at the details of the Third Reich’s “degenerate” art policy, which is a different matter from the Nazi robbery anyway.
The show is on a more secure footing with works of art presented as concrete evidence of the crime. A large old bather by Cézanne and a scene of slender figures by Picasso both belonged to Alphonse Kann, a Parisian bon vivant (and model for Proust’s Swann), who left them behind when he left for London in 1938. The two are visible on a mural. -Size photo of the Parisian cellar where the Nazis collected stolen paintings: the “Chambre des Martyrs”, at the Jeu de Paume museum.
The exhibition then moved away from the fine arts and turned to Jewish religious texts and ritual objects, mainly from the permanent collection of this museum, which were shipped from Danzig to New York for preservation in 1939. The Jews of Danzig were almost entirely exterminated, and after the war these Torah shields and Kiddush cups were redistributed to Jewish communities elsewhere. Their survival is a testament to the extraordinary efforts of Americans and others who have spearheaded Jewish cultural reconstruction – but this communal and spiritual endeavor does not mesh perfectly with the legal challenges of recovering stolen art from individual Jews.
In all of this mix, the real victims of the Nazi plunder become an afterthought – and are even treated as interchangeable. The lives of the men and women who actually owned these particular paintings, from Alphonse Kann to David David-Weill, are well known and well documented. But rather than re-inscribing them in the art they once possessed, “Afterlives” instead offers 10 images of… well, other persecuted Jews, photographed by August Sander, the great portrait painter of between Germany. two wars. It is a metonymy which suggests that the irreducible lives and destinies of the dispossessed are not the business of this show, and certainly have not been “reclaimed” as we were originally promised.
If looting and restitution were the real goal of this exhibition, then at a minimum each label should have described, in chronological order, the owners of these works of art from their creation to the present day. This was the strategy of “Gurlitt: Status Report”, the successful two-part release of an original Nazi collection, staged in Bern and Bonn in 2017. Next to each painting or drawing, a label followed his movements from the studio – to insist that you were not looking (or not only) at beauty objects, but at evidence of a crime.
Or show the backs of some of these paintings, where their labels could testify to their theft and recovery. The Jewish Museum borrowed from Richmond a pastoral scene by Claude Lorrain, “Battle on a Bridge”, confiscated by the Nazis from the Parisian art dealer Georges Wildenstein. The text alongside mentions that the painting was intended for Hitler’s never-built temple of art in Austria. But it wasn’t until the catalog that I learned that it has a Führermuseum inventory number – # 2207 – right on the stretcher bar. Why not hang the painting on candlesticks, so that the Nazi scar can be seen on the back? Or at least imagine the reverse side of the label? This is how the Henie Onstad Kunstsenter in Oslo did in 2015, after discovering that the museum possessed a looted Matisse – like the two in this exhibition – by Parisian art dealer Paul Rosenberg.
Rather than disclosing the looting through the exhibition design, the Jewish Museum cedes over a quarter of the exhibition area to contemporary artists for their responses, but they mostly obscure more than they don’t reveal. One worthy of the task is Maria Eichhorn, who spent two decades undertaking research projects into the provenance of art stolen by the Nazis. Here, she collected dozens of books from New York libraries with bookplates from Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, whose research arm was led by Hannah Arendt. From a loudspeaker, we hear an actor reading Arendt’s field reports, the accuracy of which matches Eichhorn’s own document-by-document approach to dispossession.
May other contemporary projects demonstrate the same Arendtian rigor. Lisa Oppenheim, an American photographer, pastes a looted still life and obscured satellite images of the Parisian house from which it was stolen – a literal haze of well-known victims. (It only took me a minute of Google research to discover that the owners were the eminent Michel-Levy; the label here only calls them “the Jewish family.”)
Dor Guez, an artist of Jewish and Palestinian origin, has been given a significant area for an archival farrago of his grandfather’s handwriting samples and his grandmother’s costume models, citing their immigration from Tunisia to Israel in 1951. In an exhibition on, say, migration and family, he might have a passing interest. But I have no idea why this tangential project has the last word in a show that should have been about the victims of looting and the items they lost.
That says all about the lack of concentration of this exhibition that I learned more about the family of an artist than about Hugo Simon, who left behind the landscape of Pechstein when he fled to Brazil; about Alphonse Kann, separated from this great bather by Cézanne and from little Picasso; on Oscar Bondy, the Viennese industrialist from whom Strozzi was stolen in the wake of the Anschluss. These were the “lost stories” I had come for. I could hardly find them.
Afterlives: Recovering the Lost Stories of Looted Art
Until January 9 at the Jewish Museum, 1109 Fifth Ave. at 92nd Street, Manhattan, 212-423-3200, thejewishmuseum.org.