Recovering the Lost Stories of Looted Art
The Jewish Museum
August 20, 2021 — January 9, 2022
It was a fortuitous decision — not to read the New York Times review of the Afterlives: Recovering the Lost Stories of Looted Art exhibit at the Jewish Museum before seeing the exhibit on Saturday, October 2nd. I wanted to experience the show tabula rasa without any prejudices or predispositions.
As it turned out, Jason Farago’s review was highly critical of the exhibit. He wanted to know more about the Jewish collectors themselves and he felt that the wall texts were much too thin. They failed to give the viewer sufficient information on who the collectors were and how and why they built their collections.
I came away from the exhibit with another perspective. The show was not about the collectors although I most certainly wanted to know more about their lives — but rather about the stolen or seized art. It was a reminder that the Nazis not only emptied ghettos and murdered millions of Jews but that they also censored art that they deemed degenerate. The reasons were not always clear.
The numbers are indeed astounding. Nazi officials seized an estimated one million artworks and 2.5 million books by the end of World War II. The convoluted journey of a fraction of this stolen art — including works by Marc Chagall, Paul Cezanne, Gustave Courbet, Paul Klee, Franz Marc, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso and Camille Pissaro, as well as drawings and Judaica, art looted from private residences and galleries and subsequently destroyed, warehoused, and/or resold or traded, is the underlying narrative of the show.
The exhibit weaves together art and history, revealing how the Nazis attacked art that they deemed avant-garde and/or degenerate. Afterlives includes 53 works of art, 80 Jewish ceremonial objects, photographs and archival documents and, as a contemporary coda, four new commissions by artists Maria Eichhorn, Hadar Gad, Dor Guez, and Lisa Oppenheim.
As someone who wrote a book (Illegal Living) tracing SoHo’s evolution into a live/work artist neighborhood by focusing on one building and its residents, I was drawn to the Jewish Museum exhibit, eager to find the answers to the following key questions: who the artist was; when the piece was created; who the collector was; and how it was seized or stolen. Many of the answers can be found in the wall text and more in the catalogue which will be available in November. (The PDF of the catalogue is available now online). We learn that some works ended up in prominent museums and some in basements or attics. Some Jewish artists survived the Holocaust and others were murdered in the camps. Like most Holocaust history, there are many blank spaces. Big holes in the narrative.
The exhibit opens with a painting that was neither stolen nor seized, a strange curatorial decision. The adjacent wall text includes a “do not photograph” icon that is so tiny that I missed seeing it. Just as I was about to shoot a photo of The Large Blue Horses (1911) by the German artist Franz Marc (1880–1916), a guard stopped me. It is a vivid work, painted in hues of bright blue, red, and green. Marc was part of an experimental group Blaue Reiter (Blue Rider) which according to the wall text “emphasized the mystical power and symbolism of color.”
Marc fought in the German army and was killed in World War I at the age of 36. Some twenty years later, the Nazis deemed his art degenerate. It is hard to know why. Much of it was removed from public showings and some of it was destroyed but The Large Blue Horses was saved because it was held in private hands. It was shown in a gallery in London in 1938 in an anti-Hitler show and was then shipped to the United States where it was included in the exhibition Twentieth Century Banned German Art.
Four nude figures are featured in Max Pechstein’s Landscape (1912), a work that belonged to Hugo Simon, a German Jewish banker. Simon fled to Paris in 1933. When Simon escaped to Brazil, the Nazis seized the painting which was subsequently believed to be lost until it was found in the basement of a French museum in 1966. After years in temporary custodianship of the Musees Nationaux Recuperation, an inventory for stolen works, it was returned to Simon’s heirs in 2021.
Throughout the exhibit, the narratives repeat similar stories. There’s Pierre Bonnard’s Still Life with Guelder Roses, a work stolen from the collector David David-Weill. First placed in a Nazi storage depot, then transferred to a salt mine in Austria, it was finally returned to David-Weill in 1946.
Installed in two adjacent galleries (with a hole in a wall between them which lets viewers see the full lineup of the portraits) are gelatin silver prints shot by German photographer August Sander (1876–1964) who devoted himself to documenting portraits of “people of the twentieth century.” On display are ten images from the Persecuted Jews series including Dr. Kahn and Mrs. Oppenheim. They were people Sander knew who fled their homes in Cologne, Germany in 1938 — the very year of Kristallnacht, when Jewish shop windows were broken and synagogues were burned.
Sander was not Jewish but the ethnic orientation of his photos and his sensitivity in dealing with his subjects — they are portrayed with great dignity — stirred Nazi anger. As a result, many of the images were confiscated. The Nazis arrested Sander’s son Erich for “antifascist activities” in 1934 and he subsequently died in prison. The portraits are somber. Sander’s subjects do not stare directly into the camera. They are captured looking sideways, peering off into the distance, seemingly lost in thought. No one is smiling.
Two oil paintings by Henri Matisse, Girl in Yellow and Blue with Guitar and Daisies from 1939, are featured in the exhibit. In both, Matisse uses bold blocks of color and black lines. The Nazis banned his work from German museums. The paintings belonged to the French collector Paul Rosenberg. They were taken from the bank vault in Bordeaux where Rosenberg stored them, when he fled to the United States. Staring at the works, I cannot understand what was degenerate about them and it is indeed ironic that Hermann Goering selected Girl In Yellow and Blue with Guitar for his personal art collection. After the war, the paintings were returned to Rosenberg and later sold. Both are now in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.
In a section entitled Creativity under Duress, the curators include works made by Jewish artists who were either in hiding or imprisoned in concentration camps. The Unity of Life and Death (1938) by Otto Freundlich (1878–1943) is a mosaic-like composition of different colorful shapes. The work was completed one year after Freundlich’s sculpture Large Head or The New Man was used on the cover of a guide to the Nazis’ 1937 Degenerate Art exhibition in Munich. Freundlich hid out from the Nazis from 1940 to 1943 but sadly he was caught and shipped to Lublin-Majdanek concentration camp in Poland where he died.
One of the most touching objects in the exhibit is the charm bracelet (1941–1944) of a Czech Jew, Greta Perlman, who made the piece when she was in the Terezin concentration camp. From Terezin, Perlman was sent to Auschwitz and later to Bergen-Belsen.
The charms were most probably made by different people who gave them to her as gifts or in exchange for food, since Perlman worked in the camp kitchen: The wall text gives us clues regarding their meaning: “Made in secret and in peril, they bear hidden meanings: the number of the transport train on which she was deported from Prague; a lice comb; a ladle; a bullet; the name Theo, with a date; and a lucky horseshoe.” Indeed, Perlman was lucky. She survived the war.
To fill out the exhibit, the curators included pieces of ritual silver from the Jewish Museum’s collection. Several have their original aluminum identification tags, “inscribed with a Star of David and the letters JCR” for the Jewish Cultural Reconstruction organization. The silver is ornate and impressive but, somehow, this section of the exhibit resembles displays of ritual silver to be found in Jewish museums around the globe. There is nothing about the silver that says stolen or seized.
The final gallery in the show includes four contemporary art works commissioned by the museum.The first by Maria Eichhorn serves as a transition and focuses on Hannah Arendt’s work for the JCR, writing field reports and letters. The emphasis in this installation is on Arendt’s devotion to rescuing and archiving Holocaust materials: preserving that which might otherwise been lost or discarded.
I was most taken by Dor Guez’s artwork and wrote him in Israel. He responded with a long and sensitive email.
“My installation at the Jewish Museum brings to mind a chapter in the history of the Jewish people in Islamic countries, which has not previously received a stage and visibility in public discourse. This oblivion raises questions about the richness of Jewish-Arab culture, as well as about the circumstances that led to its disappearance.
Similar to previous works of mine, I try to weave stories from certain depths and flood them into consciousness. Thus, they are displayed simultaneously at Dvir Gallery in Tel Aviv and Goodman Gallery in Cape Town. At the center of the work is the language of “Maalek” (Judeo-Arabic), which was formed in Islamic countries at the same time as Yiddish in Europe. Maalek existed as an independent alphabet that looks like a fusion of letters in Hebrew and Arabic.
This culture did not survive the Nazi occupation of Tunisia in 1943 when many books in Hebrew and Judeo-Arabic were looted and destroyed. A play my grandfather wrote in the 1940s for the Jewish theater in Tunisia is the center of the exhibition. The manuscript is among the few complete that have survived intact. The exhibition at the Jewish Museum ends with my installation to point out North Africa as another territory to the European continent that is also associated with rescuing looted manuscripts of historical importance.
On the wall in the Guez installation is a manuscript written by his Tunisian grandfather. The manuscript is clearly very important to Guez.
“My grandfather’s manuscript,” excerpts of which are displayed in the exhibition in the format of enlarged scans, is a play based on the conduct of a minority community, relying on a biblical story — Joseph and the Coat of Many Colors. My grandparents, both theater people, spoke Tunisian, Hebrew, and of course, French, which was the language of colonial rule in Tunis. Thus, the last part of the installation also includes an image with a word in French — “curtain,” which my grandfather wrote on the last page of the play to mark — “The End.” Culture and identity are dynamic intersections that change and take shape all the time. French has found a place within the play and in their lives.
Visitors to the exhibition refer to the mixing of the two languages as a “utopian” possibility. Unfortunately, many tend to think in such terms because little is known about the culture of Jews in Islamic countries. These are two Semitic languages from the same source, a possibility that existed in the past and is being examined today from a (contemporary) reductive and limited prism. This is a crossroads that I would hope to dwell on a little more, especially in the context of an exhibition that deals with a systematic attempt to erase an entire culture and plunder its art and books.”
What began as an exhibit looking at stolen and seized art and the Nazi’s censorship of Jewish culture, ends with Letters from the Greater Maghreb and Belly of the Boat, Guez’s multimedia pieces about remnants of the culture of Jews in Islamic countries.