Visual Moment | The Compelling Odysseys of Looted Art

By | Sep 09, 2021

In the sumptuous catalogue for the New York Jewish Museum’s late summer exhibition, Afterlives: Recovering the Lost Stories of Looted Art, on view through January 9, 2022, a cropped image of French artist Pierre Bonnard’s
color-diffused painting Still Life with Guelder Roses appears alongside an army photograph of the salt mine in Altaussee, Austria, where the Nazis secreted looted art and other treasures.

On the one side, the grainy, black-and-white photo of scaffolding and salt-encased rock taken by the U.S. military in 1945; on the other, the creamy, bridal-colored vase holding viburnum, or snowballs, amassed in green foliage. The one picture seems a foil for the other, but the two are intertwined as part of the complex and immense story of Holocaust-era stolen art. In the conflagration and chaos of World War II, there was as much destruction and displacement of material objects as there was of people.

Pierre Bonnard’s little painting stands out for its quiet radiance in the Jewish Museum show. When he was a young man in 1892, Bonnard developed the composition, in part as a homage to the decorative and asymmetric Japanese prints he first saw at the École des Beaux-Arts. Then, after an interlude of nearly 40 years, he added another layer of creamy texture and materiality to the petals, proving the miracle that dabs of paint can convey the damp, fresh smell of summer flowers brought indoors. Because Bonnard’s interests and intentions shifted, the painting evolved from the decorative to the more material; it had a new meaning—an afterlife. But at the Jewish Museum it’s on exhibit to demonstrate a different kind of afterlife—the afterlife that art objects in Europe acquired during the Nazi period, when massive numbers of such treasures flowed from public collections, private galleries and Jewish households into the possession of the Nazi art task force, Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR).

Marc Chagall’s Purim was painted in 1916-1917 as a study for a mural for a Jewish school in Petrograd. ( Photo credit: Wikimedia; Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, © Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY/ADAGP, Paris, courtesy the Jewish Museum, NY)

According to documents of provenance, Bonnard’s still life changed hands three times before the war. Records show that the artist gave it to a friend, P. Bonis Charancle, as a gift. But the first buyer was probably the Jewish financier and entrepreneur Georges Lévy, best known as the manufacturer of early amphibious aircraft used by France during World War I. Lévy changed his name to Georges Lurcy between 1940 and 1943, after he emigrated to the United States. But in 1933, perhaps as an informal trade or a personal sale, Still Life with Guelder Roses came into the possession of the Jewish French-American banker and philanthropist David David-Weill, whose vast art collection ranged from Neolithic Chinese burnished jade to paintings by French artist Édouard Vuillard, who painted a portrait of the collector in his parlor surrounded by tapestry chairs, marquetry tables and a jumble of gilt-mounted paintings hung frame to frame.

Artwork looted by the Nazis was stored, along with other treasures, in the Altaussee salt mines in Austria. The cache was discovered in 1945 by the Allied “Monuments Men” team. (Photo credit: Wikimedia; Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, © Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY/ADAGP, Paris, courtesy the Jewish Museum, NY)

For most of the 1930s, David-Weill was the president of the Conseil des Musées de France, and, like many of France’s wealthy, assimilated and patriotic Jewish leaders, he donated thousands of art objects to the Musée Guimet, the Louvre and the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. After the occupation of France, his vast family business, Lazard Frères & Co., was seized and his citizenship withdrawn. He and his wife went into hiding in the south of France, moving from city to city with false names and papers, which enabled them to survive, while their properties were seized and their house in Neuilly, outside Paris, was converted into a Nazi headquarters. In 1940 and 1943, 152 hidden crates, containing some 2,687 of his art objects, were confiscated from various locations by the Nazis and sent to the Jeu de Pomme gallery in Paris, where German authorities stored and privately exhibited plundered art in occupied France. Bonnard’s Still Life with Guelder Roses was among that trove.

In the chaos of WWII, there was as much destruction & displacement of material objects as there was of people.

Along with an enormous stash of other stolen goods, it was later conveyed by train to a warehouse in Schloss Nikolsburg, in what was then Czechoslovakia, before being deposited with about 6,500 other paintings in the Altaussee salt mines in Austria, part of a cache of art objects, folios, furniture, tapestries and antique armor discovered in 1945 by members of the “Monuments Men” team, a U.S. and British military unit of arts professionals tasked with locating and safeguarding works of art.

Left: 18th-century Torah finials shaped like miniature temples sport bells. Right: Tiered brass and wood Seder plate was a gift to the Jewish Museum from the Danzig Jewish Community. (Photo credit: courtesy of the Jewish Museum, NY; Wikipedia)

The juxtaposition of the two narratives is jarring: On the one hand, there’s Bonnard’s poetic and intimate nature morte and, on the other, the overlapping history of the painting as a looted object covered with the imagined fingerprints of the thieves who handled it. But the contrast doesn’t hold true for all the works in the show. The subject matter of Marc Chagall’s theatrical and flame-colored Purim, for instance, incorporates traces of the menace that was to come. Painted in 1916-1917 under the harsh conditions of World War I, the work was intended as a study for a never-executed Jewish school mural in Petrograd. The picture of a man and a woman exchanging Purim gifts in the shadow of the higgledy-piggledy village, where a scowling Purim doll is carried in on a chair, is comedic and carnivalesque. The stock figures are flattened like paper puppets and abruptly chopped off at the edges of the canvas, and the Hebrew letters for “Purim” are drawn onto the undefined vapor of a disintegrating world soon to break apart.

Exquisite things can have many lives; sometimes the lives are disjointed & sometimes the afterlives are just an echo or a memory of what once was

Along with other works from that period, Chagall brought the painting back to Paris after he left the Soviet Union in 1922. In 1925 he sold it to Dr. Herbert Tannenbaum, an energetic and learned German Jewish art dealer and owner of Das Kunsthaus, a shop in Mannheim that carried art books and magazines as well as paintings. In 1928, Tannenbaum sold Purim to the Museum Folkwang in Essen, and nine years later the painting was seized by the Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda and placed in the notorious Degenerate Art Exhibition organized by the Nazi Party and held in Munich in 1937. That was the same year Tannenbaum, boycotted and attacked as a Jew promoting modernism and modern art, emigrated to the Netherlands and started a second gallery, which he ran until it was impossible to keep a business going and too dangerous to leave his apartment or even his attic.

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The survival of Chagall’s Purim, like the survival of so much else, depended upon accident and chance. Along with other “degenerate” works, the Reich assigned the Chagall to an agent tasked with disposing of undesirable goods on the international market to raise cash. Instead of immediately selling the modern works, the dealer chose to trade a piece by a minor German Romantic painter, which he had in his collection, to the German government in exchange for the “degenerate” works. Then in 1944 he sold the batch of modern paintings, including the Chagall, to a member of the Nazi Party, a German art historian and schoolteacher who died shortly after in a bombing raid. That was when the painting became chattel, a commodity that could be carried out of the country and converted to cash. And so, in 1948, Chagall’s Purim arrived in the United States in the possession of the schoolteacher’s mother, who sold it on consignment to a New York art gallery, where Chagall’s American lawyer, Louis E. Stern, a Russian-born attorney and art collector, came to purchase it. Like Bonnard’s still life, which eventually ended up in the collection of the Nelson-Atkins Museum, Purim, now owned by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, has carried its story over time, from one continent to the other.

Portrait of banker and collector David David-Weill by Édouard Vuillard,1925 (Photo credit: courtesy of the Jewish Museum, NY; Wikipedia)

A significant portion of the exhibition at the Jewish Museum, approximately 85 objects, comes from the museum’s own collection of Judaica, reminding us of the role the museum played during the postwar period, when it temporarily housed sundry collections, eventually accessioning many homeless or stolen works that had been witnesses to the tragedy of the Holocaust.

Invaluable silver, copper and gilt spice boxes, candle holders, Torah pointers and Torah shields come from the Danzig Collection, some dating as far back as the 17th century. The story is both bitter and uplifting. In 1938, after a violent assault on the Danzig Synagogue, members of the community recognized that the grand 19th-century structure, with its spires and lantern and massive chandeliers, was marked for destruction. With supreme prescience, the community negotiated the sale of its building to the city senate and used the proceeds (aided by the Joint Distribution Committee) for emigration of almost all of Danzig’s remaining Jews, as well as the shipment to America of their unusually fine collection of precious metal ritual objects. In a legal contract, members of the congregation made an agreement with the “Joint,” designating the organization as custodian of the objects for 15 years until it could be determined if the Danzig Jewish community would be reestablished. In 1954, the materials were legally gifted to the Jewish Museum. A unique, tiered brass and wood seder plate stands out among the Danzig treasures, with its spirited images of rampant lions that seem to roar.

The Judaica collection provides many examples of the consummate workmanship of European silversmiths and metalworkers over the centuries. A beautiful set of 18th-century silver Torah finials is notable for its refinement. Hammered, engraved, cast and pierced, the finials are shaped like miniature temples with a circle of tiny bells at the base of each cupola that would ring when the Torah was lifted. As the legal scholar Carla Shapreau has pointed out, bells were a part of the cultural soundscape throughout Europe, and when they were stolen or confiscated—this was the case both for church bells designated to be melted for munitions and for mishandled Torah bells intended to be documents of the Final Solution—the missing sound was part of a loss that was shared communally.

During the Holocaust, hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of art objects were stolen throughout Europe. Some were destroyed on a whim and disappeared without leaving a mark,while the fate of others was serendipitous, and they survived. The novelist Marcel Proust, who went to school with David David-Weill, made a Jewish art collector, Charles Swann, the central figure of his great novel, which was about the instability of possession.

“Even when one is no longer attached to things,” he has Swann say, “it’s still something to have been attached to them…”

We carry lost things—and lost loves—inside of ourselves; attachment and identity are intertwined. Like Bonnard’s guelder roses, exquisite things can have many lives; sometimes the lives are disjointed and sometimes the afterlives are just an echo or a memory of what once was.

Opening picture: Left: Altaussee Salt/Art Mine discovery after WW II (Author: Lieutenants Kern & Sieber. Source: Lukas Web; Art in Flanders VZW) Right: Pierre Bonnard’s Still Life with Guelder Roses was painted in 1892 and reworked in 1929. Confiscated by the Nazis from collector David David-Weill during the war, it was recovered by the Allied military in 1945. It is now in the collection of The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo credit: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Herman R. Sutherland, image: courtesy Media Services, photo: Jamison Miller)

2 thoughts on “Visual Moment | The Compelling Odysseys of Looted Art

  1. Royal Duncan says:

    My husband and I attended the exhibition of the Berlin Monument paintings at the Cincinnati Art Museum. Especially enjoyed viewing the Rembrandt and Pisarro.

  2. Lisa Greenwald says:

    Wonderful exhibit and excellent review which highlights the luminousness of the art and the pathos of the history behind it.

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