08 November 2011

Nazi looted art conference at Lafayette College, October 26-28, 2011: a debriefing (I)

From left to right: Rachel Davidson, Diane Ahl, Radu Pribic
It has now been close to two weeks since Lafayette College in quaint Easton, PA, hosted a first-ever conference on Nazi looted art. Starting from scratch, the organizers of the conference, Professors Diane Ahl and Radu Pribic, brought together a group of speakers who represented different perspectives on the issue of looted art and art restitution.

Day 1: October 26, 2011

The conference opened on a screening of “The Rape of Europa”, a freewheeling adaptation of Lynn Nicholas’ landmark work of same name which detailed the Nazi-orchestrated plunder of works and objects of art across Europe, while focusing most of its attention on the Allied—read American—civilian and mostly military response to those exactions and the means taken to repair the damage caused by Nazi thefts.

This was my third viewing of “The Rape of Europa” The first time was on television, the second time was at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, during a Jewish Film Festival. That screening was memorable only because I ran into Lynn Nicholas looking a bit lost in the line of viewers waiting to see the film being shown in the East Wing. When I asked her what she was doing there, she said simply that she wanted to be there in case anyone had questions about the movie. What? You mean you weren’t invited to speak at your own movie? No, was the answer. The third screening was in Easton. At the second screening, I noticed three things:

  1. someone intimately involved with production and scriptwriting decided to go for the schmaltz factor by inserting several high points of art restitution in the United States—the return of Marie Altmann’s famed paintings by Gustav Klimt, and the recovery of a painting by François Boucher from a Utah museum which had belonged to a member of the Paris-based heavily splintered Seligmann family. The true schmaltz occurred when a German citizen was featured as self-anointed rescuer of Judaica from his small town, the name of which escapes me completely. Not having anything to do with the “Rape of Europa,” it did, however, take on a life of its own by injecting the personal into the political, thus illustrating how a complex topic such as cultural plunder can transform daily lives into a quest for justice and, for others, redemption.
  2. the Russians were very emotional and steadfast about their desire to equate their policy of no-return of so-called ‘trophy art’ and the humanitarian catastrophe wrought upon them by the Wehrmacht, the SS, and the Luftwaffe against the former Soviet Union, especially during the years-long siege of Leningrad. Interestingly, and memorably, one of the hard-line ministers of culture who was interviewed in what is now Saint-Petersburg dropped a portentous hint, indicating that his countrymen would be willing to discuss the return of trophy art in 20 years or so. Since the movie was produced in the late 1990s, that would place a potential return date… within six to eight years. Now, that’s a sign of hope!
  3. the “Rape of Europa” spends an unnecessarily long, long time on the siege of Monte Cassino in Italy. That accursed monastery drew hellfire for weeks without harming German defenses, but managing to erase a major cultural monument and killing close to a thousand civilians huddled for safety in what they had rightfully viewed as a ‘sanctuary’ from the horrors of war. Needless to say, I cannot blame your average GI Joe for wondering why ten thousand men had to die for that rock.

The third screening reaffirmed what I had long suspected, that the subject of art looting per se was given short shrift throughout this award-winning documentary. Although well-illustrated in its broadest possible strokes, the “Rape of Europa” goes very light on the very complex and very heavy on the not-so-clear. To wit: the actual plunder of collections in occupied Europe was a complicated affair brought about by conflicting interests within the Nazi hierarchy (Goering, Hitler, Himmler, Goebbels, Rosenberg, von Ribbentrop, to name a few) and the plethora of local opportunists that the Nazis encountered in countries that they occupied, who were only too willing to provide their assistance, support and expertise in exchange for a cut of the booty. Too heavy on the not-so-clear is evidenced by the French episode on the Jeu de Paume and Rose Valland, the iconic heroine of art restitution in France on the verge of attaining sainthood should anyone pay close attention to the myths that have been designed around her career as an unwitting curator of the Musée du Jeu de Paume in downtown Paris during the period of German occupation and as the lead postwar restitution officer for a succession of failed French governments up until the early 1960s. 

Myth #1: Rose Valland volunteered for her mission to spy on the Germans at the Jeu de Paume; myth number two: she risked her life every day while taking copious notes on the ins and outs of looted works entering and leaving the Jeu de Paume; myth number three: no one knew that she spoke German. These are some of the many details that have filtered out into postwar revisionist history of cultural plunder in France.

Producers of "Rape of Europa": Richard Berge, Nicole Newnham, and Bonni Cohen
Source: Rape of Europa
On the plus side, I was delighted to finally meet up and converse with Nicole Newnham, one of the producers of the “Rape of Europa” who spoke candidly of her experiences making this beautifully-filmed and edited documentary on a subject that resonates even more today than it did a decade ago and which, for some corny reason, brought me close to tears, more so because we are still so far away from reaching a far-reaching solution to the long-term effects of the continental-wide plunder of cultural items during the Third Reich and the postwar occupation of Germany and Austria by Allied forces. It’s not so much the Rape of Europa as it is the rape of the cultural heritage of the victims of Nazism and Fascism, writ large.