14 November 2011

Safeguarding art in Nazi Germany for the greater good: an outline

For as long as museums have existed, one of their cardinal raisons d’être has been to preserve the finest specimens of “CULTURE” for the greater good, for us, the general public. Although the old yarn remains true, which is to say that most museums with items within their collections more than a century old are comprised of objects of plunder, we forgive their sins for they embody the best of what the civilized world has to offer us, which is beauty embodied in objects of outstanding aesthetic and historical significance in their own right. Or so we hope or think. Not every museum is born equal, and as the world becomes increasingly digitized, the function of these august temples of culture shifts dramatically in emphasis. Should they continue to display objects or should virtual renditions suffice? After all, we sate our thirst for knowledge through Internet searches where we view, admire, study these objects. What we know as modern and as art become increasingly more complex and difficult to tease out as “art” or as “representation” or both. And should we be so picky? And who picks? But then, we are getting ahead of ourselves here.

Back to our museums as temples and guardians.

War and conflict are ideal scenarios during which everything is under threat of destruction and theft. Therefore, if the mission consists in salvaging as much as possible from a culture or a society under direct threat of enslavement, subjugation or, worse, annihilation, museums will, more often than not, become repositories of salvaged objects to be preserved for us and for the aggrieved.

We are now in the 1930s in Germany. As modern art comes under ruthless attack from the New Nazi Order, effective winter of 1933, tens of thousands of works of art are under threat of an unpredictable fate, especially at the hands of roaming bands of Brown Shirts or Sturm Abteilung (SA), eager to cleanse German towns and cities of all that is unhealthy, Jewish, Bolshevist, communistic, antithetical to the New Think.

Museum curators and directors, from as far away as the West Coast of the United States, are watching these troubling events very carefully. American, British, French, Dutch, Swiss cultural institutions have forged close ties with their counterparts in what has now become the Third Reich. Many of their German colleagues are now out of a job, fired because of their support of condemned artistic forms, like Expressionism, Impressionism, Cubism, “Jewish” art. Untold numbers of artists can no longer exhibit their wares, and gradually their creative activity is being regulated before being completely prohibited.

Non-German museums and galleries send scouts and agents scurrying across Germany on a salvage mission. They have expense accounts with which to acquire all that they feel is ‘salvageable’ and worthy of incorporation into their paymasters’ collections. Auctions of collections belonging to the Reich’s political opponents and to recently dispossessed Jews are taking place with increasing frequency even in auction houses run by Jews like Paul Graupe’s famed boutique in Berlin. Opportunities abound as paintings, drawings, prints, sculptures, furniture, disappear from apartments, houses, and galleries and enter the market like a gushing torrent. Hungry artists and dispossessed collectors are only too happy to sell their cultural possessions to be able to survive until making the fateful decision to emigrate. They sell to the agents and scouts of non-German museums and galleries. Enterprising brokers like Richard Zinser travel back and forth between Germany and the United States carrying works on paper, both classical and modern, in portfolios that they show to museum officials up and down the East Coast. Their provenance? Needy refugees only too happy to sell.

As Nazi cultural policies force out of museums onto the open market an increasing number of undesirable works, non-German museums and galleries are only too happy to collect them, through various Reich institutions like the Goebbels Ministry of Propaganda and Cultural Enlightenment. Salvage operation or crime of opportunity?

Whether they are the Saint Louis Museum of Art, the Carnegie Institute’s Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, or the newly-minted Museum of Modern Art in New York, all are on the lookout for ‘salvaging’ works of art from the Nazi maelstrom. How noble!

The salvaged works are either shipped directly to the United States or they transit through Switzerland, France, Belgium, Holland, and the United Kingdom.

Let’s pause here. What does “salvage” actually mean? In plain English, it is akin to a rescue. Hence, the non-German collecting world is eagerly sending emissaries throughout the Reich who meet with German officials, artists and dealers, to rescue works for their collections. Who could even criticize such laudable behavior? Nevertheless, shouldn’t we wonder where salvage ends and opportunism begins? What intentions must we lend to these heralds of Western culture embarked on an altruistic mission to ‘salvage’ what is museum-worthy from the clutches of the Nazis?

There are two kinds of ‘salvage’ operations: those which cast a very wide and undiscriminating net to rescue as many works as possible, regardless of their quality, and there are those “salvage” operations that place quality above quantity and focus solely on what our non-German museum and gallery scouts and agents deem to be of the best quality worth saving. The rest can be consigned to its fate.

In the latter case, salvage takes on the contours of a commercial cultural operation specifically geared to enhance the collections of the institutions that are underwriting these rescue efforts from a land torn by a cultural revolution of sorts, stoked by a racially-inspired political movement.

When we fast forward to the first decade of the twenty-first century, the non-German art world’s “salvage” and “rescue” operations of art disgorged by the Nazis becomes scrutinized anew as heirs of victims of those whose collections ended up on the open market as a direct result of the New Order’s “Kulturkampf” are now suing for recovery of what they view to be their property, forced out of their hands by unscrupulous Nazi officials.

Those works which are not coming under fire are those which were forcibly removed as objectionable or “degenerate” from dozens of State-owned museums and galleries under the same wave of cleansing of the Reich’s cultural assets to suit the new ideology. And there are thousands of these "salvaged"  works that were disgorged from German cultural institutions, which are now spread out across the globe, mostly in Western Europe and North America.

Strangely enough, the non-German art world has accepted the official Nazi mantra which, after 1945, became the official German view, that the ideologically-driven removals of undesirable art objects from German State collections were legitimate de-accessioning acts and, as such, should not be viewed as illegal. Since that time, those “de-accessioned” works have entered the most prestigious collections in the world, including, but not limited to:

  • The Museum of Modern Art of New York
  • The Solomon Guggenheim Museum of Art
  • The Metropolitan Museum of Art
  • The Brooklyn Museum of Art
  • The Cincinnati Art Museum
  • The Carnegie Institute’s Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, PA
  • The Philadelphia Museum of Art
  • The Boston Museum of Fine Arts
  • The St-Louis Art Museum
  • The San Francisco Museum of Art
  • The Tate Gallery
  • The Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection in Madrid, Spain

Museums and galleries in the United Kingdom, Canada, France, Belgium, Holland, Denmark, Sweden, Austria, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, Italy, and so forth, and so on.

It would be nothing short of an earthquake if, all of a sudden, those thousands of “salvaged” works of art were to become subject to restitution and sent back to Germany to resume their place in the collections whence they came. However, the day that the German government decides to overturn one of the few Nazi laws that it has upheld with the unwavering support of postwar Allied powers will surely be a day of reckoning for the international art world and an obvious ethical and moral victory for the victims of Nazi persecution and, especially, for those artists who were hounded, ostracized, and, in many cases, eliminated, and their Jewish art dealers and collectors who either fled into exile or perished in the Reich.

Wishful thinking...