Afterlives: the incredible stories behind recovered Nazi-looted art

中号any museum exhibits impress solely on the aesthetic strengths of the pieces on display. Others are curated to offer a powerful narrative about the work’s creators. Rarely does one walk away from a gallery with a spinning head, thinking of the life led by the paintings, drawings and objects themselves.

Yet that is what’s so remarkable about Afterlives: Recovering the Lost Stories of Looted 艺术, a new show at the Jewish Museum in New York City. While the work itself is certainly extraordinary (the names Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Paul Klee, Marc Chagall and many others speak for themselves) the stories of how this material made its way from private collections in Europe to the safety of Fifth Avenue in Manhattan are fascinating.

If this has you thinking of movies you may have seen, it isn’t by coincidence. John Frankenheimer’s 1964 action thriller The Train, in which Burt Lancaster leads resisters to valiantly rescue carloads of plundered art, is brought to mind with the story of three pieces in the show, Bather and Rocks by Paul Cézanne, Camille Pissarro’s Minette, and a small surrealist Picasso work, Group of Characters, all of which were absconded from Jewish collectors and sent east by train. The works were recovered by Free French and eventually returned.

The Train was based on a book by Rose Valland, who kept secret records of Nazi plundering from her post in the Jeu de Paume museum, which became a repository of works stolen from Jewish owners, or created by Jewish artists, many of which were destroyed for being “degenerate art”. A large-scale photograph of the Jeu de Paume is on display, as are many works that survived the sorting there. (Some of what wasn’t burned was earmarked for Hermann Goering’s personal collection, or for Adolph Hitler’s planned Führermuseum in Linz.)

Valland was later loosely portrayed on film by Cate Blanchett in George Clooney’s Monuments Men. You may recall a final action sequence in that movie set in an Austrian salt mine. A real-life version of that location is where Pierre Bonnard’s Still Life with Guelder Roses and Henri Fantin-Latour’s Self-Portrait, both included in this exhibit, were recovered.

Other stories are no less cinematic. Norbert Troller was a Jewish-Czech architect sent to the Terezin (Theresienstadt) concentration camp. While there he made sketches of everyday life, a forbidden act. He hid his work, but eventually was found out, and sent to Auschwitz as punishment. He survived at the extermination camp, 然而, and after its liberation came to New York City. Later he returned to Terezin, went to his old hiding spot, and recovered his lost illustrations.

Unbelievable stories like this are found time and again in Afterlives. When the work of Jewish painter Fédor Löwenstein was deemed “degenerate” he attempted to ship 20 of his pieces to a gallery in the United States as he fled Paris. The work was seized at the border and slated for destruction, but somehow survived the war, 藏起来, possibly by a brave resister, in the basement of the Louvre. When one looks at his cubist painting Composition, it calls to mind not just things, but people who survived the attempted genocide by going into hiding.

Even more remarkable is the story of the religious and household items from the Jewish community in Danzig (Gdansk). Prior to the Nazi invasion of Poland, members of the community sent numerous enormous crates filled with Judaica for “safekeeping” to the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, weighing, according to the New York Times, more than two tons. 当然, a great many of the original owners were killed in the Holocaust, and were unable to retrieve the various silver Torah shields, Hanukah menorahs, mezuzahs and books.

The “heirless” and “orphaned” pieces were then distributed to synagogues and libraries by a group called the Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, co-founded by Hannah Arendt.

In Afterlives one sees photos of these gigantic crates (another Hollywood image: the ending of Raiders of the Lost Ark) plus an appeal from Arendt to any organization receiving printed materials. She requested that a sticker be added, so that future readers will know of the work’s provenance. For a tribe often called the People of the Book there certainly is an added resonance. Most striking is that the sticker features a six-pointed Star of David in blue, the complementary color to the yellow star Jews were forced to wear under the Nazis. Whereas one meant something was quite likely marked for death, the other is a label of survival.

The last room in the exhibit features a number of contemporary works. Included are Israeli artist Hadar Gad’s large scale oil paintings of the lost Great Synagogue of Danzig, the beige hues of which, albeit coincidentally, recall the sketches Norbert Troller brought back from Terezin. Also striking is the work of Dor Guez, whose heritage is a mix of Tunisian-Jewish and Palestinian-Christian, and includes extreme close-ups of written text with ink blots resembling Rorschach tests. From Brooklyn-based Lisa Oppenheim come a series of prints with variations of an image from a vintage photo she discovered that included a painting by Jean-Baptiste Monnoyer. The painting in the photo is believed to have been destroyed by the Nazis after it was confiscated from a Jewish home.