I have been falling behind a bit on posting… In particular, the Chinese contemporary art exhibit “Fresh Ink,” which I saw in Boston a few weeks ago, needs to get posted about. I also saw “The Sound of One Hand,” an exhibit of Zen paintings and calligraphy by Hakuin Ekaku, at Japan Society in NY yesterday, and watched a most fascinating and emotional documentary entitled “The Rape of Europa,” about the systematic plunder of Europe’s art by the Nazis, and Allied efforts to recover those stolen artworks and to protect Europe’s architectural and historical monuments while effectively fighting the Nazis.
Here’s the trailer. I promise the actual film is more dramatic, more engaging, more moving than this.
I barely even know where to start. I had known, as I think most would, that the Nazis did steal artworks, especially from private Jewish citizens. And I had known that Hitler had delusions of grandeur about erecting monuments in his own honor, and moving, re-moving, or renaming or repurposing the monuments of Europe to his own glory. The Eiffel Tower in particular sticks out in my mind as something he was eager to capture, and I know he intended or desired to move Nelson’s Column – if he were to have taken London – to Berlin to stand as a symbol of his victory.
But I never really appreciated or understood the scale of the Nazis’ looting. It was not just about the property of individual Jewish collectors, nor about certain specific monuments. The Nazis set their sights on seizing just about all the great treasures of European art history. I was stunned to learn that even before beginning to invade any foreign countries, Hitler had already drawn up a list of the works he intended to steal when he did begin to take over Europe.
At Hitler’s direction, according to his taste, the Nazis began to gather and form what might have been the greatest art collection Europe has ever seen. Well, the greatest collection of certain periods and types of art. They destroyed those works they deemed degenerate – including Slavic art, and anything Hitler himself judged to be too modernist, too abstract, such as Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works. And they intended to keep, either in personal collections such as that of Luftwaffe chief Hermann Göring or in the grand Führermuseum in Linz (Hitler’s hometown in Austria) which was never built, just about everything else.
The massively famous works they got their hands on are far too numerous to bother naming, including pieces by DaVinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Rembrandt, Vermeer… I was quite impressed that the documentary did not focus especially on one work or another – programs often do this to simplify the story for the viewer, and to make it more emotional, at the cost, in my opinion, of making it seem less scholarly, less serious, less professional. A few of the works which were highlighted, however, just to give you a sense, including a “Portrait of a Young Man” by Raphael (right) which remains missing, a DaVinci portrait of “A Lady with an Ermine” which we have all seen, on book covers, or somewhere, which I never knew, never suspected, had been stolen from a museum in Cracow.
The owner of the works – it was a small museum of a private collection – moved them to his country estate, in an attempt to secret them away from the Nazis. He placed them in his cellar, and bricked up the wall around them. Unfortunately, German soldiers got to them, stealing a number of golden objects and other things of more obvious value, and, apparently, leaving the priceless paintings there. The DaVinci was found with a bootprint on it.
It was not just private collectors and dealers – such as the Paris-based Jewish art dealer Andre Seligmann – who were stolen from. As the German invasion of France began, the Louvre rushed to pack up many of its treasures, to evacuate them from the city to castles (chateaus) in the countryside where it was hoped they would be safe. One of the more amazing notes in the film was the brief description of a woman by the name of Rose Valland (right), a low-ranking museum staffer, meek in appearance and attracting no attention, who never let on that she understood German, and who secretly maintained a diary of every artwork the Nazis stole from Paris (or at least from that one museum, I guess), who/where it was stolen from, and where it was taken off to. Towards the end of the war, when the Allies were seeking to restore, that is to say, restitute, these stolen works to their original owners, her journal became invaluable.
Towards the end of the war, the US military designated a number of art experts among their ranks to become “Monuments Men,” guiding the military in identifying historical sites that needed to be avoided as a city was bombed or attacked, and in seeking out artworks the Nazis had stolen. (If only we had something like that today, in Iraq and Afghanistan…) The Soviets had their own “Trophy Hunter” units, which regained much Russian art stolen by the Nazis, but also took much genuinely German art back to Russia, a massive plundering in itself – many of these works remain today in Russian collections, and Russian museums and cultural ministries refuse to return the objects. But, returning to the point, I found it fascinating to learn a bit more about how certain historical sites were and were not damaged or destroyed in the course of the war. Rome was nearly entirely spared, thanks in part to the US determination to preserve the city, and in part to the Nazi retreat further north, sparing the city from a ground battle, or bombing raids, for control of it. A bombing raid of Florence’s railyards was described in the film as one of the most precision attacks of the whole of WWII, destroying the target while sparing Florence’s ancient and magnificent architecture; during the battle for the city, wooden boxes, sandbags, and various other methods were used in attempts to protect the immovable treasures of Florence – public sculpture, architectural features, and the like, incl. Michelangelo’s David, which is a hell of a lot bigger than I imagined it being. These efforts were largely successful, but sadly, after stealing thousands of works of art out of the Uffizi and other museums of Florence, when they were pushed out of the city, as they withdrew, the Nazis blew up several of Florence’s bridges – including one designed by Michelangelo – as they did in a number of other places as well, vindictively destroying priceless European (or world) heritage as they retreated.
The Allies bombed the head monastery of the Benedictine Order at Monte Cassino, thinking it to be occupied by German soldiers and to be essential to breaking the German line. As it turned out, the soldiers were around the monastery, not in it, and the only ones killed were monks and civilians. In Pisa, the Leaning Tower and its accompanying cathedral suffered only minimal damage in the war, but the Camposanto, a medieval mausoleum less popularly-known but academically recognized as of superior significance, suffered terribly from Allied bombing (as seen in a photo from 1944, right). While the frescoes of the Camposanto were, thankfully, not lost entirely, the fact that conservation efforts continue today may provide something of a hint as to the extent of the damage.
I would love to see a film on the same subject, and in the same mode, addressing art plundering and the damage done to historical sites in the East. I imagine there must be documentaries addressing how Kyoto and Nara were spared bombing just as 70+ cities in Japan were not, but if such documentaries exist, I am unaware of them. What artworks did the Japanese steal, and how much has been given back? What historical sites – castles, palaces, temples – in China, Korea, SE Asia, and elsewhere, were destroyed? I have seen references, in passing, in journal articles to the idea that Japan intended to gather together art treasures from all its colonies (read: conquered lands, from China to Burma), but as “The Rape of Europa” hammers home, nothing in history comes even close to what the Nazis attempted and perpetrated. Literally millions of works of art, including hundreds or thousands of works by some of the most famous artists in European history, snatched away, and much of it still today either missing, or otherwise still in the hands of museums or collectors other than those from whom they were stolen.
The Utah Museum of Fine Arts was all too happy to cooperate and come out looking like the good guys when they were informed that a painting in their collection had been stolen by the Nazis from Andre Seligmann, a premier art dealer in pre-war Paris. A rather emotional scene in the documentary shows Seligmann’s daughter officially receiving the painting from the museum.
A woman in Austria finally in 2005 or so won her decades-long battle with the Austrian government for ownership of a number of works by Gustav Klimt, including a portrait of her aunt, which, while not “The Kiss,” is surely among the most famous of Klimt’s works. The aunt had specified in her will, before she died in 1923, that upon her husband’s death the painting should be donated to the Austrian National Gallery. But that was before the government, in concert with the Nazis, stole the works from her husband, prior to his death. From the way the documentary tells it, it seems fairly obvious that the terms of the will, or at the very least the spirit of the aunt’s intentions, were null and void with the dramatic political shift and the corresponding events. But, for decades after the war, the Austrian government insisted it had rightful ownership. …
The Monument Men found immense stores of stolen artworks in German castles, and deep in salt mines, as well as in rural villages, and elsewhere. Once Germany fell, and Victory was declared in Europe, collection points were established – one in Nazi Party HQ in Munich – where discovered works would be brought by Allied forces, to be catalogued, conserved or restored, accounted for, and shipped out to their proper owners, in however many cases such a thing could be done. One of the most upsetting and emotional parts of the film for me was seeing how, after returning thousands of paintings, sculptures, and other works of “fine art” to museums in France, Italy, and elsewhere, the collections points were left with piles of Torah scrolls, silver Torah crowns, golden menorahs, and other religious objects whose owners did not survive. One of the WWII veterans interviewed explained that for him, going through Neuschwanstein castle, and seeing all the artworks and other belongings – furniture, silverware, etc. – stolen from Jewish families, was a profoundly meaningful and impactful aspect of the Holocaust. Though little-discussed today, this art plundering side of things, one can easily see how rooms upon rooms upon rooms of the formerly treasured belongings of Jewish families has just the same emotional impact, the same implications and associations, as a pile of shoes, or of suitcases. I nearly lost it myself, looking at these piles of Torah scrolls, in such roughed up condition, lying there on the floor, or jumbled up on shelves.
Many of these were eventually donated to Jewish Museums and Libraries, and individual congregations, around the world.
There is of course much more one could say about this documentary. It was chock-full of fascinating narratives and shocking, intriguing tidbits, and on more than one occasion I found myself going off on tangents thinking about discursive and practical questions that I perceived… What does one do with a train station such as Paris Austerlitz that was used as a major logistical hub by the Nazis, where the greatest artistic and historical treasures of your national heritage were shipped away, not to mention where tens or hundreds of thousands of your countrymen were packed into trains and shipped off to their deaths? Our hoity-toity graduate school theory classes would teach us that the discursive implications of continuing to use the site as an active train station are just too… too strong, too inappropriate. But, practically speaking, to move the station, when it is in such a prime logistically logical and efficient place to begin with – not to mention the actual physical monetary cost of destroying it and rebuilding the rail network – is just not necessarily feasible. Likewise, I got to thinking about the painting in the Utah Museum. If I discovered tomorrow that a small US museum had a painting that had belonged to my grandparents (who were, by the way, Holocaust survivors), what would I do? Of course I would want to feel that I, that is to say, my family, owned the work once again, that it had been restored to our possession. I would want to see the work, to engage with it, to possess it, and to feel that connection to my family’s past, and to the idea of right having been done, the Nazis’ schemes having been foiled. But after that, what would I do with it? Hang it up in my sitting room where no one but myself, friends, family, and invited guests would see this marvel by Rembrandt? Pass it on to my son, and then to his son, and then to his son? To what end, really? I am tempted almost to think that I would take back official title and deed to the painting, and place it on permanent loan to the museum, a gesture of thanks for having been so cooperative and eager to return it. After all, while I may feel differently if it were in fact me, as it is, from my distanced perspective, I kind of feel bad for the curators, for the museum, for the museum’s visitors, and for the museum’s bottom line, to see such a valuable and beautiful object leave the collection, no matter the reason. Maria Altmann, after regaining the Klimt portrait of her aunt Adele Bloch-bauer, sold it at auction for a record US$135 million, the most ever paid for a painting ever, and attracted a considerable amount of criticism and controversy for it.
In any case, I strongly recommend this film, and if anyone might recommend any other documentaries about the art world, especially about looting and plunder, art heists and recovery of stolen works, I would be most eager to hear about them.