Category Archives: Art

Father and Son and Nazi Art

 

Mary Lane, Hitler’s Last Hostages:

Looted Art and the Soul of the Third Reich

(PublicAffairs)

In November 2013, Mary Lane, chief European art correspondent for the Wall Street Journal and all of 26 years old, was in New York to attend an art auction at Christie’s when her editor called and asked her to fly to Berlin immediately to cover a breaking story: a German magazine, Focus, had just revealed that nearly a year earlier a trove of approximately 1,200 artworks ostensibly stolen by Adolph Hitler’s Nazi regime, including works by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Pablo Picasso, Edgar Degas, and Henri Matisse, had been discovered by German authorities in the Munich apartment of Cornelius Gurlitt, a reclusive octogenarian, in the course of a tax investigation.  If authentic, the works were clearly worth several million dollars.

Lane got her story out that November, then spent the next several years looking into the story behind the story.  The result is Hitler’s Last Hostages: Looted Art and the Soul of the Third Reich, which lays out how Cornelius’ father, Hildebrand Gurlitt, had amassed these and other paintings (along with some sculptures, woodcuts and etchings) while working on the  Adolph Hitler’s obsessional dream of the Führermuseum, a museum to be built near his birthplace in Linz, Austria, to showcase the art which the Nazis had stolen from museums, galleries, and private collections across Europe.  The Gurlitt case is intriguing, as Lane amply demonstrates, but hardly singular.  The Nazis stole a staggering amount of artwork during their murderous twelve years in power.

What Lane terms the “largest art heist in history” (p.122) includes approximately 600,000 paintings stolen from Jews alone, at least 100,000 of which are still missing, according to Stuart Eizenstat, United States  State Department expert advisor for Holocaust issues.  Eizenstat characterized the looting as “not only designed to enrich the Third Reich, but also an integral part of the Nazi goal of eliminating all vestiges of Jewish identity and culture.”  Eizenstat was the primary negotiator of the “Washington Principles,” a set of terms agreed upon in December 1998 by 44 countries, including Germany, Switzerland and Austria, to facilitate the return of Nazi-confiscated artworks to their lawful owners or compensate them.  The principles were more moral commitments than legal constraints, to be implemented within each country’s legal framework.   Since the principles were adopted, efforts to restore confiscated artworks to their rightful owners or their families have intensified.  Yet one of Lane’s most startling discoveries was that in the Gurlitt case Germany demonstrated a surprisingly tepid commitment to the Washington Principles.

Lane seeks to place the father-and-son Gurlitt case within the broader context of how art figured into the racist ideology of the Nazi regime.  She provides much biographical information on Hitler’s youth and especially his artistic pretensions prior to World War I — her first full chapter for example, is entitled “Portrait of the Dictator as a Young Man.”   Hitler was “genuinely obsessed with art” (p.7), she observes at the outset, considering himself an artist first and a politician second.

In elaborating upon how integral art was to the overall Nazi project, Lane emphasizes the role that Hitler’s sycophantic propagandist Joseph Goebbels played in prioritizing Hitler’s vision of what he termed “Aryan art” and ridding Europe of its opposite, “degenerate art.”  These terms were never satisfactorily defined, but in the Nazis’ binary world, Aryan art tended toward romantic landscapes, classical nudes and depictions of the heroic endeavors of the German people, whereas “degenerate art” usually referred to contemporary works, works that contained unpatriotic or overtly sexual themes, or were produced by Jewish artists – and often a mixture of these factors.   Lane adds specificity to her story by tracing the fate of two confiscated paintings that were discovered in Cornelius’ possession in 2012 and the effort thereafter to return them to their rightful owners: German Jewish impressionist Max Liebermann’s 1921 Two Riders on the Beach, inspired by the equestrian paintings of Edgar Degas; and Henri Matisse’s Woman With a Fan, a 1901 portrait of a “creamy-skinned brunette with a flowered blouse waving a fan to ward off the summer heat “ (p.159).

Lane also takes an unusually long look at George Grosz, a contemporary of Hitler who like the future Führer served in World War I and gained prominence – or notoriety – through his brutal depictions of the war’s realities.  After the war, Grosz was identified with the Dada art movement, which portrayed the follies of war in satirical and often non-nonsensical images.  He further burnished his reputation with his graphic sexual representations.  Grosz  became an outspoken and highly visible opponent of Hitler and his party.  To the Nazis, he represented degenerate art at its most degenerate.  After Grosz fled to the United States in 1933, some of his paintings wound up in the Gurlitt trove.

At times, Grosz seems to be the main protagonist of Lane’s story.  She devotes extensive portions of her book to him presumptively to demonstrate what principled artistic opposition to Hitler entailed.  But the Grosz sections are not an easy fit with the rest of her narrative.  The Gurlitt case, only about one half of this volume, is easily the most compelling half.

* * *

Hildebrand Gurlitt was born in 1895 in Dresden, and grew up in an artistic milieu. His father was a respected art historian whose tastes favored contemporary artists rather than old masters.  Hildebrand’s  maternal grandmother was Jewish, making him vulnerable when the Nazis came to power in 1933.  In the 1920s, Gurlitt became the director of a small-town museum where he promoted contemporary art and numerous Jewish artists, while engaging simultaneously in the ethically dubious practice of brokering sales.  He then moved to head the Hamburg Art Association, but was fired from the position shortly after the Nazis came to power, both because his preference for avant-garde art clashed with the Nazis’ artistic tastes and because he refused to fly the Nazi flag outside the Association’s building.

As the Nazis’ virulent anti-Semitism increased, Gurlitt realized that as a one quarter Jew who was no fan of the Nazis, he had to “leave the country, join the resistance, retreat into obscurity, or collaborate with the Nazis” (p.127).  Gurlitt chose the last option, becoming in 1938 one of four officially designated art dealers authorized to help liquidate confiscated Nazi artworks to support the Führermuseum project.  Hitler and Goebbels envisioned financing the project by seizing paintings and other artworks from galleries and museums across the country — and, later, in countries they planned to conquer — and destroying most “degenerate” pieces but selectively selling others across the continent to increase their foreign currency reserves to finance their war efforts.

Gurlitt used his extensive international connections to put together deals for the acquisition of works for the Führermuseum, many of which took place in France and the Netherlands after the Nazis occupied those countries.  Gurlitt generally returned to the government much of what he realized from his sales, but was allowed to keep a commission.   He also retained a portion of the works on the side for his personal “collection.”  With few exceptions, Gurlitt destroyed the paperwork.  As the Nazis faltered on the battlefield after their defeat at Stalingrad in early 1943, Hitler remained obsessed with the Führermuseum and Gurlitt forged ahead with acquisitions for the museum – and for himself.

Toward the end of 1943 or in early 1944, Gurlitt personally retained several stunning paintings by respected old masters, including a luminous work from the 1630s by Jan Brueghel the Younger of Dutch villagers welcoming home sailors.  He also consummated a huge art deal in Paris just before it was liberated in August 1944, acquiring works by many of the most significant names in modern French art, among them Degas, Manet, Pissaro, Renoir, and Courbet.  The deal included paintings and sculptures, but also woodcuts, lithographs and etchings.  The latter were easier to transport and “particularly difficult to trace as artists usually produced them in limited editions” (p.167).

If Gurlitt paid something for these and other artworks, it was a fraction of their  true value, and the money probably did not reach the genuine owners.  Overall, Gurlitt acquired approximately 3,800 pieces for the Fühermuseum project, making a small fortune in commissions for himself in the process, all the while acquiring works for his own collection.  It is “inconceivable,” Lane observes, that “on his salary Gurlitt could have acquired the more than 1,000 artworks he obtained during the war were it not for the dirty money he took in exchange for working as a high-ranking member of Hitler’s Führermuseum Project” (p.163).

In 1945, the year of the Nazi capitulation, Gurlitt moved most of his works to a private collection outside Dresden, his home city, and later to a manor 250 miles away in southwest Germany.  From there, he began a five year cat-and-mouse game with the “Monuments Men,” a group of about 400 art experts from Allied nations, formed in 1943 to protect art and other culturally significant artifacts in the event of an Allied victory.  In the post-war period, the Monuments Men were charged with finding and recovering artworks stolen by the Nazis (part of what was officially known as the “Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Program,” the Monuments Men were celebrated in an eponymous 2014 film that starred George Clooney and Matt Damon).   Coming from many countries, the Monuments Men often did not speak a common language and never had the resources needed to accomplish their objectives.  Gurlitt bet his future and his art trove on telling them “calculated lies” for which they would have “insufficient resources to fact-check or rebut” (p.183).

Gurlitt won the bet.  The Monuments Men focused more on Gurlitt’s boss on the Führermuseum project, Hermann Voss, but eventually turned to him.  They questioned him seriously enough that he ended up giving up approximately 7% of his stock, falsely claiming that it represented his entire collection.  In late 1950, the Monuments Men returned the 7% to Gurlitt, which included Liebermann’s Two Riders on the Beach.   At some point in the post-war period, Gurliit also acquired Matisse’s Woman With a Fan, which the Nazis had looted from the renowned Parisian gallery of Paul Rosenberg, a personal friend of Pablo Picasso.   After Rosenberg fled Paris for the United States in 1940, the Nazis turned the gallery into the “Institute for the Study of Jewish Questions.”

* * *

Hildebrand Gurlitt died in an automobile crash on the Autobahn in November 1956, the point at which Lane’s focus turns to son Cornelius, 24 at the time of his father’s death.   Hildebrand’s estate provided Cornelius  with a comfortable inheritance, and from that point onward he determined that he would not work.  But he discretly sold  some of the works his father had retained on the grey market, dealing most frequently with Galerie Kornfeld in Bern, Switzerland.  In 1960, Cornelius moved into a huge house in Salzburg, and took with him 250 of his father’s most precious items, including works by Picasso, Munch, and Kandinsky.  His mother died in 1968 and he and his younger sister Betina had a falling out, after which  the increasingly isolated Cornelius began to manifest symptoms of severe paranoia.

By September 2011, German tax authorities suspected that Cornelius had been selling art without meeting reporting requirements.  In February 2012, the authorities obtained a warrant to enter Cornelius’s Munich apartment and ended up seizing all that he had hoarded there, approximately 1,2000 artworks.  German authorities did not disclose the confiscation to the international community, as the Washington Principles prescribed.  The German Government did commission a task force to evaluate the works, but only for tax purposes, not whether they might constitute confiscated art.  Chancellor Angela Merkel refused to make any public statement on the matter, not even an acknowledgement of the need for Germany to increase its efforts to restitute Nazi-confiscated art.  To Lane, it looked like the German government simply wanted to hide this discovery from world attention.

Cornelius, for his part, remained defiant. He gave an interview to Der Spiegel in which he defended his father, denying that he had been complicit in the crimes of the Nazi regime, and further denying that either he or his father had dealt in confiscated  art.  His father had been a hero for saving art from destruction, Cornelius contended.   Protected by a statute of limitations that had run in 1970, he went on to say that even if clear proof of prior ownership were presented, he had no intention of returning the works.  With the war 70 years in the past, it was time for families with claims to such works to “simply move on” (p.226).   And he chastised the government for invading his property and privacy, without charging him of a crime.

When German art experts suggested that he donate the works to a museum, Cornelius, then gravely ill, came up with a more cunning idea.  While hospitalized in January 2014, he signed a secret will that bequeathed his entire collection to the Kunstmuseum Bern in the Swiss capital.  But later that year, as he literally lay dying, he had a change of heart, in Lane’s view the result of contemplating the adverse effect which publicity about his case had had on his family name.  Cornelius signed an agreement in which the government dropped its tax investigation and stipulated to a one-year research period during which the state would have access to all paintings in his collection.  Shortly thereafter, in May 2014, Cornelius died at age 82.

After Cornelius’s death, his lawyers, the Kunstmuseum Bern and the German government formalized a deal his whereby the government would conduct research into the provenance of each work and return any looted pieces to the rightful heirs, if they could be located.  The remainder would belong exclusively to the museum. The families of the original owners of Max Liebermann’s Two Riders on the Beach and Matisse’s Woman with a Fan, were easily identified.  Both families were by then Jewish-American, living in New York City, and each presented unimpeachable documentation of lawful ownership.

Marianne Rosenberg, the granddaughter of Paul Rosenberg, had actively pursued the Matisse painting with her father, Paul’s son Alexandre, who died in 1987.  The Rosenbergs elected to keep the painting, one of the most valuable in the Gurlitt trove.  Liebermann’s Two Riders on the Beach belonged to the family of Holocaust survivor David Toren, then approaching age 90.  Less wealthy than the Rosenberg family, the Torens sold Liebermann’s work on auction.  Their long pursuit of the painting was by then well-publicized, and the family was more than surprised that the final price came to nearly five times its conservative initial estimate.  Recovery of the painting for the Toren family constituted a “further step in the long process of coping with the pain that Hitler had inflicted on millions of people,” Lane writes, and provided the family with a “certain sense of emotional closure regarding their fraught past” (p.256).   Lane does not indicate whether any additional works in the Gurlitt trove were returned to rightful owners.

* * *

In an Epilogue, Lane discusses an October 2018 exhibition in Berlin that featured 200 works from the Gurlitt trove, most by artists whom Hitler had labeled degenerate, including several Grosz street scenes.  German Culture Minister Monika Grütters made the opening remarks at the exhibition, noting how Germany had made progress in establishing institutions to deal with looted Nazi art.  But she never acknowledged that Germany had made any errors in how it had handled the Gurlitt case.  Nor did Minister Grütters address why the German government, by hiding the existence of the trove for more than a year, had “obstructed the very investigation into the art works that she now claimed to advocate” (p. 61).

By that time, moreover, Lane goes on to note, no high level German official had publicly backed the enactment of legislation, such as amending the statute of limitations, that would prevent a “future Gurlitt” from admitting to hiding Nazi-looted artworks while flaunting how the law protected him over the victims from whom the works had been stolen.  Lane’s answer to the question whether Germany had learned enough in the case she so  thoroughly investigated to prevent future Gurlitts  is a “resounding ‘no’” (p.266).

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

November 5, 2020

 

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