Matisses, Picassos, Cézannes. Nazi forces plundered scores of artistic treasures — and took an unfathomable number of human lives — during World War II and the Holocaust.
Works of art went on improbable paths before, during and after the war, withstanding harrowing conditions. They wound their way across national borders, through military depots and in and out of networks of collectors, looters, ideologues and restitution organizations.
Now, a new exhibit at the Jewish Museum, “Afterlives: Recovering the Lost Stories of Looted Art” (running through Jan. 9), reveals the remarkable stories behind looted works by Paul Klee, Pierre Bonnard, Marc Chagall and many other artists.
“We wanted to do the show because [restitution] continues to be such an important topic,” said co-curator Darsie Alexander. “So many of the collectors who lost their collections — and those who lost their lives — were Jewish.”
And the breadth of the loss is staggering.
The new show features 53 works of art, 80 Jewish ceremonial objects and a range of photographs and archival documents — a tiny fraction of all the art that was looted.
“There is no accounting for how much was lost and destroyed,” said co-curator Sam Sackeroff, noting that at just one collecting point in Munich, Germany, operated by the Allies after the war, more than a million objects were processed. “It adds up to the millions and millions.”
“The Nazis were trying to destroy Jewish culture,” Alexander added. “They were not successful. The notion of recovery — how these things were saved, not just how they were looted — is a great story.”
Here, the fascinating, poignant real-life tales behind six works of art:
Henri Matisse, ‘Girl in Yellow and Blue With Guitar,’ 1939; and ‘Daisies,’ 1939
The French post-Impressionist painted both of these works a year before the Nazi occupation of Paris. Matisse’s work was banned from German museums, and both paintings belonged to Paul Rosenberg, a renowned French-Jewish collector and dealer who represented many of the most famous and iconic modern artists of the 20th century, including Pablo Picasso and Fernand Léger, as well as his personal friend Matisse.
Rosenberg stored these two works in his bank vault in Bordeaux until the Nazis ravaged it in 1940. He was forced to flee, making his way to America and surviving the war. “But he couldn’t take the contents of his bank vault with him to America,” said Sackeroff.
The paintings were taken to several Nazi storage facilities and wound up at the Jeu de Paume gallery, a massive building in Paris that the Nazis converted into their largest warehouse for looted art. Hitler’s onetime No. 2, Hermann Göring, picked “Girl in Yellow and Blue With Guitar” for his own collection.
“You have these Nazi officials who are burnishing their own personal collections,” said Sackeroff. “[It’s] really craven.”
The paintings were returned to Rosenberg after the war ended, and he later sold them separately. But, destined to be together, they eventually reunited at the Art Institute of Chicago, which added “Daisies” to its collection in 1983 and “Girl” in 2007.
Camille Pissarro, ‘Minette,’ 1872
This painting took an especially heartbreaking journey. The French artist painted his young daughter Jeanne-Rachel — nicknamed Minette and said to be his favorite child — when she was around 7 years old and gifted the painting to a friend. Two years later, in 1874, she died tragically, and Pissarro took the piece back.
At the advent of World War II, the painting belonged in the collection of a prominent member of the German-Jewish community, Bruno Stahl, who stored the work in his bank vault in Paris before fleeing to the US.
It’s one of three paintings in the exhibition — along with Cézanne’s “Bather and Rocks” and Picasso’s “Group of Characters” — that were recovered from the same Nazi train in August 1944. It was collector Rosenberg’s son, Lt. Alexandre Rosenberg of the Free French forces, who intercepted the train. He believed there were hostages on board, only to discover boxcars full of art.
Otto Freundlich, ‘The Unity of Life and Death,’ 1938
On loan from the MoMA is this colorful, abstract oil painting by Freundlich, a Polish-born Jewish artist noted for his innovative way with lines and shapes but held up by the Nazis as a symbol of “degenerate art.”
“One of his works [the sculpture ‘Large Head (The New Man)’] was on the cover of the [catalogue] of the ‘Degenerate Art’ exhibition in Munich that the Nazis organized,” said Alexander. “He was in a very precarious time in his life, being Jewish and being singled out as degenerate. He and his wife were very afraid of being deported.”
The couple hid in a small town in the Pyrenees from 1940 to 1943, but Freundlich was eventually arrested and deported to the Lublin-Majdanek concentration camp in Poland. He was killed the day he arrived in 1943 at age 64.
Much of the artwork featured in “Degenerate Art” was later destroyed by the Nazis — including Freundlich’s “Large Head,” last seen in 1941.
Still, “The Unity of Life and Death” survived. Though not much is known about the trajectory of the painting in the immediate aftermath of the war, it was once in the possession of Peggy Guggenheim in Italy, among other collectors.
Franz Marc, ‘The Large Blue Horses,’ 1911; and Max Pechstein, ‘Nudes in a Landscape,’ 1912
Both works were included in a groundbreaking anti-Hitler exhibition at London’s New Burlington Galleries in 1938 that sought to counter the Nazi’s “Degenerate Art” show in Munich a year prior. “It was an exhibition of German expressionist art that’s much more reverent and celebratory,” explained Sackeroff. While they hung on the same wall in London, they took very different paths after the show.
“Horses” was spared the tumult of the war and traveled to America as part of an exhibit before being purchased by a museum. “Landscape” met a more complicated fate. After the show, it was returned to its rightful owner, a German-Jewish banker and avid art collector named Hugo Simon. But the painting was believed to be looted when his Paris apartment was ransacked by the Nazis years later.
“Landscape” had a very public moment earlier this summer, when the French government returned the work to Simon’s heirs. The French Minister of Culture Roselyne Bachelot-Narquin described the restitution as “the return of a family story, a reunion with a memory, a victory for life.”
Now, some 80 years on, they’re both on the same wall again, this time in New York. “They had these radically diverging lives, and now here they are, hanging side by side,” said Sackeroff.
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