painting by Marc Chagall  found in Munich trove

painting by Marc Chagall  found


Any one who has ever fallen in love with a work of art can readily understand the desire to possess the object of affection. The majority of art lovers must content themselves with visits to public museums and galleries if they wish to be near the works they adore. A lucky few have the resources to buy works of original art, or as luck would have it inherit them.

According to German news site Spiegel Online, inheritance explains the recent news of a large yet unknown treasure trove of art, (more than 1400 pieces) at a collector’s home in Munich. But that is certainly only the surface of the story which hints at the dark side of love where obsession and greed overwhelm the impulse to engage with the world as a human being. Cornelius Gurlitt inherited the collection from his father, Hildebrand an art historian, museum director, art dealer and Nazi collaborator.  During an investigation into unpaid taxes the horde was uncovered and questions about provenance arose.  Not all of the works may be considered “lost art”, but 970 works are being investigated for links to art confiscated during Nazi persecutions.

Of interest to me and to other scholars of German art of the period 1919 to 1933 are works which were labeled “degenerate art” by Hitler and thought to have been destroyed. In the book “Glitter and Doom German Portraits from the 1920s” that accompanied the 2006 Metropolitan Museum of Art Exhibit of the same name,  Sabine Rewald writes in the introductory essay, “The portraits of the Neue Sachlichkeit artists were no longer exhibited. Their works were declared “degenerate”, banned, and confiscated from German museums.  Artists like Otto Dix, Georg Grosz and Max Beckmann had hundreds of pieces seized before they and most of their sitters went into exile.

I began studying this period in art history in an attempt to better understand my Jewish heritage and how the Holocaust could have happened.  Through the art and literature of the period I continue to gain insight into Germany and the world post WWI.  I’ve written a number of essays about the subject and share here some of my thinking on the subject.

Imagine life as a citizen of a country whose entire national identity was obliterated in five years? Centuries of belief in Teutonic superiority, and common ideals like order, discipline, and heroism are wiped out because you are defeated in a war that you started. More than just buildings crumbled in Germany during WW1. The collective unconscious disintegrated along with everything else, and the centerpiece of the purge of the old Germany was the abdication of it’s hereditary imperial figurehead, Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1918.

All was chaos, but out of the smoke emerged a new democratic Weimar Republic intent on building something meaningful out of the rubble. Berlin was then the center of this great shift and artists like Christian Schad, George Grosz, Otto Dix, Jeanne Mammen, Karl Hubbuch, Rudolph Schlichter and many others used their skill and talent to express in paint, pen, pencil, ink, metal, wood and other materials what words could not possibly capture. Through the extraordinary works they left behind we can see through their eyes what life during this thrilling and turbulent period was really like, not just for the celebrities and the wealthy, but for the millions of war widows, orphans, disfigured and disabled veterans, and the millions of other Germans struggling to make a living while trying to make sense of this new uncertain world.

To learn more about the “lost art” found in Munich you may view some of the works by visiting the link here:http://www.lostart.de/Webs/EN/Datenbank/KunstfundMuenchen.html

To learn more about the exhibition Glitter and Doom visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art here:http://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2006/glitter-and-doom

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