Some headlines from the last few months. March: the French government agrees to return a major landscape by Gustav Klimt to the heirs of Nora Stiasny, a Jewish woman from Vienna, forced to sell it before being sent to her death in 1942.
June: the Royal Museums of Fine Arts in Brussels returns a still life by Lovis Corinth to the family of Gustav and Emma Mayer, Jewish refugees from Germany whose belongings were looted in Nazi-occupied Belgium.
August: the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam agrees to return an early Kandinsky to the descendants of Irma Klein and Robert Lewenstein, a Jewish couple forced to sell it during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands.
World War II is three-quarters of a century past now, but the fate of artworks stolen from Jewish collectors in Europe from 1933 to 1945 remains nowhere near settled. American museums (most notably the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston) are also embroiled in claims and counterclaims about what constitutes a sale under duress. This year Holocaust survivors’ demands reached the U.S. Supreme Court. And as museums and governments also reckon with demands to repatriate artifacts removed from former colonies, the legal precedents concerning Nazi spoliation have global significance.
So I came to “Afterlives: Recovering the Lost Stories of Looted Art,” a no doubt well-intentioned exhibition about plundered art that opened last month at the Jewish Museum, to explore a chapter of history that is still a current event. I left with a sense of disappointment, even bewilderment. It assembles a somewhat haphazard cross-section of looted and recovered paintings, from a history painting by the Baroque painter Bernardo Strozzi to a Matisse still life made more than three centuries later. But their full stories get drowned out in a show that flits among far too many themes: looted art, purged museums, Jewish literary and religious volumes, art made in concentration camps, not to mention some wan “responses” to the past from contemporary artists. Regarding one of the gravest periods in art history, “Afterlives” is imprecise about its subject, and sometimes outright careless about the Jewish lives it supposedly reintroduces.
“Afterlives” tells us from its subtitle on that it aims at “recovering the lost stories of looted art.” An introductory text promises to recount “the stories of the people who experienced it.” Two of the three paintings in the first gallery indicate the subject’s stakes. A small, thick floral still life by Bonnard, now owned by the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, was one of thousands stolen by the Nazis from the French banker David David-Weill and stored in an Austrian salt mine. A bright landscape with nudes by Max Pechstein, a painter of the Expressionist group Die Brücke, was seized from the Paris home of Hugo Simon and only returned to his heirs this year.
But when you read the text beside the first painting you see in this show, Franz Marc’s “The Large Blue Horses” of 1911, you’ll discover that it was never looted at all. This large oil, a prime example of the Munich avant-garde movement Der Blaue Reiter, was shown alongside the Pechstein in an anti-Nazi exhibition in London in 1938, the year after the notorious “Degenerate Art” show that targeted so many German modern artists. After that, “The Large Blue Horses” was shipped to the United States, where it appeared in a touring show of banned German art. By 1942, it entered the collection of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.
To open a show about looting with a picture that wasn’t looted does not inspire confidence, and “Afterlives” only gets foggier about what its subject really is. A collage by Kurt Schwitters, made from exile in Norway, and a landscape of Cape Cod by George Grosz, exiled in the United States, broach the fates of German artists who, like Marc, were denounced by the Nazi regime. But the show only glances at the particulars of the Third Reich’s “degenerate” art policies, which are in any case a different question from the matter of Nazi theft.
The show’s on surer footing with works of art presented as concrete proof of crime. A large, early Cézanne bather and a scene of spindly figures by Picasso both belonged to Alphonse Kann, a Parisian bon vivant (and model for Proust’s Swann), who left them behind when he left for London in 1938. Both are visible in a mural-size photograph of the Paris storeroom where the Nazis gathered stolen paintings: the “Room of the Martyrs,” in the Jeu de Paume Museum.
The show then veers away from fine art to Jewish religious texts and ritual objects, mostly from this museum’s permanent collection, that were shipped from Danzig to New York for safekeeping in 1939. The Jews of Danzig were almost entirely exterminated, and after the war these Torah shields and Kiddush cups were redistributed to Jewish communities elsewhere. Their survival is testament to the extraordinary efforts of Americans and others who led Jewish cultural reconstruction — but that communitarian and spiritual undertaking doesn’t blend seamlessly with the legal challenges of recovering the stolen art of individual Jews.
In all this miscellany, the actual victims of Nazi looting become an afterthought — and are even treated as interchangeable. The lives of the men and women who actually owned these particular paintings, from Alphonse Kann to David David-Weill, are well known and well researched. But rather than reinscribe them onto the art they once owned, “Afterlives” instead offers 10 images of … well, some other persecuted Jews, as photographed by August Sander, the great portraitist of interwar Germany. It is a metonymy that suggests that the irreducible lives and fates of the dispossessed are not this show’s concern, and certainly haven’t been “recovered” as we were promised at the outset.
If looting and restitution were this show’s true focus, then at the very minimum each label should have outlined, in chronological order, the owners of these artworks from their creation to the present day. That was the strategy of “Gurlitt: Status Report,” the two-part blockbuster outing of a collection with a Nazi provenance, staged in Bern and Bonn in 2017. Beside each painting or drawing, a label tracked its movements from the studio onward — to insist that you were looking not (or not merely) at objects of beauty, but at evidence of a crime.
Or show the backs of some of these paintings, where their labels could testify to their theft and recovery. The Jewish Museum has borrowed from Richmond a pastoral scene by Claude Lorrain, “Battle on a Bridge,” confiscated by the Nazis from the Paris art dealer Georges Wildenstein. The text alongside mentions that the painting was destined for Hitler’s never-built art temple in Austria. But only in the catalog did I learn that it bears a Führermuseum inventory number — No. 2207 — right on the stretcher bar. Why not hang the painting on stanchions, so we can see the Nazi scar on the verso? Or at least picture the reverse side on the label? That’s how the Henie Onstad Kunstsenter in Oslo did it in 2015, after discovering that the museum owned a Matisse looted — like the two in this show — from the Parisian art dealer Paul Rosenberg.
Rather than disclose looting through exhibition design, the Jewish Museum cedes more than a quarter of the show’s square footage to contemporary artists for their responses, but they mostly obscure more than they reveal. One worthy of the task is Maria Eichhorn, who’s spent two decades undertaking research-based projects on the provenance of art stolen by the Nazis. Here she has gathered dozens of books in New York libraries with bookplates from Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, whose research arm was led by Hannah Arendt. From a loudspeaker we hear an actor reading Arendt’s field reports, whose exactitude matches Eichhorn’s own document-by-document approach to dispossession.
Would that the other contemporary projects showed the same Arendtian rigor. Lisa Oppenheim, an American photographer, collages a looted still life and occluded satellite imagery of the Parisian house from which it was stolen — a literal fogging over of well-known victims. (It only took me a minute’s Googling to discover that the owners were the prominent Michel-Levys; the label here calls them only “the Jewish family.”)
Dor Guez, an artist of Jewish and Palestinian descent, has been given substantial acreage for an archival farrago of his grandfather’s handwriting samples and his grandmother’s costume patterns, evoking their immigration from Tunisia to Israel in 1951. In an exhibition about, say, migration and family, it might have a passing interest. But I’ve got no clue why this tangential project gets the last word in a show that ought to have been about the victims of looting and the objects they lost.
It says everything about this show’s lack of focus that I learned more about one artist’s family than I did about Hugo Simon, who left the Pechstein landscape behind when he fled to Brazil; about Alphonse Kann, separated from that large Cézanne bather and little Picasso; about Oscar Bondy, the Viennese industrialist whose Strozzi was stolen in the wake of the Anschluss. Theirs were the “lost stories” I’d come for. I could hardly find them.
Afterlives: Recovering the Lost Stories of Looted Art
Through Jan. 9 at the Jewish Museum, 1109 Fifth Ave. at 92nd Street, Manhattan, 212-423-3200, thejewishmuseum.org.