Nazi-looted art: How many more masterpieces are out there?

The whole history of art in the 20th Century may now require careful revision

Share

The story of the sleazy Munich apartment stashed with great works of art is one of those “Silent on a peak in Darien” moments. Like “stout Cortez” in Keats’s poem, who stared out over the previously unknown Pacific Ocean “with a wild surmise”, we don’t yet know the scale of it, we have no idea how far it may extend. But both the paintings of which images have so far been released, a self-portrait by Otto Dix and a new work by Paul Klee, are clearly worth millions, and it is likely that many of the 1,400 plus will be in the same category.

So we would appear to be on the threshold of an age in which the achievements of many of the greatest, most seminal artists of the 20th century will need to be radically re-assessed. And that itself will have knock-on effects for the work of artists practicing today. Every age builds on the one just gone, but if the art of that age turns out to have had dimensions and qualities and aspirations previously unimagined, it is not only the historians who will want to assess it afresh but contemporary artists as well.

Also ripe for reconsideration will be the attitude of the Nazi leadership to the work they proscribed as “decadent”, which essentially meant everything that we think of as modern. It has long been known that mountains of modern art disappeared in Germany during the Third Reich; until now the supposition was that the works that were not sold or smuggled abroad were destroyed, either deliberately burned in the same way that the Nazis burned books by the authors they hated, or as collateral damage during British and American bombing raids. The Munich discovery throws those suppositions into doubt. If it is indeed, as is being claimed, “the tip of the iceberg”, it is not only the history of art that will need to be revised. Were these “decadent” pictures not banished or burned but squirreled away for the Nazi leaders’ secret delectation once the war had ended and Europe lay at their feet, as they intended it would?

Aesthetic issues bulked large for all Europe’s 20th-century totalitarian regimes, all deliberately trying to remodel the world in their own ideological image. Stalin retreated from the futuristic work that orchestrated the Bolshevik revolution into the banality of socialist realism. Mussolini, consciously trying to bring about a new Roman golden age, was a more flexible patron: much of Italy’s surviving “Fascist” architecture marries modern scale and materials with what was theorised as quintessentially Italian, classical qualities in ways that still look fresh today. And perhaps because Italy’s Fascist regime was rarely as successfully tyrannical as they hoped to be, a wide range of artists and artistic styles continued to flourish in Italy throughout the 1930s.

Hitler, the failed painter of romantic scenes, gave an inordinate amount of his attention to art and architecture but purely as ideological instruments: Albert Speer’s colossal  architecture to awe and intimidate his enemies, the sculpture of Arno Breker to idealise the muscularity of the Aryan ideal, the films of Leni Riefensthal to fill the German masses with patriotic ardour. But all that was in public. The survival of so much “decadent” art inside Germany may turn out to indicate that, at least for their own private amusement, some Nazi leaders were hedging their artistic bets.

Wherever this extraordinary discovery takes us in terms of our understanding of the imaginative history of the 20th century, one thing is clear: the Bavarian authorities have already displayed disgraceful and scarcely comprehensible slowness in releasing details of the new discovery. The great majority of these works were either stolen outright or bought from their terrified Jewish owners, desperate to flee the country as the Nazi menace intensified, at knockdown prices. It is the clear duty of the authorities to publish a list of the works in their possession and begin the important task of re-uniting them with their rightful owners. Yet their reluctance to take even the first steps in this direction borders on the farcical. It was in 2011 that this huge cache was uncovered. The first the world learned of it was thanks to Germany’s Focus magazine at the weekend.

Unfortunately the German authorities have form in this regard. Germany was one of 45 countries to sign up to the Washington Principles, agreeing to identify looted works in their collections and publish the results. But Bavarian state collections, which contain thousands of looted works, have failed to do this. The London-based Commission for Looted Art in Europe has requested a full list of looted works from the Bavarian authorities but none has been forthcoming. The extreme reluctance of the Bavarian authorities to reveal details of the works found in Cornelius Gurlitt’s squalid flat follows the same pattern.

It needs to be remembered that this is stolen property, and the survivors among those from whom it was stolen are inevitably now very old. There is precious little time for justice to be done. The confiscation of the art was a crime; failure to treat the returning of it as an urgent priority is another one.

www.peterpopham.com

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

.Mid Level VB.Net, C# Developer wanted - SURREY - £35k - £40k

£35000 - £40000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Mid Level VB...

Nuclear Project Planner: Sellafield Sites

£40000 - £55000 per annum + Car, Fuel Card, Healthcare + More: Progressive Rec...

M&E Construction Planning Manager: Surrey

£60000 - £90000 per annum + Car, Pension, Healthcare: Progressive Recruitment:...

M&E Construction Planner Solihull

£45000 - £55000 per annum + Car, Healthcare, Pensions: Progressive Recruitment...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron (pictured) can't steal back my party's vote that easily, says Nigel Farage  

Cameron’s benefits pledge is designed to lure back Ukip voters. He’ll have to try harder

Nigel Farage
Turkish women have been posting defiant selfies of themselves laughing at their deputy PM's remarks.  

Women now have two more reasons to laugh in the face of sexism

Louise Scodie
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star