Looted Nazi haul is not going to cause a revolution in the art world


A slow drip-feed of information is always tantalising, if not pulse-quickening. It can also raise us to levels of excitement which represent perhaps too extreme and over-excitable a response to the evidence in front of our eyes.

Previously we had almost no images of the works found in that stinking, chaotic apartment in Munich. All we saw was an image of a rather disappointing circus scene by Max Beckmann which had been sold off at auction in order to make some quick cash for Mr Gurlitt. All we had by way of wider and harder evidence of the find was a litany of celebrated names, which did indeed make it seem mouth-wateringly important.

Now the images of the works themselves are emerging, one by one, and we need to ask ourselves two questions: why is it being stage-managed by the German authorities in this way? To soften up the auction houses? And is it really true, as the BBC is hysterically claiming, that the works now being presented to us are so radically different from the works that we already know by the likes of Otto Dix, Marc Chagall, Franz Marc and Henri Matisse, that we are likely to need to rewrite the history of 20th century art?

This is a large claim indeed, and it does not deserve to be taken seriously. In fact, it is utterly ridiculous. Take the Matisse, for example. This is the latest in a long line of Matisse odalisques, inscrutable, dispassionate beauties. It is a good piece of work, but it does not show us anything new. The same can be said of the Chagall. Yet again, lovers kiss in a nocturnal dreamscape peopled by a donkey, a chair, and several slivers of moon – all very familiar motifs in the paintings of Chagall. Dix is savage in the way that Dix is often savage and tortured. But not half as tortured as he was in his etchings of the Great War. And what of the Franz Marc? Nothing could be more characteristically Marc-like than this surge of blue horses.

Are these works important then? Well, yes, because these artists are very important. Interesting? Of course. Valuable? Undoubtedly. But there is no cause to register a seismic shock, no reason to believe that we are seeing aspects of these artists’ work which will cause us radically to re-evaluate all that we know. Such talk is ignorant piffle.