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Art meets history in homage to legendary French Jewish dealer

Paul Rosenberg, who represented Matisse and Picasso, was forced to flee Paris in WWII, leaving behind many paintings to be stolen, destroyed or sold by the Nazis

People attend the inauguration of '21 Rue de la Boetie,' an exhibition on legendary French art dealer Paul Rosenberg (1881-1959), at the Musee de la Boverie in Liege, Belgium on September 21, 2016. (AFP PHOTO/JOHN THYS)
People attend the inauguration of '21 Rue de la Boetie,' an exhibition on legendary French art dealer Paul Rosenberg (1881-1959), at the Musee de la Boverie in Liege, Belgium on September 21, 2016. (AFP PHOTO/JOHN THYS)

LIEGE, Belgium (AFP) — Legendary French Jewish art dealer Paul Rosenberg, who championed names such as Matisse, Picasso and Braque before being forced to flee Paris during the Second World War, is honored in a new exhibition in Belgium.

The exhibition is based on a book written by Rosenberg’s granddaughter, the renowned French political journalist Anne Sinclair, telling the story of his gallery and the iconic artworks that passed through it.

“My grandfather found himself at the crossroads of history,” Sinclair told a press conference at the opening of the exhibition in the town of Liège on Wednesday.

Rosenberg opened his gallery in Paris at 21 Rue La Boetie in 1910. He was a great proponent of the avant-garde movement and signed exclusive contracts with many of the era’s rising stars.

French journalists Anne Sinclair, granddaughter of legendary art dealer Paul Rosenberg, is seen at the inauguration of '21 Rue de la Boetie,' an exhibition about his life, at the Musee de la Boverie in Liege, Belgium on September 21, 2016. (AFP PHOTO/JOHN THYS)
French journalists Anne Sinclair, granddaughter of legendary art dealer Paul Rosenberg, is seen at the inauguration of ’21 Rue de la Boetie,’ an exhibition about his life, at the Musee de la Boverie in Liege, Belgium on September 21, 2016. (AFP PHOTO/JOHN THYS)

But history saw Rosenberg forced to flee Paris with his family during the Second World War. He moved to New York, where he set up another gallery.

Returning to Paris after the war, Rosenberg attempted to track down the many paintings that had been stolen, destroyed or sold on by the Nazis.

The exhibition traces several, including a Matisse of a sitting woman taken by Hermann Goering. It later found its way to New York and Oslo, finally turning up in Paris again in an exhibition at the Centre Pompidou.

Every painting exhibited passed through Rosenberg’s gallery at one point and the curators have taken pains to emphasize the historical context of the works.

World War II

His gallery was a hub for some of the era’s most famous names and the exhibition includes correspondence between Rosenberg and his stable of artists, posters for exhibitions at the gallery, sales receipts and contracts.

One contract with Matisse signed on July 16 1939 stipulates: “In case of war, this contract becomes null and void” — which would be the case fewer than two months later.

Another message shows Rosenberg’s response to the 1939 European art fair at Lucerne, where the Nazis sold what they considered to be ‘degenerate’ artworks at low prices.

People attend the inauguration of '21 Rue de la Boetie,' an exhibition on legendary French art dealer Paul Rosenberg (1881-1959), at the Musee de la Boverie in Liege, Belgium on September 21, 2016. (AFP PHOTO/JOHN THYS)
People attend the inauguration of ’21 Rue de la Boetie,’ an exhibition on legendary French art dealer Paul Rosenberg (1881-1959), at the Musee de la Boverie in Liege, Belgium on September 21, 2016. (AFP PHOTO/JOHN THYS)

Many European galleries bought up the pieces in order to save them, but Rosenberg refused to follow suit, saying: “Not a sou from our gallery-owners or dealers should go to the Nazis, because it will fall back on our heads in the form of bombs.”

In the center of the exhibition, the ‘degenerate’ art of Rosenberg’s gallery is paired with a Nazi counterpart to highlight the vast aesthetic gulf between the Nazis’ drab realism and modernism’s colorful lavishness.

Rosenberg was close friends with the painters, and saw himself as a “purveyor, a matchmaker, a midwife” to the works of art he helped bring into the world, Sinclair said.

“21 Rue La Boetie” is showing until January 29 in La Boverie, Liege’s fine art museum.

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