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'We were stunned at the effort to destroy Jewish culture'

NYC exhibit of Nazi-looted art tells a tale of Jewish loss and recovery

Opening Friday, the Jewish Museum’s ‘Afterlives: Recovering the Lost Stories of Looted Art’ is a testament to survival, despite attempts to eradicate an identity and culture

  • Detail from Marc Chagall's 'Purim,' painted circa 1916-1917. (Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia. © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP,
Paris/ Jewish Museum NYC)
    Detail from Marc Chagall's 'Purim,' painted circa 1916-1917. (Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia. © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris/ Jewish Museum NYC)
  • Looted artworks in storage at the Central Collecting Point, Munich, circa 1945-1949. (Johannes Felbermeyer/ Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles)
    Looted artworks in storage at the Central Collecting Point, Munich, circa 1945-1949. (Johannes Felbermeyer/ Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles)
  • Materials recovered by Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, Inc. in storage at the Jewish Museum, circa 1949. (Archives of the Jewish Museum, New York)
    Materials recovered by Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, Inc. in storage at the Jewish Museum, circa 1949. (Archives of the Jewish Museum, New York)
  • 18th-century Torah crown from Nuremberg, Germany. (Photographer: John Parnell, Photo © The Jewish Museum, New York)
    18th-century Torah crown from Nuremberg, Germany. (Photographer: John Parnell, Photo © The Jewish Museum, New York)
  • Detail from 'The Approaching Storm' by George Grosz, 1940. (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York/ © Estate of George Grosz / Licensed by VAGA at
Artists Rights Society (ARS)/ Jewish Museum NYC)
    Detail from 'The Approaching Storm' by George Grosz, 1940. (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York/ © Estate of George Grosz / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS)/ Jewish Museum NYC)
  • Detail from Max Pechstein's landscape, 1912. (Estate of Hugo Simon. © Pechstein Hamburg / Tökendorf / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; image provided by CNAC/MNAM, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, New York. Photo by Philippe Migeat/ Courtesy of Jewish Museum NYC)
    Detail from Max Pechstein's landscape, 1912. (Estate of Hugo Simon. © Pechstein Hamburg / Tökendorf / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; image provided by CNAC/MNAM, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, New York. Photo by Philippe Migeat/ Courtesy of Jewish Museum NYC)
  • Bernando Strozzi, 'An Act of Mercy: Giving Drink to the Thirsty' painted in the 1620s. (John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, the State Art Museum of Florida, Florida State University, Sarasota/ Jewish Museum NYC)
    Bernando Strozzi, 'An Act of Mercy: Giving Drink to the Thirsty' painted in the 1620s. (John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, the State Art Museum of Florida, Florida State University, Sarasota/ Jewish Museum NYC)
  • Repatriated art being moved, circa 1945-1949. (Johannes Felbermeyer/ Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles)
    Repatriated art being moved, circa 1945-1949. (Johannes Felbermeyer/ Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles)

NEW YORK — In 1937, the Nazi Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda removed Marc Chagall’s “Purim” from the walls of the Museum of Folkwang in Essen, Germany. Depicting people exchanging food and sweets, the vibrant painting was deemed “degenerate” and summarily sold to a Berlin art collector and Nazi party member.

Now, 75 years after the end of World War II, the painting is one of 53 works of art and 80 ceremonial objects on display at New York’s Jewish Museum.

The exhibit, titled “Afterlives: Recovering the Lost Stories of Looted Art,” opens Friday and will run through January 2022. Recounting how these works withstood the violence of war, it details their often-complicated postwar rescue in a meditation on loss and recovery — both on an individual and collective scale.

“The exhibit is a sobering reminder of that history. We wanted to tell a concise and clear story of the looting but also to tell the story of recovery and ongoing restitution. It’s about coming to terms with what happened,” said Jewish Museum chief curator Darsie Alexander.

During the war, the Nazis systematically pillaged untold numbers of artworks and pieces of cultural property. They did it to enrich the Third Reich and to erase all traces of Jewish identity and culture. Although innumerable pieces remain missing, an estimated one million artworks and 2.5 million books have so far been recovered.

Of the pieces on display, it is perhaps the story of two Henri Matisse paintings, “The Girl in Yellow and Blue with Guitar” and “Daisies,” that truly epitomize the exhibit’s theme, said assistant curator Sam Sackeroff.

Jewish Museum chief curator Darsie Alexander (Photo by Margaret Fox) and Lerman-Neubauer assistant curator Sam Sackeroff. (Courtesy)

The Nazis stole both paintings from renowned French Jewish gallerist Paul Rosenberg, who had stored them in a bank vault in Bordeaux, France, before escaping to the United States, said Sackeroff.

The Nazis simultaneously broke into Rosenberg’s Paris gallery and turned it into an office space for the Institute for the Study of the Jewish Question. From behind Rosenberg’s desk they organized “Le Juif en France,” one of history’s largest antisemitic exhibitions.

The paintings were then moved — first to the German Embassy, then to the Musee du Louvre, and finally to Jeu de Paume, which the Nazis used as a storage depot.

On November 27, 1942, Gustave Rochlitz, an art dealer acting on behalf of Hermann Goering, arrived at the Jeu de Paume to peruse the stockpile of stolen art. “Girl in Yellow and Blue” was one of four paintings he took that day. Until the Allies recovered it in 1944, the painting hung in Goering’s estate in southwest Germany. “Daisies” stayed in Paris.

The paintings remained apart for decades until they both entered the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago; “Daisies” in 1983 and “Girl in Yellow and Blue” in 2007.

Henri Matisse, ‘Girl in Yellow and Blue with Guitar,’ 1939. (The Art Institute of Chicago © Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; image provided by The Art Institute of Chicago / Art Resource, New York/ Jewish Museum NYC)

“One thing we grappled with was how to make the story resonate, since the number of survivors that can engage with what happened on a personal level with this history is dwindling. Using emotional language around the works gives visitors a way to access those feelings,” Sackeroff said.

Visitors to the exhibit will also see Claude Lorrain’s 1655 “Battle on a Bridge.” Sold under duress, the painting was selected for Adolf Hitler’s never-built personal museum.

And, among the works by Paul Klee, Gustave Courbet and Camile Pissarro, they will see Otto Freundlich’s 1938 painting “The Unity of Life and Death.” A German Jewish artist, Freundlich hid in a small mountain town in the Pyrenees from 1940 until his arrest in 1943. He was murdered in the Lublin-Majdanek concentration camp in Poland upon arrival.

Numerous ritual objects are also on display, including a tiered seder plate originally from Poland and a sterling silver spice container dating back to the mid-1500s. The objects highlight the museum’s role in identifying and retrieving the scores of ritual objects that were stolen from homes and synagogues during and after the war.

Post-WWII, the Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, Inc. (JCR) helped place more than 300,000 books and 10,000 ceremonial objects in synagogues and Jewish communities worldwide. The spice container was sent to the Jewish Museum in August 1949. It was nestled in one of 83 crates containing more than 3,000 pieces of ritual silver.

Eventually, 220 of those objects entered the museum’s permanent collection. Some still bear their small aluminum identification tag inscribed with a Star of David and the letters JCR.

Tiered seder plate from the 18th-19th century. (Gift of the Danzig Jewish Community to The Jewish Museum NYC)

A second group of objects came to the museum from the Jewish community in Danzig (now Gdansk) Poland. Once it became clear the Nazis would pillage the city’s Great Synagogue, the Jewish community worked with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to save as many items as possible. They boxed 10 crates of material and shipped them to New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary. In 1954, the museum accessioned some of those objects.

“The exhibit is a story of facts, of what happened. There is also the emotional side. But we were also constantly stunned at the extraordinary effort to destroy Jewish culture,” Alexander said. “The objects in this part of the exhibit show that that didn’t happen. The culture survived, flourished and endured.”

The museum also commissioned the work of four contemporary artists to address the magnitude of the Nazis’ cultural theft.

Silver Torah finials from the 18th century. (Jewish Cultural Reconstruction. The Jewish Museum NYC)

Maria Eichhorn, a Berlin-born artist, incorporates images of looted books and archival documents to highlight the role that people such as Hannah Arendt played in recovery efforts. Israeli artist Hadar Gad examines the connections between memory and place. Dor Guez, based in Jaffa, Israel, mines his Christian, Palestinian and Tunisian Jewish roots to produce his large-scale paintings.

Lastly, Brooklyn-based artist Lisa Oppenheim explores how photography can help people understand loss.

Oppenheim scoured the archives of the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) — the main Nazi art looting task force — for never-restituted still life paintings, and eventually discovered a black-and-white photograph of a still life by French artist Jean-Baptiste Monnoyer.

As documented by the ERR, the original painting, likely destroyed during an Allied bombardment, was stolen from 17 Rue Cardonay in Paris and taken to the Jeu de Paume on December 10, 1942.

Materials recovered by Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, Inc. in storage at the Jewish Museum, circa 1949. (Archives of the Jewish Museum, New York)

To make her piece, Oppenheim first photographed the photograph from the archives. Next, she found a street view on Google Maps of the Parisian apartment where the still life had last “lived,” she said on the audio tour of the exhibit. Then, using what she described as a “smoke” technique, she used a flame to expose the images.

“So you get a very kind of other-worldly kind of image that could occupy any space or time,” she said in the recording. “I’m using the photograph of the painting that was most likely destroyed by fire, so again, fire not only being destructive force, in terms of destroying this painting that was already stolen, but also a generative force that creates a new image in my darkroom.”

Looted artworks in storage at the Central Collecting Point, Munich, circa 1945-1949. (Johannes Felbermeyer/ Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles)

That idea, of creating a new image, a new way to consider the Nazi’s efforts to eradicate Jewish culture, goes to the heart of the exhibit.

“While there is a focus on the looting, there is as much, if not more, attention on recovery,” Sackeroff said.

“Afterlives: Recovering the Lost Stories of Looted Art” runs from August 20, 2021, through January 9, 2022.

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