Works seized by Nazis as ‘degenerate’ electrify art world

It is essentially a modern-day story of pirate treasure: The discovery of more than 1,400 works of art, many of them probably stolen during Nazi days or sold under duress as Jewish collectors were forced to unload art at worse-than-bargain prices. There’s also a bit of a hoarder’s fantasy, too, in the drama: An elderly German man, the son of a Nazi-era art dealer, was sitting on a fortune of art, some of it dating to the 16th century, much of it made by artists who were deemed “degenerate” under the aesthetically reactionary, racially toxic artistic ideology of Adolf Hitler. And for decades, it has been sitting, lost to the world, to the point that some of the works may not even be listed as “missing” in standard catalogues of the artists who made them.

The works came to light more than a year ago, when German authorities searched an apartment in Munich while following the money trail after a routine customs check on Cornelius Gurlitt. The art, most of it unframed but still in relatively good condition, included works by Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Max Beckmann and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner.

A news conference Tuesday gave a tantalizing glimpse of some of what Gurlitt was holding, including a self-portrait by Otto Dix, showing the artist with thick flaxen hair, smoking a long cigarette or cigar. Also in the trove is a haunting Chagall, apparently previously unknown, that shows a pair of young lovers under a deep blue sky, with the painter’s trademark, phantasmagoric floating animals in the sky (with multiple crescent moons).

The presence of work by so many “entartete” artists among the collection only adds to the excitement: The term has morphed, since its derogatory use by Hitler’s culture minions, into a latter-day seal of modernist approval. Exhibitions of entartete art and recordings of entartete music have proven successful audience draws in recent years.

Now comes the long slog of determining who the rightful owners are, which is much complicated by the fact that many pieces may have been legitimately sold, though by owners who had little choice, to buyers who could drive insultingly hard bargains. Already there are recriminations and concerns that the German government may have held back news of the discovery for reasons as of yet unknown. Indeed, the entire story is a mystery. But it is the kind of mystery that the public loves, indeed, far more than the public loves art. While scholars are excited by works that might fill in gaps in their understanding of the history of 20th-century art (and earlier chapters, too), the art world now offers up a story that reduces the work, ready-made, to material goods, waiting for a price tag, litigation and narratives of loss, theft and secrecy.

Philip Kennicott is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Art and Architecture Critic of The Washington Post. He has been on staff at the Post since 1999, first as Classical Music Critic, then as Culture Critic.
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