25 May 2015

Happy birthday, Vincent van Gogh! Part Two

by Angelina Giovani

[Editor’s note: This is the second installment of the story of the “Portrait of Dr. Gachet” by Vincent van Gogh. The first part, entitled “Happy Birthday, Vincent van Gogh: Portrait of Dr. Gachet, a book review” was posted on March 30, 2015.] 

Paul Cassirer
In 1904 Paul Cassirer, born in 1871 to an upper middle class family, displayed van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr. Gachet, at his Berlin Gallery, strategically situated next to other modern dealers such as Fritz Gurlitt, Keller & Reiner, and Schulte. Unlike other dealers, Cassirer had managed to establish a working connection with Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, mainly because he never argued with her high prices. Committed to introducing the French avant-garde in Germany, he had borrowed nineteen canvases from Johanna van Gogh-Bonger in 1901 and organized Germany’s first substantial van Gogh exhibition. Cassirer sold The Portrait of Dr. Gachet to Count Harry Kessler who also bought Maurice Denis’ Mother and Child which Ballin had consigned at the same time as Dr. Gachet. Kessler paid Cassirer 3,378 German marks for both works.

The arrival of the Portrait of Dr. Gachet coincided with a transition period during which Berlin was replacing Munich as a primary market for contemporary art in Germany. Unlike other places the Berlin bourgeoisie had a liberal taste for the modern, and proved to be a perfect audience for van Gogh’s work. At the time that Kessler bought Dr. Gachet, there were altogether seven paintings by van Gogh’s in German private collections: Karl Osthaus, Hugo von Tschudi and Julius Meier-Graefe. After the sale of Dr. Gachet to Kessler, the Stedelijk in Amsterdam and the Salon des Indépendants in Paris held van Gogh retrospectives. Sales picked up and, in 1905, Cassirer sold a total of twenty paintings by the Dutch master. Prices doubled in as many years, however, Johanna van Gogh-Bonger did not grant Cassirer the honor of being her ‘sole agent for Germany’. Up until the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Cassirer enjoyed continuous success. He signed a contract to publish van Gogh’s letters, and bought 151 works. Other collectors were also expanding their collections, such as Helene Kröller, a wealthy art history major from Essen, and an American-born pharmaceutical magnate, Alfred C. Barnes, the first American to own a van Gogh. 
Count Harry Kessler

Count Harry Kessler was born in Paris in 1868. He was the son of Adolf Kessler, a Hamburg banker, and Alice Blosse-Lynch, an Irish explorer’s daughter. He was educated in England and Germany, traveled a lot and wrote for Pan, an Art Nouveau journal, Pan. In 1903 he was appointed director of the Grossherzogliches Museum für Kunst un Kunstgewerbe in Weimar. He brought the Portrait of Dr. Gachet to his house in Cranachstrasse, Weimar, which was designed by Henry van de Velde. The house itself was impeccably conceived to entertain and display the Count’s collection, the perfect vehicle through which to introduce The Portrait of Dr. Gachet to critics, artists, writers, and other members of the intelligentsia. For many, it was their first encounter with a van Gogh. As director of the Grossherzogliches, Count Kessler strove to turn Weimar into a center of modern culture. He organized monthly public exhibitions of Impressionists and neo-Impressionists which eventually drew rebukes from Weimar’s conservative circles. 

Four years after acquiring the picture, Kessler consigned Dr. Gachet with Eugène Druet, in Paris. A specialist in Postimpressionists, Druet had started out as a photographer of Auguste Rodin’s sculptures and made significant purchases of van Gogh works. The Paris art market was in constant evolution. After Cézanne's death, Ambroise Vollard organized Matisse’s first one-man show, Picasso completed Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, while Georges Braque produced his first collage. Collectors from Europe and North America dominated the Paris art market, driving Impressionist prices higher than ever before. Duet exhibited Dr. Gachet in 1908 together with thirty-five other pictures, and although the exhibition ran for twelve days, he did not sell a single painting. Despite this, the Portrait of Dr. Gachet stayed with Druet until February 1910, when he purchased it himself, for 14.000 francs. Then he lent it to Roger Fry, the British art critic and a leading painter in the Bloomsbury circle. Just like with the French, the British were not ready for van Gogh. A critic with the Daily Express called van Gogh’s works "unintelligible". Seeing how "England had no use for Dr. Gachet" the portrait returned to France.

The following year, on February 20, 1911, Druet shipped the painting to Georg Swarzenski, the director of the Städelsches Kunstinstitut in Frankfurt since 1906, an institution renowned for its Old Master collection. Prior to acquiring the picture, Swarzenski had seen it in Kessler’s house in Weimar and also at Galerie Druet in Paris. This was the first postimpressionist canvas to enter the Städel. Swarzenski planned to transform the museum into a shrine for modern art.
Georg Swarzenski
Swarzenski was barely thirty years old when he became director of the museum. He was born in Dresden to a Jewish merchant, and was initially trained as a lawyer before switching to the study of art history. His goals were not only that the Städel should expand its collection, but also that it compete with other great museums of Europe. The only way to do this was to expand the collection with Impressionist works. As a result he removed all plaster copies of Roman and Greek art from the museum floor, and within 2 years he acquired over 350 pieces of sculpture both from Europe and Asia.

By 1911, the tendency to buy Impressionist works from France stirred a protest called “A protest of German Artists” fueled by 140 participants consisting of conservative artists, critics and museum directors.  Swarzenski asked Victor Mössinger, a businessman who later became his father-in-law, to purchase Dr.Gachet and donate it to the Städel.

On August 3, 1914 Germany declared war on France. Communication between art world figures in France and Germany became more complicated. The advent of war severed ties between Johanna van Gogh-Bonger and Paul Cassirer who was inducted into military duty as was Swarzenski. At war’s end in 1918, Swarzenski ordered that construction resume on the modern galleries, which were completed in 1923. By 1928, Swarzenski wore many hats in the Frankfurt art world, as head of the Städel and the Städtische Galerie but also of the Museum of History, and the Museum of Art and Crafts. Until the mid 1930, van Gogh and his works gave rise to new art historical writings as well as treatments in psychological and psychoanalytical literature.

In Spring 1933, months after Adolf Hitler rose to power in Germany and, with him, the Nazi Party, Swarzenski removed Dr. Gachet from the walls of the Städel and locked it in a room under the museum’s roof together with a lot of Expressionist paintings. On March 12, the Reich Ministry for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda was established under Dr. Joseph Goebbels. His mission was to align German culture with the ideology of the Nazi party. In September 1933, he established the Reichskulturkammer (Reich Chamber of Culture) which among other things imposed strict controls on the production of art in the Reich as well as on art exhibitions and the art market. Nazi ideology condemned modern art and labeled as ‘degenerate’ all forms of German and French Expressionism.

On March 13, 1933, Frankfurt’s Socialist mayor was replaced by Göring, and within weeks Swarzenski was suspended from his position as director at the Museum of History, the Museum of Arts and Crafts, the Städtische and his position as professor at the University of Frankfurt. Yet, Swarzenski managed to remain as director of the Städel, which was a private foundation and technically the Nazis had no jurisdiction. Still, he was summoned before a commission, and only managed to hold on to his position thanks to the Lord Mayor, Friedrich Krebs, who had been an early member of the Nazi party and oversaw the closing of over 500 Jewish-owned businesses in Frankfurt during the first year of the Third Reich. Krebs also belonged to Alfred Rosenberg’s Combat League for German Culture, a rival of Goebbels’ Ministry to promote Nazi-approved art and attack modernism. Krebs did not consider Swarzenski as a threat.
Friedrich Krebs
In 1935, Swarzenski met Alfred Barr, director of the Museum of Modern Art of New York (MoMA), at the Parisian gallery of Paul Rosenberg.  At this meeting, Barr asked to borrow Dr. Gachet for a van Gogh retrospective that he was organizing at MoMA. Upon his return to Frankfurt, Swarzenski wrote to the "Ministry in Berlin" requesting permission to lend the painting. The Ministry denied the request. Alfred Wolters, the Nazi-designated successor of Swarzenski as director of the Städtische, dispatched a photograph of Dr. Gachet to Goebbels, at his request. Communication between Wolters and the Ministry focused on paintings in the museum’s collection that could be sold for a profit. Wolters, a close friend of Swarzenski, explained that selling Dr. Gachet would be a terrible loss for the city of Frankfurt. Moreover, it had not been acquired with city funds, but had been a gift of a private citizen, Victor Mössinger. Friedrich Krebs, a vocal opponent of modern art, also wrote to Berlin, asking that the Frankfurt collections should be spared. Dr. Gachet remained safe for the time being, while eleven paintings acquired by Swarzenski for the Städel were confiscated and taken to Munich and displayed at the Degenerate Art show which opened on July 19th, 1937.

On December 1st, 1937, Adolf Ziegler, one of the chief organizers of the Degenerate Art exhibit and a rabid anti-Semite, met Wolters and demanded five more paintings to be delivered to the Propaganda Ministry, including Dr. Gachet.  Stalling for time, Wolters asked the Ministry for an official written request. Wolters was able to buy only a few days. The Portrait of Dr. Gachet was taken out of storage.  It left the museum on December 8, 1937, a move reported in an article published by the Frankfurter Allgemeiner Zeitung (FAZ). Johanna, Victor Mössinger ’s wife, read the article and inquired about the painting’s whereabouts. No one knew that the painting had ended up at a Berlin museum depot for "degenerate art" on Köpernickusstrasse, along with tens of thousands of other art works slated to be destroyed. The Portrait of Dr. Gachet by Vincent van Gogh was number 15,677.

Monday afternoon rant: is cultural destruction in the 21st century inevitable?

by Marc Masurovsky
 As the world sits by and watches ISIS forces overwhelm the town of Palmyra, shudders go down our collective spines and dread overcomes us as we wonder: what will the fundamentalist warriors of the Daesh do to the archaeological treasures that lie beneath the surface of Palmyra?
"cradle of civilization"

The so-called “cradle of civilization” that we all grew up with has survived assaults for thousands of years, stemming from the rise and fall of previous caliphates, kingdoms and empires vying for influence in the Crescent.

The US Congress is readying to pass a law that enshrines an organic connection between national security and cultural heritage. If the law passes, the US will appoint, at no extra cost to the US treasury, an international coordinator whose job it will be to stay on top of the constant assaults against culture in conflict zones at the hands of “terrorists” and assess how those acts affect American national security and evaluate strategies on how to counter those assaults.  It is undeniable progress that the debate over cultural heritage has led to the explicit necessity to coordinate international efforts to protect cultural sites from destruction wrought by armed maniacs.

The secretary general of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, has shared her outrage about the events unfolding in war-battered Syria and its neighbor, Irak. How bad does it have to get when governments allow themselves to be eaten up alive and watch the legacies of thousands of years of culture vanish before their eyes on their own territories? Worse. What does it say about them? What does it say about us?

What does outrage alone do to stem the tide of destruction?

The German Minister of Culture, Monika Gruetters, expressed her own dismay that Germany had become a turnstile for “conflict antiquities” streaming from areas controlled by ISIS and other zones under the control of armed groups in the Mideast. She went as far as threaten to regulate the trade in antiquities by requiring a complete and detailed provenance for each item entering or exiting Germany, an effort that could lead to placing a chokehold on the illicit trade in “conflict antiquities” at least in Germany.

The trade has responded in kind reiterating its oft-proffered self-serving defense that it can police itself and its members are honorable and would never trade in anything illicit. If not them, who is?

We know by now that the global trade in looted antiquities operates on the same principle as the international narcotics trade. Where there is a demand, there is a ready supply. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist or a CIA hack or privy to the world’s darkest secrets to understand this truism. Why would anyone dig holes in the ground, extract from their matrix priceless artifacts that could help us understand the societies that produced them and for the thieves to go through all sorts of extra-legal gymnastics just to find out that there are no buyers? Most are not trained archaeologists, they seem to be guided by “scientists” and “experts”. They are under contract to perform a task whose aim is to supply looted antiquities in exchange for badly-needed money.

As it turns out, those who acquire looted antiquities are everywhere, the market can barely keep up with the demand from individuals with disposable incomes and deep pockets worldwide, generalists and specialists alike, who want these objects for reasons that we need not go into here. The international art trade and the antiquities market are fueling in part the ISIS strategy to overtake archaeological sites and pillage them, much like Chinese officials, desirous to sate their citizens' apparent addiction to ivory, are commandeering the mass killings of elephants and rhinoceroses in Africa.  Contract killing to fuel addictions with no regard for the environment and no respect for life on earth.  Like all addictions, they spread calamity everywhere. The collateral damage is irreversible.

What will the Chinese do when there are no sources of organic ivory left?

What happens when all the antiquities have been extracted? Will ISIS push into other countries like locusts and harvest more antiquities?

What kind of a world do we live in which tolerates such abuses? It’s as if history does not matter, we don’t matter anymore. Since the Nazi period, humankind has become far less human and has descended into a numbing tolerance and acceptance of the worst abuses that people could dream up against others. Actually, it’s not clear anymore what the word “human” actually means.

It’s as if the past does not count any longer except for the messages and images that ooze through our smartphones or other digital pop culture delivery mechanisms. There will always be pictures of Palmyra to enjoy and glean in quiet admiration and respect for what once was and is no longer. Sigh! So should we weep if the real thing disappears? After all, we always have Instagram.

Cowardice, cynicism and indifference fuel the ISIS strategy. The ISIS bullies on the Middle Eastern block are winning because they are well aware of our own impotence to act, much like the Serbian forces did during the Bosnia crisis of the early 1990s and the orchestrators of the genocide in Rwanda  in spring 1994, to name but a few human rights disasters, no, human, man-made disasters.

Perhaps history does not count anymore. Let’s just watch Palmyra turn into Swiss cheese and explain to the children that it’s ok.

If Palmyra does disappear or is transformed into a maze of mole-like tunnels denoting systematic looting, we all let it happen.  Is it logical then to promote armed intervention as the only viable solution to protect Palmyra and other remnants of the “cradle of civilization”?  Are we ready to die for the cause of world culture and our past heritage?

We have reached a breaking point where our current national leaders the world over do not want to risk global war over the destruction of cultural sites but they sure are willing to do so because one country might or might not have a nuclear bomb.

None of this makes any sense.
Let’s drink some tea, play cards, watch the sun set and indulge in idle chatter. It’s safer that way.

Or let's act. But how?

24 May 2015

Thorough research drives restitution of looted art and yet….

by Marc Masurovsky

It is absolutely fair and just to ask why, in the past two decades, there have been no systematic efforts deployed to make funds available to advance research on missing art collections and other aspects of the cultural plunder that was visited upon civilians, Jewish and other, between 1933 and 1945. Some of those funds could have come from the sales of multi-million dollar works that had been restituted in past years. A conservative estimate puts at nearly 600 million dollars the total value of paintings restituted to claimants, mostly in North America, a large part of those works having come from losses suffered by members of the Austrian Jewish community, including works signed by Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt, darlings of the over-hyped global art market.

It is true that there have been no publicized indications that historical research played a critical role in documenting the fate of the looted cultural objects that were restituted to claimants since the 1990s. And yet, good research produces good outcomes, an admission made even by the legal counsel to the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD). Perhaps lawyers are to be faulted for that state of affairs. Hard to tell. It is not so much their clever swordsmanship that has enabled the return of claimed works but the meticulous documentary trail that proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that looted art works did belong to their clients at the time of their confiscation and ensuing misappropriation and that they had been illegally removed from their hands for reasons having nothing to do with their legal ownership of the works, but because of their belonging to a culture reviled by their persecutors.

Nevertheless, people are what they are and we should be thankful that the claimed objects have been returned to the rightful owners who are free to do what they bloody want with them.

As for the chronic absence of funding for research that could shed more light on the murky and dark corners of economic collaboration during the Nazi years, the unsavory role played by art dealers, collectors, museum officials, their friends in government, industry and finance, and many others, it will take brave, courageous, and selfless souls to open their checkbooks and fund such research efforts.

Ideas about establishing foundations, consortia, research-driven higher education programs, and public-private partnerships could fill volumes of idle chatter. Idle because they have led nowhere. Truth be told, where there’s a will, there usually is a way. And, in the case of historical research on cultural plunder during the Nazi era, the will does not rise beyond the threshold of cocktail discussions and “bons mots” exchanged during international conferences on Nazi looted art.

At present, institutional self-serving indifference and opportunism prevail among governments on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean and cloud any reasonable discussion on how to fund historical research into cultural plunder during the Nazi years and the impact of the destruction of Jewish cultural assets on the postwar world. Those who bear the brunt of this state of affairs are the diplomats and politicians who have mastered the rhetoric of restitution only to suppress any effort to fund research.

The exceptions: groups like the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany and the Commission for Art Recovery are members of a rarefied club that have supported such research. The Claims Conference has supported for 10 years now the building and maintenance of the Jeu de Paume database of art objects looted in German-occupied France and the Commission for Art Recovery has fueled research efforts in part to assist in its international art recovery litigations. In a minor way, proprietary databases like the Art Loss Register and both leading auction houses, Christie's and Sotheby's, provided small but symbolic sums of money to jump-start such research in the late 1990s.

On a more hopeful note:

Recent progress in the understanding of cultural plunder in the past two decades must be acknowledged, although the work of many historians, researchers and scholars has not been translated into languages which could help reach a wider audience. Hence their findings are reaching a limited audience, namely in the German-speaking world and other linguistic micro-communities:

the Zentral Institut für Kunstgeschichte (ZIKG) in Munich, whose researchers are making a clear imprint on our understanding of the mechanisms of plunder in Nazi Germany and beyond,

the French Ministry of Culture on the works stuck in the purgatory of the Musées Nationaux Récupération (MNR), the CIVS and the Institut National de l'Histoire de l'Art (INHA) in Paris*,

the Dutch Restitution Committee which has amassed significant historical research to drive its decisions, regardless of how one agrees or disagrees with them*,

a research cell in Brussels focusing on M-Aktion staffed by an interdisciplinary trio of young scholars,

the Commission for Provenance Research in Vienna*

efforts conducted by British museums a decade ago which remain one of the best examples of how museums should publicize the results of their findings on individual objects,

a growing group of individual scholars and researchers who have made important contributions to the emerging field of cultural plunder. These scholars can be found in the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Italy, Switzerland, Austria, Portugal, Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, the Ukraine, the Russian Federation, Greece, Finland, Israel, the United States and Canada.

This disparate international cacophony of research must be coordinated and given a cohesiveness to become truly useful for the generations to come. International symposia are not a panacea nor are a solution. International research centers must be established to coordinate such research, archives focused on plunder and its aftermath must be created to centralize key documents from a plethora of archival repositories found in dozens of countries, and graduate programs should be designed and offered to focus in an interdisciplinary framework on the complex question of plunder and its implications for civil society during and after the Nazi era.

* Last but not least, the five standing commissions on restitution--United Kingdom, France, the Netherlands, Germany and Austria--should adopt more "transparent" practices relative to the historical research that they use to reach their decisions--for or against the claimants--and make such research publicly accessible to benefit international scholarship.

Work in progress….

A quick meditation on the meaning of restitution

by Marc Masurovsky
An aged claimant recovered earlier this week what, for the most part, is a painting by an artist whose ratings in today’s hyper-inflated market has reached astronomical proportions. That cannot be blamed on the claimant. The painting is by Max Liebermann, “Two Riders on a Beach”. The claimant is the Toren family. If you are not familiar with Max Liebermann, he is known as the Master of German Impressionism. Many of his works were stolen, misappropriated or confiscated by Hitler's government. Hildebrand Gurlitt, one of the most notorious art dealers and collectors of the Nazi era, loved Liebermann's works and came into possession of the Toren family's "Two Riders on a Beach." His son, Cornelius Gurlitt, kept the painting until his death and its discovery by the German government. On a historical footnote, it took the German government two years to return the painting to the Torens since its discovery was made public in late 2013.

David Toren, the claimant, is now 90 years old and is blind. Several days ago, Mr. Toren explained why he decided to sell the painting whose proceeds would be enjoyed by others. He is at an advanced age and cannot appreciate the painting that he recovered because he is blind, except through scent and touch and hearing others describe it for him. What good does that do, you might ask?

To those of you who are upset because he chose to sell the painting and who think that, once again, restitution of Holocaust-era cultural assets is all about making a quick million, think again. The point of restitution--the physical act of returning a stolen object to its rightful owner--is to mend the broken chain of ownership, a chain that was ruptured and torn asunder by anti-Jewish policies promulgated and enforced by the National Socialist government of Adolf Hitler between 1933 and 1945. The Nazi expansionist and extermination-driven agenda devastated continental Europe in more ways than one. Above all, property was forcibly and illegally removed from Jews because Nazis did not think that it was right for Jews to own property, a lame excuse to misappropriate their assets, especially financial, corporate, intangible (apartments, houses and buildings), and cultural (paintings, works on paper, decorative objects, musical instruments, and the list goes on….).

Mending the chain of ownership, recovering legal title of ownership to the claimed object, is as close to justice as a claimant will ever get to place a salve on a historic wound that stretches back seventy-five years. That’s a long time to carry an open wound that cannot heal completely. Hence, welding back together the links of that chain of ownership torn asunder by hatred, resentment, and unabashed cruelty and debasement, institutionalized across Europe, carries within it the kind of symbolism that you and I cannot even begin to appreciate and comprehend. Loss of family and loved ones is impossible to mend. How do you fill the emptiness within you created by your neighbor’s hatred towards you because of what you are?

Back to the restitution.

Once the claimant recovers the restituted item, it is none of our business what he or she does with it. It has become a private matter. We have no say in other people’s private lives, an assertion contradicted by the ever present intrusion of smartphones, social media, recording and eavesdropping devices, search engines, and what nots of the digital, electronic age which permeate our daily lives and give us the wrong idea that we are entitled to pry into other people's lives and to judge what a claimant should do with his/her recovered assets. Once more, it’s none of our business what Mr. Toren does with his painting.

Yes, in a perfect world in which none of us live except in a collective hallucination fueled by max distribution of controlled substances (Aldous Huxley's soma), we would be able to suggest to all the families of Nazi victims and their lawyers how to dispense of their restituted goods. But that’s not how the system works, not now anyway.