I've recently returned from my first trip to Berlin. During my stay, I visited many museums and galleries, as the city has an astounding wealth of art both new and old. Nothing was more poignant than my visit to the New National Gallery
. From the outside, the building looks like a giant glass box with a metal roof. Once you enter, you descend a broad staircase to access the museum's labythintine permanent collection. As I wandered through a display of expressionist paintings, I was caught in the gaze of two giant eyes, struck immediately by the way the artist had captured the light coming across the somewhat abstracted subject's face. I was so caught in the gaze, that for a moment I did not notice the lack of color in the painting. Then I realized I was not looking at a painting at all, but a black and white, life-sized photo print of the piece. Confused, I approached to read the label, where the description of the piece's provenance confirmed my suspicion. This piece was like many thousands of pieces of art in Germany--deemed "degenerate" by the nazi regime, stripped from German collections, and sold off in the 1930's. The label on the wall said this piece was now part of a private collection in New York.
As I proceeded through the museum, I saw more and more of these pieces. In one room, I came upon a tour led by a musuem employee. He brought the group to a photo of a piece by Franz Marc
called Tower of Blue Horses. He explained to the group that the piece had been labeled "degenerate," shown in the 1937 Degenerate Art Show in Munich, and after changing hands a few times had been lost since 1945. He said that because they no longer had these pieces that they "could only show the shadows," referencing the large scale black and white print of this beautiful piece. I felt my heart sink, somewhat overcome by the tremendous sense of loss he expressed.
While I have been a strong proponent of returning stolen and illegally exported works to their source nations, I've never once considered this scenario, where the government actually used the law to redefine the aesthetic of a country and culture. Hitler labeled such movements as dadaism, expressionism, bauhaus, cubism, and fauvism, among others, as degenerate, allowing the works to be sold off and destroyed, marking the artists for life and destroying many of their careers along the way. I noted how often I recognized the styles but not the names of artists in this collection. Looking back over 70 years later, I am only now beginning to see this side of the tragedy for Germany itself. Considering the works were legally sold based on the laws of Germany at the time, does anything--law, morals, or otherwise--justify a return of such works to Germany? Or are the works better seen as refugees, lucky for their escape? I really don't know the answer, but feel compassion for the loss...