Two paintings displayed together near the entrance of Afterlives: Recovering the Lost Stories of Looted Art at the Jewish Museum could easily be mistaken for an art-historical exercise in formalism. Cézanne and Picasso, two modern masters, take on the human body. In Cézanne’s large “Bather and Rocks” (c. 1860–66), loose circular brushstrokes sweep into broad shapes that make up a male body, small drips of paint clinging to the muscular bather’s backside. Cézanne’s painting dwarfs its neighbor, Picasso’s “Group of Characters,” which was made in 1929 during the artist’s experiments with Surrealism. A jumble of thick white and black lines and biomorphic shapes come together as three skeletal figures set against a fiery background. These paintings stretch and contort the body in their different ways, toeing the line between representation and abstraction.
The reason these works are shown side by side, however, has scarcely anything to do with perceived visual affinities. Both paintings were stolen by the Nazi regime from the Jewish French collector Alphonse Kann in 1940. They made their way together to the Jeu de Paume in Paris, which was converted into a warehouse for Nazi-stolen art during the Second World War. There, they were displayed in what was later famously called the “Room of the Martyrs” by Rose Valland, the art historian and French Resistance member who surreptitiously documented Nazi-looted art in the hopes of returning the works to their original owners after the war.
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Afterlives initially left me wondering about the capacity of such a traditional curatorial approach to evoke the violence witnessed by these works. Would foregrounding the works’ provenance have been more effective, perhaps by displaying these paintings alongside the archival evidence of their theft, or by adding more biographical information on Kann, who died in England in 1948 after recovering only a small portion of his collection? In Afterlives, these works are shown without such interventions, thus highlighting their status as artistic masterpieces, albeit ones recovered out of Nazi destruction. However, this implicit insistence on the autonomy of the artwork is only the opening act of a thought-provoking yet diffuse exhibition.
Among the most dramatic episodes in the history of 20th-century art, the story of Nazi-looted artwork is one that has been told in dozens of exhibitions, books, documentaries, and feature films. Afterlives is surprisingly expansive given its relatively small exhibition space, which seems to contain several shows in one: a section of looted art both lauded by the Nazis and derided as degenerate, stolen through systematic plunder and opportunistic pillaging; a section titled “Creativity Under Duress,” consisting of work made under Nazi occupation, including in concentration camps; a section devoted to the allied Munich Central Collecting Point, immortalized by Hollywood in the 2014 film The Monuments Men; a display of works from the museum’s own Judaica collection; and reflections from four contemporary artists: Maria Eichhorn, Hadar Gad, Dor Guez, and Lisa Oppenheim.
The most generative section of Afterlives focuses on the museum’s own collection and explores the survival of Jewish material culture and its reconstruction after the war. While the museum had been founded earlier under the auspices of the Jewish Theological Seminary, it opened its doors in its current location, on Fifth Avenue, in 1947, where its collection would come to include objects that had been seized or abandoned in the wake of the Holocaust. The museum played a large role in the Jewish Cultural Reconstruction (JCR), which sought to find new homes for thousands of orphaned objects.
Deviating from the earlier focus on single-authored objects, this section of the exhibition instead shows a range of items both recovered from the JCR and shipped from a community in Danzig, now Gdańsk in Poland. The Jewish community shipped its Judaica to New York to safeguard it from an increasingly Nazi-controlled government, which would go on to demolish the Great Synagogue of Danzig in 1939. From books to kiddush cups and seder plates to an ornately carved 18th-century silver Torah crown, the objects in this section had been touched by hundreds of hands, and served as an integral part of a community before its destruction. They are poignantly displayed alongside a photograph of materials recovered by the JCR in storage at the museum in 1947.
Maria Eichhorn builds on this history in a project that delves into Hannah Arendt’s work with the JCR and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to salvage and preserve Jewish material culture. Eichhorn displayed a portion of Arendt’s correspondence and field reports as archival documents and in a facsimile book containing Arendt’s memos; an audio recording of the documentation resonates through the gallery.
Arendt’s extensive and painstaking work tracing the prior ownership of objects and finding them new homes hints at a troubling contemporary truth. Despite the successful repatriation of many Nazi-looted artworks, thousands upon thousands of objects remain disputed today. There is a high legal threshold for declaring a work of art looted, and the law privileges private property. Objects made by unknown artisans for communal purposes can remain mired in legal uncertainty. It is, moreover, exceedingly difficult for “repatriation” to solve a dispute over an object whose patria itself has been destroyed.
The JCR and Arendt’s difficult work should strike a chord, not only for ongoing disputes from the Second World War, but for claims of looted art elsewhere. Activists, artists, and scholars have increased pressure on museums in recent years to acknowledge a broader history of art looting and plunder under colonial and imperial regimes. Many museums have seemed ill-prepared for or unwilling to engage with this long-simmering crisis lest they be compelled to repatriate objects from their own collections.
What can the stories recovered by Afterlives contribute to this conversation? Over the last decade, prominent scholars have debated intensely on whether the Holocaust should be considered a colonial genocide. (See, for instance, Roberta Pergher, Mark Roseman, Jürgen Zimmerer, Shelley Baranowski, Doris L. Bergen & Zygmunt Bauman, “The Holocaust: A Colonial Genocide?” .) Indeed, Arendt herself discussed at length the intertwined histories of European colonialism and anti-Semitism as early as 1951 in The Origins of Totalitarianism. Within this sometimes stunningly capacious exhibition, it feels like a missed opportunity that Afterlives does not even hint at potential shared issues with other ongoing histories of stolen art and demands for cultural repatriation.
While Afterlives opens with the familiar history of Nazi-looted modern masterpieces, by its end the exhibition has subtly but definitively opened this narrative to less established stories that often fly under the radar of the art museum. The exhibition concludes with an installation by Dor Guez, whose work reframes historical narratives through the artist’s own family stories. Guez has installed Letters from the Greater Maghreb (2020), a series of his signature scanograms, in this instance enlarged fragments of a notebook full of the writing of Guez’s grandfather, who had escaped a Nazi camp in Tunisia before emigrating to Israel in 1951. The scanograms, highlighting a now mostly extinct form of Judeo-Arabic script, are exhibited alongside a series of objects taken from the theater company run by the artist’s grandparents in Tunisia.
If formalist autonomy helps recover the value of stolen masterpieces at the exhibition’s entrance, the same aesthetic strategy imbues Guez’s objects with new significance at its end. In their vitrines, these intriguing but somewhat quotidian items transform into artifacts of historical and aesthetic import, their newfound status as artworks helping to recover their histories.
Afterlives: Recovering the Lost Stories of Looted Art continues at the Jewish Museum (1109 5th Avenue, Manhattan) through January 9, 2022.