Saturday, November 20, 2010

Nazi Art Spoliation

I saw the documentary The Rape of Europa this past week in Concord, NH.  The viewing was a collaboration between the Red River Theatres and the Currier Museum of Art in conjunction with their Secret Life Of Art exhibit.

It is an exhibit which aims to demystify why and how a museum operates. It includes a recently restituted pair of alter paintings from an Austrian Museum to the grandchild of its original owner. The grandchild, 81 year old Tom Selldorff, opened the movie with a moving account of his struggle for restitution of the artwork.

I will not take up a lot of space rehashing the film, suffice it to say that it is well worth seeing. It tells the story of the destruction and looting of Europe's great museums by the Nazis. It cannot be separated from the story of World War II- a powerful story that we all need to be reminded of once in a while.

I was unaware of the extent of the systematic destruction and looting of museums and libraries that the Nazis practiced. I was also unaware that the Allies had created a special unit, The Monuments Men, to mitigate the destruction of European art. They helped in the planning of bomb drops to ensure that museums and cultural artifacts were avoided. They were instrumental in coming in after major battles to prevent looting.

It begs the question of what is Culture and what is its importance. In view of the Nazis desire to exterminate certain cultures it became clear that Culture is the shared history of a group told through their collection of art, books, architecture, religion and language. By removing those things physically the Nazis tried to remove their identities.

It was made evident how important Culture is by people's willingness to put their lives on the line for it. There were powerful still shots of the curators and residents packing treasures of the former Tsars of Russia to be shipped to Siberia before the siege of Leningrad. Later these curators lived in the bombed out museums to safeguard remaining treasures from exposure to the harsh Russian winter. In Occupied Paris a mousy art historian, Rose Valland, was forced to help the Nazis catalogue and move artwork to Germany. By night she recorded where works went to aid in their retrieval after the war. This belies the argument that "Yes, art is important, but...."

I cannot overstate that part of the experience of this film was viewing it collectively with 150 other people. I do not often go to movies and have forgotten the power of being swept into a story and to hear others reactions to the more horrific or brutal scenes. There was an elderly audience member who had intimate experience with the Holocaust. She was obviously hard of hearing and was unaware of how loudly she conversed with her friend. She confirmed that many of the events in the film were true and happened to her family. It was humanizing by being both funny and emphasizing our safety to express ourselves, out loud in our community.

This was an example of how the collaboration of two institutions- Red River and The Currier strengthened their abilities to tell a story by reaching out to other mediums. If you have a chance- see both the movie and the exhibit. And by all means, don't miss their next collaboration!

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