In the basement of a vaguely post-modern office building a short walk from the White House is a small warehouse of Nazi art that belongs to the U.S. government. There are four original Adolf Hitler watercolors, bronze busts of
leading Nazis, realist paintings that would look fine on the walls of a starved gothic 1930s post office and a pile of well-executed landscapes by a man who became a trendy New York City printmaker in the early 1970s.
The 450-piece compilation, part of the art program at the Center of Military History in Washington, represents only a small remnant of a collection that once numbered 8,500 works. Forty-three days after Nazi Germany's surrender, the Allied command put Oregon-printmaker-turned-Army-Air-Corps-intelligence-officer Gordon Gilkey in charge of collecting Germany's war art.
While the paintings always portray the Nazi regime in a positive (or at least neutral) light, little of what Gilkey collected seems blatantly offensive at face value. "These weren't paintings intended for mass consumption, so you don't see the crude caricatures of Jews or anything like that" explains Marylou Gjernes, the collection's manager. "These were the battlefield and war paintings intended as more solid and permanent reminders of the war."
On the whole, war artists had relative freedom when it came to choice of style and even subject matter. Because war painters generally work among combat troops, they require portable materials. As a result, nearly all war art, German and otherwise, consists of small-scale oil or watercolor paintings. During the war, all of the major powers maintained art programs and, despite Hitler's own failed career as an artist, the Nazi program didn't stand out. "Hitler was personally interested in the program, but Churchill and Eisenhower were also painters, so even that wasn't all that unusual," explains Gjernes.
For a few years after the war, America's collection of Nazi art sat more or less unstudied. Beginning in the 1950s, however, the collection went out on loan from time to time. In the much-changed world of 1982, what then was West Germany asked the United States to return the art.
Without anyone speaking against the art's return, Congress passed a bill that the Germans had requested. In 1985, after a three-year review process, two Lufthansa jumbo jets crammed to the gills with paintings lifted off for West Germany. "The presumption was that the Germans got everything and we would justify whatever we kept" says Gjernes. The United States kept a handful of pieces considered blatant propaganda, portraits of leading Nazis and a broad cross-section of the rest of the collection intended for historical purposes.
Pieces still travel occasionally (although nothing was out on loan when Insight visited the collection near the end of May). Aside from Gjernes, however, nobody living knows the collection in full detail. She says some of the art is pretty good. "These are the people who ended up being college professors," she says. …