Magazine article The Spectator

Painting out the Past

Magazine article The Spectator

Painting out the Past

Article excerpt

The discovery of a hoard of last paintings is a reminder that denial still exists in the German art world.

From repentance to restitution, Germany has done an exemplary job of facing up to its Nazi past - with a little help, it might waspishly be said, from the victorious Allies. Every aspect of life, from education and philosophy, to science, politics, music and the law, was held up to the light early on and thoroughly cleansed. There has, though, been one puzzling exception; a place where shadows linger. That is the art world.

The discovery, announced this week, of almost 1,400 paintings stashed away in a Munich apartment, lifts the curtain a fraction, but only a fraction, on this hidden realm.

Indeed, the scale and the richness of the find - which includes paintings by Picasso, Renoir, Matisse and Chagall - only underlines how much more remains to be found, almost 70 years after Germany's defeat.

Many thousands of works are still catalogued as missing, and it must be doubtful now how many will ever be traced, let alone restored to their rightful owners. Tens of thousands were taken to Russia as war booty, and caused diplomatic friction this summer when Vladimir Putin took Angela Merkel to see some of them displayed at the Hermitage in St Petersburg.

The works that are believed to remain in Germany fall into three main categories.

There were those bought by the German state, often in occupied countries at distressed prices, for Hitler's projected museum of world art in his birthplace, the Austrian city of Linz. There were works plundered from the homes of their owners - mostly Jews - who were imprisoned or fled. And there were works confiscated by the Nazi authorities as being 'degenerate', in other words not in compliance, in style or substance, with the conservative and didactic Nazi art canon.

Preliminary reports suggest that the canvases found behind stacks of tinned food in the Munich flat were mostly taken from France and may belong to, among others, the family of Anne Sinclair, the television presenter (and ex-wife of Dominique StraussKahn). But the discovery raises as many questions as it answers. The elderly owner of the flat, Cornelius Gurlitt, is the son of a prominent Nazi-era art dealer, one of only four individuals charged by Hitler with buying and selling mostly confiscated modern art on behalf of the state. If anyone was seriously interested in tracing missing pictures, this might have been an obvious place to look. …

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