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'Degenerate' Art Seized by Nazis Winds Up in Rostock Exhibition

1970
1945
Bloomberg 11 June 2008

When Nazi art dealer Bernhard Boehmer and his wife took their lives with cyanide capsules rather than submit to the advancing Soviet troops in 1945, they left behind more than 1,000 artworks seized from German museums.

These were among the 20,000 works by artists condemned as ``degenerate'' that the Nazis confiscated in 1937. Many were destroyed. Boehmer was one of just four dealers permitted by Joseph Goebbels to sell them abroad for foreign currency.

In 1947, Soviet forces seized the hoard a second time -- this time from Boehmer's heir. They handed it over to the museum in the German Baltic port of Rostock, where it has dwelt ever since.

Now Rostock's Cultural History Museum is exhibiting Boehmer's ill-gotten collection as a whole for the first time, complete with labels saying from which German museum each item was seized. It is a brave -- even provocative -- venture: Most of those museums would dearly love to have their art back. Artists deemed ``degenerate'' by the Nazis now fetch some of the highest prices for 20th-century art.

Boehmer's collection of Nazi-seized art is the largest that has survived. Of the 1,000 graphic works, 34 oil paintings and nine sculptures it contained, 600 remain in Rostock. The current exhibition includes some 150 top-notch works by Otto Dix, Franz Marc, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Paul Klee, Max Pechstein, Erich Heckel, Lyonel Feininger, Oskar Kokoschka and Wilhelm Lehmbruck.

Historical Value

The German Office for Unsolved Property Questions has declared Rostock the rightful owner, and the aim of the show is in part to make the historical case for keeping Boehmer's legacy intact -- and in Rostock, museum director Heidrun Lorenzen said.

It's a pity that Rostock doesn't have a large enough venue to house the exhibition. It's spread over two locations: the 13th- century Holy Cross Convent in the center of the city and the Kunsthalle, or art museum, on the outskirts.

It's easy to see why the Nazis loathed some of these masterpieces. Take ``Stehende Junge'' (Standing Boy), a bronze by Gerhard Marcks from 1924, confiscated from Essen's Museum Folkwang. The figure's limbs are pencil thin and angular, his chin slumped toward his chest. The pose suggests submissiveness and fear. He is hardly a poster boy for the upright Aryan youth.

Or there is Otto Dix's pathetic ``Streichholzhaendler'' (Match Seller), a limbless and blind World War I veteran, sitting on the sidewalk with a carton of matchboxes balanced on his lap as indifferent pedestrians rush past. The 1920 etching, confiscated from the Mainz museum, was a pacifist step too far for a regime intent on world domination.

Anti-War Themes

Some works are even more overtly political: Josef Bell's grim woodcut ``Der Krieg'' (War), from 1917, shows death as a skeleton on a horse atop a pile of bones and skulls. In other cases, the reasons for the antipathy are more opaque: The Nazis despised ``unnatural'' colors, scorned all abstract art and, of course, stigmatized any ``non-Aryan'' artists.

Paul Klee's ``Hoffmaneske Szene'' (Hoffmanesque Scene) from 1921, the poster for the exhibition, is a color lithograph in brown and beige tones showing the outline of a house filled with puzzling symbols typical of his work: a clock, a heart with an arrow through it, a bird and sundry plants. It was confiscated from Wroclaw, a city now in Poland, then in Germany.

Boehmer's role was complicated. On the one hand, he was serving the Nazis by using his contacts to sell degenerate art. On the other, he loved the art he traded and went to great lengths to protect the work of Ernst Barlach, a fellow sculptor who was his neighbor in Guestrow, a small town near Rostock.

Restitution Accord

The Rostock museum began the painstaking job of researching the provenance of the works, helped by scholars from Berlin's Freie Universitaet, after Germany signed an international accord in 1998, in which governments pledged to research the prewar ownership of art in museums and restitute looted art.

The main concern was that Boehmer's estate may have included works belonging to private individuals that were on loan to museums at the time they were confiscated, Lorenzen said. That proved not to be the case for any item.

Though some works were returned to museums in East Germany in the 1950s, none were restituted to West German museums. Public collections in Szczecin and Wroclaw -- cities that are now in Poland -- also were purged by the Nazis. None of the museums have filed legal claims to get their paintings back.

``Not so far,'' Lorenzen said, cautiously.

``Meisterwerke der Moderne'' (Modern Masterpieces) is showing in Rostock through Sept. 7. A book by Meike Hoffmann accompanying the exhibition and cataloging the Rostock collection will be published later this year.

(Catherine Hickley is a writer for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

To contact the writer on this story: Catherine Hickley in Berlin at chickley@bloomberg.net.

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