'We Must Live in the Present' - an interview with Sir Norman Rosenthal

Spiegel Online 9 April 2009

Sir Norman Rosenthal, 64, was chief curator at the Royal Academy of Arts for over three decades. He talks to SPIEGEL about his controversial opposition to the return of art stolen by the Nazis, the overheated art market and his Jewish roots

SPIEGEL: Sir Norman, why are you calling for an end to the return of looted art and, as a result, an end to restitution?

Rosenthal: You cannot make up for anything by returning a small amount of art, and one should not want to create this impression.

SPIEGEL: Are you aware of the explosive nature of your claim?

Rosenthal: It is conspicuous that it is mainly the Germans who have a problem with it. Friends from Germany, liberal people, have warned me that I could be giving the right wing fodder for their arguments. The last thing I want is for the wrong people to use me to promote their agenda.

SPIEGEL: In the years and decades after the war, much of the art looted by the Nazis ended up in the world's museums. Aren't you going too far by advocating a statute of limitations in this sensitive matter?

Rosenthal: I have reaped more than just protests. Important museum directors in London and New York, as well as art dealers, even Jewish ones, have congratulated me.

SPIEGEL: Well, the fact that many museum directors are opposed to returning the art is part of the problem. They are worried about losing some of their masterpieces.

Rosenthal: I can understand that. I am aware of the fact that my expressing this sort of opinion publicly, as a Jew, has a different effect. And I would describe myself as a conscious, though not devout Jew. I am not claiming that it's easy. These are all difficult questions, but we ought to be able to talk about them.

SPIEGEL: We are talking about the biggest art theft in history, and about the fact that the claims of family members were deliberately ignored for decades.

Rosenthal: There is nothing that could wipe Germany's history clean. But this is not a burden that should be imposed on art. People, including some of my relatives, were murdered in concentration camps. Unbelievably horrible things happened. How can one forgive this? By wrapping up a Titian? These wounds don't heal, and that's something the Germans must also live with.

SPIEGEL: But one can return things to individual families to which they are entitled.

Rosenthal: An attorney offered to help me if I wanted to fight for the property of my parents. He wanted to pay for the inquiries.

SPIEGEL: Is art involved?

Rosenthal: No. It's a piece of property in Thuringia, where my mother comes from, and then there was a large farm near Bratislava that belonged to my father's family. But I have no interest in restitution. I want to live my life and not remain stuck in the past. The two of us, you and I, can hardly imagine what it was like back then.

SPIEGEL: You're saying this, as a historian?

Rosenthal: Yes. I am interested in the past. Everyone should come to grips with it, but I live in today's world. I don't want to profit from the fate of my parents, and I believe that my children will feel the same way. Every generation must reinvent itself. What counts is the present. We must all live in the present.

SPIEGEL: What does family history mean to you?

Rosenthal: For me it has a purely sentimental quality. I have even visited the places where my parents were born. I was in Slovakia and I was in Thuringia. I went there when it was still East Germany. I called it my state visit.

SPIEGEL: Why so official?

Rosenthal: I was greeted as a representative of the Royal Academy. East Germany was interested in exhibiting its art with us, so they went to some trouble. I was asked: What would you like to see, Mr. Rosenthal, would you like to visit the concentration camp memorial at Buchenwald? I said that I would like to see my mother's house in Mühlhausen, and so I was chauffeured there in a limousine. I walked into the courtyard, where two elderly women in black dresses were sitting. They looked like crows. One of the women asked me what the reason for my visit was, and I said that I was the son of Käthe Zucker. All she said was: "Is she still alive?" I said yes and walked away. It was a ghostly moment. I don't have any photographs from that day, because I don't take photographs as a rule, but I will never forget that scene.

SPIEGEL: Everyone has his own way of dealing with the past. There are those who would be proud of what their ancestors collected and would like to have it back. They are attached to family photos, and perhaps even the art their parents owned.

Rosenthal: That may be so, but it doesn't apply to me. I have no right to what my parents and grandparents achieved. And should a few people truly benefit from the fact that restitution is possible in their cases, while others, who endured equally terrible ordeals, receive nothing? That's unfair.

SPIEGEL: But by putting an end to restitution, you are rewarding precisely those stubborn people who still refuse to confront the past today. What museum provides even a reference to this history?

Rosenthal: But you also don't read, at the Louvre, that a given sculpture was once looted in Italy by Napoleon. This circumstance is nothing but a footnote in history today. The same applies to art that was looted from the palaces after the Russian Revolution. No reasonable person would hit upon the idea of returning the Impressionists and much of the other art that was taken from the aristocrats. At some point, probably relatively soon, we will feel the same way about the Nazi looting.

SPIEGEL: Even though more and more new books and studies have since appeared on the subject of looted art, many questions remain unanswered, and many cases are unresolved. There is no reason to unfurl the cloak of silence once again.

'I Didn't Say It Was Easy'

Rosenthal: You can go ahead and investigate, but it would be more important to study the art itself. It's all a question of priorities. Do you have different priorities? If we said that one-tenth of Germany belonged to the Jews, would you give up one-tenth of it? Now that would be consistent. Or should we be allowed to think about a statute of limitations, because, after all, we have to learn to live with one another and treat history as history, not as an extension of the present?

SPIEGEL: Is it that easy?

Rosenthal: I didn't say it was easy. I have close Jewish friends who hate Germany with a passion. They say that the entire country ought to be covered with a sea of salt to make up for what happened.

SPIEGEL: How do you feel about the Germans?

Rosenthal: I always see each person as an individual first. My aunt was able to survive as a Jew in Germany because Germans took her in. That too is a part of this consistently complicated and subjective history. They lived in the Rhineland after that. Later, in the 1950s and '60s, we often spent our summer vacations with her. I don't want to downplay anything, but I am equally opposed to the notion that the Russians should give back the art that the Red Army looted in Germany. The Dürer drawings, for example, should stay in Russia.

SPIEGEL: That isn't something the Germans would like to hear. They are still fighting to recover those lost treasures.

Rosenthal: But that looting by the Red Army is now history.

SPIEGEL: When does something become history?

Rosenthal: At least by the time there are no longer any survivors. Otherwise, where do you draw the line? Should restitution still be possible as long as children, grandchildren or great-grandchildren are still alive? Even longer? No, it should be history within the first 10 years. For my 15-year-old daughter, Hitler is as removed as Napoleon.

SPIEGEL: The German art detective Clemens Toussaint warns that the spirit in museums was never de-Nazified.

Rosenthal: That sentence is a linguistic challenge. What is it supposed to mean? Of course the museums have obligations, but I believe that their principal obligation is to preserve and convey art. As part of this discussion, we should keep in mind that the art market has exploded in recent years, triggering greed. The people who are trying to make money off of this remind me of vultures.

SPIEGEL: Harsh words.

Rosenthal: In England, you wouldn't have gotten five pounds for a picture by Paul Klee after the war. As recently as the early 1960s, you could buy collages by Kurt Schwitters for ten pounds. Now works like this are worth hundreds of thousands, even millions, and suddenly auction houses, dealers and lawyers are embarking on intensive investigations. In many cases, a painting is sold immediately after restitution, and some attorneys are collecting 50 percent of the proceeds.

SPIEGEL: What is more reprehensible than the fact that museums own paintings to which they are not entitled?

Rosenthal: It's only a shame when works suddenly disappear from the public and from view.

SPIEGEL: Should art always be visible to all?

Rosenthal: At least the most important pieces. Beethoven's Ninth also belongs to everyone. Imagine if it too were considered "looted art." It upsets me just as much to hear that the heirs of Richard Strauss make it so difficult to perform his music. Visual art cannot be reproduced, so it has it must be placed into responsible hands. In their way, good collectors do the same thing as museums: They share art with others, thereby rescuing us from ignorance. Art should not be hidden away.

SPIEGEL: Paintings by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Gustav Klimt are among the most spectacular restitutions of recent years. Ronald Lauder, a Jewish collector in New York, then bought them from the heirs for record prices. He paid $135 million (€102 million) alone for Klimt's portrait of his muse and patron, Adele Bloch-Bauer.

Rosenthal: I know Ronald Lauder well. He is familiar with my opinions, and he isn't exactly thrilled. And my opinion is, simply, that the frenzy in the art market in recent years has triggered greed.

SPIEGEL: And now this market, too, is experiencing substantial declines. Will this affect restitutions?

Rosenthal: Who knows? I recently met an American banker and art patron in New York who went into a panic when he found out that he had to return some bonus payments. And then he got a call from Washington, and someone said to him: "This is the end of capitalism as we know it." I thought he would die of a heart attack on the spot. But although it dovetailed with the world of finance, the market for art hasn't died. It is the last unregulated market, and it is still holding up very well.

SPIEGEL: Many of the artists you have exhibited have become famous, and their works are expensive. Aren't you proud of this development?

Rosenthal: No. In a perfect world, art would cost nothing.

SPIEGEL: You have repeatedly introduced the British to German artists. In the seventies and eighties, for example, it was the so-called New Wild Ones.

Rosenthal: I was one of the first to show artists like Joseph Beuys, Anselm Kiefer, Georg Baselitz and Sigmar Polke outside Germany, and I wrote one of the first catalogue descriptions of Neo Rauch.

SPIEGEL: How do you explain you special connection to German art?

Rosenthal: Of course there is this German part of me, and of course there is also something specific about German art that speaks to me, some very expressive, open and radical.

SPIEGEL: Was it difficult to get the British interested in it?

Rosenthal: They had no choice. I always do shows for myself, and if they appeal to others, all the better. My many German exhibitions have been very popular, from Cranach to Kirchner, from Joseph Beuys to Georg Baselitz and all the others, not to mention the great Charlotte Salomon, who had to be rediscovered first. I was happy to represent German art. Being German happens to be part of my essence. I would never complain about my life. I have had an incredible career in England, and I lead the sort of life my grandparents could not even have imagined. My fate has been fantastic, which is why I can say that happiness should not depend on material goods.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Rosenthal, thank you for this interview.
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