Jewish Museum – Afterlives: Recovering Lost Stories of Looted Art

I was prepared to be disappointed by the Afterlives exhibition at the Jewish Museum after it was savaged in a New York Times review by Jason Farago. However, while I agree with much of what Farago had to say — it’s a mish mash of a show – I still found the exhibition worthwhile for a number of reasons.

To begin with, there are a few extraordinary paintings worth seeing in almost-empty rooms – a rare pleasure these days. Second, art reparations are still a hot issue, and one worth focusing on. As Farago points out, “The fate of artworks stolen from Jewish collectors in Europe from 1933 to 1945 remains nowhere near settled. American museums…are embroiled in claims and counterclaims about what constitutes a sale under duress.”  Third, as authoritarianism sweeps the globe, the notion that “it can’t happen here” no longer seems certain. After the attempted coup by Trump supporters in January, it’s easier to imagine that the extreme lies perpetrated by the Nazis as a coverup for looting Jewish homes, businesses and synagogues could happen here. Thus, an exhibition that appears to be about the past, is actually relevant to today and, for no other reason, worth seeing and thinking about. 

August Sander, Persecuted Jews, 1938

Those were some of my thoughts as I wandered through this small exhibition which, among other things, includes ten images of persecuted German Jews photographed by August Sander, whose magisterial images of Germans between the two World Wars, are world renowned. None of these Jews owned art that was subsequently looted. They are simply “representatives” of respectable looking men and women who happened to be German Jews and who the museum’s curators decided would be eminent stand-ins for affluent Jews whose property – art, jewels, homes, businesses – were stolen. Since my mother was a German Jew whose parents died, directly and indirectly in the Holocaust, the portraits resonated. 

Pierre Bonnard, Still Life With Guelder Roses, 1929

Some of the paintings in the exhibition do represent “lost stories” with happy endings. The Bonnard, now residing in a Kansas City Museum, is one of more than a dozen Bonnards stolen from David David Weill, head of the French banking house Lazard Freres. Allied forces found it in a salt mine in 1945 and returned it to David Weill the following year. 

The Room of the Martyrs in the Jeu de Paume, Paris 1942

Other paintings, such as those shown in a photograph taken during the war in the The Jeu de Paume Museum, were less fortunate. The Museum, it turns out, was one of many “collection sites” where looted paintings were displayed so that senior German officials – like Goering or Hitler — could choose a work of art for their private collection or museum. Some survived but many, especially those labeled “degenerate art,” were destroyed. 

Otto Karas, Terezin Concentration Camp, Outdoor View, 1942

Jacob Barosin, Untitled Portrait, 1940, made while imprisoned in Langlade labor camp, Nimes, France

On a more intimate level, a series of modest pencil, watercolor and charcoal drawings made by Jewish artists while imprisoned or in hiding are extremely touching, as much for the circumstances in which they were created as for the art they created.  

The Danzig Collection and Jewish Cultural Reconstruction At the Jewish Museum 

The Jewish Museum played a role in helping to save important works before, during and after World War II. In 1939, for example, the Jewish Community of Danzig sent its collection of antique ceremonial objects to New York. After the war, the Jewish community in Danzig (now Gdansk) was never reestablished, and the collection was formally added to the Museum in 1954. 

The second half of the exhibition is a distinct let down. The Museum asked four contemporary artists to create work inspired by the “afterlives” theme. It should have stuck with art and objects, such as a letter from Hannah Arendt and a charm bracelet, from the past. 

Charm Bracelet of Greta Perlman, 1941-44

Perhaps my favorite piece in the show is this brass, porcelain and cord bracelet assembled by Greta Perlman during her years as a prisoner in Terezin concentration camp. Its history – how it was made, saved and rediscovered – is a timeless tale of human ingenuity and creativity.  

I wish this were a more robust and rigorously consistent exhibition. And the decision to include a voice over of a woman reading – I believe – a list of confiscated goods, was a huge mistake, making it impossible for visitors to focus on the text or the art work. However, I’m still glad I was reminded, yet again, of the extent to which people in power have gone – and will go — to destroy the fragile bonds of civilized behavior. 

Text and photos by Eleanor Foa Dienstag

Top photo: Matisse, Girl in Yellow and Blue with Guitar 1939

Afterlives: Recovering Lost Stories of Looted Art
Through January 9 at the Jewish Museum (thejewishmuseum.org) 
1109 Fifth Avenue at 92nd Street
Timed tickets required 
 

About Eleanor Foa Dienstag (31 Articles)
Eleanor Foa Dienstag is a veteran author, journalist, photo-journalist and award-winning corporate writer. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Harper's, the New Republic, the New York Observer, Ms., Travel & Leisure, and many other websites and publications. Eleanor is the author of three books. Her most recent, available on Amazon and Centro Primo Levi is MIXED MESSAGES: Reflections on an Italian Jewish Family and Exile. It is a multi-layered memoir about Eleanor’s personal journey, her father’s exile from Fascist Italy and the Foa Family journey, whose Italian-Jewish roots go back to the 1500s in northern Italy where her ancestors were famous printers. WHITHER THOU GOEST: The Story of an Uprooted Wife, also a memoir, was acclaimed by Business Week for its insights into corporate life. Her third book, In Good Company: 125 Years At The Heinz Table, offered a unique view of a quintessential American company. Eleanor served as staff speechwriter to the Chairman and CEO of American Express. In 1983, she founded Eleanor Foa Associates (www.eleanorfoa.com). It provides a wide variety of corporate writing and marketing services. Eleanor is past president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA), received speechwriting awards from IABC, and was awarded literary residencies at Yaddo, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA). She resides in Manhattan.