The French connection

Israel Museum's exhibition of art returned to France from the Third Reich showcases all the different categories of provenance and restitution.

art 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
art 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
At the opening of Looking for Owners, a show of art returned to France from the Third Reich now at the Israel Museum, French Minister of Culture Christine Albanel expressed the hope that a "miracle" would happen and that some Israeli would come forward as a claimant to one of the 53 works. But this exhibition is not an offering of possible miracles, but a historical survey describing decades of dedicated effort by French researchers, curators and restorers. The 53 paintings and drawings were chosen to illustrate all the different categories of provenance and restitution. Moreover, the show was sent here on the express condition that Israel first pass a law protecting art loans from seizure, forcing any possible claimant to pursue the claim in France. The Restriction of Jurisdiction law was passed at the behest of the Israel Museum last year. Three of the works in the show were already returned to the heirs of the original owners many decades ago. Many others, the biggest group, were never looted and reached Germany via various unforced purchases on the open market in Occupied France. Confiscated by the Allies and returned to France, none are eligible for further restitution. The paintings have been loaned by 24 custodial museums from all over France. In one case, they were donated to a French museum by the heirs of the original owners. The comical depiction of a tipsy housewife at a drinking party by 17th-century Dutch master Pieter de Hooch was confiscated from Edouard de Rothschild and added to the vast collection of Hermann Goering. It was eventually restored to Edouard's daughter, who donated it to the Louvre in 1974. This curious canvas has a large area of empty foreground, to which a chair was added and then a sleeping puppy. Goering had better taste than Hitler and other top Nazis. Just look at the slick and kitschy Time Conquered by Cupid, Venus and Hope, painted before 1643 in Paris by Simon Vouet. Poor Time, an elderly gentleman harassed by the distressingly lovely girls, forms the triangle fitted into this geometrical morality tale. The painting was destined for Hitler's projected national museum in Linz. It is now in the Musée de Berry in Bourges. Also destined for the Linz Museum was the marvelous portrait of Père Desmarets painted in startlingly modern fashion by the young Ingres in 1805. As it was bought in Paris without any financial or other coercion, it was not returned to the previous owner but given to a museum in Toulouse. It's a masterpiece, but should it be in a restitution show? Another canvas bought in Paris and destined for Linz is Jacob van Loo's Bathsheba at Her Bath. Painted in Paris in the mid-16th century, it shows the unrobed young lady receiving a pedicure as her duenna points out that someone is ogling her. It is now in the Louvre. A canvas bought for Goering by his art adviser Bruno Lohse, Venus, Adonis and Cupid, attributed to various hands and now to Dirck de Quade van Ravesteyn, a Hollander active in Prague in the early 16th century, is unwittingly comical. Adonis looks more like a pimp as he admires the startling attributes of the seated Venus. This work is now in the Louvre and seems destined to stay there. The florid taste of top Nazis is evident again in Gustave Courbet's Two Bathers, bought in Paris for Joachim von Ribbentrop and now in the Musée d'Orsay. Painted as a soft-porn money spinner, the pubis of the awkwardly posed main nude is discreetly covered by a leaf from a bouquet of flowers. Of all the many canvases here which were purchased on the open market in Occupied France (none of which are open to further claims at this time), there are a few modernist works. All would have been rejected by Hitler. One is an early fauvist oil sketch of a simple kitchen by Vlaminck, who in postwar France was ostracized for hobnobbing with German officers during the Occupation. An equally sketchy but charming little 1898 landscape by Henri Matisse was discovered walled up in the home of an SS officer who had committed suicide. It is on loan from the Pompidou, as is a Torres-Garcia panel of child-like graffiti incised into a panel that was bought in Paris by a canny German industrialist, Kurt Herberts. Another Herberts purchase was Max Ernst's Flowers and Shells painted in the late 1920s, which is also a loan from the Pompidou. Some works in this show were returned to France as late as 1994. They include a quite wonderful Delacroix and Monet's early Snow in the Setting Sun, as well as a little Seurat landscape. The portrait of a boy in a blue cap painted by Eugène Delacroix in 1831 was kept by the artist until his death in 1863. The small head is exquisitely rendered, possibly with the aid of a magnifying glass. Little wonder that the painter did not want to part with it. It is now in the Delacroix museum in Paris. There's a nice little Chardin still life among a number of very ordinary works and copies of Dutch paintings. I liked the careful Utrillo of a church. On the back of its stretcher appear the words Feldpolizei Gruppe 540. It comes to this show from the Pompidou. Two self-portraits are by Cezanne and Max Liebermann. The lengthy catalog to Looking for Owners is in French and English. Visitors can check out all the unsolved ownership cases handled by France's Musées Nationaux Recuperation via a room of computer terminals at the exhibition. THERE'S ANOTHER but less subtle Utrillo in the accompanying Israel Museum selection of some 40 works held in its custody since it absorbed the holdings of the Bezalel National Museum back in 1965. Entitled Orphaned Art - Looted Art from the Holocaust in the Israel Museum, it presents the best canvases and Judaica of some 1,200 untraceable items transferred in 1953 to the custody of the Bezalel by the Jewish Cultural Reconstruction Organization (JCRO). A half-dozen of these works have been hung at various times in the galleries of the Israel Museum. The others were deemed barely worthy of attention and are on view here for the first time. Till now, the museum has done nothing to point out that it is holding works to which claims might be laid. However curator Shlomit Steinberg is currently setting up an illustrated Web site of all the JCRO orphans. The meisterwerk of the collection is Egon Schiele's 1915 oil on canvas of a crescent of houses in Krumau, birthplace of his mother. There are several other known Krumau oils by Schiele and although this one is arguably the best, Snyder says that there has never been the slightest hint of interest from a claimant. It is thought to be worth more than $20 million. Long a favorite of mine is a tiny 1914 oil by Marc Chagall, Praying Jew. Highly formalized and rendered with minimal non-figurative patches of color, it was completed just before Chagall left Paris for a visit to Russia. A war, a marriage and a revolution later, Chagall, briefly an art commissar and art-school head in Vitebsk, returned to Berlin and Paris to find all his early work lost, sold for a song, or ruined. How this oil survived is not known. It is listed as a fragment but I believe that despite its torn edges (possibly the result of its being roughly removed from its stretcher) it is a wonderful composition that seems just right. It is certainly evidence that Chagall was once a pioneer modernist. Familiar to Israelis are the two impeccable marriage portraits of Lionel and Charlotte de Rothschild made by the Jewish painter Moritz Oppenheim. The Rothschilds often married cousins to keep their capital in the family. The Rothschild family tree is littered with Charlottes. There's a portrait of one by German painter Georg Hom, made in 1872. And there are two very good little portraits of a man and a woman painted with oils on cardboard by Sunday painter Charlotte von Rothschild in Vienna in 1831. A view of a Nuremberg courtyard made in 1880 is by an artist Hitler much admired and tried to imitate, Rudolf von Alt. There's a harmless autumnal Sisley from 1881 and a Signac watercolor landscape. Two German-Jewish painters died just before the beginning of Hitler's horrors. Lesser Ury is represented with a night scene of the Potsdamerplatz; he died in 1931. Max Liebermann's Garden in Wannsee, 1923, is an oil of his own garden. Liebermann, deposed as head of the Prussian Academy in 1933, died shortly afterward. Curator Shlomit Steinberg's catalog is in Hebrew and English. As the museum is now in the throes of major rebuilding, both of these shows (which run until June 3) are located in the museum's Youth Wing, which adjoins the only other available gallery in the Weisbord entrance pavilion.