The Reich Stuff

Brent Benjamin and the St. Louis Art Museum are examining whether 102 paintings in the collection have any ties to Nazi looting. But they won't identify the paintings for fear of tainting the works as "suspect." Their caution only raises suspicion.

A curator tries to find a gallery dealer's children or grandchildren and might look into their basements or garages for records. If a complete catalog of an artist's work is available, a catalogue raisonné, it is studied for provenance information. And that information must be confirmed. Other art historians who may have private records on an individual artist are contacted .

"If there are exhibition labels, for example, from a museum, is there a record of that exhibition?" Benjamin continues. "If their exhibition was held in 1932, can you go to that museum and say, 'Do you have records of what was included in this exhibition? Is this painting in those records? Is it the same one? Do you know who you borrowed it from?'

"Those are some of the things you would do to follow up the physical evidence. Then there are further things. If you have some pieces of information -- and typically you do have some pieces -- then you start digging further. If it was owned by an individual that you know, are there heirs? Do the heirs know anything about the collection; do they know when it was dispersed? Do you have a photograph of your grandmother's house? Is there a family portrait in which the painting is in the background? Do these kinds of things exist?

"I think that putting up everything is one way to go, but it certainly creates an inaccurate impression, not only to the degree of knowledge the museums have about these works of art, which is extensive, but it also overstates the degree of the problem. Which is not to say it overstates the seriousness of the problem. That's what the museums are trying to address: We have a serious problem, and we're taking it seriously." — St. Louis Art Museum director Brent Benjamin
Jennifer Silverberg
"I think that putting up everything is one way to go, but it certainly creates an inaccurate impression, not only to the degree of knowledge the museums have about these works of art, which is extensive, but it also overstates the degree of the problem. Which is not to say it overstates the seriousness of the problem. That's what the museums are trying to address: We have a serious problem, and we're taking it seriously." — St. Louis Art Museum director Brent Benjamin

"It's real detective work, and there are a number of twists and turns."

A glimpse into the history of artwork in relation to the Nazi era leads to another path of inquiry, to the history of museums and collecting, and the meaning and purpose of museums and the treasures they hold. For example, in light of the controversy surrounding World War II/Holocaust provenance, the Greek government has once again called for the restitution of the Elgin Marbles, a longtime symbol of contention between Greece and Britain, from the British Museum.

If museums are treated with skepticism surrounding "incomplete provenance," part of that skepticism comes from the legacy of museums themselves. From Napoleon in Egypt to King Leopold in the Congo, plunder is part of the legacy of the modern museum. Does the Holocaust deserve a special examination unlike that granted any other period in history?

"It's a very big issue," says Benjamin in considering whether modern ethics dictate the return of or restitution for plunder gathered 200 years ago. "That's a whole separate discussion. It's a fascinating one, but I'm not really prepared to have it with you today." He laughs, smiles broadly. "It's a huge issue."

But what of works "collected" in this century -- Native American art, art of Oceania and Africa, Central and South America? And what of the exhibition of art from Central Africa that came to SLAM just two years ago from a Belgian museum, with only a lecture given on the cruel provenance of that work, most notoriously depicted in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and recently detailed in Adam Hochschild's King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa?

"One thing that's very important to remember, I think, about museums -- and this is not to excuse what may or may not have happened -- is the vital role they play in preservation of these objects for posterity," says Benjamin. "The things that are in the St. Louis Art Museum's collections are things that are -- not only are they here for the understanding and enjoyment and fostering education of people about great visual expressions, of cultural ideas and artistic ideas throughout the ages and across cultures and time periods, which they certainly are. But the museum exists in part simply to preserve these things for future generations. So there are examples of Chinese ceramics and African sculpture and European paintings and American Indian headdresses that exist for future, for study and for understanding and for marvel. This is a very vital role that museums play. It's important, when you're thinking about this issue, to always remember that role."

But aren't museums more than that? Don't they also provide the opportunity to tell a complex story of clashing cultures, to examine questions of values, of class and status and power? And as part of that, isn't acquisition -- both legitimate and disreputable -- part of the story of art, and of human history?

"It's important to understand that these things were often sold, traded for, commissioned, bartered," Benjamin responds. "There are all sorts of completely legitimate ways in which the transaction happened. Many of these things were sold or traded for money, for food, for raw materials, for favored relationships -- whether they be from nation to nation or individual to individual -- and some of them probably were stolen, and some of them probably were found. But the reality is that these things move in a variety of ways, and the museum tries very hard to make sure that the things that it acquires for its collection are legitimately acquirable, that the museum can have good title.

"The history of collecting is what we're talking about, and it's a fascinating topic. People collect in all countries, at all time periods, for all sorts of reasons, which are actually similar and shared. We care for and preserve and display and educate about objects that have been cared for enough to be passed down from generation to generation to generation. There's a 1,000-year-old Chinese hand scroll in the collection. It's one of the greatest Chinese paintings in America. It's remarkable that this exists at all -- anywhere. But the power of the object to cause itself to be desired, to be made in the first place, to be commissioned, to be made, to be made beautifully, to be used, to be cared about, and then to be preserved and handed down and passed down and traded and sold and sought, is a very powerful and magical thing. It's one of the great things we have here -- this passion for these ultimate achievements of visual expression across time and culture."

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