January 13, 2016

Should the Looting Legacy Enter the Museum?

By Aubrey Catrone, ARCA 2015 Alumna

MFA Exhibition Visitors: Class Distinctions, Image Credit MFA Website
The Nazi hunt for the work of Johannes Vermeer is not a long buried secret. It has been immortalized within a number of academic works and has found its way to mainstream media. Both Lynn H. Nicholas and Robert M. Edsel intimate an unspoken rivalry between Reichmarshall Hermann Georing and Hitler over the works of the Dutch Master that were uncovered during the pervasive looting of World War II. For, Vermeer was considered a champion of Germanic culture. In a world built upon the legacy of the great Italian masters, Hitler clung to Vermeer as the savior of his vision for cultural purity. For this reason, Vermeer's surviving works, if discovered amongst the loot, were to be considered revered above all else.

It was through this historical lens that I contextualized Vermeer’s The Astronomer, within the Museum of Fine Arts Boston’s (MFA) special exhibit, “Class Distinctions: Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer.” This work was, arguably, one of Hitler’s most prized acquisitions during World War II. Having been seized from the Rothschilds, the German dictator believed The Astronomer epitomized the superiority of the Germanic peoples. 

Discreetly nestled on a temporary wall, painted a calming grey, so as not to detract from the beauty of the piece, the Astronomer, sat engrossed in his studies. The painting seemed to serve as a juxtaposition between the role of scientists in Dutch society during the 17th-century, and their wealthy counterparts who, while amateurs, yearned to immerse themselves in the evolving climate of discovery and advancement of the time period. In this manner, the placement and accompanying description of the painting captured the essence of the exhibit. Yet, there was no mention of the painting’s muddled past. The MFA plaque merely stated the painting was on loan from the Musée de Louvre.

I question whether or not a small mention of The Astronomer’s past should have been included within the exhibit. On one hand, it could be argued that such information could detract from the theme of the exhibit. Yet, wouldn’t it also bring a new dimension to the history of the piece as well as the exhibit itself?

This question is largely based in my observations of the patrons I walked with. One man asked if I had noticed a painting was on loan from Queen Elizabeth II's private collection. I overhead another couple debating not only the aesthetic aspects of a painting, but the historical details as well. Others simply took the time to peruse the gallery, reading each description in its entirety. These art enthusiasts, sacrificing a sunny, Monday afternoon to walk amongst vestiges of the past, were enthralled not only by the theme of the display, but by the lives of the paintings before them.

Informing patrons that an object was looted during World War II brings life to the artwork. For, the life of a painting does not simply end when the paint dries. It changes hands. It travels the world. It inspires emotion. Sharing such information, while somewhat controversial, not only creates the opportunity for people to engage with the art on a new level. It also preserves a significant period in art history. It is both a topic of conversation and an homage to the past. A single line of text is all it would require to preserve what should never be forgotten.

Sources Consulted: 

Edsel, Robert M. The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History. New York: Center Street, 2009.

Feigenbaum, Gail. ìManifest Provenance,î in Provenance: An Alternate History of Art, ed. Gail Feigenbaum and Inge Reist, 6-28. Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2012.

Feliciano, Hector. The Lost Museum: the Nazi Conspiracy to Steal the Worldís Greatest Works of Art. New York: BasicBooks, 1997.

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. ìAcquisitions and Provenance Policy.î Accessed August 4, 2015. http://www.mfa.org/collections/art-past/acquisitions-and-provenance-policy.

Nicholas, Lynn H. The Rape of Europa: the Fate of Europeís Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War. New York: Knopf, 1994.

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