March 4, 2018

Art Crime Book Review: Plundering Beauty: A History of Art Crime during War

 Book Title: Plundering Beauty: A History of Art Crime during War
Author: Arthur Tompkins

Publisher: Lund Humphries, March 2018
Book Reviewer: Penelope Jackson

The cover says it all.  A lone American soldier is dwarfed by the surrounding stash of bundles, that look suspiciously like paintings, in a church at the Weissenburg-Guzenhausen Residence at Ellingen, Germany, in 1945. The juxtaposition of the church’s lavish interior - used as storage for plundered art - with the soldier is a poignant reminder of the scale of wartime seizures and the enormity of a problem that is as old as art itself and continues to the present day.  This image is on the cover of Arthur Tompkins’ Plundering Beauty: A History of Art Crime during War, an epic read about the victims of war, art and cultural heritage.

Many readers will personally know, or know of Arthur Tompkins, for his scholarship about art crime during war.  For several years Tompkins has taught at home (New Zealand) and abroad through the ARCA postgraduate program in art crime and cultural heritage protection (Italy) on this topic and his latest book brings together years of research, thought, and analysis about the art crimes committed during war. 

Plundering Beauty is a long journey of crimes waged on art.  Beginning with exploring the nuances of why art crimes are committed during war, Tompkins embarks on a journey beginning 2000 years ago in Rome.  Bit by bit, he un-packages this history of atrocities inflicted on art, both individual pieces as well as collections.  Significant (and now famous because of their chequered past) artworks have always been pawns in much bigger context of war booty and in Plundering Beauty we are presented case after case as evidence of this.  

Plundering Beauty’s catalogue of art crimes continues through to the present day, and not surprisingly, demonstrates the failure of humankind to learn from earlier histories.  We are familiar with the crimes committed in present-day Syria and Iraq, and Tompkins’ book is a brutal reminder of these as he provides us with a much wider and broader context, and specific art and cultural object crimes.  

Plundering Beauty does not pretend to be a complete history of art crimes committed during war (I couldn’t help but think while reading this new narrative about all the art crimes committed during war that we do not know about, or have an inkling of but do not know the details of).  What Tompkins does provide us with is a cross-section of case studies over time.  Wherever there is an art history there is a history of art crime and more often than not, crimes that are bound up in war.  Tompkins provides an alternative art history that for so long was ignored by writers.  

I get the sense that Tompkins has his clear favourites, and why shouldn’t he?  He is passionate about his subject matter and it shows.  The Four Horses of the Basilica of St Mark and Veronese’s The Wedding at Cana are up there.  It is not always about the actual artwork being discussed but rather the back-stories and layers of unravelling necessary to try and see reasons for such crimes.  Discussed in detail, yet in a very readable manner, Tompkins’ attention to detail and leaving no stone unturned is in part due to his day job – a judge.  And as the reader you feel satisfied with how he presents each case.  

A reminder though, is that this a book about crime, and as always with crime, not all cases are solved.  For example, Raphael’s Portrait of a Young Man sadly remains at large.  Other artworks are re-discovered or have closure many years after the original crime.  Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer is a case in point.  The work, seized by the Nazis during World War II was eventually reunited with the owner’s heirs in 2006 after what Tompkins describes as a tortuous legal battle fought in both Austria and the United States.

The narrative is chronological making it easier to align with world history and art history, as written in the Western tradition.  Plundering Beauty also reveals the unfair nature of art crimes during war.  Take Johannes Vermeer for instance.  He only painted approximately 35 works total during his entire working career and yet three feature in this book.  Perhaps this is because they’re stunning works, much adored and highly desirable.  It could be that they are small and therefore easy to plunder.  Tompkins inspires his reader to ruminate on such matters, meaning the book’s contents stay with you long after you’ve finished reading it.  

Illustrated with 52 colour images, Plundering Beauty is well presented.  Tompkins, with his usual vigour (he’s also an endurance athlete) and rigour, has produced a book that is both a scholarly volume and is very accessible for those uninitiated about art crime.  Collectively, wartime art crimes are colossal, seen in the evidence set out clearly in Plundering Beauty.  As Tompkins eloquently notes in his introduction:

The stories of the crimes committed against art during war, the saving and return of art after long and unforeseen journeys, and the villains and the heroes of those episodes, are the stories that Plundering Beauty tells. (p.13)

The irony in the title’s principal words, Plundering Beauty, is very purposeful; that humankind has victimised their most precious objects in a variety of ways for centuries, and continue to do so, should be a universal lesson going forward. Underpinning most publications about art crime in recent years are strategies around curbing art crimes, present and future.  Tompkins joins this tradition when he laments in his final sentence in relation to Iraq and Syria,

But sadly the raging assault on the world’s art and cultural heritage during war continues. (p.168)

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