World War Two was the bloodiest, biggest, and most destructive war of all time, decimating entire countries and taking the lives of millions. And as we have learned over the last 10 episodes of the ArtCurious Podcast this season, art was affected and used in many different ways during the war. Art was used to document the experience of soldiers in battle; created to shape public opinion, values, and inspire the war effort; and to fight the enemy. It was a failed dream of Adolf Hitler, leading us to ask how art could have changed the course of history. And it was a victim in many ways, destroyed, looted, or impossibly altered during the course of events. But after the war ended in 1945 and the dust settled throughout Europe and other theaters of war, the effect of war on the art world lessened and the connections between the two softened. Right? Actually, that’s not what happened at all. And the effects of the Second World War are still being felt throughout the art world today.
Some people think that visual art is dry, boring, lifeless. But the stories behind those can be paintings, sculptures, drawings and photographs are weirder, crazier, or more fun than you can imagine. And today, in the last episode of season 2 of this show, we are looking at the long-lasting repercussions of World War Two on the art world-- for the good, and the bad. Welcome to the ArtCurious Podcast, exploring the unexpected, the slightly odd, and the strangely wonderful in Art History. I'm Jennifer Dasal.
In this episode we’ll be looking at both short- and longer-term repercussions of World War Two on the art world. But as you’ll hear, even events and actions that occurred in the years immediately after the end of the war are still affecting things today. Let’s begin by talking about those most immediate effects.
As we’ve discussed in previous episodes this season-- particularly episode 26 about the Fuhrermuseum, our callback to our episode on the Amber Room in episode 27, and episode 29 about the Monuments Men-- art was caught in the line of fire--sometimes literally, and definitely metaphorically. The way that this has had the biggest effect is that many works of art were looted or outright destroyed during the war. And in terms of simply the sheer number items of cultural value that were displaced during the span of World War II, it is almost entirely certain that this was the most dangerous war EVER for art, as well as for people-- it was that destructive. We know that Nazi forces frequently seized works of art from museums, galleries, and private collections, many on the orders of Hitler, Göring, or their lackeys. But along the way, some Nazi soldiers and lower-level associates began hoarding and stealing works for themselves, too. Take, for example, the story that broke in 2012 of a newly-discovered hoard of art treasures-- more than 1,280 paintings and drawings in total-- that had been hidden away in the apartment of one Cornelius Gurlitt, the son of a prominent Nazi-era art dealer who secreted away works by Honore Daumier, Auguste Rodin, Henri Matisse, Otto Dix, Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, and hundreds more. Many of these works may have come into Gurlitt senior’s hands as Nazis offloaded stolen items for sale so that they could pocket additional money. And somewhere along the way, the dealer ended up… just… keeping these works of art with a sketchy past.
But of course it wasn’t only the Nazis who did such damage. Even though the Monuments Men specifically created tools for Allied servicemen to easily identify churches, monuments, and important works of art that needed extra protection, that didn’t mean that these efforts were always successful. For example, one of the most important paintings that heralded the beginnings of Modernism-- a work called The Stone Breakers, by Gustave Courbet-- was destroyed when an Allied bomb hit a castle in Dresden, Germany, destroying everything inside-- much of which were paintings from other museums or collections that had been moved to Dresden for safekeeping. Talk about a major accident with a long-lasting outcome. We can never see one of Courbet’s masterpieces ever again-- we can only know it through tiny thumbnails on our Google Image Searches, or in color reproductions in art history textbooks. And it wasn’t just Courbet that was lost to the Dresden bomb-- 154 other works of art were estimated as lost in that same terrible event.
When the war finally came to a close, the Allies pulled together to draw up a map of Europe and basically divvy certain sections of it up for control and repair. Because of this, the looting didn’t actually stop when the War stopped. As the Soviet Union swept through and about much of Germany and Austria, they took hold of art and redistributed these works throughout the Soviet Republic: some works found their way into private collections in Ukraine or Latvia, while others became part of the collections of major museums in Russia. Much of this looting went so under the radar that it wasn’t until the late 1980s and early 1990s, with the fall of the USSR and the reunification of Germany, that the extent of Soviet postwar plundering really came to light.
But: here’s the good thing-- because there actually is a really good thing here. Ever since the Monuments Men began their work during the war, a huge amount of effort has gone into the repatriation of works of art. Every attempt has been made to locate the original owners of works of art that ended up in the mine at Altaussee and elsewhere, creating a community of individuals throughout the world dedicated to working together to get art back to where it belongs. While the Monuments Men and those associated with the MFAA-- Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program-- toiled systematically for years after World War Two to do this work, the epidemic of art theft and loss soon proved far too big for even one organization to handle. So, in the late 1960s, an organization called IFAR was established in New York. IFAR, or the International Foundation for Art Research, was meant to bring light to issues of provenance, or the kind of family tree of a work of art-- who owned it, where, and for how long, on and on until you are able to, in hope and theory, trace the ownership of the piece all the way back to the artist him or herself, if known. It’s a huge job. And you might imagine that, when it comes to dealing with a stolen work of art without a nice and tidy paper trail, it is also considered a really, really HARD job. But it’s done a lot for the art world and continues to be critical today. In 1976, IFAR began publishing “stolen art alerts” and maintains an active art theft archive so that even if a work of art was noted as missing 80 years ago or more, we, as a collective group, can have access to tools to help identify it and figure out how to return it to its rightful home. Not that “home” in any form is easy to define. Art has long, long been involved in plunder. In the words of Jeanette Greenfield, a cultural property lawyer, art plundering, as a practice is, quote, “ancient, timeless, and pandemic.” Unquote. But with the proper scholarship and research-- and the proper documentation, of course-- a lot can be done. And much of this process was made easier in 1990 with the establishment of the Art Loss Register, in association with IFAR. The Art Loss Register is the world’s largest database of lost and stolen art, antiques and collectables, and with every work of art that comes into a museum that’s dated before the 1950s, for example, you catalogue it with the Art Loss Register to confirm that it wasn’t a stolen or looted artwork from the war (or beyond). It also goes a step further in working to confirm the legitimacy of works of art on the market. In a world that’s full of crazy fakes and forgeries-- which is another season for the ArtCurious Podcast, to be sure-- there’s much that can be done to trace the provenance of a work of art and confirm its authenticity.
Coming up after the break: a major geographical power shift in the art world following World War Two. Stay with us.
Welcome back to ArtCurious.
Another one of the major effects of the Second World War on the art world is kind of a two-parter, and a bit of the long game, really-- so follow me on this one. It originally started with the so-called European Brain Drain. The actual term for this phenomenon is “human capital flight,” and it typically refers to the emigration of highly skilled or well-educated individuals. Before and during the worst of WWII, many members of the intelligentsia of Europe sought refuge in the United States-- especially those who were fleeing persecution of one type or another. Thinking back to our last episode on the Holocaust, some individuals fled because they were Jewish, or gay, or because they were socialists. This was certainly the case with Albert Einstein’s relocation to the states in 1933, as he escaped Germany due to religious persecution-- and when he became an American citizen in 1940, this European brain drain became our brain gain… see what I did there? (sorry not sorry). Anyhow, the same thing happened to a lot of artists-- not only or necessarily because of reasons of religious or political persecution, but because their art was considered too radical, too political-- too degenerate. And so, they left during and even after the war, arriving in droves and with many settling on the East Coast. Individuals like Max Ernst, Marc Chagall, Andre Kertesz, Piet Mondrian-- really, I could keep going-- settled in New York especially, and while some-- like Chagall, ended up returning in the late 1940s long after the war was over, others just… stayed. This meant that a lot of the edgier, avant-garde artists were finding the U.S. to be a more welcoming space for artistic expression and experimentation. And that openness, freedom of creativity and expression, combined with some very important factors, including a relatively unscathed countryside, a booming economy, and a skyrocketing population, meant one very important thing: America became the epicenter of it all: and that especially included art.
Certainly it affected the very best in art education. Whereas Germany used to be the hotbed of teaching in and about the arts, the U.S. soon took the mantle here, with one of the top examples being the legendary Black Mountain College in North Carolina, just east of Asheville-- go, Tarheel State! The founding of Black Mountain College in 1933 coincidentally aligned with the rise of Hitler to extreme power in Germany, which led directly to the closing of the Bauhaus school in Weimar, Germany, by the Nazis, and combined with the brain drain, this meant that some of the most influential people found their way, either as teachers or as students, to Black Mountain, creating this convergence of artistic creation and intellectual thought. One of the earliest and most important teachers at Black Mountain was Josef Albers. He was offered a position at Black Mountain right at the beginning of the school’s founding, and according to Black Mountain College Museum and Arts Center, he arrived, quote, “Speaking not a word of English, and he and his wife Anni left the turmoil in Hitler’s Germany and crossed the Atlantic Ocean by boat to teach art at this small, rebellious college in the mountains of North Carolina.” Unquote.
Black Mountain was hugely influential in its own time, and brought teachers in for both short-term and long-term teaching stints not only from Europe, but also from important U.S. cities. Teachers thus began this back-and-forth between Black Mountain and these major metropolitan areas, and so there was an ongoing spread of art and educational ideas throughout the country by way of these conversations. But we cannot overlook the absolute force that was New York. As the popular website Artsy notes in a brief article about the development of Post-War American Art, quote, “While Europe began the process of dealing with immeasurable trauma, New York emerged as a center of artistic activity, challenging Paris as the center of the international art world.” Unquote. Innovation- Celebration--Collecting-- New York was, simply, IT.
To be fair, a part of the dominance of New York during this time had to do with money. As it is now, it was then: New York as a hub of money, because of the wealthy American clientele living there who began supporting art with gusto at the beginning of the 20th century, and also because old-money families from Europe were part of that European emigration wave, settling there, too. And war-ravaged Europe just couldn’t have supported or funded the arts in the same way. But the shifting of the art world to New York first and foremost comes back to the art that was created there. Think of the rise of Abstract Expressionism in the 1950s. Almost no other art movement is so closely tied to a particular place. AbEx WAS New York. And therefore, New York was Modern Art.
As a correlation to this, I want to remind us about one other thing. In the first season of the ArtCurious Podcast, we ran an episode that is one of my personal favorites because the story is just so crazy and so film-ready that I originally assumed it was fake news-- but it’s totally true. It’s about how the CIA secretly funneled cash into Modern Art-- especially the Abstract Expressionists-- in order to fight the Cold War. (That’s episode 9, by the way, if you want to listen in.) The government’s support helped grow Modern Art in the U.S., and it did so to make an ideological stance: Modern Art was free and unrestricted and could be abstract and could be art for its own sake-- all of this and more-- because the U.S.A. was a free country without restrictions on creativity, whereas the Soviet Union sponsored social realism as a kind of propaganda. So this brings us to another one of the big after-effects of the War: though art has always been used to express ideologies and opinions and has been closely tied to propaganda forever, it became both a weapon and a target in its own right in a way that was previously unimaginable. An example of how this has carried through even to today is the battle between conservatives and the National Endowment of the Arts, which reached its height in the 1980s with furor over exhibitions of works by Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano. The NEA had long been viewed as a supporter of some of the most liberal and decisive of artworks, and the controversy reached critical highs-- and with the constant threat of defunding the NEA still making waves even as of the recording of this episode, we can only imagine that art weaponised for particular causes and demonized for others will continue to be the norm, not the exception.
Even with the expanse of nearly 80 years separating us today from the end of the Second World War, the effects of it on the art world are still being felt. Artists are still making artworks about the war or that are reflections on the post-war landscapes, as Anselm Kiefer and Georg Baselitz have done. And the hard work of artwork repatriation continues to be in the news constantly, with our realization that there’s still so much to be done. In fact, it’s getting ever more critical that the research into finding stolen works of art and sending them back to the rightful owners is completed as soon as possible. As reported by PBS NewsHour in 2016, Eric Lee, director of the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, said, quote, “It’s a question of justice. And it’s becoming increasingly important as we get further and further away from World War II, because the original owners are dying, and even knowledge about collections is disappearing with each subsequent generation.” Unquote. This second season of the ArtCurious Podcast has been but a brief glimpse of the ways that art and World War Two have intersected, and there are still so many more stories to tell. If you have heard any tales from grandparents or great-grandparents or any other members of your family about missing heirlooms or works of art, you can do something about it. You can report your story to the Art Loss Register or Germany’s Lost Art Foundation or another similar organization, you can contact your local art museum for further assistance, and you can visit archives or libraries in an attempt to collect any documentation you might need to confirm your facts. If you don’t have any claims to missing World War Two-era art, you can still help with the search, by keeping abreast of reports of still-missing works of art. The more eyes and ears, the better-- and a way to ensure that the connections between art and World War Two end up being ones of expression and healing-- and that the negative ramifications come to a swifter end.
Thank you for listening to this final episode of the second season of the ArtCurious Podcast. This episode was written, produced, and narrated by me, Jennifer Dasal. Our theme music is by Alex Davis at alexdavismusic.com. Research assistance is by Stephanie Pryor, and social media help by Emily Crockett. Our production and editorial services are provided by Kaboonki Creative. Video. Content. Ideas. Learn more at kaboonki.com.
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